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Friendships.

Invisible Me - Debbi Mack

I enjoyed this Young Adult novel, although I was not a fan of the narration, which was strangely staccato. Once I managed to adjust to this, however, I found I was rooting for the unusual albino lead character, Portia, even though she had a huge chip on her shoulder.

 

Portia has travelled from school to school all her life, being the daughter of a military man. The added complication of her unusual appearance has left her pretty negative about friendships, she doesn't expect any and doesn't go searching them out.

Her latest move finds her in a fairly typical American secondary school and she is very surprised to be singled out by the most popular girl; to go spying on her boyfriend whom she suspects of cheating on her. In addition, another girl approaches Portia for help with maths. 

What follows is an interesting reflection on teenage friendships, with all their complexities, except that this did feel as if it had bit of a - help one another and don't judge - moral attached, which was well presented.

 

This would be an interesting discussion novel for young adults and I would recommend it for teenage libraries.
The only thing that did seem to be missing was any discussion about the problems of actually being albino; there was no mention of Portia's reaction to light or severe tendency to burn.

 

My thanks to Renegade Press and Audiobook Boom! for a courtesy copy of this book in return for an unbiased review.

 

Death in Japan.

Fallen Idol: A Kyoko Nakamura Mystery (Nakamura Detective Agency) (Volume 1) - Percival Constantine

Fallen Idol was a crime mystery set in Japan, and I was hoping for a bit more of a feel for Japanese life. There was a fair bit of bowing and reference to items like tatami mats, but otherwise it could have happened pretty much anywhere. The low-life and hostess bars were certainly not unique.

 

I was offered this as an audiobook for review from Audiobook Boom and I enjoyed the narration by Andrea Harbin, though it could have been a little faster. 

I struggled with the Japanese names at first and I have to admit that they are going to make this review difficult as I have no idea how to spell them.

 

Arkanay Suzuki is a former pop idol who falls from her balcony in the first scene. The police label her death as suicide and prepare to close the case, but Kyoko Nakamura is approached by Arkanay's parents to look into the circumstances of their daughter's death. Kyoko was a police officer until she left the force in disgrace and she is now running a detective agency with her two colleagues.

Together they follow clues, chase suspects and generally put themselves in danger, to solve the mystery of Arkanay's death.

 

The ending was disappointing and I think I was all set to give 4 stars until the last few minutes; the mystery is solved but is justice served?

3 1/2 stars.

Parent and child yoga.

Zoo Zen: A Yoga Story for Kids - Kristen Fischer, Susi Schaefer

With yoga enjoying widespread favour, I'm sure this will be a popular book. Children love to share with parents, and what better than exercising together? 

 

Although intended for children aged four to eight, my 18 month grandchild was mesmerised by the colourful illustrations of the zoo animals, and I don't think it would be long before he might attempt to copy some of their movements. 

Maybe not a book for grandparents to share as I'm not as nimble as I once was, but I'm sure this will be a hit with parents who are happy to slither on the ground or balance on one leg to demonstrate the actions.

In case of any doubt, full descriptions of the eleven poses are included at the end of the book.

"What doesn't kill us makes us strong".

Twisted Webs - Darlene Quinn

How would you cope if one of your identical twins was removed from the hospital at birth and appeared to disappear off the face of the earth? And, if you were reunited eight years later, how would you respond to the woman who had raised her - should the child be wrenched from all that she holds dear, to return to her birth parents?
These are the questions raised by Darlene Quinn in book 2 of the Webs Series.

 

There is a bit of a cast of thousands and I did eventually have to write myself a 'family' tree to explain who was who, but in brief: Ashley Taylor gives birth to Callie and Cassie, but only Callie returns home with them. Cassie is abducted by Mario Castanelli, to replace the baby his wife has recently lost. Although he knows this is totally wrong, he sees it as the only way to bring Erica out of her depression and back to him.

 

This book was very much sold as a kidnap story, so I wasn't prepared for all the corporate department store stuff. I tried very hard to get involved with this, I even re-wound a large chunk of the book to try and get a grasp on it, but a complete lack of experience with the corporate world, combined with a narrator who seemed to be in a race against time, I eventually gave up and concentrated on the characters and their social interactions.

 

I was given this audiobook through Audiobook Boom, in return for an honest review. I would have liked to have given a higher star rating, but I didn't enjoy the narrator, who was not only fast, but also rather strident and not good at male voices (her best voice was the sultry Vivianna). In addition, the business aspect of the narrative left me cold.

Stunning artwork.

