The Wonder – Emma Donoghue

Rating: 5 stars

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Yet another of my recent railway station purchases, I picked up The Wonder because I loved the film of Room, Emma Donoghue’s novel published in 2011, and hoped that this new novel would repeat the success of her earlier work.

This time Ms Donoghue has taken on an equally challenging subject matter. The novel is set in deepest rural Ireland at the time just after the potato famine. Mrs Wright, known as Lib to her family, is a Nightingale nurse, hired for two weeks private nursing work; on arrival, she finds that, along with another nurse (who is a nun, Sister Michael), she is to keep constant watch (morning, noon and night) on a girl who has for four months been refusing to eat, but who is being described as the Wonder.

Lib is told by the local doctor, McBrearty: “It’s a most unusual case… Anna O’Donnell claims – or, rather, her parents claim – that she hasn’t taken food since her eleventh birthday… No sustenance of any kind… She can’t take a thing but clear water.” And yet, “Anna walks around like any other girl… she hardly seems to have altered since April.”

Lib is immediately convinced that Anna must be a fraud, and that she will be able to work out within a very short time exactly how the girl is getting sustenance. Her family are poor and Anna is their only surviving child, her brother having died the previous year. Now Anna is being treated as a Wonder, and visitors are arriving determined to treat her as a miraculous presence, asking for her blessing and leaving offerings when they depart. During the two-week watch, things change, and it becomes clear to Lib and to a young journalist, William Byrne, sent by the Irish Times to write about Anna, that things have changed and the child is now not far off death. Has this resulted from the watch constantly being placed on her? Have the nurses unwittingly cut off the secret means by which she was getting food? The truth is shocking and, yes, Lib and Sister Michael have sadly caused things to come to this crisis point.

Emma Donoghue never fails to create credible rounded people in her works. Their worlds are as enclosed and trapped in The Wonder as they are in Room. Her descriptions of every bit of their surroundings, from the peaty landscape (into which poor Lib falls when trying to get some air and take a walk, only to discover how treacherous it can be) to the spirit house where Lib, Sister Michael and William Byrne are staying, and to the shabby home of the O’Donnells: “The cabin was in need of a fresh coat of whitewash; pitched thatch brooded over three small squares of glass. At the far end, a cow byre stooped under the same rood.” This family are clearly struggling to make ends meet and could surely do with the money which is being left by visitors come to see the miracle child in the iron safe by the door “for the poor”.

Lib and William see something in Anna which is rare and beautiful, brave and intense, loving and strong (even when she’s physically at her weakest), and in many ways they also see many of those same qualities in each other. Their story is moving and uplifting, and told with such tenderness that Ms Donoghue had me completely within her spell. Fabulous.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Rating: 5 stars

This book by Gail Honeyman was the winner of the Costa Book Awards 2017 for a first novel. And what a fine first novel it is.

Told in the first person,  the narrator opens with a description of her everyday humdrum life, and I was gripped right from the outset. Eleanor Oliphant is nearly thirty and works in the accounts receivable office of a graphic design company. We know straightaway that her life has been difficult. She believes her boss, Bob, took pity on her when he employed her nine years ago: “I had a degree in Classics and no work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm.” Clearly she’s had a difficult period in her life (to put it mildly) and now wants nothing more than a poorly paid office job and routine. Eleanor also tells us within the opening pages that her weekends are spent on her own drinking vodka, and that she speaks to her mother each Wednesday. She’s clearly lonely and troubled, but would admit to neither of these should she ever allow anyone the chance to talk to her for long enough to ask.

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Eleanor is a loner, annoyed by other people’s slovenly or imprecise use of language, keen to point out ways of saving money; now, though, having been given free tickets at work for a gig she’s felt obliged to use them and is on a mission to meet the singer in a band, whom she fantasises is “the one”. She sets about making improvements to her appearance and to her contact with modern life, teaching herself about the internet, Twitter and Instagram. Very soon we find ourselves wrapped in Eleanor’s world – the one that has gripped tightly around her for years – and the sudden changes that come about both from her mission to find out about and meet the singer, Johnnie Lomond, and from her actual meeting with the company’s IT expert Raymond Gibbons. By chance, she and Raymond get involved in the life of Sammy Thom, an elderly man whom they help when he has a fall, and his family. Bit by bit, Eleanor’s life changes and she discovers an ability to relate to people and feel an empathy she didn’t know she could ever feel.

