The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Tethered by Amy Mackinnon

I was intrigued by this novel after reading many reviews around the blogs last year. I was attracted by the unusual story, and also by the cover on the American version (although our English cover is also quite attractive). I finished it only a few hours ago.
Clara is a reserved young woman who seeks refuge from a troubled past in her work as a mortuary attendant, safely hidden from the living. Her only aims in life are to be as invisible as possible and to honour those whose bodies come her way. Her passion is for the flowers that she lovingly tends in her ornamental greenhouse, and their traditional meanings, which she uses with appropriate care when preparing the dead and including a personal bouquet. The more unsavoury parts of her job are preferable to any interaction with the people she comes into contact with. There is affection, but at a distance, with Linus, the caring owner of the Funeral Home and his wife Alma, who have come to call Clara their own. There is also Mike, the police officer from the various crime scenes they have attended together, including that of his wife 3 years earlier. Clara has enough bolt holes when the closeness of others becomes too much within her carefully planned life. That is until a young girl, a child, is discovered playing in the funeral home, reopening a distressing case of a murdered girl and forcing Clara to revisit the parts of her past she has fought to forget.
This book is very easy to read and the pages turn over very quickly. The subject matter is interesting and mysterious, without descending into unnecessary distaste. Clara is a fascinating character who drives the story and I found myself caring for her a great deal. The accounts of her painful dealings with other people, her rejection of any contact, her self-loathing and tangible pain and her need to disappear and not be noticed were so well written. I loved all of the references to flowers and their meanings, and the relief she feels when safe in her greenhouse.
The plot took a number of interesting twists and turns, accelerating the intrigue towards the end. There is more than a hint of the supernatural, making you question her perception of events throughout, and I found the final sequence very moving.
There are accounts of recovering dead bodies and preparing them afterwards, and you should be aware of this. These passages are sensitively dealt with but there are details some readers may find too much for them. I personally found these parts of the book essential in discovering Clara's character, which for me was the most satisfying part of this novel. I have never quite come across anyone like her and I enjoyed reading about her very much. The other characters are well constructed too, and develop throughout the book.
As the book progressed and Clara starts to let her guard down, with others as well as with you, this proved to be a really good read and I highly recommend it to readers who love mystery and crime, as well as those, like me, who love a strong main character and an unusual story. I will be keeping an eye out for more by this author. A brilliant first novel.
Amy Mackinnon has her own website should you want to read more about her. Just click the link.
My version of this book contained its own book group discussion questions too!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

The Mystery of Grace by Charles de Lint

I was totally into Charles de Lint novels about 20 years ago and read 3 in succession...Yarrow, Greenmantle and Moonheart and I loved them, so when I saw a review of one of his novels last year I added him to my personal challenge list to read another. The wonderful cover illustration and story description attracted me to this particular one.
Grace is a car mechanic, covered in tattoos and specialising in hot rods and customising Fords. She loves her cars and rockabilly music.
Grace meets John, a lonely graphic designer still haunted by his brothers death when they were children, at a Halloween party and they instantly fall for each other. The problem is that Grace was killed in a botched store robbery 2 weeks earlier and is allowed to go back to her life only twice a year. One of those nights is Halloween. As the sun comes up, Grace disappears from the bathroom and John is left wondering who she is and where she went. Exploring theories about spirituality, the hereafter and love, we are taken on a journey with Grace and John as they both try to work out what has happened.
I was excited about this book as soon as it arrived because I loved the cover, the book felt nice in the hand, and I like stories that bend reality. It was very easy to read and I got into it very quickly. The chapters swap between the points of view of Grace and John, but the book is dominated by Grace who proves to be a pretty captivating protagonist. I loved the whole adventure into the afterlife and found the details inventive and interesting. I was rooting for the couple throughout the story and loved the swapped points of view. I found the end quite moving too.
I did find the reason for the existence of the in-between state of the after world, that Grace and the other characters find themselves, unconvincing, as well as its conclusion. However I was enjoying the rest of it enough for it not to cause a problem. I also found the sudden shift in direction in the last part of the novel a little bewildering because up to that point Grace and John's relationship had been the main driving force in the book. I did take away a lot of interesting parts of the story with me however, and found the love story really beautifully written.
I am glad that I have revisited this author from my past and I will most probably read more. It was a gentle, heart felt and original novel and I am sure that many readers will find a lot to discuss within its pages.
Fantasy Literature has a list of all Charles de Lint Novels on their site.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

A friend bought me this book a while ago, simply because it is set in my home town and in the Liverpool Playhouse Theatre in 1950. I have never read anything by Beryl Bainbridge even though she was from Liverpool too, and I have to say that even though she was known for her outspoken opinions, her comments about Liverpool people have irked me somewhat. Bainbridge died earlier this year so I thought it was time to put my own prejudices away and give this book a go.
It is 1950 and Stella has been taken on as assistant stage manager just as the Liverpool rep company are about to stage Peter Pan for Christmas and she has fallen for the director, Meredith. Working with all of the other quirky characters who work at the theatre we learn about Stella, her background and vulnerability. The story comes to a head with the return of O'Hara, the legendary actor who is standing in for the lead.
I really enjoyed revisiting locations in Liverpool, some of which I remember but are long gone, like Reece's cafe, Blackler's store and the old Clayton Square. Of course our own lovely Playhouse is still there and going strong. I did however find it really hard to follow at times. It seemed to jump about unpredictably within chapters. It wasn't until towards the end that I started to connect with the the style of the writing and appreciate the subtle layering that was taking place. This was the only time that I began to see why Bainbridge has such a strong following. Sadly for me it was a little late to help me connect with the characters. At times it felt I was seeing them through a fog and only getting snatches of their existence.
I am glad that I did get to see some of the wring talent within the book because a lot of the start was quite sketchy. I did love the trip down memory lane though and I think the writing style will give readers a lot to comment on and discuss.
Book Rags do a study guide for An Awfully Big Adventure with topics for discussion.
To read more about Beryl Bainbridge click the link.

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye