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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.

Lies, lies, and more lies.

Miracle Creek - Angie Kim

I listened to this for a book group, but I should have been more careful with the choice as I've never been a fan of courtroom drama. I was caught up in my enthusiasm for a book that had great reviews and centred around a South Korean family, but the courtroom part bored me.

 

The narrative revolved around a group of families who are trying a super-high oxygen treatment that was supposed to be effective for numerous cases, including autism, infertility and Cerebral Palsy. Unfortunately disaster strikes and a year later one of the mothers is brought to court accused of causing the death of one child and one mother in the oxygen 'submarine'.
The owners of the Magic Submarine are a South Korean couple and their teenage daughter. They have moved to America from Seoul and hope this treatment will provide for their family in their new home.

 

There were some interesting characters and good discussion on the traumas of having disabled children. Unfortunately, what spoiled this book for me was that not a single character seemed to be able to tell the truth and getting to the bottom of the story therefore just meant the author had to put us through endless false trails in order to get to the honest last few chapters. This was coupled with the inevitable repetition caused by courtroom dramas and I was left counting the minutes to the end.

 

It did not surprise me to hear that the author was a lawyer. Interestingly, like Mary, she was also an immigrant from S.Korea as a teenager, with no knowledge of English. That part would have been much more interesting to me as the centre for a narrative.

 

Well read by Jennifer Lim, although it sounded as if she started out with a cold.
2.5 stars, rounded up because I'm feeling kind.

Adventure on the high seas.

Water Ghosts - Linda Collison

I really enjoyed this Young Adult adventure, which takes place in a refurbished Chinese Junk, with its crew of troubled teens. Already the scene is set for a assortment of misfits and interesting interactions. What made this book different, was the main character, fifteen-year-old James McCafferty, who can see auras and hear the voices of the dead.

The youngsters who made up the crew of the Good Fortune were all sent on the vacation "trip of a lifetime" by parents who couldn't cope with them; or just wanted an easy summer. As soon as James set foot on the boat he felt the presence of spirits from the past and started to feel uneasy. However, there was a girl on the boat who he liked the look of, so he climbed on board with the rest.
The adult crew consisted of captain, second mate and a social worker to manage the teenagers. They are determined to get the youngsters actively involved and set up all sorts of training and rotas. The crew must all take part in turns on watch, including through the night. A lot of the traditional methods are followed; the night watches are timed by the burning down of incense sticks. However, when trouble strikes and the emergency systems fail, the old methods are all that's left.

This was well written and the audiobook was well read by Aaron Landon. It was well on the way to being a 5* read until we hit the part where the spirit of the eunuch from the Ming Dynasty, more than 600 years earlier, speaks. I'm afraid I found this part drawn out and overdramatised, I would have skimmed it if I'd been reading but that's not so easy with an audiobook.
That part aside, however, this was tastefully handled and full of atmosphere. 
Recommended for teens and adults alike.

 

"But the biggest lies are often the ones we tell ourselves."

Stay with Me - Adebayo Ayobami

This book has been in my Kindle for a while and I can't imagine why it has taken me so long to get to it. The audiobook is also narrated by one of my favourite narrators, Adjoa Andoh, who can flit from Nigerian to English with ease. The audio version was excellent but I think this is one that I may well read as well at some time in the future, so I can savour it at my own pace.

Yejide and Akin meet at university, it is pretty much love at first sight. After their marriage Akin becomes a banker and Yejide opens a successful hair salon. Although their country allows polygamy, Akin has faithfully promised Yejide that she will be his only wife.
The narrative alternates from one to the other, giving us a complete picture of what each was thinking, or maybe assuming.
Meanwhile, in the background, is the political unrest of Nigeria in the 80s and 90s, always bubbling beneath the surface, and although we are aware of this, it is not the central theme of the book.

This is a book full of cultural interactions on a modern-day Nigerian couple. They are very much in love and hoping to have children, so why did it all go so heartbreakingly wrong? The author has paced her revelations perfectly, I was invested from the first page. As we gradually learn the back story, it becomes clear just how much damage meddling in-laws can do, especially in a country where they have so much influence. I was horrified that Yejide actually addressed her mother-in-law from a kneeling position.

This is the author's debut novel and very much deserved its place on the Bailey's Prize Longlist, alongside such big names as Rose Tremain and Margaret Atwood. I shall most definitely read whatever this author writes next, and this time it won't sit for ages in my Kindle.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Past lives and mysticism.

Recognitions - Daniela I. Norris

This was an unusual direction for my reading to take; I don't often read books with mystic content or previous lives. I have to say, it was an interesting diversion and I shall definitely read the sequel.

 

There were three time lines in this novel, although the current time was the strongest and the one that drew everything together. Amelia Rothman sells the publishing rights for books to be translated world wide, a job that involves some degree of travelling. Her marriage has recently collapsed and she decides to try hypnotherapy, hoping that it will help her to sleep.