Gail Honeyman slowly and delicately reveals the secrets of Eleanor’s past, always in Eleanor’s precise and careful voice, and describes her gradual and painful thawing and her difficultly in dealing with her own childhood secrets which she has for years hidden from herself in a tightly sealed box in her memory. She discovers that she has abilities and emotions she didn’t previously acknowledge or realise, and that she can learn to trust people and relate to them in ways she, at the outset, would have found completely impossible.

I was completely gripped by this book – I found Eleanor entirely believable and her life by turns sad and funny. At times the humour rings through so strongly that I laughed out loud, particularly at the situations in which she was placing herself in her quest for Johnnie. Her growing compassion for her fellow workers and other people she meets, such as Raymond’s widowed mother, rings true throughout. This is a beautifully written tale about loneliness, secrets, relationships, and trust. A well-deserved prizewinner.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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From the Heart – Susan Hill

Rating: 3.5 stars

I should have recognised the author’s name here and known from the start what the content of this book would be. Susan Hill is, of course, the author of The Woman in Black, which I always confuse with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and eagerly anticipate histrionic Victorian japery feat. madness instead of illegitimate-child-related ghoulishness.

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There is neither ghoulishness nor histrionics in From the Heart. It is a simple, touching book that follows the story of Olive Piper who, on account of her passion for literature, is encouraged by a teacher to go to university. At university, she strikes up an awkward romance with a trainee doctor (or, rather, he strikes one up with her) which ends rather poorly for reasons that I will not spoil. I think we are supposed to mildly dislike Malcolm, this doctor, but Olive old-school ghosts him by ignoring his letters, so unfortunately I ended up on his side and did not particularly like Olive, despite the book’s dust jacket promising me that ‘everyone’ likes her.

Olive eventually goes on to become an English teacher herself, during which time she embarks upon another romance. I thought this was well-done and quite moving, only here Olive (despite purportedly now being a woman of the world) ignores some pretty obvious red flags, and despite her experiences behaves in a rather coltish way that once again I found hard to engage with.

There are many things to recommend this book: its engaging style, its snapshot of a life over many years, its delicacy in dealing with tragedy and trauma. However, for a book published this year, even one set in the 1950s, it reads as peculiarly dated, and doesn’t have much to engage a modern reader looking for a woman with a shred of initiative.

Of course, not everyone is looking for that, and I did enjoy the book. It just left me very frustrated, and I found, in the end, that though I liked the book, I did not like Olive at all.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Greatest Hits – Laura Barnett

Rating: 5 stars

Greatest Hits is the relative rarity – a second novel which totally lives up to the hopes and expectations brought about by a massively successful first novel – in this case The Versions of Us, a book I loved in all its kaleidoscopic versions of the main characters’ lives. Greatest Hits isn’t offering readers a Sliding Doors version of life this time (if you’ve never seen this film, why not?), but is telling us the life story of Maria Cassandra Wheeler, a fictional singer-songwriter known to her legions of adoring fans worldwide as Cass Wheeler, who is now spending a day in her music studio selecting tracks for her own Greatest Hits album, choosing songs she’s written which have the greatest meaning and emotional connection for her. She’s been away from her public for a long time, and anticipation is running high. We know that she has loyal friends, amongst them Alan and Kim, and that this whole process is going to stir up memories, some of which she’d prefer to have left buried.

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The novel moves through Cass’s life in sixteen chunks, each one opening with one of the songs she’s choosing, and then recounting why this particular one has been selected, what memories it evokes, from her very earliest days in the south London vicarage where she grew up with her rector father Francis and mother Margaret, going into her relationships with them and with her close friend Irene, whose family she loves and feels very much at home with. Cass has had a difficult childhood with a strained relationship with her mother right from birth and up to her mother’s desertion of the family when Cass was just ten. A loving aunt and uncle – photographer Lily and her architect husband John – stepped in and took Cass to stay with them for that first summer.

