Don’t Think A Single Thought By Diana Cambridge – A Review

Publisher: Louise Walters Books

Publication Date: 26th August 2019

I was initially drawn to this book due to its beautiful cover! the whole 1960’s glamour vibe had me sucked in.  I also read the blurb and felt like it could be a book I would zip through, and zip through it I absolutely did!  It is only a relatively short book anyway but it has a momentum to it that means you cannot stop reading.

Our protagonist is Emma Bowden and what a protagonist she is! She lives a privileged life with her doctor husband, Jonathan.  They have a very nice apartment in New York and a beautiful weekend home in The Hamptons, Picasso paintings, designer clothes, upscale dinner parties and staff to assist are just part and parcel of everyday life for Emma. From the outside she appears to have it all, however she has led a very troubled life stemming from a difficult childhood and she has lots of dark feelings buried inside that she has much trouble processing and dealing with.

Emma was adopted as a child and separated from her siblings, she then went on to be involved in a tragic incident on a cliff walk with her class at school in which her friend died.  This event has overshadowed Emma’s life in a huge way and has left her in therapy trying to deal with her guilt. Just how involved was she on that fateful day and how instrumental was she in the little girls demise.  Emma herself can barely remember.

These lapses in memory are in part down to her habit of popping various pills, be they painkillers, tranquilizers or sleeping tablets and her love of sleeping her troubles away, cocooned safely away from normal adult life.  There is a sense of ennui surrounding Emma most of the time, that is unless something is happening in her life to pull her reluctantly out of her cosseted stupor.

When she and Jonathan  are at the house in the Hamptons one weekend, she has an altercation on the beach with some children.  When one of these children then goes on to drown, Emma begins to question just how much involvement she had in the incident…

You see, Emma is a very unreliable narrator.  Her pill popping propensity all washed down with alcohol, means she questions her own thoughts and very often doubts her own actions.  If she can’t be sure where she was or what she said, then we as readers certainly can’t trust what she is telling us! I love that!

Emma moves on from the incident at the beach and goes on to write a successful book, followed by a not so successful book which sends her crashing back into her depression again.  This drowned child and her friend back in school who died in the cliff fall have a tendancy to pop up in her mind when she least expects it.  She also suffers from very troubling dreams in which a voice calls out to her…

The timeline of the narrative flits back and forth, sometimes within a year or two, others a decade or so.  We learn snippets of Emma’s childhood, the early years in her relationship with Jonathan and her relationships with her siblings, one of which makes an appearance towards the end of the book.

There are times in this book where there is an almost dreamlike quality yet the writing is so tight and sharp.  I think this is due to the fact that Emma views the world behind this medicated veil, drifting in and out of consciousness.  Sometimes being fully present and in control of her own life, (usually at times of great success in her career), and other times allowing herself to sink back down into the murky depths of medicated sleep.

This is a real surprising gem of a novel with one of the most fascinating female protagonists I’ve read so far this year. In Emma, Diane Cambridge has written a not entirely likeable but always compelling woman.

It’s a short, sharp, brilliantly written little book that I think deserves lots of praise. It has a great pace and momentum and I found that at certain points I felt a little uncomfortable but couldn’t look away. I always love books that can elicit this feeling.

I throughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend you get yourself a copy.

Thank you as always to the publisher Louise Walters for my review copy of the book.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

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The Dutch House By Ann Patchett – A Review

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Publication Date: 24th September 2019

I had somewhat ashamedly only read one of Ann Patchett’s books prior to getting my hands on The Dutch House, and that was Commonwealtha sprawling family epic that I really enjoyed.  I have heard nothing but good things about her though and after reading The Dutch House I have realised I really do need to work my way through her back catalogue.

In this book we have another family saga spanning 5 decades.  The tale of siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, and their formative years living in The Dutch House, so named and well known in the area because a very prominent and wealthy dutch family once lived there.  The house is purchased by Danny and Maeve’s father as a present for their mother.  It is a gesture to show how successful he has become in his construction and property rental business. 

However, from the off their mother is uncomfortable with this show of wealth, having come from a modest background, and never feels quite at home in this huge glass fronted house.  When she ultimately decides to leave when Danny is quite small, the children are left with their father and a couple of house staff.  That is until their father meets and marries Angela, a younger woman who has an interest in the Dutch House bordering on an obsession.

Maeve does not bond well with Angela and although Danny tries his best to, he never really feels that she wants them around.  When their father passes away suddenly, the unthinkable happens and they are left with a woman who cares so much about The Dutch House and very little for them. 

