The Medium Path by Elizabeth Davies

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Ruby died nearly one hundred years ago. She saw spirits of the dead when she was alive, and now she is dead she has become a spirit guide who helps ghosts pass on.

When ghosts start being taken by darkness instead of the light, Ruby is forced to seek help from a handsome and unwilling medium, who awakens emotions in her that she thought had died long ago.

elizabethdaviesauthor.co.uk

I’m such a sucker for a ghost story. You know those weekends away in b&bs in the back and beyond with rows of crusty books on bookshelves wearing dust and spiders? If there’s a book of ghost stories and/ or local folklore on there, you’ve lost me. You can hike that mountain/ take in the scenery on your own my friend. I’ll be scaring myself witless in these ghostly tales thank you very much. (This rule does not transfer to scary films. I will never watch a horror lest it take over my brain for many proceeding months. One word. The Conjuring….)

As many of you will know, I am a judge-a-book-by-its-cover kind of gal. When Elizabeth Davies sent me The Medium Path (please see exhibit A, above) images of dark alleys infested with bubbling cauldrons flooded my expectations. While there are witch like characters and many a ghost here, my initial presumptions couldn’t have been further from the truth. For a start, the setting is thoroughly contemporary.  There are smart phones and everything.  Despite this, there isn’t a whole lot of the real world to cling onto at all. We spend most of the narrative betwixt this world and the next, accompanying Ruby on her mission to persuade the recently deceased to pass into the light.  Ruby is essentially a dead Melinda Gordon for the Ghost Whisperer fans among you. Just like Melinda, Ruby has her fair share of unruly spirits to contend with.

Davies gently infuses the main story led by Ruby, with seemingly unconnected mini stories from the ghosts she is trying to help, stirring them all into the pot with a cunning haphazardness. Before you know it, all the peripheral characters are suddenly essential to each other, pushing the plot to a rather pungent boiling point.

Ruby is not a typical leading lady. Because she is dead. At first glance, this somewhat removes any vulnerability that would lead to any dire peril and therefore does not inspire much empathy from the reader on her behalf. Because she is dead. What else can happen to her? Well, as it turns out, there are worse things than death. And Ruby is just about to find out what that is.

The Medium Path can be purchased in paperback or kindle form here.

The Mermaid’s Sister by Carrie Anne Noble

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There is no cure for being who you truly are…

In a cottage high atop Llanfair Mountain, sixteen-year-old Clara lives with her sister, Maren, and guardian Auntie. By day, they gather herbs for Auntie’s healing potions. By night, Auntie spins tales of faraway lands and wicked fairies. Clara’s favorite story tells of three orphan infants—Clara, who was brought to Auntie by a stork; Maren, who arrived in a seashell; and their best friend, O’Neill, who was found beneath an apple tree.

One day, Clara discovers shimmering scales just beneath her sister’s skin. She realizes that Maren is becoming a mermaid—and knows that no mermaid can survive on land. Desperate to save her, Clara and O’Neill place the mermaid-girl in their gypsy wagon and set out for the sea. But no road is straight, and the trio encounters trouble around every bend. Ensnared by an evil troupe of traveling performers, Clara and O’Neill must find a way to save themselves and the ever-weakening mermaid.

And always, in the back of her mind, Clara wonders, if my sister is a mermaid, then what am I?

carrienoble.com

I was first attracted to this book by its fairy tale influences and also mostly by its pretty cover. This is because I am a shallow human being and fully accept that dark side of myself that judges books (and all things in life) by their covers. I’m also going through a bit of a fairy tale phase at the minute. Can’t get enough. Sometimes you just need to immerse yourself in a world where dragons are pets and mermaids are credible beings. I think I read somewhere that this book was a re-invention of The Little Mermaid. (It is possible that I may have imagined this.) Aside from the fact that there’s a mermaid in the story that experiences some metamorphosis along the way, there is little similarity. This isn’t a bad thing. Noble’s story is much more inventive: she has dragons in her story, which Hans Christian Andersen failed to utilise. Rookie mistake. (Just kidding Hans. I adore you).

