Monday, 31 December 2018

Best Reads Round Up 2018 According to Bookphace

I wrote this list originally for New Books Magazine. I'd been a fairly frequent contributor to their Ten feature throughout the year. That's why there are 'only' ten books on this original list. I've been fascinated by how many bloggers have been posting their best reads of 2018 and amazed at how diverse, discerning and different they all. It just serves to show how subjective reading is. The madness is that reading them has swelled my TBR desires a hundredfold!! I need to get my own back on my fellow bloggers! So as this is my blog and it is the last day of 2018 and I don't feel bound by the ten thing I'm going to add a couple more!! Needless to say full reviews of all these books do appear on my blog throughout 2018.

But in a way, since there were very few books I didn't like in 2018 this whole blog is a best of...... Thank you to all of the fabulous writers whose work I have enjoyed this year.

The original post......

I’m ambivalent about these type of lists. Some of the headings are instantly intimidating - 50 books You Should Read Before You Die - 10 Must Read Books of the Year etc. etc. You know the kind of thing. They either make me feel incredibly smug because I’ve read or possess the majority of titles on the list or they make me feel utterly lacking and cause me to question whether I can call myself well read because I know so few of those listed!!  I decided the only solution, to make ME feel okay, was to compile my own top ten reads of this last year!

1. Dark Water - Elizabeth Lowry 

The front runner by many margins. My personal book of the year. I define it as literature as opposed to just a work of fiction.  It’s a compelling story that pulls no punches. It’s chilling and gothic. It’s subtly witty. But it contains such exquisite prose it takes your breath away. And if that isn’t enough it demands its readers questions all things of the human spirit, that tenuous balance between the sane and the insane. 

2. A Different Drummer - William Melvin Kelly

A lost book originally published in the 1960’s this is an elegant allegory of the civil rights movement that beats out a rhythm not to be forgotten once you’ve read it. Implicit as opposed to gratuitous the conclusion stuns you. It’s a remarkable debut work that reads as fresh today as when it was first published. 

3. Testament - Kim Sherwood

I have an ‘interest’ in the Holocaust. But interest seems such a wrong word. I have read many books on the subject. This novel stands out for it acknowledges the importance of history as a force within the present, our current lives. It also examines the different attitudes of two survivors and in spite of the subject matter seems to offer some optimism at the end of the book. An impressive debut novel. 

4. An Ocean of Minutes - Thea Lim

A beautiful tale of time travel within a time scale we can relate to. An original premise that led to an ambitious and complex novel. Lyrical in places, informative in others. There’s something haunting about it and it begs for a reread.

5. Take Nothing With You - Patrick Gale

I was almost lost for words after reading this book and I produced what Patrick Gale himself called a ‘minimalist’ review and he thought it might be good printed on a T-shirt which thrilled me! It’s an eloquent story of self preservation and survival from childhood onwards. Compassionate and funny.

6. In Our Mad and Furious City - Guy Gunaratne

Another debut novel that was long listed for the Man Booker. It tells of forty eight hours on a London housing estate in the wake of the killing of a soldier. Although a fiction there’s something of the documentary about it so much so that I like to call it a ficumentary. Bold and substantial it begs to be read.

7.Gallows Court - Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards had been the mysterious background figure writing introductions for the British Library Crime Classic series whose unobtrusive yet informative beginnings I’ve come to look forward to as much as the books themselves. I was delighted to read this novel of his. It’s a treat and it is unputdownable. The depth of plotting is breathtaking and the reader needs to pay attention because so much is going on. Two great characters in Jacob Flint and Rachel Savernake and a denouement you won’t second guess, I don’t think.

8.Help the Witch - Tom Cox

I’ve enjoyed Tom Cox’s non fiction cat and nature books very much. So much so that I contributed to his crowd funding for 21st Century Yokel. I did the same again for his first foray into fiction. A collection of diverse short stories  revolving around a central theme of the supernatural. And whilst such things normally spook me they don’t here as the treatment is unthreatening and uplifting. Great use of the short story genre.

9. She is Fierce - Ana Sampson

This is the first and, so far, the only book of poetry to appear on my blog, Bookphace. Ana is a publicist at Quercus Books and has passed some wonderful books my way. I bought a copy of this and read it almost as an intended ‘thank you’. What I didn’t realise was how it would get my poetry mojo working again! It’s a collection of poems by women about life from birth through to ‘dying of the light’. It offers a diverse range of styles from established and well known poets to lesser known contemporary women. There’s plenty of well researched bio material to send you scuttling off to read more. 

10. Anna Marie Crowhurst - The Illumination of Ursula Flight

This is just such a warm, witty read it can’t fail but bring a smile to your face. It’s an exuberant debut novel that takes the reader back to the seventeenth century and asks us to consider the place of women in the society of the day. The heroine, Ursula, is such a breath of fresh air and her zest for life and the velocity of the narrative sweeps us all along together in this restoration romp. 

And I'm adding these two.....

11. Underwater Breathing - Cassandra Parkin  

This had the auspicious accolade of actioning my first blog tour so I have great affection for it. It's a book about love in all its fragile, diverse madness. Another sea book? I think Im beginning to 'see' a pattern! The sea is almost another character here too. But it's a compelling story that will grip you.

