A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

ladderOne of the things I think John Boyne gifts to the world with his books is that they are all so different in storyline, but one of the themes that holds the books together is injustice. The victims of the protagonist in this novel, the odious Maurice Swift are treated so unjustly that it is heartbreaking.

Maurice is without moral fibre, you could call him a cold fish, he has no concept that furthering his own life, feathering his next with the ill gotten gains of others is a bad thing. His attitude is one of self serving, graspyness. Maurice is a talentless writer, that is a problem, he has no ideas for stories and therefore must steal them from those he meets, beginning as a young man and carrying on until middle age. He is completely ruthless and leaves the bodies of those who get in the way behind him. Maurice desperately wants a son and when he gets one he is heartless towards him, this seems to be the thing with Maurice, he wants so badly but it is never enough when he gets what he wants.

The structure of this novel is interesting. It is told in part by Maurice’s poor wife, a woman so talented but having to deal with his petty jealousies, his social ineptitudes and the dreadful way he treats her and those people who are admiring of her. Maurice just cannot bear to be out of the limelight. He was shortlisted for The Prize, which we assume is code for the Man Booker, and that was his peak, but even this story is stolen because he is completely without original thought, other than finding crafty ways to steal stories from others. We travel the world with Maurice to Berlin, New York, the Amalfi Coast, various locations in England. Some of the scenes are written so well, I was blown away. The scenes on The Amalfi at Gore Videl’s house were just perfect.

It is hard to read characters so unlikeable yet at the same time you want them to fail, but Maurice is just so dastardly I was completely caught up waiting for his game to be up. The way he does eventually get his comeuppance, as indeed he must, is so well done I was blown away with the cleverness of it.

This is a big sprawley wonderful book, I wait anxiously for a John Boyne to come along and this was in no way disappointing.

Thanks so much to the publisher and to Netgalley for giving me access.


A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer

spectreParts of this book I just loved completely, other parts I found myself skimming through. It is such an interesting mix of historical fiction (the parts I loved) and science fiction (the parts I had problems with) and the meshing of these two so distinct storylines was well done but at times too confusing and strange. It certainly is well written, almost lyrically written in parts. The observations of nature and the wildness of Scotland through the eyes of Leonora were stunning, the book is worthwhile just for this. And, you can hear that there is a but coming.

So, you’ve got Jeff who has scurried off to the west of Scotland to die, he takes with him an automaton who will take care of him he believes, he also has a device which enables him to live life through the eyes and mind of another person, he should only enter their life 3 times but of course, he can’t help himself and he spends a lot of time being Leonora, a young woman who lives on a farm with her father. You have an alternating story line, firstly through Jeff’s eyes as he examines his life, loves and losses. Then you have Jeff, living Leonora’s life, her beginning of fondness for the Laid, the relationship of her father and his new wife and Leonora’s struggle as she is swept away to Edinburgh to the care of her thoroughly weird aunt.

There is a lot going on. And remember you’ve got alternating paragraphs. It almost feels like you have two side by side novels, which I guess was the goal. I wonder if this rather good author tried to do a bit much. Having said that it is engaging, the tech is clever and well thought out. Maybe it is Jeff, I just couldn’t care about him. He seems like a pillock and I always find it hard to read a character I don’t like. On the other hand I loved Leonora, I hated what Jeff was doing to her and I was really invested in her survival.

All in all it is complicated and at times totally fabulous, I’ve dithered about writing this review and how many stars I’d give it, I’d love to hear someone else’s opinion of it, I see the reviews below are very mixed, and I guess that might make it a really good novel, people are polarised, for me it is half way there.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for this book.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

tinmanI’ve been savouring this book and eking it out so that it wouldn’t finish too soon. It is a warm and moving account of love. The kind of love that exists in so many places but isn’t talked about. The kind of love that is furtive and therefore more passionate than if it were openly expressed. It is love in the round, between husbands, wives, friends, lovers, family all interconnected and beautiful in it’s own ways.

One of the most wonderful parts of the book is the scene where Gile’s mother wins a paining in a raffle. She chooses the painting of Van Gough’s sunflowers despite the fact that her husband is horrified at her choosing a painting over a bottle of whiskey which is the other raffle option. This is the first time we learn of the bullying nature of Gile’s father and the first stand made by his mother. The story of the sunflowers runs through the book, creating constant links back to this moment.

It is a book with sections told by different characters. First you meet Giles, working nights at the car factory where he has spent his working life, polishing out the dents in the cars and desperately sad after the death of his wife Annie. But Giles reflects back to the friendship and relationship he had with his mother and most poignantly with Michael his childhood friend, the moment when they became more than friends and then when life intervened and he married Annie forming a three way bond between Annie, himself and Michael which was strong and beautiful but which was always bound to be difficult. Michael loves both Giles and Annie. Giles is alone now after Annie and Michaels deaths and he looks back on a life full of love but now so lonely. His lonely life is beautifully portrayed.

