Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

This is a very confusing book; the first 100 pages or so are great and really suck you in and grip you and the same goes for the last 70 or so.  Unfortunately those myriad of pages inbetween are full of filler, banalities and only the odd nugget of plot development or character progression.  It almost felt as though the book was written and then someone somewhere decided that it needed more words, many more words, a surfeit of words so the entire mid-section was crafted.  I will readily admit that this came close to being a DNF because of this, I powered through with the help of copious amounts of caffeine and was ultimately glad I did because the pay off at the end of the book was worth it; just.

The blurb does sound very enticing and you expect to get a good old-fashioned saga.  There is an attempt at providing this but ultimately the characters just don't ring true on the page, you are constantly aware you are reading and that is a no-no for me.  I want to be transported in to the authors world and not just told about by the narrator.  In this case the narrator, Mabel Dagmar, is not a particularly warm or empathetic character and it is clear she is in this for what she can get.  This makes her not so very different to The Winslows and, indeed, the lines do get blurred so frequently that I did find myself having to re-read sections, much as Mabel herself does with Paradise Lost.

Indeed, it is clear that we are supposed to be drawing parables between Milton's long form poem and this story.  However, I felt that this was done in such a heavy handed and obvious way that it lost all veracity.  The writing itself is rambling and meanders through fairly mundane sections, picks up a thread and then leaves it dangling in perpetuity, moves off at a tangent and then finally gets back to the meat of the story.  It does mean that any revelation about The Winslow's history is diluted and I found I just didn't care about Birch and his current reign or Kitty and her previous ministrations to the family.  I think it says something when there are deaths of frequent characters (both by nefarious means and natural) and, as a reader, you just shrug and move on.

In short, this book is trying to be "something" and in trying so hard it fails to be "anything".  True, I have given it 3 Stars, but these are purely for the protracted set up and the denouement; the rest of it (including the epilogue) I could have happily managed without.


Don't Tell Me How It Ends by Craig McLay

3.5 stars

Andrew MacLennan is an aspiring film maker and he has always wanted to attend the prestigious Toronto School Of Film.  The only thing is he has never lived away from home before, he has never had a girlfriend and he has definitely, never, ever experienced intimacy.  Well, he doesn't think he has.  You see, his twin brother was killed in a car accident when they were 15 and the last 10 years are all a bit patchy, memory wise.

This novel deals with his first year at the film school and it is all a bit Seinfeld in that really the book appears to be about nothing more than the mundanities of life.  Approximately three quarters of the way through this changes and it does reveal much more about our narrator and his past and how that is affecting his present and future.  By this point you are sort of on board with things and idly hoping things work out for him but you aren't really invested.

The characters are solid and a good mix of personality types and they are very racially diverse.  This doesn't feel like a deliberate ploy by the author but more a genuine realisation of the disparate groups of people that are thrown together in University and the randomness of the friend groups that spring up.  The humour is warm and we are laughing with the boys (Andrew, Edgar, Esteban and Satyajit) rather than at them as they try and negotiate the demands of their course, moving off campus and having love lives.

To be honest, I found the Nira / Andrew romantic relationship very uncomfortable; they just didn't feel like a fit and it all seemed to be a device just to allow the reader to peek in to Andrew's clouded past.  Unfortunately the reveal of what he has been hiding from himself comes as no surprise to the reader and it did kind of feel a bit Lifetime Movie for me.

A decent enough read but let down by overly clumsy set pieces.

The Vampire Knitting Club by Nancy Warren

2.5 Stars

This sounded like it was going to be a fun book to read - cosy mystery (not sure I like that term but it seems prevalent and everyone knows what it means by now so I have to use it), a wool shop and vampires.  What's not to like?  Unfortunately, with this one there is quite a bit that just doesn't hit the mark.  Luckily, it is a very quick read so the flaws are easier to ignore.

I think one of my biggest issues was the setting.  Oxford as a base for the supernatural has been done to death and whilst I can understand the allure of setting a book (or series of them) here, for the scenery if nothing else, I am so over it.  Being a huge fan of the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness I found myself constantly comparing the fictional worlds and this one comes up severely lacking.  We have a transplanted American witch, a nest of vampires and an ancient setting.  What we don't have is a compelling heroine, a cast of intriguing support characters or any real interest in how things are going to work out.  This was a book that I read just to get to the end without any investment or real interest in the tale being told.

Things do look up towards the end though when Lucy's cousin Violet and her mother turn up at The Cardinal Woolsey determined to wrest the family grimoire from Lucy's hands.  In the interests of honesty I had to look up the heroine's name when writing this review and it is only 4 days since I finished the book.  The family dynamics were interesting and the whole task to determine who got the book was well executed on the page and I did find myself drawn in to the situation.  That is almost enough to make me want to see what happens in the second book in this series - almost.

The plot about the grandmother's death and the whole idea that vampire's walk and live amongst us is paper thin and from the entrance of Sydney Lafontaine you know that granny did not have a natural death and why she didn't have a natural death.  As this happens in the opening chapters there is little in the way of tension, suspense or even interest.  The vampire nest under the store just feels plain odd and unless the store is the size of your average department store the whole thing must take up the block of four stores and not just the one, tiny wool shop.  Yes, I know this is a fantasy novel but at least make an attempt at creating a believable world for your reader.

Holly Banks Full Of Angst by Julie Valerie

Basically this is supposed to be the tale of one woman's attempts to get her life on track.  Things are stressful right ow - just moved house to a completely new area, daughter is about to start school for the first time, husband is in a new job that is swallowing all his time and the parental unit is a liability.  You can see why Holly Banks is full of angst can't you - so much happening in such a small time frame.  Even worse the Village Of Primm is one of those picture perfect American villages and seems to have an overdeveloped sense of worth - in fact, it sounds like a downright scary place to live with it's enclaves and F. U. Frisbee tournaments and all that topiary is far too Overlook Hotel for me.