All the time the memories of Cass’s past are linked by snippets of her day spent selecting the tracks she will have on her very personal Greatest Hits. Her friends are planning a party that evening at her house, while we know that Cass is longing to hear from Larry, who is in Chicago. The music of Cass’s songs is interlinked with her memories, ranging from her early piano lessons, to the gift of a guitar from John when she went back to live with him and Lily when she was 14 years old, to disgracing herself in front of the altar of her father’s church with 18-year-old Kevin. Life in the swinging 60s and dissolute 70s in the music and arts world is vividly created, as is the stuffy rectory of the 50s.

Barnett has created a great range of characters who inhabit Cass’s world from her early days through to the present, when she is in her mid sixties and has been living as a virtual recluse for over a decade. There are the friends who work with her (her manager, Alan, and personal assistant, Kim), along with producers, designers, photographers – a host of loving loyal friends. She’s had a long and troubled relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Ivor Tait, whom she married despite knowing full well how difficult her life would be with him, and from whom she fled with their eight-year-old daughter Anna on finally admitting to herself that he couldn’t be part of her life any more. You can tell how credible I found all these people: I wept with Cass at the death of some of her closest friends and family; I rejoiced in the happiness of some and the downfall and later reformation of others; I despaired over Cass’s inability to admit to herself truths about herself and about others; I cheered her on from the sidelines and was totally involved throughout. And because of the clever structure, I kept thinking… I’ll just get to the next track; I’ll just move on to the next segment – and suddenly realised the whole evening had vanished into Cass’s world.

And to make it even better Laura Barnett has written the sixteen songs which Cass chose, and now they’ve been recorded by Kathryn Williams under the title, Songs from the Novel Greatest Hits – what more could I wish for! Greatest Hits is very definitely a great hit with this happy reader.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley: Lavinia’s Book Pick, April 2018

This book recommend is one that I’d be really interested to hear what other people thought about!

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The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a steampunky historical/magic realist novel that tells the story of Nathaniel a (sometimes) synesthetic telegraph operator who becomes (guess what) unwittingly embroiled in international intrigue and magic clockwork japes.

There were some great things about it: it had an engaging aesthetic, and there was a truly unexpected surprise that both came out of nowhere and made perfect sense when it was there. Nathaniel and the watchmaker himself were great characters and the historical detail on a period I knew little about was genuinely fascinating.

But I also had some niggles with it that wouldn’t go away. There was a really good female character in it, Grace, a science student at Oxford struggling to be recognised among the men. But two-thirds of the way through the book her character did a bunch of insane stuff for no reason. And even though the book was written by a woman, a lot of the female characters were just stereotypes – the neurotic mother, the fussing maid, etc. etc.

It felt as if it was ratcheting up for a big, elaborate conclusion. And there was a dramatic conclusion. But after that it kind of unravelled and a lot of the trails laid in the earlier parts of the book seemed to go nowhere. It was quite frustrating at the end, when I’d loved the first three quarters.

But I’d still recommend it! I’m dying to know if I missed something, or if other people thought it was more tightly plotted than I did.

You’ll love this book if: 
– You like vivid historical settings
– You’re digging that steampunk aesthetic

You might want to avoid this book if:
– Coincidences as plot features put you off
– You’re not digging that steampunk aesthetic

Tweet me here: @lavinia_collins
And find me at my blog here: laviniacollins.com

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Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Rating: 4 stars

Reservoir 13 isn’t a book that I would have picked up of my own accord. Our local book group chose it for their reading, and so I dived in.

It’s a prizewinner, and experience has taught me to be sceptical of these in the past. But anything for book group.

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Reservoir 13 focuses on life in a small town after a young girl disappears while on holiday there. It places the ongoing cycle of human existence both in rhythm with and in contrast with the natural world, as the cycles of the rural landscape turn on and on and the human world struggles to make sense of itself. It follows a vast cast of characters (seriously, if you care about remembering who is who, then make a list) and spans thirteen years. Each chapter follows that yearly cycle, beginning on New Year’s Day as the clock strikes midnight. Towards the end, I began to find this pattern a little wearing, but I could see how the idea of the ongoing passage of the years was central to the book’s themes. In general, I loved the style: it was delicate, descriptive, and quite poetic in places.

