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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog BLACK IRISH BLUES: A Caesar Stiles Mystery by Andrew Cotto @andrewcotto A great combination of good writing, great characters, and a compelling setting #RBRT

Hi all:

I bring you another book from Rosie’s Book Review Team. Short but full to the brim with great characters and stories.

Black Irish Blues by Andrew Cotto

Black Irish Blues: A Caesar Stiles Mystery by Andrew Cotto

“Being a fan of Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley, I would certainly label Andrew Cotto as a comparable read to these luminaries in terms of style, characterization and the depiction of life in a tough neighborhood.” –Raven Crime Reads

“Cotto’s lyrical prose reads like Raymond Chandler taking dictation from Walt Whitman.” –Publishers Weekly

Black Irish Blues is the return-to-origin story of Caesar Stiles, an erstwhile runaway who returns to his hometown with plans to buy the town’s only tavern and end his family’s Sicilian curse.

Caesar’s attempt for redemption is complicated by the spectral presence of his estranged father, reparation seekers related to his corrupt older brother, a charming crime boss and his enigmatic crew, and – most significantly – a stranger named Dinny Tuite whose disappearance under dubious circumstances immerses Caesar in a mystery that leads into the criminal underbelly of industrial New Jersey, the flawed myth of the American Dream, and his hometown’s shameful secrets.

Black Irish Blues is a poetic, gritty noir full of dynamic characters, a page-turning plot, and the further development of a unique American character.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08P26X8ZC/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B08P26X8ZC/

https://www.amazon.es/gp/product/B08P26X8ZC/

Author Andrew Cotto

About the author:

Andrew Cotto is an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, La Cucina Italiana, AARP, Rachael Ray In Season, Maxim, The Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

https://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Cotto/e/B006SHJK4Q/

My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team, and I received an ARC copy of the novel, which I freely chose to review.

This is my first experience reading this author’s work, although when I checked his biography I realised that he had not only been writing for quite a while, but this is not the first novel he publishes with Caesar Stiles as the main character, although the first one was published in 2012, and it’s only available in paperback. It makes perfect sense when we read the story, as there are references to what has happened before, but it is not necessary to have read the previous novel to enjoy this one.

The description of the book provides a good overview of the plot, especially as I want to avoid any spoilers. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the genre of this short novel, and although it might sound like an impossible combination (and I suspect the author wouldn’t agree) if there was something like a “noir-cozy” or a “hard-boiled-cozy” this would be it. Let me explain what I mean because I know the two concepts seem impossible to reconcile. What I mean by cozy is that the novel has not only a pretty peculiar protagonist (who left his home in quite traumatic circumstances and has been wandering the roads of America ever-since), but many of the other characters that make an appearance are also unique (a fantastically charming “good” baddie, an intriguing father, a bodyguard with plenty of style, a driver-cum-guide with plenty of hidden talents, a rich businessman with an alternative view of life…); there is also a strong focus on a small town and its inhabitants, peculiarities, and power structures and games; and a lot of attention is paid to Caesar’s cooking, with lengthy descriptions of some of his favourite dishes and how to cook them. Cozy mysteries tend to combine the actual mystery with some sort of side attraction or plot-line (cooking and baking are quite popular, but there might also be magic, paranormal elements, acting, song contests or a multitude of other subjects). The crimes investigated in that genre can be serious (murders are quite common), but the investigation itself is not discussed in too much detail; it is hardly on the level of a police procedural novel, and the level of violence tends to be either very minor, bizarre or cartoonish rather than realistic, or not discussed in detail. This novel, like many American novels, depicts a small-town that is far from the white-picket fence oasis urban dwellers imagine. It has a dark side, and there are plenty of non-cozy subjects that make an appearance (prostitution, corruption, prejudice, hints of racism, organised crime, bullying and child abuse…), but although I can’t go into detail, let’s say that the nature of the mystery/crime and the ending of the novel are a bit surprising considering some of the less-than-savoury themes discussed.