The biggest issue I have is with the characters in this book, to the last one they are deeply unpleasant.  We only really get to know Holly and that is only because she is our narrator.  Initially I felt a little bit of sympathy for her, moving to her ideal home a week before her daughter starts school for the first time could only be a recipe for stress but by the time we got to the end of the protracted Real Estate Agent doorstep scene I was done.  Holly's internal monologue is supposed to reflect her desires to return to the filmmaking she studied at College, what it actually does is show that she is not a particularly "nice" person.  She is incapable of seeing another's point of view and sees their actions only in terms of their direct impingement on her; to be honest I'd love to give a psychiatrist a copy of this and ask them to diagnose Holly Banks and I fear angst would be the least of her worries once they were done.

The only member of the supporting cast that I could get behind even a little bit was Greta, Holly's mother.  Yes she is overdone as an alcoholic gambling addict that follows one scatty scheme after another - Cat Doula anyone?  However, she is the only character that has any facets to her character and actually comes across on the page as a person.  Sadly, it take a looong time for her to turn up as more than an aside and by the time she does you are way past caring about what is happening with Holly or in the wider, weird world of Primm.

I can see that this is supposed to be a satire, I even noticed tiny sections that got it tonally right.  However, on the whole, this book is a gigantic swing and a miss.  It rapidly becomes a parody of itself rather than the world that it is hoping to lampoon.  There seem to be certain things that the author has a major issue with and so spends far too long setting the scenes up and drawing the outcome out, this just leads to reader disinterest rather than illuminating the ridiculousness of real world behaviour.  In all honesty, my recommendation is to give this one a body swerve - pretend it is Mary-Margaret St. James and her sign up papers for the PTA and do that commando crawl from the hall (one of the few scenes that got the balance right).

Monday, 18 November 2019

Not-Quite-Supermodel by Kathy Tong

Whilst there is a lot to love about this book there is also a lot to, if not actively hate then certainly to, dislike intensely. 

Firstly there is the severe lack of proofreading; there are double words, words missed out entirely and some very peculiar sentence constructions.  This does become an issue as they are peppered liberally throughout the novel and start to take on a life of their own and therefore overpower the story. 

Then you have the storyline repetitions to hammer a point home.  I can just about cope with the constant references to wanting to eat Oreos or wanting to stop smoking - after all if you are on a constant diet of low calorie ready meals you are going to want your favourite high fat, high calorie snack and if you are a smoker the "I should give up" thought crosses your mind several times in a 24 hour period.  What did start to irritate were the constant references to her issues surrounding bathrooms, at times it felt like this was a good 75% of Alex's character.  I'm also not convinced that her showering solution would actually work - have you ever got cling film wet?, it isn't pretty.

Fortunately the good stuff manages to overpower the bad and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute spent buried in my eReader.  Alex is actually fairly normal, sure she has her quirks but don't we all, when she gets the chance to try a different life she screws her courage in both hands and gives it a go.  It doesn't exactly run smoothly for her but in a way that feels completely logical and grounded in normality.  From a poisonous booker at her agency to a complete inability to pose she certainly has her work cut out getting booked.

Throw in a cast of peculiar support characters and there is definitely scope for humour.  Fortunately, we do get plenty of fun moments, not laugh out loud funny but certainly smirk worthy.  From Keisha on the check out at the local store with her full on abrasive New York attitude through to the wannabes populating the staff at "the" bar/restaurant to be seen in.  The only thing that felt forced was how easily Alex slips in to friendship groups, the older you get the harder it is and the character doesn't come across as the type who would easily make close friendships as they involve revealing parts of yourself you don't like.  However, make friends she does and quite a lot of them, strangely she only has one friend she is in touch with from back home throughout the entire book.

The story was fun and vibrant and is a glorious romp.  If you want to just be entertained then this one does that in spades.


Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Salvage by Duncan Ralston

It's not usually a good sign when you keep checking the bottom right of your eReader to find out how far through the story you are and I found myself doing so constantly.  It took me 5 days to read 30% of this book and then I managed the rest in a day through sheer grit, determination and a fervent desire to move on to something else.  I was sorely tempted to just leave this one on my could not finish pile but I did that far too much last year so bribed myself in to finishing it.

The overall idea is a good one but the execution is flawed.  Almost from the off you know where this is going to go and it goes exactly where you would expect - just throws in a few murders along the way.  There are huge plot chasms more or less from the get go and it gives the impression that the author was writing this in snatches around their "real" life and didn't have a synopsis to refer back to.  The biggest one that really grated with me was the magically refilling scuba tanks - nowhere is it mentioned that there is somewhere to refill the tanks or that Owen or Jo have more than one, even a little aside to The Red Pony having a small scuba outlet attached would have covered it.  But no, the tanks miraculously refill every time they are used.  I can't discuss the others because they would give the plot away.

The story is also incredibly s-l-o-w.  It takes forever for more than brow beating and clothes pulling in grief to actually move in to any sort of action and even when it does everything is so leisurely that the tension that could have been created is dissipated in to the silt at the bottom of Chapel Lake.  There are some good sections in the last 15% of the book when the secrets that the lake holds are revealed and the pace picks up; if the book had managed to hold your attention like this last section it would have been incredible.  Instead it has a very strong ending but is so weak and diluted prior to that you may not persevere long enough to get the pay off.

The characters are pretty blah which doesn't help matters.  There was such scope to be had with Owen and Jo but it seemed to be wasted.  Everyone else is a little bit backwoods hillbilly and cliched.  Even Lori is depicted with a couple of broad strokes that make her sound quite boring despite her nomadic lifestyle and the values that Owen tells us she has.

