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Another Review – The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

 

I am a very lucky person, I get sent lots of great books and proofs, and I don’t always get to them. And I feel bad about it, because there are so many great books I miss out on reading.

 

I’m mentioning this, because one such book is The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller. So many people have said such great things about it recently, that I thought, I’m going to have to give it a go.

 

Blurb

Before anyone else is awake, on a perfect August morning, Elle Bishop heads out for a swim in the glorious freshwater pond below ‘The Paper Palace’ — the gently decaying summer camp in the back woods of Cape Cod where her family has spent every summer for generations. As she passes the house, Elle glances through the screen porch at the uncleared table from the dinner the previous evening; empty wine glasses, candle wax on the tablecloth, echoes of laughter of family and friends. Then she dives beneath the surface of the freezing water to the shocking memory of the sudden passionate encounter she had the night before, up against the wall behind the house, as her husband and mother chatted to the guests inside.

So begins a story that unfolds over twenty-four hours and across fifty years, as decades of family legacies, love, lies, secrets, and one unspeakable incident in her childhood lead Elle to the precipice of a life-changing decision. Over the next twenty-four hours, Elle will have to decide between the world she has made with her much-loved husband, Peter, and the life she imagined would be hers with her childhood love, Jonas, if a tragic event hadn’t forever changed the course of their lives.

 

Bert’s Thoughts

 

It’s kind of told over 24 hours, except it’s not, because throughout we get flashbacks to various points in Elle’s life.

 

But it starts at 6.30am, in a place called the Back Woods at a lake house that Elle and her family have had for years. It’s a quiet place, very secluded, a small community nearby.

 

Elle has a husband Peter, two children and her mother. They’re all in this house that is referred to as ‘the paper palace’ because the walls are thin, it’s just been quickly thrown up and everything feels like it might be just about to fall down.

 

That is a bit of a metaphor for Elle’s life in general, she as a younger girl got to know Jonas, a couple of years younger than her. They became best friends and they grew up together over subsequent summers.

 

This feels like I’m getting ahead of myself, and yet not. Because this story jumps around in time, it’s hard to tell you exactly what happens.

 

Right at the beginning, we find out Elle has had sex with somebody who is not her husband, and that somebody was Jonas, in fact. Her childhood best friend.

 

Over the course of the day as we learn about her history with her family and with Jonas, Elle is going about her day and trying to come to terms with what is quite a polarising moment in her life. This man who has always been there, the man who was nearly always the love of her life, but that nothing happened with.

 

Then she has sex with him, despite being happily married. And now she has to work out what to do with her life. Is she going to run off with Jonas, or stay with her family.

 

That’s the crux of this story. It’s very well-written, it’s evocative of place, you can feel the community and the lake you can hear it. I had in mind Michael Kiwanuka’s Cold Little Heart while I was reading this, that slow, relaxing and yet incredibly dramatic music perfectly fits the heart of this book.

 

I struggled with the main character of this story, I struggled to identify with her at the beginning, but I was able to relate to her more throughout the story. I think that was intentional, that we were supposed to grow to like her, to understand her as the story goes on.

 

She’s supposed to present as an enigma at the beginning, waiting to be unravelled. But, that meant I didn’t have much sympathy for her, for this dilemma she’s going through.

 

I’m not privy to the reasons as to why she’s cheated on her husband, which made me not care as much about her problem.

 

As we understand the relationship between them, we start to understand why she had sex with him, but what I didn’t get was why now.

 

This relationship of theirs has been going on for years, they’ve spent summers as adults together, they’ve got families. Something has caused them to give into recklessness, to give into this temptation.

 

It’s never really explained. There’s no inciting incident that made this happen, no big argument between her and her husband, no declarations of love. There was no real explanation as to why suddenly, it happened.

 

That made me struggle with it a little bit – other than that, it’s a really good read. It’s not necessarily something I’m going to look back on in a couple of years and be abel to tell you the details of, but in the moment, it was a brilliant be.

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A(nother) Review – The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

This is a (rough) transcript of Bert’s review on The Bert’s Books Podcast. You can find The Bert’s Books Podcast wherever you get your podcasts from or online here

 

For my birthday this year, I actually received a book. I never get books!

 

Most people figure I’m hard to buy for because I’ve read all the books. I’ve NOT read all the books. There are millions of books. I’ve read only a tiny fraction.

 

And I’ve not read much classic crime, so I was pleased to get a copy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley.

 

This British Library comes with an introduction from Classic Crime expert Martin Edwards – as well as two additional endings – one by Christianna Brand from a few decades ago, and one by Edwards himself.

 

Blurb

 

Graham and Joan Bendix have apparently succeeded in making that eighth wonder of the modern world, a happy marriage. And into the middle of it there drops, like a clap of thunder, a box of chocolates.Joan Bendix is killed by a poisoned box of liqueur chocolates that cannot have been intended for her to eat. The police investigation rapidly reaches a dead end.

Chief Inspector Moresby calls on Roger Sheringham and his Crimes Circle – six amateur but intrepid detectives – to consider the case. The evidence is laid before the Circle and the members take it in turn to offer a solution. Each is more convincing than the last, slowly filling in the pieces of the puzzle, until the dazzling conclusion.

 

Bert’s Thoughts

My understanding is that Roger Sheringham appears in a few novels, but this one is unique, in that it all takes place in the meeting room of these six characters.

 

They’re met there by Inspector Moresby who tells the members of the Circle (and the reader) the details of the case.

 

Graham Bendix belongs to a gentleman’s club, he heads there one morning about ten-thirty and he meets Sir Eustace Pennefather – you get the vibe of an older man, I pictured Colonel Mustard, but he’s perhaps not as old as that.

