Reviews

‘The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae’ by Stephanie Butland #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

ailsa rae

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Ailsa Rae is learning how to live.

She’s only a few months past the heart transplant that – just in time – saved her life. Life should be a joyful adventure. But . . .

Her relationship with her mother is at breaking point and she wants to find her father.
Have her friends left her behind?
And she’s felt so helpless for so long that she’s let polls on her blog make her decisions for her. She barely knows where to start on her own.

Then there’s Lennox. Her best friend and one time lover. He was sick too. He didn’t make it. And now she’s supposed to face all of this without him.

But her new heart is a bold heart. 

She just needs to learn to listen to it . . .

This isn’t usually the kind of novel I go for, but there was something really appealing in the blurb, so I thought I’d give it a go. And what a lovely book it is – I’m so glad I decided to read it.

When we hear about people who have had serious illnesses and then are offered hope, we assume they should be grateful, and Ailsa is grateful, but it isn’t as simple as that. There’s also a feeling that things should now be plain-sailing, that everything is wonderful, but Ailsa has been ill all her life, and now everything is changing. It’s fantastic but it’s difficult too. She needs to find out who she is and what she wants.

This is such an interesting idea for a novel, and Ailsa is a lovely main character. I felt really involved in the story and was really rooting for her. The things she has been through, the doubts she has, her relationship with her mum (which is a fabulous portrayal of the mother-daughter dynamic) and her burgeoning relationship with the gorgeous Seb, makes this a compelling, character-driven read. It’s hopeful without being unrealistic, sweet without being sickening and just a lovely book.

There were some elements that stretched belief a little, but I didn’t care, to be honest. I just really, really liked it.

5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

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My Best Reads of 2018 #bookreview #reading

I love a good list and I love the chance to look back on some of the excellent books I’ve read. I also love reading other people’s lists so if you have a post about your best book of the year, do post a link in the comments so I can take a look and add to my ever growing TBR list! Thank you!
These are in no particular order, as each book is so different it seems unfair to say one is better than another, but, that said, ‘The Toymakers’ and ‘The Twelve-Mile Straight’ are my standout books of the year.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar

horse
This has some mixed reviews, and I can understand why, to an extent. It’s very unusual, very dark and is difficult to read at times. But it’s brilliant.
Stand-up comedian Dovaleh G is giving a performance in a small Israeli town. A childhood friend has been asked to attend – he doesn’t know why, and as the evening progresses, he feels more and more uncomfortable, as do the audience, who realise that this isn’t the show they were expecting.
This is an unsettling novel, but it is beautifully crafted, and highly recommended.

The Cottingley Secret

cottingley

I love reading fiction based on history and I’d heard the fascinating story about the Cottingley fairies before, so was very keen to read this novel.
This is a really lovely book and a pleasure to read. The author treats Frances and Elsie with respect, sensitive always to the fact that these two girls were real people, and her retelling provides an explanation as to how and, perhaps more importantly, why, people were so ready to believe in fairies.
If you like fast-paced drama with twists and turns then this probably isn’t the book for you. But I felt that the pace and the tone were ideally suited to the subject matter and the book weaves a lovely spell that draws you in and might even make you believe in fairies.

The Twelve-Mile Straight

12 mile

In a world that seems to be moving backwards, with the rise of the far right in the US and here in the UK, this is a pertinent novel. We kid ourselves that we’ve moved so far, that we have achieved equality, but the prejudice and discrimination written here is unfortunately only too real almost a hundred years later.
Sharecropper’s daughter Elma gives birth to twins – one light-skinned, one dark. Not surprisingly, this garners a great deal of interest, and gossip, and the result is that field hand Genus, deemed to have raped Elma, is lynched.
But there’s more to the twins’ conception and birth than meets the eye. And Elma, her father Juke, and housekeeper Nan find themselves entangled in a web of lies and deceit.
This isn’t a pleasant, happy read. But it is an important one. Like Britain’s history of colonialism, the US has never seemed to really address its past, admit its guilt and make amends. That it isn’t too hard to imagine the events of this book happening still is a sad indictment of how little we’ve progressed. A must read.

