Wednesday, 30 September 2015

QUARTERLY ROUND UP: July - Sept 2015

Out of the many books I've read in July, August and September, these are the ones I have picked for my Top Ten.  I've given all these books at least 4.5 stars.  There are others on the blog with this rating, too, and plenty of good books that have received 4* (or less) that might appeal to you just as much; it's very hard to choose ten but I like to do this to give another shout-out for books I think are particularly good ~ it's all very much a matter of personal taste, of course :)

Please click the title of the book for the review; they're in no particular order.


1.  Past Encounters by Davina Blake

World War II and 1950s drama


2.  No More Mulberries by Mary Smith 

 Family drama set in Afghanistan


3.  An Unlamented Death by William Savage

18th century murder mystery


4.  Over The Hill and Far Away by Jo Carroll

 Travel memoir



 Plantagent/Tudor drama


6.  The Prodigal by Nicky Black

 Gritty Geordie crime drama


7. Forbidden Alliance by Katrina Mountfort

 2nd part of YA post apocalyptic trilogy


8.  Any Man Joe by Robert Leigh

Vigilante thriller


9.  Public Battles, Private Wars by Laura Wilkinson

1980s family drama during the miners' strike 


10.  Spirit of the Highway by Deborah Swift

17th Century English Civil War drama

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

OVER THE HILL AND FAR AWAY by Jo Carroll

5 out of 5 stars

Travel memoir ~ Aus, NZ, Nepal, India, Malaysia

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE
  


I'd been meaning to read this for so long, and even started it a couple of times but kept getting distracted by stuff like writing novels, reviewing commitments and zombie apocalypse series... but at last the time was right, when I just felt like a travel memoir, and what better than one by Jo Carroll?

It made me humbled ~ Jo started her 'gap year' when she was the age I am now, and I read about it from the comfort of ~ well, you know.  Yo respect, and all that.

Jo's grand tour starts in Australia and New Zealand; I wished there was more about these countries as they're places I long to visit; I loved reading her descriptions, particularly of NZ.  She travels with a companion in a huge camper van, after which she carries on alone to ... was it Nepal next?  I can't remember.  But then there's India, and Malaysia, and Cambodia, and Thailand.  I enjoyed the Nepal section very much, too, and Malaysia.


This account is very honest; I liked the way she talked about gradually finding her own rhythm, confidence that she could do things she never dreamt she could, the personal disasters (illness, the first time being due to a dodgy spring roll in Lucknow), her fears and occasional bouts of homesickness.  Best of all is the astute observation of the people she meets along the way, the pictures painted as sharply as in any good character-driven novel, from the garrulous Victor early on in NZ (or was it Australia?), the self-absorbed young travellers in Malaysia, the lovely and generous Rocky, slightly creepy Gardner in Cambodia (who does a fair bit to help her, it has to be said) with his young Khmer wife, and little nine year old Lolita in India, selling trinkets on her stall ~ yes, there are sad bits, too.  


There's far, far too much for me to describe here, but if you have any interest in visiting or have visited any of the countries named, you'll love this.  

Now, Ms Carroll, you mentioned meaning to go to St Petersburg; will you do that next, please, so I can read your book about it from the comfort of my four pillows?


FROM THE INSIDE LOOKING OUT by Jo Carroll is reviewed HERE
~ it's paperback only, and contains Jo's three other books all together, which are available on Kindle.  The one about Laos, Bombs and Butterflies, is wonderful and, I think, easily the best; it's on Amazon UK HERE



Saturday, 26 September 2015

SPIRIT OF THE HIGHWAY by Deborah Swift

5 out of 5 stars

17th Century YA

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE



I received an ARC of this book from the author, for an honest review.

.... and I'm happy to report that Deborah Swift has done it again!  This is the second part of the Highway Trilogy, and first I must make the point that it's a complete stand alone.  This is important for me, because I have virtually no long term memory when it comes to book/film/TV series plots.  Of course, once I began to read this, the plot of Part I, Shadow on the Highway, came back.

