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Jemm Frances Reads…Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

I’ve been meaning to get this review up for a few weeks but one thing then another kept getting in the way. Here it is.

If you loved Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale then her second, Bellman and Black, will have been one of the most anticipated book releases of the past few years. Seven years to be exact, and the wait is finally over.

If you enter into reading this second novel expecting to find another Thirteenth Tale then you will be sorely disappointed simply for the fact that they are so different in story and style. Where The Thirteenth Tale was a twisting literary mystery, Bellman & Black is marketed as a Victorian ghost story.

It is a definitely a dark Victorian fable, but whether I’d personally describe it as a ghost story I’m not sure. The protagonist is certainly a haunted man, but more so by his own actions and the choices he makes rather than by any spectral beings. 

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Ten-year-old William Bellman fires his catapult at a rook all in the name of boyish fun; he is surprised when the stone finds its target, killing the bird. This unintentional act of cruelty, while gaining him the respect of his friends leaves William feeling uneasy. He returns home as the rooks gather to mourn their loss and forgets all about it. But rooks don’t forget. 

Despite his childhood indiscretion William goes on to live a seemingly fortunate life. A kind and likeable young man, he is blessed with good looks, intelligence and a cast iron work ethic which sees him transform the family business, his uncle’s textiles mill, into a thriving enterprise. One lucky turn follows another promotion, marriage and the birth of several healthy children. Is there anyone more blessed than William Bellman?

Even so, all actions have consequences and soon Bellman’s life takes an unlucky turn. One by one all those Bellman love begin to die and William is stalked and haunted by a mysterious man in black who is always silently present at their funerals. After the death of his wife and three of his children William goes to the graveyard to beg for the life of his eldest daughter. It is here that he encounters the man beside an open grave and Black makes him a bargain he can’t refuse. Amidst all that death a partnership is born…

Bellman and Black’s Mourning Emporium is Regent Streets most successful business but what did you expect with William at the helm? 

What will become of William Bellman? And exactly who is Mr Black?

I found this story little slow starting and confusing at first but not one to abandon a book I persisted with it. Once I reconciled myself to the difference in writing style compared to The Thirteenth Tale I found it easier to get along with and the story began to flow. While not exactly a ghost story as far as I’m concerned Bellman & Black is certainly an atmospheric tale with themes befitting of its Victorian nature; Business, hardship, loss, grief and a decent into insanity (ok, this one probably isn’t for you if you’re looking for a rainbows & unicorns kinda book) and where else would you find a Mourning Emporium if not in a Victorian novel?

As always Diane Setterfield’s research into the subject matter is meticulous. Her descriptions of the era, of the mill, of business transactions and of rooks are detailed and vivid. Perhaps too much so. At times I felt there was more description than there was story and on occasion the lengthy detail became tedious. I also wished that the wider cast of characters had been explored more. We are almost exclusively with William throughout the whole book and while the scene is conjured up brilliantly the people are left screaming for attention.

Despite these little niggles I cannot deny that this book is beautifully written and hits the mark of macabre and gothic perfectly. Overall, though slow in parts, I enjoyed reading Bellman & Black and the mysteries of the story kept me guessing till the end. 

I think my initial disappointment stems from the fact that I expected something similar to Diane’s first works. If you have yet to read this book I’d advise you expect nothing of the sort and approach it with an open mind. 

Bookworm Business: Have you read Bellman & Black yet? Thoughts? Have you read The Thirteenth Tale?

Click to read my review of Diane Setterfield’s first novel The Thirteenth Tale.

Jemm xoxo

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Jemm Frances Reads… The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

 I was asked to give my opinion on this book by a friend who was considering reading it. I told her to purchase it without hesitation, as I knew, having read it myself, that it would be thoroughly enjoyed. Hence the review post.

The Light Between Oceans is M L Stedman’s debut novel but you would never guess so.  The story is so beautifully crafted that you would expect Stedman to have a string of novels to her name. I will certainly be keeping my readers eye out for future books from this Australian author. 

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Having survived the trenches of WW1 Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia physically well but mentally scarred by the horrors of his experience. 

Securing a job as a lighthouse keeper on the remote Janus Rock, Tom immerses himself in the occupations isolation.