When they are ousted from the house with no claim over their fathers estate, the siblings have to deal with not belonging anywhere.  They lost their mother, they have had to deal with their fathers death and then they are plunged into financial and emotional instability as they have to watch Angela and her two daughters living in their childhood home.  And watch they do, literally, as over the years they regularly drive to The Dutch House and park a little way down the street, watching and talking for hours.

The story covers many many years and examines the impact of the loss of The Dutch House on the two very close siblings.  The house itself becomes a character in some ways.  There is always this sense of regret and injustice hovering over Danny and Maeve and their adult lives are shaped by what happened in their childhood. Maeve appears to be the most affected in my opinion, she seems to be the one most unwilling to let go, the one most likely to ruminate over events and feelings and the iniquitous nature of their childhood.

What Patchett does brilliantly in my opinion is write these sprawling family saga’s that draw you right in. They span decades but you still feel invested in the character’s lives, more so than if it was a snapshot in time. The timeline in this book is not linear. We jump all over the place back and forth between times when Danny is unmarried, then to when he has his children then back to his childhood at the Dutch House. I didn’t mind this but there were times where it took me a minute or two to settle into the new narrative.

That Ann Patchett chose to write from the perspective of a male protagonist was very interesting and also very authentic. I also breathed a sigh of relief that it was Danny’s story and not Maeve. I have an aversion to teenage girl narratives (more on that another time!) so if I am to read a book told from a child/teen perspective, as some of this book is, then I much prefer it to be male.

I’ve been thinking hard about how to word this without it coming across as derogatory because it isn’t AT ALL! But when I was part way through this book I messaged my good Bookish friend Clare over at Years Of Reading Selfishly and said something along the lines of ‘The Dutch House is fabulous! Nothing much happens’……now I know that could be taken as a negative but what I meant was there isn’t some big complicated plot, it’s not a thriller, there aren’t many twists and turns, it’s just life! But it’s throughly compelling life and even though plot wise there were no great surprises I felt fully invested in the characters and their relationships.

If you are a fan of family saga’s you absolutely need to get your hands on a copy as soon as you can. I’ve a feeling you won’t be disappointed.

Me? I’m off to find more Ann Patchett books.

Thank you so much to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

Orange World By Karen Russell – A Review

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

Publication Date: 4th July 2019

You all know by now that I love a short story collection but I think Orange World by Karen Russell may have passed me by if it hadn’t have been for me chancing upon a review of the collection in The Guardian by the marvellous Daisy Johnson.  The review is here and you should maybe read that instead of my review as Daisy puts my thoughts into much more eloquent words than I ever could.

I will of course endeavour to tell you my opinion on this collection though, otherwise why are we here!

This collection of 8 stories is pretty mind expanding!  A couple of years ago, if anyone had ever told me I would be reading and enjoying stories about dead bog girl girlfriends and women suckling the devil I’d have laughed in their faces.  However, this kind of crazy magic is now what I live for reading wise.

In The Prospectors we meet two young girls in 1930’s USA, getting by on swindling hapless men and living a high old life until they get beguiled by the potential glitz and glamour of a brand new ski resort hotel at the top of a mountain.  They make the journey up on a ski-lift but what greets them at the top is far from what they were ever expecting.

In The Bad Graft a young woman becomes cross pollinated or infected by the sap of a Joshua Tree and fights to regain control of her own body and thoughts.

Bog-Girl: A Romance tells the story of how one young man chances upon the fully preserved corpse of a bog-girl from the middle ages whilst digging up peat.  He feels a connection with this young girl who has been frozen in time and takes her on as his girlfriend.

The Tornado Auction tells the tale of a lonely old widow, who’s daughters have long since flown the nest.  Feeling inert and disinterested in life he takes to farming tornado’s.  Curating weather can be big business and he wants to travel back in time to when his family owned a tornado farm and feel alive again.  That is until his carefully nurtured tornado rages out of control.

I think for me the most fascinating tale was the title story of Orange World where a new mother makes a bargain with the devil that she will breastfeed him night after night in return for him keeping her new baby boy safe.  When this all becomes too much for the exhausted mother, she enlists the help of the postnatal group Mum’s to rid her of the demon she has invited in.

