Friday, 22 March 2019

My (not so) Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

4.5 Stars

This was such a delicious story, I genuinely struggled to put it down to get on with real life.  This surprised me as the settings and the character exploits all feel a little surreal and overly contrived, plus there are no real surprises contained in the story at all.  The real joy comes from the wit and the warmth of the writing which pulls you in and simply refuses to let you go; no matter how peculiar Katie's life seems if you try and analyse it as a rational person you find that you really don't care.

Katie is from deepest, darkest Somerset and has always wanted to live and work in London.  Her chosen field is advertising and she ends up, via Birmingham, working for a branding agency that involves the boss from hades and an 80 minute commute.  Trying to rebrand herself to fit in with the life she thinks she should be living she changes from Katie to Cat, gets a disastrous fringe and becomes a bit of a doormat (if we're being honest).  Katie envies almost everyone in the office and thinks that every Instagram post is genuine, even though she lies in her own.  When her father and stepmother decide to turn the dairy farm of her childhood in to a Glamping site Katie gets on board with the promotion and takes a sabbatical from London.  Unfortunately, this is yet another book where a new business venture is an instant triumph (becoming a bit of a bone of contention with me is this one).  Can Katie be lured back to London?  Is Demeter (the demonic boss) really evil?  Is Alex the man of Katie's dreams or, as she fears, just a ship passing in the night?

Character development is generally good in the book.  This is particularly true for Katie and Demeter.  Unfortunately Alex is pretty much a cardboard cut out and the women in the office are every "Karen" the memes warned you about.  The book also has some gentle reminders that online existence is very different to the reality of the poster's life and not to believe the hype.  It's also a cautionary tale in people's perceptions of you.

Enjoyable escapism of the highest order!

After She's Gone by Camilla Grebe

          3.5 Stars

First things first, I am not a big fan of scandi-noir so that could colour my judgment of the novel - preconceived prejudices and all that.  However, this novel does not read like your typical scandi-noir so either the author writes in English or the translator has done an absolutely epic job on this one - I really am not sure which but I could find no reference to a translator so assume the author has written the thriller in English but given it a Scandi setting (in this case the fictional Ormberg in Sweden).  It still fulfills all the other necessary criteria though - bleak setting, an almost eternal winter and the pulling together of several seemingly unlinked people to a circle of murder.

The plot itself is almost secondary to the character studies in the book.  To be honest I found this to be a bit of a detriment to the book as it seems to take ages to make any progress in the cold case, the disappearance of Peter or the "fresh" murder of the older woman in the same location as the cold case they are investigating.  There are plenty of stop offs to discuss the nature of refugees and how the societies they move in to perceive them.  The decline of towns and villages due to the loss of industry.  The nature of mental illness through dementia, loss of a loved one and gender issues.

The story centres around three main protagonists.  Malin, a police officer brought up in the declining town of Ormberg who has to return to investigate the cold case of a child found buried beneath a stone cairn (a body she happened to find as a teenager).  Jake, a teenager struggling with his sexuality, his bullying, the loss of his mother to cancer and his mentally absent father.  Hanne, a criminal psychologist (as best I can tell) who is fighting against dementia but is still called in to help solve the cold case.

The only bits I really enjoyed where those that followed Jake.  His character is sensitively drawn and apart from one or two bits where his actions do not match up with what we are told about his character he is the most rounded person in the book.  Hanne and Malin are more or less both pretty one dimensional and defined by their disease and their upbringing respectively.

I found the book quite hard to really get into and my mind had a habit of wandering off as I read.  The procedural bit is tamped right down with just the odd flash of investigative technique, mostly they seem to go on hunches and gut feeling rather than actual evidence.  It was large parts each character soul searching and naval gazing with little bits of crime thrown in.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

3.5 Stars

This is a very quirky little book, verging on the bizarrely odd.  The 24 Hour Bookstore of the title is a bibliophiles dream but only the select few are allowed to look at the strange three storey collection of books, books that Clay can find no record for online.  Even odder he is instructed to note down not just which book someone takes out but their demeanour, their dress but Clay needs the job after the bagel start-up he worked at folded so he goes along with it.

Unusually for a book based around a bookstore it doesn't decry the advent of the e-reader, it celebrates it, noting that it has its place amongst real bound books - most of us do still read both after all.  In fact, it is all a bit of a celebration of technology and the things it can do for us, against the things we accede to it, showing that it can be used for "good".  As Clay gets bored on the night shift (I know that feeling) he starts trying to map the store out in a 3D wireframe and thats when things start to get interesting as he plots the order books are taken out by this odd group of people who visit at all hours and sees something he never expected.  Recruiting his tech savvy 6th grade schoolfriend Neel, his artist flatmate Mat(?) and a girl he met in the store, Kat they go on a good old fashioned quest to get to the bottom of what is happening when Mr Penumbra goes missing.

Told with whimsy and delight by the author it is a fun read, just not quite as captivating as it first appeared to be.  After the first couple of chapters I actually dreamt about the Bookstore and thought I had it cracked as to what was going - I was wildly wrong, so maybe that disappointment coloured things for me a little.  There's also a little too much felicitous good fortune for Clay and his band of adventurers so everything comes together for them rather too easily for comfort - I'm also left wondering why it was necessary to point out that Neel is African-American when the racial profile of the other characters is never really mentioned.

It is a a fun blend of old-school nerdiness (The Dragon-Song Chronicles books that first brought Neel and Clay together, Mat(?) with his tiny architectural models and the frequent references to role playing games in the disguise of Rockets and Warriors) and modern technology (Kat and her Google job, Clay and his Ruby programming, Mr Penumbra's vast collection of eReaders).  A nice bit of derring-do and cryptography thrown in and it is an enjoyable ride, it just left me feeling a little "wanting" and I'm not sure why.

Providence by Caroline Kepnes

Normally I don't check the genre that a book is lodged under, to be honest most of them tell you in the tagline for the book these days (especially if you buy online).  However, after finishing this one I have to say that personally I would have filed this one under Horror and not Crime, Mystery, Thriller (or whatever order they are in).  It is exceptionally creepy and quite fantastical in it's construct; in fact it all comes across a little bit Stephen King (compliment there - I am a huge and long term fan of Mr King).

The book basically follows the lives of 2 main characters:

Jon - Bit of a loner at High School, the highlight of his daily life is the delivery of the Telegraph, so much so he asked for a subscription from his parents as a gift - not normal teenage boy behaviour.  He has one friend, Chloe, and doesn't seem to particularly gel with his parents either.  Jon also struggles with bullying and so takes the forest route to school, this proves to be his downfall when he is kidnapped one morning on his way to school and disappears without trace.  Four years later he re-appears and he is changed - tall and muscular but still with the mindset of a 13 year old and in possession of a copy of HP Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror and a letter from his kidnapper telling him that he is improved.  This is where things get very, very strange indeed.

Chloe - Jon's only friend from High School but has a group of friends of her own.  Chloe really struggles to cope when Jon goes missing and turns to her art as solace, constantly drawing Jon's face and especially his eyes.  Try as she might she cannot forget him and when he reappears she rushes from a Pool Party to be with him.  Chloe does manage to more or less hold her life together, going to art college and then settling down in New York to become an artist, leaving a very public social media trail so that Jon can find her, if he wants (and how badly she wants him to).

We then have a secondary character who is a major part of the story:

Eggie - Providence cop who is starting to wonder at the sudden upswing in young people dieing of heart attacks completely out of the blue.  Married with a severely autistic son we get to find out a lot about the state of his marriage to Lo, his disconnect with his son and his obsession with work.  An obsession that almost proves fatal.

Wonderfully constructed tale that has solid, believable characters that you don't always like.  The concept of the book is sufficiently strange to keep you engaged - even though we, the reader, know the truth of what is happening it honestly doesn't detract from your enjoyment.  Maybe, it makes it all the more compelling because this is a secret we share with Jon and Jon alone.  Each of the 3 character's voices is strong and individual - even if the chapter didn't have the narrator's name in it you would immediately know from the tone of the writing.

I've never really been a fan of Lovecraft (give me Poe any day of the week) but I think that I now need to read The Dunwich Horror.

Now You See Her by Heidi Perks

I was pleasantly surprised by this book, it really does keep you guessing - you will probably figure out roughly whats going on but there are a few twisty bits and red herrings thrown in there.  Admittedly I probably enjoyed this more because of my brain whirring to figure the sequence of events out than I did the actual book but it did get the old grey matter functioning (something that happens less and less with this genre as time goes on).  The story has two narrators:

Charlotte - Separated mum of three, still in touch with her ex and you get the impression that it's not just for the sake of the children.  She's quite content with her life, has a fairly wide circle of friends but is happy to stay home of an evening and just relax once the children are in bed but she is making an effort to get out more, if only to show Tom that she still has a social life (particularly if it means he has to come over and look after the children).  Seems to be a reliable narrator and you can really feel her anguish when Alice goes missing at the school fete under her care.

Harriet - Married to Brian and the ultimate helicopter parent of Alice.  Something just feels off about her from the start but this could be put down to how protective she is of her daughter.  As things unfold you realise that she isn't the most reliable narrator and could well inhabit a fantasy world, but you are never sure who is telling the truth - her or Brian.  If Brian is right then she is mentally ill and if she is right then Brian is the one with the problem; the author does make it cloudy and hard to unpick until quite a way in to the book.

The book shifts timelines quite frequently and moves from the aftermath of Alice's disappearance to the events leading up to it and back again.  With snatches told from the interrogation room where Charlotte is being interviewed again a couple of weeks after the disappearance and after some undisclosed event has taken place.  Moving back through the day of the fete and even before Alice is born.  The timeshifts are dealt with smoothly and really do help keep the tension ratcheted up.

It deals with the procedural elements well and the FLO plays a large role in the book, usually they are glossed over but Angela is quite a strong presence in the story.  It also details with the social media judgments passed on Charlotte and how this affects her daily life and her relationships with her friends and other school mums, it also shows the fallout on her children because of it.

A really strong proponent of the genre and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Secret Runners Of New York by Matthew Reilly

          Do not be deceived, this book is marketed as being a YA novel and I can only imagine that this is because the main protagonists in the book are all still in High School with an average age of 16.  The story itself is very definitely for an older audience as well, there is no attempt made by the author to do anything but tell a great story and that, in itself, means that labels should be overlooked, after all they are something arbitrarily imposed.

In some ways this is a coming of age story and it deals with Skye's transition to a new school in a new city.  Not an easy thing but when your twin brother is naturally gregarious it only has to make you feel more insecure - that and girls are just naturally evil to anyone but their clique at that age.  Not only that but she had a rough ride at her last school and this has left her very wary of people and makes her second guess everyone else's motives, and often her own.

Skye is a wonderful narrator for the book and you instantly take a liking to her and her rather dry wit.  Through her eyes we see the power plays and machinations of the elite at the school - the "cool" group that her brother slides in to seamlessly.  When her brother comes home with tales of derring-do in an abandoned, possibly ancient, tunnel system beneath Central Park Skye is intrigued but when she gets to run it herself she is both mesmerised and panicked.

There is a little science lesson thrown in about how time travel could be theoretically possible (time not being linear but a spiral where past, present and future exist at the same time just on different panes).  It is explained clearly without being patronising to the reader that may be aware of these particular theories.  The mechanics of the portals used to access the tunnel are well thought through and executed, the book also ends with a tantalising whiff of maybe further adventure to come - if only the other gems can be found.

I absolutely loved this story and didn't so much read it as inhale it.  Genuinely struggled to put it down to do necessary things like eat or sleep.  The characters are all three dimensional and realistic, even true horrors like Misty.  The plotting itself is fast paced and absorbing and does leave you breathless with anticipation as you turn the page in places.

A wonderful novel that deserves a far wider audience than the narrow confines of both YA and Science Fiction.  It is a book about people and the lengths they will go to; it is also a good dissection of the wealthy in society, that elusive one percent and how that wealth can warp you if you let it.


Holding by Graham Norton

Duneen is a small, sleepy town where nothing ever happens.  But it does and it did and the past is going to come back and haunt them.  Set in a modern Ireland it still manages to feel like we are back in the 1950s, with a slower, less connected way of life.  The Church has less of a stranglehold on the residents of the town but it's power is still felt, especially by the older generation.  People are people though so judgment is passed via the eternal medium of gossip and when a body is discovered the old tales of Brid Riordan and Evelyn Ross fighting over Tommy Burke in the village square are resurrected.  PJ, the local Garda, is tasked to find out what happened but this is way beyond his experience so "the boys from Cork" are called in.  Who is the body in the old farmstead? Are there more? Who put it there?  All questions that need (and indeed are) answered but the investigation is really a secondary thread in this book which deals mainly with the foibles of human nature.

