Black Lake – Johanna Lane

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on April 14th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Black Lake: A NovelDulough is the mysterious house at the heart of this debut novel from Johanna Lane.  The house is fictional but the setting reminds me of one of my favourite locations in Donegal, Dunlewey Lough at the foot of Mt Errigal overlooking the Poisoned Glen.  In Black Lake this already wild landscape is battered by the winds coming off the Atlantic.  There is a savage aspect to the environment, a primitive, ancient ambience dating back to the Ice Age.

The Campbells are relative newcomers, the first of their tribe arriving in the early 1850s.  Scottish landowner, Philip Campbell who built the house/castle, Dulough, in 1854, cruelly evicting any tenant families who stood in his way.  Now, the roles are reversed as John Campbell, the current owner, can’t afford the upkeep of the house and enters into a contract with the Irish government whereby the house is shown to visitors as  a tourist attraction and he and his family relocate to a cottage in the grounds.

There is  a simmering resentment between the Campbells (landed gentry) and the locals (peasants…not really!).  John’s young son, Philip, feels particularly affected by the downsizing and is loathe to abide by the new rules and regulations.  The mother, Dublin born Marianne, seems out of place in this desolate setting no matter what size of house she’s in.  The daughter Kate tends to go with the flow and tries to keep the peace.  You just know that something bad is lurking round the corner.

This is a solid debut from a talented writer.  It’s a gentle, slow-moving story dominated by the austere, sombre landscape.  You wonder how anyone can thrive in such harsh surroundings at the mercy of the elements…and the recession.  I found echoes of William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault in this ethereal tale of displaced gentry.

Looking forward to seeing how Johanna Lane’s writing evolves in the future.

My thanks to Little Brown and Company for providing a review copy.

Black Lake is published by Little Brown and Company on 20th May 2014.

Dunlewey Church

Dunlewey Lough

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North of Nowhere – Liz Kessler

Posted in Children's Books on April 11th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

My 10 year old daughter is a big fan of Liz Kessler’s previous  novels, including the fantasy series, Philippa Fisher and Emily Windsnap, so I was keen to read her latest novel and see what all the fuss was about.

Targeted at children aged nine and above, this is the second of three stand-alone novels all of which have a connection with time-travel.  Whilst being more grounded in the “real” world than the fantasy novels, there is still that subtle element of the supernatural suffusing the story.

Our narrator is thirteen year old Mia (Amelia).  Her plans for a chilled out Spring half-term, hanging out with her friends, are dashed when her Grandad goes missing and she and her Mum have to join her Gran in the sleepy fishing village of Porthaven – with no mobile phone signal, no satellite tv, no internet – a teen’s worst nightmare!   Fortunately Mia makes a new friend in Dee, a local girl, although their friendship is somewhat unconventional given that they communicate via letters and diary entries.

This is a cleverly constructed, gripping tale blending time travel, mystery, family relationships and friendships and introducing realistic, very relatable characters.  The conversations between Mia and her family and her  peers hit exactly the right note.  The setting is perfect for a mystery with its windswept coast and taciturn locals – I found it reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic haunts.

An intelligent, fast-paced adventure story which, I’m pleased to report, was enjoyed equally by my daughter and me.  We’re both looking forward to the next stand-alone novel, Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins,which is due out on 14th August 2014 published by Orion Childrens.

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Only Time Will Tell – Jeffrey Archer

Posted in Historical Fiction on April 9th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

13518131I think I was about 15 when I read my first Jeffrey Archer, Kane and Abel.  In the 80s we didn’t have the wonderful range of YA titles we have now and I moved from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Jeffrey Archer.  Archer’s early novels were great fun with gripping storylines and larger than life characters so I was quite intrigued at the prospect of revisting his writing 35 years later.

Only Time Will Tell is the first of a pentology, The Clifton Chronicles so be prepared for a sweeping saga.  The first novel covers the first 20 years of the life of Harry Clifton, born in Bristol in 1919.  He’s always thought his father died as a war hero but things are not quite as they seem.  His early years are tough but thanks to a series of serendipitous events (more on that later…) he manages to secure a scholarship to St Bedes where most of the pupils come from an extremely privileged background.  We follow the sometimes dizzying swings and roundabouts of Harry’s early years, never quite knowing what’s coming next.