 

As Bendix walks in, Sir Eustace receives a delivery – a promotional box of chocolates, that the company wants Pennefather to give some good comments to. He’s not that fussed and chats to Graham.

 

It’s clear they don’t know each other well, but Graham reveals that he lost a bet with his wife over the murderer in a play – and he owes her a box of chocolates. Pennefather gives him the box he’s received.

 

Over lunch, Graham and Joan share the chocolates – though not equally as Graham only has a couple. Back in the club that afternoon, he falls ill – but his wife dies at home. The chocolates were poisoned!

 

Who did it, who were they targeting and how did they do it?

 

The police have reached a dead end, because the confectioners claim not to send these sort of promotional boxes…

 

The members of the Crime circle all come up with theories and present them to each other over subsequent nights.

 

The premise is that those who do work out crimes in fiction are kind of cheating – they say things in a certain way which causes the reader – and the other characters to take something as fact, which may just be a supposition.

 

A lot of crime novels from that period, they’re often ended with a murderer cracking under the pressure of an accusation, rather than the detective solving the crimes with a hundred per cent water tight accuracy. They nearly always rely on a confession.

 

This is foreshadowed by the bet between Joan and Graham – Joan cheated at guessing the murderer, having seen the play before, it wasn’t an act of deduction, it was one of deception!

 

The characters in the crime circle are a mix of other people, amateurs, playwrights, QCs. Each come at the case from different perspectives, and prove beyond reasonable doubt who the murderer is – until someone points out a hole in the theory.

 

It continues to build until Sheringham knows who the murderer is – and then his theory is blown out of the water.

 

The final reveal (by Berkeley) is well done – but subtle. It doesn’t quite give you a hundred per cent proof, but it leaves you beyond reasonable doubt.

 

Then the additional endings – the first one by Christianna Brand. It doesn’t work for me. It does in terms of the plot, but it doesn’t fit the style.

 

This book is very classically written – the style of spiffing Enid Blyton language and Brand doesn’t quite capture it. Plus, it takes the action out of the crime circle and introduces us to a character who wasn’t really foreshadowed before.

 

Then Martin Edwards ending comes in and this one worked much better for me. It carries on from Brand’s ending – they all flow into each other and work as one book, but this provides a more satisfactory solution – than either Brand’s or Berkeley’s.

 

Berkeley was trying to say ‘there is always doubt’ and his ending does leave you with that, but Edwards ends up saying ‘here’s what actually happened, and why’ and it’s ok with that.

 

But it’s a matter of professional pride that Moresby is the one who solves the crime – with a little bit of luck. This ties in with the theme that detectives who solve these crimes, always seem to be a little bit lucky. They’re not necessarily geniuses – they’re better at spotting connections – but sometimes luck just drops something in their laps.

 

And it makes you think about crime fiction and detective fiction particularly all the more – especially as throughout this book you’re presented with possible solutions – all making several assumptions.

 

As a reader, you’re aware that more solutions will be made and so you read the theories, but start to come up with reasons why the theory presented isn’t correct – they haven’t addressed what a particular character’s motivations might be, what there actions were.

 

The ones I spotted did eventually get addressed – so it was interesting for me to see where it was subsequently going to go.

 

I recently read The Paper Palace – and in the acknowledgements, Miranda Cowley Heller states that every book has a beginning, middle and end, with the ending foreshadowed in the beginning.

 

I think that’s why the first two ‘endings’ of this book, don’t work for me. They weren’t necessarily foreshadowed, while the final ending does have some links back to the very beginning, and it’s something all the characters – and myself – overlooked.

 

And I think that’s what’s satisfying for a reader – coming up with your own theory, but then it gets disproved – or there’s a simple solution that you haven’t considered.

 

Verdict

If you are a fan of golden age detective fiction, then give this one a go, it’s got a very 20’s/30’s vibe, so if you’re a fan of that then definitely give this one a go. It’s made me think I should try more of these British Library classics.

 

Order your copy of The Poisoned Chocolates Case now or leave your own review

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A(nother) Review – The Dark by Emma Haughton

This is a (rough) transcript of Bert’s review on The Bert’s Books Podcast. You can find The Bert’s Books Podcast wherever you get your podcasts from or online here

 

The Blurb

 

In the most inhospitable environment – cut off from the rest of the world – there’s a killer on the loose.

A&E doctor Kate North has been knocked out of her orbit by a personal tragedy. So when she’s offered the opportunity to be an emergency replacement at the UN research station in Antarctica, she jumps at the chance. The previous doctor, Jean-Luc, died in a tragic accident while out on the ice.

The move seems an ideal solution for Kate: no one knows about her past; no one is checking up on her. But as total darkness descends for the winter, she begins to suspect that Jean-Luc’s death wasn’t accidental at all. And the more questions she asks, the more dangerous it becomes …

 

Bert’s Thoughts

Kate heads out to the Antarctic to become a replacement doctor at the UN station. Winter is coming and this is a point where the Antarctic doesn’t receive any light for several months.

 

It’s a horrible place to be, but they need a doctor and Kate is parachuted in just at the last possible minute.

 

Some of the other bases shut down over winter and the staff leave – this means there’s just thirteen of them at this base.

 

Kate is immediately struck by the death of Jean-Luc – she becomes obsessed by it. And I think that’s fair. It happened a few weeks previously – so it’s not just happened.

 

I really enjoyed it – it’s a very claustrophohic thriller, very filmic. I can see it all unfolding in my mind.

 

There are a lot of characters in this book, some of them are important, some of them not. This is the problem with lots of who-dun-it type books.

 

The blurb says one dead body twelve suspects, right at the top so you know someone is going to die, and this is in the back of your mind as you’re getting to know these characters.

 

Some of them are just in the periphery, some of them move in and out of the main thrust of the narrative, and then one of them suddenly dies.

