Tag Archives: novel

Canvey Island by James Runcie

canvey islandIt is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Violet are at a dance. Violet’s husband George sits and watches them sway and glide across the dance floor, his mind far away, trapped by a war that ended nearly ten years ago. Meanwhile, at home, a storm rages and Len’s wife Lily and his young son Martin fight for their lives in the raging black torrent. The night ends in a tragedy that will reverberate through their lives. This poignant novel follows the family’s fortunes from the austerity of the post-war years to Churchill’s funeral, from Greenham Common to the onset of Thatcherism and beyond, eloquently capturing the very essence of a transforming England in the decades after the war. It is a triumph of understated emotion, a novel about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.

If, like me, you are a child of the 50’s or 60’s there is much in this novel which will take you back to your childhood and beyond, reliving stories and experiences which you may have forgotten yet which suddenly come flooding back to life as the author weaves together the stories of a cast of very real characters. As Martin and his mother fight for their lives during the terrible floods of 1953 your heart goes out to the young child then, as the years goes by, you see him change as he struggles with his emotions, and you sympathise with the way this one early experience structures the whole of his future life. Although Mr Runcie does not mention Post Traumatic Stress specifically it is clear from the way Martin interacts with the people he loves that this is the core of what drives him to his chosen career and blights his personal relationships.

Mr Runcie has cleverly structured his novel so that each chapter is written in the first person by one of the main characters and so enables us to delve more deeply into their emotional drives and feelings. Through this Mr Runcie is able to explore different views on ideas which have evolved over the years to shape the world we live in today– the role of women, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, racism – there is something in this novel which will resonate with everyone. The author of Canvey Island has got to the heart of what it meant to grow up in the second half of the twentieth century. As you read this novel you are immersed in the sights and sounds of a period of rapid change – the life of a fisherman on Canvey island, the Christmas gifts which people gave in the 1950’s, the ubiquitous Avon Lady of the 60’s, the women’s camps at Greenham Common, the long hot summer of 1976, the Winter of Discontent 1979. Anyone who has lived through those times will recognise the detailed research which the author has carried out to enable him to bring these snapshots of British life sharply into focus.

Above everything else, though, Canvey Island is a novel about people – the emotional description of a family funeral juxtaposed against that of a state funeral as the nation pays its last respects to Churchill, the struggle of a child who misses his mother yet sees his father forming a new relationship, moving from the excitement of early romance to the domesticity of married life, coming to terms with your own mortality. This is a lovely piece of social history built around characters who are flawed yet draw sympathy and understanding from us. Mr Runcie writes with sensitivity and truth which makes this novel quite compelling in many ways, although I felt the ending was a little abrupt and would have liked perhaps one more short chapter to see what happened to Martin next.

This is an absorbing read although not a fast paced thriller, but if you are interested in people and what makes them tick then you are sure to enjoy Canvey Island.

Canvey Island can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters – barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years – their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions; the revenge of rivals; accidents; pestilence; Indian attacks; and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Soldiers Story by Bryan Forbes

In the uneasy post-war peace of occupied Germany, a British soldier is billeted to a bombed Hamburg hotel. Alex’s days are spent investigating Nazi war criminals, but it is a chance meeting with a German university professor in a shabby back-street bookshop that changes his life. Having befriended the professor and his wife, Alex falls in love with their only daughter, Lisa, only to discover that the professor may not be as innocent as he first appeared. The stale aftermath of a long and hideous war has left the old society in ruins. There are still many secrets to uncover and Alex has to ask himself what is more important – love or truth? As he digs deeper into the professor’s past Alex is forced to recognise that he cannot have both.

This is an absorbing novel in more ways than one. We follow Alex as his life moves from war to peace, from seeing the Germans as enemies to trying to help them on the road to recovery. When he finally leaves the armed forces Alex, like so many men who served in the Second World War, has to re-adjust to civilian life. The Lincolnshire farm where he grew up seems confining, he feels rootless and unable to find his way. In this sense ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a tale of lost youth. Interwoven with this is a love story, an English soldier falling in love with a young German woman at a time when ‘fraternisation’ was still frowned on; how would her family, and his colleagues, react? If this were not enough, a photograph from Auschwitz places Alex in an impossible situation. What should he do? Should he put his love for Lisa before justice for those who suffered and died in the war? Should he follow his heart or do his duty?

‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a well written novel, peopled with many facetted characters who struggle to do right in a world which is never simply black and white. The dialogue is engaging and believable, helping to bring the characters to life. The descriptions of bomb-damaged Berlin, the Russian sector, the drab people struggling to come to terms with defeat, all combine to give an insight into a fascinating period of history. ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is not a dry history book, although through its pages we achieve a greater understanding of the years immediately following the Second World War, the true destructiveness of conflict, and the loss of innocence which it brings. This is a great piece of historical fiction which I heartily recommend to anyone who has an interest in history, the Second World War, morality, human nature and love.

The Soldiders Story can be found on Amazon 

You can find out more about Bryan Forbes here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

It is late summer in East Sussex, 1914. Amidst the season’s splendour, fiercely independent Beatrice Nash arrives in the coastal town of Rye to fill a teaching position at the local grammar school. There she is taken under the wing of formidable matriarch Agatha Kent, who, along with her charming nephews, tries her best to welcome Beatrice to a place that remains stubbornly resistant to the idea of female teachers. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape, and the colourful characters that populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For the unimaginable is coming – and soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small town goes to war.

What a gem of a book! This is the first time I have read anything by Helen Simonson and it reminds me very much of the novels of Jane Austen. Like the best books by Austen The Summer Before The War is filled with a range of characters who are portrayed with a subtle blend of warmth and wit. From the strongly independent heroine to the young men looking for a wife, and from a formidable aunt to the ‘society ladies’ with their fears of scandal it is easy to both laugh and cry with the inhabitants of Rye during that last halcyon summer before the outbreak of war and the loss of innocence, the innocence both of individuals and of a society which was already on the cusp of change.

This novel has a strong plotline which brings to life the evolving world of the early twentieth century, its tight dialogue a good vehicle for the portrayal of social norms, women’s suffrage, divorce, upward mobility, pregnancy outside of marriage, and a hint of forbidden homosexuality. Through her carefully crafted prose Ms Simonson brings to life the small provincial town of Rye in the months before the war, which makes the changes forced upon it and the losses it endures during the conflict all the more poignant. This depiction of Rye is mirrored in the pace of the book which may seem slow and genteel at first, but there is soon an increase of pace as war looms and personal conflicts grow, a pattern which is engrossing and draws the reader in.

The Summer Before The War is a gently satirical novel, full of wry social commentary yet with a depth and sensitivity to the writing which reflects the authors shrewd observation of people and their interactions. The slower pace and genteel setting of the first part cleverly serves to emphasise the darker times brought about by war both on the home front and in the trenches. Ms Simonson has obviously conducted a great deal of research and shows a keen understanding of this period and the impact that war had on individuals, families and communities at that time, communicating this effectively through her delightful cast of characters. She is skilled in creating an absorbing, emotional, and engaging prose that leaves us in no doubt of the heartache caused by the war across the whole social spectrum in Rye from the wealthy to the poorest boy, Snout, who embodies so many young people who lied about their age to seek adventure but found hell instead.

This novel has all the ingredients which make for a good saga – love and loss, prejudice, family conflict, hidden secrets from the past, and a lovely twist in the tail. It may not be a novel for everyone but I found the similarities to Jane Austen’s style strangly compelling, certainly anyone who enjoys Pride and Prejudice or other novels of that style will enjoy reading The Summer Before The War.

You can find out more about Helen Simonson here

The Summer Before The War can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: the tale of Lata – and her mother’s – attempts to find her a suitable husband, through love or through exacting maternal appraisal. At the same time, it is the story of India, newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis as a sixth of the world’s population faces its first great general election and the chance to map its own destiny.

