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Life in the poorest areas of America.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.E. Vance

I had a mixed reaction to this book. I enjoyed the personal element and family anecdotes, but they were interspersed with 'sociobabble' - analyses and comment that I felt would have been better suited to a thesis.
Truth be told, I've stopped more than once, because I was bored. I'm also finding this account somewhat repetitive, but I had to finish it today for our book group discussion.
It has been compared with The Glass Castle, but I was definitely more invested in that memoir.

What I enjoyed of Vance's accounts were the personal family stories; his Gran nearly murdering someone at the age of 12 and his experiences in the marine boot camp. 
His family was very poor, but not just by financial standards, as J.D. himself explains later on, they lacked education in basic nutrition and suffered from severely rotting teeth due to an over-consumption of Mountain Dew and other sweet soda drinks. They did not realise how their violent and abusive behaviour impacted on their children, causing stresses that many never totally recovered from. They passed on what they had known and continued a cycle from which there appeared to be no escape.

This book has been touted as the explanation for why people voted for Trump, but having read it I can't say I am any the wiser. I can see that Obama was mistrusted and a lot of false news intensified that, but to vote for a president who was obviously so entitled, seems to me to go against all that Mr Vance had been trying to explain about his background.

In spite of my criticisms, I have learned a lot about this area of America and how its inhabitants think. My book group gave it a mixed response, between 3 and 4 stars; some interesting discussion.

The end of Summer.

The Electric - Andrew David Barker

This was an unusual narrative, a mixture between the adventures of teenagers in an age now past, first love, discovery of an old building, films from the black-and-white era and the paranormal. As with most of the books I've reviewed recently, this was in audiobook format, but with a difference. Headed up by the actor Nigel Peever, this also encompassed music and sound effects, which gave it a cinematic feel, probably quite different form the experience of reading the original book.

David, Emma and Sam (the narrator), are passing time towards the end of the long summer holidays of 1985. Sam stumbles across an old movie theatre, The Electric, hidden amongst undergrowth and off the beaten path. It is spooky and he has a strange reaction to it, but he can't wait to share his discovery with his friends. Emma feels the strangeness of the place immediately, but it takes David a while before he is drawn in. Together they discover the history of the place, why it was built, who watched and what was shown.

I really enjoyed this novel but there were a few things that irritated me. Not being a film buff, I thought there was too much description of the films and this would probably have bothered me even more if I'd been reading. In addition, while I loved the sound effects, I did think the background rain or traffic might have been faded out to leave us with the narrative, instead of drumming on in the background.

The story had a personal element too; Sam's Dad had died and he was living with his mother, while Emma had also lost her mother and was living with her father. Their grief is still raw and comes to the surface during the narrative. This grounds the otherwise somewhat fantastical element of the story.

If you're into old films and don't mind a bit of fantasy, then this could be your next summer read.

Suicide...or murder?

Let Me Lie - Clare Mackintosh

I finished this a while ago and decided I'd wait until I'd heard the author talk at our annual Lit Fest, before writing my review - never a good idea as that was several months ago and now I wonder if I can do it justice. 

What struck me most about listening to the author, was that she'd been a police officer herself, and knew first-hand, exactly how things worked behind the scenes. She also told us that the reason she left the force, was because she felt she was giving more of herself to her job than her family. When the reality of this dawned, she decided it was time to call it a day. Now we get to enjoy her writing instead.

So, on to the the book. The main character is Anna Johnson, a new mother whose father had committed suicide the previous year, closely followed by her mother. The loss of her mother, in particular, is bothering her now that she has a child of her own. If only she could share the experience with the one person who would understand. On the one year anniversary of her mother's death a strange card arrives, with the three words: "Suicide? Think again".

There is also a side story relating to the detective who investigates the case after Anna comes into the police station, convinced that her mother did not kill herself. Murray has retired, he's only supposed to be working on the reception desk, but he can't resist getting involved. His story runs alongside that of Anna's and, I have to confess, is the more believable of the two.

At first I thought this was heading towards being a ghost story and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But persevere, it got better and sped up as I progressed, until the ending rattled towards me, almost faster than I could keep up.
Most of the story is told by Anna, but there were some interesting additions and other POVs from a few of the other characters too.

I was listening to this, rather than reading it, and I feel that the narrator, Gemma Whelan, deserves a mention here too. She did such a good job that I forgot I that was being read to.

This novel covers issues of mental illness and domestic violence and was a good read. This was my first book by the author but I'm sure it won't be my last.

What can go wrong at a beauty pageant?