Jeffrey Archer is a master storyteller and I whizzed through this novel in a couple of sittings.  Is it great literature?  Will it change my life?  Is Harry destined to oust Heathcliffe from my affections?  Nope to all of the above but it was sheer mindless entertainment, extremely readable and filled with ridiculous plot twists and fortuitous events – ideal for your sick bed or sun lounger.  It reminded me of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, another saga which I enjoyed immensely.  I’m not sure if the bookseriesphobe in me will allow me to follow more of Harry’s adventures but you know,  he’s quite addictive so a library reservation might be in order.

Pure escapism – switch your brain off and enjoy.

PS Book Four in the series is already out.  Published by www.panmacmillan.com

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Beautiful Day – Kate Anthony

Posted in Contemporary Fiction, Proofs on April 7th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Book Cover:  Beautiful DayAt first glance I thought this must be a light, fluffy book, probably more “hen” than “chick” lit and probably not to my taste…but I was so wrong as I read/devoured it in two sittings – would have been one sitting but children need fed etc!  It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel as it is so self-assured and engaging but Kate Anthony has expertly drawn on her experience as a residential social worker in this tale of domestic adjustments and new beginnings.

Our narrator is Rachel Bidewell, single mother of three, whose feckless husband Dom has absconded with the younger, childless Deborah.  Rachel has been out of the workplace for a long time but now she is starting a new job as a Residential Care Assistant at Clifton Avenue, a care home for adults with special needs.  She is assigned as a key worker for Philip, a new resident who is virtually non-verbal and lacking any social skills.  The novel examines Rachel’s struggles at both home and work as she strives to keep her head above water.  The divorce has shaken the foundations of her family and the details of childcare, finance, custody arrangements, schooling just wear her down.

Somehow, the author creates a realistic picture of a family in turmoil whilst maintaining a lightness and sense of humour.  It’s probably a case of “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry”.   Rachel is only human and loses her temper when stressed.  Who could blame her when Dom is buying his way into the children’s affections and the children don’t want to hurt either parent.   Alongside this portrayal of a changing family dynamics is the depiction of Philip who has to adjust to a much noisier, busier environment in the care home.  He is such a fragile soul, you really hope for the best for him.  Rob, the Deputy Manager of the home, seems to be on Rachel’s wavelength and she needs all the support she can get at the moment.

Certainly the themes here are challenging – the effects of divorce on parents and children, the relationship between carer and those you care for, identity and how we all need care.  I really enjoyed the insights into residential care and Rachel and her family’s struggles seem very similar to those being experienced by one of my friends at the moment.

A warm, down-to-earth story about ordinary folk coping with extraordinary experiences.  I will certainly look out for more of Kate Anthony’s writing based on this impressive debut.

My thanks to Real Readers for sending me this novel to review.

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Frog Music – Emma Donoghue

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 30th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Frog Music

Published
27/03/2014

Publisher
Picador

Source
Amazon Vine

My Rating
3 stars

Frog Music is an unusual and, at times, discordant composition, hopping from one event to another, revealing the underbelly of San Francisco in 1876.

Based on a true unsolved crime, this is the story of  Blanche and Jenny, two women striving to scrape a living in a turbulent and violent city.  Blanche, former equestrienne with the Parisian Cirque d’Hiver, is now an exotic dancer living with her “maque” (pimp) Arthur and his close friend Ernest.  Jenny is a cross-dressing frog-catcher of no fixed abode who supplies the French and Chinese communities.   Somehow, Jenny and Blanche’s paths cross and it is Jenny who sews the seeds of doubt in Blanche’s mind re the wisdom of placing her son P’tit in a baby farm.  Blanche’s resultant struggle to embrace her maternal side causes havoc in her relationship with Arthur and cracks quickly appear in an already fragile liaison.

Whilst Emma Donoghue’s novels are eclectic in their subject matter and genre, what they do have in common is the author’s knack to capture the essence of true-life stories from any era and to make them vividly accessible to the modern reader.  In Frog Music, we see San Francisco in the midst of a sweltering heatwave and a smallpox epidemic – it’s a city on the edge, pushing itself to its very limits.  There is rising tension between the whites and the expanding Chinese community – tension which spills over onto already impoverished streets.  Even though this is the seedier side of the city,  I loved its vibrancy and lust for life despite the constant threat of death from the escalating epidemic.

