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Embroidery and bell ringing.

A Single Thread - Tracy Chevalier

This is my seventh book by Tracy Chevalier and I have enjoyed them all. My favourite is still Fallen Angels, about the Suffragette movement, but I enjoyed learning about the Winchester Broderers and the tradition of bell ringing.
I must admit, I did skim some of the detailed descriptions of the embroidery in the cathedral kneelers and cushions, but it was fascinating to learn about the intensive work that went into producing them, back in the 1930s.

 

Violet Speedwell is unmarried, earning her the unenviable title of a 'surplus woman'. She is one of many ladies who lost husbands, lovers and fiances on the battle fields of WW1. The chances of finding a partner now are slim and she spends her days working at a mundane job for an insurance company. She requests a transfer from her home town to Winchester as living with her miserable mother is becoming impossible. Now, however, she must take digs and struggle to make ends meet. It's not a particularly joyful situation but she makes the best of it, until a chance encounter results in her meeting up with the Broderers and she makes new friends and even a potential love interest.

 

This is a slow burning book, but kept my interest to the end. My book group gave it between 3.5 and 4.5 stars and generally enjoyed it. Googling some of the patterns and designs on the cushions was fascinating and was a highlight of our discussion. Images of the cathedral and the shattered stained glass window that was subsequently put back together higglidy piggildy, were also interesting.

 

The narrative highlighted the position of these 'surplus women' and covered the issues of love, loss. and the general position of single women of the era.
The narration in the audiobook, by Fenella Woolgar, was excellent and I forgot I was being read to, always a good sign.

Embroidery and bell ringing.

A Single Thread - Tracy Chevalier This is my seventh book by Tracy Chevalier and I have enjoyed them all. My favourite is still Fallen Angels, about the Suffragette movement, but I enjoyed learning about the Winchester Broderers and the tradition of bell ringing. I must admit, I did skim some of the detailed descriptions of the embroidery in the cathedral kneelers and cushions, but it was fascinating to learn about the intensive work that went into producing them, back in the 1930s. Violet Speedwell is unmarried, earning her the unenviable title of a 'surplus woman'. She is one of many ladies who lost husbands, lovers and fiances on the battle fields of WW1. The chances of finding a partner now are slim and she spends her days working at a mundane job for an insurance company. She requests a transfer from her home town to Winchester as living with her miserable mother is becoming impossible. Now, however, she must take digs and struggle to make ends meet. It's not a particularly joyful situation but she makes the best of it, until a chance encounter results in her meeting up with the Broderers and she makes new friends and even a potential love interest. This is a slow burning book, but kept my interest to the end. My book group gave it between 3.5 and 4.5 stars and generally enjoyed it. Googling some of the patterns and designs on the cushions was fascinating and was a highlight of our discussion. Images of the cathedral and the shattered stained glass window that was subsequently put back together higglidy piggildy, were also interesting. The narrative highlighted the position of these 'surplus women' and covered the issues of love, loss. and the general position of single women of the era. The narration in the audiobook, by Fenella Woolgar, was excellent and I forgot I was being read to, always a good sign.

Let's go shopping!

Blue and Green Should Never Be Seen! (Or So Mother Says) - Colette Kebell I enjoyed the Prequel to this novel, The Retail Therapist, meeting Gigi and her friend Ritchie for the first time. Now we get to spend more time with them as Gigi tries, often against the odds, to build her fashion consultancy business. The only thing that I guess didn't really sit well with me, was how judgmental Gigi is of others' dress sense; I'm sure she'd have shot me down in flames. Justine Ellis makes an excellent job of narrating this novel, based on Gigi's efforts to build her business and expand into male shopping consultancy. There are plenty of ups and downs along the way, as there would be in any growing business. There are competitors who would sabotage her efforts and friends who stand behind her. There are less successful projects and others who become recurring happy customers. And then there's the love interest, which also has its ups and downs. I think what I liked most about this book is that Gigi doesn't rush to buy the latest items as they come out, she shops selectively, in clearance warehouses and end-of-line stores, which really spoke to the anti-waste person in me. This was an enjoyable frivolous read, just what we all need during this strange year.

