Book Review: Small Island by Andrea Levy

What’s it about?

It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war. But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun. Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when her husband will return, or if he will come back at all. What else can she do?

Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian he finds himself treated very differently. It’s desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door.

Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to leave Jamaica and start a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked to find London shabby, decrepit, and far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was…

My thoughts

I’d never heard of Andrea Levy until her books were discussed at my Meetup book group, in which some of the members were actually discussing the BBC adaptation of The Long Song.  I watched the programme and was really impressed by the storyline so borrowed this book from a group member.

I also didn’t know much about the Windrush Generation until it hit the news recently and this book is all about the people that made that journey and also the reception that they received, from most but not all.  The title of the book Small Island is referring to Jamaica but as I was reading about all of the racism that was encountered (nothing is held back here, it’s quite offensive language) I actually thought it could actually be referring to England, and the UK – Small Island and Small minded views!

Told by Queenie, Hortense, Gilbert and Bernard we’re given very contrasting experiences of living in Jamaica and England during and after WWII.  There is an awful lot going on, so much scene setting and as much as I thought this a very interesting book, incredibly well-written, exceptionally descriptive, with very rounded characters who all play good parts, this book took me 2 weeks to read.  I can’t quite put my finger on why as I didn’t find it boring but it was such a slow burner.

That said, I raced through the last few chapters, when I’d kind of a good idea where the plot was going and how the book would end.  Oh that ending…such heartbreak and so poignant – all those what ifs!  A book about expectation and the harshness of reality and a book that I would label as “important fiction”!

At the end of June I went to see the National Theatre adaptation of Small Island which was screened at my local cinema.  This was my first experience of one of these and it was amazing.  The casting of the characters was perfect and the overall stage production was brilliant.  Highly recommended!

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Author Link: Website

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Source: Borrowed
No of pages: 533
Publisher: Tinder Press

Book Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

What’s it about?

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

 

 

 

 

 

My thoughts

It’s been a long time since I read a book that I really struggled to get to grips with but this was something else.  It was our book club read for March and I was quite looking forward to the challenge.  I’d seen other reviews that said the  way in which it’s written as a flowing, continual, “stream of consciousness” is difficult to follow so I was prepared.  I’d ordered my copy from the library but as back up also managed to get a free trial with Audible as I’d heard, again via 2 reliable book tubers, that listening to it was much easier (ain’t that the truth!).

The first thing that’s really noticeable is that all the characters (bar one) are not not named; referred to only by their relationship to the protagonist i.e. maybe boyfriend, younger sister, brother-in-law etc which I found awkward and unnecessary. It actually made me care less for them and consequently uninterested in their story. I didn’t like Daphne du Maurier doing this with Rebecca (I know, unpopular opinion) so before even starting the book I was kind of sure this wouldn’t work for me.

I found it repetitive, often thinking that I’d somehow managed to ‘rewind’ Audible and I was listening to the same passage again.  Again, I wasn’t really sure why this necessary and just found it annoying.  In all honesty, if I hadn’t have been reading this for book club I would never have made it to the end.

That said, I found the story of living in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” really interesting and there were some real tragic and laugh out loud moments but overall I just didn’t care for the way in which it was told.  There’s one thing I’ve taken away from this book and that was a tremendously sad moment when we hear the sisters’ father’s dying words about being abused which was horrifying and choke worthy!

100% a Marmite book!

 

p.s now I’ve all that…I’ve actually booked to see Anna Burns at this years Hay Festival.  I was looking for 4pm slot filler and I did think it would be interesting to hear her reasoning for writing the book as she did! 😉

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

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Source: Borrowed
No of pages: 348
Publisher: Faber & Faber

Book Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

What’s it about?

Some doors are locked for a reason…

Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge.

With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself…

 

 

My thoughts

After a disappointing read of The Little Stranger for our book club read in November, I was looking for a book that would maybe go a little further up the scare-ometer and give us the chills.  I’d bought this back in the summer after seeing it featured on the Zoe Ball book club TV show so picked it as our book club choice for December.

