Tuesday, 30 July 2019

The Secrets Of Hawthorne House by Donald Firesmith

3.5 Stars

I did enjoy this book, I did.  However I am not really sure where it is going and it seems to be a bit of a mish mash of ideas and genres.  It does deal with everything well and reads almost like you are a fly on the wall of the families concerned (the mysterious Hawthorne family and the far more regular Mitchell family).  This does mean that there is a lot of the minutiae of life to wade through - actually this was no bad thing as it helps you submerge yourself in the fictional world that the author has created and it makes the characters feel very real.  The down side to this is that I never really understood where the author was intending to take the tale and, indeed, nothing is ever really resolved and there is no natural segue in to a second book to explore the paranormal theme that is touted as the genre the book is lodged in.  In actual fact, I found that the paranormal aspect was maybe a tenth of the tale and got lost amongst the themes of dealing with the death of a parent, moving to new town, being a new kid at school and just trying to get through being a teenager.

The main thing that annoyed me was the Hawthorne family's speech.  We get it, they are from Maine and have a specific accent.  However, I found it entirely unnecessary to litter the text with "ah's" to show their speech patterns.  In fact, each time I picked the book up it grated afresh to see "heah" or "fathah".  A few pages in each reading session and I did find I could overlook it as I was enjoying the rather work-a-day storylines but it was a constant annoyance and I felt it was completely unnecessary and was a distraction from the story being told.

I also had issues with the paranormal element of the story.  Supposedly the Hawthornes are descended from Ancient Britons, specifically Druids, and worship an obscure Goddess (Modrun) who has imbued them with powers via artifacts gifted to their ancestors and subsequently passed down through innumerable generations.  The whole clutching your amulet or wand and praying in pidgeon Latin to the Goddess to get what you want made me feel ever so slightly uncomfortable.  I get that it is a fairly unique take on where Power comes from but I think I would have preferred it if they just had Power and used the artifacts to concentrate their mind to achieve their aims instead of some hokey pseudo-religious aspect to it all.

The characters themselves are pretty good and do come alive on the page.  You expect Gerallt, Gareth and Gwyneth to be fairly naive and almost other-worldly after being raised in almost total isolation at Deer Isle within a like-minded community.  What you don't expect is for Matt Mitchell to be as naive as they are, for a 21st Century 15 year old he does seem particularly "young" with an outlook that felt more like a 10 year old than his purported age.  We don't learn much about his fraternal twin Tina but she does seem to be more akin to a modern teenager.

On the whole this is a gentle tale, told at a lilting pace that deceptively sucks you in to the lives of these two transplanted families.  There is a lot to enjoy here and enjoy it I did; despite the issues raised above.


Whisper Network by Chandler Baker

Oh dear, where to start with this one.  I have so many issues with the way this story is told that I am really at a loss as to where I start reviewing it. 

First off the nice bit, (yes, there is one of those) the basic premise behind the story is a good one.  It sets out to tell the story of 4 women in a major corporation (the fictional Truviv) and how their experiences at work differ from that of their male colleagues.  From pay inequality through the gamut to out and out sexual harassment.  Grace, Ardie  and Sloane may seem to have it all with motherhood and a career but they are all deeply unhappy.  Contrast this with Rosalita who seems to have nothing (motherhood and a menial job) but who seems to have happiness but underneath there is a dark secret.

There is a good story struggling to dig itself out from the morass; unfortunately what you actually get is a misogynistic diatribe that does nothing proactive for women in the workplace at all.  The first thing I took away from it is that these are very privileged women with the resources to get an excellent education which then leads to a good job.  These are also women who are looking to blame everyone else for any perceived shortcomings.  They have no work/life balance because they don't actually want one; they moan that they do (oh, boy can these women moan) but underneath it all they all seem to have a martyr complex.  Everything that goes wrong in their lives is not their fault but it is the fault of men - not society note, but MEN.

Yes, there are attitudes that need fixing on both sides.  However, this book does nothing more than perpetrate the persecution complex that "modern feminists" seem to propogandise.  From #MeToo onwards it seems to have become popular to paint all women as victims and that anything they have achieved is not because they are genuinely good in their chosen field but because they played the simpering woman game and had to suffer all sorts of abuse from the men who hold the power to get ahead.  I find this toxic and a gross oversimplification, whilst it is undoubtedly true for some it is not true for all and I am guessing far more advance on merit than the narrative would have us believe - but that doesn't generate clicks, sell papers or move novels.

As characters Grace and Sloane display the worst characteristics of the working wife, mother and woman.  To some extent I sympathised with Grace as it is clear that she has never really recovered from the birth of her daughter a few months prior to the start of the tale.  Sloane however, just strikes me as plain nasty.  Everything really is someone else's fault and she never takes responsibility for her own actions or considers others feelings - particularly that of her husband; if she were a male character then we would be screaming narcissist but because this is a woman we are supposed to be sympathetic and root for her to overcome (puhlease!).

At least Ardie and Rosalita provide some relief from the constant carping.  Both of them just get on with whatever life throws at them and try to make the best of things.  Ardie may have the good job but she is divorced with a son and has definitely opted out of the game at work.  She dresses how she wants, refuses to adhere to standards of feminine beauty and even (shock, horror) dares to be overweight.  Somehow the author manages to make this seem somehow shameful and the reason that her career is not advancing.  As the cleaner at Truviv Rosalita is perhaps the only one who does not feel like a caricature and is certainly the only who seems to have her life together.

Full of distasteful stereotypes and with a very slow, plodding storyline that relies on constant repetition of scenarios.  It just isn't written that well.  It is sailing on the back of #MeToo but just serves to highlight the very worst of the bandwagon jumpers.  I am sure some of the set piece scenarios are familiar to anyone who has ever had the delight of working for a medium to large company - whether male or female - but the conclusions drawn and expressed by our 3 main protagonists (Rosalita is a bit of an after thought in all this) are extremely flawed.

In all honesty I actively disliked this book and found it very difficult to finish.  Reading became a chore instead of a pleasure and I actually cheered when I finished this one.  That is NOT how you should feel when finishing a book.  I do feel that 2 Stars is actually a generous score for this book but it got them purely because of the idea behind the book and because of Ardie and Rosalita.  Maybe you need to be a staunch feminist to enjoy this tract; personally I would rather see us all as just people trying to do our best but hey, if feminism is your thing then good for you (you might even enjoy this book).


Tuesday, 23 July 2019

What You Did by Claire McGowan

I suppose this is a book about the lies we tell to others and, more importantly ourselves.  How we manipulate our perceptions to make ourselves feel better about our lives or to give an outward impression to others that we really do have it all.  I suppose this is a book about friendship, jealousy, love, obsession and regret.  I say suppose because it is so bleak and dreary that it is really hard to tell exactly what it is about.  I really, really did not enjoy this one at all - in fact I did think long and hard about whether to give this one or two stars; in the end I plumped for two simply because it is a very tough subject to broach.

Ali and Mike seem to have the perfect post-Oxford life.  2 Children, a beautiful country home.  Mike is a successful Lawyer and Ali doesn't need to work but she has a chairpersonship for a Woman's refuge and does a little bit of journalism via thinkpieces.  They congratulate themselves on having it together, even better they are still close friends with their group from University days and now, 20-some years later, they are all gathering together for a celebration.  Everything seems to go swimmingly, if a little drunkenly, until Karen staggers in to the kitchen in the small hours of the morning screaming after being assaulted in the garden - an assault that left her neck braceleted with bruises, blood trickling down her thigh and her personality in tatters.

Up until this point I was with the book all the way.  Yes, Ali came across as a little sanctimonious and smug, particularly with her "charity work" and her reactions during the meeting regarding a woman assaulted at the safe house by her husband.  The party was pretty much how you would expect it to go - too much booze, simmering resentments that had festered since student days held barely in check.  So far so good, if a little harrowing in places.  The problems really start in the aftermath of Karen's assault.  Not just problems with the characters but problems for this reader.

I really, really got sick of the flashbacks to 1996.  I understand the purpose of them, thematically, but what grated was each flashback starts at more or less the same point and recounts what happened on their Leaver's Ball to Martha Rasby.  It just felt like each time we returned to it we started in the same place and so got to read through a load of information we already knew to be drip fed one tiny little piece of information that may or may not be important.  I did read each and every one, despite being sorely tempted to skip through but I became more and more frustrated with them.

None of the characters are particularly likeable and I felt it difficult to dredge up and empathy for any of them.  Somehow I found myself almost disliking each and everyone of them, but particularly Ali (unfortunately she is our main narrator so this was a big problem).  She spends so long whining to herself and refusing to face up to reality I just wanted to shake her.  Yes, I get it that her whole world has been shaken up and the rug pulled from beneath her very vocal beliefs and made her look long and hard at herself but I really could not dredge up any sympathy for her.

I appreciate that this is a difficult subject to tackle and the author did so fairly well.  Where I feel the story fails is the lack of a firm editorial hand.  There is a lot of repetition of events (past and present), an awful lot of rehashing of emotions and it just felt like so much wordy padding.  This could have been a much tauter story and would likely have been more impactful for it.

