Book Review: A Life Discarded.

cover106119-mediumFinding one diary discarded in a skip would be a dream come true for me – let alone 148 of them.

However, as biographer Alexander Masters discovers, working out what to do with them next is no easy matter.

I quite often find myself on eBay wondering whether bidding on tatty journals written in scrawling, often-illegible handwriting by people unknown is a good use of my limited funds.

I’ve never “won” one (yet). It seems a lot of other people are willing to pay far more than I have available for the honour of owning a little slice of someone else’s life.

I’m not sure what it is I think I’m going to find within their pages.

Maybe it’s because I wrote a journal consistently from the age of 18 until I was about 26 and then sporadically afterwards.

Perhaps there is an affinity with people who put pen to paper (so rare these days) to record their thoughts.

Or maybe I’m just nosy?

I know, though, that if I had found “148 tattered and mould-covered notebooks” lying among “broken bricks in a skip on a building site in Cambridge” I would have felt like I’d hit the jackpot.

They were initially discovered by two of his friends. Unsure what to do with them, they handed the three boxes of books over to Masters, the award-winning author of Stuart: A Life Backwards and Simon: The Genius In My Basement, with the idea that he could write about them.

The anonymous diaries begin in 1952 and end half a century later, which, as we learn, is a few weeks before they were thrown out.

When I heard about this book, I was incredibly excited and thrilled to get my hands on it.

I’ll admit to daydreaming about where I would start if they had suddenly fallen into my lap – and I think that’s where I went wrong.

Here’s the synopsis.

A Life Discarded is a biographical detective story. In 2001, 148 tattered and mould-covered notebooks were discovered lying among broken bricks in a skip on a building site in Cambridge.

Tens of thousands of pages were filled to the edges with urgent handwriting. They were a small part of an intimate, anonymous diary, starting in 1952 and ending half a century later, a few weeks before the books were thrown out.

Over five years, the award-winning biographer Alexander Masters uncovers the identity and real history of their author, with an astounding final revelation.

A Life Discarded is a true, shocking, poignant, often hilarious story of an ordinary life.

The author of the diaries, known only as ‘I’, is the tragicomic patron saint of everyone who feels their life should have been more successful.

Part thrilling detective story, part love story, part social history, A Life Discarded is also an account of two writers’ obsessions: of ‘I’s need to record every second of life and of Masters’ pursuit of this mysterious yet universal diarist.

My first instinct would be to discover who they belong to but, for Masters, it almost felt as if finding the identity of ‘I’ would somehow ruin it for him.

The book follows his rather twisty-turny route towards that conclusion, including consulting a private detective and a graphologist – which, though interesting, felt like padding to me.

There are excerpts from the diaries (and Masters’ attempts to make sense of them and his own life) together with drawings and photographs.

By all accounts, ‘I’ lives what I would consider a normal life, never fully realising the potential they clearly see in themselves, which makes the diaries all the more fascinating.

Intertwined with the main story are other threads about his two friends, which, though poignant, again feel like they take the focus away from the diaries.

I’m not saying the book isn’t a good read, it is.

Chapters often end with the punch of a new discovery (I’m not going to give any away), which makes it impossible to put down.

From my point of view, I just found it a bit frustrating.

Format: Kindle.

Price: £5.49.

My rating: Three and a half stars.

With thanks for Fourth Estate (via NetGalley) for the ARC in return for an honest review.

Book Review: If Ever I Fall.

ifieverI was glad I didn’t have anything planned immediately after finishing S D Robertson’s second novel, If Ever I Fall.

Early on it felt like two hands reached out of the pages and hauled me into this powerful, compelling and emotional story – and they didn’t release their grip until the final words had been read.

At that point I felt slightly shell shocked and I definitely needed some time to think about the characters, time to process all of the events that had taken place and, most of all, time to acclimatise back into my own life.

This book is well written, clever and absorbing and it definitely warrants five stars, in my opinion.

Here’s the blurb:

Is holding on harder than letting go?

Dan’s life has fallen apart at the seams. He’s lost his house, his job is on the line, and now he’s going to lose his family too. All he’s ever wanted is to keep them together, but is everything beyond repair?

Maria is drowning in grief. She spends her days writing letters that will never be answered. Nights are spent trying to hold terrible memories at bay, to escape the pain that threatens to engulf her.

Jack wakes up confused and alone. He doesn’t know who he is, how he got there, or why he finds himself on a deserted clifftop, but will piecing together the past leave him a broken man?

In the face of real tragedy, can these three people find a way to reconcile their past with a new future? And is love enough to carry them through?

I can’t say anything else about the story without giving away the plot but it gradually becomes clear and I think it works really well.

There are changes in tenses that make it easier to keep up and while it is gritty in places, it is packed with emotion throughout.

The fact that it is one of those rare works of fiction that details exactly what it’s like to work for a local newspaper at present is an added bonus – although perhaps that should be expected given that S D Robertson (“feel free to call me Stuart” it says on his website) was a local newspaper editor before leaving to pursue his writing dreams.

His debut novel, Time To Say Goodbye, spent more than six weeks in the Kindle Top 20 and I think he’s got another hit on his hands here.

Format: Kindle.

Price: £2.99

My Rating: Five Stars.

Book Review: Birds Art Life Death.

cover95742-mediumHow often can you say that a book is like nothing you have ever read before? Well, Birds Art Life Death is exactly that for me.

Every paragraph, every sentence, every word, even, of Kyo Maclear’s memoir felt like it had been carefully, and maybe painstakingly, selected – and the result is…perfection.

The title suggests big themes but, in fact, it is lots of small but sometimes spine-tinglingly significant observations – all linked together by the author’s quest to understand bird watching (at least, that’s how it seemed to me).

From the first page, it made me sit up straighter (I stopped reading it in bed last thing at night) as I already sensed that I did not want to miss a single thing.

It is about birds, of course, but with a more philosophical approach – it’s more a field guide for life than ornithology. Every so often a page features a beautiful illustration, and not just of birds, which fitted with the general quirkiness of this book.

It spoke to me on so many levels; as a writer, as a woman, as a daughter, as a mother and, yes, as someone who likes watching birds.

Here’s the blurb:

One winter, Kyo Maclear became unmoored. Her father had recently fallen ill and she suddenly found herself lost for words. As a writer, she could no longer bring herself to create; her work wasn’t providing the comfort and meaning that it had before.

But then Kyo met a musician who loved birds. The musician felt he could not always cope with the pressures and disappointments of being an artist in a big city. When he watched birds and began to photograph them, his worries dissipated. Intrigued, Kyo found herself following the musician for a year, accompanying him on his birdwatching expeditions; the sounds of birds in the city reminded them both to look outwards at the world.

Intricate and delicate as birdsong, Birds Art Life Death asks how our passions shape and nurture us, and how we might gain perspective, overcome our anxieties and begin to cherish the urban wild spaces where so many of us live.

This is the first time I have read anything by Kyo Maclear, an essayist, novelist and children’s author who lives in Canada, but it won’t be the last.

There were so many almost lightbulb moments that I made use of the Kindle’s highlighter option for the first time. Fearing I might forget, I actually wrote paragraphs on pieces of paper and stuck them to my wall.

After I had finished the book, I was left feeling peaceful, yet inspired, so inspired I could feel it in my chest like a sort of nervous energy.

I can only hope the author’s journey has made her feel the same.

Format: Kindle (published on Friday, Feb 9th).

Price: £7.99.

My rating: Five stars.

With thanks to Fourth Estate (via NetGalley) for the ARC in return for an honest review.