The search for ‘A Suitable Boy’ for Lata to marry is the over-arching theme which runs through this novel, yet the book is really so much more than that. Set in an India learning to stand alone after independence this novel is a true saga, bringing together diverse characters from all levels of society whose lives and interactions leave us with a surprising depth of understanding of the historical and political situation at that time. To give insights into the religious conflicts Mr Seth also introduces the reader to two families – one Muslim and one Hindu – who have been friends for many years. Their friendship continues despite the religious rioting and death which accompanied Partition and it is, in fact, an affair of the heart which threatens to shatter the relationship. We are also introduced to a range of characters from different levels of society – politicians, businessmen, landowners, poor workmen, and the untouchables. Anyone who has ever lived in India will recognise the truth of these characterisations and realise that in many ways the years since Partition have been slow to bring change to this ancient structure of Indian society.

In his novel Mr Seth has created a world of closely connected people with believable characters, and many readers will recognise aspects of themselves in the well scripted dialogue and familial descriptions. From the over-anxious mother to the over-bearing politician, the bullying brother to the pushy friend, the man obsessed by love to the woman who prefers her independence, it is easy to become attached to many of these characters as they go about their everyday lives. Alongside this A Suitable Boy weaves a rich tapestry of the complexities of Indian society – the religious festivals which underpin all aspects of life, the family structures, the duties of sons and daughters to their parents, the complex and sometimes corrupt political system, arranged marriages, caste, education – the list is endless and endlessly fascinating.

At it’s heart this is a novel about relationships and the conflicts that arise when we place personal freedom and self-fulfilment against our duty and responsibilities to others. The characters created by Mr Seth are multi-faceted and none of them are completely good or completely bad; they are real people and as such the author does not offer any easy answers to the conflicts which they face, just as there are no easy answers in real life. What comes across clearly is that the decisions which we make, whether at a personal or political level, have consequences for ourselves and others, and sometimes the only thing we can do is to choose the path of least harm as we make our way through life.

As well as the clever characterisation and plotting in A Suitable Boy Mr Seth also uses his considerable skill with words to paint a picture of life in India – the heat and dust, flora and fauna, fashion and food, all are cleverly integrated into the novel in such a way that anyone who knows India will easily recognise the land and its people, and those who are new to that country will come away from the book with clear mental images of what makes India such a fascinating place.

Although I have enjoyed reading it I would give two caveats to my recommendation of A Suitable Boy. Firstly, it is a wonderfully complex novel full of rich and nuanced language, but it is a saga in the true sense of the word (the edition which I read is 1,350 pages long). If you like a story which can be read in a day or two then this book is not for you. Secondly, there are passages of prose telling something of the history of the times immediately after Independence, and also a number of political speeches which do tend to slow the pace at times; it is, however, possible to skim over some of these without any loss to the story. There is also a fair amount of Indian vocabulary for the reader to contend with and a wordlist at the end of the book would probably be useful. Having said that, if you enjoy well written books which cover all aspects of life from birth to death, love, friendship, jealousy, loss, grief etc., and are willing to put in the time, then you will enjoy reading A Suitable Boy.

Please note that there are no spoilers here; if you want to know if Lata and her mother found A Suitable Boy you will have to read the book!

A Suitable Boy can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Vikram Seth here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims: (Book 1) by Toby Clements

An enthralling adventure story, honest and powerful. The Wars of the Roses are imagined here with energy, with ferocity, with hunger to engage the reader.’ Hilary Mantel

February 1460 In the bitter dawn of a winter’s morning, a young man and a woman escape from a priory. In fear of their lives, they are forced to flee across a land ravaged by conflict.

For this is the Wars of the Roses, one of the most savage and bloody civil wars in history, where brother confronts brother, king faces king,

