“Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys

Inspired by Jane Eyre, this novel tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette, the white daughter of former slave owners who grows up in the Coulibri Estate, a down at heel plantation in Jamaica. In Part One, told by Antoinette, the family finances are in ruins following the Emancipation Act freeing the slaves, and her widowed mother struggles to keep the estate and family going, as the family are resented and tormented by the black community. Her mother remarries, but tragedy is not far away, as the family are driven from their estate, Antoinette is rejected by her mother and sent away to school.

In Part Two, an Englishman tells the story of his wedding and the start of his marriage to Antoinette, followed by his account of the rumours and tales that surround her heritage, while Antoinette sinks deeper and deeper into her memories, thoughts and fears, culminating in a trip to Christophine, a servant from Antointette’s childhood whom she always had a connection with and who is known to practice obeah (a local religious belief, including healing beliefs viewed by Europeans as witchcraft).

Finally, Part Three is told in Antoinette’s voice, and is based back in England, where she is cared for by Grace Poole, and concludes with a familiar story from Jane Eyre.

I’ve not read many “classics”, so I’ve been catching up on the odd one, here and there, and last year I read Jane Eyre before I watched the BBC1 adaptation, and it was only subsequently when I heard about the BBC4 dramatisation of this novel that I even knew it existed. And I am so glad I found out about it. Completely different in tone, whereas Jane Eyre is the story of a naive young woman falling in love, Wide Sargasso Sea is an illuminating insight into the mind of a mentally disturbed young woman. Whilst always in the first person narratives, it is a contemplation on the factors that may have been involved in driving someone to insanity, and perhaps even questioning whether she is even insane, or merely reacting to the environmental and emotional factors that have shaped her from a young child, or possibly suffering from an illness she has inherited from her mothers genes, who also displayed the same characteristics.

The first person narrative forces us into Antoinette’s thoughts initially, and when the narrative changes to her husband (he is never actually named), we have the mirrored point of view, and look at her from the outside again. But, whoever the narrator is, we are firmly in the centre of their world, and it is a genuinely thought provoking story.

Although this is a short novel – only 125 pages – it is rich and dense in language, and enthralling throughout. I loved this book, and especially if you’ve read Jane Eyre, but even if you haven’t, I would recommend it as a great read.

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“The Last Testament” by Sam Bourne

The book opens amidst the looting of the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities, where we see an Iraqi boy who finds himself swept up in the crowd. Escaping the mob, he finds an ancient clay tablet in a hidden vault, which he feels must be valuable if it’s been locked away. We then skip forward a few years and witness the death of an archaeologist at a peace rally, who approaches the prime minister and is mistaken for an assasin reaching for a gun and is shot by bodyguards; it turns out he merely wanted to give the prime minister a letter. The result is that, instead of completing a peace deal between the Isrealis and the Palestinians, a series of revenge killings look set to disrupt and even destroy the peace process. Maggie Costello, an former negotiator is “persuaded” out of retirement to try and recover the talks, but as soon as she arrives, she starts to believe that the initial shooting was not just a mistake, so investigates the apparently random killings and is soon on a political, religious and very high risk quest to find the truth

I read Sam Bourne’s first novel, The Righteous Men last year as part of the Richard & Judy Summer Read book club, and liked it enough to try his latest thriller. This book would make a great beach read, as it’s an exciting, action-packed thriller. Although it’s about 560 pages, I managed to read it in three sittings, and really enjoyed it. Having said that, the chapters move around quite quickly, jumping back and forward in time, and I did find myself having to flick back to the previous chapter to check where I was in the sequence of events, but after a quick reminder, it was easy to understand where the plot was going. There are obvious comparisons between this author and Dan Brown, but for me, Sam Bourne wins hands down; at least his books are well written, even though nowhere near literary classics, they are enjoyable summer fodder, as opposed to The Da Vinci Code which I felt was poorly written, badly plotted and was extremely overhyped. So, overall, a good holiday page turner, but not too taxing on the brain.