Michael has been bought up by his grandmother, a woman he had hardly met when he has to come and live with her. They become wonderful together. Michael and Giles become firm childhood friends and then go to France on holiday and their relationship is taken to the next level. Michael looks back on his life, with Giles, with Mabel, with G (what he calls his lover) as he dies slowly and painfully of Aids and of his relationship with another patient in the hospital. For me the most moving part of Michaels story is his journey to Arles the place of the sunflowers in Van Gough’s painting. A place where he mourns for everything that is lost from his life.

This is so moving and beautiful, I am so looking forward to see what Sarah Winman writes next, When God was a Rabbit was a glorious read. I think this author just gets better and better.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

bookseller3.5 stars. I’m going to be in the minority on this one, my heart wanted me to love this, especially after hearing an interview with the author recently, but I’m stuck firmly at the 3.5 mark.

Those of us who dream of one day owning a bookshop would probably feel the same way about the general public as Shaun Bythell does, that we are irritating, we don’t know what we want, or we do know but we can’t describe it. However, I’d hope that I could be slightly more tolerant towards people like me than Shaun Bythell is. I understand his shop is cold, that he has limited choice of staff in a small town, that he has chosen to live in a place where the weather isn’t ideal all the time, that bookish people are often painful. I however, thought that he was a bit of a pain himself. His constant whining about how kindle is killing the book industry was very wearing. He might even be right about it, but his snobbish attitude is not at all helpful.

This book is fun. It is incredibly readable. It wasn’t my favourite though.

La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust, book 1, by Philip Pullman

dustAfter reading this I’m ready to forgive Philip Pullman for all the books he has written that I didn’t want to read. This one made the wait worthwhile. It takes you into Oxford where His Dark Materials began and we meet Lyra as a baby, but this story isn’t really about Lyra it is about Malcolm Polstead, the son of the publican of the Trout. The pub is close to a convent and in the convent there is a baby, a baby who needs to be protected from dangerous forces who are out to get her. Malcolm and the kitchen maid Alice rescue baby Lyra in Malcolm’s canoe and begin a journey which will be terrifying and deeply fulfilling.

I knew from the first page that this was going to be wonderful. The fact that the peacocks were called Barry and Norman was enough for me, I felt that I was in safe hands, that Philip Pullman was going to make me smile and fear and worry about the characters who were coming along as the chapter progressed.

The presentation of the book is lush and gorgeous, the cover alone is a thing of beauty. The illustrations at the beginnings of the chapters are simple and perfect. The print is large and friendly and makes the book seem like a giant, but it isn’t really. It is a manageable size and best of all, it never talks down to it’s reader, it understands that it is for a reader of all ages. I just loved it.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

darlingThis is one of the most shocking and moving books I’ve ever read. At times I found myself gasping at the horror of Turtle’s situation and constantly admiring the atmospheric world that Gabriel Tallent had made for her to live her horrific life in. This is Julia’s life, she prefers to be called Turtle and her awful father calls her Kibble. She is growing up on the outskirts of Mendicino in California with her survivalist, abusive and frankly psychotic father, her grandfather lives nearby and he eventually eventually figures out that Turtle is in danger, real and constant danger. There is a heap of terrible family history and lives lived with regret and anger. Turtle knows how to survive, she knows all these things about the natural world, but cannot manage so well at school, is not good with people because her life is so opposite to anything any of her peers or teachers have experienced and she lives in constant fear.

I loved the way that the author wrote Turtle’s conflicting emotions about her father and grandfather. I loved the way he gradually introduced other people into the story. I loved the way that the teacher was written even if that seemed somewhat unrealistic compared to the rest of the story. This book is cringingly awful, mind blowingly beautiful and engrossing. The abuse is like watching a train wreck, you can’t take your eyes off it even as it looms in front of you and makes you want to cover your eyes in horror (I did actually do that). I loved it and I hated it and it is a clear 5 stars from me.

I’m also just adding that this book looks and feels beautiful.  I completely love the cover.  Here is the lovely Joan Mackenzie talking about the book far more eloquently than me.

Summer at Mount Hope by Rosalie Ham

MountHopeI am a Rosalie Ham fan. Through and through! She makes me laugh uproariously, she brings a tear to my eye, she nails her characters and she loves a feisty young woman. Her descriptions are second to none and really she is one of the great underappreciated Australian authors. I’ve had this sitting on my bookshelf for ages and I’ve been saving it for a moment when I needed cheering up and a wee break from YA fiction. I have been savoring it and now that I’m finally done I need to sit down and write about it.

Set at a time of drought and depression in rural Victoria in the 1880s and 90s this book tells the story of Phoeba, a feisty young woman who is practical and along with her father, running their farm and vineyard. Her ridiculous sister Lilith is only interested in making herself glamorous and finding a fine specimen of a husband. They couldn’t be more different. There is no money, their mother is constantly criticising their life and the misfortune of having to live in the country, there is a wonderful aunt who is poverty stricken. All in all, there is a wonderful cast of characters who inhabit Mount Hope and they each have a role in determining Phoeba’s future. My I loved the descriptions of the terrible neighbours, particularly the poor gasping woman whose corset was eventually her undoing, Spot the particularly ornery horse and Freckle the delivery man. This is domestic drama, laced with a dose of rural romance and given a hefty dose of Jane Austenish spice. In other words, it is perfect.