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Death Stalks Kettle Street
John Bowen

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The Cryptic Lines - Richard Storry

I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this book, The Black Talisman was a bit too dark for me, but The Cryptic Lines was excellent. In addition, I was very fortunate to have been listening to the audio version, narrated by Jake Urry, so the whole experience was just wonderful.

 

We meet Charles Seymour as he battles a storm to enter the rambling old house of Lord Alfred Willoughby. The old gentleman has made several alterations to his will over the years, and it is Charles's job to effect these changes into the ever-changing document. 

Lord Alfred's wastrel son, Matthew, is the subject of the latest changes; he is to be dropped from the will. Unfortunately Lord Alfred dies suddenly, having just thrown his last will and testament into the fire. Charles has the job of going through the old man's documents, now that his client is effectively intestate. 

He discovers that Lord Alfred has left his son one last chance, a 'treasure hunt', devised to allow Matthew the opportunity to prove that he can apply himself to a task and stick with it. A poem provides a series of clues to a hidden sapphire, if this is found within a specified time, then Matthew will inherit, if not, then all will be given to charity. To Charles's surprise, he, himself, is also included in this hunt, in competition with Matthew. 

The two men decide to work together and thus ensues a mysterious unravelling of clues and rushing about the estate.

 

Needless to say, they do succeed, it wouldn't be much of a story otherwise, but the denouement really made this book for me and I will admit to a small tear in the corner of my eyes at one point.
If you have a spare Audible credit, I highly recommend this book in audio, the narration is perfect. I'm just so sorry it has ended. I think I shall be listening to this again in the future.

 

Organ memory.

A Secondhand Life - Pamela Crane

This was a fantastic premise for a murder mystery, especially as I came across mention of the phenomenon in the news at the time that I was reading the book. It appears that donated organs can have some residual memory from their previous owner; in this case, a faint memory of the murder that finished the life of Alexis and allowed her heart to be donated to Mia Germaine.

 

It's actually 20 years after her transplant that Mia starts to have flashbacks to the murder scene and she senses that this is not just a coincidence, but something that she feels compelled to follow up. Her investigation leads her to meet the victim's family and she teams up with Alexis's brother to investigate the murder, following Mia's clues.

 

I was listening to a well read audio version, narrated by Melanie Carey. The only problem I did have, was that, being a female narrator, it was a while before I twigged that the murderer was a man. Mostly it is Mia who tells the story but from time to time we do get the voice of the murderer.

 

An enjoyable read but, for me, there were just a few too may coincidences. I can't say more though, without spoilers. Even so, I definitely want to read the prequel novella, A Second Hand Lie.

 

 

A Kunoichi adventure.

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

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

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

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

Cross-cultural marriage.

Where Jasmine Blooms: A Novel - Holly S. Warah

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Irritating

Unpredictable Webs - Darlene Quinn

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

Homesteading in Canada.

A Place Called Winter - Patrick Gale

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

 

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

 

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

"It's not love unless it hurts".

Maria in the Moon - Louise Beech

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

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

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

Assisted dying.......

The Easy Way Out - Steven Amsterdam
I have strong views on the way we treat the terminally sick and would definitely be in favour of some type of controlled euthanasia for those who are suffering. In many cases we are more humane to animals than people.
When I had the opportunity to review this book I was hoping for something that advocated my views, and while this novel does appear to support euthanasia, I found the book itself a bit slow and more of a list of people who chose to end their own lives than a thesis supporting the right to do so, albeit in novel form.

The author is a palliative care nurse in Melbourne, so he writes from a position of some experience. Whilst assisted dying isn't legal in Australia, he proposes a measure, which he calls Measure 961, allowing sick patients to be monitored while they sip a fatal dose of Nembutal. In the novel, Measure 961 is surrounded by the inevitable red tape and all procedures are carefully monitored and recorded on video. Evan finds that overseeing this process gives him satisfaction and he supports his patients' right to choose.

I wasn't quite sure why the author chose to make Evan homosexual, and the descriptions of his sex life with a gay couple were rather unnecessary in my view.
His mother is a wonderful feisty lady who pretty much left him to raise himself, but who is now living in a care home with all the frustrating realities that entails. She suffers from Parkinson's disease and is deteriorating. The question hovers as to whether Evan might eventually help her to end her life and the outcome to that question is interesting.

A brave subject for a novel. I hope others will follow suit and trigger more discussion on the topic.
 