The style is definitely noir/hard-boiled, with dialogue that is stylised, hard-hitting, witty, and eminently quotable; there is gloomy foreshadowing; there is threatened and actual violence inflicted (although rather than gore and over the top, it felt fairly restrained in its description, perhaps because the story is narrated in the first person by Caesar and, as he reminds us a few times, he’s got used to enduring violence due to his previous experiences and can take a beating), I’ve already mentioned some of the topics typical of the genre, and as the story is set in the early 90s, we have plenty of characters misbehaving (smoking, drinking alcohol, flaunting their money and being conspicuously materialistic) but not much swearing; we have an old Sicilian curse; a character from the wrong side of the tracks with criminal connections who has lost most of his family by the time we meet him. There are plenty of rich descriptions that bring to life the place and the characters, and the book —which is rather short (a bit long for a novella, but pretty short for a novel)— covers a lot of ground in very few pages. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered, surprises of all kinds that keep popping up, and friends and enemies are not always easy to tell apart.

I liked the central character and plenty of the other characters that make an appearance, although some we don’t get to know very well, and there are a few truly despicable ones. The fact that Caesar tells the story and is quite a contemplative person, who has a lot of stories in his past and plenty of memories to reflect upon helps us connect easily with him and with the characters he likes, even if some of them are ambiguous and not what they seem to be. He is trying his hardest to make things right and to put an end to the family’s curse; he is eager to reconnect with his past, to leave a worthy legacy, and to help others; and although he is not whiter than white (in fact, we learn that he’s done some pretty questionable things), he does have a sense of what is right and wrong and of morality that most readers will probably feel comfortable with.

As mentioned, the writing style is quite descriptive, and the descriptions do not always help directly advance the story. However, they contribute to create a picture of the places and the people we are reading about, and they also fit the narrative style of the protagonist, who is often told he should write his story, and who notes that he used to write lengthy descriptions of the places he visited and of the people he met in his letters to his mother all throughout the many years he was away. There are scenes of action; there are contemplative moments; there are cooking interludes; and there are memories and flashbacks interspersed in the novel, so the pace is not relentless and the storyline does not rush at breakneck speed, but it flows well, and it packs a lot of information and story into very few pages.

Without giving too many clues, I can affirm that I really enjoyed the ending, and it worked well for me. It is evident when we read the novel that the main character has a past, and recent events in his life have had a lot of impact in his current situation, but there is enough information provided for those of us who like to fill in the blanks in order to give us a good sense of the psychology and the complexity of the main character and to make us wonder what will happen next, while at the same time offering us a full and complex story with a satisfying resolution.

In sum, this is a short novel that manages to combine many genres, with a strong and likeable protagonist and some pretty memorable secondary characters, a vividly depicted setting, dark subjects aplenty, a noir writing style without extreme gore or swear words but full of unforgettable quotes, and enough cooking reference to delight gourmets, especially meat-eaters (not my case, unfortunately). A very interesting author with a unique writing style, and one I’ll make sure to keep my eyes on in the future.

Thanks to the author for his novel, thanks to Rosie and all the members of her team for their ongoing support, and thanks to all of you for reading, commenting, liking, and always being there. Remember to keep safe and to keep smiling.

Before you go, I kept thinking that I couldn’t share a post and not say something in Sue Vincent’s memory. Many bloggers have written about her and her passing already, people who knew her better and who’ve expressed what we were all thinking and feeling in a heartfelt and beautiful way, much better than I could. But just say that I won’t forget her smile, her inspiring images and posts, Annie and her stories, her son Nick and his bravery and example, and her courage and sense humour in the face of adversity. Keep smiling, Sue, wherever you are.

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview 337 by M Jonathan Lee (@MJonathanLee) A ‘total’ reading experience #literaryfiction

Hi all:

I bring you a pretty surprising (albeit enjoyable) reading experience.

337 by M. Jonathan Lee

337 by M Jonathan Lee

337 follows the life of Samuel Darte whose mother vanished when he was in his teens.

