Welcome to A Blogging Good Read for December. Joining me this month are two of my book loving Twitter pals: Sally from Queenie and the Dew and Denise who doesn't blog but is on Twitter as @thatdenisegirl_. We didn't pick festive books to match the month but they were good anyway! Let the reviews commence:
Up first is my choice, China Court by Rumer Godden:
Rumer Godden was one of my favourite authors when I was a child but it wasn't until relatively recently that I discovered she'd written adult novels as well. This book could practically have been designed to suit me. A country house, a narrative that swirls through history, a sub plot that revolves around something I love (shan't spoil it though!) and Godden's trademark lyrical, poetic language. If you haven't tried her books I'd really encourage you to give one a go. Her writing is beautiful.
China Court is about a house in the Cornish countryside and five generations of the family that lived in it. It starts and ends in the late 1950s when Mrs Quin, the last owner, dies and the future of the house is in jeopardy. The story then begins to move around in time and gradually unfurls to reveal a complex, interwoven family history which caused the decline of the house but may also be its salvation.
If you don't get on with narratives that circle around through history and shift fluidly from one period to the next, this isn't the book for you. I admit that keeping track of the characters and their corresponding time periods isn't always the easiest thing to do but once I've sunk into the book after the first few pages I really don't find it a problem. A little bit like tuning your ear into Shakespeare - it takes a little while but when you're there, you're there. It's a book with enormous amounts of charm and is beautifully evocative of both time and place. I adore it.
What did Denise think of it?
I left this book till last, as it's exactly the sort of story I love. The story of a house and the family that lived there across the generations. Yes, this had my sort of book written all over it. I couldn't have been more wrong. I never ever stop reading a book before the end, but this book very nearly did it to me. I felt that there were far too many characters and I couldn't keep track of who was who (especially as some characters had multiple names!) and it jumped from generation to generation in the space of a few lines. However, by the time I got half way through, I had found one storyline I was enjoying, that of Tracy and Peter. At the start of the book Tracy's grandmother dies, and half way through we discover that she will leave her house to Tracy if she agrees to marry Peter, a local farmer. The will they/wont they storyline that ensued definitely held my attention, but the history that it was interspersed with left me cold.
How about Sally?
Family sagas are a little hit and miss for me, because I sometimes latch onto a particular period and feel disappointed when it moves on. I was pleasantly surprised by China Court though. It’s a beautifully woven tale, which struck a chord with me as I have family from Cornwall. It’s an elegant, masterful book that flits seamlessly back and forth through time and had me utterly engrossed. Peeling back the layers was such an enjoyable experience, and I can’t believe I hadn’t read it sooner. A truly hidden treasure that deserves widespread acclaim.
Sally chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows:
I had a few reservations when the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society popped up as my next book club read. I wasn’t sure what would be the biggest (and bitterest) mouthful – the title or the book itself. The narrative structure consists of a series of letters written between several different characters. Experience told me that this is a very difficult way to write, and in the past I’ve found similar novels disjointed, impersonal and hard to follow. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The novel tells the story of Juliet, a writer longing for her latest plot. Happening across a letter from Dawsey, who lives in Guernsey, they strike up a friendship and she soon uncovers a fascinating insight into life in Guernsey under German Occupation.This is a beautifully written and utterly charming book, with clearly defined characters who soon become old friends. Reading it is like drinking one long cup of tea, and having read it I immediately snapped up several copies on Amazon to dish out to my friends.
I had a very similar experience to Sally when I first read this book a few years ago. Letters? Odd title? One of those books that I "absolutely must read"? Hmmm, didn't seem promising, even though I'm kinda predisposed to love anything set during the war. I was rapidly won over by it though and clearly remember the emotional wallop that this book packed. It was just as strong second time round and that's always the mark of a really good book.
Although it's not written in a dry or preachy way I also appreciate how well researched and incredibly real it feels. I haven't read enough non-fiction about the occupation of the Channel Islands to know if it's entirely accurate or not (some poetic licence probably applies!) but it really does feel genuine. Two thumbs up from me!
