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Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Bargain Struck by Liz Harris

(Book received from, and review written for,
Married Life  in 1887 Wyoming     My rating:  5/5

A year after Connor has been widowed he decides he needs a new wife to help with the work on the farm, look after his 8 year old daughter and bear him sons, so he places an advert in a newspaper.  From the many applicants he chooses Ellen, without having met her, as the list of attributes she mentions in her letter seem to make her the best candidate.  However Ellen has omitted to mention something, and that lie of omission may be too great to allow her the happiness she longs for.   And anyway is Connor the man to offer her happiness?  After they are married he says "I don't ever think about her.  She's got her work to do, I've got mine, and that's the way it is."  However Ellen is desperate, a widow herself, she has little (or no) choice but to marry a man she has never met, and put herself at his mercy.  She is grateful for a roof over her head and food to eat, and tries to put up with the resentful daughter and the flirtatious attentions the beautiful Miss Quinn pays her husband.    Then an unexpected visitor arrives.   Does "A Bargain Struck" always need to be kept?

This is a great book, that has you enthralled from page 1 right through to the end.  It has mysteries, suspense, twists, historical details  and a great pace that just keeps you reading a little bit longer than you meant to.  The family live on a homestead near Laramie in Wyoming, and it is fascinating to read about the different roles the men and women take in order to survive in this harsh environment.   The most helpful neighbour lives 30 minutes away by horse and cart (in good weather), and  when a horse is heard approaching the farm the women rush in and lock the doors, and the men rush out with their guns.  Liz Harris' writing is so good that the reader can easily imagine the various scenes and the characters are so well drawn, you feel that you are almost there with them, sympathising with the viewpoints of Connor, Ellen and Connor's daughter Bridget.   Indeed at one point, I was so involved in the story that I gasped out loud at an incident.

Having spent a little time in this area, I love the way this book brought back memories of the small  towns and many homesteads I saw, and gave me an insight of how life was in the 1800's. 

This is the first book I have read by Choc Lit publishers, who describe themselves as publishing "quality stories with a romance at the heart."  That is exactly  what this book is, and I shall certainly be looking for more books by Liz Harris and by these independent publishers.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel

(Book received from, and reviewed for,
Life and murder in WW1 France            My rating:  2/5

The murder of a young girl in 1917 becomes "the Case" for the narrator as he struggles to understand who did it, the motives of the people he lives among and the war going on over the hill.
Whilst the cannons of war can be heard in the distance, a little girl is silenced for ever.   The narrator tells the reader  that this is an unusual occurrence at this time, as most killers have gone to the war to legitimately act out their aggression.  The book progresses from the murder scene to investigate the lives of possible culprits and those involved in the investigation.   The narrator, who investigated the original murder scene, takes us back to the years preceding the murder, and to events that took place shortly afterwards, and even 20 years later. 

We learn of the tragedies and pleasures amongst the people living so close to the French front line.    The  lives of those working in a factory essential to the war effort, are compared to the soldiers heading to the front to give their lives, or at the very least their limbs, for their country.  The author looks at the minutiae and the broad picture of town life looking at the individual lives being lived in the town in contrast to the mass of people over the hill fighting as one body.    Although the book wanders through many lives and down many paths of conjecture and thought, there is a solid ending and the main threads of the many stories within this slim book (205 pages) are tied up neatly.

Winner of the "Prix Renaudot" , this is a novel  that, I feel, deserves to be read slowly, with time to think about the superb imagery and expressive style of the author.   A perfect book for those who like to read a chapter and then ponder the messages within those pages.   There are so many wonderful  ideas and observations about life, for example "if man isn't like one of those pebbles that lie on the road, lying in the same place for entire days until someone kicks it and sends it sailing through the air for no reason.  And what can a pebble do?"  There are many such phrases and thoughts throughout the whole book, together with humour and great sadness.  The imagery is very strong, and the writing clear and easy to follow - though I did get a bit lost occasionally as to where in the timeline the narration was taking place. 

I certainly found I was drawn into the novel's  characters, and the horrors of lives lived such a short distance from the carnage of war (this is not a cheerful, feel good book).  The narration imitates a real telling of an event (like listening to a favourite uncle), where one is often taken back and forth between times, and then taken off at a tangent to bring in other events that were taking place at the time.  This is a book that I will certainly think about for some time to come, and would have liked to have read it when I was a student so that I could have been part of a group discussion on the many themes and wonderful images that are within this short book.