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When God Was a Rabbit - Sarah Winman

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8 Reviews

Author: Sarah Winman / Paperback / 352 Pages / Book is published 2011-05-12 by Headline Review

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    8 Reviews
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      15.07.2012 22:26

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      A good summer read

      This is a really lovely read, it didn't make me laugh out loud or make me cry but nonetheless it is a story full of emotions and for the most part I was gripped.

      The book is basically in two parts, following the life of a girl named Elly. It begins as she grows up in 60s / 70s Britain and her description of a 'normal' family life is very entertaining. Elly is very close to her older brother Joe and their relationship forms a large part of the story, as does her relationship with childhood pal Jenny Penny, a curious and unusual character. The second part of the book is about when Elly has grown up and examines how the relationships and connections with her family and friends have changed over the years. I did like the way that this was done but have to admit that I found the first half of the book much more interesting than the second half and for a time I grew a little bored of reading about her adult life.

      Nonetheless I did enjoy the book and found it heartwarming and quite thought provoking. It managed to be just wacky enough to keep you amused whilst also being a realistic take on family life and the trials and tribulations of growing up as well as illustrating how we look back on times gone by; the happier more carefree days of our lives.

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      28.05.2012 13:55
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      A lovely and addictive read with a very interesting take on events. A real page turner.

      First a brief description of the book: It focuses on a young girl called Elly who's entire world revolves around her family, providing a refreshing take on family life in the 1960s and 1970s. It shows her reactions to moving from Essex to rural Cornwall, the way her family adopts some unusual characters into their life and how these people influence her development. It also shows Elly's relationship with her young friend 'Jenny Penny', Through whom the darker sides to family life are explored and her very close relationship with her brother Joe, who is her constant throughout the childhood section of the novel. The novel jumps forward in time by about twenty years to show Elly's life as an adult and how these relationships have changed, particularly focusing on the story between Elly and Joe.

      There is a reason this book appears in so many 'Bestsellers' and 'Recommended reads' lists! I read this book on a recommendation from a friend with very different reading tastes to me so was initially wondering if I would enjoy it. Within the first few chapters I was completely addicted. I really enjoyed that it was initially written from the perspective of a young girl - a very interesting and unique way of writing about the events in the first half of the book and showing her interpretation of her (slightly dysfunctional) family. It feels autobiographical in writing style though does tend to just focus on the key events in the protagonist's life following her through childhood, then jumping forward to see her life as an adult. The book touches on important historical events which give it a recognisable time frame which better allows the reader to connect to the story and relate it to their own experiences or perceptions of life at that time.

      It does cover a lot of events so is a very 'busy' book and at times this can make the writing feel a little disjointed, but this doesn't take anything away from the plot. It is beautifully written depite this - I loved the writing style as it seemed very witty, honest and quirky making it an even greater pleasure to read and took a more lighthearted approach to serious themes and events. It was lovely to find a book that was genuinely funny throughout and so moving that I could laugh and cry along with the characters. Winman has perfectly captured a young girl's thinking which shines through in the humour and imagination of the protagonist.

      I wasn't expecting the twists later in the book when the main character is older (which I won't spoil here) but I did get swept up in the development of this story and finished the book feeling very satisfied. Although not a 'challenging' read I loved the book and have already recommended it to many of my friends and family, so would definitely suggest it to others - especially as a holiday read. Although I personally really enjoyed this book, it has had mixed reception so makes an excellent choice for a book club read as well.

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        12.01.2012 21:38

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        An excellent read make time for this one

        I have literally just finished reading When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman and could not put it down.
        It was not the story I was first expecting but I found it to be engrossing.
        The story is based around the life and family of a 60's child and all their trials. It covers four decades from 1968 and includes the good and bad times of the family and the incredible events that shape their lives.
        From friendship to love and loss with a range of diverse characeters from Jenny Penny the neglected but ever optomistic child to Ginger an outragous pensioner with a a past as colourful as her hair.
        Topics covered include the confusion of an abused child and the secret she keeps for a life time to the blossoming love for each other of two young boys torn apart to be reunited years later.
        This deep and thought provoking read is a must making you think laugh and sigh in equal measure.
        And when you meet 'God' you'll be pleasantly surprised.
        I will read Miss Winman again.

