Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Penguin UK cover (image: goodreads.com)

This book was one of the few review copies I have been accepting recently, and I’m glad I decided to read and review it, because it’s something a little different – but once I got into it I realised it actually is the sort of thing I like. Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung is what I would call an unconventional memoir – it is not a straight chronicle of someone’s life, but rather a story from that life that has significance, that means something to the author. It is an unusual story and a special one that deserves to be told.

Min Kym is a concert violinist, and as a child she was classed as a prodigy. Her list of achievements is certainly impressive, with awards and scholarships, huge concerts, and acceptance into the Purcell School of Music as well as the Royal Academy of Music. She has made a few recordings and these are available on iTunes and Spotify. I would recommend listening to the little album she released of songs that feature in this book – it is simply beautiful. One piece on it is very special to me as it will be played at my wedding in a couple of weeks! I’ve decided to use Min Kym’s recording as I walk down the aisle.

I am no expert in classical music, but I feel I learned a lot about it from this slim book. Kym speaks passionately about her love of music and how it feels to play. Her writing isn’t perfect but it doesn’t matter because she conveys a strong sense of her personality and personal experience, with the music but also with the people in her life, and most importantly with her violin. She repeatedly reminds the reader that it feels like part of her, that she does not feel whole without it, does not feel like herself. She states that she is two people – Min, and Min with a violin.

Gone is quite an emotional book, and you go on the ups and downs with Kym as she experiences huge career success, and intense love for her violin and the music she plays; but she also experiences difficult relationships and setbacks – and of course the biggest setback of all, the theft of her Stradivarius violin. This is the crux of the book, the tipping point in her life. There is the time before, when she had the violin; and the time after, when she is mourning for it, and suffering from its absence. Kym goes through a period of depression, and it takes her a long time to get back to her old life – but while the writing is emotional and personal, it never becomes sensational or melodramatic. Kym is in control of her story.

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Min Kym (image: deda.uk.com)

The writing is at its best when Min Kym is writing about music. Her language flows beautifully as she describes the sounds, the feelings, the images that music brings to mind; the way the violin feels in her hands and when she nestles it into her neck. It is like a child, a sacred object, a beautiful thing. She also talks eloquently about the violins she plays, how they were made and where they came from, and how these things affect the experience of the player as well as the sound that the violin makes. It is utterly fascinating.

I was also fascinated by Kym’s discussions and mentions of her sense of self in relation to the violin, and how this develops as she gets older. She started playing at such a young age that she always sees herself with a violin – it is an integral part of who she is. Her family moved from South Korea to the UK for her musical career, and this relationship between familial and national belonging and the violin and its music is wonderfully explored, from a practical as well as personal point of view.

Though only slim this is a rich volume filled with life and passion, joy and sorrow, silence and beautiful music. I would highly recommend Gone to anyone who loves unconventional memoirs, especially those with a love of or an interest in classical music, and the ways in which our passions shape our lives.

*

Published in 2017 by Viking, and imprint of Penguin, in the UK and Crown Publishing, part of PRH, in the US. My thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I’d heard of The Glass Castle long before I read it, and I was vaguely interested in it, but the real impetus to read it came from two things: my putting together reading lists of the books I most wanted to read; and the news that it has been adapted into a film starring some great people – Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, and Woody Harrelson. I have to say casting Harrelson as Jeannette’s father is pretty perfect.

Anyway, so I bought the book. It is one of those memoirs that seems, oh yeah, simple, story of redemption, escape from poverty, crazy family… and it is about those things, but it’s also about accepting the fact that your parents are flawed, weird, not-perfect people; and accepting the life they have given you. Jeannette Walls talks a lot about chances, choices, and what really makes us happy. Towards the end it gets quite philosophical.

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Virago 2005 paperback edition

For me this was a book about building on what you have and bettering yourself, but also about mental illness and fear. Jeannette’s parents Rex and Rose Mary are both lovably quirky and hippy-ish to start with, but over the course of the book, and Jeannette’s childhood, you see that they are both a little unstable, and they are both afraid of a lot of things. Rex is delusional and believes that a host of government agencies are out to get him, so he needs to keep moving around the country (but this is also because the family are often skipping out on rent). He also has a terrible attitude towards authority and cannot keep a job; and he is an alcoholic. In time he proves to be the family’s main obstacle when it comes to earning enough money and making things work. But Rose Mary is also to blame. She seems to be terrified of responsibility and work, is very self-centred, and she acts as an enabler to Rex. Even when he screws everything up, even when he is angry at his family for no reason – there comes a point when her teenage children (Jeannette and her three siblings) are practically asking her why she doesn’t just leave him. But she always has an answer, always accepts him just as he is and doesn’t push for change. I felt that Rose Mary was afraid of change, and afraid of things she didn’t know. She also says more than once that she might as well do as Rex says because he’s her husband. This was before third or fourth wave feminism.