In each of these memorable stories there is a very distinct element of future worlds.  A hint of the dystopian, which was for me just enough.  Each story starts out as fairly ‘normal’ and quite quickly turns into something far more off the beaten track!  I found myself almost holding my breath as I read, waiting for the twist, the ingenuity, the ‘unusual’ element in each tale.  It is stories like these that make me admire authors like Karen Russell so so much.  I am in complete awe of her imagination.  I almost want to peer inside her brain and see what on earth is going on in there!  To be able to craft these compelling, mind-bending tales is such a great skill, and Karen Russell has it in absolute spades.

Her characterisation is fabulous.  It is sometimes difficult to get a full grasp of all the various nuances of characters when they are presented to you in short story form.  But with each of the protagonsists in Orange World (and sometimes even the peripheral characters) they feel fully developed and authentic.  These people and their stories feel almost ‘colourful’ and I hope you know what I mean when I say this!  They are vibrant and full of life and intrigue.  Each protagonist can be considered to be someone living on the periphery of the norm, not part of the masses, a little bit different, isolated, ‘out there’.  Be that the new exhausted mother, the young gondolier girl who navigates tricky flood waters by echolocation, the doctor who may or may not have performed a medical procedure incorrectly and is finding himself with the weight of suspicion hanging over him.

Of the eight stories in this collection there was only one that I didn’t really gel very well with but the others I can call to mind very easily by their characters or the worlds they depicted.

This was my first Karen Russell book and her third short story collection but I have heard nothing but great things about Vampires In The Lemon Grove and St Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves. I will most definitely be checking them both out.

If you’re in the market for a collection of quirky tales I would highly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Orange World.  I’m so chuffed to have found another author I know I will continue to enjoy.

Thank you as always to the publisher and Polly Collier for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xxx

Days Of Grace By Catherine Hall – A Review

Publisher: Granta

Publication Date: 28/1/2010

I read and really enjoyed The Proof Of love by Catherine Hall, and immediately had a look to see what else she had written.  I love it when that happens, when you are so certain of the quality of an author’s work based on reading just one of their books.

I picked up a copy of Days Of Grace secondhand and it has been sitting on my shelf for a good while.  I recently went through a phase of wanting to pick up and read some of my own books rather than heading to the brand new proofs I felt I had to read (I think we all feel this way from time to time, right?) and I was glad I’d finally picked it up.

The book opens with us meeting Nora.  A woman in the latter years of her life who lives alone and seems to keep herself isolated.  She is ill and is convinced she has cancer, however she is unwilling to seek any help from the doctor.  Nora notices a young woman sitting in the window of the house opposite hers and takes to watching her everyday.  She then realises that this young woman is pregnant, and watches the bump growing as the weeks and months pass, still never having had any actual contact with her. When the time comes for the baby to be born, Nora becomes involved in the birth and pretty soon realises that the young girl Rose is quite alone as she is.  They strike up a friendship and Rose moves into Nora’s house with the new baby which Nora names Grace.

Then we flit back in time to Nora as a 12 year old during the Second World War, at the point she is evacuated from London into the Kent countryside, leaving her mother behind and being taken in by The Reverend Rivers and his wife, and young daughter Grace. Nora is welcomed into the family and Grace immediately becomes a dear dear friend.  Grace and Nora spend their days roaming the fields, playing games and making their own entertainment, with their bond growing ever stronger.

When the time comes for Nora to possibly be sent back home, the decision is taken to let her stay with the Rivers family as Nora feels this is where she rightly belongs even though she misses her mother dearly.  The Reverend Rivers and his wife do not have a happy marriage, The Reverend choosing to spend his time sequestered away, alone, writing his sermons and praying.  Mrs Rivers spends a lot of her time at the piano, playing melancholy tunes.  The girls are more or less left to their own devices, not schooled in the traditional sense, just given some lessons by Reverend Rivers every now and again.

As the years roll by and the war rumbles on a now teen Nora realises that her feelings for Grace run much deeper than friendship and when tragedy strikes back home in London and strange tensions reach a new height in the Rivers’ house, Nora finds herself drawn back home, with her beloved Grace in tow.

When they reach bomb stricken London, the girls have to navigate the destroyed streets, finding a place to stay and trying to keep themselves safe.  When they meet a generous enigmatic stranger their fortunes take an upturn, however Nora is not happy with the every burgeoning relationship between Grace and their benefactor.

Back in the present day narrative, Nora is becoming weaker by the day, the cancer ravaging her body.  She has Rose and baby Grace for company but she often thinks back to her days with Grace and her time spent in Kent.