Unfortunately I found the other characters less engaging than San Francisco and I felt that I was viewing them through the city’s famous fog.   I just couldn’t get a sense of who the main characters were and why they acted the way they did. Perhaps that was the idea, that they put up a facade, “the show must go on” etc, but it left me feeling cold and distanced.

It took me around 120 pages to get into the story, for the pace to pick up to a level which made me want to “pick up” the book again and continue reading.  Thereafter I was truly engaged but if it hadn’t been a review book  I wouldn’t have persisted after 50 pages.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book as the last two thirds of  the narrative highlight the author’s skill as a storyteller but I can’t help feeling slightly disappointed as I thoroughly enjoyed Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter and expected more of Frog Music.

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A Love Like Blood – Marcus Sedgwick

Posted in Historical Fiction, Proofs, Thriller on March 27th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Marcus Sedgwick is already established as a gifted, award-winning author of YA novels but A Love Like Blood marks his first venture into the adult market.  So is it a tentative dipping of toes in the water or all-out submersion?  A bit of both, I would say,  as the narrative displays the same intelligence and curiosity of Sedgwick’s YA work whilst eschewing the typically teen Twilight approach  to vampire stories.

Our narrator Charles Jackson has been haunted by what he witnessed in 1944 shortly after the Liberation of Paris.  In a bunker in Saint-Germain he thinks he saw a man crouched over the body of a young woman, drinking her blood.  He tries to put the horrifying sight out of his mind but seven years later, during a return visit to Paris, he sees the same man and feels compelled to investigate further.  What ensues is a gripping, psychological thriller which spans 24 years as Charles hunts for and is hunted by the mysterious stranger.

Charles specialises in haematology, the study of blood, and this story also focuses on blood, Charles’ and indeed humanity’s obsession with blood.

I learned at medical school how the colour of  blood  changes with its state of oxygenation, from dark, almost purplish, through to the brightest lurid red, but whatever its precise colour, our earliest selves must have formed a deep relationship with it.  Relationship, that’s the only word I can use, and still, after all my time thinking about it, I cannot find an answer to the question of blood.

This is a story of love, of extremes, passion, revenge, obsession, questioning the very primitive essence of man.  It has that gothic vibe which imbues Sedgwick’s earlier books – think more modern Bram Stoker than cute teen vampires and less vampire than Freudian ponderings.  The pace has a steady ebb and flow much like the blood pulsing through our veins and the pressure increases steadily as Charles’ quest takes him across Europe.  At times it is unclear as to who is hunting who – is Charles the prey or the predator?  Some of the chase is reminiscent of The 39 Steps and that classic black and white film starring Robert Donat.  Charles is not your typical hero and his flaws make him all the more realistic.  At times I also felt touches of Carlos Ruiz Zafon in the European Gothic style.  Having said that, I think it’s fair to say that Sedgwick has his own distinctive, elegant style.

A Love Like Blood will introduce Marcus Sedgwick to a much wider readership but I hope he will also continue to feed the curious minds of children and Young Adults with his other material.

A Love Like Blood is published by Mulholland Books – release date – 27th March 2014.

 

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After the Bombing – Claire Morrall

Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction on March 24th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

After the BombingI have read and enjoyed four of Claire Morrall’s previous novels so I think it’s fair to say I’m a fan!  I’ve read enough books (both diamonds and duds) to discover what I like and if I feel the urge for something understated yet thought-provoking, I know that Ms Morrall’s writing will tick all the boxes.

Morrall’s characters are rarely happy-go-lucky souls and young Music teacher, Alma Braithwaite, is no exception.  Having experienced severe personal loss during Hitler’s bombing of Exeter in May 1942, Alma has failed to move on, neither emotionally nor physically given that she now teaches at Goldwyn’s, the girls’ school she attended during the 40s and still lives in the old family home.  Alma is a creature of habit, relishing routine and her own company.  When Miss Cunningham-Smith dies in the Spring of 1963, a new headmistress arrives to sweep away the cobwebs and enforce her own regime.  Miss Yates is a force to contend with and her new-fangled ways are an immediate source of conflict with Alma who eulogized Miss Cunningham-Smith.