Highly recommended.

His & Hers  - Alice Feeney Wow, I have just finished this book, it was brilliant. Both the book and the narration had me progressively more and more glued to the story as I got increasingly involved in events. Anna is a news correspondent who has risen through the ranks of reporters to the job of reading the lunch time news bulletin on the BBC. It's job she loves and she puts her heart and soul into it, hiding away from a much less happy personal life. Her ex-husband, DCI Jack Harper, is called to investigate a murder in sleepy Blackdown and Anna becomes involved when her dream job unexpectedly goes back to its previous incumbent and Anna finds herself back as a reporter. The narrative follows the interactions between this estranged couple, while simultaneously twisting and turning around the mystery they are both trying to unravel. And twisting and turning it certainly does, until we end up suspecting everyone and no-one seems completely innocent.. As an audiobook we were treated to a male narrator, the wonderful Richard Armitage, to narrate Jack's voice, and Stephanie Racine, who did and excellent job as Anna. There is also a distorted voice representing the killer. All in all I highly recommend this book as an audio and I'm definitely going to go back and investigate the author's earlier work.

Highly recommended.

His & Hers  - Alice Feeney Wow, I have just finished this book, it was brilliant. Both the book and the narration had me progressively more and more glued to the story as I got increasingly involved in events. Anna is a news correspondent who has risen through the ranks of reporters to the job of reading the lunch time news bulletin on the BBC. It's job she loves and she puts her heart and soul into it, hiding away from a much less happy personal life. Her ex-husband, DCI Jack Harper, is called to investigate a murder in sleepy Blackdown and Anna becomes involved when her dream job unexpectedly goes back to its previous incumbent and Anna finds herself back as a reporter. The narrative follows the interactions between this estranged couple, while simultaneously twisting and turning around the mystery they are both trying to unravel. And twisting and turning it certainly does, until we end up suspecting everyone and no-one seems completely innocent.. As an audiobook we were treated to a male narrator, the wonderful Richard Armitage, to narrate Jack's voice, and Stephanie Racine, who did and excellent job as Anna. There is also a distorted voice representing the killer. All in all I highly recommend this book as an audio and I'm definitely going to go back and investigate the author's earlier work.

Highly recommended.

His & Hers  - Alice Feeney Wow, I have just finished this book, it was brilliant. Both the book and the narration had me progressively more and more glued to the story as I got increasingly involved in events. Anna is a news correspondent who has risen through the ranks of reporters to the job of reading the lunch time news bulletin on the BBC. It's job she loves and she puts her heart and soul into it, hiding away from a much less happy personal life. Her ex-husband, DCI Jack Harper, is called to investigate a murder in sleepy Blackdown and Anna becomes involved when her dream job unexpectedly goes back to its previous incumbent and Anna finds herself back as a reporter. The narrative follows the interactions between this estranged couple, while simultaneously twisting and turning around the mystery they are both trying to unravel. And twisting and turning it certainly does, until we end up suspecting everyone and no-one seems completely innocent.. As an audiobook we were treated to a male narrator, the wonderful Richard Armitage, to narrate Jack's voice, and Stephanie Racine, who did and excellent job as Anna. There is also a distorted voice representing the killer. All in all I highly recommend this book as an audio and I'm definitely going to go back and investigate the author's earlier work.

And then everything changed.

