Author Archives: farmlanebooks

The Lost Book of Salem by Katherine Howe

I heard a real buzz about this book before it’s release – I saw a few people state it was their favourite book of the year. I wanted to get in on the action, so it arrived through my letter box on it’s release date a few weeks ago.

I can see why people love it, but although I enjoyed reading it, it won’t make it on to my list of favourite reads in 2009.

The Lost Book of Salem is set during the Salem witch trials of the 17th century Massachusetts, and also in 1991, where Connie, a history graduate is studying the trials. Connie finds a parchment inscribed with the name Deliverance Dane in an old cottage that belonged to her grandmother, and begins to investigate the secrets hidden in the cottage and in her family history.

The book is packed with 17th century atmosphere, and there are some really good spooky scenes – I especially loved the discovery of the mandrake! The historical sections were well written and had obviously been meticulously researched.

Unfortunately not everything was amazing. I found the central modern character, Connie, very irritating. She is supposed to be a history graduate (22-years-old?) but she behaved more like a 14-year-old. She just seemed slow. I don’t think there was a single mystery in the book which she managed to solve before me, and some of them were so straight forward I don’t know why they were mentioned. Here is an example of one of the worst offenders:

Connie raised her head, thinking. What was a ‘witch-bottel’? Bottel. A phonetic spelling of ‘bottle’. A witch bottle.

Overall, it was a gripping read, full of interesting facts about the history of witches, but it didn’t quite live up to the hype.


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A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

The Secret Alchemy is set in both present day and 15th century England. The interwoven stories are seen through the eyes of both Elizabeth Woodville, the beautiful widow of King Edward IV, and her brother Anthony; whilst the modern section is told by historian, Una, who is writing a book on Anthony Woodville’s library. Elizabeth Woodville is the mother of the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’, who were imprisoned in the Tower by their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, after Edaward’s death.

 I was impressed by the way each section came across differently, with all three characters having a recognisable voice, although I’m not sure how accurate the language of the historical section was. I’m not an expert, but it just reads differently from other books written about this period.

I didn’t think that the modern day section was really necessary. I felt the book could have benefited from concentrating on Elizabeth’s story, as I really enjoyed reading about her. Una’s character just seemed to be there to explain the history of the War of the Roses, which although I found useful, should have been able to be achieved within the historical section. I think that anyone who knows much about this period of history would feel patronised by the continual explanations of events, but luckily for me, my only knowledge of this period comes from reading Jean Plaidy books, and that was a while ago now! Towards the end the number of characters got a bit confusing for me, so I had to keep referring to the family tree provided in the front of the book, so I’m really pleased that was included.

This book is light and easy to read, but lacks the atmosphere of a great piece of historical fiction. I can see why this book would appeal to many people, but I felt that it meandered around a bit too much and so failed to really engage me.


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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Stroud

Olive Kitteridge is described as a ”novel in stories”. I’m not a big fan of short stories, and so wasn’t convinced that I’d enjoy this book, but as it won the Pulitzer prize I thought I’d give it a try.

I think the emphasis on this being a collection of short stories is misleading, as it is essentially just a novel about one woman, Olive Kitteridge. The story is told through the eyes of various people who knew her, capturing the important moments in her life, in what at first, are seemingly random snippets. The use of small-town gossip, to tell much of the story was a clever medium, which I haven’t seen used before.

The book begins quite slowly, and I have to admit that for the first few chapters I didn’t know what to make of it. The writing was very vivid and powerful, but the large number of characters meant that I wasn’t sure who, or what, was important. About a third of the way through things began to fall into place. Olive’s character became prominent, and I felt that I understood what was happening. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think it is important that you know that the overwhelming emotion I felt on completing the book was that of heartbreak. This book is incredibly touching, and packed with feelings of sadness, and loss. It questions which things are important in life, and examines the relationships between family members who have forgotten how to love each other. Olive’s emotions are powerful and realistic. All mothers will sympathise with her feelings of isolation, as her only son distances himself from her.

Overall, I found this to be an insightful, touching novel on the reflections of an old woman nearing death. It is a great book, and I think it is worthy of the Pulitzer prize, but I’m not sure it will stand the test of time.


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Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

I can’t describe the plot of  Burnt Shadows better than the blurb on the back cover of the book, so I have copied it here:

August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanakasteps out onto her veranda, taking in the view of the terraced slopes leading up to the sky. Wrapped in a kimono with three black cranes swooping across the back, she is twenty-one, in love withthe man she is to marry, Konrad Weiss. In a split second, the world turns white. In the next, it explodes withthe sound of fire and the horror of realisation. In the numbing aftermath of a bomb that obliterates everything she has known, all that remains are the bird-shaped burns on her back, an indelible reminder of the world she has lost. In search of new beginnings, she travels to Delhi to find Konrad’s relatives, and falls in love with their employee Sajjad Ashraf, from who she starts to learn Urdu. 