12. Woman at Sea - Catherine Poulain
Nudge Books sent me this novel as it had been put forward for the Edward Stanford travel writing awards. But it was never posted on their website. I guess they didn't think it good enough. But I thought the book was great and I was quite pleased with the review I wrote! It's a slender volume but a substantial read about Lili who finds herself through fishing the Alaskan seas. 

Sunday, 30 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Hold The Dark - William Giraldi

Interestingly the hardback edition of this book was published in 2014 but the paperback in August of this year so this is maybe less of a retro review? However my thoughts on the novel were penned in 2014. 

When I started to read this novel I thought Jack London had been reincarnated and I was back in the Klondike with White Fang. The mood and wildness of London’s landscapes are skilfully recreated in this brutal novel. You feel cold just reading the descriptions. But the protracted violence makes you feel colder still and moves you away from London’s ‘gentler’ depiction. But I think that London’s belief that man's actions are the main cause of the behavior of their animals is quite crucial to the intention of this novel in a curious juxtaposition where the animal’s actions cause the behaviour of Man where Man has totally misunderstood the animal. There is a suggestion that Vernon was a human wolf but the premise fails, as wolves are not gratuitously violent. I think that point is made by Core in the early stages of the novel. They kill to feed. Man, here, kills to feed? Feed what? His ego?
I did appreciate this novel greatly; setting aside the graphic violence, which was purposeful in terms of the plot, and character development, the writing was paradoxically elegant given the subject matter. And the final twist was magnificent. I never saw it coming and it left a whole new avenue of thought to pursue, Romulus and Remus?

Books like these can be challenging because you can simply read them at  face value, a story of one man, one coldly violent man or you can take your literary ice pick and chip away through the story’s veneer to the heart of it and emerge the richer. It is not a feelgood read by any means, if there is any upliftment, it is to delight in the skill and craft of this writer but it is a book worth reading.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: The Twilight Hour by Nicci Gerrard

This hit our shelves in October 2014. It looks like another of my minimalist reviews although it never seemed so at the time. I used to be scared of 'over writing' or 'over analysing' a book. It never occurred to me that maybe I was 'under' doing both!! 

I’ve never got around to reading any Nicci Gerrard/Nicci French books. But after reading this new novel courtesy of Real Readers I realise it is my loss.

It’s a well written, well constructed novel which has a story, if that’s all you want from a book, but it also has much to say about memories and secrets, self sacrifice and responsibilities, consequences and how all these stir our minds as we age and creep closer to acknowledging our own mortality.

It’s not a new technique, an elderly protagonist reviewing a life that, as the title tells us, is in the twilight hour. The use of the younger confidante trying to make sense and cohesion of their own life confronted with parallels from the older person, is also not a new literary device. But it all works here and the competence of the writer projects it beyond a mere memoir novel.

The main characters are well defined. I sometimes found that Peter could have been developed more, it was almost as if there is another story for him where he will grow into the character he, intrinsically, is.

I found the closing chapter to be very moving and quite poignant with an insight into how a mind might work in its twilight hour but I suspect that may be an age thing and such philosophy may not resonate with younger readers.

It’s an enjoyable read.

Friday, 28 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: The Prince George Diaries - Clare Bennett

Published in November 2015 this was a little light reading for me as a cooperative gesture for a group I was reviewing for at that time since it wasn't typical of my preferred reading diet. As you will see if you read the review I surmised whether the writer would continue a series of diaries from further royal offspring. She didn't as far as I can tell. Probably for the best.

The book follows the life of Prince George, from his first birthday though to his second in a momentous year that sees the birth of his sister, in the form of a diary written by George. If you have firm pictures in your head of the some of the cute photos of little prince George I think this will entertain and amuse you. Compared to my usual ‘diet’ of books this was very much light reading and reminded me how valuable it is to read something that doesn’t require too much critical thinking. I was grateful for that.

But for me the anticipation of reading this book was greater than the actual event. Without a doubt there are some very funny, laugh out loud moments and I enjoyed them. But overall I felt that the writer couldn’t decide whether she was writing a parody or a satire. Granted, it is a fine line between the two. There were times when it seemed she held the Royal Family in contempt and sought to ridicule. They were caricatures caught up in the protocols and etiquette of a privileged lifestyle for which the author has no regard. Yet at other times it was as if she viewed them with genuine affection and reading the acknowledgements at the end of the book I think it is the latter. I hope so for otherwise this could be viewed as quite a cruel book. 

There is no doubt that this format has enjoyed overwhelming success and it may appeal more to the younger readers amongst us? I remember being almost incapacitated with laughter when I first read the Diary of Adrian Mole. But when it came to Bridget Jones  I was incapacitated with an empathic understanding and resigned acknowledgment rather than laughter!! And with this book I wasn’t incapacitated by anything.

But I think people will enjoy this greatly and be entertained and amused, its full of clever observations and imagined personifications, some perhaps too exaggerated to really work comedically. And there are also one or two quite moving sentiments within this book. 

It will be interesting to see whether Ms. Bennett continues the idea as a series or branches out with a companion diaries from Princess Charlotte!!