“The Fall of Troy” by Peter Ackroyd

Heinrich Obermann, a German archaeologist believes he has found the site of the ancient city of Troy. After marrying the beautiful young Sophia Chrysanthis who can read the works of Homer, they travel to the excavation. Herr Obermann educates his young bride in his theories of Troy, but she as time passes Sophia begins to wonder at the techniques and methods of her husband, particularly when visiting foreign academics question the validity of the finds and how the great German archaeologist has arrived at his conclusions. The theories of a visiting British archaeologist bring the beginning of a chain of events that have a devastating conclusion for all those concerned.

Peter Ackroyd has written a fascinating book about love and obsession. Herr Obermann is obsessed with proving that Homers telling of the Trojan war is true, and it seems will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. We are never quite sure of the validity of his evidence and there are underhand dealings with the excavation finds, and all the while Obermann tells us how the evidence is all there to prove his theory. Amazingly, we never seem to see things from Obermann’s perspective throughout the entire story, but always through Sophia’s, or one of the other characters thoughts and words. Ackroyd tempts us throughout with the mysterious events that surround those who question Obermann’s knowledge and his conclusions about the archaeology of the site; are they the work of Obermann himself, or the result of his prayers to the Greek gods he seems to commune with, or merely just accident?

In other hands, this story could have been a long, drawn out affair, but Ackroyd has written an intriguing, concise tale, but still manages to include beautiful descriptive passages, such as in chapter thirteen when talking of a trip Sophia makes to a local town, where there is a lovely description of the sky and a comparison to the sky over Troy. The Fall of Troy is a wonderful book that I just couldn’t put down, and I would heartily recommend it.

“26a” by Diana Evans

Georgia and Bessi are identical twins, the middle daughters of a Nigerian mother and English father, growing up in Neasden in the 1980’s. We meet them before their birth and are immediately thrown into the unique consciousness the twins inhabit, separating them out from everyone else, even their family. Their mother is desperately missing her own family back in Lagos, while their father is struggling to deal with his own isolation from his family and his Derbyshire upbringing. The family move to Nigeria for a period, where Georgia has a life changing experience, but she is unable to share with anyone, not even her beloved Bessi. Mixed with this, meeting the maternal grandfather, the sisters are told tales of the mythology surrounding twins in Nigeria; stories that will haunt Georgia forever. Back in England, as the girls grow up, Bessi strikes a move for independence, while Georgia attempts to deal with her own inner demons.

A first novel by Diana Evans, 26a deals with family relationships and in particular, the bonds between identical twins. The twins in the book inhabit their own dream world at times, and are able to communicate and visit each other in their dreams and imaginations. The author deals with some of the stories and myths regarding twins, as well as delving into the terrifying world of depression.

Heart-breaking and uplifting in turns, this book not only reveals the inner workings of the relationship of twins, but also of other “couples” – husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons as well as young lovers – showing how any relationship between two people can provide comfort as well as claustrophobia. For a short book (230 pages), the story and the language are both dense and enthralling, and at the end you feel like you’ve read an epic novel. While the magical voyages through the twins thoughts and their final journey together are beautifully written, I personally preferred the real world passages, as I found some of the ideas hard to realise in my own head, although this may be as a result of being an only child myself, and not being able to associate with the sibling relationship, let alone that of a twin. A good book, though, which I enjoyed a lot and will definitely look out for Diana Evans work in the future.

“The Fourth Bear” by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crimes series continues with “The Fourth Bear”, another classic whodunnit. With Detective Chief Inspector Jack Spratt on enforced sick leave and excluded from the hunt for The Gingerbread Man, a psychopathic, sadistic, murdering biscuit, recently escaped from the top security hospital for the criminally insane, he unofficially becomes involved in the hunt for the missing journalist, Henrietta ‘Goldilocks’ Hatchett. Largest cucumber growing competitors, a rising star MP, a missing nuclear scientist and the Three Bears all feature in this crime caper leading Jack and his under-funded department to solve the mystery in their usual unorthodox manner, necessary when living in Reading, where a high concentration of nursery rhyme characters, other PDRs (persons of dubious reality) and anthropomorphic animals have found a safe haven.

