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.

 

 

A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate 2016) – A Real Life Review

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Biographer Alexander Master’s latest highly unusual subject following his acclaimed 2006 “Stuart: A Life Backwards” (excellent TV adaptation starring Tom Hardy in 2007) and “Simon: The Genius In My Basement” (2012) made its presence known following a discovery in a skip.  A friend found 148 diaries abandoned in Cambridge.  He passed them on to another friend and when she became ill Alexander became the keeper of this extraordinary find, a vast number of diaries and notebooks filled with great intensity over a period of decades by person unknown.

What Masters had in his home was the work of the most prolific diarist of all time (Guinness Book of Records had recognised “newspaperman” Edward Robb Ellis’ 22 million words but here is something like 40 million words ) a record of one life and found in a skip.

It took Masters five years to discover the identity of the diarist.  The words became something of an obsession for him.  He pored over the writing looking for clues, at writing which became smaller as the writer aged becoming miniscule in later volumes.  A life which had begun with hope and optimism with many potential avenues became frustrated, disturbed even close to madness as the sequence continued.

I’m purposely giving little away about Masters’ subject because the gradual uncovering of the biographical details is one of the great strengths of this book.  Biographers obviously begin with research and getting to know and understand their subject before putting pen to paper, here we get a fascinating alternative process of nothing being known and everything having to be deduced from a personal monologue.  Diaries are not the best way to discover some things, even the basic biographical details such as gender, name, description are rare in this type of personal writing (why would you write about the things you know already?) and remained very much hidden amongst the millions of words.  The very nature of diaries is their tendency to be outlets for outpourings of the irrational and unanalysed.  So how much of a person’s life is actually revealed in this way?

This is certainly a real life with a difference and it is the process rather than the life itself which becomes gripping.  Extracts from the diary are not as prevalent as might be expected and are more used to put together a picture of the writer and why their life’s work ended up in a skip.  It reminded me occasionally of Alan Bennett’s “Lady In a Van” but instead of the physical presence of Miss Shepherd  turning up outside in her old van here we have the presence of the 148 volumes which takes over Master’s existence in much the same way as  Miss Shepherd did.

Another strength is how Masters’ biography has to shift gears as details are uncovered.  We have seen this recently in Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” which changes track when research brings something astonishing about her subject to light but Masters is doing this all the time as assumptions are proved incorrect often built from passing remarks and gut feelings.  The twists and turns in the development of his narrative are really quite thrilling.

There, I think I’ve completed this without giving much away.  This book is best approached as a blank slate to really get maximum enjoyment from it.  Read it before you find out too much about it.

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A Life Discarded was published by Fourth Estate in hardback in May 2016 and in paperback in February 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Nutshell – Ian McEwan (2016) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I feel that Ian McEwan has been part of my reading life for a long time.  I was 18 and supposedly revising for my A Levels when I discovered his first two collections of short stories, the Somerset Maugham award-winning “First Love, Last Rites” (1975) and “In Between The Sheets” (1978).  I had never read anything like these tales ever before.  I also devoured  his dark debut novel “The Cement Garden” (1978) whilst I should have been listing the reasons for the French Revolution.

His next couple of novels seemed slighter affairs but I was back with him for “The Innocent” (1990) and particularly for his tale of  hot air balloons and obsession “Enduring Love” (1998), a book I am determined to re-read this year to see if it is as good as I remembered.  His 1998 Booker Prize winning “Amsterdam” is less memorable and came before the book which should have picked up every accolade going, his masterwork as far as I am concerned “Atonement” (2001), one of the best novels of this century so far.  I still have the last three before this latest, “Solar” (2010), Sweet Tooth (2012) and “The Children Act” (2014) sitting on my shelves waiting to be read but I couldn’t hold out when I saw “Nutshell” in my local library and had to borrow it and read it, especially as he is the current holder of my  Reviewsrevues Book Of The Year Re-Read Award.

My verdict- it is very good but not classic McEwan.  It lacks the richness and depth of his very best but it is a very involving and memorable read.  Narrated by a foetus in a womb this is certainly a crime novel with a difference.  This very well-informed youngster has picked up significant life experiences from listening to podcasts and the radio as well as a gourmand’s tastes from the rich food and copious amounts of wine his mother imbibes.  He has a vivid sense of the world he has never seen, two factors which make him a fascinating if not totally reliable narrator.  When he hears his mother and her lover, Claude, his father’s brother, plotting to kill his father (obvious shades of “Hamlet” here) he faces the dilemma of being a small part of a “perfect crime” coupled with a need for his biological father backed by an awareness of what repercussions there will be for his young life if things go wrong.

This is very much a character study of the three sides of the love triangle as seen through the (unopened) eyes of the embryo.  There are digressions aplenty as he attempts to make sense of his world before he makes an appearance and an attuned awareness of the developments of the murder plot.  The three adults are brought to life vividly but it is the unborn who the reader will be rooting for.  It’s original and like the best crime novels I did find myself holding my breath towards the end as McEwan’s plot comes to resolution.

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Nutshell was published in hardback by Jonathan Cape in September 2016.  The paperback edition is due in June 2017.

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.

Waking Lions- Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Pushkin Press 2016)

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This is Israeli author Gundar-Goshen’s second novel translated from its original Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.  Her first  “One Night, Markovitch” (2012) was also published by Pushkin Press and won awards in her homeland.  “The Waking Lions” is a philosophical work which deals with deep moral issues yet also works well as a thriller.