There is in fact a point when the children persuade their mother to leave their father behind when they move, but he follows soon after. Rose Mary and Rex are like doomed lovers – they cannot be apart, but being together just seems to create problems. It gets really interesting when the children get older and are able to live on their own – we accept that their parents will never change just as they do, and we see their efforts to create good and happy lives for themselves. Jeannette is the most sympathetic to her parents, and in her and her siblings’ differing attitudes to them we see the complexity of parent/child relationships and the different ways in which people cope with the same situation. One thing that ties all four children together is that they are all incredibly independent and resilient, not to mention brave. They know how to look after themselves and are not afraid to take risks – they have always survived worse. I really admired them all for this bravery and willingness to try things, this refusal to give up or become hopeless.

As for the reading experience, The Glass Castle is both wonderful and terrible. Rex and Rose Mary are infuriating and frustrating, and they just completely lack practical parenting skills. But they are both fascinating as case studies of people who are a product of their environment and their families, people who are just so determined to do what they think is right no matter what anyone else says or thinks – even their own children. The story of the Walls family is entertaining, fascinating, sad and desperate, but ultimately hopeful. They seem to be able to survive anything. For me the lasting message of this book, if there is one, is that people are more resilient that you know, and very different things make different people happy. There is a no one right way to live – although there is one right way to look after your children and that is to keep them safe, something which Rex and Rose Mary did not always do. Despite everything the family still love each other, and they are always a family no matter what. That is what holds them together, for better or worse.

As for their life now, this New York Times article from 2013 is a brilliant update on the Walls family, and Jeannette’s attitude to her life and parents now that she’s an adult and has a totally different lifestyle. It is still kind of heartbreaking, but utterly fascinating in the way that families almost always are.

*

First published in 2005 by Scribner (USA) and Virago (UK). I read the Virago edition.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

Wildflower by Drew Barrymore

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I’m not usually one for celebrity autobiographies. I think Anjelica Huston’s memoir was the first I actually read (that I can remember), and I only read that because I love Huston’s work, and the book seemed down to earth and non-sensationalist, which it was. It was a journey through a life. I decided to read Drew Barrymore’s book Wildflower because I have always liked her as an actress, and find her to be an interesting person. Also, when I read about the book it didn’t seem like a straightforward life story, more like snippets and anecdotes. I am happy to say that is largely true.

I liked a lot of things about Wildflower, but one of the major things is the structure and tone. It is not a chronological story, but more eclectic. This feels more like the natural way that memory works, and avoids a list-like description of ‘this happened, and then this…’. The stories this book tells are of different lengths and different levels of significance, but they are all about life – they are defining moments or experiences that have made an impression and are memories that stand out for Drew Barrymore, for one reason or another. She does not ‘tell all’, but shares stories and lessons she has learned. But it isn’t preachy, or her trying to give advice. It is just what she has learned, and what is important, and what matters in life. There is a lot about family, and the difference it can make to our lives. I found her discussion of parent/child relationships very interesting, with stories from both perspectives rounding out the experience. Drew Barrymore had very non-traditional parents and a very non-traditional upbringing, and you can see the impact this has made on her as she navigates her other relationships and later creates her own family. It is very sweet and heartwarming to hear her desire for stability and love, and how much she cherishes family and understands the importance of it, whether it’s good or bad.

As I said this isn’t a ‘tell all’, so while Barrymore does talk about the wilder aspects of her childhood, she makes the correct assumption that anyone reading her book probably already knows the outline of the story, and therefore doesn’t necessarily need all the nitty-gritty. She does speak about her emancipation from her parents at age fourteen, which I found amazing, as she has to tackle renting a flat and getting a job at such a young age. It sounds terrifying, but exciting. I couldn’t imagine dealing with all that at fourteen! She is very brave and determined, and I really admire this.

The tone of the book is very positive and hopeful, and although sometimes Barrymore’s style of writing can get a bit cute and chirpy (there are a lot of exclamation marks), I actually liked this because it felt like her real voice, and the way she would naturally talk and write. She isn’t a ‘writer’, so you don’t expect the writing to be perfect. Instead it is engaging, entertaining, and interesting. Drew Barrymore is a good storyteller.

I really enjoyed Wildflower. It was a nice break from my usual serious/literary stuff, and I loved that the book doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – just like Drew Barrymore. And I love the cover!

*

Published in 2015 by Virgin Books (part of Ebury and PRH).