 

I always find it a little tricky to keep track of – so in books like this, a character precis at the front would have been helpful.

 

But, if you go in with Kate as your main window into this world, it’s fine, although as the days and weeks go on, Kate becomes more familiar with the characters and leaves you behind a little.

 

The environment and setting is a huge part of this book, and Haughton does a brilliant job of making you feel as if you’re there in this cold and lonely place.

 

I can’t say too much without giving much away – that’s the problem with mystery novels!

The Verdict

I enjoyed it a lot, very claustrophobic – I found it a bit odd that it’s released over the summer, as it would be perfect for an early January read.

 

Order your copy of The Dark now or leave your own review

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A(nother) Review: The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris

This is a (rough) transcript of Bert’s review on The Bert’s Books Podcast – first published Thursday 12th August. You can find The Bert’s Books Podcast wherever you get your podcasts from or online here

 

Is your pile of books that you’re waiting to read that sometimes you lose track of what’s on it? Guilty.

I was looking at it to see what to read next when I suddenly spotted two books on the Booker longlist that I’ve not read yet – and I’m not sure why – especially considering one of them was one I’d specifically requested.

That was the Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris.

Blurb

In the dying days of the American Civil War, newly freed brothers Landry and Prentiss find themselves cast into the world without a penny to their names. Forced to hide out in the woods near their former Georgia plantation, they’re soon discovered by the land’s owner, George Walker, a man still reeling from the loss of his son in the war. When the brothers begin to live and work on George’s farm, the tentative bonds of trust and union begin to blossom between the strangers.

But this sanctuary survives on a knife’s edge, and it isn’t long before the inhabitants of the nearby town of Old Ox react with fury at the alliances being formed only a few miles away . . .

 

Bert’s Thoughts

This is set at the end of the American Civil War – and slaves were being freed, becoming known as Freedmen.

At the time, whilst they were being freed, many of them stayed on to work where they’d been slaves because they didn’t know anything more. And if they were paid, they were paid nothing compared to a white man.

So, while there was this end to slavery, there wasn’t an end to the inequality.

I’ve read a few books set during the slave trade – perhaps the most recent being The Prophets – and this almost feels like a sequel, despite it being by a different writer.

The Prophets was about slavery and two young enslaved men, while The Sweetness of Water is about two young men who have been ‘freed’.

George Walker lives on a farm, which is nothing more than scraps of land, he’s not really farming it. It’s all been inherited and he occasionally sells parts of it to Ezra in the town of Old Ox.

His and Isabelle’s son has been drafted into the war, so they’re now living alone – until one day, Caleb’s childhood best friend August comes to their home to tell them that Caleb has died.

August has been injured, though George notices that it doesn’t seem to be that pronounced, and we’re led to believe that August’s rich father was able to pay for him to be kept in a place of safety during the fighting.

George and Isabelle go into mourning, in different ways. George wanders the woodlands and he meets Prentice and Landry – who have recently left a neighbouring farm, some of the only freedmen who have left.

They’re distrustful of George, but he suggest that they come and work for him, because he’s suddenly had this idea to turn some of his fields into turning some of his land into a peanut farm. He’s ploughing his grief energy into something else.

Prentice is initially wary of working for another white man, but George reassures him that they’ll be working together and lets them stay in his barn. He promises them that when they want to heard north for their new life, they can.

Landry, on the other hand, is very silent. He doesn’t speak after some quite barbaric treatment.

This is a story of grief, of working out how to move on from one part of your life to another.

I liked that we saw it from various points of view – Caleb, Isabelle, George, Prentice and Landry all get their own section. I liked that it reminded me that when slavery ended, it didn’t just end and there was this wonderful happy ending.

It wasn’t like that. There was suspicion and there was resistance and there was violence as well. People weren’t happy.

People aren’t happy that George is paying these two black men as much as he is, because they’re worried others will get the same idea. Because while they might not be slaves, they’re certainly paid a lot less than other workers.

Paranoia starts going around the town of Old Ox – the description of which made me think of the frontier town of Dr Quinn Medicine Woman. Everything seems to be fairly relaxed and everyone does their own thing – particularly the sheriff who is more interested in people’s wallets than justice.

Considering this is a Booker longlisted title, there’s a lot going on. A lot of the books in the Booker longlists are usually well written and about important subjects, but there’s not always a lot going on.

A LOT happens in Sweetness of Water – too much for me to reveal. It takes on a lot of characters, a lot of subjects and is still incredibly well written.

The lasting thought that I had from this book was about people’s descendants. A family’s legacy is an important theme, and it’s really obvious in George and Isabelle as they remember and mourn Caleb, as they think about what they’ve inherited from their own parents.

Also Prentice and Landry are thinking about their own futures, but their primary goal is to try and find their mother. Then there’s August and his father and what becomes of them throughout the story.

This talk about the generational shift made me think about how some people were able to just move on from this period and within a generation the atrocities that were done by white people – by their grandparents – were forgotten.

And yet the stuff done to these slaves reverberates through the generations, because even if things are getting better there is still that pain there.

After the likes of Prentice and Landry were freed, they still weren’t equal in law for another hundred years or so, so any children they might have had were still born into some kind of bondage.

This isn’t very long ago, embarrassingly, only four or five generations ago. My grandparents’ grandparents would have been around the time of the American Civil war. They were alive when this was happening.

It makes you think about people we know now – their grandparents’ grandparents were slaves, perhaps even their grandparents parents.

This book made me remember it, gave me more of an insight into what’s happening and really begin to understand how those people feel.

It’s important for us to remember. When one side of history has lived with this pain for generations and other sides have just forgotten about it there will never be reparation.

