“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons.” He picked me up and spun me around, laughing. “Our days will be endless.”

– Or Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller

In this book, 8 year old Peggy is taken by her survivalist father to live in a remote cabin in Germany. When she complains that she wants to go home, her father tells her that there is no home to go back to, that they are the last two people alive on earth and that everything beyond their patch of forest has been lost to “the great divide”. Peggy’s father is very young, it is suggested, filled with paranoia and ideas, and obviously traumatized by something in his marriage (which is hidden for the majority of the book). The book switches between sections of Peggy and her father making their life in the forest, with Peggy (or Punzel as she names herself) growing up in the shadow of her father’s increasing eccentricity and within the harsh environment of the forest, cut off from the rest of the world. With Peggy firmly believing her Father that there is nothing left but them and this life, and suitably afraid of exploring too far from their cabin. The other sections are Peggy at 17 years old, having returned to live in London with her mother, without her father, and clearly very sick herself.

We are told from the start that Peggy is an unreliable narrator, suffering from a memory disorder due to diet, and we can see her penchant for stories and make believe, so it makes sense that the book takes on a rather unrealistic, embellished feel as Peggy looks back over her past. During her time in the forest Peggy is writing herself a fairytale, of which she is the princess, to cover up the true horrific nature of what she experienced. It makes sense the way the story hints at various existing tales, as if Peggy is drawing on the stories she may have listened to as a child.

But it is a bit frustrating to read – although the writing is beautiful, it is also disjointed and the scene/subject often switches abruptly, leaving a previous idea hanging with no resolution. It is slow paced, meandering its way to the final reveal. The late nature of the pulling together of all the hints, pulling back from the fairytale to the reality, did make this a difficult book to read. Combine that with the disjointed ideas and slightly unrealistic feeling to it, I almost gave up on it. I’m mostly glad I didn’t. I spent a lot of the final chapters of this book anticipating the final twist, and reveal of Peggy’s condition, and the final set of revelations still did shock me. I didn’t really want to be right.

The book came together wonderfully. And yes, it is beautifully written. And the use of music , so wonderfully captured in the audio book , is amazing. (I was startled to read about what a “piano with no sound” was.) I wish there was an epilogue though, to see what came next, after the final reveal. It’s a bit annoying to stick with the book so patiently for no real resolution. It felt like we were just really getting into the tale, when it abruptly ended.

Audio book notes- this was a stunning audio book. The narrator effortlessly switched between male and female, spoken and song, and English and German. I am fairly sure the audio book quite possibly made this more engaging than it could have been, and it certainly brought the musical parts of the book alive.

“And although I knew nothing of love, I knew that I had found it, and never wanted to lose it.”

– Entry Island, Peter May

“The Blackhouse” by Peter May blew me away, and I am beginning to realise the flip side of this: I am easily disappointed every time I read another of his books and no matter how good, it just doesn’t measure up.

Entry Island was like that – a good book, fascinating and moving in places, but also long and slow, and narrated gently and without life. (The audio book is excellent for accents and for making each character sound distinct, and the woman sound like woman, but it is utterly without life. whether this is the book or the narration is something to question though.)

Entry Island tells two stories – that of life in the Outer Hebrides in the 19th century during the potato famine and the highland clearances, and that of a criminal investigation into the murder of a wealthy businessman in his home on a remote Canadian island, the only witness his wife. These are tied by the secret and forbidden love between a crofter’s son and the lairds’ daughter in the past, of whose ancestors find themselves meeting in the present.

I had problems with this book, and the main one was the love story. What was it that endured so long? It never felt convincing, and it never grabbed me. The past was told very matter of factly, and the conversations between those in the past felt like they were talking for the benefit of explaining events to us, the readers, rather than talking amongst each other. It came across as stiff, and awkward. Consequently, the romance suffered. The romance should have been heart breaking – young forbidden lovers who risked everything to be together, and lost each other in a moments chance. But every interaction between them was stale, filled with rigid conversation where they explain history to us – we never saw them simply laughing and enjoying each other. We were told they loved each other, but so rarely shown it. There was no heady feeling of being caught up in their emotions, unable to be without the other. In the end, Kirsty was spoilt and stifled, and Simon was locked in by circumstance. It moved me the thought of them looking for each other in the future, perhaps wanting to have that time to really fall in love though.