As would be expected, Maren the mermaid is devastatingly beautiful. Clara, her human sister, pales in comparison, or at least this is what we are led to believe by Clara’s first person narrative. At first I felt sorry for Clara. It must have been hard for her growing up with such a stunner as her sister.  Believing herself to be second best both physically and competently, Clara defensively clings to propriety and manners. But the favourable reaction that she provokes among the male characters indicate that she is being somewhat of a self-deprecating attention seeker. Because of this, I didn’t particularly warm to Clara but I did want her to succeed in her mission, if not for her, for the people around her.

There are lots of clever little twists in the plot that link each character, whether they are main players or background fixings. Noble puts equal depth into all her characters, good and evil alike, creating a well-balanced narrative. She allows an empathetic experience across the board, exposing cruel Soraya’s compassion, and devoted O’Neill’s spineless indulgence.

The use of a first person narrative allows a steady, sing song like feel, which Noble sometimes steps out of with the use of dialogue and/or, (my favourite) when a character within the story tells a story of their own.  This is how we learn about Auntie’s past and how she came to live on Llanfair Mountain; a fairy tale within a fairy tale if you will. Very nice. All in all, an exciting, imaginative fantasy somewhere between the realms of The Night Circus and Shrek.

Can I just say (I can, its my blog) that there are a few negative reviews of this book on goodreads by people who have admitted to reviewing it despite only getting about 30% through. Not clever, people. Especially as a lot of the comments don’t even hold up if you read the whole book. I’m not against negative reviews, but I am opposed to bad reviews and bad reviewers who can’t even finish a book before ripping it to shreds. That is all.

I would just like to take this opportunity to thank me for buying this book so that I could read it and write an honest review about it. You’re welcome.

Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

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At fifteen, Diana Dodworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

inspired-quill.com

I want to start by thanking Anne Goodwin for asking me to review Sugar and Snails. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that provoked the words ‘I can’t actually believe that just happened’; ‘I did NOT see that coming’; ‘Orange is the New Black can WAIT! I HAVE to read the next chapter’ exit my mouth. For these reasons and some others, it’s one of the books that I have been most excited about reviewing since starting out on my little reviewing sideline. Its one of those books that I want to talk and talk about but because of my religious beliefs (Thou Shalt Not Provide Spoilers) its the one book that I can’t talk about at all! Because much like the classic Bruce Willis thriller The Sixth Sense, once you know the twist, you’ll never see it the same again. But I’ll give it a go…

Sugar and Snails follows Diana, a middle aged, moderately successful psychology lecturer. Despite her good education and a position at one of the top universities in the country, her head is firmly stuck in the sand, but is at serious risk of being dislodged through the efforts of an ever helpful friend and a prospective love interest.  The story is told through Diana’s voice. I’m not often a fan of books with a single voice, but I can’t imagine Diana’s story being told any other way. She narrates her life in the first person, with a graceful poise that transcends the upheaval that she has encountered on her journey. Goodwin delicately navigates through Diana’s memories and emotions with a nimble dexterity, gently guiding the reader as we plunge into Diana’s psyche with a tenderness that was never afforded our heroine. That is until we discover Diana’s secret around half way through when it feels as though we’ve sidestepped into a raging torrent of ice; not because of what the secret is, but because of Goodwin’s sudden shift from softly subtle to pointedly direct.

It is around this point that I realised how perfectly this book is written. With one sentence, Goodwin forced me to simultaneously question all preceding events while doubting my expectations for the remainder of the book. It felt like being frozen in a tangled crossroads of possibilities; a deer caught in the headlights moment, if you will, which is how I imagine Diana must have felt more than once throughout her life.

Anne Goodwin

The Author, Anne Goodwin

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Sugar and Snails is the  classic example of why one should absolutely never begin writing a book review before the reading of said book is finished. When reviewing, I always make a few mental notes as I read, thinking about what I’ll say about the book, themes I’ve picked up on etc. Inevitably, very few of my Sugar and Snails notes have proved useful due to the surprising turn of events circa 56% in (thank you Kindle with your ever precise page counting techniques), but there is one such note that I think is still valid. It is this: The book’s main focus is a decision made by a 15 year old, and the consequential lifestyle and doctorate research led by Diana about the ability of adolescents to make meaningful decisions. In real life, adolescents are made to make some of the most important decisions of their lives, especially with regards to their education and future careers. They also think that they are the only ones having to make these decisions and that nothing will ever be simple again and the world will probably end next Wednesday. I’m sure we can all agree that for the most part, these are all very correct and reasonable observations for teenagers to make. I therefore think it would be very useful to have this book available in all high schools. Either in the library or as part of a lesson taught by an open minded teacher who is not easily embarrassed. Because despite some controversial topics, or maybe because of said controversy, and while not everyone faces Diana’s dilemma, we could all be better rounded people for learning about said dilemma in order to support those who do have such a decision to make.