It was his brother, Tom who found her wedding ring on the kitchen table along with the note. While their father pays the price of his mother s disappearance, Sam learns that his long-estranged Gramma is living out her last days in a nursing home nearby.

Keen to learn about what really happened that day and realising the importance of how little time there is, he visits her to finally get the truth. Soon it’ll be too late and the family secrets will be lost forever. Reduced to ashes. But in a story like this, nothing is as it seems.

https://www.amazon.es/337-M-Jonathan-Lee/dp/0995492352/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/337-M-Jonathan-Lee/dp/0995492352/

https://www.amazon.com/337-M-Jonathan-Lee-ebook/dp/B08HQYXLKP/

Author M. Jonathan Lee

 About the author:

M Jonathan Lee is a nationally shortlisted author and mental health campaigner.

His first novel The Radio was shortlisted in the Novel Prize 2012. Since that time he has gone on to publish five further novels. 337 is his sixth novel.

He is obsessed with stories with twists where nothing is exactly how it first appears. He was born in Yorkshire where he still lives to this day with his twins, James and Annabel.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M_Jonathan_Lee

Here you can find an interview with the author:

https://www.hideawayfall.com/meet-our-authors/

337 by M. Jonathan Lee

My review:

I had never met M. Jonathan Lee before but when I was approached by his publishing company and read a bit more about the new story and its background, I had to give it a go. I thank them for providing me an ARC hardback copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.

I was intrigued because they were insistent on sending me a hardback copy, but once I had it on my hands, I knew why. This is a pretty special book, not only because of the way it is written and the story it contains, but also because of the format. At first sight, the book appears to be double-ended. The images on both sides are the same (or almost): the door of a house with several transparent glass panels and a stained glass geometrical design on top and on one side, wood flooring (flooded by light) and a side door (on that door the glass panels on the cover are glossy rather than matte like the rest of the cover) —although perhaps it is a reflection rather than a real door— and the number 337 written (inside a box in a lighter colour) at the bottom on the right hand corner (oh, and the number is also glossy). The palette of colours includes different tonalities of yellows and browns, with a touch of green in the stained window. The other side is the same, but the palette of colours goes from violet to blue, as if this was a nocturnal version of the previous cover. It seems that the name of the author is only written on the spine, but if we pay attention to the title and the typography we soon realise that the 337 of the title, upside down, reads “LEE”.  Whichever end of the book you open, it seems to be the start of the book, with the information about the edition, some quotes about the author’s previous books, a poem, and then chapter one. As I am a bit contrary, I started reading by what I later discovered was the back cover (I guess), the night version of the door, and when I reached page 16 I was greeted by this message ‘Nothing is as it seems…’ and in the next page I was told to turn the book and keep reading from page 16. Several empty pages and pages with geometrical motives followed, so I turned the book, and after checking to make sure I hadn’t missed a different beginning, I kept reading. Yes, not your standard novel, and it got me thinking. However, in case you’re already intrigued and rushing to order the book, please note the double-ended upside-down opening for this book is available in books ordered in hard copy from UK booksellers only. Don’t worry, though, the rest of the book is pretty special as well.

This is a work of literary fiction, even if a quick reading of the description might induce some people to think they are going to read a standard murder mystery book. Although there is an investigation or a process of research going on, there is nothing standard about it, and the book’s description hints at that. The book delves into memories, looks at how we remember our childhood and past events, examines the stories we tell ourselves (both about ourselves and about those around us), the way we protect ourselves from events and feelings, what happens when we are confronted with reality, and also reflects upon the many alternative ways different people deal with trauma in their lives. Some refuse to let it go; some bury it; some chose to try and forget (sometimes aided by drugs and alcohol); some reinvent themselves…

