The Christmas Mystery begins in Norway on 30th November when a boy named Joachim discovers a hand-made Advent calendar in a book shop. The next day, w...moreThe Christmas Mystery begins in Norway on 30th November when a boy named Joachim discovers a hand-made Advent calendar in a book shop. The next day, when Joachim opens the first door, he finds a tiny piece of paper telling the story of a little girl called Elisabet who spots a lamb in a department store. The lamb begins to run away, but Elisabet is determined to stroke it and chases after it. The lamb leads her outside and into the woods where she meets the angel Ephiriel, who explains to her that she is now part of a very special pilgrimage to Bethlehem - not only will they be travelling across land, they will also be travelling back through time to the day when Jesus was born.
As Elisabet, Ephiriel and the lamb move closer to Bethlehem and further back in time, they are joined by an assortment of other Biblical characters including shepherds and Wise Men. A little more of their story is revealed every day through the pieces of paper hidden in Joachim's advent calendar, but as the tale of Elisabet's journey unfolds, Joachim and his parents become involved in another mystery: the mystery of John, the mysterious flower-seller who made the magic Advent calendar and the real-life Elisabet who disappeared on Christmas Eve in 1948.
The book is divided into 24 chapters, with each chapter representing one door on the Advent calendar. If you have children, the structure of the book would make it perfect for reading aloud, one chapter per day in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This is not really a 'children's book' though - it's one of those books that can be enjoyed on different levels by people of all ages. As with all of Jostein Gaarder's books the story introduces us to a large number of philosophical ideas. We also learn some interesting historical and geographical facts about the countries Elisabet passes through on her way to Bethlehem.
Although this is not as good as some of Gaarder's other books such as Sophie's World or The Solitaire Mystery, it has to be one of the most unusual and imaginative Christmas stories I've ever read.
When Ambrose Zephyr is diagnosed with an unidentified terminal illness and given only a month to live, he decides to make the most of his final days....moreWhen Ambrose Zephyr is diagnosed with an unidentified terminal illness and given only a month to live, he decides to make the most of his final days. Accompanied by his wife Zappora Ashkenazi (also known as Zipper) he sets off on a journey round the world, visiting each city on his list in alphabetical order. Will they make it to the end of the alphabet before time runs out for Ambrose?
At 128 pages, this is more of a novella than a novel and could easily be read in one sitting. I think the book might have lost its impact had it been any longer; I felt that the shortness of the book and the shortness of the individual chapters reflected the speed at which Ambrose’s remaining days were slipping away from him.
I loved the alphabetical theme which runs throughout the book from the characters’ initials (AZ and ZA) to the chapter titles (each stage of their journey is headed with the corresponding letter of the alphabet). Each place they visit brings back memories and evokes strong emotions for both Ambrose and Zipper. Richardson has given his characters a surprising amount of depth for such a short book; it was interesting to see how they each coped with the news of Ambrose’s illness in their own different ways.
Although there is quite a lot of dialogue in the book, the author has decided not to use quotation marks which made following the conversations unnecessarily confusing. I also sometimes found it hard to tell whether certain scenes were happening in the present or in a flashback. However, other readers will probably love his writing style.
Despite the tragic subject matter, I thought it was a warm, charming story and although I probably would never have chosen to read it if I hadn’t won a copy in a competition, it's an impressive debut novel by CS Richardson.
The book is set in the tiny and remote village of Oucwegne, a place that is slowly dying due to the lack of girls being born in recent generations. Ma...moreThe book is set in the tiny and remote village of Oucwegne, a place that is slowly dying due to the lack of girls being born in recent generations. Madame Verona and her musician husband Monsieur Potter live in an isolated house at the top of a steep hill overlooking the village. As they get older, it becomes more and more difficult to walk up and down the hill. When Monsieur Potter hangs himself from a tree after being diagnosed with cancer, he leaves his wife enough firewood to last another twenty years. During those twenty years, Madame Verona lives alone with only an assortment of stray dogs for company, waiting for a luthier (cello-maker) to build her a cello using the wood of the tree from which her husband hanged himself. Eventually she places the last log on the fire and, as the title suggests, comes down the hill, knowing she won’t have the strength to go back up ever again.
The problem I had with the book is that there's very little action, there's no suspense as we know what's going to happen right from the beginning, and there’s almost no dialogue. However, this is more to do with my own personal reading preferences rather than a criticism of the book itself – it’s not supposed to be a thriller after all. Most of the 145 pages are devoted to a string of humorous anecdotes describing life in an isolated village where only six people attend church, the men are obsessed with playing games of table football and a cow was once elected mayor. Most of the characters Verhulst describes are portrayed as eccentric and not particularly likeable. It’s easy to see why Madame Verona was in no hurry to rejoin the community, preferring to stay on the hill with her memories of her husband. The final few chapters, though, were poignant and moving and will be understood by anyone who has lost someone they love.
