The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society – Mary Ann Shaffer

Juliet Ashton is an author and journalist living in London just after the Second World War. She is struggling to find inspiration for her next book, but one day she receives a letter from a man in Guernsey who has found her contact details in a book. He explains that due to the German occupation of Guernsey during the war, there are no books on the island and he asks whether she would be willing to send some books. As their communication develops, Juliet learns more about life under German rule in Guernsey and decides to visit herself.

This is an epistolary novel, and generally I felt this form worked well. The characters are fun and likeable, but I did feel that there were a few too many, and it was sometimes difficult to remember who was who. However, I loved learning about life on the Channel Islands during the German occupation as it was something I didn’t know much about at all.

This is quite a light hearted and fun read, but with plenty of history too.

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La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman

17 years after the final book in the His Dark Materials trilogy was published, Philip Pullman finally released the first in another trilogy set in the same world. As some of this trilogy will take place before and following His Dark Materials, Pullman has described The Book of Dust as an ‘equel’ rather than sequel or prequel.

In the first novel, La Belle Sauvage, Lyra Belacqua, the protagonist of His Dark Materials is only a baby. She has been placed in the care of a group of nuns, but when a catastrophic flood hits Oxford, a young boy called Malcolm rescues her from both the water and her enemies and tries to take her in his canoe, named La Belle Sauvage, along the Thames to her father, Lord Asriel.

This is without a doubt darker than its predecessors – there’s swearing, rape and child abuse, and Bourneville with his hyena daemon is a horrific villain. Pullman’s storytelling is still fantastic, and this is a gripping read. My only very small criticism is the rescue attempt by Malcolm in the canoe becomes a little repetitive by the end. There are also a lot of unanswered questions and unexplained symbolism, but I’m hopeful that these will be explained in the future novels.

A fantastic companion to His Dark Materials, and well worth a read.

How to Stop Time – Matt Haig

Tom Hazard has a rare condition where he ages far more slowly than other humans. He has been alive for over 400 years. The disadvantages of living this long are having to move and change identity when people start to notice that you don’t age, and the fact that you lose loved ones who age at a normal pace. Tom is a member of the Albatross society, run by a man called Henrich, which helps people with the condition relocate and change their identities every 8 years. Tom hopes that the society will help him find his daughter, who he believes also has the condition.

I found the concept of the story interesting, and in general I enjoyed Haig’s writing style. I did have a few bugbears however. There are a lot of flashbacks, and while some of these are effective others feel like they have been shoehorned in. Another element that felt shoehorned was all the celebrities that Tom happens to have come across in his life, like Shakespeare, Captain Cook and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also, as a former teacher, I found the chapters where he was teaching quite unrealistic, as it seemed that he was more of a lecturer, which would never be effective with teenagers!

Despite these annoyances, it was a pleasant enough story and I did enjoy the writing style, therefore I will probably try another of Matt Haig’s books at some point.

44 Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith

44 Scotland Street is the first novel in a series where the chapters are originally published daily in The Scotsman, and then published as a serial novel. I’d originally started the series a few years ago, but couldn’t remember how far I got so I decided to start again from the beginning.

I’d forgotten how fun the series is! It follows the stories of occupants in apartments at 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh, from the highly intelligent 5 year old Bertie and his overbearing mother Irene, to Angus Lordie and his dog Cyril with a gold tooth. It is light-hearted, funny and perfect escapism, and ideal for reading on a commute as the chapters are so short. I’m looking forward to starting Espresso Tales soon!

Mythos – Stephen Fry

Being more or less completely unfamiliar with Greek mythology, I was eager to read Stephen Fry’s retelling as I thought it would be an accessible introduction. I wasn’t disappointed. This was an excellent starting point for a novice like me, but I’m sure his engaging style of writing would also please those who are already very familiar with the myths.

The stories themselves are full of jealousy, deceit, love, revenge, sex and power. I particularly enjoyed learning the origins of some of the vocabulary and phrases we use today through the myths. I did find at the beginning that a lot of information was given all at once; we are introduced to a lot of characters and explained how they all relate to each other. As the book went on there was less of this, but also I think I stopped wondering how everyone related to each other and just enjoyed the stories!