Sugar and Snails deserves to be pushed to the front of the queue in all book club reading lists. The depth of the characters and the intricate problems that they face will provide so many discussion points. Now that I know the twist, I am excited to reread Sugar and Snails and to pick up on the many muted clues sprinkled throughout the text.  So please, for me, read this book. If you can’t do it for me (rude) do it for you. Just go now. Buy it. Read it. Then come talk to me about it. Because it is absurdly brilliant.

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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 The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

http://erinmorgenstern.com/

Erin Morgenstern is a talented writer lady living in Manhattan where she is currently working on her next masterpiece. Her debut novel needs no introduction, I’m sure, but tough you’re getting one anyway.

The Night Circus is, as it says on the tin about a circus. That only happens at night. It follows said circus on its global adventures, whose multiple stages provide lavish entertainment. The stage (s) has more than one purpose. Of course it entertains, but it also plays host to an intense competition with a sprinkling of peril and a dash of amour.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. But I will say this if you don’t mind. I wanted to hate this book. I really did. With all my heart and soul. I don’t know why exactly; its immense popularity, overnight success or the fact that the author has achieved that which I never will – that’s right people, she’s a NaNoWriMo winner. I am highly distrustful and/ or envious of anyone who can write a novel the month before Christmas. When does she shop please?!

Anyway, I wanted to hate it, but its no use. It’s far too charming, the characters too adorable and the story too intriguing. The more I attempted to rip it to shreds and the harder I pulled downwards, the higher it flung me in all sorts of directions like a somersaulting acrobat a la Cirque des Reves.  It has everything; fairy tale love, adventure, a duel to the end, a circus, magic, train journeys, red scarves, dresses that repel rainwater (can someone get the scientists working on that one).  I love this book.

If you haven’t already read it, as I suspect many of you have, go read it now.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

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Sussex, 1912.

In a churchyard, villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to walk. Here, where the estuary leads out to the sea, superstitions still hold sway.

Standing alone is the taxidermist’s daughter. At twenty-two, Constantia Gifford lives with her father in a decaying house: it contains all that is left of Gifford’s once world-famous museum of taxidermy. The stuffed birds that used to grace every parlour are out of fashion, leaving Gifford a disgraced and bitter man. The string of events that led to the museum’s closure are never spoken of and an accident has robbed Connie of any memory of those days.

The bell begins to toll and all eyes are fixed on the church. No one sees the gloved hands holding a garotte. As the last notes fade into the dark, a woman lies dead.

While the village braces itself against rising waters and the highest tide of the season, Connie struggles to discover who is responsible – and why the incident is causing memories to surface from her own vanished years. Does she know the figure she sees watching from the marshes? Who is the mysterious caller that leaves a note without being seen? And what is the secret that lies at the heart of Blackthorn House, hidden among the bell jars of her father’s workshop?

orionbooks.co.uk

Greetings book fans!

After an excellent week in Crete, I can think of no better way of re-submerging into real life than sharing a book review with you lovely people. So here is my review of Kate Mosse‘s The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

As per a previous post re holiday reads, I wanted a ‘once you pop you just can’t stop’ kind of book to accompany my holiday.  It had to be intriguing enough to keep my attention on a long flight (which began BEFORE the hour of 7am) but be accessible enough that I could  dip in and out throughout a busy week. Said week involved blood vessel bursting bike rides, thunder storms, bandaging fiance’s gross foot wound (true love), watching friends get engaged in the mountains, enjoying a spot of sunstroke, being embraced by an old Greek man with particularly moist arm pits that emitted a particularly pungent scent, drinking pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. (All of those things really happened). In addition, thanks to Mosse’s clever writing, I got some avian taxidermy and very strange murders thrown into the mix.