 As the years unravel, new homes replace those left behind and old wars are seamlessly usurped by new conflicts. But the shadows of history – personal, political – are cast over the entwined worlds of two families as they are transported from Pakistan to New York, and in the novel’s astonishing climax, to Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11.

Burnt Shadows is an epic book, spanning both generations and continents. There were many amazing sections in this book; the first chapter in particular was incredible, the subtle building of tension was brilliantly achieved, and the horror of the atomic blast, was sensitively written.

I loved the central character, Hiroko; she overcame so many tragedies, but remained a believable stalwart throughout. Some of her quotes were particularly thought provoking:

‘Sometimes I look at my son and think perhaps the less we have to “overcome” the more we feel aggrieved.’

The female characters in the book were far superior to the male ones. They seemed to have a depth, and realness lacking in all the male ones.

My main grievance with this book was that the ambitiousness was too great; trying to capture so many different cultures in one book, led to too much explanation, at the expensive of the flow of the story. In many places the book came across as contrived. The plot seemed to have been forced around major historic events: Nagasaki, Indian Partition and 9/11. These events were so far apart, both in time, and distance that it didn’t work for me. The credibility of the book just kept sliding away, the more I read. Would a 91-year-old lady really have travelled all the way from Asia to New York on her own, and then ‘run around’ New York like a person a quarter of her age?

Despite my criticisms there were many important issues raised by this book. The ambitiousness of this writing project deserves some recognition, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this won the Orange Prize. I’ll let you know once I’ve read all the other shortlisted books if I still think this is a contender.

Recommended for the first chapter, and a few other moments of genius, but be prepared to wade through some of the slower sections.


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Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Little Face is the best thriller I have read in a very long time. It begins with Alice returning from her first anxious trip away from her newborn baby. She returns home to discover the front door of her house open, and her husband asleep. When she rushes to greet her baby in the nursery, she is shocked to discover that it doesn’t look like the one she left just a short time ago. No-one believes that her baby has disappeared, assuming she is just a paranoid new mother. It is only when further unexplained events start to occur, that they wonder what the truth really is….

The writing was incredibly easy to read. I flew through the pages, as I was so keen to discover what was really happening. There were many points when I thought I’d worked in out, but as with all great thrillers I didn’t get close! This is more than just a straight crime novel, there are many elements of psychology in here. The almost obsessive behaviour of a new mother is well observed, and I emphasized immensely with the central character, Alice, as she struggles with the thought that her husband may have swapped her baby. The relationships between the members of the dysfunctional family were very credible, and the interferring mother-in-law reminded me of many stories I have heard from new mothers recently.

Unlike much of the crime fiction I have read recently this contained no unlikely coincidences. The plot was as realistic as it is possible to get, while retaining many clever twists.

Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys well written thrillers, or has an interest in the psychology of new mothers.


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The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite by Beatrice Colin

The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite is one of the best books I have read this year. The blurb on the back cover describes a very different book to the one it actually contains. I’m not very interested in the film industry, and the life of an orphaned cabaret dancer doesn’t sound like a great basis for a novel, but luckily the book bears little resemblance to it’s description.

The book is set in Berlin during the early part of the twentieth century. The central character, Lilly, is brought up in an orphanage, and faces many hardships. When the orphanage closes, Lilly is thrown onto the streets, and has to learn to live independently. WWI plays a big part in the story line. Lilly has to cope with food shortages, disease and death. The suffering of the German people is described vividly, but sensitively. Lilly is one of the best characters I have come across in a while. She is flawed, but her strength shines though – I loved her! By coincidence I am also reading Gone With the Wind at the moment, and noticed a lot of similarities between Lilly and Scarlett O’Hara. I’d love to ask the author if this was just coincidence!

It is very well researched, and I learnt a lot about German history. My only criticism is that the historical facts became too densely packed towards the end. There was a point when I began to wonder if the book was non-fiction, and actually went to check! For three-quarters of the book it was a rich, well written, novel about one woman’s struggle against adversity, but the last part of the book was a bit disappointing, as Lilly’s character seemed to get drowned in historical facts, and the famous people began to dominate the plot. This is only a very minor criticism though, so please do not let it stop you from reading this book. The book was well paced, informative, and entertaining. The writing style is very reminiscent of Sarah Waters. I’m sure that anyone who loves Sarah Water’s books will love this one too.

Highly recommended.