In the present, Simon and Kirsty were interesting enough. I felt for Simon – he isn’t a particularly likeable character, but I could understand him and his depression and subsequent insomnia. I thought Peter May did an amazing job of showing depression, and how quickly it can develop without a person even realising it, and how he withheld the labelling of it until the end to match Simon’s own slow awakening to his feelings was brilliantly done. I was not sure about the unsympathetic portrayal of Simon’s estranged wife, but I could understand that as the book was from his point of view that he would paint her as the villainess.

I did feel disappointed that this wasn’t actually a reincarnation book. The whole I have loved you before but do I love you know if my memories aren’t my own is a favourite trope of mine. Simon’s memories were that of diaries he had read, and his journey to discover the past was self-driven and consciously done.

The criminal investigation itself was a little obvious as to where it was headed, so as a thriller it didn’t work. But to be honest, I don’t think that was really the point of the book and I didn’t mind. As a look at a part of history I never knew about, and as a character driven book it just about did work and managed to hold my attention. I just wished there was more passion, I wish I had been on the edge of my seat praying for a happy ending, more caught up in it all. I admit I started this book and dropped it initially, so bored with it all, and only reluctantly picked it back up. The book only really picks up in the middle…and even then it’s the history that gets really interesting.

Oh, and I loved the irish character and how Peter Forbes narrated him. Peter Forbes, as gentle and unassuming as his narration is, really is great with accents.

When exactly did I give myself over to sleep? When did I stop resisting…? I used to be so lively, I was always wide awake – but when was that? So long ago it felt like ancient times. Like scenes out of the most distant past, panoramas of ferns and dinosaurs that spring roughly to the eye, vividly colored, my memories of that time always appeared to me as images shrouded in mist.

– Asleep, Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favourite novels ever. It’s a little strange but engaging and never fails to make me cry with its stark portrayal of grief. After reading Asleep I think that perhaps grief and loss are a central theme in Yoshimoto’s work. This is a collection of three short stories, and each is centered around a death.

In the first story Night and Night’s Travelers a young woman is dealing with the sudden death of her childhood sweetheart. Interestingly, the story is told from the point of view of the younger sister of the boyfriend, one year after his death. Like Kitchen, her plain, matter-of-fact writing is undeniably powerful. She writes about grief and loss in a painful, realistic manner. I cried like a baby reading Kitchen and after just finishing this first story in Asleep I cried too. I also loved the underlying darkness to the story. Satomi’s jealously never explicitly stated, but always there. She was an outsider looking in at her brother and his relationships and you could feel her alienation, her resentment and her jealousy.

The second story, Long Songs, was my least favourite. A young woman finds out someone she knew has died, and this makes her rethink their relationship. In this story the lines between reality and something else is blurred and it’s never clear whether there is something supernatural going on or not. This was interesting, but ultimately it did not leave as strong an impression as the other two stories of the trilogy.

It was the final title story that was my favourite and which affected me the most. It’s a little disturbing this story, again the lines between reality and some other is blurred, but here it comes across as more obvious a slip in sanity rather than reality. Again the story is told from the point of view of a young woman, Teruko. She is involved with an older married man and their relationship is tinged by his circumstances. Meanwhile her best friend, who maintained a very strange job, has recently died. Teruko quit work because of her relationship and finds herself tired, sleeping all the time, beginning to lose focus, only being able to wake up when her boyfriend calls. I could relate to this strongly. The escape of sleep and how it can eventually trap you is something anyone who suffers from depression or low moods knows. I feel like that has been happening to me over the past few years – becoming exhausted, finding myself questioning whether something happened or I dreamed it because the lines between being asleep and being awake are so blurred, wandering around “with an unfocused look in my eyes” to quote Yoshimoto. It disturbed me to read this, it hurt. The ending made me cry. Like Kitchen, it is a deeply romantic, very sad story. It starts off disjointed and strange, as the summary I put of it probably comes across, but it comes together beautifully into something quite profound.

