#BookReview At the Breakfast Table by Defne Suman, trans. by Betsy Goeksel

At the Breakfast TableAbout the Book

Buyukada, Turkey, 2017. In the glow of a late summer morning, family gather for the 100th birthday of the famous artist Shirin Saka. It ought to be a time of fond reminiscence, looking back on a long and fruitful artistic career, on memories spanning almost a century. But the deep past is something Shirin has spent a lifetime trying to conceal.

Her grandchildren, Nur and Fikret, and great-grandchild, Celine, do not know what she’s hiding, though they are intimately aware of the secret’s psychological consequences. The siblings invite family friend and investigative journalist Burak along to interview Shirin – in celebration of her centenary, and also in the hope of persuading her to open up.

Eventually Shirin begins to express her pain the only way she knows how. She paints a story onto her dining room wall, revealing a history wiped from public consciousness and generations of her family’s history.

Format: Hardback (416 pages)             Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 1st September 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Literature in Translation

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At the Breakfast TableMy Review

As with her previous book, The Silence of Scheherazade (which is still on my Kindle waiting to be read), the location of At the Breakfast Table is the author’s native Turkey.  Although set in the present day it involves events dating back to the 1920s.

The story is told from four different points of view: journalist, Burak; Shirin Saka’s grandchild, Nur; Celine, Nur’s niece; and Sadik Usta, Shirin Saka’s faithful servant and companion. Although the unfolding of Shirin Saka’s story forms a key element of the book, we never hear from her directly but through the narratives of others. The same is (largely) true of Suheyla, Nur’s dead mother. I confess it took me a little time to get the family relationships straight in my head partly because, although the book does contain a family tree, this wasn’t included in my digital copy. (I was also confused by Shirin Saka sometimes being referred to as Shirin Hanim until I got to the glossary at the end of the book and learned Hanim means Mrs.)

The author creates distinctive narrative voices for each of the four characters. Celine is all breathless excitement at the prospect of discovering her great-grandmother’s story, although she felt rather immature for the age she is supposed to be. Burak is more matter of fact and thoughtful but exudes a real sense of melancholy, mainly because of his complicated relationship with Nur. Sadik Usta tells his story in a restrained way, often referring to himself as ‘I, your humble servant’. His protectiveness towards Shirin Saka (which extends to a reluctance to delve into the past) and his quiet devotion to her, and the family in general, made him my favourite character.  Nur was a character I really struggled with. I found her self-obsessed and her treatment of Burak, toying with his affections when it suited her and discarding him at other times, difficult to forgive.

There is a lot of moving back and forth in time, with present day events being described alongside memories of (sometimes quite incidental) past events and the transition between the two not always entirely clear. This is especially the case in the sections told from the point of view of Nur and Burak. One minute they’ve just met, then they’ve broken up because Nur has married someone else, then they’re back in the early days of their relationship.

Between the four different narrators – and through the art made by Shirin Saka – we gradually learn about the early lives of Shirin Saka and Sadik Usta, and the source of their unique bond. It also provides a lesson in a period of Turkish history about which I knew very little and during which shocking events took place. Many of these, sadly, are echoed in events taking place in the world today: cultural and religious persecution, forced migration, extreme nationalism. Look, for instance, at what is taking place with the Uyghurs in China.

At the Breakfast Table is an interesting story of family relationships and exploration of the concept of intergenerational trauma. I also enjoyed the insight into Turkish culture (especially its cuisine) and history. However, the disjointed way in which the story was told and its slow pace meant it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

I received a digital review copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

In three words: Immersive, intense, affecting

Try something similar: Island of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

Defne SumanAbout the Author

Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Prinkipo Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University and then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos, where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon, USA and now lives in Athens with her husband. The Silence of Scheherazade, first published in Turkey and Greece in 2016, was her English language debut.

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#BlogTour #BookReview Every Shade of Happy by Phyllida Shrimpton

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Every Shade of Happy by Phyllida Shrimpton. My thanks to Amy at Head of Zeus for inviting me to take part in the tour and for my digital review copy via NetGalley. Do check out the post by my tour buddy for today, Frankie at Chicks, Rogues and Scandals.