Petals and Stones

petals

Such an interesting way to begin a novel – we are with Uma, content, to an extent, enjoying a normal day in a relatively normal life when two horrible things happen in quick succession – she discovers her husband Daniel’s affair, and then he is killed on his way back to explain himself to her.
Her grief is tempered by anger and frustration, and the way she has to keep these things in check in front of his family and friends is so well portrayed. And the dual timelines exploring their relationship, their pasts and that of their friends Aaron and Pippa, make for a really beautifully written and novel about relationships, love, loss and the little decisions we make that affect our lives in huge ways
Joanne Burn is definitely an author to watch out for. An accomplished and absorbing novel.

Home

home

This should be a thoroughly depressing read, but it is saved from being so by Jesika, the four-year-old narrator.
It isn’t easy to successfully write from a child’s point of view once you’re an adult, but Jesika feels really authentic. Her misconceptions and misunderstandings really make you realise how confusing the things adults say can be, and you long for the grown-ups in her life to listen to her properly, to slow down and to realise that she’s confused and worried and scared.
Hard to read at times, but definitely one to read, I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this, but Jesika will stay with me for a long time.

The Toymakers

Toymakers

Fifteen-year-old Cathy, pregnant and in danger of having to give away her baby, runs away to London and secures a job in Papa Jack’s Emporium.
The emporium isn’t just any old toy shop. Open only for winter, the toys use the magic of imagination, the innocence and magic of childhood, to create patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy soldiers that really fight, Wendy houses that are as big inside as they seemed to be when you were little.
Cathy is a lovely main character and her relationships with Kaspar, Emil, Papa Jack and Martha are a real highlight of the book – as is lovely Sirius, the patchwork dog. If you think you can’t cry over a toy, think again!

 

 

Perfect Books for Christmas Reading #Christmas #ChristmasReading #ChristmasBooks #FridayReads

xmas

I love Christmas. At least some of it. I love being at home with my family, snuggling up on the sofa and watching movies, walking the dogs and coming home to a glass of mulled wine and a good book. And there are some books that seem just perfect for Christmas. These are my recommendations for a cosy evening (or afternoon, or all day!) by a warm fire.

‘The Toymakers’ by Robert Dinsdale

Toymakers

I read this last week in a remote cottage in Wales while the rain poured down and the wind howled round us. We had a gorgeous wood-burner and plenty of wine, and I felt really Christmassy. It’s a gorgeous book – atmospheric, magical, heartfelt and beautifully written.

‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey

snow child

I read this quite a while ago but I can still recall how beautiful it was. The prose is so evocative, it sums up the cold and wildness of Alaska perfectly. And the fairy tale winding through makes it an ideal day for a cold winter’s night in front of a fire.

‘Dear Thief’ by Samantha Harvey

dear thief.jpg

A quiet but stunningly beautiful narrative, this novel is an honest portrayal of betrayal, anger and friendship, raw in places but so well-crafted. One of my favourite books.

‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter

nights at the circus.jpg

Vivid, magical, beautiful – this is truly a classic. The writing is assured, clever without being pretentious, lyrical in places. It’s a book I’ll remember for a long time – unforgettable, colourful, and chaotic. A masterpiece.

‘Winter’ by Ali Smith

ali smith winter

Another book that I read in Wales last week and it was very suited to the pouring rain and howling wind! Review coming soon, but goodness, what an unusual book. I won’t try to explain it because it kind of defies explanation, but it’s witty and clever and insightful. And very, very different.

Happy reading and happy holidays!

christmas

 

 

‘Petals and Stones’ by @Joanne_Burn #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

petals

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When Uma discovers her husband’s infidelity just hours before his untimely death, the carefully woven threads of her life begin to unravel.

Struggling to manage the grief of those around her, she escapes to a remote cottage by the coast where she swims in the winter sea, cooks the forgotten Keralan dishes of her childhood and begins the search for her husband’s lover.