Bleak subject, populated by horrible characters with some very dubious "twists" thrown in to the mix.  Not a book I could recommend.

Switching Hour by Robyn Peterman

First off if "language" in a book offends then move on right by this one.  Our heroine, Zelda, has what might be termed a potty mouth and unleashes it frequently.  So, if this is a problem for you then steer clear.  Personally, it really doesn't bother me (I could go in to a long diatribe about it all but I promise to refrain) and, in actual fact, the author does manage to squeeze some rather creative sweariness in there - just needed a couple of portmanteaued cusses and it would have reached the zenith of foul mouthed fun. 

There's the thing it is FUN, from start to finish there is a lot of humour in this short tale.  Yes a lot of it is a little broad and has a tendency to club your over the head rather than tap you on the shoulder but it's all good.  Subtle this book isn't but then, Zelda isn't exactly a proponent of subtle herself.  The thing that did annoy me was the constant and ever changing nicknames Zelda gave to Baba Yaga, the first couple of times it was blah by the end of the book I was ready to either strangle the character or punch her full in the face every time it happened.

There are also a surprising number of, ahem, erotic encounters, in the book.  Now, these are what usually puts me off a book - constant cursing no problemo, getting down and dirty makes me cringe.  Fortunately for this reader although there is a fair bit of horizontal action it is not graphic details more of an overview of the shared character experience and it did seem to actually make sense within the context of the story and not just pushed in to titillate.

The plot whizzes by, barely giving the reader time to draw breath.  In summary - Zelda is released from magical pokey after running over her familiar, the Witches Council (headed by Baba Yaga) give until Halloween to complete their challenge or she will lose her powers.  Finding out she had an Aunt Hildy who died, violently, and left Zelda her house she sets off to claim her inheritance and hopefully keep her powers.  Things start to really get strange when she arrives at an almost ghost town with rotting vegetables in the local grocery and strange cages in her Aunt Hildy's basement.  Throw in a reanimated familiar (still has 6 lives left) with a nice line in credit card fraud, some decidedly un-Snow White wild animals who camp out on Zelda's porch and mix with a healthy dose of pop culture and you more or less have Switching Hour.

Rude, obnoxious, self-absorbed and very funny; this book is the personality of it's heroine through and through.  Almost despite myself I found myself really enjoying the read and I am now toying with getting the next in the series.

Poppy's Recipe For Life by Heidi Swain

I really enjoyed this second visit to Nightingale Square, which was somewhat of a relief after having been very disappointed with my last couple of Heidi Swain books.  Fortunately the author seems to have got her mojo back and this has resulted in a warm book that constantly begs you to just read one more chapter.

Poppy was all set to move in to Kate's little house on Nightingale Square when her car crash of a mother scuppered her plans so she is still stuck in her tiny flat above the Greengrocers where she works.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing but Poppy really, really wanted to get stuck in with the gardening at the community garden - especially as it would mean goodies for her pickling obsession.  Still, all comes to she who waits and now the tenants have done a moonlight flit she is all set to move and she can't wait.  There are only two clouds on her horizon - a very grumpy, reclusive next door neighbour and the fact that her brother seems to be avoiding her.

Told with warmth and wit there is actually quite a lot going on in this book.  The main story centres around Poppy, her brother Ryan and the wonderfully named Jacob Grizzle (the grumpy neighbour).  We do get to catch up with Kate and Luke, from the first installment of the Nightingale Square tales but only very briefly.  There are also brief mentions of other characters we met way back then too as the action moves to centre around the Community Garden.  Back up in this book comes from the bookshop owning Colin and gift emporium entrepeneur Lou.

The characters are all multi-faceted and more or less believable.  Poppy can be a little bit too good to be true at times but she does have a tendency to jump to conclusions and put her foot right in it which helps negate some of the self-sacrificing behaviour.  The real problem is with the character of Jacob, he is almost Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for much of the book and it does become a little overdone at times - yes, we get it he's a decent bloke who has had something horrible happen so he's retreated in to his shell to protect himself.

There are also some plot problems.  Nothing major but some sections feel very clumsy and almost like afterthoughts to spice up the story.  Yes, the reader is in no doubt how things are going to work out for Poppy - to be honest, her relationship arc more or less mirrors that of Kate in the first book.  The thing it doesn't matter that you know how things are all going to go, the fun is in the getting there and it is a very enjoyable journey.

