Review – Faithful, by Alice Hoffman

I read this book in one sitting. This is not something I say or write often – in fact, I can’t remember the time I genuinely sat down with a book and didn’t get up again until I had finished it.

This is testament to the quality of this book – although to be fair, I was on holiday at the time and had a whole day to spend by the pool. Even so, it takes a lot for book to hold me so firmly that I lose my sense of time and place; this book did that.

The storyline is not easy – in fact, the main character Shelby is so infuriatingly self-destructive that at times I wanted to slap her. Granted, she is almost fatally damaged by the seminal event at the start of the story (a car crash which left her best friend Helene in a permanent coma, but from which she escaped with only minor injuries) – the guilt and horror destroy many years of her life, leaving her broken and only gradually able to emerge from her protective burrow (her parents’ basement). The narrative describes her gradual process of re-engagement with the world and the friendships and relationships she forges (and destroys).

This is a study of guilt, mental health and recovery, love and friendship, but not of redemption – although Shelby does rescue a succession of ill and maltreated dogs, there is never any sense that she is trying to redeem herself. In fact, the sense is that redemption could only come if a miracle happens and Helene somehow rises from her bed in her parents’ house where she has lain for eight years. Against hope Shelby imagines this happening when she eventually visits Helene and holds her hand, in an echo of the healing miracles which Helene herself is alleged to perform.

In fact, the most powerful sections of the book deal with Shelby’s relationship with her mother Sue, who is tireless and fierce in her defence and care of her broken daughter. Hoffman writes this relationship from Shelby’s perception of it, and these were some of the points where I wanted to shake Shelby and point out her mother’s unflinching and clear-eyed love for her, even when she herself was doing her best to destroy it.

This book is not perfect – I have some issues with it, largely the overpowering Christian imagery and the unlikely coincidence whereby Shelby finally meets the ‘angel’ who has watched over her since the accident. Nevertheless it is a moving read, well written and infused with Hoffman’s absorbing and sometimes dreamlike prose style. Highly recommended.

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I am grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing an ARC in return for an unbiased review. Faithful is published on 1 November 2016.

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Mini-review: The Strangler Vine, by MJ Carter

Really enjoyed this – the level of research about India in the early 19thC was evident in the rich detail, and the precarious relationship between the main characters, although a little formulaic in the early sections of the book, developed nicely. The story itself is somewhere between Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, with plenty of intrigue, jewels and flashing swords. Recommended.

(Review also posted on Goodreads and Litsy)

Review – Lionheart by Stewart Binns

About a month ago on Twitter I picked up a call for guest reviewers, put out by the splendid Sharon from Shaz’s Book Blog. She was looking for folk to take some of her teetering TBR pile off her hands, and I thought – hell, I could do that.

So I stuck my hand up, Shaz posted me a book, I read it, and then I wrote about it. Here’s what I wrote (also posted here at Sharon’s place).

Lionheart, by Stewart Binns

Published by Penguin, November 2013

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The blurb:

1176, England. King Henry II reigns over a vast empire that stretches the length of Britain and reaches the foothills of the Pyrenees. But he is aging, and his powerful and ambitious sons are restless. Henry’s third son, Richard of Aquitaine, is developing a fearsome reputation for being a ruthless warrior. Arrogant and conceited, he earns the name Richard the Lionheart for his bravery and brutality on the battlefield.

After the death of his brothers Richard’s impatience to take the throne, and gain the immense power that being King over a vast empire would bring him, leads him to form an alliance with France.

And so Richard begins his bloody quest to return the Holy Land to Christian rule.

The review:

I started this book with a great deal of anticipation – I love a good historical novel, and the twelfth century is a time about which I know very little. The book is the fourth in Binns’ Making of England quartet, dealing with the period from 1176 to 1199 and recounting the reign of Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, Christendom’s abortive attempt to recapture Jerusalem after its capture by Saladin.

The story is told from the point of view of the fictional Sir Ranulf, a relatively lowly English knight who becomes a military advisor to the King and travels with him across Europe and the Holy Land. The narrative is rich with detail, the story lurches from fights and betrothals to betrayal and captivity, and the historical events and battles were clearly meticulously researched.

So far so good. However, for me a historical novel needs more than an in-depth understanding of the period. It needs good characterisation, believable dialogue and emotion, and I felt all these aspects were lacking. Sir Ranulf was a wooden and one-dimensional mouthpiece for the historical events, with little emotional rise and fall in his narrative.