It isn’t long before Uma realises what she must do to pick up the tattered threads of her life. But will her choices jeopardise the only family she has left?

Such an interesting way to begin a novel – we are with Uma, content, to an extent, enjoying a normal day in a relatively normal life when two horrible things happen in quick succession – she discovers her husband Daniel’s affair, and then he is killed on his way back to explain himself to her.

Her grief is tempered by anger and frustration, and the way she has to keep these things in check in front of his family and friends is so well portrayed. And the dual timelines exploring their relationship, their pasts and that of their friends Aaron and Pippa, make for a really beautifully written and novel about relationships, love, loss and the little decisions we make that affect our lives in huge ways.

The writing is wonderful, almost lyrical in places, without feeling overdone or ‘clever’. It flows so well and the author draws her scenes beautifully, immersing the reader in the different places with some beautiful descriptions and details that never overwhelm, just give a lovely sense of time and place.

Joanne Burn is definitely an author to watch out for. An accomplished and absorbing novel.

5 stars

‘What’s Left Unsaid’ by @DeborahStone_ #BookReview #RBRT #FridayReads

#RBRT Review Team

I read and reviewed ‘What’s Left Unsaid’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

unsaid

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Sasha is just about managing to hold her life together. She is raising her teenage son Zac, coping with an absent husband and caring for her ageing, temperamental and alcoholic mother, as well as holding down her own job. But when Zac begins to suspect that he has a secret sibling, Sasha realises that she must relive the events of a devastating night which she has done her best to forget for the past nineteen years.

Sasha’s mother, Annie, is old and finds it difficult to distinguish between past and present and between truth and lies. As Annie sinks deeper back into her past, she revisits the key events in her life which have shaped her emotionally. Through it all, she remains convinced that her dead husband Joe is watching and waiting for her. But there’s one thing she never told him, and as painful as it is for her to admit the truth, Annie is determined to go to Joe with a guilt-free conscience.

As the plot unfurls, traumas are revealed and lies uncovered, revealing long-buried secrets which are at the root of Annie and Sasha’s fractious relationship.

You can tell as soon as you begin reading this book that you’re going to enjoy it. The opening works so well and is a real attention-grabber. And the rest of the novel doesn’t disappoint.
Sasha is a lovely character. As a woman approaching a rather important birthday, I love female characters I can relate to, and I can’t bear it when a woman approaching middle age is portrayed as supremely confident, and with a body that makes men gasp! It isn’t realistic and it’s annoying. Sasha drinks wine and eats whole packets of biscuits when she’s fed up – far more relatable, far more real, without falling into stereotype.
The three points of view here work exceptionally well. There’s no ‘head-hopping’ and the differing viewpoints really work in enabling you to sympathise with characters that you might otherwise absolutely despise – Annie, for example. When we hear about her from Sasha, all our sympathy is with Sasha, but when we learn about Annie’s past, we see why she is like she is, and while we still feel so much for Sasha, we can feel for Annie too.
The author really shows these different characters so well – she has a firm understanding of human nature and relationships. Her characters are real, and fully developed.
And Sasha has a lovely dog too, who is very much a part of the story – always a plus for me!
My only gripe is that there were a few errors in the text – issues with tense and capitalisation, though not enough to spoil things, and I did feel that some of Joe’s story relied a little too heavily on telling. That said, this is a lovely book, and thoroughly enjoyable to read. I’ll definitely look out for more from this author.

4 stars

‘Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams’ by Matthew Walker #bookreview #TuesdayBookBlog

sleep

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Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our life, health and longevity and yet it is increasingly neglected in twenty-first-century society, with devastating consequences: every major disease in the developed world – Alzheimer’s, cancer, obesity, diabetes – has very strong causal links to deficient sleep.

