The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry When I started reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry it occurred to me how few contemporary novels I read these days. Most of the books I’ve read so far this year have been historical fiction, classics or ‘older’ books, so it was actually a refreshing change to read something written and set in the 21st century for once!

As the title suggests, this is the story of a man who embarks on an unlikely journey from one end of England to the other. His name is Harold Fry and his pilgrimage begins when he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessey, who is writing to say goodbye because she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Harold writes a letter in reply but on his way to post it he becomes aware of the complete inadequacy of his words. And so Harold just keeps on walking…all the way to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, over five hundred miles away from his home in Devon.

Because it was such a spur of the moment decision, Harold is badly prepared for the walk. He’s wearing the wrong clothes and shoes, he doesn’t have a map and he has left his phone at home. With blistered feet and only a vague idea of the route he needs to take, Harold’s progress is slow but still he continues to put one foot in front of the other, convinced that his pilgrimage will help keep Queenie alive.

As Harold walks, he reflects on the things that have happened in his life, the choices – both good and bad – that he has made, and his relationships with his friends and family. In particular he thinks about what has gone wrong in his marriage to his wife, Maureen, and why he has always found it so difficult to connect with their son, David.

The plot may seem simple but there’s so much emotion and poignancy packed into every page. There’s a sense of mystery too, with lots of questions to be answered. We don’t know at first what exactly happened between Harold and Queenie. What did she do to help him all those years ago? Did they have a romantic relationship or were they just friends? We also don’t know what the problem is with David and why Harold has hardly spoken to him for years. And what was it that caused the rift in Harold and Maureen’s marriage? There are clues to all of these mysteries scattered throughout the story and we learn a little bit more in each chapter, with the truth slowly unfolding as Harold progresses on his journey.

As well as learning about Harold we also spend some time with Maureen, left at home on her own, and it was good to have some of the story told from a different perspective. It was interesting to see how Maureen reacted to her husband’s decision to walk to Berwick and how she tried to come to terms with it, torn between worry, frustration and an understanding that this was something Harold felt he had to do.

During his journey, Harold meets and talks to a variety of people from all walks of life – including a girl who makes him a burger, a Slovakian woman who gives him a room for the night, an American oncologist who explains cancer to him – and most of these are very supportive when they hear about Harold’s mission. Not all of them really understand what he is trying to do, but there’s always the feeling that their lives have been altered in some way by their encounter with Harold. Later his walk starts to attract publicity and Harold finds that he has become a celebrity. He is joined en route by a number of other people, some who have good intentions but others who are walking for the wrong reasons. When the other walkers began to join Harold it felt as if the original purpose of the pilgrimage had been lost, along with the simply beauty of Harold’s walk, and around this point in the book I started to lose interest. But I kept reading because I cared about Harold and Maureen and wanted to know how things would resolve for each of them. And I was rewarded with some wonderful chapters at the end of the book, filled with revelations about Harold, Maureen, Queenie and David.

I didn’t love this book as much as so many other people seem to have done, but I did still enjoy getting to know Harold Fry!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley

Review: The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton

When Rosy Thornton offered me a review copy of her new novel, The Tapestry of Love, I thought it looked and sounded wonderful – but I wasn’t sure what I would think of it as it’s a bit different from the type of book I usually read. I needn’t have worried though, because I thoroughly enjoyed it! I admit that I had previously been unfamiliar with Rosy Thornton and her books, but now that I’ve been enlightened I would definitely like to read more of her work.

The Tapestry of Love is the story of Catherine Parkstone, a forty-eight year old divorced woman who decides to sell her home in England and buy a cottage in the mountainous Cévennes region of France. Catherine intends to start her own business providing home furnishings for her neighbours, but unfortunately things don’t go quite according to plan. And her life becomes even more complicated when her sister Bryony arrives on a three month sabbatical!

Although the book has a quiet, gentle tone, the plot was interesting enough to hold my attention from beginning to end. There were enough moments of drama to keep the story moving along and some humourous scenes too – for example, Catherine’s telephone conversations with her daughter Lexie, an aspiring journalist who is feeling increasingly disillusioned with her job at a cake-decorating magazine.

I particularly enjoyed reading about all the little details of Catherine’s new life: gardening, cooking, beekeeping, shopping at the market. The real highlight of this book though, is the sense of community: when Catherine first arrives in La Grelaudiere she is a stranger, an outsider, but over time she begins to gain the trust and respect of her neighbours and starts to forge some real friendships. We get to know Monsieur Bouschet and his wife; the reclusive Guillaume; the elderly widow Madame Volpiliere and the enigmatic Patrick Castagnol. The author skilfully brings the characters to life and makes them feel completely realistic.

I’ve never been to the Cévennes, but the mountains, remote hamlets and picturesque villages are described so vividly I could easily build a picture of the area in my mind. While I don’t think I’d be brave enough to do what Catherine did and leave my home and family to move there all on my own, it does seem like a beautiful and peaceful place to live, the kind of place you could easily fall in love with.

I very much enjoyed spending time in the mountains with Catherine and her neighbours. If you’re interested in France, needlework, nature or good food, or if you’re simply looking for an absorbing and well-written story with likeable, believable characters, you should find plenty here to keep you happy.

Recommended

I received a copy of this book from the author for review

Picture from Wikipedia

Summer Reading Challenge: After You by Julie Buxbaum

Eight-year-old Sophie has been left traumatised after witnessing the murder of her mother, Lucy, in the street near their London home. Sophie’s reaction to the tragedy is simply to stop speaking. Lucy’s best friend, Ellie Lerner, has travelled from America to London to try to help her goddaughter and she becomes determined to break through Sophie’s self-imposed silence. Knowing how much Sophie loves reading books, Ellie decides to introduce her to one of her own childhood favourites – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

However, Ellie has plenty of problems of her own. She’s left her husband Phillip at home in Boston – and she’s not sure if she wants to go back to him. Lucy’s grieving husband, Greg, is drinking too much and Ellie doesn’t want to leave him alone with Sophie just yet. And her divorced parents have just announced that they’re getting married again.

