This is the sequel to the excellent Wolf Hall. I had not ever intended to read Wolf Hall – I felt like Philippa Gregory had “done” the Tudors for me. But I kept picking it up and putting it down in bookshops and so I decided just to give in and read it. Wolf Hall deals with the breakdown of Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the rise of Anne Boleyn. Bring up the Bodies is the next instalment in a trilogy, and this deals with Henry’s burgeoning doubts about Anne Boleyn and her eventual fall.
Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who is generally portrayed as a pretty unsympathetic and much reviled character. Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell is anything but – she really makes him human and above all a survivor. His affection for his family and his household is touching, but he is also a man who will get the job done and make himself rich in the process.
Mantel writes in the third person present tense and I think that is part of the genius of her writing – everything is very intense and alive, but at the same time you barely notice the writing and techniques she uses to suck you in, which is the mark of a truly great writer. It is quite different from Wolf Hall – that was all about Thomas Cromwell on the rise and Bring up the Bodies is about him maintaining his favour with the King. From Cromwell’s point of view, Anne Boleyn has to go, for if she doesn’t he will meet the same fate as Cardinal Wolesy – he has to strike her before she can strike him. But throughout the book, the subtle seeds are sown which will eventually lead to his own downfall in the next instalment.
One of the things that had put me off reading Wolf Hall originally was the size – I was worried about becoming bogged down in dull legal details about Henry’s struggle for a divorce. Bring up the Bodies is also quite a hefty book. However, at no point in either book does the story every get bogged down in tedium or in providing too much detail. You can tell that Hilary Mantel really knows her character and the time period well, but she steers clear of any temptation to make this a pseudo-biography of Thomas Cromwell and maintains it as an excellent work of fiction.
Like Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies won the Booker Prize. When the next instalment comes out, I find it hard to believe that it will not also be a prize winner.
For anyone with an interest in Tudors, a love of Philippa Gregory or a love of reading good books and world class writing will enjoy Bring up the Bodies. I would recommend starting with Wolf Hall though. Most people are familiar enough with the Tudor story that they will know what has happened before and so could read out of sequence. However, I think to really appreciate the character of Thomas Cromwell then you should start the story from the beginning of his rise.
One of my pet peeves is authors borrowing other authors characters for their own stories, and so I have never read any of the many other books spawned by Pride and Prejudice, nor classics such as the Wide Sargasso Sea.
The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline should have fallen within that category, as the protagonist is Enola Holmes, the 14 year old sister of Sherlock Holmes. In spite of myself, I was intrigued – I liked the idea of a female version of Sherlock Holmes, and so I decided to give it a go.
Enola Holmes has run away from home and she is living under an assumed identity in a boarding house in London. Her elderly landlady receives a cryptic message which Enola has to solve to rescue her landlady, who is violently kidnapped by persons who want her to reveal a message with which she was entrusted during the Crimean war, some 30 years before.
This is definitely a book that is aimed at older children and young teenagers, so it is quite simple and a lot of the twists and turns were quite easy to predict as an adult. However, this didn’t bother me, as I was not so far ahead of Enola that I became frustrated with her for not solving the various clues, and so I think the pacing of the story is very good.
The plot was a little thin. The journey to solving the mystery was entertaining and exciting, but I think that more could have been done to make clear the motivations of the characters and the reason behind them wanting this cryptic message to be destroyed after it had lain dormant for so many years. It did also rely on coincidence for more than one of Enola’s breakthroughs, and I’m not really keen on that as a plot device as it seems to be a bit of an easy option.
I did really enjoy this book, and if I knew any young teenagers I would definitely recommend it to them. I listened to this as an audio book and I think a large part of my personal enjoyment of the book was down to the fact that the audio narration was really, really good. I liked the tone of voice that the narrator used for Enola and I liked the fact that she adapted for the other characters so she sounded completely different – it was really entertaining. I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it so much if I had read it in print form. I have since looked it up on the internet and there are quite a few Enola Holmes mysteries, so I am currently looking out for a paper version of a different story in the library so I can compare.