 

Could Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens have met?

The Last Neanderthal: A Novel - Claire  Cameron

 

I am fascinated by archaeology and just how much the meagre remains that we find, can tell us about people from the distant past. Recent research has sequenced a first draft of the genome of the Neanderthal and has revealed that we have between 1 and 4% DNA in common with them. Could we therefore have interbred?

 

Claire Cameron has used The Lovers of Valdero, the skeletal remains of two figures dated as 6,000 years old, as the starting point for her story set 40,000 years ago, in which one is a Neanderthal and one is a Homo Sapien. She surmises that these two early humans could have met and interacted at a point in history, and maybe even raised offspring.

Alongside this story there is Rose, a modern-day archaeologist, desperate to reveal as much as she can from her discovery of the buried skeletons, before the impending birth of her baby.

 

As so often happens in split-time novels, the modern day narrative fell short of the historical section and I was irritated by the author’s technique of stopping the narrative to inform us about Neanderthals through Rose. Unfortunately I also failed to become completely engrossed in the Neanderthal era, which felt a bit contrived and rather fantastical, and then finished inconclusively.

This was a great idea that didn't really work for me, but may be a good read for fans of Jean Auel's books.

 

My favourite quote from the book: "The fall colours tinted the trees and they released their leaves to the ground, like an exhale" (loc 3160)

Bad birthdays

Yonder - LeeAnne Hansen

I hadn't expected to enjoy this audiobook as much as I did. Although it was a bit slow to get going, it built throughout to a skillful ending. I was glad I was listening to the audiobook, excellently narrated by the author.

 

Set during the build-up to WWII, the scene is set to follow Isabel Delilah Jones through a number of catastrophic birthdays and the fall-out from these dismal celebrations.

After the death of her mother, she is raised by a tyrannical father and runs away on her eighteenth birthday, to start a new life in New York. She doesn't return to her family home until the death of her father, who leaves a bizarre inheritance to his family and friends.

I loved the chapter where the inheritance is explained, I listened to it twice so as not to miss anything.

 

The characters were fascinating, especially Isabel and her two admirers, Charles and Benjamin. There is also a ghost, a young boy named Eli, whose identity we learn towards the end of the book. He is such a sad, bereft little boy, searching for his mother.

 

There are a few questions left unanswered and although I know there is a sequel where they may eventually be explained, this was still frustrating. Hopefully this will be available on Audible too as I'd love to have it read to me by the author.

 

Middle Child Blues

Middle Bear - Susanna Isern, Manon Gauthier

My personal reaction to this, rather dull coloured book was only 3 stars, but I shared it with my 2 year old granddaughter and her enthusiasm raised the star rating to 4. It usually takes her a few reads to feel 'friendly' towards a book, but as soon as we'd finished this she was asking for "Bear".

 

It tells the story of Middle Bear, who always seems to be either too small or too big. Being an eldest child, I guess I also missed the significance of being stuck in the middle, it seemed ideal to me, you could play with either sibling. But I can imagine that it might be difficult for some children and a book that encourages discussion about this would help children struggling with such a situation.

I loved the idea that the three bears could help their sick parents, and the illustration with the three of them tending to bed-ridden parents is adorable.

 

Unfortunately I'm not a great fan of this style of artwork and I'm mystified as to why the colours are so uninspiring. Maybe these childish illustrations attract children, I'd be interested to know.

This would be a great book for a pre-school library, to share within families.

I could also imagine it being the first of a series of Middle Bear adventures.

 

 

You already know the tune!

The Children at the Playground - Tracey M. Cox, Dolores Costello

This is a cute book based on the well-known children's song; The Wheels on the Bus. As this just happens to be one of my grandson's favourite songs, it was perfectly suited to him and he was mesmerised from the start.

 

The illustrations were excellent, colourful and clear, if slightly childish. 

 

There was a small issue of language here though, as none of the parents who read the book along with me, had any idea what a teeter-totter was, and everyone ended up substituting the word see-saw. Similarly, frisbee would have fitted the rhyme better than disc towards the end. Never mind, small niggles really, my grandson loved it and that's what counts.

The awful trade in people.

Chains - Frances Mary Hendry

This was the first tree book I've read for several years, mainly because it was suggested that I might sleep better. It was an interesting experience, after being a Kindle reader for so long, although I'm not sure my sleep was improved.