Purchase from Foyles here.

Reading Mental Health: Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

In my last post I mentioned that I had been away on holiday and therefore hadn’t blogged in a while, but promised to be back soon. But then I got food poisoning and was off grid practically the whole week. Bloody perfect. So this is a delayed ‘return’ to the blog. Finally! It’s been too long…

Some of my most recent reads have concerned mental health and mental health care, particularly The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor. That book focused on the end of the ‘asylum age’, a time when psychiatric care was moving away from institutionalising patients and instead beginning to emphasise community care and outpatient care. That was the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Susanna Kaysen experienced the asylum age when it was in full swing, in the late 1960s. She was an ‘unstable’ teenager who had an affair with her high school English teacher, and she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital with a suspected case of borderline personality disorder. You may have seen the excellent film adaptation of Girl, Interrupted with Winona Ryder. If you have you’ll know that Susanna wasn’t an extreme case, like many of the girls she met in hospital. She wasn’t obviously psychotic, or suicidal, and compared to the other girls she sometimes seems completely sane.

1994 Vintage paperback edition (image: penguinrandomhouse.com)
1994 Vintage paperback edition (image: penguinrandomhouse.com)

Susanna was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and the amazing charity Mind have a page on it here that adheres pretty much exactly to what Susanna describes in the book. I think many people will have experienced feelings/symptoms that are similar to BPD, but that doesn’t mean we all have it. It also means it can be difficult to diagnose and/or treat. After all, Susanna was 18 when she was amitted into the hospital, an age when we can act strangely and not be sure of ourselves. But she certainly was unwell, and her later clarity means that she is able to see this, and examine her experiences thoroughly in hindsight.

Susanna’s case papers are included sporadically throughout the text, grounding her experience in reality, and yet making it surreal at the same time – these documents are from another era, another world than our own. But they are fascinating, and give real insight into the American mental health system at the time. I thought this was an excellent touch, and was glad these old documents were included. I also loved the structure and pacing of the book. It is not entirely chronological, but this doesn’t matter. Each chapter is based around a theme or event in some way, and with this method Kaysen is able to cover all the ground I’m sure she intended to without getting bogged down in ‘this happened, and then this’. It is a portrait, a snapshot, an examination. It is an overview of what it felt like to be ‘interrupted’.

Alongside the story of her incarceration, Kaysen diverges off into relevant tangents that create context and background to her story, and, in one of my favourite chapters, explores the difference between ‘brain’ and ‘mind’. I found this fascinating and thought that it added depth and psychological context to the rest of the book. There are lots of succinct lines and paragraphs that I could quote and quote, which was something else I loved – unlike me, Kaysen doesn’t waffle. She gets to the point and makes it.

I would recommend Girl, Interrupted to anyone interested in the history of mental health and its care, and also for anyone who enjoyed the film, or who enjoys interesting and off-beat memoirs. That’s what I would call this book – an off-beat memoir. It isn’t miserable, or depressing, and it isn’t a detailed book exploring complex issues, like The Last Asylum.While we get an insight into the medical system through the case documents and Kaysen’s memories, this isn’t an examination of the use of ‘asylums’ or whatever the right word is. Kaysen does not seek to critique the system, not overtly at least, although of course we do make judgements as we learn about her experience and the experiences of some of her fellow patients (both positive and negative).

Really this is a personal story, one of its time and place, but one that is extremely relatable and human. I wish I had read it when I was a teenager, because Kaysen has some great life-lesson style philosophy that really struck a chord with me. I liked her as a person, as well as liking her book. Having read it, I think it would be interesting to re-watch the film and see how they adapted all the content and characters.

I would love to hear from anyone else who has read this book, or might want to. It is definitely worth it, and has taken its place among my favourites.

*

First published in 1993 by Turtle Bay Books in the US. I read the 1994 edition from Vintage.

A Trip Down Memory Lane with Anjelica Huston

As a rule I rather like reading memoirs, though I must say I am picky about whose I read. I’ve read mostly literary memoirs or those about an ordinary person who had an extraordinary experience (such as Wild or The Rules of Inheritance). I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir of a celebrity before. The phrase ‘celebrity memoir’ creates visions of cheesy covers with swily writing, with taglines promising to dish the dirt and ‘tell all’. I would never read those. But I did decide the two-volume memoir of Anjelica Huston. Partly because she isn’t some fame-hungry idiot, and also because I like her films and find her interesitng as a person; and I knew a little about her life already, so I knew it would be a good story.

The memoir is split into two parts: A Story Lately Told covers her life up to about the age of twenty, and Watch Me goes from then to now. They both have beautiful covers too, which make them look like memoirs, but not like trashy memoirs. I think they are very well measured and very effective.

