Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan

Becoming Mrs Lewis

3*

Blurb:

Poet, atheist and communist, New Yorker Joy Davidman is an unconventional woman – and an unlikely partner for an English academic and theologian.

And when she starts a correspondence with Narnia author C. S. Lewis, she isn’t looking for love. Her own marriage crumbling, she seeks refuge in her work, and guidance from a writer she admires.

But in Joy’s letters Lewis discovers a kindred spirit, and an intellect to equal his own. Bonding over a shared love of literature and ideas, a deep connection is forged between the two.

Embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, Joy travels from America to England and back again. Facing heartbreak and poverty, discovering friendship and faith, against all the odds, the couple struggle to secure a love that will endure forever.

My thoughts:

I was keen to read Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan as I have read many of C S Lewis’ books and was enthralled watching Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Julian Fellowes in Shadowlands (not a dry eye in the cinema) some years ago. Shadowlands is  about his meeting with Helen Joy Davidman and about the events that led to their marriage. I think the blurb (see above) summarises the events that led to Jack and Joy’s marriage very well and it was what made me want to read the book. 

When I’d read part of the book I discovered that Patti Callahan was giving an online blog tour.  It was very helpful, as I had been wondering whether the correspondence between Jack (as C S Lewis was known to his family and friends) and Joy that she quoted in the book was taken from their actual letters. She clarified that their letters had been lost – Jack had destroyed Joy’s letters to him because they were personal, whilst Joy had kept his letters to her in a trunk, but later it was vandalised and all the letters had gone. So, she had read the letters they had written to other people and used those as a basis for the letters in her book. In other words the letters in the book are imagined but inspired by those letters. She also said that the bones of her book are based on the facts – the dates and times are correct the rest is fiction.

However when I went back to the book I became disappointed. Written as though Joy herself is telling their story it is intense, passionate and very personal and I felt very uncomfortable reading it – as though I was eavesdropping on the characters. If I had been reading romantic fiction I wouldn’t have felt that way – but then I probably wouldn’t have read it at all.

Joy’s marriage was portrayed as a nightmare, her boys were in fear of their father and what he wanted from Joy was not the independent woman she was, but the little wife at home, submissive and obedient to him. He was abusive, an alcoholic and subject to rages. She found acceptance and understanding from Jack both in his letters and in person when she met him in England. What I found difficult to read is the personal thoughts and feelings ascribed to Joy and her desire for a physical relationship with Jack. I couldn’t warm to her, which is a shame as Patti Callahan’s admiration of her came over very strongly in her talk and she said that she had written the book so that people would care about her. It appeared to me from this book that she was almost stalking Jack. I was surprised that she felt able to spend so much time in England, despite missing her sons. She had left them at home with her husband and her cousin who was so obviously the kind of woman her husband desired.  

I was in two minds several times about finishing the book, but I’m glad I persevered to the end as overall I did enjoy it even though I think it went into too much detail. It has inspired me to look back at the books I have by and about C S Lewis and  to find out more about Joy Davidman.

My thanks to Harper Collins Inspire for a review copy via NetGalley.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

A terrible secret lies buried at the heart of this house

Animals at Lockwood Manor

Mantle| 5 March 2020| 352 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 3*

I enjoyed The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey although I think is too long with some repetitions and so in places I felt it dragged a bit. It is historical fiction, part a love story and part a mystery, beginning in 1939 at the outbreak of World War Two. A taxidermy collection of mainly mammals is being evacuated from a natural history museum in London to Lockwood Manor in the countryside to save them from the threat of bombs. Owned by Major Lord Lockwood, the Lockwood estate is ancient, although most of the house had been built in the Jacobean style in the nineteenth century, with two round turrets and a pierce parapet with pinnacles. Most of its many rooms are empty as the only residents are the Major and his daughter, Lucy along with the servants, whose numbers are down as they enlist.

In charge of the collection is Hetty Cartwright, a young woman, who soon realises she had taken on more than she expected. And it’s not long before, one after another, some of the animals go missing or are mysteriously moved from their positions in the long gallery. The book begins well as the scene is set, and I could feel the tension and mystery surrounding the house and in particular surrounding Lucy and her mother, Heloise. Heloise died in a car crash not long before the book begins, but we see her in Lucy’s journal in which she writes down her nightmares, thoughts and memories.

