“The Secret Lives of People in Love” by Simon Van Booy

The Secret Lives of People in Love is the second collection of short stories by Simon Van Booy published by Beautiful Books in the UK. Van Booy won the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for his first collection which I loved, and I couldn’t wait to read these new stories set in New York City, Wales, Cornwall, Paris, Rome and Greece. As the title suggests, the stories explore the private feelings and memories of individuals experiences of love.

And it is exquisite. There really isn’t a better word to describe the latest collection of short stories. Tales of love and loss are beautifully written, with the emotions flowing off the page and into your heart.

I am in complete awe of the mastery of a writer who can express the depth of a love between a man and woman, and the heartbreaking sadness of loss within the confines of a story that is only a few pages long, but Simon Van Booy achieves just this.

The first book of his short stories I read was Love Begins In Winter, and these ranged from 25 to 70 pages in length. Although there are some longer stories in The Secret Lives of People In Love, they are on the whole much shorter in length, some just a few pages long. In fact, my favourite, “The Reappearance of Strawberries” is only three pages, but heartbreakingly poignant.

A truly wonderful book that has shot to the top of my favourites for this year.

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“To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

This is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never quite got round to it, but with the 50th anniversary coverage recently and its inclusion on the Rory Gilmore Book Challenge, it seemed like now was as good a time as any to give it a go.

I have to admit, I’ve never seen the film in full yet I still somehow had managed to have some preconceived ideas about this book. I’d assumed it was entirely about the trial in which a white lawyer defends a black man accused of attacking a white girl in America’s Deep South of the 1930s. What I actually got was the tale of Scout, the young daughter of widowed attorney Atticus Finch, and her brother Jem growing up in a small town. The friendships they make, the society around them, the forward thinking father and the trial is just a small part of the story, although the build up to it and the consequences of it, have a huge impact on the lives of the Finch family.

There are many themes dealt with throughout the book, including racism, gender roles and class, but all discovered through the eyes of a child, giving an innocence to the style and an unprejudiced honesty to the narrative. Atticus Finch is perhaps the greatest father in literary history, with Scout portraying him as an easy going and almost remote parent, what he actually does is provide the children with the building blocks they need to become independent, just, fair individuals who understand the importance of standing up for what you believe in.

If you haven’t read this book, I would definitely recommend you do. Not because it’s a “classic”, but because it’s a marvellous piece of storytelling, and a wonderful read.

“Flyaway” by Lucy Christopher

The second book from Lucy Christopher that I’ve read in as many weeks, although this time aimed at a slightly younger audience – probably 10-13 year olds – but another fantastic book.

Isla finds herself in a distressing situation when her father is taken seriously ill while they are out together looking for the migrating swans arriving at the lake near their home. Through Isla’s story we find out how the different members of the family deal with his illness along with the longstanding feud between her dad and her grandfather. A young cancer patient at the hospital befriends her and an art project gives her the inspiration to try to help a young swan, while all the time the family find ways to cope with the trauma of her fathers health.

The characters in this book are all utterly believable, each having their own ways of dealing with the worry and uncertainty of illness, and Isla is a convincing, sympathatic narrator. Although the story of the swan teeters on the brink of fantasy, it is also wonderfully written and brings together the many threads of overall plot.

I can’t wait to see what the next book from Lucy Christopher will be, but I know that I will be first in the queue at the bookshop to get it.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky

Told as a series of letters to an unknown recipient, Charlie tells the story of his freshman year in high school. It’s the late 1980s and he’s recently lost his friend and doesn’t seem to fit in to any of the social groups, and gradually we learn about his family, the new friends he makes, first dates and mix tapes and all that goes with growing up.

This book perfectly evokes what it is like to be a teenager. It’s a time when we all desperately struggle to fit in, yet all feel like we never quite manage it, and this book sums that up magnificently. Woven through the letters there is an underlying sense of tension with Charlie’s story unfolding to an unsettling revelation, but there is also the joy and fun of growing up and first experiences of drinking, drugs, relationships and sex.

This book was a joy to read, yet made me feel sad and melancholy as well, and in fact, made me feel exactly how I remember as a teenager, trying to find my place in the social hierarchy at school, testing the boundaries with my parents and beginning to experience life as an adult.

A touching, heartfelt coming of age story, beautifully told.

“The Dog Who Came In From The Cold” by Alexander McCall Smith

The follow up to Corduroy Mansions, this book continues the stories of these Pimlico residents, including an thrilling escapade for Freddie de la Hay.

