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Warning: don't read the book blurb, it gives too much away.

My Not So Perfect Life - Sophie Kinsella

This was an unusual choice for our book group because it was more chick-lit than we usually read. It was picked because it covered the subject of social media and advertising, which is hugely topical right now.

 

Katie Brenner has finally nabbed her perfect job - at the very bottom of the advertising ladder. The salary is so low that she has to rent a room with no wardrobe space and stores her belongings in a hammock hanging over her bed. She has a long, stressful commute and spends her day doing repetitive tasks. Her Instagram page, however, paints a very different picture - drinks with friends and a trendy lifestyle in London.

 

Sophie Kinsella is guaranteed to take any situation and draw out the funny side of it, and this was no exception. I'm not a great fan of Chick-Lit as a genre, but if it's amusing, then all is forgiven. Ms Kinsella is one of a very few authors who can make me smile while reading and I did highlight quite a few passages.

 

I do think that the book blurb gives away far too much of the story and I'm glad I hadn't read it beforehand, or there would have been no surprises. Although it was somewhat predictable and didn't really provide much in-depth discussion, it was generally enjoyed by my book group as a light summer read. The big exception to this, however, were those involved in advertising, who categorically refused to accept the ending as in any way feasible.

 

My ratings:
Remember Me 4*
Shopaholic Ties the Knot 3.5*
Shopaholic and Baby 4*

Welcome back Brad!

Keeping Hope Alive - Dawn Kopman Whidden

Three bodies are discovered in the woods, two recent and one half a century old. The question is; who are they and how did they come to be there? Is there a connection between them?
Plus, of course, the traumatic opening chapter, with a girl trapped, bound and naked in the dark. The book's title hints as to who she might be, but we don't know for sure until later in the narrative.

I was happy to spend a few more hours in the company of Jean Whitley, Marty Keal, and Marty's fiance, Hope. It was also lovely to reconnect with Brad, the young boy who we met in the first book of the series. For the last four years he's been living in a correctional facility and his case has finally come before the court, requesting that he be released into the hands of his grandparents. Brad was a powerful character in the first book, but we'd heard little of him in the interim.

The resolution of the mystery cleverly combines all the characters into a complicated plot that I would never have guessed at. I had to listen to the explanation of the murders' motives a couple of times to really grasp it. I think this was complicated by the fact that people were sometimes referred to by first names and sometimes by surnames, a real challenge for my poor brain.

This is currently the last book in the series, though hopefully there will be more in the future. I found this to be the most violent of the four, probably because the target is a character who we have got to know and love through the preceding volumes. Again the narrator Amy Deuchler, does an excellent job; I forgot she was there at all.

I'm now looking forward to more episodes in the not too distant future. Marty and Hope have yet to get married and Gracie isn't going to stand by and wait too long for that to happen :)

Research into death.

Death Becomes Us - Pamela Skjolsvik, Arianne "Tex" Thompson

I'm glad to see that this book has a number of good reviews because it makes me feel better about being honest - I really did not enjoy this. Not, as you'd perhaps expect, because the subject matter was death, but because I felt as if it was just a rehash of the process the author went through to write her thesis on the subject. I did get a bit more involved about half way through when she contacted an inmate of death row, but the first half was definitely a struggle.

Ms Skjolsvik contacted funeral directors, embalmers and hospice workers. She spent idle hours at a fire station with the emergency crew, ready to go on a call out and she befriended a couple of prison inmates during the final weeks before their deaths. She also spoke to people who had lost family members, including children and then, randomly, attended the birth of her hairdresser's baby, knowing that the family had lost their first child to a choking accident.

My rating wasn't helped by the narration of my audiobook, which was jerky. The narrator kept pausing, as if looking for a word, and this drove me nuts.

One part of the book that I did find interesting was the author's battle with anxiety. Her interviews with the various subjects were not easy for her and she even went on a course to face her fears. Hopefully she benefited from the exercise, but in my opinion, making a book out of her thesis interviews was a step too far.

I should have connected with this book as I buried both my parents this summer, but it left me completely unmoved.

100 fantastic recipes.

Buddha Bowls  - Kelli Foster

I discovered Buddha bowls only about a year ago, when the cafe where we held our monthly book discussion added them to their menu. I was intrigued and gave them a go. Wow, it was like a salad flavour explosion!

