Sunday, 27 January 2019

Nemesis by Rory Clements

3.5 Stars

This is the third book written by Rory Clements that centres around Tom Wilde, American Professor of History at Cambridge.  It picks up where Nucleus leaves off and features some familiar characters - Philip Eaton, beaten but unbowed and the divine Lydia Morris.  It also has, in common with the first two books, a propensity to wax lyrical about Tom's Rudge motorcycle and it's mighty 500cc engine.

Instead of being set just before World War II, this book sees the start of the conflict in 1939 and is a mixture of real people and events and the fictional.  To be honest, it is the fictional that are the most interesting, especially the rather charismatic and enigmatic Marcus Marfield.

The settings move from pre-war France back to Cambridge and some exploration of the surrounding fens.  In comparison to Nucleus it is a little bit of a damp squib, but still a pretty strong tale.  The beauty of the book is not so much it's plot - which, despite the turbulent times and the heinous actions contained within it seems to meander rather than punch through - but in the characters.

Despite all their failings Tom Wilde and Philip Eaton read like real flesh and blood upon the page.  Quite how a Professor of History and an MI6 Agent are wound so intrinsically is still a little bit baffling (and I've now read all 3 books in the series) but they are and it works well.  Every character in the book reacts in odd ways sometimes, but completely in keeping with their character at all times.  Perhaps the strongest is Lydia, undoubted bluestocking but all the better for it.

There is a lot of seemingly random connection making in the book which can be hard to swallow and some of the violence is, perhaps, of the extreme variety.  I did find myself having to read some sections a couple of times to figure out what on earth was going on as the language can be obfuscatory.  Well worth persevering with though and has a strange ring of truth to it (as all the best Historical Fiction should).


How Hard Can It Be? by Allison Pearson

Kate Reddy is not my kind of heroine.  I found her vain, facile and self absorbed and could not take a liking to this woman at all.  She routinely misses what is under her nose because her mind is constantly full of herself - whilst she is busy narrating the story that shows her as a bit of a martyr.  You see Kate is nearly 50 and has 2 teenage children and a husband that is having a mid-life crisis all of his own.  So, she worries about her appearance (almost to obsession as far as I can tell), she worries about her children but misses glaringly obvious clues to what is happening in their lives, she tolerates her husband and is oblivious to what may be happening in his life.  Kate is a mess.  Kate is also going through the perimenopause and, she decides, this is the source of all her woes.  No Kate, the source of most of your woes is your self-absorption.

The only reason I gave this book 3 Stars is the description it gives of the menopause and the humour that is doled out alongside it is actually rather good.  If you are a woman that has started or completed the journey you will recognise some, if not all, of the symptoms described here.  I even did a little mental cheer at the long list of possible symptoms - nice to see the hair in strange places and disappearing from others get mentions.  It is also brutally honest about the psychological fallout of hormonal ebbing and likening to Emily's teenage hormonal surges is actually quite shrewd.

Why did the main character have to be so unpleasant? 

I know I'm harping on about it but she did spoil the book for me.

Would I read another Allison Pearson book?  Yes, yes I would but if that heroine is decidedly unpalatable then it will only be one more.

The Color Of Secrets by Lindsay Ashford

If I'm being entirely honest I found the whole book rather depressing.  Tragedy after tragedy gets heaped on this family and it did begin to wear me down.  There are moments of beauty and hope but whether it was just my general mood when reading making the tragedies stick in my mind or if they really are all prevalent I'm not sure.

The basic premise of the story is that it charts the story of two generations of one Midlands family from the second World War through to the 1970s.  It does capture the changes in society very well from a racial integration point of view and also covers attitudes to single parenthood, adultery and poverty.  Unfortunately, to do so it generally gives us a pretty bleak looking life with little in the way of brightness - except in a small Welsh village that seems rather excepting of difference.

There are no surprises in the book either, you can forecast precisely what is going to happen next and, it invariably does.  Not necessarily a bad thing.  What is a bad thing is that it tries to be a bit of a "sweeping saga" and fails, mainly because once we lose Eva's voice (to be replaced by her daughter Louisa) we really lose the heart of the book.  The sections dealing with interracial relationships are strangely bland, almost prettified for the reader, I suppose having read books contemporaneous to the opening period you expect a much harsher reaction to the issue of skin colour than is actually depicted.  There are some exceptions but generally it feels a little sanitised for a more modern reader - I do appreciate that there is a tough line to be drawn in dealing with these issues but that should be crossed in the nature of authenticity.

To be fair, the plot cannot really be discussed without giving away major spoilers.  Probably why this has snuck in as a solid 3 Star read rather than a little lower.

The Dream Wife by Louisa De Lange

3.5 Stars

I found this strangely enjoyable, but as more of a fantasy story than the promised psychological thriller.  For me there was little in the way of thriller about the book, but there was an almost magical element to it through Annie's dream world and that is probably what swung it for this reader.

There is a lot of well trodden ground here and, to be honest, it is not particularly well handled or developed in the book.  Yes, I am aware that there is domestic abuse at all levels of income/society and that abuse can be psychological rather than physical.  However, to go from promising, driven career woman to cowering in fear domestic slave stretches credulity a little thin.  Also, it is becoming an all too familiar trope in this genre.  Until the dreaming starts this is a fairly non-descript tale to be honest - all mother love and overbearing spouse.

I did like the dream sequences, very much.  Unfortunately, if this is where the twist lies then I couldn't find it.  After the first couple it was clear who Jack was and it was also clear what they signified.  Well, it was for me anyway.  So, that meant no twist in the tale but what we did get was a well written expose of the reality and what these dreams meant to, and for, Annie.  The plot development is average, unfortunately, and begins to be just a catalogue of violence and mental torture interspersed with glorious fantasy.

