Wednesday, 28 June 2017

SINCLAIR by Julia Herdman

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: It was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.


Sinclair is a drama set in the late 18th century, mostly in various areas of London.  It begins with the Scottish protagonist, James Sinclair—eager to escape the disapproval of his father yet reluctant to leave the woman he loves—setting sail for India, where he is to take up a post as a physician/surgeon.  Alas, he gets no further than Dorset; after violent storms, the ship is wrecked.  Sinclair is among the meagre number of survivors, along with the outgoing and friendly Captain Frank Greenwood.  Together, they make their way back to London. 

Meanwhile, back in Southwark, widow Charlotte Leadam is in great difficulty.  Mourning her husband, she faces bankruptcy, and also has to deal with an overpowering and aspirational mother and sister, both eager to run her life. 

The novel is extremely well researched, with all sorts of historically interesting snippets, much about the medical practices of the time and plenty of social and domestic detail.  The author has a pleasantly readable writing style, and I very much liked the social tittle-tattle and snobbery aspect involving the wives and mothers, which made for some excellent, amusing characterisation. 

A slight downside for me was the lack of plot direction; there are many, many characters, and the narrative 'head-hops' constantly between character points of view, of which there are many.  There are so many plot diversions and side-plots that it was a bit like reading an 18th century version of The Archers or EastEnders.  However, I understand that this is the first in a series, so I'm guessing this is exactly what it is: the continuing story of the colourful characters connected to Tooley Street!   All the relationships, possible relationships and social gatherings certainly entertained me, though I kept expecting plot threads to develop into a main storyline, or deepen; certain aspects could have made for interesting reading, such as the corruption within the East India Company, the HMS Bounty, Charlotte's potential bankruptcy, but were only touched upon in passing, with the main storylines remaining domestic.  Personal woes for Sinclair and Greenwood provide more intrigue, and bring some of the other threads together.  I liked the last paragraph very much, incidentally.

To sum up, as a 'life and times' sort of work, or an illustration of the period, it's a good example, and, although a bit too 'cosy' and HEA for me, I'd recommend it to lovers of the family saga genre or anyone who likes nicely written, lovingly researched, light historical fiction.

 

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

BLOCK 46 by Johana Gustawsson @JoGustawsson @OrendaBooks

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads




How I discovered this book: I'd read several positive reviews for it on book blogs, but it was the one on Swirl and Thread that made me take the plunge!

I'm not usually one for police procedurals as I get bored with the endless conversations discussing the ins and outs of the case, but this attracted me because of the Scandinavian setting and the connection to Buchenwald concentration camp in WW2.

In Sweden, high-flying jewellery designer Linnéa Blix is found gruesomely and artfully murdered; it is clear that her killer was intent on her being discovered.  Her friend, crime writer Alexis, becomes involved in the investigation, much of which is led by forensic profiler Emily Roy.  The murder shows marked similarities to recent murders of young boys in London. 

Alongside the unravelling investigation runs the story of Erich Ebner, a German medical student interred in Buchenwald, and his relationship with a Nazi doctor occupied with medical experimentation.  Gradually, the two threads converge.

I was most pleased to discover that the ins and outs and whys and wherefores of the case discussion actually held my attention—a round of applause to the author.  One particular part of 'the reveal' had me wanting to go back to the beginning and see all the clues I'd missed; I didn't guess the outcome at all!  A side element I liked was the incidental information about Scandinavia, in general.  I didn't find any of the characters particularly vivid (Emily was the one who 'spoke' to me the most), and I found it hard to remember which cop was which (there are a lot of them), but it kind of didn't matter, because the plot itself, the neat structure, the building of suspense and the interspersing of story threads totally carried this novel.

It's a bit on the grisly side in parts, but given the subject matter it could hardly be anything but, and I didn't feel, at any time, that this was just sensationalism.  My only complaint was that I found the explanations of the killers' motivations a little vague; I was never exactly clear what need was being fulfilled or what the work of the Nazi doctor actually was, other than general sadism and psychopathery.  But that might just be me.  I was absorbed by the book all the way through, looked forward to getting back to it, and would definitely recommend it, whether you're a fan of this genre or not.