This is a book with very few characters, and in some ways, it reminded me of a play with a very small cast. It also brought to my mind a very well-known (and excellent) Spanish novel by Miguel Delibes called Cinco horas con Mario (Five hours with Mario) where the recently widowed wife of Mario reflects upon her life with him while she seats next to his coffin at the wake. Here, the main character and narrator of the story, Sam (Samuel) tells the story, in the first-person and in the present tense. He is a man leading a life that appears rather meaningless. He still lives in his parents’ house; he has an online job where he just seems to clock hours for doing as little as possible; he is in the process of divorcing his wife (she initiated divorce proceedings); and he seems to live stuck in the past, still trying to understand what happened to his family following his mother’s disappearance and his father’s imprisonment for her murder. The book opens with a dream/memory from the past, a time when his family and his grandparents —on his father’s side— had gone for a picnic to the park, a family annual tradition. There are several dreams/flashbacks throughout the book, and they are so beautifully and carefully described that we get quite a clear sense of what the family life might have been like (in full technicolour detail). Of course, as the book reminds us, things are not always as they seem, and although for much of the book we only have Sam’s own point of view, events, comments, and even memories that intrude into the action make us start wondering how reliable a narrator he is as we keep reading. We also hear about his wife, Sarah, his brother, Tom, his father, his mother (the one whose disappearance is at the centre of the book), his grandfather, and especially his grandmother, who is dying in a nursing home and whom, after much hesitation, he ends up visiting. Despite his initial reluctance, he ends up spending a lot of time with his grandmother, and that makes him reconsider things. We also meet a few members of the staff at his grandmother’s nursing home. And not even there things are as they seem to be.

The writing style is fascinating. I’ve mentioned the beauty of the descriptions, and there are some fabulous similes and metaphors as well. The writing is lyrical and at times reminded me of poetry, both in written and visual form (we might get a white space where there is a meaningful silence in a conversation, or very short sentences written as if they were a prose poem), mixed with some very insightful comments and reflections. We also have access to the conversations Sam shares with others, mostly his grandmother, but also Tom and the other characters that have much to contribute to our understanding, although not perhaps in the way we think at first. The book flows well and there is something very compelling about it, although it is not a page-turner in the usual sense, because nothing much happens for those who love action, while at the same time there is a lot going on.

A few examples of the writing, so you can see for yourselves what I mean (although remember this is an ARC copy):

Random thoughts are now jumping like kernels of corn over heat. They pop and explode inside my head like fireworks in New Year’s Eve.

When you experience some kind of serious trauma at a young age, it stays with you. It’s like a ghost which follows a few feet behind every footstep — a quiet whispered sound that reminds you of your past.

It has always confused me why people who have not got the slightest clue of what somebody is experiencing still believe that it is their right to state their opinion on the subject. I’ve given this a lot of thought. I believe it comes down to guilt.

And here, Sam is ranting (mentally) about the effects of mobile phones on conversations:

We could be locked in some deep conversation, maybe about to open up about some desperate fear or seemingly unsurmountable problem, and instead a screen is thrust in front of us and we have to smile politely at a picture of a surprised-looking cat near a cucumber. It is unbelievable. The number of truly worthwhile moments that have been spoiled by the interruption of mobile phones is limitless.

The ending… I am going to keep my peace and only tell you that I loved the way it is written and I liked the ending itself, although it wasn’t a surprise for me.

This is not a book for people who are looking for a plot-driven book and an intricate story. It has elements of mystery but it is, first and foremost, a subjective reading experience. If you enjoy literary fiction and like to savour writing in the same way you might enjoy a delicate meal or a beautiful piece of music, I recommend this novel to you. It is a ‘total’ reading experience.

Thanks to the publisher and to the author for this very special novel, thanks to all of you for reading, remember to keep safe, and if you feel like it, like, share, comment, click, review, and keep smiling. We’ll get there.

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview BECAUSE OF YOU by Dawn French (@Dawn_French) (@PenguinUKBooks) You’ll cry, laugh, and love it

Hi all:

I bring you a book that I requested on a bit of a whim and it was a total win.