It took me almost 60% of the way through the book before I really started to enjoy it.  I couldn't really connect with any of the characters and just as I was starting to get a handle on someone's character we would jump to another person's tale and I would lose the thread again.  It does all start to pull together very neatly but it does all rely on poor old PJ to hold everything together - never have I seen a sadder character in a book that I felt genuine empathy for; usually they just make me want to slap them.  His relationship with the detective from Cork is wonderful and the slow burn of the two men getting to know and like each other (professionally and personally) is wonderfully drawn.

It deals with a lot of divergent themes as well.  From the rather odd Ross sisters, all spinsters and living together in the old family home - even the village thinks there is something just a bit askew with them.  Through weight issues caused by comfort eating, alcoholism, the trauma of assault on a young woman, the black stain of being pregnant out of wedlock and just the difficulties of living.  Each issue is dealt with sympathetically and there is no judgment by the author of any character and why they are where they are in life; indeed many of them are given hope for a brighter future.

There are moments of wonderful insight in to how people tick in the book, unfortunately it is all encased in the back half of the book and I found it a bit of trial getting to the "good bits".  You can actually see Mr Norton's writing style evolve on the page and I can't help but wonder if one additional re-write/edit to tighten up the first half wouldn't have made this a much, much better book.

A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester

This novel captivated me right from the first chapter, I just got completely sucked in to this wonderfully realised 1920s America.  Prohibition is on, women are expected to be subservient and "know their place", the horrors of The Depression are yet to arrive and one young woman is determined to break all society's conventional rules.  Somehow the author manages to deal with what is, essentially, a feminist story without preaching or decrying but by simply letting the story flow.

Our main character is Evie and she has grown up in a middle class home with a mother who is determined to climb socially.  Her mother's sole aim is for her marry the youngest of the Whitford boys as this would be an excellent match from the standpoint of upward mobility.  What better than the son of a banking magnate for her daughter?  Evie has other ideas though.  She has studied literature at college but wants to do so much more - after all Mr F Scott Fitzgerald's stories have shown her that women can do so much more than merely embroider and bear children.  When a former classmate dies by the riverside Evie becomes determined to follow her father's footsteps and become a Doctor.  An almost unheard ambition for a woman but one she is determined to realise.

The tale is told through Evie's eyes and we learn much about society in the 1920s through her.  From detailing the startling contrast in New York between the haves and the have nots with startling empathy to the raucous speakeasys and the flappers that congregate there.  You get a glimpse in to a world where things are changing and get to know some of the women who started the change and the men who support them.  Dealing with unmarried mothers, chauvinistic attitudes and the double standards set for women it shows that really whilst much has changed some of the same prejudices still lurk just beneath the surface.

There is a love story in here too.  Not just the story of a passionate love but love for a child, love for a friend and love for a career.  It is empowering and uplifting.

I absolutely loved every word on the page.  Each and every character has a role to play and is a truly three dimensional person with quirks, foibles and nasty sides to their character - even Evie.  I was swept away in to this world and just did not want the book to end.  When we did reach the end though I was left worried for Evie as The Great Depression is looming on the horizon and I am desperate to know how they come through it.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

I'm not sure New-Age is still a thing, but I'm old so to me it is.  This book is very definitely set in that sort of mind set - all a bit Burning Man with a side order of Coachella.  I'm not too sure about all this "follow your bliss" stuff, and, it turns out, neither is Chandra but after a cataclysmic health event he decides to give it a shot.  To be honest, by the end of the book he really doesn't seem to have found his bliss or any answers - at least that reflects life.

The first thing that strikes me is that Chandra is an Indian man of 69, even worse he is an academic.  So, the fact that he reads on the page like a much younger man is very confusing.  I know we are all different and that the us we show the world is not necessarily the us we show at home but even so he feels all wrong for a man with this background and of this age.  There is the necessary juxtaposition between the academic stereotype and the new man he is trying to become but he never really feels "real".  The only character that really lives on the page is his youngest daughter, Jasmine.  Everybody else just feels "off" in one way or another.

There is some humour in the book but nothing laugh out loud funny.  It raises a wry twist of the lip or a toss of the head in acknowledgement, but nothing more than that.  Most of the humour comes from Chandra and is actually quite hurtful, in that it stems from his dislike of his actions or himself.  The book is quite uncomfortable reading in places too, particularly when Chandra goes to The Retreat in Eisalen and takes part in a weekend long "class" that is supposed to help you identify your "strings" and your "critical voices".