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones For some reason, I stopped listening half way through this book and then picked it up again at least a month later. By that time I'd also listened to Secret Sister, Tayari Jones's more recent book. It was interesting to be able to compare the two, and without doubt, An American Marriage was definitely my favourite. Celestial and Roy are a coloured couple living in the American South. They have done well for themselves; Roy is an up-coming executive, while Celeste is embarking on a successful career, crafting speciality dolls. They are blissfully happy together, until one fateful night, when Roy is blamed for a crime that he didn't commit. This has an understandably devastating effect on their marriage and the book investigates the outcome as it unfolds. Misrepresentation of justice can happen to anyone, but it's more likely if you're black. In a flash, a law abiding, well educated man can find himself wrongly accused and living in a prison cell. It's an earth shattering event and there's not a thing he can do. My book club chose this several months ago; none of the riots and pulling down of statues had even begun, but it's easy to see why the current movement has swept through society and why change is needed. An excellent book, well worth reading. Well narrated by Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis.

How does it feel to be the secret family?

Silver Sparrow - Tayari Jones

I heard this book being discussed in an on-line book festival and it sounded fascinating. (...so I guess on-line festivals do work for disseminating new titles.)
The premise of the book appealed to me: one father with two wives and two similarly aged daughters, only one of whom was aware the other existed. The families are both coloured, which is topical right now, although the current movement had not started when my book group made the book choice.

The first half of the book is narrated by Dana. She knows she has a sister and that her father spends most of the week with his 'other' family. She and her mother go spying on Chaurisse and her mother and accept that they are the secret family. They live in the same town but cannot attend the same school - and Chaurisse always get first pick.
The second half is narrated by Chaurisse, who eventually meets up with Dana and is impressed by her beauty and confidence, but mystified by her secrecy.

Although things are obviously going to come to a head eventually, I thought the run-up to this was quite slow. There is a lot of back-story, covering both families and several sets of grandparents; it's not a book that you can easily put down and come back to.

Having recently finished An American Marriage by the same author, I wasn't so impressed with the ending of Silver Sparrow. I gave An American Marriage 4 stars, but the disappointing ending dropped Silver Sparrow to 3.5 for me.

An insight into village life in Oman.

Celestial Bodies - Jokha Alharthi

I loved this book! But I was, sadly, the only one in my book group who did. While I can see why others were less keen, for me, it was just so atmospheric. I should add that I was listening to the audio by Laurence Bouvard and I think this version truly enhanced the book.

 

It does skip in time (a lot) and this can be pretty confusing. It may have helped that I listened over a few days; I'm sure if I'd taken a break in the middle, I'd have forgotten half of the characters, of which there are many. The book version has a family tree at the beginning, I could really have done with that, but obviously this would not have been compatible with the audio format.

 

The narrative is basically a bird's eye view of the life of a small community in Al Alwafi, Oman. It covers three generations. The grandparents' generation own slaves and think it quite normal. Their offspring's generation is living in amongst the slaves but no longer owns them. They may work for the family, but they are technically free. By the time we get to the most recent generation, about 40 years ago, many of the slaves have moved off to seek their fortunes, in a very similar way to some of the offspring of the villagers.
Muscat, the capital of Oman, is growing and causing a 'pull' to many of the younger villagers. It offers little by today's standards, but it's considerably more than what is available back home.

 

Village life is a microcosm, virtually closed to non Arabic speakers, and this book was a wonderful insight into the way people lived and how they saw the world. While travelling in Oman, I have had the occasional opportunity to join with an Omani family for coffee or breakfast, and this book opened up the hidden world behind my fleeting glimpses. Already the concrete dwellings are showing signs of age, but the vacated mud brick houses are washing back into the soil and returning to the dust whence they came.

 

As well as an insight into village life, I learned about a war that took place in Buraimi (now just over the Omani border from Al Ain, in the UAE). And another that took place on Jebel Aktar, a mountain range currently enjoyed by hikers, climbers and holiday makers to Oman.

 

I highly recommend the audio version of this book for the spoken Arabic (which I would have just skimmed) and the way the narrator enhances the characters.
Wonderful.

Things that go bump in the night.