So I was thrilled to find this well presented recipe book, full of inspiration to build a really healthy meal. The recipes are straight forward and easy to follow and I loved the extra suggestions, like cooking rice in tea for a flavour boost, or keeping herb off-cuts in the freezer to add to noodles while cooking.

The introduction succinctly describes Buddha bowls and runs through the type of foods they contain; how they are layered and an explanation of sauces and toppings.
There is also a useful chart giving guide-line cooking times and water quantities for most of the grains and noodles you might need to employ for your base.layer.

There are 13 sauce recipes, alongside suggestions for recipes in which these sauces are used - useful if you want to make a sauce your chosen starting point. I particularly recommend the peanut sauce but I'm itching to try the roasted red pepper sauce too.
Next come 18 breakfast bowl recipes, from Maple-Vanilla Overnight Oat Bowls (Pg 34) to Spinach and Mushroom Pesto breakfast Bowls (Pg 44). There are even some slow cooker recipes for those who like a ready-cooked hot breakfast.
Then there are 16 fish and seafood recipes, which I skimmed over as I'm vegetarian, ditto the 15 chicken and turkey bowls and the 14 beef and lamb bowls. I can come back to these at a later date, as I'm sure I can use ideas and adjust recipes from this section too.
I skipped to the 29 vegetarian recipes, which were so hard to choose between - should I make Thai Coconut Curry Bowls (Pg 131 ), Turmeric-roasted Vegetable Bowls (Pg 153 ), or Butternut Squash and Kale Bowls (Pg 126). No, but wait, what about Lentil and Roasted Tomatillo Bowls (Pg 127)?? I am spoiled for choice!
Finally, if you still have space, there are 10 fruit bowl recipes, for desert.

Plenty of vegan recipes or gluten-free options are provided, and suggestions as to how other recipes can be adapted for dietary restrictions.
My one disappointment with this fabulous book is that not all the recipes are illustrated. This is actually quite a big minus and should have resulted in me giving it 4 stars, but overall, I was so impressed by the variety here that I decided to overlook this huge omission and go with a 5 star rating.

Up until now I've been sourcing my Buddha bowl recipes from the internet, but from now in, this will be my go-to collection. I can't imagine I'll need anything else.

Summer on the New Hampshire coast.

Body Surfing - Anita Shreve

I originally read this book back in 2010 and only gave it 3 stars. Then a friend recently gave me an abridged audio version and so I decided to give it another go. The shortened version was more enjoyable and I gave it 4 stars this time around, maybe I was just in the mood for it - or maybe the full version lost my attention somehow.

 

Sydney is only 29, but has already been divorced from one husband and bereaved from a second. While she reassess her life, she takes on the job of coaching Julie, the not-so-academic daughter of Mark and Anna Edwards. They are spending their summer at the beach house - quite a mansion to be just a summer home - and Julie needs help to get her through her final year at school.

Everything seems fine until Julie's two older brothers, Ben and Jeff, join the family for their summer vacation. Jeff is involved with Victoria, a local girl he's known from childhood, and an announcement is expected. Ben is single. The presence of Sydney rather upturns the apple-cart and events proceed from there.

 

As others have commented, there was rather too much description of what characters are wearing, which doesn't really add anything for me and starts to irritate after a while. Otherwise, the characters were well drawn, even in the abridged version, and I'd completely forgotten the ending, which helped.

 

I didn't purposely set out to read all four books in the Fortune's Rocks quartet, in fact, I didn't originally realise that they were connected. I did, however, start to wonder whether the house on the New Hampshire coast that each of the novels revolved around was in some way connected; it seemed it was sharing its history with us through each of the novels. I love the reappearance of characters or features from previous works, so this was a bonus for me.

 

Fortunes Rocks Quartet (my ratings)

Fortune's Rocks (5 stars)

The Pilot's Wife (5 stars)

Sea Glass (5 stars)

Body Surfing (3, 4 stars)

Teaching in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdish Bike - Alesa Lightbourne

I really enjoyed this audio version of The Kurdish Bike, a novel based on the author's experiences as an expat teacher in Iraqi Kurdistan.

 

 

The main character, Theresa, is an older, mature teacher, who has been through a messy divorce and decides to up-sticks to somewhere completely new to her. To have an adventure and escape from old memories. The job in Northern Iraq looks like the perfect opportunity.

