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Writing as an art form.

Once Upon a River - Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield has such an amazing way with words, I enjoyed every page of this book and, interspersed with audiobooks and other reads, I managed to make it last for several weeks. Sadly, I have finally finished, but I've promised myself to listen to the audiobook in a few months, something I never do.

 

At the centre of the narrative is the River Thames, never far from the action and winding continuously in the background. Living alongside the river is a curious assortment of folk, rich and poor, good and bad. And into this community appears a little girl, apparently dead, but then miraculously alive again. No one knows who she is, everyone is immediately drawn to her and several people claim her to be theirs.

 

The way this story unravels, drip feeding facts and background, is a work of art. I highlighted a large number of quotes on my Kindle, so as to remember their beauty. I will share just two:

A character finds himself drowning: "He groped for the surface; his hands met trailing, floating plants. He grasped to haul himself up, but his fingers closed on gravel and mud. Flailing – twisting – the surface! – gone again. He took in more water than air, and when he cried for help – though who had ever helped him, was he not the most betrayed of men? – when he cried for help, there were only the lips of the river pressed to his, and her fingers pinched his nostrils shut." (loc 6985),

 

During a flood: "He thought of the fish that strayed without knowing it from the main current and now found themselves swimming through grass a few inches above the ground, sharing territory with him and with his horse. He hoped Fleet would not tread on any creature lost in this landscape that no longer belonged clearly to earth or water. He hoped they would all be well." (Loc 7231)

 

Her first novel, The Thirteenth Tale, is one of my all-time favourite books, with Bellman and Black close behind. My only regret is that Diane Setterfield doesn't publish books more often.

 

Don't miss this one.

Civil war in Somalia.

The Orchard of Lost Souls - Nadifa Mohamed

I haven't read much about Somalia, so this was quite an eye-opener regarding the civil war which began in 1988 and in some form, still rages. The author was born in Hargeisa, where the novel is set, and where some of the fighting originated. She left with her family before hostilities began and now lives in London. I was lucky enough to hear her speak at a literary festival and was impressed by her presentation, which led me to read this book.

 

The three main characters are women: Deqo, only nine years old and who has never known anything other than life in a refugee camp, Filsan, a young soldier, determined to prove her worth to her dominant father and Kawsar, an older woman who is injured and bedridden. Each of the women is affected differently by the build-up to war, but all three have lost friends to the fighting.

This is a pretty intense novel, somewhat along the lines of Khaled Hosseini, but there is one scene, relating to blood donation, that will remain with me for a long time. Sometimes I just cannot believe the depths to which people will stoop.

 

I enjoyed Ms Mohamed's earlier book, Black Mamba Boy, but I thought this latest book was better written and more convincing. I am looking forward to whatever she writes next.

A literary who-done-it.

The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith

I have never read any Harry Potter and would probably not have read this if I hadn't been given the unabridged audio CDs by a friend. Happily it turned out to be an unexpected combination of good narration and mystery and kept my attention to the end.

 

Private investigator, Cormoran Strike, is visited by Eleanor Quine when her author husband can't be found. Owen Quine is known for his dramatic disappearances, so the alarm bells are slow to ring, but when Owen is found dead, Strike is the only person who believes that Eleanor is not guilty.

 

The character of Strike, a veteran of Afghanistan (where he lost half of one leg), is brought to life by the narration of Robert Glenister, as he attempts to make sense of the disappearance of the author. Just before he vanished, Quine released the manuscript of his new novel, full of insults and innuendos about the publishing community. Many people are angry and insulted and a whole host of possible murder suspects is produced.

 

Whilst I enjoyed the interaction between Strike and his assistant Robin, I was less convinced by Matthew, Robin's fiance, who objects to Robin's irregular hours and resents her devotion to her job. I hope the two of them make a go of it in subsequent books, because it seems just too obvious that they are heading for a split.

 

I was also not keen on the quotes at the beginning of every chapter. If you're reading, it's easy to skip these, but if you're listening they can become quite irritating. I've never understood why some authors feel that they are necessary at all.

 

I hadn't realised that I had started with book 2 of the series, not sure now, whether to go back to book 1 or move on to book 3.

A very British farce.

Missing Gretyl - Si Page, Tony Trimmer

Every time I read a humorous book I hope that this is going to be the one that makes me laugh out loud, that leaves me with a stitch in my side and a desperate need to share it with others. Unfortunately I am yet to find such a book, maybe it doesn't exist, maybe it's just me. I can imagine that others would find Missing Gretyl hilarious - lovers of farce and situation comedy in particular, it just wasn't right for me.

I guess, by the end of the book, I had found a soft spot for Gretyl, though she couldn't have been ruder or more belittling. I certainly felt for her husband, Albert, camped out on his allotment. The two other main characters, Dave and Sharon Soddall were definitely more likable. Both couples were down on their luck and looking for solutions to their problems and a house in Marbella might just hold the answers.