Thursday, 22 June 2017

SECRETS by Judith Barrow @barrow_judith

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com

How I discovered this book: I've read the three books in Judith Barrow's Howarth family saga, so was interested to read this offshoot collection of short stories. **Only 99p**

I read the whole collection this afternoon, and really enjoyed them.  Each story deals with a character who has a secret; the first few are quite short, the longer, more involved ones nearer the end.  I recognised some of the names from the series, but it wouldn't matter if I had or not; they're all terrific stories in their own right.  The best ones are, I think, Alun Thomas and Stan Green's secrets, both of which are heartrending and take place during the First World War; I imagine I will meet these two when I read the prequel to the trilogy, which is out this summer. 

What the characters have in common is their social class, and the book is a great illustration of how some situations caused great trauma for the subject, yet wouldn't matter at all today, or even occur; a boy of fourteen lies about his age and signs up to fight in the war, a girl survives a mother and baby home where the children are taken away for adoption, a battered wife has no choice but to stay with her husband.  The characterisation is spot on, all the way through.

Judith Barrow has done a great job of ending some stories with dangling threads, leaving you dying to know what happens next ~ thus, the outtake short story collection for a series.  It certainly worked for me!  But they stand up perfectly well on their own.   I definitely recommend them for a great couple of hour's reading.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

FORBIDDEN FRUIT by Stanley Gazemba

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: It was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Forbidden Fruit is a novel about life in a Kenyan village, about the vagaries of human nature, but I felt it was more an illustration of the life and times of the people; the plot comes second.  The 'forbidden fruit' of the title refers not only to an illicit affair, but other aspects of the story.

The main character is impoverished villager Ombima, who, at the beginning of the novel, is stealing food from the farms owned by his employers, simply because his family do not have enough.  I found the differences between the poor and the wealthy starkly delineated; this interested me and was very well done.  The descriptions of the rural life were quite an education, and even though, by Western standards, the lives of the villagers is harsh, I felt that they were no badly off than we are.  Certainly there was much joy to be found.

I found the dialogue a little strange at times; I don't know if it was translated from another language or if the author's first language is not English; there is no author profile on Amazon for me to see.  But it was a mixture of Americanisms and some curious choices of words; I don't know how Kenyans talk so I can't say whether or not it is authentic.

If you are interested in every day life in rural Africa I am sure you will love this book; every aspect of life is explored in great detail.

 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

THE LAST MERIDIAN by Joe Hefferon @HefferonJoe

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon.co.uk
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: It was submitted to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

'The past is a stone - you can carry it around with you, or you can step up on it to see what's coming over the next hill'.

The Last Meridian is a crime novel set in the 1960s, in the 'noir' sub-genre; it's not one I've explored before, and somewhere near the beginning I realised I should read it out loud, leaning against a lamp-lit wall down a dark alley, wearing a fedora and smoking a French cigarette.  I imagined this; it really did make the dialogue work! 

In the first chapter in 1948, a girl drives away from Illinois, along Route 66, heading for LA.  We don't know why, but Lynn becomes Nina, and starts a new career as an interior designer for the stars. Meanwhile, back in 1965, a man associated with the underworld is murdered, and the murder is witnessed by the teenage son of the victim's girlfriend.  Nina's involvement in this is one I didn't guess at all, and, as the mother of the boy tries to save her son, a private detective called CS and a journalist/writer called Jimmy are brought in, centre stage.

The book took a short while to gel for me as there are a lot of characters to remember, at the beginning, but before 10% I'd settled into the back-and-forth-in-time structure, and begun to really enjoy it.  Mr Hefferon is masterful at creating atmosphere, and I loved the cynical, seedy crime/Hollywood characters.  I especially liked some of the short backstories; that of CS, and mother Larissa, in particular.  The character I found the most interesting was Jimmy, and I liked the extracts from his manuscript, and his philosophical pondering... 'in some cross-layered way, each of us is the supporting cast for all of us ... how do we arrive at the places where our lives mesh with the people we need for our own narrative?'.  

...I liked the observations about the people, fashions and culture: 'Beards, shaggy hair and abraded clothing were just becoming the craze of the anti-establishment, yet this juvenile bandito remained stuck in 1958, unconcerned with change.  He had chosen his look ... he would wear it proudly until time and prison sucked the black from his mane'.

