Friday, 12 January 2018

What I read in December

Happy New Year. I hope 2018 has got off to a great start for everyone. Today's post rounds off my monthly reading reviews for 2017. I read 55 books last year, I am planning a post discussing my favourites soon.

This is a children's story about a boy and a fox and a war. Peter rescued Pax when he was a cub and they have grown up together. With a war coming Peter is forced to return Pax to the wild; a decision he regrets as soon as he makes it. The book is the story of Peter's hunt to find Pax and Pax's story of what happens in the meantime. Peter and Pax get alternate chapters to tell their stories which works very well and the fox's voice is believable.

I enjoyed reading this book and it is very moving. I felt rather weepy at points. It would also be a good book to read aloud although you would need to judge the sensitivity of your audience. It is beautifully illustrated by Jon Klassen.

This novel is inspired by the life of the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar who was born in 1961 and died at the age of 29. She is best known for her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too which was also turned into a film. Andrea had a very tough life on an infamous estate, dealing with poverty, abuse and alcoholism whilst bringing up her children.

This book tells the story of Andrea's life both at home on the Bradshaw Estate and whilst visiting London as a playwright to see her work being produced. It describes how authentic her work was and the difficulties that she faced whilst writing. It is both tragic and comic, just like her scripts. You get a feeling of how hard it must have been for Dunbar to navigate between these two worlds, only one of which she really understood.

This novel is very well researched and written, with a strong sense of place and real empathy for Dunbar. I found it fascinating and learnt quite a bit too.

I had been looking forward to this book by Lucy Adlington coming out and I was not disappointed. Lucy Adlington is part of the History Wardrobe whose historical costume talks and events you may have been lucky enough to go to. She has written several other books, two of which I have on my to read pile.

This is an incredibly powerful young adults book which centres on four young women - Rose, Ella, Marta and Carla. It is told from Ella's point of view and follows her from her first day in her new job in a sewing workshop. Only it is no ordinary first day as the workshop is in Birchwood (Auschwitz) and this is a story all about hope, friendship and survival. It is based on real sewing workshops within concentration camps.

I don't want to say much more about it as I do not want to ruin the story. It is a wonderfully written story which brings home the horror of it's setting in a way which is all the more powerful because it is dealing with sewing and clothes, things that are not out of the ordinary.

This novel begins in 1922 when Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat bought down by the Russian Revolution, is sentenced to house arrest in an attic room in the Hotel Metropol. The Count has to adjust suddenly from his life of having everything and more to having seemingly nothing. However, all of life can be witnessed through the comings and goings at the hotel. The Count makes an unlikely but rewarding friendship with a young girl who is also a guest. They explore behind the scenes at the hotel. This friendship has a lifelong effect on the Count and we follow his story up to 1954.

This book is atmospheric and it gave me a strong sense of Russia at that time, especially through it's politics, music, literature and ballet. The characters are strong and well drawn and you get a real sense of displacement. The house arrest in the hotel is a clever plot device which locks down the location whilst providing lots of plot opportunities in the day to day business of a busy hotel. I really enjoyed reading it.

This is a debut novel and a really great read. I enjoyed it a lot, you end up really feeling for the main character Eleanor. It is warm, funny and tragic in equal measure. I am finding it quite hard to know what to say about it without giving too much away.

Eleanor Elephant has many quirks and a decided way of doing things. Throughout the book we realise that this is to do with a tragic event in her early life which she has not/can not deal with. She has everything that she needs on the surface, a job, a flat, some interests but it becomes clear that she is existing rather than really living. Making a friend changes all that and we watch Eleanor change in ways that she never imagined. I can't say much more but it is well worth a read.

Despite having read a fair few crime books I have never read the 'Queen of Crime' P.D.James. These six short stories are clever tales of revenge. A bullying school teacher gets his comeuppance. A heart broken husband plots a way to get his own back but there is a twist in the end. A country house Christmas weekend doesn't follow the expected traditions. A young girl confronts a mystery in her past. A new house is acquired in a twisted way. A father in a nursing home cleverly gains revenge on his children.

These tales are well written and the characters are well drawn. I don't always enjoy short stories as I sometimes find them unsatisfying but that was not the case with these. Perfect for an afternoon of light reading.

There are two novels in this book. Quicksand was written in 1928 and Passing in 1929. Nella Larsen was an American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance (a movement in African American culture 1918-1937) and she was the first African American woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. She disappeared from public view after these two novels due to a messy divorce and a plagiarism accusation and worked as a nurse until her death.

Quicksand is thought to be semi autobiographical as the main character, Helga Crane, is the daughter of a West Indian father and a Danish mother, as was Larsen. Helga is a woman who is struggling to find a place where she is comfortable in life. Her parents are dead and her relatives are not all comfortable having her around. In seeking out what she wants she finds that she often feels apart when she is in black communities and is also uncomfortable living with her white relatives. She moves around trying to find where she belongs whilst becoming bogged down in questioning her emotions and her beliefs.

Passing focuses on two women and has some similar themes to Quicksand. Clare and Irene were friends as children and meet again after marriage and children. Both are mixed race and Irene identifies as black whilst Clare 'passes' as a white woman and her husband does not know her background. Clare wants to restart her friendship with Irene so that she can have an entry into black society and reconnect with one half of her identity. Irene fears for Clare being found out and judged by her racist husband.

Both books were fascinating, thought provoking, and gave me a much better insight into life in America for an African American in the twenties. I would like to think that things have improved enormously since then but recent events show that to sadly not be true.

I had quite a Persephone Books wish list for Christmas present ideas and luckily for me my family kindly obliged. This one is from my mum and dad. I do love Persephone books, they are always interesting, I like that they are out of the ordinary and that they work hard to bring forgotten women writers back to our attention. I have never read one that I did not enjoy. Also, let's not forget how beautiful they look in their classy silver jackets that open to reveal the glorious endpapers and the matching bookmark. The endpapers for this book are a 1933 textile design from the Calico Printers Association, Manchester. Imagine that as a frock!

Marianna was Monica Dickens second book, published in 1940 and written when she was 24. It tells the story of Mary from childhood to adulthood. It is a fairly gentle tale of family life, in a small flat and then house in London with her mother and actor uncle, with weekends and holidays spent at her late father's family's country seat Charbury. We follow Mary through endless summers with her cousins, school life, crushes, heart break, academic distress, acting school, Paris and love as she grows up and finds her identity. It has plenty of enjoyable domestic detail and special little moments and is a joy to read.


  1. So many interesting books! I do like the look of the Nella Larsen book, it sounds like a fascinating insight into the way mixed race people were treated at the time. I also, of course, love the cover of that Persephone book. I'd love a dress in that print! xx

    1. I did find it fascinating, I learnt quite a bit. Lets hope that someone releases that print as dress fabric!

  2. 55 books is quite the accomplishment! I didn't read anywhere near that many last year- but this year I have a goal to read more. Some of these books look quite interesting, i'll have to check them out.

    1. Do let me know if you read any of them, I would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. You always write such good reviews! I can get a real feel for which books would be the right fit for me. I'm so steeped in non-fiction at the moment, I should really add a few novels to my reading list.