Tag Archives: Waterstones BOTM

Review: Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

9781784704919This is a perfect choice for Waterstones’ Book of the Month for January 2018.  Just as we’ve (possibly) spent a little too long in the company of relatives, and (definitely) overindulged in food, drink and the buying of things, let this story remind you of the vital essentials of life.

This novel simmers down into a deceptively simple love story of a couple in their twilight years.  Gerry and Stella Gilmore travel to Amsterdam for a post-Christmas break. As their stories gently unfold, we learn more about the lives of this architect and teacher; as parents and children, lovers and spouses, their frailties and their strengths.

Over their four days away, it becomes clear that, despite decades of happy marriage and their continued love for each other, Gerry and Stella’s lives are moving in separate directions: Gerry towards ‘just a smidgen’ more of strong drink, Stella towards a more devout Catholic life.

Both characters are Northern Irish expats living in Scotland; there is an excellent sense of place during their break in Amsterdam, with their memories of growing up on the North Eastern Irish coast and their lives together in Scotland.

This couple have a jokey, loving familiarity with each other and during their conversations and memories, their past years together are slowly revealed, returning to and circling around a significant event in their early marriage.

It was not as maudlin as I had feared; there is a great deal of dry humour, reflecting the familiarity and affection of this couple’s decades together. There was a great depth of emotion evoked; I really cared for Stella and Gerry.  (I also particularly liked the mention of my personal favourite medieval female mystic, Julian of Norwich (she of the eternally reassuring  ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’) and the Beguine community reminded me to look out my  undergraduate Theology dissertation…. I also noted the name check for Waterstones in Amsterdam: Gerry ‘liked the familiarity of the big W and the black frontage’.)

This is a subtle, internalised domestic drama of a couple in their twilight years together. It might not end far from where it began (as Gerry says, ‘the whole holiday has been a cul-de-sac’) but at its essence is an exploration of a couple remembering and learning how to cherish each other, acknowledging and then loving their differences.

This delicately nuanced portrait of a long-term relationship, their ageing together and shared significant experiences combine to make a seasonally warming read.


Thanks to Vintage Publishers for the advanced proof copy, way back in the Summer; it was worth the wait!

ISBN  978178404919 (pbk)

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Posted by on 04/01/2018 in review


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Review: Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Published January 2018 ISBN 978141146077 paperback

Wow! what a wild adventure!

The story of Eska, Flint, Blu, Bala and the various tribes of Erkenwald as they battle against the evil plans of the Ice Queen kept me gripped during the ‘inbetween-time’of Christmas and New Year.
This is a story of finding your voice (both literally and metaphorically), settling into your tribe, navagating your way amongst the wild, dangerous threats in the frozen North.

Abi’s ‘Letter to the Reader’ prepared me for some concoction of two of my favourite Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen and The Little Mermaid, alongside shaman, icy kingdoms and determined children. Add into the mix an enchanted music box, a warrior-inventor and the bravery of desperation, this makes for an engrossing, emotional story. Abi did not disappoint!

Sky Song is set in the imaginary kingdom of Erkenwald, a far northern place where winters are long, frozen and dark and summers are short, light and not particularly warm. There are wild bears, rock giants, enchanted wolverines and persuasive eagles. And tribes: the Fur Tribe and the Feather Tribe, alongside the little-known Wanderers.

The fairy-tale style introduction quickly sets the scene: an evil Ice Queen has taken the adults from the Fur and Feather Tribes, capturing their voices in baubles on her trees in her icy palace. Winterfang Palace is deliciously eerie, where even the candles could be spies. The Ice Queen, in the tradition of Andersen’s Snow Queen, and Lewis’ White Witch/Queen Jadis, is tall, powerful and beautiful. With her magical black staff, dress made of her prisoners’ tears and her crown of snowflakes, she’s deliciously evil. Although she already has the adults’ voices, she also needs the voice of Eska, a young girl whose memory she captures in a locked box then enchants her to become a static dancer in a music box. There Eska is to wait for midsummer’s day where the Queen will capture Eska’s voice, unleashing the power of the Sky Song and reach immortality.

Eska is a fierce red-head, but no longer knows her family, her tribe, her place in Erkenwald. All she has is her voice, one which is ‘bold and unlikely’. The Ice Queen needs this cursed voice to complete the magic to achieve her immortality.

The boy who ‘could feel himself folded further into her story’ is Flint: a boy from the Fur Tribe who is always in trouble for his ‘detours’, lack of concentration on the ‘important’ matters of his tribe (of which his brother is the interim Chief). He loves animals, inventions and his little sister, Blu; the latter two are both affectively drawn. Blu has Downs Syndrome, but cannot be dismissed (as the Ice Queen mistakenly tried to do) as she too is a fierce, brave eight year old girl who proudly loves her brother, doing her utmost to save her brother and her friends.

Flint and Eska escape Winterfang, undertake an exciting quest to foil the Ice Queen’s plans, find the Sky Horn and allow the Sky Song to keep the stars shining, destroying the Ice Queen’s selfish plan for immortality. It is fast-paced, exciting story with a great furry, feathery, beating heart of friendship. Eska and Flint find their own strengths, their places in their world, their connection alongside the wild animals of Erkenwald. As Eska says, ‘I have a voice and I’m going to make it count!’

‘I don’t think you have to fight with weapons to be a warrior,’ Eska whispered, ‘You could fight with love and tears and adventures instead. That would probably be just as good.’

Highly recommended for an 8-12 year old readership, but anyone who loves nature, wildness, adventure stories, the search for one’s sense of self. I shall be enthusiastically talking to customers long after it is Waterstones’ January Children’s Book of the Month. Excellent!

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Posted by on 31/12/2017 in review


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Review: Hot Milk by Andrea Levy

If you’ve been into any branch of Waterstones this past week, you’ll have not failed to spot this little novel; it’s our fiction book of the month for June. I treat BOTM as a book club and read as many of the choices as I can.

Having caught snippets on Radio 4 while it was still published in hardback, I knew some of the plot: Sofia and her mother visit southern Spain in search of healing. Sofia is a slightly hapless twenty-something, wasting her first class masters in anthropology while she works as a Barista, sleeping in the store’s stockroom. Her mother, Rose, is in her mid-sixties, suffering from mysterious paralysis. Along the way, Sofia meets the alluring Ingrid, the temporary (and tempting) lifeguard Juan, the unerving, patrician Dr Gomez and ‘Nurse Sunshine’, her newly-religious, estranged Greek father, alongside chained-up Alsatians, pregnant cats, stuffed monkeys and a multitude of jellyfish.

The characters hide as much as they reveal. The clashes between Spanish, Greek and Yorkshire cultures is amusingly evident, and the heat of the Spanish sun is almost palpable.

The novel is claustrophobic, mysterious and lyrical. It explores issues of identity, wellness, duty, sexuality, and fractured families.

The Guardian describes it as ‘hypnotic’; I was certainly entranced while reading.

Although short (little over two hundred pages long), the characters remain in my thoughts; the heat of the sun and sting of the jellyfish stay on my skin.

A great, lyrical summer read.

Picture from

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (ISBN 9780241968031)

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Posted by on 08/06/2017 in review


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