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        09.11.2011 14:52
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        Enchanting family story with a bit of magic and a lot of soul.

        Recently I gave in to my own version of peer pressure and read When God Was A Rabbit by Sarah Winman. If it had been a random book I might not have noticed it despite it's unusual title as the cover looks a bit like chick lit, not that I have anything against the genre, but it's not really me. I read it because it's in the top ten popular books on Dooyoo and I wanted to see why. I'm glad I did now because I found it highly unusual and strangely familiar at the same time.

        There really isn't any main plot to the book but rather a structure of a life split into two parts with a hiatus in-between. There's no 'blurb' as such just a rather haunting description of someone's feelings leaving a place behind. It's patently obviously that it's a much-loved family home and the writing throbs with the echoes of childhood. That caught my interest and it's what sets this book apart from other books in a similar vein.

        Story Outline.

        The narrator is Eleanor, Elly for short and starts with a short chapter on life before and after her meeting with a special friend she will never forget. In this she also sets out the fact of something magical about this friend and how she comes to become important in her life. The first part of the book is from Elly's birth (as told to her by her mother) in 1968 and continues until roughly 1981, just after her family moves away from Ilford to a house in Cornwall called Trehaven.

        The second part starts in 1995 and ends just after the terrible events of 9/11. The reader doesn't know what happened to Elly in those years in between unless it's something mentioned briefly as part of the later narrative. Far from being thrown by this I thought it added to the story, but then we all see things in a very different way. To Elly the years in between were not important enough for the story and that was acceptable to me.

        Part 1.

        This charts Elly's early life and the appearance of the rabbit in the title. After striking up a friendship with a Jewish neighbor, a man who preys on her innocence, and the consequent repercussions, Elly's brother Joe promises to look after her forever. That Christmas she gets a rabbit which she names God. The reasoning behind this lies in some very funny scrapes and to explain it therefore would spoil a lot of the story. She also meets a girl called Jenny, a gyspy type child with unkempt hair and a fey nature. Jenny's mother lets her do what she wants as long as she keeps away from the mother's boyfriends.

        The girls form a bond, which runs throughout the book and is why there isn't a middle part. It's almost as if there wasn't any life after Jenny. I found this part of the book was very endearing, especially as the childish reminiscences reminded me so much of my late teens and early twenties. So much kindled laughter, but also deep nostalgia in me. We were a poor family and made a lot of our own fun. We built dens, played cricket and football, hopscotch, had pets and dressed them as babies in dolls clothes, basically did much the same as this family.

        When Elly's father wins the football pools he is initially unable to believe it and does nothing. Soon though the parents decide to move away and this is when the girls are parted. After just one other meeting they will stay apart for many years. Also in part 1 we learn about Elly's extended family, her aunt Nancy who's a minor film star, her mother will battle breast cancer and Joe will become special friends with Charlie and lose him when the family move to Dubai.


        Part 2.

        If Part one was about family, brothers and sisters, love and loss, then part two starts with a possibility of reconciliation for both Elly and Joe, though Elly has the longer wait. The family home in Trehaven has been a bed and breakfast place for many years and several long-term residents make their way into the hearts and home of the family. Joe moves to America with Charlie, now openly a couple, but tradegy is about to strike and it's possible that nothing will ever be the same again.

        Without giving too much away that's as much of the plot I can précis, this is very much a book driven by continuous events, which is always difficult to review when written in a first person narrative.

        Characterisation.

        This is beautifully realized with such ease that the depth of feeling is often overlooked. It's almost as if the author set out to write a poignant story but tried to lift it with a wry humour and succeeded in something quite unique. There is a lot of mention of sexuality and homosexuality in particular; that I feel might have inspired at least part of the story. It doesn't detract from the characters either but enhances some of them.

