28. ‘A God in Ruins’ by Kate Atkinson.

Thank you, Mum! This is literally the best book I have read so far this year, I picked it up at random from the shelf, sat down to have a quick look at it with a cup of tea, and finished it in one uninterrupted and unexpected five hour binge session, (the Mr had to go and buy fish and chips for supper again!) I laughed and wept, and was completely and utterly enthralled! Enough of a recommendation? It should be. This is a work by a novelist completely on top of her game.

A God in Ruins is the companion book to Ms Atkinson’s previous work, Life after Life, which I have not read but certainly intend to, however it is a stand alone book; you don’t have to have read the previous one at all to enjoy it – as I said, I haven’t yet. It tells the story of Teddy Todd as he negotiates the twentieth century after miraculously surviving the Second World War as a Halifax bomber pilot. As the blurb on the back says, ‘his greatest challenge will be to face living in a future he never thought he would have’.

Teddy is so likeable. He tries so hard to do the right thing, vows to himself that if he survives, he will live a kind and thoughtful life, and he does. He marries his childhood sweetheart, becomes a teacher and then a journalist, does everything possible for his, shall we say, difficult daughter Viola, loves his wife in a steady, dependable way. But his life. like so many others, has been irrevocably altered by his experiences, and by using the technique of jumping backwards and forwards in time, Ms Atkinson enables us to ‘know’ Teddy so well.

Her descriptive passages are awesome; especially harrowing are the detailed accounts of the horrific reality of bombing missions over Germany. Her research was clearly impeccable, and her description of the firebombing of Cologne is spine chilling. Her characters come alive on the page, and even her use of the literary trick of jumping from past to future, and back again is done so skilfully that there is no interruption to the ‘flow’ of the novel. Her characters are vividly drawn and completely engaging, her depiction of the family home, Fox Hollow, with its Growlery and roses in the Home Counties is exactly as it should be.

And finally, the ending. I cannot say more without spoiling it for you – but it is one of the most unexpected conclusions I’ve ever come across. Astonishing. READ IT!!!!

As always, if you would like Mum’s copy of this brilliant, brilliant novel, please get in touch with me either through here or the Facebook page, and it will give me immense pleasure to gift it forward to you. If you have missed out on Mum’s copy, here is a link to buy yourself one on Amazon. I promise you, this book is ten out of ten in every respect!

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27.’Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks.

What a lovely find this was last week amongst Mum’s library! I knew the name of the author thanks to her career as a journalist – she’s been a highly regarded war correspondent – but had no idea she had ventured into fiction. However, this tale is based on solid facts, and as such is refreshingly well researched and detailed in its subject matter, with the added delight of the authors marvellously written conception of how the villagers of Eyam would have been living their lives and engaging with one another during the horrors of the Black Death.

Historical fact – the villagers of Eyam, (pronounced Eem), in Derbyshire, took the heroic decision to quarantine themselves in 1666 when the plague broke out there, and thus stop it from spreading to the surrounding area. It was believed that the infection had arrived in a bolt of cloth from London, and, led by their saintly rector, William Mompesson, they lived, (and died), in isolation for a year, saving the surrounding populations from the disease.

Ms Brooks has taken this information and written a novel around it, seen from the perspective of the central character, Anna, a widowed shepherdess. It is graphical in its detail and accuracy, portraying the terror and the madness that grips the village as well as the acts of heroic compassion performed by individuals. The fictional rector, Michael Mompellion, and his fatally flawed wife Elinor develop a close relationship with Anna, who has lost her husband to a mining accident and her little boys to the plague. Anna herself is refreshingly energetic and forthright, someone you’d be glad to have on your side in a time like this.

Four fifths of the population of Eyam died that year. Their story deserves telling, and this novel does so brilliantly, mixing historical facts with an engaging story line, beautifully drawn characters even when they are horrible characters like Anna’s father and stepmother, and captivating insights into the way we lived and worked in the 17th century. Really well worth reading!

As always, if you would like to have Mum’s copy – she has noted the date Nov ’02 inside the front cover – to add to your bookshelf, please get in touch either here or through the Facebook page and I will be delighted to send it to you as a gift from Mum and I. If someone has already claimed this copy, here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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26. ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini.

What a wonderful follow up to The Kite Runner, but this time this story of Afghanistan is told through its women. Mum and I both loved this when it was first published in 2007, and her copy is dated January 2008. I have enjoyed re reading it more than I can express; although I again found it very disturbing in its depiction of the brutality of the regime and of the men, especially the particularly nasty and unpleasant Rasheed, husband to the two women who tell the story.

