Monday, 27 April 2020

Anne Boleyn:500 Years Of Lies by Hayley Nolan

I don't know which annoyed me more the writing style or the way in which the research is presented as absolute and cannot be possibly argued with.  Even worse was the absolute denigration of Henry VIII, whilst he certainly became monstrous in his later years, particularly after the jousting accident, the assertions that he was a complete misogynistic monster do not tally with any other published research or even contemporaneous documents of the era.  He was a man of his time and place in the country and yes he would have been feted and his ego massaged shamelessly.  However the assertion that he treated his first Queen abominably from the outset does not jibe with anything else I have read, his treatment of her in later years speaks to the fact he was desperate for a son and she simply had not been able to provide a living heir and as King that was what he needed to do, secure the Tudor line.  According to this author though he was at the very least a power hungry sociopath who just discarded his first wife because it was convenient - nothing about the divorce or the separation from Rome was convenient but this is glossed over because unless Henry was a complete monster none of the rest book makes sense.

Even worse the portrayal of Anne Boleyn given makes her seem somewhere a weak, preyed upon female.  Apparently history tells us that she was a schemer, untrustworthy and more or less universally reviled.  This has never been my take on that Boleyn woman.  Yes she schemed, that's the nature of politics after all and as a potential, and actual, Queen she would have had to have a certain strength of character to succeed.  For an all to brief time she did succeed and then became Historically reviled because the victor writes the History books.  However, this decidedly feminist tract (for that is what it is) seeks to rewrite what is known and actually made Anne Boleyn seem like a thoroughly nasty piece of work who was also extremely gullible and allowed herself to be manipulated in to a position she could not get out of.  Why could she not have simply loved Henry and he her but by the very nature of all they had to go through to get wed driven them apart?  Why does the author seem to find that such a revolting prospect?

Maybe I am looking at the time period with too modern an eye.  After all, the grander the passion the more likely it is to burn bright and then simply fizzle out in a matter of weeks, months or after bitter acrimonious years.  Indeed, the very was Henry manipulated Anne in to the Tower and finally to death speaks, at least to me, of a great passion that died and then caused him much regret as he realised exactly the situation he was now in.  With all those voices whispering in the Kingly ear putting pressure on him to dispose of her in the most final of ways is his final action not understandable?

Beyond the skewing of History to fit a feminist brief there is the actual writing style.  I got so sick of having to read "As I will show later" only to find that no revelation of the sort was forthcoming.  Couple this with frequent dotting of hashtags through the book and a great deal of "junk language" this book is very hard to take seriously as having any historical worth.  I get that the author is trying to make the subject matter accessible and that historical texts can be rather dry to read but Seriously!

I managed to limp through to the end of this novel - and for me it did become a novel rather than a serious piece of research - primarily because of some of the accounts of daily life in Tudor times.

Honestly, one to be avoided as it is unashamedly agenda driven and this seems to be at the expense of Historical fact with the author's "interpretation" showing her biases.

The Birthday Party by Roisin Meaney

3.5 Stars

We've been to the idyllic Island of Roone several times now but I found it odd that I really didn't recognise many of the characters.  What should have felt like coming home actually felt like I was starting a whole new series but somewhere in the middle so all these characters that should have felt familiar to me were strangers.  It wasn't until Laura graced the pages that I started to get a handle on the whole thing again and even then it was tentative to say the least.

My biggest issue with the book was what on earth happened to Roone?

It used to be such a happy little island.  Sure people had real world problems but somehow there was always a sense of optimism surrounding them and you knew that no matter what tragedy befell them somehow their sheer pluck and vivacity would pull them through - Laura's bounceback from Breast Cancer, the great storm, etc..  This time it genuinely felt like a different, doomladen place.  Talk of suicides off the cliff edge, ostracism within the community, friendships dramatically going off the rails.

The only little glimmers of hope were the wonderful Italian gentleman (whose name I am struggling to remember how to spell so lets just refer to him as Walter).  He embodied the joie de vivre that the island used to have and has now lost.  His delight in the simple things was a real tonic and whenever we got to visit with him it lifted the whole book - even if we only ever got his tale second hand.  Everything else is just grim, including the eponymous Birthday Party.

Roisin Meaney certainly understands people though and although this novel kind of ruined the whole Roone ethos nobody acts in a way which is unbelievable.  Maybe that is the problem, it shows people at their worst and because the author is so good at people it makes it uncomfortable to read.  Whichever, I found that although I appreciated the vignettes it didn't make me happy and when I pick up a Roone book I expect some joy and there was little of that be found here.

Very Nearly Normal by Hannah Sunderland

          3.5 Stars

I could go in to great details about the plot of this book but, in an effort to keep it spoiler free I am just going to try and paint with broad brushstrokes.  Not an easy task as, despite the rather mediocre rating, I did find a lot of note in the book and did enjoy the story overall.  There were just little things that grated and made me put it down for 3 or 4 days to read something else before returning to it and that's never a good sign.

