Book Review 29 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

It takes a kind of tolerance to read a book from another era. To see past the racist, homophobic language of the time and recognise the story for what it was. A modern day classic.

These things are certainly true of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. My overall impression was that this was a book that’d had its time. Which of course is exactly what it is. Even if I chose to overlook any distasteful terms as a symptom of the time, what I couldn’t get over was the bloody-minded caricature that was Holly Golightly. Perhaps she was a breath of fresh air when Truman Capote moulded her, but to us jaded 21st century readers (or to me anyway) these flighty, tempestuous heroine’s are just tedious. It’s a shame I felt this way about Holly because I think a more likeable character could have turned the book around for me.

Capote’s writing skill is evident. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is stuffed with beautifully crafted similes. The story is told through the eyes of Holly’s friend and neighbour as he looks back on the time that they lived in the same apartment block in New York. Him as a struggling writer, her as a… well it’s not particularly clear what she does, some kind of 1940’s society girl. Refreshingly there is no love interest between them. They are just friends though Holly is a somewhat unreliable friend and one whom it turns out has a past that she has been concealing. 

True to form the story ends with Holly getting herself into a pickle and whilst she is no longer in our unnamed protagonists life, there still seem to be hints of her several years later. 

What I didn’t realise when I picked this book up was that slim as the paperback copy that I held was, it was padded out with three short stories at the end! Breakfast at Tiffany’s was only around 100 pages. I read it in one day. If you are more forgiving than me then this is a speedy read with some good quality writing. At the risk of being branded a philistine, I’m just glad it was over quickly! But I must say I am intrigued enough to now go and watch the film and see what Audrey Hepburn made of Holly.

Next week I’ll be reviewing another modern classic. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson will be up on the blog for you on Monday.


Book Review 27 – One Promise Kept by Michael Round

‘The Wasichu [white men] made many promises and kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.’

This is the heartbreaking quote from a Native American chief that ‘One Promise Kept’ starts with.

Those of you who read last weeks blog will recall that there are two authors from Croydon Writers whose work I have got to know. Anand Nair, whose book I reviewed last week is one of them. Michael Round is the stupendous other.

I never even realised that I was into historical fiction before I read Michael’s books. Before my 52 week reading challenge started, I read his trilogy on Egyptian pharoes and I was totally mesmerised. To see through the eyes of people who have lived centuries before you is kind of like getting a lift in the TARDIS with the Doctor. It’s better than watching it on TV. You actually get into the heads of these people and live their lives. You actually get to BE them. It is, at the risk of seeming a little melodramatic, nothing short of a miracle.

Michael’s rendition of the White and Native American conflict in ‘One Promise Kept’ doesn’t disappoint. He crafts characters so precisely that you can practically reach out and touch them. Not only that, but with the myriad descriptions of aromas that Michael puts into the book, you can pretty much smell them too!

You know the drill of course (you usually do with historical fiction.) White Americans and Natives jostle for land in the USA. Trust between them is low and not helped by the in fighting amongst the Native American tribes. The scene is set for the Native Americans to fight for both their lives and their way of life. It is a fascinating scenario and one that had me hooked from the very first page.

Having said this I must add that the one thing I am not into is war. As Edwin Starr said, what is it good for? Well apart from making my eyes glaze over… absolutely nothing. As this book dealt with multiple battles, it was inevitable that there would be some discussion of regiments and strategies and rankings. Why do they have so many rankings? I think it’s done deliberately to confuse the rest of us! Speaking of which why did all the men in the US army have to have names that began with a ‘C’?! I had to write down the different between Chivington, Custer, Clinton and Cramer because I kept muddling them all up. Though short of actually getting into the TARDIS and going back in time to tell them to change their surnames by deed poll I don’t think there’s much we can do about this!

Whilst I have come to love historical fiction, there is always a part of me that wonders where the reality ends and the fiction begins. Perhaps with history there is always a bit of licence in the retelling. Perhaps our view of what happened is always coloured by who and where we learn it from.

