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Death Stalks Kettle Street
John Bowen

I loved the narration...

The Black Talisman - Richard Storry

As the last strains of my audiobook fade, I wonder what I just listened to? That was so out of my usual reading sphere that I'm not really sure what I think.

The Black Talisman was a supernatural/religious book, completely different from anything I'd read before and although it's always good to try something new, it doesn't guarantee enjoyment.

 

As with many of today's novels, it has a current day strand (1984) and a past strand (1673), alternating between the two. More than 300 years ago, a coven of witches met and called up their Dark Lord, Anubin. They were thwarted in their plans by the local priest and his associates; and an icon, the Black Talisman became mislaid. This was required for them to reconvene, but it was split into 3 pieces, each hidden separately by members of the church.

Many years later, two youngsters, Monica and Gilbert, find themselves wound up in some frightening events, caused by the search for this artifact.

 

I'm not a fan of horror, yet in many ways this wan't particularly scary. Some parts were a bit predictable and the churchy bits were fine, I quite enjoyed the angels' appearances. But at the end, when the author described his image of heaven, he lost me. That struck me as rather unnecessary, I felt that the afterword should have been scrapped.

 

Special mention for the narrator, Jake Urry, whose descriptions of the food served at a gastronomic supper, made my mouth water.

Annoying.

The Slip - Mark Sampson

I really enjoyed Mark Sampson's Sad Peninsular (5 stars), so I leaped at the chance to preview another of his books, The Slip. Unfortunately they couldn't have been more different and this one really infuriated me.

 

The premise was fine, a well known philosophy professor is invited on to live TV to discuss the collapse of a huge Canadian financial institution, that he had written about in one of his studies. Alongside him on the panel is Cheryl Sneed, his rival of many years. He knows she is going to try to wind him up, but he's had a bad day and loses his rag, making a ridiculous comment about the company they are discussing and then compounding it by insulting Cheryl with a misogynistic remark that the world's feminists immediately pounce upon. Social media goes into full swing and his life is hell for the next several days.

 

What really annoyed me about this book was that it wasn't really about the nonsense that is social media these days - it was a good 3/4 of the way through the book that Philip actually realised that he'd made anything more than a blunder regarding the company. He had no idea (because he deleted all relevant messages) that the world was upset about the misogynistic comments that he hadn't even realised that he'd made.

 

I did enjoy the bits about his background, his childhood, how he'd met his wife, his student life and his relationship with an Indian student. These episodes were a breath of fresh air. I also smiled at his hopeless ineptitude with the many remembrance poppies that he lost along the way.

Counterbalancing that were the huge number of unnecessarily intellectual words used by Philip, I don't think my Kindle dictionary has ever worked so hard. Really, he was such an irritating boffin, I could have thrown his own book at him!

"I thought I had more time"

The Art of Hiding - Amanda Prowse
As a reviewer I have praised books for plot, for characterisations and for descriptions of surroundings, this book made me realise that I needed to add another category: emotion. 
The author had me right from the start as she described exactly how it would feel to lose a beloved husband, then watch, as the life you thought was yours, splintered before your eyes, until you weren't even sure you knew that husband at all. Unfortunately though, Nina McCarrick couldn't just hide under the covers, she had two very sad boys to bring through this catastrophe with her.

I really felt for Nina at every turn and Ms Prowse perfectly describes the dilemma between Nina's own emotions and her love for her boys, who needed her support more than ever. She is forced to return to a downtrodden area of Southampton and struggle to do everything she could to restart their lives together.
Her sons, Connor, who's 15, and 10 year old Declan, are great kids (thankfully) and Declan, in particular, has an upbeat attitude and a quirky sense of humour:
'I don't mind where we live, Mum, but I don't want to go anywhere really cold, like the North Pole.' (loc 1906).
The boys must make the difficult move from a private school to the state system. I know someone who did this and it's not easy.

My one criticism of this book would be the portrayal of the wealthy people who had children at the private school were Connor and Declan had studied since early childhood. Some wealthy people are very nice, honestly. But Nina's circle were the meanest, self serving people I've ever come across!

I actually read this book without looking at the synopsis, which in my opinion, gives too much away. Of the three Amanda Prowse books I've read, this was definitely my favourite.