Part I is jolly good, but Part II is even better.  I'd only intended to dip in, take a look at the start, but then I read two thirds of it in one go.  I'm never quite sure what 'YA' actually means; when I was a young adult there were no YA books, we just read... books.  I suppose there are limitations on content and this is written more simply than, for instance, A Divided Inheritance, but I would have thought it could be enjoyed by anyone from the age of twelve to ninety.

Spirit of the Highway is (mostly) about a conflict at Markyate Manor, home of the real life Katherine Fanshawe (see the author's notes at the back of the book), between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians at the end of the English Civil War of the mid 17th Century.  It's written from the point of view of Ralph Chaplin, the young farmer in love with the lady of the manor; we're told from the beginning that he's dead (and, indeed, some of it is told by him as a ghost), but knowing the outcome for the main character does not spoil the story at all - just thought I'd better point that out!

Last week I read a very good novel about the 1980s UK Miners' Strike, Public Battles, Private Wars, so I had a good time nodding sagely to myself and making observations about unchanging human nature, etc.  Deborah Swift really knows her stuff, and I find myself saying the same things about her books every time I review one... but she's just a great story teller, I haven't been let down yet.  The last three and a half chapters of this story, are, in particular, brilliant; I highly recommend this book, and am very much looking forward to Part III.

SHADOW ON THE HIGHWAY is reviewed HERE; at the end you will find links to the two other 17th Century books by Deborah Swift that I've read (only one to go...)



and her WW2 mystery, PAST ENCOUNTERS, written under the name Davina Blake, is reviewed HERE




Wednesday, 23 September 2015

THE PEACEKEEPER by Zoe Saadia

4.5 out of 5 stars

Native American history

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE



Finally I got around to reading the last one of the four part Peacemaker series ~ and a very satisfactory ending it is too!  Unlike the other three, which have a basis in fact, I believe The Peacekeeper comes purely from the author's imagination.

This is a terrific series.  I found myself picturing them all ~ wise old men sitting around the campfires smoking, the restlessness of the younger warriors, the women in the longhouses, not least of all the rebellious Kahontsi.  In the last episode, 'Great Peacemaker' Two Rivers has done what he set out to do, bringing the Five Nations together, but the question remains: is he truly the messenger of the spirits?  Kahontsi thinks he's just a man, who happens to have a great deal of charisma, and she and others have much to say about the 'test of the falls', which Two Rivers was put through, in the last book ~ did he survive it with help from humans, or by spiritual means, as others think?  Is he just 'a mortal man with an immortal mission'?  Rumblings of dissent are felt, as Tekeni (Two River's companion throughout his adventure) fears that Tadodaho, another clan leader, is unconvinced.

I loved some of the philosophical wisdom in this book; Hainteroh's explanation that a raid on an enemy camp is not always for the purpose of winning a battle or taking captors.  Such proof of victory is not always necessary; the invasion itself can be simply a display of authority ~ a philosophy that could be applied elsewhere and in other areas of life.

I sometimes wonder how Zoe Saadia manages to exist in today's world, as her head is clearly so rooted in these times!  Her writing is so clear, so evocative.  She writes simply, and it really works.  I loved Tekeni's view that, since the clans have been brought together, 'even the elements were happy with all Two Rivers had achieved.  The woods and the lakes and the bright summer sky ... they were all happy now'.  I've always liked Tekeni and I thought this was really sweet.

I'll just give a reminder that it's agreed by many that the latter day USA constitution was influenced by the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois; this series is a must-read for anyone who is interested in this time.  Lovely ending, too.  Bravo, Zoe Saadia!  