None of these stories feel unfinished or unsatisfying, none feel too short. Each story has the element of the surreal, and yet also manages to be very slice and life, and quite ordinary. I think…the emotions are ordinary, although the set-up of the story can be slightly absurd. but because at its core are the realistic emotions and feelings the stories become engaging and highly relatable. I loved this book.

It was, above all, a human landscape , settled and shaped by people, and still a place where thousands of years of history might be expected to come to the surface, if you cared to look.

– Black Dog, Stephen Booth (Cooper and Fry #1)

The Cooper and Fry series are thrillers set in the Peak District. Yes, murder and intrigue right next door to me – how could I resist? The Peak District is one of my favourite places in England, and its somewhere I have actually been and actually kind of know, so I knew I had to read these books.

Thankfully, they exceeded my expectations.

The main characters are Ben Cooper and Diane Fry – Ben being the local lad, and Diane being the newcomer from the city (in book one.) Ben is instantly likeable- he’s a very interesting character with a cheerful, approachable front hiding very dark thoughts and insecurities. At first, I hated Diane fry and this made it difficult to get through the first book. She was so judgemental, so selfish and close minded. I was horrified at some of the things she thought appropriate to say out loud. I didn’t like, nor get, how she could have formed such negative, extreme views of the countryside.

Then again, I may have been feeling defence because of my love for the Peak District.

Anyway, I grew to sympathise with Diane fry once her background is revealed even if I still didn’t like her. It also helped that I love the dynamic between Cooper and Fry- Cooper softens Fry, whilst she likewise toughens him. They challenge each other, and their dialogue is delightful. And I just love how the tough, ambitious Fry falls so obviously and so fast for Cooper, way before he even thinks of her as a friend. Cooper is attractive and intrigues her, and its amusing how often she thinks of him, as if its totally natural. Cooper thinks Fry has beaten him in everything, without realising there is one way he has Fry utterly defeated. I felt for Cooper and the way Fry challenged his position in the force, but by book two I could see he needed that. Again, Fry toughened him- made him question and challenge himself. They have such an interesting dynamic that swings from dislike and annoyance to grudging respect and attraction.

The writing is delightful. At first I wasn’t sure about how often the point of view changes, but the author manages to build up strong characterisation even so. The crimes are intriguing, with no clear answers. The writing is clever, with a dry sense of humour, a bit dark too, that often had me laughing out loud. I loved how I don’t know- playful? Teasing? The writing is. The writer has a great way of leading your thoughts in one direction with regards to what’s happening, only to reveal the situation or meaning is something else entirely. It could be so annoying- but its done so cleverly, and the answer always revealed quickly without dragging it out that it made me grin every time. Also it has to be said that the books have a strong sense of place. I actually thought Edendale was a real place! And I love the focus on life in the country, and this also adds an interesting element to the crimes – what do the police do to handle crimes in open, mostly remote areas with temperamental weather? It’s fascinating.

These books are so very enjoyable. I ploughed through the first three books in a matter of days.

The one downside to these books is that they are an unfinished series- I don’t want the series to become tired or plodding. Already by book three I felt myself becoming impatient, looking for a conclusion that wasn’t there. The books all stand well on their own in regards to the cases but the strands of the personal lives of Copper and Fry, and the teasing hints of potential romance, is something that is always open ended. I don’t like this.

“Knew, too, that it wasn’t just Mona he wanted to run away from. It was everything. Back to a place where life had once seemed simple. A return to childhood, back to the womb. How easy it was now to ignore the fact that he had spent most of his adult life avoiding just that. Easy to forget that as a teenager nothing had seemed more important to him than leaving.”

