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Anna's side of the story.

Anna: One Love, Two Stories - Amanda Prowse

Anna is the first of a two book set, the second book, Theo, is due for release on March 8th. In this first book we hear Anna's story, in the second one we will get the other side of the coin. I'm hopeless at remembering the finer details in books, so I'm glad I won't have to wait too long for the sequel.

 

Amanda Prowse's characters have always struggled in some way, in The Food of Love it was anorexia and in The Art of Hiding it was bereavement and moving on. This time we meet Anna, left without family from an early age and struggling to find her place in the world. She meets Theo, himself a damaged man, full of hurt and resentment. Can they make a relationship work and live happily ever after?

 

The characterisations were excellent and the dialogue well done and I found myself looking forward to the opportunity to pick it up and resume reading, which hasn't happened for a while. For me it didn't quite reach the level of The Art of Hiding or The Food of Love, but it was still an excellent read. I shall certainly be on the lookout for Theo's story in the near future.

 

 

Four well written novellas.

Strange Weather: Four Short Novels - Joe Hill

This was a perfect example of a book I would never have read if it hadn't been for a book club - and our fabulous Lit Fest, next month, which Joe Hill will be attending. This is tagged as Science Fiction and Horror, and while I'd not be drawn to Sci Fi, I'd certainly shy away from Horror. Yet, these four novellas, published together under the umbrella title of Strange Weather, were not particularly scary and I found them weirdly interesting.

 

I listened to the audio version, read by four different narrators, Stephen LangWil WheatonDennis Boutsikaris, and Kate Mulgrew, who all do an excellent job.

 

There is a slim connection between three of the stories through weather, but only the 'Rain' seemed to me to be truly connected to the weather. A storm is brewing for 'Loaded' (an anti-gun story - though to begin with I wondered if it was actually pro-gun) and a freak weather pattern presumably caused the cloud in 'Aloft'. I'm not sure how 'Snapshot' is connected though. 

I am left wondering how anyone would dream up such off-the-wall tales. 

 

I think my favourite story was the first one, 'Snapshot', suggesting that every time a photo was taken by The Phoenician, the subject lost a little more of their memory. Relating this to Alzheimer's Disease made for a thoughtful read. I also liked how I found myself gradually grasping what was going on.

'Aloft' was my least favourite, largely because I got a bit confused and had to rewind a few times to clarify what was going on. Maybe it just didn't lend itself so well to audio.

 

All in all an interesting diversion from my usual reads and I look forward to hearing what the author has to say in March.

 

 

 

Romance and murder.

A Cold Dark Place - Toni Anderson

I sometimes think that listening to the audio version of a thriller makes it harder to follow. No matter how well narrated it is, it's still difficult to go back over the bits you've missed, and as I'm usually doing something else at the same time, driving, ironing, washing-up, it's also easier to find yourself in that position. So, in order to write this review I have just been back and replayed the beginning of each chapter - especially the finalé. It was quite interesting listening again, knowing who was guilty.

Mallory Rooney is an FBI agent. She was parted from her twin sister eighteen years previously, when Paton was abducted from their bedroom. Mallory has joined the FBI in the hope that she might be able to shed some light on her sister's disappearance, and she is definitely not looking for a romantic relationship.
Professional assassin, Alex Parker, is also not looking for a love interest, but he and Mallory are drawn to each other from their very first meeting.

There is a killer on the loose, who is targeting young women; and women who go missing for no apparent reason have been tuning up some time later, dead, with the initials 'PR' cut into their skin. Mallory wonders about the coincidence that these were her sister's initials, but has no reason to connect the two.
However, it is when Mallory starts to suspect that she may be the killer's next target, that the tension builds.

Interestingly, there are a few chapters narrated from the point of view of the killer, although we do not know who s/he is. A couple of the victims have a chance to air their POVs.

Eric G. Dove did an excellent job of narrating A Cold Dark Place, although I found myself surprised that it was narrated by a man, I felt I'd expected a female narrator, given that a lot of the story was told from a woman's perspective.

My only problem with the book was the rather overplayed love scenes, which could have been seriously edited, but that's just my opinion.

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

How many murders before it's no longer a co-incidence?

Death Stalks Kettle Street - John Bowen
I enjoyed this who-done-it, with one main character who suffers with OCD and a second with mild cerebral palsy.

