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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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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Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner is a marvellous, beautifully written novel that while it sits under the crime genre, is so much more than that.

When Cambridge University post-graduate student, Edith Hind – a privileged young lady whose parents not only have royal connections but friends in high political places –  goes missing, DS Manon Bradshaw, a self-described misanthrope is put on the case. A shade this side of 40, Manon seems to be the only one not too perturbed by the high-profile nature of the case – not even when every possible suspect has a water-tight alibi – Manon has more things than death and kidnapping on her mind. Yet, there is blood at the scene of Edith’s disappearance, suspicious circumstances and behaviours leading up to the event but, there’s no ransom note or any other clue as to where in the hell Edith is.

With the media breathing down their throats, time ticking and budget limitations, never mind stressed parents on their backs, the police are hard-pressed to know what to do. Every angle appears to lead to a dead-end or uncovers an element that bears no relevance to Edith’s disappearance.

In the meantime, Manon does her job and gets on with her rather miserable life. Stuck in the predictable rut of internet dating, she uses sex as a panacea for loneliness and just exacerbates her condition. With good friends and a reliable partner, however, it’s not all bad, especially not when a young street kid comes into her life.

However, there is the over-arching case and associated pressures of solving Edith’s disappearance and when more death follows, Manon begins to understand that they’ve all been looking in the wrong places and at the wrong people.

Superbly written with shifting points of view, allowing you to access other characters in the story in ways that are unusual to this genre, this story is an absolute cracker of a read. Insightful, deep characters with moving and logical interactions all set to a wonderful pace, this is a story you can get your teeth into. You see the crime from multiple perspectives, get to know all the police involved in the action and the people who are affected by what has occurred. You care deeply what happens and no more so than to Manon.

Filled with surprises and ah ha moments, more because of the rich street-philosophy and observations about people and life than anything, this was a joy to read. I didn’t want it to end. Cannot recommend highly enough for lovers of crime but also literary, well-written books with great plots and characters. Cannot wait to fall into another Susie Steiner.

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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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The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

30107954The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick is a simply magical story about a sad and rather lonely widower, named Arthur Pepper who, a year after his wife dies, finally faces up to the emotionally painful task of sorting his beloved Miriam’s clothes. Among her belongings, he finds a quite beautiful and ornate charm bracelet. Unable to recall seeing it, let alone his wife wearing it, Arthur can’t help but be intrigued by what the charms signify and wonders if they could possibly represent an aspect or aspects of his wife, about which he remained blissfully unaware.

When he concludes that the engraving on the small gold elephant charm is actually an international number, the normally orderly and ordinary Arthur does something extraordinary: he rings it. What he learns from that phone call sets Arthur on an incredible journey into his wife’s past and the woman she once was. But it also takes the usually reticent Arthur on his own voyage of personal discovery as he meets people who wouldn’t usually cross his path, travels to exotic locations and finds his normally tight boundaries challenged and shifted in ways he’d never conceived. The more he learns about his wife’s past, the more he learns about himself, them as a couple and even as a family. Scared his life up until now has somehow been fraudulent, a lie he ignorantly lived, Arthur is both anxious but determined to uncover the truth: who was his Miriam and why on earth did she settle for him, if she even did?

Heart-wrenchingly lovely, unexpected in wonderful ways, this is a novel with soul and more than a little charm. I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards and cannot recommend it enough. Lyrical, insightful and moving it is a reader’s delight.

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