2000 - 2007 Historical Fiction

Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks

Five words from the blurb: infected, Plague, village, death, survive

Eyam is a small village in rural Derbyshire. In 1665 the village tailor received a parcel of cloth from London. Unknown to him, fleas harbouring the deadly plague were contained in the package and within a week he was dead. It wasn’t long before other members of the village were struck down and the community made the brave decision to isolate themselves in order to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of the country. Only 83 of the village’s 350 inhabitants survived. Year of Wonders is a fictional account of what happened during the 14 months that the village was affected by the plague. The exact names and family groups may have been changed, but the fear and grief contained within the pages felt very real to me.

Eyam Village. Photo Credit: Johnson Cameraface, Flickr

This is an intense read; the writing was so powerful that at times I could hardly bear to read on, but I was completely gripped and unable to tear myself away from the tragedy that was unfolding.

He died clutching the bed sheet. Gently, I untangled each hand, straightening his long, limp fingers. They were beautiful hands, save for the one callused place toughened by a lifetime of needle pricks. Remembering the deft way they’d moved in the fire glow, the tears spilled from my eyes. I told myself I was crying for the waste of it; that those fingers that had acquired so much skill would never fashion another lovely thing. In truth, I think I was crying for a different kind of waste; wondering why I had waited until so near this death to feel the touch of those hands. 

This is historical fiction at its very best. I felt as though I knew the people and understood their motivations.

My only problem with this book was the epilogue – I felt it tied everything up too cleanly and I would have preferred the more ambiguous ending that could have been achieved without its presence. This a only a very minor quibble though – the rest of the book was stunning.

This book isn’t for everyone. I know that many will find the contents too distressing, but if you like books that take you on an emotional journey then this is for you.

Highly recommended.

Three words to describe the reading experience: intense, moving, informative.

Many years ago I visited the village of Eyam and I remember reading the signs which detailed the deaths that had occurred in each of the houses. It is only after reading this book that I appreciate the full scale of what happened in that community. The lists are a tragic insight into the way every family in the village was affected. Here is an example of one of the signs – many more can be found on Bowbelle51’s Eyam Flickr set.

Plague House Sign. Photo Credit: Bowbelle51, Flickr


For more information about the plague in the village of Eyam see the Eyam Plague Village website.

This is the first book written by Geraldine Brooks that I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last!

Are all her books as intense as this one?

Which is your favourite?

2010 Chick Lit Other Prizes

The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

 Winner of 2010 Costa Book Award for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: Soho, birth, motherhood, women, connected.

The Hand That First Held Mine has a dual narrative which follows two women who are separated by 50 years in time, but dealing with many of the same issues. The first thread follows Lexie, a 21-year-old girl, who leaves her 1950s Devon home to start a new life in London. She begins a relationship with a married man and struggles to deal with the problems this causes.

The second thread follows Elina, a Finnish woman who has just given birth to her first baby. The traumatic emergency caesarean affected her and her partner, Ted, deeply. As both struggle to come to terms with the near-death experience they also have to learn to look after their demanding new baby. The writing was vivid and packed with emotion – perfectly describing the turmoil that a new baby brings to a household.

Ted registers again how pale she is, how dark and deep are the circles around her eyes, how thin her limbs look. He is possessed with an urge to apologise – for what he isn’t sure. He scans his mind for something to say, something light and perhaps witty, something to take them out of themselves, to remind them that life is not all like this. But he can’t think of anything and now the baby is rearing back, crying, fidgeting, fists flailing, and Elina is having to open her eyes, sit up again, lift him to her shoulder, rub his back, untangle his hands from her hair and Ted cannot bear it.

I connected with Elina’s thread much more than Lexie’s. I think this is a combination of the fact that I have young children and so can relate to the feelings of a new mother, but also because I have little sympathy for someone who has an affair with a married man. Lexie’s thread felt like a well written piece of chick-lit whilst Elina’s thread had a bit more depth than that.

Both threads come together towards the end of the book, but rather than being impressed by the connection it all felt a bit contrived to me.

The book was easy to read and gripping in places, but I wished that the plot had been a bit more complex or thought-provoking. This book reminded me of  Peripheral Vision, but I felt that The Hand That First Held Mine didn’t have the same complexity or depth. I’m still thinking about the issues of motherhood raised in Peripheral Vision, whilst The Hand That First Held Mine offered no new perspective on the subject.

Overall, this was an entertaining diversion, but I don’t expect to remember much about it in a few months time.

