Thursday, 30 January 2020

To Keep You Safe by Kate Bradley

          2.5 Stars

The biggest issue I had with this novel was that absolutely everything is flagged up in the early chapters; you can feel the "twist" coming from the first couple of pages.  Almost as soon as Jenni Wales is introduced on the page you know there is something not entirely trustworthy about her narration, that there is a skewed perspective at play.  This colours the entire novel for me as you are just waiting for it to come and as events unfolded I became less and less interested in what that was going to be.

Neither of our main two characters - Jenni and Destiny - are particularly empathetic.  Instead they are a collection of cliches that vaguely represent a person in a non-realistic way.  Jenni is a product of her PTSD and never really steps outside of that.  Destiny is a child in care who fulfils every stereotype of "good girl gone bad".  It just feels somehow lazy on the characterisation as, at most, each character has two dimensions and never steps outside of their neat little box.

There is quite a lot of violence in the book and the author goes to great pains to describe punches landing and flesh splitting.  At the risk of sounding peculiar these are some of the highlights of the book, in that they highlight how bland much of the rest of the tale is.  Not helped by threads being left dangling throughout and some whopping great plot holes, particularly surrounding George.

Then we get to the denouement and it is at odds with the rest of the book.  It becomes all saccharin and I suppose it is meant to be seen as redemptive but I found it pretty cloying and it made me want to throw the thing against the wall.  I get what the author is trying to say about how events outside of our control shape us but it felt heavy handed and almost written by committee sat with a list of points they wanted to make instead of just telling a story.

February's Son by Alan Parks

          So, I've more or less given up on the whole Crime / Thriller genre as it seems to provide nothing but tired old cliches and convoluted plots with more holes than a mesh bag.  One little explored area for me is the whole Tartan Noir thing and as this seemed to fit - well it's set in Glasgow with a very Scottish set of characters - why not give it a go?

You know what, I'm supremely glad I did!

Harry McCoy is your typical damaged detective, how my heart sunk at the first couple of chapters when I realised this. But, and it is a huge one, he is damaged in the right way.  He doesn't go all Maverick on the reader, he tries to follow the rules but just seems to slip between the cracks of legality once in a while.  He is very definitely Old School though and thinks nothing of threatening, and enacting, violence to get a confession.  Maybe this is why the book is set in 1973, it's not a stretch of the imagination to see an Officer of the Crown acting in this way.

Throw in his complete lack of an upbringing and you can understand his actions and why some of his friends are very definitely rooted in the Underworld.  I don't know how far this is explored in the first book but I will definitely be going back and finding out.  It certainly has a huge impact on this storyline but without feeling contrived or inserted as a get out clause, it is just part of Harry.

The plot is as much about the relationships Harry has with his superior Murray, his sub-ordinate Wattie and his childhood friend Stevie as it is about the investigation in to the gruesome rooftop murder of an up and coming footballer.  Everything does cycle around the opening event but often takes unexpected paths which don't necessarily feel like they have a basis in reality but the writing hooks you in and holds you there; mainly through dialogue which is profane but accurately reflects the time and place.

I honestly found so much to enjoy about this novel that does break from the genre in that it is much more about how your past influences your present.  The whole Glaswegian Gang Culture and the place the Police occupy in it is accurately reflected for the time period and feels strangely nostalgic.  The bad guys are bad but strangely empathetic, even the ever fragmenting Connolly has a pathos to him.

Written with a verve and gusto that doesn't allow Harry to take himself too seriously it means that all the characters come alive on the page.  Whilst women are pretty much given a back seat the ones that do appear are disparate in background and wholly believable as characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read and am looking forward to reading much more from this author.


Tuesday, 28 January 2020

The Actress by Elizabeth Sims

3.5 Stars

Well, this certainly put a smile on my face.  Most of the plot is completely implausible but you know what, the very over-the-topness of it all is what saved it from falling at every hurdle.  Like Los Angeles itself everything is overblown and just a facade of beautiful people, phoney wealth and image means more than anything.  Yes, the scenarios are pretty much laughable (in a bad way) but such is the talent of the author that you simply don't care about any of that because the telling is so good.  Ms Sims' tongue is firmly in her cheek all the way through and that makes it a particularly joyous read - nothing is taken too seriously but neither is it mocked, it is just warm and wry and witty (some snort aloud moments crop up too).