Once in Kurdistan, she goes against protocol and buys a bike, then uses it to go into the village and meet some of the locals. She is adopted into a Kurdish family and we enjoy all their trials and tribulations alongside Theresa.

 

For me this worked extremely well as a way of introducing various issues, such as female circumcision, the rights of women and the recent history of the area.

 

The school was an eye-opener, I suspect there is a similar school near me, where all children are on the same page of the same book on any given day, irrespective of their level of ability or even whether they have had a teacher for the last term.

 

The book was narrated by the author and she did a great job - except there are a few places where she stumbles, which is something that I never hear with professional narrators. On the plus side, she does the 'asides' perfectly and I suspect these might have annoyed me in the written version as I'm not a fan of aside comments.

Hopefully she will correct these issues in the near future.

 

I am genuinely hoping that Theresa will go back to the village for another year of teaching - at the end of the novel she was offered an opportunity...will she take it??

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave."

Stolen - Dawn Kopman Whidden

I think I can honestly say that this is the first series of crime novels that I've followed through with - mainly because I would read the second one so long after the first that I'd forgotten all the details. Thanks to the wonder of audiobooks, I've been able to work my way through this series in a more reasonable time frame and I'm enjoying getting to know more about these characters with each book.

Now, in book 3, the crime involves another murder, with two suspects and two young children of unknown identity. I don't think it would be a spoiler to mention that there is a pedophile involved, so this may not be suitable for some readers.
Untangling the identities of the children and the suspects makes for riveting listening and so I also managed to do quite a bit of ironing :)
I was happy to see that the narration was by Amy Deuchler, the same narrator as book 2. She does a good job with both male and female voices and spoke at a good pace.

I enjoyed the twisty nature of this novel and the ending was satisfying. It was a pleasure to reunite with the crime team of Marty Keal and Jean Whitley, plus Marty's fiance, Hope, whose insights into child psychiatry are fascinating. We also find Jean's daughter Bethany getting involved again, this time through her involvement with her boyfriend Dylan.

Book 4 next...

A strong moral.

What in the World Is Wrong with Gisbert?  -  Jochan Weeber
I shared this book with my three year old granddaughter, who was probably just at the lower end of the age group that it is intended for. She enjoyed the beautiful illustrations and listened intently to the story, but she has yet to start nursery and fully understand the message behind this book.

Older children will understand about hurtful comments; some will have been on the receiving end, some will have thoughtlessly hurt others. I feel strongly that learning about the damage that such comments cause, at a young age, will guide many to be more considerate. Those on the receiving end are encouraged by the book to share the hurt with parents or teachers - a problem shared is a problem halved.

This would make a great book for classroom discussion and also for children to borrow and take home to share with parents. A valuable addition to any children's library.
 
 

 

Survival through adversity.

Motherless Child - Valencia Griffin-Wallace

I fear that the story narrated in this audiobook is sadly all too common. Ms Griffin-Wallace was raised in an environment of drug addiction, abuse and poverty. She joined a gang because it gave her a family and she survived her childhood by keeping her wits about her.
She had a younger sister to whom she became a mother figure, often finding a way to provide food when their parents had failed them.

 

Encouragingly she managed to escape from this cycle, even though she found herself pregnant at an early age and followed this with two tarnished relationships. Eventually she found the love of a good man and was able to extricate herself from the cycle of abuse.

 

To her credit, the author now lectures and supports other women facing similar issues and gives them the strength to escape.

 

I enjoyed the narration by Andrea Jones-Pierre, she sounded authentic and I was actually surprised to find that she was a narrator, rather than the author herself.

 

I hope this book provides encouragement to others suffering similar struggles.

Ghana to London.

Hold - Michael Donkor
This looked like being the perfect read for me - a coming-of-age novel set partly in Ghana, with the additional appeal of immigration issues. Unfortunately it didn't work for me and I struggled to finish.

The narrative divides quite abruptly between Belinda's first job, when she works as a maid for a wealthy family in Kumasi, Ghana, and her move to London to become the companion of Amma, a spoiled teenager, who has become increasingly belligerent with her parents. They are hoping that a polite girl like Belinda will teach Amma how to behave better. In return, Belinda is treated as an equal with Amma and is not expected to clean or tidy, though she seems to be a compulsive cleaner anyway. Money is to be sent to her mother in her home village and Belinda will get to study.