The characters in the book are also a bit of a problem.  Nobody has any real depth to them with one or two characteristics that define them throughout.  David, Annie's husband, is the typical 1980s City Boor - all whisky and suits and vile attitude.  His mother is repellent and lives only for her son and refuses to give her control of him to anyone else - your basic MIL from hell.  Annie is, well, whiny and needy and you do wonder how she ever held down a job, let alone a career if this is her base level of behaviour.  Basically pre-marriage and post-marriage Annie are completely separate people and there is no plausible defence of this in the story.  to be honest other than those 3 there are cameo appearances from Dream Jack, a pre-marriage friend of Annies whose name I cannot recall and a single dad from the neighbourhood that pops up randomly in the real world and the dream world.

Go in to this book expecting more of a fantasy meshed in a real world rather than the hyped thriller and you will probably enjoy the story a lot more.

I'll Find You by Liz Lawler

1.5 Stars

The blurb for this sounded so promising.  Emily Jacobs is in hospital for a routine procedure and she thinks she witnesses something, something that reminds her of her sister Zoe going missing one year ago.  She has never come to terms with Zoe's disappearance and now it looks like she has two mysteries to investigate.  I was really looking forward to this but, sadly, the tale really isn't up to the blurb.

The story itself lurches along in an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances that have more in common with a fantasy novel than a thriller.  There is a complete disconnect between real life and the story in this book, to say more would be to give away what is, I suppose, the big twist in the book - so I will bite my tongue and just say REALLY, as if anyone would think that is acceptable hygiene practice?

I think we are supposed to feel sorry for Emily, she is still hurting from her sister's disappearance but her sessions with Counsellor Eric are helping.  She still has regular contact with the Police as she hasn't given up looking even if they have had to move on.  Her parents are clearly alcoholic wastes of space.  Now she is being made to feel like she is losing her mind because of what she witnessed when coming round from her operation.  At first I did, but then misery upon misery is heaped on to the character and my attention slipped away - the scenarios are more American Daytime Soap Opera than pulse-pounding thriller.  It's hard to find any enjoyment in a book that tests your knowledge of the world so completely and relies, almost completely, on coincidence for the plot.

The bits I did enjoy were the medical information scattered throughout.  Although they do seem to be filler much of the time (get that word and page count up), I can see how showing Emily's competence as a nurse during the resuscitation of the hysterectomy patient helps to give lie to the perceived sense of her insanity.  Unfortunately, outside of that the plot is tissue thin and the characters are pretty much one-dimensional.

I did struggle to finish this book but I persevered to the bitter end and, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure it was worth it.


Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

This is my second read through of this book and it must be a good 7 or 8 years since the first time.  I have long been saying that the Infernal Devices are a way better series than the Mortal Instruments and once got in to a long and protracted discussion about this with a 50+ member of staff in a chain bookstore - much to the other half's embarrassment.  Hey, a good story is a good story and it doesn't matter what age group it is "aimed" at.  Anywho, the upshot of that sad little digression is that this was just as good as I remembered it being.

The set up is very slow and we get introduced to Tessa, Nate and the Dark Sisters through a protracted build up that does get a little tedious.  Even when we first move to The Institute things are slow to unfold as the author takes pains to properly introduce Jem, Will, Charlotte, Henry and Jessamine.  Honestly the first 70 pages or so I had to force myself to keep reading.  There is a pay off though as suddenly the Steampunkesque fantasy world kicks in to high gear and things REALLY start to happen.

With vampires, warlocks and other downworlders to contend with, and the odd demon thrown in for good measure you can empathise completely with Tessa's bewilderment at this strange parallel world she is a part of.  Add a big dollop of automaton warriors and things go from bad to worse in short order.  Indeed you start getting a little breathless as you page turn as fast as you can to find out what happens next and a LOT happens.  The world of the Nephilim is well constructed and accessible (even if you haven't read the Mortal Instruments books), really it is the world building that makes this so enjoyable a tale.  The characters are strong but, for me, it is the world that is truly immersive.

Luckily I have books 2 and 3 three already on my shelf waiting to be read and I am looking forward to getting the chance to slot them in to my rather large "To Be Read" pile.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Never Greener by Ruth Jones

This book got off to quite a good start, that moment of fatal attraction between two people who should know better, who should be better.  Unfortunately, it goes down hill from there - everybody in this book is relentlessly looking backwards and refusing to live in the present.  Whilst your past can be a comfort and nostalgia can be joyful in this books case it is downright depressing and it makes the present bleak and the future one that makes you want to end it all.

I never really felt like I got to know any of the characters except in the most superficial of ways.  Whilst this worked well for Kate - whose profession necessarily makes her someone you will never truly know (that's my big worry about anyone who is an actor - how much of what you see is actually real?  They make their living out of being convincing deceivers after all).  It is much less effective for Callum, Belinda, Matt and Hetty.  In fact, Hetty is a relatively minor character trapped in Matt's orbit and we perhaps know the most about her.

I did find the whole book rather misery inducing to be honest.  People lieing to each other, justifying their lies to themselves and just generally behaving badly.  Callum in particular annoyed me and Belinda didn't exactly inspire me sympathy to be honest.  It was just all so much doom, gloom and heartbreaking.  Whilst I'm not averse to a depressing read or a read about the worst in people's characters this book just left me feeling somehow grubby and like I shouldn't have looked in on the character's lives.