You can see reviews of the other books in this series HERE; there are links to books 2 and 3 after this review of Book 1, Two Rivers 



Monday, 21 September 2015

PUBLIC BATTLES, PRIVATE WARS by Laura Wilkinson

4.5 out of 5 stars

1980s Miners Strike Drama

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE



Well, what a nice surprise this was!  It was in the reviewing list for Rosie Amber's Review Team, of which I am a part, and I failed to pick up on it, but then I read THIS review of it by another team member (sorry, can't find it on the blog so have taken it from Amazon!), and decided to buy it anyway.  Guess what?  Book blogs work!!  Read them!!  :)

This is so good, I read it in one day (yep, couldn't put it down!).  It's written in the first person narrative of Mandy Walker, a miner's wife during the strike of 1983-5, in a Yorkshire village.  Running through the real life/public events are the private wars of the title; the strain on family life that these events caused, coupled with love wrangles, painful memories and marital disharmony.

What I liked about this book: it's very well written, flows beautifully (probably goes without saying, as I read it in a day!).  The story is so realistic; I am the same age as the fictional Mandy (I was 24 in 1983, too), but my life was so different ~ middle class, in the south, with a husband and a small business rather than four kids.  The conflict was something we saw on television, something for which we put money in buckets, then went on with our lives.  This brought it all home to me ~ BUT (and it's a big 'but') it wasn't done so in a painfully laboured fashion.  It's written in such a way that I was aware of the north~south divide, the fact that they were a Yorkshire community, without everyone giving it 'ee-by-gum, he's worked down t'pit all his life, I'll take home a bottle of stout for the Mrs' every five minutes, like you see in some books that wish to be representative of a place and time, and neither did it cash in on the 1980s aspect with loads of references to the music and everyone wearing white high heels and padded shoulders (not that they would have done in a mining community anyway, perhaps).  The characters were great; Mandy was very believable and likeable, and others I thought particularly good were the dragon-like matriarch of the community, Ethel Braithwaite, and Dan, the soldier who'd returned from the Falklands, something of an enigma.  

I also liked the way the changing attitudes of the time were illustrated, especially when Mandy went down to London as part of her work with the wives' action group, and met people from areas of life she would not normally have done, had it not been for the strike.

I was a little disappointed that there was less drama than I'd have liked in the last twenty per cent, but that's only personal taste; the way in which it turned out was certainly realistic.  I'd have liked to see the 'main baddie' get more of a comeuppance (I hated this character from the start, but won't even give away the sex as I don't want to reveal the plot), but this isn't 'Dallas' and the person was so well drawn, too; it's good to have someone to hate in an emotional drama such as this!  Aside from the fact that I felt let down by one particular revelation and its outcome ~ oh, okay, and that it didn't end up quite as I wanted it to! ~ I'd have given it 5*, but it's a definite 4.5.

I'd totally recommend this book, it's a cracker.  I look forward to reading more by this author ~ and I mean that, it's not just a nice way of rounding off the review!

Sunday, 20 September 2015

JACKIE COLLINS ~ A Tribute

I read this morning that the wonderful Jackie Collins has just died from breast cancer at the age of 77 ~ so sad.  


I always loved her books.  The first one I read was her debut, The World is Full of Married Men; I read it in the late 1970s when, I seem to remember, she was dismissed by many as being 'trashy', and had a reputation for writing about nothing but sex.  I read this book and thought, untrue on all counts!  Jackie didn't just write about sex, she wrote about relationships in which it played a big part, but the sex was never overly explicit for the sake of it, or cringe-making, it was realistic.  What made Jackie so good was her brilliant plots, her great dialogue, her three dimensional characters, and her open window into the real lives of the rich and famous.  


In 1983 I read the book that I still think is her best of all the ones I've read ~ Chances.  One of my top twenty books ever, I've read it so many times.  It's the story of Gino Santangelo (who I totally fell in love with!) and starts in 1921; he's a New York street kid who becomes a gangster and hugely successful businessman. Running alongside is the tale of Carrie, a teenager forced into prostitution.  This book, more than any gangster films or Boardwalk Empire, got me interested in the underworld of American organised crime, the rackets during prohibition, etc etc; I can't recommend it too highly.  Other favourites of mine are Lovers and Gamblers ~ rock star Al King (loosely based on Tom Jones?), beauty queen Dallas and a disaster in the Amazon jungle ~ and the first (1980s) Hollywood Wives, which unmasked the truth behind the Hollywood A List!  Oh, and how could I forget Rock Star, and The Stud, and Lucky ...