Monday, 22 July 2019

Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn

Very much a story of two halves this one.  One half was engrossing and atmospheric and the other was disjointed and felt very thrown together and almost bolted on to the tale. 

First off, the good bit.  Julia's life has been rather charmed, admittedly she has lost both her father and her mother but she has enough wealth to live her own life and is even dabbling in her own printing imprint - Capriole is very much a dabble at this point in time, no matter what Julia seems to think.  As her 25th Birthday approaches she has to return to the States as her half-brother is disputing that she is entitled to the money left her under her father's will and she desperately needs to salvage her route to independence.  Julia is fiercely independant but doesn't really see herself as that, she just sees herself as a modern woman living life on her terms.  This is related so matter of factly that it does feel natural and sets the character well on the page.

The backdrop for the story is Prohibition New York, but it is in the world of privilege so there is plenty of alcohol flowing.  Again, this is seen as being part of the natural order of things - if you have wealth you can have whatever you want and the law can be safely ignored.  Private clubs and homes serve liquor with impunity and nary a whiff of the police raiding them.  It is also very noticeable that the lives of wealthy women seem to just centre around which party or club they can visit that night and days are spent more or less idle.  The descriptions of the locales and the clothing are brief but really place the reader in the setting.

Julia herself is feisty and sarcastic.  She is clearly an intelligent woman and this does come across well on the page and her aversion to be shackled to a man (as she sees marriage) seems perfectly natural.  I liked that although she sees the need for Equality For Women she is not politically active or motivated to be so, makes a nice change for female protagonists in books set in this era.  As she spends more time with the Rankins and the Winterjays she does become more politically aware but still seems pretty laissez faire about it all, preferring to concentrate on saving her fortune by any means necessary.

The rest of the cast, and this is a large cast, are okay.  Most of them are pretty much two dimensional shades of a particular type.  Glennis is the flighty, society girl; happy enough to shock but all she wants is a husband.  Phillip is a playboy type, only really interested in accumulating and creating art with a nice line in dissolution on the side.  We never really get to know too much about the others, even Jack, Alice and the ill-fated Naomi.

The "bad" bit is really the mystery of Naomi's death.  It just feels uncomfortable on the page and by Glennis convincing Julia that something is wrong with the circumstances the resulting investigation and suppositions really don't fit with the rest of the fictional world.  It honestly felt bolted in to the story to add a bit of excitement, when there were so many ways this could have been added (should the author desire) without making the story feel like two separate stories.  Honestly, for me it was clunky and just didn't work.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

A Bad, Bad Thing by V.J. Chambers

2.5 Stars

Danae and Athena may be sisters but they could not be more different.  Whilst both are hard workers that is about the only thing that connects, indeed since their mother died they rarely see or talk to each other and they are happy with that.  When tragedy strikes Athena she calls on Danae to help, literally, hide the body.  Cue a series of rather peculiar occurences and flashbacks to their childhoods, strange encounters with a mysterious man who beguiles both sisters and a suspicious detective.

The thing that I really, really struggled with was how much the plot relied on nobody really giving two hoots about Athena's missing husband.  Barely a ripple is made in the supposed search for him when he goes "missing".  Then you have Danae, our main narrator, who seems to be able to fob the detective off sufficiently to keep herself from being arrested whilst clearly having some sort of breakdown through the stress and horror of it all.  honestly, nothing adds up at all about either the characters or the plot.

The best things I can say about this are that the main character, Danae, has a great voice on the page.  Her mental dissolution is well wrought and the way she hops from thought to thought is very realistic.  I also liked how things would pop in to her mind that seemed both random and innocuous at the time but would then prove to be rather important in another 30 pages.  Very strong characterisation ruined by a flimsy plot with more holes than emmental.

The author also does a great job in exposing the inner workings of a family and I did find myself wishing that there had been far more of that than the tale I did get.  Although brought up in the same home with the same parents the experience for Danae and Athena could not have been more different.  It is clear that their mother had "issues" to say the least but it was interesting to see how Danae found that her mother's behaviour clouded her perceptions of Athena.

I think that is what annoyed me so much about this book, there are some really interesting themes here that are only partially explored and done so well that they could have a carried a book on their own without all the ridiculousness.  The thriller aspects of the murder/accident, the missing body and the beguiling man (I genuinely can't remember his name - I want to say Darren but who knows?) are thin and, for this reader, did not hold water at all.

