Review: Just Jorie by Robin Alexander

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So before I review Just Jorie, I’d just like to say that this was a story which broke my audio book virginity, if you can forgive the expression. I haven’t listened to audio books before, simply because for whatever reason Amazon Audible wasn’t available in Poland until recently. And now I’ve tried one, I’m absolutely hooked – it means I can fit more books into my week without even trying!

But anyway, onto the book itself. Just Jorrie is the sweet and engaging tale of two women who find true love for the first time at forty (or thereabouts). It’s mostly set in New Orleans and focuses on Jorie (Marjorie Andolini) and Lena Vaughan, who find themselves thrown together by chance while waiting for a plane home. They decide to make the journey back by car together, and end up discovering out a lot more about each other than they’d bargained for.

Lena is forty, a high flying businesswoman who for some reason never seems able to meet the right guy. Jorie works for her family’s car parts company and is out and comfortable with her identity as a lesbian. Ostensibly worlds apart, they both begin to realise that each might be the other’s ‘one’: that certain somebody who’ll bring magic, love and security into their lives.

For Lena, this means a late-in-life examination of her own sexuality. For Jorie, it comes with plenty of concerns: is Lena just toying with her? Is it possible that someone with Lena’s background could fall for her? And that’s without taking into account the helpful ‘advice’ which comes their way and threatens to rock the boat, courtesy of various friends and family members.

The key note of the story is its humour. Avoid reading or listening to this book in public, because you will laugh. A lot. The dialogue is fast, sharp and witty and the characterisation is just perfect – especially when it comes to the Andolini household, and Jorie’s crazy Aunt and Gramps who never hold back. And I loved how easy it was to relate to all the characters and the situations they found themselves in.

Put simply, Just Jorie is a beautifully written, upbeat romantic comedy. And I can definitely recommend the audio version, narrated by Lisa Cordileone, who brings all the characters to life.

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Review of “Building Love” by M E Tudor

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A sweet romance about real people finding real love.

Following the sudden death of her father, Patricia McNeal goes off the rails, taking drugs, partying and ending up pregnant at eighteen. Her mother Mandy, also coming to terms with the death of her husband, embarks on a new life and opens a B&B.

Enter Theresa Garland, working for her father’s construction company, who is tasked with turning Mandy’s dream into a reality. There’s a definite spark between Theresa and Patty, but it takes a great deal of soul searching and bitter experience before they can acknowledge it. And even then, both girls seem to be victims of their own pasts: of circumstances which it’s hard to keep secret in a small town.

What I liked about the book is just how easy it was to relate to the main characters. Both Theresa and Patty are strong, stubborn, beautiful women who’ve been dealt a poor hand in life and learn to make the best of it. And you find yourself really rooting for them in their search for love, family and security. The perfect summer read.

Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride

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This was quite the most challenging work of fiction that I’ve read for a long time: a novel which is brutal in its honesty and honest in its presentation of brutality. It shocks, it disturbs, it confounds and it never, ever spares the reader.

I guess, on one level, this might be Eimar McBride giving her literary forebears the finger. After all, the narrative which unfolds is couched in fluid, stream of consciousness monologue – a nod perhaps to the ‘Penelope’ chapter of Ulysses and to Joyce’s male centric Bildungsroman A Portrait of the Artist. But the nameless protagonist of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is no worldly-wise, self-satisfied Molly Bloom, and the focus of this book is fully on female sexuality. And if McBride’s work offers any kind of release, it is not in an affirmative portrayal of that sexuality. In fact, it stems from a gradual process of disintegration: from the girl slowly stripping herself of all she is and of all that is expected of her.

This is fundamentally the story of the destruction of a sensitive, intelligent child. Her mother – a devout, almost fanatical Catholic – never truly succeeds in engaging with her daughter in a meaningful way and seems to almost wilfully refuse to understand her. Sexually assaulted at the age of thirteen by her uncle, the protagonist is left with serious psychological scars and can only find an outlet for her pain in degrading, sexual encounters. At the same time, she positions herself between the world and the one person she ever really loves – her brother – who has suffered a brain tumour.

The girl is constantly perceived by others; objectified in so many different ways. Yet her monologue reveals the extent to which she is internally fragmented and incapable of sustaining a coherent sense of her own identity. It’s a hard and at times excruciating read. But it takes the reader places few other books dare: into another human being’s tormented psyche.