Whilst on a trip to Point Partageuse, the nearest community back on the mainland, Tom meets and falls in love with local girl Isabel Graysmark. They marry and return together to Janus Rock where they long to start a family but tragically suffer a series of miscarriages.

So when a boat washes up on the rocks containing the body of a man, and a screaming baby girl, the Sherbourne’s make a decision that will ultimately break their hearts.

Choosing to bury the body and take the child as their own will be a decision that causes unimaginable guilt and haunting consequences, not only for their family, but also for an entire community.

Stedman richly describes her characters and settings and covers a range of emotions from the view points of different individuals, while managing to attach the same levels of importance to each. Isabel’s loss and sense of doing what’s best, Tom’s sense of duty and guilt. The shock and hurt of family and friends after discovering the Sherbourne’s secret, the biological mothers sense of grief and longing for justice and a young child’s sense of confusion and loyalty. Love, sacrifice, truth and morality are all given room to play out in the book.

The story is convincingly told and illustrates how easily the lines between right and wrong can sometimes become blurred. 

Tom and Isabel’s actions speak of their loss and desperation and while half of you sympathises with their predicament the other longs for them to be discovered and the child returned to her rightful parents. The Sherbourne’s truly believe they are acting in the girls best interest and raise her in love, so does this make their actions right or wrong? And although they acted out of kindness does this make their decision acceptable? 

This is a tale that makes you question your own sense of morality and how you would act in a similar circumstance. 

Through the writing the characters come alive in your mind to such an extent that you pray for a solution that will please everyone although deep down you know this just isn’t possible.

This book is a lovely, heartfelt read. While both moving and enjoyable it will also chill to the bone as it brings home the realisation that one decision can have a lifetimes worth of consequences. 

Bookworm Business: Have you read The Light Between Oceans? Think you might give it a go? Comment, Tweet or Facebook your thoughts.

Jemm xoxo

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Jemm Frances Reads…The Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern

I can’t remember in exactly what context but I saw this particular book mentioned on Twitter and it reminded me how much I enjoyed reading it.  I’m not really a massive fan of frilly chick-lit as I usually prefer my stories to pack a bit more punch, but I’ve read a few of Cecelia Ahern’s offerings now and have to admit to rating some more than others.

The Book of Tomorrow is one of Ahern’s books that I think well worth the read, with a plot interesting enough to hold your attention but easy enough to make it a nice relaxing read.

It’s also a well-known fact that book lovers can never resist a book about a book. 

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Tamara Goodwin is a spoilt brat. Thanks to her father she’s the rich kid who lives a life of luxury and is used to getting everything she wants. She treats her parents with contempt, her friends even worse and never stops to consider the consequences of her actions.

So when her father commits suicide over his monumental debts, leaving her and her mother destitute, Tamara must come to terms with her dramatic change in circumstance.

Moved from the bustling city she loves to the sleepy countryside to live with family she neither knows nor likes, Tamara’s charmed life is well and truly over and for the first time she must consider what tomorrow will bring.

Bored, frustrated and lonely, when a travelling library arrives in her village Tamara investigates simply to relieve the monotony of day-to-day life. She discovers on it’s shelves a large leather backed tome mysteriously sealed with a gold clasp and padlock.

When she finally gains entry to its pages the books clever secret almost defies belief, its magic not only brings into question the past but also holds the power to change her tomorrows….

 It’s hard at first to like protagonist Tamara, ruined as she is by the lifestyle she leads but as the story progresses so do your tender feelings towards this young girl as she discovers the virtues of humility, gratitude and selflessness.

The Book of Tomorrow contains more substance than its airy, fluffy chick-lit counterparts. A bit of magic, mystery and moral learning all combine to hold your interest right to the last page.

Cecelia Ahern tells the tale of Tamara’s journey with writing that will in one instance touch your heart and in the other make you laugh out loud.

With an entertaining cast of characters I couldn’t wait to find out how things worked out for Tamara and her family although the twist towards the end makes it almost impossible to guess.

Out of all the Cecelia Ahern books I have read, this one has to be a favourite.

 Bookworm Business: Have you read The Book of Tomorrow? Are you a fan of Cecelia Ahern? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Jemm xoxo

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Books That Shaped Me…

Books and reading have played a huge part in shaping my personality and the person I am today, think Matilda minus the dreadful parents and the ability to move objects with just the power of my mind (shame.) I’ve pretty much been steadily moving through one book after another since I was old enough to read so it’s hardly surprising that a fair few stories made an impact. Here are the books that shaped me.

Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson

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When I was a little girl this was the first Jacqueline Wilson book I ever read, she went on to become one of my favourite childhood authors so its fair to say that the first book I read would make an impression. Not only that, but this is probably the first book I related to on a personal level. You see, this book is about twins.

Identical in looks but complete opposites in personality, ten year old twins Ruby and Garnet are inseparable, especially since the death of their mother. Loud, bossy, confident Ruby dreams of becoming an actress while clever, quite, sensitive Garnet is a bookworm at heart. As things begin to change and each twin strides to follow their own path, for just how long can the double act last?

I was Garnet, my twin sister Loren was Ruby. We fitted the roles down to a T. Apart from the fact of us not being identical, Jacqueline Wilson could have based this book on my sister and I.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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I remember first reading Anne Frank’s diary while at primary school and learning about the second World War, I was probably around nine. At the time everything about Anne’s story fascinated me, the history behind it, the truth of her words and the fact that this book was a record of a young girls last months on earth.

In the summer of 1942, fleeing the Nazi occupation and persecution of Jews in Germany, Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in an Amsterdam warehouse. Over the next two years Anne recorded her thoughts, feelings and fears inside a diary given to her by her father. Within it’s pages she described in detail the cramped living conditions of her family’s hiding place and her hopes and dreams for the future. In 1944 Anne’s future and her diary entries were cut short when her family was betrayed. 

Anne Frank died in 1945 in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl was the first true story I ever read and went on to inspire in me a love of biographies and auto-biographies and a genuine interest in the real life stories of others.

Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews

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I was a teenager when I discovered Virginia Andrews books. It was while moaning to my mum that I had nothing new to read that she told me about a series of books she had read in her younger days about children being locked in an attic and having to find a way to survive on their own. That was how Flowers In The Attic came to be my first VA discovery.

The Dollanganger children live idyllic lives with loving parents until their father suddenly dies in a tragic accident. Their mother, once disinherited of her own parents riches due to a dark family secret, struggles to keep her family afloat. Swallowing her pride she returns to her childhood home, promising her own children they will only stay long enough to inherit their grandparents fortune. On arrival the four Dollanganger children are spirited away into the vast, chilly attic by their cruel grandmother where they must learn to fend for themselves. As the days turn into weeks and the months into years four flowers in the attic become three and the children come to realise that their once loving mother no longer loves them at all.

I moved through the Virginia Andrews stories at a swift pace and now over 50 of her books are housed on my shelves.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

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I came across The Lovely Bones in my first year of university and it has become synonymous with my time as a student. It is a story I stumbled upon by chance which turned into a book that I couldn’t put down. Surely the best kind of reading experience.

Susie Salmon lives in a perfect world, that is of course until she is murdered, at the age of fourteen, on her way home from school in the December of 1973. But that isn’t the end of Susie Salmon. Narrating from heaven Susie tells her story, she watches her family and she watches her killer. And just as her family must move on from their loss, justice must catch her killer.

They say you should never judge a book by it’s cover and I believe that’s true, but I discovered this one from a list of titles given to me by a tutor as part of an assignment. From this list we had to pick a book to review. No information was given alongside the titles, and I had never heard of any of the books on the list. I picked The Lovely Bones simply because I liked the title. So maybe, just sometimes, its ok to judge a book by it’s name.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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One of the strangest, most touching books I have ever read, and on first reading I nearly gave it up as a bad job. When I first picked this up to read I only got a few pages in before I put it back on my bookshelf because I couldn’t quite get my head around the narration. A few weeks later I decided to give it another go, I pressed on through the first couple of chapters and voila! A new favourite book was born!

Death is busy what with collecting souls, keeping a watchful eye on the book thief and finding the time to narrate this story, but then again this is Nazi Germany in the midst of World War 2. Given the circumstances Death is busier than ever and really doesn’t have the time to waste but throughout the course of his work he finds himself continually distracted by a nine-year-old girl.

The girl in question, Liesel Merminger, is also keeping herself busy; while Hitler is burning books, Liesel is stealing them.