The killer is staging murders on Greg Unsworth's street, and making them appear to be either accidents or suicides. Greg is sure the police are missing something but his severe OCD prevents him from even crossing the road without counting in reverse from 100, so he's hardly in a position to go chasing around for evidence.
Beth Grue is a librarian suffering from cerebral palsy, but she is suspicious about the death of an elderly lady who she found at the foot of her stairs when she dropped off some library books. She and Greg form an unlikely partnership, to try and prove that the deaths are murder, before another can take place.

I enjoyed the way the author wrote, he has a lovely style, and Helen Clapp made an excellent job of the narration.
There was just one part that brought this down from a 5* novel for me - Beth was attending a class on how to write a murder mystery and used this as an opportunity to pick her lecturer's brains about the thinking of a murderer. Unfortunately I didn't like the lecturer and found the classes irritating.

John Bowen was a new author for me, but I shall definitely be taking a look at his other books soon.
 
 

 

Beautifully written.

Elmet - Fiona Mozley

We are fortunate enough to have one of the Short Listed Booker Prize winners coming to our Lit Fest in March, so it seemed churlish not to read her book for our book group. I'll confess now, that I tend to run a mile from any Booker Prize novel and the nearer it is to the winner, the further I run. However, one of our members had read this and recommended it, so we gave it a go. It got a very varied response within our group so I was surprised to find myself really enjoying the way it was written, in spite of the fact that not a lot happened.

 

The author has a wonderful way with words and her main characters are beautifully drawn. 

Daddy was a complete contradiction; to the villagers he was a huge hulk of a man with unbeaten fighting fists, to his children he was a gentle giant who built his hen coop adjoining the house so the fowl could share their heat. He decorated a tree in the forest with real candles for Christmas. When it burned down, Daddy insisted they move it one final time before burning it, in case any little creatures had made their homes below in its warmth.

Daniel, or Danny, was the narrator, he was a quiet boy, thoughtful and studious. 

Cathy, Danny's older sister, took after her father, brawny and independent, her strength was deceptive. As Danny said "I had an inside sort of head, she had an outside sort of head."

 

The children had lived with their father and grandmother, while their fay mother came and went, to no rules. More often than not she was absent and when she reappeared she often slept for days. After the grandmother died, Daddy brought them to a piece of unused land and they built their own house in the woods. This felt very much of the early last century, but it was actually much more recent times, so it's no great surprise that eventually someone came along and claimed the land. Their peaceful, isolated existence is shattered and events hurtle out of control.

When we meet Daniel at the beginning of the book, he is wandering along a railway line searching for his sister.

 

A review would not be complete without at least a couple of the beautiful quotes:

"The dawn erupted from a bud of mauve half-light and bloomed bloody as I woke." (Loc 2004).

I did not know about etiquette, nor about the correct and proper ways in which men and women should conduct themselves. Nor did I have any understanding that there were parts of the the body that held a different worth, a different kind of value or category." (Loc 1697).

 

I'm so glad I read this, it was a real joy, and although it seems to get varied responses, I'd recommend it to anyone who loves a well written, character driven book, but doesn't require that every page is action packed.

 

 

A truly mighty boy.

A Mighty Boy - Sarah Pullen, Antonia Beamish

This was an incredible book to finish 2017 with. After a number of mediocre reads this year, I laughed and I cried along with Sarah Pullen and her family, as her beautiful, vivacious son, Silas, battled with an aggressive brain tumour. Sadly, after battling 'Bob' for nearly two years, he eventually lost the fight, leaving the family devastated, and struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives.

 

One thing that struck me in the early chapters was the comment that the survival rate for cancer patients is greatly enhanced by being proactive; by researching and pushing for the newest, most up-to-date treatments available. Sarah fought for her son with everything she had, finding alternative treatments and symbiotic drug combinations, even putting him on a form of cannabis for a while.

 

She also discusses whether a child should be told that s/he is dying. She now wishes that they had had this conversation with Silas.

 

Finally, she talks about the reactions of friends and family. Death has become a taboo subject in today's world and people did not know how to react to the family. Some penned letters and cards, others texted, or called in, but those who upset her most were the ones who said and did nothing and behaved as if nothing had happened.