 

Review: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

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I arrived at this novel by a vagarious route. I recently finished Hild by Nicola Griffith in which the last Celtic kingdom of Elmet is a central motif. To my shame I had never heard of Elmet, even though I lived for about two years in Yorkshire (Elmet was located over roughly what would later become the West Riding.) After reading Hild I began to realise just how politically complex 7th century England was. The term Anglo-Saxon is conceptually inaccurate as it implies a dominant, monolithic culture when in fact Angles and Saxons were already fragmented and warring groups. In this context, the idea of a residual Celtic Kingdom in the north of England appears less of an anomaly and more a kind of proof of just how porous British identity always has been.

Anyway, I found the idea of Elmet a fascinating one, and I happened to be at an airport bookshop when I saw Fiona Mozley’s book, read that it had been shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize and immediately went and downloaded it. What I love about this novel is the fact that it plays on that original idea of Elmet as a kind of badlands: a world away from the norms, a place where ancient values and beliefs still frame the way people live and think. Yet at the same time, Mozley repositions that idea in a more recent context: in a Yorkshire scarred by the destruction of mining communities and on the cusp of entering a new, unforgiving reality of hard capitalism and privatisation.

The novel foregrounds a pocket of resistance to such change in the form of Daddy (John Smythe), a prize fighter who brings up his children Kathy and Daniel in the middle of a forest, schooling them in self-sufficiency and resourcefulness. Daddy makes his money through violence – through boxing in illegal fights – while going at any length to protect his family against the threats which encroach upon their little world.

The fascination of this story is not what is said but what is left unsaid. Its impact lies in its ambiguity: in the frayed edges around the tale which Daniel, its narrator, weaves. It gives the novel a mythic, lyrical feel which contributes to the sense of this being a kind of latter day legend, just as Elmet itself became the subject of myth making.

It’s a novel which is at once rooted in a keen sense of geography and history but which at the same time transcends time and space. Mozley’s prose rings with innovation and with imagery which throws into relief the wild, stark, beautiful world which Daniel inhabits. It’s a story of survival and of loss, of the clash of value systems, and of our sense of how the past invades the present. Elmet is also violent territory, and the fact that this violence is muted in Daniel’s narration makes it all the more shocking. Abuse and conflict, the book suggests, are as much a part of our cultural inheritance as the land and traditions which Daddy is so desperate to hand onto his children. This is a book which you carry with you long after you’ve finished. Highly recommended.

Review: Rock and a Hard Place by Andrea Bramhall

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Rock and a Hard Place is a beautifully written romance set against the stunning backdrop of the Patagonian mountains and it’s all about climbing. And as I did quite a bit of climbing in the past (anecdote to follow this review) I decided it was definitely for me.

The premise of the story is brilliant. Rhian Phillips is project leader for a marketing company tasked with producing a reality TV series showcasing a set of climbers (something I would seriously watch!). Jayden Harris, a world-renowned mountaineer, believes she’s put the rocks behind her forever following a devastating accident at Everest base camp. Both women are thrown together under a set of fairly traumatic circumstances. And both of them have issues stemming from their pasts which lead to secrets, insecurities and misunderstandings even as they slowly but surely fall in love with each other.

What I appreciated most about the book was its degree of psychological realism. I really felt that I could understand why both characters might behave as they did, and why they would be wary of each other’s advances. On top of that, the whole scenario of putting a bunch of first class climbers together led to any number of potential flash points, from the objective risks posed by the mountains themselves to some serious ego clashing.

The book was solidly researched, but the technicalities of mountain climbing were subtly woven into the narrative for a reason and never distracted from the main thrust of the story. It was a novel which had me longing for the hills, and at the same time longing for Jayden and Rhian to realise how much they meant to each other. Rock and a Hard Place is published by Ylva and is a finalist in the GCLS awards this year.

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And now for that anecdote. So as I mentioned, I did quite a bit of climbing in the past, either at the rocks here in the Jura region of Poland, in the Polish Tatras during the winter and in the Alps in the summer. Anyway, our last alpine adventure involved a successful ascent of Mt Blanc du Tacul. On the way back down, my partner took this picture of me peering into a couple of crevasses – for some reason I can’t fathom:P1040693 The day was getting warm and we were absolutely exhausted. You can see behind me in the photo a precariously slanting serac with a number of cracks running through it? It probably should have set a few alarm bells ringing, but to be honest we were too drained to worry.

Anyway, we made it back to our campsite which was at Les Bossons, right at the base of the massif. In the morning, we woke to the buzz of helicopters. And when we climbed out of our tent it became clear that a rescue operation was taking place on the same stretch of glacier where we’d made our descent. Later that day we went into Chamonix to get a coffee and that was when we heard the news. A guide and two climbers had been following the same route up the massif during the early hours of the morning in order to reach the summit of Mt Blanc. A serac had broken off and taken them down into a crevasse. They all died.

