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Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Christy Lefteri’s own experiences of working as a volunteer with refugees in Athens inspired and inform her moving and thought-provoking novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.

Christy Lefteri centres her novel around one couple to relate this story of the Syrian refugee experience; there are friends of theirs and others we meet along the way, but this is essentially Nuri and Afra’s tale to tell. Which is, ultimately, what makes The Beekeeper of Aleppo so powerful and affecting.

By paring down the statistics, which sadly became the alarmist’s source for scare tactics about refugees to some in this country, Lefteri strips back the numbers to reveal two of the human beings behind them. And, in doing so, she offers us a more immediate and relatable story, reminding us that refugees are people, human beings just as you and I are.

Nuri and Afra are fairly ordinary, people who would have been quite content to live their entire lives in Aleppo. Their life together, their contentment with it, together with their love for each other, their family and friends, and their homeland comes through in the scenes of life before the unrest. By giving us a flavour of this, Christy Lefteri quickly made me warm towards them and like them as a couple.

When she showed me what they had to endure as the conflict encroached more and more upon their daily lives, ultimately forcing them into making the difficult decision to leave their home, my understanding of their situation, and sympathy towards them, was already in place. I was invested in them as characters.

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Book Review: The Winker by Andrew Martin

Set in the heatwave summer of 1976 and moving between London’s Soho, Oxford, Paris and the South of France, Andrew Martin’s latest novel The Winker is a world away from his previous one, end of the 18th century York-set Soot, reviewed here.

London, 1976. In Belgravia in the heat of summer, Lee Jones, a faded and embittered rock star, is checking out a group of women through the heavy cigarette smoke in a crowded pub. He makes eye contact with one, and winks. After allowing glances to linger for a while longer, he finally moves towards her. In that moment, his programme of terror – years in the making – has begun.

Charles Underhill, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris, has good reason to be interested in the activities of the so-called Winking Killer. With a past to hide and his future precarious, Charles is determined to discover the Winker’s identity.

Andrew Martin breathes life into a small section of Paris, taking us strolling through the stylish and sensory arrondissement where Charles lives, as he shuttles between the confines of his life in exile from his apartment to the park, the paper kiosk, the cafe, and back again.

He creates the world of The Winker with fine period detail and close attention to the dire fashions of the day, helping to set the cocky main character of Lee Jones at his ease among the swirling smoke and clamouring bars of seventies Soho, confident that he can control this home environment and almost courting being apprehended.

I particularly enjoyed Lee’s interviews with the journalist and thought these provided an insight into his character that I would have been sorry to miss out on. They show a side to Lee that I think we all have to a greater or lesser extent – the need to play the lead role (or be the lead singer) in your own life story (or band) – but which, in Lee’s case, he considers to be worthy of nothing short of a celebrity turn.

When he picked up his guitar, I willed him to focus on the new songs he was writing, instead of embarking upon his campaign of terror, but figured that he would have been doing that already, had his songwriting been any good and if it hadn’t seemed to find inspiration in his new calling. Read more

Book Review: The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville

Anne Melville’s The Daughter of Hardie is the second book in The Hardie Family series and follows on from The House of Hardie which I reviewed on the blog last month. It focuses on Gordon and Lucy’s children and, as the title suggests, their daughter, Grace.

Grace Hardie has grown up in a sweeping estate on the outskirts of Oxford. But her life has been a far cry from a fairytale. Ailing and asthmatic as a child, she never really found her place – not with her brothers, not with any friends – always on the outside.

And when tragedy strikes twice in the same day, Grace’s world, and her place in it, is turned upside down. Ungainly and lonely at sixteen, could the bloom of first love be the guiding light she needs? Or is the history of The House of Hardie bound to repeat itself?

As class once again threatens to tear the family apart, so too does the Great War: sweeping away this budding romance before it’s had a chance to begin. Through heartbreak and betrayal, longing and loss, Grace Hardie must adapt to this changing world and struggle to find her own way.