The Possession by Michael Rutger

          Nolan Moore and his team of Ken, Molly and Pierre are very definitely back and still looking for general weirdness to feature in their You Tube series, The Anomaly Files.  Although a sequel, of sorts, this is really a separate novel with a recurring cast of characters so not having read the first one isn't a bar to reading this one.  The adventures of the first novel are alluded to but form no real part of this story so the only thing you have missed if you haven't read The Anomaly is some of the characterisation build up for the team - and, if you haven't read The Anomaly why not? get it NOW!

This time the team rock up in New England to investigate a series of bizarre dry stone walls that are an accepted part of the landscape but seem to have had no real practical purpose.  Scattered throughout the landscape they scale mountains and stop and start at random.  Yes, there could be a reasonable explanation for them but that isn't what Nolan does, he looks for the most outlandish reason possible.  Basing themselves in the small town of Birchlake matters are complicated by the presence of Nolan's separated wife, Kristy, and the disappearance of a 14 year old girl, Alaina Hixon.

Throw in bizarre weather conditions, things that move in the mist, strange noises and what seem to be apparitions and things go to the odd side very quickly.  The link of the story to the walls is tenuous initially but the author manages to retrieve it and make a solid connection both metaphorically and in the reality of his fiction (if that makes sense).  In fact, there is a quite good pyschological cautionary tale about the mental walls we build muddled in with the scares, the demons and the witches.

Somehow there is a lot happening but the action feels muted and the read is quite restrained rather than the breathless page turning I was expecting.  There are issues with the story that then get explained away by "the walls made us do it" or as almost out of body experiences but I can let that slide as the author does, on the whole, dig himself out of continuity holes effectively with these devices.  The plot does take quite a while to get going and for the first hundred or so pages I was dubious about this one but once it all settles down it is quite a decent romp.

Narrated by Nolan characterisation of the other protagonists is weak but forgiveable as for all his open-mindedness about "weird stuff" he really doesn't seem to understand people.  He is also quite the snark and there are some good dashes of sarcastic humour tossed in.

I was eagerly looking forward to Michael Rutger's second book after loving The Anomaly.  I did enjoy The Possession but it really isn't a patch on his first for suspense, action and just general all-out weirdness.  Overall I was just a little tiny bit disappointed in the book when compared to his first novel, still 4 Stars isn't a bad review by anyone's reckoning.


Saturday, 20 July 2019

Tell Me A Secret by Jane Fallon

3.5 Stars

The novel starts with Holly getting a longed for promotion at work, moving up from Script Editor on a Recurring Drama to a management role.  Most of the "action" centres around her office relationships - her best friend Roz, the office pariah Juliet, the put upon PA and the intern Lorraine.  There are a couple of others thrown in for good measure - fellow script editor Jim, a slimy boss, Giles, and a few of the cast from the soap.  Just as Holly thinks her life is coming together it seems that someone "has it in for her" and is sabotaging her position.

The biggest issue I had with this book that it is clear from Chapter One where the problem lies and it does get frustrating waiting for Holly to come to her senses and figure it out.  This does lead to some rather bizarre scenes featuring her non-office best friend Dee and her husband Gav which, to be honest, are completely implausible.  However, they are fun and leant an air of frivolity to the book which it needed or it could have been tedious in the extreme.

It is quite hard to write a review on this one as so much of the plot centres around relationships that it would be all too easy to give things away.  Yes, it isn't exactly difficult to work out for yourself very early on in proceedings but for that you need to read it and I don't want to spoil that.

I did find Holly a difficult character to get along with.  She is such a mish mash of personality traits that I found her quite wearying at times, I also wanted to give her a good shake and tell her to get her head in the game.  There is also a lot of time spent mulling things over in her head which did get a little repetitive.

Over all it was a decent enough read and the author certainly understands how toxic relationships, in particular friendships, can be.  Yes, it is all overblown and slips seamlessly in to out and out ridiculousness occasionally but I did still enjoy making my way through it all.

The Beach House by Jane Green

At first I wondered where this book was going as there is quite a character list and not a lot seems to happen in the early chapters.  In fact, it takes more than half the book to actually get everyone together on Nantucket Island, but, I found myself starting to become really involved in their disparate back stories.

Daniel and Bea have two young daughters and a crumbling marriage.  Bea seems to think a romantic summer spent in a holiday rental at Nantucket will fix things, even if Daniel will only be there on the weekends thanks to his work.  The couples therapy doesn't seem to be working so she is more than willing to try anything.  Daniel has a huge secret that he has plucked up the courage to speak to the therapist about and now he is more convinced than ever that the marriage is over.

Richard and Daff have split up and their daughter Jess is floundering.  Both of them are tiptoeing round the teen and giving her the space they think she needs.  Unfortunately, Jess doesn't need space, she needs firm boundaries and the more she gets away with the further she pushes things.  When Richard starts dating again Jess really disintegrates and Nantucket seems like the ideal solution.

