“Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks

This has been on my TBR for a long, long time, and many people have recommended it to me over the years. It starts in 1910, and follows Stephen, a young Englishman who has travelled to Amiens in France on business, and falls in love with Isabelle, the wife of the man whose house he is staying in. Six years later, we catch up with Stephen on the battlefields of France in the first world war, in the battle of the Somme, and later at Ypres. Interspersed between Stephen’s story, we also follow the story of his granddaughter in England, 1978, as she discovers his war diaries and finds out more about his life.

This was a real page turner of a story. After the bright Continue reading

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“Human Traces” by Sebastian Faulks

When I started this challenge to blitz my TBR shelf, I had three Sebastian Faulks books to read. The first I tried was A Week In December which I didn’t get on with, and so the other two are finding themselves moving further and further down the list, but there comes a time when all books on that shelf must be read, and Human Traces time had come.

The book follows Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter from Continue reading

“Pompeii” by Robert Harris

Pompeii by Robert Harris is the book for my local reading group this month and it tells a fictionalised tale of the last two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the first century AD. Told from the point of view of the Aquarius (the engineer who is responsible for the aqueduct that carries water to the towns in the region), it describes the signs that led upto the point of eruption, and is a thriller of politics and corruption, and a love interest thrown in to boot.

I’ve only ever read one book by Harris before Continue reading

“The Children’s Book” by A. S. Byatt

The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt follows a handful of families in the late Victorian period and through to the end of World War I. The mother of one of the families, Olive Wellwood, is a children’s author and throughout the lives of her own children, she writes them each their own personal storybook, and the stories develop as the children grow up.

I want to start by saying I did enjoy this book, it was fascinating with characters I was genuinely interested in, but, I have to say, I have a few gripes about it. Firstly, there are too many characters. I struggled to remember which children belonged to which family, and kept getting them mixed up, Dorothy with Florence or Griselda, Charles with Geraint, and could never remember where Hedda came in the family, and those are just a few of the children in the book.

Secondly, while I understand the author was trying to explain what’s happening in the world as the story develops, there were a few places where the author spent one or two chapters just explaining the history of that period, with no mention of any of the characters. When we discussed this at my reading group, I wondered if I was so irritated by this both because I’d recently read a few books set in the same period that integrated this information into the story of the characters rather than just simply stating it, and because I already knew the history because of my recent reads. The other members didn’t seem too bothered by it, but I felt for a 600+ page book, this could easily have been edited out without losing anything from the story.

Finally, just a couple of small ones, but near the beginning, the daughters of one of the characters are named and described, yet a few pages later when they arrive at the house of one of the other families, they are named and described again. Why do that when you’ve already described them? Also, one of the characters, Charles at times goes by the name of Karl, and is sometimes referred to as Charles/Karl, which I personally found really irritating. I know the times he’s choosing to be called Karl over the times he feels he needs to be Charles, so why the Charles/Karl moniker?

I feel like I need to go back to the good points, for a bit of balance. I loved some of the characters, particularly the girls. Dorothy, Florence and Griselda were believable and genuine, and I think the way she describes the various choices they make and the routes their lives take felt possible. I felt a real affection for them, particularly Dorothy, by the end of the book. Their stories alone would make the book worth reading, but there are others who are interesting as well, making me glad I had read it.

“Fragrant Harbour” by John Lanchester

Date finished: 17th May 2012

Fragrant Harbour by John Lanchester tells the story of four different people whose lives have taken them to Hong Kong, but through their lives, Lanchester gives us the history of this city over the last seventy years of the twentieth century.

At first, I wasn’t sure about the book. The first persons story was interesting, but seemingly innocuous, especially when you start to read the second characters, Tom Stewart, story. Tom’s story is the meat on the bones of this book. Escaping from what he predicts would be a stilted, safe life in England, he sails to Hong Kong in the mid-1930s. His adventure starts with a bet on board the ship, which along with the contacts he makes on the journey, springboards him into a successful career in the hotel industry. By the end of the book, the four characters have played a significant part in one or all of the other peoples lives, resulting in an absorbing and fascinating book.

I knew very little about Hong Kong before reading this book, and it was a bit like a crash course in fiction form, but I got completely caught up, particularly in Tom’s life. I loved the style of writing which was very straight forward, and simply told the story, while it felt that the author felt affection for his characters, and I thought it gave heart to the book.

A very enjoyable book, so I’ll be looking out for more books from this author.

“Colonel Brandon’s Diary” by Amanda Grange

Date finished: 20th April 2012

The diary starts back in 1778 when Brandon is still at university and comes home to visit, and asks Eliza to marry him, and follows through their story, before joining up with Sense and Sensibility and his relationship with the Dashwoods.

As with the others I’ve read in this series, I’ve loved seeing one of my favourite books told from a different perspective, and the diary format works wonderfully for this. I think it’s such a clever premise to start them earlier and give more body to the earlier lives of our heroes, and expand on the little back story that we know from the Jane Austen original.

One thing I felt with this book was how much younger Brandon felt, even twenty years after it starts, you still feel there’s a youthful side to him, despite the image of himself he projects, and it is especially awakened when Marianne comes into his life.

Another thoroughly enjoyable book in this diary series from Amanda Grange.

“The Colour” by Rose Tremain

When I read Rose Tremain’s The Road Home a few years ago, I was really impressed by the writing, and it was then that I had one of those strange times where she seemed to pop up everywhere – she was on television programmes, radio programmes, interviewed in newspapers, and I couldn’t seem to avoid her. I planned to read more of her books, and bought The Colour not long after, but for some reason, it then got neglected and sat there sad and lonely, waiting for me to take it off the shelf and start reading it. My challenge to reduce my TBR lead me to this book last weekend, and I’m so glad it did.

The story follows Joseph and Harriet Blackstone, who marry when neither are in the first flush of youth and therefore decided late for the times, the mid-nineteenth century. Joseph has a past he needs to escape from, and Harriet knows she can’t face a life stuck in other peoples homes as a governess, so when he promises a journey to the other side of the world to start a new life, Harriet agrees to marry him and the couple, along with Josephs widowed mother, Lillian, are New Zealand bound. They buy some land and build a temporary house on the side of a mountain, and start their small holding with some livestock, but when Joseph digs the land to create a pond, and the water from the river is diverted to it, he gets his first glimpse of the colour – gold. The fever to prospect for gold grips Joseph, and their lives start to unravel.

I was absolutely gripped by this book. Harriet is a strong, independent and determined woman (the sort of character that Katherine Hepburn was superb at portraying on screen), while Joseph is more introverted, and haunted by something that has happened back in England which is eating him up, and his story is revealed throughout the book, but when it’s finally revealed, although it wasn’t exactly what I expected, it was quite horrific, and knowing that he’d got away with it, you could understand why he was unravelling in such a way.

Along side these great characters, is a very interesting story of the emigration of three people to the New World, where people are arriving all the time with the hope of starting a new and prosperous life, either working the land, or seeking their fortune in the gold rush. There is also a native Maori character who gives an insight into their lives and beliefs alongside these white settlers.

The only thing I would query about the book, and don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy these parts as well, but I wonder if the introduction of Chen, a Chinese man who has travelled to New Zealand with the plan to rent some land for a vegetable plot near the prospecting lands in order to make money selling fresh produce to those men in their camps away from the main towns and shops. He does play an important role to a certain extent, but I’m not sure I was totally convinced by his place in the story.

Despite my feelings about that aspect, it was hard to find any real faults with the book, the story or the writing, and I will definitely be looking for more by Tremain to read in the future.