If all this sounds bizarre and absurd, that’s because it is. Jasper Fforde has a flair for writing completely believable yet utterly surreal novels which are brilliantly funny and totally compelling. The world of the Nursery Crimes Division of the Reading Police Department is so well written and developed that it feels as though it should be real, and the attention to detail makes his novels seem like real life crime thrillers. There are also occasional crossovers into the other series of crime stories Jasper writes, the Thursday Next series based in SpecOps LiteraTec division of the Swindon police force who handle literary crimes, and in “The Fourth Bear” we meet a slightly sinister car salesman called Dorian Gray.

These books are intelligent, funny, clever and above all, cracking good reads, and I think “The Fourth Bear” is probably the best so far. There are multiple plot lines threaded throughout the story which are beautifully entwined to a fantastic conclusion, with a few twists and turns you just aren’t expecting, which is nothing less than you would expect from a mystery book. A real page turner and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Jasper Fforde has become a must read author for me, and I look forward to each new book with excited anticipation.

“Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky

Born in Russia at the turn of the century, Irene Nemirovsky’s wealthy Jewish family fled from Kiev in 1918, eventually ending up in France in 1919. Her critically acclaimed novels David Golder and Le Bal were published in the 1929 and 1930 respectively, but she and her husband were denied French citizenship in 1938 and her husband and two daughters had to evacuate to a small Burgundy village in 1941. According to notes left, she started writing a five volume suite of novels based around the events of the second world war, but arrested in 1942, only days after completing the second volume, she was transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later of typhus. Her daughters escaped, and one of them took with her the things her mother had always treasured most, a small suitcase containing photographs and diaries, and a leather binder which had hardly ever left her mothers side. Unaware of what it contained, it was only in the 1970’s that her daughter, Denise, opened the binder and the case, and planning to donate them to the publishing industry’s archives but wanting to make a copy first, she started to read the diaries and notes, and transcribe the contents. It was only then she realised that two of the five novels had been completed. These were published in 2004 as Suite Francaise.

The first novel Storm In June is a chaotic, panicked tale of the exodus of Paris in June 1940. Echoing the state of mind of those people involved, the story frenetically switches between the various families, couples and individuals, focusing mainly on the wealthy and middle classes who too are concerned with saving their precious possessions at the same time as maintaining their position within their class, and paints a harsh, cruel light on their selfish journeys. She is more gentle when dealing with the middle aged couple who work for a bank, and are told to travel to Tours where the bank is being temporarily relocated, but are abandoned by their selfish employer and told to make the journey themselves, with the threat of being fired if they do not make their destination. Although I can understand the style used is meant to echo the chaos and uncertainty of the situation the characters find themselves in, it makes a difficult story to follow, flitting between the various protagonists of each journey with a swift rapidity. Each character is vividly drawn though, although not all their stories are concluded, as some of them are present in the second novel, and it may be that the other individual stories would have been continued in the unwritten three novels of the suite.

Dolce is a calmer, more contemplative piece about a rural village under German occupation. It follows the inhabitants and the different attitudes that the various generations and classes have to their occupiers, as well as giving an insight into the individual German soldiers and their experiences and thoughts about their role in this community. The locals are forced to come to terms with the invaders, some barely out of boyhood, and a uneasy compromise is reached between the two groups. Events unfold slowly and by the end of the novel, a violent action breaches the trust that has grown in the village, forcing all parties to re-evaluate their relationships. Lyrical and poetic at times, honest and brutal at others, Dolce feels the more accomplished of the two novels. Beautiful to read, engrossing and engaging, I loved every page.