Because of You by Dawn French

Because of You by Dawn French

THE EAGERLY AWAITED, LIFE-AFFIRMING AND MOVING NEW NOVEL FROM NUMBER-ONE BESTSELLING AUTHOR DAWN FRENCH

‘Dawn tackles the big ones – love, death, grief, childhood, motherhood, parenthood – head on’ Guardian

‘Beautifully observed’ The Times
__________

Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock . . . midnight.

The old millennium turns into the new.

In the same hospital, two very different women give birth to two very similar daughters.

Hope leaves with a beautiful baby girl.

Anna leaves with empty arms.

Seventeen years later, the gods who keep watch over broken-hearted mothers wreak mighty revenge, and the truth starts rolling, terrible and deep, toward them all.

The power of mother-love will be tested to its limits.

Perhaps beyond . . .

Because Of You is Dawn French’s stunning new novel, told with her signature humour, warmth and so much love.

‘Gorgeous . . . wise and full of love’ MARIAN KEYES

‘An extraordinary book – sad, heartening, gripping and reassuringly human’ JO BRAND

‘Dawn French is a wonderful writer’ Daily Mail

‘Incredible’ RUSSELL BRAND

‘Moving . . . French’s best yet’ Good Housekeeping

READERS LOVE BECAUSE OF YOU:

‘Tugs at your heart strings. I would have a box of tissues when reading!’ 5*****

‘I had tears in my eyes by the end of the book. Absolutely wonderfully written’ 5*****

‘A profoundly emotional read about the love between mothers and daughters. A book that I did not want to put down’ 5*****

‘Have your tissues ready when you read this one. It is really moving and will hit you right in the heart’ 5*****

https://www.amazon.com/Because-You-Dawn-French-ebook/dp/B08DT8N1T1/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Because-You-Dawn-French-ebook/dp/B08DT8N1T1/

https://www.amazon.es/Because-You-Dawn-French-ebook/dp/B08DT8N1T1/

Author Dawn French

About the author:

Dawn French has been making people laugh for thirty years. As a writer, comedian, and actor, she has appeared in some of Great Britain’s longest-running and most celebrated shows, including French and Saunders, Murder Most Horrid, The Vicar of Dibley, Jam and Jerusalem, Lark Rise to Candleford, and, most recently, Roger and Val Have Just Got In. Her bestselling memoir, Dear Fatty, was published in the United Kingdom to critical acclaim, and her first novel, A Tiny Bit Marvellous, was a number-one UK bestseller.

https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-French/e/B001KCGBAU/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Having lived in the UK for a long time, I knew Dawn French’s work as an actress and comedian, but I had not read any of her books. Although I had heard about his memoir, I didn’t realise she had also published fiction, and I couldn’t resist when I had the chance to read this book. And it was a great decision.

Although this is not a mystery, I will try to avoid any spoilers, and will not offer too many details about the plot. Suffice to say that this is (mostly) a story about two mothers and a daughter (the fathers are around but don’t play too big a part), the price they have to pay for that relationship, and it deals in themes such as family, identity, grief, the mother-daughter bond, love and sacrifice…

I’ve mentioned two mothers and a daughter. Both mothers, Hope and Anna, are very different. From different social spheres and ethnic background (one well-off, one just getting by, one white British, one Jamaican-British), in very different personal circumstances (one married and going through a planned and expected pregnancy, one unmarried and her pregnancy a total surprise that have changed the couple’s plans), and their partners have nothing in common either. Julius (Anna’s husband) is pompous, self-centred, and only interested in his political career. (Silent) Isaac is all good will, kindness, and only interested in the well-being of his fiancée and his soon-to-be-born daughter. The two couples are in the same hospital for the birth of their daughters, Florence and Minnie, but things don’t go to plan.