In this book, the first of its kind written by a scientific expert, Professor Matthew Walker explores twenty years of cutting-edge research to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. Looking at creatures from across the animal kingdom as well as major human studies, Why We Sleep delves into everything from what really happens during REM sleep to how caffeine and alcohol affect sleep and why our sleep patterns change across a lifetime, transforming our appreciation of the extraordinary phenomenon that safeguards our existence.

I have suffered from poor sleep on and off for most of my adult life. I’ve tried all the usual things – less caffeine, less alcohol, more alcohol, warm baths, no screen time after 8 p.m. – the list goes on and on and none of those things have worked. So I was keen to read this book and see if it could offer any help.

It does so much more than that. This book goes into real depth about how and why we sleep. It’s scientific, research-based and full of sometimes quite startling information. But it does all this in a very readable and reader-friendly way. It isn’t confusing or dense, and it certainly isn’t boring. It’s informative and fascinating and very, very well-written.

It’s eye-opening and concerning to discover just how much of an impact on health – both mental and physical – poor sleep has. And it’s a real concern in a culture that is based on work, work, work with little time for relaxation. It’s a reminder that sleeping and resting and caring for yourself isn’t a luxury or an indulgence but is something that is vital and necessary. A real wake-up call.

I still don’t sleep all that well, but I have more good nights than bad. And I understand now how important that is.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

 

 

 

‘Everything Is Lies’ by Helen Callaghan #bookreview #FridayReads #psychological #thriller

Everything

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What if your parents had been lying to you since the day you were born? 

Sophia’s parents lived quiet, ordinary lives. At least she thought so, until she came home to discover her mother hanged, and her father in a pool of blood.

Sophia is certain her mother didn’t try to kill her father – but clearing her name will draw Sophia deep into a past she never imagined.

A past that hides a dark and twisted secret . . .

Because if everything you’ve been told is lies, then how dangerous is the truth? 

Sophia has escaped the boredom of her childhood home and is living in London, working as an architect. Her mother, who she recognises has issues, bothers her constantly, and as the novel opens, she calls Sophia when she is out with her new colleagues, asking her to come home. Irritated, Sophia refuses, a reaction she’ll come to regret, because her mother has been hiding a huge secret for years, and nothing about her quiet, reclusive parents is what Sophia thought it was.

There’s loads of mystery here, and intrigue, and lots of twists and turns, all centred on a book Sophia’s mother was writing about her past. Sophia reads the first two parts of the manuscript and discovers her mother was part of a cult headed by a rock star. But the third part is missing and it seems that someone will go to any lengths to stop Sophia finding out exactly what it contains.

The clever part of this novel is that you often think you know exactly what has happened, and then something shifts, something new is discovered, and you realise you’re wrong, again. The plot is flawless, the writing tight, suspenseful and really well-paced. I really enjoyed reading this – it was pure escapism. The only thing stopping me giving it five stars is that I just didn’t connect fully with Sophia. I didn’t feel her horror and grief at her mother’s death or her fear or shock when she begins to discover her mother’s past. But that doesn’t stop me recommending this book – if you like twisty, turny, well-written thrillers, then it’s definitely for you.

4 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘Home’ by Amanda Berriman #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

home

Amazon.co.uk

Meet Jesika, aged four and a half. The most extraordinary narrator of 2018.

She lives in a flat with her mother and baby brother and she knows a lot. She knows their flat is high up and the stairs are smelly. She knows she shouldn’t draw on the peeling wallpaper or touch the broken window. And she knows she loves her mummy and baby brother Toby.

She does not know that their landlord is threatening to evict them and that Toby’s cough is going to get much worse. Or that Paige, her new best friend, has a secret that will explode their world.

This should be a thoroughly depressing read, but it is saved from being so by Jesika, the four-year-old narrator.

It isn’t easy to successfully write from a child’s point of view once you’re an adult, but Jesika feels really  authentic. Her misconceptions and misunderstandings really make you realise how confusing the things adults say can be, and you long for the grown-ups in her life to listen to her properly, to slow down and to realise that she’s confused and worried and scared.