The details of Rita's single mom life are crushingly accurate; particularly the struggles with her son as he pushes against his boundaries.  At points I found myself wanting to grab Rita and tell her this is normal - all kid's go through a hitting phase and through a telling you they hate you phase; they just do and it gets better, honeslty it does.  Of course her home situation isn't helped by lack of funds and a skeevy ex-husband who makes your skin crawl whenever he appears on the page (melodramatically so).  Actually, the whole thing is high camp melodrama (darn, that should have been my review title!).

I was expecting a little more of the struggling actress shtick but it is strangely truncated; not sure if that was to the overall detriment of the story or not.  The whole Tenaway plot though left me rolling my eyes.  I was with it until the tale of Eileen's husband dieing in Brazil starts to be investigated and then it just goes very, very bizarre - so bizarre it makes Dexter look like real life.  The threads of the plot do come together in the end but not without some heavy string pulling by the author and, in places, it shows just what a stretch some of the links are.

You know what, I don't actually care that it had no verisimilitude and was completely over the top - I loved the telling, I loved Rita and I WILL be reading more Elizabeth Sims because she knows how to entertain a reader.

A Beginner's Guide To Free Fall by Andy Abramovitz

It will come as no surprise to anyone that knows me that I loved this book.  Heck, our main protagonist is a Roller Coaster designer and I am a Coaster Enthusiast (polite term for an idiot that loves Roller Coasters beyond what is normally considered acceptable).  There is plenty of detail about Davis's job and the design process he goes through for each ride, even the fated Flume that sees him on, ahem, "Administrative Leave" when his personal life implodes.  Throw in the desire to create a Maglev Magic Carpet ride and I was hooked.  Heck, the whole book could have simply been about Davis and his creations and I would have sucked it up.

However, it isn't just about Davis.  There is a healthy dose of his journalist, introvert sister Molly.  Not only are their careers chalk and cheese but their personalities seem diametrically opposed too.  It should have felt contrived but the author made it work and really sucked you in to the story told from the viewpoints of Molly and Davis.  I particularly liked that even though Davis's relationship with his wife has imploded his sister still kept her closeness with his estranged wife and child and was the same Aunt she had always been.

As characters Davis and Molly are well thought out and rounded individuals.  Yes, they both have quirks and aspects of their personalities that are less than appealing but it made them feel so real.  Somehow I managed to connect, on the page, with these fictional people whose life experiences were so different to mine.  Yes, they frustrated me.  Yes, I wanted at various times to just hug the hurt away for them.  Yes, they made me laugh.  On occasion I even wanted to slap them.  Their individual journeys (goodness, how I hate that word) felt relatively realistic but some of the twists and turns in the story just went a little too far for plausibility to be maintained and it lost you 1 Star Mr Abramovitz.

I really don't want to go in any detail on the plot at all - the publisher's blurb covers it adequately.  There is a lot of nuance in the telling and to break it down to the bare bones would do the whole an injustice - plus, it would give a LOT away and it bears reading just to get to the final resolution.  Well, it would if there was a neat little tied with a bow ending.  That's something else I loved about it that there was no neat little ending to the book, you could sense the characters moving forward with their lives after the book has finished and with so much ahead of them it felt tantalising rather than frustrating.

It is a wonderful study in family dynamics and learning to value yourself for who you are not who you think you should be.  A refreshing read that didn't rely too heavily on cliches and it featured Roller Coasters (can you tell that pleased me!).

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

The Surplus Girls by Polly Heron

          Somehow the setting just doesn't manage to ring true, it all feels a little more late 1940s than early 1920s and I can't put my finger on why.  Yes it has situations that are very much of the time but it just all feels so much more "modern" than it's supposed setting.  Good job then that this is a book about people first and foremost.

Belinda Layton is having a tough go of it, her father turns out to be a ne'er-do-well who is rapidly dragging his family down with him.  Her eldest brother seems to think she should move back home to "do her bit" now he has moved out and her beloved fiance dies during the First World War.  Throw in a supervisor at the mill with wandering hands and a lecherous eye and she has to do something.  A chance meeting with her old teacher, Miss Kirby, leads her to the door of the Misses Hesketh and their newly minted Secretarial School and the perfect opportunity to pull herself out of the mire.

To be honest I got a little fed up with Belinda and her relentless optimism.  She is everything a "Northern Girl" is supposed to be but it just feels overdone.  Throw this against the foil of a worn down Mother and a surly sister and she starts to look even more "saintly".  It does become wearing after a time.

Strangely the people I found myself wanting to know more about, the Misses Hesketh, we are only given the odd tantalising glimpse of.  In the blurb it is mentioned that this is intended to be the first of a saga so hopefully we will get to learn more about them.

It isn't a bad read or a boring read it just is. 