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Mosse said that she wrote this book after a long fascination with Taxidermy and I can see why. It certainly aroused a morbid curiosity in me. Mosse very neatly describes all the intricacies of the art of Taxidermy, unraveling each of the painstaking and often gruesome processes that makes a lifeless bird breathe again.  Mosse clearly has a high respect and interest in Taxidermy and she uses it beautifully as a metaphor for the life cycle of humans. The theme wraps around the characters, revealing their outwardly idyllic lives to be nothing short of a horror story. At the climax of the story, Mosse skilfully strips away the dead flesh and rebuilds the character’s lives into a beautiful tableaux, complete with a church wedding on a sunny day in which the characters can finally play happy families.  Just like the tableaux of birds that once sat in Gifford’s museum; finally resplendent even after the effects of death.

The quest for beauty is clearly an important theme in this novel. As well as the taxidermists in the story who aim to achieve beauty in their work, there is a portrait painter who loves to capture the beauty of his subjects.  All of this is set against a beautiful, if volatile country backdrop.  When I saw Mosse speaking at Harrogate History Festival a couple of years back, she talked about how her stories emerge from landscape. In Labyrinth, Sepulche and Citadel Mosse her inspiration was the Languedoc region in the south of France, which is described in some detail. Here, Mosse paints a vivid picture of the Sussex countryside out of which she draws her characters in such a way that they couldn’t possibly be anywhere else.

I am always a fan of Kate Mosse’s work and she has not let me down yet. If you haven’t tried her books before, or you found The Languedoc Trilogy not quite to your taste, I would most definitely recommend The Taxidermist’s Daughter. It’s a similar style to her previous work in that the voice changes chapter to chapter, but the theme is much darker than anything she’s done before; even counting The Mistletoe Bride.

Let me know what you think.

Alicia

Holiday Books for the Discerning Reader

 A short disclaimer:

There are no book recommendations in this post. It mostly consists of an open letter to the internet, which mostly consists of moaning and laziness. There. You have been forewarned.

Dear all search engines of the internet

There seems to be a problem with the language abilities of your search tools. It seems to be affecting all of you, which is odd. I can only assume its a algorithmical virus that has affected all internal dictionaries.  The problem is thus: when I type in a query, you provide a mismatching answer.

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Allow me to illustrate this further. When I type the words “holiday reads” into your search engine, my eye balls are bombarded with books covered in pastel illustrations and/or pictures of beaches. The (often) terribly punned titles shimmy across the dust cover in swirly calligraphy. The stories you recommend are invariably whimsically “romantic”, most of which would be better suited to a gossip magazine than in the pages of a book.

Note, that I asked for a “holiday read”, not a soppy, patronising “sizzler”.

I would not read this type of book at home, so I doubt my preferences are going to change when I leave the country. Now, you may question my wanting to find a “holiday read” at all. Why not just search for my next read as I usually would: trawling through reviews, flicking through bookshop websites, talking to actual humans. Well, internet, I didn’t want to bring this up but I have a very serious condition. I am lazy. There, I said it. I want to find a book that I happen to be taking on holiday to read, and I want you to tell me which one to read and then deliver it to my door. Or Kindle. I do not feel that I should be discriminated against because of my Laziness (actual disease) so it is only fair that you review your practices and bend to my every whim and start diversifying your wares when it comes to books that are recommended for holidays.

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When thinking about broadening your literary horizons, you may wish to consider the following points.

The purpose of the holiday read is three fold:

1) The airport/ airplane. The holiday read enriches an otherwise lengthy and dull wait. It is also a good shopping deterrent. Why do they fill airports with so much stuff that I think I want? FYI, it is just as expensive as in the real world. We must stop being fooled by the duty free tag. Invest in a good book, and those euros are safe.

2)  When hungover, holiday read can be placed lightly over the head so as to provide a slight shade. If the holiday read is of good quality, people will rightly believe you to be wildly intelligent and brilliant and not suspect how ropey you actual feel.

3) Whether on a romantic vacay with your other half (yep, just said “vacay”. Deal with it) or a fun filled week with friends, at some point you’re going to have to converse with your holiday companions. When comparing tan lines and sandal blisters becomes a little monotonous, delving into the lives and adventures in a good holiday read is always intriguing; what makes the author stand out, where they got their inspiration from; what do you think will happen next; how will it end?

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Yes, holidays are about discovering new lands, slowly poisoning yourself into happy stupors with really strong, cheap cocktails, testing the limits of factor 6 tanning oil and making brave, bold decisions such as the obligatory toe dip in the sea, which is NEVER the temperature that it purports to be. Trickery. But without a good book under my belt, it is a wasted week. Like all my weeks.

So, please all search engines of the internet, why not shoe in a few more intellectually stimulating books into your “holiday reads” lists. And hurry up, I have less than two weeks to play with here.

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Ta very much.

Yours acrimoniously

Alicia S. Bruce

PS. We also have the little problem of you suggesting “holiday reads for MEN/ holiday reads for WOMEN”. We’ll catch up about that another time.

“Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?” by Jeanette Winterson

Greetings readers. Happy New Year! Welcome to Tales From a Bruce Eye View’s very first post of 2015. I thought I’d begin the year with a book review (obviously), discussing the brilliantly raw and moving book, “Why Be Happy When You Could By Normal” (2012) by one of my favourite writers, Jeanette Winterson.

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In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.

This book is that story’s the silent twinIt is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.

This is a follow up to Winterson’s brilliant semi-autobiographical debut, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”. If you have read and enjoyed Jeanette Winterson before, you will happily find her roaming narrative style again here. She has such an amazing talent for guiding her reader through her complex emotions. Her meandering style leaves little room for chronology, but I like this; it allows the reader to really immerse themselves in the ideas and images that are presented. Winterson explains her writing style in the opening chapter of her autobiography.

“In any case, why could there not be experience and experiment? Why could there not be the observed and the imagined? Why should a woman be limited by anything or anybody? … Truth for anyone is a very complex thing. For a writer, what you leave out says as much as those things you include.”

I appreciated this explanation, as “semi-autobiographical” can be a confusing term. It can leave readers feeling like they need to prize the ‘semi’ from the ‘autobiography’, deciphering what is real and what is not. This shouldn’t really affect us as a reader. It is not our business to dig into another’s truth, but to appreciate the story that is presented. Winterson did not have to explain herself or develop her story further as she has done so painfully well in “Why be happy…” but I’m so very glad she did.

This book is mostly about growing pains, being adopted and finding the truth. It is a whirlpool of fascinating characters all at once dark, menacing and delightful. One of the most domineering characters in “Why be happy when you could be normal?” is The North. I know that Jeanette Winterson has done lots of work on The North, written about it, researched it, explored it, presented a five part series about Manchester on BBC Radio 4 etc. However, in this book, it often feels as though Winterson is whispering loudly to everyone who is not from the North about the North in an almost over-explaining, apologetic way.

“The working-class north of England was a routinely brutal world. Men hit women … women hit men, and if it was in the general morality of ‘I deserved that’ – drunkenness, womanising, gambling the housekeeping money – then the men accepted the thump.” (page 46)

“This is the old Manchester working-class way; you think, you read, you ponder… I feel proud – of them, of me, of our past, our heritage. And I feel very sad. I shouldn’t have been the only one to have been educated.” (page 218)

A lot of this is very much of its time and as I wasn’t around at said time maybe I can’t really comment, but surely these things weren’t just subject to a northern postcode? Surely, these issues were countrywide to some extent? As a northerner myself, I felt a little stung by some of Winterson’s descriptions of The North. A lot of it I can look at affectionately and to some extent relate to, but I’m worried that someone with an already negative view of The North might jump on this and say “see, Jeanette Winterson said that people are uneducated in the north and it must be true because she’s from there and she left”. I understand that Winterson had some terrible experiences in the hills of Accrington and I understand why she left, but I hope that her experiences and some of her descriptions do not dissuade people from the fact that The North is a stunning place with just as many intelligent and well-educated people as anywhere else in the country.

This is a definite must read for well-established Jeanette Winterson fans and new readers alike. She tells her story so vividly that it is sometimes difficult to remember that this is a memoir and not a novel.  There are some references to her previous works but not so many that you feel lost and not so exclusive that you feel locked out.

There is something for everyone in this book particularly if you’re adopted or have adopted; ever lived in or have been to The North and definitely if you’re a human person who was once a younger human person.

Enjoy.