I really enjoyed having the story told in the 3 parts over the 3 time periods, with the revelations being drip fed bit by bit.  The setting is perfect in an isolated large country manor house with a small staff, foggy and eerie weather – really setting the scene and atmosphere.  However, it felt to me as if there was too much content thrown at the story.  Almost as if the author was told this is how you write a gothic ghost thriller story, you must have X, Y and Z and so I’m going to include as many of those elements in my book…a little overkill.

I don’t generally go looking for books that will give me the creeps, or that will play on my mind after dark, which was good as this didn’t affect me in this way at all.  I could easily visualise the companions and how unnerving their faces at the windows and in the doorways would be – all the right elements were there but it didn’t give me the edge of the seat read I thought it might be.

I thought the ending was very good.  It surprised me as I just didn’t see it coming.  So, overall some good points and not so good points but if gothic thrillers are your thing, you might want to give it a whirl!

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Author links: Twitter | Website

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Source: Purchased
No of pages: 384
Publisher: Raven Books

Book Review: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

What’s it about?

In a small East Anglian town, Florence Green decides, against polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop.

Hardborough becomes a battleground. Florence has tried to change the way things have always been done, and as a result, she has to take on not only the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even supernatural forces too. Her fate will strike a chord with anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.

 

 

 

My thoughts

I bought this book as I usually enjoy books about books.  I’d also noticed that the movie was on Netflix and I wanted to read it before watching.

As a book that had been shortlisted for a top book prize I was expecting something brilliant but this book just didn’t do anything for me.  I understand Penelope Fitzgerald was quite the writer, having been included in a list of the top 50 greatest writers.  Therein lies the problem, as with the 100 books you should read before you die, they don’t suit everybody.

I’m afraid I found it stuffy and dull and my mind would constantly wander.  I also couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to open a bookshop in this village anyway.  The residents were only out for themselves and just plain spiteful – there’s even a poltergeist to contend with!  Florence was up against from day one!

Having said that, there are some funny one-liners but not enough to contrast with the rest which is hard-going, not difficult just tedious.  Such a shame, as I so wanted to love and enjoy it.

Since reading, I’ve heard that the movie’s not much cop either but I’ll definitely still watch it, just to see.

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

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Source: Purchased
No of pages: 176
Publisher: Fourth Estate

Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

What’s it about?

In 1942, Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival – scratching numbers into his fellow victims’ arms in indelible ink to create what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust. 

Waiting in line to be tattooed, terrified and shaking, was a young girl. For Lale – a dandy, a jack-the-lad, a bit of a chancer – it was love at first sight. And he was determined not only to survive himself, but to ensure this woman, Gita, did, too.

So begins one of the most life-affirming, courageous, unforgettable and human stories of the Holocaust: the love story of the tattooist of Auschwitz.

 

 

My thoughts

I’d first come across this book via Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast when he interviewed Heather Morris, it’s very interesting and definitely worth a listen so was really pleased when it was chosen for our December book club read (I know, a little late) and one that we all appreciated.  It doesn’t matter how many books or movies you watch about the Holocaust and concentration camps, it will never be anything less than horrific and this book isn’t anything different.

I do have an admiration for those authors that can take a bunch of facts and weave them into a full on novel.  It didn’t really matter to us as a group that it’s been highlighted that some of the events or locations in the book didn’t happen or didn’t happen at a particular time etc.  I think we appreciated that gaps would need to be filled and that just maybe they may not have been Lale’s story but could have belonged to someone else.

What comes across mostly from this book, and which is probably true of most books like this, is the things that ordinary people are capable of doing to survive and doing the wrong things for the right reasons.  I find it incredulous that survivors have been tried as collaborators…I mean seriously wtf is that all about!!

One small observation about the writing style is it sometimes reads a bit clunky in the way the sentences are linked together – it’s a bit stilted.  We, as a group, wondered if this is because the novel was originally a screenplay and hasn’t quite translated perfectly.  It was worth the read but I suspect there may be better written books out there if this is a subject matter that interests you.

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository

Author links: Facebook | Website

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Source: Purchased
No of pages: 320
Publisher: Zaffre