#BookReview: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

What’s it about?

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

In Whitehead’s razor-sharp imagining of the antebellum South, the Underground Railroad has assumed a physical form: a dilapidated box car pulled along subterranean tracks by a steam locomotive, picking up fugitives wherever it can. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But its placid surface masks an infernal scheme designed for its unknowing black inhabitants. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher sent to find Cora, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.

My thoughts

This was our latest book club read and I could sum it up in just one word….astounding!  I could leave it that…..but then there wouldn’t be much of a review!

I’m not gonna lie I haven’t read any books around slavery or have any real knowledge of the Underground Railroad so this has been a fascinating read.

I can’t say that on the whole this is an enjoyable read, there are enjoyable parts but for the most this book will raise other emotions; fear, loathing, shame, hope and empathy.  I’m not sure you can enjoy a book that encounters so much suffering and degradation.

The book is so well written that just one sentence can make you feel sick and disgusted to your stomach and because you know stuff like this really happened makes it even harder to swallow.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all about the torture and the beatings there are some really hopeful moments but even those caused me a build of tension and plenty of sweaty palm moments.

There’s also a real mix of characters; some vile evil ones that’ll make your toes curl ad you feel sick to your stomach and some good that’ll swell your heart with love – people who were just out to help others in need despite the severe danger to themselves and their families…these people were heroes.

It wasn’t until after I’d finished the book and was discussing at book club that it had never occurred to me that the actual physical railroad used in the book could never have been as it was depicted and that it would have been logistically impossible given the era and situation.  I usually pick up on these magical realism scenarios because they’re not my thing but this….well maybe I’m just gullible but I never in my head questioned how it could possibly come to be.

One of the best books I’ve read this year, if not, the best!

Book links: Goodreads | Waterstones | Amazon

Author links: Twitter | Website

Small print for info
Source: Library
No of pages: 400
Publisher: Fleet

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#BookReview: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

What’s it about?

It is 1941 and Captain Antonio Corelli, a young Italian officer, is posted to the Greek island of Cephallonia as part of the occupying forces. At first he is ostracised by the locals, but as a conscientious but far from fanatical soldier, whose main aim is to have a peaceful war, he proves in time to be civilised, humorous – and a consummate musician.

When the local doctor’s daughter’s letters to her fiancé – a member of the underground – go unanswered, the working of the eternal triangle seems inevitable. But can this fragile love survive as a war of bestial savagery gets closer and the lines are drawn between invader and defender?

My thoughts

When I booked my summer holiday to Kefalonia there was one book that I knew I had to read before going.  Well, I didn’t get to read it beforehand so took it with me.  A little cliché maybe, reading the book in its actual setting, but actually it was the best place to read it.  I loved reading it out there, the book is very well written anyway and so I could visualise the setting and places anyway but seeing some of those places was brilliant.

Several readers of this book had said to me prior to starting, “it’s a book of two halves” or “you just have to get past the first 100 pages” and boy were they right.  The first section of the book is so politically heavy it’s no wonder so many people don’t persevere.  In all honesty where it was too heavy, I skim read and I don’t feel it hampered my reading or understanding I just got to the best and more interesting bits a lot quicker.  That’s not to say that the political stuff ends there, but I could take it in small doses.

The scenes of war, the earthquake and the aftermath are so well depicted, just brutal and devastating,  and it’s just brilliant in how it portrays what it was like to live through an occupation.  I did wonder at times though what this book was trying to be, as I said, there’s so much politics, there’s an incredible amount of history which I enjoyed and also there’s the romance between Corelli and Pelagia which although runs through the entire books seems to almost take a back seat until the end – just maybe too many things.  So you can definitely rest assured that you’re not going to be getting a full on romance for the majority of this novel but still worth the read and I’m glad I got through it.

Some holiday snaps of places mentioned in the book:

Earthquake damage in Lixouri (see lines either side of balcony)

Architecture in Argostoli

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Park

Fiskardo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kefalonia is a beautiful island and a must see if you like Greece, and enjoy delving into a place’s history and architecture.

Book links: Goodreads | Waterstones | Amazon

Author links: Facebook | Website

Small print for info
Source: Purchased
No of pages: 534
Publisher: Vintage

#BookReview: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

What’s it about?

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?

And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

My thoughts

I was sent this book by the publisher and it was accompanied by a sprig of dried flowers (which may or may not have been lavender…I’m no expert) which at the time seemed an interesting marketing tool in order to make the book stand out.  However, now that I’ve read the book and understand the significance it seems somewhat weird! Did anyone else feel strange about it or just dismissed it as nonsense?