First off, we need to talk about Matilda Effie Heaton.  Our main narrator and the heroine, if she can be called such, of the novel.  Her initials may be "MEH" and she definitely thinks they describe her accurately but she is far from "MEH".  From the get go the reader understands that all is nowhere near rose tinted in her world, in fact she is perhaps the ultimate pessimist and I loved her nihilistic take on the world.  Nothing is ever right, except for that bottle of wine at night and even that regularly disappoints.  From the resentful keeping up with her former friend, her disastrous Tinder date and her glorious job (who doesn't want to work in a book store?) I was with her all the way.

Yes, she is unable to see anybodies else point of view.  Yes, she blames everyone around her for her loneliness and general dissatisfaction with her life.  No, she isn't unlikeable.  Even her alcoholism is kind of touching as her narration makes it clear how she slid slowly in to it and now doesn't know how to get back out from under the bottles toppling over her in a relentless waterfall.  Watching her grow throughout the book is enjoyable, if a little voyeuristic.

My real problems started with the introduction of Theo.  Whilst he is undoubtedly good for her in the short term you keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and when it does it is in so dramatic a fashion that I genuinely lost all respect for the book.  There is enough drama in Effie's life without having to really pile the misery on and I just couldn't get behind it once Theo's secret is revealed.  The major 180 that Effie does with her life also felt overdone, nobody changes that much no matter how hard they try.

As an aside the background love story with Arthur and Toby was warm and touching.  At first I wondered why all these little references kept creeping in but they turn out to be intrinsic to the plot.  Nicely woven in against the disaster zone that is Effie in the early portion of the book and give a nice bit of light relief when it all gets dark, gloomy and tearstained.

On the whole a solid enough book but one that took a great starting point and turned it needlessly melodramatic.


Hammer To Fall by John Lawton

          2.5 Stars

On the whole I really struggled with this book and I wasn't expecting that at all.  I've read quite a few of the Frederick Troy novels and there is some world overlap with Joe Wilderness but it just didn't draw me in at all.  I was constantly aware that I was reading a book rather than being whisked away to the fictional world within it's pages and that is never a good thing.

Objectively, it is a rather old-fashioned tale of derring-do and the blurring of the lines necessary to function effectively when working in the field.  The tale itself is unrelentingly British and it managed to feel fresh but yet somehow dated (and by dated I mean 1950s spy tale).  Very strange amalgamation of scenarios, characters and even writing styles that ultimately kept this reader at arms length.

It doesn't help that Joe Wilderness is not the world's most likeable character.  Yes, he has the sort of compartmentalised personality that makes him ideal for the work he does but it did mean that I never felt I could trust him or even like him very much.  I found myself constantly second guessing why Joe did something and ultimately decided that I just didn't like him - his wife seemed to though.  Maybe the problem is that this is the third(?) Wilderness novel and maybe you have to read the others to truly appreciate the character (I haven't).

There is a lot of action in the book and it starts in the latter years of the Second World War in what was to become East Germany and basically sets up the relationship between Joe, Kostya, Nell and Erno.  It also explains the very lucrative Black Market scams that Joe, Ernie and Frank were running but somehow it all felt like Private Walker in Dad's Army (in actual fact, that is exactly how my mind's eye depicted Wilderness, particularly in his Walter disguise).

The story wanders about until we finally get to the point which is the Prague Spring.  This sees everyone gathered in Prague just as the Russians drive their tanks in to take over and, if I'm being entirely honest by the time we got there I was ready to drive a tank over the whole thing to make it go away.  The real highlight was Troy getting seconded to be British Ambassador in Prague and his wife forcing him to take it as she wanted the title.  Even better is Alice's escapade with the silver tray.  The rest of it just left me cold.

Not Mr Lawton's finest and I was heartily relieved to finish the book.


Happy Girl Lucky by Holly Smale

The basic premise of the book is about growing up within an insanely famous family - not just your parents but your grandparents.  A whole acting dynasty to live up to and live with (think The Richardsons of the Foxes).  Quite a good idea on the face of it, unfortunately the execution doesn't quite match the promise.

The story focuses on the youngest daughter, 15 year old Hope and her frustrations at not being allowed to do anything "fun" with her older siblings, her desperate need for love and her sheer selfishness.  She sees her life as a film script and gets supremely frustrated when real life doesn't match her script.  Throw in an absent mother, a father working thousands of miles away trying to extricate himself from his dynastic marriage and a very unsuitable boy and Hope's naivety is thrown in to sharp relief.