 

This is a brave book, written from the heart and sympathetically narrated by Antonia Beamish. To quote the author, “It’s about Silas and who he was, his personality, the things that drove us nuts, and what made him laugh and cry – all those things which I don’t want us and the boys to forget." She hopes that it will help other families who must follow a similar path, to support them and direct their questions, while helping them feel less alone.

 

 

Extreme hiking.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed
Wild was a book that had been on my tbr pile for a while, so when I heard that the author was coming to our local Lit Fest, this seemed the perfect time to pick it up and read it. 

I don't know quite what I was expecting, but it was not a memoir about hiking for three months across gruelling terrain with a huge backpack attached. However, such was the crazy adventure that Cheryl Strayed tackled back in 1995, before the days of internet or mobile phones. Having done minimal research, she had very little idea of what to expect and her guide book for the trail became her bible. 

The agonies of the journey were lurid - boots that were too small, causing extreme damage to her feet; blistering, bruising and loss of toe-nails, as well as abrasions on her hips and shoulders from the weighty backpack that she dubbed Monster. But to her credit, she stumbled on, mile after mile, through extremes of temperature and weather, up and down mountains thousands of feet high. Her daily mileage increased from an initial, slow, eight miles per day, to a blistering nineteen as her fitness increased.

Unfortunately for the reader, she wrote the account quite a number of years after completing the hike and the book felt like it had lost its immediacy. I trudged along with her, but there wasn't much in the way of excitement or detail and the scenery was not in my head like the sore feet were.

The death of her mother at just 45 was the trigger for the journey and by the end of it, it appeared that she had achieved her objective of putting her demons to rest. Although hiking would not be my solution to such problems, it worked for Ms Strayed, and that was what mattered. 

A Chinese haunting.

Dragonfly Dreams - Jennifer J. Chow

This was an unusual read with a highly moral message. I enjoyed the narration of the audio version by Kieren Metts but I wasn't so taken with the story itself.

Set in 1880 in Fresno, California, the narrative is based around an immigrant Chinese family. Topaz Woo is just seventeen when she dies in childbirth, leaving the newborn Jas without a mother. Topaz's spirit does not want to abandon her young daughter, so she is given the option of watching her child growing up in return for teaching her the ten commandments. Topaz is barely able to make her presence known but a guardian angel oversees the education of the commandments in the manner that Topaz decrees.

Implication of the initial commandments seems fairly innocuous but the later ones appear to have a more far-reaching effect. For example the commandment, 'you will not covet other people's belongings'. Topaz decides this will be enforced by only allowing Jas to use her own possessions, in response to which Jas starts labeling everything she deems belongs to her, including her new school friend.
Actually I found the ten commandments a bit irritating, especially when I knew that if we were only on number five, we still had five more to go.

One of my main problems with the book was that I was expecting historical fiction, but although it was ostensibly set in 1880, it could equally well have been a current story, there was absolutely nothing that fixed it in any time period for me.

Not a book I was tempted to abandon, but equally, not something that particularly grabbed me.
Beautiful cover though!

Writer's block.

The Memory of Water - JT Lawrence

I struggled to get into this book; at 20% it seemed like nothing was happening. Then, slowly, it picked up. I'd guess we weren't supposed to particularly like Slade Harris, but I find it hard to support a lead character that I don't like. He was the ultimate misogynist, using and dumping women on a whim. As an author, he felt he needed to behave this way to generate material for his novels, a likely story.

The best part of the book, for me, was the feel of Johannesburg and South Africa, the lurking danger and constant threat of crime. 
The sex scenes were a bit over the top, though to be fair, we were warned about that - my book was stickered with an 'adult material' warning. 
The audiobook I was listening to, narrated by J. Austin Moran II, was well read, if a touch slow. Mr Moran's voice was deep and gravelly and at first I thought it a strange voice for a narrator, but in fact it perfectly suited the self centred Slade Harris, who tells the story in the first person.

While I was considering abandoning the book at 20%, I went on to GoodReads to decide whether to continue and noticed many reviews praising the ending, so I kept going. Maybe those reviews led me to expect too much. I can't say more and spoil the book for others, but I wasn't as bowled over by the ending as many reviewers were.
Thankfully not all authors with writers block resort to planning their love interest's demise.

Travel back into another era.