Every Shade of HappyAbout the Book

Algernon is at the end of his life.
His granddaughter is at the start of hers.
But they have more in common than they think…

Every day of Algernon’s 97 years has been broken up into an ordered routine. That’s how it’s been since the war, and he’s not about to change now.

Until his 15-year-old granddaughter arrives on his doorstep, turning Algernon’s black-and-white life upside down. Everything from Anna’s clothes to the way she sits glued to her phone is strange to Algernon, and he’s not sure he likes it.

But as the weeks pass, Algernon is surprised to discover they have something in common after all – Anna is lonely, just like him. Can Algernon change the habits of a lifetime to bring the colour back into Anna’s world?

Format: Hardback (400 pages)          Publisher: Aria
Publication date: 18th August 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

Okay, I’m going to cut to the chase and say I was Team Algernon from the outset. Yes, he may be a little grumpy, rather lackadaisical about washing his smalls and definitely set in his ways but that’s just his way of coping with the world, particularly since the death of his wife, Evie. He feels she’s with him in spirit though, giving him a nudge when needed or the occasional gentle rebuke just as she did when she was alive. I loved everything about Algernon and, although he may be out of touch with modern technology – he favours a map over an app – perhaps he’s not wrong when he asserts a letter, a telephone call or a face-to-face meeting means more than an email, text or ‘like’ on an Instagram post.

It took me a little longer to warm to Anna’s mother, Helene. Initially, she comes across as someone who lurches from one crisis to another. Even Anna admits her mother is impulsive and clumsy, charging into things without due thought. It’s not Helene’s fault that she and Anna have ended up homeless but her precarious financial situation is the reason they’ve had to resort to living with Algernon. However, I came to admire the way Helene gradually gains control of her life, eventually finding something she’s really good at; as even Algernon is forced to admit.

Anna’s love of colour is about more than just wearing clothes of every hue or creating body art, it’s her form of self-expression. When forced to don a drab school uniform, she feels she’s no longer Anna, just a dull, grey version of herself. It’s one of the things, along with the upheaval of a new home, new school and having to leave her friends behind, that makes her retreat into herself, with only Gary her cactus for company. At this point I must mention one of my other favourite characters in the book – Jacob, the eldest son of Algernon’s neighbours – who literally catapults himself into the story variously performing the role of joker, protector, counsellor, delivery driver, cream tea devourer and much more besides. I also loved Jacob’s quirky sense of humour and his endless patience towards Algernon.

Dismiss any preconceived notion that Every Shade of Happy is the simple story of young Anna melting the heart of her grumpy old granddad because it’s much more nuanced than that. Although Anna and Algernon may appear to be running on parallel lines and that never the twain shall meet, in fact they have more in common than either of them thought. They just need a bit of guidance and encouragement to find out what it is. My first weepy moment was when an additional armchair was ordered – yes, really – and there were plenty of times after that I found myself reaching for the tissues.

There is a real warmth to the story perhaps partly because, as the author reveals in the Acknowledgments, the book is an ‘ode’ to her father whose wartime experiences were similar to Algernon’s, as was his reticence to talk about them.

Every Shade of Happy is a wonderfully affecting story told with warmth and wit.

In three words: Heartwarming, funny, touching

Try something similar: The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

Phyllida_ShrimptonAbout the Author

Phyllida Shrimpton obtained a postgraduate degree in Human Resource Management, a career choice which was almost as disastrous as her cooking. Thankfully her love of books and writing led her to a new career as an author. Her young adult novel Sunflowers in February won the Red Book Award for YA Fiction in 2019. Having lived in London, The Netherlands and the Cotswolds with her husband, daughter, giant Saint Bernard and grumpy old terrier, she now lives on the Essex Coast in a place she likes to describe as being where the river meets the sea. Every Shade of Happy is her first adult novel.

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