I feel like I have just scratched the surface of the subject matter with this book. Whilst reading it I discovered this Radio 4 podcast on Custer, who I’d previously never even heard of. The world is of course full of things that I haven’t heard of. But in this case I have Michael to thank for igniting an interest in a topic I didn’t know I had. This was a book of two halves for me. Whilst the warcraft aspect of this book was not for me there was a frank and touching depiction of Native American life that was so captivating. These were real people (funnily enough that’s what they called themselves too, in contrast to the Wasichu who were some kind of ephemeral life form) leading real lives. Somewhere out there an actual guy called Yellow Hair sat in a teepee, hunted buffalo and fought other tribes and the Wasichu. He was real! And it is this reality that for me fans the flames of intrigue and makes me want to find out more. Sometimes the story doesn’t end with the book…

Next week I’ll be reading Mythos by the ever fabulous Stephen Fry. Come back next Monday – it’s a bit of a treat!

Book Review 26 – Shards of Sunlight by Anand Nair

In the words of Bon Jovi ‘Wooooooooooaaaaaahhhhh, we’re half way there!’ Would you Adam and Eve it, it’s been six months of me reading a book a week, every week and reviewing it here for you. Six months?! Time has flown.

In six months I have metamorphosized from someone who used to pick up a book every few months and read it over the course of a few weeks to someone who is a compulsive reader. If I don’t have a book on the go I feel restless. I start picking up reference material and rifling through it. But more than that, reading has somehow made me more inquisitive, more interested in history, science, dinosaurs… I just want to know stuff about stuff. That doesn’t mean that all the information I acquire remains in my sieve-like head, but then you can’t have everything!

Before I go into this week’s book I just want to set the scene on how I came across the marvellous author. As you can see from my blog, I enjoy writing. Gabbing on about something or other is my forte and I most enjoy doing it in this space. So about a year and a half ago I googled some combination of words that included ‘Croydon’ and ‘writing’ and up popped a link to Croydon Writers. These guys are an awesome bunch of writers, but there are two of them in particular whose writing I have got to know well since starting to attend the group. Michael Round has written a whole stack of brilliant books, one of which I will be reviewing next week.


The second person from the group whose work I have read is Anand Nair. ‘Shards of Sunlight’ is based on some of Anand’s childhood experiences of growing up in Kerala, however the things that happen to her protagonist Indu are not autobiographical.

There is however one major point of confluence. Like Indu’s father, Anand’s own father was a political activist and like many other activists (including my own grandfather) at the time towards the end of the British Raj in India, spent time in jail as a political prisoner. This was a period of huge political and social flux in Indian history. I’m immensely proud of my grandfather (who died when I was young so unfortunately I barely remember him) for standing up for his beliefs. For being prepared to go to prison for them. We are fortunate enough to lead comparatively plush, sheltered lives these days. Most of us can’t even contemplate having to make such a stand.

Shards of Sunlight does sit against this political backdrop, but the focus of the story is Indu herself. It is the concerns of her personal little world that we are embroiled in. We watch her growing from a girl into a young woman and see her own family situation shift over the years.

Indu is unlike other girls in Kerala. She is far too educated for one. She keeps getting told that no man likes a wife that is too highly educated, with ideas in her head. But Indu wants more for herself than to be solely a wife and homemaker. Independent and free spirited she sets out her own path, rejecting the traditional ideals and we see her begin to develop her career and meet a man that she deems worthy of her. The trouble is will her family consider him worthy of her? Let’s just say the path of true love never runs smoothly.

Anand hooks you in with her skilful writing, and mesmerised, you are powerless to do anything other than turn page after page following the story of this fiesty young Indian woman, rooting for her every step of the way.

Anand is a self published author, but as I have mentioned before there are some gems to be found in amongst the self published book market. And here is such a gem. Shards of Sunlight is a delightful read that I enjoyed immensely.

Next week I’ll be reviewing Michael Rounds book ‘One Promise Kept’. Come back on Monday and check it out.

Book Review 25 – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I had been meaning to read this book since it first came out and I eventually came to it with two very different recommendations. My colleague leant me this pristine hardcopy that she had treated herself to, whilst imparting the opinion that the book was alright once you got through the first bit. Not really a resounding endorsement, but at the same time I had another friends recommendation, who told me that it was her favourite book of 2017.  Quite an accolade! So I was intrigued as to what I would make of it.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine centres around the isolated life of the socially inept Eleanor herself. She dresses weird, she acts weird, she is weird. Or so her colleagues think. The reader, inside Eleanor’s head see’s her torturously heading towards social faux pas because she has misunderstood the situation and you begin to feel a sense of empathy with Eleanor. More than that, she begins to endear herself to you with her complete lack of self awareness. Eleanor has a quirky little wit that she shares with the reader. The daftness of it combined with her vulnerability made me love her all the more!

