100 Essential Books – The Golden Age- Joan London (Europa 2016)

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London’s third novel has already won several  prestigious awards in her native Australia and it’s very easy to see why.  It is a tale which begins with short chapters and beautifully drawn characterisation which draws the reader in right from the start.  The title is the name of (an actual) convalescent hospital for children with polio, giving them the chance to relearn how to walk.  It is set in the early 50’s in an Australia fascinated by their new Queen.

Main character, 13 year old Frank Gold, the oldest child at the hospital, is struck down with polio after emigrating from a difficult war as a Hungarian Jew.  Both parents are with him but their attempts at a new life are interrupted by this sudden and cruel illness.  It is a beautifully observed, quiet novel which belies its grim subject matter and becomes a life-affirming testament to hope and love.  Frank has aspirations to become a poet and in Elsa, another patient, he has found his muse.  The care for the children, their struggles and triumphs and the effects this stigmatizing disease has on their families is superbly handled.  At times it reminded me of the critically acclaimed TB hospital set “Dark Circle” by Linda Grant but here I found myself caring more making “The Golden Age” an even more satisfactory novel.

Written with a real flair for language it picks up on the perceptiveness of adolescents unable to move on with their own lives but absorbing everything around them.  This is a real treat- a poetic, warm, involving, even elegant novel based upon a hideous disease.

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An Australian multi-award winning novel

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The Golden Age was published in 2016 by Europa.  Many thanks to the publishers and Nudge-books for the review copy.

 

 

100 Essential Books – Everyone Brave Is Forgiven – Chris Cleave (2016)

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With its references to Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” and Sarah Waters’ “The Night Watch” from a Financial Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback edition I knew that this would be a must-read for me.  It is also an apt and deserved comparison.

And like McEwan and Waters I am happy to welcome Cleave as an author of one of my 100 Essential Books – such is the quality of this novel.  His fourth book but the first I have read and for once I am pleased about this because I can tell this writer is going to be spreading much more delight my way with “Incendiary”, (Winner of a Somerset Maugham award for writers under 35 in 2006), the 2008 Costa Award shortlisted “The Other Hand” and “Gold” (2013).

Also like McEwan and Waters Cleave has re-created the war years perhaps more evocatively than most of the countless writers who were writing when that period was not so distant.  Perhaps we need that distance and the stories of our parents and grandparents need to become assimilated into what we perceive life in those years to have been like.  Cleave loosely based his novel on a series of letters between his grandparents.

The novel spans from September 1939-June 1942 and has a refreshingly simple month by month chronological structure.  It is centred on wartime London and Malta where a blockade is starving the serving officers and civilians.  Mary North signs up for War Office work and finds herself being sent to teach in a Primary School where preparations for evacuation are under way.  She soon discovers that not all children are welcomed by host families and within her now empty school and with the support of her school official boyfriend, Tom, begins to work with the children unwanted by the countryside.

Tom’s work means that initially he is too valuable to be called up but flatmate Alastair joins up, taking a jar of jam Tom made to be eaten together at the end of the war and soon finds himself an officer in Malta, struggling to survive.

What Cleave gets across very well is the thin line between life and death for this generation.  Catastrophe can descend very quickly and the characters have to adapt their lives to this.  They fall in love quickly, have to endure long absences and periods of not knowing whether loved ones are dead or alive.  This all seems alien to our generation but there are still many people with us who lived through these times and Cleve’s novel has further deepened my appreciation of these people.  Also very effectively conveyed are the attitudes of a class-driven society suspicious of other races.  The treatment of black American schoolboy Zachary is shocking both in terms of action and language used.  Cleave confronts these issues which can make for some disturbing moments.

The novel is well-written and totally involving.  I found myself purposely slowing down my reading of it because I wanted to savour just what was going on (causing a bit of a backlog of books to be read to build up) but  I don’t regret a single moment spent in the time of Chris Cleave’s characters.