 

Bert’s Verdict

It was nice to see Prentice and Landry become part of George and Isabelle’s family as their lives move on and to see the Walker family’s standing within their town change as they did was truly enlightening.

It’s an important book – but perhaps more importantly, it’s a great read.

 

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A(nother) Review – How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie

This is a (rough) transcript of Bert’s review on The Bert’s Books Podcast – first published Monday 9th August. You can find The Bert’s Books Podcast wherever you get your podcasts from or online here

 

 

I have been waiting to get my hands on this book for a while now, it was read by a friend of mine who really enjoyed it and thought that I might as well. It’s called How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie.

Bella previously wrote a non-fiction book called Jog On about running, but this is her first fiction and it’s a really strong debut.

I really like the cover – it’s a strong look. The block capitals really stand out among the pink and it doesn’t quite end up being what you think it might be. It’s a really unique look and perhaps belies a more innocent story than what is inside.

 

The Blurb

 * Kill my family

* Make a claim on their fortune

* Get away with the above

* Adopt a dog

Meet Grace Bernard. Daughter, sister, colleague, friend, serial killer…

Grace has lost everything. And now she wants revenge. How to Kill Your Family is a fierce and addictive novel about class, family, love… and murder.

 

The Plot

Grace Bernard is currently in jail – for a murder she claims not to have committed. My first question is, do we believe her? I think, yes, we do – because she’s so upfront about the murders she has committed.

 

We don’t know from the beginning whose murder she is in prison for – the chapters alternate between Grace in prison and then it goes back to her life before, and her previous murders.

 

The first murder she commits – and this is told really early on, and gives you a taste of what to expect. Growing up, her father didn’t want to know anything about Grace’s life, and she finds out that his parents were somewhat responsible for his absence – this puts them on the top of her hit-list.

 

She travels to their home abroad, follows them around for a few days to learn their patterns… and then runs them off the road, killing them.

 

That’s fairly simple, but the beauty in this book comes in how she goes about concocting her plan, and also the way she justifies killing off various members of her family.

 

Despite being a murderer, you’re instantly on Grace’s side, you want her to get away with things, you want to follow her onto her next murders – even when she’s having reservations over killing some members of the family, you get why she ultimately decides to go ahead.

 

It’s funny and melodramatic in some ways – but that’s no bad thing. Melodrama just means a sensational, dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.

 

That’s pretty much ALL books – so I never really understand why melodramatic gets used as a negative label sometimes. For me it’s a positive thing – not everyday events, but exciting with great characters.

 

The best thing, is that she gets away with it, nobody knows, nobody finds out… or does she? She’s telling us about this in prison where she is languishing for the murder of someone else – but is she setting herself up for a fall?

 

She is so confident in what she’s done and how she’s getting away with it, but can she really be this clever? She’s in prison after all, so some mistakes have been made… and what other mistakes might she have made?

 

She has a weakness, a vulnerability, something has caused her to end up inside, maybe that will come back to haunt her.

 

Bert’s Verdict

It’s really clever and I liked the ending, though I felt the ending itself might have gone on slightly too long and became a little repetitive. But this a great debut novel with fantastic character and I can’t wait to see what Bella Mackie does next.

 

 

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an FAQ?

It’s a frequently asked question. As in a question that gets asked a lot. If you’ve got a question and think you’re probably not the first person to ask it, then the answer to it might be here.

 

How much does delivery cost?

If you’re in the UK, delivery is absolutely free! Hurrah!

 

What about if I’m not in the UK?

It’s a flat rate for sending books abroad depending on the service used (starting at £9) but, unfortunately, I’m not able to send books to the EU because of complicated tax rules.

 

When are books dispatched?

I currently dispatch books every Tuesday and Thursday, and ideally your book will be dispatched within five days of being ordered. I’ll let you know if it’s going to be longer than that.

 

If you need your book by a certain day for a birthday, etc, just let me know and I’ll do my best to move it up the queue.

 

What are the subscription bundles?

They contain the best new releases on the website. Whether your tastes are for non-fiction, crime or young adult fiction, we can provide you with the very best books that are hot off the printing press.

 

When do I get the books I’ve subscribed to?

Standard monthly subscriptions are sent out at the end of each month, with the aim that you’ll get them on the 1st of the month. Orenda books, however, are dispatched by the 15th of each month. All other subscriptions are dispatched within five working days of their renewal.

 

What do I do if I get a book I’ve already read or don’t want in a subscription?

All the books in the subscriptions will have been released in the previous four weeks (although paperbacks may have previously been hardbacks) but anything that doesn’t tickle your fancy can be returned via the returns policy. You should never get a duplicate of a book you’ve bought from Bert’s previously – and If you let me know on Twitter or via email of the stuff you might have bought from another retailer (?!) , I’ll try my best to remember that too.

And what exactly is that returns policy?

If you want to return something, let me know within 14 days of receiving it, then post it back. You’ll have to cover the costs of postage, but it’s up to you whether you choose a tracked delivery. As soon as the book is back with me, your money will be refunded.

 

What happens if my book arrives damaged?

That’s no problem. Just let me know, and I’ll replace it!

 

When do you take payment for the subscriptions?

Payment is automatically taken in the month before you receive the books, so if you sign up on the 30th April, you’ll receive your first bundle in May, but if you sign up on 1st May, your first bundle will be with you in June.

 

How do I cancel my subscription?

I can’t imagine why you’d want to, but you can manage all your subscriptions within your account, or contact us directly to have it sorted for you.

 

What’s all this about Bert Points?

For every penny you spend on the website, you get one Bert Point. Ten points and you’ll get a penny off your next purchase. One £20 book, for example, will accrue you 2000 points, which is £2 off your next order. Bargain! You’ll be reminded at the purchase point that you’ve got points to spend.