We begin with Mariam’s childhood on the outskirts of Herat, the plain, illegitimate only daughter of her bullying, epileptic mother. She lives for the visits her charming but insincere father makes, and for her lessons with the local mullah, a kindly man. Her bitter and resentful mother does her best to erode any hope Mariam might have for her future by continually reminding her that as a female and illegitimate to boot, she basically has nothing to hope for, with comments such as, ‘like a compass needle that points north, a mans accusing finger always finds a woman’, but the young Mariam still dreams of a day when she may live with her fathers other children and go to his cinema.

Everything unravels and Mariam realises the truth behind her mothers bitter words when she runs away to Herat to see her father, is shunned by him, and returns home to find her mother has hung herself. Forced to take her in, her father and his wives quickly marry her off to the revolting Rasheed, thirty years older than her, a widowed shoemaker from Kabul with rotting teeth who immediately makes fifteen year old Mariam wear a burqa, and when she fails to provide him with a child, treats her with contempt and brutality.

This continues through fifteen years of Afghan history, during which the Russians leave, the mujaheddin take over, a bloody struggle ensues between tribes, and the Taliban assume control…and that is really a massive precis, Mr Hossain paints an illuminating picture of the tumultuous political backdrop to the lives of his characters.

Laila is the beautiful, wilful and educated daughter of an intellectual father and an unbalanced mother; her brothers die fighting the Russians, her boyfriend loses a leg to a landmine, and at fourteen, she finds herself orphaned by a rocket strike on her home. Worse, she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Tariq, who has fled to Pakistan with his family, and, convinced he is dead, she becomes Rasheed’s second wife, passing off the baby as his.

Initially at odds with one another, after baby Aziza is born Mariam and Laila develop a deep, mutually supportive relationship, allied by their fear of their husband and the daily struggle to survive in an increasingly terrifying Kabul. Mariam’s mothers words haunt her as one man after another points an accusing finger at them, and the frightening reality of life under the Taliban is brought home when Laila has her second child by C section with no anaesthetic.

The story is, as with the Kite Runner, a tale of a deep relationship against the backdrop  of the turmoil that has characterised the recent history of Afghanistan. It tells of the resources these women find to enable them to survive the terrifying realities of their lives. It reminds us how lucky we are to live in the West, the freedoms we take for granted. And, as you may not yet have read it, I am saying nothing about the ending!

As always, now I have read it again I am gifting Mum’s copy forward, and if you would like to add this marvellous novel to your own bookshelf, please get in touch either here or on the facebook page @mumsbooks and I will be delighted to send it to you. Here is a link to it on Amazon if its gone and you feel the need to purchase it!

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25. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ by George R.R. Martin.

It’s not one of Mum’s books, but it certainly one Mum would have bought, being one of Game of Thrones’ biggest fans like myself. Oh, the discussions we had about plots and characters, the delighted email I received once saying simply “I know what a warg is!”, the enjoyment we shared watching a documentary about George R.R. Martin together – we both wholeheartedly approved of his wife’s statement that if he killed off Arya, she would leave him!

BUT…and it’s a big ‘but’. I know that Mum would, like me, be saying, “I wish he would just get on with writing the next volume of the main story!”

That being said, I quite enjoyed this. It’s like the Hobbit compared to Lord of the Rings, although definitely not suitable for younger readers due to the language used, and that’s a shame really, because it does only crop up here and there, and this story of a hedge knight and his squire would have been a lovely read for a youngster. It is also quite confusing at times; trying to keep abreast of who is who in the Targaryen dynasty is a bit of a struggle.  You will have noted however that I did only say ‘quite’ enjoyed it. It does not have the same page-turning punch as the original series, and I found the illustrations throughout the book distracting – again, lovely for a youngster to add to their enjoyment, but does one really want a youngster reading a book with the C word sprinkled here and there, admittedly not as much swearing as the main series, but it’s there.

I keep coming back to PLEASE JUST FINISH THE ORIGINAL SERIES, MR MARTIN!

So, in no way a substitute for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, but if you would like to read it, just get in touch either here or on the Facebook page and I will send it to you – it’s not a book I feel the need to keep, or re-read. Such a shame!

Here’s an Amazon link in case you have missed out on my copy and despite my less than glowing review, want to buy a copy yourself. And I would be very interested in hearing the opinions of others who have read this….were you as underwhelmed as me?

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24. ‘Diary of an Ordinary Woman’ by Margaret Forster.