Thursday, 27 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Cold Caller - Jason Starr

This novel was first published in April 1999 and republished in November 2014. An interesting gap. I surmise it had something to do with the increase of cold calling in the 21st century. I remember it clearly as a book I just could not put down. I wonder if it would encourage the same momentum if I read it today? Any current readers of this book out there? I'd be interested in your responses?

I couldn’t put this down; I simply had to know what happened and how things ended up.
Is that the mark of a good book? Maybe. It’s a compelling narrative very typical of its genre, a story that creates a spiral of unease as the protagonist hurtles into an abyss of, really, his own making. The same feeling you get from reading Patricia Highsmith. The sense that if one thing had happened slightly differently the whole story would have taken a different course. Fairly ordinary, mundane people get enmeshed in a web from which they cannot seem to extricate themselves. There are unexpected twists and turns especially at the end. There’s something very uncomfortable about the main character of a fiction being so lawless and unpleasant, such a liar and so immoral. And add to that the fact that the book is written in the first person so you know the character survives and you are imbibed with the need to read on. I thought the dialogues, especially between Bill and Julie, were overlong and didn’t add overall to the book. If it was a tool to indicate how unexceptional they both were then it worked but I wanted to move on with the story. And like the layers of an onion peeled away Bill was revealed to be a pretty worthless apology for a human being. 

But this book is a must read for fans of noir fiction for it surely won’t disappoint. And whilst I won’t actively seek out Mr. Starr’s oeuvre if Real Readers, or anyone else for that matter, were to send me another I would read it with enthusiasm I’m sure.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: The Waiting Game by Sheila Bugler

First published in September 2014 this book seemed to meet with more approval from other reviewers than it did from myself! I seemed to focus more negatively back then for what ever reason. Perhaps a plus from posting these old reviews is that it shows how I may have progressed and developed as a reviewer for I don't think I am so negative now. I focus far more on the positives of a book.

This was a waiting game for the reader in every sense. Oh how we had to wait to see ‘who dunnit’!! And we were served such a liberal diet of red herrings it was like being in a fast food fishmonger. And whilst this book would not win awards for being the best written crime novel it does have a plot that keeps you reading and wanting to know who did do it. Flaws a plenty the characters lack depth for the most part, they were hard to engage with  and not very likeable. It was very much as if they were there to further the plot and no more. I found Ellen fairly one-dimensional and I was surprised to learn that there are more Ellen Kelly stories. I may seek them out to see if I have been over hasty in my comments on the reading of just this one novel. The story zips along at a sparkling pace which I always enjoy but at the end as all started to become clear after the very exciting climax I felt the loose ends were not so much tied up as just laid over one another in a loose bow. I still have questions a plenty and clearly the final page indicates that DI Kelly will be back in both a personal and profession capacity.

It may seem that I have been unreasonably negative about this book. I did enjoy reading it as a page turner and I admire the plot construction. It was tight and seductive for the amateur sleuths who like to try and second guess the writer’s intent. I am one of those I heartily confess but I couldn’t properly second guess this and that always chalks up some brownie points and some respect from me.

Crime writing is such a competitive market these days that in order to survive it and stay in the running I think you’ve got to be very good indeed. It’s way too early to write Ms. Bugler (is it BUGler as in bug or BUGLER as in bugle?) off but if I were writing a report card I might say,’ shows promise but could do better’. And I really hope the do better wins…

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Forgotten Authors - Susan Ferrier, J MacDougall Hay, John Galt

This was one of the first books I read on the dreaded Kindle. Only at the time I didn't know how much I would grow to loathe the device! I was blaming myself for struggling to read ebooks! However this book was only available in eformat and I was so politely asked by Real Readers if I would take it on that I couldn't say no. This was back in October 2014.

Forgotten no more, not by me anyway!! It was a joy to read these novels in all their Scottish diversity.

Marriage by Susan Ferrier

I loved the humour in this book along with the home truths, a poor man’s Jane Austen to be sure and too wordy overall. I think the same enjoyment could have been derived from a novel of reduced length but it remains a mystery why this book isn’t ‘up there’. Considering this is an eighteenth century novel the writing remains crisp and fresh. The characters jump out of the page at you and you love and hate them in equal measure, they are so clearly defined. There was much to be learnt about Scottish social life and the protocols of the time which I found revealing.

Gillespie by J MacDougall Hay

This was in complete contrast to Marriage a bleak tale of ruthless ambition. If there is any ‘feel good’ in the book I didn’t find it so if it is upliftment you are after avoid this book. And the Scottish dialect was often elusive to construe. I found it helped to read the book with a Scottish accent if that makes sense!!! But for all that it is a book that grips you and won’t release until you have read to the end. You carry on in the hope that there will be some salvation somewhere. But there isn’t. But I guess it is also a book of survival and prospering with your wits no matter whom you destroy in the process. In that sense it may even be seen as prophetic and contemporary! It’s a meaty book, well written and offers a grim picture of Calvinist Scotland that in some ways sends a shiver down your spine.

Ringan Gilhaize by John Galt

The final novel was my least favourite, maybe because I’m all ‘scottished’ out? I found it less accessible, more political, which seldom resonates positively with me. I think it is well written. I thought initially it was repetitive but as I progressed I realized it was a conscious device, kind of leitmotiv to emphasis the point. And I suppose the point is how belief and ideals can lead to fanaticism and even change a person’s behavior, which is food for thought for again it does pose a contemporary comparison with today’s fanaticisms.