        I felt in touch with most of the characters simply because I identified with so many of them. That doesn't mean my own family was quite as startling as this one, but every family has its secrets and I didn't find this family's too surprising. The narrator, Elly, allows the author to pen some exquisite lines and some very funny ones as well. Pathos and humour go arm in arm in the book and many of the characters are just a bit larger than life. Some of the characters reminded me of my own daughter who asked some difficult to answer questions. So it wasn't any stretch of the imagination that a child could call her rabbit God. At that time in the story Elly is very confused and in need of comfort, her new pet gives her that comfort.

        It's also the bond of brother and sister that shines out and becomes so important in Part 2. Joe is Elly's friend, confidante after losing Jenny and also the keeper of her secret misery after the abuse by her neighbor. Joe is charming and caring but no killjoy. His presence is important to Elly's life.

        It's really Jenny though that makes the book. Her character is meant to be unusual and when she vanishes from Elly's life there's a big gap left. I loved the way the author described this. 'I felt the air sucked out of my lungs like life itself.' Jenny is precocious and tells Elly things beyond her years, but they still do silly girlish things together, getting the words of a popular Queen song mixed up purposely to annoy and break the sternness of an adult telling them off.

        The minor characters all lend an air of mystery and fun to the story and give us something to focus on apart from the children. Otherwise the book would be mainly the memories of childhood only.

        My Thoughts.

        There's a lot to like about this book. I read it in one go as I enjoyed the read. I loved the story, the quirky characters, the rabbit who 'talked' to it's owner, the laughter and loving, the childhood bonds, the tears and the laughter and the fear that life would end before some things were resolved. It's also about need and coping with fear, something that will play a part in the latter part of the book.

        Mostly though I loved the way I felt about my own childhood and wish I could write a tenth as good as this author. There's so much I would write myself about making dens, tents, playing in the park, making up stories, sabotaging the school nativity play. Remembering where I was and how I felt when John Lennon was shot. Schooldays, speech days, telling secrets to friends, passing messages, fooling around, but most of all living and loving and being a family. This made the book for me and I'd recommend it wholeheartedly.

        It's not a long book at 320 pages. Mine was a library book; I'm keeping my spending down until after Xmas. This is available on Amazon at £3.86 used from 1.74.

        Thanks for reading.

        ©Lisa Fuller 2011.

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          07.11.2011 14:39

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          Just read this book on the insistence of my girlfriend. Actually really enjoyed it. A very intelligent re-telling of a girl's strange but interesting childhood. Great sense of mystery throughout the story and leaves alot to the imagination. Would definately recommend it -easy but enjoyable read!

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          03.09.2011 13:27
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          A book that is different

          ----- When God Was a Rabbit -----

          I picked this book as part of a supermarket deal 2 for £7 or £4.99 each. My other choice was a chic lit and I like to have a good balance between holiday/relaxing read and more intelligent read. There wasn't much clue about was the book was about in the blurb at the back, instead you learn it is about brother and sister, their childhood and growing up. The book was written by Sarah Winman and this is her debut novel.


          ----- The Plot -----

          The main character and narrator is Elly. We are told about her life since the moment she was born in 1968, through her growing up, making friends with a somewhat strange character Jenny Penny, bonding with her brother, a glimpse of her parents, the family suddenly becoming rich.

          I found the book very honest and true to life, because it mentions events that can happen in a real life, e.g. grandparents tragically dying, child abuse, parents separating, cancer, kidnapping, homosexuality and heartbreak. Although, to be honest I thought that some of it, for example Elly's abuse by a neighbour, was unnecessary. It might be upsetting for more sensitive readers and it doesn't seem significant enough to bring anything to the story. Of course, I don't think child abuse is insignificant, but the way it was mentioned in the book, it didn't seem to have any effect on the main character and seemed to have only been mentioned in a passing. I would also like to point out that even the most tragic events described in this book are described in a very subtle and light-hearted way, so shouldn't bother most readers.


          ----- My Opinion -----

          I enjoyed reading about the bond that formed between Elly and her big brother Joe and this part of the plot seems to be what is holding the whole book together. They would support each other throughout their lives and form a strong friendship. There are several supporting characters here that were well developed: Elly's parents (I liked their characterisation), Elly's aunt Nancy, best friend Jenny Penny with her promiscuous mum, Joe's boyfriend Charlie. Some of the other characters were not memorable enough and I won't be mentioning them by name.