I was very unsure about this book at first; it looked very ‘chick lit’ and I’m not usually a fan of chick lit. So why did I request it from Transworld for their Summer Reading Challenge, you might ask? Well, the plot sounded interesting and the Secret Garden connection piqued my curiosity (The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books when I was a child – I really need to reread it sometime!). It’s nice to think that sharing a special book with someone can help them through a difficult time. I also learned a few interesting facts about the book – I never knew Frances Hodgson Burnett was inspired by the walled garden at Great Maytham Hall, for example.

The author has given Sophie a well-developed personality of her own, making her a believable and endearing eight-year-old. She’s a girl who prefers reading to playing games and as a result isn’t very popular with other children her age; Ellie’s own love of books helps her to form a bond with Sophie and watching their friendship develop was one of the highlights of the story.

This book is not just about Sophie though. I was kept guessing how Ellie’s relationships were going to resolve themselves, as it wasn’t immediately obvious what was going to happen. Would she go back to her husband? Or would she end up with Greg or someone else entirely? As the main character and narrator, I didn’t always agree with Ellie’s actions (particularly the way she had left Phillip without giving him a proper explanation) but as the book progresses it becomes obvious that she is grieving too – and not just for Lucy – and is trying to work out what she wants from life.

Another aspect of the book I found interesting was the way Ellie, as an American woman from Boston, had to adapt to the British culture and life in London.

So, although this was not a book I would usually have chosen to read, I did enjoy it. It was a much more complex and emotional story than I had been expecting with some important messages about love, loss, relationships and family.

I received a review copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge.

Summer Reading Challenge: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Until today, the biggest decision seventeen-year-old Mia has faced is whether to go to Juilliard to study music or stay at home with her family and boyfriend. Now she has an even more important choice to make: a choice between life and death.

It’s been snowing outside and school has closed for the day. Mia, her parents and her younger brother Teddy decide to take advantage of the unexpected day off to visit friends. They pile into the car, laughing, joking and arguing about which music to listen to, like any other family going on a drive. The next thing Mia knows, she’s standing in a ditch looking down at the wreckage of their car. At first she thinks she’s survived unscathed, but then she discovers her own body, unconscious on the ground…

If I Stay follows Mia as she watches herself lying in a coma in a hospital bed and witnesses the reactions of her friends and family as they sit outside her room, waiting for news. In a series of flashbacks, we learn what Mia’s life was like before the accident and why she’s finding it so difficult to decide whether she wants to live or die.

I don’t read many YA novels anymore (I think this might even be the first one I’ve reviewed here) but I probably should, because it means I’m missing out on great books like this one. Although If I Stay may sound like a dark and depressing book, it’s actually not. It’s a story about the importance of love and friendship and is a book that can be enjoyed by both adults and teens.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was because Mia was a character I really cared about. She seemed a genuinely nice person, the type of girl I would have liked to have been friends with at school. She does have some insecurities – she loves playing the cello and listening to classical music for example, and worries that she’s too incompatible with Adam, her rock musician boyfriend – and these are explored throughout the book. I liked the way the musical aspect of the book was handled to show how people from different musical backgrounds are able to respect each other’s tastes and how music can form a bond between them. At the end of the book Gayle Forman gives us her reasons for choosing the various songs that are mentioned in the story, which I thought was a nice idea.

There was one part of the book that I thought was unrealistic – a scene where Adam’s punk rocker friends descend on the hospital – but apart from that, I really enjoyed If I Stay. It’s a very moving and emotional read and I was kept guessing what Mia’s decision would be until the final page.

I received a review copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge.

Summer Reading Challenge: Second Hand Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde

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 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.

I received a review copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge.

Review: The End of the Alphabet by CS Richardson

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. 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.

Genre: General fiction/Pages: 128/Publisher: Portobello Books/Year: 2009/Source: won in a contest

Review: Molly’s Millions by Victoria Connelly

What would you do if you won £4.2m on the lottery? Would you tell your Scrooge-like family and risk them taking the money away from you…or would you try to keep it a secret and have some fun? That’s the decision faced by struggling florist Molly Bailey – and it doesn’t take her long to make up her mind!

Knowing she can’t hide her win from the Bailey family forever, Molly decides to dispose of it as quickly as possible. With only her dog for company, she sets off on a journey around Britain, distributing money to those in need.
Victoria Connelly writes with a lot of warmth and humour, making this a lovely, inspiring story with characters that the reader can really identify with and care about.

It would be impossible not to like Molly Bailey, as she’s such a generous, kind-hearted person. She truly doesn’t seem to realise how unusual it is for someone to behave so selflessly and can’t understand why her actions are making her a media phenomenon. I also liked Tom, despite the trouble he was causing for Molly, and I loved Flora, his daughter. I was torn between cheering Molly on, and wanting Tom to catch her!
This isn’t the kind of book I would usually choose to read but Molly’s Millions, with its pretty pink cover, caught my attention. It was a light, enjoyable, fun read and I’m glad I decided to give it a chance!

Journalist Tom Mackenzie is looking for a big story to save his career. Accompanied by his ten year-old daughter, Flora, Tom chases Molly up and down the country, determined to discover the identity of this modern-day Robin Hood. Molly must use her wits if she is to avoid being caught by Tom and the Bailey men and continue spreading goodwill to the nation.

Recommended

Genre: Chick Lit/Pages: 352/Publisher: Allison & Busby/Year: 2009/Source: Library book