Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jaswal

Rating: 4 stars

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Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows follows the women of a British Sikh community in London. Nikki is a young, very westernised Punjabi Sikh girl who lives over the pub where she works. She’s faced family despair and disapproval, but she’s still in touch with her mother and her much more conservative sister. She takes a job teaching a storytelling class at a gurdwara, only to find that most of the women there – all respectable widows of the community – can’t read or write in English, and turned up thinking that that was what they were going to learn.

Of course, as the title suggests, the class quickly descends into an erotica-writing group after the widows find a Mills & Boon in Nikki’s bag while she’s out of the room – managed as the women dictate to the one who can write in English, and the stories begin to spread. This plot becomes entwined with another: that of a girl who apparently committed suicide years ago, and of the conservative ‘Brotherhood’ who like to police the way women behave.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows is funny and uplifting, a reminder that sex isn’t just for the young, and of the power and joys of the imagination at any stage of life. It’s also deeply engaged with the social issues facing Sikh women in Britain, but this doesn’t overtake what is, fundamentally, a story of hope. Yes, there are some things that feel more like wishful thinking than optimism, but I’d cheerfully forgive that, because anything else would spoil the joy of this book.

Heartily recommend for anyone looking to enjoy some awkward penis-vegetable metaphors and a heart-warming story about a community of women coming together.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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The Good People – Hannah Kent: Lavinia’s Book Pick, June 2018

I recently enjoyed a lovely holiday out in the wilds, and Hannah Kent’s The Good People was the perfect read for the occasion – though I struggle to think of an occasion for which The Good People would be unfitting. It tells the story of a rural community in Ireland in the early nineteenth century. A community struck by a series of misfortunes, one of which includes a mute and ailing three-year-old boy, Micheál. In a tight-knit community, the gossip begins to spread as to the cause of this bad luck, and religion, community and ancient folklore wind together to a conclusion that is as troubling as it is inevitable.

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The book is wonderful: immersive, detailed, tense. You get such a strong sense of the harshness of the way of life, and it’s easy to get drawn in to the beliefs of the community, especially when they often feel like the language for talking about the everyday misfortunes of a rural life without modern medicine. We follow Nóra, the bitterly grieving widow, Mary, the girl hired to help her in the house, and Nance, the local ‘wise woman’, peddling herbal cures and other unorthodox remedies that – according to the community’s own report – seem nonetheless to help more than they harm.

I would strongly recommend this book to all!

You’ll love this book if: 
– You have an interest in folklore
– You like an immersive historical novel

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You’re not interested in detailed descriptions of past ways of life
– You don’t like reading stories about people who are physically uncomfortable most of the time

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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

lavinia collins authorLove Lavinia xoxo
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