Hi all and welcome to the November edition of A Blogging Good Read. Joining me this month are Chloe from Chloe Likes To Talk and Sarah from Reader. Writer. Nerd.
Up first is Chloe's choice, Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian:
For me this is a serious piece of childhood nostalgia. It’s long been a favourite since discovering it in my local library and I finally bought my own (much thumbed) copy a few years back. Whilst as a child it was a story that gripped me, as an adult I love it because it’s such a stark reminder that families are what you make them, and although blood might be thicker than water, ultimately it’s loving one another unconditionally that makes a family.
What did Sarah think of it?
I first read Goodnight Mister Tom in primary school as part of our library sessions, and loved it then – hence why I was quietly pleased to see it suggested by Chloe as her choice, I had been hankering to read it again and had an inkling that it would be different a second time round, now I’m over 10 years older and appreciate children’s books in a different way. It was with a mix of nostalgia and comfort that I settled in to read Goodnight Mister Tom again, and as expected I found the story to be much more vivid, emotional and powerful than I remembered when I read it for the first time.
Mister Tom is an elderly inhabitant of the small country village that William Beech, an evacuee from London, is sent to part way through the second world war. At first appearing gruff and simple, Mister Tom is revealed to be one of the kindest, most generous of gentlemen, providing Willie with a stable and loving home, something the boy was sorely missing back in London. Both Willie and Mister Tom benefit from the unlikely pairing; Willie growing in confidence and acceptance of himself, leaving behind the scared, beaten child he had once been; and Mister Tom finding someone to care for and love unconditionally again since the death of his wife earlier in his life, a development which enabled him to abandon his loneliness and become a much loved part of his village community again. Their story is a beautiful, gentle tale, regularly shaken up by both excitement and tragedy. Elements of the story, Willie’s life back in London in particular, are horrific and upsetting, but equally the book shows that hardship can be and is overcome, that tragedy doesn’t negate happiness, that both can happen (often alongside each other) and that life and people are constantly changing – the only surprise being our own individual ways of coping when it does.
Goodnight Mister Tom is overall a warm, touching and incredibly emotional novel, told in a simple way by Michelle Magorian who realises that powerful events don’t need complicated metaphors and clever syntax to deliver feeling. I laughed, I cried, I came close to hugging the book at times, and once I had finished I made a pact with myself to re-read this book once every 10 years in the future. A timeless classic, and one that really lightens the heart despite its at-times-difficult-subject matter.
It's always been a real favourite of mine as well, although I must admit that I haven't read it recently. There's always that slight sense of trepidation when you pick up a long-beloved book again in case it doesn't live up to your memories. Well this has definitely held up to the test of time, and if anything it's got better as I've got older. Michelle Magorian always writes beautifully about the war years (I especially like A Little Love Song if anyone is looking to try another of her books) and captures a unique blend of countryside cosiness and impending tragedy.
You are hereby warned: don't read this expecting all sweetness and light. It might be a children's book but there is tragedy and it will make you cry if you're anything like as soft as me. My overwhelming impression of this book is one of joy though. It's a depiction of real, enduring love that grows unexpectedly and weathers all sorts of storms.
My choice for the month was Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman:
Why did I pick it? Well, I'm eternally fascinated by the idea of parallel universes and going through a door/mirror/wardrobe/wall to end up somewhere that looks similar but is fundamentally very different. Richard Mayhew stops in the streets of London to help a wounded young girl and then gets caught up in the universe of London Below, the titular Neverwhere. You may recognise some of the geography - it spans disused tube stations, sewers, tunnels and everything below the capital city but it's not London as you'd know it.
I don't pretend it's a perfect book - there are some elements that fall a little short and you do sometimes get the sense that Gaiman was having so much fun with his supporting characters that he stopped short of fully fleshing out Richard. The world, feel and plot of Neverwhere are utterly enthralling though and as usual with his books, the villains are truly, truly creepy. You can't escape the sense of menace in this one.
Let's hear Chloe's thoughts on it:
When I read the blurb for this, I was a bit sceptical. I usually steer well clear of anything even close to fantasy. Yes, I am that narrow minded. I like my reading to distract me from my every day, but I don’t like to concentrate *that* hard. All that said, this was an enjoyable read. It took me a while, because I found it difficult to throw myself into for long periods of time, but the story behind the double world kept me interested, and the fantasy element was imaginable to the point I now take a closer look at rats when I’m walking the streets of London.
I wasn’t sold on the main character, he irritated me at times, and I felt he was under developed. I wanted to know more about him as well as the leading lady and the villain. The verdict…. Not bad, but not something I’d rush back to. I felt the characters let the story down.
Did Sarah like it more?
I’ve been wanting to read Gaiman for AGES so was really pleased when Alex suggested Neverwhere as her choice. It finally gave me an excuse to cave in and buy it, along with the rest of the set of Gaiman’s books… (shh, there was a deal on). After anticipating it for so long, I was worried Sod’s Law would come into action and I’d hate it, but am pleased to say that I was right to be excited and that I really, really enjoyed this book.
Neverwhere sweeps you off into a alternate world, but one that remains a reflection of reality. Yes, there is magic and logically impossible happenings, and hybrid creatures just a little too odd to be human, but it’s a world in which you can believe, set as it is in London – partly underground, partly ‘real’ London, partly ‘other’ London. Our main character Richard Mayhew discovers these different Londons when he performs the act of a good Samaritan, and in return ‘accidentally’ gets pulled into the frantic, dangerous and complicated life of Door, a girl from ‘other’ London - Neverwhere. Neverwhere appears to be based in the labyrinth of underground canals, sewers and tube lines criss-crossing the capital, and is home to a variety of inhabitants, non of them conforming to a particular ‘race’ or nationality, all of them different, and all of them dangerous in their own way. Some become friends of Richard, more become foes, and Richard fights his way through their world with a mixture of desperation, obligation and confusion, his and Doors fate seemingly tangled up as one.