It is during these present day narratives that Nora lets slip little inklings that something devastating happened during her years in London with Grace, which then had repercussions for the rest of her life. As she loses her grip on life she allows her memories to flood back, taking hold and dragging her under. But just what happened between her and Grace? How did she end up nearing the end of her days alone? and what could she have done differently?

I do love a story set around WW2 and it’s even better if there is a dual timeline narrative, made even better still by there being one central character who spans both timelines. I also have a soft spot for an old lady, someone who has lived quite a life and has allowed it to shape her, not always for the better.

The fact that there is a secret that is hinted at throughout this book also kept me invested.  I had an inkling of what it might be but I wasn’t entirely proved right!

The relationships between the females in this story are beautifully written and deftly handled.  We of course have the main relationship between Nora and Grace as young girls, surviving the war together in the Kent countryside.  Bonding and growing up together as close as any two girls can be.  Nora is the more timid and reserved of the two, the quiet thinker, the more composed.  Grace is the impetuous one, the girl who longs to get out and see something of the world, the girl who loves to take a risk, break the rules and just grab life with both hands.  Their personalities compliment each other perfectly.

Their relationship evolves once they return to war torn London and Nora has to become somewhat of a protector, the adult in the relationship.  Trying to keep them both safe, keep them both with a roof over their heads whilst Grace is still hell bent on doing what she wants and living quite precariously in the moment. These two vibrant girls and are very different but equally charming.

Catherine Hall has the great of ability of being able to write characters that you become highly invested in and really care for.

This book is an absolute gem and I would urge you to give it a try.  Also, if you’ve not read The Proof Of Love, grab yourself a copy of that too!

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat x

 

 

 

 

The Mating Habits Of Stags By Ray Robinson – A Review

Publisher: Eye & Lightning

Publication Date: 14th June 2019

This is one of those books that I wish I’d read sooner. It had been sitting in my book trolley for a couple of months and whenever I finished a book I’d pick it up as my next read and then get distracted by something else.

Whilst I was reading it I was thinking ‘wow, this was sitting there all this time and I never knew!’

The Mating Habits Of Stags tells the story of Jake, a 73 year old ex shepherd and farm worker, living on the Yorkshire moors. We meet him after he has just murdered a man named Charles Monroe in a care home and is now on the run, not only from the police but from Charles vengeful son Lip.

We travel back in time to learn of Jake’s relationship with his great love Edith, their son William and their life together living on the moors, overshadowed with secrets.

Edith is now dead and her passing has stirred memories in Jake, meaning he feels the need for retribution. But what could Charles Monroe be guilty of? What could be so terrible that makes a murderer of an old man like Jake?

We also meet Sheila, a woman who Jake has grown close to since his Edith has died. He meets her in the local pub and enjoys a few drinks and good conversations. Sheila perhaps feels for Jake deeper than he does for her and she often goes out of her way to care for him, seeing that he eats and looks after himself up at Dove Cottage, a home that has somewhat stood still in time since Edith’s death. When Sheila discovers Jake’s crime she quite understandably struggles with her own conscience. Should she stand by her close friend or turn her back on him?

The depictions of the landscape, nature and wildlife are so perfectly balanced in this book. I am not a reader who really enjoys sprawling descriptions of flora and fauna, I need just enough to build a world or set a scene. What Ray Robinson does is draw you into the North Yorkshire Moors just enough for you to feel you are with Jake as he makes his covert way over the landscape, which isn’t always forgiving, to make his way back to Dove Cottage for one last sleep before he believes he will be captured.

Jake as a character I found utterly fascinating. It’s not often that the older generation are depicted in such a strong way. Jake is at one with the land, the animals etc. He is hardy enough to survive out in the open and knows the area like the back of his hand. As he travels back in time with his thoughts of Edith and son William, you can’t help but feel the utmost sympathy for him. A man who on the outside may appear brusque and no nonsense. A man who may appear taciturn and introverted quickly becomes someone entirely different once we penetrate his inner emotional thoughts and see how much he adored both Edith and William.

Ray Robinson’s writing is just superb. He strikes the right balance between lyrical and spare narrative. He embellishes detail at just the right moments, and knows when to pull back when it matters.