As the novel progresses, we discover what happened to Alma and her school-friends after the 1942 bombing when they were temporarily relocated to university halls under the supervision of a young Mathematics lecturer, Robert Gunner.  In the 1963 narrative, we gradually learn more about Miss Yates and her possible weaknesses whilst Robert Gunner returns into Alma’s life as the widowed parent of a student in her form class. It would seem that the psychological wounds of war are still open and smarting for our central characters whilst they are expected to keep calm and carry on.

The main characters are neither likeable nor particularly exciting but are all the more real as a result.   It was refreshing to see the effects of the war on those at home rather than those at the front especially those who experienced the full impact of Hitler’s bombs and how those left behind coped.  The nervy Robert Gunner seems powerless when faced by so many confident women, an attitude which does not seem to improve with age!

Like Morrall’s other novels, this is a slow burner peopled with characters who don’t quite fit in the “normal” world but a gentle read which will reward the patient reader.

After the Bombing is published by Sceptre – release date 27th March 2014, 384 pages.

Claire Morrall

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Once Upon a Timepiece – Starr Wood

Posted in Short Stories on March 21st, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

Once Upon a Timepiece is an extremely impressive debut.  It’s a collection  of 12 inter-connected short stories with the  common theme being the timepiece of the title, a 1946 Breitling Chronomat made from rose-coloured gold.  Once Upon a TimepieceStarting with January, this novella takes place over the course of one year with each month dedicated to a different story as the watch passes through the hands of 12 different owners.

I am not a big fan of short stories – one or two stories inevitably stand out for me but these are usually spoiled by my dislike of the weaker tales.  This collection succeeded where others failed as I was gripped by the whole concept as well as each integral part.  The author cleverly interlinks each story with the same precision one might imagine the craftsman addressed to the making of the Breitling Chronmat.  The characters of each story are strangers to each other but they  share the same fragility that all humanity has, at the mercy of time.  Greed, regret, ambition, envy, lust are all here with their full ugliness exposed in this thought-provoking read.

At times I was reminded of Roald Dahl’s wonderful  Tales of the Unexpected and W. W. Jacobs’ classic horror story The Monkey’s Paw – equally gripping reads!  This would make a great gift, especially for anyone suffering reader’s block or those unfortunate folk who don’t read very much…or indeed anyone…  Wondering what the imaginative Starr Wood will come up with next.

Once Upon a  Time was published by Bo Tree Books in November 2013.  It’s a short but extremely satisfying read at 178 pages.

 

Breitling Navitimer Premier 18K Rose Gold Watch H42035

Breitling Rose Gold Watch

Starr Wood

 

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Lovely Additions

Posted in Lovely Additions, Proofs on February 11th, 2014 by admin – 2 Comments

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A few interesting new arrivals on the book front recently – 2 from the library, 1 competition win, 1 purchased, 1 requested review book and 4 unsolicited review books.  Clicking on the covers will take  you to their Amazon Affliate Link.

I don’t like the word diet as it conjures up visions of torture and faddish ways to lose weight.  I’ve never dieted in my life but for the past 6 months or so I have been trying to eat more healthily.  A blood test in June revealed raised cholesterol so I decided to cut down on the cheese (my nemesis!) and be a bit more active.  I’ve lost 10lbs so far and am no longer overweight but I bought The Hairy Dieters book as it came highly recommended by friends especially as it contains meals which all the family, even my fussy bunch, will enjoy.  I’ve reserved their first book How to Love Food and Lose Weight at the library.  There’s a queue of 9 ahead of me but I have plenty of food for thought in the meantime… By the way, the weight loss hasn’t improved the raised cholesterol so a new exercise regime is the next step – wonder if I can run and read simultaneously…

 

Kill or Cure was a win in a competition organised by We Love This Book.  It has proven a big hit with the all the family, particularly the more gruesome parts, of the book, not the family!   Detailing the history of medicine from prehistory to modern times, this is one for dipping into and may well provide useful in the healthy eating regime…as in inducing  loss of appetite.

