Jan’s Holiday Reads – January 2014

unknown bridesmaidForster, Margaret (2013) The Unknown Bridesmaid. Chatto & Windus. When Julia was eight she was a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris.  Julia was delighted but after this things started to go wrong.  A lifetime later Julia is a child psychologist dealing with troubled girls where she is constantly confronted by her own past.  Margaret Forster at her best. Compelling and painful, but very real.  Rating:8.5/10.

Resistance manWalker, Martin (2013) The Resistance Man. Quercus.  A veteran of the French Resistance dies, and among his possessions are documents that connect him to a notorious train robbery. A former British spymaster’s estate is burglarized, the latest in a spree of expert thefts. The sixth book in the Bruno Chief of Police series of crime, gastronomy, and a cast of memorable characters.  Unputdownable as usual. Rating: 8/10.

Peaches for Monsieur Le CureHarris, Joanne (2012) Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure. Doubleday. Vivanne  receives a letter from beyond the grave that draws her back to Lansquenet, the village in which eight years ago she opened a chocolate shop.  But, things have changed with Muslim incomers from North Africa altering the face of the community, and her old foe Father Reynaud under threat. Lacks the magic of Chocolat, but worth a revisit if only to find out what has happened to old friends.  Rating: 7.5/10.

Gossip from the ForestMaitland, Sara (2012) Gossip from the forest; the tangled roots of our forests and fairytales. Granta. Maitland journeys to forests in the UK explaining their histories and teasing out connections with fairytales. In her quest she argues that forests and fairytales are ultimately linked, and buried in our imagination and childhoods. She relates her experiences of the forests and retells imaginatively  fairy stories engendered by those experiences. Many layered and esoteric.  Blends nature writing with history and creative fiction.  Rating: 8/10.

Beautiful RuinsWalter, Jess (2013) Beautiful Ruins. Penguin. In 1962 a dying actress arrives at a small cliff-top village on the Cinque Terre.  Thus begins an epic tale of cinematic proportions of fame, desire, duty and fate, with a large sprawling cast of eclectic characters in contemporary culture, both real and fictional.  Walter’s novel took 15 years to come to fruition.  Powerful and magical, shot in technicolour across a broad landscape.  Rating: 9/10.

Empress Dowager CixiChang, Jung (2013) Empress Dowager Cixi; the concubine who launched modern China.  Cape.  Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is the most important woman in Chinese history.  She brought China into the modern age.  She transformed China without engaging in violence and with relatively little upheaval, compared to that of her predecessors, or successors. This absolute ruler of one-third of the world’s population had to deal with major national crises and monumental obstacles to change China, including invasions and interference from foreign powers.  Jung Chang, using mostly Chinese newly available historical sources, comprehensively overturns the historical view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot.  Fascinating in its detail.  Highly recommended.  Rating: 10/10.

Virgin & the WhaleNixon, Carl (2013) The Virgin and the Whale; a love story.  Vintage.  In 1919, in fictional Mansfield (Christchurch), nurse Elizabeth Whitman is waiting for her ‘missing in action husband’ to return from war. She keeps her husband alive for her four-year old son by telling the story of an adventurer she calls The Balloonist.  When she becomes the nurse to a returned soldier with no memory she starts to tell her stories to him.  A warm and touching story about using story to create identity and memories. Beautifully crafted by a very talented New Zealand writer.  Rating: 9/10.

Choc Cake for breakfastHawkins, Danielle (2013) Chocolate Cake for Breakfast.  Arena. Helen McNeil is a small town vet in rural New Zealand.  One night she falls over – and fails to recognise – national Rugby hero, Mark Tipene, and whirlwind romance ensues,  until …  Light hearted and warm story of country life.   Rating: 8/10.

The GoldfinchTartt, Donna (2013). The Goldfinch.  Little Brown.  Thirteen year old Theo Decker miraculously survives an act of terrorism at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his mother, and compels him to save a small painting of a goldfinch.  This event is a catalyst for a life of loss, alienation, torment, obsession and survival.  Theo is pulled into the world of antiques and addiction, and ultimately the criminal underworld. A sprawling vivid narrative, with unforgettable characters.  Brilliant.  Rating: 9/10.

50 Shades of Modern FeminismFifty shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes & Susie Orbach (2013). Virago.  Fifty women young and old – writers, politicians, actors, scientists, mothers – reflect on the shades that inspired them and what being woman means to them today. Contributors include: Marilyn Waring, Shami Chakrabarti, Siri Hustvedt, Kate Mosse, Gillian Slovo, Elif Shafak, Ahdaf Soueif, Natasha Walter, Jeanette Winterson, and Pussy Riot.  This small volume is resolutely unembarrassed about taking its name from a soft-porn best-seller for women.  A gentle reminder on the meaning of feminism today and on what still needs to be achieved for women of the world.  Rating: 8/10.

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