To be fair, this does mean that Ms Jones managed to elicit feeling from me through her writing.  Maybe it isn't the feeling she set out to create but it was there so job done.  The narrative does flow well on the page and the author's voice doesn't overpower the tale.  Just a shame the characters are so intangible.

The Year Of Taking Chances by Lucy Diamond

3.5 Stars

I did enjoy reading the exploits of our 3 main protagonists - Gemma, Caitlin and Saffron - their lives are a million miles away from reality but sometimes escapism is what you need.  If you take away the fact that you know everything will work out fine for each character and ignore the appalling lack of business practices (one of my bette noirs in books I know) it is quite a good look at the nature of friendship.

For me the pick of the 3 characters is Gemma.  I really enjoyed the fact that her marriage went through a very realistic tough patch but that they were starting to work through the problems - all too often in this genre the marriage is either dissolved almost instantly or they repair it to be better than it was before.  In Gemma and Spencer's case they may reunite but there is still tension there and they are still working through the problems caused by his accident - it is a normal relationship in other words.

I couldn't really understand Caitlin's reaction to finding out she was adopted.  Once she had got over the initial shock it seemed like she was willing to throw out all the love and happy memories created by her parents and this frustrated me no end - I desperately wanted to grab her and shake some sense in to her.  Saffron is just immensely self centred and the whole thing with the letter had me rolling my eyes as it was clear from the outset what had happened.

The plot itself ticks away quite nicely behind the surface.  There are the usual number of happy coincidences and one or two surmountable tragedies but you never feel you are in danger of getting anything less than a happy ending.  What it does do well is explore the different nature of relationships - between partners, between child and parent, between friends and frenemies.  This was handled quite deftly and with a reasonably sized dollop of reality; there is also a lot of wry humour between the pages, not laugh out loud but certainly relatable to those of us who have chosen a more traditional life path.

A decent exponent of the genre that definitely entertains and does leave you feeling quite cosy.

The Night Of The Party by Rachael English

3.5 Stars

After having read only one Rachael English book before and loving it I was really looking forward to this one.  Unfortunately, it didn't deliver the same punch that The American Girl did.  It does an excellent job of examining small town Irish Life between the early 1980s and the mid-2010s but I was just left with the sense that an elusive "something" was missing from the book.  I haven't figured out quite what but there was something stopping me becoming fully absorbed in the tale - this may have been that I couldn't actually find it within me to actually care about who had perpetrated the murder of Father Galvin.

The characterisation is strong throughout the book and our 4 main protagonists - Conor, Tom, Nina and Tess - all come across as fairly normal people; good and bad in equal measure.  The growth of their personalities from 13 year olds to their late 40s demonstrates well how circumstances imprint themselves on our psyches and Tom in particular demonstrates the disconnect you can find yourself in where nothing feels quite real and the ability to see all sides of an argument can leave you stranded.  He is also the poster boy for doing a job you hate but being good at it.

The plot itself can best be described as meandering.  Although the murder is the reference point used throughout to keep bringing us back to the four friends the majority of the book actually deals with the changing nature of friendship.  Once these four were so close and now they are drifting apart, as is the natural order of things when not living close together or having the same experiences.  They do reconnect when Conor begins investigating the murder again but I got the strong feeling that it was a very reluctant connection.  Apart from finding out "whodunnit" there is no real resolution to the story and the personal lives of the four are left dangling - which, I suppose, is fair enough.

Where I did feel the book let me down was the way each character managed to be a success of some description.  Although Tom starts off as a bit of a drifter who has no idea what he wants to do he soon finds his "calling" as do all the others.  I would have thought the law of averages would have meant that at least one of them would have remained in the small town, stuck in a job with no prospects but no.  The nearest we really have is Nina who has failed to make her way through the teaching hierarchy.  So much success for 4 connected people feels more than a tad unrealistic I suppose and I think I would have preferred it if at least one of them had been left behind in Kilmitten.

Overall, this is a book I struggled to become enthusiastic about.  The writing is good but it just didn't capture my imagination.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts

This is a very well written book that explores both the nature of family but also the nature of obsession.  Dealing not only with the murder of a child but the disappearence of another, the aftermath for the parents of said children and the aftermath for the family of the accused.  It also explores the intrusiveness of the media and how events are manipulated and twisted by them to sell the most copy or get the most clicks.

Although I had more or less figured out by half way through the book the reality of the history behind The Flower Girls, this did not effect my enjoyment of the latter half.  It may even have increased it as I was able to pick up on all the little clues scattered throughout that pointed the reader in the right direction.  The only real puzzle becomes who abducted the 5 year old from the Balcombe or did she just wander off as her parents asserted?  The reveal when it comes actually shocked me and was not where I expected things to go with that story thread.

The characterisation throughout is strong.  Even Joanna (who I found to be irritating beyond belief) is so well constructed as the Aunt of the murdered toddler that she lives and breathes between the pages.  Laurel is particularly complex and you are left with the feeling that you have not even scraped the surface of this damaged soul.  Rosie Bowman may have rebranded herself as Hazel Archer to escape her "notorious past" but as things start to fall apart around her you start to see the 6 year old peeping back through, the way the author handles this is wonderfully nuanced and you do get sucked in by the character.

Plotting is strong and well paced.  Although it follows some tried and tested thematic schemes it always manages to feel fresh and you do find yourself hurrying through Max's thoughts to get to the next section from Joanna's perspective or Hazel's or Laurel's and then having to go back and force yourself to slow down a little to take in every little bit of it.  Each character exists for a reason of the plot but so unobtrusively and naturally that nobody feels like padding.

