#bookreview

‘That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel’ by Adrienne Vaughan #BookReview #FridayReads

seahorse

Amazon.co.uk

Mia Flanagan has never been told who her father is and aged ten, stopped asking. Haunted by this, she remains a dutiful daughter who would never do anything to bring scandal or shame on her beautiful and famously single mother. So when Archie Fitzgerald, one of Hollywood’s favourite actors, decides to leave Mia his Irish estate she asks herself – is he her father after all? That Summer at the Seahorse Hotel is a tale of passion, jealousy and betrayal – and the ghost of a secret love that binds this colourful cast yet still threatens, after all these years, to tear each of them apart.

There are some authors that you just know won’t disappoint, and Adrienne Vaughan is definitely one of them. This is another lovely novel, full of warmth, drama, romance, but, as always, with that little something extra, something a little dark, to lift it up from other novels in the genre.

Mia is a lovely main character, realistic, clever, tenacious and insecure, like a lot of women. Her mother, Fenella, is so strikingly portrayed, you can almost hear her theatrical voice. And Archie is lovely, a joy to read.

The setting is described beautifully, with a real warmth and affection that comes across very clearly.

I’m not a fan of over the top, saccharine romance, and that’s another reason why I like this author’s books so much. The romance is never over the top, and while it’s an important part of the story, there is enough drama here to keep a variety of readers happy. The story of Fenella and Archie’s past throws light on a history of hypocrisy and injustice, there’s betrayal here, and mystery and grief and friendship – so just about all human emotion!

Well-crafted and a lovely bit of escapism. Recommended.

4 stars

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‘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

 

‘The Confession’ by Jo Spain #tuesdaybookblog #bookreview #crime

confession

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Late one night a man walks into the luxurious home of disgraced banker Harry McNamara and his wife Julie. The man launches an unspeakably brutal attack on Harry as a horror-struck Julie watches, frozen by fear. It looks like Harry’s many sins – corruption, greed, betrayal – have finally caught up with him.

An hour later the intruder, JP Carney, hands himself in, confessing to the assault. The police have a victim, a suspect in custody and an eye-witness account, but Julie remains troubled.

Has Carney’s surrender really been driven by a guilty conscience or is this confession the first calculated move in a deadly game?

The opening of this book is a lesson in how to hook your reader – and is also not for the faint-hearted. It’s shocking, but not gratuitous, and brings you straight into the drama.

Told form varying points of view, we follow Julie as she meets and marries Harry, realises he’s not all he’s cracked up to be, but finds herself unable to give him up. We also follow JP, his troubling past, and discover what has led him to this crime.

There is also Alice, the detective assigned the case, who  knows there’s more to it than others want to believe, but who is frustrated at every turn, by both JP and by Julie.

This is a very well-written book, and one that is much more than a crime novel. There is much here about the complexities of love, loyalty and jealousy, there is also a good dose of social comment (without being preachy) and enough drama to keep you turning the pages.

I did feel, however, that there could have been more detail about Harry and Julie’s early relationship. It’s all a bit vague – how did he become so successful exactly? And I wanted more about Alice too. She’s a great character, funny, clever and interesting and I felt that she deserved much more room in this novel.

I was also a little disappointed by the ending. It didn’t feel that realistic to me.

That said, this is a really enjoyable read.

4 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach #BookReview #ThrowbackThursday

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

stiff

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What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash Test Dummy? Human Dumpling? Ballistics Practise?

Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach’s Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science.

Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre

I have a bit of a fascination with death but I’m not a morbid person. I just feel that it’s a normal part of life (after all, it happens to everyone) that we tend to ignore, or hide away, or pretend doesn’t happen. We don’t want to know the details, the realities. And I think that this reluctance to recognise death and its processes, the rituals around it, have made us less connected to it, and, in turn, more fearful.  We’ve made death something secret, unknown. This book lifts the lid on death, detailing practically everything that could happen to you once you’re dead, including unusual after-life occupations such as being a crash test dummy, becoming part of an exhibition, helping surgeons learn their art, helping scientists understand decomposition or, if you go the more traditional route, what happens in a cremation or what happens once you’ve been buried.

It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. Roach’s writing is funny, respectful, warm and informative. I don’t believe in a god, or a heaven or an afterlife – I’m very happy with this one, thank you very much. There’s nothing once you’re gone and it seems a terrible shame to me that bodies that could do so much good and help so much are literally allowed to go to waste. I’ve always made my feelings known to my family – researchers can have as much of me as they want. I don’t want a funeral or a grave that my children feel indebted to visit when I’m not even there and all they’re doing is making a crematorium owner very rich. How much better will it be if my no longer needed remains help find a cure for a disease, or help investigators to improve safety in transport. And what’s left I’d be happy to have made into compost (you can have this done you know!). Roach’s book details all of these options and more, with warmth and honesty.