Main character Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon whose life transforms one night when he hits an Eritrean immigrant with his SUV and decides to leave him for dead.  His wallet is discovered at the scene by the dead man’s wife and in order to make amends and save himself from professional ruin and prison Eitan is coerced into treating illegal immigrants at night in a disused garage.  The potential plot-worthiness of this is cranked up a notch as Eitan’s wife, Liat, is a policewoman involved in investigating the hit and run case.

Eitan is dragged into a situation he cannot get out of and becomes obsessed with the dead man’s wife, Sirkit, who is very much in control of his fate.  Much is made of how one moment can change lives and how changes of behaviour stem from one decision.  Liat knows her marriage is falling apart but cannot link it to a dead road accident victim.  There’s guilt, atonement and much analysis yet the predicament Eitan finds himself in also lends itself to some gripping writing.  The moral significance of the story transcends its Israeli setting and really could work located anywhere.  Admittedly, there were times when the philosophising and navel-gazing of the main characters (the author has a Masters degree in psychology) slowed things down unduly but then a twist of the knife was never that far away to make Eitan’s problems even more complex.

I found it enjoyable and thought-provoking.  It would seem to be a good choice for reading groups who might not find themselves all warming to the characters but it would certainly provide fruitful discussion of the issues raised.

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Waking Lions was published by Pushkin Press in  March 2016  .  Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the review copy.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail 2016)

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There’s something lurking in the waters of Aldwinter, near Colchester, towards the end of the nineteenth century and recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a keen fossil hunter is determined to find out what it is.  Could it be the Essex Serpent rumoured to have terrorised villagers over 200 years ago?

This is a very good quality Victorian-set novel which features, unsurprisingly, the themes of superstition versus rational thought , Darwinism against established religious beliefs and the fear that despite the growth of scientific understanding and medical advances there may just be primitive, natural, environmental things lurking that no-one can comprehend.

Sarah Perry’s critically acclaimed second novel has already scooped the Waterstone’s Book Of The Year award.  Its cover by Peter Dyer based upon a William Morris design certainly looks stunning in book shop windows and the whole look and structure of the book with its quotes from the actual seventeenth century pamphlet warning of the dangers of the serpent, the use of correspondence in the text and its chronological structure through the months of 1893 are all impressive and shout out quality fiction.

Perry creates a convincing set of characters.  Cora, released from an abusive marriage receives attention from the doctor who attended her husband but finds stronger attraction to the village’s vicar, a family man with a consumptive wife.  The threat of the serpent looms throughout giving the book a rich edginess, which together with its warm humour works very well.

I think in all aspects this is a strong work but for me it didn’t quite have the extra something which would put it up amongst the very best of the Victorian historical literary novel.  I’m thinking John Fowles “French Lieutenant’s Woman” , Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”  and  particularly Michael Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  These authors developed upon the Victorian cliff-hanger technique to bring us real surprises in the plot which is what makes them so memorable but I didn’t feel that happened here, and I was expecting it to. Perhaps I was just looking forward to reading it too much.  It is, however, a very welcome addition to my bookshelves of another very good 21st century evocation of the nineteenth century novel.

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The Essex Serpent was published (appropriately) by Serpent’s Tail in May 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and to newbooks for the review copy.

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.

The Wonder – Emma Donoghue (Picador 2016)

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Although I have “Room” on my bookshelves I have not got round to reading it yet.  (I’m here referring to Donoghue’s international best-seller, not actual room, of which I have very little on my shelves!)  Here, I would imagine we are in very different territory with this her 14th publication.

This book focuses on the phenomenon of “fasting girls”,  a curio which has popped up throughout history when a (usually) young female clams to be living without taking in any food.  At times in the past, some saw this as a new stage of human development, as if the faster is converting food in a different way, like a plant and inevitably, perhaps, the religious have seen it as a sign of the miraculous.

In a mid-nineteenth century village in the Irish Midlands an eleven year old girl is causing ructions and great excitement by her four month total fast.  A committee is formed to investigate and a nun and a nurse have been employed to monitor.  The nurse, Lib Wright, trained by Florence Nightingale and a veteran of the Scutari Barracks in the Crimea has been brought over from England to keep watch.

Lib does not adhere to the Catholic beliefs which dominate the local population but is thrust into this intense world of ritual and superstition.  This and the rudimentary accommodation of burning peat and smoke filled huts makes for a very intense environment.  Much of the action takes place in the basic room between nurse and patient.  The child initially seems to be thriving without food.  What are the motives behind the child’s claim and is this some kind of ruse?   Is she, as she states, being fed by some kind of divine intervention or is something more sinister and underhand going on?

Donoghue catalogues the two weeks of this watch of close observation and note-taking.  Lib’s calling is still very much in its infancy but she is aware that she has been taught by the best and the words of Nightingale (Miss N) are never far from her mind.  Lib is submerged into a world where religion and superstition can overshadow common sense and the read is involving and builds nicely as the truth is revealed.

This is a novel rich in atmosphere.  Lib is very much an alien amongst the Irish and the environment of peat and an unstable boggy land is very much as alien to her as the attitude of the villagers towards the miracle child.  There’s so much room for discussion for reading groups, but with morality and religion at their centre these are likely to be lively ones.  “The Wonder” provides a thought-provoking involving read which will boost Donoghue’s reputation and variety as a writer and storyteller.

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“The Wonder” 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 Emma Donoghue.  You have until 10th February to register your vote.

“The Wonder” was published in hardback by Picador in September 2016.  The paperback is published in May when we could expect to see Emma Donoghue once again ascending the best-seller lists.

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