The second time line was set in 18th century France, where Adele has reached marriageable age and must choose between two suitors.

Finally, there is the story of an African Shaman at the time of the slave trade, trying to protect his people from the aggressive Portuguese traders.

 

This is the first book of a trilogy and I was really enjoying it, when my audiobook suddenly concluded. I wasn't ready for it to end, there was no real closure. I felt as if I was left hanging. I do have the second book in audio, so I can continue, but I would have liked some completion to this first episode.

 

The narration was done by Natalie Naudus Bradner and I thought she did a great job. Just one thing I would have preferred - a change of voice between the narration of the different eras, to assist the sudden transitions that the book seemed to make.

 

...and so, on to Book 2...

The search for Abigail.

Skeletons in the Attic - Judy Penz Sheluk

I enjoyed this mystery surrounding the disappearance of the main protagonist's mother when the MP was just six years old. The clues were presented in a fluid manner and I even managed to keep track of a rather large cast. I was listening to the book in audio and loved the narrator, Claira Jordyn. She managed to make me forget I was being read to, which is not easy.

 

Callie Barnstable had no idea that her father owned a property in Marketville until she found herself listening to his will after his sudden death. Callie and her father had moved to Toronto after her mother's disappearance and almost no mention was made of her after that. Callie inherited the Marketville property (a dooer-upper!), but on the condition that she live in the house for a year and attempted to find out what had happened to her mother.

 

There was a number of characters, each of whom offered some insight into the mystery, some more reliable than others. I enjoyed the theory that it would be hard to know who to trust and that some who appear friendly may not be, and vise versa; that was very much the case in this novel. I also appreciated that Callie was quite hesitant to disclose information until she was sure about each person; she was so suspicious of everyone. I would have just blurted everything out and my search would have been way less subtle.

The ending was maybe a bit rushed, suddenly everyone was knocking on her door or phoning with final clues, but that would be my only criticism. I really enjoyed this and I'm looking forward to the sequel which is in my audio library.

Can the Watchers win through?

Watcher - A.J. Eversley

Can the Watchers win through?
Even though Dystopian Fantasy is not usually my genre of choice, they can make a good change if well done, and not too far for my belief to stretch. This one was definitely an enjoyable listen and such a relief after a bunch of poor books lately. The narration was excellent, some of the best narrators I've come across recently, and this helped to push a 4* up to a 5*.

 

The adventure takes place after World War 3 and only two known cities remain. Humans are struggling to survive against Bots (large robots) and Carbons (copies of humans but with super-powers, including rapid recovery from injury).

 

The main character is Sawyer, who lost her parents at the age of eight and has been training to become a Watcher for the ten years since then. She is extremely fit, super strong and a sharp shot. She is ready to give her life to save humanity.
The other main character, who we meet a little way into the book, is Kenzie. His narrative is in third person, which was a bit strange in the audio version because he is read by a separate male narrator, yet not in first person.


For the first half of this book I was totally blown away. I'm less of a fan of the adventure bits, shooting and running and narrowly escaping, so I lost interest slightly in the second half, but that's just me.
The dog was an interesting feature, I realise I don't come across so many pets in novels.
All in all this was a great read and I hope I will get the change to listen to the next few books in the series.

 

(Just a note: I would have preferred not to have a good half hour of the next book at the end of this audio. I would have skipped this if I'd been reading, but it's hard to be sure what it is on audio. I heard the word Prologue, but part of me assumed I was still in Watcher. I never see the point of the beginning of a book you can't continue...)

Life in the poorest areas of America.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.E. Vance

I had a mixed reaction to this book. I enjoyed the personal element and family anecdotes, but they were interspersed with 'sociobabble' - analyses and comment that I felt would have been better suited to a thesis.
Truth be told, I've stopped more than once, because I was bored. I'm also finding this account somewhat repetitive, but I had to finish it today for our book group discussion.
It has been compared with The Glass Castle, but I was definitely more invested in that memoir.

What I enjoyed of Vance's accounts were the personal family stories; his Gran nearly murdering someone at the age of 12 and his experiences in the marine boot camp. 
His family was very poor, but not just by financial standards, as J.D. himself explains later on, they lacked education in basic nutrition and suffered from severely rotting teeth due to an over-consumption of Mountain Dew and other sweet soda drinks. They did not realise how their violent and abusive behaviour impacted on their children, causing stresses that many never totally recovered from. They passed on what they had known and continued a cycle from which there appeared to be no escape.

This book has been touted as the explanation for why people voted for Trump, but having read it I can't say I am any the wiser. I can see that Obama was mistrusted and a lot of false news intensified that, but to vote for a president who was obviously so entitled, seems to me to go against all that Mr Vance had been trying to explain about his background.

In spite of my criticisms, I have learned a lot about this area of America and how its inhabitants think. My book group gave it a mixed response, between 3 and 4 stars; some interesting discussion.