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

I read A Story Lately Told while on holiday with friends in Devon, and it was the perfect way to escape while it rained and we were stuck indoors. Anjelica spent most of her childhood in Ireland, running around the family’s large house and grounds, and hearing exciting stories from her father’s overseas adventures in his career as a film director. Her father was John Huston, known for directing Hollywood classics such as ‘The African Queen’ and ‘The Misfits’ – and also as a bit of a womaniser and someone who did things his own way. As a result Anjelica’s childhood was often punctuated with glimpses of the drama which surrounded her father, both in his professional life and personal life. He was a ‘big personality’ and their relationship, though not always harmonious, is never boring. Anjelica’s father also led her to her career as a model and actor. Anyway. The first book is a dreamy account of an idyllic childhood in Ireland, followed by teenage adventures in London with her mother, after her parents’ divorce; then a few years in New York, and finally the beginning of Anjelica’s life in Los Angeles. It is a whirlwind of anecdotes and endless names and places, but as in both books, Anjelica Huston has a steady and calm way of narrating her story that avoids becoming too complicated or muddled, even when there is a lot going on. I found her emotionally intelligent and perceptive, with a knack for self-analysis (and analysis of others) in hindsight.

This ‘knack’ also comes in very handy in the second volume, Watch Me, which chronicles her adult life. At the end of A Story Lately Told, she has just extricated herself from an emotionally turbulent relationship with the photographer Bob Richardson (father of Terry Richardson), and Watch Me begins with the aftermath of this. This relationship is brilliantly examined and explored, and Huston adds a great sense of humanity and feeling to something that happened so long ago. Likewise her account of her relationships with Jack Nicholson and Ryan O’Neal, both of whom were challenging and brilliant in their own ways. It is fascinating to hear particularly about her relationship with Jack Nicholson, and she handles the ups and downs with dignity and sensitivity. She speaks quite personally about Nicholson, but you get the impression she is still respecting his privacy, as she protects her own, and I liked this very much. She is able to tell stories without resorting to ‘telling all’. It could so easily have descended into sensationalism, but Anjelica Huston keeps it classy, as always.

While Anjelica Huston’s story is filled with famous people, places, and events, she does not brag, or gossip, or sensationalise. She tells her story just as she experienced it, with its good times and bad times, just like anyone else’s life. Hers just happened to be quite exceptional. I liked her very much as I read, and very much enjoyed the style and tone of the books, which is relaxed and anecdotal, but not so chatty that there isn’t a clear storyline and structure. The books also aren’t that long, so they are not too demanding.

If you have the interest, and you like memoirs of interesting women, I would really recommend these two volumes. It is a life filled with excitement and adventure (and some excellent old movie recommendations) but also with the comforting mundanity of ordinariness. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it is a celebration of life and the fact that it doesn’t matter if things aren’t perfect and you aren’t perfect – life can still be wonderful. That alone makes these two books worth reading.

*

Both volumes published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, and in the US by Scribner, in 2014 and 2015.

BookTube: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor (first booktube review!)

Hi all, as I’m sure you know BookTube is a really big ‘thing’, and I follow a fair amount of booktubers, so I decided to give it a go! So here I go…

In Praise Of: Sad Stories

When we learn about trauma, we also learn about catharsis, about ‘getting it out’ and finding closure. About having a cathartic experience. This is why we read books about war and suffering, why survivor testimonies are always popular books in whatever form they may take – from the wonder of writers like Primo Levi, to the tawdriness of abuse memoirs. We read sad stories out of curiosity, out of a desire to know how bad things can be in order to appreciate the true goodness of our own lives. We need to remember that it can always be worse, that there are and were a lot of people a lot worse off than us. But, we must not be negative, we must not focus on sad things to the point that they bring us down and we see sadness in everything.

I chose to praise sad books in this post partly because I have realised that a lot of the books I read have sad stories. One in particular that I read very recently was a memoir by journalist Emma Brockes in which she investigates her mother’s dramatic life after her death. She Left Me the Gun has been described as a misery memoir, unfortunately, but that was not what it was for me. For one thing I started reading it without any knowledge of the darkness it held, and I was not in any way intrigued or scandalised by the disturbing nature of the revelations.