This is an excellent novel from a great story-teller who deserves his position amongst the best of the novelists who have written about this time in our history.  Seek it out!

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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was published in April 2016 by Sceptre and as a paperback from January 2017.

100 Essential Books-Owl Song At Dawn – Emma Claire Sweeney (Legend 2016)

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In one (hyphenated) word I’ll sum up this debut novel – heart-warming.  Now this is not an easy accolade to achieve, especially from a cold, cynical, middle-aged man like myself.  Get this slighty wrong and the end result can be mawkish, sentimental, whimsical- all things which do not grab me as a reader.  Emma Claire Sweeney has got this just right and the result is a first-class novel that is a joy to read.

Main character Maeve Maloney is approaching 8o having lived most of her life in a Morecambe Guest House, inherited from her parents.  In recent years it has become a holiday home for guests with disabilities and their carers.  Maeve has very much given her whole adult life to Sea View Lodge (as a former guest house owner I can appreciate how necessary this total devotion is to make your place successful) but this hides a great sadness from her past.

The story alternates between the present with Maeve as honorary grandmother to two of her staff members with Downs Syndrome who have fallen in love. This opens a whole can of worms for families, social workers etc and running alongside this is  a narrative strand from the mid 1950’s when her family’s life was centred on the care of her severely disabled twin sister at a time when institutionalisation was the recommended option.  Maeve’s life pretty much grinds to a halt in her mid 20’s when a chain of events sees her planned future pulled away from her.  The past and present combine when old friend Vince seeks  her out.

This book is rich in detail and characterisation and the past and present switch without much sign-posting and with very little of the jarring this technique can engender.  There’s also official correspondence and snatches of twin sister’s Edie’s sayings and phrases.  I know how readers can complain when time-frames switch around yet this has been done so intelligently and so well that it is a smooth, highly-involving read throughout.  It does show how the attitudes towards disability have improved in the last sixty or so years yet acknowledges the tremendous uphill challenges still faced.  First and foremost this is a tale about love and friendship, of making the best of what you’ve got and how regretting the past can stop you moving on.  It’s a bittersweet lesson as Maeve learns to cope with past incidents that have set the pattern of her life.

At no point is it sentimental, however.  It focuses on the small details of life that realistically searches for humour in difficult situations.  I actually really did not want to leave these people and their Morecambe home.  I believed in them totally (although the relentless grind of working in such an establishment, the cooking, cleaning and dealing with the public was a little glossed over perhaps).

The author’s inspiration for her book is her autistic sister. In an interview in newbooks magazine she states;

“I have chosen to celebrate the kind of families who fought – sometimes against the odds- to bring up their disabled and non-disabled children together – the kind of families who sought to care for each other with tenderness, humour and love.”

Goal achieved! I don’t know exactly what’s coming over me.  I’m notoriously stingy with my five star ratings.  I would expect to read only a couple of five star books a year but this is my third maximum award so far in 2017 and it’s still only February.  Testament to the number of great books out there.  I hope you seek this one out.

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Owl Song At Dawn was published in paperback by Legend in 2016.

100 Essential Reads – Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton 2016)

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I’d always thought Jodi Picoult was not an author for me.  I’ve seen her books in shops and have shelved many a volume back onto the library shelves but I was never tempted by what I suspected to be her subject matter nor by the look of her books, which in this country are rather wispy covers geared very much to a female market  and with, I assumed a lot of misery contained within.

This novel, her 23rd looks very different.  The UK edition shows a strident black and white striped cover but I was still fairly resistant.  I saw the blurb which referred to it as a “To Kill A Mockingbird” for the 21st Century, this made me even more resistant.  I couldn’t see how my all time favourite could be compared to someone’s 23rd novel, surely by now that author would have developed a set formula for the fans and towards the best sellers list.  I was, admittedly, prejudiced towards this novel and given the theme this now seems rather pertinent.