          I really liked the fact that the author tried to keep things real, not polished and perfect for the sake of fiction. Also, the author includes real life events in the story, for example deaths of Martin Luther King and J F Kennedy, through to events that happened in the last year in the book, 2002. It makes the story more believable.

          On the other hand, we also have a few 'supernatural' events like Elly's rabbit God talking, slightly psychic best friend. In the bonus material at the end of the book, the author explains that this represents the vivid imagination of children at a very your age as Elly's, but when I was reading the book it didn't quite fit to have so believable story with magical events happening at the same time.
          Another thing that I didn't like very much was the style of narration from Elly in the first part of the book, when she is very little. The style of narration was very grown up and I felt it didn't fit a 4-8 year old character. I thought the author could have made more effort in trying to make Elly speak and think like a child - it would make the story more believable. Unfortunately, this has spoiled the book for me a little and prevented me from getting into the story completely.

          The book is divided into two parts, the first part relates to Elly's childhood and the second is her adulthood (early thirties). We don't get to learn the in between, but maybe because this time is boring and not worth mentioning. As Elly says in the book, these two parts of her life are more like bookends that hold together the years she doesn't bother to remember, years when her best friend was not present. The second part of the book brings another let down for me. Because the reader is so abruptly transferred from Elly's childhood to her adulthood it is very difficult to adjust, especially that the style of narrating hasn't changed at all. I found it hard to stop thinking about Elly as a child and spent several pages trying to adjust and realise in my mind that this was an adult woman talking.

          Fortunately, in this part we aren't introduced to new characters. I am glad the author chose to keep only the characters from the first part of the book and let the reader learn what happened to them. In this part we are re-introduced to Jenny Penny, Elly's lost childhood friend. Their friendship seems strong still and we learn about an unexpected life events that affected Jenny Penny.

          I would have preferred to read about Elly's life as a continuous one story, rather than split in two halves. It would probably make the book a little longer, but wouldn't disrupt the flow of the story so much. I found it uncomfortable being dropped into the second part of the book, not really knowing what happened in between. The author doesn't really reveal much of this in the second part and the reader is left with a gap in the story. I think the second part of the book, left the story down somewhat.

          The story is narrated in a rather light-hearted way, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but never too serious. The chapters are not numbered, but are good length. The book is divided in two parts. This isn't a gripping book with lots of twists and turns, but rather a book that will take slower to read, because you will stop from time to time to think. The action can be a bit slow at times.


          ----- Bonus Material ----

          There is some bonus material included at the end of the book, which some might find useful: authors note, inspiration for writing the book, Sarah Winman's life as a writer and questions for the reading group. I found the first two items - author's note and inspiration, where interesting and helped me better understand what Sarah Winman was trying to say through this story and why she chose to write it this way.


          ----- Recommendation -----

          I think various readers might have different opinions about this book. When I started reading, I had several people commenting that this is a great book and it was also a bestseller, so obviously is popular with some readers.

          To me, it was just ok, because of many things I mentioned earlier that spoilt the book. If you want to read a book that is different, I would definitely recommend reading When God Was a Rabbit and making your own mind about it. I personally wouldn't read this book again (I don't re-read most books), but I don't regret I read it. Just a little word of caution, if you are very sensitive to any events mentioned above or if you experienced tragic accidents or illnesses in the family, this might bring up sad memories. There is also quite a bit of swearing in the second part of the book and a graphic sex description.


          -----------------------------------
          Author: Sarah Winman
          Paperback, 324 pages
          Price: from £3.99 (on Amazon)
          Published by Headline Publishing Group
          ISBN 978-0-7553-7930-9

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            18.07.2011 00:38
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            A wonderful, heartwarming story that feels fresh and different from anything else I have read.

            I've often heard the review line 'this book will have you laughing on one page and crying on the other' but I'd never actually found a book that had had such an effect on me. That was until I read Sarah Winman's 'When God was a Rabbit'.

            The main reason I purchased this book was because I was in desperate need of some new reading material and, being your average skint student, headed to my local Asda store in search for something cheap. This book was definitely cheap (around £4 or part of Asda's 3 for £10 deal) and, after flicking through the reviews in the first few pages and blurb, decided this one would do.