 

This novel has a really appealing cover and It's been a while since I read a book on slavery, but the book wasn't particularly well written and on several occasions I gave up on paragraphs that I simply could not untangle. Sadly this has affected my rating, because the idea of the book, to illustrate a number of ways in which slavery operated at the turn of the nineteenth century, should have worked well.

 

Being a Young Adult book, the consensus was on five teenagers.

Bert had stowed away on a slaving ship and was now apprenticed to become an able seaman by the age of 16.

Dand had got very drunk during a visit to his local market and become press-ganged into crew for another slaving ship; he is to be sold as a slave when they arrive in Jamaica.

Juliet's father owned a number of trading vessels and one of his products was slaves; she swapped with her cowardly brother to take his place on one of her father's ships, as a boy.

Hassan's father was also a slave trader, although he didn't own the ships, but things didn't go as planned when he travelled with his father to learn the trade. 

Ghobi's African family was largely slaughtered, as traders rampaged through the villages, stealing survivors for the slave trade. She is only twelve but her ability to stay aloof and calm the others with admonitions to 'smile and await your chance for revenge', results in her becoming a bit of a leader (medicine woman) amongst the villagers.

 

Eventually the five teenagers meet up on The Kestrel, Juliet's father's ship. They learn from each other, that slaves are humans with feelings and that slavery is an abominable trade.

 

Whilst this is an important lesson and the book has a high moral value, it is a pretty graphic read for youngsters, with slaves packed densely in the ships' holds and bloated bodies suffering from cholera, to give just two examples. Maybe not suited for those of sensitive disposition.

This year's classic...

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier, Sally Beauman

I'll be honest from the start, I would never choose to read a Classic, I find them dated and slow, and rather pretentious. However, for some reason, book groups seem to feel a need to foist one on me every so often and their latest offering was Rebecca. "Oh no, you'll love it." they said. Oh no, I won't! Actually, 3 stars isn't bad a for a Classic, Lolita fared worse.

 

So, poor girl falls on her feet and marries rich man. Hardly an original premise. There was the nasty scheming housekeeper, who tricks poor girl into making a complete fool of herself. And the dead first wife who plays a huge part, even though she's dead.

 

I don't think I would have made it through all 400+ pages without the help of the very upper-crust, BBC voice of Anna Massey, but although she was a bit irritating, she was the perfect voice for the book.

 

But the ending - No! No, no, no!!!

Love makes the world go around.

My Cat is Sad - Katrina Streza, Brenda Ponnay

This is a simple picture book encouraging empathy for animals and both my young grandchildren loved it. It can sometimes take a few reads for young children to identify with a book but this one had instant appeal.

 

The little boy in the book obviously loves his cat, but he's sure that it needs cheering up. He tries all the things he thinks might work, but nothing seems to help - until he decides that what the cat needs is love. Clear, easily understood illustrations by Brenda Ponnay, add to the simple narrative. 

 

There are currently three other books in the series: My Good Dog, My Cat, my Dog and My Cat is Fat.

Don't let Worry win.

Is a Worry Worrying You? - Marie LeTourneau, Ferida Wolff, Harriet May Savitz

This book, first published in 2005, is an excellent starting point for discussing the issue of worry with young children. Aimed at ages 4 to 6+, many children may have worries that bother them, but that they can't quite identify. As with many childhood skills, the earlier they learn to identify and control worries, the better they are going to be able to cope as they get older.

In the book's illustrations, Worry is represented by a large monster who hovers wherever there is an opportunity for worrying. Some of the scenarios are possible and some are not. For example, one hundred elephants call for tea and you have no tea bags. Don't worry, offer them lemonade instead!

The author provides symptoms of worry to help a child identify that they are actually worried, such as feeling tired, suffering stomachache or nausea.
She helps a child to believe that there may be a solution and not to panic, and advises that a worry will stay as long as you let it.
Most of the time something you worry about never happens, but worries can get even bigger, the more you worry.
Then she suggests how a child can help themselves: think or do something else, put it to the back of your mind or share it with a friend, rationalise it.

While I think this type of book serves a very useful purpose, I'm a bit baffled by the examples of worries that it gives and why it mixes totally impossible scenarios with realistic ones. There's also an example of worrying about the first day at school, and the suggested solution is to take a gift for the teacher, I'm not sure that would still be considered PC.

Most importantly, this is a book to be shared with an adult and discussed, worries brought out into the open and solved. If it helps even just a few children then it will have been well worthwhile.
Highly recommended for parents and primary schools.