 And then there is the small matter of her hiding a Jew in her basement…

This book taught me the valuable lesson, if at first you don’t succeed…

Read my review of The Book Thief here

 

Harry Potter

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I‘m going to be cheeky and sneak all seven books into one under the Harry Potter title. I am ashamed to say I was a little late to the HP party. When the books were first released I refused them on the grounds that I had better things to read, I was happy to leave the fantasy stories to my sister. In the end I caved in my late teens and began my Harry Potter journey. 

Do these books really need a synopsis? 

If the answer to that question was yes all I have to say is; Greetings! Welcome to Earth. Happy reading. 

My fave Potters are The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. Yours? 

And so concludes the book tour of the stories that shaped me.

Which reading experiences have shaped you?

Jemm xoxo

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Jemm Frances Reads…This House Is Haunted by John Boyne

“I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father.” 

If this first line intrigues you, you are not alone.

This is the declaration John Boyne uses to open his gothic Victorian ghost story, This House Is Haunted, and while it might be the first, it certainly isn’t the last nod to Mr. Dickens in this story. A few chapters in we even discover an office clerk named Cratchett!

I’m a bit of a sucker for ghostly Victorian tales but had previously only read one other of John Boyne’s books, The Boy In The Stripped Pajamas so I was curious as to what this book had to offer. From the captivating and macabre first line the scene is set, the year is 1867, let the story begin.

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Amidst the dense London fog Eliza Caine looses her only surviving parent thanks to Charles Dickens. Now alone in the world and a mere schoolteacher she struggles to pay the rent.

Answering a peculiar advertisement requesting the services of a governess, Eliza goes in search of a new life away from the city and the only home she has ever known. 

Disembarking at a Norfolk station on a chilly night Eliza gets the creeping feeling that something is amiss when an invisible pair of hands try to push her into the path of an oncoming train, but it’s too late to turn back now. An unsettling journey to Gaudlin Hall, her new home, does little to appease her fears. On arriving at the imposing country pile Eliza finds no adults there to receive her; no servants, no parents and no sign of her mysterious employer. 

Instead she is welcomed by her two young charges, Isabella and Eustace Westerly who appear to be alone in the house. The children offer no explanation as to the strange circumstances and do not answer any of Eliza’s questions. The new governess, the sixth in less than a year, is shown to her room and bid goodnight. However it soon becomes apparent that the children, and now Eliza, may not be alone in the house after all.

As Eliza Caine goes about her duties taking care of the Westerly children she feels stalked by a hostile presence intent on causing her harm. She knows that if she is to succeed where past governesses have failed she must uncover Gaudlin’s past and dig up its long buried secrets. This she must do if she is to save the children, and herself. 

Can this Victorian heroine rid Gaudlin of its ghost?

This book contains everything that a true gothic ghost story should. Bad weather, bumpy carriage rides, unhelpful villagers, a haunted Hall, odd children, hidden secrets and murder. Eliza Caine is the perfect protagonist providing a strong and feisty first person narrative in a time when young women were thought better to be seen and not heard. The suspense builds with every chapter in the run up to the final page, which like every good ghost story contains a twist at the end.

Not so terribly scary as to keep you awake at night but certainly spooky and atmospheric enough to keep you turning the page. 

If you read and enjoyed Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black you’ll love this creepy tale.

Bookworm Business: Have you read This House Is Haunted? What did you make of it? Have you read anything of John Boyne’s before? Will you be giving this book a try?

Jemm xoxo

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Jemm Frances Reads…Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

One of the best things about reading is finding an unexpected gem. Discovering authors you’ve never read before and then falling into their imagination like Alice down the rabbit hole.

For me, Kate Atkinson is one such author. I’d never read anything of hers before but the whole idea of Life After Life caught my attention.

If you were given the opportunity to live your time again how many chances would it take to get it right? One, two, ten? Would you learn from your mistakes? What would you do differently? Would you change direction and explore a different path? Would you try to change your own destiny or that of someone else? And when your past foretells the world’s future do you have a right to try to change it?

Life After Life is the reoccurring, ever changing story of one young woman’s journey as she lives through the major events of the twentieth century.

Life After Life

“Don’t you wonder sometimes, if just one small thing had been changed in the past, surely things would be different.”

