Days Without End- Sebastian Barry (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this.  I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.

 Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage.  With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.”  The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military.  Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.

Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances.  This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly.  There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result.  Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.

It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter.  In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times.  I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.

Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker.  “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?

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Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017.  The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.

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Autumn- Ali Smith (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Ali Smith is attempting to make her 4th appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist with this longlisted title, her first novel since winning the Baileys Prize and the Costa Novel Of The Year with “How To Be Both” (2014).  That was the only novel I have read by her to date and although I applauded its technical expertise I caught a whiff of style over substance and found it ultimately a little disappointing because I lacked a consistent emotional attachment, which is what I’m always on the lookout for when reading.  Smith is a brave writer whose non-linear narratives can lead to a distancing and if slightly off-balance risks becoming a tad pretentious and ending up with a book of segments of writing (in her case often superb) rather than a coherently flowing piece.

 With that in mind, theories based purely on “How To Be Both”, I hasten to add, I was a little bit unsure about beginning my Man Booker longlist reading with this book.  Coincidentally for the last couple of years the first book I’ve read off the list has ended up scooping the prize, (I’m sure the judges are not bearing this in mind!) so I wanted this to be good.

 And it is.  For me, it is considerably better than the award-laden “How To Be Both”.  The reason?  I got that emotional attachment towards the relationship between the two main characters very early on and this relationship is a thread which runs throughout the novel.

 It’s not going to be easy summing this up in a few words.  A young girl befriends an elderly male neighbour who educates and stimulates moulding her into the adult she becomes.  Now a woman, Elisabeth visits him in his care home where he resides as a semi-comatose centenarian.  From the stories he has told her about the Art world she realises he knew Pauline Boty, a 1960’s female pop artist who Elisabeth bases her dissertation upon.  The time of these care home visits coincides with the Brexit vote and the uncertainty and tensions which fills the country comes across superbly.  Meanwhile Elisabeth’s mother has her own life changes ahead of her when she takes part in a TV antiques programme.

 The writing is often sumptuous, occasionally powerfully poetic as in a section about the mood of the country in the days following the vote and incredibly realistic as the characters grapple with the frustrations of modern life.  A section early on in the novel where Elisabeth attempts to use the Post Office Check and Send Service for a passport is a joy to read and is the section which really pulled me into the narrative, where I remained for most of the novel.  It is also highly visual, not least by its encompassing of art and story into the narrative.

 Smith is both a poet and a storyteller and her sheer unpredictability is both impressive and challenging.  The reader needs to yield to her skills as there is no way to ascertain how the novel will pan out.  There are digressions, plot twists, memories and dreams which make it a narcotic experience in more ways than one.  On this occasion I found her writing addictive and read it quite quickly, it will repay re-reading.  There’s the whole “Autumn” theme which I haven’t touched on which is part of the novel’s life-blood.  If this is the standard of the longlist it is going to be a good few weeks for me and a tough choice for the judges.  This is so close to being a five star read (How To Be Both I rated three stars) and is certainly shortlist worthy.

fourstars Autumn was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2016

The House Of Birds -Morgan McCarthy (Tinder Press 2016)

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A couple of reviews recently have had me agonising over my star ratings and as this is one of the culprits I thought I’d lay out, for the first time, I believe, the thinking behind those five stars.

A five star novel is one that will stay with me for a very long time. It’s a book I would not want to part with which has made a significant impression. Usually, I would say I read just a very small number of these each year. Examples of five star books recently reviewed here are: “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” by Chris Cleve, “The Golden Age” by Joan London and “Owl Song At Dawn” by Emma Claire Sweeney. I’m not usually alone with my praise in these books. Just these three titles here have gained awards and plaudits. It’s not just me who rate them so highly.

A four star novel is one which I really enjoyed and which I would very much like to remain on my bookshelves. It is one I can certainly see myself enjoying as much on a re-read. It might not be an all-time classic but it certainly gave me considerable pleasure. Examples of four star books reviewed here recently are “Queer City” by Peter Ackroyd, “The Mayfly” by James Hazel and “Crimson & Bone” by Marina Fiorato.

A lot of what I read I would consider three star. This is the “default” rating when I start to read a book. This is the largest category in terms of breadth. It’s a good book that I enjoyed but probably wouldn’t need to keep to read again. These are the books I tend to pass on, often recommending them to their new owner. As I don’t give half star marks (too confusing) this is quite a big category, from books which I didn’t quite feel got into top gear, to perfectly satisfactory genre-type fiction, to books which are really quite good but didn’t blow me away. Examples of three star books reviewed here recently are “Don’t Wake Up” by Liz Lawler, “Next” by Michael Crichton and “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith.

Two star books have disappointed me in some way or I’m a long way from the intended audience and it hasn’t really worked for me. I won’t give up on the author but on this occasion there have been issues. Examples of two star books reviewed here (and they are thinner on the ground are “There Once Lived A Lady Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby” by Ludmilla Petrusheskaya, “The Evenings” by Gerard Reve (and I admit these two might both be translation issues) and “Being Elizabeth Bennet” by Emma Campbell Webster.

One star books don’t usually get to the review stage and it’s unlikely that I will read anything else by the author. I’m better at weeding books out now so I don’t get to read too many of these. The book is just not for me………

Just occasionally I feel these divisions let me down and some books do not fit neatly into the ratings and I end up feeling stingy. This is one of those occasions.

Morgan McCarthy’s fourth novel (the first I’ve read by her) starts off a little slowly but then starts to weave its magic and at times I believed I was reading a book with four or five star potential but on completion it just didn’t end up doing anything which either surprised or thrilled me so much that I would want to keep it to re-read it, so given that and my above criteria, it ends up as a three star novel but if asked did I enjoy it and would I recommend it the answer would be a definite yes to both.

I thought I was being brave choosing to read a book with this title. A simmering ornithophobia (particularly indoors) would leave me going into a cold sweat over a “house of birds”. If just one comes into the house I’m off like a rocket (especially in a cat’s mouth), but no worries, this refers to a bird-embossed wallpaper which I can certainly cope with. Kate inherits a house under contested circumstances and boyfriend Oliver, who has quit his high-pressured London job, moves back to the Oxford of his childhood to project manage renovations. He finds sections of a diary which relates to the house’s past in a dual narrative which moves from the 1920’s to the present day. The most effective relationship in the novel is that between Oliver and the long-dead Sophia who causes the young man to question his life and its lack of direction. His involvement in the legal aspects tying up the house threatens his current relationship.

Morgan McCarthy does absolutely nothing wrong in terms of plot or characterisation. I just felt it was all a little tightly controlled and careful to really get me frothing at the mouth. As in the majority of these dual-narrative different time-zone novels I found myself responding more to the older strand but I did find Oliver a vibrant, worthwhile character who did come alive and whose male perspective to Sophia’s 1920’s quandaries was refreshing. Some of the other characters did not feel as real.

In many ways this is a treasure trail which leads towards the truth and is involving for most of its duration and effectively handled. I will certainly be seeking out this author’s earlier novels.

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The House Of Birds was published by Tinder Press in 2016. Many thanks to Bookbridgr and the publishers for the review copy.

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.

fourstars

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.

fourstars

 

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.