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

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

the-snow-childWhat’s it about?

Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.

 

My thoughts

This was our book club read for December (yeah I know, I’m way behind on my reviews),  and in all honesty it wouldn’t be a book I’d choose for myself, but that’s the whole point of book club reads.  Being set mostly in Winter itself, it was a perfectly timed read.

All in all, it’s a bit of a strange one this, there’s no contest that it’s beautifully written which sets and explores the haunting and stark landscape but it’s the whole is it a fairytale or isn’t it? Is it real or isn’t it, and is Faina real or just imagined?  Regular readers will know I don’t really do magical realism, in the sense I like books that are cut and dried, so this one was never really going to appeal, nevertheless for the most part I enjoyed it.

I particularly liked the scenes involving Esther (Jack and Mabel’s neighbour) who was such a lively, extrovert character that she really woke the book up because the scenes involving Jack and Mabel tended to be slow and quite repetitive, in fact, a lot of the book is repetitive with Faina’s comings and goings and the daily slog in trying to survive in such a wilderness.

I’m taking from this book that essentially Faina saves Jack and Mabel; before she came into their lives they were just existing but by the end they were living again.  Perfect for fans of the magical realism genre but just not my preferred type of read so I had to persevere to finish.

Book Links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author Links: Website | Twitter

Small print for info
Source:  Borrowed from library
No of pages: 432
Publisher: Tinder Press


Talk of the Town

Book Review: Thin Air by Michelle Paver

thin-airWhat’s it about?

The Himalayas, 1935.

Kangchenjunga. Third-highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all.

Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to conquer the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far – and the mountain is not their only foe.

As the wind dies, the dread grows. Mountain sickness. The horrors of extreme altitude. A past that will not stay buried.

And sometimes, the truth does not set you free.

My thoughts

This was our book club read for December and as we hadn’t read a ghost story I was strangely looking forward to being scared.

mmm well in that sense it was a tadge disappointing as it wasn’t scary at all.  I’d had expectations of it keeping me awake at night or playing on my mind at other times of the day but it’s not that kind of ghost story.  It is however very atmospheric and haunting in a sense that any place that that’s so white, silent, dangerous and desolate would be.

I appreciated the time that must have been spent on the research and the authenticity the book has, the historical aspects of climbing, the pain, the endurance, the equipment they had as this was all really interesting stuff.  Some parts were even a little humourous; there’s a scene where they’re all taking tea at something like 15,000ft which seems somewhat absurd but so very British and of its time.

As I was reading I couldn’t stop picturing the movie Vertical Limit throughout even though that’s set in modern times but it just helped me visualise the difficulties and extremeness of the task they had set themselves.

Overall a good historical novel based on climbing but don’t go into it expecting to not be able to turn out the light at night – you’ll be fine!

As a side note, all the others in the group enjoyed the book also but comments were passed about the cost of the book (which was £10 on Amazon and someone paid £13 in Waterstones at the time of purchase in late November 2016).

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author links: Website | Twitter

Small print for info
Source: Purchased
No of pages: 240
Publisher: Orion


Talk of the Town

Book Review: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

a-place-called-winterWhat’s it about?

A shy but privileged elder son, Harry Cane has followed convention at every step. Even the beginnings of an illicit, dangerous affair do little to shake the foundations of his muted existence – until the shock of discovery and the threat of arrest force him to abandon his wife and child and sign up for emigration to Canada.

Remote and unforgiving, his allotted homestead in a place called Winter is a world away from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century Edwardian England. And yet it is here, isolated in a seemingly harsh landscape, under the threat of war and madness that the fight for survival will reveal in Harry an inner strength and capacity for love beyond anything he has ever known before.

My thoughts

I read this book back in late November but am so behind in my reviews I hope I still can remember what I thought.  I do know it was one of my stand -out books that I read in 2016, so if you’ve not read it and enjoy historical fiction then I’d 100% recommend it.  So on I go….

But first, why are the books that you really loved and truly enjoyed the hardest to write a review for? Is it just me?

I’d not read any of Patrick Gale before but I shall definitely make a point of reading more after reading this for a book club read.  The addition of the discussion questions at the back of the book were particularly useful.

From early on it reminded me of Sarah Waters books; her style, content and her ability to make you believe that everything she’s written is the absolute truth.

The book flips back forward between Harry’s time at Bethel, some kind of early 1900s rehab centre and his experiences leading up to and following his confinement.  Some of these scenes don’t make for easy reading and do come across as very traumatic.

Harry’s character is somewhat frustrating in his nicety all the time, but his strength of character is however applaudable.  Imagine being born and raised for one life but then through a series of actions and decisions that are not entirely your own you end up living a life completely removed from what  you know.

When Harry makes the journey to Canada, the descriptions, the sense of place, its expanse, desolation and the hardships that Harry endures are very vivid and excellently depicted.  It made me feel like I could be there shuddering at the cold!

There are some sexual scenes that some readers may find difficult; one in particular made for uncomfortable reading and I’m not afraid to say it made me feel nauseous.

Sad but inspiring, I will admit I was expecting something very different from this book but actually loved what I got.

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author links: Twitter | Website