Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Chocolat

Five words from the blurb: chocolate, boutique, French, town, church

Chocolat is one of those books that everyone seems to have read, but I hadn’t even seen the film. This meant I was pleased when someone from my book group selected it for our next discussion. Chocolat tells the story of Vianne Rocher, a newcomer who decides to open a chocolate shop in a small French town.

Everyone else in my book group enjoyed Chocolat, but unfortunately it didn’t really work for me. It was a fast paced read, but it lacked depth. The characters were difficult to distinguish from one another and the setting was so vague that it was hard to tell where/when it was set.

The book also seemed to wage a war on the church, hinting that religion was evil and chocolate good. I’m not religious so wasn’t offended by these sections, but I struggled with the simplicity of the arguments. The best stories don’t pit good against evil, but instead show that there are shades of grey in everything. This was all too black and white for me.

Much of the plot was also a bit far fetched. I often struggle with magical realism and although this book didn’t venture far into this genre I still found the implausibility of some scenes difficult.

On a positive note – the description of chocolate manufacture were wonderful – they made me so hungry!

Protected from the sun by the half-blind which shields them, they gleam darkly, like sunken treasure, Aladdin’s cave of sweet clichés. And in the middle she has built a magnificent centrepiece. A gingerbread house, walls of chocolate- coated pain d’epices with the detail piped on in silver and gold icing, roof tiles of florentines studded with crystallized fruits, strange vines of icing and chocolate growing up the walls, marzipan birds singing in chocolate trees…

I’m interested to see how the film handles these subjects, but it seems as though I’m in the minority in not loving this one.

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Confessions of a Ghostwriter by Andrew Crofts

Confessions of a Ghostwriter (Confessions Series)

Five words from the blurb: author, hire, famous, shadowy, glamorous

Andrew Crofts is a successful ghostwriter. He has published over 80 books, many of which have been best sellers. I agreed to review this book because he has had a fascinating career – working with celebrities, world leaders and ordinary people who’ve lived extraordinary lives. Unfortunately the nature of his work means that many of his clients deny his existence and much of his past is shrouded by confidentiality agreements.

Writing a book in someone else’s voice allows the ghostwriter to abdicate responsibility for anything that is said. The release from that responsibility compensates for the inability to express your own views. In one way it makes it easier to tell a story dramatically and to introduce readers to the personality of the subject, but it is also an act of cowardice, a way of hiding behind the mask. It makes it much easier to express outrageous opinions, to justify shocking behaviour, if you are using someone else’s voice and letting them face any hostile responses that might come from readers.

Crofts is clearly a talented writer. His story was engaging and packed with a light humour that made it a joy to read. Unfortunately this book was ruined by the secrets.  I became frustrated by the repeated introduction of interesting scenes which could not be completed because they might give away the identity of the client. Personal details about interactions with a ghost writer would have been interesting, but this book rarely got further than an initial greeting with an unnamed celebrity.

The book also had a fragmented nature. Most chapters were only a couple of pages long and seemed more like introductions to potential novels (each of which would have been great) than stories that could stand up on their own.

There were lots of interesting little snippets of information about life as a ghostwriter, but I’m afraid the confidentially agreements ruined this book. Such a shame as I think Andrew Crofts has had one of the most diverse and exciting lives I’ve ever come across.

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Quick summary of books I’ve tried recently

Sea Creatures

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Five words from the blurb: Miami, domestic, drama, scandal, disappointment

I bought this book to read in Florida, but unfortunately being in this book’s setting didn’t add to its appeal. The writing was nothing special and the characters were so ordinary/flat that I didn’t care about them. Recommended to those who enjoy relationship based reads of a lighter nature.

DNF

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women

Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks

Five words from the blurb: women, Middle East, veils, research, intimate

Fascinating insight into the lives of women living in the Middle East. Much of this book feels dated, but I learnt so much that this didn’t matter. Recommended to anyone who’d like to learn more about Islamic women.

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Fourth of July Creek

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Five words from the blurb: social worker, American, wilderness, family, conflicts

I loved the first half of the book in which we see a social worker performing his difficult, but rewarding work. The writing was outstanding – Henderson has the rare ability to make even the simplest scenes spring to life. Unfortunately I lost interest towards the end. It became more of a police procedural thriller and much of the initial intimacy was lost. Recommended to anyone who appreciates good writing.