            That night I started to read this book and was extremely surprised at how quickly I really got into it. In fact, I had completely finished this book within about ten days. I found myself reading the next few pages at every given moment I had.

            The book follows a girl named Ellie throughout her life in a sort of autobiographical way. The childhood memories are very relatable and true to life. Terrible events are described in an innocent way whilst, not so terrible events are described as if they were the end of the world.

            As the book moves on to Ellie's later life we discover just how much of an effect these childhood events have on her, her family and her friends. The second part of the book moves on swiftly from the first, events are referred back to and everything follows on nicely.

            Friends are made, lost and rediscovered. Hearts are broken, families move on, move away but are ultimately linked by love.

            The voice the book is written in really gets stuck into your head and it really is a real page turner. What I found most interesting was reading the second part of the book and finding out how these characters had turned out, what became of them as adults, how different and similar they were as children.

            The story contain many twists and turns and really makes you think about your own life and life events. I adored this book and would strongly recommend it to anyone looking for something new and interesting to read.

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              10.06.2011 15:35
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              A book which tackles innocence - and the end of innocence - with mixed results

              Having recently read, and been bowled over by, "One Day" by David Nicolls, I was looking for another book that might convey an era I recall from my past and reference that in a coming of age book. Of course this was a mistake - I should have switched to reading an entirely different kind of book and left reminisces about the past behind for a while. Instead, whilst browsing in Sainsburys for a book to buy to fit in with their two books for £7 offer, I found myself drawn to Sarah Winman's "If God Were a Rabbit".

              It didn't help that in amongst the usual quotes from critics included in the book was one which likened the book to "One Day". Seduced by such praise, I bought the book, and found myself reading it almost as soon as I got it home.

              ~~The Author~~

              "When God Was a Rabbit" is Sarah Winman's first novel. She was born in Essex in 1964 and trained as an actress. She was a jobbing actress for many years until she decided to turn her hand to writing.

              ~~The Plot~~

              Elly Portman lives with her parents and her brother Joe in Essex. She is a curious yet quiet child who struggles to make friends. Into this world comes Jenny Penny, who is destined to be her best friend, despite Jenny's chaotic family background which contrasts sharply with Elly's relatively calm household.

              The book tells Elly's story in two parts - with her childhood covered in detail in part one which encompasses 1968 to 1980. In that section we learn of the particularly close bond Elly shares with her brother and are introduced to God - who is Elly's pet Belgian hare.

              Part two covers the period from 1994 to 2002 and feels like a reassessment of the relationships Elly has described from childhood. Circumstances have changed for several of the characters but the bonds appear to be as strong as ever.

              ~~What I Thought~~

              I was drawn into this book almost immediately - there was something rather captivating and appealing about Elly and her family. Winman draws some wonderful characters but the book maintains an almost whimsical feel and it's this whimsy which is both the best thing about the book and the worst thing about it.
              Elly's parents are beautifully drawn - her father a man who goes from enthusiastic defence lawyer to broken man over the course of a few weeks and one trial and a mother who comes across as the mother we would all wish to have - caring, considerate and also great fun.

              Elly herself is a wonderful creation - a child who questions authority and is considered an outsider by her peers. When she finally encounters the equally curious Jenny Penny an enduring friendship is born. The enduring bond in the book however is that between Elly and her brother Joe and deals with her dawning realisation that Joe is gay and how as a child she just accepts this without quibble.

              Similarly Joe's parents don't seem to have any issue with their son's sexuality - although the fact their father's sister is a proudly out lesbian might help explain this.

              In amongst a cast of colourful characters Winman tells a story which covers sexual abuse and parental neglect (in the case of Jenny Penny) and also captures the disintegration of Elly's father which culminates in a win on the football pools which leads to a move away from Essex to rural Cornwall.

              The "god" of the title is the pet rabbit Joe gives to Elly - a rabbit Elly believes talks to her. The conversations she has with god are utterly believable - no doubt because you are reading these from the perspective of a child.