I loved both mothers. Their experiences are vividly described and cover the whole gamut of emotions. Loss and joy, grief and hope, second-chances/the beginning of a new life, and becoming stuck in a dark hole. I’ve long believed that comedians are great observers of human behaviour, and there is evidence aplenty of that here, as there are beautiful touches and nuances, insights into the thought processes of the characters and their actions, that help create some memorable scenes. The story is narrated in the third person from alternating points of view (mostly those of the two mothers and of Minnie, the daughter, but we also get some insight into the fathers’ thoughts), and although at first I felt somewhat distanced from the protagonist due to the way the story was told, I soon became used to it and realised that it might have become unbearable to read the devastation and utter desolation the characters experience if it had been written in the first person. It is still a very emotional experience (tears came to my eyes more than once), but the narrative choice and the inclusion of lighter and comedic touches (one of the policemen, Tripshaw, plays the part of a buffoon, there are some unexpectedly humorous passages in pretty dire circumstances, and there are also some lovely life-affirming scenes surrounding the girl’s childhood and her growing up) make it a bitter-sweet but ultimately inspiring read.

I’ve already said I loved both mothers, and I must say that I like all the female characters, especially Debbie Cheese, the wonderful policewoman who understands the situation and empathises with the mother from the beginning, and Minnie, the daughter, colourful, unique, and full of zest for life and love. She knows who she is and doesn’t allow anybody to change her mind. The men are not that important, although Lee (or Twat), Minnie’s boyfriend, seems a keeper, truly devoted, and determined to stick around.

Readers who don’t like sudden changes in point of view don’t need to worry, as these do not occur in the middle of a chapter, and we are clearly told in each moment whose point of view we are following, so there’s no possible confusion.

The lovely details about the relationship mother-daughter don’t disrupt the flow of the story, which is beautifully written and contains sharp psychological insights into the world of family relationships and all its ups and downs. The story starts, then moves forward 18 years, but then we go back again to the beginning and follow its development in chronological order, so although we have an inkling of the ending, we don’t get the full details until the ending proper. And it is quite an ending.  I felt, at times, that Tripshaw’s malapropisms were pushed beyond the limit and so were Julius’s excesses but, in general, it is easy to read, and there are some truly funny and also some truly insightful moments. I thought I’d share a few:

Here, Tripshaw is, for once, word-perfect:

‘Well, Mr Lindon-Clarke, that went well, didn’t it? Truly, I’ve met some pricks in my time, but you, sir, are the full cactus.’

Anna, also talking about her ex-husband, Julius Lindon-Clarke, and his self-centredness and conceit:

‘He’s like a budgie: loads of talk, until it sees a mirror.’

‘How ironic that her emotional skeleton was made of pain, the very stuff that would not support her —it couldn’t. Pain is not galvanizing, it’s corrosive, so she would eventually rust. It was already happening and she knew it. All the parts of her held together by pain were deteriorating. She needed new reinforcement if she was going to claim her future without alcohol or sleeping pills or fear or endless crying. Anna needed to bestow this forgiveness.’

I recommend this novel to anybody who, like me, might be curious about Dawn French’s writing or has already read some and want more, who enjoy stories with strong and varied female characters, and who are particularly interested in books about families and mother-daughter relationships. It is well written, beautifully nuanced, full of wonderful characters, and, despite the sad moments, it is ultimately life-affirming and heart-warming (sorry, I know some people hate such accolades, but they are true).  It won’t be the last of French’s novels I read, I’m sure of that.

Thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for the novel, thanks to all of you for visiting and reading it, and remember to like, share, comment, click, keep smiling, keep reviewing, and above all, keep safe. 

Oh, and in case any of you need some reading material or are looking for something suitable for Halloween, don’t miss this fantastic multi-author giveaway organised by Marie Lavender, who has visited my blog on many occasions.

