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Death Stalks Kettle Street
John Bowen

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.

 

 

A Kunoichi adventure.

Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale - David Kudler
I started this book with enthusiasm, expecting it to be an historical fiction novel about Japan, but although it was based on historical fact, I hadn't anticipated that it would be quite so much a YA adventure story. I'm afraid I really struggled to connect with the book. Admittedly the Japanese names didn't help, but many of the characters blurred into one another for me and it was only in the second half that I managed to distinguish between them.

I was listening to the audio version, available on Audible, but unfortunately I found the voice of the narrator piercing and irritating. She tended to raise her voice at the ends of sentences, inferring questions that were not there, and although she was perfectly clear with her narration, this intonation jarred with me. And why did the Korean chef have a Scottish accent, did I miss an explanation along the way?

Kano Murasaki, or Risuko, also known as Squirrel (no wonder I'm confused!), was bought from her parents early in the book. I think it may have had something to do with her father's loss of honour, but I wasn't quite sure. She finds herself under Kee Sun's care, training to become, not only a Miko (a shrine maiden) but also a fighter and a spy, to defend her country, her honour and her owner.
There are several other novices studying with her at The Full Moon, learning varied skills from cooking to dancing and music to sword-play. It's a grueling training regime, but they are kept well fed and comfortable and it is therefore an improvement over their home lives.
Intrigue between the residents of the Full Moon provides most of the excitement, until a series of suspicious events allow Risuko to prove her skills.

This book did prompt me to look into Miko and their history in Japan, and for that I am grateful. Personally, I shan't be following the series, but I'm sure those that do will learn quite a bit about the lives of these women and their roles in Japanese society.

Cross-cultural marriage.

Where Jasmine Blooms: A Novel - Holly S. Warah

This excellent book is primarily an observation into the issues of cross-cultural marriage, its joys and problems, as seen through the eyes of three women. However, it is also so much more, for not only does it delve into the lives of displaced Palestinian families living in America, it also shows us life in the refugee camps of Jordan, portrays the business of Palestinian weddings and takes us on a visit into Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

 

The three main female characters represent three generations; Zainab, the elderly, recently bereaved mother-in-law,  Margaret, married for twenty years to Zainab's son, Ahmed, and Alison, recently graduated and about to marry Zainab's younger son, Khaled. Zainab is a displaced Palestinian, living in America and Margaret and Alison are both American (although Alison has Syrian roots).

 

Tragically, the author died not long after publishing this book, so her planned sequel will never see the light of day - a sad loss for us all.

As a general rule, we are not an overly generous book group when it comes to the star ratings at the end of our discussion, but this novel was almost unanimously a 4/5 star book for our members. The author had planned, several months before, to join our meeting and we were were sorry not to be able to pass on our enthusiasm. However, we were very lucky to be able to invite one of her writer's group to our discussion to help explain some of the background to the story and fill us in on interesting editorial changes.

 

This is an excellent read, highly recommended...and the cover is stunning.

Irritating

Unpredictable Webs - Darlene Quinn

I finish this narrative with a sigh of relief, and while I hate leaving a negative review, my honest response to this audiobook was that it was hugely irritating to listen to on several fronts. Firstly, the narrator had a really annoying voice and was totally unable to do male voices, turning them into an awful screech. Secondly, the book itself was written in third person, but the characters kept announcing what they were thinking, which really didn't work for me. Either a book is in first person, or it isn't.

 

In brief, a large department store has taken over an old favourite and split the loyalties of the stores' shoppers. Viviana De Mornay has moved her up-market clothing brand from one store to the umbrella organisation, and she has both a closing sale and a grand opening.

Marnie Taylor, the kidnapped twin who we met in Twisted Webs, is now living with her true family, although she still has strong attachments to Erica, her 'mother' until she was eight. She suddenly has an identical twin and a younger sister, as well as a life of luxury, after being brought up in a trailer park. Her wealth, however, makes her a target for another kidnapping and the frightening issue of on-line grooming is tackled. The kidnapping itself is over dramatised, along with a lot of the aforementioned expression of thoughts by a large number of the characters involved.

 

Although this is the fourth book in the Webs series, I believe it is actually the second featuring this particular cast of characters and provides a sequel to book 2 in the series, Twisted Webs. I found the cast of thousands in Twisted Webs, very confusing, and had to create a 'family tree' to work out who was who and how everyone was interrelated. I would imagine this would be quite a problem if you were coming to this book without having read the prequel.

 

According to GoodReads, this book received the 2013 Beverly Hills Book Awards Best in Fiction and the International Readers' Favorite Gold Medal, and other readers have rated it highly. I would therefore suggest that before deciding against this book, based on my review, prospective readers take a look at other reviews and make their own judgments.

 

I was not inspired by the corporate plot-line surrounding department stores in America and was quite relieved that this informed less of the story than in Twisted Webs. I certainly didn't need the update provided in an epilogue, about the state of these stores in the modern world.


I promised to listen to this audiobook and leave an unbiased review, this I have done. Thanks to the publishers, the author and the narrator, for my audiobook copy. Also thanks to Audiobook Boom who provides the contact between authors/narrators, and readers.

Homesteading in Canada.

A Place Called Winter - Patrick Gale

I have had several Patrick Gale books on my shelves over the years but it was not until the author attended our local Literary Festival that I finally got around to picking one up and reading it. What particularly interested me about A Place Called Winter, was that Harry Cane, the lead character, was a real man; in fact he was Gale’s great-grandfather, who emigrated to Canada in the early 1900s. He had been a man of leisure, so it made little sense to the family that he would up-sticks and disappear to the wilds of Canada to become a homesteader, a harsh and difficult life.

 

The author proposes a plausible explanation for Harry's sudden departure. Basing his narrative around what was known about Harry Cane, he smoothly interweaves known facts with fictional narrative to create a seamless picture of a young man struggling with his identity and coping with the pressures of his time.

 

Unfortunately I found this rather a slow read and it took me nearly a month to complete. The story itself was interesting but somehow failed to engage me, although I learnt a lot about the early colonisation of Canada and the hardships endured to create the farms that still stand today.
The descriptions of the land and its people were vivid, and I highlighted several quotes. Unfortunately my Kindle died and with it, my notes.
In spite of my slow progress, I'm glad I read this and will be investigating Patrick Gale's back-list soon.

"It's not love unless it hurts".

Maria in the Moon - Louise Beech

This was all set to be a 3 star read for me, until about the last third, when it rewarded my perseverance with an excellent ending. Until that, I had enjoyed the relationships between the volunteers in the crisis line office, but was not really inspired by the characters ringing in for help nor the interactions between Catherine's family members.

The book is set immediately after the floods that inundated Hull in 2007, and Catherine is staying with her friend Fern while her house dries and the necessary repairs are made. She has helped on Crisis lines before and volunteers to provide support on Flood Crisis, a phone line set up to help those devastated by the floods. Between answering the phone to flood victims, she battles with her own demons and her inability to form any lasting relationships. For some reason she can't recall any of her ninth year and this weighs on her mind between phone calls and Sunday lunches with her 'mother' (her deceased father's wife).

I'd never thought much about crisis lines and this book was a bit of an eye-opener on the subject - rules prevent the volunteers from getting too close to callers and they are not permitted to give advice, just to listen and encourage. it is Flood Crisis that draws this novel together into a cohesive whole, and prompts the inevitable ending that we can feel the book drawing towards. Although it is fairly evident why Catherine is struggling, the reveal was well handled and had me turning the pages with increased speed.