I know this is a YA novel but I think your average teen would probably find this as frustrating as I did.  I spent most of the book wanting to slap Hope and give her a wake up call and the other half feeling desperately sorry for her as surely the problems were not really of her making, her secluded and sheltered upbringing was responsible for that.  On the whole though the humour present in the book doesn't really compensate for the almost tedious nature of the story - Hope scripts her preferred day, things go badly wrong so Hope blames everyone for not following her imaginary script and then does it all again tomorrow.  Fortunately it's a very quick read so you soon get to leave it behind.

Although targeted at the aforementioned YA market, it does feel somehow more suitable for a pre-teen to young teen demographic.  Not that they are less discerning but that Hope's naive actions will probably be less galling and maybe even have a salutary effect on their perceptions of the world.  There is humour in the book but most of it is directed at Hope rather than being generated by Hope so it does feel a little uncomfortable at times.

Overall a light, quick read that does entertain but not necessarily in a good way.  A bit like a multi-car pile up you don't really want to look but you can't help but turn your head for a good gawp.


Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Unexpected Lessons In Love by Lucy Dillon

Initially I was a little on the fence with this book and it took me a good long while to actually settle in to the world Ms Dillon created.  I could understand Jeannie's sudden last minute decision but was frustrated that she was willing to drop such a huge bombshell over the phone - admittedly this became an intrinsic part of the plot and the focus of much of Jeannie's angst.  Once we get past the explosive opening and things start to settle down in to some sort of rhythm I did figure out more or less where we would end up and aside from a few tiny little details (like a bull terrier) I was pretty much spot on.  Despite that I thoroughly enjoyed the book after the first 40 or so pages were out of the way - normally if I have the general plot figured out it lessens my enjoyment.

A full and vibrant world has been created in this book and whilst some of it doesn't hold up to close scrutiny on the whole it is a fairly well rounded plot.  The only sticking point for me was the author's need to crowbar the puppy farming scenario in to the book.  This could very easily have been left out and it did feel completely extraneous to the overall plot and as though it was added for the shock value alone.  Yes, I get the whole "dogs as therapy" thing and I have read enough Lucy Dillon novels to know that dogs will form a good chunk of the plot but it is getting a little bit old now (even Jilly Cooper manages not to write about horses with EVERY novel).

That said the personal development of Jeannie was a lovely read and I liked that she was constantly full of doubts and often outright contradicted herself.  Very human and very real.  The message about relationships was a little less attractive to me and I think that was why it took me a while to really start enjoying the read.  Even if you've only known someone a short time it can still work but the message seemed to be that it would never work if you jump too quickly.

Overall this was a book that required perseverance to get through the early pages (and some of the trickier central sections that felt like canine filler) but I was rewarded by a cracking good read!

Friday, 3 April 2020

The Silence by Daisy Pearce

I finished this book a month before I settled down to write a review on it.  What's disturbing is I could remember nothing at all about the book from the title alone, it wasn't until I read the publisher's blurb that I remembered which book it was, and then immediately wish I hadn't.  The blurb makes it sound like a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane updated for the 21st Century and with a romantic relationship twist instead of a sibling twist.  In fact, there are some parallels to the classic Crawford and Davis movie:

Stella spent her childhood as a television star in a sitcom that centred around her character of Katie Marigold.  A role that involved her wearing flouncy, girly dresses and lisping "attractively" (being a child of the 1970s Katie Marigold sounds terribly Violet Elizabeth Bott).  Very reminiscent of Baby Jane's stage persona.

Stella's mother was a controlling harridan who constantly pushed for her daughter to have the most lines, the best of everything at the expense of her being to have friendships with the other children in the cast or any real respect from anyone.

Instead of our former child star being the "villain" of the piece she becomes the victim but the techniques used to isolate and denigrate Stella are very similar to Jane's treatment of Blanche.  Only this time it is her "boyfriend" doling out the treatment instead of a family member.

The real problem I had with this book is that it felt so very, very contrived.  From the second time Stella meets up with Marco you know where this is going to end up.  Even worse what is supposed to be a shocking revelation about Marco right at the end of the book comes as no surprise to the reader as it is flagged up so many times in the preceeding chapters.  It really doesn't help that Stella seems so happy to be cast in the role of victim and doormat; she allows everyone to walk all over her and she seems to set out a welcome mat for people to use her.  There is little nuance to her character and her supposed descent in to madness just didn't work on the page.

There are some nice set pieces, sadly they don't really fit with the rest of the book.  You have the almost Rebecca-esque scenes in the Cornish Cottage juxtaposed against the London scenes.  Okay, change of location doesn't have to be bad.  However, in this case they feel like two separate storylines somehow convinced to co-exist and they do so more unhappily than Joanna and Marco.  Some of the early London chapters are a good read and nicely set the scene but once she meets Marco they deteriorate rapidly.  The Cornish section starts off week and once you realise the absurd turn the author has taken with the tale it becomes more enjoyable to read when you get to the last 3 or 4 chapters.