 Oliver Tobias and sister Joan Collins in the film of The Stud

Jackie Collins' fictional ladies were no ditzy chick lit heroines ~ never mind Bridget Jones, I'd rather read about Lucky Santangelo, Montana Grey and Elaine Conti from Hollywood Wives, Venus Maria (loosely based on Madonna?) from whichever one or two she was in (Hollywood Husbands, I think).  Women, who, ahem, kicked ass, I believe is the term.  

My sister Julia met Jackie in 1991.  Julia worked in television at the time and was at the launch for the video being made of Hollywood Wives.  Jackie C was well known for not liking to wear dresses; Julia was wearing a shirt, tie and trousers, and Jackie approached her to say how much she liked what she was wearing.  They chatted for half an hour or so, and Julia said she was delightful. (incidentally, as was Joan, when we both met her in 1999).

My sister Julia and Jackie, in 1991 

She was fab.  And so were her books.  RIP Jackie; it would be nice to think she is reunited with husband Oscar, who died some years back.

I think this was the publicity photo for The World is Full of Married Men!

Joan Collins pays tribute HERE

Her last British interview, from The Guardian, HERE

 ~Jackie and Joan~





 

Saturday, 19 September 2015

A STREET CAFE NAMED DESIRE by R J Gould

3 out of 5 stars

Light domestic drama

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE


Reviewed by me as part of Rosie Amber's Book Review Team
 
This is light-ish drama about a father of two teenagers dealing with the aftermath of his wife leaving him.  David Willoughby starts his single life by going to a school reunion and meeting Bridget, but the story is also about his day to day struggles and his plans to change his life.
 
It's a 'cosy' sort of book, very domestic.  The writing style itself is engaging, and the characters come across well, being distinct and fairly well drawn in most cases.  I can imagine it would appeal to the more mature reader; the pace is quite slow and, despite the rather self-conscious references to popular music and culture, it's kind of old fashioned; David and his peers seem like the sort who have moved happily into a comfortable and conventional middle age.
Although there is much to commend about this book, I did have a few difficulties with it.  I found some of the dialogue unrealistic, and the reactions of the characters rather odd, generally; for instance, Jane and Jim's behaviour towards David at the beginning of the book was, I thought, unlikely, as was children Sam and Rachel's reaction to the separation of their parents, David's non-reaction to the frequent stream of bad language coming out of his daughter's mouth, and the rather bizarre letter from Rachel's headmaster.  The proofreading and editing could have been improved upon; there is quite a lot of unnecessary detail, and some bad punctuation.
The Arts Café idea perked the whole thing up; David's a nice guy, the sort of character you want to see happy (thought I did want to shake him sometimes, too!)
To sum up ~ it's quite nicely put together, but, for me, lacked spark; it was too staid and the humour felt a little forced.  However, a review is only ever one person's opinion, and some parts were well done; I think readers who like a more 'cosy' sort of book would enjoy it.

Friday, 18 September 2015

THE NEW MRS D by Heather Hill

3.5 out of 5 stars

Mature Chick Lit

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE


Reviewed by me as part of Rosie Amber's Book Review Team


Bernice is on her honeymoon in Greece; it's her second marriage, and she has two grown up daughters.  The problem is that her husband, David, loves her but doesn't fancy her - several days into the holiday they still haven't had sex - he's been getting his kicks from porn websites.  Oh, and he had a picture of four of her bikini clad friends in his wallet.  Not Bernice, just her friends...


Bernice decides she can't take it any more, and will spend the rest of the holiday alone.  She meets up with David's friend Chris, an artist who lives nearby, and makes several new friends.


