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Baghdad, city of romance.

The Gardener of Baghdad - Ahmad Ardalan

This book was an interesting balance between the violent Baghdad of today and the genteel place of luxury gardens that it once was.


Current day Adnan struggles to run his bookshop amongst bombings, terror and intermittent electricity. His wife is desperate to leave the city, but Adnan is attached to the shop, which he inherited from his father. Although he has reluctantly agreed to leave, he is still nostalgically pottering around, when he comes across an old handwritten memoir hidden on shelves right at the back.

It immediately grabs his attention and he spends several nights ensconced in the shop, reading by candlelight.


The manuscript details the story of Ali, a young farmer who branches out into gardening and makes quite a name for himself in 50's Baghdad. Unfortunately he falls in love with a young lady whom he is prohibited from marrying. When the narrative of the sad love story comes to a sudden end, Adnan uses his contacts to try and find out what happened - and he takes us with him; we too are longing to know how the story ends.


This book has a beautiful cover, which appealed to me immediately. There is some fairly floral language, but this is not inappropriate when reading a book set in the Middle East. The story is told in an interesting way, using Adnan's bookshop and later his contacts. It is also well read in the audiobook version, by Randal Schaffer.

Ahmad Ardalan has other books set in Iraq and I am hoping that it won't be too long before these are also available as audiobooks.




"Who is my real Daddy"

The Stolen Child - Sanjida Kay

This was an excellent psychological thriller that kept me wanting to know more. I was listening to the audiobook and the narration by Helen Johns was excellent too. It is well paced and convincing, with good dialogue; the only reason I didn't give it 5 stars was that the police didn't seem to do much, nearly all the discoveries that led to the denouement, were made by Zoe Morley, the Mum, which seemed just a little too coincidental.


Zoe and Ollie had adopted baby Evie from a drug addicted young mother. And, as sometimes happens in such cases, several years later, they were able to have a child of their own, who they named Ben. They are content with their young family and life is good. Then Zoe discovers that seven-year-old Evie, has been receiving gifts and cards signed 'Your loving Daddy'. He declares his undying love for Evie and promises to come and rescue her from her 'fake parents'. As Evie struggles to come to terms with the fact that she is adopted and her brother, Ben, is not, the thought of having one of her 'real' parents back becomes more and more tantalising.


I thought early on that I knew who Evie's father was, but I'm glad to say there were many more surprises and possible culprits along the way and the ending managed to take me by surprise.

Set in Yorkshire, in and around the Ilkley Moors, this novel has a brooding atmosphere and I loved that Zoe uses this to inspire her art.


I am looking forward to reading Sanjida Kay's earlier novel, Bone to Bone, which also seems to have been well received.

Recommended, and the audio is good too.

Experience a painting from the inside.

Konrad and the Birthday Painting (Artworld) (Volume 1) - Sandra R Andersson

This was a fun read (listen), with just the right balance of adventure, fantasy and moral. It is listed on Amazon as suitable for age 6 to 18, though I doubt most eighteen year-olds would choose it.


Konrad is only 8 years old and keeps getting picked on by Philip and his gang from Grade 5. When he finds himself outside the headmaster's office for being late, a series of events leaves him in possession of a wonderful pair of magic sunglasses. He discovers that these allow him to stare into a painting and manipulate things from afar.

Konrad finds himself on an unexpected adventure as a result of the sunglasses, which also allow him to enter a painting.

The descriptions of life inside a painting were fabulous, complete with brushstrokes and an alternative reality. 

Could these sunglasses allow Konrad to sort out the school bully once and for all?


I enjoyed the narrator, Amy Vance, though she could have put a little more excitement in her voice, given that her target audience is children.


As yet my grandchildren are too young, but I look forward to sharing this audiobook with them in a few years.


Madness in Mexico.

Fling! - Lily Iona Mackenzie

I enjoyed the image of Mexico presented in this audiobook, it was painted as a somewhat ethereal place, with otherworldly customs. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I didn't enjoy much else.

The narrator was extremely irritating, with emphasis on all the wrong words - I'm prepared to think this may be because I speak English English, rather than American English, but I don't usually have a problem with American narrators.


The story itself started out well, with Bubbles, a sprightly ninety year-old, receiving a letter informing that her mother's ashes had turned up in Mexico, and could she please collect them. She persuades her daughter, Feather, a sculptor, to take her to Mexico, where Feather was planning a summer retreat with her art.

I just couldn't think of Bubbles as the mother because it seemed too young a name, so I kept mixing her and Feather up, but I was still on board at this stage. It was when Bubbles' mother, grandmother and grandfather suddenly turned up out of the blue that I lost my mojo. From then on I found it a confusing jumble of conversations and erratic behaviour that made little sense. It didn't help that one of these new characters was called Heather, which is easy to confuse with Feather while listening to an audiobook.


I can cope with a little magical realism, but sadly, this was just too much for me.


My Italian Bulldozer: A Novel - Alexander McCall Smith

I really enjoyed the first book of the Ladies' Detective Agency, but the second and third didn't have the same impact for me, so I haven't persevered with them. The Professor von Igelfeld series was a huge disappointment, so I wasn't particularly excited when my book group decided they wanted to read an Alexander McCall Smith book because the author was coming for our Lit Fest. It had to be a stand-alone book, and his most recent non-series novel was My Italian Bulldozer. I listened to a sample of the audio version but found the narrator irritating, so I went ahead with the book.