There are truly chilling moments in this book which, for me, were not really related to the murder of 2 year old Kirstie Swann.  They were definitely based around the psychologies of those involved and tended to be almost throw away moments in the text when Laurel or Hazel/Rosie was remembering things from their childhood.  Maybe the best exponent of this was when Hazel is reciting her internal that what is happening is real and not make believe.  For me this was a summation of the book itself, just one little sentence and yet it encapsulated all that was going on here.

This is an exciting novel that will have you suffering from the "one more chapter" curse.  So, why not 5 stars if I loved it so much?  It is such a small thing but I did become wearied of both the insistence on referring to a toddler as a baby, in fact the constant use of the word baby began to grate immeasurably and I also found some of the assumptions made in the original case to be leaps of faith that were never tested at the time or on appeal and were almost glossed over.  The main one being the judges assertion of being exposed to violent imagery being to blame, there also is a troubling lack of professional support given to Laurel throughout her incarceration which I find hard to believe would be the case for one incarcerated so young for such a heinous crime.

For once a novel that is touted as being a Psychological Thriller actually steps up to the plate and delivers.


The Fairy's Tale by F. D. Lee

I surprised myself by enjoying large sections of this book, I have read a few of the subverted fairy tale genre books now and some work better than others.  Fortunately this falls in to the latter category.  Clearly a lot of though has gone in to world building and the reader does get a fleeting sense of Bea's world and the land where the fairies (as a general catch all term for all magical creatures as opposed to the fae) are working to create belief.  That was one of the issues I had with the book, I never really got a full sense of either world so instead of imagining the action taking place in these settings I was very much reading it.

The set up for the story is a Snow White / Cinderella mash up, just as The Teller whocaresforus would have it - after all there is no room for anything away from the predetermined plot.  Well, there shouldn't be but Bea can't help but try to make things better and the characters can't help but be off script.  Bea should only be plot watching - as a lowly Garden Fairy she has no chance of becoming a Fairy Godmother but that doesn't stop her wanting - but she still manages to interfere.  This leads to the mysterious Mistasinon, the Plotter, giving her a chance at her very own tale - it should be straightforward but this is Bea and she doesn't disappoint.

Away from the main plot the book has, in true fairytale tradition, an awful lot to say about personal morals and societal morals.  Each land has it's own set of governances and challenges but it is in Bea's homeland that we really see state control and censure at it's worst - the Redactionists make The Child Catcher out of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang seem like a kind and gentle man.  To be honest you could probably break the whole system of belief in the book down and write a very long thesis about it's symbolism.  Not a bad thing as it does make you think.

The only other issue I had with the book was some of the linguistics.  Some structures felt too convoluted to really grasp initially so there was a lot of reparsing sentences going on to bring concepts in to focus.  I also found the naming conventions for the places to be very clunky on an English speaking tongue and every time I came across a  place name I would jolt out of the story whilst my brain tried to figure out the best way to pronounce it.

I did come out of the book ready to continue in the world though and will, no doubt, purchase the further books in this series.

The Break by Marian Keyes

2.5 Stars

This was my first Marian Keyes book and it will probably be my only Marian Keyes book.  I just couldn't get past the banality of the whole thing - from the plot to the characters it all felt somehow like a huge waste of my time.  I did manage to finish it but it was almost car crash reading to be honest as we lurch from one unappealing scenario to another.  One thing that really bothered me was the use of euphemisms and language in the book - swearing doesn't bother me but Amy's almost childlike references to acts of carnality as "Riding" really did bother me.  I have no problem with books that deal with topics such as adultery or abortion but here they are almost trivialised and it did make for eye rolling reading on occassion. 

The basic premise where Hugh wants a break from his marriage to Amy is a promising start.  Although, it does set up immediately that this is a couple that really are incapable of communicating properly - otherwise why would his grief leave him feeling so trapped?  Still, the book started out quite humorously as it introduced the larger family and the set up to the big Break.  So much so, I was sure I was going to really love this book - sadly after about 5 chapters the sheen dissipated and I realised that Amy is particularly self-obsessed and facile and definitely donning the mantle of the "wronged woman".

All of the characters behave in very stereotypical ways if I'm being honest.  Now normally I would say that stereotypes exist because they are universal truths but somehow it just feels lazy on the pages of this book.  You can predict how every character will react in every given situation and men are certainly given a tough ride in this book - they are either inept or complete neanderthal idiots.  Amy moans that some of her friends fall in to the AMAB camp but if their world is populated by creatures such as described in this book then I'm not surprised in the slightest.

The Break is an unedifying take on life that tried hard to be funny but doesn't achieve much beyond a wry, uncomfortable smirk from time to time.  With no real plot of character depth stretched over 500+ pages it is a challenge to finish it but at least you can pick it up and put it down very easily so it is good for filling a 30 minute lunch break.

East Of England by Eamonn Griffin

Lets get this clear from the start - Dan Matlock is a cold, calculating recidivist who appears to have little in the way of redeeming characteristics.  This made it a very hard book for me to actively enjoy reading.  Without the desire for the protagonist of the book to overcome his obstacles I found myself not really engaging with the plot that lurches from one criminal act to another.  The odd thing is that if this had been a "True Crime" book then I would have enjoyed far more than reading about a fictional criminal.

During reading I likened the book to Nicholas Pileggi's novels on the American Italian underworld and it does have lots in common with them - mainly the acting for the sake of face rather than considering all outcomes first.  The big difference is that Pileggi manages to draw some sort of humanity out of his cast of real life villains, sadly Dan Matlock seems devoid of this.  even when relating tales of his childhood with his father, Joe, you still manage to feel strangely disconnected from the character.  I am still wondering why he carried out the actions he did on release from prison - he definitely got his retaliation in first but I could see no necessity for it at that point.

