An explanation (for the absence of reviews of late) and a new review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

The cover of my next novel, due out March 1st 2020. Set in Scotland in the early 1700s, it’s based on a true story.

I’ve been a bit remiss with my book reviews of late – but not, thank goodness, my reading (I have devoured so many books – fiction and non-fiction – they are my solace, joy and inspiration). Nevertheless, reviewing has taken a back seat as the last two months have seen me immersed in my own writing (a novel due for release in 2021) and editing my next novel, The Darkest Shore (which I will blog about soon) and which is being released March 1st 2020 in Aus/NZ. As a consequence, I have a number of simply wonderful books I’ve been bursting to review, but have had to wait until I’ve had a bit of breathing space – oh, and my computer. You see, on top of everything else, my computer decided to go ballistic. It had a bit of help though. I decided I was going to store my documents on iCloud. Actually, I was persuaded by my husband who said I should have backup beyond a time machine (apologies to Dr Who) just in case someone breaks into my house and steals my computer. Fair enough, I thought, and bought iClould space and voila! My files not only disappeared, but those remaining became scattered into different hundreds of folders etc. A “geek” (his name for himself) called James was my saviour and, after saying he’s never seen anything like it, spent five days trying to rebuild my computer back to the way it was. Turns out, iCloud has eaten some of my files and we don’t think I’ll ever get them back :(. Overall, I have what I need, so I am trying to think positively and tell myself I Marie Kondoed my computer… let go of what didn’t spark joy. Problem is, I don’t yet really know what I have “let go” of and dread finding out lest it doesn’t spark joy so much as rage or despair… Anyhow, onto more interesting things… like books.

I honestly, I have been so spoiled with my reading of late, there are just so many fantastical books out there, I wasn’t sure where to start until I remembered The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. It was recommended to me by my beloved reading buddy and while I was enchanted with the title, little did I know I would swiftly fall under the spell of the story as well.

Set during the Depression in the US and based on a true story, this about a group of disparate women living in the mountains of Kentucky who, for various reasons, decide to create a mobile “horseback” library in the small town of Bailyville.

The story opens by introducing the reader to the recently wed, British immigrant, Alice Wright. Wed to the handsome and very desirable and wealthy, Bennett Van Cleeve, Alice believes she is escaping the prison of her home in England and embarking on a grand adventure with the man of her dreams. Sadly, the reality is far from what she hoped and soon she finds herself in the company of other women who, for reasons that become apparent as the story unfolds, are also searching for something and someone beyond what their lives have offered. There’s sassy and independent Margery, shy young Izzy, the widow, Kathleen and Sophia, an educated black woman tasked with caring for her crippled brother who, due to prejudice, decides to only work in the library in the evenings, becoming, effectively, the library’s administrator and bringing order to potential chaos.

Known as the WPA packhorse librarians, of course, there are objections among certain townsfolk, not only about women mounting horses daily to take books, magazines and comics out to those who either live remotely or are unable to come to the library, but also about the fact they’re peddling stories. Stories are powerful, unpredictable and potentially dangerous. As the books and magazines and the tales contained within start to not only unite the readers, but also teach them about life beyond their mountains and about possibilities, the township begins to stir. In this sense, the book is about the way in which stories can literally transform lives – and not just those of the packhorse librarians – and for the better.

Brave, bold and kind, the librarians endure personal hardship and professional criticism, but it’s their work and their love of it that binds them together. The lives of the locals are also brought into stark relief; their poverty, their struggles, but also their joy in the tales the women bring them and how they come to slowly regard themselves and each other in a different light. But not everyone can tolerate what the packhorse librarians are doing, the way it’s empowering certain people and, before too long, there are moves afoot to prevent the women not only delivering their tales, but the changes they stimulate. But when tragedy strikes, no-one could have foreseen the lengths those opposed to the library and the independent women at its heart were prepared to go…

Beautifully written, this tale is stirring, heart-felt and inspiring. It reminds you of the power of good stories, the importance of friendship and above all, how decent people united in a great cause can bring about justice and positive change. Messages we all need to remember; lessons we need to heed. A wonderful read.