And I am pleased to report that although Sherlock Holmes did make a brief appearance in the book, he did not feature too heavily; Enola was allowed by the author to step outside of her brother’s shadow, and solve the mystery using her own mental agility and prowess. Her resourcefulness, self-confidence and values make Enola Holmes a very good role model for younger teenage girls.
This was my first foray into the world of audio books, and I’m not sure it was the greatest place to start. The narrator had a really deep, smooth voice. I could imagine him reading me to sleep, lulling me with his rich tones – not a great feature when driving!
Half Blood Blues is about Sid Griffiths, a Jazz musician living and plying his trade along with the band in 1930s Berlin. They are forced to flee to Paris to escape “the Boots” (i.e. the SS) after an incident in which Sid’s oldest friend and band mate Charles “Chip” Jones kills one of them in a fight. They cannot outrun the war though which catches up with them in Paris. One of the band members is a young man called Hero, who is a brilliant trumpeteer. Sid struggles with conflicting emotions towards Hero – part jealously, part rivalry, part very protective and brotherly. Hero is a stateless citizen – a Rhineland bastard, who is taken by the Nazis when the war arrives in Paris, whilst Sid watches on and does nothing to help. His enormous guilt about this stays with him for his whole life until it comes to ahead more than 40 years later when he returns to Berlin.
I found Sid quite a difficult character to like. He seemed to take everything so very seriously, and very personally. He was quick to over analyse situations and to imagine he had been slighted. His jealousy towards Hero was petty and seemed to border on genuine dislike at times.
This book can be quite slow in parts, and in particular the love story between Sid and Delilah. This dominates the middle section of the book and too much time is devoted to it in my opinion. In spite of the tendency to drag in parts, there is some really top quality writing on display. In particular, the scene in which the group are trying to get a train out of Paris to escape before the Nazis arrive is so vivid. The sheer chaos, terror and stench of human panic is tangible as everyone presses like herded cattle into the station with whatever belongings they can carry, desperate for a ticket out of there.
The real highlight of the story for me is the relationship between Sid and Chip. They are boyhood friends and half the time they don’t seem to even like each other. But underneath all of that is a real unbreakable bond – they truly are brothers. Some of Sid’s actions in the book are quite unforgivable, but Chip stands by him and is there for Sid when he needs him the most.
The ending seemed to be very abrupt. I’m not sure whether this just comes down to listening to it as an audio book as I cannot then see how much is left to go.
It took a while for me to get into this book and there were points where my interest started to drift in the slow parts. I didn’t really warm to Sid very much. However, the writing was good, the story is memorable and there are a few moments that made me chuckle, which I think is important when dealing with such serious subject matter.
When I saw this book sitting on the library shelf, I knew I would borrow it. I had gone in just to return, and I was absolutely not going to borrow anything else so I could catch up on the neglected books sitting on my shelves. But there is nothing I like more than a quirky title, and so I found myself unable to resist.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the story of the Tull family. The matriarch of the family, Pearl, is dying at the beginning of the book. We are then taken back through the family story from the departure of her husband and her decision not to tell her children Cody, Ezra and Jennie. She adapts when he leaves, taking a job in the grocery store to support her family and trying to do the best for her children. But they never talk about the fact that their father is not there any more, and Pearl often cracks under the strain of raising a family alone, flying into violent rages.
The departure of the father and the fact that they never talk about it resonates throughout the whole of the lives of Cody, Ezra and Jennie, each of whom are affected in a different way. Cody is angry and bitter – he resents his mother and his brother Ezra, of whom he is intensely jealous. Jennie flits from husband to husband, eventually settling down and becoming step-mother to 6 children. She is unable to take anything seriously and brushes off the problems faced by her eldest step-son. Ezra is the owner of the Homesick Restaurant, which serves street food and comfort food, just like your Mum would make. He never manages to make the break from home. He is the good hearted, easy going, pushover. He just wants to bring his family together and is constantly trying to arrange family meals at his restaurant, all of which inevitably end in disaster.