Tuesday, 14 January 2020

A Throne Of Swans by Katherine Corr and Elizabeth Corr

          This novel has all the usual Fantasy elements that you have come to expect and exists in an almost Medieval world, again pretty much expected of the genre.  Somehow this novel felt fresh and exciting to read and even though the familiar plotlines are scattered throughout there was just something special about the sum of the parts.  It is clear that the authors have thoroughly planned their world and even if their characters then began to take on a life of their of their own the world they populate is so strongly imbued with a sense of "reality" that it grounds the whole novel.

Whilst the sister authors profess that the idea germinated from Swan Lake, the plotline is sufficiently different from the folktale that apart from the odd nod the reader would not have known if we hadn't been told.  Yes, we have a princess of the Cygnus dynasty called Odette but there is no Odile.  Yes, there is the threat of her being turned permanently in to a Swan.  Other than that either I was so absorbed in to the story that I found it difficult to spot other nods or they are exceptionally well hidden.

The main story arc follows Aderyn of Atratys and picks up after the murder of her mother 6 years prior to the start of the story which starts with the death of her father.  All nobles must be able to shift in to their bird form but since the attack that killed her mother she has been unable to transform.  Thrust in to the position of Protector of Atratys Aderyn is caught between a rock and a hard place as she must travel to the Silver Citadel to pay homage to her Uncle, the King.

Full of courtly intrigue and a real sense of being out of your depth, Aderyn proves to be a wonderful narrator.  The Citadel pulses with life under her descriptions and her blundering first experiences of Courtly etiquette really bring the character to life.  Initially I did wonder how she was going to develop from seeming a pathetic, lost character to being the protagonist but her growth is natural and wonderfully handled.

With a host of supporting characters that are as wonderfully drawn as Aderyn this book really does draw the reader in.  There is a tendency to linger a little too much on internal monologues of despair which I felt unnecessarily slowed the story in places (hence 4 Stars instead of 5). 

There is a little bit of everything thrown in to the mix - social commentary (particularly the treatment of the Flightless by the Nobles), family ties, friendship, romance and the way that duty dictates the way your life is lived.  Mainly though it is a book about intrigue and shifting allegiances.  Fortunately it is pitched in such a way that as events unfold nothing feels overdone or unbelievable within the context of this ethereal world.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this book and I am very definitely looking forward to the next installment.  Forget the YA designation, if you are a fan of Fantasy books then this one will hit the spot nicely - actually, if you are a fan of Historical Fiction then it pretty much works as well.


Monday, 13 January 2020

Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Hagger-Holt

First things first, I am way older than the target demographic for this book.  To be honest it really doesn't read like a children's book, it just reads like a very good story that happens to have a 12 year old as it's protagonist.  I will readily admit that I thoroughly enjoyed this story and following Izzy through one school term when her private life becomes very, very public.

The subject matter itself is a very sensitive one.  Being transgender and admitting it to yourself is difficult enough but then to have to admit to loved ones that you are not who you appear to be; especially if you are married with children is traumatising.  This story deals more with how it effects just one member of the Palmer family, 12 year old Izzy.  From her confusion about what to call her Dad to how this is going to affect her life it is constructed beautifully on an emotional level.

Yes, the issues are dumbed down to neat little soundbites and the familial disruption is kept to a minimum so that the author can make the subject matter suitable for a young audience.  Whilst there is a lot of simplification the main issues, as Izzy sees them, are addressed and the importance of a support network for all the family is stressed.  The bullying and ostracism Izzy feels at school are well drawn but their resolution feels too convenient and clear cut somehow and left me feeling a little cheated out of the harsher realities of school life and I didn't feel they were really representative of how spiteful school children are when they sense even the tiniest difference.

However, this is a wonderfully positive book about difference and being yourself.  The friendships within it, within and outside the family, are realistically drawn and I can see it being easy for a female audience in that Tween age bracket recognising Izzy's life in their own.  It also sets the scene for some important dialogue with children about not only LGBTQ+ issues but about life in general and the horrors that school can throw at you.  Best of all it is fun to read and the author knows how to get a character across on the page so that you genuinely care about what happens to them and are keen to keep reading.

I would recommend reading this through before giving it to your child to read as they WILL have further questions and a knowledge of the text will help you know where to pitch the replies.

I would love to see a YA novel or even an adult novel from this author dealing with the same subject - heck, you could even use the same family as Megan is 16 so would be a great foil for the YA protagonist and the adult book could be told from either the mum or the dad's perspective.


