Book Review: The Book of You by Claire Kendal

A few of weeks ago, my colleague said she had been chatting with a friend about an amazing book.  She said this friend really recommended reading it and had mentioned that it had a particularly compelling plot.  At the time, I was still stuck in ‘Byron-land’ and as much as I wanted to read this book, I knew that my attention was fully occupied with the divine George Gordon and therefore I mentally added to my ‘to read’ list.  Imagine my joy when, upon walking into my local library yesterday, the first book I laid eyes upon was the very novel we had been discussing…

The Book of You by Claire Kendal is a thriller and to be honest, it’s not a genre I am usually drawn to.  However, I literally could not put this book down last night and even found myself waking up early just so I could finish it before I headed out to my dance class at 9:30am.  The plot centres around a female protagonist called Clarissa who is being stalked and intimidated by her colleague, Rafe.  She finds herself called up for jury service and is relieved, knowing that it will remove her from his presence – even if just for a short while.  It is announced that the trial will run over a 7 week period and, during that time, Clarissa begins to see frightening parallels between her own experiences and that of the female victim.

Using both the first person diary format and the third person description of events means that Kendal is able to interweave the complexities of the situation with Clarissa’s own inner voice.  This results in the reader being in the position of both observer and confidante, which mirrors somewhat Clarissa’s position as juror.  Kendal crafts the narrative in a way that makes the final encounter between Clarissa and Rafe inevitable yet when it arrives, the shocking impact is successfully maintained.  There’s also a twist at the end but of course, I won’t reveal that…

There are elements of the narrative that are uncomfortable to read and some that are upsetting and harrowing.  The thematic links drawn between fairy tales and Clarissa’s experiences also lead you to question just how unsettling these well-known tales really are!

It’s rather difficult for me to pose the usual set of book group discussion questions here as in doing so, I may inadvertently give away too much of the plot.  I feel that it won’t be long before a film studio snaps up this book (indeed, they may already have done so!) and perhaps in this instance, a good starting point for discussion could centre around the casting of the characters.  Clarissa, for example, requires an actress who can effectively convey her vulnerable fragility alongside her inner strength.  Who would you choose?

My library copy of The Book of You by Clare Kendal ready to be reviewed...

My library copy of The Book of You by Claire Kendal…ready to be reviewed…

Book Review: The Hamster Ballet Company by Janis Mitchell

Yes, you did read that title correctly!  Today’s post is part book review, part sheer indulgence…

I was in the library on Monday returning my books, when I spotted this amazing little book on the ‘for sale’ shelf.  I am trying very hard to downsize my possessions at the moment but there was absolutely no way I could resist this little treasure, especially as it cost a mere 50p!

hamster ballet company

Upon opening the book, I discovered that it had been in circulation during the late 1980s to early 1990s, so there is every chance that I may have borrowed it once when I was a child.

The book is full of delightful pictures of adorable anthropomorphised little hamsters enacting scenes from famous ballets, such as La Sylphide, Giselle, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.  Each illustration is accompanied by a short description of the scene and the principal ‘dancers’.  The Hamster Ballet Company itself was founded by Igor Gregorevich Hamster – a rather dapper little chap in a top hat and monocle.

If you know someone who likes hamsters and the ballet – and let’s face it, that’s a winning combination in my mind – this would make a fantastic little stocking filler.  It really is a charming little book, which made me smile on a rainy afternoon.  Mitchell has also written/illustrated The Hamster Opera Company and The Hamster History of Britain – I’ll certainly be adding these to my Christmas list…

Book Review: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

This is one of my library finds, which I decided to borrow after reading the blurb and discovering that it was based on a true story.  I find Native American culture particularly interesting plus I’m ever-so-slightly obsessed with historical novels, so this certainly piqued my interest from the outset.Caleb's Crossing

The novel is written in the first person from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield, a young girl living in a tiny island settlement called Great Harbor (now Martha’s Vineyard) in the 1650s.  Bethia’s father, the town’s minister, sees it as his duty to convert the native Wampanoag people to Christianity.  One morning, whilst exploring the island alone, Bethia encounters Caleb, the young son of the Wampanoag chieftain.  The two strike up a friendship, with both learning much from the other in terms of language and culture.

When the majority of Caleb’s family are wiped out by smallpox, he comes to live with Bethia’s family.  Alongside Bethia’s brother Makepeace and another Wampanoag boy called Joel, Caleb is instructed in Latin and Greek by Bethia’s father.  Proving to be able and talented scholars, Caleb and Joel continue their education at Harvard College.  The novel is based on the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first native American to graduate from Harvard College.

I enjoyed the fact that Brooks choose to give the narrative voice over to Bethia, who proved to be a worthy narrator.  In a time when women were silenced by the subjugation of a patriarchal society, Bethia manages to find a voice – albeit one that often places her on the verges of condemnation – that she uses to defend those she loves.  There is a real tragedy behind the fact that she is clearly a natural scholar yet, due to her gender she cannot access the learning that she desperately craves.  I particularly liked the fact that Brooks has integrated both Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet into the narrative as reminders of the contemporary voices of women in colonial America.