Whilst the writing is solid and the author works the plot admirably, I was still left with more questions than answers.  The set pieces of the book are well crafted and can be shocking in their sheer brutality, a brutality which is treated as mundane.  With the denouement looming between the rival factions of Matlock and the Minton/Corrigan families you know it isn't going to end well and you also know that somehow Matlock is going to overcome - somehow I wanted him to fail.

The setting is unrepentantly 1980s but there are one or two anachronisms scattered through the text.  Not enough to throw you out of the setting but enough to make the eyes roll (particularly when discussing take away coffees).  It's the little things that bother me and this was such a little thing but it REALLY bothered me.

The book leaves on a tentative cliff hanger obviously leaving things open for further adventures of Matlock.  To be honest I don't think I am interested enough to read further about this man.  He has his moments of humanity but they feel faked and he is not charismatic enough to be a remotely likeable psychopath (for that you really need Thomas Harris).

If you love crime stories or thrillers then you may really love this.  I didn't hate it but I couldn't find enough here to rhapsodise about it.


Saturday, 12 January 2019

Freaks I've Met by Donald Jans

This was actually far more enjoyable than I thought it was going to be - about 20 pages in I was wondering if this was going to be for me but Jack's voice has just the right amount of snark and self-awareness that I found myself sucked in.  Jack is naive and after graduating college thinks he is on to a sure thing in El Aye with the odious Alain, he couldn't be more wrong - and as the reader we know this well before he does.  Watching Jack find out has it's moments but he at least comes out of it slightly more streetwise and has somewhere else to run to - goodness forbid he goes back home with his tail between his legs and prove Mrs Pohlkiss right.

The Freaks he meets aren't really freaks.  They are normal people just trying to get by in the same way he is.  Unfortunately we all have our idiosyncracies and quirks (Jack too if he would but admit it) and to Jack it is this things that make us individuals that makes these people he meets Freaks.  There is a great deal of humour in his attitude though, he makes snap judgements like all of us and has a turn of phrase that makes you snort.

When he lands his first "real" job in a bond trading house things look to be on the up, but the freak quotient rises inexorably and I kept expecting things to go full Jordan Belfort for a while.  It almost does but only for The Producers and not for Jack.  I will admit to a shiver of panic at the mention of the sub-prime mortgage market and those heralding worlds of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but they seemed to serve Jack well at his second job.

As you can tell, Jack comes across as a real person and I am sure there is something of the author's own experience in there - it feels far too real (and surreal) for there not to be.  It is a short book and makes for an entertaining afternoon's reading.  There is even a moral to the story; actually there are several.  Luckily the moral(s) don't club you over the head so you can ignore them if you want.

The Bridesmaid's Dilemma by Karen King

I was expecting to really enjoy this book but it was pretty terrible, if I'm being honest.  I think the main reason I didn't particularly like my second ever Karen King read was because none of the characters ever really clicked with me.  Jess in particular was really flat - the text tells us, quite explicitly, that she is friendly, fun and feisty but on paper I felt she actually came across as quite stroppy and fake friendly.  If you can't like the main character then you aren't going to like the book.  There is an exception to that where the main character is supposed to be completely heinous but you love the book because you hate them so.  What I suppose I am trying to say, in a very convoluted manner, is that if you feel no strong emotion to the main character then the book is never going to work for you.

Even worse than Jess is Eddie who comes across as a pure stereotype of the swoonworthy Frenchman.  This guy has no redeeming features that I could find because all I really got to know about him was he'd been jilted and was glorious to look at.  In fact the only character that really showed any spark of a real personality was Charlotte and we only see her in brief glimpses.

The plot was not particularly good either - honestly who didn't realise that Ross was Russell and Carly was Charlotte?  You would have thought that as Chief Bridesmaid Jess would have at least seen a photograph of her cousin's betrothed but apparently not - this is clearly set contemporaneously with WhatsApp and Skype getting regular mentions so how would she not have seen a picture on social media?  I'm all for a suspension of disbelief to get a good story but this just required too much of me.

The description of a Travel Rep's daily grind was pretty good (I have co-workers who have done this in a previous life and the book really gave Jess and Libby an easy ride compared to the reality).  Everything else just rang false for me - the drunken kiss was relatively plausible but the reaction to it when it was revealed was more that of a 16 year old than supposed adults.  The setting was well described but stayed away from being a travelogue, so I was grateful for that.

In short, the best thing about this book was those two words - THE END and the only dilemma was whether or not to persevere and finish it.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Your Closest Friend by Karen Perry

1.5 Stars

The best thing I can say about this book is that I managed to finish it; admittedly it was a hard slog but I got there in the end.

It started out so well, the shock of the terrorist attack, the claustrophobia of the storage room and the sheer creepiness of the phone call in to the radio station.  The scene was set for a tense tale to unfold and for Cara and Amy to give us both sides of their stories.  Unfortunately, I felt the opportunity was squandered and it all became rather trite and fear by numbers - even worse it reminded me of Single White Female.

Nothing ever feels real in this fictional world.  Now, this could be a deliberate ploy by the author to highlight the surreality of the terrorist experience and the subsequent personal fall out for Cara - sadly, I suspect that this is not the case.  The conceit that Cara would ever offer Amy a place to stay or even let a complete stranger have access to her beloved small daughter completely ruined the story for me.  Cara goes to great lengths to tell us how much she loves and adores Mabel and then she lets Amy move in as a nanny - NOPE, no, not going to happen in a world where people have even bursts of rationality.  Once that happens you realise that all bets are off and that people are going to behave in unlikely ways and absolutely anything can (and probably will) happen.