Unfortunately, I found the book a bit directionless. I enjoyed the early relationship between Belinda and little Mary but once this continued over the phone, it lost its poignancy and became more of a filler.
Belinda's later relationship with Amma was largely based on dialogue which was unnecessarily stilted and therefore felt awkward and artificial. 
I think this book's message was the slow blooming of Amma's sexual awareness but I'd have preferred it to have been more along the lines of Belinda fitting into a new environment, which was more of a secondary issue.

Not a book I'd recommend I'm afraid. Two stars because I did manage to finish it, but it was a struggle.

Go Aerin!

Swim Season - Marianne Sciucco

I really wasn't expecting to enjoy this Young Adult book about competitive high school swimming as much as I did, but it grabbed me right from the start and didn't let up for 590 pages (or more accurately, 14hrs 43mins of Audible listening). The narrator, Evelyn Eibhlin, was brilliant and the issues covered by the book were deeper than just competitive swimming.

 

Aerin Keane is starting her third high school and has signed up for the swim team. In her previous schools she was a prize-winning swimmer and she knows the pressures that involves. She decides to swim for release of tension only and not to let on that she is any more than a mediocre swimmer, just good enough to ensure a place in the team.

It's a friendly team with a great team spirit and for the first time she begins to feel accepted and to have real friends.

She keeps her family life to herself and gives away little when she is asked why she's living in a new town with her 'Aunt' Maggie.

As the competition intensifies, the truth about Aerin's situation begins to reveal itself and not everyone takes it well.

 

I really enjoyed the way this novel built the tension around Aerin's story and how she reacted to the inevitable bullying and eventually rose to the ultimate challenge.

The characters were excellently drawn and even though there were a good number of them, I didn't lose track at all.

 

For anyone who knows any competitive swimmers, this is a must-read, for the rest of us, well, it's a must-read too!

I don't suppose the author would consider a sequel???

As the Qing Dynasty draws to a close...

Threads of Silk - Amanda Roberts

I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version of this book - when faced with unpronounceable names in a foreign language, the audio is often the best solution and Leanne Yau had a convincing Chinese accent.

 

 

The main character is Yaqian, just a child when she is removed from her rural home province and sent to an embroidery school. As a young girl she had enjoyed working in the fields, where she had loved caring for the silk worms, but when the time came for her feet to be bound, she had to stay indoors and learned embroidery instead. She worked on her first pair of dainty shoes, intending to wear them herself, but they were so beautiful that they were taken from her and sold. 

 

Her skills became recognised and she gained a place at a prestigious embroidery school, where the sales of her work were to pay for her education. The daily rigours of the school are covered in quite extensive detail, including music and traditional dance.

Yaqian is always striving to improve and when she develops a technique that allows both sides of the embroidery to be perfect, she starts to excel beyond the skills of her master.

A piece of her work is sent as a gift to the Emperor's favourite concubine and suddenly she finds herself whisked away to the capital and to a new life in the Forbidden City.

 

Through Yaqian we partake in events from the late 1800s into the early twentieth century, as she becomes Imperial Concubine Yi's personal embroiderer. As Concubine Yi rises to become Empress Cixi, Yaqian stays loyal and eventually becomes a personal friend. The Qing Dynasty is drawing to a close and events become tense and worrying, yet Yaqian keeps her head and proves herself well beyond her skills as an embroiderer. 

How cool is it that we can now visit this Forbidden City, where so much of China's history once played out?

 

The author has lived in China for the past eight years and speaks the language. She researched extensively for this novel and I found myself becoming very involved in the history of Chinese embroidery. There was also the inevitably uncomfortable section on the ancient practice of foot binding, so be warned.

 

 

An interesting novel to listen to, slow moving but never static. This would appeal to lovers of historical fiction and historical romance.

Who killed these young girls??

Faceless - Dawn Kopman Whidden

This was the second book in the series featuring Jean Whitley and Marty Keal. In the first book, Jean had a different partner, but he has had to stand down for personal reasons and she is now working with Marty Keal, a younger, up-and-coming (and sexier) detective.

 

I listened to the audio version and was happy to find that the narrator for this book was Amy Deuchler, who seemed more suited to the role than the narrator for Book 1.