Where the Dead Walk - John   Bowen

I have just finished listening to this and my first thought was 'wow, that narrator did an amazing job!' I have no idea how she read at that speed without slipping up, especially in the last few action-packed chapters. I shall certainly look out for other books read by Helen Clapp.

 

I enjoyed this book, although it rather stretched my imagination towards the end. That was a shame really, as it looked like it was heading for the full five stars earlier on.

 

The narrative is based around a TV show about haunted houses - 'Where the Dead Walk'. The main characters are two of the show's presenters, Kate Bennett and Harry White. Kate has been through a tough time, as we learn through her backstory, and Harry is becoming more fond of her as the show progresses, so there's a bit of a romance element too. When Sebastian Dahl offers to allow them to film in his pseudo-Victorian house, things start to unravel.

 

There's some excellent haunted atmosphere, especially earlier on. The members of the TV crew gel well together and seemed totally fearless as they stalked through spooky houses in the dark. I could never have done that. I enjoyed trying to piece together Sebastian Dahl's motivations, though, of course, I didn't manage.

 

Dark, brooding and atmospheric, but not so scary that I couldn't sleep at night.

Marsh Girl.

Where the Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens

This book has received a lot of hype, so my book group decided to read it and decide for ourselves. It was certainly beautifully written and the narration by Cassandra Campbell was excellent, but I found the first part of the book a bit slow going. I'm also not much of a fan of court cases in my reads and although this one wasn't overly detailed, it was still a court case.

Set in the 1950’s and 60’s, the narrative follows Kya, a "Marsh Girl", who is brought up in a shack on the shores of the marshes. She is the youngest in her family but feels happy and loved, until one by one, all her family leave and just she and her father remain. She tries to cook and clean, but at the age of 7, she doesn't have a lot of experience. Her father is a drunk and a bully but she persuades him to teach her to use his boat and they appeared to form something of a bond, until he disappears too and finally, she is all alone.

As she grows into a woman she finds herself attracted to a couple of the men who sometimes frequent the marshes. Will she find love or just sorrow?

I Googled images of the marshes of the North Carolina Coast and they were really quite beautiful, well deserving of the poetic language of this book. Even though Kya was so poor, she appreciated the beauty and grew to love the loneliness of her surroundings. Her detailed observations of the flora and fauna were impressive for a child who had never attended school.

I don't know what I was expecting, I hadn't done much research before starting this book. I'm certainly glad I read (listened to) it but for me it wasn't quite a five star read.

Also published as Jessica's Ghost.

Friends for Life - Andrew Norriss

This is a Middle School novel, touching on several subjects that would be worth raising for discussion. These include bullying, feelings of insecurity, depression, suicide and life after death. Having said that, it's quite lighthearted in its approach and even amusing in parts.

The main character is Francis, who has a rather unusual hobby. Whilst this hobby is often a career move for some adult men, it opens Francis up to a degree of ridicule that makes his school days uncomfortable. The other main character, Jessica, isn't really alive at all; she's a ghost, which is presumably quite believable when you're in Middle School. Jessica helps Francis to gain confidence, which he then passes on, helping other students in a similar position.

Whilst tackling awkward subjects, this book is also upbeat and highly readable, with a positive message.
I was listening to an audiobook version, well read by Alison Larkin.

Bravery in wartime.

The Hidden Village - Imogen Matthews

Berkenhout Village was a collection of huts, partially hidden underground and concealed in dense forest. It was built during WWII, to protect the local Jewish population from persecution by the Germans. The author's mother lived close to this village and in her novel, Ms Matthews chose to highlight the brave efforts of the Dutch people in keeping their neighbours safe.

The main character, Sofie, was a young Jewish girl who became separated from own family early on in the war and adopted the people of Berkenhout Village as her surrogate family. The village was well concealed, but the residents still had to maintain constant vigilance and keep all sounds to an absolute minimum.
Jan, a young lad at the time, epitomised a wayward boy, out looking for adventure. With great excitement he stumbles across an English pilot who has been shot down. This appears to be the start of the underground movement in the area, which subsequently saves many people.

