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Patrick Gale – A Place Called Winter

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But a book as lovely as summer.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 338
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-20529-2
First Published: 1st January 2015
Date Reviewed: 6th July 2018
Rating: 5/5

In the early 1900s, Harry is in an asylum and given forced bathing treatments until he is brought to a more holistic treatment centre for people whose lives and personalities do not fit the social norm. Now in hypnotherapy he has a chance to find out why he was in the asylum in the first place; the mental journey back will take him from Britain to Canada, from family man to outcast, inherited wealth to pioneering homesteader.

A Place Called Winter is an epic historical with a similar atmosphere (due to both time period and writing) as Anna Hope’s Wake, though the stories are very different. A book with a definite main plot but lots of supporting elements, Gale’s novel offers a sumptuous escape into history alongside a hard story of discrimination.

It would be impossible to talk about this book without revealing the main plot point, as it’s too important; Harry is gay – not always conscious of the fact, or at least not to the reader – living in a time when it was illegal to act on it. When his affair with another man is discovered, Harry’s given two options – leave his family and country or be turned in – and so the book moves on in its location but not its look at Harry’s sexuality. Gale has populated his novel with good characters, both people who are simply likeable – most who would welcome the changes we are making today – as well as those who make hassle; these ‘villains’ at good at presenting the problems and reasoning in the historical context. As much as this is a plot and situational-driven book, the characteration is superb.

Amongst the plot points related to Harry’s sexuality is Gale’s study of other aspects of life that were deemed inappropriate. Time is spent on Harry’s friendship with Ursula, a cross-dresser who in their Native Canadian tribe was living a life revered by their kin. As Canada was taken over by the British, Ursula’s ‘wrong’ way of living meant she was moved to an asylum.

Gale’s writing is wonderful; it adds to the historical atmosphere and is just a joy to read. The information he provides on homesteading and the beginnings of the changed Canada is fascinating, giving more time to a part of the American continent that’s often overlooked in this way.

The novel, told in two narratives, comes to a head as Harry remembers why he was sent to the asylum. It’s not as strong an answer as you might expect, but the threads tied by its revelation are lovely and Gale gives his character a good end, despite everything that has happened previously. And whilst the reason for Harry’s treatment isn’t as strong as the rest of the book, the previous chapters, which constitute an ending themselves, are. Harry finds his people, Gale demonstrating what we know from historical evidence, that social rules didn’t fit everyone. It’s a story that has hints of Kate Chopin, and the better concepts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and it’s great.

A Place Called Winter is brilliant. Go and pick it up; it’s engaging from the first few pages. Any more words included in this review would be superfluous.

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First Half Of 2018 Film Round Up

On starting this post I was pleasantly surprised; I’d made my usual January film resolution to watch more films – with all the vagueness that implies – got through some films and then promptly put the big screen on the back-burner; I did better than I thought.

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Annie (USA, 2014) – Wasn’t feeling it; the casting was fine but the old songs were barely used and I love the original too much for that to work for me.

The Lady Vanishes (UK, 1938) – Loved this. A simple plot so well executed and the comic duo were a lot of fun with their cricket obsession.

The Last Jedi (USA, 2017) – The family thought this was better than The Force Awakens. I didn’t, but it’s still a very good film.

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Nut Job (USA/South Korea, 2014) – Quite good, but not as much as other CGI family films in recent years. The jokes very rarely worked.

Pretty Woman (USA, 1990) – Really enjoyed this; I’d actually grown up thinking Pretty Woman had the story of The Runaway Bride so it was good to put the real thing in perspective. I think I’d now better watch that second film.

Trainwreck (USA, 2015) – It took a (long) while of over the top swearing and not-funny funny stuff to show what this film was all about, and that’s a bit of a pity, because what it tries to do – reverse the stereotype of dating and relationships so that it’s the man that wants commitment – is interesting.

Well, Amazon’s put Bollywood on UK screens at a good time, which is about time. And there are some random New Zealand productions I’m interested in. But, most helpful of all, my mother’s had a DVD clear out so I picked up a few older classics. I may finally see The Shawshank Redemption…

What films have you recently seen and loved?

June 2018 Reading Round Up

It’s 28c here. We’ve had only a couple of minutes of light rain, once, this past month, and on a sunny weekend if there’s no trip out planned then I like to be reading outside. Suffice to say I’ve been reading quite a bit.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Laura Pearson: Missing Pieces – When Phoebe dies, aged three, the resulting grief has a massive impact on her four surviving family members. A very good book that looks at different modes of grieving and the way communication and support is paramount.

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Marian Keyes: The Break – When Amy’s father-in-law dies, her husband tells her he needs a break from their marriage, a several months-long trip where he will be free… but he’ll return after that. This is a long book but there’s a fair amount of other commentary going on and Keyes ensures her characters work through their issues.

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Nicola Cornick: The Lady And The Laird – Lucy writes erotic letters for her brother’s friends when they require help wooing the women in their lives, but when her brother asks for her help she doesn’t realise that she’s throwing a spanner in the works for the wedding of the man she kissed many years ago and he must marry in order to gain his inheritance. Very good regency romance, full of communication and low on angst.

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Patrick Gale: A Place Called Winter – Sent on from an asylum to a treatment/retreat centre, Harry must look into his hazy memories to work out why he is no longer on his pioneer-era Canadian farm. It’s tough to sum up this book in one sentence – it’s an epic turn-of-the-century novel about a man whose affair with another man is discovered, and he must leave his family in order to not be exposed.

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Valeria Luiselli: Faces In The Crowd – A translator in Mexico chronicles her own life, her past and her work, and writes a book about a Latin American poet for whom she has ghostwritten some translations. As confusing as it sounds, this is a book in a book in a book, but has a lot of interesting literary elements to enjoy.

I enjoyed everything I read this month. The Pearson was the best on a personal level because her book is set in Southampton and that was a lot of fun to read through. Literary-wise, the Cornick was good for its use of communication and perfect balance of conflict and general story, and the Gale reminded me, in atmosphere, of Anna Hope’s work – the wonderful historical story full of important detail with great characters to match.

I’m currently reading Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Özgür Mumcu’s The Peace Machine, and then I have some review copies to get to. Hoping to keep my annual trend of many books in July going this year, too.

What are you reading?

Laura Pearson – Missing Pieces

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When everyone feels they are to blame.

Publisher: Agora Books (previously Ipso Books)
Pages: 273
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-19475-9
First Published: 21st June 2018
Date Reviewed: 29th June 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Southampton, 1985: Phoebe has died at three years of age, and Linda, Tom, and their eldest daughter Esme all feel the blame lies with them. As the days pass and Linda’s pregnancy advances, the loss will prove to have as much of a consequence on their futures as Phoebe’s passing.

Missing Pieces is a novel told in two time periods – the months after Phoebe’s death and several years in the future – that looks at the differing effects of grief and the ways people cope with loss.

I’m going to have to start with the setting because I know it too well and as such as much as I read the book as I do any other, it was naturally quite a particular experience due to the location choices. The use of location and the world-building is fantastic – the family clearly live somewhere in the Burgess Road/Swaythling/Bassett Green area and it reads well. When it comes to the bookshop Tom owns, the location isn’t as real; understandably there is some fiction here to create the travel bookshop: for the section set in 1985 it works, but for the section of the book set in 2011, reality needs to be suspended – a genre bookshop, particularly on the High Street at that time, would have been barely treading water and heading for closure – in reality the various independents and small chains all were. (Sadly we have only two bookshops left now, in 2018 – one Waterstones, and an independent in a nearby suburb that has a particular ethos, a good following, and other items for sale that help it stay afloat. Until a few months ago we had an additional two more – an Oxfam which has obviously closed, and a second, longer-standing, Waterstones that was gutted by fire.) In sum, the use of location is excellent and fiction has been applied thoughtfully. And quite frankly, a travel bookshop on the High Street is a wonderful dream to have.

Back to my usual mode of reviewing, then, and to follow on from the bookshop it must be said that, yes, this is a book about books. There are few specifics – more references to books on beaches and people ending their day with a coffee and a book on the sofa – but it means that the book always has a cosy, welcoming feel to it whilst you get through the story.

This said, the story is not difficult, per se. The subject is sad but Pearson’s writing of it is wonderful and all about showing. Of particular note is the way the author depicts Linda’s continued depression; Linda gets to that point where people expect her to perk up a bit and get back to family life, give birth to the baby that was growing when Phoebe died and be a mother to the child, but she can’t. The death affects her to the extent that she shuts everyone out most of the time and Pearson stays with this situation, letting it unravel where it will to show plainly how grief and the depression it can cause should never be on a timeline. In her grief, Linda makes poor choices and Pearson goes right into the thought process. The conclusion here succeeds in showing the need for tailored support and just more thought from others in general.

Related to this is Pearson’s depiction of how parental favoritism towards one child can have long-term consequences for the child who isn’t the one most loved. Part of Esme’s struggle is in her mother’s utter – in her depression – neglect of her, her eldest daughter, and the way that Phoebe’s death means that Linda shuts everyone else out, which is added to the situation before the situation wherein Esme felt that there was a lot more interest, from Linda, in Phoebe, than Linda had ever had for her. (This is in turn backed up by Linda’s thoughts.)

Tom’s grief gets looked at in terms of his decision to be elsewhere for much of the time, in his feeling that Linda is pushing him away. The new baby, Bea, is the subject of the second part of the book, wherein Pearson looks at however things that affect a person indirectly can still have a big impact.

Due to the ‘showing’ Pearson does, the ‘reveal’ as to how Phoebe died is drawn out until the last few pages of the book; you know that Linda feels Esme is partly to blame, that Linda feels that she herself should have been there, and that Tom should have been at home. The lack of knowledge can be frustrating on occasion but only when the subject is brought up – the lack of talk on the events that led to the death mean that you can concentrate on the rest of what Pearson is trying to show.

Missing Pieces has a commendable aim and it reaches it with flying colours. The reading experience is good, the attention to detail excellent. You may not remember the characters themselves as much – some detailing there has understandably been left out in favour of the story – but the essence will remain with you.

I received this book for review.

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How Much Do You Remember Of Books You Read Years Ago?

A photograph of two books I can barely remember - Celia Rees' Sovay and Kate Morton's The House At Riverton

(I’m considering 8 years or more to be ‘years ago’, as it matches my blog’s age and is only one year off the time I’ve been reading avidly.)

This is a topic that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how my knowledge of the books I’ve read fails at times, then felt glad that I’ve made notes and written reviews… but there are a lot of books I haven’t made notes of, and quite a number are those I’ve read since I started blogging.

It’s bad enough when you can’t remember a book you read a year ago. I’m trying to create a list of conversation points for a book but struggled after two – and it’s a book I know I loved. I can even remember the general concept and sentiment behind it, a lot of the plot too (granted, it wasn’t a long book) but I know there was a lot more to it than that.

Even with notes, it can be a struggle to remember. The problem with some notes is that because you’re making them at the time of reading, despite the fact you know that you have to be careful with details because out of context what you’re writing down might not make sense, there will still always be notes that don’t work long term, where the best will in the world couldn’t help you ‘translate’ them later.

I find that once I’ve read a book twice, remembering is pretty easy. I won’t have an exact grasp of all the content but I’ll be able to speak about it in perpetuity, whether further studies are conducted or not. Writing more than one post can help me remember a book I’ve read once but it’s never as useful in this sense as a re-read. I’m not much of a re-reader generally but I’m definitely a re-reader in terms of realising I can’t remember a book, finding that troublesome, and doing something about it. (These will be books of which I remember having a particulary emotional reaction or studious interest. Some books I can’t remember and I’ve no plans to change the situation.)

I had a favourite book for a long time which was replaced in my affections when I was a bit older and found better books. I can tell you I liked the magic and the reversal of power in the otherwise factually-based society, and I can tell you that I’ve since read others’ opinions on it and came to call into question a section that I hadn’t noticed was problematic at the time because I was too young to understand it. I can tell you there was a princess, a warrior woman, a person who had a disability, and a few other people. But I can’t tell you the story, and I haven’t a clue who the other people were. (That was The Secrets Of The Jin-Shei which I will re-read at some point.)

On the other hand, I could talk about Northern Lights – read twice – for ages; I found the idea of reviewing it too daunting but I’ve written about the trilogy before.

I opened my reading database for 2009, the year before I started blogging, wherein most of the books I read did not receive a belated review. Of the 27 on the list, I could talk about 7 of them with confidence, however this number includes Stephenie Meyer’s first book which would be difficult to forget given the popularity and general talk, two are factual history books on subjects I know well in general, one is historical fiction which didn’t differ from the fact too much (thus I can remember where it did), one is a memoir of someone with a highly unique story, one I’ve gone back to many times since, and the last is The Hobbit. A few I could give a vague summary for – time period, location, how I felt about it, and the rest I really couldn’t say. And that’s scary.

Some years ago I wrote about the ‘production line’ I saw in my blogging and how it affected my reading. It was different to this post today – I hadn’t been reading avidly for long enough to truly forget at that point – but going back to it I’m reminded of my thoughts of being engaged in a text. It goes hand in hand with what I said above about note taking and writing other posts – I’m engaging in my reading even more now than I was in 2013, but that forgetfulness still lingers. I expect the way we naturally change over time also plays a part.

(As I’ve mentioned 2013, I thought I’d open my database for that year as well – 76 books, 24 I remember the general summary for.)

Interestingly, I don’t think that reading less would affect this forgetfulness. It’s all about the progression of time and the fact that unless you revise, you’re going to have trouble remembering the more time moves on. The more you read the more likely you are to come across books that say similar things or have characters that remind you of others and so on that will cause you to confuse texts.

Apart from re-reading or writing enough notes that you might as well transcribe the entire book, there’s no way around the problem. Perhaps as some say the information gets stored in our heads somewhere but if that’s so, science hasn’t yet reached the point where we can get that information back without re-reading. As much as a reading experience can last, it definitely has a use by date and unlike a shop shelf where you can look for food items with longer dates on them, there’s no saying what a book will be like.

How much do you remember? (Your own ‘years ago’ may vary – I’d like your thoughts on that, too!)


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