I wasn't a great fan of the narrator of this book, Melanie Crawley. I found her voice a bit whiny, though she certainly put her heart and soul into her performance.


Murder on a car ferry.

Worse than Dead (Inspector Drake No 2) - Stephen Puleston

I enjoyed the first Inspector Drake novel, Brass in Pocket, and the prequel, Devil's Kitchen, so I was looking forward to this next episode. Unfortunately, I think I would have been better off reading it than listening, as I found the number of characters just too confusing to keep up with in audio format.

 

Ian Drake is an interesting character, with his compulsions and obsessive habits. In some ways I can see these traits actually contributing to his effectiveness as a police officer. His side-kick, Ceren, is his total opposite, but they seem to work well together. Along with two male officers, who we get to know better with each novel, they form a team that looks set to take us through a good few cases.

 

In Worse Than Dead, we have a dead crewman on a ferry. This would imply that the murderer was also there, in front of our eyes. The ferry manager, however, is pressing to get the ferry out on the water again and Drake is thwarted in his attempt to gather information.

As more and more people were added to the mix, I quite literally lost the plot, which was very frustrating. I kept with it, in the hope of some resolution, but I had obviously missed too much detail by then.

 

I should put in a mention for the excellent narrator, Richard Elfyn I loved his Welsh accents and correct pronunciation of the Welsh place names. He did a pretty good job with the Irish characters too. My failure to stick with the narrative was in no way a reflection of his narration.

 

 

A very British farce.

Missing Gretyl - Si Page, Tony Trimmer

Every time I read a humorous book I hope that this is going to be the one that makes me laugh out loud, that leaves me with a stitch in my side and a desperate need to share it with others. Unfortunately I am yet to find such a book, maybe it doesn't exist, maybe it's just me. I can imagine that others would find Missing Gretyl hilarious - lovers of farce and situation comedy in particular, it just wasn't right for me.

 

I guess, by the end of the book, I had found a soft spot for Gretyl, though she couldn't have been ruder or more belittling. I certainly felt for her husband, Albert, camped out on his allotment. The two other main characters, Dave and Sharon Soddall were definitely more likable. Both couples were down on their luck and looking for solutions to their problems and a house in Marbella might just hold the answers.

 

I wasn't a great fan of the narrator of this book, Melanie Crawley. I found her voice a bit whiny, though she certainly put her heart and soul into her performance.

 

 

 

The truth behind working as an NHS doctor.

This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor - Adam Mickiewicz

It has never ceased to amaze me just how badly our junior doctors are treated. Their decisions are often life-saving, yet they are expected to operate with minimal sleep and almost no time off. This is Going to Hurt brought home some of the facts that I had long been aware of and put them into context within the life of one doctor. He informs us that the suicide rate amongst women doctors is twice the national average. It's not so much surprising that doctors are leaving the profession, than that we aren't losing many more.

 

Adam Kay worked on the labour wards, as an obs/gynae, delivering babies and solving problems associated with difficult births. He was also involved with IVF treatment, which can be available if you have a certain post code, but much more limited if you are unfortunate enough to live down the road, in the catchment area of another hospital.

 

The book consists of snippets and longer accounts, drawn form his diaries. Many of them are amusing (you wouldn't believe what people put up inside themselves!) and some are sad. This does make the narrative a bit disjointed, but on the whole it worked.

 

I was listening to the audio book, well read by Adam Kay, himself. I discovered that one of the distinct advantages of the audio was that the footnotes and explanations that are added at the end of the chapters in the book, are narrated as appropriate, either in a lowered voice, or with the word 'footnote' and 'end of footnote'. This saved a lot of the page turning associated with the written version.

 

Definitely recommended for anyone who is considering entering this profession.

It left me wondering how trainee doctors are treated in other parts of the world??

Better than winning the lottery!

Bloodlines: Cove Point Manor - William Taylor

Wouldn't it be wonderful to inherit an amazing historical house and the money to maintain it? Cove Point Manor sounded fabulous and it had even been kept in good condition since it was last lived in, by a maintenance firm. Unfortunately I found the way in which Alex's inheritance found its way to him, a little too coincidental, but OK, I can ignore that.

 

Then, of course, once you receive this amazing inheritance, you suddenly attract all the scrounging friends and relatives, after their share. Brenda and Connie were no exception and they drove me nuts, as no doubt they were intended to do. Alex was amazingly tolerant, I'm sure I'd have lost my rag much sooner.

 

The narration by Bill Nevitt was well done, especially as there were many unnecessary repetitions of names, which always irritates me. I so wished the author would make more use of the words 'he' and 'she'. Mr Nevitt did a good job of both male and female characters and read at a comfortably steady pace.