First up, I feel the need to say something about the cover. I know this is a reissue of a previously published series but I don’t think the covers do it justice; while they indicate that the books are historical fiction, they don’t give any sense of the dynamic characters and places within. (I would have liked to have seen the family home, complete with the tower Grace loves so much and possibly even some family members, feature on this one, and the family wine merchants, with either a running shop boy or someone loading wine crates, on the first one.) Now, back to the book.

The Daughter of Hardie provoked a surprising range of emotions in me: I railed at Gordon and felt for Lucy, his children and the employee he placed so much reliance on to manage the family wine business; I reflected upon how the Hardie children were shaped by the differing expectations put on them due to their sex (and class), two particular events in childhood that resonated (with some more than others) well into their adult lives, and later again as the war changed the demands upon and the direction of those lives.

I was happy to see Midge feature, and couldn’t help but feel that Grace is a little harsh in her judgement of her towards the end of the book. She’s a character who I admired as much as Grace did, and I thought she deserved to celebrate her long-overdue day of recognition and have a little more understanding of her (later) life choices after long years of frustration, loss and sacrifice. I didn’t see it as the betrayal that Grace did, which I put down to her youth and limited experiences. Read more

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is the story of two families, neighbours in upstate New York, and how life can change in an instant but may take a generation before things begin to heal.

Gillam, upstate New York: a town of ordinary, big-lawned suburban houses. The Gleesons have recently moved there and soon welcome the Stanhopes as their new neighbours.

Lonely Lena Gleeson wants a friend but Anne Stanhope – cold, elegant, unstable – wants to be left alone.

It’s left to their children – Lena’s youngest, Kate, and Anne’s only child, Peter – to find their way to one another. To form a friendship whose resilience and love will be almost broken by the fault line dividing both families, and by the terrible tragedy that will engulf them all.

Although some characters in Mary Beth Keane’s novel are either cops or work together with the NYPD, we don’t see much of them at work, beyond the opening scenes. Instead, we see them as their family sees them; we see them at ease, at home. Yet their sense of duty and of wanting to do a good job that comes from being on the force filters through into their home lives and is a recurring theme throughout the novel.

The book jumps forward in time in places and there are shifts in perspective between a number of characters but Keane handles most of these changes smoothly. The benefit of these head changes was being able to see the same event from different angles, and consider a person’s behaviour not only as they perceived it but also how others viewed it.

No one character in Ask Again, Yes is ever wholly good or bad, always right or wrong, and as Keane moves between them, she’s able to show this only too well. I had a better feel for the families and their changing dynamic for her doing so, and while I didn’t always agree with what they were doing or how they were behaving, I could go some way towards better understanding their actions and choices. Read more

Book Review: The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

JP Delaney’s novel The Perfect Wife is an unnerving, skewed story of grief, our obsession with perfection and that with work, AI and our digital footprints, relationship double standards, and conflicting child-rearing approaches.

Abbie wakes in a hospital bed with no memory of how she got there. The man by her side explains that he’s her husband. He’s a titan of the tech world, the founder of one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative startups. He tells Abbie she’s a gifted artist, a doting mother to their young son, and the perfect wife. 

Five years ago, she suffered a terrible accident. Her return from the abyss is a miracle of science, a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that has taken him half a decade to achieve. 

But as Abbie pieces together memories of her marriage, she begins questioning her husband’s motives – and his version of events. Can she trust him when he says he wants them to be together for ever? And what really happened to her, half a decade ago?

JP Delaney takes us to Silicon Valley in his latest novel and where better to explore the line between what’s human and what machines are capable of, where machine learning can help improve our understanding of ourselves and where it falls short. It’s the perfect technology sandbox for a writer who is adept at exposing what lies behind the perfect facades we think we see, and for delving into the darkest corners of our minds and behaviour.

JP Delaney shows us how quickly lines (and boundaries) can blur and where difficulties in not only navigating, but also in regulating the use of AI and controlling our social media footprint may lie. He highlights how blinkered grief, work and obsession can make us, how dangerous they can be when they run (almost) unchecked. He also pits two parents against each other, each with a differing view on how to raise their autistic child and some scenes dealing with controversial teaching methods made for especially uncomfortable reading, which I’ve no doubt was intended. Read more

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