This is a well written fictional account, highlighting the amazing bravery and sacrifices of the people who found themselves invaded by a foreign power.
My version was excellently read by Liam Gerrard, who read clearly and at a good pace.
This was written for a Young Adult audience, but I would recommend it for adults as well.

Storms, fireballs and panic.

The Traveler - Melissa Delport

This is going to be a tough book to review because although I can recognise that it's well written, it falls straight into one of my least favourite genres, Action. I chose it because I have enjoyed several books by Melissa Delport, especially under her alias of Lisa Del, and I knew she would not disappoint. I have since reread the book's description and I now see that in my enthusiasm, I managed to miss the words tsunami, conquer and pillage, so to be fair, I have upgraded my 3.0 to a 3.5* rating. 

Rachel is a TV news journalist and she is out on a job with her colleagues, when her world is turned upside down by extreme weather and devastation. Amidst mass panic, they head back to the TV studio to post a final bulletin, before heading to the one place on a weather chart that shows calm. Hmm, this is all going through my head now and I don't want to post spoilers, so, fast forward and Rachel has met up with Dex, a past boyfriend who had a devastating effect on her at the time. She is still bewitched, but she hadn't known that he wasn't human, so it is an horrific shock to discover that he is with the powerful invading force. How can their relationship possibly resume?

The characterisations in this novel were strong, even with such a large cast. We meet various people along the way, but they all feel very real and relatable. Leah Sponburgh was a fabulous narrator, how she kept pace with the action, I have no idea. Her job was more like that of a sports commentator then a book narrator and she impressed me no end.

The world is in chaos and this small band survivors needs to find somewhere as far from the action as possible. If Action is your thing, this is a definite next-read.

My best book of 2019.

Room 119 - T F Lince

I finished this book over a week ago but I didn't put pen to paper as I was still reeling. This really got to me and it went straight up into my Favourites - my 6* books. It had a kind of a Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern) feel, another one of my favourite books. For me, this hit just the right note between magical and realism, and I'm not easy to please.

 

It starts off pretty mundanely, so don't give up when you find yourself on the trading floor, juggling stocks. It soon veers off in a totally different direction, when Dean Harrison gets a serious wake-up call and he has to rethink his priorities.


The characters in this novel are great, but it's the circles that they swerve around in that awed me. Really, so many loops and surprises. Aided and abetted by an amazing narrator, Jade McLean, this could become the first audiobook that I re-listen to.

 

I won't say more as I don't want to spoil this for other readers, but I actually envy anyone starting this book for the first time.

The real Michelle Obama.

Becoming - Michelle Obama

I started this a while ago, but then I seemed to just grind to a halt. I didn't stop for any particular reason; the book group I was reading it for had passed and I suppose other things got in its way. So, now I've picked it up and completed it - I didn't want it to go the same way as her husband's book, Dreams From My Father, which also sits half-read on my shelf.


I'm not a follower of politics and this would never have been a book I would have chosen, but I'm glad I've read it. Actually, I listened to the author narrating herself, which added another dimension; I just wished I could have sped her up a bit.

I have a lot of respect for the Obamas, totally apart from US politics. I think they were motivated to do good and genuinely help people, a rare enough characteristic for politicians these days.
It was interesting to learn about Michelle's childhood; her piano lessons on a cronky old instrument and her family relationships. She was motivated to work hard throughout her life, but always put the greater good above her own ambitions. I can see how she would have found her soul-mate in Barak Obama.


The insider view of life in The White House was fascinating: the vegetable garden that Michelle instigated and then shared with local school children, the constant bodyguards who flanked her and her daughters wherever they went, and the sudden transition once she leaves, and suddenly finds herself with her own kitchen and no staff...silence.

 

This was a fascinating book and well deserving of the accolades it has received.