What I struggled with more was the lack of a driving plot. Although I was interested in the lives of the characters and I loved the way the book entwined rural rituals with human drama and the wildness of nature, I wouldn’t have said that I was gripped. I appreciated the style and what is was trying to do, but I didn’t find myself seeking out time to read it, and if it hadn’t been for my book group I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

It was a great book for discussion, partly because of the huge cast of characters – everyone had a favourite and different ones that they found convincing or unconvincing. People had strong feelings either way about the style and format of the book, and how the ostensibly central plot (the missing girl) fitted in.

Despite my reservations about Reservoir 13, I would recommend it, and I’d love to hear what others thought of it, and how they got on with it. A thought-provoking and beautifully written novel, if not a page-turner.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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A Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

Rating: 5 stars

snow garden.jpgWell here’s an appropriate book to have been reading on March 1st and 2nd 2018, when what should be the first days of spring turned out to be the coldest March days in living memory. Snowed in and unable to get out of the house, what else could I turn to but these short stories by Rachel Joyce, widely known as the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry? (This was a long-list finalist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and won Joyce the UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year. It was also the best-selling hardback book in the UK from a new novelist in 2012.) As a great fan both of Rachel Joyce and of short stories I was delighted to be given A Snow Garden and had been saving it to read when I next had long train journeys.

It’s a set of seven exquisite and very different stories, taking place over a fortnight at the end of the year and all slightly interlinked. Each story shows the delicate touch of humour and empathy that typifies Rachel Joyce’s work, and her ability to plunge us right into the lives of others. She has a great way of thrusting her readers right into the heart of each tale. A Faraway Smell of Lemon, the first story, opens thus:

It is half past nine and Oliver will be eating porridge in his Asterix bowl. At the age of thirty-three he has no regular habits but these – the porridge and the bowl – and he is faithful to both. ‘Sod him,’ Binny snorts, striding into the morning traffic.

Instantly we are placed into the difficult world of Binny, coping with her children and Oliver, trying her best to make some sort of sense out of it all and to take the practical steps she needs in order to be ready for Christmas, when it’s already the last day of term and she’s done nothing at all so far. An unexpected encounter in a shop makes her see her life differently and find a way to go on.

The stories frequently have similar twists – people muddling through their lives, as we the readers all often feel that we do ourselves, suddenly finding new ways of dealing with events and emotions, perceived obstacles and real ones, finding strengths and admitting weaknesses and the need to accept help from outside. In the title story, A Snow Garden, divorced father Henry is expecting his sons Owen and Conor to stay for several nights just after Christmas and has rashly promised them there will be snow.

The boys kept asking if there would be snow at the new flat. ‘Yes,’ he told them. It began as a joke but then it got to be serious.

This clearly isn’t something over which he has any control, and he knows all too well that he was crazy to promise it. Luckily, in Rachel Joyce’s fictional world miracles can happen and his promise finds a way to become true, when he has no control over events and just lets things happen.

The stories end, as they began, with Oliver, but in Trees he’s the central focus of the story whereas in A Faraway Smell of Lemons our focus has been squarely placed on Binny. Like Binny, Oliver is trying and struggling to cope with the recent changes in his life and in Trees it’s his father who provides the unexpected twist when on New Year’s Eve he announces:

‘I wish I’d planted more trees.’
Oliver dug his fingers through his hair. It was what he did when he was confused. ‘Trees?’
‘Yes, trees.’
‘You didn’t plant any trees, Dad.’
His father groaned as if he’d been punched.

Over the next few hours, as the year runs to its end, Oliver and his dad work together to remedy this and to heal both their fractured relationship and their individual lives.

Joyce isn’t saying that things will run smoothly for any of her characters from here on. Instead her characters come to accept that things are as they are – life just is – and we can accept our lives and welcome change or not. The whole collection of stories captures what Joyce is so wonderful at evoking – possibilities of new beginnings even in extraordinarily painful endings.

Oliver’s story was not over, it was still happening, and the night he planted the trees was just a new twist. He could learn from it or ignore it. The choice was his.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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