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Sunday, 30 May 2010

Like Bees To Honey

By Caroline Smailes

Those who have read previous novels by Caroline Smailes will know how beautifully she writes, and how well she creates worlds which resonate and chime with all the complexity of reality.

‘Like Bees To Honey’ is no exception, and although it tackles some very difficult subjects and takes the reader to challenging and dark places, this novel has an added ingredient. It has a delicious sense of humour.

Despite the fact that the story has an aching sadness, it also has moments of joy and an ability to make the reader smile in recognition.

The Maltese setting of ‘Like Bees To Honey’ is inspired. Island lore along with its sights, sounds and tastes, form an important part of the novel. Malta is not just a setting - it is a character in its own right.

Language as ever in Caroline Smailes’ work, is important. Words, sounds and repetition are used to increase impact and the Maltese language has a place of honour in the text.

I visited Malta many years ago, but reading this novel I felt like I was back there. The descriptions of locations in Malta, such as the roads of Valletta and the church in Mosta are vivid and textured. When Nina travelled to Sliema with her mother, I could almost feel the swaying of the yellow Maltese bus.

For most of the novel we are in the company of Nina as she deals with feelings of loss, guilt and rejection. But we also meet the stroppy house ghost Tilly, the blessed angel Flavia and an enthusiastically beer-swilling Jesus. More than anything else, it is this cast of characters that gives the novel its unique edge.

This novel is like nothing else I have ever read. The writing is exquisite, the subject matter is daring and original, and the structure is perfectly balanced. Now that I have finished reading it, I long to read it again.

Oh, and it has Simon Cowell in it.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Saturday, 22 May 2010

South Of Broad

by Pat Conroy

‘South of Broad’ continues Pat Conroy’s penchant for big sweeping novels exploring topical themes in gorgeous settings. One of my favourite novels of all time is his wonderful ‘Beach Music’ so I eagerly anticipated a good read in his latest tome, set in Charleston, South Carolina.

Told in five parts, Conroy tosses the reader around between different times and events. It begins in June 1969, when the protagonist, ungainly high school junior Leopold Bloom King is asked by his mother, the school principal, to befriend some incoming students. That day Leo meets the friends he will grow with into adulthood.

There are the brother and sister orphans, Starla and Niles Whitehead; charismatic twins Sheba and Trevor Poe, Leo’s new neighbours; aristocratic ‘old Carolinians’ brother and sister Chad and Fraser Rutledge; Chad's equally patrician girlfriend, Molly Huger; and Ike Jefferson, one of the first African Americans to be integrated into the public school.

They triumph over class and race lines, which become irrelevant except for good-natured bantering. As adults, some of them marry each other. The stunningly-beautiful Sheba will become a sexy Hollywood movie star with a foul mouth, while Trevor, a gifted musician, will head to San Francisco where he will become the toast of the gay community.

The group experiences many events which are often tear-jerking. They win and lose big football games coached for the first-time by a negro, they venture en masse to San Francisco to find and rescue AIDS’s-ravaged Trevor, they are stalked by Sheba and Trevor's psychotic killer of a father, and Leo frets over his estranged, damaged wife. And then hurricane Hugo hits Charleston.

Right from the beginning of the story, there is a discordant note which continues to play throughout the novel, the baffling suicide of Leo's gifted elder brother. Leo was only 8 when he found his brother, ‘his arteries severed, dead in the bathtub…’ This horrific incident led to ‘a collective nervous breakdown’ in the remaining family members. The truth of the suicide finally revealed is equally horrific.

I turned the pages with relish. It’s one of those books you don’t want to finish, but can’t stop reading. It is lush, lyrical and beautiful. The beginning of the novel is a hymn of praise to ‘the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston.’ Anyone who cherishes Conroy's work will love this novel.

Reviewed by Denise Covey who blogs at L’Aussie

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Blood At The Bookies

By Simon Brett

This novel is part of Simon Brett’s series of Fethering mysteries, of which there are several. I picked this one because I liked the title.

I’ve always enjoyed crime fiction and Brett was recommended to me by a friend as a good example of the amateur sleuth sub-genre. I really enjoyed it and will definitely be reading more in the series.

Brett’s two protagonists Carole and Jude are well-drawn and likeable and the setting of Fethering with its back-up cast of characters is convincing. This particular tale follows an intriguing murder involving a Polish man, and the plot takes in racial tension, adultery and addiction to gambling on the way.

These added elements give a multi-layered richness to the plot which is supported by realistic characters with real problems. The plot is well-constructed without being too complex and keeps you guessing about the identity and motive of the murderer right to the end.

Another thing I liked about this book was the depiction of the relationship between the two main characters. Very different women, Carole and Jude are reliant on each other in a way that neither of them would probably be prepared to admit.

This is an all-round good read and a real page-turner. Another nice touch is that there is an extract from ‘The Poisoning In The Pub’ the next in the series, at the end. Guess I’ll be reading that next then. Followed by the rest in the series.

Although I am looking forward to reading more in the series, and I’m keen to see how Brett develops the relationship between Carole and Jude across time, I did feel that ‘Blood At The Bookies’ worked perfectly well as a stand-alone novel and I would imagine that is true of others in the series.

Reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Simon Brett’s Fethering series is published by Pan MacMillan.

Sunday, 9 May 2010


by Pat Barker

This book is the first in a trilogy, the other two being 'The Eye in The Door' and 'The Ghost Road' (winner of the 1995 Booker Prize for Fiction). 'Regeneration' looks at how patients during the First World War were treated at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland by army psychiatrist William Rivers. Some are suffering from shell shock. Others, like Siegfried Sassoon, have problems understanding why the war is being prolonged and believe that those that have the power to stop it should do so. He writes, 'A Soldier’s Declaration' and battles with his superiors and the experiences he has witnessed on the battlefield.

William Rivers has the job of helping these troubled men find their way back to health once more, then has to decide if they are fit to be sent back to fight. As he gets to know the men and what they’ve suffered, it becomes harder for him to do so.

The relationship between Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two poets who have been sent for treatment to Craiglockhart, is treated insightfully and the look at the horrors of what men experienced, and the ways their minds coped, is both saddening and fascinating. Pat Barker intertwines fact and fiction so well that the reader is drawn into the book completely. You can’t help feeling shocked at the way these young men are expected to both keep enduring their nightmares and then be sent back to the very place where they nearly lost their minds.

Through the book we also learn how advanced Rivers’ treatment of his patients was, and how, even though other doctors of that period managed to make great progress when treating their patients, what they did to them was almost akin to torture. Did the act justify the results he managed to achieve?

Regeneration was both disturbing and fascinating. This was the first book by Pat Barker that I’d read, however the atmosphere and feeling of that period of time is reflected so well in her writing that I’ve now ordered 'The Eye in The Door' and 'The Ghost Road'.

Reviewed by Debs Carr