Also read:
The Food of Love (4.5 stars)
Poppy Day (4 stars)
 
 

 

Driving lessons.

Mirror Shoulder Signal - Dorthe Nors


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017, and like it's colleague, the Man Booker Prize, this seems to imply a somewhat off-the-wall read. I haven't followed the International version of the prize in the past, but it probably represents my taste more than the English version.

 

This is a Danish author, in translation, and if I'm honest, not a lot happens. It's a short book at under 200 pages, and centres around Sonja, a middle-aged woman, who is trying prove something to herself by learning to drive. Her driving instructor won't let her touch the gear lever and changes gear for her, which is understandably frustrating.
She holds down a job translating a crime writer's novels from Swedish to Danish, and as he seems to be quite a well known author, this job gives Sonja some degree of respect. Meanwhile she goes for regular massage with Ellen, a somewhat forward masseuse who reads all sorts if importance into every ache and pain that Sonja confesses to.

 

Living in Copenhagen, Sonja frequently thinks with nostalgia of her childhood in the wilds of Denmark, where her sister, Kate, still lives. Kate avoids answering the phone and Sonja is progressively more frustrated by her inability to contact her sister.

 

"Sonja knows this much about love: there's not much of it in practice, but it's always thrived on people's tongues." (loc 777).

 

The translation was good and I guess I learned a little about life in Denmark, a place I've never been, but this is not a book I'll be encouraging everyone to buy.

Run, Run, Run!

Pennies from Burger Heaven (Burger Heaven #1) - Marcy McKay

I think I was expecting this to be more along the lines of Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, than this frantic nightmare dash from danger to hazard to disaster. I wasn't sure If I'd continue at first but it sucked me in and, like Copper, I needed to find the answers, be they good, or bad news.

Copper is an eleven year-old girl, homeless on the streets of a fictional town in Texas. It's a rough area, with gangs, addicts, prostitutes and homeless on every corner. She's lived in this area all her life and knows it like the back of her hand, but she's always had her mother at her side. When Mama disappears, Copper leaves no stone unturned in her efforts to find her, even though it seems to result in pain and injury from all sides. 
Her Mama (Corrine Daniels) has ingrained in her, to only trust herself, but it becomes evident that she is going to need a little help. Several people saw Corrine the night before she disappeared and Copper gets a confusing set of clues as to what happened. Meanwhile, Mama seems to have stolen something form someone who wants revenge on Copper, or $1,000. 
Further complication arises when a husband and wife TV evangelist team turns up in the town, with their 'Hail Marys' and 'Save the Lords'.

So, I ask myself, after all this, would I read the second book in the trilogy? And surprisingly, I find myself answering, Yes! Although the magical realism bits did stretch my imagination a bit and didn't really add anything.

 

 

Who killed Ben Addison?

Tip a Hat to Murder - Elaine L. Orr

It took me a little while to get into the audiobook version of this who-done-it, and I had to rewind the first hour to listen to it again. I'm not American, so I'm assuming it was the narrator's slightly fast American accent that stumped me. I sometimes find it can take a while to get into an audiobook because you can't listen to the details of new characters and places at your own pace.

The opening hour of the book related to an American diner, The Bully Pulpit (strange name!), whose boss, Ben Addison, had announced that tips were being stopped and replaced by a (small) increase in hourly wages. The staff were up in arms, but it also prompted demonstrations from the local agricultural college, some of whom were for tipping and others who were against. Then the college debate team got involved, interviewing the demonstrators and generally causing mayhem. Unfortunately, amongst all this chaos, Ben was murdered.
Was it one of his staff, one of his customers, one of the demonstrators.....?

Enter the local Police Chief, Elizabeth Friedman and her friend, Medical Examiner Skelly, to unravel the clues and bring the perpetrator to justice. 

I'm not quite sure what the term 'Cozy Mystery' means, but I assume this would fall into that genre. It sort of rumbled along, gathering clues, adding new suspects, eliminating others, until we discovered who had committed the murder, and why.
I enjoyed it while it lasted but I wouldn't search out this author again. The audio version, in particular, is probably more suited to an American audience.

My thanks to the author, publisher and narrator, who provided me with a free copy of this audiobook through Audiobook Boom via Audible, in exchange for an unbiased review.