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Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

A book about a second-hand bookshop with a quirky owner and the dry, snippy young woman who has sentences from books tattooed on various parts of her body who works for him? Set in England? With a mystery and, maybe, a love story as well? With references to literary and genre greats? That celebrates the written word? What’s not to love? Certainly, the wonderfully titled Lost for Words is a book to capture your heart.

Centred on Loveday Cardew, a woman with a mysterious past and an inability to speak of it, we follow her slow awakening to trust and her dark memories. Invited to a poetry reading – more a slam contest – in an old pub in the village where she works, Loveday attends against her better judgement. Listening to the words of others, and one person in particular, Loveday finds herself, as many of us do through the power of words, transported and moved. Over time, she slowly begins to understand she’s not the only one with an uncomfortable past and memories she’s tried to forget. Nor is she the only person afraid of heartbreak and loneliness.

But it’s not until, through a great act of courage and sacrifice, that Loveday learns the most important lesson of all.

Beautifully written and filled with whimsical, clever and unforgettable characters, this is a rich and haunting book that will move and charm you and often both at the same time. When I’d finished it, there was a sense of loss so great, I almost started reading it again so I didn’t have to leave this wonderful world Stephanie Butland has created. Delightful and deep.

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The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay

imgresThe Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay is a story of lies, secrets, family, betrayal and the consequences of these upon those nearest and dearest. It is also about taking responsibility for actions and how the past can impinge upon and influence the present – sometimes with dire results.

Using the works of the Bronte sisters as well as Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, Charles Dickens and British authors generally, it makes broad and specific analogies, discusses the themes and motives of the characters in these works as well as the importance of stories in people’s lives – how they can inspire, nourish, form and inform us.

The lead character, Lucy Alling, works for an up-market interior designer, Sid, who is also a collector of wonderful curios and antiques with which to adorn the places he’s asked to decorate. Given responsibility for various aspects of the business, in particular, the acquisition of rare books, Lucy hides a dark secret.

When she meets James, a man who seems ideal in so many ways, and her secret is revealed, she loses that which has come to mean so much to her and her life as she knows it threatens to unravel. Forced to confront her behaviour, it’s not until she travels with James’ flawed but understanding grandmother and learns her secrets, that Lucy understands what she has to do and, more importantly, why.

Commencing in the USA, the book moves to England and it’s in London and later the English countryside that Reay draws her locations and that quintessential “Englishness” so well. The reader is not only steeped in this, but like the tea some of the characters loved, we’re immersed in anecdotes and references to Lucy’s beloved books as she ponders what some of her favourite writers and their heroines did in order to enact change.

I enjoyed the book – it’s slow pace, it’s exploration of place and character. While Lucy was well drawn, other characters tended to be a little two-dimensional and not as satisfying. But this is very much Lucy’s story – Lucy and the grandmother – demonstrating the bonds that can form beyond family and across generations.

For lovers of female-centered books, literary allusions, as well as novels which explore the tangled web of relationships and family.


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Book Review: First Impressions by Charlie Lovett

My first impressions of this lovely novel by Charlie Lovett were more than favourable as I lost myself in this skilfully woven dual narrative of a modern young woman, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, plagiarism, loFirst Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austenve and so much more.

Book lover and Jane Austen aficionado, Sophie Cunningham, not only comes into an unexpected and bitter-sweet inheritance, but takes a job with an antiquarian book dealer in London. Grieving, confused about where her life is leading, but happy, as always, to take solace from books and the unexpected attentions of an American traveller, she has her suspicions aroused when two completely different customers request the same obscure and trifling book, the Little Book of Allegories, second edition by a Reverend Richard Mansfield, in a matter of days. One of the customers is the handsome and incorrigible Winston, the other a shady, threatening voice on the end of the phone, George Smedley, who promises Sophie a great deal of trouble if she does not fulfil his request.

Segueing back to 1796, the novel also follows the developing and touching friendship of aspiring young novelist, Jane Austen, and the octogenarian, Richard Mansfield. Sharing a love of words and stories, as well as confidences, Jane and Richard become very attached and propose to help each other’s ambitions by embarking on a literary project together.