For a book about death, it was weirdly uplifting, and life-affirming. All we have is the here and now, and death is a part of life. We are so uniformed; we make death into something horrific and other. But as Roach so clearly and entertainingly shows, it’s part of being human and it’s something we should know more about.

4.5 out of 5

‘While You Sleep’ by Stephanie Merritt #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

sleep

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A house full of secrets…
The McBride house lies on a remote Scottish island, isolated and abandoned. A century ago, a young widow and her son died mysteriously there. Last year a local boy, visiting for a dare, disappeared without a trace.
A woman alone at night…
For Zoe Adams, the house offers an escape from her failing marriage. But when night falls, her peaceful retreat is disrupted—scratches at the door, strange voices—and Zoe is convinced she is being watched.
A threat that lurks in the shadows…
The locals tell Zoe the incidents are merely echoes of the house’s dark past. Zoe is sure the danger is all too real—but can she uncover the truth before she is silenced?

A remote Scottish island, a creepy house, the wind moaning, waves crashing, a terrifying legend and the kind of locals that all go silent when you walk into the pub – what more could you ask for?
Zoe is looking for peace and quiet and isolation so she can get her head together. A beautiful old house miles from anywhere seems ideal. But the house has a mysterious past and the locals are a bit cagey. Strange things begin to happen – but this isn’t bumps in the night and rattling chains; there’s a weird feeling in the house and Zoe’s dreams are vividly erotic and very unsettling.
But this is no Fifty Shades (thank goodness) and the sex is, on the whole, well-written. And what the writer does especially well is to weave a really suspenseful and at times terrifying tale. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the house, the isolation, the fear that Zoe feels are so well portrayed – you feel terrified for her.
I also liked the weaving of myth and history with the reality of the characters’’ present. It’s done really well, and there are two stories going on here, that of Zoe and that of Ailsa, the widow who died a century before. Ailsa’s story is fascinating – it could probably be a whole different novel in itself.
It’s truly a gripping read, well-paced, dark, but fun too if you like to be scared! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

four-and-a-half-stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

 

‘DEAR THIEF’ BY SAMANTHA HARVEY #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.

dear thief

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In the middle of a winter’s night, a woman wraps herself in a blanket, picks up a pen and starts writing to an estranged friend. In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, she writes, and so begins a letter that calls up a shared past both women have preferred to forget.

Without knowing if her friend, Butterfly, is even alive or dead, she writes night after night – a letter of friendship that turns into something more revealing and recriminating. By turns a belated outlet of rage, an act of self-defence, and an offering of forgiveness, the letter revisits a betrayal that happened a decade and a half before, and dissects what is left of a friendship caught between the forces of hatred and love.

This book was an absolute joy to read. The quiet but stunningly beautiful narrative tells the story of a woman who has been betrayed, who is now addressing that betrayal, confronting, if only in words, in a letter, the friend who let her down.

But there isn’t bitterness, or spite, and the novel is much more than the premise suggests. Through the letter, the narrator weaves two tales – the story of her own past and its links to her friend, known as Butterfly, and also the present, that she imagines for Butterfly, a woman she hasn’t seen for years. She doesn’t know where she is, or what she is doing, or even if she is still alive, so she creates a life, and in doing so exacts something like revenge.

The writing seems effortless, flowing and lyrical at times. The characterisation is spot on- the narrator is middle-aged, separated from her husband, has a difficult job, and she has all the insecurities and the regrets that come with that. She is hard on herself at times, and too easily forgiving of herself at others. Her pain, her sense of betrayal, but also her love are vividly shown through her words.

A powerful book from an incredibly talented writer.

5 stars

‘Brand New Friend’ by @k8vane #rbrt #fridayreads #bookreview

#RBRT Review Team

I read ‘Brand New Friend’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team

Brand New Friend by Kate Vane

Amazon.co.uk

Wherever Paolo went, Claire had got there first. The gigs, the parties, the enigmatic artist he was sure he was in love with. He would never have joined the group if it hadn’t been for Claire. And maybe, if he hadn’t, no one would have died.

Journalist Paolo Bennett learns that Mark, an animal rights activist he knew as a student in the 80s, has been exposed as a former undercover cop. A news blog claims Mark was the fabled spy who never went back, who liked his new life better than his own.

Paolo wants the truth. He wants the story. Despite everything, he wants to believe his friend. But Mark isn’t making it easy for him, disappearing just as everyone wants answers.

Was their group linked to a death on campus, one the police were strangely reluctant to investigate? Why is Mark’s police handler lying dead in his garden?

And why does Paolo suspect, even now, that Claire knows more than he does?

Successful journalist Paolo is feeling a little dissatisfied with life. Forced back to the UK from a happy life in Cairo, his wife is distant, his work frustrating. Then Mark, an activist from Paolo’s student past is revealed to be an undercover police officer who had eschewed life in the force to become a real activist. He contacts Paolo, and things get more interesting when a body is found in the community garden where Mark works. The story leads Paolo back to his university days and the reader is taken along with him as the author weaves together past and present.