Welcome To New York by Luana Ferraz

As much as I usually enjoy this particular genre of story I became bogged down in this one and found it quite hard to finish. When Harry and Alana meet at the Green Leaf coffee shop it is your standard rom-com meet cute; nothing wrong with that it is a tried and tested device in both films and novels for a reason. It also allows us to explore why both characters are so determined to keep everybody else out of their business and what secrets they're hiding. So far so good.

Unfortunately, they couple up incredibly quickly and a good two thirds of the book are spent after they get together. Whilst this is not territory usually explored by the genre - we usually leave our protagonists after they admit their love for each other - I was willing to give it a go. The problem is that both characters are hiding things from the other and by the time they had visited Alana's family for the Holidays I found I was really not that interested in either character; they were simply words on the page and just not fully fleshed enough. I can't even remember if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas they went for, that's how bored I'd gotten of it by this point.

I also found the side stories of Harry wanting to set up a Tea Shop and Alana wanting to break on to Broadway very loose. All the time spent with both character's speculating on their future just felt like empty space.

None of which was helped by the fact I never actually felt like I was in New York or even in Oxford, there is no sense of place and really the story could have happened anywhere. Bit of a problem when the title leans so heavily on the location. It just felt like the author was writing about places she had no experience of and used a little bit of online searching to get a generalised touristic overview of the locales she wanted to use.

One of my biggest issues with this book was the language used within it's pages. I note the author is Brazilian and appreciate that English is, at best, her second language and that the book has not been translated from Portugese to English but written in English by the author herself. For this she is to be commended as I certainly could not hope to write even the most of sentences in anything but my mother tongue. However, it does lead to some interesting to some interesting word choices - commemoration instead of celebration. Unfortunately, the word "in" is consistently used in place of "on" and it such a glaring error that it began to take over the book for me. This really spoilt the book for me as it meant that I was constantly being jolted out of the story by grammatical mistakes and also by having to figure out what word was actually meant to be used. The book would have maybe, only maybe, received one more star from me had it been proof read by a native English speaker who could have corrected these mistakes.

Oh and giving Harry's brother William (explained by their mother being somewhat of a Royalist so I could let that one slide) a wife called Kate. Honestly?!?


Friday, 10 January 2020

White Truffles In Winter by N.M. Kelby

The most frustrating thing about this book was that it started strongly with the first couple of chapters drawing me in and ended strongly with the last two or three chapters being quite engrossing.  Regrettably, the 200 hundred odd pages inbetween just didn't cut it at it all.  Whilst the writing of a novel that takes a real person, of greater or lesser fame, and then weaves a story around them has lots of pit falls it can fall in to the easiest one to avoid is boring the reader.  I found this book inestimably boring.

The strongest sections of the book deal with Escoffier's relationship with his wife and also his rather dubious business dealings.  Slotted around this are ramblings about Sarah Bernhardt and his relationship with other famous people.  None of which ultimately lead anywhere or really add anything to the tale.  Throw in generous handfuls of culinary talk and the bemoaning of any language or way of cooking but French and it becomes tedious.  It isn't helped by their being no real timeline structure to the tale, the chapters feel like they have been thrown together in a random order as the story jumps from the present (approximately 1939) to any point in Escoffier's long life the author cares to take us.

Whilst Escoffier was undoubtedly a very talented chef and he certainly revolutionised the presentation of a menu in this book he comes across as boorish.  The man himself may well have been but this is a fictionalised account and no attempt has been made to gussie him up in to an empathetic character.  His wife, Delphine, gets quite a bit of page space but she never becomes a person on the page instead seeming to act as a foil for the author to show us another tiresome aspect of the chef.

Sadly, I could not wait to finish this book as I was determined not to leave it unfinished but I really did not enjoy vast swathes of prose.  At the end of the reading I was just relieved that it was done.


Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Last 12 Months

Well 2019 was definitely a year of ups and downs.  At least my reading didn't suffer (only 36 books less than 2018!) and after all, it is about quality more than quantity (although I do seem to be getting generally harder to impress).

Got to love Goodreads making it easy for me to keep track and I have a nasty habit of scrolling through my Year In Books on a regular basis.

I have found myself becoming tougher in my reviews and I have finally managed to stop myself from apologising for not liking a book.  Whilst I can appreciate how tough it is to get a book published or having the self-belief to even sit down and try to write one I am finally getting my head around the fact that my review is not going to make or break a book's sales and that ultimately I am not going to sway the opinion of a fellow Book Worm.  Yes, it might hurt the Author's feelings when I don't like something but the same is true of the appreciation of any artistic field; it is too personal an experience for both the creator and their audience to be without emotional cost.