The plot twists and turns, revealing no-one to be exactly who you thought they were, and nowhere to be exactly static. The paired characters Croup and Vandemar are two of the most powerfully imposing ‘baddies’ I have ever come across in fiction, and every single one of their chapters made me shiver, feel a bit sick, get angry, or all three. The story as a whole is unsettling – maybe because of the queer nature of the quest the characters are on, maybe because of the fact their fates are never clear cut, maybe because Neverwhere is a bit too close to reality – it is, in effect, one of the biggest ‘what if’s?’ of fantasy fiction. Neverwhere is a scary place, with uncanny parallels to our own lives, and I finished the book wondering how much I really know about the world I live in. The ending itself was a complete surprise, especially in light of the twist that we see about two thirds of the way in, and I found myself thinking that Richard Mayhew is one of the most aggravating and strangest characters I have ever come across. Neverwhere has definitely become one of my favourite books, and Neil Gaiman a complete luxury of an author. I can’t wait to read the rest of his collection!
Sarah's own pick was The One From The Other by Philip Kerr:
What were her reasons for picking this book?
Now, if you know me or follow me on twitter you’ll be aware that I am MASSIVELY obsessed with crime/detective novels. This obsession was started somewhat by reading Philip Kerr’s ‘Berlin Noir’ trilogy when I was in high school, and was rekindled tenfold 2 years ago at university when I managed to pick up a copy of the follow-on book by Kerr – The One From The Other. TOFTO features the famous detective Bernie Gunther who previously worked in WW2 Berlin and is now stationed in post-war Munich.
In TOFTO, the year is 1949. Bernie has survived the war a free man, with a few morals left intact and some twisted and confused. He is a character that both appeals and disturbs; as a reader you want to see him as ‘the good guy’ but his sardonic wit, habit of getting into sticky situations with the Nazi party amongst other dubious characters, and self admitted disposition to doing ‘the dirty work’ ensures he remains a confusing, intriguing and questionable protagonist. TOFTO is structured around a woman’s plea to Bernie to find her missing husband. As with most things in a post-war, defeated and unstable country such as Germany, the task isn’t as ordinary as appears at first glance – the woman doesn’t want her husband back, she wants Bernie to provide evidence that he is dead. The detective encounters deceit, hypocrisy, backstabbing and flat out hatred in his dealings with the case, narrating his activities with his trademark cynicalism and satire.
The plot is complex and winding, full of cliff-hangers, flashbacks and double bluffs, and keeps you guessing till the very end. Kerr’s pacing sits beautifully with the subject matter, and his expert use of metaphors, philosophical musings and periods of great detail all truly engage you in the struggles of his main character. Being set in post-war Germany, the novel stays very close to fact, and offers interesting historical tit-bits embedded in the otherwise fantastical narrative. TOFTO is humorous, exciting, clever, dangerous, and confusing, and definitely shows Kerr off to his best. Bernie plays for both sides, and even as the reader you don’t ever feel you know his true allegiance or personal motives. This is one of my favourite detective novels of all time, and one that reads well as both a stand-alone or as a continuation of a set. The story gets you to question your own morals and rethink where your personal line is drawn.
Gosh, I'm very glad I persevered with this book. I have to admit that the beginning did not grab me. I settled into the main character well enough - he's a really interesting soul - but there seemed to be a lot of diving around, both geographically and chronologically, before we got to the gist of the story. Was it to try and tie this particular book in with the previous books in the series? Coming to it as someone who hasn't read any of the previous three, I can only say it didn't seem entirely necessary for the plot of this one.
The main story is really compelling though and once you've got beyond the beginning and into the main plot, you can't put it down. It's so twisty turny and just when you think one problem is resolved, Bernie is launched straight into even worse trouble. I especially enjoyed how the author brought post-WW2 Germany to life as a complex and vivid place. I don't know if it's a period that's under-represented in fiction or whether I just haven't read the right books, but it's easy to forget that there were massive divisions within the country. The impact of being on the losing side was bad enough, but somehow I'd never really considered all the infighting and hatred that was evident afterwards.
And what did Chloe have to say about it?
This book had me hooked the second I understood it was German related. As someone who nurses an addiction to most things German and spent time living there, it was fascinating to read something set in the pre and post WWII eras. There were times where I wished to understand a bit more of the protagonist, but having realised that this book is the fourth in a series, I suspect that was the missing link for me with Bernie Günther.
The story had me wondering most of the way through, but then I’ve never been great at working out what’s going to happen next. This isn’t necessarily a book for those sensitive regarding the issues that arise from the Jewish persecution in Germany, or the subsequent Russian involvement in Germany, there were parts of this book that made me quite melancholy because there truly is no escaping it. I still couldn’t put it down though.
Verdict… I’ve just purchased books 1-3 in this series and I suspect I may lose a few evenings to them quite soon. This is reminiscent of some of the 50’s German crime fiction I’ve read (and have a bit of a soft spot for) and makes for a historically interesting read whilst still giving you a crime fiction fix.
Very many thanks to Chloe and Sarah for joining in this month and picking such good books!
If any of you would like to read along and discuss the books next month then we'll be reading A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones, Out of the Silent Planet by C.S Lewis and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.