 

Is there an upper limit of Bert Points I can have?

You can spend as many as you can accrue, but they expire after six months.

 

Why can’t I find the book I want?

Everything on the website is there because Bert has read it and loved it, or because a customer has requested it. This ensures a high quality of stock available – these are all good books. If you would like a book added, contact bert@bertsbooks.co.uk. You can also find me us on Twitter at @bertsbooks, but an email means you’re less likely to get missed.

 

Why haven’t you replied to my email?

I try and email you back as soon as possible. I’m the only one here though, so please excuse any delays. Double check your junk mail folder too – just in case!

 

Will you put the book I wrote on the website?

If I’ve read it and think it’s good, or if a customer requests it, certainly.

 

Will you read my book?

Ask your publisher to send me a proof and I’ll take a look. If you don’t have a publisher, then email me the details of your book and if I want to read it, I’ll ask you to send a copy over. I can’t read digital books, I’m afraid, and I can’t respond to every author request. As above, I’m just one person.

 

What is your favourite flavour of crisps?

Salt and vinegar, best served in a sandwich with a Dairylea cheese triangle. (Other cheeses are available.)

 

What is your favourite book?

There is not enough time to get into this…

 

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Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silver

Many years ago in another life, I used to do weekly book reviews – back when I averaged about one book every week.

 

When I started Bert’s Books, the idea was simply to monetise the blog by offering the books I reviewed for sale. Of course, as many of you will know, Bert’s grew to be something much bigger than I’d ever anticipated and instead of merely a diversion while I looked for a ‘real job’ it became my ACTUAL job.

 

Ironically, the reviews were one of the first things I ended up stopping because I didn’t have the time.

 

I’m not sure if I still don’t have the time but I wanted to try – because I’m reading so many great books that I want to share them with as many people as I can.

 

Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey is one such book.

 

It starts with Thora escaping a club in Cologne – a get-to-know-you night for students at the university. It’s too noisy and crowded for her, so she heads to her private space in the cemetery for some peace and quiet.

 

But there’s someone there. Santi is lying on his back in front of the broken clock tower looking up at the stars.

 

The two of them talk and though not exactly friendly there is clearly a spark of something between them. They egg each other on and encourage themselves to climb to the top of the tower for a better look at the stars.

 

They spend a wonderful evening together and Thora’s convinced that they may well become best friends – until a short time later when she discovers that Santi died, falling from the tower.

 

It seems the story is over before it can really begin. But then…

 

Santi is a teacher, a class of eight-year-olds, amongst whom is young Thora who wants to be an astronaut when she grows up…

 

We alternate from Santi to Thora as they live their many lives – sometimes they’re friends, other times teacher and student, or lovers. Or siblings. Whatever they are, wherever they start, they are destined to meet each other again and again and again.

 

This is the sort of book where it didn’t take much of a pitch for me to want to read it. I love quirky fiction where reality is as it should be, but distorted by something unexplainable.

 

Like The Time Traveler’s Wife or The First Time Lauren Pailing Died– this book is firmly grounded in reality, but with an added twist of something unexplainable. The characters don’t realise that anything weird is going on – at least at first – and so the beginning third of the book is more like a collection of short stories.

 

But, whatever they are, whatever age they are when we meet them, the characters are the same and so we learn more about them, in all their guises as the book goes on, so with each ‘short story’ we become more and more invested.

 

That’s the over-arching question the book asks. Is it possible to know everything about a person? Even if we spend all our time with someone, share every waking thought, can we really know their true self if we don’t experience them as a teacher, brother, mother, lover?

 

It’s branded as science fiction – a mistake to my way of thinking – but it’s about as traditionally sci-fi as the Time Traveler’s Wife is fantasy.

 

I always try not to give spoilers in my reviews – and there’ll be no change to that policy here – but, I do want to talk about the ending, if only to tell you that it works.

 

Some books with a ‘gimmick’ like this don’t always end in a satisfactory manner, not quite answering all the questions – or worse trying to explain why and how everything happened and managing to take the magic out of it as they do.

 

This is the opposite. I thought the explanation that we got,  that the characters got worked really well and tied up Thora and Santi’s story(/stories) in a perfect way.

 

This is Silvey’s debut novel and not since The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has a debut novel felt so ambitious and accomplished – I can’t wait to see what she does next.

 

In the meantime, I may just have to revisit Meet Me In Another Life because it’s a book that definitely invites an immediate re-read. And you may just want to read it again. And again. And again…

 

Meet Me In Another Life is published in Hardback on 8th July 2021 – you can pre-order it here.

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Bert’s February 2021 Reads

I’ve decided I need to actually keep track of the number of books I read each month – and what better way to do that than blogging about them?

In February I read 9 books – and I enjoyed them all, but for those that care about that sort of thing, I’ve ranked them!

They’re all available to purchase – or pre-order. If it sounds like your thing, or if you’d just like to find out more, then just click on the links

 

9. The Sunshine Kid by Harry Baker

This is book of collected poems – and I’m not normally a poetry fan, but these are very modern, very funny poems.

I saw Harry Baker live at the Edinburgh fringe and I was blown away.

I since watched all his stuff on YouTube. You should definitely check him out – seeing him perform the poems is better than reading them yourself!

 

8. What’s the T? by Juno Dawson

This is a book aimed at young adults who are confused (or perhaps even certain) about their gender. It explains everything they might expect from starting their trans journey as well as sensitive advice that being trans isn’t a one size fits all situation.

This is a perfect book for the target audience, but I read it wanting to learn more about what it means to be transgender and it also helped me understand what other people might be going through and just how I can help. This is the kind of book we should all read, because you never known when a young person in your life might need your help.