This is definitely a great introduction to some of the Greek myths. I would have liked a more detailed family tree, and an index would also be great, but overall I enjoyed this very much.

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

When her parents are killed in a cholera outbreak in India, Mary Lennox is sent to live with an uncle she has never met at Misselthwaite Manor. At first she is spoilt and unfriendly, but when she discovers a locked garden she begins to take more of an interest in her new life in Yorkshire, and gradually discovers the secret of the garden.

The 1993 film version of The Secret Garden was one of my favourite films as a child so I was eager to finally read the book. It didn’t disappoint although it’s always a different experience reading a book when you already know the story. I loved the descriptions of the garden and I particularly liked Dickon as a character. I feel I probably would have enjoyed it more had I read it when I was younger, especially before seeing the film. However, I’m glad to have finally read it.

The Secret of Chimneys – Agatha Christe

While in Africa, Anthony Cade agrees to help his friend Jimmy McGrath and return a manuscript to London. After an attempt to steal the manuscript from him, he ends up at the country house of Chimneys, involved in a political scandal and murder case involving the royal family of Herzeslovakia.

This is far from my favourite of Christie’s novels that I’ve read, but it’s enjoyable enough and easy to read, despite a fairly complicated plot. I found I missed Poirot or Marple, and the number of characters pretending to be someone other than they were was a little ridiculous. However, for some easy escapism, it’s a good read.

For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway

During the Spanish Civil War, a young American volunteer who has experience as a dynamiter, Robert Jordan, is sent to the mountains near Segovia to join a rebel group that will help him blow up a bridge to try and prevent the fascist enemy troops from responding to an upcoming attack.

This novel is very character driven and effectively conveys the intense relationships that develop during a time of war. However, the writing style is difficult and it took me a while to get used to it, although I can understand Hemingway’s decision to try to make the novel feel ‘foreign’, using English that reads as if it were a direct (bad) Spanish translation, such as

‘I obscenity in the milk of all of you’

There are also some very long sentences and some fairly long passages with stories told by members of the rebel group that do not add to the plot at all.

This has a slow moving plot and the writing style is a little challenging at first, but it is worth a read for the conditions during the Spanish Civil War and the power struggles that can arise in a group of guerrillas.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is 30 years old and lives alone in Glasgow. She has a set routine, wearing the same clothes and eating the same food each day of the week, including drinking two bottles of vodka at weekends. She is very isolated, but when she sees a man collapse on the street and goes to help she suddenly finds herself interacting with new people, and gradually her life begins to change.

This was a fantastic read, and at times hilarious. Some of Eleanor’s social observations are hysterical, and I found myself cringing when she spoke with no filter at all. It is also heartbreaking at times, such as learning of the trauma Eleanor experienced as a child, and her descriptions of her loneliness, which were sometimes difficult to read.

These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted.

I did find some of Eleanor’s lack of awareness unbelievable at times – for example, I find it hard to believe that she’d have no idea what a high 5 is. However, these are only very minor quibbles. I loved this book and would recommend it to everyone.

Origin – Dan Brown

Edmond Kirsch, a futurist and outspoken atheist, is assassinated while giving a presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that he claims will have a catastrophic impact on the future of the world’s religions. His former teacher, Professor Robert Langdon, along with the curator of the museum, Ambra Vidal, set out to try and find another way to reveal Kirsch’s presentation to the world, which he claimed would finally definitively answer humanity’s two most important questions, ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘Where are we going?’

As with other Robert Langdon stories, the action is fast paced and moves between several locations in Spain, including Barcelona and El Escorial. As someone who lived in Spain for eight months and visits the country regularly, I really enjoyed knowing some of the settings. The novel includes interesting themes, such as the future of technology, particularly Artificial Intelligence, (Langon and Vidal have the help of a supercomputer built by Kirsch, namely a Siri/Alexa type character called Winston) and connections between science and religion.

This is a fun read, although almost inevitably after the huge build up the final reveal from the presentation is anticlimactic. It also lacks a lot of the symbolism that I particularly enjoyed in The Da Vinci Code. However, for some escapism and enjoyment, I would definitely recommend this novel.