...about the locations: 'No one with any style lives in Bakersfield ... it's all money and no pizazz.  What kind of claim is 'Halfway to Fresno'?'

....and about Nina's dysfunctional marriage: 'In a lovers' paradox, they found each other attractive at different times, but never at the same time... it was a marriage of inconvenience'.

Joe Hefferon is an intelligent and talented writer, and I hope he is as proud of this clever and delightfully atmospheric novel as he should be.

The novel ends at around 90%, after which there is an author's note, acknowledgements, and an excerpt from another novel from the same publishing company.











Sunday, 4 June 2017

FARING TO FRANCE ON A SHOE by Val Poore @vallypee

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE
On Goodreads HERE


How I discovered this book: I got to know Val Poore on Twitter some years ago, and have read all her travel books; African Ways is my very favourite.  Links to Watery Ways and Harbour Ways on the above review.

In this memoir, Val and her partner Koos travel to France via their home of the Netherlands and Belgium, on their barge the Hennie-Ha - which really is shaped like a Dutch clog; see cover!

The beauty of this book is, I think, that it's so very real and unpretentious.  Nothing particularly breath-taking happens, but every time I picked it up I smiled at the way that Val Poore can even make a trip to the supermarket good to read about.  It's so genuine; there are no flowery descriptions for the sake of it, just Val's impressions.  And it's funny, too - not split-your-sides laughing, deliberately 'hilarious anecdotes' like some books of this type; her writing doesn't need that, because it hits the right spot so effortlessly.  Especially the nerve-wracking cycle ride to buy food:  juggernauts flying past, a flat tyre and the bed of stinging nettles....

As someone who believes that the simpler your life is, the happier you are, I sighed as I read about Val and Koos' memories of a happy evening that could not be captured in words or by camera, the liberation from the 'must do' stuff of the world left behind, and her appreciation of the occasional makeshift 'shower', after days and days of stand up strip washes.  The more I read, the more I liked it, until about half way through, when I wished I was IN it.

There are links to Val's photos of the trip on Flickr, which were great to look at.  A lovely book.


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

SAFE WITH ME by Grace Lowrie

3.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: It was a submission to Rosie Amber's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

Safe With Me is a contemporary romantic drama involving themes of fostered children and domestic abuse.  The story alternates between the points of view of Katerina (sometimes Kat, sometimes Rina), and Jamie. 

The novel opens with Kat in a deeply depressing situation.  After a terrible childhood in and out of foster homes, then life on the streets, she has been married for many years to Vic, a criminal who owns a greasy spoon café on a London market.  Her life is one of imprisonment, abuse and drudgery, as she works in the café all day every day, and spends her evenings tiptoeing round Vic's temper.  She hates him, but is completely worn down and unable to see a way out.   The one light in her life is her memory of Jamie, the little boy with whom she was fostered as a child.  I thought this part of the book was written very well indeed, I was most impressed.  I felt every moment of Kat's fear and hopelessness. 

Jamie, by contrast, has led a happy life, but always longed to see Kat again.  When they meet up, completely by accident, neither of them have any idea who the other is.  This novel turns on its head the current trend for unguessable plot twists, which I liked very much: in Safe With Me, the reader knows what's going on, but the characters don't.  It really worked, because I found myself wondering how they were going to discover each other's identities; the 'reveal' is well done, and is unexpected; I liked it. 

Ms Lowrie has a nice, easily accessible style of writing, very readable.  I did prefer the first half of the book, which, for me, had more atmosphere and realism.  The second half is centred round the relationship between Kat and Jamie, and Kat's road to recovery; it's done well but, for me, the climax of the book came too soon.  This is just a personal preference, of course.  Conflict/tension is provided by Jamie's ex-girlfriend, and the uncovering of some secrets of Jamie and Kat's past, but I thought the Vic situation was disposed of too easily, and sometimes descriptive passages slowed the momentum; I think it needed a better edit.   

This novel has much to commend it; on the whole, I'd say it's a book for readers who like the gradual unfolding of emotions to ponder over, rather than page-turning drama.