Jesika’s love for her mum and brother is beautifully portrayed, and her visceral fear of being left is one of the strengths of the story. And while, as adults, readers understand what is going on completely, Jesika’s confusion adds to the tension and drama – there’s an almost physical reaction, wanting to protect Jesika and poor little Paige.

This is a timely portrayal too of the frustrations and stupidities involved in accessing services, particularly for the most vulnerable. Someone should be helping Jesika and her mum – they shouldn’t be in a mouldy, dangerous flat, at the mercy of an unscrupulous private landlord. It’s a damning portrayal of the times we live in.

Hard to read at times, but definitely one to read, I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this, but Jesika will stay with me for a long time.

5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi #ThrowbackThursday #bookreview

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

breath

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At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

I’ve read some of the other reviews of this book and really wonder if they read the same book as me. If you’re looking for a misery memoir, a warts and all revelation of how harrowing it is to go through cancer and all that entails, then this isn’t for you. Those books have their place – my mother died from cancer and it was helpful sometimes to read other people’s accounts and to know that they were feeling as I did. But I wish I’d had this book back then.

Because this is more than a memoir or an account of illness and death. The author doesn’t list in too great detail what happens to him because it’s not supposed to be about that (which is what I think a few of the other reviewers have missed). This is about a man who, before he knew he was ill, strove in his studies and in his work to get at the meaning of life, at what it means to be human, and what it means to die. And then, somewhat ironically, just at the brink of achieving one of his goals in life, he was diagnosed with lung cancer – cancer that killed him at the age of thirty-seven.

A brilliant, eloquent and sensitive man, Paul Kalanithi continued to strive throughout his illness, to find meaning in what life meant, what made it worthwhile, and to understand when it was enough, when it was time to stop. This is what he had always wanted to do for his patients and this was how he lived his last days.

A really unusual and beautiful book. I was sobbing at the end – and any book that can cause such a powerful reaction is something very special indeed.

5 stars

‘The Men’ by Fanny Calder #RBRT #TuesdayBookReview

#RBRT Review Team

I read and reviewed ‘The Men’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

Cover Image - The Men

Amazon.co.uk

A darkly brilliant debut novel by Fanny Calder, and arguably essential reading for the feminist hedonist woman in your life.

City life in the 1990s. Anonymous, intense, paradoxical and sometimes lonely. A young, haunted woman falls in love with a singer. She finds she has been consumed by the relationship and when it ends – as it inevitably does – she feels unable to quite rediscover herself.

Cities can draw you into even darker places, and she embarks on a series of intense relationships with thirteen men of very different types, from a rough sleeper to a millionaire, and from a transvestite to a leading politician. As she is propelled through a series of extraordinary adventures and wild parties she finds she begins to lose her own identity. Is there a way out?

A raw and unflinchingly honest narrative with stripped down language that is liberating and sometimes challenging. It is a tale of urban human connections crafted with no judgement or deep introspection – a window on the author’s own life at that time that will resonate and stay with you.

How refreshing to read something different, something honest and authentic. This is a book that is what it says it is – raw and unflinchingly honest. It follows the experiences of an unnamed woman as she moves from encounter to encounter and from relationship to relationship, making mistakes, getting into difficult situations, looking for something she can’t quite reach.

The relationships she has make for a compelling read, and one that is difficult at times. I found the first few episodes a little irritating to be honest and I wasn’t sure I was going to like the narrator or the book, but then, as things progressed, I warmed to her and became really engrossed in the narrative. She grows on you and you find yourself feeling angry with her, sorry for her, frustrated with her and happy for her when she does find joy and contentment.

I found her friendship with the transvestite and his boy really touching and a joy to read. She found with them, it seemed, a relationship that was real and good and good for her.

The author is a very talented writer, the writing here is beautifully done – well-crafted, measured, beautiful in places without being overblown. The writer knows how to build a scene, build characters without overdoing descriptions, unnecessary adjectives and tired, clichéd similes and metaphors – this is a writer with natural flair.

An unusual, intelligent and unsettling book. Very much recommended.

5 stars