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (@britrbennett) (@LittleBrownUK) Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think #Bookreview

Hi all:

Today I bring you the review of a book that has been causing a bit of a stir.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is an utterly mesmerising novel. It seduces with its literary flair, surprises with its breath-taking plot twists, delights with its psychological insights, and challenges us to consider the corrupting consequences of racism on different communities and individual lives. I absolutely loved this book’ Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the Booker Prize 2019

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passingLooking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Praise for Brit Bennett:

‘A writer to watch’ Washington Post

‘Bennett allows her characters to follow their worst impulses, and she handles provocative issues with intelligence, empathy and dark humour’ New York Times

‘A beautifully written, sad and lingering book’ Guardian on The Mothers

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B082KH5D4M/

Author Brit Bennett

About the author:

Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

https://www.amazon.com/Brit-Bennett/e/B00PZ44052/

My review:

I thank Little Brown Book, UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel in the first place, although later I also purchased my own copy which I review here.

This is the first novel by Brit Bennett I read, although I’m aware that her first novel, The Mothers, was very well-received, and this one has been highly praised and regarded as well. And, in my opinion, it deserves it.

The description of the book provides a fairly accurate summary of the main points of the plot, and I won’t try to be too inclusive when I mention the many topics the author touches on: race is paramount (is race only skin-deep?, different types of racism, the changing attitudes over the years, the burden of internalising other people’s values and what that does to the characters’ sense of self…), identity (while one of the characters lives a lie, a trans man abandons his birth biological gender to truly become himself), domestic violence, family, LGTB, rural versus city life, the importance of education, mothers and daughters, Alzheimer’s disease, love… It is a family saga, a story of two twin sisters and their daughters and how their lives split up at some point, sending them into completely different directions.

I’ve mentioned the issue of race, and that is the main focus of the book. The little place, somewhere in Louisiana, where the sisters are born is peculiar already when it comes to race. Although all the inhabitants are African-American, they are all so light that an outsider would not be able to tell they are not white. They are proud of it and consider anybody who is a shade darker than they are their inferior.  But, of course, the local white people know, and that has terrible consequences for the girls, who lose their father due to a lynching (for an imagined crime the man had not committed). It’s not surprising that they leave the place as soon as they can, but once in New Orleans things are quite difficult, and one of the sisters, Stella, ends up passing for white to get a job. That changes everything, and the sisters’ lives end up going in totally different directions. Although from the reviews I read I realised that many readers might be unfamiliar with the concept of ‘passing’, it has appeared in novels and even movies over the years. I recommend Nella Larssen, a female author from the Harlem Renaissance, whose novels Passing and Quicksand are fascinating and deserve to be better known, but both movie versions of Imitation of Life, although in a far more melodramatic fashion, deal with the topic as well, and in the musical Showboat we have similar concerns (and talk of miscegenation and the ‘one drop of blood’ dictum), and concepts that might appear bizarre now (like quadroon, octoroon, [Alexandre Dumas Jr was an octoroon if we apply that classification, and Alexandre Dumas father a quadroon], or high yellow) but made a big difference in the past, when it came to the treatment somebody received. Some of the readers don’t feel the book goes into these issues deeply enough, but this is a novel, and realistically, it would be impossible to discuss all the aspects of it and create a fictional story readers cared for as well.

The main characters of the novel are the two sisters, Stella and Desiree, and their two daughters, Kennedy and Jude. While the two sisters are identical twins, Kennedy and Jude could not look and be more different —Kennedy is blonde, has blue eyes, has lived a life of privilege, and has always been self-centred. Jude is dark-skinned, suffered prejudice and abuse as a child and grew up without a father, is hard-working and determined, and has always cared for her family and for others— but their lives still converge and collide at times, bringing some momentous changes to their lives. There are many more characters in the story, some more important than others (Early plays an essential role in Desiree’s life, and Reese complements Jude), and there are many people they come across: friends (I particularly liked Barry, who becomes a drag queen on the weekends and is a great agony aunt), neighbours, work colleagues… The first two parts of the novel centre mostly on Desiree and her daughter, while we only get to know more about Stella and Kennedy later in the book. While the central characters are well-drawn, that is not the case for some of the others, and they are not all sympathetic, not even the protagonists, but I felt the author manages to make their actions and their emotions understandable, even if we don’t like them that much. I wasn’t totally sure about the way Reese’s experiences are dealt with in the book. We hear about his difficulties and his process as a trans man, but this at times feels like an afterthought, and some readers have questioned how his story might appear to be linked to the concept of ‘passing’, although I don’t think that was the author’s intention (he sheds his previous identity and is happy to leave it behind, with no regrets, no matter how hard the practicalities are, while Stella struggles and feels she is living a lie).