I'm Just a Little Someone - Sharen S. Peters, Amanda Alter

This is a beautifully illustrated book about loneliness and the difference it makes when you have a friend to share things with. The Little Someone of the title is sad rag-doll, until she spots a sad boy-doll on the other side of the toy shop. Once they meet and become friends they are both much happier. And when a toy dog joins them, their happiness is complete.

 

A very simple story with a moral about friendship, suitable for young children from about 3 to 6 years. It is available on Kindle, which is a plus, as it enables entertaining youngsters away from home without resorting to games or videos on the Ipad.

 

This book has rhyming text, which I enjoy in children's books, but I need the words to flow to a precise pattern and in places this fails to do that - hence the dropped star.

 

There are nineteen activities at the end of the book, from counting and naming colours, to drawing faces to express feelings.

 

 

 

"They want us to leave yet they make us pay to do so."

Weeping Under This Same Moon - Jana Laiz

Weeping Under the Same Moon was originally published in 2008, but has recently been released as an audiobook, available through Audible. I was lucky enough to receive a copy for review from Audiobook Boom and enthusiastically give it five stars, both for the narrative and the narration.

 

Two narrators read the story: one plays the teenage refugee, Mei, who must flee from Vietnam at a time when anyone of Chinese descent was being persecuted, the other plays Hannah, an American teenage misfit and loner, with eating problems.

 

 

Based on the true story of two teenagers, the book follows Mai's departure form her beloved home, along with her fourteen year old brother and little sister. From then on she must assume responsibility for both, although she is barely more than a child herself. The crossing is frightening, with very little to eat or drink and no toilet facilities. The little boat is at the mercy of the sea and many are sea-sick. Mai's best friend had attempted the crossing before her and had drowned herself rather than be subjected to rape, so Mai is full of trepidation. When they finally reach Malaysia their problems are not over - rather than a comfortable bed and welcoming arms, they find themselves sharing a room with another family, locked in a refugee camp.

 

Meanwhile, Hannah, who I believe is actually the author, Jana Laiz, is struggling in school. She has become socially isolated because she refuses to conform and smoke dope with her friends. She has resorted to extreme dieting to feel better about herself and although she writes and takes photographs, she declines to share them for fear of ridicule. I fear she represents many children who are picked on and bullied in schools across the West.

When she hears about the Vietnamese Boat People she is motivated to help and contacts an organisation involved with repatriation. She is put in contact with a group of families who have recently arrived; they speak little English and she speaks no Vietnamese, but she doggedly perseveres and is able to help them in so many ways.

 

Several things struck me about this book:

Firstly, what a wonderful motivational story this would be for struggling, isolated teens. How volunteering could actually help the volunteer as much as the recipients.

Secondly, how differently refugees were received then, around the end of the 1970s. Many of these people were homed into the West and integrated into society - unlike in another book I recently read about today's refugees (Paradise Denied by Zekarias Kebraeb), where so many were repatriated to face a hostile welcome on their return.

 

The issue of refugees is very topical and books such as Weeping Under This Same Moon and Paradise Denied, should be required reading in schools.

I was sorry when this book ended, I felt as if its characters were my friends.

 

Also read:

Paradise Denied by Zekarias Kebraeb (5 stars)

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee (5 stars)



Gothic Victorian novel.

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

According to GoodReads, this book has been nominated for eight awards to date, but I'm afraid I found it rather slow and it failed to hold my interest. On several occasions I had to rewind the audiobook as I had lost my train of thought, which left me wondering if this might be a book that is better read than listened to.

 

The central character is Cora Seaborne, who is narrated with a most peculiar accent. As the story begins, she is widowed by her overbearing older husband, but left well provided for. She had done her duty as a wife but felt relieved to be free of him. Able to do as she pleased, she dropped all female pretenses and moved to Aldwinter, Essex, where a serpent was rumoured to have been seen in the dark marsh waters. Cora is fascinated by nature, and by fossils in particular; she hopes the serpent will turn out to be a living fossil.

In Aldwinter she is drawn to the local vicar, Will Ransome, with whom she spars about many topics, including the relevance of religion.

 

Set in the 1890's, this novel also includes references to social housing and surgical breakthroughs, but these elements felt a bit superfluous and incomplete.

Many secondary characters play a part and of these I was most drawn to the poor doctor who attended Cora's husband and who fell hook-line-and-sinker for Cora, and to Francis, Cora's (probably autistic) son, who spent hours counting the feathers in a pillow, both forwards and backwards.

 

I have to say, the cover art is divine, five stars to the artist who designed it.

 

Is Audrey still alive?