Stripping away my natural cynicism and native born stoicism (you don't get to be touchy-feely when you are brought up in the North of England during the 1970s) allowed me to get past all the pseudo-science espoused by Sunil (Chandra's son) and his company IMB - Mindfulness is a buzz word that is currently making me very twitchy and it is everywhere, including this book. 

Once you can get past all that it is actually a rather charming story of a man trying to reconnect with his family and for them to accept each other as they are.  How we perceive an act by a parent towards us is not how the parent necessarily perceived it and vice versa.  This is the lesson that Chandra appears to be on the path to learning.

The storytelling itself is smooth and draws you in, to the character of Chandra and the situations he finds himself in.  The fact that he never really feels "right" on the page is probably more down to my preconceptions and biases than the author's prowess.  I was surprised to learn this was a first novel as it does feel very accomplished without being overly slick.

A reasonably good read that may make you re-assess your familial relationships.  Or, it may leave you, as it did me, with a sense that all this soul searching really isn't worth it and just keep on keeping on.


The Passing Tribute by Simon Marshall

1.5 Stars

I was intrigued by the concept expounded in the blurb for this book.  Two brothers separated by the war but coming together after in ways they don't understand or even acknowledge.  Sounded good.  Unfortunately, if it wasn't for the blurb I would never have put together that Richard and Edward were related, to me they were just two men following orders in the aftermath of the First World War, the fact that they were both following orders relating to the Emperor of Austria and orchestrated by the same man, Colonel Linton, appeared to be the only connection.

Commencing before Armistice Day we first meet Edward who is on the Front Lines in a snow tortured world.  We watch him bring his men through the final days and then get seconded to a relief mission in Austria.  This leads him to meeting with a sparky nurse, Millie, who he co-opts to join the relief mission and you feel there may be a little hope for light relief from Millie for both the reader and for Edward.  When we finally meet Richard we learn that his father (and consequently Edward's father) has died believing both his sons to be dead.  That and Richard has been offered a position as Secretary in The Ministry of X.  The former fact leads him to meeting Helene, a Belgian refugee, who is set to have a shattering impact on his life.  The latter brings him in to the auspices of Colonel Linton and his plans for the Emperor of Austria, plans that also involve the Relief Mission.

Unfortunately, the story itself is obliterated by the language used in the telling.  I have a pretty good vocabulary but such archaic words are utlised that it is an absolute must to have a dictionary to hand when reading; even then it may take two or three read throughs a sentence before you can parse a meaning to it that makes any sort of sense.  The sentence structure is also confusing in places and the whole telling is needlessly verbose in places.  This means that I was simply unable to sink in to the story, to get a true feel for the time and the place of Richard and Edward or even to really understand what was going on for large chunks of the book.  All I did was read in an increasingly frustrated manner.  It is particularly annoying because the structure of an intriguing story underlies the whole, unfortunately the academic tone of the book left this reader feeling somewhat patronised and disappointed that the investment of my time in this book smacked more of purgatory than anything else.

When you do finally reach the end, the climactic scenes with Friedrich and Edward should have left you breathless.  Unfortunately, I could not summon up any enthusiasm for the circumstances they find themselves in - probably because there is no real foreshadowing of this denouement, just the odd vague reference to a cowled figure watching and waiting.  Indeed, there is no real end to the book - we leave Edward in a predicament involving a gun and a greatcoat, the Emperor is still in Austria and Richard may be about to take a huge leap of faith.  Nothing is wrapped up, all is left open ended and the book just stops.

I read for entertainment, this does not mean that I only read "fluff" (okay, I do read a LOT of fluff).  What it does mean is that I know good story-telling when I come across it and this book reads more like a Victorian broadsheet newspaper than a novel.  I'm not even sure the linguistics are contemporaneous to the late 1910s, they feel so much more archaic than even that and this book is all about the author smothering us in obscure words and turns of phrase.  Not entertaining and marginally educational in that it will temporarily expand your vocabulary.


Friday, 8 March 2019

Past Mortem by Ben Elton

I have avoided Ben Elton's books, even though I know he has published A LOT I have always written him off as an author because of my own prejudices.  He will always be the 1980's, sequin besuited, mouth whose politics I didn't agree with but who could still make me laugh.  I fully expected his books to both tout his personal politics and have that very clear Ben Elton stage persona voice.  I WAS SO WRONG!  A work colleague advised me to try his books as she has read all of his output and hasn't had a bad one yet, so this one was on sale and I figured "why not?".