In the meantime, Sophie’s efforts to locate the obscure book by the Reverend Mansfield unearth a potentially huge literary scandal involving Austen and the authorship of Pride and Prejudice. Torn between two very different men and their intentions towards her and the book she is tasked to find, as well as the dangers posed by Smedley and the threats he continues to unleash, Sophie’s search becomes a matter of life, death and literary reputations. Who can she trust and what will she do with the truth once she unravels it?

Lovett’s writing is delightful and you sort of fall into this charming tale and its captivating and quite riveting premise regarding Austen. It requires a complete suspension of disbelief which I had no trouble, especially in the first half of the book, performing. In fact, the parts of the novel focussed on 1796 are simply enchanting and Jane Austen and the Reverend make a wonderful pair and their project fascinating for all sorts of reasons. As a consequence, some of the action and decisions of Sophie and the events that occur in contemporary times lack lustre and a bit of conviction. The final parts of the book especially are weak by comparison and the plot doesn’t thicken so much as congeal.

The romance in the modern part is also an attempt, it seems, to mimic the Darcy/Wickham plot in Pride and Prejudice. I think it suffers by comparison with the original but there’s also a sense in which it doesn’t take itself too seriously. In fact, humour liberally peppers the modern section suggesting a joy and cheekiness as well as a homage to the greatest of romance plots, which also allows you to forgive its weaknesses.

But, what I loved most about this book (apart from having Jane Austen as a character and the lovely prose), was its unabashed celebration of writing, reading and books and the role stories play in our lives. How they enrich, educate, provide comfort, mystery and romance. Lovett is a bibliophile par excellence and his utter pleasure in books and reading is contagious. I found myself murmuring in agreement and gratification at some of the words and thoughts he allocates to characters regarding reading and authors.

Overall, a real pleasure to engage with and imagine.

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Book Review: The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett


The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession

When I read the promotions for this book, I was so excited. A book about a book lover cum antiquarian book dealer, Shakespeare, forgery, England, history… What was not to love? Certainly, The Bookman‘s Tale lives up to a great deal of my expectations. It tells the tale of grieving widower, Peter Byerly, who relocates from North America to England after the death of his beloved wife, Amanda. Living in the cottage they’d bought and were renovating is bitter-sweet for Peter and he becomes a bit of a recluse, that is until one day he discovers a picture that resembles his wife in the pages of an old book in a bookstore and sets out to learn the identity of this woman. What he doesn’t expect is that unravelling the mystery of the beautiful Victorian woman and the previous owners of the book in which the picture was hidden, thrusts him into danger. There are those who have interests to protect, interests that are closely tied to the books and the image Peter loves.

Segueing between contemporary times, Peter’s immediate past and romancing of Amanda as well as how he comes to learn book restoration and the steps involved (really interesting), the novel also travels back to the streets of Southwark in Shakespeare’s times where we encounter many a famous name and their various idiosyncrasies. We also trace a folio belonging to the Bard and follow the sometimes ignominious steps of its owners throughout history. But it’s when past and present collide that threat erupts and Peter learns that being a bibliophile can cost both your fortune and your life.

I enjoyed this book very much. The prose is lovely, dancing from the page and evoking strong emotions. Characters are nicely constructed as well though there were times that Peter wasn’t the only one wondering what Amanda saw in him – he lacks the charisma of the usual protagonist, even a bookish one, and part of me felt that his portrayal – the stereotype nerd was lacking. I felt he could be so much more without sacrificing veracity. The book also has an element of the supernatural/fantasy, adding a haunting quality to some of the scenes that is nicely done and gives them a particular frisson.

The book also engages with the ongoing (and spurious) debate about whether or not Shakespeare wrote his works or whether they were simply attributed to him. I call it spurious because, while it is fascinating, the fact we are blessed with ‘his’ legacy makes the argument moot. Lovett lays the debate to rest and I like his fanciful conclusions very much.

If you can suspend your disbelief, enjoy stepping back in history and love stories about books and writers as much as reading, then this is a terrific choice.

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