The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde - Eve Chase

I'm glad to say I enjoyed this even more than Eve Chase's first book, Black Rabbit Hall. While both books were beautifully written, I thought The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde was a more involving story. I also noticed that both books revolved around an old building which appears as an old wreck in the present day but a vibrant home in a previous era, and both include families of four children.

In current time, Applecoat Manor is purchased by Jessie and Will, who need to leave London to get away from negative influences in Will's teenage daughter's life. Will is recently married to Jessie after the death of his first wife, Mandy. Jessie had moved into Mandy's house and she is hoping the move into the countryside will also clear some of the memories of Mandy's presence. Her own child, Romy is still young and adores her step-sister, Bella, but Jessie isn't sure she can trust Bella to be alone with Romy. Circumstances necessitate that Will is in London for most of the week so Jessie has to juggle this new life alone, with a young child and a resentful step-daughter.

The house they buy had been the home of Sybil, Percy and their daughter, Audrey, until Audrey's disappearance in 1954. Sybil refuses to accept the possibility that Audrey might be dead and has kept her bedroom as it was when she last slept there.
Sybil's sister is an unconventional single mother to four vivacious daughters, Flora, Pam, Margot and Dot, and when the opportunity comes up for her to work a few months in Morocco, she asks if her girls can spend the summer at Applecoat Manor. The girls have not been back to the old house since Audrey's disappearance, although prior to that they had spent every summer there. Now, five years later, they return with trepidation. Their Aunt and Uncle welcome them but appear very different to the carefree parents they had once been.

What had happened to Audrey, and who is the young man being dragged across the grass in the dramatic opening pages of the book? What exactly went on during that long hot summer of 1954?
There is a wonderful collision between past and present, though I won't say any more about that.

As with Black Rabbit Hall, Eve Chase writes beautifully and with humour:
'At each corner of the pool stands a goddess statue, fragile, beautiful, broken, like survivors of some terrible natural disaster.' (Loc 625)
Romy: 'Where does the sky end and space begin?' 'If God is everywhere, is He in the bristles of my hairbrush?' (Loc 268)

I loved this book, wonderfully atmospheric, with totally convincing characters. The interactions between the four sisters were fascinating and the story held my attention. I did have a bit of a problem adjusting time frames but I'm sure that just reflects how involved I had become in the narrative.
Loved the cover too.

Also read:
Black Rabbit Hall (3.5 stars)

Small-town church life.

Abide with Me - Elizabeth Strout

I initially started this book eighteen months ago, for a book group. I didn't manage to finish it before the discussion and then other books came along and it got forgotten. It was incredibly hard to pick it up again recently, only half read, but the summer is always a time for me to finish incomplete books, so I read other reviews and the notes in my Kindle to remind myself of the details that I had forgotten.

I can see now why I had ground to a halt, because I wasn't really grabbed by this book - it was centred around a small-town parson and his family, and in my opinion, contained too much philosophy and biblical references.

 

Tyler is totally dedicated to the church, but his choice of Lauren as a wife was probably not ideal for the enclosed small-town life. She did not become involved in community activities and always felt everyone was judging her. Coming from a wealthy family, she tended to overspend and put a lot of pressure on the family finances. They had two children, Katherine and Jeannie, and life chugged along acceptably until she was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. 

The second part of the book deals with Tyler's reaction to the loss of his beloved wife, his struggle to deal with his grief and the effect of her death on their oldest child, Katherine, who became mute and developed behavioural problems. 

 

The novel was well written but there was a bit of a cast of thousands, I almost felt like Tyler, trying to put faces to all his parishioners. But my main problem was the theologising, sometimes leaving me feeling as if had attended one of his sermons.

I would recommend this book for church-goers and lovers of Christian fiction.

Romance, intrigue and sorcery.

Apollo's Raven - Linnea Tanner

One of the great things about receiving free audiobooks for review is that I get to sample genres out of my comfort zone. Although I am a fan of historical fiction, I have never read anything set in Roman times.
Apollo's Raven is fascinating, not just from the point of view of the belief systems of those times - curses, wolf spirits and sorceresses, but also for its insight into the way negotiations took place - with a hostage left in the enemy camp to ensure a serious attempt at peace.

Amren, King of Britannia, needs to broker peace with the invading Roman legions. While he is off negotiating with their ambassadors, Marcellus, son of one of their number, stays behind as 'guest' to the Celts, while one of Amren's daughters effectively becomes hostage to the Romans at their camp 100 miles away.
Unfortunately, there is an instant spark between Catrin, Amren's youngest daughter, and Marcellus. This is fueled by her father's instructions to act as host to him, all the while extracting valuable information about the enemy. It is a relationship with no hope of a future, as both parties are pawns in their parent's power struggle and an alliance forged by marriage is too good a bargaining tool. As negotiations break down and the danger level rises, so too, does the attraction between Catrin and Marcellus.