I was a teenager in the eighties, and a student in the very early nineties and so I absolutely loved the references in this novel to the music I loved and the politics I was interested in – honestly, I could have been one of these intense students, going on anti-vivisection demos and listening to the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen, lecturing everyone about the gelatine in their wine gums – yes, that was me. And I can vouch for the authenticity of the writing here – it’s spot on and brings those years to life so well.

So not surprisingly the sections set in the eighties were the highlight for me, but that’s not to say that the rest of the book isn’t really good. There’s a very clever and a very pertinent story here, one that encompasses the issues of the past and current political and environmental issues, and that includes fracking, the Arab Spring, and the scandal around the undercover police officers who infiltrated pressure groups.

The mystery around the murder seems secondary to a large extent – to me, this novel felt that it was about its characters, the dynamics between them, their hopes and aspirations, and how those dreams and ambitions were either realised or thwarted. The murder and the mystery surrounding it feel like something to tie these stories together and I do think that if you’re a fan of crime fiction then you might be a little disappointed. But if you like a good story, with well-crafted and intelligent writing, and real authentic characters, then you’ll enjoy this novel.

4 stars

 

 

 

‘Furiously Happy’ by Jenny Lawson #throwbackthursday #bookreview #bloggesstribe

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

This is one of the books I mentioned on my post about mental health yesterday – and I recommend it to everyone!

81bAquOCgWL

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In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson regaled readers with uproarious stories of her bizarre childhood. In her new book, Furiously Happy, she explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

As Jenny says: ‘You can’t experience pain without also experiencing the baffling and ridiculous moments of being fiercely, unapologetically, intensely and (above all) furiously happy.’ It’s a philosophy that has – quite literally – saved her life.

Jenny’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, was ostensibly about family, but deep down it was about celebrating your own weirdness. Furiously Happy is a book about mental illness, but under the surface it’s about embracing joy in fantastic and outrageous ways. And who doesn’t need a bit more of that?

I’m a huge fan of Jenny Lawson’s blog ‘The Bloggess’ which has had me laughing and crying on many occasions. I also adored her first book ‘Let’s Pretend This Never Happened’, so I was so excited to read her second book.

Jenny is breathtakingly and beautifully honest about her mental health issues. She has crippling depression and anxiety, and, on top of this, also has to contend with problems with her physical health.  I’ve read a lot of books about these issues, but never have I read an author as inspiring, as honest and open and as terribly, horribly funny as Jenny Lawson.

This book focuses more on mental illness than the first book, but is no less hilarious for that. Jenny writes about her struggles with disarming honesty, the effects it has had on her life, her career and her family. She clearly adores her family,  but they don’t escape her unusual sense of humour. The arguments she has with husband Victor are a highlight of the book, as Jenny often goes off on a tangent that Victor finds increasingly difficult and frustrating to follow. But her love for him and his for her is touchingly shown when she tells him his life would be easier without her.

“It might be easier,” he replies. “But it wouldn’t be better.”

A brief run through of some of the chapter titles tells you most of what you need to know about this book:

‘George Washington’s Dildo’

‘LOOK AT THIS GIRAFFE’

‘Death by Swans Is Not as Glamorous as You’d Expect’

and

‘Cat Lamination’

are a few of my particular favourites.

While the book is very, very funny, it’s also very, very emotional to read, at least it was for me. Jenny’s mental health issues mean that she often can’t function, that she hides in hotel rooms when she’s supposed to be promoting her work, that she often feels like a failure because she can’t cope with the things other mothers seem to excel at, like PTA meetings. But she’s determined that when she feels fine, that when she can face life, that she will really live, that she will be ‘furiously happy’. She understands that there’s a flip side to the extreme emotions that depression brings – that she has the ability to also experience extreme joy, and she’s determined that she will have a storeroom of memories for those dark times, filled with moments

‘of tightrope walking, snorkelling in long-forgotten caves, and running barefoot through cemeteries with a red ball gown trailing behind me.’

As she says, it’s not just about saving her life, it’s about making her life.

Despite great breakthroughs in recent years, mental illness still carries a stigma. But sufferers are no more to blame for their illness than people with cancer, or MS or anything. Jenny’s writing humanises mental illness. She isn’t ashamed, and neither should anyone else be. The epilogue, ‘Deep in the Trenches’ made me cry. It’s the most touching, insightful, compassionate and beautiful piece of writing I’ve ever read about living with mental illness, or helping someone you love to live and to live fully.

And I’ll always be grateful for the very clever, but characteristically quirky, ‘spoons’ analogy. I read this part of the book at exactly the right time, and it really helped with a situation where someone I love really didn’t have enough spoons. Read it – you’ll get it, and it might help you too.

I love this book, and if I could give it more stars I would. Yes, it’s incredibly funny, but it also says something extremely important. If you have mental health issues, or care for someone who does, please, please read this.

5 stars