(Faber 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com)
(Faber 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com)

It is a very intelligently written book, a woman taking the time to examine her mother’s life and the history of that part of her family, and to lay it all out before her like a jigsaw – to piece it together and see a whole. But Emma Brockes does not dwell on negativity or unpleasant memories. She recounts everything as unfortunate matter-of-fact, as ‘this is what happened’ and little else. She of course examines its ramifications and the ways in which the suffering of the past has filtered into the present, but again it is not depressing or sensationalist. The fact that she is a journalist, and that it is her own family, means that she is very respectful and never veers towards vulgarity or luridness. She takes everything as it appears to her and rationally recounts it to her readers in a way that is not heavy-handed or grim.

Though I didn’t enjoy learning of her family’s pain I did enjoy She Left Me the Gun for the fact that Emma Brockes’ mother had an incredible life, and she tells it wonderfully. I learned about South Africa, and the difficulties of coming to England, and I read charming and funny anecdotes about family life, and I liked Emma Brockes and her mother very much. All life has sadness in it, and to deny it is to be unrealistic. So there is nothing wrong with reading sad stories, and they can be read out of something other than morbid curiosity – but most importantly, for me, ‘sad stories’ contain so much more than sadness. Often they serve to highlight the areas of life without sadness, the happiness and light that we so need. We must experience the sadness in order to be able to say, as at the end of She Left Me the Gun, ‘enough now.’

*

She Left Me the Gun was published by Faber & Faber (UK paperback) in February 2014.

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

(image: goodreads.com)
(image: goodreads.com)

I mentioned The Undertaker’s Daughter in my post about ‘simplifying women’ in book titles. Kate Mayfield is more than just the daughter of an undertaker, of course; but the title is warranted here as this book covers the first part of her life, when she mostly lived at home, and when her father was an overwhelming presence in her life. His being an undertaker influenced so many factors of her life that to identify herself as his daughter above everything else is in fact justified in the context of this memoir. Her early life was not an ordinary one. Brought up in a funeral home, living above dead bodies and all too aware of the proximity of the embalming room to family life, young Kate had a familiarity with death that most of us could never achieve, if that is the word. Only when she grew older and understood more about loss and the grim details of death did she start to feel truly uneasy about all the death in her house. For her and her family, death really was a part of everyday life.

We learn so much about the Mayfield family in this book – their secrets and lies, their bad behaviour, and their deep sadnesses – all through Kate; but even at the end of the book I did feel that I really knew her, or any of them. However I do not mean this as a criticism of Kate Mayfield’s ability as a writer or a memoirist. Rather I think it is a personality trait, a symptom of the Mayfields’ early family life that a distance is always present, a certain limit to how close anyone is allowed to get to anyone else. This is also probably because, despite this being a personal memoir of childhood, we are still readers, strangers, and the family has a right to retain some privacy and secrecy. I had spent time with them, looked into their life, but I knew that it was theirs, and not mine.

Limits, distance, secrecy – these are recurring themes throughout The Undertaker’s Daughter. Set in Kentucky in the 1960s and 70s, the book details many of the prejudices and social barriers of the world in which young Kate grows up. From her secret teenage relationships with African American boys, to her mother’s tolerance of her father’s drinking and adultery, to her sister’s mental illness, Kate Mayfield is remarkably frank and honest in her account of her youth. She describes the most difficult family scenes with unflinching clarity, the distance of time helping to strip away the muddiness of emotional turmoil. I admired her willingness to say, yes, this is what happened, this is what we had to deal with. She is matter of fact, but not without feeling. Her tone when speaking about these more difficult things suggests a wealth of feeling that has now ‘calmed’ over time and has been processed by her adult self.

That said, there is a lot of happiness in The Undertaker’s Daughter too. Kate’s friendship with her younger sister Jemma is particularly sweet, as is the family’s relationship with Miss Agnes, the resident’ rich eccentric’ in their town who has not only a wonderful personality but also a truly remarkable life story. This book is a memoir of a childhood, but it is also a portrait of a place at a certain time, a world that is now completely changed. It is the life that came before, and it is the foundation on which the present in built – for Kentucky, but also for Kate Mayfield.

For a memoir to be worth reading, to be of interest, it must tell the story of a remarkable life. Kate Mayfield’s is certainly that. I loved this book.

*

Published in August 2014 by Simon & Schuster. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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?

 

Anais Nin on Printing Her Own Books

“The relation to handicraft is nourishing, beautiful. Related bodily to a solid block of lead letters, to the weight of the composition tray, to the adroitness of spacing, the tempo and temper of the machine – you acquire some of the weight of the lead, the strength and power of the machine, the bodily conquests and triumphs. You live in the hands, in physical deftness, in the development of your faculties pitted against concrete enemies. The victories are complete, concrete, definite and proved. How much greater than abstraction and theories. Eduardo says: ‘I don’t want to think – I just want to do some typesetting.’ “

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin, 1939-1947, entry dated January 28th, 1942.

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