The characters are pretty much flat.  Each has one or, if you're lucky, two main characteristics that define them and they never deviate from this path.  Troy is a boy-man who has never really grown up and becomes petulant when he doesn't get his own way - hence his desire to rekindle his old relationship with Cara.  Cara is feeling swamped by her adultness and threatened by her husband starting to work outside the home.  The only one who has any real depth between these pages is Amy and that is quite simply because she is so damaged that even she doesn't know which version of her will turn up when she wakes up.

In short, the story raises more questions than it answers and there is a lot of story to get through.  A lot of soul-searching and mental breast-beating by both Cara and Amy that is, I am sure, intended to inform us of the character's personal motivations.  All it does is slow the story tale and make your brain glaze over like you really are on that boring tube ride with Cara or preparing that meal with Amy - there is no insight in these sections they are filler.

To sum up this is marketed as "The twisty shocking thriller", it is actually "The straightforward banal tale of poor judgement".

The House Of Hopes And Dreams by Trisha Ashley

Thank goodness for Trisha Ashley!  Admittedly there is always a measure of trepidation when picking up a new novel by this author as I have the lingering sense that maybe this will be the one that disappoints.  You would think I would know better by now, but as a died in the wool pessimist I always expect the worst.  Fortunately Ms Ashley usually only manages to deliver the best.

As with most of her books there is a very definite theme around the whole book, a jumping off point that is used to tie the whole together - in this case women in the creation of stained glass windows.  We have Angelique in the now and Jesse from the past whose lives become interwoven through the rather elegant Mossby Manor.  Instead of excerpts from Skint Old Northern Woman magazine we have extracts from Jesse's diary and these blend the old to the new quite expertly.  There is also an astonishing amount of research gone in to the book and it made me want to investigate more about the time honoured tradition of stained glass (especially as I am lucky enough to have a home with the original late victorian stained glass interior doors).

With a mix of characters both old and new the book does not fail to entertain.  What is astonishing is that all the characters feel so real and although inhabiting the fictional realm of Half Hidden you feel sure that they are really out there, quietly living their incredibly artistic lives whilst us mere mortals plod along in the every day.  Nobody is too attractive or too wealthy and many have their own foibles and financial issues, in short making them reassuringly normal and every day.  It is the way that the author gets under the skin of people and brings out their best attributes whilst also displaying their worst.

The plot is almost incidental to the story.  A strange thing to say but it is the people and their interactions that make Trisha Ashley's books such a joy to read.  You know that despite everything things will work out for Carey and Angel so you can just give yourself over to enjoying them getting there.  The dialogue is spot on and reads like genuine overheard conversations.  I really liked the sinister character of Mrs Parry too, nice touch of the demented for a town with a Ghost Walk.

The only thing that I found missing was a proper resolution to the Nat / Angel battle.  Nat just seems to drift off with his tale between his legs and he is such a despicable, grasping little oik that I am sure he would not have gone so silently in to the night.

This is a warm and comforting tale that gives you back some hope in the human condition.  I just hope that when I finally drift in to senility I can move to Half Hidden or the neighbouring Mosses, I am sure I will fit in so well there; after all I am getting to know the populace very well by now.

Perfect Alibis by Jane Wenham-Jones

2.5 Stars

I am pretty sure my distaste for this book came about more from the subject matter than anything else.  Whilst I can appreciate that not everyone has a good marriage, or even a moderately happy one what I cannot appreciate is that the way to rectify is to have an (or multiple) affair(s) - no matter whether you are male or female.  I suppose that as the heart of this book is about women grabbing their own happiness then it does, to some extent subvert the more traditional tropes but it still sets out, certainly in the initial chapters, to glorify cheating.  There are redeeming qualities in that the cheaters, almost uniformly, get their just desserts but it still left a lingering distaste for this reader.

The set up of PAs reminded me quite a bit of the rival spy agencies in Mr And Mrs Smith (the Jolie/Pitt film), and Madeleine's constant firefighting on behalf of her clients was rather inspired.  She may have been my favourite character - especially at the end.  Steph, our main protagonist, however irritated me beyond measure.  I can understand feeling trapped by the minutiae of life, of feeling unappreciated and unnoticed but the steps she takes to escape the humdrum are worrying.  Trying to reclaim your youth through another will never end well and Steph does find this out eventually.

Characterisation throughout is pretty skillfully wrought and the populace of the book are relatively diverse and individual.  None of them are particularly likeable but they are human beings and come across as such.  The plot is well constructed and has a certain flow upon the page, I just didn't really enjoy it as it is all about the worst of people and if I want that I can just watch or read the news.  I suppose Steph's story can be seen as redeeming in some ways and, at a stretch, as a cautionary tale.

The rating I have given this book is purely based on the craft of the author as the story itself would have been a big fat zero.  Not a book I could recommend to anyone unfortunately.

The Other Woman by Sandie Jones

3.5 Stars

This was a bit of an odd book for me, mainly because you just know from the first page onwards that you are being sold a pup.  You are constantly aware in the back of your mind that Emily is misdirecting the reader and that she knows she is doing it - this is flagged up by constant asides of along the lines of "this is what I thought then".  For me it would have perhaps worked better as a straightforward timeline so the reader felt they were watching things unfold as they happened rather than Emily's recollection of events.  It also didn't help that Pammie is so unremittingly awful and Adam so loathe to see it that it is obvious where the twist lies and before you are halfway through you have a pretty good idea what the twist will be.