This book has been translated from the original Dutch, but even in translation Dimitri Verhulst's writing is poetic and thought-provoking. If you can appreciate the beautiful writing for its own sake and are happy to read a book where nothing really happens, then you would probably enjoy Madame Verona. I would be prepared to try more of Verhulst's books because he does have a very nice style, but this one just didn’t appeal to me.
Vida is a nineteen year-old girl who suffers from a heart condition. She's in hospital waiting for a transplant – time is running out, but before Vida...moreVida is a nineteen year-old girl who suffers from a heart condition. She's in hospital waiting for a transplant – time is running out, but before Vida can get a new heart, a potential donor needs to die. That donor turns out to be car crash victim Lorrie Buckner Bailey. When Lorrie's grieving husband, Richard, decides to visit the girl who received his wife's heart, Vida falls in love with him. But is it really Vida herself who loves Richard – or is it Lorrie's heart?
I really enjoyed this book. It could easily have been a slushy, sentimental romance, but it manages to avoid that. Instead, it's a fascinating and moving story which raises an interesting question: does cellular memory (where a transplanted organ retains the memories and characteristics of its previous owner) really exist?
The story is told in the first person, alternating between Vida and Richard. Vida's section is in the form of a journal and she has a very intimate and conversational style, making her an engaging character. Through her journal entries we learn what it's like to have spent your whole life preparing for death and the emotions that a person goes through on discovering that they now have a chance to live after all. After meeting Vida, Richard also begins to keep a journal and his story unfolds both through his diary entries and through his email correspondence with Vida and his mother-in-law Myra. I enjoyed watching the characters develop over the course of the book as Vida learns how to enjoy life for the first time and Richard learns how to move on with his own life following Lorrie's death.
Although Vida and Richard are the characters we get to know best, I found the minor characters equally interesting – particularly Abigail, Vida's worried, over-protective mother, and Esther, her elderly neighbour who survived life in a concentration camp during World War II.
The style of writing used in this book, with very simplistic or incomplete sentences, would usually irritate me – and it did at times – but it was actually perfectly suited to the story and helped give the impression that Vida and Richard were talking directly to the reader via their diaries. The writing style, together with the very short chapters, makes this a quick and easy read, despite it being quite a long book. There are some detailed descriptions of heart surgery but nothing too gory for those of you who are squeamish (Catherine Ryan Hyde says in her author's note that she was given the rare opportunity to actually observe a heart operation whilst researching this book). Whether or not you believe in the theory of cellular memory Second Hand Heart is an interesting and thought provoking story.
In 1913, just before the beginning of World War I, a port master finds a little girl with a suitcase sitting alone on the docks at Maryborough, Austra...moreIn 1913, just before the beginning of World War I, a port master finds a little girl with a suitcase sitting alone on the docks at Maryborough, Australia. With no sign of the child's parents and no clue to her identity, he takes the girl home with him, where he and his wife name her Nell and raise her as their own daughter. But what was Nell doing in Australia? Who were her real parents? And what is her connection with the mysterious Eliza Makepeace, writer of fairy tales?
When Nell dies in 2005, she leaves everything to her granddaughter, Cassandra - including a cottage in Cornwall, England. When Cassandra travels to Cornwall to investigate, she begins to uncover some secrets about her grandmother's identity and attempts to solve the mystery of Cliff Cottage.
I'm so glad I finally decided to pick up The Forgotten Garden because, although it wasn't perfect, I loved it overall. At first I thought I was going to have a problem with Kate Morton's writing style as she does have quite a flowery, descriptive style which you'll either love or hate. As the book went on though, the writing bothered me less, because I was becoming so absorbed in the story. It had a wonderful atmosphere and was very reminiscent of The Secret Garden in places (the manor house, the invalid cousin, the walled garden - and Frances Hodgson Burnett even makes a brief appearance!) It also felt a bit like a Daphne du Maurier book in places (particularly the Cornwall scenes) and the Swindell family whom Eliza lives with in turn-of-the-century London could have come straight from a Dickens novel. Some of Eliza's fairy tales are even included in the book which I thought was a nice touch although I wasn't too impressed with the stories themselves.
The biggest problem I had with this book was the constant jumping around in time and place. One chapter would be set in London in 1900, the next in Brisbane in 2005 and the next in Cornwall in 1975, which disrupted the flow of the story and made it difficult to follow. We also switch narrator with every chapter, which made me even more confused, particularly as there was almost nothing to differentiate between the voices of Cassandra, Nell and Eliza. It was too easy to forget who I was reading about. Eliza's storyline was by far the most interesting of the three though and I think it would probably have worked on its own as a straight historical fiction novel.
Other than those few points, I loved this book, which was great because I really hadn't expected to like it so much. For such a long and complex book it was surprisingly quick to read too. Recommended! (less)