As a suite of novels they are very diverse and are probably the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a wealth of Scottish classic fiction. Not to everyone’s taste I imagine. They were challenging reads with all the Scots dialect and idioms. The dictionary on my e reader couldn’t cope with many of the definitions but there were some lovely phrases ‘corpulent pandarus’ and I am still wondering what  ‘clishmaclavers’ might be!!

I am grateful to Real Readers for giving me the chance to read these novels as I can honestly say that I would never have selected them to read in a million years! But my literary education has been enhanced by the experience.

Monday, 24 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Brother Kemal – Jakob Arjouni

This is the first translated book I ever reviewed. Not the first translation I ever read I hasten to add, hell, I'm a Kafka nerd! I've possibly read as many translated books as I have those written in English. But this was the first time I wrote about it. Brother Kemal was published in August 2013 by a writer who is, sadly, no longer with us.

I can remember the first book I read in translation. I was a child and I didn’t know anything about translations, I just knew that the book ‘read funny’. It was, in fact, Erich Kastner’s Emil and the Detectives, the Puffin edition translated by Eileen Hall. I loved the story and I read it many times. It was only when I grew older that I realised why it ‘read funny’ and that was of course the adaptation from German to English. I’ve since read a large number of books in translation and discovered some of my favourite writers that way. And I can remember whilst studying German ‘A’ Level where I had to translate some Thomas Mann that the impact of what is actually lost in translation really hit me. 

And so whenever I read a book that has been translated I know I am only getting half the book in effect. I am only getting the story. Nuances of language, some humour, cultural references are lost no matter how good the translator is. So that is how I approached this book from Real Readers. 

And Jakob Arjouni tells a good tale. This is a concise, structured story with an economic use of plot and language but that in no way detracts. All ends are tied up; nothing is left hanging, as can be the danger in a short crime tale. As detective yarns go it is not unusual to have two seemingly disparate cases linked in some way and it is done well here without appearing to be contrived. Characterisations are purposeful there is nothing gratuitous. And although this is the fifth tale in a series of books featuring Kemal Kayankaya it works fine as a stand-alone.

Jakob Arjouni (RIP) is new to me as is the genre of German, Turkish crime!! Whilst I enjoyed reading it I don’t think it will displace my current infatuation with the current trend of Scandinavian crime writing. I won’t actively seek Arjouni out but I wouldn’t pass his other books by if the opportunity to read them comes my way.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Held Up - Christopher Radmann

Another, for me, quite negative review of a book. This one was first published in July 2012. Radmann went on to write another book, The Crack, in 2015 which has yet to attract any reviews, on Amazon at least. My research hasn't thrown up any more novels.  I feel bad when I feel I'm being negative but I can only be honest. I was hoping somehow to find a body of subsequent work that indicated some development and experience as a writer because Held Up was a debut work. Ah well.......

During these times of economic recession I would guess a publisher has to be pretty confident of publishing a new writer in order to get a decent return on the initial investment. And so I approached this novel with a trust that it would be a worthwhile read.

But I’m sorry to say that I didn’t like it. I’m not sure whether it was the subject matter or the writing style.

The story as a whole made me feel very uncomfortable but I think it was supposed to and there’s nothing wrong in that. However what I couldn’t get my head round was why this guy failed to think about his child until the hold up was over. I cannot think of a parent whose first thought wouldn’t be their child. This was unrealistic. I have no doubt that the author believed it would create a greater impact but for me it failed miserably and possibly compromised the integrity of the rest of the book.

 I am not a fan of novels written in the present tense. I always feel that such a technique indicates that the writer is not sure enough of him/herself to commit. There is only one place in this novel where it worked for me and that is the description of Claire swimming and the recall of an adolescent memory, the present tense there seemed to reinforce the immediacy of their crisis and I liked the juxtaposition of swimming and tears. But that’s the only place.

I guess I learnt a lot about life in South Africa, the poverty, harshness, the anguish of a mother and her children all dying from AIDS and the challenges of simply surviving amidst such a severe regime.

The ‘happy ending’ is too contrived to work against the backdrop of brutality, heartbreak and violence. It simply doesn’t ring true. And with a novel like this a sense of reality within it is vital.

My heart goes out to anyone who has suffered like this. If this is a personal experience for Christopher Radman than I do applaud this work as an act of catharsis and I hope he feels better. But as a work of fiction or literature it doesn’t quite make it for me.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: The Silent Wife - A.S.A. Harrison

I think I'll stop numbering these retro reviews. I hadn't realised there were so many! Today's offering is a book first published in November 2013. What strikes me is how minimalist my reviews were then!!

Please don’t read this book if you like happy endings. And don’t read this book if you’re a fan of chick lit and romance. Don’t read this book if you want an injection of feel good factor. But DO read this book if you enjoy a novel superbly written, well constructed, splendidly crafted with attention to necessary detail, a subtly executed plot with some equally subtle twists and turns and a final twist that you kick yourself for not seeing (or maybe you DID see) it coming. A novel with every character laid bare, warts and all. A story of controlled and uncontrolled emotion. A story of human frailty and weaknesses, the disintegration of a relationship, the examination of gender priorities and their intrinsic differences. A tale of morality and immorality. It’s told almost clinically but never quite without engagement. Please DO read this book.