This is a smart, well written, lighthearted-with-serious-undertones sort of book, and I enjoyed the Greek holiday atmosphere.  I thought the whole subject of Bernice's dilemma was most interesting; her relationship with her mother that led to the low self-esteem, that led to her making a first unwise marriage, then becoming a Facebook 'friend' of the woman for whom Husband #1 left her, and, finally, marrying a man who didn't want to sleep with her.  I think many women would be able to relate to Bernice's tendency to 'people please', which in itself had a detrimental effect on her self-esteem, but I thought the story might have been better suited to a slightly edgy, contemporary drama, rather than chick lit mode, with all its zany incidents -  I do sometimes wonder if anyone's ever written a chick lit heroine who isn't ludicrously accident prone!


I was pleased that the ending wasn't predictable (I liked it alot, it made me smile!), and I thought the message of the book, about learning to love and accept yourself, was sincerely and sympathetically executed.  The whole thing was a bit too 'whoo-hoo, you go girl, let's all be sassy real women' for me (and a bit too naked), but that's only personal taste; Bernice and her new friends were believable characters and I think this book will appeal to many women.  I can imagine it being an inspiration to others caught in the low self-esteem trap; haven't most of us been there at some point?


Thursday, 10 September 2015

ANY MAN JOE by Robert Leigh

5 GOLD stars

Vigilante/crime drama/thriller

On Amazon UK (currently only in paperback) HERE
On Amazon.com HERE

Reviewed by me as part of Rosie Amber's Review Team




Excellent, excellent - I thoroughly enjoyed this!

Joe is a quiet living young man who lives on a rough council estate in London, just minding his own business - until he becomes unwillingly mixed up in the world of the estate's drug dealers.  Pretty soon, he finds himself in handcuffs... that's all I will say about the plot, or I'll spoil it.

Robert Leigh has done it again, the same as he did in Kill Line - he's made me like and root for a mass murderer.  No, I'm not weird - read it, and you'll understand!  I still feel sad thinking about him.

Parts of this book reminded me of that televisual piece of excellence, The Wire - if you liked that, you'll love this.  Of course, this is South London, not Baltimore, but I imagine the drug dealing hierarchy runs much the same.  The story is told in alternating points of view, between Joe and DI Edwards, the officer originally in charge of the case.  It highlights police corruption and social problems, too - all very real.


The book is SO well structured, which is one of the elements that makes it work so well, with the story unravelling gradually, as we move from hospital to police custody to flashbacks back on the estate.  The dialogue and the characterisations of the dealers, the junkie who befriends Joe, the blinkered cops, are spot on.  The action is cleverly executed, too, making me able to visualise clearly what was happening - this is a hard thing to do, I've read so many that don't work.  The suspense is superbly suspenseful (!), as is the build up of Joe's frustrated outbursts.  A classy writer, this!

This is the second novel in Leigh's Retribution Trilogy - I can't wait to read the third.   It's a complete stand alone, the stories are not connected in any way, so you don't have to read Kill Line first (though it's so good, I would if I were you!!!).

KILL LINE by Robert Leigh reviewed HERE



FROM LIME STREET TO YIRGACHEFFE by Robert Leigh reviewed HERE



Tuesday, 8 September 2015

PAST ENCOUNTERS by Davina Blake

5 GOLD Stars

WW2 drama

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE



Wow!  What an amazing book ~ I read it over a period of 24 hours, ignoring everything else.... maybe that's all you need to know!

The book starts in 1955, with Rhoda and Peter's marriage cold and stagnant.  Rhoda discovers that Peter has been paying visits to an old friend she has never heard of, in all the ten years they've been married.

The story travels back to Peter's fortunes in World War II as a prisoner of the Germans; much of the book is about his experiences and these were the bits I found the most absorbing, so much that I've just been looking up some of the titles of suggested further reading at the end of the book.  I think these parts of this story will stay with me for a long time.  

Rhoda's own story was pretty heartbreaking, too, but I can't say too much because I don't want to give the plot away!  Suffice to say that Carnforth in Cumbria, where she lived, was the real location for parts of the film Brief Encounter, and Ms Blake has brought the filming of it to life in fiction.  It's obviously very well researched and is fascinating to read for that alone.