 

The paranormal part of the story was quite entertaining, with Alex's Great (Great?) Grandmother lurking in mirrors and taking a dislike to the uninvited guests. I did get confused by all the Great Greats and never really got a hold of the Farnsworth family tree. Maybe this was printed in the readable version? I could certainly have done with a copy.

 

A little bit of an unconvincing ending for me, but all in all, an entertaining cosy mystery that wasn't scary or violent.

Murder in Yummy Mummy-land.

Death in Dulwich - Alice Castle

This book has entertained me through several hours of driving and housework. It was well written and well paced and I loved the picture the author painted of up-market Dulwich, with its Yummy Mummies and valuable real estate.

 

Beth Haldane is a young mum whose husband had sadly, died young. She has one son, Ben, still in primary school, and has just landed herself the job of archivist at the prestigious secondary school, Wyatt's. Her boss turns out to be a lecherous old man, unpopular amongst the other staff and seemingly lacking in social graces.

When events lead to her becoming the prime suspect in a murder, she decides the police need a bit of help, before she finds herself behind bars and her young son loses his mother.

 

I liked that Beth's motive for becoming a sleuth, was believable. I also identified with her as being a little out of the 'cool' group and a bit insecure. Her friend, Kate, was a great sounding block for her investigations and a good friend too.

There's a bit of a potential romance, but given that this is the first of a series, there is plenty of time for this to develop, or not.

 

Well read by Alex Lee, who did a good job on both male and female characters.

I look forward to reading/listening to further episodes in this series.

Also published as Harriet's Big Fat Wedding Blunder

The Valentine Present and Other Diabolical Liberties - Lynda Renham

Hariet fumbles through.
If you love Chick-Lit and you laugh out load at comedy novels, then this is the book (or audio) for your summer holiday. 

Harriet is a lovable Battersea girl, all rough edges and self-deprecation. She works as a laundrette manager to make money for her medical studies and has a low-life of a boyfriend, Julian. When he lets her down big time, Harriet finds herself saddled with a huge debt and no way of paying it off.
She receives 'An offer she can't refuse' and her ensuing adventures feature gangsters, engagement to a wealthy creep, inviting her wacky family to a large country mansion and, of course, romance.

I have yet to find a book that actually makes me laugh out loud. I can cry buckets, but for some reason I never laugh. So, to say this book made me smile, is probably a good sign. Yes, it was a bit exasperating, but I was forewarned by the title. The ending was a bit predictable, but the way it came about was definitely original.

I wasn't really a fan of the narration, although Rosie Akerman has been praised by other reviewers, I found her male voices unconvincing - with the exception of her sexy Bryce voice. She did a good job with the accents though, so credit where credit's due.

All in all, a good romp, something to take your mind off your own troubles for a few hours.

Tearjerker

Days of Wonder - Keith Stuart

I've just finished this, with tears running down my face. Of the two, I probably marginally preferred A Boy made of Blocks, but this was a close second. It just took me a little longer to get into.

 

Hannah has known from very young that she had a faulty heart, she never planned for a future and took every day as it came. Her father, Tom, deals with the problem as only someone with a theatrical background and a job at a theatre, can. He puts on elaborate productions for her birthday and makes her whole life mystical. He was just a super-fantastic dad! Her mother had left to pursue her own interests when Hannah was just three years old, so the folk at the theatre became her family.

 

When we meet her she is a teenager, just beginning to find boys attractive and starting to pull at the apron strings. But also, her heart problem is starting to become more serious. She wants her Dad to go out and start dating again, she's worried he will be all alone if she dies. He has some pretty cheesy relationships but there's plenty to laugh about too.

 

There are some fabulous characters, some as flamboyant as you would expect at a theatre and some just normal people for whom the theatre is an escape.

An excellent story with an ending that could have gone either way and I liked that I never knew which way.

Recommended.

Cosy mystery.

Tastes Like Murder - Catherine Bruns

This was an entertaining, light-weight listen, for lovers of cosy mysteries. I enjoyed the narration by Karen Rose Richter, who managed managed male and female voices equally well.

 

Sally Muccio (Sal) has returned to her home town to open up a cookie shop with her best friend Josie Sullivan. She has left behind a loser of a husband and is ready to make a new start. Unfortunately her ex-husband's lover is set on making problems for Sal, ultimately falling dead on her doorstep. Sal feels compelled to find out why Amanda died, before her business collapses under suspicion that her cookies were responsible.

 

There are some real quirky characters in here. Sal's family are nuts; her mother thinks she's still a teenager and dresses appropriately, and her father is obsessed by death, funerals and coffins. An elderly neighbour is constantly rude, for no apparent reason. Thank goodness for the wise old grandmother who holds them all together.

To add interest, two sexy men are chasing Sal, an ex boyfriend, and a dashing policeman, who will she go out to dinner with?