Join the ladybird for another adventure.

What the Ladybird Heard on Holiday - Julia Donaldson, Lydia Monks
Julia Donaldson gave herself a really hard act to follow with The Gruffalo - on Amazon UK this has over 1,000 reviews and an average of 4.9!! Both my grandchildren love it and their parents already know it off by heart. So it was with high expectations that I requested a copy of What the Ladybird Heard on Holiday from NetGalley. 

I gave this a run-through and found the rhymes a bit awkward, so I borrowed it's predecessor, What the Ladybird Heard, from my grandson, to compare them. To my delight, I discovered that in the paper copy of the book, the ladybird has texture - so instead of saying 'where's the ladybird' on each page of my review copy, my son was directing, 'touch the ladybird', which is already so much more fun. But I also found that the rhyming in the original copy takes a few reads to get the hang of, to get the rhythm right. 

What the Ladybird Heard on Holiday is intended for a slightly older audience (3 - 6 years) than The Gruffalo (2 - 5 years), so my grandchildren are still a little young for it, but they loved the animals and will get more involved with the book as they understand the story better.

I may be giving this one 4 stars, based on the slightly awkward rhyming, but it's still an excellent choice for all young children.
 
 

 

"Loneliness is a form of cancer"

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
This book started out well and just kept getting better, perfectly supplemented by Cathleen McCarron's perfect narration. It has joined my fairly short list of all-time favourites.

Eleanor has her life mapped out. She went straight from school into an office job that she still holds now, many years later. Other than her work colleagues she sees no-one except social workers and the meter reader, and her weekends are spent alone in her little flat with a bottle of vodka - to help her sleep.
She eschews social interactions at all costs, until she is inveigled by the new IT guy to help an elderly man who has fallen in the street. The repercussions of this event alter her life to something she had never believed possible. Gradually, as her life changes, we learn more about her past, until, layer by layer, a picture evolves.

This was so wonderfully done, with great characters, particularly the bumbling Raymond. It reminded me of The Rosie Project in some ways and would appeal to the same audience, although it is by no means a rehash of Graeme Simsion's book.
Gail Honeyman has written an amazing debut and I can't wait to see what she comes up with next.
 
 

 

“I’m very afraid I will die tonight.” —Bana Alabed, Twitter, October 2, 2016.

Dear World: A Syrian Girl’s Story of War and Plea for Peace - Bana Alabed

At the time that Yugoslavia collapsed, and Sarajevo was under siege, we were dependent on journalists to inform the world of the atrocities being carried out. These days, with Facebook, Twitter and the gamut of social media, we really have no excuse to claim that we are ignorant. It leaves me shamed and speechless to realise that it took a seven year old girl to alert the world to the recent situation in Aleppo.

 

Bana Alabed has written a revealing account of life in Aleppo, starting before the siege and then detailing the awful situation her family found themselves in. Inserts from her mother (an English teacher), provide another view-point and some background to supplement Bana's narrative.

Her family was reasonably well off, so they had the luxury of solar panels to power Ipads and telephones and Bana was able to send out Tweets, alerting her followers, of the building tensions and destruction surrounding her and her family. Eventually the authorities became wise to her activities and she, herself, became a target for the regime.

 

In spite of defamatory trolls and on-line rebuttals, denying the source of the Tweets, it has been proven that she was in the places she claims and in a position to send out the messages.  A seven year old was truly keeping the world informed.

Are we discussing the issue of consent with our sons?

It Happens All the Time: A Novel - Amy Hatvany

This book was a brave effort on the part of the author, to approach the issue of acquaintance rape, why it happens and how we can help prevent it by educating our children.

While I was searching for more information about the author, I came upon a You Tube video of her talking about a similar event that happened to her in her teens and I realised that this was more than just a novel, this was the author reaching out about something that she felt strongly about - the issue of consent. It also helped that in this book the issue was covered from the point of view of both victim and rapist.

 

*Spoiler alert - I may have discussed too much of the plot in the following review, please stop here if you haven't read the book.*

 

Tyler and Amber met as children when Tyler's family moved into the same street. Amber was an only child, with very sociable parents and they immediately welcomed Tyler and his family. The two Mums became best friends and after Tyler's parents separated, Amber's parents invited him and his Mum to join them on holidays.