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those books which is very much character driven rather than plot driven – I would struggle to say exactly what happened in the book, but the characters are compelling enough to keep the pages turning. Cody is probably the most challenging character within the book because he is so destructive – he has such bitterness towards Ezra and such jealousy that it would be easy to make him into a complete villain for everything that he does to the lovable Ezra. However, Anne Tyler has written him very sympathetically, so even when I was getting frustrated and annoyed with Cody, I still felt quite sorry for him as you can still see the frightened and confused little boy that is in the heart of him.
This is the first time that I have read anything by Anne Tyler and I will definitely read more by her in the future. I really enjoyed how she was able to portray her characters so that we can view them objectively at the same time as being allowed to see how they view themselves. I also loved the concept of The Homesick Restaurant. This book was originally published in 1982 and it is so ahead of its time – The Homesick Restaurant would be absolutely bang on trend now with its street food and home cooking.
- Question of the reading week (necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com)
I recently lost my job.
I suppose I didn’t technically “lose” it – I was working on a fixed term one year contract. However, I was settled and happy where I was working, and the longer that went by without my boss mentioning the end of my contract, the more I convinced myself that it would be extended.
Sadly, those hopes came crashing down around my ears a couple of weeks ago when I was told that my contract would not be renewed. I was very fortunate that I found a new job within a week of starting to look, but at the time, it seemed like the end of the world. I didn’t want to leave, I had hoped to stay, I was afraid of being unemployed and I was wishing that I had prepared myself better financially over the year.
But in amongst all of that emotion, a part of my brain remained very objective and saw the possibility for a story in my situation.
“What if,” I thought. “What if a disgruntled ex-employee accidentally stabbed her boss with a letter opener? Or burnt down the office?”
Obviously this is fiction – I would never do anything like that in real life – I feel guilty for swatting flies and flushing spiders down the toilet. But in amongst everything I was feeling, the comedy potential of the scenario of the ex-employee desperately trying to cover her tracks made me smile.
Equally importantly, it helped me realise that I am a writer. I have had my fair share of tough times and upheaval this year, but in all of those low points, I have had a nugget of an idea for a story.
Most of those ideas are nothing more than a sentence in a notebook. Some are just stored in my head. But for all the times that I get frustrated for not finishing what I’ve started, or worse, for not starting at all; for all the times I allow myself to be ruled by my inner critic, and feel too inhibited to allow anyone else to read what I have written; for every time I have felt like I never wanted to pick up a pen again, I have this knowledge:-
I see the world from a writer’s perspective – everything has the potential to be a story.
For anyone else who is having or has had tough times, my one suggestion would be imagine that it is happening to someone else, someone entirely fictional who can do or say or react in anyway that you want them to. If you write, you might find the potential for a story in the hard times. If you don’t write, it may help you process your own emotion and smile in the face of adversity.
There was a brief period last year between moving house and changing jobs when I was commuting to work on the Metro trains. For those 6 weeks, I read more than I have ever done before. The Metro journey was only 20 minutes each way, but those 20 minutes belonged to me and my reading. I just gobbled up books during that period – it was fantastic.
Then I started a new job in a town just over 20 miles away and so I was commuting by car. The extra reading time was lost, or so I thought.
A couple of months ago, I became absolutely sick and tired of listening to the same songs played on the radio over and over again, and so I decided to try something a bit different – I borrowed an audio book from the library.
It took a little bit of getting used to at first. I started off with Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan, which I found a little hard to follow for the first few tracks on the CD as I got used to being read a story rather than reading it myself. But once I had settled in, I really enjoyed listening to the story and now I am a total addict.