A few drinks too many and Michael makes maybe the worst mistake of his life with his married boss.  He is free and single and at first seems to enjoy the thrill of the affair but he soon realises that his actions are so very, very wrong.  The only solution seems to be a hasty retreat back to his mother's Island mansion.

Nan is the Island eccentric.  Still suffering from the loss of her husband decades ago her money has run out and now it looks like she is going to lose her home.  In an attempt to salvage things she draws on her reserves of inner strength and decides to open a rooming house for the summer.

It could all have been a bit bleak if I'm being honest.  Lots of lives in turmoil and people floundering to make it through to the next day.  Somehow I found myself really enjoying it all.  Some of the characters are more relatable than others but there are so many that even if one irritates the hack out of you there is the sure and certain knowledge that we will be moving on to another one in a few pages.  Normally the themes of adultery and stroppy teens would turn me off a book in short order but although these are pushed to their limits in certain sections (Jess's tantrums spring to mind) they have enough empathy and truth to them that I soon became engrossed.  It does all make for uncomfortable reading in places as it cuts a little close to relationships that I see around me.

This is the first Jane Green that I have read and it definitely won't be my last.  Complicated characters that are allowed to speak for themselves and have real world problems and insecurities.  Throw in an idyllic summer retreat and you have the almost perfect holiday read.

Friday, 19 July 2019

The Little Shop Of Happy Ever After by Jenny Colgan

When I first started reading this tale I wasn't immediately won over.  However by about 30 pages deep I found myself being completely sucked in to this fictional world and suffering from the reader's curse of "just one more chapter then I'll go to sleep".  As the story progresses I found myself beginning to get jealous of Nina's new life - let's face it it all sounds absolutely idyllic and who wouldn't want to run a Book Bus?  Somehow the author managed to get me to bypass my normal "well that's not how business works" knee jerk reaction and to just go with the flow.

Nina works in her local library in Birmingham and shares a house with Surinder.  Not only does she work with books but she absolutely loves books, much to Surinder's dismay as there home is being overtaken by piles of them in every room, on the stairs (to be honest I think my husband knows how Surinder feels, he was so happy when I took to using an eReader with alacrity as he no longer needed to worry about the ceilings caving in).  Unfortunately for Nina her life is about to take a sharp about face as the local library service is consolidated and she has to apply for a job in the new multi-media version, a defiantly 21st Century take on the library service that puts a love of books way down the list.  Slowly events conspire to lead Nina to purchasing a quirky old van and setting up a travelling book shop in a remote area of Scotland.

There is something almost nostalgic about the story.  From the perfect highland setting - quirky local characters, beautiful scenery and a very welcoming community; the star crossed romance that beckons and the grittier aspects of modern life.  It is a gentle jumble of romantic fantasy and some of the realities of modern life all seen through a rather rose tinted lens but the whole makes a world I found myself wholly inhabiting whilst reading.  So much so I was quite sad to finish the book and I really hope there is a sequel to this book so we can visit the wonderful setting again and get to follow some more of Nina's book choices.

One of the things that really grabbed me about the book was how people read the most unexpected things.  You have old men reading bodice rippers and genteel old ladies reading gory thrillers, very true to life.  What did surprise me was how each person really only settled on one genre to read, in my experience readers will give anything a try and even if one book in a genre is not to your taste it doesn't stop you trying others in the hope you will find a good one.  The book is really a great big hug for the reading community and a celebration of all that is glorious about settling down with a good book (or even a passably okay one).

The characters are warmly written and whilst a little stereotypical and predictable the author's affection for each and every one of them comes through on the page and that can't fail to engage the reader.  The plot itself is a little far fetched and the romantic aspects predictable but the writing manages to take the reader past it's shortcomings.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would not hesitate to recommend it to even the most casual reader as an ideal way to pass a few happy hours.

The Little Unicorn Gift Shop by Kellie Hailes

2.5 Stars

The biggest disappointment for me was that from the first chapter you know exactly what is going to happen.  There are no twists and turns, no surprises, it all happens exactly as you would predict after reading 10 or so pages.  Not necessarily a bad thing, indeed as a holiday read there is something almost comforting in it's predictability.  There are a couple of highlights but these are actually flashbacks to Ben and Poppy's past as next door neighbours rather than contemporaneous action.  Unfortunately, even those are a little on the predictable side and firmly stereotype the two along, dare I say it, class lines.  This may have been unintentional by the author or I may be reading far more in to it than is meant but I could not help but make the ever so British leap of the class divide between Ben and Poppy in their childhoods.