Here's hoping that not only will I read plenty of good books in 2020 (hopefully some fantastic ones too) but that I will keep up the reviewing and not fall 12 or 15 books behind as I did on the regular in 2019.

One Christmas Kiss In Notting Hill by Mandy Baggot

One saving grace for this book is that it acknowledges that it has it's roots in the Richard Curtis Rom-Com Notting Hill.  After all all Isla and Hannah want is that perfect Kiss; that perfect Notting Hill Kiss - so you need the little locked resident's park, the will-they-won't-they romance, the tragic car accident that leaves one of the characters paralysed and in a wheelchair.  It even goes so far as to feature a plaster statue of Hugh Grant, presumably as William Thacker.  Nothing inherently wrong with a tribute, especially when it wears it so boldly on it's sleeve, especially as it manages to avoid using the "I'm just a girl" speech (but I did spend the latter half of the book waiting for it to make an appearance).

It was a cosy enough read but brought nothing unexpected within it's pages.  Girl (Isla) meets American boy (Chase) and both bring a lot of personal baggage to the story.  They dance around each other for a bit and go through the usual misunderstandings before realising that they are "meant to be".  Throw in a disabled, but positive and effervescent, sister and teenage daughter that never steps outside stereotype (grumpy, absorbed in technology and disparaging of her younger sibling and parents) and it is pretty standard fare.

Whilst the read was enjoyable enough I never felt invested in the story.  In fact some of it stretched plausibility of plot way too thin (you can't just "plant" artifacts and have the construction company assume they found treasure trove or an early settlement is one of many) and did bring enjoyment to an abrupt halt.  On the whole the plot needed to be set well side as it is paper thin and, for this reader anyway, bordering on the annoying.  The characters though are a different matter, they are richly written (on the whole) and do have just enough believability to keep your interest.  I did like that they were allowed to have vulnerabilities and could self-sabotage so nobody was "perfect" in the way they are often drawn in this genre.

The best that I could really say about this book is that I didn't feel like my time was wasted in reading it.  I did enjoy my time in this fantasy world but it wasn't without it's frustrations and annoyances.  I did take away the phrase Sugar. Honey. Ice Tea from it though as that amused me far more than is seemly.

Gravity Is The Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty

          3.5 Stars

The writing is bitty and disjointed.  A sentence truncated before it's meaning is passed on; a chapter of two lines and then one of ten pages.  The tale itself wandering backwards and forwards in half finished thoughts and thoughts that are extrapolated far beyond their worth.  All this to accurately reflect the thoughts passing through the mind of our narrator, Abigail.

Whilst I could understand what the author was trying to achieve here I did find that it began to irritate me, it all felt a little pretentious somehow.  Not deliberately so but almost as though the artifice of it all was peeking slyly at you in the blank spaces of the book and there is a lot of blank space; true there are many pages and many words to fill those pages but most of all there is space.  The space of what Abigail does not communicate and the strange space of what feels like over-sharing.

After reading the first 100 pages in one fell swoop when I picked the book up I found I was disinclined to continue.  The whole idea of The Guidebook and then the retreat just didn't hold my interest for any length of time.  When Part One was complete I wasn't sure if I really wanted to know what happened next, or if anything did - Spoiler Alert - nothing really happens except lives get lived.  It took me 11 days to decide to pick the book back up and finish it.

The plus points for me were the narrator's voice, it did seem to accurately represent a genuine person with all the seeming contradictions inherent in having a personality.  I just didn't particularly like the person that was telling the story to me.  The dichotomy of everything being her fault but that it was all somehow down to the Universe at the same time began to wear thin after a while.  I did enjoy her relationship with her 5 year old son but felt that Oscar was never a person in his own right to her, he was merely an extension of Abigail and her experiences.

It is cleverly written and I understand the whole "trying to understand why we are here and what we are doing and how can we make it better for ourselves, our loved ones and for the whole of humanity" BUT it just didn't do it for me.  There was too much sleight of hand involved here and it was front and centre and not disguised in any way.  I prefer a little disingenuity in my writing, enough so that I can take the character's hands and step in to their world for a little while.

I didn't hate it and some sections I actively enjoyed, there was just something missing for me.  Maybe it is the constant "not good enough" mantra that pervades Abigail's life and her search for that perfect state of being that put the final "meh" in to the book or it could just be this is one to file under "s'okay".  It did get an extra 0.5 stars for being daring in the writing style and presentation and allowing bitty and choppy to be used to show internal thoughts.


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 ...