As she would say - WHAT A BOOK!

It has everything going for it.  A bit of a police procedural, a bit of a thriller, a bit of a romance and a lot of grit.  Edward Newson is our hero and a more self-deprecating chap you couldn't hope to meet.  The humour is dark and wry; Newson certainly has few illusions about himself but he comes across as charming in an unlikely way.  Couple this with his unrequited obsession with his Sergeant, Natasha and his insecurities about his appearance, his ability to do his job and, well just life really; you can't help but fall a little in love with his gingerness.  When a brutal murder takes place and it is assigned to his Murder Team you know things aren't going to run smoothly for Edward and with little to go off forensically or by way of motive they appear to be at a dead end, until there is another murder just as bizarre.

The investigation is also set against Newson's decision to revisit his past and he joins, the now defunct, Friends Reunited website.  Oddly his secondary school years coincide with mine so all those nostalgia references really hit home.  Not only does it bring back bad memories of school, it also brings back warm ones of one Christmas Disco and catapults him on to the radar of two women from his past; two women who are soon to be instrumental in the murder enquiry.

This isn't a book for the squeamish as some of the murder scenes are described in lurid detail.  There are also a couple of graphic "intimate" scenes - now, normally I find these a real nuisance but I have to admit as weird as the acts described are they are written exceptionally well.  Unfortunately, I did figure out who did around 3/4 of the way through but I really enjoyed watching Newson and Natasha flounder about trying to get there - and they do a fair bit of floundering.

Fun, frightful and relentlessly gripping.  Seperate the Stand-Up from the Author and you are in for a genuine treat!

Sunshine by Kim Kelly

This is such a charming and heart warming story that it took me completely by surprise.  I wasn't really sure what to expect from it before I started reading but what I didn't expect was to be so completely swept away in it all and left with such a hopeful feeling when it finished; finished all too soon it must be said, I could have happily spent another 2 or 3 hundred pages with this cast.

Set after the end of World War I and with the Australian Forces now repatriated it follows their struggles to move back to a normal existence.  This book taught me such a lot about Australian History from this time period - the setting up of "reservations" for the Aboriginal People, the land act that meant their land was sold off in parcels to returning white men who had served.  All things I had no real prior knowledge of and now intend to research in to more fully.  In fact, the book deals with some real, and extreme, atrocities perpetrated on the indiginous peoples at this time - children being stolen from their parents, Aboriginal men who had served being declared dead so their dependants didn't get their pay which then "disappeared".  It also deals with Shell Shock, or as we know it now Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  I have some knowledge of it's treatment (or lack thereof) during the Second world War as a former boss suffered from it at the time and it was still impacting his life in the early 1990's - but at least he could talk about it which he confessed provided some relief.

The main story centres around Jack Bell; an Aboriginal man who comes from the small town of Sunshine and served in the Light Horse during the conflict.  Now he finds himself without a home and on the run as the Government have decided that any Aboriginal person not living under their control on a reservation is dangerous.  Despite this he is determined to camp on his land, fish in the same river he always fished in and just keep himself to himself.  As his story unfolds you realise that he has lost so much during the war but he somehow manages to ward off bitterness and hatred.  He has Anger but directed in the right way at the right people.

Snow McGlynn went to war with his three friends but only two of them made it back.  Lucky enough to receive a parcel of land that is fertile he plans carefully to begin a new life as a citrus farmer.  He was perhaps a loner by nature before the war but the things he saw in the trenches have definitely changed him for the worse.  Despite his ascerbic nature there is such empathy on the page for his situation that even though he doesn't complain you find yourself wanting him to succeed in business and in life.

Grace Lovelee was a frontline nurse during the conflict and English by birth.  Meeting Art Lovelee during his hospitalisation and nursing him through the early stages of Shell Shock they fall in love, marry and move to his home country of Australia.  They too manage to purchase some land in Sunshine and Art hopes to begin a fruit nursery there.  Grace's descriptions of how the trauma Art suffered still effects him are vivid and even humorous - giving them names such as Dancing Dawg and Naughty Boy - but still managing to evoke the true devastation war wrought in men's psyches.

Despite all this gloom the story itself is rather joyous with trials and tribulations offset by moments of simple friendship as the three disparate people move closer together, recognising kindred spirits who understand, without words, just what they have all been through.  As I said earlier the tale itself is full of hope - hope for love, for friendship, for family and for happiness.