Ursula Todd is born during a terrible snow storm in 1910 and dies before taking her first breath, the doctor has no time to reach her. Turn the page and Ursula Todd is born again in the same snow storm in 1910 and lives. Thus starts the pattern of Ursula’s life. And death. And life again.

Throughout her story Ursula’s life ends in numerous ways; drowning and falling from the attic roof as a child to being shot and buried under the rubble of a bomb blast as an adult. But Ursula’s unique gift means she is also given an infinite number of chances to live her life over with the hope, that this time, she will get it right.

As Ursula haltingly travels down the many avenues her life takes after death; that of a quiet little girl, an odd young woman, a battered wife, a German citizen on the cusp of WW2, a mistress, a mother, an ARP warden at the heart of the Blitz and a single, independent government worker she demonstrates how one choice, one decision and one moment in time can mean the difference between living and dying, and the power that these moments have to change everything. The past. The present. And the future.

Life After Life is an incredibly clever, well written, thought provoking book. Atkinson takes the ‘ground hog day’ idea and works it into something brilliant. Having never read anything quite like this before I was wondering what to expect but Atkinson certainly doesn’t disappoint with her unique plot line, skilful structure and engaging characters.

On hearing of the premise of this book you could be forgiven for thinking that the repetitious nature of the story will be confusing or even boring but you couldn’t be more wrong. It is exactly this aspect of the plot that makes it so interesting and remarkable. As soon as darkness falls and Ursula’s life ends at the end of one chapter, you can’t wait to turn the page and find out how she will live again in the next. 

This is just one of those books which requires the reader to give it a chance. As soon as you get an understanding of the pattern of the story you are quickly drawn in to Ursula’s (unconventional) life and that of her family. You get to know those people closest to her and experience some of the most turbulent, world changing social events of the twentieth century. 

Inventive, imaginative, descriptive and intelligent this is a book that will stay with you long after reading the last page. If you had a second chance what would you do differently? If you were given more time could you put things right? If you had the foresight and an opportunity to change it could you alter the course of history?

From one book lover to another I would strongly recommend you read this book, I know I’ll be going back to read it again.

Bookworm Business: Have you read Life After Life? Are you already a fan of Kate Atkinson? Let me know! Will you be giving this book a go?

Jemm xoxo

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Jemm Frances Reads: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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This isn’t a book I have just read but one that I have read again and again. An old favourite you might say.

Back in my student days I did a stint working in a bookshop, at the time I didn’t know anything about this particular book but the jacket caught my imagination and I just had to read it. 

We had a bit of a bumpy start myself and The Book Thief due to the fact that it was unlike anything I’d read before (how many other stories do you know narrated by Death?) On my first attempt I got a few pages in then put it down (very unlike me to give up so easily) and started reading something else. But you really have to give this book a chance. On my second attempt I preserved past the first chapter where it all starts to make sense and found that I couldn’t put it down.

Death has a busy schedule what with collecting souls, keeping a watchful eye on the book thief and finding the time to narrate this story, but then again this is Nazi Germany in the midst of World War 2.

That’s right, this story is narrated by Death himself, but don’t let that put you off. There is nothing to be afraid of. Given the circumstances of the time Death is busier than ever and really doesn’t have the time to waste but throughout the course of his work he finds himself continually distracted by a nine-year-old girl.

Most of us are only visited once by death, this particular little girl is visited three times.

However the girl in question Liesel Merminger is also keeping herself busy with starting a new life with her foster family, making friends with a boy with lemon coloured hair, playing football on Himmel street, learning to read and embarking on a career as a book thief.

While Hitler is burning books, Liesel is stealing them.

 And then there is the small matter of her hiding a Jew in her basement…

As witty as it is haunting, this is a tale of love, loss and of finding friends in the most unlikely of places. Cleverly told through Death’s perspective it illustrates the horrors of war, the innocence of children and the beauty of friendships.

This book is brilliantly written, both heart-warming and devastating in equal measure. Zusak creates characters you’ll love and be heartbroken to say goodbye to, surely the measure of a good book. It’s a story you wont forget in a hurry, not a new book but one that you must read if you haven’t already. 

Bookworm Business: Have you read The Book Thief? Do you have any similar recommendations? What are you reading at the moment? Comment in the box or send me a tweet @JemmFrances.

Jemm xoxo

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