Book Reviews / Books / The Big Read

Review: The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds
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On a recent trip to Bath, I found myself with an hour to spare after a client meeting, and thus decided to peruse the shelves of its rather lovely Waterstones. Despite having a number of books in London that I was yet to begin, I had forgotten to take any of them to Bath and so, with a ninety minute train journey ahead, I decided to invest in one of the BBC’s Big Reads. Off the top of my head, three titles sprung to mind – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Thorn Birds – and so one of the very kind booksellers found me all three. Any hopes of a ‘quick read’ were quickly dispelled – each of the books was about 500 pages – and, so, unable to go on length, I began reading the blurbs.

Before getting to the description of The Thorn Birds, however, a quote on its cover from The Observer caught my eye: ‘It’s easy to see why this stunning tale has been called the Australian Gone With the Wind’. And given that Gone With the Wind is my favourite book I was instantly sold.

One of the great joys of reading my way through the BBC’s Big Read is coming across books I otherwise might not have – The Thorn Birds is one of these. It wasn’t a title I had heard of prior to beginning my challenge, though I have been assured by my mother than my granny had read and adored it in her time. Telling the story of the Clearly family and their life on their aunt’s homestead, Drogheda, in Australia, it follows red-haired Meggie from early childhood to old age.

The backdrop of Drogheda is captivating and a character in itself and the prominence of love, death and disaster within the tale makes it easy to see why similarities have been drawn between The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind. In amongst the pain and the loss, however, is a quite, quite beautiful love story that blossoms between Meggie and Ralph de Bricassart, a young and ambitious Catholic priest. Their love for each other is both innocent and passionate and they each go to great lengths to avoid the other; with Meggie marrying the dashing Luke O’Neil.

Not dissimilar to literature’s most ill-fated couple – Romeo and Juliet – a happy ending was not to be theirs, and despite having spent many years apart, Meggie and Ralph are reunited with tragic consequences for them both.

A beautiful, haunting tale whose central relationship between Meggie and Ralph retains a child-like innocence throughout, The Thorn Birds is a romantic saga at its very best – moving, poignant and unforgettable. It’s very easy for me to see why my Granny Delia loved it so – and I only wish that she were still here so we could discuss it together.

About The Thorn Birds

Powered by the dreams and struggles of three generations, The Thorn Birds is the epic saga of a family rooted in the Australian sheep country. At the story’s heart is the love of Meggie Cleary, who can never possess the man she desperately adores, and Ralph de Bricassart, who rises from parish priest to the inner circles of the Vatican…but whose passion for Meggie will follow him all the days of his life.

About Colleen McCullough

Colleen Margaretta McCullough was an Australian author known for her novels, her most well-known being The Thorn Birds and Tim.

Raised by her mother in Wellington and then Sydney, McCullough began writing stories at age 5. She flourished at Catholic schools and earned a physiology degree from the University of New South Wales in 1963. Planning become a doctor, she found that she had a violent allergy to hospital soap and turned instead to neurophysiology – the study of the nervous system’s functions. She found jobs first in London and then at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

After her beloved younger brother Carl died in 1965 at age 25 while rescuing two drowning women in the waters off Crete, a shattered McCullough quit writing. She finally returned to her craft in 1974 with Tim, a critically acclaimed novel about the romance between a female executive and a younger, mentally disabled gardener. As always, the author proved her toughest critic: “Actually,” she said, “it was an icky book, saccharine sweet.”

A year later, while on a paltry $10,000 annual salary as a Yale researcher, McCullough – just “Col” to her friends – began work on the sprawling The Thorn Birds, about the lives and loves of three generations of an Australian family. Many of its details were drawn from her mother’s family’s experience as migrant workers, and one character, Dane, was based on brother Carl.

Though some reviews were scathing, millions of readers worldwide got caught up in her tales of doomed love and other natural calamities. The paperback rights sold for an astonishing $1.9 million.

In all, McCullough wrote 11 novels.