The narration alternates between Lucy’s journal and the events as experienced by Hetty. The characters of Hetty and Lucy are well drawn as their relationship develops, and the house and the museum animals too are vividly described. I loved the details of the museum collection, and how the conditions at Lockwood affected their condition as insects invaded the stuffed creatures. 

After a good start the pace then slows down and not a lot really happens until the final dramatic ending. Some of the characters are caricatured – for example the Major who is portrayed as an overbearing lecherous man, a pantomime villain. There is a more than a touch of the supernatural in the book, and a lot in it that reminded me of Jane Eyre and The Woman in White, as Hetty fears she is descending into madness. It’s the type of story that would make an excellent film or TV drama and, this is not something I usually think, would probably be better than the book.

Many thanks to Mantle for a review copy via NetGalley.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Challenge, Calendar of Crime, Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Stone Cold Heart by Caz Frear

Stone Cold Heart

2*

Stone Cold Heart is Caz Frear’s second novel and I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get on with it very well. However, I’m in the minority as there are lots of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. My copy is a NetGalley copy that I’ve had far too long – I did start reading it when I first downloaded it but soon realised that it would be better if I read her debut novel, Sweet Little Lies first. These are police procedurals written in the first person present tense narrated by DC Cat Kinsella who is part of the Murder Investigation Team 4, and her personal life is a major part of both books.

Naomi Lockhart, a young Australian woman was murdered and at first it looked as though her flatmate had killed her. The night before she was murdered Naomi had been at a party held by her employer, Kirstie Connor and her husband, Marcus. Also at the party were Joseph Madden and his meek wife, Rachel, Marcus’ sister. Joseph is an emotionally abusive narcissist, who manages the local coffee shop and when suspicion then falls on him and he is arrested he claims that Rachel is setting him up. And so begins a most convoluted and tangled tale about Joseph and the rest of his family, filled with secrets and lies, most of which are complete red herrings.  

Alongside the murder mystery, the book follows the story of DC Cat Kinsella’s family and the mystery surrounding Maryanne Doyle that was told in Sweet Little Lies – you really do need to read that book first to understand what is going on in her family life in this book. Cat is a conflicted character to say the least and although other readers have found her a warm and likeable character I found her one of the most irritating fictional detectives in crime fiction. She is full of guilt and angst about her family, in particular about her father and her brother. She is keeping the identity of her boyfriend a secret from everybody – if you’ve read Sweet Little Lies you’ll know why, otherwise you’ll be as mystified as her family and police colleagues are.

I found the secrets surrounding Cat’s family the most interesting part of the book, more so than the investigation into Naomi’s murder. The Murder Investigation Team all get on well together, but their continuing team meetings in which they endlessly consider all the possible theories about the murder and what happened, although interesting at first soon became tedious – far too much hypothesising. The book just dragged on and on. And then there is the ending – except it’s just the murder mystery that ends as it looks as though there is still more to come about Cat Kinsella. If you like long detective stories, full of twists and turns, lots of red herrings and dubious and unreliable characters who withhold evidence you may like it more than I did.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link

My thanks to the publishers, Zaffre, for a review copy via NetGalley.

Reading challenges: Mount TBR challenge and Calendar of Crime – the main action takes place in November.

Writing Wild by Kathryn Aalto

Writing Wild

3.5*

‘An exciting, expert, and invaluable group portrait of seminal women writers enriching a genre crucial to our future.’ —Booklist

Blurb:

In Writing Wild, Kathryn Aalto celebrates 25 women, both historical and current, whose influential writing helps deepen our connection to and understanding of the natural world. These inspiring wordsmiths are scholars, spiritual seekers, conservationists, scientists, novelists, and explorers. They defy easy categorization, yet they all share a bold authenticity that makes their work both distinct and universal.

Part travel essay, literary biography, and cultural history, Writing Wild ventures into the landscapes and lives of extraordinary writers and encourages a new generation of women to pick up their pens, head outdoors, and start writing wild.

My thoughts:

Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers and Mavericks Who Shape How We See The Natural World is by Kathryn Aalto and illustrated by Gisela Goppel. Published by Timber Press it will be released in paperback on 1 April, with a Kindle edition to follow on 14 April 2020.

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I do enjoy reading books about nature, so Writing Wild appealed to me. Kathryn Aalto’s reason for writing her book was to highlight what these 25 women writers have written, their historical significance and the barriers, biases and bullying they overcame to write. It covers two hundred years of women’s history through nature writing, including natural history, environmental philosophy, country life, scientific writing, garden arts, memoirs and meditations and does not aim to dismiss men’s contributions. Gisela Goppel’s portraits of each writer head each chapter. Aalto writes an introduction to each writer and includes excerpts of prose, poems and essays with added recommendations for further reading, plus a list of sources and an index.

Predominantly American and British, some of these women writers are familiar to me, such as Dorothy Wordsworth, Vita Sackville West, Nan Shepherd, Rachel Carson, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard and Helen Macdonald. Others are new to me, but I would like to read several of their works, such as Andrea Wulf’s book The  Brother Gardeners in which  she explores how England became a nation of gardeners. Wulf, a design historian, writes horticultural and historical history through narrative nonfiction, borrowing techniques from fiction to make nonfiction come alive. Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses essay collection, which Aalto describes as written with  laugh-out-loud humour and depth of empathy, also particularly appeals to me.

One of the things I learned reading this book is the name ‘Cli-fi’. I hadn’t come across it before but of course, it is not a new genre. As Aalto points out it goes back at least to Jules Verne’s 1889 The Purchase of the North Pole. Contemporary examples including Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. The writer she chooses to illustrate this genre is Saci Lloyd, an acclaimed writer of cli-fi, whose vivid and action packed books include The Carbon Diaries, about the effects of carbon reduction policies. They are gritty eco-thrillers featuring Laura Brown a 16 year old trying to manage life with a carbon deficit card.

Kathryn Aalto is a writer, designer, historian and lecturer. For the past twenty-five years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. Her work explores historic and horticultural themes with a contemporary twist. She is the author of The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015) and Nature and Human Intervention (2011). Her website is kathrynaalto.com.

My thanks to Timber Press for a review copy via NetGalley.

Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear

 

Sweet Little Lies

3*

Sweet Little Lies is one of my TBRs. When it was first published nearly three years ago I kept seeing rave reviews of Caz Frear’s debut novel and wondered whether I would like it. It begins very slowly and I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to bother finishing it. It was only at about the halfway mark that it picked up pace. What I didn’t like about it is that it’s written in the first person present tense and apart from that I didn’t like the style of writing – very wordy, with much that adds very little to the plot. Once it finally got going this is mainly a police procedural set in the present day in London with flashbacks to Ireland in 1998. Whilst I found the plot a  touch over complicated and relying too much on coincidence I think the characters are well defined, and the dialogue is convincing.

When DC Cat Kinsella was a child of eight, visiting family in Ireland, teenager Maryanne Doyle went missing and Cat suspected her father had something to do with Maryanne’s disappearance because of something she had seen. But she kept it to herself and that had affected her relationship with her father ever since. So she is a complex and conflicted character who has changed her name, from McBride, distancing herself from her family and in particular from her father, whom she both loves and hates.  Her secret means that when the body of a woman, who turns out to be Maryanne Doyle, has been found strangled, not far from the pub that Cat’s father runs in Islington she is in a quandary – should she tell her boss that she had known Maryanne in the past?  But she is desperate to know the truth – and that is what kept me turning the pages to the end of the book.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link

Reading challenges: Mount TBR challenge and Calendar of Crime – the main action takes place in December.

The Sleepwalker by Joseph Knox

The Sleepwalker Knox

The Sleepwalker by Joseph Knox is the third Detective Aidan Waits novel. It has to be the most complicated book that I’ve read in a very long time. Two years ago I read the second book, The Smiling Man, even though I hadn’t read the first one, Sirens, and loved it, so I was keen to read the third one. It certainly didn’t disappoint me and although I think the books read well as stand-alones, it would probably be best to read them in order. To say that Waits has troubled background is an understatement. He is a disturbed and complex character, other police officers don’t trust him or want to work with him.  He plays very close to the edge and has little regard for his own safety. 

The Sleepwalker is dark, violent and absolutely brilliant. I just didn’t want it to end and at the same time I just had to know what happened next. There are so many strands that you have to keep in mind, so many characters to sort out where they fit into the story and it’s all so cleverly linked together. You think you have it sorted and then you realise there’s more to come. It’s perfectly paced throughout, culminating in an astounding and shocking conclusion that had me reeling.

Quite simply, I loved it.

My thanks to Transworld Publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

 

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Year without summer

Two Roads| 6 February 2020| 416 pages| e-book| review copy via NetGalley| 5 stars

The Year Without Summer: 1816 – one event, six lives, a world changed by Guinevere Glasfurd is a most remarkable book, telling how the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island in Indonesia in 1815 had a profound and far reaching impact on the world. It led to sudden cooling across the northern hemisphere, crop failures, famine and social unrest in the following year, which became known as The Year Without Summer and in North America as Eighteen hundred and froze to death. But it wasn’t until the mid twentieth century that volcanic eruptions were shown to affect climate change.

Guinevere Glasfurd’s novel illustrates how the impact of the extreme weather conditions affected the lives of six people. They never meet, or know each other, but their stories are intertwined throughout the book in short chapters, giving what I think is a unique look at the events of 1816. I enjoyed all the stories.

Henry Hogg was the ship’s surgeon on the Benares, the ship sent to investigate the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. He discovered the sea full of floating pumice and charred bodies, whilst the decks of the ship were covered a foot thick with ashes. The immediate effects of the eruption were simply tremendous and horrific, within a hundred miles forests, towns were covered, deep valleys were filled in and the contours of the coast were changed.

In 1816 Mary Shelley travelled to Switzerland with Percy Shelley and her son Willmouse, her step-sister, Claire and Lord Byron and Dr Polidori and after a month of rain, Byron suggests that they should each write a ghost story and that led to her writing Frankenstein.

John Constable’s love of landscapes is deeply unfashionable and his hopes to marry Maria Rebow depend upon him gaining a commission from her parents. His father is near to death and as he has passed his business to Abram, John’s younger brother, John has few prospects other than to make a living from his painting.

Farmworker Sarah Hobbs in the Fens is finding work hard to get and has to settle for shovelling shit in the stables in her bare feet for a penny a day.  Always hungry and with work getting even more scarce she gets involved in the Littleport hunger riots. Her story is based loosely on a real person who was condemned to hang for her part in the riots, but her sentence was eventually commuted to transportation. The suppression of these riots was repeated in the 1819 Peterloo Massacre when protesters had gathered in Manchester demanding political reform

The other two people are fictional – preacher Charles Whitlock in Vermont is struggling, having persuaded his flock not to travel to Ohio to escape the draught, only to find that this is followed by periods of hard frost and snow in August. Their prospects are very bleak and death soon follows.

The other fictional character is Hope Peter, a soldier returned from the Napoleonic wars, who finds his mother has died, his family home demolished and a fence has gone up in its place, enclosing the land. He too ends up taking part in a riot – this one at Spa Fields at Islington.

 I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s more like a collection of short stories than a novel, but it works very well for me, highlighting the global connections. It is of course about climate change, showing the far-reaching effects of the Tambora eruption, which weren’t limited to 1815 and 1816. It led to hardships in 1817 and 1818 with the outbreak of cholera and typhoid epidemics triggered by the failure of monsoons. As Guinevere Glasfurd explains in her afterword the eruption is ‘credited with social change throughout the nineteenth century and with the pressure for social reform.’

This was the first book by Guinevere Glasfurd  that I’ve read, but it’s not her first book – that was The Words in My Hand, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and was also longlisted in France for the Prix du Roman FNAC. She is currently working on her third novel, a story of the Enlightenment, set in eighteenth century England and France. I’ll be reading more of her work.

Many thanks to Two Roads for a review copy via NetGalley.