 

7. Final Cut by SJ Watson

Final Cut features Blackwood Bay – an ordinary place. It’s a seaside destinatin where tourism has dwindled thanks to the economic downturn.

Alex decides it’s the perfect place to shoot her documentary, but she faces suspicion when she arrives from the locals. Why is she there? Nothing exciting ever happens in Blackwood Bay. Does it?

I thought I was so clever when I worked out a twist early on – but when it was revealed just a few short pages later, I realised I had an exciting ride on my hands. This is a great read!

 

6. Beast by Matt Wesolowski

Beast is the fourth book in Wesolowski’s Scott King series in which the investigative journalist looks into complicated cases and broadcasts his findings in a podcast.

Three people have been convicted of Elizabeth Barton’s murder, but through six interviews King begins to dig deeper into the case for the truth.

This one is set during 2018 when the Beast from the East descended on Britain leaving a blanket of snow behind and even though it’s told after the event, it feels incredibly realistic. You can really feel the cold wind blowing through – and it’s almost as chilling as the story itself.

 

5. Deity by Matt Wesolowski

Zach Crystal is a cultural phenomenon, rock star, enigma, Deity. Or at least he was.

Now, he’s dead, burned in a fire and the world is mourning. But among the mourners there is an ever-increasing number of dissenters, people claiming that the truth behind his charitable work may be darker than it appears.

Scott King is out to investigate in the latest series of Six Stories.

This explores our relationship with popular culture, how we blindly worship people we don’t really know… and how we continue to do so, despite the truth suggesting we really shouldn’t. This is such a great series and I can’t wait to read more.

 

4. Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

Anjelica Henley is taken from desk duty and put back on a live case when body parts are found along the Thames. They bear the hallmarks of notorious serial killer Peter Olivier, but he’s safely locked up in jail. So is this a copycat killer?

Henley heads to the prison to seek Olivier’s help in catching this new killer, but seeing as she was the one who put him inside in the first place, helping her is the last thing on his mind…

Like all detective stories, this one works really well, not because of the crime story, but because of the detective investigating it. I loved getting to know Henley as she battled to save future victims – as well as her own personal life. Definitely a character I’m looking forward to seeing more of in the future.

 

3. Common Ground by Naomi Ishiguro

Stan is being bullied at his new school and it’s making him miserable. Each day after school he spends time on the common, away from the boys at his school and his mum at home.

It’s on the common where he meets Charlie, a charismatic boy a few years older than him and they become instant friends. Charlie is a traveller and while Stan has no problems with that, there are plenty of people do and their friendship is cut short… until years later when they meet up again in London.

This is a great book and Charlie is an instantly likeable character in the first part, so that by the time you meet him in the second you are really drawn into what’s changed for him to make him so downbeat.

 

2. The Secret life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain

When Albert Entwistle is told he must retire, he starts to reflect on his lonely life and realises how alone he truly is.

He starts to look back on his life, how his father’s negative reaction to gay men forced him into a closet he never left, and he realises that in order to move on and finally start living, he needs to track down George, the boy he fell in love with nearly fifty years ago.

I really enjoyed this gentle, uplifting story about a man who has let his secret dominate his entire life. Ultimately, it’s a story about community and finding people around us who we can let in and enhance our lives.

And reminding us, it’s never too late!

 

1. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

In 1972, three lighthouse keepers vanish from the tower in the days between Christmas and New Year. They’ve been living there on their own for weeks, waiting for the next relief to arrive, but when he does, there’s no sign of them.

The clocks are stopped at 9.15 and the door is locked. So where are they?

Twenty years later, a writer approaches the women left behind to try and help them settle the mystery. But do they know more than they’re letting on. And why aren’t they speaking anymore?

This is a brilliant, atmospheric read. I could feel the wind and the waves around me as I tore through the pages, desperate to get to the end and solve the mystery. I think this will be one of my favourite books of the year.

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Bert’s January 2021 Reads

I’ve decided I need to actually keep track of the number of books I read each month – and what better way to do that than blogging about them?

In January I read 12 books – and I enjoyed them all, but for those that care about that sort of thing, I’ve ranked them!

They’re all available to purchase – or pre-order. If it sounds like your thing, or if you’d just like to find out more, then just click on the links

13. Acts of Kindness by Heather Barnett

Bella Black starts a new job at Acorn consultancy, and soon finds herself working for the mysterious OAK Institute.

This a high-camp, adventure – if you’re thinking a female James Bond (one of the later Roger Moore ones) you wouldn’t be far off.

This suffers a little bit from not really knowing what genre it wants to be – but if you go in knowing that you’ll get a fun story about a woman who doesn’t quite know who she is or even who she works for, you’ll not be disappointed.

12. The Spiral by Iain Ryan

Erma wakes up in bed to find one of her colleagues standing at the foot of her bed. Her colleague points a gun, fires at Erma, then shoots themselves. Erma then tries to understand just what was going on.

Erma herself isn’t that likeable, she’s not really trying to find out why her colleague did what she did – instead, she’s just trying to track down her work so she can complete her own work. She’s been studying the Choose Your Adventure type of books from her childhood and as she gets closer to tracking down her missing research, she finds out some truths about herself.

There’s a clever – and fun! – Choose Your Own Adventure-style section in this book, which really fits the jumbled moment it appears in and helps both us and Erma uncover the truth.

11. The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

When Eddie dies, he goes to heaven and here he meets five people he previously knew in his long life. Some of them he knew very well, some barely at all – but they all marked key points his life and they help him realise just what his life was worth.

This year, as I clear out my bookcase, I’m re-reading some of my favourite books. This one was one that I looked at a lot in a bookshop, before finally getting around to buying it. I loved the moral of this story as well as the writing.

Now, looking back on it, I can see how this story has helped shape my outlook on life – but also, how simple a story it is. I didn’t love it as much this time around, but it’s still a great book.