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Even now, I find it quite hard to believe. Although we’d been in the mountains on many occasions, the risk never felt so palpable before that moment. Chamonix guides are trained for every eventuality but it’s hard to see how he could have predicted this situation. I guess the serac had melted, then refrozen and the tension on the fracture lines was just too great. Whatever the reason, I kept putting myself in the place of those people as they plummeted to their deaths and realising how close I’d come. I guess, though, it is the wonder and danger of these places which makes us return to them. I’ve been away from the mountains for a couple of years now, but the desire to revisit them only ever gets stronger.

Review: Winter by Ali Smith

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As with all of Ali Smith’s work, Winter is couched in deceptively simple prose, lulling the reader into a sense that this will be a straightforward tale of loss and redemption. And while it is both of those things, it is also a charged, complex and astoundingly beautiful meditation on the way, as a society, we stake out ideological battle lines; on the relationship between art and nature, the fake and the real; on our attitudes to the environment and on our obsession with technology.

This is the second part of Smith’s seasons quartet, and as might be expected there is thematic overlap with Autumn, most saliently perhaps in the references to memory and loss. One particular character is also referenced, who may well prove to be a link throughout the series. The story pivots around the relationship between two women: Sophia, a self-made business woman in her sixties, and her older sister Iris who has been a lifelong defender of the environment and human rights. Ideologically worlds apart, the sisters have grown to despise each other’s life choices; Iris living in a commune and protesting at Greenham Common while Sophia emerges almost as the model Thatcherite business woman, building up her small empire of department stores. Sophia’s son Arthur is the casualty in this family war: a sensitive child who has been severed from his roots and left to fend for himself at a private boarding school. As an adult, he seems to live life in proxy via his blog on which he posts fictional encounters with the natural world.

The feud played out between Sophia and Iris mirrors in microcosm those social and ideological fractures which often seem insurmountable on a broader, social level and the book widens its references to take in Brexit, the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War. Yet Winter ultimately considers the potential for healing and reconciliation even in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is a book which refuses to take sides, and which foregrounds dialogue and the understanding of difference as key to a future which will rise above and beyond the hatreds of the past.

Winter is a novel which confirms Ali Smith’s status as one of the greatest living British novelists – she was recently placed first in a TLS poll of academics and authors (theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/05/). I am always grabbed by the playfulness of her writing: her love of invention combined with her unquenchable curiosity, and the way her sentences seem to feed off and into each other. Reading Winter for the first time, I felt I was only scraping at the surface of the story, and I am certain that this is a book I’ll be revisiting on more occasions in the future.

Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

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Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild is a complex, beautiful weave of words: a novel which threads life into a distant past, revealing it to be at once distant and strange while at the same time hauntingly recognisable. For as the author Nicola Griffith states in her afterword: “While people in Hild’s time may have understood their world a little differently from how we understand ours, they were still people – as human as we are. Their dreams, fears, political machinations, fights, loves and hesitations were shaped by circumstance and temperament.”

It is perhaps the story’s bidirectional dynamic which fuelled my fascination. Here are people who are motivated by power, by perceptions of who is ‘kin’ and who is ‘other’ – we could easily find points of comparison between this world view and our own modern conceptions of national identity. Yet at the same time, Griffith portrays the British Isles at a period of massive upheaval: both religious and political. And these are changes on an almost seismic level which will completely alter the cultural fabric of these islands.

At one point, Hild presents the Irish Priest Fursey with a copy of the psalms and he describes it as a ‘palimpsest’. I take this to be the best analogy for the Britain that Griffith represents – a territory which has been staked out, re-imagined and rewritten by so many groups of people – Roman, Celtic and Anglisc, the future up for grabs and the present constantly shifting beneath their feet. It was this aspect of the book which particularly engaged me: the realisation of just how complex and volatile Hild’s world was. The best writers of historical fiction help us to read history from back to front – to understand the contingencies and accidents which got us where we are today. And this is exactly what Hild does.

Hild herself is a figure of great ambiguity, and the disparate narratives of this story all seem to coalesce in her person as the arch weaver, the perceiver of patterns. Her father Hereric is destined to be king, but is poisoned when Hild is a child. Together with her mother and sister she is taken into the household of king Edwin, her Uncle, and learns to navigate the turbulent and dangerous waters of the Deiran court from an early age. She is at once trusted seer to the king, and mistrusted ‘hægtes’ or witch, as comfortable amongst the British speaking wealhs as amongst the Anglisc speaking nobility. She makes the transition from Paganism to Christianity, she loves both men and women. She is, in short, the ultimate ‘passing’ character, a woman who wields a masculine form of power and who lives by her wits.