 

The victims of Whitman's serial killer are beautiful teenage girls, whose faces are burned off. It turns out that they are classmates of Jean's fourteen-year-old daughter Bethany, and as such, the crime takes on a very personal note for Jean. While Bethany becomes more and more withdrawn and petulant, her boyfriend also becomes a suspect, as does the local vicar.

 

I enjoyed that this narrative brought the crime closer to home than the previous book, but I was hoping that Brad, the young boy who was being treated in the first book, might make an appearance too. However, his nurse, Dr Hope Rubin, does feature and her insights into child behaviour are always fascinating.

 

Great characterisations and an interesting crime. I'm looking forward to Book 3 in the series.

Albania, 1943

The Fall of the Stone City - Ismail Kadaré

I found this an interesting, yet strange read. I'm not sure if this was down to the translation, or the style of the original text. It is set in 1943, at the time when Mussolini and the Nazis parted ways and Albania found itself abandoned by the Italians, leaving the country wide open for Nazi invasion.

 

The Stone City of the title is Gjirokastër, an ancient Albanian stronghold and the first city the Nazis reach when they enter Albania. The city is beautifully described in the narrative, which prompted me to Google images of the city.

 

This is very much a fact driven book and the only characters we get to discover much about are Big and Little Drs. Gurameto, both surgeons in the local hospital. The competition that exists between them seems to be generated by gossip in the local community rather than being actual rivalry.

Then, to the dismay of the townspeople, Big Gurameto appears to welcome the Nazi commander and hosts a lavish banquet in his honour. While this turns out to be beneficial to the town in the short term, it causes huge problems for Big Gurameto when the communists arrive.

 

The latter parts of the book confused me, with the women being called 'comrade' on the streets and consequently fainting and even dying. I found on-line reference to women who were hanged for partisan activities, but nothing to explain the events narrated. There is also reference to a Jewish conspiracy called 'the Joint', but I also failed to discover any reference to this, leaving me feeling that the second half of the book was more fable than fact.

 

I guess I learned something of Albania's history but I seem to be left with as many questions as answers.

Sad and poignant.

Before We Were Yours - Lisa Wingate

My favourite type of novel is one that not only involves me emotionally, but also teaches me something new. This book was a perfect example and fully deserved five stars. As with many books these days, it had a dual time frame, but for once, I enjoyed events taking place in the current era as much as those from the past.

 

Lisa Wingate has highlighted the indiscretions of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanages, who took children from their families from 1922 right through until 1950. These children were then passed on to wealthy families, often for a substantial fee. The birth parents were generally poor and struggling, often illiterate and unaware that they were signing away custody of their children. Other children were simply stolen from the streets. They were then housed under appalling conditions and scrubbed up and prettily dressed for potential adopting parents. Sadly, many children died while in the custody of Tennessee Children’s Home Society and those that survived and were rehomed, had their identities changed so that they could not be traced.

 

Rill Foss and her four siblings were 'river gypsies', living on a shantyboat on the Mississippi River. Their mother was pregnant with twins and was rushed to hospital when complications arose. Rill was left in charge, but was unable to hold her own against the men who came visiting, uninvited. 

 

Avery Stafford brings us back to the present day. She is a lawyer from a prominent family and returns home to help her father in his political career. During one of their campaign visits, Avery meets a lonely lady in her nineties, who seems to know Avery's grandmother. This sets up a series of questions that Avery is determined to answer.

 

Beautifully written and totally engaging, I'm not surprised that this book won the GoodReads Choice award for Historical Fiction 2107.

I'd recommend it without hesitation.

A new favourite author.

Home - Amanda Berriman

I was bowled over by this book; the debut novel by a talented author. 
Narrated by four-year-old Jesika, I could totally imagine her voice, and her child-like take on events was so endearing.
She and her mother live in substandard housing, in a poor neighbourhood, but Jesika loves her baby brother Toby and knows she, in turn, is loved by both him and her mother. Her father has returned to his native Poland and they are left to manage alone in a big city.

Jesika enjoys her playschool and is happy to reach out to a new little girl who joins and appears to be very shy. Paige, however, has some dark secrets that she doesn't even understand herself and my heart went out to the two children as they tacked the issue of secrets being bad and something to be shared with loving adults. It highlighted just how complicated an issue this all is.

Although this book tackled some sensitive subjects, it was done tastefully and sympathetically.
I loved how Jesika and her mother began to settle into the community and find friends among other residents. Everyone needs friends and adults are no exception.

Highly recommended.