10. The Shelf by Helly Acton

Amy and Jamie have been together for two years, and she’s pretty sure that as she careens into her mid-thirties, he is her last chance of happiness. So, when he announces a mystery trip away – she’s convinced this is it. This is when he’s going to propose.

Instead, he takes her to a TV studio, dumps her and leaves her there – one of six women taking part in a new reality show ‘A Keeper’ – where each of the contestants stand to win themselves £1,000,000 if they can prove they would make the perfect wife.

At first, this book made me angry – at Jamie, at the producers of the TV show, at the audience, but as time goes on, I started to really enjoy Amy’s personal discovery of just who exactly she is.

9. Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow by Benjamin Dean

Archie Albright just wants everything to go back to normal. He wants his parents to stop arguing, he wants his dad to move back in and he wants to be able to just enjoy his life like any other normal 12 year old would.

So, when he overhears his parents arguing and learns something surprising about his dad, he and his best friends  decide that the only way to fix things is to travel to London.

This is a lovely book about a young child coming to terms with the fact that his father is gay – and finding a whole new family along the way. In fact, Archie handles everything remarkably well – it’s the adults who don’t in this charming book.

8. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton – Published 20th April 2021

Opal & Nev are two of the most iconic rock stars of the 70’s – they only had one album together, but one iconic photograph taken on the night of a riot at a musical showcase has catapulted their fame.

Now, nearly 50 years later, they’re getting back together for a one-off show, and music journalist S Sunny Shelton is pulling together interviews for a book to chart their rise to fame. Only Shelton has a personal connection and agenda to wanting to learn more about them.

Like Daisy Jones and the Six this is a book told in transcript form, and it’s about the rise and fall of a rock duo. If you liked Daisy, you’ll like this – it’s different in places as it tells, perhaps a more personal story, and has a wonderful, cinematic ending.

7. The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Nat Davy is the smallest man in England. Nobody really knows why he’s stopped growing, but he has and his parents are struggling to know what to do with him. His father, eventually sells him to a local Duke for eleven shillings, who, in turn presents him to the Queen of England.

The Queen and Nat become firm friends and as the English start to uprise against her and her husband, he helps her escape to safety.

This is a sweet tale told around the famous story of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, but it’s the personal story of one of the courtiers, so the drama isn’t around the political nature, but about how Nat can learn to live in a world that isn’t designed for him.

6. The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr

Samuel and Isaiah live together in a barn on The Halifax Plantation – but they’re not free men. They’re slaves, along with many other people. But they’re also in love – and as the rest of the slaves are slowly converted over to Christianity, this is a dangerous place to find themselves in.

This isn’t just a story about Samual and Isaiah, this is the story of a whole community of people. The slaves and the plantation owners. How they work and live together, but how they remain forever different, no matter how much some of them pretend they might not be.

5. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Three separate cases in Jackson Brodie’s first appearance all come together to reveal that perhaps we’re all more connected than we previously thought.

This was another book from Bert’s Bookshelf that I re-read this month – and it’s as good as I remembered. Jackson is a brilliant central character, but so are all the characters around him.

It’s a great book, one that suckers you into it and guides you effortlessly through what are some quite traumatic stories. Definitely not cosy crime, but it makes you feel safe, warm and comforted all the way through.

4. The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean

He’s her husband, but she’s not his wife. She’s his captive. He calls her Jane, but that’s not her name. She’s trapped in a farmhouse in the UK with no idea of how she got there. Lennie records her every move and if he doesn’t like what he sees, she gets punished.

But something has changed. Now, she has a reason to live and to fight. And now, she’s watching him.

This is a claustrophobic and desolate read, you’re urging ‘Jane’ on throughout to rescue herself, but you can totally understand her motivations, why she holds back. Go to bed early with this one, because you won’t be able to put it down.

3. The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

Lenni is just 17 years old, but she’s destined to die. She’s living on the terminal ward of a hospital. She meets Margot, an 83 year old woman who is in the hospital as well and convinced she’s going to die.

Between them, they’re a hundred years old and in their art class together, they start painting scenes from their lives.

Along with Lenni, we learn all about Margot’s life, a life that could easily be similar to the one Lenni lived had she not fallen ill. This is a sad, yet uplifting story, perfect for fans of Joanna Cannon.

2. True Crime Story by Joseph Knox

This might be a tricky one to explain. Like Daisy Jones and Opal & Nev it’s another transcript based book, but in between the chapters we get  redacted email exchanges between Joseph Knox himself and Evelyn Mitchell.

Evelyn is researching the story of Zoe Nolan who disappeared just before Christmas and no trace of her was ever found. It’s told in the form of transcripts of interviews with the people who knew Zoe best – and along the way, these interviews are annotated by Knox.

So what happened to Zoe? And what happened to Evelyn so she couldn’t publish her own book?

The transcript style really suits this ‘true crime’ story and will appeal to fans of the Six Stories series by Matt Wesolowski.

1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Perhaps no surprise to anyone that this was the best book I read this month. You can find out more about just why I loved it so much by looking at my previous blog post, but in summary…

A Little Life is the story of JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But mostly it’s the story of Jude, a man whose life has been touched and defined by trauma. As he grows, he learns to trust those around him, even when some of them throw it back at him.

This is the sort of book that will stay with you forever once you’ve read it. A must for… everyone.

 

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A Little Life – A Big Review

This post was originally published back in 2015 in a previous life, on a previous blog. I thought I’d share it for you now so you can see just why I love A Little Life so much 

 

It’s not often that I’m wrong, it’s an even more infrequent occurrence that I admit that I’m wrong. But I was.