The characterisation throughout the book is surprisingly solid and I did find myself wanting things to work out well for Emily.  I was also quite concerned about Pammie as some of the extremes she goes to were scary and did seem to bring Karma down on her head (if you believe in that kind of thing).  As a book about relationships it does work surprisingly well and not all in Emily and Adam's garden is rosy - even without the inimitable Pammie in the equation - this is not really explored to any great degree but the notes are there in Emily's exasperation with certain behaviours (mainly relating to the Rugby Club and "boys will be boys").

The plot is quite good but I felt that it was all handled with rather too much of a heavy hand.  Pammie's actions are not subtle and I find it hard to believe that nobody else could see what was happening, only Emily.  If the people around her are so disconnected from reality then she needs some major help.  The writing was actually pretty good and kept the tale moving on nicely from one shocking set piece to another and the final twist reveal at the end was handled in wonderfully dramatic way.  To be honest, the end of the book was my favourite bit as it was delicious in it's over-the-topness.

I did enjoy the book but don't feel it really fulfils the hyperbole around it; there were no shocking twists and it is not really a thriller.  It is a good read though and you don;t come out of it feeling like you wasted your time reading it.

Top Dog by Jens Lapidus

          I am the first to admit that Stockholm Delete was one of my worst reads back in 2017 and I was not really expecting much of Top Dog because of that.  Especially as it picks up Teddy's story and the mysterious cadre of men responsible for child abuse on a large scale.  I was not expecting great things from this book, in fact I wasn't even expecting good things from this book and it sat on my shelf for a good long while before I knuckled down to read it.

Although we pick up where we left off with Teddy and Emelie there is not much back story so having battled through Stockholm Delete paid off - I actually knew who these people where and something of their backstory - without that I fear some sections would have seemed completely random and bizarre.  Especially when Nicko and Chamon come in to the picture.  It is much of the same though so I did find myself almost scan reading a large portion of Teddy and Emelie's story.

The highlights for this reader were the new characters of Roksana and Z.  When they sublet an apartment they find something they hadn't bargained for and their lives change irrevocably because of it.  This was where my interest lay and I could happily have just had a book about these 2 and their entanglements after finding the stash of Ketamine in the apartment.  There was such humour and hope in their story - even after they clash with the criminal underworld and try to fight their way out from under.

I also enjoyed the transcripts of Hugo Pedersen's telephone conversations and text messages with his associates and friends.  They really shed light on his descent from businessman to illegal trader.  The connections with the abuse ring are tenuous to say the least but, probably because of his greed and naivety, actually strangely amusing.  Talk about being in over your head and not understanding that you are.

I'm not sure if the author has slightly changed their style or if the translation in to English was by another person but the word flow was much better in this book.  It was less disjointed and flowed much more easily from the page to the reader's imagination which made it a fairly entertaining read on the whole.  Not a great read by a good read.


Friday, 4 January 2019

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

This is my first Sophie Kinsella book and whilst it wasn't great, it wasn't bad.  Safe to say I will at least try another of hers before making a decision as to whether or not to purchase more.  You see, my issues weren't with the writing or the characterisation within the book but rather with the plot.  I could sincerely not get on board with the whole idea of phone sharing, especially a complete stranger being allowed to keep a company phone that she "found" which was getting emails for what is essentially a company director - no, I could not get past that and it is a major part of the story.

Apart from the ridiculousness of the situation, the rest of the plot is actually pretty good.  I particularly liked Poppy's issues around her prospective in-laws, nicely tense but not over dramatised, even if the whole kimono thing was overblown.  I wasn't too sure about the ending if I'm being honest, you could see where it was going but, ultimately, it left a sour taste behind and you kind of want joy from this genre.

Characterisation was very well done, no endless descriptive passages to get across someone's character just broad strokes on the page that allow the reader to learn about them in the way we formulate opinions about people we meet in real life.  Even side characters like Ruby, who barely get page time, you feel like you have a good idea of who they are as a person.  To be honest I think this is all that kept me reading on as the plot annoyed me and the footnotes were even worse - yes, I get why they were there and I truly understand the decision behind them but when reading in a digital format they are a royal nuisance.

I know this sounds like I hated the book but I really didn't, it just frustrated me.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

          This is quite a startling book in many ways, it is less about the actual act of murder but how your relationships, career and life change when you allow a murderer in to your life.  In Korede's case she does not allow a murderer in to her life, Ayoolah is thrust in to her life by nature and nurture makes her in to a harsher copy of their father.  The familial bond is strong and when Ayoolah first commits murder Korede protects her and helps destroy the evidence, perhaps this is because she believes the self defence explanation her sister gives, maybe it goes deeper than that.

I loved the juxtaposition between Korede's career as a nurse in a large hospital - a career where she is sworn to protect and help people and then her home life of second to her beautiful sister and protector of her as well as her inferior.  There is also a wonderful glimpse in to the culture of traditional Lagos - where appearances always seem set to deceive as everyone puts their bast face forward to the world.  This is perhaps best demonstrated by the memorial for their dead father, neither the sisters or their mother really want to be there but they don their matching family dress and go through with it all, for respectability's sake.

From the early chapters you could be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a police procedural with the sister's facing the full might of the law.  This is definitely not what you get, what you get is actually a touching story of family.  A very disfunctional father whose patriarch has skewed the world so far that it has irrevocably altered his daughter's mores.  Narrated by Korede we only ever really see her view of the circumstances surrounding each event but it is a full and unflinching vision.

A great first novel that is pretty compulsive reading. 