Ben has been a "good boy" and towed the family line.  University followed by a high powered legal job, following daddy's footsteps.  His secret though was that he wanted to open a little tea shop; serving his home baked goodies and a selection of fine teas.

Poppy is more of a free spirit.  Leaving home as soon as she possibly could she set off travelling the world.  Finding work here and there and living out of a rucksack she has spent ten years wandering.  Her secret is that she finds it hard to trust and believes that love does not exist.

To be honest, I really enjoyed the characterisations on the page.  The author treats us to narration from both Ben and Poppy, although mainly Poppy, and I did feel that you get a good insight in to what makes these two tick.  They are also quite deep characters with flaws and foibles and both make fairly normal mistakes.

My problem really lies with The Little Unicorn Gift Shop of the title.  Yes, I do know it is a work of fiction but Ben seems able to set up a tea shop and bake on the premises with no Health Department inspections at all.  Poppy seems able to source stock with no problem (okay, in the days of the internet marginally believable) and from the get go she sells steadily and consistently turns a profit.  Also, they employ the shop owner's twin grandchildren who then disappear for 90% of the book.  So much so, I did wonder why they even got mentioned in the first place, they do get the odd cameo appearence but it just left me feeling like there was a whole strand to this story that got editorially binned.

I bought this as a holiday read and despite the relatively low scoring I did enjoy it; I just didn't fall in love with it.  It is light and frothy and I found it easy to read in short bursts throughout the day.

The Pet Shop At Pennycombe Bay by Sheila Norton

2.5 Stars

I bought this book as a light hearted holiday read and it does fill that criteria nicely.  It is a light and fairly frothy tale of one woman's, Jess, struggle to forge a life for herself after everything has fallen apart and she finds herself more or less adrift.  I'm still not entirely sure why she felt that she had to leave her former life and finds it impossible to trust anyone, it is covered in the book but glossed over to some extent and I certainly can't remember it a coupe of weeks after finishing the tale.

So, she's moved in with her cousin Ruth.  Works in a local pet shop.  Has no social life.  Trusts no-one.  To be honest Jess has a fairly bleak existence that is only broken up by her internal conversations with her dog Prudence.  Then she meets fellow dog walker Nick on the beach and her horizons begin to broaden. 

This book does cover a lot of ground, not all of it nicely sanitised small town life.  The author manages to weave in alcoholism, same sex relationships, Pets As Therapy, abusive relationships.  Unfortunately, for me, it all felt a little superficial and the characterisations lacked any real depth to them so it was difficult to really empathise with Jess or to really settle in to the community at Pennycombe Bay.  to be honest the only bits that I really enjoyed were Vera and Eddie's later life romance and Jess's conversations with Prudence.  The rest of it just really passed me by.

The pace is nice and steady and events unfold fairly naturally.  I just found that it was all a little twee somehow.  It is a good holiday read as it is easy to pick up and put down, probably because I wasn't really invested in the place or it's people.

The Holiday by T. M. Logan

          3.5 Stars

The plot line of this book is actually pretty good.  The conceit is that a group of 4 university friends (Kate, Jennifer, Izzy and Rowan) all get together for a blissful summer week in a sun bleached France to celebrate their friendship and that fact that they are all about to enter the milestone of their 40th year.  Previously they have managed to sneak a girly weekend away to catch up and keep the friendship group together but this is different, this time partners and children are tagging along.  The length of their friendship means that there is history aplenty between the 4, exacerbated by the fact their partners really don't get on and then throw in a bunch of children ranging from their teens to pre-schoolers and more or less anything can happen.

The majority of the tale is told from Kate's point of view and we only ever really get to know the cast of characters from her point of view.  This is a shame as I found Kate to be rather irritating.  Apparently she is a civilian forensics officer but seems to have no critical thinking skills.  Early on in the story she sees a series of messages on her husband's mobile that sets the tone for the rest of the book.  Basically it becomes a series of vignettes detailing blissful sunny days overshadowed by squabbles and Kate's internal monologue of doom.

The author does produce a good study of family dynamics and how friendships change over time, often fracturing and only held together by habit rather than any joy in each other's company.  The small glimpses in to how each family relates to each other and those outside the family group are also well drawn and realistic.  Although, teenagers seem to be the enemy of mankind as a whole and the three in this book fulfill every stereotype going between them.