Class of '59 (American Journey Book 4) - John A. Heldt

What would it be like to travel back in time to 1959 - over 60 years? No mobile phones, for a start, no internet, instead: movie drive-ins, proms and poodle skirts.

Mark and his younger brother, Ben are from 1959. Mark discovers the clue to time travel hidden in the back of a jammed drawer. It involves crystals, a basement and bright lights. They travel forward to 2017 and meet sisters Mary Beth and Piper, persuading them to come back with them to 1959. And so begins an adventure neither sister could ever have imagined. But it also produces a problem, how can they stay together when they don't exist in each other's time, and what about family who may be left behind?
Narrated from the POV of each of the four characters, the author provided a good insight into the reactions of each of them through their adventure.

The very early chapters involved the death of Mary Beth''s fiance in a theft related shooting and I wasn't sure how this related to the main story. I wondered whether this was a character from earlier in the series as it seemed very disconnected from Class of '59. 
I also found the early part of the book confusing and I lost track of who was from which era, as they crossed in and out of time zones. I had to rewind and go back over that part. Once we became fixed in '59 it was plain sailing and I enjoyed the author's depiction of a time gone by. I loved the social lives the characters enjoyed, watching tennis from the bleachers and playing music from jukeboxes.

The narration by Patrice Gambardella was good, just a few incorrect inflections that jarred at times.
This was an amazing view into another time and would certainly be enjoyed by lovers of the 50s and time travel fans.

“I decided to work and survive.”

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between - Hisham Matar

Having read both of Hisham Matar's novels, In the Country of Men (4*) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (4*), I approached his third book with enthusiasm. This one was somewhat different, however, being a memoir, mainly centred around Hisham's relationship with his father and his life-long battle to find out how his father died and when.

It has been over twenty years since anyone heard from, or saw, Jaballa Matar. He was abducted from his adopted home of Cairo and imprisoned in the notorious Abu Salim prison in Libya for many years, but then the trail went cold.

Based in London, Hisham has battled with authorities for all these years, writing hundreds of letters to the Libyan government, humanitarian organisations and other influential people all over the world. Yet closure seems no nearer.

 

Once the Qadaffi regime had fallen, Hisham, his mother and brother, make their way back to the country for the first time since their exile to Cairo. Hisham meets many of his relatives and friends of his father's. Some of these people may even have been saved from their incarceration by Hisham's continuous efforts, but Jaballa was presumably assumed to be the ring-leader, and was never released.

 

It's a distressing story and Hisham's lack of closure and yearning for his father is palpable, but it also rather repetitive and was not particularly well received by my book group. An interesting account and an eye-opener into Libya behind the scenes, but I enjoyed this less than his novels.

Damaged youth.

Roam - Erik Therme

Why am I finding this audiobook so hard to review? I finished it over an hour ago and haven't been able to put pen to paper to express my feelings. I'm thinking it must be down to the characters, they all seemed so lost and sad, dragged down by their dismal pasts. I guess I'm feeling 'there but for the grace of God....'

 

During the passing of one night we meet Sarah and Matt, broken down in her car on her 21st birthday, Kevin...and Scott. All living their lives in the middle of the night, somewhere in a run-down area of America. All lost souls in their own way. 

A night that will have a profound effect on all four characters, for better or worse.

Finally, day breaks and the story draws to a close.

 

Almost a five star book, just a bit confusing early on, as to who was who and why the characters had suddenly switched in the narrative.

 

Finally, my review would not be complete without mentioning the excellent narration by Joe Hempel, who let me forget completely that I was listening to him at all.

 

Will there be romance at Christmas?

Her Christmas Chance: A Christmas Creek Romance, Book 2 - Rachelle Ayala, Kate Marcin, LLC Rachelle Ayala Publishing

I rarely read Christmas books in the run-up to Christmas, so this year I thought I would give it a go and see if it made me feel any more festive. Her Christmas Chance was set at the right time of the year but I wasn't particularly aware of the season, other than the mention of a Christmas tree. The story was more about the relationship between Bella, who has cerebral palsy, and Chance, an ex-con.

