Articles, Comment, Fiction

Top 5 Books of 2014… So Far!

Already we have reached the sun of the year, the hot nights and outdoor lunchtimes that tell us it’s summer. Already it is July! We are about half way through 2014, and so it is a good time to look back at the year so far and assess what we’ve done, what we liked and disliked – and what we read. I’ve just been looking at my ‘read in 2014’ list on GoodReads and wanted to share my top five books of the year so far with you (in the order that I read them).

 

City of Women by David Gillham

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I received this book for Christmas after having looked at it a few times in bookshops. I had been unsure of whether to buy it, so I was glad to decision was made for me. It was one of the first books I read in 2014, and luckily it was a good one. It tells the story of Sigrid, living in Berlin during World War II with her mother in law while her husband is away fighting. We are certainly not short of novels set during World War II, but here we have the lives of ordinary Germans rather than Britons. And we have nothing of the Front. Instead we have the daily trials of Sigrid and her personal conflicts about her life and actions in these most extreme of circumstances. City of Women is dramatic and pacy, but does not veer into thriller territory. Instead it keeps us engaged and enthralled, and wondering who to root for. Highly recommended (read my original review here).

 

Water Music by Margie Orford

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I’m quite new to crime fiction, so that was part of my reason for choosing this book, but also because it just jumped out as me as I scanned the Head of Zeus catalogue. Set in South Africa, it follows Dr Clare Hart as she investigates the discovery of a little girl left in the woods. The child is alive but starving, and so pale she seems never to have seen the sun. Her appearance eventually leads Clare to also investigate the disappearance of the teenage Rosa. She fights against the bureaucracy of Cape Town and the police force to follow every clue and lead, and to risk her own life in order to save Rosa’s. I read this book quickly and was completely absorbed in Clare’s world. I loved Water Music and was very pleased to find out that The Bookseller printed a section of my review as their ‘blog review of the week’ in a February 2014 issue. You can read my original review here.

 

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

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Though I love historical fiction this is the first book I’ve read set during the English Civil War – I was a little apprehensive therefore, but luckily I really enjoyed this novel. It has one of the most gripping and well-constructed opening passages that I’ve read, and from then on it only gets better as ‘the plot thickens’ and the story gains momentum. It follows Ruth, whose mother was a midwife, though some considered her a witch. Ruth flees the persecution of her village life (where she works in the household of Oliver Cromwell) and ends up as maid to Lizzie Poole, a real life figure that Clements has created her story around. Lizzie was a religious activist and pamphlet writer who believed she heard messages direct from God. This lead her to protest the overthrow of government and the execution of Charles I. She and Ruth a form an intense friendship that leads them from London to Abingdon, and then back to London to plead their case before Oliver Cromwell himself. It is a brilliantly enjoyable novel filled with drama and politics, and I loved it. My original review is here.

 

The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

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This book was big news when it was published in March, and I hope people are still buying/reading it. When it arrived in the post I worried that it wouldn’t live up the hype, but luckily Claire Bidwell-Smith is an excellent writer and doesn’t make the mistake of making her memoir self-indulgent or whine-y. Which is quite a feat given that the main focus of the story is the deaths of both her parents (though some years apart). Her mother died when she was eighteen, and her father when she was in her mid-twenties. Both died of cancer and naturally both losses made a huge and long-lasting effect on Claire’s life. She writes beautifully about her relationships with her parents, both separate and together, and painstakingly details her journey back to being a ‘real girl’ when they are taken from her. She did the usual Young Person thing of travelling and experimenting with things, but all her experiences are tinged with the feelings of loss she carries around with her. I would recommend this book to anyone who has ever dealt with losing a parent, or with depression as that is also masterfully explored. My original review can be found here.

 

Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

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I had never heard of Sugar Hall until it was sent to me to review for The Siren, an online magazine, and I’m very glad I was able to read it. It was described as a ghost story, which it is, but there is more to it than that. It is the story of Lilia, a German in Britain in 1955, and her two children. They live at Sugar Hall, the family estate of Lilia’s deceased husband. Whilst they cope with looking after the house and the stigma of being a single-parent family, nine-year-old Dieter sees a boy in the garden wearing a silver collar. No one except Dieter believes that the boy is real, and as he gets inside Dieter’s head the mystery of his appearance (and what may have happened to him) is slowly revealed throughout the novel. It is a rich text filled with beautiful descriptions of the Hall and a very entertaining and engaging cast of supporting characters. As the story goes on the ghost element becomes more important, and I have to say it gets more and more creepy towards the end. I really enjoyed Sugar Hall and would recommend it to anyone who likes historical or mystery fiction. My original review is here on The Siren.

