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The Earth Hums in B Flat - Mari Strachan

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Author: Mari Strachan / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 06 May 2010 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd / Title: The Earth Hums in B Flat / ISBN 13: 9781847673053 / ISBN 10: 1847673053

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    4 Reviews
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      21.04.2012 02:14
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      Okay if you want a quick read, but not the best

      I saw this novel at a book fair a couple of weeks ago and although I had never heard of it before, it caught my eye. I liked the title "The Earth Hums in B Flat" which sounded interesting and the cover design is just lovely. As you can see from the thumbnail image above, there are glowing colours, a nice handwriting font and very positive reviews such as "sparkling" (The Guardian) and "gorgeous" (Marie Claire). I had to pick it up and take a closer look.

      The back cover explains that it is a mystery told from the point of view of Gwenni Morgan, an imaginative 12 year old who lives in a sleepy Welsh town. I noticed that it was recommended by Catherine O'Flynn, author of What Was Lost, which I really enoyed and which also includes a child detective. The Earth Hums seemed to be highly rated by all the big newspapers. I had really high hopes and thought I might have discovered a real gem.

      Unfortunately, I don't think it quite lived up to all this hype. The novel is readable but I was by no means blown away.

      I don't want to give too many spoilers in case anyone does want to read it in spite of my neutral review, but the mystery story line mainly focuses on a local man who goes missing, his family who Gwenni is friendly with as the mum is her teacher and she babysits for their kids and it shows how other people in the town are involved in various ways. Gwenni's home life is also a big focus as well as her relationship with her best friend Alwenna, who is growing up more quickly than Gwenni and starts to grow apart from her. Towards the end of the book some more adult themes of mental illness get a lot of attention. I think the plot was fairly solid and it did hold my attention, although parts of it were a little slow moving towards the middle.

      My main gripe with this book was that some of the characters were not believeable. Gwenni is supposed to be 12 but I think it must have been a long time since the author was that age! I find it hard to believe that a 12 year old would be as naive as Gwenni is. She is very babyish in the way she acts, talks and thinks. I genuinely just found myself rolling my eyes at her constantly. She has no understanding of what is appropriate behaviour and she believes in things which a 12 year old wouldn't, for example she believes she can fly, that the jugs on the shelf at home are alive and watching her, that a neighbour's fox stole needs to be buried so that the fox's soul can go to heaven... She refuses to see the obvious when it is right in front of her and even though she wants to be a detective and constantly reads crime novels, she has a very simple and innocent view of everything. Even when the ugly truth about a crime is staring her in the face it does not occur to her that anything might be wrong. The reality is obvious to the reader from early on, but it is only confirmed at a late stage when Gwenni finally grasps it. I found myself sympathising with her mum, sister and best friend who wonder fairly often why Gwenni has to be so "odd". The Independent on Sunday described it as "authentically quirky" which I would really disagree with. Yes there is some quirkiness but it seems contrived.

      The character of the mum is a potentially interesting one, but we don't really get under her skin and I feel that a lot more development would have been possible there. Equally, we never really get any insight into the dad's feelings in a difficult situation at the end of the story.

      I did like the Welsh setting and the fact that some Welsh words were included, such as Tada for Dad and Nain for Grandma.

      It is a shame when you have high hopes for a book and they don't live up to it (another noteable instance of this recently was When God Was A Rabbit, a great title on a book which was slightly lacking) but I did enjoy this book to some extent and was happy to continue to the end. For the cheap price I paid second hand it was an alright read, but I would have been a bit disappointed if I had paid full price in Waterstones. I don't think I would ever read it a second time.

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        28.06.2010 12:43
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        A surprisingly good read

        Gwenni Morgan is a 12 year old girl, living in the poverty and claustrophobia of a small Welsh village near to Snowdon. Her life revolves around trying to stomach her mother's disastrous cooking, her school, and her best friend Alwenna, who has just discovered stockings and boys. Behind the very ordinary existence, a very different Gwenni flies around the village every night, seeing spirits in the pool, and looking at her neighbours whilst they sleep. At home, the Toby jugs on the wall watch everything that goes on, leering and laughing at what they see, while in the pantry, the rather more sinister faces in the distemper look disapprovingly at Gwenni every time that she goes in.

        The mixture of charming fantasy and everyday life becomes a little more than a mere picture of 1950s rural life when a close neighbour is murdered. Gwenni feels that it is her duty to play detective and discover the identity of the murderer, but the trail that she follows teaches her more than she expected about her own family and the cracks and secrets hidden behind the happy façade. As the protective barriers that people have put up start to disingetrate, the truth behind the ordinary village is revealed and everything starts to crumble.

        Although at first I was put off by what has become a rather well-worn formula (a dramatic story seen through the eyes of an innocent child narrator), I was won over by this book. Its strength lies in the engaging and irresistible character of Gwenni - the whimsyish and spiritual main character.

