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review 2018-06-03 16:14
"Sal" by Mick Kitson - an original and engaging read that works perfectly as an audiobook
SAL - Mick Kitson


"Sal" is an original, engaging, story that deals with child abuse with empathy and compassion without turning the children into victims defined by their abuser. It made me think, cry, smile and get angry, sometimes within the course of a single page.


Sal is a thirteen-year-old girl who, after months of planning, has fled with her ten-year-old sister, Peppa, from their home in Glasgow to the forests of the Scottish Highlands, where, with a Bear Grylls knife, a compass, waterproofs, a first aid kit and what she's learned from the SAS Survival Handbook and watching YouTube videos, she intends to survive.


The main strength and the main limitation of the novel are that it is told entirely from Sal's point of view. Sal has a unique voice, that Sharon Rooney brings to life with wonderful clarity in the audiobook version. When Sal is describing the mechanics of survival, from making a bender to shelter in or snaring, skinning and cooking a rabbit, she is matter-of-fact, competent and well-researched. When she thinks about her past, the reason for their flight and what she had to do to achieve it, she is initially much more oblique and finally heart-breakingly dispassionate.  Only when she describes her sister, the always energetic, irrepressibly optimistic Peppa does real joy enter her tone.


I was quickly invested in Sal and her endeavours and then, as I slowly began to understand their cause and their cost, deeply worried for her.


The first half of the book was totally engrossing but I couldn't see how the Sal could resolve the situation she was in. Then a new character is introduced, a doctor in her seventies, who is living in a bender in the forest. She helps the girls both to survive and to resolve their situation. 


The Doctor an interesting history: childhood in wartime Germany, trauma in the fall of Berlin to the Russians, being a doctor in the DDR and defecting to Scotland, building a life here and then the choices that led to her woodland life. One of the problems is that we learn all of this from Sal, filtered by her understanding of the story and her fact-focused way of collecting a story. I found the Doctor to be a little too much of a plot device.


Yet the plot remained original and surprising. The final resolution was perhaps a little too neat or perhaps Sal just doesn't want to talk about the messy parts or isn't willing to see them yet.


"Sal" is a very satisfying, thought-provoking but accessible novel. Sal herself is someone who will live in my memory for a long time. What more can I ask of a novel?


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text 2018-05-19 17:16
"How To Be Brave" by Louise Beech - DNF - abandoned at 15% - buying error on my part
How To Be Brave - Louise Beech

I only listened to ninety minutes of an eleven-hour book so I'm not giving a star rating but I'm certain this book is not for me.


I liked the story idea - nine-year-old-girl dramatically passes out and is diagnosed as having Type 1 diabetes, her mother has to cope with the consequences alone except for the perhaps ghostly intervention from a dead but still inspirational great-grandfather.


I feel bad about not liking this book beause is semi-autobiographical and I can feel the authenticity of the experience but that's not enough. I found the pace slow, it's a little over-written while still managing to be slightly dull. Where I'd hoped for passion, I found sentiment that verges on Hallmark.


I think I may not be nice enough for this book. I reacted badly to its wholesomeness.


Others may value this book for its uplifting message and the sincerity of the author and the love that obviously went into it, but I'm moving on.

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review 2018-05-09 14:27
"Letters To My Husband" by Stephanie Butland - grief, loss, guilt, more grief and a lot of love and compassion
Letters To My Husband - Stephanie Butland

THERE OUGHT TO BE A WARNING when a book will make you cry from the first page.

Not cheap, easy to manipulate tears but the more expensive kind that are a muscle memory of loss.


I knew the book was structured around a young widow writing to her freshly dead husband but I hadn't expected a wave of raw grief to drown me on the first page.


The torrent that swept me away also submerged Elizabeth, the widow, unmooring her completely until her only escape is to refuse to accept that her life with her husband is over, so she writes to him about her grief and her anger and her physical inability to engage with a world that no longer has him in it.


When the first tide of emotion ebbed, the true structure of the novel emerged. This is more than a lament. It's an empathic and compassionate exploration of how women deal with grief, loss, anger and betrayal and how they can sometimes help each other find hope and perhaps, forgiveness.


The story is told in three timelines. At first, we get NOW, in which Mike, Elizabeth's husband is dead. Next, we get THEN which tells the story of how Elizabeth and Mike met and built a life together. The story moves, almost metronomically between these two periods, with THEN sometimes deepening the grief and pain of NOW and sometimes qualifying our acceptance of what we thought we knew. Just as I was beginning to find the NOW THEN, NOW THEN dance wearing, BETWEEN is introduced and the focus widens from Elizabeth and Mike and the world starts to move forward.


What I liked most about the book was the honesty with which emotions were faced. We experience the loss of a husband, a son, a lover; the extinction of the possibility of Elizabeth having a child with Mike and the difficulty of supporting sisters and daughters through such grief. The woman here feel real. They are not "what-would-you-do?" soap opera characters. They are trying to do their best in a situation where there a no pain-free options.