I was still resisting as I read, initially lots of detail about childbirth and with a white supremacist as one of the narrators I felt initially like I might find this a little heavy-going.  But, oh my!  Picoult is a superb modern American storyteller on a par with Stephen King, who I would put forward as perhaps the greatest living American storyteller, even though there are a number of his books that I don’t like.  On the evidence of this book alone King may need to share his plinth with Picoult.

The tale is told by three narrators; Ruth, an experienced African-American nurse; Turk, a white supremacist who objects to Ruth being involved in his new-born baby’s care and Kennedy, a white female relatively inexperienced public defender who takes on the ensuing court case.  And plot-wise that is all you are going to get from me because I really want you to read this book.

At its heart is racism in all its aspects in modern-day America.  In many ways Picoult is putting her head above the parapet as a privileged white woman writing a book which broadly focuses on what it is to be African-American in the USA today.  It feels relevant, up to the minute and especially with the America their electorate has recently chosen for them, totally convincing.  There are so many layers to the conversations that readers could have about this book.  I cannot imagine a more ideal reading group book has been published in the last few years.

Picoult’s handling of the plot and her manipulation of us as readers of whatever skin colour and gender is sublime.  Characterisation is so strong and as the court case develops I found  I was holding my breath as I read.  The narrators show their flaws and cause us to make judgements which are then challenged.  Picoult’s 21st Century America seems more chilling than the America of Harper Lee but I could see the comparison clearly, which I did not think I would.  It does lack the roundness of the classic but there’s certainly the depth and could very well be a book still being read fifty years on.  I think that a lot of the appeal for us aficionados of “Mockingbird” is that we tended to read it at a formative time of our lives and it stays with us.   Maybe this is what should be happening to this novel, finding itself onto the school curriculum.

If there is a fault I thought that there was an attempt to give too neat a final ending but discovered on reading the author’s note that the particular event I am questioning is based on a true situation.  Truth is often said to be stranger than fiction so I’ve no problems with Jodi incorporating this into her novel.

I found it to be a gripping tale, a real thought-provoking eye opener and I’m sorry if I’ve been prejudiced in prejudging her books by their covers up until now.  I was right about one thing, she does like to pile misery onto her characters but here it is done powerfully and convincingly.  This is being called Jodi Picoult’s most important work and it has certainly changed things for me.

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“Small Great Things” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books.  Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Jodi Picoult.  You have until 10th February to register your vote.

Small Great Things was published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton in November 2016.

100 Essential Books- Exposure – Helen Dunmore (Windmill 2016)

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Helen Dunmore had me from the beginning of the first chapter;

What could be safer than a primary school in Muswell Hill?” questions mother of three Lily. Well, as an ex-headteacher of a primary school in Muswell Hill I could certainly send her quite a list but the author had certainly grabbed my attention early on with this, her fourteenth novel.

I’ve read one of these before, “House Of Orphans” (2006) which was set in early twentieth century Finland.  I thought it had a very good first half but it fell apart for me towards the end, providing an enjoyable reading experience but it was not a book I loved nor did it have me rushing to read more.  Dunmore’s reputation has continued to grow and for the last few years I have suspected that I’ve been missing out on a major talent.  There’s enough evidence with her latest to suggest that this is the case.  This was, for me, a considerably more impressive novel.

Set in an England in 1960 still paranoid over high-profile Cold War spy cases such as Burgess and Maclean the effects of this paranoia on a family is effectively conveyed.  Ex-Cambridge student Simon Callington is working for the Admiralty when one evening he receives a phonecall from a colleague who has been hospitalised after a drunken fall.  The colleague, Giles, with whom, we discover, Simon has a history, has taken home a secret file and he asks Simon to collect it and return to the office.  This begins a chain of events which makes for gripping reading.

With Giles in his hospital bed and the evidence building against Simon the focus shifts to Simon’s wife Lily who has to manage the day to day things, such as survival and bringing up the children in straitened circumstances and away from the prying of the press.  It’s very much a story about attempting to maintain a semblance of normality under extraordinary conditions.  Lily knows about reinvention, a German Jewish refugee who escaped to England with her mother as a child, she has hidden her German roots but these inevitably come back amongst the waves of suspicion against her and her family.