        Gwenni's voice is very authentic; the sparkling white dentures of her father, the bouncing yellow curls of her sister, her mother's mysterious shaking; there are no long descriptions in this novel, but despite this the reader builds up a wonderfully complete picture of the characters and the village. It is the small details of the things that Gwenni sees that makes the narrative voice so credible. The clues that help to build up this picture are fed to us very slowly, and the journey that we go on makes us feel much like Gwenni, and her journey through adolescence. Reading through her innocent statements, it is fairly easy to guess the adult secrets that are going on, but the time taken getting there is hugely enjoyable as we become entwined in the humourous stories of village life.

        The novel is a mixture of the dark comedy and social realism. The lingering aftermath of war with its varied repercussions; illegitimacy; the stigma of mental illness - all of these things place the novel in a very precise historical setting. The author's descriptions of Gwenni's domestic life; sharing a double bed with her sister, shutting her ears to the conversations that she hears through the paper thin walls at night, a relentless lack of privacy, seem wonderfully authentic. At the end of the novel, there were certain characters and scenes that remained in my mind, almost as if I had experienced them myself, whether it is Gwenni's dad, with his endless patience and unswerving love for his wife, or the feeling of warm vomit running down legs as Gwenni's friend throws up on a bus - the skill in the writing is very vivid. More than anything, the feeling of a warm and supportive community comes over and Gwenni is very much part of that community. It her unfailing optimism and ability to overcome the tragedies of her life with quizzical good humour that make her such an endearing character.

        This is Mari Strachan's first novel. An unconventional new writer, she is a Welsh former librarian in her sixties who worked in both prison and public libraries before retiring to Ceredigion.

        The paperback version of The Earth Hums in B Flat was published by Canongate Books in 2009.
        300 pages, ISBN: 184767304X

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          23.06.2010 15:50
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          Great book, recommended

          This was a book that Amazon recommended to me, based on my previous purchases. I don't often bother with their recommendations as my tastes are somewhat random but with a title like this....I felt I had to have a look. I read the first few pages on Amazon and was hooked by the writing style and the flighty main character Gwenni, who starts the narrative with the intriguing line "I fly in my sleep every night." I ordered a copy through my local library, and read it within 2 days.

          Gwenni Morgan is stuck between childhood and adolescence. At 12 years old she still loves to daydream and enjoys the company of her doll, yet at the same time she has to contend with the start of her periods as well as look after her family and babysit for another local family's two young children. Gwenni has a vivid imagination and a love of detective novels, and is observant beyond her years. Her voiced belief that she can fly means that she is deemed "odd" by her mother, who worries that the villagers will think she has a mental problem.

          When a local man goes missing, Gwenni turns detective to try and discover what happened to him. Although she was not a fan of the man himself, she has grown close to his wife and their two young children, and she is determined to solve the mystery of where he has gone. However as Gwenni pieces together everything she learns, she begins to paint a dark picture that in turn leads to some shocking revelations about her own family.

          I loved Gwenni as a main character as her observations of the world are hilarious. Due to her age and overactive imagination, she is an unreliable narrator but I found this didn't detract from the story as we are fully aware of this from the start. Indeed her imagination is what brings the story to life. Her vision of the Toby Jugs shuffling about on the shelf, and the faces in the chipped distemper watching and screaming bring a wonderful vividness to the scenes and add to the tension that some of the scenes require.

          The story is set in 1950s Wales and the author has described the period wonderfully. I'm too young to have lived in such times but can vividly imagine the thin walls, horrible food, and cramped living arrangements of the time. As with all small villages there are a host of weird and wonderful characters, and Gwenni's observations of them are at times hilarious.

          There are a host of other characters, some of which I feel are more developed than others. But as we are viewing the world through Gwenni's eyes, we are only focusing on the traits that she spots in other people. I felt that her sister Bethan was underdeveloped, yet her ill mother and kind father are portrayed with a bit more depth. Her mother's hardness, and at times apparent hatred towards Gwenni, is suitably disturbing, yet her father's kindness towards her is touching. John Morris the cat was one of my favourite characters! A few of his scenes made me laugh as they are reminiscent of things my own cats get up to - at times he felt more developed than some of the people in the book.

          As an antidote to Gwenni, we have her best friend Alwenna who is more advanced than Gwenni. Alwenna has started to like boys and wear dresses, so no longer wants to join Gwenni on the childish escapades they used to enjoy, much to Gwenni's frustration. Yet by the end of the novel, we see Gwenni in a far more adult light that Alwenna.

          In a sense this is a coming-of-age story, as Gwenni starts to see the world through adult eyes. The truth behind the fox fur that she becomes obsessed with, along with the truth behind her neighbour's disappearance and the secrets held by her own family, teach her that life isn't always at it seems and that things are not always as black-and-white as you imagine them to be.

          The plot unfolds in a gentle, easygoing manner, with secrets revealed sympathetically rather than thrown at us. Even young Gwenni senses that something is amiss in each scenario, so that when the truth is revealed to her she accepts it with an adult-like understanding.