This is a genre I love and have been reading for nigh on 35 years now and I know a stinker when I read one, unfortunately this is one.

The Thunder Girls by Melanie Blake

2.5 Stars

First off, what a truly appalling name for a band - The Thunder Girls.  Really, this was the best you could come up with?  At first it didn't bother me but when the PR Team start with the Thunderbirds puns for promoting the band it started to make me twitch and that didn't improve as the book progressed.

Then we come to the publishing house hyperbole surrounding the novel:

Glamorous - Well, maybe a little bit of glamour is in the book but mainly in name checking designers and talking about the application of lip gloss.  Honestly, the amount of time spent mentioning one character or another applying lip gloss or running out of lip gloss or lending lip gloss is incredible.  No real glamour though.

Dramatic - There are some moments that could be described as dramatic and a couple even manage to live up to it.  Sadly, most of the supposed drama falls a bit flat.

Sensational - It reads like a British Sunday Tabloid that is now defunct so there is a lot of sensationalism in the book but that is very different to being sensational.  It is just a bunch of tropes and the usual rumours surrounding anyone with a modicum of fame blended together.

Blockbuster - Well it is certainly that, only because of serious hype building by the real life PR team.  The blurb is cleverly written to draw you in but please don't expect too much of this book, it is not what it's glossy surface purports it to be.

There is a plot here but one that annoyed me as each member of The Thunder Girls (gag) is painted as a victim throughout the book.  Each and every revelation about what happened after the band split up only serves to denigrate the character further on the page.  I am sure that the author intended us to see the adversity in these women's lives and watch them reclaim their rightful place in the world as empowering.  It simply doesn't work, probably because each character is a cliche:

Chrissie - The true Diva of the group - selfish, self-centred and concerned only with image. 

Roxanne - The business woman of the group - her business is failing now but she hopes the reunion will give it a big enough boost to get her back in the black.  Fancies herself as an entrepreneur but really she is just riding the coat tails of her fame.

Carly - The quiet one, stuck in a borderline abusive marriage to another ex-famous person (this time a snooker player) she uses the opportunity to get away from him.  That really is all she does.

Anita - The wild and crazy one, went down the whole drug and alcohol route and then disappeared to Brazil where she married a woman and ran a bar.  Now they are back together, oh no, will she become wild and crazy once more?

Almost every early 1990's girl group cliche is covered - we just needed someone really interested in football to make the set of five.  Although they were supposed to have their heyday in the 1980s, it really all felt much more 1990s to me.

I just couldn't take anything about this book seriously.  From stumbling dialogue to a plot that drags along until you get to a set piece it just didn't do it for me.  Definitely more style than substance.

Under The Bones by Kory M Shrum

This is a series that needs to be read in order, yes there are flashbacks to help a reader new to this world out but they don't start until halfway through the book and may leave you a bit confused if you haven't read the first one.  Be warned though, this second book really isn't a patch on the first one. 

By now I think we understand that when Lou moves in to a dark area she can transport herself to anywhere in the world she wants - and even to another world.  At least once every chapter told from Lou's perspective we get retold this bit of information and it started to really, really irritate me.  There is also little to nothing in the way of character progression in this book.  Lou starts the book as a murderous machine and ends it as a murderous machine that may be about to acknowledge she has feelings for more than just her Aunt.  King is an alcoholic ex-cop who is really put through the emotional wringer in this novel, unfortunately he comes out the other side as an alcoholic ex-cop.  Konstantine might be the kingpin of a well organised cadre of thieves, murderers and drug dealers but he is at least in touch with his emotions; sadly this doesn't give you much room for manoeuver with his character.  There are then a few supporting artistes thrown in to the mix that have one character trait that defines them and that is it, all she wrote, so they feel cartoonish.

Whilst the ending is explosive and has a few surprises in it, I couldn't help but be reminded of the end of Scarface and it did have a set piece feel to it rather than a natural conclusion to this particular thread.  There is a plenty of action and some touching downtime spent with Lucy but, on the whole I found it rather a frustrating read and was more than happy to just dip in and out of it.

The Vine Witch by Luanne G Smith

3.5 Stars

This was a very odd book that seemed to have no particular setting - the clothing and lifestyles seemed to hint at medieval but then you would get a motor vehicle thrown in to the mix.  Although we are told that the book is set in France there is no French flavour to it at all, it genuinely could have been set anywhere.  In truth it was the actual timeline of the story that threw me off, it is pootling along quite nicely with almost a bucolic feel and then something glaringly "modern" raises its head and feels completely anachronistic.

I liked the idea of witches specialising in one flavour of magic - so you have vine witches that help with wine making, beer witches that help with brewing of ales, even baking witches that seem to exclusively work love spells.  Of course you then have the dark side of all this and this means you need a magical police force - sound familiar?  Although, the magical police force in this book are singularly inept and owe more to the Inquisitorial Squad than the Ministry Of Magic; you see where I'm going with the comparison.  Of course this was always going to happen, any novel that has magic rooted in the real world is going to be compared to the tour de force that is the Potterverse.

There is a lot of telling in this book rather than showing.  Now, a certain amount of this I don't mind as it can help move the plot along much more rapidly.  Unfortunately, I still felt that the plot lacked tautness and time was spent dwelling on minutiae rather than getting to the point.  This wasn't helped by the vast majority of characters, Elena excluded, were really only ciphers and were there because Elena needed someone to bounce off.

I did like the concept of the novel - cursed witch manages to break the curse after 7 long, lonely years and makes her way back home only to find the vine yard has been sold to someone who has no idea how to make wine let alone believe in witches.  Fortunately her mentor and adoptive grandmother is still at the vineyard as a housekeeper and so starts Elena's journey to restore the vineyard and find the evil being who cursed her.  There is a nice twist to the ending which I appreciated and the showdown in the cellars does have a genuine feeling of peril.

Overall this is a fun update on fairytales but it just needed a good sharp tug on the plot to tidy things up.

Monday, 11 November 2019

A Match Made in Devon by Cathy Bramley

I was surprisingly swept away by this book.  It closely follows the genre formula but somehow the author manages to make you immune to that aspect of it and you do find yourself rooting for Nina.  I think this is because Nina is both physically and emotionally clumsy and she feels real on the page.  It helps that Brightside Cove is truly idyllic and chock full of eccentric characters but rather than becoming a parody of a rural village it feels vibrant and just real enough.

There is a lot going on in the book too.  From Nina's burgeoning acting career, to a Mermaid School, setting up a Holiday Let business, saving a forlorn Lifeboat Shed and romance, plenty of romance.  There are lots of cautionary tales here too - the fallout of celebrity, the loss of a child, the suppressing of your needs and wants to try and match up to family.  Honestly, there are a lot of balls in the air here but the author manages to deal with them all particularly well.  Unfortunately, it did feel like one or two strands too much at times.

It is definitely a fun book that made me smirk rather than laugh - particularly the scene in the Agent's office with Nina's arch-nemesis.  The relationships in the book do have a tendency to feel forced rather organic at times and presented the odd stumbling block in my reading enjoyment.

On the whole it is fun, light and enjoyable.  Beware though, you will find yourself staying up just that little bit later than you should or missing your commute stop as it does suck you in to the world.  For once it is a world where the tide DOES come in!

Your Perfect Year by Charlotte Lucas, Alison Layland (Translator)

First things first, the translator did a pretty good job with this one.  I have studied just enough German to know that their sentence structures and speech patterns do not lend themselves well to translating to English.  This does sometimes show in the dialogue between characters as you can tell something has been lost along the way.  On the whole though the prose has been handled well and you never feel like the translator is overshadowing the author's intention.

My real problem with this was the characters, I just couldn't warm to either Hannah or Jonathan - which is a real problem as the book is split fairly evenly between their two tales.  Of the two Jonathan is the less facile of the two and the one that genuinely goes on a "personal journey".  In the early sections he comes across as old before his time and constrained by his routines; even worse he is paralysed by inactivity.  Hannah however is just downright annoying, she isn't peppy and genuinely life affirming she just needs a good slap as it all feels so fake and forced.

The plot sort of drifts along with no sense of urgency and there is a nasty tendency for tell rather than show to creep in.  Don't tell me how Jonathan feels about his father and his legacy - show me.  That's the real problem with the book rather than narration by our two main characters we have constructed monologues and it did leave me with the sense I was being dictated too rather a chat between friends (and the best books are a dialogue between reader and narrator).

Unfortunately, this felt more like a decade than a year.  It just all takes so long to go anywhere and by the time it does interest had sadly waned.  The story itself is 2 Stars but I popped an extra one in there for the non-distracting translation.

Shopaholic Abroad by Sophie Kinsella

3.5 Stars

This novel sort of hit the spot but sort of missed it as well.  It was certainly nowhere near as fun as the first in the series and, I will readily admit, I am now a little worried about the further books (and I have bought the first 9).  In it's defence the character is the same scatty Rebecca Bloomwood we came to know and love in the first book BUT her reckless spending feels over exaggerated in this book.  The character is also less empathetic this time around.  I think that for this reader it was because she only identifies her self through purchases and through Luke; she is far less self aware.  Hopefully this is because her head is turned by the fawning Production Companies and that she is believing the lines they are feeding her.

The plot is carefully thought through and the city setting of New York has been well researched - well, in so far as a shopping mad tourist would research it anyway.  You do feel you are following Rebecca on this journey but there are some inconsistencies and sections where you have to suspend belief to avoid throwing it across the room.  The whole sub-plot relating to Luke's PR business drove me to distraction.  Particularly because I could not fathom how Rebecca could be so completely clueless over what was clearly going on.

The other thing that is starting to grate are the letters from those she owes scads of money too - store cards, credit cards and her bank overdraft.  Obviously I missed some life lesson somewhere where your creditors treat you like a person - trust me I have the experience (as many have) that they really don't.  Her debt is treated as somehow "cute" and 2 books in this is starting to aggravate me - not a good sign when the whole series is predicated on this theory.

I'm also not committed to the relationship between Rebecca and Luke.  It feels forced on the page and very much like they are both settling for someone, anyone.

Makes you wonder why I keep reading doesn't it?  The truth is that they are pacy, fun and take you out of what can be a boring and humdrum world.

Popcorn by Ben Elton

The whole backbone of the book is the discussion of whether violence in movies propogates violence in real life.  In Popcorn [1996] Ben Elton tries to juxtapose an Oscar winning Director's violent movie with the actions of a modern day Bonnie and Clyde who are terrorising the country.

The real problem I have with it are twofold:

1.  The two plot lines are all a bit Pulp Fiction [1992] meets Reservoir Dogs [1994], but just the violent bits; there's none of the subtlety evident in the two movies.  So much so, I started to think of Quentin Tarantino everytime we were in Bruce's (the fictional director) presence and as for our Natural Born Killers [1994] (yes, the throw back to the movie plot is deliberate - especially as it is a Tarantino story) I found myself thinking of Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer (as opposed to Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis).
I can understand why there are similarities but it did feel as though the plot was lifted directly from these films.