Of course nothing is what it seems and we slowly wade through days of ennui that are building to a dramatic finale.  I will admit that there is a nice twist in the end and the final night does erupt in to a spectacular Hollywood style crescendo with everything getting resolved.  Unfortunately, the real situation that is revealed is slightly too far fetched to be believed and the secrets that are finally exposed don't really come as any great shock at this point.

It was a solid enough read with good pacing and some excellent inter-personal dynamics.  Unfortunately I just found myself frustrated by the narrator and ultimately disappointed in the scope of the ending.


Friday, 12 July 2019

A Perfect Cornish Summer by Phillipa Ashley

3.5 Stars

Porthmellow is an idyllic Cornish village, perched on the coast and the characters never fail to remind you that what seems like a paradise on earth can turn on its head when a storm rolls in.  In fact this was one of things I enjoyed most about the book, the back up cast of characters were realistic and had a genuine place in the book; they weren't just filler to out main character, Sam's, story. 

Sam herself is your fairly typical heroine, tragic backstory (orphaned in her late teens, estranged from her older brother, unlucky in love) but feisty and has put love on the back burner.  I actually found myself quite liking the character and could understand her behaviours, even if I didn't necessarily agree with them.  Her battle to set up her business and to keep the Porthmellow Food Festival growing every year were interesting and kept me reading - even if certain aspects of it did seem to stretch believability.

The foil to local Sam is the incomer Chloe.  Not all is what it seems in Chloe's life and she has a nice little clutch of secrets that she holds close - none of which are really earth-shattering but she still doesn't want anyone to know.  As the book progresses I found myself more interested in what was happening with Chloe and her daughter than in the main character's tale.

On the whole the characterisations throughout the book are really good.  Even minor characters have some depth to them and the main two - Chloe and Sam - are multifaceted and real feeling.  The only real problem is with the men in the book, they are a little flat and two dimensional, Drew in particular suffers from this whilst Gabe is almost a real person but I did feel he was only there as a device for Sam's character development.

The plot itself is nicely paced with few surprises and you know how things are going to turn out from the moment Gabe's name is mentioned.  There are a few twists and turns with the festival itself and a few personal dramas along the way but it all rounds out how you expect.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as the getting there is enjoyable.

For a holiday read this is spot on, nothing too taxing and a nice gentle humour sprinkled generously throughout.  A blend of village life and personal quandries merge together on the page and make it a satisfying read.  Unfortunately, it is all a little bit too predictable and the sabotage of the festival doesn't add a further dimension as intended it just feels bolted in and then half forgotten about. 

The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora

On the face of it this is quite a straightforward tale about Abby and Elise.  Abby has remained home at Michigan, living with her parents and following Elise's burgeoning movie career through magazine interviews and gossip columns.  They used to be close friends but grew apart whilst still in school and with their 10 year reunion looming maybe it is time for Abby to shake of her self-imposed exile and rekindle the flames of friendship.

I got the impression that we are supposed to sympathise with Abby, find her damaged psyche somehow sympathetic.  For me she came across as not only deeply troubled but sociopathic; and that was before I got to any of the more worrying behavioural aspects of her story from when she lands in L.A..  I also found the dream sequences to be unsettling, particularly Abby's insistence that they were all somehow real and that the people in them were interacting with her in reality and not just her dream.

Throw in an unhealthy obsession with a film maker, Auguste Perren, and his bizarre (probably Art House) films that is shared by both women and it does become a very odd story.  When Elise introduces Abby at The Rhizome, a spa retreat created by Perren it becomes almost cult-like.  Shades of Scientology with the meetings with your Guide at The Rhizome to be taken on a dream journey - all very bizarre.

Neither of the main characters are particularly likeable or relatable.  The nearest we get is Elise, at least you can understand that her self-absorbed vacuity is as much a part of the damage caused by her profession and the pressures of even a little peripheral fame.  Ultimately though you can't help but feel that she is, as perceived through Abby's eyes, an empty vessel.  The real winner in the book is the rugged California coastline which the author treats reverentially.

The book takes some odd twists and turns but as the bulk of it is set in Hollywood you find yourself just going with it.  That is until Abby reunites with her estranged sister and then things become completely non-sensical.  I won't go in to detail here as that will spoil the ending of the book but I want to go on record on saying that it is medically ridiculous and made me glad I was almost at the end.

The pacing is slow but necessarily so as the author is trying to give a sense of languid days rekindling a friendship that really both women are only paying homage to, never really regaining that childhood closeness.  It is really about obsession and the lies we well ourselves to feed that obsession.  From a psychological perspective it is an uncomfortable read with characters that I found it difficult to invest in or really understand, let alone like.

An okay read but not one I would really recommend to others.


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 ...