The book was well narrated by Kristin James, although I found it a bit too breathless in the exciting parts. There were also phrases in italics at the beginning of each chapter, which I wasn't even aware of until I saw them mentioned in another review. Apart from that she was clear and easy to understand.
Although I learnt a fair bit from this novel and it was obviously well researched, I didn't find it calling to me and although I see many other reviewers gave it 5 stars, I felt 3 stars was more representative for me.
For readers of Fantasy and lovers of Romans in history, this would be an excellent read, the first in a series in which Catrin and Marcellus may (or may not) manage to make a future together. It would also appeal to those who like strong female characters.

Return to Eritrea.

My Fathers' Daughter: A Story of Family and Belonging - Hannah Pool

Around the time I visited Eritrea I read two books - one about an Eritrean refugee making the treacherous journey out of Eritrea and the other about Hannah Pool, a British journalist who was born in a remote village in Eritrea and adopted from an orphanage, leaving a family she had never met. They complimented each other and both, in their own ways, educated me on this country that I knew so little about.

 

Hannah's mother had died giving birth to her, and her father, who already had a large family, put her into an orphanage for care. The couple who adopted her were told that her parents were dead and she was adopted into Norway and then UK, as the coloured daughter of white parents. For many years she had no idea that she had any family other than her adopted one, until, at the age of 19 she received a letter from her brother, informing her that her father was still alive. She was dumb-struck, all these years she had believed that she had no living relatives and here were a brother and father in one.
However, she didn't want to hurt her adoptive father and wasn't sure of her own feelings, so it was another 10 years until she followed up on the letter. It turned out that she had a cousin visiting London and so her first move was to meet up with him. From him she learned that she had many sisters and brothers and that her father was still living.
At the age of 29 she finally found the courage to make the journey to the land of her birth and meet her large family.

 

The trip involved a number if issues, primarily the fact that she could only communicate directly with family members who spoke English; she had only a few words in her native tongue. She also found it very strange to find that after being so obviously black amongst so many whites in her adopted country, she now melded with the huge crowd of Eritreans when she arrived at the airport - only to discover that there were things about her that they could detect and thus label her as an 'incomer', and put her into another sub-set of the population.

 

Her original plan to meet with her family in the capital, Asmara, developed into a wish to see them in their home villages and see the home where she was born. This journey into the hinterlands was my favourite part of the book, a fascinating travelogue. What she found there was eye-opening and made her think again about her wish that she had been allowed to stay with her birth family.

 

This was a fascinating story, told with raw emotion. My only issue with it was that Hannah spent a bit too long on some of the emotional issues - shall I leave this room, no, I'll just stay here, but I must go......(not a literal quote), until the repetition became irritating. Otherwise, an excellent view into adoption into a different coloured family and the reunion with family that she had long believed dead.

 

Also read:
Paradise Denied by Zekarias Kebraeb (5stars)

Romance, intrigue and sorcery.

Apollo's Raven - Linnea Tanner

One of the great things about receiving free audiobooks for review is that I get to sample genres out of my comfort zone. Although I am a fan of historical fiction, I have never read anything set in Roman times.
Apollo's Raven is fascinating, not just from the point of view of the belief systems of those times - curses, wolf spirits and sorceresses, but also for its insight into the way negotiations took place - with a hostage left in the enemy camp to ensure a serious attempt at peace.

Amren, King of Britannia, needs to broker peace with the invading Roman legions. While he is off negotiating with their ambassadors, Marcellus, son of one of their number, stays behind as 'guest' to the Celts, while one of Amren's daughters effectively becomes hostage to the Romans at their camp 100 miles away.
Unfortunately, there is an instant spark between Catrin, Amren's youngest daughter, and Marcellus. This is fueled by her father's instructions to act as host to him, all the while extracting valuable information about the enemy. It is a relationship with no hope of a future, as both parties are pawns in their parent's power struggle and an alliance forged by marriage is too good a bargaining tool. As negotiations break down and the danger level rises, so too, does the attraction between Catrin and Marcellus.