It is when, despite herself, she ends up getting into an unlikely friendship with Raymond from IT that Eleanor’s life begins to change. Through the revelations she makes about her past we come to understand the abuse and neglect that have led her to where she is today.

This is a career defining debut. One wonders what Gail Honeyman could possibly produce next to compete with this book. There is a real appreciation of the human psyche here. She has managed in this book to sum up loneliness, but has also given Eleanor a chink of hope.

When we reach the end and discover the twist that I certainly did not see coming being, as I was, too focused on another element of the storyline, you really get to see how long Eleanor has been self flagellating for a wrong that she didn’t commit. It is the sadness of her past that has kept her trapped in loneliness all these years, but her beautifully unfolding friendship with Raymond allows Eleanor to let herself live again rather than merely existing as a shadow in this world.

Honeyman has produced a touching novel which encourages genuine empathy for those around us. How often do we judge people based on the way they come across? And how much better would it be for us to suspend judgement because, really, what do we know about the life they have lived or why they are this way? To me Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was a book about how important it is to show kindness to our fellow human beings. So go forth, read the book and be thoroughly lovely to all ye shall meet!

Next week is a very special one. It marks the mid way point of this challenge! I will be reviewing Shards of Sunlight by Anand Nair. Come back and see what I have to say for myself on Monday.

Book Review 24 – Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

So the Harry Potter fan reads another children’s book. It may be true that I am something of an overgrown child at heart however this week’s book was actually chosen for me. I am a member of a humunguous Goodreads group and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief was the book selected for February. So in the spirit of Goodreads camaraderie, I decided to take up the mantle and read the book.


Percy Jackson is a twelve year old boy who has never fitted in at any school he’s been to. Why? Well he is a demi god of course! Why didn’t I guess?! Helpfully no-one decided to tell Percy this and so it comes as a bit of a nasty surprise when he has to pit his wits against gods and hitherto assumed to be mythical creatures to recover an item that will avert a war. Talk about a baptism of fire!

So two teenage boys and a teenage girl on a quest to save the world in a magical realm. Hmm, I seem to have seen this formula somewhere before… One of them is even afraid of spiders!

I couldn’t help but make the comparisons with Harry Potter. Which leads me to something of an admission. Whilst I am a mammoth Harry Potter fan, I am not the biggest fan of Harry himself. He… I hesitate to say it… but he irritates me. It’s something about his heroic determination to martyr himself at every opportunity that makes him seem – well just a little bit holier than thou. His stoic focus on friendship and bravery just makes me cringe. There I said it, I don’t like Harry.

The point with regard to this story was that, I found I liked Percy Jackson a lot more as a protagonist. He’s just a kid and he doesn’t particularly want to save the world. It’s more like he doesn’t really have a choice. Mind you, it’s not like he doesn’t step up to the challenge once he has been selected. Percy is every bit the hero you expect from a book like this.

Oh and don’t be put off by the horrific film that was made about this book. Remember what I always say…

Oh Lordy, is it true in this case! I recall detesting the film – to the extent that I must have totally wiped it from my memory. I had no idea what this book was about but the Goodreads forums were filled with encouragement to give this book a chance despite the awful film.

Whilst I won’t be going on to read the rest of the Percy Jackson series, I’m not disappointed to have read this one. And although I have read other children’s books that I have enjoyed more, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief has an allure all of its own, being as it is, jam packed with Greek mythology. I mean come on, who doesn’t love an encounter with Medusa?! 

I hope you’ll come back next Monday to read my review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I have been waiting to read this book for so long!! See you next Monday.

Book Review 23 – The Help by Kathryn Stockett

You’ll be glad to hear that for once I didn’t open this week’s book up to discover that I had already watched the film! In fact the strong characterisations that Kathryn Stockett successfully employes created such vivid imagery in my mind that I was compelled to watch the film straight after. But what have I always said…?

It definitely holds true. The film didn’t do a bad job but the book was such a sterling account by itself that I didn’t really need the film to supplement it. Nice enough way to spend an evening though, if you are so inclined.