Plot-wise it is simple but it works so well because of its introspection which has the characters focusing on the smaller details while big things are happening and yet alongside that it works like a thriller with tension building up.  Despite the simplicity there is a richness and a depth that I loved. On more than a few occasions it reminded me of a more modern adult “Railway Children”.  If this was intentional it is a clever nod to the children’s classic with its echoes of train whistles and a family adapting to life without father.  Helen Dunmore is also an award-winning poet and her feel for language is present throughout.  I really enjoyed this and the race for my reviewsrevues best read of 2017 starts here.

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“Exposure” has been shortlisted for the Bookhugger Book Of The Year over at Nudge books.  Take a look to see the other nominations and if this is your favourite read of the year vote for Helen Dunmore.  You have until 10th February to register your vote.

“Exposure” was published in paperback by Windmill Books in August 2016

100 Essential Reads – Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden (Virago 1939)

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“You have to be very strong to live close to God or a mountain, or you’ll turn a little mad.”

In just this sentence, one of the characters, the rather naive Indian “general” Dilip sums up Rumer Godden’s twentieth-century classic.  I was familiar with the 1947 Powell and Pressburger film starring Deborah Kerr, which I love, but have never got round to reading the novel- until now.

A murmur or flap (collective nouns- looked them up- both would be acceptable) of nuns arrive at a remote disused palace in Mopu, a trek away from Darjeeling.  Here in the mountains they intend to set up a school and a clinic in a location already abandoned by a group of monks who had stayed just five months.  The women have to deal with winning over the locals and developing their plans in an environment that dominates.  There’s something about this book and the same thing is also in the film which I just love and it’s to do with its almost hypnotic atmosphere.  The location gives a lushness and a sense of heightened emotions which borders upon the overwrought.  It should be a calm retreat for the Sisters but it is not.

Partly this is to do with the local agent, Mr Dean, who gets some of the nuns a-fluttering with his unconventional behaviour, partly to do with the local traditions and people and also other characters such as Ayah, the female caretaker; the flamboyant Dilip and the smouldering Kanchi who is being housed at the convent to stop her trying to seduce Mr Dean.

Whilst a holy man remains silent and serene in the grounds the nuns attempt to change old traditions, which they cannot comprehend, but their lives are equally bound by restrictive tradition and routine.  With so much turmoil stirring aournd it’s never going to end well.

The cover of this Virago paperback terms the book “a haunting classic” and there are comparisons to Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” and both seem fitting.

You can tell that this is written by someone who knew the India she fictionalised.  Godden grew up in Narayangay and spent many years in India.  Published on the eve of World War II it is both a tale of a lost world and an attempt to tame that world, something which would have resonated with its early readers.

From the Sister Superior, Clodagh, with her need to be in charge, from the endearing Sister Honey who throws herself (perhaps too much) into this new setting and to the neurotic, tense Sister Ruth these are vivid and memorable characterisations that will haunt me long after the book has been put back on the shelf.

I think I’m ready to watch the film again now……..

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Black Narcissus was first published in 1939.  I read the Virago paperback edition.

100 Essential Books – Joe Speedboat – Tommy Wieringa (Scribe 2016)

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I was introduced to Dutch author Tommy Wieringa by newbooks magazine issue 84 and a five star review for “These Are The Names”, later short-listed for Bookhugger Book of The Year.  This was a chilling, thought-provoking novel of a  search for a modern Promised Land.  Fuelled by its success publishers Scribe have embarked upon a series of reissues of his earlier works.  “Joe Speedboat” was his debut from 2009 and is translated as was the last book by Sam Garrett.  On domestic release it became the best selling debut novel in Dutch but didn’t find that much of a worldwide audience.  I think it’s time to change this with this 2016 reprint.  It is one of the best books I have read this year and surpasses, in my opinion, “These Are The Names”.