              Winman's prose is enjoyable - in particular in the first part of the book - and she perfectly captures a view of the world through the eyes of a child. As such the whimsical tone works very well, despite the fact as a reader you do have to suspend disbelief at how much the hand of outrageous fortune touches the Portman family and their friends.

              In amongst this Joe falls in love with his school chum Charlie and his heartbreak at the end of this affair is palpable through Elly's eyes. Winman is capable of capturing the deep love and rock solid bond between brother and sister but also the helplessness of a child who after being protected by her own brother following a revelation of sexual abuse finds herself unable to help mend his broken heart.

              The cast of characters who pass through the book do remind me of "One Day" but Winman isn't able to make them as memorable as Nicolls did in his book so while Jenny Penny and her sluttish mother do stick with you there are other characters who are less memorable and at times I had to go back to remind myself of who someone was. Winman quite obviously likes the eccentric and as such the book is filled with eccentricity.

              There's also a tendency on Winman's part to resort to stereotypes and this is probably most evident when she is describing Arthur, an elderly gay man who comes to stay at the family's B&B in Cornwall and his female friend Ginger. Arthur is rather camp, has cutting wit and is outrageous for his age. I have encountered stacks of characterisations of older gay men in books like this before and it became a little tiresome. His female friend Ginger was also used as a comic, if predictable, foil to him and it came as no surprise to me when she was described by Winman doing wonderful Shirley Bassey impersonations. She did, to her credit, stop short of having Arthur do these impersonations but although both characters were likeable, they didn't really ring true for me.

              Arthur's only saving grace as a character was his ability to carry the whimsy of Part One over into Part Two which is desperately in need of something to lighten it up. In this section we deal with murder, death and disappearance, much of it set amongst the backdrop of 9/11.

              Winman writes in notes at the back of the book that she was criticised for using 9/11 as a setting in the book but by the time it became obvious Joe was going to be in New York on that fateful date in the book I wasn't in the least surprised - how could the reader be when they had already been told that Charlie was kidnapped and held hostage in Dubai, that the Portman family had won the pools and that John Lennon had been killed on Elly's birthday? It all seems a little convenient but because of the whimsical nature of much of the writing I didn't find it odd.

              Nor is it distasteful - there are obviously some painful reminders contained in the prose but there is nothing that caused offence - just an author using an extraordinary backdrop which somehow fitted within her extraordinary story.

              What I didn't enjoy was the graphic and coarse sex scene Winman included using 9/11 as a backdrop. Elly picks up a man in a bistro - which is fine. The language Winman uses to describe their brief encounter is as erotic as swimming across a frozen lake however and I found it out of place in amongst a book which had previously described sexual encounters in a far more amusing manner. I appreciate the backdrop isn't something to laugh at and Winman is clearly using this encounter as a metaphor for the feelings of loss and loneliness felt by so many in the city at the time but it didn't work for me.

              As the book limps towards its conclusion the only thing that kept me reading was wondering what had happened to Joe in the dark days following 9/11 - even Jenny Penny's situation starts to drag a bit.
              Conclusion

              This isn't in the same league as "One Day - there are elements of Nicholls' book in here but it lacks the beating heart and more importantly, the writing skills that Nicholls possesses. Winman isn't capable of making her story really believable in the way Nicholls did with One Day and her characters are not as honest, or as memorable either.

              There's a distinct lack of realism in the book too - which didn't really bother me in Part One but once Part Two kicked in and time seems to have made every character a little richer and just a little bit more irritating then I was beginning to find the prose a bit smug. Jenny Penny finds herself in a horrific predicament and as the only character to come from a working class background in the book once again I felt myself being drawn into the area of stereotypes.

              My copy of the book has a fairly good selection of notes at the end from the author and while the section dealing with the inspiration for Winman's book was interesting, her section on Life as a Writer was, I felt, rather patronising - this is her first book after all.

              All told "When God Was a Rabbit2 is a book of two halves with the first half being enjoyable and heartbreaking at the same time but with a darker second half which doesn't work half as well - even allowing for the loss of innocence and the cynicism that inevitably creeps into you as you grow older. On that basis I'd say this book is worthy of three stars - but don't believe the hype about this book being akin to One Day - it actually doesn't come close.

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