All through childhood they were each other's closest friends. Tyler was Amber's greatest support when she suffered severe eating disorders, spending a large chunk of time in hospital, and whenever she needed him he was there for her.

Unfortunately Tyler harbored desires beyond just friendship, while Amber considered him to be like a brother. He was struggling to come to terms with Amber's engagement to another student that summer when everything fell apart.

 

Tyler also had his own issues and suffered with anxiety, largely caused by his awful bully of a father. I was pretty horrified that Amber was so bruised after the event, I suppose Tyler's behaviour with Whitney should have rung warning bells, but he supposedly loved Amber, he proceeded without consent, yes, but did he have to be so violent? It almost adds another dimension to the central issue of the book.

 

My BG wasn't very impressed with this book, giving ratings as low as 2 stars, they didn't think it was very well written, and in some ways I have to agree; there were parts that didn't quite work.

What bothered me most, was the resolution. Why was it that Tyler was expected to turn himself in, yet Amber was not taken to account for her actions with the gun. By the end of the book, was it right that Amber should be just allowed to walk away and start again?

 

As an aside to the book, do be sure to search out Amy Hatvany's comments in "The Conversations We’re Not Having With Our Sons", published as a guest post in The Manifest-Station. http://www.themanifeststation.net/2017/03/26/conversation-not-sons/

Shadow-phobia.

Hortense and the Shadow - Natalia O'Hara

This book actually makes me feel rather uncomfortable - why would a young child hate her shadow? I've always encouraged my children and grandchildren to think of their shadow as a friendly presence, not something to be scared of.
Then, when Hortense slams the window sash down, the shadow howls and kicks and scratches at the glass, well, by this time, no wonder she's petrified by her shadow.

The art work is cute, with a Russian feel, cold and snowy, and this book appears to be well received by other reviewers. As yet my granddaughter is still a bit young to really test her reception to it, although I'm in no hurry to give her shadow-phobia. Maybe this is just one that I'll let pass by.

An honest memoir about eating disorders.

Ink in Water: An Illustrated Memoir (Or, How I Kicked Anorexia’s Ass and Embraced Body Positivity) - Lacy J. Davis, Jim Kettner

Graphic illustrations are a rather underused technique when it comes to mainstream literature, but they work particularly well with highly emotional issues like eating disorders. Lacy Davis has come clean with her problems with Anorexia and Bulimia (although she shies away from these terms), through a memoir that is honest and down-to-earth, and will hopefully provide motivation and encouragement for other sufferers.

The art work is done by her partner, Jim Kettner, who we meet in the memoir. I have to admit to being particularly impressed that someone else understands her well enough to do these illustrations, throughout the book I had assumed they were done by Lacy, herself.

 

Society puts huge pressures on youngsters these days, particularly the women, but men too. It is little surprise that many people crack under these pressures. In my opinion, any advice shared by those who have lived through their issues, is of tremendous value to those still battling their demons. This readily accessible format makes these shared experiences even more widely available.

 

Good luck to Lacy and Kett, I shall be interested to see what they come up with next.

 

Romance and humour.

Wild Oats - Pamela Morsi

This is a prime example of the effect of a cover on readers - I requested the audio version of this book through Audiobook Boom, having seen the cover showing a bicycle leaned up against a rustic wooden fence. After listening to the book I registered it on BookLikes, only to discover a pink cover with a couple encircled by flowers. I realised that if I'd been originally presented with the pink cover I wouldn't even have read the book content before passing it by. As it was, it took me a while to get into the book, as I'm not much of a Romance reader, but it was the sense of humour running through the narrative that kept me reading.

Jedwin Sparrow has decided he needs to spread some wild oats before thinking about marriage, and he reckons the best place to start is the local divorcee, Cora Briggs. She is horrified and prepares to send him packing, except for the temptation of taking revenge on the tittle-tattling ladies of the town, led by his mother. 
Set in Oklahoma in 1906, there were serious implications with being involved with a divorcee; the community was fiercely judgmental and the poor young woman was labelled and blamed through no fault of her own.
Cora Briggs and Jedwin Sparrow were immediately likable characters, along with the rather plain daughter of the local vicar, Tulsa May Bruder, who I see becomes one of the main characters of the sequel, Runabout, which takes place ten years later.