– The Blackhouse, Peter May (Lewis Triology #1)

I recently wrapped up the Lewis trilogy by Peter May. I was drawn to this series by the setting – the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The books are long and complex, heavy with nostalgia and regret. They are interesting but difficult, and dreary.

The trilogy starts with The Black House. Fin Macleod, Edinburgh detective, recently divorced and grieving after the death of his child in a hit and run, finds himself unwillingly returning to the village he grew up in on Lewis, to investigate a death similar to that in Edinburgh. In the present, the book explores Fin’s return as he meets friends and acquaintances from his childhood and investigates the crime and in the past, it follows the events that led to his departure, for him an escape, from Lewis. The setting is unique, and the book is a fascinating look at life on the islands in the later 20th century, and at the Hebridean practice of Guga hunting, with a twist at the end that is truly shocking, for I never saw it coming.

By book 2, The Lewis Man, Fin has quit the police and returned to the island for good. A body is found in a peat bog that has some relation to the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart Marsailis. Like book 1 the book alternates between past and present- though in this book we get Fin’s view as he tries to settle in to life on the island and repair his relationship with Marsailis, and then the view of Marsailis’s father in the present and also his view in the past, showing the events that led up to the death of the boy in the peat bog. Again, the description of the island and the life there is vivid and here, the author highlights a part of history I never knew of- how children were taken from broken homes or orphanages in Scotland and sent to work for crofting families in the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, but I found the book slow, and it dragged in the middle, such that I ended up bored and almost dropping the series. Even if the book was as clever and complex as the first, it didn’t have the same impact despite another unexpected ending.

In the final book, The Chess Men, Fin is still on the islands, when a bog burst reveals the lost body of a rock star and Fin’s former friend. I realised I shouldn’t have taken a break from the books in book 2 as by the last in the trilogy I was lost- I was struggling to keep track of who is who, and how they fitted in the previous books, book 1 especially. The order of the books felt off- with book 1 and 3 revolving around both Fin’s past and present, whereas book 2 departs to the story of Marsailis’s father. (In fact, I’m reading goodreads reviews now and it seems that the character of Whistler wasn’t actually mentioned in book 1 which explains my confusion, and furthers my disappointment in this book – why wasn’t he mentioned if his friendship was apparently so dear to Fin?) I also realised I didn’t much like Fin here- he came across as arrogant and selfish. It started to feel arrogant that he was nosing his way into these crimes, as if no one else could solve them. I found his actions towards others cold. The writing was still clever and vivid, but I found it veered on the melodramatic at times- the descriptions of Fin’s emotions felt over the top in those moments.

There was something really off with Book 3 – it wasn’t a satisfying end to this trilogy at all. In particular, the conclusion of Fin’s son death was rushed, and his relationship with Marsailis left by the wayside and there was an abrupt, sudden character death.

By book 3 I was really struggling with this series and it tainted my reading experience. I adored the setting and the look into things like the Guga hunting, the ‘Homers’ and life out on the islands in general, but although the writing was mostly very good it veered towards being a bit heavy handed at times and the the sex scenes were awkward, and the trilogy ends very abruptly and without a good conclusion. Worth reading, and memorable, but with a bitter after taste. I enjoyed The Blackhouse most of all.

As an aside: I do find the title of book 3 very clever – in the subtle way it relates to the plot, and the solving of the crime.

Audio book notes: The Blackhouse was read by Steve Worsley and the other two by Peter Forbes. Both were excellent and I loved all the different accents. I found it amazing how Forbes could switch from Scottish to Southern English and to Cockney London with such ease! These books were probably a bit long and contemplative for audio- perhaps I missed some details or because I spent so much time on them I got confused by book 3, and it may have been that they were being read that by book 3 the writing came across as a little over dramatic. Peter Forbes reading was very flat, not particularly animated, probably because of the sombre atmosphere of the books, but it did make it tough going. I enjoyed both readings but I do wonder what kind of reading experience I would have had if I’d stuck to paperback instead.