The Good People by Hannah Kent

After reading and being so impressed with Hannah Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into her next one, The Good People. Like its predecessor, it is impeccably researched, this time immersing the reader in late 1800s Ireland within a small community that, when an orphaned child with serious incapacities is given to his grandparents to raise, finds itself beset with misfortune and death.

Focusing on three primary female characters and taking a true story for inspiration, Kent does a marvellous job of recreating the superstitions of a community clinging to pagan beliefs while trying to embrace modernity and the rule of the Catholic Church. For three women, the grieving grandmother, Nora, the young maid she hires to help her look after her grandson, Mary, and the “handy woman” and local healer, “Nance” the collision between old worlds and new, between faith in one set of beliefs and another, and the drive to nurture and protect is very real and painful.

Evoking the terrible poverty, lack of literacy and struggles of the small village in which these women dwell, the intimacy it creates – which is both blessing and curse – and the stark reality of their daily lives as they try to eke out an existence, Kent also manages to expose the beauty in their almost wilful ignorance; the way they embrace the magic of nature and the intrusion of culture (all while negotiating the villainy or good intentions of others), attributing that which they don’t or won’t understand to the “good people” or fairy folk. Convenient scapegoats as well as explanations for the inconceivable and painful, the “good people” are as much a part of their lives as their neighbours and the landscape from which they attempt to draw a living and life.

But not everyone believes in the “good people” or the powers and malice they’re purported to wield. Nor do some believe in the good intentions of those who cede to the fairies’ demands and desires, seeking to appease them. As Kent demonstrates, when two different ways of viewing the world and those who inhabit it collide, catastrophe and tragedy are sure to follow.

Heart-wrenching, mesmerising, beautifully written, I found myself urging characters to make different choices, to open their eyes and hearts. Flung into the midst of all this superstition – of the religious and pagan kind – as impossible and improbable as it was, as well as the way certain powers and vulnerabilities were abused for others’ gain, it’s both a relief and a wrench to leave it.

Simply superb. An engrossing and involved read that will leave you emotionally exhausted but lexically satisfied.

 

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Mayan Mendacity by L.J.M. Owen

Having really enjoyed the first book in the Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series, Olmec Obiturary, I was looking forward to seeing where the second instalment, Mayan Mendacity took the reader. I was not disappointed.

In this book, Dr Elizabeth Pimms, now a librarian, is once more asked to help catalogue bones from an ancient site – this time, from the Mayan civilisation. As her fiancé was present at the dig, the invitation to be involved holds a special place in Elizabeth’s heart, a heart that’s about to be tested in all manner of ways as her emotions, her beloved family, and so much more are soon threatened.

Segueing between the present and Elizabeth’s (sabotaged) attempts to find the answers the head of the research team requests and the Mayan period, the novel is fast-paced and filled with fascinating facts – about the Mayans as well as the steps undertaken to record and discover the secrets the bones contain.

The more answers Elizabeth discovers, it seems the more questions she needs to ask – and not only about her professional life, but her increasingly complicated personal one as well.

What I really enjoy about these books is the light touch of the writer. Despite dealing with some heavy themes, the novel is not weighed down by them, but cruises along at a good pace, keeping you turning the pages. Exposition is well-balanced with more descriptive prose and character and plot building. There is, however, one story-line exception (which was frankly, a weakly executed and featured two characters that were more caricatures than fleshed out – but I can forgive it because the rest is very well done). Mostly, the storyline is tight and the people populating the story utterly endearing. I particularly like the Pimms family. In this book, Owen has fleshed them out even more, and it’s hard not to envy Elizabeth such a supportive and madcap family, with such rich and complicated cultural roots. Any chapter involving them was always a pleasure and their meals were the stuff of foodie dreams. It’s not surprising then that at the back of the book are pages of recipes – all of which sound both delicious and very complicated!

This is proving to be a delightful series, and I am very much looking forward to stepping out with Dr Pimms on her next very cold case.

 

 

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The Break by Marian Keyes

Never having read a Marian Keyes book before I was uncertain what to expect. However, a glowing review about The Break from a friend (who’s also a huge fan of Keye’s work) made me keen to start. Well, what a glorious, heart-wrenching, warm, funny and fundamentally human novel this is. I found it so hard to tear myself away from and then felt bereft when I’d finished.