It is very rare that I will have more than one book on the go at the same time, and I was a bit concerned about getting confused between the audio book and paper book. I need not have worried though as the audio book is very much in the car, so when I shut the car door I can leave it behind, then pick it right up again when I get back in.
The one drawback of listening to audio books is that I can’t read back over what has just happened when I get back in the car. I’m not sure if I can rewind CDs or not, so if it has been a couple of days since I have driven, I am dropped back in the middle of where I left off, and can’t always remember exactly what happened immediately before, but it has been quite easy so far to pick up the thread again. I do think that listening to the story adds an extra dimension to it as well – the reader is important as they do help bring the characters to life and help in creating the impression of the characters.
I always had the impression that audio books were just for old ladies. I thought that I would find a library full of Catherine Cooksons and Agatha Christies and nothing much else. I was really pleasantly surprised by the huge array of books on offer, modern and old, in all genres and for all age groups.
So through audio books, I have taken back the commute as my time for reading, and once more I am reading more than I ever have before.
I finished reading A Kestrel for a Knave today by Barry Hines (review to follow) and he made a very interesting comment in the afterword when talking about his book being a set examination text at GCSE:-
“I’ve sometimes considered sitting the examinations under an assumed name to see how I would get on. Perhaps my interpretation of the book would differ from that of the examiner and I would fail. Who can tell?”
That really left me thinking: who our characters and stories really belong to once they are in the wide world?
I once attended a writing course and brought along a piece of writing to share. It was not like anything I had ever written before – it was a claustrophobic, intense and disturbing story in which the main character is caught in a delusion. I had not made any reference within the story to the gender of the main character, and that was not deliberate – for me, he was very clearly a man and it didn’t occur to me to check for references to his gender. I was really surprised when I read out this story that more than half of the group had pictured my character as a woman. It got me thinking at the time, did I have any right to tell them that they were wrong? The gender of a character is pretty fundamental to identity, but I had put the story out there without any explicit references to gender, so in that case was the group’s interpretation of my character not just as valid as my own?
When J. K. Rowling said in an interview that Dumbledore was gay, this became headline news. To me, Dumbledore was an intensely asexual character – I couldn’t picture him as having any kind of personal relationship, either with a man or a woman. That impression of Dumbledore didn’t change because J. K. Rowling said something different. My view was and still is that her version of Dumbledore is gay, but my Dumbledore is neither gay nor straight and is simply married to the school.
Recently, I have also been watching Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic. I think most of the casting is spot on, but the one character that really rankles with me is Lord Varys. It is not just that his appearance is not the way I pictured, but the way that Conleth Hill plays him is totally different to the Varys of my imagination. I always pictured him as being a more muted version of Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – lanky limbed, soft voiced and constantly smiling, in a rather more dangerous way. George R. R. Martin who is the author of Game of Thrones is also heavily involved with the TV version and so I presume that the TV Varys is an accurate portrayal of how he sees the character.
Many Bridget Jones’ fans were shocked and upset this week when Helen Fielding announced that she is killing off Mark Darcy for the third book. I had intended to blog today in defence of Helen Fielding’s decision on the basis that the characters belong to her and so she can do what she wants with them. But the reaction of the fans just goes to show that Bridget no longer just belongs to Helen Fielding. Yes, it maybe Helen Fielding that makes the decisions but she has created a character that millions of people have fallen in love with and they genuinely care about what happens next.
My own personal view is that as writers, when we share our stories and our characters, we are giving something quite personal to the reader, and as readers, our own imaginations go to work on the characters to form our own unique interpretations. I think that means that the characters will then equally belong to the readers and the writers who have created them. After all, just because I’m told I’m wrong or a character is different to how I have imagined doesn’t mean that I can magically start seeing that character in any other way.