In order for him to be present at all the major events in Richard’s life the author needed poor Ranulf to make some very foolish decisions – I felt a bit sorry for him, to be honest, since at various points he lost almost everything (friends, lands, titles, two women he loved – oh, and a hand) pursuing Richard across the known world. The King himself, who by all accounts was a charismatic, forceful and brilliant man, came across as flat and rather nice-but-dim, an impression exacerbated by the frankly appalling dialogue. It was rigid and stilted, mixing modern idioms with older formulations in a rather slapdash fashion.

Overall, in its wealth of historical detail this book was informative and interesting; if it had been written and presented simply as an account of the Third Crusade I would have enjoyed it much more. However, as a novel I felt it didn’t really work. It lacked depth and emotion, and I ended up annoyed with it because the novelisation elements felt so clumsy. All in all, the effect was to turn the Third Crusade into something like Five Go Mad in Palestine, with lashings of historical detail but not much soul.

Edited to add:

The book is (or soon will be) available from the usual online outlets – here and here for starters – but if you want to read it, I have a copy you can have. No, really, I insist. You can have it. First person to send me their address via the contact form below gets it…

Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

This book is a long way from one that I would choose for myself. I read it for a book club, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up anything else by Kate Morton.

The central character is Laurel, a famous actress who witnessed a terrible event during an otherwise perfect bucolic childhood, and the author uses parallel timelines to reveal the characters involved and the reasons behind what happened. Laurel searches for answers as her mother lies dying, while we (the readers) are given a privileged view into long-past events through the eyes and thoughts of the people who lived them.

As such, the plot structure was frustrating, since there was very little revelation in Laurel’s story because we already knew more than she did. The plot took a long time to get going and only really accelerated in the final section, which was for me the most interesting and the best-written. I didn’t really like any of the characters – this is not necessarily a bad thing, because I have read many books in which I disliked characters, but I need to be interested in them, and I really wasn’t interested in any of the people in the book apart from two – Vivien, Laurel’s mother’s friend from the 1940s, and Gerry, Laurel’s brother who plays a bit-part role. The last section of the novel, which I liked the most, was told from Vivien’s point of view.

The end, when it came, felt rushed because of the need to spring all the final surprises in the last few pages, and while I did get a genuine “oh, riiight!” moment, it felt like a sudden slap in the face and I still felt that there was a lot more that could have been done throughout the rest of the novel to drip-feed hints and follow up details.

So – this is a decent story told in a workmanlike way, but for me it did not sparkle. The characters were mostly rather flat and did little that was unexpected, and any interesting things they did do were largely unexplained or sidelined. No more Kate Morton for me, but thanks anyway.

~100 word review: The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I read this because I enjoyed The Historian, Kostova’s first novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. A psychoanalyst becomes deeply involved in the life story of his patient, who is a world-renowned artist but also (evidently) a world-class fruitloop with an obsession reaching back into the history of Impressionism. The novel allows the analyst’s obsession with his patient to mirror the psychosis of the artist, with complex and occasionally uncomfortable results.

My only criticism would be that a number of endings within the main storylines were thrown away too cheaply in the final few chapters. However, this doesn’t detract from the clever writing and absorbing qualities of this long book. Recommended.

~100-word review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Oddly disappointed with this, influenced (I think) by reading Maya Angelou immediately before. The story of black domestics and their relationships with their white employers in 1960s Mississippi was well told, the characters beautifully differentiated and the events obviously drawn from affectionate and vivid experience, but in the aftermath of the emotions elicited by Angelou this one felt uncomfortably frothy. I wasn’t challenged by it, which was unexpected in a book dealing with emotional relationships in the context of such deep and vicious racial divides.

I can see why it is a bestseller, but I was expecting something deeper and I didn’t find it. A beach read, rather than a piece of social commentary.

~100-word review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I first read this as a teenager – I thought everyone did, but it seems not, because the members of my book club hadn’t, and none of them liked it. At all.
It’s a good thing I missed that meeting, because things might have got ugly. This book has lost none of its power to shock and move, although my emotions this time round were profoundly different as the mother of an 11-year-old daughter. I cried, I laughed and I raged at the injustice and the agonising self-justifications of a deeply wronged black child in 1940s America, and I’ll give the book to my daughters to read. When they’re a bit older.