2. The deliberate blurring of whether what we were being shown was real or fictional.  Particularly towards the end of the book, there is deliberate blurring of whether this is all scripted and being acted out on a sound stage or if it is really happening.  Unfortunately, it is clumsily executed so rather than being a deft tool it turns in to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The facile nature of fame is well executed in the tale though and I did enjoy that.  Whether it is the red carpet phonys before and after the Oscar ceremony or the breathless media reporting of yet another atrocity.  Unfortunately, it never manages to open the dialogue that it intends to (as all Mr Elton's novels are intended to) as it just owes too much to what has gone so recently before and his influences are definitely showing in this one.  Maybe it would have been more impactful had I read it closer to release time when the media was full of scare stories but somehow I doubt it.

Despite the subject matter it is a jolly enough read - if you don't mind blood, guts and gore aplenty.  There are some reasonable character studies within the pages - especially Bruce and the downtrodden sidekick.  Ultimately though it falls very short of the mark.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Coming Home to Winter Island by Jo Thomas

This is your fairly standard chic lit novel.  Heroine (in this case Ruby MacQuarrie) suffers a drastic blow (this one is a singer who loses her voice) and moves far from home (to arrange for her elderly, estranged Grandfather's house to be sold off so he can go in to care) but finds herself and a little romance along the way.  Yes, it's one of "those" stories but there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  There is something comforting about knowing when you pick up a book that everything will work out just wonderfully in the end before you have even read the first page.

My real problem was this one was that I couldn't really warm to Ruby.  The character just felt superficial throughout the story, especially when compared to Lachlan and Hector who despite how little depth they really had (being rather predictably brooding and enigmatic in the former case and just a collection of dementia systems in the latter) were far more interesting and intriguing.  The real star of the story is the eponymous Winter Island and it's abundant flora and fauna - even if it does all get more than a bit "Whisky Galore" at times.

The plot does tend to circle itself several times with Ruby's monologue repeating itself; especially her worries about her voice, her worries about her boyfriend Joe and the problems of trying to resurrect the Gin distillery.  I did find myself skim reading some sections as they brought nothing new to the story, just rehashed what the reader already knew for a page or two.  Even worse was how long it took them to figure out the fifth and final special ingredient for the gin, I was all but screeching it by the time Ruby figured it out.

The least said about the Tea Party and the descending helicopter the better.  Completely out of character with the rest of the book and broke what little credibility the story had clung to by this point.

A decent enough read for when you have an hour or so to curl up with a brew and a biccie and want a light, unchallenging read.  It certainly won't keep you from watching your favourite TV show or staying up past your normal bedtime.


Blood In The Dust by Bill Swiggs

          This isn't really my genre of novel and isn't something that I would have necessarily picked to read.  The blurb is appealing and it gives a sense of a "sweeping saga" dealing with the trials and tribulations of the O'Rourke boys after the senseless murder of their parents by an outlaw.  It's maybe not as sweeping as the author perhaps intended (or as the publishing house think) but it is a good, solid tale.

My problem with it was it took so long for anything to really get going.  Initially the story is told from three perspectives - the O'Rourke brothers, the outlaw Anderson and his native guide Chilbi and the Hocking family.  I really, really struggled with the early chapters of this book.  Once the murder of the O'Rourke parents takes place it all becomes a bit flat and keeps digressing to following Anderson's party which I just wanted to skip past.  The sections dealing with the Hockings' Family arriving were interesting but very short lived.  To be honest they were what kept me reading whilst I waited for them to somehow to hook up with the O'Rourkes in the hope that things would improve.

It does get better from that point, but I did feel like the build up to it went on too long.  The descriptions of the gold miner's life are vivid and you can almost feel the choking dust and grabbing mud.  Sadly, the personal angle is rather clumsily dealt with and the burgeoning romance is ever so slightly cringy.  However, this is overshadowed by the weaving in of an actual historical fact; the Eureka Rebellion of 1854. 

The plot does move at a decent pace, once you get past the first 110 or so pages (so just under a third of the book).  The characters are solid and believable with a good depth to them.  The author also manages to bring in the plight of the Aboriginal people who were not only displaced by colonisation but were also decimated by diseases that the white man brought with him.  This is done subtly and in such a way that you feel for Chilbi and his two brothers, the only survivors of their remote tribe, without beating you over the head with the atrocities that were perpetrated on the indigenous peoples.

Overall it is very much a slow burner of a book but it is a solid tale, told reasonably well.


The Titanic Sisters by Patricia Falvey

          3.5 Stars

This is a fairly solid novel and I enjoyed it enough that I read it in a day.  However, it couldn't help but bring to mind the film Brooklyn - especially the yellow dress and the Saturday night dances.  Only a tiny bit of the book but it did overshadow things for me a little bit and meant that no matter what happened I kept looking for other parallels with the film.  The problem being that both tell the tale of Irish Immigrants to New York and to do so believably they need to draw on the same source material for historical accuracy which means that there was always going to be some overlap.

I also found that there was an air of unreality to some of the situations the characters found themselves in.  Whether for dramatic effect or just simply because imagination ran way with us and got the better of editorial sanity it was all a bit superficial and far fetched.  Characters also held little in the way of interest as they never really reveal themselves properly on the page.  Yes, there is change for both Delia and Nora but they almost seem to swap characters so this seems to negate any character development.  Supporting cast are either good or bad with little nuance to them.

What really got me though was towards the end of the book when Nora proves herself to be an excellent business woman and negotiator.  I really, really struggle to believe that pre- First World War Texan men would actually deal with a woman for business matters this important.  It simply feels too many shades of wrong, no matter how many pains the author goes through to tell us how very, very relaxed Texan society is compared to Ireland or even New York.  Throw in a will-they-won't-they romance.  A chance of business ruin and some dastardly dealings.  All underpinned by a family life that destabilised the sister's relationship due to an all but silent father and a controlling shrew of a mother.  You just know you are going to get the happiest of endings before you have got more than a handful of pages in.