One Minute To Midnight by Amy Silver

At first I thought that I was not going to like this book, which was a bit of a surprise to me as I have loved every Amy Silver book I've picked up so far.  I was rapidly disabused of this notion and soon got completely sucked in to Nicole's story; although it probably helped that I was reading it over the New Year period and, as the title suggests, this book is very firmly set around the New Year - taking us from a teenage Nicole in 1990 to a present day (2011) one via the medium of how she spent each New Year.  The book covers every aspect of modern life beautifully - student days, first crush, first love, enduring (and failing) friendships, birth family and the family you make when you marry with big doses of real life drama - a wedding, a death, grief that distorts your entire being.  Safe to say I REALLY enjoyed this book.

The characterisations are spot on, without falling in to either stereotype or cliche.  Told from Nicole's point of view she does manage to feel real on the page and as though you are having a dialogue with her rather than the story being foisted upon you.  The peripheral characters of Alex, Julian, Aidan and Dom are well described and never fall in to parody - particularly surprising as each seems to be there to portray one particular stereotype (party girl, gay best friend, the one that got away / womaniser and steady, good bloke).

Loss is dealt with so well in this book, both of a friend, of a marriage, of a family and of a parent.  However, this is also where it lost a star as I felt that rather too much was made of Nicole's behaviour surrounding her birth family.  Maybe that is just personal bias but it felt more fictional than the rest of the book - the rest of it mirrors real life quite well.  There is some good humour in the book too, but it isn't in your face, your have to hunt for the in jokes between the characters and I am actually jealous that Nicole only ever has half a stone to lose - you would have thought as her years increased so would the hips but she has been a lucky (or disciplined) girl.

This is a very enjoyable book but I would not recommend reading it on the commute - missing your stop is never fun and this book is almost designed to make you do that.

A Year In Books

Well, it has definitely been a year of reading, 276 books in 2018, admittedly 2 of those I didn't manage to finish but even so I think 274 is quite an achievement (or speaks to my lack of a life!)

Even better Goodreads lets you scroll through all those lovely books to see exactly what you have read and the 4 and 5 star ones usually get special billing.  I will admit to having a slight addiction to scrolling through my 2018 list.

Based on this little lot I have set my 2019 Reading Challenge to 200 books - I think that is eminently achievable, especially as I set 2018 to 150 and blew that out of the water.

Hopefully I will read some great books this year, although I do know there will be some dross thrown in there as well and more than likely some major disappointments.  I know there were in 2018 (hence not managing to finish 2 of them).

Happy reading all! 

North by Frank Owen

          3.5 Stars

There is a strong attempt to make this book accessible to those who have not read the first in the saga, South, but I feel that without having read that one much of this book will make little to no sense (fortunately I have read the first one).  Throughout you need knowledge of the backstory of the main protagonists - Vida, Dyce and Felix - without it I suspect they would seem rather odd people on the page.  It is also hard to get a sense of the privations in the South from this book and how the people were living so their actions in the North make little sense.  In short read these books in order people.

The progression of the story takes up exactly where we left them, this little pocket of survivors, washed up on the banks of the North Platte and trying to get through the wall.  Some make it, some don't but of those that do they all seem inexplicably drawn to Des Moines and the headquarters of the Northern Resistance.  Much of the book is set in the Capitol building and around the rather unsettling Adams, leader of the resistance and quasi-preacher who is very, very good at stirring the populace to his bidding.

There are reveals within the book that are pretty obvious by the time they are spelled out to the reader so there is little in the way of suspense from a plot point of view.  What there is, is tension in abundance and a terrifying sense of claustrophobia within the Capitol Building.  The building of a society within a society is well explored and the final denouement is quite shocking in it's intensity.

I found this to be a good, tense read but not quite up to the standard set by the first in the series.


The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan

The title really sums the book up - it's about 3 sisters and how they spend one Christmas.  One Christmas coming to terms with a tragic accident 25 years ago and trying to regain their closeness as a family unit.  Unfortunately, the characters of the sisters are, how to put this tactfully, rather stereotypical.  We have Beth who is the stay at home mum to 2 daughters who is desperate to reclaim an adult life for herself outside the home; Hannah who is the career woman and pushes everyone away from her and Posy who is the tomboy following in her parents footsteps who wants to leave home for adventure but is afraid of upsetting the family.

To be perfectly honest I never really felt any connection to the characters on the page at all.  Even Suzannah, the family matriarch, is fairly flat as a person - her whole reason for living seems to be to provide for her girls and little is made of her entrepeneurship.  The story itself is quite good - the tension between the various family members is well described and the mystery of the avalanche is drawn out over most of the book with the reader only finding out the real circumstances behind it roughly 3/4 of the way through.  By that point though I was reading to finish rather than reading to find out what happened.  Even worse Patrick is regularly mentioned and described as the rock of the family but he hardly makes an appearance in the book at all as an actual person - we hear far more from the lodger Luke, Beth's husband and Hannah's boyfriend than we do from him.  I also struggled with how saintly Suzannah and Patrick were portrayed in the book, it really was cloying in places.

The village set scenes were probably the best thing about the book.  The claustrophobia of small communities was apparent throughout and yet it is a strangely welcome claustrophobia where everyone is supportive whilst sticking their noses in.  Not too sure about the Craft Cafe though, it did have more than a touch of my bete noir in novels the strangely overly successful small business in an unlikely location.

I'm not sure why I struggled to connect with this book so much - maybe it is because I am an Only Child so the family dynamics exposed here are beyond my ken.  The writing itself is accomplished and I can understand the attraction for readers in the author's books, it just didn't do "it" for me.  So much so I did wonder if I was reading the same book that others have reviewed so glowingly.

Shopaholic Ties The Knot by Sophie Kinsella

What is it with Becky Bloomwood and completely unrealistic scenarios?  I desperately want to slap her and bring her screaming in to reality ...