Loved it, loved it.  Davina Blake also writes 17th Century historical fiction under the pen name Deborah Swift; I've read three of them (so far), equally good.

A link to my review of A Divided Inheritance is HERE ; it contains links to my reviews of The Gilded Lily and Shadow on the Highway. 



Monday, 7 September 2015

FORBIDDEN ALLIANCE by Katrina Mountfort

4.5 out of 5 stars

Futuristic YA drama, 2nd part of trilogy

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE


I started reading this as soon as it came out, because I loved the first part, Future Perfect, so much.

Cathy's family live in one of the village communities on outside State 11, formerly the UK, in the year 2189 when the 'chosen' people live a sterile and human emotion/attachment free life inside Chinese controlled Citidomes.  Cathy and her husband, Michael, escaped from one of these in the first volume of the Blueprint trilogy; now, we are sixteen/seventeen years down the line, and Cathy is a mother of three, including sixteen year old Joy.

Forbidden Alliance is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of Cathy and Joy.  Their personalities are satsifyingly different; Joy is much more self-confident, outspoken and adventurous than Cathy ever was at her age.  Occasionally I got confused and would think, "Eh?  Oh, yes, this is Cathy's chapter" but I think that's only because the chapters are quite short and the same large cast of characters features all through the book.  The main theme running through the book for Joy is her sometimes heartbreaking love for Harry, a boy she has known since childhood who lives on the canals ~ theirs is (one of) the forbidden alliance(s) of the title, as her father is obsessed with the repopulation of the communities; this obsession causes pain and worry to Cathy, who is frustrated with her life.

The way in which the old ways of life emerge in the communities outside the Citidomes is absorbing, as is the difference between the 'normal' people and the Citidome residents after Michael's organisation executes an escape plan to free some of them.  

The story is as well thought out, entertaining and thought provoking as the first in the series, and I very much look forward to reading the next one; that's me with my fingers drumming on the table!  Recommended for all lovers of books about future worlds, whether you're a 'young adult' (YA!) or not!  You do need to read the first book, though; this is not a stand alone.

FUTURE PERFECT by Katrina Mountfort reviewed HERE



Thursday, 3 September 2015

NO MORE MULBERRIES by Mary Smith

4.5 out of 5 stars

Family drama set in Afghanistan

On Amazon UK HERE
On Amazon.com HERE


This was one of those books that stayed with me when I wasn't reading it; the emotions of the main characters, Miriam and Iqbal, were so well painted.

Jawad was the love of Miriam's life; they met in her hometown in Scotland and struggled against initial family opposition to marry, after which they had a son and set up home and a medical practice in his native Afghanistan.  At the beginning of the novel Jawad is dead, and Miriam's second marriage to Iqbal, a doctor, is causing them both problems ~ for Iqbal, the shadow of Miriam's first husband, his need to conform to the culture of the village in which he grew up, the stigma attached to his childhood leprosy.  Miriam struggles with the restrictions placed on her by Iqbal's place in society, and her rose tinted memories of her ex-husband.

This book gave me great insight into the culture of rural Afghanistan, not a country I knew much about at all.  I was surprised by how normal life went on despite all the conflict of the time (it's set in 1995).  What struck me most was how stifling village life appeared to be, with everyone knowing everyone else's business and having plenty to say about it!  My sympathies lay more with Iqbal than with Miriam, I must say; her initial reason for marrying him (ie, to get back to Afghanistan, rather than love) and the fact that she was still in love with a dead man must have been apparent to him, yet she expected him to behave in a way that would make her happy, never thinking about what it might cost him.  I did find her pain over the loss of Jawad heartbreaking, though.

The novel is very well paced, with detail about the culture woven subtly into the main story.  I found it hard at first to keep up with all the different characters, but this was partly because the names were not familiar to me.  I felt sad when I finished it, and it made me want to read more about the people.  Recommended!