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Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith

On the front cover, Robert Olen Butler describes Desperation Road as “Brilliantly compelling” and he is absolutely right.  This story has a thread of tension running all the way through it and just the right amount of drip, drip of information to make it one of those books that you want to keep on reading.

Russell Gaines is an interesting character, despite being something of a nobody – he is neither a natural hero or a typical villain.  Even the crime for which he has spent eleven years in prison was passively committed.  Having said that, while he has thought much over those eleven years about the consequences of his actions to himself, it is clear he has given very little thought to the family and friends of his victim.  This changes over the relatively short timeframe that the story covers and he becomes increasingly more likeable.

I particularly liked the character of Maben.  Smith manages to create a sense of vulnerability while still portraying a her as a strong woman.  She is determined to keep going, to protect he daughter and to do the best she can for her, despite a series of setbacks, mostly not of her own making.

The other thing I liked was the writing style.  The tone of the narrative is very natural and I could almost hear the southern drawl of a narrator in my head.

On the downside, I generally like all the ends tied up neatly in a story and I would have preferred a stronger and tidier resolution to this one.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t a bad ending and I still enjoyed it.  A sequel is possible and I would almost certainly read it. I really liked the style and will be looking out for more novels by Michael Farris Smith in the future.

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Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

Set in Nigeria, the story begins in 2008 as Yejide prepares to return to her home town following the death of her father in law.  We learn that she will meet her estranged husband, Akin, for the first time in fifteen years and that she still harbours feelings of hurt and anger relating circumstances of their failed marriage.

The story then takes us back to the beginning of their relationship in 1985, alternating between the first person narrative of Yejide and that of her husband as their marriage, and their world, unravels.  They are a modern couple but they find that they are still subject to pressure from a society, and more particularly family, that still cling to older traditions.  Gradually, over time, this combines with misfortune, misunderstanding and lack of communication to put a strain on their marriage that it cannot withstand.

Although the story also refers to the political and national unrest of the time, this mainly serves to highlight how, even in dangerous times, it is the concerns and struggles closer to us that occupy our thoughts the most.  It is clear that Yejide and Akin care about what is happening in their country but it is also clear that they are concerned more what is happening to them as a family.

I thought that the choice of alternating, first person narrative was extremely effective.  Not only does it allow us to get to know each of the two main characters better than they know each other, it also draws us into their relationship to some extent, switching sympathies as we learn the motivation and context of the other character.   We also get to see all of the misunderstandings and assumptions that go unspoken between them and, in the end, come to realise that they are perhaps equally deserving of both sympathy and blame.

I very much liked the Yejide narrative.  She is a strong, outspoken woman and uses some wonderful phrases and proverbs.  Akin’s narrative is less enjoyable to read but the slightly stilted, reserved tone is entirely appropriate for the character.

Mostly I thought it was an enjoyable read but I was a little disappointed with the ending as it felt to me as if too much had been left unresolved.

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The Longest Winter by Kevin Sullivan

The Longest Winter is beautifully written and incredibly moving.

Kevin Sullivan is an ex-journalist who experienced the Bosnian war first hand and that understanding and experience is evident in his writing.  This is not a book that could have been written by somebody without that experience.

There are three main characters: Terry a British doctor who has come to Bosnia to escort a sick child back to London for urgent treatment, Brad, an American journalist dealing with his own demons from past conflict zones and Milena, a Bosnian woman who turned her back on the hatred and brutality that had taken over her own town.

When Terry’s flight lands in Sarajevo, her arrival has not been well organised and she is left to fend for herself.  It is easy to have sympathy for her, however, like Terry herself, the reader gradually begins to see that her trials pale into insignificance in comparison with the real problems that those in Sarajevo, particularly the hospital, face every day.

This is the most thought provoking book I have read in a long time.  The speed with which ordinary towns like those we live in descended into chaos and death is shocking, as is the nature of combat in civil war.  The story takes place in the centre of Sarajevo, where civilians live only 500 yards from the front line with gun fire and shells exploding around them.

Despite this the people try to carry on living a normal life.  The televised annual song contest goes ahead, even though hardly anywhere has electricity, and friends still gather for parties.  And when the pre-war normal is no longer possible,  a new kind of normal is created, there is an acceptance.

Another striking feature for me was the merging of civilian and military: the geeky, bohemian Zlatko, a university student just months earlier was now a translator and escort for foreign journalists, helping government and military officials, while government soldiers are dressed in jeans and trainers.  The only difference between them is that the soldiers carry guns.

The Longest Winter would make a great book for a reading group as there are so many potential talking points: the recurring theme of difficulty with communication, the parallels that Sullivan draws between the individual relationships and the war, and how the simplicity of the language he uses emphasises the awfulness of the events.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Oh, Freedom by Francesco D’Adamo

This is a great story that children will love.  They will have no difficulty identifying with the main character, Little Tommy.

Tommy is a 10 year old slave living with his family on the slave settlement of an estate in Alabama in 1850.  He knows no other life and when a stranger turns up who looks just like the other slaves but has now owner, Tommy is confused.  In fact, when the stranger asks “Do you ever think of freedom?”  Tommy’s response is simply “What’s that?”

The stranger turns out to be a guide who will lead Tommy and his family through the Underground Railroad to freedom.

Although written in the third person, the narrative voice for most of the story is that of Little Tommy and by the end of the second page I was completely hooked by his innocent charm.  The language of the descriptive narrative is outstanding and full of visual imagery with some great similes that give as much of an insight into the everyday life of Little Tommy and the world in which he lived as they do about his thoughts and feelings.