Friday, 21 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Nora Webster - Colm Tóibín

The eleventh retro review. I love Toibin's work. I've a copy of House Names on my TBR shelves begging to be read. This study of grief and bereavement was first published in January 2015 but as might be expected from the subject matter it's timeless. This review does contain spoilers.

Having read Colm Tóibín ’s Brooklyn which I enjoyed immensely I was looking forward to this book from Penguin and Genes Reunited. And I think my familiarity with Tóibín’s style was an advantage.

I suppose this novel could be described as a study in grief which renders the intent as more simplistic than it actually is.

For anyone who has undergone the grief process it is tacit that we all deal with it differently and everyone’s way is valid. Grief doesn't come with an instruction manual.
This book is an unravelling both for Nora, as she learns to deal with her loss and us, the reader, as we learn to deal with Nora and understand where she’s at.

Initially I didn’t warm to Nora, the opening paragraphs dealing with her response to her constant flow of visitors struck me as cold. But as her circumstances unfolded my feelings changed.

Grief can make an individual selfish and I felt that many of Nora’s actions were maybe not characteristic of her in a ‘normal; state. The selling of the house in Cush seemed a rash action and probably more financial than emotional. We learn further on in the book that Nora has been unable to get rid of Maurice’s clothes but she did get rid of the house which must have held many memories. In a rational state of mind she might have consulted the children as to whether she should sell the house but grief and rationality are not good bedfellows.

My earlier point about how selfish grief can make us is detrimental for Conor and Donal. I felt myself go quite cold when I learnt that Nora had left them with Josie for such a long time when Maurice was ill and obviously dying. As much as he was Nora’s husband he was their father too and the experience of that loss and the temporary, geographical loss of their mother must have a profound effect on the boys so whilst Josie had a point in highlighting Nora’s absence I don't think it helped much after the event. 

When people die young some take comfort from the fact that their beauty will never wither, other affirm that it is too young to die. It’s a point of view, no more, no less. Nora believes the former, Jim and Margaret the latter.

When one half of a partnership is no more the remaining party has to try and redefine themselves in a sense and I think this is the catalyst for Nora’s hair change and then the subsequent fear of what others may think. Historically in western culture mourning for women had a set period and a set costume and woe betide any who transgressed this. I think Nora is wondering whether she has followed the protocols for stereotypical grief and mourning. She experiences a similar crisis of decision when she considers the purchase of records and equipment.

When your present become distorted as grief can do, the past takes on a different emphasis, we are reminded of this when Nora reacquaints herself with the Gibneys and Francie Kavanagh. 

I think that as one becomes accustomed to grief the self absorption starts to take its place within an awareness of others . On the beach holiday Nora begins to consider the effect that the tragic events have had upon her sons.

In a marriage or partnership one becomes accustomed to being part of that union. To stand alone again requires a deal of introspection and to reinvent one’s sense of self. I think Nora does this in many ways and shows a deal of sensitivity when a newly found assertion conflicts with the established assertion of another as in the incident with Francie cutting up the files. Similarly Nora’s attendance at the Union meeting. although possibly ill advised as she concluded afterwards it is another act of independence that required no consultation with anyone. And in a less obvious way Nora’s discovery of her singing potential is another individual and independent pursuit.It is similar for Donal and his photography, without his father he turns to something else to become absorbed in.

But being widowed young must be similar to having the rug pulled out from under you with no warning and however intrusive well intentioned people may have become to her she needs a rock to cling to and it is Josie who is that rock, possibly subconsciously but it is Josie to whom she entrusts her boys and Josie to whom she turns when she becomes unwell.

One of the interesting things about a novel like this is that we do not know Nora BEFORE Maurice died, we have no way of knowing the extent that the loss has changed her. But where the rest of the family seem keen to keep events secret from Nora indicates a level or protection, but is it for themselves or is it for Nora?

The closing stages of the book offer much food for thought and again it is down to individual belief and experience as to how we respond. Those who have strong, spiritual beliefs will believe that Maurice did come to visit her and it was this visit that allowed her to let go of his clothes and burn his letters for the belief that she actually saw him is evidential of life in spirit. On the other hand those who have no such belief will put it down to her medication, the pain, the insomnia. It's a personal thing and a clever device of the writer for we can only put our own interpretation on this.

How you see yourself through times of crisis compared to how others see you is very different. And peoples’ motives for association can be questionable. Some people genuinely felt sympathy for Nora, others probably felt a sense of duty, others, like Mrs. Lacey had another motive.

But I return to my opening  premise; we all deal with grief differently. This is one person’s story, very well written, the prose could almost be described as plain but the paradox is that it has a compelling richness to it. 

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Guarding Diana - Inspector Ken Wharfe with Robert Jobson

          I took this book on because I have a friend who claims to have a spiritual connection with Princess Diana and I intend to pass it on! A spurious reason for reading and reviewing a book? Maybe. But it was also an opportunity to delve again into the world of non fiction which may redeem my rather superficial intent!