and Thomas and Katherine must fight – just to stay alive …

I was influenced in choosing to read this novel after seeing a glowing review of it by the historical novelist Hilary Mantel and am pleased that I followed my instincts to pick up the book. Many people only know the bare bones of the events surrounding the civil war in England known as the War of the Roses, often finding the interconnections between the royal houses confusing to follow and so giving up on the study. In his Kingmaker series Toby Clements sets out to rectify this lack of knowledge and understanding even though this first novel is not about the members of the powerful and wealthy families and factions at the pinnacle of society but the brutally hard lives of ordinary people. The main characters in Winter Pilgrims are not the key players as one might expect, but a monk and nun who have to flee for their lives; they are quite naïve in their understanding of who the people of power and ambition are, and the reader is able to gradually build up a solid understanding of the politics of the time alongside Thomas and Kit without any need for long passages of historical explanation. Yet Mr Clements has conducted an incredible amount of research into the topic which has enabled him to re-create a time full of historical detail which draws the reader in – the descriptions of a countryside ravaged by war; deserted villages; the cold, hunger and tiredness of an army on the move; the lack of medical knowledge and the primitive treatments given, all work together to give a depth of understanding of life for the ordinary man and woman which is at times harrowing and bloody yet also full of friendship, loyalty and compassion.

Alongside the realistic telling of the lives of ordinary people the author also immerses the reader in the blood and gore of 15th century warfare. The descriptions of training for the archers is very detailed whilst the skirmishes and battles themselves are harrowing. The elements of the cut and thrust of the fighting are incredibly accurate, both in the description of the physical fighting and in the actual historical confrontations – the author holds nothing back in writing about the battle of Towton which brings this novel to a close (and which  is closely based on historical records of the biggest and bloodiest battle to have ever been fought on English soil); it is one of the best descriptions of the chaos, butchery, exhaustion and horror of battle interspersed with moments of calm detachment and observation that I have ever read in a work of historical fiction.

As well as accurate portrayals of what was happening during the War of the Roses Mr Clements also brings to life some of the key historical characters of the time including Edward Earl of March (18 -19 years old in this novel and destined to be the future king Edward VI) and the Earl of Warwick (known to history as ‘the Kingmaker’), as well as many more of the Yorkist leaders (we find out little about the Lancastrian leadership as this novel is told from a Yorkist perspective). These important men appear infrequently in the plotline of this novel which cleverly brings together what life was like for men in all strata of society. The stories of Thomas and Kit are interwoven with the struggles of nobles to hang on to their lands during times of lawlessness and confusion, with some holding fast to their allegiances and responsibilities whilst others frequently change sides whenever it suits them in order to increase their own lands and power.

I must admit that I found some of the plot for Thomas and Kit a little far-fetched at times but no more so than in books by Conn Iggulden or Bernard Cornwell, and it is possible to stretch imagination on occasions to fulfil the key purpose of an historical novelist – the creation of a good story. The fact that the couple have been confined in religious institutions means that they are inexperienced in the wider world and so we are able to discover more about religion at the time as well as the spiritual and philosophical conflicts which are a part of the journey of these characters.

Some readers may find the fact that this novel is written in the present tense difficult at times, but I find that, as the story progresses, it helps to add a sense of immediacy to the actions and emotions of the carefully created cast of characters and as such becomes an integral part of the storytelling. Mr Clements uses all his skills of writing to create a world full of excitement and contradiction, gory battle scenes and strong supportive relationships, and an honest telling of the vagaries of human character. As a novel Winter Pilgrims is well-researched and intelligent entertainment and will be enjoyed by anyone who is a fan of such writers as Conn Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell.

Winter Pilgrims can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Toby Clements here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

‘How long do I have?’ I force a laugh.
‘Not long,’ he says very quietly. ‘They have confirmed your sentence of death.  You are to be beheaded tomorrow.  We don’t have long at all.’

Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days. Using her position as cousin to the deceased king, her father and his co-conspirators put her on the throne ahead of the king’s half-sister Mary, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her crown and locked Jane in the Tower. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block. There Jane turned her father’s greedy, failed grab for power into her own brave and tragic martyrdom.

‘Learn you to die’ is the advice that Jane gives in a letter to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and find love. But her lineage makes her a threat to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and, when Mary dies, to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a potential royal heir before she does.  So when Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she too must go to the Tower.

‘Farewell, my sister,’ writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary finds it easy to keep secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After watching her sisters defy the queen, Mary is aware of her own perilous position as a possible heir to the throne. But she is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Elizabeth.