Teenager Frankie Hermans awakes after a horrific accident to hear his parents talking about a new arrival to their village, a boy called Joe Speedboat with a predilection for making bombs.  His arrival in Lomark was equally explosive- through the wall of a house in a truck in a crash which killed his father.  Joe is adamant no-one knows his real name as he transforms the lives of those around him.  I felt that “These Are The Names” favoured themes over characterisation but here it is the marvellous characters that take central stage, especially the refreshingly energetic Joe, full of schemes to rock a sleepy village and narrator Frankie, left without speech and with limited movement who is soon incorporated into Joe’s big plans.

This book it touching, eccentric, laugh out loud funny and completely unpredictable.  I found myself hanging onto  every word.  It is a marvellous achievement.  It is a coming of age novel with a difference and has immense vitality and like the very best novels it is life-enhancing.  Other novels by Wieringa are being republished in the same format.  If they are as good as this then we have found ourselves an important European writer.

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Joe Speedboat is republished by Scribe in this new edition in 2016.

100 Essential Books – Life After Life – Kate Atkinson (2013)

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I don’t know how this book has passed me by up to now. It won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 and features some of the same characters as her 2015 Costa Novel award winning (and equally prestigiously the Nudge Bookhugger Book of The Year 2015) “A God In Ruins.”  I chose not to read that from The Bookhugger shortlist as I hadn’t read this.  Now I have I cannot wait to pick up a copy of her latest.

I have very much enjoyed the Kate Atkinson novels I’ve read to this point but she hadn’t really blown me away to the extent that I thought she would but she’s put that right as this is a mind-blowing book.

The little I knew about it concerned its structure, spanning in time from 1910 and the birth of the main character Ursula.  I knew it stuttered along and when tragedy befalls Ursula it begins again.  I had one of my “style over substance” concerns and I have friends who told me they just couldn’t get along with it, but, open-minded as ever, I thought I’d give it a go as I sensed that with this and the follow-up I could be missing out on something very special.

I loved the structure.  I’m not plot-spoiling by saying in Ursula’s first incarnation she is still-born so the story starts again with a slightly different aspect for her to survive childbirth and then fall foul on a day at the beach.  It inches forward in time and it is always a surprise when Ursula prematurely meets her maker.  As the perils of childhood diminish this happens less frequently but then there are the way years to contend with.  Ursula senses some of these repeats as “déjà vu” which leads to attention from a psychiatrist who tells her a little about reincarnation.  “Practice makes perfect” is a theme underlying the whole novel.

Disregarding the structure, this book has in place everything needed for an excellent novel.  Atkinson is in total control of events and her characters and there is such a rich and memorable cast that it is no surprise she decided to revisit through the eyes of Ursula’s much-loved brother Teddy in “A God In Ruins.”  There’s a superb sense of the era, particularly in the war years section.  The sheer relentlessness of the Blitz and the nightly tragedies witnessed brings home that survival really was just a matter of luck and throughout the novel one small change in actions can bring about very different outcomes- also largely down to luck.  If I were a more philosophical person I feel I could really get down with analysing all this, nevertheless, for a general reader the whole thing is extremely entertaining.

I didn’t want it to end and which is the real ending anyway?  Ursula’s choices can be as small as opting to approach a frightened do to having world-changing significance.  I loved the way the seemingly trivial and world-shattering go along side by side.  I’m going to give no more away but if you like tales that span over decases and are prepared for the author to play with time then you are likely to love this as much as I do.

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“Life After Life” was published in 2013 by Doubleday.

100 Essential Books – The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox- Maggie O’Farrell (Headline 2006)

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When I discovered that newbooks magazine would be having a Maggie O’Farrell retrospective (nb 88- available now from here) I thought I would go some way to putting right the oversight which means that up until now I had not read any of her books.  I found her 4th novel dating from 2006 sitting on the local  library shelves and although this was my first Maggie O’Farrell it will not be the last.