Overall the book is a straightforward account of the security issues surrounding Diana and her overseas trips; both vacations and official engagements. It also examined the relationship between ‘protector’ and ‘protectee’. I had the feeling that Wharfe was being honest about Diana the person rather than Diana the icon. It was absorbing enough as a read but I can’t see that it covers any new ground. It is interesting to consider whether Diana still attracts a wealth of interest so long after her passing? Wharfe appears to offer an unbiased view of all the key ‘players’ from Diana herself to other members of the Royal Family including Prince Charles

Two things I did I garner from the book was the relentless and insensitive machinations of the press, paparazzi and media. The book does offer as balanced a view as it can. One intrusive photographer claimed ‘press freedom and public interest’ as justification for the relentless hounding of the Princess and her children. I was surprised at how frequently ‘deals’ were struck with the media - a photoshoot in return for the photographers' exodus.

I found the most interesting part of the book was the final chapter where Wharfe questions the public outpouring of grief and a potential hypocrisy?

‘Though it may seem harsh or cynical I felt that there was something spurious about the mass mourning that followed her death and attended her funeral. True, most people loved her, but they had not known her. They loved the media image; they loved the glamour, the humanity, the sympathetic tears but they had little idea of the real Diana. Truly they loved her because of what they had read or seen or heard about her. What they were mourning was an image moulded by the media and by the Princess herself from her years in the public eye.’

Wharfe goes on to question the public’s vilification of the press who had fuelled their desire for their image of Diana.

I found myself moved again by the final pages detailing the funeral and wondering how the world would be had Diana lived and continued her uplifting humanitarian work.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: Bitter Fruits - Alice Clark Platts

Number 10 in this series, Alice Clark Platt's debut novel was published in July 2015 and I was very enthusiastic about it! Earlier this year one of my Library Book choices was this lady's second novel.

I love debut novels. They are such a lottery. They can be dire and finishing them can feel like wading through treacle. They can be okay and you sense some promise and defer ultimate judgement until the next one. Or they can completely blow you away.
I couldn't put this book down and I mean that literally. Everything was put on hold until I finished it.
I hesitate to use the word brilliant because it is overused and my response is subjective but for me this wasn't far short.
It’s a deceptive book and more substantial than it seems at first. And yet curiously there is a danger that this substance could be overlooked as the reader focuses purely on the crime aspect because it is so well done the attention doesn't stray. 
The plot is tight, well constructed with a veritable shoal of red herrings to lure the reader into believing they have solved this crime. The characters are believable. There is no holding back when highlighting some of today’s contemporary issues; internet bullying so endemic nowadays, the morality of the media, or their lack of it, the dynamics of a police force pressured into delivering results unreasonably quickly to satisfy the bureaucrats and social commentators as if catching a murderer is so easy. And throughout the book how hard it is to be a young person in today’s world. I could go on the book has such a lot to offer.
There were imperfections; the story uses a dual narrative technique and there were a couple of inconsistencies, for example a character developed in the first narrative was suddenly mentioned in the second with no exposition. Some of the descriptive passages were so typical of a debut novel, that desire to demonstrate all at once the writer’s abilities. But I’m nit picking and this book  doesn't deserve it.

I’m very excited by this writer and I do hope there are more tales of this calibre to issue forth from her pen. Alice Clark-Platts? I am a fan.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: The Strings of Murder - Oscar De Muriel

They just keep on coming, don't they?! I am quite surprised at just how many reviews I have penned over the years. Another reason for doing this is my own completist nature and the need to have everything under the same roof. Although I back up regularly putting everything on my blog is tantamount to putting all my reviews in the Cloud? Here is retro review number 9 in a series of ............ I have no idea how many more........  This was published in February 2015.

If you enjoy historical fiction, read this book. If you like crime novels, read this book. If you like horror stories read this book. If you like the occult and the supernatural, read this book. If you can stomach gruesome, read this book. If you like detective tales with two dysfunctional, diametrically opposed policemen read this book. If you love a debut novel, read this book. If you relish a well written, plot driven, atmospheric, knowledgeable story, read this book. 

Oh, you’ve done it again Real Readers! Given me a debut novel that lifts my heart. And I see that it may be just the first in a series with Nine Nails McGray and Inspector Frey. Oh Mr. De Muriel please write them quickly. I want more!!

Imagine Mulder and Scully in Victorian Edinburgh, remember Eugene Tooms from episode 3 in the first series of the X Files? (geek? moi?) And you’re part way to the flavour of this new novel. 

The plot is so tight you can’t second guess, it unravels so skilfully you’re carried along desperate to know what’s going on because there are several strands to the crime itself, very clever ideas and no shortage of wit. And the dynamic between the characters are delightful. I loved it when McGray calls Frey ‘the Archbishop of Fussminster’!!! 

I can visualise this on the screen big or little, there’s an element of Ripper Street but it is more substantial than that.

It took guts to write a novel like this. Insert the wink emoticon here. The writer wasn’t just fiddling about. Insert another wink emoticon here. And I’m not saying why as I try not to do spoilers. 

If you would like to know what I mean, read this book!