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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a simple, but powerful story of the friendship between two boys. It is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Bruno, who is forced to leave his childhood home in Berlin, and live next to a concentration camp in Poland. He forms a friendship with Shmuel, a young Jewish boy, who by coincidence was born on the same day as him. By talking through the fence, Shmuel slowly explains the horrors of the war to Bruno.

I think that this is the most distressing story about WWII I have ever read. There are no graphic descriptions, it is all left up to your imagination, and it is this that makes it so harrowing. Everything is seen through Bruno’s eyes, and so I built up a very strong connection with him. Bruno fails to comprehend the situation around him, and his suggestions about how things could be improved are incredibly touching.

The writing is easily accessible, and feels realistically like that of a child. The happy innocence of Bruno’s childhood is a beautiful thing. I loved the way that his parents tried to shelter him from the war, but am not sure that this was realistically possible. Surely a nine-year-old boy living in Berlin would have had Nazi opinions forced onto him in school? There were certain other aspects of the book that didn’t ring true, I won’t go into them, as I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t read the book. I’m willing to overlook them, as the message of the book is more important than a few details.

This book made me smile, it almost made me cry, and then it shocked me, and left the plot running over and over again in my head. I think it will be a very long time before the characters in this book begin to fade. This book has gone straight to the top of my ‘books everyone must read’ list. This isn’t because it is the best book in the world, but because it is so accessible to everyone, and is the most powerful anti-war message I’ve found.

Highly recommended, but have some tissues handy.





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The Seance by John Harwood

The Seance is a dark, Gothic tale, set in Victorian England.  The central character is Constance, who on becoming an orphan, begins to suspect that her family history is not as simple as she was led to believe. She inherits a crumbling,  country house called Wraxford Hall, which is central to the book’s plot; it’s eerie, dilapidated state adds to the mysterious atmosphere. Constance vows to discover the truth behind her ancestry, and unravel the mysterious events which have taken place in the house.

The book is full of things which cannot be explained. Why does anyone who see the ghost of a monk in the grounds of the house die within a month? Why have previous owners of the mansion disappeared in thunderstorms? and what role does the suit of armor play in it all?

I loved the historical detail in the book. The Victorians’ understanding of the spirit world was fascinating, and very well researched. I felt totally immersed in the world of clairvoyants and mysticism. Constance’s character behaved realistically, and I quickly grew to love her. 

I didn’t find it very scary, but it was definitely a bit creepy. It was a real page turner, and there were times when I had to stop myself from racing ahead to find out what happens. There was the odd occasion when I lost myself a little bit by doing this, and had to re-read sections to understand exactly what was going on. This was only a minor flaw, and probably due to the fact that it is so tightly plotted. I didn’t spot many of the clever twists, although there were a few that I saw a mile away!

This is a well constructed, Gothic mystery which I recommend to anyone who likes reading about Victorian life, or who is just after a well written story, packed with secrets.


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Blindness by Jose Saramago

Translated from the Portugese by Giovanni Pontiero

Blindness is the most powerful book I have ever read. From the beginning, to the end my adrenaline levels were high, and my heart was beating so fast you’d have thought I’d been out running!

Blindness is a terrifying account of what could happen to us, if we were all to lose our sight. The book begins with one man suddenly losing his vision while waiting at traffic lights in his car. Someone offers to help the blind man back home, and it isn’t long before he becomes blind too. It quickly becomes obvious that the blindness is highly contagious, and so all the blind people, and those who have been in close contact with them, are rounded up and sent to an old mental hospital. Trapped in this old building, with an increasing number of people, conditions quickly deteriorate. Fights break out over the small amount of food, sanitation becomes almost non-existent, and it isn’t long before people are dying.

There is one woman who has not gone blind; she lied in order to stay with her husband. At first it seems as though she is the lucky one, but as time goes on this is not necessarily true. Would it be better to be blind than to see the horrors that are all around her?

This book is worryingly realistic. What would our governments do if there was an epidemic of blindness? How quickly would society break down? I thought I’d be able to cope without electricity, but when you stop to think about the infrastructure, you realise how soon you’d run out of food, and water. It’s enough to make me want to move to the country and become self sufficient as soon as possible!

This book took a little bit of time to get used to. The characters are all nameless, and there is little punctuation to break up the paragraphs, so the text is unusually dense. This led to a feeling of being a bit blind yourself, and added to the experience of reading the book. 

It was completely gripping from beginning to end, but I’m not sure I can say that I enjoyed reading it  – this is a book you should try to read in the day time, not when you’re alone on a dark night!  The horrific images will stay with me for a long time, and are a powerful statement about the fragility of our society.

Highly recommended, as long as you can cope with the stress!

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