The thoughts of other bloggers:

Every word is perfectly chosen, every sentence is perfectly constructed. Fleur Fisher in her World

…it didn’t pack the same punch for me as After You’d Gone… Leafing Through Life

It’s a vivid story of motherhood that honors the whole woman. The Literate Housewife


The Waterstone’s 11: The best debut fiction of 2011?

On Monday I explained why I love debut novels and so it will come as no surprise that I was interested in Waterstone’s new initiative to highlight debut literary fiction.

Last week they revealed the first Waterstone’s 11: a selection of 11 debut novels which will be published in 2011.

A panel of Waterstone’s staff read around 100 submissions and chose their favourites for inclusion in this list. The fact the selection process was so similar to that of a book award panel gives me confidence that their plan to

identify the future Man Booker nominees

will have a real chance of coming true.

I was really impressed with the list and immediately drawn to several of the titles. When I spotted that the first chapter of each book was available to download from the Waterstone’s Eleven site I decided to read them all and record my impressions.

Here are my thoughts on the first chapter of each Waterstone 11 book:

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Five words from the blurb: Rome, refugees, escape, Communism, Canada

Very good writing. I can see myself enjoying this book, but I want to wait for others to read it first to ensure that the plot is satisfying enough for my needs. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made the Booker long list.

The Registrar’s Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages by Sophie Hardach

Five words from the blurb: immigration, wedding, safe, investigation, suspicions

Vivid and gripping from the start, but I worry that I’ve read books covering the same themes many times before. I’m sure it is a fantastic read, but it isn’t jumping out at me. 

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Five words from the blurb: future, Ireland, gang, henchman, visionary

Could well be fantastic once you’ve got used to the dialect, but in my brief reading it was too much hard work and so I didn’t feel enough engagement to want to read on. Not for me.

22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

Five words from the blurb: war, survivors, boy, home, accept

I don’t think the blurb would ever have persuaded me to pick up this book, but I loved it from the first sentence. I already want to hug that little boy and I really want to know what happens to him next. Look out for this book on the Orange list!

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

Five words from the blurb: cricket, Sri Lanka, secret, Tamil Tiger warlord, dying

Cricket? Urgghhh!! It was a struggle for me to make it to the end of this brief extract. 🙁


Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Five words from the blurb: Ghana, London, knifed, investigation, innocence

Wow! Like a cross between Room and The Other Hand. I was totally hooked and so disappointed I couldn’t read the rest of the book. If I had a copy I don’t think I’d have put it down until I finished.

The Coincidence Engine by Sam Leith

Five words from the blurb: improbable, chaotic, chase, imaginary, America

The first chapter left me very confused. I’m sure it is all explained later on, but I worry it might be trying to be too scientifically clever at the expense of any emotion.

 The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

Five words from the blurb: tiger, Germany, The Jungle Book, war, devastated

Reads almost like a fairytale, but the reality of war creeps in to give this book a unique style. I think this could go either way for me, but I’m so intrigued I have to read the rest when it is released. 

The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

Five words from the blurb: haunted, Vietnam, father, senility, love

Beautifully descriptive writing, but I suspect the plot will be too slow paced for me to fall in love with it.

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

Five words from the blurb: Kashmir, war, poignant, shocking, family

Gritty, dark and raw. I was surprised by how gripped I was after reading such a small section. I will definitely be reading this one on its release.

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

Five words from the blurb: childhood, innocence, eccentricity, love, loss

There is a lot going on in this book! In the first chapter themes of religion, war and paedophilia were introduced. I’m fascinated to know where this book goes, but I do worry that too much is going on for any of them to be handled thoroughly.

See the full blurbs and download the first chapter of all these books at the Waterstone’s Eleven page.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a list of books where I love so many of the selection. I will be ensuring I follow the Waterstone’s 11 each year and I look forward to finding out if the books are as good as their first chapters.

What do you think of the Waterstone’s 11?

Discussions Other

Why I Love Debut Authors


In fact if I had to choose between only reading debut novels for the rest of my life, or eliminating them completely, I would choose the former.

I know that most of you think I’m mad. In the last few weeks I have seen several tweets/comments knocking debut authors and even a post revealing a cautious attitude to them. I thought it was time for me to explain my passion for them and try to get you to embrace debuts as much as I do.

Take a look at the following list:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe 
  • Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Sense & Sensibilty by Jane Austen
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
  • Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

Apart from being classics loved by millions of people across the globe, they are also all debut novels. You may not enjoy all of the books on the list (I certainly don’t!), but you can’t dispute the quality.