It started out reasonably well, with cookery author, Paul Stewart, heading for Italy to finish his overdue book on Italian cookery. He has a somewhat dubious encounter at the car rental office on arrival in Pisa, that results in him hiring the only remaining vehicle in town, a bulldozer. The story continues on from there, with one crazy situation following on from the previous, in quick succession.

This is definitely a book for fans of farce, which I certainly am not. 
It got pretty much slated by my book group, so at least I was not alone. It was hard to discuss because there really wasn't anything of substance in the story. The most interesting part related to the random positioning of boundaries that decreed whether given a wine was entitled to a prestigious title or not.

Did it make me want to take a trip to Italy? Yes, it was pretty atmospheric.
Will I read any more from this author? Probably not, sadly.

To top it off, Mr McCall Smith got stuck in the snow in UK and didn't make his scheduled session anyway!!


Previously read:
The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency (5 stars)
Tears of the Giraffe (3 stars)
Morality for Beautiful Girls (3 stars)

The 21/2 Pillars of Wisdom (1 star)
At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances (1 star)

I cheated!

The Good Mother - Karen Osman
I never cheat!
But I couldn't understand why the three stories didn't seem to be intersecting. By 75% it got to me and I skipped to the end. That satisfied me that it was worth persevering...so if you're feeling tempted to do the same, just stick with it, it's worth it.
I guess it also shows how fixed my expectations are and Karen has broken the mold with this book.

I was originally prompted to read the book because the author was coming to our up-coming Lit Fest, and as she lives locally she kindly agreed to join our discussion. She was one of the winners of the Montegrappa Writing Prize, awarded annually in conjunction with the literature festival. Some pretty big names have started off as a result of this award.

Three women, Catherine, Kate and Alison, are the main characters throughout the book. Each of them has secrets that they keep to themselves. That is about as much as I can say without giving too much away so you'll just have to read it and find out more.

So I'll add a couple of quotes instead:
"As humans we are all capable of killing - all it takes is provocation and the loss of control for just one second and your life is never the same again." (loc 2468)

"She let the apology settle like a snowflake, before it evaporated into the night, lost in the void between them." (loc 2893)

This was enjoyed by our book group and they can be a pretty harsh bunch of readers at times.

Who is the stranger in the house?

A Stranger in the House - Shari Lapena

I enjoyed the audiobook version of this novel and while I'm aware that other reviewers have criticised the weakness of some of the characters, for me, that wasn't a problem and in many ways seemed appropriate. I was particularly impressed with the narrator,‎ Tavia Gilbert, who did an excellent job.


Tom and Karen are living a normal life in a suburban town when Tom comes home from work one day to find that she has disappeared, leaving her bag and keys behind and dinner half finished. This is such unusual behaviour for Karen that he is alarmed and calls the police.

It turns out that she was in a seedy part of town and that a murder took place while she was there. Was there a connection between the two? It doesn't help that Karen has lost her memory in the ensuing car accident and has no idea why she visited that part of town at all.

Introducing a third character, Karen's friend Brigid, from over the road, the author weaves a web of intrigue that never allowed me to get bored.


I hate to use the word 'twist', it seems to have become so overplayed these days, but there were a good few of them in this novel. 


I am looking forward to meeting the author at our upcoming Literary Festival`in March. Now I just need to read the author's first book, The Couple Next Door.



A real-life Just William.

Billy Brown Tell Your Mother Signed H B - Billy Brown
I've always enjoyed reading memoirs written by 'real' people (as opposed to celebrities) and Billy Brown was a wonderful post-war character with the gift of the gab and a finely honed entrepreneurial streak.

He got his first job at the age of 9, tying bundles of firewood for Big Mike. This opened doors for him and he branched out to selling firewood from the discarded boxes at the market. Eventually his contacts allowed him to source pretty much anything for the right price. He became known around the area for his huge old pram, with which he transported his goods.
His other pastime was scouring the bomb sites from WWII for metals, bric-a-brac and treasure. He even found an old German gun, which he sold for untold riches. 
Unfortunately he was also a bit of a rogue and found himself in trouble on several occasions. I really felt for him when his mother punished him by confiscating some of his hard earned cash.

This is a wonderful reminder of a simpler time, when children roamed the streets for entertainment and neighbours kept an eye out for them. Set in Brixton, it also tells of the relocation of families into the new flats, with running water and heating, and the influx of coloured workers from the Commonwealth to drive the buses and tube trains.

My only criticism arose from the fact that I was listening to the audio version, read by the author - who is now in his seventies. I was aware of a disconnect between the narrative of a young boy and the reading by a much older man.

Anna's side of the story.

Anna: One Love, Two Stories - Amanda Prowse

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


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


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



Four well written novellas.

Strange Weather: Four Short Novels - Joe Hill

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


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


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

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


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

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


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




Romance and murder.

A Cold Dark Place - Toni Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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









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

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

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

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

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


Beautifully written.

Elmet - Fiona Mozley

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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



A truly mighty boy.

A Mighty Boy - Sarah Pullen, Antonia Beamish

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


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


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


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


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



Extreme hiking.

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

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

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

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

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

A Chinese haunting.

Dragonfly Dreams - Jennifer J. Chow

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

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

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

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

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