I love the 44 Scotland Street series, and was excited when I found out Alexander McCall Smith was starting another serialised novel, this time set in London, but using the same framework of the everyday lives of the inhabitants of a house divided into flats. I read the first book, Corduroy Mansions last year, and thought it was good, but didn’t have quite the same spark as the Edinburgh equivalent, but decided I would definitely carry on with the series to see how it progressed. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by this installment. I don’t find the companionship with the characters in this story that I do in the others, and I just don’t seem to connect with any other them.

The serialised format gives short 4-5 page chapters, easily read in a few minutes. This worked well in the previous books, as it kept the interest going for each characters story, as you would have a few chapters on one plot, then switch to another and so on. I always felt myself looking forward to the next bit about each of the people, but in this book, I just didn’t care about any of them to bother about who was coming next.

I sometimes wonder whether some authors write too much, and Alexander McCall Smith is one of those authors. With the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the Sunday Philosophy Club, the 44 Scotland Street and the Corduroy Mansions books all now long running series, and with at least one book out per series each year, I’m beginning to find too much the same in each book. I gave up on the No.1 Ladies after the first five books, and am giving up on Corduroy Mansions after two, but will continue for the moment with the other series, as I still enjoy them, but I hope these don’t start to disappoint too.

“Stolen” by Lucy Christopher

Sixteen year old Gemma is abducted while waiting to catch a flight home with her parents from Bangkok airport. Her kidnapper, Ty, takes her to an isolated spot in the Australian outback, and Stolen is a letter written by Gemma to Ty, looking back at the time they spend there.

Compelling, absorbing, engrossing – you won’t want to put this book down once you start it. Gemma’s letter evokes all the emotions you’d expect from the story of an abducted teenager, but what surprised me was how I came to feel about Ty from Gemma’s retelling of his story.

The heat and isolation of the outback is brilliantly described, and the observation of the natural world in Australia is detailed and beautiful, and in another context could make the reader yearn to visit, but in the heightened emotional situation of this story it is a claustrophobic prison that you’re desperate to escape from.

Or are you? The author challenges you to listen to Gemma tell you Ty’s background and his explanation of events leading up to his meeting with Gemma in the airport in Bangkok, and you too begin to question his motives and consider whether there could be a future for these two.

The conclusion is wonderfully open ended, leaving unanswered questions, and giving the you the option to decide on what you think the truth is.

The Mortal Instruments trilogy by Cassandra Clare

The three books, City of Bones, City of Ashes and City of Glass make up the Mortal Instruments trilogy and I think they really warrant reading all three fairly close together and immerse yourself in the world that Cassandra Clare has created.

The world itself is the world we know, but there is a hidden side to it. Our way into the story is through Clary, and New York teenager and her best friend Simon, who after witnessing a murder, suddenly find out about the world of demons, angels, vampires and werewolves. The mundanes (humans) in the story are oblivious to this hidden world that exists all around them, but for some reason, Clary starts to be able to see through the glamour, and is drawn to the mysterious Jace.

I enjoyed reading these books, there were interesting characters and the secrecy of the Shadowhunters in the mundane society made the adventure seem all the more exciting. The epic nature of their quest makes for a thrilling adventure, and I loved that each of the characters has their own part to play and their own story which contributes to making them feel real and alive.

I loved the relationship between Jace and Clary, and had sort of guessed how it would be resolved, just not sure of the exact details, and I lost my heart to Simon with all the things that happened to him throughout the story.

However, I did find the concept of Idris and Alicante a bit confusing – was it part of our world or a different one altogether? Maybe I missed something in the explanation of it, but I didn’t really understand how it worked.

Now, this is a very strange observation I know, but there was an episode of a Victoria Wood television series about 20 years ago called “We’d Quite Like To Apologise…” about getting stuck in an airport waiting for a flight for a holiday to Alicante in Spain, and the association with that was so strong for me, that I couldn’t help but smirk at the reference each time Alicante was mentioned. Was the Alicante in Idris supposed to be the same Alicante in the real world of Spain? I’m sure this wouldn’t bother anyone else who read the books, but unfortunately, it just took me out of the story occasionally.

On the whole though, a very satisfying series of books, and I’ve recently heard that another two books have been commissioned by the publishers, but I haven’t seen any more details, so it will be interesting to see where she takes the story. I’m also looking forward to the prequels, the first one due out in a few weeks time, called Clockwork Angels.