A marvellous read, and a very interesting concept – this novel was conceived by Margaret Forster after she was contacted regarding nearly a century’s worth of diaries kept by no-one famous or notable, just an ordinary woman of 98 who had lived through the turbulent twentieth century. In fact, the lady in question remains as anonymous as she ever was, because the proposition to ‘make something’ of the diaries was retracted. However, the seed had been sown, and as a result we have this magnificent book, a fictionalised memoir of Millicent King. What a read! and from an author deeply interested and engaged in chronicling the lives, the thoughts, the feelings of women, it is a winner on every level. Mum gave me the book years ago, I loved it then, and I found her copy deep in one of the bookshelves that are groaning with her library last week, did a little happy dance and then devoured it in a four hour sitting, moving only once or twice for a fresh cup of tea. The Mr had to go and buy fish and chips for his supper. Magnificent.

We meet Millicent in 1914 when she is a precocious and opinionated thirteen, and from the start she captures one’s attention – ‘her’ prose is dryly observational, at times extremely funny, and definitely captivating. She bemoans her fate, criticises her family and friends ruthlessly, and in short sounds exactly as one would expect a thirteen year old diarist to sound. Definitely very petulant and self centred. she records her disappointment at not being able to go to college, her resentment at having to take care of her younger siblings, her disgust that there are so many younger siblings – didn’t her parents have any self control? As she matures, the tone of ‘her’ writing changes as we would expect it to, and becomes more observational and less passionate.

However, the tale she is telling is against the backdrop of the two wars, the tensions in Europe between them, the horror of the Blitz, the civil rights movements, the Greenham Common women’s camp. Millicent is not a political creature, nor is she a romantic heroine. She is simply, as the title states, an ordinary woman doing the best she can with her ordinary life. And as in real life, there are great gaps where a terrible loss has left her silent.

It’s a wonderful read. Regardless of the fact that it is a work of fiction, it is nonetheless so plausible and so well written that Millicent comes alive on the pages as a believable representative of her generation, and of the ordinary people who make a nation what it is.

This one is not available to gift as usual I’m afraid; my eldest daughter arrived the day after I had finished it, listened to me raving about it, and nabbed it immediately, however, here’s a link to Amazon, or ask for it at your local library (goodness knows we need to be using our libraries or they’ll all close!). But seriously, read this. It’s amazing.

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23. ‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker.

After reviewing ‘Noonday’ last week, and mentioning that the Regeneration Trilogy is in my top ten, and was also much loved by Mum, one of our lovely regular Mum’s Books readers told me she had never heard of it and would be looking for it. This was all the prompting I needed to go and rummage on the shelves and find Mum’s copies….no excuse needed for me to re-read this brilliant work, and so here is the first volume, ‘Regeneration’.

I’ll let you all know right away that Catherine has already reserved this book and I shall be posting it to her this week, but I’ll pop an Amazon link in at the bottom for anyone else who would like to read this…and I certainly recommend that you do, it is simply brilliant!

It is an absolutely masterful blend of fact and fiction, characters from history given additional and authentic voices by the author. This book opens in 1917, and the novel revolves around the meeting of two men. The poet and war hero Siegfried Sassoon is on his way to Craiglockhart Army Hospital where he will be treated by the psychologist W.H.R. Rivers. Both men existed, both are notable. This story explores in depth the impact they have upon one another, alongside the gruesome and barbaric background of the trenches in France, and the additional stories and experiences of other characters, both fictional and real..

It is a profoundly anti war book. In a narrative from Rivers in the final pages, we read,

‘A society that devours its own young deserves no automatic or unquestioning allegiance’.

Words that we would do well to remember, as we also recall the millions of young men who died on both sides with the approach of the hundred year anniversary of the Armistice.

The other characters are also brilliant – both fictional and historical. Wilfrid Owen is also undergoing treatment at Craiglockhart for ‘shell shock’, and Ms Barker tells us of help given to the young Owen by Sassoon in amending his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ – Sassoon had been published, Owen was an unknown. The fictional Prior is a fascinating and complex creature, a working class lad who’s an officer with all the class distinctions and difficulties that that combination entailed back then, and we shall see far more of him in the next two books. His girlfriend, Sarah Lumb, a munitions worker, and her terrifying mother Ada. Burns, an affable youngster with an appalling consequence to his time in the trenches. Honestly, all superb.

It can certainly be read as a stand alone book – but I intend to re read the other two volumes now, and am thoroughly looking forward to it. If you are looking for a Great War read, you cant go past this trilogy. It has a definite massive thumbs up from both Mum and I.

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I am sure I can put these links in in a more tidy manner! Another challenge for my technically challenged brain! But that will take you to the book on Amazon UK.

As always, I welcome your comments, either here or on the Facebook page. Happy reading!

 

 

22. ‘Noonday’ by Pat Barker.