It was really interesting to read Barry Hines thoughts in the afterword about the success of A Kestral for a Knave. He talks about how people look for meanings that he didn’t intend to be there. One example is he is often asked about the names of the horses on which Billy fails to place a bet – his reply is that he couldn’t remember what he had called them and had to look it up for the purposes of writing the afterword. But it is interesting to think how characters and stories grow and evolve once they become public and the writer has lost the control. Who knows, maybe Barry Hines would have failed a GCSE exam in relation to his own book. But then maybe the interpretation of the examiner would be just as valid as Hines’ own.
What do you think? Have you ever adjusted your impressions of a character? Are there any characters you have been “wrong” about?
I just can’t bring myself to let the 30 day book challenge go yet without one final post.
I have spent the last month enjoying a trip down memory lane, thinking about all of the books and authors that I love and trying to narrow these down to one or two per post. But there are a lot of strong contenders which didn’t get a mention, some of which I have only thought about after the original posts went live.
So to round off the 30 day book challenge, I’m going to do a summary of those answers to which I could say “close but no cigar”.
DAY 1 – A book series you wish would just end already OR one that you wish would go on longer
His Dark Materials should go on – the ending was heart breaking and I have always wanted to see what happened next.
DAY 2. – Favorite side character
Ygritte from Game of Thrones – for being a wild northern woman and for making Jon Snow more interesting.
DAY 3. – The longest book you’ve read
Game of Thrones – all of them are hefty books, but books 3 and 5 are so enormous they had to split them into two volumes.
DAY 4. – Book turned into a movie and completely desecrated
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – my favourite Potter book of them all. The movie was the biggest disappointment of them all.
DAY 5. – Your “comfort” book
The Time Traveller’s Wife – one of my all time favourites and I know that I can pick it up and will love it more each time.
DAY 6. – Book you’ve read the most number of times
Who Killed Peggy Sue – a real favourite of my teenage years – my copy of this book is literally falling apart at the seams.
DAY 7. – A guilty pleasure book
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I live with a scientist who would be appalled if he knew just how much I secretly enjoy this book with all of it’s bad science!
DAY 8. – Most underrated book
Katherine by Anya Seton – originally published in 1954, she is a forerunner to Philippa Gregory and has produced an excellent book about someone I had never heard of but whose offspring went on to found the Tudor line.
DAY 9. – Most overrated book
The Great Gatsby – my sister is obsessed with this book. I thought it was just okay.
DAY 10. – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving
Room by Emma Donoghue – I read it to find out what the hype was about really and didn’t really think it would be my cup of tea, but it was un-putdownable – disturbing at times but such great writing, and she never faltered in maintaining the voice of the child narrator.
DAY 11. – Favorite classic book
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – quite an obvious answer but Jane Eyre is a woman before her time, and for a classic it is an easy read.
DAY 12. – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t
Grimm fairy tales – I finally have a copy and it is on my to read pile!
DAY 13. – A book that disappointed you
Dissolution, C J Samson – this medieval murder mystery sounded right up my street, but it fell flat for me.
DAY 14. – Book that made you cry
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne – the horrifying events that we understand as adult readers but which are not understood by the child narrator gets me every time.
DAY 15. – A character who you can relate to the most
Robb Stark from Game of Thrones – also a strong contender for favourite side character, he really brings out the rebellious northerner in me.
DAY 16. – Most thought-provoking book
Incendiary by Chris Cleeve – a scarily realistic account of a terrorist attack on London which really makes you think about how far we should we should compromise the values that we are supposed to be fighting for,
DAY 17. – Author I wish people would read more
Chris Cleeve – some people may be put off by the lack of blurb, but give him a go – you will not be disappointed.
DAY 18. – A book you wish you could live in
The Faraway tree by Enid Blyton – as a child I was obsessed with this tree where the different lands rotated in the high branches and the children discovered a new adventure in the tree every time.
DAY 19. – A favourite author
Chimanadna Ngozi Adiche – her stories about Nigeria, and in particular the food, are so evocative that they make me want to visit the country for myself.