‘The Help’ is told through the voices of three characters in 1963 Mississippi. Two black maid’s, Aibeleen and Minny; as well as a young white woman called Skeeter. Whilst ostensibly living very different lives these three women come to form an unlikely alliance when Skeeter, an aspiring writer,  hits upon the idea of interviewing black maids and putting together a book of their experiences.

1960’s Mississipi however is not the most progressive place. Skeeter and anyone who follows her are treading a treacherous path. Black people have to sit separately in buses, they have to use separate bathrooms and intermarriage between blacks and white’s is illegal. The consequences for crossing these lines can result in becoming prey to lynch mobs, if you’re lucky you may have your tongue cut out, if you’re unlucky you could be killed. If, as a black person you were murdered by these mobs you could be pretty sure that there wouldn’t be much in the way of justice for you. I must say that despite all this, the general tone of this book is optimistic, but it depressed me to think that people were being treated like this almost within my own lifetime. Whenever someone made some modern day reference to cars or hoovers I was like ‘Oh yeah, this isn’t the early 19th century…they’re not actually slaves…’ It was easy to forget.

Don’t let my morose take on the social situation put you off however, this book is about the lives these three women lead. Skeeter’s struggle to fit in and get a man despite her towering, unladylike height and frizzy hair that her overbearing mother is always fighting to tame; Aibeleen’s love for the white children that she tends to who she knows will one day outgrow her and start to look at her as an employee; and Minny, whose forthright opinions have a tendency of getting her into hot water.

This book was choco bloc with strong women. Aside from these three, there is  the ferocious, ruthless Hilly who heads up every society function in town and organises regular gatherings. Hilly has a nasty streak. When Hilly decides she doesn’t like you she will move heaven and earth to make life miserable for you. Hilly’s mother has plenty to say for herself, but is altogether a much more likeable character. And then there is Skeeter’s mother who in the last stages of cancer declares ‘I have decided not to die,’ and goes right ahead into remission. That right there is the kind of determination I aspire to and these are the women I both loved and loathed through this book.

Next week, I’m reading Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Come back and check out my review on Monday.

Book Review 22 – A Less Boring History of the World by Dave Rear

Ever wondered about the beginning of the world? Want to know more about dinosaurs? About the beginnings of man? Monarchy? Empires? What were the crusades actually about? If you’ve ever wanted to understand more about our origins then ‘A Less Boring History of the World’ is an excellent starting point. I wasn’t even meant to read this book this week. I had got ‘The Help’ from the library and was going to make a start, but this book caught my eye. My mum had given it to me several months ago and I had always meant to read it so I just picked it up and started to flick through. A few hours later I finally surfaced to find myself a third of the way through the book and I realised that ‘A Less Boring History of the World’ had chosen itself as my book for this week.

The clue was in the title, I suppose. This version of history is certainly not boring. What it is however, is ever so slightly opaque. In injecting humour into historic events, Dave Rear has succeeded in creating an engaging narrative but  his penchant for the use of levity in place of facts leaves the reader floundering in places. Take his explanation of human evolution for example. He says that Homo Sapiens devolved back to Homo Erectus, a situation which continues to this day… and I took him seriously. Luckily a quick Google search has confirmed that I am still a Homo Sapien – phew! From thereon I learnt to take Rear with a pinch of salt. He hasn’t written a text book. (And let’s be honest we wouldn’t want to read it if he had.) What Rear is trying to do is pique the readers interest in the basics – for everything else there is Google!

So where I struggled to pick my way through the jokes, I used the internet to settle the facts and for the rest I enjoyed my lesson in world history. I wonder what my history teachers would had made of Rear!

History, both inevitably and unfortunately, includes quite a lot of politics and it is in the last pages of the book that it struck me how much of a shift in political landscapes is missed by a book written in 2012. This is a pre Brexit, pre Trump book. The world had an entirely different outlook back then. The questions we were asking ourselves were not the same. I’m intrigued to know what Rear makes of Brexit, what he has to say about Trump. If anyone comes across him on their travels do ask him to drop a comment on my blog! 😉

I finished this book with a sense of rejuvenated interest in history. I have a memory like a goldfish so I can’t exactly remember everything I’ve read but it’s fantastic that such a book exists that makes a potentially dry subject so much fun. I recommend it to anyone who wants a gentle start on historical events.