All that said I did find myself enjoying the story.  I just went with it and decided just to enjoy it as a yarn and nothing more.  The plot moves quickly and covers 4 years, or so, of the Sisters Sweeney's lives.  From their separation after the sinking of the Titanic and their ultimate reconnection on the oilfields of Texas a LOT happens, and yet it really doesn't.  Somehow events are underplayed at the expense of relating the character's emotions that the tension is dissipated and although enjoying the read I wasn't really that bothered at the outcome.

Very strange one this, it read well without actually involving me or making me care about the characters.


17 Church Row by James Carol

          1.5 Stars

On the face of things this book starts out as a fairly standard psychological thriller.  Once close family shattered by a terrible event in the past and they are now trying to pull the threads together and start again.  Because this is a wealthy family they decide to move to a state of the art home whose main selling point seems to be a Koi fish pond right outside a bedroom and a fully integrated "smart speaker" system (think Alexa on steroids).

The problems for me start with the family themselves.  Despite all they have been through I just couldn't dredge any empathy at all up for them.  Because Bella is mute after the tragedy you never really get to know her and as she is always drawn in comparison to her loss you never really get to think of her any other way.  This dilutes anything you may have felt for the little girl and her undoubted PTSD.  Then you have Nikki who is pretty much self-absorbed and although she talks a LOT about only being there for her daughter it is always couched in the ways in which it affects her.  Ethan is pretty much absorbed by his career and that seems to take centre stage in his life whenever he manages to pop up in the book.  Basically pretty much a 1950s family set up that felt incredibly alien these days.

The whole thing just felt incredibly clunky and poorly executed.  The plot is extremely straightforward and the only thing that you really have to keep your brain ticking over for is which of the support cast has been given a little starring role this time, in deed they may even have been given a whole chapter.

When you first start reading this book, the first thing you think is that Alice sounds awfully like HAL.  Sadly, once you have made that link in your brain it is really hard to shake it off and although the author goes through a lot of hoops to misdirect the reader and tries clever narrative tricks to distract you from this thought it is always there.  This really does prevent any real enjoyment of the book because that thought is in your mind the whole way through and it, ultimately, diffuses any attempt at building tension or distracting the reader from what is, undoubtedly, supposed to be a shocking revelation.

To be perfectly honest I feel like the author was trying to snatch up the mantle of Michael Crichton and write about something that is scientifically possible if not entirely plausible and then run it to it's most extreme conclusion.  Unfortunately, where Mr Crichton had impeccable research behind him that made you think "hmmm, you know what..." this felt like the only research done in to the field of A.I. was reading a manufacturer's blurb for a smart speaker system.

Although I hate to be scathing, it really was great for getting me off to sleep.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

A Country Escape by Katie Fforde

Okay, so as soon as I started reading this book I realised that this set in a completely fictional universe where only good things can happen.  Well, not ONLY good things but even the bad lead to something good happening.  So, I decided to just give myself over to the genre and go with it, leave the brain comfortably ensconced somewhere else and just read for the pleasure of being told a story without those critical muttered comments from the reality demon that lurks in the old grey matter.  So glad I did as it meant I got to enjoy a wonderfully gentle, naive tale set in a weird 1950s-esque parallel world.

To be entirely honest I can't remember too much about the story, in my defence I did finish reading it about a month before reviewing it.  What I do remember is how much of a smile it put on my face and how enjoyable it was to curl up and sink in to Ms Fforde's world - even I did only have 15 minutes to spare.  I also put a 4 against in my reading notebook so I definitely enjoyed it.

What did stick with me was how very peculiar the whole premise of the book was - elderly lady is in ill health and has to find someone to bequeath the family farm to so she arranges to go in to a Nursing Home for 6 months and get the beneficiary in to see how they go about running the farm.  Of course, the closest relative she can find doesn't reply to her letters so she moves down the line and happens upon a distant niece who just so happens to be in a dark place in her personal life and jumps at the chance.  Of course, she has no knowledge of farming so there are plenty of opportunities for pratfalls there.  Of course, the vaguely nearer and male relative turns up and moves in to the farm as well (as they do).  Throw in a years old animosity with the neighbouring farm and you have the necessary mixture to create misunderstandings, deliberate scupperings and , of course, plenty of romance.

Quite honestly, there is nothing vaguely realistic here; even the characters are pretty much two dimensional and either good or bad with little nuance inbetween.  However, if you in the mood for being entertained on a wet afternoon and don't want to necessarily engage your critical facilities then you are going to have a blast with this one.  It is fun and strangely endearing - a bit like the 1970s Sunday evening TV viewing, cosy and familiar.

Tempting Fate by Jane Green

3.5 Stars

Temptation is dangerous and acting on that temptation is downright stupid, especially for Gabby.  Somehow though you can't help but think she knew exactly what she was doing and what the ramifications could be.  So much of the build up is pent giving us the impression of a bored housewife who is longing for another child but her husband has taken this option away from her by unilaterally deciding to get a vasectomy.  It is clear that something is wrong in the marriage, something that neither party is willing to admit - they have slipped in to that comfortable stage where it is all too easy to take the other party for granted.    When Gabby takes the bait and becomes emotionally invested in a much younger man you kind of know where this is going to go and, unfortunately, it does.

The writing is undoubtedly deft and there is a clear emotional understanding of the characters, it just all felt a little predictable and then the ending was, for me, completely fantastical.  The pacing of the story is good with a strong narrative flow that does keep the reader engaged (even when your brain has already more or less figured out the plot and the ultimate outcome with a couple of hundred pages to go).  Ms Green is undoubtedly skillful in engaging the reader and keeping you interested and engaged - even if the storyline leaves you scoffing with incredulity.