          I loved this book and found it hard to put down. It's written in a nostalgic, almost romantic prose and deals with many issues such as growing up, death, murder, mental illness, dysfunctional families, small town gossip. Yet it is not too dark as Gwenni's innocent outlook on life keeps it lightsome. Gwenni is such an endearing character and I really felt for her when she had to deal with her weak stomach and endure rejection from her mother, her sister and her best friend. The ending is suitably bittersweet and we can only hope that life turns out well for her.

          The only question left is - can she really fly or was it just her imagination? Read it and see what you think!

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          07.05.2010 19:56
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          What begins as enchanting, ends up as flat as the title.

          Gwenni Morgan is not quite like any other girl in her small Welsh town in the 1950's. Aged 12, she is inquisitive, bookish and full of spirit. Gwenni also has a secret - she can fly in her sleep!
          When a neighbour mysteriously vanishes and no one seems to be asking the right questions, Gwenni decides to conduct her own investigation to try and find out what has happened to him. She begins questioning the villagers and records everything she sees and hears: but are her deductions correct? What is the real truth? And what will be the consequences of finding out ?

          Whilst this is not usually the type of book I would choose to read, I did find it held a strange kind of appeal after I read the blurb on the cover.
          I quickly realised at the beginning of the book that the author, Mari Strachan has managed to enter the mindset of a 12 year old girl in a very convincing manner.

          This story is told in the first person and young Gwenni manages to enchant the reader from the first page, with her thoughts and observations. There is also an almost magical feel to the story at the start as Gwenni reveals how she flies in her sleep, but this of course is dismissed by her mother who tells her she mustn't say such things.

          I felt myself feeling sorry for Gwenni as it appeared her mother didn't have much time for her. Her family life she shares with her parents and sister Bethan, seems quite uneventful and without excitement. Gwenni appears much closer to her father than her mother, but seems reasonably happy and accepting of how things are. In fact, I felt that Gwenni at times comes across as younger than the 12 year old she is meant to be. A fact which maybe shows that 12 year olds in the 1950's were not as 'grown up' as they are today! Gwenni is still very much a child with a wild and vivid imagination.

          The story unfolds very slowly and what the author has done well here is contrast the perspectives of adults with a child like Gwennie. How differently things are viewed through the eyes of a child, in comparison to those of an adult.
          It becomes clear to the reader early on, that all is not as it seems with Gwennie's family and little hints are given throughout the book. You begin to realise that at some point Gwennie is going to have to grow up quicker than she anticipated.

          Whilst this is cleverly written in parts and often a touching piece of writing, the lack of character development is a big let down. We are introduced to many characters in this book apart from Gwenni, but don't get to know enough about them and they are not developed enough to be able to enjoy them, or appreciate the story fully. It would have made this book a more interesting read for me. One or two of the characters form an integral part of this story, yet because we do not get to know enough about them, it made it difficult to identify with them.

          The only real impression we get about Gwenni's immediate family is that they make endless cups of tea! There are numerous references to making large pots of tea, which I found became irritating. Gwenni's father seems a kindly and easy going man, whilst her mother appears hard and unlikable. For all it is clear she has problems, I found I had no sympathy for her at all. Gwenni's sister Bethan, we don't really get to know at all and this made the ending of the book harder to comprehend or appreciate.

          Gwenni displays confusion and bewilderment as she approaches her teen years. Her friend Alwenna, is becoming interested in boys and not wanting to play games anymore and Gwenni cannot figure out why. She has a childlike innocence and naivety that is both touching and endearing. This ensures we figure out what is going on around her while she is still putting the pieces together. Gwenni's naivety means she is unable to comprehend why adults keep secrets and sometimes tell lies to prevent the truth from being revealed.

          You realise that at some point Gwenni is going to have to grow up quickly and leave the magical and enchanting world that seems to exist only in her mind. Reality and the truth for Gwenni is a much harsher world.

          I am unsure who exactly the target audience for this book should be. It has many qualities a 12 year old and teenager would enjoy, but overall I feel it has an adult theme running through it.

          Whilst I can't say I actually enjoyed the book, I can still appreciate how well the author gets into the mind of a 12 year old and Mari Strachan deserves credit for this. However, whilst the beginning appeared quite enchanting and the end somewhat interesting, much of this book contained little to hold my interest.
          For all this story is set in a Welsh village and contains some Welsh dialect, you don't get any real sense of the village itself or the surrounding Welsh countryside.
          I wish it had been more ambitious.

          There was nothing to really grip me when reading this book and I felt I was plodding on reading it but never becoming fully absorbed in the story. Indeed I found it quite easy to pick up and put down. I was left with a feeling of disappointment as this book seems to offer so much scope at the beginning for a decent read, but was let down by underdeveloped characters and a drawn-out story which does little to hold your interest.

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