 

The Cleaner of Chartres will be a re-read this month as it is our library book group’s choice for February.  With less funding for libraries and limited stock, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Liz, our librarian, to source enough copies if we recommend a particular title.  I know we could source them ourselves but that defeats the whole purpose of it being a “library” book group.  Soon there will be no books left!  Seriously…

Lean On Pete is another library loan.  My bookish friend Mandy has been raving evangelically about this writer so I really need to get to it.

North of Nowhere is the latest novel from children’s author Liz Kessler.  My daughter Eva loved this author’s previous books so this is one for both of us to read and enjoy.  Apparently this story was inspired by a South Devon village which fell into the sea during stormy weather – ironic considering the horrendous damage the storms are currently wreaking on the Devon and Cornish coasts.

The last batch of four are unsolicited review copies which dropped through the letterbox.  Sometimes these are so wide off the mark for me, even with my eclectic tastes, but these four do appeal in very different ways.  I’ve enjoyed Valerie Martin’s writing style in the past and Byron Easy looks intriguing with The Winter Folly promising to be an entertaining dual time-frame story.  When I was Young isn’t really singing to me at the moment, I sense saga vibes coming off it!

Wondering now if I should choose my next read according to the weather today but then they’ve forecast amber alerts for gales, rain and possible snow – enough to make an indecisive Libran doolally!

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The All-Girl Filling Station Last Reunion – Fannie Flagg

Posted in American Fiction on February 9th, 2014 by admin – 6 Comments

The All-girl Filling Station's Last Reunion

 

Published
13/03/2014

Publisher
Chatto & Windus

Source
Netgalley

My Rating
5 stars

 

A couple of confessions to make –  I simply love Fannie Flagg’s writing and I grew up in a filling station (rural Ireland, not Wisconsin..) so it’s obvious why I was drawn to her latest novel.  Admittedly we didn’t race around the forecourt on roller skates or have a kissing booth – minor technicality!

If you’re into heartwarming stories with that southern twang and if you enjoy a few tears with your laughter then you’re onto a winner with this story.  There are two narrative threads, one set in contemporary Alabama, although sometimes you might be forgiven for thinking time has stood still in Point Clear, Alabama, the  other story set in 1940s Pulaski, Wisconsin via Poland.  In the present, almost 60 year old Sookie (Sarah Jane) Poole is having a well-deserved rest after marrying off her three daughters.  Well, she  could have a rest if it wasn’t for the constant demands of her elderly mother Lenore, a narcissistic southern matriarch who is obsessed with preserving the glory of the family name.  In the past, four young sisters of Polish descent discover endless opportunities open to them when World War II occupies their men  folk.   The ever widening  horizons of the Jurdabralinski girls contrast sharply with the insular, claustraphobic life of Sookie who doesn’t really know what her role is now that all her children have flown the nest.   The author skilfully draws the two threads together until the bomb drops and Sookie’s life is forced to take a new direction.

Okay, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what way the narrative is heading but Flagg’s stories are less about what she tells you and more about how she tells you.  It’s like sitting down with an old friend and having a catch up.  You quickly feel like you’ve known these characters forever.  The more cynical reader might be inclined to find Sookie tiresome or her mother Lenore just too much but perhaps these readers cannot imagine the psychological distress caused by empty nest syndrome or the frustration of dealing with a snob, especially if that snob is your own mother!   Even the subsidiary characters are vividly presented – from the “normal”, understanding husband, Earl to the wacky, new-age Maravaleen.

If  I enjoyed Sookie and pals, I simply fell in love with the Jurdabralinski family and their exploits – from their efforts to make the  filling station stand out to Fritzi’s wing walking to their wartime duties as WASPs ( Women Airforce Service Pilots).   I hadn’t realised such women existed never mind how poorly they were treated at the time – WASPs who were killed in service were neither accorded military honours nor was compensation given to their families.  I loved how the author incorporated this fascinating part of history into this novel.

I can always rely on Fannie Flagg to entertain and engage me with her wit, humour, empathy and joie de vivre and The All Girl Filling Station encapsulates all of those qualities.  Highly recommended for existing fans and for anyone who enjoys good old-fashioned storytelling.

WASPs during WWII

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