Brooks’ use of dialogue in the novel feels authentic; Bethia’s frustration at her lack of liberty is clearly evident in her outbursts, whilst comments from the male characters convey their shock at her readiness to speak her mind.

Caleb himself remains a bit of a mystery.  There are many points in the novel where he is described as holding back or staying apart from the other characters and as a reader, I constantly wanted to know more.  Much of his mysteries are deliberately kept hidden from Bethia but the genuine love and respect between them is evident.  I was left with a real sense of this young man’s fortitude, intellect and composure in the face of an unwelcoming and suspicious society .

There is much about the plot that I would love to discuss but in doing so, I run the risk of revealing too much.  There are a couple of potential love interests for Bethia and needless to say, she ends up following her heart – well, we couldn’t expect anything less from her!  Those of you familiar with the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck will know that he died of consumption (TB) only a year after his graduation from Harvard and his fellow Wampanoag student Joel Iacoomes was tragically killed before he could graduate.

I thoroughly enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written historical novel exploring the clash between cultures and intolerance of difference during an incredibly volatile period.

Book Group Discussion Prompts:

  1. Why do you think Brooks chose to write the novel from Bethia’s perspective?
  2. How do you feel about the way Bethia is treated by the different men in the novel?
  3. How is the contrast between the Wampanoag way of life and the settlers’ way of life conveyed?
  4. Discuss religion and the belief systems explored in the novel.
  5. Why does Brooks make reference to Anne Hutchinson and Anne Bradstreet?  How does this affect our understanding of Bethia’s place within her society?
  6. What does having an education mean to the different characters in the novel?  Is there a difference between learning and education?
  7. How would you categorise the genre of this book and why?
  8. What is the function of Caleb’s uncle, Tequamuck, and his prophesies in the narrative?
  9. How do you feel about the conclusion of the novel?
  10. Which section of the novel or character had the most impact upon you and why?

Caleb’s Crossing was published in the UK in 2011 by Fourth Estate.  Geraldine Brooks’ website can be found here.

Review: The Obituary Writer by Lauren St John

I picked this book up from library a couple of weeks ago as I was utterly intrigued by the title.  The premise behind the novel is just as compelling…

The main character Nick Donohue, an obituary writer for The Times, survives a horrific train crash with a barely a scratch on him whilst his fellow passengers are killed or maimed.

Whilst others may regard him as incredibly lucky to be physically unscathed, Nick ultimately has been devastatingly affected by the crash.  He begins to suffer from vivid nightmares in which he apparently predicts the deaths of a number of individuals.  Afraid to sleep, he finds himself increasingly distanced from his former life and colleagues and eventually, he is convinced to leave the urban sprawl of London for a Cornish village.

With no hope for his future and feeling incapable of continuing, Nick stands upon a cliff-top ready to jump.  However, the sight of a wildly out of control horse being ridden bareback by a beautiful young woman is enough to convince him he still has reason to live.  The passionate connection between Nick and the young woman, Sacha, becomes the focal point of the narrative and leads Nick to re-evaluate his life at its most fundamental levels.

The narrative is beautifully crafted and avoids the clichés typically associated with the genre.  The ending contains a satisfying twist that is at once poignant and in retrospect, somewhat inevitable.  For me, the inclusion of animals was particularly satisfying – Oliver the cat and Marillion the nervy ex-racehorse are as much the stars of the piece as Nick and Sasha.  I also found the tentative friendship between Nick and another train crash survivor, Matthew Levin, an effective addition, which showcased the depths of Nick’s compassion and offered both men a chance to heal.

This novel would work really well for book groups and with that in mind, the following questions could be used as discussion points:

  1. To what extent are fate and destiny explored in the novel?
  2. What are Nick’s heroic qualities and how are they evidenced by his words and through his actions?
  3. Are there conflicts between the words and actions of characters in the novel?
  4. Nick’s first glimpse of Sasha is incredibly symbolic.  Discuss the manner in which St John introduces her to the audience.
  5. What does this novel have to tell us about love?
  6. Redemption and reinvention are strong themes in the novel.  How are they explored by St John?
  7. How do you feel about the conclusion of the narrative?
  8. Why do animals have such an important role in the novel?
  9. What did you think of St John’s writing style and narrative construction?
  10. What importance does location and setting play in the novel?
  11. What are our preconceptions of obituaries and obituary writers and how does St John allude and perhaps subvert these in the novel?

Of course, if anyone would like to discuss the book with me on the blog as a kind of on-line book group, I’d be more than happy to do so.  I’ve included the link to Lauren St John’s website here, so you can have a look at her bio and other work.  She has written a number of books for children and The Obituary Writer is her first novel written for adults.  I very much look forward to her next!