I could easily have given this a 5 Star review.  However, the end of the story feels very rushed and a handful of years are dispatched in as many pages, so rather than being able to savour the triumphs of the Sunshine Fruit Co-Operative and follow Jack's progress to Brewarinna it is glossed over in a few paragraphs.  Still a beautiful tale and one I highly recommend.


The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey

          This is a slightly bizarre little book that I struggled to really settle in to, there was just something about the writing style that kept me at arms length.  It is written in a sort of 1.5 person perspective - so you go from a clear third person perspective to an intimate internal thought (clearly first person) and then bounce back again; all within the space of a paragraph.  This really stopped me enjoying the book as I was constantly aware that I was reading the text and not being immersed in the story.

The novel starts with us being introduced to Michael, a war orphan from Germany who has now been adopted by an American family.  We get a small insight in to his damaged psyche from the train journey he undertakes to Boston to stay with the Kaplans for the summer.  I foudn this section of the book very emotive and was eager to learn more. 

Unfortunately, the majority of the book is actually about Mr and Mrs Aitch.  They are a rather odd couple (to say the least); he is a celebrated artist and she is, well not to put too fine a point on it, a self-absorbed monster.  I really struggled with her personality throughout the novel and that did ruin a large part of my enjoyment of the book too as everytime it came to a section about her I internally groaned - you could certainly see why she felt alienated from people.

I wasn't honestly sure what the point of the story was.  I suppose it describes a snapshot of one summer for a varied cross section of people but other than that there is really no denouement, no grand sweeping change to any life.  Although Mrs Aitch does entertain the idea, albeit briefly, that people's assessment of her as self-centred and possessive of her husband and his talent may be entirely justified ther eis little to no sign that she is going to work on improving herself.  Richie Kaplan does go off to boarding school and Michael Novak returns to New York with his mother and Harry and their soon-to-be new addition.  The Kaplans go back to wherever they are form and Katherine probably dies.  That is it, no idea of what happens to these people after the book ends, no sense of one section of life ending and a new one beginning just more of the same old same old mundanity.

I readily admit that I am a sort of reverse-literary snob - the more "profound" the writing is supposed to be, the more "literary" it is, the more I am likely to not like it.  I would honestly have an averagely written, immersive story that sucks you right in to the place and time rather than something that has "merit".  Unfortunately, I suspect that this book falls in to the "literary" category.


Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Silver Road by Stina Jackson

          2.5 Stars

First things first, the translator has made a superb job of the translation from Swedish to English.  There is little clunky language use or strange sentence constructions throughout the whole novel - a minor miracle but one that really did improve the reading experience.

Unfortunately, I found little in the book to recommend it.  Things start of well enough as we are introduced to Lelle and his search for his daughter, Lina, who went missing from a local Bus stop 3 years ago.  During the sunlit Swedish Summer nights he traverses the old Silver Road of the title exploring all the little logging roads and isolated, abandoned dwellings in his quest to find her.  He has lost everything - his daughter, then his marriage and now he is becoming more and more estranged from the community.

We are also introduced to Meja and her disfunctional mother, Silje, who move to a remote forester's cabin when her mother meets Torbjorn online.  Initially I was confused as to whether her story was contemporaneous with Lelle's but it becomes apparent that it definitely is and they seem to have little that will bring the two story threads together.  We do get there in the end by very convoluted means - admittedly by that point I wasn't particularly invested in the book and had more or less figured out the who if not the why and how of Lina's disappearence.

A lot of the book seems to be spent following these two characters doing the same things - smoking cigarettes, wandering in the woods, making coffee and listening to their internal monologues of woe.  I hate to say it but it all began to get a bit boring and not even the introduction of the survivalist family living deep in the woods really brightened things up.

Considering all the build up to what happened to Lina, the recent disappearance of another blonde girl, Hannah and Meja's complete dissatisfaction with everything the denouement - when we finally get there - is all reached and over within around 50 pages.  It all becomes a rather harried dash to reach the end of the book and it doesn't really hold any twists or surprises.


Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Perfect Match by Katie Fforde

I'm sure I've read this book before, so much felt familiar and yet the characters themselves didn't ring a mental bell with me.  It just felt very familiar - maybe I've just read too much and now there can be no new plotlines.  This didn't stop me really enjoying this book, and I'm not really sure why - it is relentlessly twee more or less all the way through and some big issues that are mentioned early on (When Dominic and Bella first meet after 3 years he "looks at her with hate in his eyes" and this is never touched on again - it's not just that it isn't satisfactorily explained it just isn't mentioned) are never revisited.

Alice's relationship with Michael, gave me a really bad feeling.  I kept fully expecting him to be a con man and, if I'm being honest, I'm still not convinced that he isn't out there trying to take her for every last penny she has in a long con.  It's not because they are an older couple (it was actually refreshing to see physicality in an older relationship), it just felt so many shades of wrong to me.  Then again Bella's relationship with Dominic is all about obsession - not a good starting point - and is, more or less, set up to fail too.

There are so many bad things about this book - well, the relationships in it and the actions of the characters.  The populace of the book are either really good or really bad with no shading of personality to them.  The situations they find themselves in are verging on the bizarre - particularly the 11:30pm digging episode and the resolution of the Agnews and Jane's housing requirements is just baffling.

Despite all this I have plumped a 4 Star review down for this book.  Simply put it really entertained me and kept me reading until it was finished without a break for longer than it took to fix a sandwich for my lunch or take a toilet break.  As annoying as I found Bella, as naive as I found Alice, as ridiculous as I found much of the plot I became invested in what was going to happen to them and how the happy ending would be manufactured.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

It really is all smoke and mirrors isn't it - what you see may not be real, what you see may be realer than you could ever imagine.  The stoner kid who never seems to change who is always on the same spot in the park - is he really a stoner kid or an abandoned God, clinging on as best he can?  That sweet little old lady in the local library that smells vaguely of cat is she just an old lady or something rather more dangerous?  This seems to be the premise that Neil Gaiman has taken and run with in his, rather unique, style.

I haven't watched the TV series of the book but a co-worker has and recommended it to me as being incredibly strange (I like strange).  Me, being me, would rather have the book so I decided to take the plunge.  Unfortunately, all the way through I kept seeing Ian McShane's face as Mr Wednesday - but I can understand why they cast him as he does irascibly dodgy so well.  That aside, it took me a disappointingly long time to twig who Mr Wednesday really is - I know, I know shameful (especially knowing the author's love of Norse Mythology, in fact ALL mythology going off this book).  I was also in the dark, along with Shadow, as to who his cell mate really was and it was all there in the open, we were just too blind to see it.

What I did find interesting was how much crossover various Religions have (I can waffle for DAYS about the links between Ancient Egyptian belief and the Old Testament/Torah) but had never really considered Norse tradition, Slavic tradition - even Hinduism and Sikhism have crossovers.  It's almost as though "names have been changed" in some cosmic documentary series.  It even made me look further in to traditions and religions I had never given much temporal time to (Eastern European belief systems in particular) so probably took me longer to read because of this popping off to research the Zorya, etc..

I found the book to be completely immersive - so much so I spent an entire day off work curled up on the couch in my pjs just reading, been a LONG time since my entire day has been about a book.  The warp and weft of the story just captivated me and sucked me right in.  I never really felt emotion for the characters though, which is decidedly odd for me; usually if I love a book it is due to character but this one was all about the plot for me.  Although, if Shadow was anyone other than himself it just wouldn't have worked - contradictory I know.

I'm not even really sure how to describe the plot - it just IS.  There is also that little niggle in the back of your mind (the same one that The Stand gave me) that this could be real.  When we create a belief system what happens when it's last adherent passes?  Are we keeping the truly Ancient Religions alive by studying the cuneiform writings or the Hieroglyphics?  By uttering Odin's name, or Freya's on a weekly basis are we keeping the God alive?  By watching MCU movies are Loki and Thor being worshipped once more?  Do Marillion have the power to resurrect Grendel?  I think I am overthinking a fantasy novel rather too much - but I LIKE that it made me think, that it has entertained me mightily but also that it has given me something new to ponder on when I am cannot sleep.

This is a strange book, this is true.  This is a very charming book as well, it's charm coming from the normalcy of every peculiar encounter, dream and circumstance.  Shadow just accepts what is happening around and to him with a peculiar equanimity that speaks more of personal serenity than gullibility.  This is not a book for public reading though, you need to get comfortable and realise that hours will pass whilst you are under it's spell - not so good for a lunch break or commute.

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 ...