 

Bella has been protected by her family for many years and longs to become more independent. She has moved into a cottage next-door to her newly married sister, Tally,  and had met Chance, the brother of Tally's new husband, at the wedding. Chance has a murky past and since leaving jail, has concentrated on his woodwork skills; repairing damaged antiques. There is an attraction between Bella and Chance, but Bella's huge ginger tom cat has a habit of getting into Chance's workshop and destroying his painstaking work.

 

What with Chance's history, Bella's disabilities and a destructive cat, any relationship seems doomed from the start.

 

Despite its problems, the friendship between Bella and Chance proceeds in a fairly predictable, but enjoyable fashion and I was enjoying the audiobook. What really threw me with this novel was the episode, towards the end, where Chance and Bella seem to end up in some alternative time. There was no evidence earlier that this was in any way a paranormal novel, so this sudden time-slip seemed completely out of place. In fact the ending, per se, seemed rather awkward and contrived, and for me, dropped a star rating from an otherwise, pretty good read.

 

The narrator, Kate Marcin, did an excellent job of the challenge thrown up by Bella's speech defect, without rendering her impossible to understand.

5* for the narration.

 

 

Interesting novella.

Lonely Magnolia - John Isaac Jones, Tom Zainea, John Isaac Jones

I remember, many years ago, watching a TV programme called Tales of the Unexpected. It had a different tale every week and they all had clever twists at the end. This novella by John Isaac Jones, could easily have been included in that show and it left me thinking, but with a smile on my face.

 

It started out with the back-story of Karl Wainwright, and at first I thought it might be a biography of a computer genius. However, once Karl started searching for a second wife after the death of his first, I became more involved and was rooting for him in his project. Unfortunately this is so short (just over an hour in audio), that to try to relate any more of the narrative would give too much away.

 

I was listening to an audiobook, narrated by Tom Zainea, who did an excellent job. 

Come and join the treasure hunt.

The Cryptic Lines - Richard Storry

I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this book, The Black Talisman was a bit too dark for me, but The Cryptic Lines was excellent. In addition, I was very fortunate to have been listening to the audio version, narrated by Jake Urry, so the whole experience was just wonderful.

 

We meet Charles Seymour as he battles a storm to enter the rambling old house of Lord Alfred Willoughby. The old gentleman has made several alterations to his will over the years, and it is Charles's job to effect these changes into the ever-changing document. 

Lord Alfred's wastrel son, Matthew, is the subject of the latest changes; he is to be dropped from the will. Unfortunately Lord Alfred dies suddenly, having just thrown his last will and testament into the fire. Charles has the job of going through the old man's documents, now that his client is effectively intestate. 

He discovers that Lord Alfred has left his son one last chance, a 'treasure hunt', devised to allow Matthew the opportunity to prove that he can apply himself to a task and stick with it. A poem provides a series of clues to a hidden sapphire, if this is found within a specified time, then Matthew will inherit, if not, then all will be given to charity. To Charles's surprise, he, himself, is also included in this hunt, in competition with Matthew. 

The two men decide to work together and thus ensues a mysterious unravelling of clues and rushing about the estate.

 

Needless to say, they do succeed, it wouldn't be much of a story otherwise, but the denouement really made this book for me and I will admit to a small tear in the corner of my eyes at one point.
If you have a spare Audible credit, I highly recommend this book in audio, the narration is perfect. I'm just so sorry it has ended. I think I shall be listening to this again in the future.

 

Organ memory.

A Secondhand Life - Pamela Crane

This was a fantastic premise for a murder mystery, especially as I came across mention of the phenomenon in the news at the time that I was reading the book. It appears that donated organs can have some residual memory from their previous owner; in this case, a faint memory of the murder that finished the life of Alexis and allowed her heart to be donated to Mia Germaine.

 

It's actually 20 years after her transplant that Mia starts to have flashbacks to the murder scene and she senses that this is not just a coincidence, but something that she feels compelled to follow up. Her investigation leads her to meet the victim's family and she teams up with Alexis's brother to investigate the murder, following Mia's clues.

 

I was listening to a well read audio version, narrated by Melanie Carey. The only problem I did have, was that, being a female narrator, it was a while before I twigged that the murderer was a man. Mostly it is Mia who tells the story but from time to time we do get the voice of the murderer.

 

An enjoyable read but, for me, there were just a few too may coincidences. I can't say more though, without spoilers. Even so, I definitely want to read the prequel novella, A Second Hand Lie.