This powerful, well-written book was Stephanie Butland's debut novel. I came to it after reading her fourth and most recent novel, "Lost For Words." which I thought was a little tighter. I suggest reading "Letters To My Husband" first and then "Lost For Words"

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review 2018-04-26 19:27
"The Trick To Time" by Kit De Waal -Highly Recommended
The Trick To Time - Kit de Waal

I chose"The Trick To Time" by Kit De Waal as one of the six books I wanted to read from the sixteen books on the 2018 Women's Fiction Prize Longlist and I'm delighted that I did as it is one of the best books I've read so far this year. I recommend the audiobook version of "The Trick To Time" as Fiona Shaw's narration is perfect. Hearing the voices of the two Irish Aunts nicknames Pestilence and Famine, I was transported back to listening to my grandmother and her sister who spoke in exactly the same way.


I went into the book without reading the publisher's summary and I'm glad I did as it reads like the summary of a different book entirely, suggesting either magical realism or a historical romance.


For me, the strength of "The Trick To Time" is that exists purely to tell the story of how the main character, Mona, came to be Mona. The story is told in two parallel timelines: Mona as she reaches her sixtieth birthday, living alone in a seaside town in England, making dolls and providing some mysterious service to some of the women who visit her shop and Mona as a little girl, growing up in Ireland and then moving, in her late teens, to Birmingham to make a new life for herself.


The thing that most engaged me about the book was understanding how the little girl playing on the beach, and the young woman going nervously to her first dance in Birmingham, became the calm, strong but sad woman who makes wooden dolls. The parallel timeline structure of the book kept this at the centre of my attention and kept surprising me, not through the use of tricks or crazy plot twists but by how real and honest the changes in Mona seemed. I'm the same age as Mona and when I look back, I also wonder how the boy I was became the man I am. I was there and I yet I understand Mona's journey better than my own.


I was delighted to see that the sixty-year-old Mona isn't presented either as an old-woman far along the crone road or a woman still pretending to be twenty. Mona knows herself, she knows what's happened to her, she recognises the compromises and limitations in how she lives now and she has still a strong desire to find a way to live her life.


There is a real sense of time passing and perceptions changing while the people themselves remain who they have always truly been as if time simply wears away the bits of themselves that they'd only dressed up in in their youth.


This is a deeply empathic book about the nature of grief, the enduring impact of loss and the effect of time on emotions, memory and our own sense of identity.


I won't put spoilers in this review so I won't talk about the central trauma of Mona's life, except to say that it made me angry and it made me cry and it filled me with deep admiration for the service that Mona provided to others in later life.


Mona is a working-class Irish woman, living as an immigrant in Birmingham at the time of the IRA bombing that unleashed so much pain and hate.  Her ambition is simple: to make a family with the man she loves. By today's standards, they have nothing but they have enough to live independently and dream of a life filled with children who are loved and cared for with: "A roof on the house, food on the table and a coat on the hook".. I recognise those kinds of circumstances and that simple ambition but I rarely see it in books that are nominated for literary prizes. I also recognise the situation of being an immigrant and just trying to make your way. I like the matter-of-fact way this was dealt with: no polemics, no dog-whistle posturing, just an honest personal narrative.


The writing is beautiful without being flowery. From the beginning, I understood that there was more going on than I yet knew about and that understanding filled me with pleasant anticipation of a real story worth waiting for. It was a story that caught me by surprise time and again, up to the final chapter, but each surprise made more sense of Mona's life and actions rather than feeling like a magic trick.


Although this is Mona's story, the other people in it are more than cyphers. They are people with histories and emotions and opinions of their own and they rarely take the path that convention or cliché would channel them to.


For example, Mona's father is a complex and compassionate man. When his still-young wife is dying and Mona, his daughter, is playing on the beach to avoid her mother's illness, he finds her and persuades her to spend time with her mother. He says:
"One day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There's a trick to time. You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer." 

The gentle, sad truth of this sets the tone for the whole novel.


I'll be reading Kit de Waal's back-catalogue and anything else she publishes. I think she's an extraordinary talent.


4480If you'd like to know more about her and how she wrote "The Trick To Time", take a look at this Interview with Kit de Waal in "The Guardian" covering:

"The novelist on her Irish heritage, the passing of time and why she’s glad she didn’t start young"

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text 2018-04-25 22:55
Reading progress update: I've read 9%.
How To Be Brave - Louise Beech

I'm only an hour in to an eleven-hour book but I'm not sure this one is going to be for me. The story seems sound - nine-year-old-girl dramatically passing out and being diagnosed as having Type 1 diabetes, a mother having to cope with the consequences alone and the perhaps ghostly intervention from a dead but still inspirational great grandfather.


This book is semi-autobiographical and I can feel the authenticity of the experience but  the pace is a little slow, the language is a little over-written while still managing to sound flat and the sentiment verges on Hallmark


I'll give myself another hour before I decide to listen or leave.

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