Orfeo

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Five words from the blurb: music, research, police, hysteria, audience

Fantastic writing and wonderfully original concept, but as I’m not very knowledgeable about music I felt that much of the wisdom of this book went over my head. If you’re a fan of music, particularly classical, then you’ll love this.

DNF

I’m back from Florida

Sorry for the extended blogging break – I’ve been too busy enjoying myself on holiday in Florida! We packed a lot in to our time there – visiting the theme parks, enjoying the wildlife and cooling down in the water parks. My highlight of the trip was snorkelling with manatees in Crystal River, but the boys preferred stroking the dolphins at Discovery Cove. We all agreed that the Harry Potter sections of Universal stood out above all the other theme parks and I especially recommend the new ‘Escape from Gringotts’ ride in Hogsmead.

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Another highlight of the trip was meeting Sandy. We started our blogs within weeks of each other, way back in 2008, and have been blogging friends ever since. It was great to finally meet her in person.

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I didn’t read much on holiday, but The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is the perfect book to read in Florida and I’ll tell you all about how fantastic it is soon.

I hope you’ve had a wonderful August!

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

Five words from the blurb: goshawk, taming, grief, nature, process

H is for Hawk gives an account of the winter in which the author acquires and trains Mabel, a young goshawk. This period of time coincides with the death of Helen Macdonald’s father so there is an emotional rawness that penetrates everything. Much of her grief is reflected in her attitude towards Mabel and these heightened emotions are beautifully described.

The writing in this book is excellent. I don’t have a special interest in birds, but Helen Macdonald managed to captivate me with her simple story. Emotion bounces from the page and I could vividly imagine every scene she describes:

The landscape is changing before my eyes. What I see is not just winter moving onwards to spring; it is a land slowly filling with spots and lines of beauty. There’s a brittle sun out on the hill this lunchtime, and a fresh westerly wind. Mabel’s pupils shrink to opiated pinpricks as I unhood her, both of her eyes narrow with happiness.

The English countryside has a special place in the heart of this book and I think any nature lover will enjoy reading about the wide variety of flora and fauna. There were some scenes in which the hawk hunts prey. I was impressed by the concentration and speed of these birds and found these scenes exhilarating, but some might find their graphic nature disturbing.

H is for Hawk also includes information about TH White, a man who wrote a book on falconry in the 1930s. It was interesting to see how their lives mirrored each other, but I found these sections less interesting – probably because they lacked the intense emotion of the rest of the book.

Overall this was an impressive book that gave me a new respect for those who train birds of prey. Not much happens, but this didn’t matter as the simple tension of the bird’s unpredictable behaviour was enough to hold my attention. Recommended to anyone who enjoys nature writing.

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Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck

Flight of Passage

Five words from the blurb: plane, boys, across, America, adventure

A few weeks ago, in an effort to ease my fear of flying, I requested recommendations for positive stories about aviation. Alex suggested Flight of Passage and I’m so pleased that she did as a passion for flying oozes from the page and I now have a bank of positive images to combat the negative ones I’ve seen on the news - it is exactly what I was looking for!

Flight of Passage is written by Rinker Buck, who was fifteen-years-old when he flew from New Jersey to California with his seventeen-year-old brother Kernhan. The pair bought an old plane and spent the winter lovingly restoring it in their barn. They set off in the summer of 1966 and it is easy to see why they became minor celebrities as news of their adventure spread across the country:

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Buck and Kern, the teenage pilots

The book gives detailed descriptions of flight, but it wasn’t boring and technical in the way I found Saint-Exupery to be.

I constantly peered forward to the altimeter on the instrument panel, whacking my brother on his shoulder when he let it get in the way. The little hand on the dial couldn’t move off that 6, and when it did, I wiggled and fishtailed and nudged the stick to move the nose into better wind, to get us back up.

The book was perfectly structured to enable the reader to understand the process of flying. The technical difficulties they encountered showed how resilient aeroplanes are and it was reassuring to understand how pilots are able to overcome problems. It was especially good to know how much can be achieved, even with an old, basic plane.

As well as being a fantastic book about aviation it also showed the fragile relationship between teenage boys and their father. There was a real emotional depth to the story and I loved seeing the way in which they matured over the course of their journey.

Flight of Passage was a fascinating book and contained exactly the right mixture of suspense, information and emotion. Their youthful enthusiasm was contagious and I think it has done a lot to alleviate my fear of flying. For that reason alone I highly recommend it.

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