This would make an excellent class reader and is ideal for providing a starting point not only for investigations into black history, and slavery specifically, but also as a support for studying the way authors use language, discussing ethical and social issues and personal development, particularly in dealing with perseverance and endurance.  Music too is significant in the story.

In terms of age suitability, the author achieves a good balance in portraying the fact that slaves were treated with brutality without actually describing, or specifically stating, any of the terrible violence that they were subjected to, with the exception of a few mentions of flogging of slaves (although not graphically described).  My only concern is that very young children would have difficulty with the few passages that are written from the overseer, Jim Kniff’s point of view.  Although there is no use of the offensive language that is commonly associated with slavery in America, Jim’s thoughts are, not surprisingly, offensive and might not be suitable for younger children.

In summary, this is a beautifully written story that I would highly recommend for parents and teachers alike.

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The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

It’s been a long time since I read a Victorian novel and I’d forgotten how very different they are.

The story meanders rather than unfolds and the plot is very simple with no real twists or turns.  Instead the focus is very much on the message, which is the real appeal of this book for me, more as a source of understanding of social history rather than for literary enjoyment.  Much of the story portrays the uncomfortable co-existence of aristocracy and wealth, which two things increasingly did not go hand in hand.  The vehicle for this exploration is Melmotte, a great financier of dubious origin, who the old families of the day look down upon even while they feel the need to court his wealth due to the extent to which their own resources have depleted.

The Way We Live Now is a satirical depiction of life in the latter half of the Nineteenth century.  All of the characters have flaws in abundance; there is pride, greed, selfishness, arrogance and heaps of snobbery.  This makes none of them particularly likeable, although I do wonder whether some of them at least would have found a far more sympathetic audience in their day.  Reading it today though, I would say that the lack of sympathetic characters is something of a negative and I felt that it was one of the reasons that I found it such a slow read, the other being that it is incredibly long (over 700 pages).

Another aspect of the book that struck me as being very different from most things that we would read now, is the large number of significant characters, all of whom have chapters of the book dedicated to their own particular part of the story with the narrative nipping back and forth in time to tell each one.  This creates a bit of a soap opera feeling and there are several points throughout the book where the narrator recaps on what has already happened in a character’s story – a kind of ‘previously on The Way We Live Now’ bit.

Finally, I come to my favourite thing about The Way We Live Now: the narration.  Modern authors have moved away from the distinctive narrator towards something more invisible, taking on the voice of a character.  While the narration in The Way We Live Now does at times take on a character’s point of view, the narrator is perceived as a distinct individual separate from all of those who appear in the story.  This was a far more common narrative style in Victorian fiction and I think it is a shame that it went out of fashion.  It is particularly useful in this story as the pleasant style of the narrator goes some way to balancing the antipathy I feel for the main characters.


Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon

Alex Dale is an alcoholic journalist trying to maintain a living as a freelance health writer.  In the course of writing a feature on developments in medical understanding of persistent vegetative state patients, she recognises one of the patients as Amy Stevenson, who was attacked and left for dead as a fifteen-year-old girl fifteen years earlier, in 1995. The case was never solved and Alex is drawn to carrying out her own investigation, initially probably in part as an excuse to contact her policeman ex husband who left her because of her inability to deal with her drink problem.

Despite the fact that the alcoholic lush protagonist is in danger of becoming a little bit tired, I really liked this book.  I was drawn into the story very quickly and held there until the end.  Alex, for all her faults, is a likeable character, fragile and vulnerable without appearing weak or whiny and somebody I found it easy to have sympathy for.

A book with lots to make the reader think that would provide some great talking points for a reading group.  For example, I was left considering the nature of pain and suffering as I found my heart strings tugged at more often for Alex and her difficulty in coping with life than I did for Amy trapped inside her own body unable to live hers.   To some extent this is helped by the tone of the ‘Amy’ chapters which is very much reminiscent of The Lovely Bones.

A word of warning to anybody who doesn’t like books that switch backwards and forwards in time: Try Not to Breathe does this a lot as the narrative shifts from one chapter to the next either from 1995 when Amy was attacked to Alex’s investigation in 2010 as well or between characters within those timeframes.

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Blackwater by James Henry

Blackwater is set in post-Falklands early 80s in the military town of Colchester, where tensions between the locals and the soldiers stationed there provide regular headaches for the local police.  However, a more serious problem for them comes in the form of four deaths in the space of a few days and a major drug smuggling operation.  DI Nick Lowry is the police officer tasked with solving the various, apparently unrelated crimes, while the same time having to face the reality that his marriage is in trouble.

I should say from the outset that I probably don’t fit the demographic that Blackwater is aimed at.  It is quite masculine in tone and content, not in any negative way but it just isn’t a style that appeals to me.

Having said that there are some issues with it that are more general.

My main complaint is that I didn’t really get to know any of the characters well.  I know that it is intended to be the first in a series and that it is usual for characters to be developed across a number of books but there needs to be a balance so that readers get to know the characters well enough to want to come back and Blackwater doesn’t achieve that balance.

The whole story takes place over the course of a single week and is structured like a diary.  Unlike a diary, it isn’t written from a single character’s point of view.  I don’t usually mind multiple points of view in a story – in fact I think it can make them more interesting – but I found the ‘head hopping’ in this book confusing at times as the ‘voice’ of the narrative would switch suddenly from one character to another.

I also felt that the police solving the crime was wrapped up too quickly at the end and I didn’t always follow how they had come to the conclusions that they did.

On a more positive note, the story was believable and the pace was very good.  Furthermore, having lived in an an estuary town in the early 80s, I can vouch that James Henry has captured the feel of the time very well.

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