Pulling his cap down, beads of water soaking his collar and cuffs, moonlight shredded the clouds, and through the raindrops beading his eyelashes it was as if he was seeing stars for the first time – unexpected constellations

The dialogue is unpunctuated which I sometimes don’t get on with but what I found a nice touch with this was the fact that the northern dialect made its way out of the dialogue and into the actual prose. I think I felt somewhat of an affiliation with this story due to the northern words and phrases that are an integral part of my life, a dose of nostalgia always endears me to a book!

This is a story of love, loss and unfinished business. There is so much heart and emotion hidden beneath the cold and detached life of one man who is riddled with regrets. Being able to travel back in time to discover Jake’s early memories and to travel over the unforgiving moors with him feels like a privilege. He truly is a character I won’t forget in a hurry.

I would thoroughly recommend that you get your hands on this book. It is 222 pages of brilliance and I’m excited to now go on to discover more of Ray Robinson’s brilliant writing.

Thank you as always to the publisher for my review copy.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx

On Chapel Sands By Laura Cumming – A Review

Publisher: Chatto & Windus

Publication Date: 4th July 2019

This book was on my radar for a good while before it was published.  I found the premise of a small child being kidnapped from a beach in the late 1920’s and not having any memory of this event, extremely intriguing.  As most of you are aware, I don’t naturally gravitate towards non-fiction, it has to have a real pull to lure me in and this book certainly had that.

Laura Cumming’s mother Elizabeth (then know as Betty) was playing on the sands of Chapel Beach in Chapel St Leonards, Lincolnshire.  A carefree 3 year old whiling away an autumn afternoon with her mother Veda, enjoying the sands.  When Veda momentarily turns her attention away from little Betty, the unthinkable happens.  Betty is there one minute and quite literally gone the next.  Every parents nightmare had been realised for Veda.  Her husband George, a travelling salesman away on business is sent for and the police are informed (although interestingly not until the next day…).

A search for Betty ensues with the folk of the village joining in to locate this child who has disappeared into thin air.  Five days later she is found in a house, the next village along, dressed in a completely new set of clothes.

This strange event is then brushed under the carpet, and never spoken of again.  Little Betty is unaware it even happened to her, even some way into adulthood.  The people of Chapel St Leonard are very tight lipped about the whole disappearance and don’t speak of it in the years that ensue.

When Elizabeth and her daughter Laura do find out about the kidnap, it is Laura who is desperate to uncover what happened.  Her mother is far more apprehensive and is reticent to probe any further.  However, for Laura’s 21st birthday, Elizabeth gives her the gift of writing about her early life, her childhood years with Veda and George and the difficult and isolating life she led under George’s domineering influence.

With the help of her Mother’s writing, Laura starts to construct a picture of what family life was like for Betty, how she was almost secluded away by her parents and not permitted to mix with many people in the village.  We learn of George’s foul temper and Veda’s quiet, stoical acceptance of this.  Further evidence to substantiate Betty’s childhood narrative is presented by way of family photographs taken at the time.  Sepia toned images of a young Betty with George, out on the sands. A young Betty being told to pose for certain images and look happy, when she felt anything but. 

I really enjoyed looking at these family images which Laura disects in minute detail.  Poring over the light, the background location, the clothing, the expressions on the faces of those framed and captured in the images, and even speculating over who is behind the camera.  I find old photographs really fascinating and have often had a good rummage through boxes and boxes of old black and white photo’s at vintage fairs, so I really did relish this element of the book.

As the mystery of that day in 1929 unravels, Laura and her mother travel back to Chapel to see if they can discern from the surviving villagers and their descendants what actually happened.  What they encounter is a sweeping barrier against them, people who are  extremely reluctant to give away any details. 

However, bit by bit a picture of Betty’s life is revealed through photographs, nuggets of word of mouth tales and documentation and the secret that has been long buried finally comes to the fore.

This book is so much more than just a memoir or a simple family mystery to solve.  It is a very accomplished social commentary covering village life and the changing landscape at the time.

Laura often uses art to tell her Mother’s story, due to her Mother being an artist and Laura herself being an art writer, and whilst this is an understandable route for Laura to take, I didn’t always gel with these parts of the book.

You can feel in Laura’s writing how determined she was to find out about what had happened to her mother and how important it was to her own heritage. Knowing where you came from, who loved and cared for you and where you belong in a family is so important. Laura helps her mother to unravel her complex early life with such love and tenacity.

I really was drawn in by this memoir. It is a fascinating insight into family secrets which were always meant to be kept hidden. The final page gave me a little shiver.

I would thoroughly recommend it.

Thank you to the publisher for my review copy.

See you soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat xx