Normally this dichotomy would leave me feeling confused but it is something I have come to expect from this author and I am pretty sure that my enjoyment in her novels come from the construction of the story rather than the content.  Her characterisations are always richly layered, even if the characters behave in ways that feel alien to the world that I have, and continue to, experience.  The plotlines are not always realistic either but it is, nevertheless, fun immersing yourself in these familiar and yet alien worlds.

A fun and light read that entertains.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Deadline by Craig McLay

This novel was surprisingly bitty, none of the smoothness that I have come to expect from the author.  This isn't helped by multiple narrators so I never really felt that I got to "know" any of the characters.  The storyline falls, just about, in to a supernatural thriller category but it never really got off the ground for me; probably because his influences were showing.

The best thing I can say about it is that once the setting and the main players have been established it moves along at a cracking pace - if you make it past the first 20% or so of the book it becomes a roller coaster ride of revelations and brutal murders.  Unfortunately by that point I had already realised that I wasn't going to really care about how this worked out so I was just following on for the set pieces.  There are some lavishly gruesome ones but it all felt a little more like a screenplay than an actual novel and I can't pin down why. 

I usually love this author but this one left me wanting more.  In it's own twisted way it was fun to read but I'm not breathlessly waiting to get my hands on the sequel.

The Extra by Megan Walker and Janci Patterson

3.5 Stars

I actually really enjoyed this book, although it did feel like a guilty pleasure at times.  It emulates the very daytime soaps that it is, in many ways, parodying.  With plotlines that stretch credulity and characters that have either so many faces that you wonder if they have a multiple personality disorder or have just one stereotypical one.  Honestly, it is a daytime soap in paged format.

Our lead character is Gabby and she is a mess - physically clumsy, emotionally shuttered and add on a dose of middle child syndrome and there you have Gabby.  Somehow the authors made this work and whether it is her love for all things carb-y and calorific in an image obsessed town or her voice you do find yourself enjoying spending time with this character.  This is happen as well as she is our narrator.  She really does get put through the wringer in this book though - from family disasters (parental and fraternal), dating woes, career set backs it all happens to poor ole Gabby.

The plot is straight from the soaps though and has that overblown pseudo-reality to it, but it works.  It is honestly amusing and told in such a chatty style that you can't help but become engaged and find yourself thoroughly enjoying your time spent with the book.  That said, I never really got invested in the situations that Gabby found herself in as you know all the way through that somehow things will work out for her and those she cares about.

I have noticed that there are several books in this series but as much fun as I found this one I'm not invested enough to read on and I think the breathless skipping from disaster to disaster was fine for one book but could well send me loopy if I read more.

Fun and frothy but ultimately disposable - perfect holiday read.

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

Midnight is a town that doesn't even have one horse, and you just know there isn't even a blinking stoplight at that crossroads.  It is just that small.  Unfortunately, considering the denizens of the town you would have thought that they and the story would be larger than life but no, everything is small and contained and sadly quite pedestrian.  My judgement may have been coloured by the TV Series, I caught that on catch up here in the UK and it was truly bingeworthy and led me to buy the books - to be honest I wish I'd just stuck with the TV show.

There's nothing wrong with the book per se, it just all feels so slow and small.  Each character felt so flat and lifeless after their small screen counterparts had been met.  Lemuel and Olivia are perhaps the best exponents of this, their on screen realisation gives them both a brooding air of menace that just isn't apparent in the novel.  At least we get to find out, via Manfred, exactly what shade of different Lemuel is and make no mistake everyone here in Midnight is a little different.  Fiji is loud and proud about her differences right from the beginning so there is no mystery there but by the end of the first book everyone else is just a varying degree of peculiar with no reveal.  The problem is by the time I got to the end of the book I found I didn't really care too much.

I also found that I could not stir up any real interest in the cast and their various predicaments.  Indeed, where it not for having watched the TV Series I would be hard pushed to remember any names at all, ridiculous as some of them are - Bobo, seriously!  The best written character, for me, was The Rev.  His secret is well hidden and he comes across as a tortured soul who is trying his best to make amends for past indiscretions, he really did work well in the book.

The plot wasn't enough to salvage the book from mediocrity either.  The disappearance of Audrey and the ramifications from that are handled well and do manage to drum up some tension - the resolution of it is a mere damp squib though.  Considering what the resolution is this is a surprise but it just doesn't quite work.  The parallel story of Bobo and his family's links to some less than salubrious groups just seems completely outrageous and unlikely.  Add to that the weakest fizzle out of a storyline I have seen in some time and it becomes an exercise in eye rolling.

I should have known that this would be a disappointing read of a wonderful idea.  Why?  Simply put the Harper Connolly series never managed to capture my imagination so that stopped at the first book and the Sookie Stackhouse series got progressively more and more bizarre so that by the time I was 5 or 6 books deep I was reading more for the ridiculous situations than anything else.  Unfortunately Ms Harris seems to be an author that comes up with some fantastic ideas but then manages to dilute them in their execution.

I have given this 3 Stars mainly because I am aware that I have been comparing this to the TV Series all the way through and that I may have allowed that to colour my impressions of the novel.  Honestly I think I gave this book 1 Star just because I felt sorry that it didn't match up to what followed.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Village Books by Craig McLay

For about the first quarter of this book I kept wondering when the sci-fi element or the supernatural element was going to make an appearance.  After all, the previous books I have read by Mr McLay would seem to suggest that these are his milieu.  Then I realised, this is a different sort of book - this is a book about life.  So three books by one author and all in different genres - go on, you can tell us Craig McLay is the pseudonym for a writing group and each of these books has been written by a different member.