The reading by Stevie Puckett was a bit drawn out and some of the women's voices rather shrill, but once I got involved with the story I became accustomed to this. I certainly had no problem with the clarity or consistency of her narration and I will keep an eye open in case she narrates the sequel.

Thomas Jefferson's daughter.

America's First Daughter: A Novel - Stephanie Dray, Laura Croghan Kamoie

Stephanie Dray writes Historical fiction, most recently with Laura Kamoie, but she's also well known as an Historical romance author under the name of Stephanie Draven. Just to confuse matters even more, Laura Kamoie also has an alias as a Romance author, as Laura Kaye. So it's little wonder that this Historical Fiction novel does have a somewhat romantic feel to it. Where it differs considerably is in its length - while both authors write fairly short romance books, America's First Daughter took me by surprise at 580/624 pages (depending on the source). My Kindle percentage seemed to be rising painfully slowly and our book group unanimously decided to delay the discussion for a week.

 

 

Stephanie and Laura between them had 17,000 letters written to and from Thomas Jefferson, on which to base their novel, no wonder it took five years to write.

Jefferson lived a double life, advocating freedom for all, while running a farm worked by slaves. He argued that it would be impossible to maintain the farm without slave workers. Meanwhile, on her deathbed, he promised to love none other than his beloved wife, yet formed a life-long liaison with a slave girl in his employ, fathering several children through her.

This book is written from the point of view of his daughter, Martha, known as Patsy. She relinquished many of her personal freedoms in order to stay at her father's side; travelling to Paris with him at a young age and later playing the role of first woman in Washington. She then married Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. and bore twelve children.

 

 

Having spent such a long time on this book I was disappointed in the discussion questions provided by the publisher; they tended to run along a similar theme and were somewhat uninspiring. I had to resort to the passages that I had highlighted while reading to keep the discussion motivated.
Although the book was quite hard going, I learned a lot from it and don't regret the time spent.

 

Ravaged by fire.

The Stars Are Fire - Anita Shreve

Based on a true event that occurred in October 1947, Anita Shreve has returned to the Maine coast, where several of my favourite Shreve books were based. Her writing is as precise and perfect as ever, drawing the reader in, well before the excitement of the novel even begins.

Following a drought that lasted all Summer, the Autumn of 1947 brought little relief to the residents of Hunts Beach, and the looming threat of fire became a reality when dry winds sent flames whipping across the forests, destroying nine towns.

Grace and her best friend Rosie are trapped between the fire and the ocean with four children between them. Ingeniously, they use the shore to save themselves, but life will never return to normal for the two women.
At the time of the fire Grace's husband, Gene, was helping in the forest, creating wind-breaks, hoping to prevent the onslaught. When the flames subside, Grace finds herself with a missing husband, penniless, homeless and with two young children to support.

A great read, highly recommended.


Previously read:
The Pilot's Wife (5 stars)
Fortune's Rocks (5 stars)
Resistance (5 stars)
Sea Glass (5 stars)
All He Ever Wanted (3 1/2 stars)
Body Surfing (3 stars)
A Change in Altitude (4 stars)

I feel like I just spent time with a friend.

Foy: On the Road to Lost - Gordon Atkinson

This is one of those books that would certainly have passed me by if I hadn't requested it for review from Audiobook Boom. The bright orange cover is appealing but I don't think the content would have been able to compete against the huge publicity machine that is today's book industry.

Fortunately it caught my eye as a freebie and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the ruminations of Foy on everything from his childhood as the son of a Baptist Minister, to his following in his father's footsteps, to his questioning what he does and does not actually believe - and leaving the ministry.
It's not at all preachy and has a very genuine, human feel to it. Foy is generous hearted and considerate and I particularly liked the episode where he spent time with a man who was dying of aids.

By the time the audio was finished I felt as if I was losing a friend and I hope I shall be able to follow this with more excerpts from Foy's life in the future.
An interesting comment caught my eye in the acknowledgements - only his wife knows how close, or otherwise, Foy's character is to the author's.

Talking of acknowledgements, I should make a mention of the excellent narration by Karl Miller.
Thank you to Audiobook Boom, the publisher, Material Media and Audible for my free copy in return for an honest review.