DAY 20. – Favorite childhood book
Sweet Valley High – I adored this series of books, I devoured them as a child and used to imagine that one day I would find a long lost twin and we would be just like Jessica and Elizabeth!
DAY 21. – Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – this was a Christmas gift last year and I’m still working my way through it. I would probably say if asked that I had read it, but it is still a work in progress.
DAY 22. – Least favourite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise
Coincidence – totally unbelieveable most of the time and should be used very sparingly in my opinion.
DAY 23. – Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – I thought Philippa Gregory had done the Tudors for me, but then I read this. Truly excellent writing and a different perspective on a well known story.
DAY 24. – Book you’re most embarrassed to say you like/liked
PS I Love You by Cecilia Ahearn – I usually avoid chick lit like the plague. This is one exception, but I don’t like to admit to it!
DAY 25. – The most surprising plot twist or ending
Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – I didn’t like the majority of this book, but I thought the final chapter was sublime and more than made up for the rest of the book.
DAY 26. – Book that makes you laugh out loud
The Fiend books by Sheila Lavelle – these belonged to my younger sister and I pinched them and read them when I was probably too old for them, but they made me laugh and so I didn’t care.
DAY 27. – Book that has been on your “to read” list the longest
The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I have been putting off reading this one after being underwhelmed by The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night.
DAY 28. – Favourite quote from a book
“You’re a wizard Harry” – classic.
DAY 29. – A book you hated
December by Elizabeth Winthrop – hate is a strong word for this one but this book did nothing for me and I couldn’t stand the end.
DAY 30. – Book you couldn’t put down
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – another one I completed in one sitting – I loved reading about their foraging seeing Daisy adapt and grow in very difficult circumstances.
I really am done now. I will now start posting fresh content in which the words “30 day book challenge” will not appear! It has been hard work at times but I have genuinely loved every minute of it.
I’m always on the lookout for new books/authors to try, so if you would like to share any of your own answers to the above questions, then please leave a comment!
I can’t believe the end is here already.
This blog is still really new, and participating in the 30 day book challenge has been such a fantastic way to get used to blogging as well as taking a wonderful trip down memory lane, thinking of books to write about in answer to these questions.
Thank you to everyone who has been reading along with me so far, especially those who have commented, and thanks to Becky from Blogs-Of-A-Bookaholic for the brilliant questions.
Okay, that’s enough of the Oscar speech. I will get on with the post.
There are a lot of books that I haven’t been able to put down, especially when coming to the end. There are some books where I get to a certain point that I will physically not be able to stop until I have finished, no matter what else I need to do or what the time is. I call that point the “run in”.
However, some books I find it very difficult to stop from beginning to end. The last book I read where I genuinely couldn’t put it down and read it all in one sitting was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.
This is the story of Susie Salmon, who is raped and murdered by her neighbour. Afterwards, she becomes stuck in a kind of limbo, stuck in between earth and heaven where she can build her own world and watch over her family as they struggle to cope with her murder and the fact that her body is never found.
This book grabbed me right from the first line:-
“My name was Salmon, like the fish, first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973”.
The writing is so good I couldn’t stop – Alice Sebold deals so sensitively with the issues and the reactions and coping strategies of her family are so real. The glimpses of Susie’s life before she was murdered are so intense, such as her first kiss with Ray. I particularly enjoyed Grandma Lynn, whom Susie had never really warmed to in life but loved her in death as she became the linchpin of the family. I also loved the drama of Susie’s father and sister coming to suspect their neighbour, especially when Lindsay is almost caught snooping in the house. I loved the imagination behind the world that Susie inhabits. I loved the loose endings – those that were tied up and those that weren’t.
This isn’t the kind of book with a massive cliffhanger at the end of every chapter. But still at the end of each chapter I couldn’t help but read on, just because I felt that I knew these people and I wanted to see them all (including Susie who has to come to terms with her own death) come out the other side. So I stayed up to the small hours, devouring every single word.