Monday, 17 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: I am in Blood - Joe Murphy

Number eight in these old reviews this book was published in April 2015. It is unusual in that I don't think I have anything good to say about it!! That is a rarity for me as even if I don't like a book I try to look for the positives. Bizarrely this review was a runner up in a Guardian review competition in 2015. My prize was a signed copy of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks!

This writer was unfamiliar to me when I began reading this book from Real Readers and as I read I thought it was a debut novel. It read in that way a debut novelist often has of almost trying to over prove themselves with elaborate descriptions. So I was very surprised to find that Joe Murphy has a couple of other books under his belt. Sorry to say I won't be seeking them out.

I found this book unpleasant overall. Both factually and fictionally Jack the Ripper has been done to death (no pun intended)  and we are no nearer to finding his identity -  the cold case that will never grow warm. I am not sure whether we are supposed to think that the killer here really is the Ripper because the subsequent finding and killing of him lacks credence given the historical perspectives. That is a spoiler I guess and I don't normally do them but then to my mind can you spoil something that is already spoilt?

Overall I couldn't see the point of this story. The graphic descriptions of the mutilations added nothing to the narrative. None of the characters are particularly likeable, Maybe George is the exception.  Ultimately I deduce that the premise of the book is to suggest that an individual’s predisposition to becoming a serial killer is genetic. Not a pleasant thought. It is not an uplifting or entertaining book, it doesn't seek to draw out any significant truths or philosophies. Is it written to shock? To thrill? It did neither for me. But, much as I like crime, thrillers, historical fiction this wasn't a pleasant experience. But that is just my opinion. I find it disturbing that someone’s mind can come up with this kind of material.

I am rarely this harsh about a book and I will try to end with something positive. Ultimately I believe it to be quite a well written book. The title’s reference to Macbeth offers a clue maybe that there is some remorse somewhere within the book and from the writer maybe? And also, for me, reading a book  I don’t like makes me aware of just how many I do like!!

Sunday, 16 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: The Girl You Left Behind - Jojo Moyes

The seventh in a series of reviews that have never seen the light of blog before today! This one was published in September 2012

Often when you approach a writer for the first time it takes a chapter or two or even three or four to ‘get into’ the book. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve had to really persevere with a book. It’s often been worthwhile and I’ve ultimately enjoyed the read. With this book though I was thoroughly ‘into it’ after a few paragraphs and I felt it boded well. 

Although the setting is WW1 it felt like WW2 descriptively although I have no doubt Ms Moyes did her research thoroughly. I couldn’t lose this feeling at all throughout the novel. Maybe I've read too many holocaust books; fiction and non-fiction, for those were the images that intruded into my head. (I am sorry to say also I did keep getting mental pictures of the TV sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo during some of the café sequences!) However that didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the tale.

We seem obsessed today with pigeon holing everything. So I pondered exactly what genre this book would fit into. Historic fiction? In part. My knowledge of WW1 France was certainly enhanced but the modern day sequences deny it a place wholly there. Romance? Certainly. The girl gets the guy in both timeframes, that was almost contrived, yet in a romantic novel, isn’t that what you want, what you yearn for? Chick lit? It dips its feet in there for sure but never totally stays there. Courtroom Drama? Yes to that too. And I think that’s why I liked as much as I did, purely because it can’t conveniently be genre stamped.

The characterisations were predictable for me in that it felt as if they were people I’d read about before but with different names and circumstances with slightly different details. But that isn’t intended as negative criticism, I quite enjoyed that. Similarly the narrative felt like several stories I’d read before fused into one. But I enjoyed the company of both Sophie and Liv and wished there was a bit more of Mo.

I think the book was well written overall. There is a danger that using more than one time frame can become confusing but I felt it worked seamlessly here. This book isn’t unique, it isn’t ground breaking, and I doubt it will win awards but it is a thoroughly enjoyable story to lose yourself in and immerse yourself in the tangled lives of others and end up with a satisfactory conclusion.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: The Tutor - Andrea Chapin

This sixth in the series of retro reviews was first published in March 2015.

When I think of Shakespeare as the man not the playwright and poet I always think of the familiar Chandos portrait from the National Gallery. But when I read this book I think of the Joseph Fiennes portrayal from the film Shakespeare In Love. And I suppose that is quite fitting as both are fictional representations of the man whose true self remains the enigma and source of so much speculation. Often referred as the Bard I am wondering, from reading this book, whether that is the Elizabethan equivalent of a text abbreviation, i.e. b***ard for that is how I might describe his behaviour in this book!! 

I did enjoy this novel; it owes as much to Jane Austen as it does to Shakespeare, methinks!! It does read as a ‘fan’ novel. In that the writer clearly reveres Shakespeare as a writer and I did wonder whether this story is the vicarious embodiment of a little fantasy she has about him, 50 Shades of Shakespeare! And so on one level I don't believe it is a novel to be taken seriously. It is what it is. But on another level that would be to dismiss the meticulous research that this writer has undertaken of the Elizabethan Age, socially and politically. 

Katharine is a well drawn, substantial character, full of goodness without being over pious and prudish. However many of the other characters seem there as a function of the novel, they had  part to play to further the narrative but they seemed one dimensional. Ned wasn't int he book enough to see his character was developed but the potential was there. 