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Book Reviews / Books

Review: Head Over Heels in France – Samantha Brick

Head Over Heels in France
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For most people I know, having a daily – if not hourly – browse of the Mail Online is something of a guilty pleasure. Whether you like the Showbiz & Gossip page, the Femail or the Sport, visiting the Mail Online has, in recent years, become a daily habit for people all over the world. So much so, in fact, that the Daily Mail’s readership has recently overtaken that of The Sun’s – a paper which has long held the top spot.

Thus, I would be rather surprised if many people hadn’t heard of, if not read an article written by, Daily Mail Journalist Samantha Brick. She caused huge controversy last year when she penned an article that featured both online in imprint entitled ‘Why Women Hate Me For Being Beautiful‘ and has since become known as the antithesis to feminism.

Often a fan of the underdog, however, I was quite keen to read Head Over Heels in France – Brick’s memoir of leaving London and falling in love with France. Having always had a romanticised view of France, and indeed longing for the day when I, too, can leave behind the smog of London in favour of rural village life in the South of France, the topic of the book certainly resonated with me.

Brick speaks honestly about the hardships that caused her move to France and the book is written in a colloquial manner that endears the reader. Following the bankruptcy of her business, Brick goes from living a privileged life on a six-figure salary in Richmond, to a grotty sounding cottage on the outskirts of Birmingham. Suffering from depression and unable to see a light at the end of a tunnel, her mother pays for her to visit a friend in France, which sees the beginning of a romance – with both France itself and Pascal – that man she would later move to France for and marry.

An easy, light-hearted read, Head Over Heels in France is a charming book that further whets my appetite for a quiet life in rural France.

About Head Over Heels in France

When Samantha Brick’s life started to unravel—her company in liquidation, homeless, penniless, and friendless, and on max-strength anti-depressants—it seemed that everything was going wrong. But a chance week away in France led to the most unexpected of all turn-arounds: a whirlwind romance with gun-toting, stubborn, and ever-so-macho Pascal. It wasn’t until she moved in to his cottage in the beautiful Lot region in southwest France that she realized how shamefully ill-equipped she was for the country life. Like Cinderella in reverse, Samantha had to learn to cook, clean, chop wood, and keep house, as well as discovering how to be a stepmother to Pascal’s know-it-all 10-year-old son, and finding love and happiness along the way.

About Samantha Brick

Samantha Brick is an award winning television producer who worked in the industry for eighteen years, producing TV shows in the UK and the US. She has created and overseen documentaries and award winning reality shows for every major channel, including ITV, BBC and Channel 4 in the UK and in the US MTV, Fox and Bravo – amongst others.

Today Samantha’s work frequently appears in the Daily Mail, YOU Magazine, The Sun and Grazia.  She lives in south-west France with her husband and five dogs.

Head Over Heels in France is her first memoir.

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Book Reviews / Books

Review: Kiss Me First – Lottie Moggach


Kiss Me First

I began Kiss Me First almost as soon as I had finished The View From The Way Down; and having enjoyed the former so much and had little expectations for the latter; indeed I barely read the blurb before I began.

The novel centres around Leila – both overweight and something of a loner, she is largely ignored by her peers until she becomes involved in website Red Pill in which she partakes in ethical debates. It is on the forum that she is discovered by its owner Adrian, who asks to meet her with a proposition. It is thus: a woman he knows called Tess wishes to end her life with minimal impact on her friends and family, and so she requires someone to continue living as her via the realms of social media. Leila accepts the proposal and begins to form a friendship with Tess through which she delves into her chaotic past in order to discover more about the life she will be taking on following Tess’s suicide.

After Tess ‘checks out’ Leila devotes much of her time to emulating Tess through emails, Facebook and pre-recorded phone calls, and she quickly becomes emerged in a world far more exciting than her own. And when an ex-boyfriend of Tess’s gets in touch, Leila soon finds herself infatuated with him and the tale takes something of an unsettling turn.