Ostensibly the story of the happily married Amy and Hugh who experience a relationship crisis when Hugh decides that though he loves Amy, he wants a “break”, it’s also a great deal more than that. Striding into middle age and all its cosy familiarity, for some people, this stage of life can also breed contempt – mostly for the self. Wondering if we’ve reached our potential or if this is indeed “it” for whatever more time we’re granted, it’s easy to understand why middle age can sometimes be the autumn of so many people’s discontent.

Thus it is with Hugh. A decent, good man (and Amy’s second husband), he nonetheless feels the need to take a hiatus from what he’s become and may yet be becoming. Shocked, horrified and in disbelief by what Hugh intends and unable to prevent him (even if she really wanted to), Amy struggles with the cliché her marriage is turning into. Trying to understand Hugh while feeling a mixture of grief, anger, loathing and every other emotion there is, as well as trying to balance her professional life with the wreck of her personal and the unwelcome return of her narcissistic her ex-husband and his claims, Amy undergoes her own sort of crisis. Juggling her wonderfully messy family and their demands, catastrophes and triumphs, and the chaos that ensues in Hugh’s departure’s wake, Amy’s enforced break almost becomes a breakdown.

The characters are so real, their emotions raw, complex and simple. You ache for them all – Hugh, Amy, the children they share, the mad grandmother and curmudgeonly father and the rainbow of brothers and sisters Amy possesses as well as her business partners. Slowly, Amy realises that if Hugh is on a break, then it means she is as well – with all the liberties and restrictions, difficulties and pleasures, painful memories and daring hopes that entails.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you laugh, cry, think deeply and look afresh at your own life and choices, that features witty, authentic and flawed people and mad Irish humour, then don’t go past this sensitively explored, thoroughly entertaining and downright marvellous book.

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Force of Nature by Jane Harper

When I read Jane Harper’s debut, The Dry, I hadn’t been so impressed by a crime novel since I first read Katherine Howell. I really looked forward to losing myself in Harper’s next instalment in the Aaron Falk series and really hoped she could maintain this incredible standard she’d set.

Well, I was not disappointed.

Force of Nature is a complete cracker of a read. Whereas, The Dry took the reader into a hot, drought-stricken country community, replete with its reticence and suspicion of strangers and revenants, its haunting secrets and ghosts of Christmases past, Force of Nature explores not only the dense, formidably beautiful and haunting ranges that make up Victoria’s Grampians (they’re called the Giralang ranges in the book), but the toxic politics, suffocation and desperation of workplace and family relations.

When a group of colleagues who work for a family firm are taken into the bush for a three-day hike designed to forge and build relationships outside the office, one of the bush-walkers goes missing. Is it a co-incidence that the missing person also happens to be a whistle-blower, whose evidence was set to tear the company apart and whose last telephone call was to agent Aaron Falk and whose final words were “hurt her”?

Summoned to the Giralang Ranges to aid in whatever way he can, Aaron and his partner, Carmen find a traumatised group who, nonetheless, are hiding something.

The Grampians, upon which the Giralang Ranges are based.

Like the bush into which their colleague has disappeared and they brutally emerge, the co-workers conceal and reveal aspects of their story which is told in a series of flashbacks from different points of view. Slowly, a picture of what may have happened and the whereabouts of the missing person builds, yet like the bush which has swallowed her, the stories are incomplete and it’s up to Aaron, Carmen and the rescuers to coerce the humans and nature itself to yield these.

The rugged, dangerous and yet beautiful bush, with it unrelenting moisture, unrecognisable sounds and confounding geography is as much as character as the humans that populate the tale.

What I really loved about this book (which I found difficult to put down) apart from the family dynamics that were explored as well as the office politics, was why and how the crime at its heart occurred. Like The Dry, the tragedy at the centre isn’t sensationalised or exaggerated: it feels so very real, so believable. In a way, that makes this book even more haunting and memorable as you can not only relate to the events that unfolded and the people involved, but in a worrying twist, understand how it could have happened to almost anyone…. Just sensational.

 

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The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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