 

A fun listen, got the ironing done with a smile on my face :)

Life under occupation.

Dancing Arabs - Sayed Kashua, Miriam Shlesinger

I wasn't quite sure where this book was going, it kind of lacked direction. What it did give though, was a feel for the divided life of an Arab citizen living in lands that once belonged to his Grandparents' generation, yet were now under Israeli rule.

 

The unnamed narrator gets a lucky break as a youngster, when his school grades mark him out for special education in a Jewish boarding school. Yet this is not without its inherent problems. He learns to imitate the Jews in language, behaviour, appearance and habits and he is actually insulted when he is recognised as an Arab. This pretense takes its toll though, and he does not become the builder of the first Arab atom bomb, as his parents expect. I cannot help but wonder if he might have done better by remaining in his home school, amongst his own. How much of his downfall is due to the stresses of trying to become someone that he is not.

 

What came across clearly, was the position of the Arabs as second class citizens, even third or fourth class citizens. How this impacted on their lives and aspirations. Even having the blue card that allowed them to work within Israeli borders, their options were limited.

 

It's quite a depressing book, but profound in its message and well worth reading for an understanding of the situation that we hear biased reports of from the media.

One of my favourite reads of 2018.

The Man I Think I Know - Mike Gayle

I had previously read a couple of Mike Gayle books (Dinner for Two and The To-Do-List) and considered them to be Chick-Lit, but written by a man - Guy-Lit. The Man I Think I Know was in another class entirely, one of my favourite books of 2018. It still contained Mike's trade-mark humour, but this was also full of empathy and emotion, and still remains with me even though I read it nearly six months ago.

 

The two main characters had been to private school together, yet both were in some way disabled. James DeWitt was from a wealthy family, while Danny Allen was from the wrong side of the tracks, but circumstances have a way of producing outcomes that no-one would have expected and they are thrown together in a fascinating, endearing twosome, that had me turning the pages enthusiastically.

 

I don't think I want to say too much more because this is a book that should unravel before your eyes and it would be a shame to spoil the pleasure with too much information. So I will just say that I hope you get the chance to pick up this book, and if so, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Brainwashing.

Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie

Well, I could have done without this being a contemporary reselling of Antigone, as I'm really not a fan of rehashing the old fables in modern form. Still, I was pretty much able to ignore the comparisons and take the story at face value - a tragic tale of fundamentalism and its disastrous effects on a family.

 

I read this because the author was attending our local Lit Fest, and I'm glad I did. It depicted the struggles of an immigrant family that, to all intents and purposes, had become British, yet their beliefs and values undermined their every move and influenced their beliefs.

 

The eldest member of the family, Isma, has been caring for her younger siblings since their mother died. Now that they are older, Isma finally has the opportunity to do something for herself; to accept an invitation to carry out research in America under a much respected mentor. However, she still worries about her younger sister, Aneeka, and Aneeka's twin brother, Parvais. Aneeka can be reckless and foolish, while Parvais has been missing, believed to be attempting to follow in his father's fanatical footsteps.

When Isma meets Eamon, son of the local MP, and sends him to her family with a package to post, she opens up a can of worms that has no lid.

The fall-out from this event is cataclysmic, as the characters spiral downwards into their own black holes, Isma tries desperately to hold the family together.

 

Definitely a powerful read, a book of our times.

 

Also read, by the same author: Burnt Shadows (5*)

 

Behind the scenes of a war.

The Baghdad Clock - Shahad Al Rawi

After a slow start, this became an interesting and revealing narrative about the effects of two Gulf wars and the attached sanctions, on the Iraqi civilian population. Narrated from the point of view of a young girl who grows up in a disintegrating Baghdad, it becomes clear just how insidious the sanctions were, effectively causing more destruction than the missiles.

 

The voice of the un-named narrator begins as that of a child, which initially had me concerned that this was going to be the writing style for the whole book. Thankfully, the narrator matures and with it her narrative voice. She introduces us to some of the characters of the village, the wacky, the sad and the ever hopeful. I will never forget the watch-marks bitten on the wrists of children by Uncle Shawkat, or his loyal pet dog, Biryad.

As the young girl and her friend Nadia grow into teenagers, they share their loves and loses, until the inevitable time when the black Chevrolet comes to the door and spirits them away with their families to a safer haven, one that will never truly be Home.

 

It's a raw commentary on the other side of war, the one that we didn't see from TV reports and newspapers. This is a book that should be widely read and now that it has been awarded the Edinburgh Book Festival's First Book Award, this will begin to happen.

 

Shahad Al Rawi spent her childhood in Baghdad, reaching secondary school before moving with her parents to Syria. I'm glad to say she then moved to Dubai, where I am looking forward to hearing her speak at our Literary Festival in March.