On the whole I would advocate avoiding this one as it feels like a pre-first draft rather than a finished tale.  My notebook states 2 Stars and I think I gave one of those just for the sheer incredulity I felt that a mash up of two classics could actually mess it up so badly.  A month after finishing the book and on reflection I would have given this 1 Star only but I will stick with my overly generous 2 Stars.

Breakup Boot Camp by Beth Merlin

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  The title and cover made me expect this to be a run-of-the-mill chick lit novel; somehow whilst slotting in to the category it managed to be so much more and I am genuinely unsure how the author pulled it off.  Is it the nuanced characters, the generally realistic situations, the flat out refusal to give us an ending neatly tied up in a romantic bow?  Whatever it was I did genuinely enjoy the read and found myself looking forward to grabbing a spare 10 minutes just to get one more chapter in.

The overall premise of our heroine Joanna getting ready to marry her School Sweetheart and seemingly punishing herself so she can fit in to the perfect dress made me a little wary at first.  However, her love/hate relationship with the Bridal Boot Camp she is attending in the morning before work - seriously up at 5am to intensively exercise before work, no dress is worth that; the "stuck in a rut" nature of her relationship with her fiance managed to feel fairly realistic.  Throw in a dollop of over-achieving in her job at a Casting Agency and a snarky (in the best of ways) friend in Becca and you start to get a sense of who Joanna is before you are more than half a dozen pages in.  When Joanna finds out her fiance, Sam, has been less than faithful to her she takes the only option and breaks everything off, spiralling in to Depression it is when her Bridal Boutique tell her about a fortnight long retreat in a gorgeous location that she decides to take action.

You could be excused for thinking that from her on in it will be filled with over used cliches as Joanna starts her time in idyllic Topsail.  Yes, there are a few and some of the treatments on offer sound very "Goop!" but don't be fooled by the title; this may be retreat designed to help people get over broken relationships but the handling of it is excellent.  From developing a support network with fellow attendees - one a woman of a certain age whose wealthy husband has upgraded her for a younger model to an almost Kardashian-esque celebrity with a string of failed relationships behind her.  It would have been easy to make these characters cliches but they are very definitely fully rounded with their own quirks and foibles and, along with Joanna, they get what they need from these two weeks to improve their lives.

You see, that's really what the book is about, learning about who you are and what makes you happy.  Not what you think should make you happy because of media and society but what actually makes YOU happy.  It has an overwhelmingly positive message and even if we do have to have a little romance thrown in, someone to share your life with does make a lot of people happy.

The writing style is fun and with an almost chatty narrative I found myself irresistibly drawn to keep reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with this book and am eagerly looking forward to reading more from the author.

The Operator by Gretchen Berg

I was ready to be swept up by this book, pulled to a time in the past that I didn't live through but somehow think I understand because my parent's lived through it.  Unfortunately, I just found myself feeling pretty blase about it all the way through.

The book is less about what delicious gossipy gems the titular Operator overhears and more about how one particular conversation throws her whole life off kilter.  The real problem being that I just didn't like Vivian so couldn't work up any enthusiasm for her "plight".  Her arch-nemesis, and four-flusher, Betty Martin never manages to escape from the ignominity of being a caricature within the book - this further disappointed me.

The book starts well enough and you get a real flavour of a small 1950s American Town.  Not so small that you genuinely know everyone but small enough that any shopping expedition means you are bound to run in to a number of acquaintances.  However, for the Operators at Bell they know more about the secrets of the town than anyone; after all they clandestinely listen in to telephone calls when they connect them.  Little time is spent with Vivian at her work though, most of the book is dedicated to the aftermath of Vivian listening to a call placed to Betty Martin by someone she doesn't know and who never identifies herself.  What she finds out shocks her to her core as it directly affects her and she can't have it spread as gossip around the town.

Throw in a little aside about a $250,000 robbery at the local bank - owned and operated by Betty's father, Mayor Martin - which has distinct Frank Capra overtones (at least the Author acknowledges such later in the book).  A little nod here and there to Class Distinction and the almost casual racism that pervades the town (for instance, calling The Tomasetti's "Guineas").  It is really the story of Vivian, her relationship with her husband and daughter, her pervading pre-occupation with appearances and her grown-up relationship with her parents and siblings.  If you don't like Vivian or find yourself feeling somewhat blase about what happens to her then you aren't going to enjoy the book - this was the case for me.

It all felt desperately staged somehow and more like a collection of cliches about the time period and location than anything based in realism.  Nothing in the book really dug deep in to the social mores of the time or daily life, it just felt like ideals lifted from contemporaneous films.

The writing, however, is excellent and despite not really caring about what happened I did find myself happy to keep reading as the author did engage me with her style and narrative flow.


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 ...