And that’s that. The 30 day book challenge is over. I hope you have enjoyed reading along. I know I’ve enjoyed writing it.
There are very few books that I have actually hated. There are some that haven’t captured me, or that I’ve struggled to get through, but I usually find something to like about them. It is rare that I actually hate a book.
There is one book that I read and despised so much that I couldn’t actually bear to have it on my bookshelves and so the instant I finished it (and I really don’t know what possessed me to force my way to the end), I took it straight to the charity shop. The only trouble is, I can’t remember what it is called.
Here is what I do remember – it was some creepy ghost story set in small town America. The main character was a male and he was either having marital problems or his wife was just away in business/holiday. For whatever reason, he was in their new house alone and his life started to fall apart as a result of the fact that his house turned out to be haunted. In the process of finding out about this ghost, he developed a completely inappropriate relationship with the pregnant teenage daughter of his next door neighbours and some very, very weird things happened when he eventually saw this ghost.
If anyone knows what book I’m on about, please let me know so I can avoid ever reading it again.
I don’t think I can really answer this question by writing about a book that I can’t remember the name of, but there is another book that I really did not like at all:-
The Return by Victoria Hislop
I was so very disappointed by this book as I really enjoy books set in other countries, particularly if they have a historical element and I can learn about something I knew nothing of before. The Return ticks so many of these boxes as it tells the story of the Ramirez family in Granada during the Spanish Civil War.
Here are my issues with The Return:-
1. The split time narrative
I have already talked about this in a previous post as being a much overused plot device. The Return is a classic example of everything that I hate about it. Rather than just telling the story of the Ramirez family in the Spanish Civil War, Hislop uses the modern character of Sonia as her way into the story, when she gets talking to a waiter in Granada that tells her the Ramirez story. I found Sonia utterly pointless – I didn’t care about her relationship or her obsession with flamenco dancing or the weird connection she felt with the waiter. Sonia’s story was just filler for me and took away from the much more interesting story about the war.
2. Too many coincidences
Use of coincidence is another one of my least favourite plot devices. It is all too convenient that out of all of the cafes in Granada, Sonia just happens to end up in the one that was run by the Ramirez family (who she doesn’t realise until later are actually her mother’s family) and that she gets talking to someone who happens to know their whole story.
3. Underdeveloped clichéd characters
I read the book without feeling I ever got to know any of the characters truly, because they were all so superficial and they were such clichés. Sonia’s friend Maggie was the carefree girl who would dance and drink and have casual sex and be ready to throw herself into any opportunity, whilst Sonia was more serious and reserved and cautious. Then there is the Ramirez family with flighty and passionate Mercedes, the protective older brother Antonio, another brother who is an arrogant matador, who clashes with the thid brother who is a serious and intellectual.
4. Too much telling
The rule of “show don’t tell” is pretty much the the first rule that is spouted in creative writing textbooks, writing classes and courses. This book does an awful lot of telling, and it is really frustrating and seems to create a lot of distance between me as a reader and the characters that Victoria Hislop is trying to describe. She is writing in the third person and switches between characters very quickly which is quite unsettling.
5. The ending
For anyone not wanting to read spoilers, stop here.
The ending is just awful. Sonia finds out that the old waiter she has been talking to is her mother’s old lover Javier who has been running her mother’s family restaurant since the end of the civil war. He feels he should rightfully pass this over to Sonia, who is conveniently given an escape from her unhappy marriage to a controlling alcoholic.
If only real life were like that. I’m still waiting to go on the holiday where I come back with the keys to a successful business and new life free of charge.
For all that I don’t like about The Return (and there is a lot), I can still be positive about some aspects of it. Some of the writing about the war is quite good. There is one particular scene which describes planes firing upon a line of refugees that really sticks out in my mind. If the modern story was entirely jettisoned, then I think I might be able to get past my issues with the characterisation and writing to quite enjoy the book.