Esme has been incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital for over sixty years.  When the hospital is due for closure her grand-niece who has never heard of Esme’s existence takes responsibility.  This is a beautifully written novel imbued throughout with a sense of what might have been.  Esme’s life before her time in hospital flashbacks through her mind, her sister Kitty’s thoughts ramble in the haze of Alzheimer’s and Iris, the niece, has her own issues holding her back.

It is a novel of restraint, both in how the characters have been held back by their circumstances and the spare effective style.  I felt completely captivated by Esme’s unpredictability and her personal tragedies and was horrified by her family’s ignorance and ill-treatment of her .O’Farrell builds the story beautifully and the plot twists and turns are shocking yet realistic.  Motives and actions that might seem far-fetched in the hands of less talented writers are made convincingly plausible. I found it very difficult to put the book down and the catastrophe of Esme’s needless sixty year hospitalisation will stay with me for some time.

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I love an author willing to let a cat in on the act!

Maggie O’Farrell is from Northern Ireland and currently lives in Edinburgh.  She won the Costa Best Novel award in 2010 for “The Hand That First Held Mine”.  In 2013 she was shortlisted for the same prize for “Instructions For A Heatwave”.  Her latest novel “This Must Be The Place” is published in May 2016.  I have some catching up to do.

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The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox was published in 2006.  I read the hardback published by Headline.  The paperback is published by Tinder Press.

 

100 Essential Books- Rosemary’s Baby- Ira Levin (Corsair 1967)

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As a teenager I read all Ira Levin’s then-published novels in a short space of time.  This was the book that kick-started my Levin frenzy and I was interested to see how well it has stood the test of time.

It has.  By twisting horror story conventions it manages to convince as one of the most successful pieces of horror writing of all time, even though it is mainly frightening by implication.  How does it do this?  Firstly, Rosemary is likeable.  Too often the “victims” in horror writing have some flaw that means we feel a little less sympathy for them when the bad things start happening.  Rosemary may be a little irritating and gullible but comes across as an ordinary girl in love, living in a place she had aspired to and contemplating starting a family.  Secondly, we have a glossy urban setting which feels cool and modern.  A lot of the references throughout the book would have resonated with the 60’s audience who would have seen Guy and Rosemary’s life as both aspirational and stylish.  Midway through Rosemary reinvents herself with a then-so trendy short Vidal Sassoon cut.  (It isn’t entirely successful- the damage to her physical health caused by what is lurking inside her leads to one of her friends to refer to her as “Miss Concentration Camp 1966″).  The darkness of traditional Gothic stories is replaced here with the lights of urban New York, but the darkness is there simmering, like the devilish bun in the oven.

Thirdly, it works due to its length.  Levin was a brilliant story-teller and keeps the story moving throughout with the right balance of plot development and almost trivial asides.  No long-winded build-up here. This is even though at first it seems miles away from a horror, a young couple set up new home and  make new friends, but this actually causes the reader to read very carefully with heightened awareness throughout, hanging on the details.  Levin keeps us all on a tight leash.

There’s great characterisation here.  Rosemary and her actor husband, Guy, trying to push himself ahead of his rivals and also their neighbours Roman and Minnie Castevets who smother the couple in good intentions.  Everyone feels real and that is important as Rosemary’s paranoia sets in .  Who is to be trusted?

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Plot-wise, everyone knows this is a story of modern Satanism both from the book’s fame and the equally excellent 1968 Polanski directed movie. Starring a superbly cast Mia Farrow as Rosemary it follows the dialogue from the book extremely closely.  The plot is slight, but so gripping and even more chilling because of its slightness.  I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this.  I thought perhaps the world of horror had moved on from this and that it might come across as either dull or plain trashy.  It’s neither.  It is an important horror classic and a perfect example of mid-60’s American paranoia.  Anyone searching for that Great American novel – here is an outside the box contender.

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Rosemary’s Baby was originally published in 1967.  I read the Corsair 2011 edition with an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk.