‘Before the Blog’ Reviews | The Storyteller (Jodi Picoult) | Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Jamie Ford) | Trust Your Eyes (Linwood Barclay) | The Girl You Left Behind (Jojo Moyes) | The Girl on the Cliff (Lucinda Riley) | The House We Grew Up In (Lisa Jewell) | The Language of Flowers (Vanessa Diffenbaugh)

I’ve been adding reviews to sites such as Amazon, Goodreads and Waterstones for several years and now that I have my own book blog, I wanted to keep a note of my favourite books in one place.  So a few ‘Before the Blog’ posts will probably be appearing over the next few months…..they are not in depth reviews but just my thoughts on books that I have enjoyed and I would like to share.

The Storyteller – Jodi Picoult

Published March 2013 by Hodder & Stoughton

(Originally reviewed in February 2013)

Sage Singer has a past that makes her want to hide from the world. Sleeping by day and working in a bakery by night, she kneads her emotion into the beautiful bread she bakes.

But when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Josef Weber, a quiet man old enough to be her grandfather, and respected pillar of the community, she feels that finally, she may have found someone she can open up to.
Until Josef tells her the evil secret he’s kept for sixty years.

Caught between Josef’s search for redemption and her shattered illusions, Sage turns to her family history and her own life for answers. As she uncovers the truth from the darkest horrors of war, she must follow a twisting trail between betrayal and forgiveness, love and revenge. And ask herself the most difficult question she has ever faced – can murder ever be justice? Or mercy?

I’ve read all of Jodi Picoult’s books in recent years and despite really enjoying them all, this one is her best yet. It’s a departure from her usual formula but nonetheless it is a fabulous story and my review cannot possibly do it justice.

The present day story centres on Sage Singer. Sage is 25 years old and facially disfigured, she hides away, working at night in a bakery creating wonderful bread which she pours her heart and soul into. There are very few people she feels comfortable with – Mary, the ex-nun who runs the bakery and her married lover Adam. Her two sisters are now strangers to her. Sage lost her mother in tragic circumstances and the guilt she carries with her brings her to a grief counselling centre where she meets Josef. Her meetings with Josef, an elderly German man and pillar of the local community, become a bright spot in her life, until he makes an admission which shakes her to the core.

The middle part of the story is told by Minka, Sage’s beloved grandmother. Minka’s story begins with WW2, when as a young Polish Jewish girl, her life would be shattered by the atrocities of a cruel regime and she would never be that same person again.

Running through the book is a separate storyline of an Upior, the true point of which becomes clear later in the story.

This is a harrowing book to read at times. Minka’s story was heartbreaking and the amount of research undertaken by the author to do justice to the survivors’ stories stands out. However much you think you know of the Holocaust there are no words to describe the horror of death camps such as Auschwitz and there were times when I was in tears. Minka, in particular, has an amazing strength of character and shows true courage in her battle to survive.

The latter part of the book returns to Sage and Minka and how ultimately Sage deals with Josef’s confession and the question of forgiveness and revenge.

This is a shocking and thought provoking story and one which stays with you long after you have finished reading.

Hotel on the corner of Bitter and Sweet – Jamie Ford

Published April 2011 by Allison & Busby

(Originally reviewed in June 2011)

‘You just gave me hope, Henry. And sometimes hope is enough to get you through anything’

1986, The Panama Hotel.  The old Seattle landmark has been boarded up for decades, but now the new owner has made a startling discovery in the basement: personal belongings stored away by Japanese families sent to interment camps during the Second World War. Among the fascinated crowd gathering outside the hotel, stands Henry Lee, and, as the owner unfurls a distinctive parasol, he is flooded by memories of his childhood. He wonders if by some miracle, in amongst the boxes of dusty treasures, lies a link to the Okabe family, and the girl he lost his young heart to, so many years ago.

I loved this book. We follow the life of 12 year old Henry, a Chinese boy who is bullied by classmates at an all white American school and has a very remote relationship with his parents. Apart from an older man Sheldon, a black saxaphone player who busks on street corners, his only other friend is Keiko, an American born Japanese girl of similar age who joins him at the school. The story alternates between 1942-45 and 1986 and although I knew about Pearl Harbour, I never knew that the Americans rounded up their Japanese citizens and transferred them to interment camps for the duration of the war in case they were spies. The hardships that these Japanese families suffered and the loss of their homes, businesses and possessions made for very difficult reading.

Henry’s feelings of confusion between loyalty to his parents and to his friend Keiko are very well explored, as is his developing friendship and feelings for her. As Henry grows older, he becomes more assertive, particularly with his controlling father and those scenes with Henry and his then ailing father are very moving.

Every page of this book was a joy to read and I became totally immersed in the story. Its quite rare that I’m sad to reach the end of a book, but it was certainly the case with this book.

Trust Your Eyes – Linwood Barclay

Published September 2012 by Orion

(Originally reviewed in July 2012)

A schizophrenic man spends his days and nights on a website called Whirl360, believing he’s employed by the CIA to store the details of every town and city in the world in his head. Then one day, he sees something that shouldn’t be there: a woman being murdered behind a window on a New York street. Suddenly Thomas has more to deal with than just his delusions, as he gets drawn into a deadly conspiracy.

I’ve read most of Linwood Barclay’s books and enjoyed them all and was totally hooked on his latest thriller, Trust your Eyes.

The story centres around two brothers, Ray Kilbride, who returns home to sort out his father’s affairs after his sudden death and Ray’s younger brother Thomas, who lived with their father. Thomas is described as being schizophrenic and his mental health issues are pivotel to the plot. He is a reclusive character and spends his days in his bedroom, looking at a computer programme called Whirl360.com which enables you go stroll down any street in the world and view the scene around you. On one of these `trips’, Thomas sees something which brings a whole lot of trouble to their door.

I found this a great read and one of those books that you cannot put down. It was a pacy thriller with interesting, well written characters and plenty of twists and conspiracies to keep you turning the pages. There are separate strands to the plot, one involving the death of the father but they all come together at the end. The relationship between the two brothers and the frustrations caused by Thomas’ issues is skilfully told and you really feel that you get to know both characters.

If you’re a fan of well written thriller fiction, then I’m sure you would enjoy this book.

The Girl You Left Behind – Jojo Moyes

Published September 2012 by Penguin

(Originally reviewed in June 2012)

France, 1916. Sophie Lefevre must keep her family safe whilst her adored husband Edouard fights at the front. When she is ordered to serve the German officers who descend on her hotel each evening, her home becomes riven by fierce tensions. And from the moment the new Kommandant sets eyes on Sophie’s portrait – painted by Edouard – a dangerous obsession is born, which will lead Sophie to make a dark and terrible decision.

Almost a century later, and Sophie’s portrait hangs in the home of Liv Halston, a wedding gift from her young husband before he died. A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and its troubled history. A history that is about to resurface and turn Liv’s life upside down all over again . . .

In ‘The Girl You Left Behind’ two young women, separated by a century, are united in their determination to fight for what they love most – whatever the cost.

Although I am still working my way through her back catalogue, I’ve loved this author’s books and was thrilled to receive an advance copy of her latest one.

One of my favourite genres is the dual time story – when it’s done well. I am pleased to say that Ms Moyes has covered this extremely well. I was immediately drawn in to the lives of Sophie Lefevre and her family when the story started in 1916. I had to keep reminding myself that this was set during WW1 as it was so easy to think the story was set in WW2.

The lives and difficulties of Sophie and her sister Helene were very well portrayed and the hardships suffered as a result of the German occupation of their town were so believable. Sophie, in particular, was a very engaging character and in the absence of both her own beloved husband Edouard and Helene’s husband who were away fighting for their country, she was the lynchpin of the family. The title of the story refers to a portrait of Sophie, painted by her artist husband and is one of her most treasured possessions. Unfortunately for Sophie, the local Kommandant also takes a liking to the portrait and thus both her and her family’s lives are thrown into danger when difficult decisions have to be made.

I was so captivated by Sophie’s story that I was almost bereft when her story suddenly ended and Liv’s began. I normally tend to prefer one era to another in dual time frame stories and when Liv’s story began in 2006 I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy her story as much however I am pleased to say that Liv’s contribution was equally enjoyable. The painting of Sophie comes to the fore in Liv’s life and again is the cause of much soul searching and heartbreak.

Despite being separated by nearly 100 years the stories of Sophie and Liv are intrinsically linked throughout the book and both their characters show strength which neither thought they possessed.

I enjoyed this book immensely and would recommend this to a reader who enjoys a story where they are completely pulled in and enthralled by the characters and the storyline.

The Girl on the Cliff – Lucinda Riley

Published October 2011 by Penguin

(Originally reviewed in November 2011)

Why has a secret from 1914 caused a century of heartache?

Troubled by recent loss, Grania Ryan has returned to Ireland and the arms of her loving family. And it is here, on a cliff edge, that she first meets a young girl, Aurora, who will profoundly change her life.

Mysteriously drawn to Aurora, Grania discovers that the histories of their families are strangely and deeply entwined . . .

From a bittersweet romance in wartime London to a troubled relationship in contemporary New York, from devotion to a foundling child to forgotten memories of a lost brother, the Ryans and the Lisles, past and present, have been entangled for a century. Ultimately, it will be Aurora whose intuition and remarkable spirit help break the spell and unlock the chains of the past.

Haunting, uplifting and deeply moving, Aurora’s story tells of the triumph of hope over loss.

A family saga spanning almost one hundred years, from the start of the first world war to the present time, with quite a large cast of characters, many of whom are forever linked through the family history of the Lisle and Ryan families where history has a habit of repeating itself. Quite often in dual time frame books, I enjoy one era more than the other, but in this book I loved both. The story starts with artist Grania Ryan suddenly returning home to her family in Ireland, and leaving her partner Matt and their life together behind in New York. I could quite understand why Grania was so drawn to the child she meets one day whilst walking on the cliff – Aurora Devonshire, a descendent of the Lisle family. The young Aurora is a captivating character, she can be devious and manipulative but also very lovable and so lonely and you can see why she captures people’s hearts. We find out why Grania’s mother Kathleen cannot forgive the Lisle family and advises Grania to stay clear of them and their offspring. Between the two families is a history of both love and tragedy and I found myself being caught up in the story and wanting to find out more.

I did find it a little confusing at times, trying to remember by who and how the Lisle/Ryan families were connected but part way through a book a family tree is provided which does make understanding the family connections easier.

This book appears to have attracted mixed reviews, but I just enjoyed it for what it was, great storytelling with some wonderful characters, and I raced through it, shedding some tears along the way. I found it an engrossing read and I look forward to reading more by Lucinda Riley.

The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell

Paperback Published July 2014

(Originally reviewed in July 2013)

Meet the Bird Family

All four children have an idyllic childhood: a picture-book cottage in a country village, a warm, cosy kitchen filled with love and laughter, sun-drenched afternoons in a rambling garden.

But one Easter weekend a tragedy strikes the Bird family that is so devastating that, almost imperceptibly, it begins to tear them apart.

The years pass and the children become adults and begin to develop their own quite separate lives. Soon it’s almost as though they’ve never been a family at all.

But not quite.

Because something has happened that will call them home, back to the house they grew up in – and to what really happened that Easter weekend all those years ago.

The Bird family, Lorelei, her husband Colin and their four children – Megan, Bethan, and twins Rhys and Rory have a seemingly perfect life in their large Cotswold home. Every year, Lorelei organises the traditional Easter egg hunt in the rambling garden and family get-togethers are the norm. Except that one Easter Sunday tragedy strikes the family and none of them are ever the same again.

The story starts in 2011 when eldest daughter Megan and her teenage daughter Molly have the unenviable task of sorting out the dilapidated house after Lorelei’s death. For reasons which become clear as the story progresses, Lorelei had become an extreme hoarder (think of the TV programmes about hoarders where people can’t move around their house) and so she had ended up living in just one room.

Lisa Jewell has created a beautifully written story of a family estranged from each other and torn apart by tragedy. The characters are so well written and believable and the story of their lives over 30 years has been expertly woven so that piece by piece, it reveals why the family are so sadly apart. This is not a fluffy light hearted read, it has its darker moments and covers some difficult issues but I can guarantee that once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down.

Lisa Jewell’s books just get better and she is now a trusted and favourite author on my bookshelves.

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Published August 2011 by MacMillan

(Originally reviewed in October 2011)

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness. 

“I had spent my life being hateful and solitary and I could not, overnight, become loving and attached”. I think this quote from Victoria sums her up perfectly. After a life of being in care, at aged 18 she finds herself on her own and on the streets with no home and no job. After sleeping in park bushes, she finds part time work with a florist and continues her journey with flowers and their interpretations. When she was 10, she was placed with a foster parent, Elizabeth and this is where her life with flowers began. The book alternates between her life with Elizabeth and the present, and as the story proceeds, you find out the truth of why she ended back in the care system.

It would be wrong to say I ‘enjoyed’ this book but it was a compelling read. There were times when I felt as though I were reading a misery memoir and then there were moments of hope and admiration for Victoria as she made a life for herself. With each rejection in her life, she feels more and more bitter and feels totally undeserving of any happiness or love.

A beautifully written book and an excellent debut novel. There are moments of heartbreak and sadness, but also of hope and love. The back of the book contains an A-Z listing of flowers and the meanings which Victoria followed throughout. I am glad that I read it, and would recommend it.


2 thoughts on “‘Before the Blog’ Reviews | The Storyteller (Jodi Picoult) | Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Jamie Ford) | Trust Your Eyes (Linwood Barclay) | The Girl You Left Behind (Jojo Moyes) | The Girl on the Cliff (Lucinda Riley) | The House We Grew Up In (Lisa Jewell) | The Language of Flowers (Vanessa Diffenbaugh)”

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