The book was well narrated by Kristin James, although I found it a bit too breathless in the exciting parts. There were also phrases in italics at the beginning of each chapter, which I wasn't even aware of until I saw them mentioned in another review. Apart from that she was clear and easy to understand.
Although I learnt a fair bit from this novel and it was obviously well researched, I didn't find it calling to me and although I see many other reviewers gave it 5 stars, I felt 3 stars was more representative for me.
For readers of Fantasy and lovers of Romans in history, this would be an excellent read, the first in a series in which Catrin and Marcellus may (or may not) manage to make a future together. It would also appeal to those who like strong female chaaracters.

Get your cocoa, dim the lights, and settle down in front of the fire......

Dark on the Mountain - Henry Mitchell

This was an interesting collection of twelve short stories that reminded me of a series that was on TV in my childhood - Tales of the Unexpected - every story had a twist in its tail. Admittedly, most of these twists were a bit dark and a lot of characters met a sorry end, but I could just imagine them being told around a campfire on a dark night, they would be perfect.

My audio version was narrated by Wayne Paige, who had a slow, sultry voice that I took a bit of getting used to, but once I'd settled into it, the voice suited the stories well. My one issue was knowing where one tale ended and the next began - so I downloaded the free sample of the e book, just to get my head around the set-up. After that I had no problem and was able to pick up the breaks.

The script on the cover of the book has a bit of an Indie feel and would normally have put me off, which just goes to show that you can't judge a book by its cover.
If you enjoy short stories, this is well worth picking up.

Thanks to Audiobook Boom, through whom I was given this free review copy audiobook in return for an unbiased review.

Road trip to Scotland.

The One Plus One - Jojo Moyes

This was my fifth novel by Jojo Moyes, sixth if you count novellas. I love her writing. Unfortunately I read this back in 2014 and I thought I'd just wait until I'd met her at our Literary Festival before writing my review. Then I started the review and the computer crashed - there's nothing more likely to squash a piece of writing than having to begin it all over again! So now, three years later, I shall go back to the notes I wrote in my Kindle and finally get my review written.

 

I have to admit that my lasting memory of this book is a long journey with a huge huffy dog in the car: ugh! But there's a lot more to the story than that.

Tanzie is a maths whizz, her single mother, Jess, would like her to go to a school that would nurture her skills, not the local comprehensive where she would be bullied for being different. Tanzie is awarded a maths scholarship but Jess is already doing two jobs and just doesn't have the money to pay the extras and make it happen. Their only chance is for Tanzie to win a maths Olympiad, offering a £5000 prize - unfortunately, it's in Scotland.

 

One of Jess's jobs is cleaning for computer guru, Ed. He's been rich and built an empire but since he sold his business he finds he has time on his hands - why not take time out to drive up to Scotland? Finally, there's Nicky, Tanzie's goth step-brother, son of Jess's ex-husband from a previous relationship. I have to admit I rather liked his character, kohl around his eyes, tight black jeans and constantly playing games on his hand-held device.

 

And so the journey begins, crammed in a car with a huge (huffy) dog, with problems galore along the way.

Not my favourite of Jojo Moyes's books, but certainly worth a read - especially if you love dogs.

 

Also read by Jojo Moyes:
Me Before You (5*)
The Girl You Left Behind (5*)
The Last Letter from Your Lover (novella) (4*)
The Last Letter from Your Lover (3.5*)

The excitement of the race!

Race Car Drivers and What They Do - Liesbet Slegers

On Amazon this book is recommended for toddlers, but it seems too advanced in my opinion. The illustrations are suitable, but the text is not. However, a five-year-old who is heavily into cars will definitely enjoy this, as it contains a lot of information about training to be a race car driver. It includes the flags that are waved during the race, the job of the mechanics in the pit and the effort required before a race to learn the course and be fully prepared. It even mentions eating well and being physically fit, definitely something to aspire to.

A slow burner.

A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel - Amor Towles

On GoodReads this book gets 19,307 five star ratings and 10,728 four star, but I didn't enjoy it - is there something wrong with me?? I listened to the audio version and I didn't think I had a problem with the narrator, but I was really not gripped and had to force myself to pick it up each time. After all that, I missed my book group discussion - but I know it was popular with them too.

 

Count Alexander Rostov is confined to house arrest by a Bolshevik tribunal because he comes from the wrong side of the tracks. As his home is The Grand Metropol Hotel, this is where he must stay, indefinitely. His room is reduced in size but he is able to roam the hotel freely and mix with the guests and staff, so it could have been considerably worse.

 

And this was where he remained for decades, as people passed through the hotel, old acquaintances and new friends. He eventually got involved in the running of the hotel

itself and even found himself adopting a young girl whose mother he had once known.

 

This was very much a slow burner and an era that I have been meaning to read more of, but sadly, I remained uninspired.