What did Denise think?
When I first started this book my heart sank. I dislike 'novelty' books, and when I saw this book was written as a series of letters I was instantly switched off. I like a book to have a start, middle and end and go in order. This book changed my view of that, as within a few letters I was totally caught up in Juliet's world and desperate to know more about her relationships with the shy Dawsey and the slimey Mark. However, what I loved most was learning about the German occupation of Guernsey, I had no idea what the island went through during the Second World War and I was fascinated and horrified in equal measure to read about it. I read this book so fast, I flew through it on bus journeys constantly wanting to know what would happen next. This book really captures human nature in a small community, from those nosy-busybody neighbours that everyone knows; to the sorrow felt when someone dies, each letter gave you something to ponder, and without giving the end away, I definitely didn't see it coming!
Denise selected Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell:
Eleanor and Park was my choice of book. I first read it in the summer for a book club and immediately was hooked. I've recommended it to so many people wanting a good book to read, so it seemed a natural choice for this! This is a bittersweet coming of age story, about being an outcast in a small town, first love and not fitting into the 'cool kid' gang at school. I think most people can relate to one of the two main characters in one way or another, and it certainly rings true of growing up in the pre-internet and mobile phone generation when to call a boy you had to run the risk that his mum would answer the phone!
Eleanor coming from a dysfuncational family set up, and Park dealing with issues of race and culture differences, aren't your stereotypical teenage couple, but this book shows the real feeling and importance of adolescent relationships. You'll want them to succeed, to stand up to the bullies and to celebrate their differences. This book made me laugh, cringe and it made me think; it was very poignant and has stayed with me for a long time. I just hope a sequel will be written and we'll get to learn what 'those three words' were.
How did Sally rate it?
I approached this book with an open mind as it’s not the kind of read I’d immediately snatch off the shelf. That said, it’s a very truthful and realistic book. The relationship between this couple of misfit teenagers is often dysfunctional (taking me back to my own teenage romances), and that kept the novel grounded. I started out feeling ambivalent towards both characters, who are flawed in many ways through selfish, mean behaviour, but as the novel went on I had a complete change of heart. It’s quite a gloomy read, that’s for certain, but its honesty gives it so much credibility. At times it sat a little uncomfortably with me, not through weaknesses in plot or writing quality, but because the characters’ lack of independence and autonomy in their situations disempowered them so much. I wanted there to be some kind of coup, giving the characters the chance to fight back a little, but the sense of foreboding and paralysis lingered. That said, their beautiful romance is a silver lining, and I overall I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I'm not ashamed to say that I cried buckets when I read this book. Absolute buckets. I howled for about the last 50 pages. I was in bits. Eleanor & Park is utterly brilliant and definitely one of my books of the year. I'm absolutely delighted that Denise chose it for BGR as it's been lingering on my wish list for ages now and I've never quite got round to buying a copy. Now I want to buy everyone a copy.
Rainbow Rowell has an incredibly deft touch. I wasn't crying at the ending because the emotion had been ladled in in great big dollops, I was sobbing because the tiny touches, simple phrases and small gestures layered throughout the book had created an extraordinarily real world. It's because it felt so real that it was so tragic. Everyone can recognise and empathise with that deep sense of teenage awkwardness and isolation but reading it from a slightly more adult perspective is equally upsetting. You can't help but want to go and rescue Eleanor from her dreadful life and be hugely thankful that someone like Park is in her life and can help her. It's not as gloomy a book as I'm making it sound though - promise! There's lots to laugh at and you'll end it with a happy smile.
Big thanks to Sally and Denise for taking part this month. I adored both of your selections! I'll be back next month with two different book lovers and we'll be reading The BFG by Roald Dahl, The Colour by Rose Tremain and The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.
If one of your 2014 resolutions is to read more, let me know! I'm looking for participants for February onwards.