Not dissimilar to How to be a Good Wife, Kiss Me First is a slightly disturbing read whose protagonist does little to appeal to the reader; a quality which oddly contributes to the unputdownable  nature of the book. Despite the cast being made up of predominantly seedy characters Kiss Me First is ultimately a thought-provoking portrayal of the ills of social media and makes for an accomplished debut from Lottie Moggach.

About Kiss Me First

A chilling and intense first novel, the story of a solitary young woman drawn into an online world run by a charismatic web guru who entices her into impersonating a glamorous but desperate woman.

When Leila discovers the Web site Red Pill, she feels she has finally found people who understand her. A sheltered young woman raised by her mother, Leila has often struggled to connect with the girls at school; but on Red Pill, a chat forum for ethical debate, Leila comes into her own, impressing the Web site’s founder, a brilliant and elusive man named Adrian. Leila is thrilled when Adrian asks to meet her, flattered when he invites her to be part of “Project Tess.” Tess is a woman Leila might never have met in real life. She is beautiful, urbane, witty, and damaged. As they e-mail, chat, and Skype, Leila becomes enveloped in the world of Tess, learning every single thing she can about this other woman—because soon, Leila will have to become her. An ingeniously plotted novel of stolen identity, Kiss Me First is brilliantly frightening about the lies we tell—to ourselves, to others, for good, and for ill.

About Lottie Moggach

Lottie Moggach is a journalist who has written for The Times, Financial Times, Time Out, Elle, GQ and The London Paper. She lives in north London. Kiss Me First is her first novel.

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Book Reviews / Books

Review: The View on the Way Down – Rebecca Wait


The View on the Way Down

I almost didn’t read The View on the Way Down, and yet I find myself writing this review as the Easter weekend draws to a close, with red, blood-shot eyes and a tear streaked face. As I often complain, the list of books I want to read constantly increases; thus for whatever reason, my copy of Rebecca Waite’s debut novel slipped under my radar until recently when I saw a mention of it on Twitter. I had just finished Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley and, keen to get as much reading done as possible over the long weekend, I immediately began The View on the Way Down.

Centred around a family who are struggling with the aftermath of eldest son Kit’s suicide five years ago, parents Rose and Joe have a strained relationship, while teenage Emma has turned to both comfort eating and Jesus in the wake of her brother’s death. There is also another son; Jamie who is estranged from his family, working in a book shop in Sheffield and also battling with his own demons following Kit’s suicide.

The naivety of Emma’s character is just one of many endearing qualities of the book; and the reader immediately sympathises with her as she deals with bullies, losing faith in God and not really knowing the circumstances in which her brother died.

For me, the most poignant and moving part of The View on the Way Down was the way in which it dealt with the often un-talked about subject of depression; a cause very close to my heart but equally one I have always struggled to contemplate. The delicate way in which Waite wrote about Kit’s suffering in the lead up to his death was so breathtakingly beautiful that, despite the fact I was wracked with sobs on a packed and very public train, I read the passage twice.

Waite’s talent also lies in the fact that despite much of the book being about both death and depression, she has written a beautiful, touching tale that is as uplifting as it is sad. And the brotherly loyalty and love that dominates the book as it draws to its heartbreaking finalé  is a fitting end to this wonderful book. The View on the Way Down is a beautifully written, spell-binding debut that has completely blown me away.

About The View on the Way Down

An astonishing and powerfully moving debut novel. This novel will open your eyes and break your heart. It is the story of Emma’s two brothers – the one who died five years ago and the one who left home on the day of the funeral and has not returned since. It is the story of her parents – who have been keeping the truth from Emma, and each other. It is a story you will want to talk about, and one you will never forget.

About Rebecca Wait

Rebecca Wait has been writing for as long as she can remember and has won numerous prizes for short stories and plays. She wrote The View on the Way Down in the evenings whilst working as a teaching assistant. The Followers is her second novel. Rebecca lives in London.

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