 

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So there you have it! What have been your favourite books of 2014 so far?

 

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Fiction, Reviews

City of Women by David Gillham (2013)

Penguin 2013 paperback edition. Image: goodreads.com - I love the red on this cover!

Penguin 2013 paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

Having read Alone in Berlin, and a biography of Hans Fallada (the amazing More Lives Than One), I came to read City of Women with some idea of the world I was stepping into. A world filled with conflicts, both political and social but also psychological, as ordinary Germans dealt with the often devastating effects of World War II on their lives. But of course I could never understand that world because I have not lived within it – the world of a German civilian in Berlin during World War II, in 1943 specifically, when Germany was edging towards failure. Fallada’s Berliners are grey and harried but still resilient and utterly determined; characters of this type appear in City of Women, some so similar they could have been Fallada’s (Egon and Ericha especially), but there is also great originality at work here.

Sigrid Schroder is a war wife, her husband Kaspar fighting on the Eastern Front. Sigrid is lumbered with not only a global conflict on her doorstep and an absent husband, but also with sharing a flat with his grumpy and often vindictive mother, who blames Sigrid for almost everything. She and the other older women in their building are of another generation to Sigrid, and it shows. They remember the Kaiser and how it ‘used to be’; and they are not willing to risk their routines and comforts for anyone. Mother Schroder is belligerent and angry, angry that her husband is dead and her son is away fighting, and all she is left with are furtive hours spent listening to illegal BBC broadcasts and a daughter-in-law she wishes she had never met. She is patriotic to the point of blindness, and yet she listens to the British broadcasts to try and find out if the news of the war that she hears from the Party (of course she is a member) is really true. A strange mix of staid belief and terrifying doubt, shot through with bitterness – Mother Schroder is no easy flatmate for Sigrid.

Much of this book is about what it means for Sigrid to be ‘Frau Schroder’ and the life she is supposed to be living, as opposed to the one she really has. She has a lover she longs for, long gone, her biggest secret; and she soon gets entangled in a side of the Home Front she never knew existed – protecting and hiding the people that the Gestapo and the Party would sooner shoot than look at. These people are of course mainly Jews, and it forces Sigrid to question the values of her society. What have these people ever done wrong? Not only the men, but the women, only housewives, and their children? Childless herself (another thing Mother Schroder blames her for) and married to a man absent from her both physically and emotionally, Sigrid cannot bring herself to let families be destroyed needlessly.

A Berlin hotel destroyed by Allied bombs, 1943. Image: potsdamer-platz.org

A Berlin hotel destroyed by Allied bombs, 1943 (image: potsdamer-platz.org)

She is an interesting character. At times meek and afraid, and at other times sharply determined and brave, with both reluctantly domestic and desperately reckless sides to her personality. She says Yes and No to Mother Schroder, but also has vitriolic arguments with her; she is pandering to the Frau Obersturmfuhrer across the hall (a woman who defines herself by her husband’s rank – who becomes interesting later in the book), but unafraid to make secret drops and transport documents. She is also unafraid to show passion, something showcased spectacularly when she and her lover Egon have rather fumbling, urgent sex in a seat in the mezzanine of the cinema. As well as tension and risk, this novel is also dripping with sexuality. Everyone seems to be at it, and if they are not they are trying to get it. The feeling of desperation throughout Berlin extends not only to safety and missing loved ones, but also to a desire for closeness and reassurance; and a few minutes to forget the reality of one’s life and escape into pleasure. It is sometimes graphic but never gratuitous, and I’m sure even the most judgemental of us could understand how circumstances drive actions.

City of Women does not have the most groundbreaking premise – it can be found is several other books I’m sure – but it is filled with intriguing original characters that feel entirely real, and twists I never expected. Gillham’s writing creates atmosphere and mood like few others’, and I was right there with Sigrid the whole time. I was moved and shocked, gripped and engaged, and I’m so glad I read this novel.

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Published by Penguin UK in September 2013.

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