Hild is a book which confirms – in my mind – that we are living through a golden age of historical fiction: that the genre is challenging our concepts of the past and our relationship with it in ways that conventional historiography never can. It’s a demanding read, but I closed it with the feeling that I would have loved to linger just a while longer in Hild’s complex, brutal, beautiful world.

Review – Backwards to Oregon by Jae

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So I bought this book on recommendation from some of the girls at thelesbianreview.com who recognise a good tale when they see one. And as I’m a sucker for historical fiction, I figured that this was a story which was going to push all the right buttons – and it didn’t disappoint.

Set in mid-nineteenth century America, Backwards to Oregon tells the story of Nora – a prostitute – and Luke – a former soldier and survivor of the Mexican war . Luke offers Nora and her three-year-old daughter Amy the chance of a better life. In marrying him, she can put her past behind her and pose as his wife as he joins a group of pioneers travelling to Oregon. But there is a catch, which we as readers know right from the beginning – Luke is in fact a woman, who’s managed to successfully keep her identity a secret. And to reveal who she really is would be to invoke disaster.

As the plot unfolds, that is just one of the tensions which makes this story such a fascinating one.  How will Nora – who is obviously falling in love with Luke – cope when she finds out what Luke has been hiding? Both characters emerge as strong, beautiful women in their own ways, and you end up with the feeling that both really deserve each other. Luke, having disguised herself for so many years is forced to rediscover herself as a woman, while Nora shakes off her past to take on the role of  pioneer wife: resilient, determined and brave enough to do anything to protect those she loves.

The narrative also carries the reader along the journey west with its attendant risks of illness, dangerous river crossings and mountain passes, and with the sheer hardship of everyday life. What I liked in this respect is that, even though the author has evidently put in the hours when it came to research for her book, historical detail is integrated smoothly into the narrative. As a result, pioneer life is never romanticised, but is convincingly realised.

There were a few places where I found the prose a bit clunky. There were also one or two etymological slips – I’m not entirely sure that mid-nineteenth century Americans used terms like ‘gender’, and Luke’s prescience is a bit overstated at times. She, for example, is blessed with insight into the causes of cholera which eludes her peers.  But these were minor slippages and didn’t detract from the story itself which is compelling, well paced and sucks you into a world which was in some ways far more complex, dangerous and beautiful than our own.

Review: Changing Perspectives by Jen Silver

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This is such a delight of a book – I enjoyed it so much that I read it in two days and then felt sorry there wasn’t more. Set in the early 90s, Changing Perspectives is more than just a romance. It also sensitively unpacks the whole concept of kink and why some girls (and guys) are into it.

Dani is a talented artist and graphic designer who doesn’t really care what the world thinks about how she looks, who she loves or how she spends her night. When she encounters Camila – the beautiful and well-heeled financial director of a client’s company – there’s chemistry from the start. But this is not a simple story of opposites attract – it’s much deeper than that. Camila is still trying to come to terms with the death of her former partner, Allison. And even if she can bring herself to commit to another relationship, she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to embrace Dani’s penchant for kink.

It’s a deftly told story, perfectly paced, which spins out enough twists to keep you gripped. And the characters are believable and charming – Dani is a wonderful blend of fragile/tough while I really felt for Camila as she attempts to bury her grief and loneliness beneath work and an ice-maiden persona. There’s also plenty of humour to balance out the tension, often supplied through ironic references to the 90s which kind of made me nostalgic. Absolutely loved it, and if Jen Silver is thinking about penning a sequel, I’ll be queuing up for more.

 

Review: Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones

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Another beautiful installment of Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia series, which  introduces us to composer Luzie Valorin and Serafina Talarico, a vidator who is blessed with the power to see fluctus but not invoke it. Serafina appeared briefly towards the end of the second book The Mystic Marriage, but here her story is taken up in full. Born in Italy to Ethiopian parents, she escapes a loveless marriage to pursue her study of thaumaturgy, lodging with Luzie, a widow and musician who struggles to make ends meet following the death of her husband.

All the other major characters from the previous books are also given their own stories and the book emerges as a complex weave of narratives, each subtly related but distinct in the way they represent different aspects of Alpennian life. And while the book doesn’t draw all the individual strands of the story to their conclusions, the ending is really satisfying and leaves you hankering for more. Having said that, I did feel that as more characters are thrown into the ensemble, there’s not always enough focus on each one. I feel the author might have gone for broke and even doubled the length of the book to deliver more insight into the lives and relationships of these characters who never fail to fascinate.

That, however, is just a grumble which proves how much I love this series. It’s expertly penned, the prose style is tense and concise, it’s convincing in terms of characterisation and you just find yourself completely absorbed by the whole idea of Alpennia and its mysterious inhabitants. Can’t wait for more.