Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Summer We All Ran Away

Looking back I can't quite remember what caught my eye about Cassandra Parkin's debut novel. I guess the title captured a certain end of season whimsy that echoed my own memories of the fast fading summer as the leaves turn golden on the trees. Whatever it was, I'm glad I did, as this proved a great read with accomplished story telling - I was truly gripped from the off.

Parkin's tale begins with Davey, a teenage runaway drunkenly making his way somewhere, anywhere, away from his past. Somehow, he finds himself in a secluded house in the West Country, living with three others also sheltering from their past. He is welcome to stay as long as he likes, where the only rule seems to be to not ask any questions about how the others got to where they are.

His story is juxaposed with that of Jack, a rock star trying to recover from his demons, hiding away in the same house in the seventies. He meets Mathilda, a young actress. From these beginnings, Parkin dips in and out of their stories, taking lots of different strands and eventually pulling them all together to make sense in the final few pages.

As the book progresses, we start to learn what the four housemates - Davey, Priss, Tom and Kate - together, and what they have all run from. The present day tale centres around the two teenagers, Priss and Davey, as they seek answers. For me, the most compelling part was Davey's story as he attempts to conquer his demons. As his tale unfurls it's clear he's a resilient young man with a distance still to travel, adding a great coming of age element.

This was a very atmospheric read, full of wist and promise. It was indeed very different, but the familiar themes of abandonment and the quest of belonging was told in a masterful style. I found myself whizzing through this book and was definitely sad to reach the end of my hidden haven at the end of a commute. An unusual read, but definitely worth a dabble.

(Available in Kindle format or paperback from Amazon)

The Engagements

As regular readers of this blog know, I'm not the biggest fan of the "chick lit" genre. My hand hovers warily over any book about weddings, engagements, slightly dreading all the predictable twists and turns that follow.

I'm glad I cast my initial doubts aside as The Engagements proved to be a real treat; complex, layered, yet simple. Best described as a series of short stories linked by the theme of diamond engagement rings, J. Courtney Sullivan creates a wonderfully rich cast of characters in which love is not an easy game.

We follow the lives of 5 characters across different eras, all struggling with their own dilemmas. For those who have happy marriages, their path is not an easy one. Wealthy grandmother Evelyn, for example, finds her marital contentment cannot erase the pain of her son's abandonment of his wife, nor the tragedy of her past. James, an ambulance driver in 1987, is struggling with debt and desperation to keep his beloved wife happy and fulfill his son's musical potential. Frenchwoman Delphine's escape from her safe marriage with her young lover proves to be a risky move...all the stories had me gripped and despite their variances; Sullivan weaves between them masterfully as the multiple narratives never jar.

Against this backdrop is the fascinating tale of the real-life Mary Frances Gerety. An advertising creative, Sullivan tells the tale of her dreaming up the "diamond is forever" slogan for De Beers. In her tale Sullivan provides an inspiring alternative path; the happily single woman who shaped a career in an era where it was not the norm. Her battles were a compelling read, all the more so for knowing this tale was true. It also created a healthy pinch of cynicism about the diamond tradition, highlighting how this is more a product of advertisers such as Gerety rather than one passed through the generations.

Overall this was a sparkling (forgive the pun!) read. Diverse tales that do not lose their flow, stories with a message of hope and love alongside a firm dollop of real life make this a book of real substance. My only slight dampner was the tale of Kate, a liberal who has to put her strong views on marriage and blood diamonds aside for the marriage of her cousin. I didn't feel as much of a connection with this character, although her views did provide an important emphasis on the human price paid for that month's wages on your ring finger.

I found this a gripping read, and it successfully navigates between its different strands with ease in a way that lent itself well to 45 minutes of rush hour. I'd definitely recommend this as a great antidote to the happy ever afters and a real, satisfying read.

(Available in Kindle, hardback, paperback and audio formats from Amazon)