I’ve never read anything before about the witch trials so have no point of reference but as an historical novel this has a great sense of place and feeling with the language used being that of used in other books I’ve read of this time, and of course mixing a certain amount of fact with fiction it’s an interesting read.

I liked Alice as a character and felt she was ahead of her time; being prepared to stand up to those in power for those in less fortunate positions.  You can’t help but admire her resolve and strength of character even if some her actions were questionable.  When reading books like this it’s hard to get your head round how subordinate women were and how not confirming to the norm would have you being hanged as a witch.  I couldn’t quite grasp what Matthew’s motivation and driving force was: acceptance, revenge, disapproval?  This would make a good book club discussion.

I liked the book, I’m not sure enjoyable would be an appropriate word given some of the books content however.  This has the feel of what Kate Summerscale achieves in her books but on reflection she definitely has the edge but this is still a worthwhile read nonetheless if historical novels are your thing.

Book links: Goodreads | Waterstones | Amazon

Author links: Twitter | Website

Small print for info
Source: ARC – many thanks!
No of pages: 368
Publisher: Viking

Book Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

What’s it about?

What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

My thoughts

This was our book club choice for April and was an interesting but somewhat non-eventful read.

I’ve never read a Rose Tremain novel before, and although I’m not rushing out to read another, this is  a beautifully told story about the impact on families living in a neutral country during World War 2 but moreover about friendship, love and what it means to experience both, or in Gustav’s case to not experience his mother’s true love and how this affected him his whole life.

So yeah, most of this novel is quite sad.  I was instantly drawn to Gustav because of his upbringing.  The lack of emotion and love from his bitter mother Emilie, Gustav leads a life devoid of any real relationships; pinning his hopes on a childhood friendship that is very one-sided, because Anton, as an adult, is incredibly selfish and not very likeable, but Gustav persists in continuing the friendship.

There were some secondary plotlines which I found to be more engaging than the main thread.  A soldier tasked with only taking photographs on the day of liberation at Bergen-Belsen…heart-breaking and fascinating and I wanted more.  Gustav’s father died too early for me and I wanted him to have that child with the woman he was involved with as it would have made for a more dramatic climatic read.  I guess this wasn’t the author’s intention because the whole book reads on the same level, as if told on a plateau, with no highs till the end, so a bit of hard work to get there – do you get what I mean?

All in all, with too much of predictable cliché ending and the most interesting characters  not encouraged so the reader is left to imagine more for them made it just an ok read for me.

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author link:  Website

Small print for info
Source: Purchased
No of pages: 320
Publisher: Vintage

Book Review: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

What’s it about?

A city destroyed.

A killer exposed.

London, 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a traitor, and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, the body of a man is discovered in the ashes of St.Paul’s. But he is not a victim of the blaze- there is a stab wound to his neck and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Acting on orders, Marwood hunts the killer though London’s devastated streets- where before too long a second murder is uncovered.

At a time of dangerous internal dissent, Marwood’s investigation will lead him into treacherous waters- and across the path of a determined and vengeful young woman.

My thoughts

This was our latest book club read and one which held such promise and one which we were all looking forward to reading.  I initially started with an audio book copy but I switched half way through to the Kindle version.  Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the narrator’s voice, it was flat and dull and didn’t work for me. However with hindsight, it matched the story.

If historical fiction is your thing then the factual parts of this novel will really please but therein ends the pleasure I’m afraid.  The book couples mysterious deaths during the period of the Great Fire of London but this book is so much more about the history rather than the mystery; which really isn’t a mystery in the regular sense.  If you like books or TV series such as Columbo whereby you know the culprit and are being lead through the mystery as the detective discovers what’s going on then this will appeal.

Marwood is a pretty dull and uninteresting character and narrated in the first person, the only real character of substance is Cat/Jane and is only given a third person narrative which is a shame and so I didn’t find myself having any real engagement with the characters or empathy towards them.  Although the time period and the historical aspects were the most interesting parts there’s possibly too much historical content and description which is somewhat repetitive; once a place has been described once, I don’t need it to be repeated the next time someone goes there.

The mystery is rushed, all very coincidental with a predictable end.  If you enjoy historical fiction I’d recommend Sarah Waters over this one (but it did make for a good book club discussion).

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author links: Website | Twitter

Small print for info
Source: Purchased
No of pages: 400
Publisher: Harper Collins