 The Last Tudor is a thoroughly absorbing novel which tells the story of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary – and the roles they played during the lives of the last generation of Tudors – King Edward, Queen May and Queen Elizabeth. Cleverly crafted, Ms Gregory gives each girl her own voice and they each tell their story in the first person. The style of writing is different for each of the sisters which deftly portrays their differing characters and beliefs. I am well acquainted with the story of Jane Grey but knew little about her sisters; the author has produced a book here which focuses on these relatively unknown siblings and through their descriptions of their feelings for the important people of the time – love, envy, anger, hatred – we are given an insight into the events which shaped the Tudor dynasty. This is a very clever personalisation which makes the history accessible and never dull or slowing the pace of the story.

Jane Grey is the eldest, she has strongly held Protestant beliefs and holds anyone of the Catholic faith in contempt. In the telling of her story she portrays herself as a rather impatient young woman who says that she is dutiful and humble yet comes across as slightly arrogant. Jane truly believes that the reformed church is the only way to salvation and, as such, pities those who will never get to heaven. Religion is the focus of her life and she is politically naïve which makes her the perfect pawn for those who wish to bypass Princess Mary as heir to the Tudor throne. When Jane’s cousin, King Edward, dies and she is placed on the throne it is obvious that she is unwilling to play the part yet unable to do anything else. Her simple belief as a sixteen year old girl that everything will turn out right in the end is both touching and frustrating, and leaves you wondering if she really thought this or just convinced herself of the matter as reality was too frightening to contemplate. A rude awakening awaits the young queen when Princess Mary comes to claim what is rightfully hers…

The middle of the Grey sisters, Katherine, comes across as materialistic, vain and arrogant; she is fiercely jealous of Elizabeth I and feels deliberately slighted by her. Katherine’s belief that she is the true heir to the Tudor throne prompts her to marry without the queen’s permission; after all, in her view Elizabeth is an illigitemate usurper, and even Henry VIII had her declared as such by Parliament at one time. Katherine’s marriage leads to trouble for her and her family, and as the years go by there is a change in her character as her belief that she has been wrongly treated affects her physical and mental health…

The youngest sister, Mary, was very small (barely 4 feet tall) and initially seems to have stayed under the radar of Elizabeth I (no pun intended). However, Mary follows in the footsteps of Katherine, believing herself so insignificant that the queen will not care who she marries. I must admit to a little frustration at her actions, but the truth is that she did behave as Ms Gregory tells (although the historical fact is rather sketchy in places). Mary develops from a small, insignificant and unimportant courtier into a woman with surprising courage and strength of character, and a determination not to suffer the same fate as her sisters…

The Last Tudor is interesting in its depiction of Elizabeth I as seen from the perspective of her cousins – a selfish and troubled woman who seems to care little for the future of England. As such, it is a novel which portrays the difficulties of history – we can look back in time to individual views of events but it is not always possible to ascertain the truth, particularly of people’s feelings and motives. Ms Gregory has conducted a great deal of research whilst writing this novel (some of the letters of the Grey sisters are included at the end of the book) and gives an engrossing view of what happened and why from the perspective of the Grey family; others, of course, would have seen things in a very different light.

As with all Ms Gregory’s novels this one places the reader squarely in a time and place in history with vivid descriptions of life at the Tudor court – the food and drink, the revels, the political intrigue, the fears, the treasons. The author has used very skilled writing to tell the story of Elizabeth and her advisors, the search for a husband and an heir, the delicate political situation between England, Scotland, France and Spain, in such a way as to convey an understanding of the scene quite briefly (as it is the backdrop to the story of the sisters not the main plot), yet in enough detail for the reader to understand its impact on the three young women.

The Last Tudor is one of the best historical novels I have read in a long time which gives us a clever telling of the politics of the court of Elizabeth I through the lives of three young women, and which has made me rethink some of my previous views on the glorious reign of Elizabeth I, as such it has inspired me to look once more at that whole period of history. If you like historical fiction and have enjoyed books by Philippa Gregory in the past I can guarantee that you will enjoy this latest offering. And if you have never read one of her novels? Then this would be a very good place to start.

The Last Tudor can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Philippa Gregory and her books here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here