Tiaras & Texans (The Presley Thurman Mysteries) - Laina Turner

A Texas beauty pageant is the centre stage for this short who-done-it; a crowd of beautiful but precocious teens, all hoping for their big break. I'd never really thought about all the work that goes on behind the scenes, from hair and make-up, to fake tans and expensive dresses, so this got me thinking and Googling about what it takes to be a winner.

Presley Thurman has finally persuaded her boyfriend to allow her to join him as part of his security team. She was hoping for something more challenging than a teenage beauty pageant, but strange events have been going on behind the scenes and the pageant organisers have decided they need security to protect the girls. Dresses have been stolen, hair dye bottles filled with black dye and then one of the girls is found dead.

Presley makes a good job of her first assignment and is able to mix with the girls and gain their trust. Who is causing this havoc and who can have reason to commit murder?

It's only short, 138 pages, or 3 hrs 30 mins as an audiobook, but it was a fun listen, narrated by Lee Ann Howlett with an appropriate American drawl. Although it is the 6th book in a series, I didn't feel that I'd missed too much background. 
The main character is Presley, the others we got to know to lesser degree. I wasn't so convinced by the denouement though, hence the three stars (3.5 on sites that allow half stars).
An interesting insight into the pageant business and a good book for lovers of cosy mysteries.

A supernatural crime.

Witch You Well  - Colleen Cross

I recently visited a museum of witches in Cornwall, so it seemed appropriate to listen to an audiobook with witches as a theme. Maybe not the voodoo sort of witches or the persecuted witches of history, but a family that has handed down their witchcraft for generations and still practice their art in secret. The cosy mystery sort of witches.

 

Cendrine (Cen), is helping her family to launch their newly renovated hotel as a tourist resort in the sleepy town of Westwick Corners, while preparing for her imminent marriage to the town's mayor, Brayden. The last thing they need is a murder on their premises. Cen's crazy aunt, Pearl, would never kill anyone, but the evidence is pointing strongly in her direction. Cen will need to keep an eye on Aunt Pearl, hopefully making sure she doesn't get into any more trouble and clearing her name at the same time. The new, sexy, sheriff, Tyler Gates can do normal sleuthing, but he's going to need some help with the supernatural element.

 

I enjoyed the narration by Petrea Burchard, who was well paced and managed both male and female voices with ease. The characters were well drawn and entertaining, which made for the perfect cosy mystery. Having said that, I personally think that I prefer my magic a little more subtle. The witches in this novel could do just about anything they wanted (with a bit of practice in the art), which made everything relatively easy. If something happens that you don't like, then why not wind back time? 

It's never easy being the New Boy.

New Boy (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier is one of my favourite authors and I have read most of her historical fiction novels. This is a completely different direction for the author and when I came across it as an audiobook loan from my library, I decided to give it a go.

I have to confess to not being much of a Shakespeare buff and I Googled the Othello story after finishing this. Personally, I listened to the narrative at face value, I don't really understand why authors want to make modern takes on Shakespeare's works.

 

Osei Kokote is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat and has been the new boy in several schools previously; he's a bit of an old-hand. Even so, he is relieved when Dee, one of the most popular girls, becomes his friend and shows him the ropes. In spite of their differences, they are instantly attracted to each other and a relationship begins to develop. 

Ian is the school bully, he sees this instant attraction and it makes him angry, he's not even sure why, but he decides to break them up using all his whiles and contacts.

Everything takes place over the space of a day and through no fault of his own, Osei's arrival in the school causes ripples through the whole school and no-one will ever be quite the same again.

 

I did enjoy this and the excellent narrator, Prentice Onayemi, added to my enjoyment with his Ghanaian accent. However, I would have thought it more appropriate had it been set in a secondary school instead of year 6 Primary and I didn't particularly feel that it was the 1970s, Still, small quibbles and I'm glad I came across this book.

The things we do for love.

The Agreement - John Isaac Jones

I actually listened to this a couple of years ago but forgot to review it, so I just listened again and decided to upgrade my star rating to 3.5 stars. This is the third of John I. Jones's short stories/novellas that I've listened to and I'm getting to recognise his style of writing. He has a sharp eye for characterisations and people's interactions and reactions to each other.

 

In The Agreement, Alma finds herself unable to pay for her daughter's last year at college and has to find a way to raise the funds. I couldn't help but sympathise with her as she rummages through her belongings to find anything of value and pays repeated visits to the bank manager in search of a loan.

 

I enjoyed the narration by Susan Marlowe, although I notice that she is not the narrator for the other two books I listened to.

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.