Next week I am going to make a start on reading ‘The Help’ by Katherine Stockett after all. Till next Monday Adios Amigos!

Book review 21 – Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

It is an exercise in trust reading a book called ‘Sometimes I Lie’. You never quite know what not to believe. Mind you, mid-way through the book something happened to make me believe the protagonist and, like the total rookie I am, I completely forgot the books title.

‘Sometimes I Lie’ is a brilliantly tense debut novel by Alice Feeney. Feeney has designed such a web of twisted relationships and manipulation that by the end of the book you wind up believing that up is left, and right is behind you. I must confess myself totally bamboozled by the time I turned over the last page. I didn’t really know what was going on and ending up Googling “Sometimes I Lie ending” to see what other people had to say. I found some explanations and an awful lot of very confused people out there. Some people were hacked off that they had to go to these extremes to work out what was happening. If you like straightforward answers then this book is not for you and I must say that there was a level of closure that I didn’t really achieve. It’s as if I’ve just put the book aside while I hang about in limbo. On the other hand if you enjoy a rollercoaster ride and don’t mind some question marks hanging over the end of a story then this will be right up your street.

‘Sometimes I Lie’ centres around Amber who is in a coma and drifting in and out of a level of consciousness whereby she can hear the people around her. Alongside this and Amber delving into her past we begin to piece together the events that have brought her here. But nothing is straightforward, no-one is as they seem and everything is open to interpretation.

I spent marathon sessions reading this book. I just couldn’t wrench myself away from it. The twists and turns are mind boggling and it is definitely one of those books that if you are so inclined you may wish to read again as soon as you have finished it. Personally I have a 52 book challenge to get on with so I will just allow my mind to draw its own conclusions or not as the case might be…

Next week I’m reading ‘A Less Boring History of the World,’ by Dave Rear. It definitely is NOT boring so come by next Monday and see what I have to say for myself!

Book Review 20 – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I read a blurb for this book somewhere and was determined to read it. It sounded like it was full of adventure, emotion and human determination. There was one other thing it should have sounded like if I hadn’t fallen prey to my fallible memory. It should have sounded like the film that I had watched a couple of years ago… Sigh!

It was around page 32 that I remembered the film and, honestly, my heart plunged. I felt like the joy of the book had been stolen away from me by watching the film beforehand. Luckily I decided it was too late to go back now and that I would just have to see this book through. I’m glad that this is the course of action I chose because the book was delightful. The detail, the imagery, the spirited young protagonist had me reaching for the book at all hours of the day. And the experience of reading the story was different to that of watching it. Having said that, the film really set the imagery of the place and the characters for me so that in many ways having watched it beforehand became a sneaky little bonus. I know – I’m so contradictory!

Growing up in the UK, we are used to hearing stories of wartime Britain. Air raids and bomb shelters, rations and nights spent on underground train platforms. Of course similar events were playing out for ordinary Germans while the Nazi’s had their grip on power during the war. Many of these events have made their way into fiction. ‘The Book Thief’ plays out against this political backdrop.

Leisel Meminger is a German girl who has been sent to live with foster parents in the small town of Molching. Her foster father, the kindly Hans nurtures her and helps her along with her reading, whilst her formidable foster mother provides her with equal doses of beatings with a wooden spoon and unwavering affection. On the whole it’s not such a bad life, but Nazi Germany is not a good place for those who sympathise with Jews, like Leisel’s foster parents. A treacherous path lies ahead.

As to the title of the book. Leisel is a book thief. Not a particularly prolific one, it must be added, but a book thief all the same. In amongst the poverty of wartime Germany, for people like Leisel and her family books are not easy to come by, but Leisel manages to get her hands on them and each book she owns, whether pilfered or gifted shapes Leisel in some way.

The book is narrated by a surprisingly affable Grim Reaper. You get the sense that the poor guy is just doing a job and that he gets rather a bad wrap in general. He sees people as they really are. The community he depicts is haunted by war, scarred by their experiences and yet there is so much affection and solidarity amongst them that it makes him see the best in us. In the words of Death himself ‘I am haunted by humans.’ The Book Thief is a beautiful, magical book and one that I am very glad I took the time to read.

Next Monday I will be reviewing ‘Sometimes I Lie’ by Alice Feeney. Do come by to check it out!