And Shakespeare? This is one personnel view of how he might have been based on historical hearsay I suppose. And it made for an very pleasant read. I haven’t been been able to find any other books by Ms Chapin, maybe this is her ‘book that is in all of us’ and that somehow makes it all the sweeter to read.

Friday, 14 December 2018

RETRO REVIEWING: White Feathers Susan Lanigan

The fifth book in this Retro Reviewing series, White Feathers was published in August 2014.

For me this was almost a perfect novel. I could hardly believe it was the writer’s debut. Firstly how topical given the current wave of First World War centenary events, research projects and commemorative ceremonies. Secondly it had a good, solid story of love and betrayal and points to make about war and maybe class and sexuality. Neither facet overshadowed the other; rather the two strands ran alongside each other in full complement. An historical novel, this author did not fall into that first novel trap of shoving every piece of research at you whether it was integral to the plot or not. 
Thirdly it was a beautifully crafted book, it was economic without being sparse, and the characters were complete people. I’m going to say this, although I know many may ridicule me for doing so but I have to be honest. I was reminded of Pride and Prejudice. Mainly at the beginning of the book. Eva reminded of Elizabeth Bennett. She had sisters and friends who became like sisters, together with military interventions and scandals. Catherine and Roy Downey, however, are NOT Jane Austen’s Mr. And Mrs Bennett!!

And I said almost perfect for I didn’t find that perfection sustained right through to the end of the book. It was as if the writer suddenly thought, ‘Gosh, I better get this story finished!’ and I had the sense of everything being thrown in at the end. You could argue it was climactic and good plot tactics but given the control and flow of the rest of the novel it seemed to lose some cohesion. That is not to say that I didn’t continue to enjoy this book immensely and it is one of my favourite books of this year so far and I thank you, Real Readers, for giving me the opportunity.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Hag-Seed - Margaret Atwood

Penguin sent me a copy of Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth last year. I was pleased as I’m a Nesbo fan but I remember puzzling over the need or necessity for these prestigious writers to use someone else’s story to create one of their own. Are they all so short of new ideas?! I mean, did Shakespeare do such a bad job?! 

For anyone interested I include a link to the Nesbo review.

But after having read the Nesbo I think I ‘got it’. I read a little more about the Hogarth Project, the need to keep Shakespeare fresh, the challenge, the honour, almost of tackling the Bard! So I was delighted to procure this copy of Margaret Atwood’s Shakespearean adventure from Nudge books. This is a modern interpretation of The Tempest. I love the play for its weirdness as opposed to the history plays, the tragedies and comedies. It’s a resourceful and creative rendition that uses a theatrical theme, a play within a play idea, to illustrate a delightful revenge story. How better to explore the themes of forgiveness and repentance than setting your tale in a prison? 

‘Felix is at the top of his game as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have amazed and confounded. Now he’s staging a Tempest like no other: not only will it boost his reputation, it will heal emotional wounds. 

Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And also brewing revenge. 

After twelve years, revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theatre course at a nearby prison. Here, Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him. It’s magic! But will it remake Felix as his enemies fall? 

Margaret Atwood’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play of enchantment, revenge and second chances leads us on an interactive, illusion-ridden journey filled with new surprises and wonders of its own.’

Something I learnt from the Jo Nesbo book was to put aside any preconceived expectations of how the writer might tackle the story. Forget the author almost? No, not quite. I couldn’t do that. This is Margaret Atwood after all!! And as might be expected  it was resplendent with the Atwood wit and subtlety. 

The story was a delight and bordering on genius almost. For if you were to try and ascertain, stereotypically,  who in society would be least likely to be pro Shakespeare inmates of a correctional facility might be amongst your guesses. In so doing Margaret Atwood, in one fell swoop, has made it patently clear that Shakespeare is and should be accessible to all. 

The main character, Felix, emerges as a better teacher than actor possibly for what he achieves with his motley crew of players is wonderful. From initially motivating them and guiding them in this unique performance of the Tempest to their conclusions and ideas about what happened to the characters after the play was extremely moving. 

The revenge denouement is ingenious. I suppose it could be seen as a little farfetched but this is fiction it's a story  and The Tempest isn't a convincing bastion of reality!! It is possibly sugar coated if you’re looking for realism. From time to time you do ask if a group of criminals would behave as cooperatively as this. But I think the point is to offer a potential, the blueprint of a possibility. It’s one of the most uplifting prison stories I’ve ever read to be sure. And I wouldn’t mind betting that those unfamiliar with the Tempest might well seek out a copy or a performance after reading this book.

Which leads me neatly to considering how readers who are unfamiliar with the play do respond to the story compared to those who do know the play. If you know the story in the play you know what's going to happen in the book to a degree which possibly allows you to luxuriate in Ms.Atwood’s writing. She has wound the watch of her wit and struck!! But if not then the unfolding of the Tempest story with its diverse characters and its magical overtones will delight. 

On a more metaphysical level the book explores notions of prisoners and imprisonment that exist beyond the confines of prison walls. The things that makes us all prisoners in some ways. Yet the book never strikes as being heavy. It’s possibly one of Atwood’s lighter treatments? But it never loses touch with either Shakespeare or the contemporary world in which it is set. I would see that as more than filling the brief for this series of books.

And of Margaret Atwood I say - “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in it!”