Earlier this year, I read A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and I wouldn’t stop raving about it. I even, what now seems a touch prematurely, considering it was January, billed it as my book of 2015.

I was wrong.

And that’s not to do down A Place Called Winter, it’s still within my top five books of all time, and most other years, would easily win the book of the year title.

But, a few months ago, a book by Hanya Yanagihara landed on my desk at work. It’s a big brick of a book, over seven hundred pages, and I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even read the blurb, but I was told by a colleague that I would enjoy it. Mostly because he knew I enjoyed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

So what was I expecting? The great American novel. A bit of a saga. Not much else.

The blurb tells us it is the tale of four friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But really, it is the story of Willem and Jude. But REALLY, it is the story of Jude.

We meet them when they’ve first moved to New York and Willem and Jude are looking for a place to live together. It is made clear at the very beginning, they are not a couple, nor are they brothers. They are simply friends. Best friends.

And that is what the story is about; the importance of friendship, how it effects our lives and how it can be bigger, yet more uncategorised than romantic love, than sexual love.

A Little Life is the story of love between men. It explores all aspects of it, and it does so beautifully, and yet so tragically.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novel without giving anything away, or indeed without going on for pages about the tiny point that you want to talk about, so perhaps the best thing to do is to tell you about the structure of the book.

The titular little life in question is that of Jude St Francis, and it is through a non-linear construction that we learn about it. He is mysterious, and reluctant to talk about his past, to the point that his friends, his closest friends know nothing of him, except not to ask.

It is over seven hundred pages long, but each section, each chapter, feels like its own book. We learn in them the stories of all four characters to varying degrees, and though some of the chapters are as long as eighty pages, the prose and the characters are so elegantly drawn, it is impossible not to get swept away.

Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote in the Bookseller that she read the book in one night. This is unbelievable, believable, and unbelievable again all at once.

Initially, the size of the book is off-putting. It certainly doesn’t strike you as a quick read and the first thirty to forty pages are confusing. There are so many male twenty-something characters that it is difficult to tell them apart.

But then, something clicks and you’re not just able to tell the characters apart, but they have started to become part of you. The book starts to become part of you and although you kind of broadly know what’s going to happen, you have to read on. And that’s when you understand how it’s possible to have read it one night.

The desire to read on is strong, but what I can’t understand, is how anyone can be emotionally stable enough to read it in one sitting. There is a point about a third of the way through – and I don’t think this spoils anything – where the tragic background of Jude starts to become clear, and you realise that this is a book that’s going to break your heart.

That’s not to say it is filled with unrelenting misery. I read A Little Life at the same time that I downloaded Will Young’s latest album 85% Proof. It’s a typical Will Young album, cracking vocals, a little bit dance-y but quite melancholy, but I had it playing in the background as I read parts of the book, and every song on it seemed to fit the plot.

Three songs stand out:

Thank You – a song from Jude to Caleb

Blue – a song from Willem to Jude, that actually contains the line “We live a little life”

And Joy – a song that is melodically upbeat and happy, but is lyrically about hope. “Nothing really matters, we’ve got everything we need, take a big leap and we will feel joy.”

It’s a song about daring to hope that things are going to work out, and that is the pervading feeling that you get from this book. Life is miserable, bad things happen, but the characters in this book are not just living little lives, they’re living great ones, because of the relationships and friendships that they form with each other.

There’s a whole section of the book in the last third called “The Happy Years” and by the time you get there and you see the heading, your heart sinks, because you know that nothing is going to stay happy, by this point, you know it’s a book that’s not only going to break your heart, it’s going to shatter it and use the bits to create itself a home.

And there are moments during The Happy Years where you’re screaming at the characters, urging them to just… well, I shan’t say. But you are. They’re making themselves miserable and it’s unbearable.

Then, at the end of The Happy Years, at their happiest, something happens, in the last three to four paragraphs. I had to put the book down and walk away.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were maybe a hundred pages or so left. I had time to finish it before going for dinner at my mum’s, but by this point, I knew that I would not be in any state come the end of the book, where I would be able to be around people, let alone make small talk with my granddad and mum.

I came back in the evening, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and began to read.

I started with Will Young playing in the background, but it became clear after just one page that the music wasn’t suitable. Not because it didn’t match, but because I was being sucked into this world. Into Jude’s world.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that first part of the last section is told from Jude’s point of view – as I’ve already said, the book is told in a non-linear structure – and I started to cry.

I’m not a big crier. I’m not emotional. But sometimes when watching a film, or a TV program, a small tear will escape. It happens more often with books, where one or two tears will trickle down my face. It last happened with A Place Called Winter, and previously to that it happened with the book that I won’t name (I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s becoming less and less important to me that I don’t share it, perhaps one day, I will).

In the space of 98 pages, I cried four times. A trickle or two of a tear. Maybe on one occasion three tears, because I really screwed up my face and squeezed that third one out. This was surprising enough to me, to know that A Little Life had truly affected me, but then…

The last section of the book is a letter from Harold – Jude’s adoptive father, and it had made a tear escape already once. And then there is the payoff to a moment three or four hundred pages earlier and I immediately started to sob.

Big, unmanly, tears misting my eyes, properly crying.

I had to put the book down, two pages from the end, because I couldn’t see to read. I had to compose myself before I could bring myself to carry on any further.

To people who want more than plot from their books, the kind of person who might enjoy The Goldfinch, then I would ask you to please read this book, to stick with it past that first confusing section (which by the way, I think is intentional, because it seems ridiculous now, that one could confuse any of these characters).

I was wrong when I said A Place Called Winter was my book of the year. It’s still a very good book, one of the best. But, if there’s a book better than A Little Life, I don’t have the emotional strength to read it for at least six months, and so I am crowning A Little Life my book of 2015.

It’s probably the book of my life.