I’ve been reading a fair bit since my last book reviews and so it’s time for more. I’ll start with, what for me, was a very surprising book and a thoroughly good read.

Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. I’ve always known Elton as a comedian and, since I’m not really into comedy, haven’t seen much of him. When I saw this novel, I thought nah but the plot intrigued me. Anything remotely smacking of history interests me. This is apparently Elton’s 15th novel, who knew!

The plot goes like this – former soldier, Hugh Stanton, must alter the course of WWI to avoid the world of 2024 being a dark and desperate place. Time travel gets me every time but….I did find the plot a bit tired, particularly when it came to Hugh dragging his old University tutor along for the ride. I also don’t think Elton worked enough on characterization: so I was left not really feeling empathy for Stanton and his urgent quest. The book sometimes read like a young adult fiction piece but I did enjoy it.

The Separation by Dinah Jefferies. What a cracker of a debut novel! Love and lust in Malaya during The Emergency period of the 1950s. The richness of this novel and attention to detail was surely helped by the fact that Jefferies’ childhood years were spent in British-controlled Malaya.

The reader is taken through steamy Malayan jungles and a gloomy English town as the main character, Lydia Cartwright, desperately seeks her husband and two daughters who have disappeared from their home in Malacca. Some novels get under your skin and remain with you – this is one of them.

The Book of Lost & Found by Lucy Foley. Another cracker debut novel, which comfortably spans three separate timeframes. The strong, central female character, Kate Darling, pursues the truth about her late mother. A seductive read that swirls around a painted portrait that Darling inherits. She discovers a love story that started in the 1920s and, over the years, was lost and found. Hard to believe this is a debut novel as the prose is wonderful.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I’m a sucker for anything Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. I’ll start off by saying that Wolf Hall was the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner. Perhaps I should just stop at this!

The protagonist in both novels is Thomas Cromwell and you really get a taste of just how ruthless Henry VIII was towards his many wives. It’s like listening to a song: Mantel writes so lyrically and effortlessly. It would take many posts to do justice to the plot of both books and the sweeping characters. If you are interested in Tudor England and the philosophical debate surrounding Henry’s rift with Rome, then rush out and buy these two books now.

My only criticism? I did come away with an understanding of Cromwell, his humble beginnings and his rise to fame and fortune. I did not come away feeling I really knew the characters unlike Jefferies’ book, which has remained with me. Nevertheless, outstanding stuff.

A Place for Us by Harriet Evans. A gripping novel that starts with Martha Winter, on the eve of her 80th birthday, deciding to reveal a secret that could destroy her family. A cast of characters descend on Winterfold, her English country estate, and each reveal their stories, dramas and loves as we all wait for Martha to shatter the family’s peace.

I did find it a bit hard keeping up with all the characters and the different points of view. Cohesiveness was missing for me. Frankly, the part in the book that details David’s life as a child just after WWII, was the strongest part of the novel and I’d love to see Evans write on this. I wasn’t overly taken with the writing style either.

The Chocolate Promise by Josephine Moon. Someone suggested I should read this novel. Wasn’t keen to be honest. Set in Tasmania and basically about a chocolate apothecary and its owner, Christmas Livingstone. Christmas? That alone put me off but I decided to give it a go. I will say that I think the title of the book is wrong: should have been The Chocolate Apothecary.

However, a thoroughly good read that immerses you in the richness and healing properties of one of my favourite things: chocolate. It’s a sweet tale (sorry!) about love, family and friendship and transports the reader to Paris. A few odd characters I found but I thought the novel was written with enough skill to be intriguing.

Half the World in Winter by Maggie Joel. Set in Victorian England. Lucas Jarmyn struggles to make sense of the death of his youngest daughter in a train accident on a railway Jarmyn owns. You get a glimpse of Industrial England as this novel winds its way through tragedy, grief and a changing society. You pick up a lot about Victorian manners and mourning rituals.

It’s a sombre read and deals with a number of concepts: guilt, blame, revenge, a family drifting apart. Joel provides a vivid and detailed insight into Victorian England. A little slow to start but an enthralling read.

Fallen by Lia Mills. I have to admit I didn’t finish this book. It didn’t draw me in. Set in Ireland around the 1916 Easter Rising, the novel explores the role of Irish soldiers in WWI and the tensions and rebellion that took place in Ireland at the time.

I don’t know if it was the writing style or the fact that I couldn’t relate to the main character, Katie Crilly. I did appreciate the themes and sub-themes: the suffragette movement; growing into womanhood; the role of women in the early 20th Century; the physical and psychological effects of war. There were also flashes of intriguing contrasts – the ugly chaos of insurrection on Dublin streets and the serenity of peaceful swans on a river amidst the chaos.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. A satirical novel about Adolf Hitler who wakes up on a patch of ground, alive and well, sixty years after WWII. Aside from this curious premise, what I liked best about this novel was its realistic portrayal of the role of social media in our lives.

Everyone believes that Hitler is a superb impersonator, not the man who sent millions of Jews to their deaths. He becomes a social media and YouTube sensation and sets out to educate Germany with his rantings and ravings. A taboo subject for sure and I found Vermes handled Hitler’s character with perhaps a bit too much sympathy.

There are some brilliant lines but they make you wonder if you should be laughing. For example: a TV producer warns Hitler that his anti-Semitic ravings should not go too far and cautions: ” We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter“. Hitler replies: “You are absolutely right“.

Look Who’s Back is a 1.5 million-copy bestseller in Germany and was translated by Jamie Bulloch. At times it sails very close to the edge – Hitler bemoans “the crematoria would have to be fired up again after the first wave of arrests”. Both humorous and disturbing.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. A stand-out novel, which starts in Edwardian England. The main character, Harry Cane, is loosely-based on Gale’s great-grandfather. Over the course of the novel, Cane comes to realize that he is homosexual and takes himself off to the prairies of Canada where he learns to farm.

Gale sets up a brutal contrast since Cane led a privileged existence in England and must now endure unbearable cold, living in a tent and the isolation of homesteading. European settlers were given 160 acres of land, which they could possess without payment if a homesteader cultivated a quarter of it within three years.

There are shades of Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain as Cane meets Paul, a neighbouring homesteader, and the two men embark on an intense relationship against the backdrop of the Canadian prairies. Gale paints immensely rich characters and is the master of the contrast. Harry Cane has a nervous disposition complete with stutter, whereas his younger brother, Jack, is brash and adventurous. A truly loathsome and sinister character, Troells Munck, contrasts beautifully with Harry’s tenderness. A brilliant read.

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Many good cappuccinos have been downed whilst enjoying good books!

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