I had hoped to have this ready to publish for Fathers Day here in the UK, in memory of and honour of my adoptive father, Fred. As I told you all in my last review, I was adopted as a baby, and this book absolutely spoke to me about my adoptive Dad’s experiences as an anti aircraft gunner on the Embankment during this part of WWII – as well as those of my adoptive Mum, who was a theatre Sister in Yorkshire throughout the war dealing with the horrific injuries sustained by civilians during the bombings. My natural Mum, the Mum of Mums Books fame, remembered the later air raids remarkably clearly, and my natural grandfather was a London taxi driver who spent the war fire fighting through the Blitz.

Born in the early Sixties, but brought up by parents who were old enough to be my grandparents and had therefore both seen active service in the second world war, that war was very real and vivid to me. I grew up in London with an air raid shelter in the garden, and with many bomb sites in the area which had been cleared but not yet rebuilt. I grew up with the Dambusters and my Dad’s flying jacket still in the hall cupboard. And with stories like the one of the night Dad decided to transfer from the Artillery to the RAF.

As a public school boy, and coming from a family with a history of military service, he was a reservist in the OTC at the outbreak of war in September 1939, and joined the Royal Artillery as an officer, being posted to an anti aircraft gun post I think in or near Battersea, south of the river anyway. He manned that post through the period of time ensconced by this book, and, after a particularly harrowing night, returned to the Anderson hut he was billeted in to find it had been completely destroyed by a bomb. Along with everyone in it.

At this point, he said, he looked up at the sky that had rained destruction the night before and thought to himself, I’d rather be up there – and as an officer was able to transfer into the RAF, train as a pilot in Saskatchewan, Canada, and fly Spitfires for the rest of the war. Here he is. He’s twenty years old, has just gained his wings as a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF, is flying a seriously amazing aeroplane with reckless abandon, (he’ll crash three of them, flying one straight through an advertising hoarding), and has several girlfriends – within a year, he will commit the unforgivable error of sending the wrong three letters to the wrong three girlfriends. Oops! Still my hero though. Apologies for the poor picture quality – it’s a photo of a photo.

 

And, as a teenager straight out of school, he saw, and fought, the first brutally heavy Blitz in the late summer and through the winter of 1940/41, during which spell of time this amazing book is set. Reading the book, and remembering that Pat Barker is renowned for her accuracy of historical detail, I am once again filled with admiration for my adoptive parents generation. I suppose we can only hope that few of us will ever have to experience that horror, although I’d like to think we would cope just as well. And of course we must remember that there are wars and bombings and incendiary devices alive and well in many parts of the world today. Heaven help us.

After the war, my Dad gained a degree and went on to work for the Home Office until his retirement. He was instrumental in the development of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, cared deeply about the difficulties people face, and did his best to work to help the under privileged. He was one of the kindest souls you’d ever meet, and used the phrase ‘if nothing else, always be kind’ long before it became a Facebook meme. He was a wonderful Dad, I loved him so very much, and he loved me. And I write this review with him very much in mind. He was there.

It’s a wonderful book. I have read and loved Pat Barkers first world war trilogy, and I had no idea this volume was the third in another trilogy until I’d finished it – I just saw Pat Barker’s name in amongst Mums Books, thought ‘Great!’, pulled it out and read it in an afternoon…even missing a World Cup game to finish it. It’s gripping. I think I’d read it again as a stand alone book.

The characters are completely believable, real people. The heat of the summer of 1940 combined with the fear gripping Britain at the time that a German invasion was imminent is palpable. Moving into London in the continuing heat, one genuinely feels the terrifying awareness Londoners had that the shorter days would mean longer nights for bombings. London itself, alway dear to my heart, is beautifully described by someone obviously very familiar with its streets and passages. The blackout and everything it entailed, including, and I shall have to look this up, a passage describing how prostitutes coped with it, nailing tacks into their heels so the tap tap tap of them alerted potential customers, together with a strategically aimed narrow beam of light from a black out torch.

There is a graphic description of the characters involvement in what has been described as the second Great Fire of London, when over the 29th and 30th of December 1940, over 100,000 bombs fell on the city and the East End. Horrifying. But it happened, and this section of the book immerses you in the heat and terror, the taste and the smell of burning bricks, the incredible heat, desperation, and destruction.

I strongly suspect that the principal characters have been involved throughout the trilogy so I am deliberately trying to avoid any spoilers for you should you decide to read them all, (…and I think you should based on my experience of the Regeneration Trilogy.)

I’d recommend a Pat Barker I haven’t read simply because she is one of the best writers ever, and I certainly give this one a solid thumbs up. If you’d like to add this, my Mum’s copy, to your bookshelf, please just get in touch – the whole purpose of this blog is to share our Mums love of reading, and I will be delighted to send it to the first person who asks for it! Here is an Amazon link if you have missed out!

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The other books in the series are Life Class, and Toby’s Room, and I’m buying them.

Here’s to you Dad, and all the other heroes out there. Much love XXX