This is such a gentle story, told by one man about how he has ended up working in a bookshop when all he really wants is to find his perfect partner and settle down in to family life.  When aspiring actress Leah stumbles in to the eponymous Village Books it seems that fate has conspired to give him what he wants.  After all she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and she knows her literature, maybe that's why the first words out of his mouth are a proposal - sadly he is far too late as Leah is already engaged.  Just one more disappointment in a life ocnstructed of such.

What is so compelling about this book is the cast of characters that inhabit Village Books.  to say they are a disfunctional bunch of neurotics is doing them a disservice.  They are just a bunch of normal people thrown together in a work environment that just so happens to bring out the worst in them.  Whether it was the setting of a book store or the narration style I found myself comparing it to Caroline Kepsnes's You and although it is a vastly different storyline there is a symbiotic feel between the two stories; it also reminded me of the movie Empire Records with snatches of You've Got Mail.

I found it to be a joyful tale - even if the favoured drink in the local tavern is a horrible, cheap white cider that is derided here.  Yes, it is unrealistic in that everyone gets, eventually, their own happy ending but you know what, I like that.  I like that when you have such simple wishes for your future - ultimately each character doesn't want something unattainable - they can really come to pass.  There are ups and downs but, at the end of it all, you are left with a smile on your face and a sense of happy closure.

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

          It took me a little while to actually get in to the book as, initially, the words overpower the story.  The language and sentence construction I found to be initially offputting and it all smacked a little of a vanity project or as though this was a self-conscious attempt at writing literature.  After 20 or so pages I began to get used to the cadence of the narrator and realised that this wasn't the author intruding on the story, this was just the way that Richard was.  After 40 or so pages I couldn't have cared less, I was hooked deep in to the story.

There is something undeniably unsettling about the setting.  The lonely house on the Peak District moors, the barren field that once hosted a legendary oak tree.  The very remoteness of the setting puts you on edge and then to transplant a folk tale of a hanging bough and the shadowy Jack Grey on to this location just ups the ante even further.  Really The Beacons are just an adjunct to the tale, whilst Juliette sees them as vitally important and Richard dismisses them as charlatans to the reader I found they were neither here nor there.

What interested me was the relating of the changes in Ewan once he started at the village school.  How he moved from a happy, well adjusted child to a creature of fear was superbly handled and the parental confusion at this change in their little boy is well drawn on the page.  It is not so much his actions but his fear, his certainty that something is speaking to him, forcing him in to these behaviours and the way his parents initially dismiss his accounts and then start to fear this cuckoo in their midst that speaks to the reader.

The obsession of The Willoughby family is undoubtedly the oak tree.  It consumed Richard's father and now the search for evidence of it's existence seems to be consuming Richard.  There is something deeply unsettling about his obsessive digging in the barren field, perhaps more so than Juliette's obsession with contacting her dead son and her belief that he is still in the house.  The way in which grief has warped and worn them both is extremely well executed and heavily nuanced.

There is no, nice, neat little ending to the book.  In the tradition of the best ghost storys it leaves you on a knife edge.  Balanced between the nightmare the Willoughby's seem to now be accepting and inhabiting and the out and out shock value of that final sentence.  It leaves you wanting more and yet relieved that you can step out of the claustrophobic nightmare that is their home.

This book will stay with me for some time.  Not just because of how unsettling it all is but because of how cleverly crafted and constructed the story is.  There is no waste here, every word has been crafted to up the sense of unease and paranoia - maybe too well crafted as occassionally the author does peer through to the reader and spoils the tension.


Three Little Truths by Eithne Shortall

          I found myself getting completely sucked in to the fictional world of Pine Road. It's not just the story of our three main protagonists, it's the story of the road itself.  How the neighbours rub along together and the disparate range of personalities that live there.  From the irascible Shay and his obsession with owning everything nine feet from the property to the controlling Bernie, this is a street populated by real characters; it could almost be your street (except your neighbours keep themselves to themselves).

Ostensibly the story is about three women:

Edie - Newly married, desperate for a child and struggling to fit in.  She comes across as exceptionally needy on the page but once you have endured her visit to the in-laws you do find yourself empathising with her rather than writing her off as pathetic.  Her obsession with making friends on the street and "fitting in" does grate but only because you find yourself wanting to shake her and tell her that she is valuable, that she is worthy.

Robin - Living back at home with her "four and three waters" year old son after leaving her disaster of a partner she is struggling to find her feet.  She is doing her best as a mother but after years with Eddy and his dodgy businesses finding a job is proving difficult and living with her mother and father has it's own challenges.  When she gets the chance at a new romance her past comes back to haunt her in ways she never imagined.

Martha - The newest resident of Pine Road and the one who seemingly has everything.  Appearances really do deceive though and she is still suffering from the trauma of the break in at their Limerick home and she is struggling to move on from what happened and move away from blaming her husband.  Couple this with the trials and tribulations of raising teenage daughters and life is somewhat of a powder keg.

The stories of the three women flow around each other and take in the other women of the street.  Make no mistake, this is a book about women.  Regularly interspersed with extracts from one or other of the many Whats App Group message threads that give you a real feeling for the other characters that live in the street.  My favourite has to be the oh-so-superior Bernie.  She really is that one character you love to hate.

So, the characters are strongly written and believable; what about the plot?  The plot is quite sinuous and discretely threaded through so that everything that happens feels organic and realistic.  The only problems I had with it was the use of coincidence and also the tendency the characters had to misconstrue events.  I know this made for a little bit of tension and misdirection but it just felt forced in places - particularly the sections dealing with "the man with soulful eyes".

On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the time spent on Pine Road.

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 ...