The thing about debut novels is that they tend to reflect whatever the author is particularly passionate about – authors put their whole being into that book, unsure as to whether or not they will ever write another.  

It is also increasingly hard for authors to get their work published. That means any debut snapped up by an agent must really stand out from the crowd. I find that established authors can get away with printing fairly average books, but unknown authors have to produce something really special to even have a chance of seeing it on the shelves.

Many people noticed that my list of the best debut books of 2011 was much more appealing than the list of books written by established authors and I think this proves my argument – debuts are far more interesting and emotionally powerful than second or third novels.

Which is your favourite debut novel?

Do you think you can spot the difference between a debut novel and one from an established author?

In case you were wondering – all the books pictured in this post are debuts too.

2000 - 2007 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong

 Winner 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

I bought a copy of Wolf Totem after I met The Book Whisperer and she raved about it. It is her favourite book of all time and as I love books set in Asia I decided to give it a try.

Wolf Totem is set on the Mongolian grasslands and describes the constant battle that the nomads have with the wolves that live there. The relationship the people have with the wolves is confused when Chen Zhen, an intellectual from Beijing, captures a wolf cub and starts to raise it. The book is based on the real life events of the author, who answered Chairman Mao’s 1969 call for city dwellers to experience life in the mountains.

This book goes some way to explaining what life was like for the Mongolian nomads, but it concentrates on the difficulties that wolves brought to their lives. We witness packs of wolves massacring their animals and the nomad’s attempts to kill the wolves. It was fascinating to learn about the behaviour of wolves, but I suspect the graphic nature of the hunts will be too much for some.

I enjoyed the excitement of the chase, but by the half way stage I began to tire of the endless battle between man and wolf. This book is 500+ pages long and after a while one wolf hunt became much like all the others. I longed to learn about other aspects of life in the grasslands and perhaps witness some of the human relationships.

I also felt that the writing quality was that of great fiction, not literature. There was no depth or poetry to the language – it was simply there to inform.

These things are never easy for the Mongols. Gasmai only has the one son, and still she didn’t stop him from grabbing a wolf’s tail or crawling into a den. The old Chinese saying ‘Don’t fight wolves if you’re unwilling to sacrifice your son’ must have come from the grassland. Don’t forget, the Mongols ruled China for nearly a century. I used to think it meant using your son as wolf bait, believe it or not. Now I realize it means letting your son risk crawling into a wolf’s den to get the cubs. Only a youngster could handle a tunnel this deep and narrow.

I did learn a lot of interesting facts about the wolves and am pleased I read the book, but I wish it had been slightly shorter.

Recommended to anyone who’d like to know more about wolves, in all their gruesome glory.


The Spider Truces – Tom Connolly

The Spider Truces is a coming-of-age novel set in rural Kent. That description would normally send me running in the opposite direction, but I was intrigued by the second thread of the book focusing on spiders. I was immediately pleased that I decided to give it a try as in the same way that The Behaviour of Moths (The Sister in the US) taught me about moths, this book proved to be a mine of interesting information about spiders.

Spiders in the bath are usually male house spiders that have fallen in while searching for females. By closing their book lungs and tracheae, they can survive in water for half an hour or more. Even spiders that appear quite dead can suddenly get up and walk when they dry out and open up their breathing systems again.

Unfortunately I found the spider facts so interesting that they started to overshadow the main plot.  I found the story of Ellis, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, too slow and gentle. It was beautifully written and the descriptions were incredibly vivid, but I became frustrated by the level of detail. I just wanted the pace to pick up and I’m afraid it never did.

Ellis and Denny would leave early for the Marsh, setting out when the village was a dark procession of cadaver houses and hollow-eyed windows. At shearing time, they heard the cries of ewes separated from their lambs reverberate across the flatlands and rise to them on the escarpment at Bilsington Monument. In midsummer, they listened to the hum of a light aircraft looping the loop over the Midley ruin. At dusk, Ellis saw smugglers out of the corner of his eye. They sought the eeriness of winter. The beauty of summer. The holiness of it all.

I also felt I was too young to appreciate much of this book. If you grew up in the 1960s or 70s (especially if it was in Kent) then I suspect that you’ll love reminiscing about many of the things mentioned.

I know that a lot of people will love this gentle, meandering story, but I only made it to the end because I loved the spider facts.

Recommended to those who love well-written, descriptive books – especially if you can remember the 1970s!