The story is narrated in the third person, mostly from the point of view of the four female protagonists, although we are also given a brief insight into some of the other characters that come into the sisters’ lives, and we hear a bit more about Early and Reese’s thoughts and experiences. The way the story is told might be problematic for many readers, as the point of view often changes within a chapter, and although the changes are not excessively difficult to follow, keeping the story straight does require a degree of attention, especially because the chronology is not linear either. We go forwards and backwards in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, although the story moves forward overall.

The writing is lyrical and precious at times, harsh at others, and the rhythm flows and ebbs, being quite contemplative in parts (as it befits a book about memory and identity). This is not a page-turner, but I felt the pace suited the novel perfectly. I had to share a few highlights with you, although I recommend that people interested in the book check a sample to make first, to ensure it works for them.

In New Orleans, Stella split in two. She didn’t notice it at first because she’d been two people her whole life: she was herself and she was Desiree. The twins, beautiful and rare, were never called the girls, only the twins, as if it were a formal title. She’d always thought of herself as part of this pair, but in New Orleans, she splintered into a new woman altogether after she got fired from Dixie Laundry.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

Sometimes you could understand why Stella passed over. Who didn’t dream of leaving herself behind and starting over as someone new? But how could she kill the people who’d loved her? How could she leave the people who still longed for her, years later, and never even look back?

The ending is perhaps a bit rushed, considering the length and depth of the novel, but it suits it and I enjoyed it. If you want to know if it’s a happy ending… Well, this is not that kind of book, but I’ll say it isn’t unhappy.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction and novels that deal with complex and diverse topics, with a focus on female protagonists and their lives, who don’t mind a somewhat demanding and challenging writing style, and who are eager to discover talented female writers. Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think. What else could anybody want?

Thanks to the publisher and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, remember to like, share, comment, click, and keep reading, and reviewing. And, always, keep smiling and stay safe!

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE OTHER HALF OF AUGUSTA HOPE by Joanna Glen (@JoannaGlenBooks) (@HarperCollins) . A lyrical book full of feeling and “duende”

Hi all:

I bring you a wonderful book today. Truly wonderful.

The Other Half of Augusta Hope by Joanna Glen

The Other Half of Augusta Hope: Meet this summer’s most extraordinary heroine by Joanna Glen

THIS IS A STORY FOR ANYONE WHO HAS EVER FELT LIKE THEY DON’T BELONG

Keep the tissues close’ Good Housekeeping 
A beautifully written debut novel with unforgettable characters and an irresistible message of redemption and belonging’ Red magazine
This gem of a novel entertains and moves in equal measure’ Daily Mail
Heartening and hopeful’ Jess Kidd, author of Things in Jars
Mesmerizingly beautiful’ Sarah Haywood, author of The Cactus
An extraordinary masterpiece’ Anstey Harris, author of The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton
Gutsy, endearing and entertaining’ Deborah Orr
Absolutely brilliant’ Gavin Extence, author of The Universe Versus Alex Woods


Augusta Hope has never felt like she fits in.

At six, she’s memorising the dictionary. At seven, she’s correcting her teachers. At eight, she spins the globe and picks her favourite country on the sound of its name: Burundi.

And now that she’s an adult, Augusta has no interest in the goings-on of the small town where she lives with her parents and her beloved twin sister, Julia.

When an unspeakable tragedy upends everything in Augusta’s life, she’s propelled headfirst into the unknown. She’s determined to find where she belongs – but what if her true home, and heart, are half a world away?


AUGUSTA MAY NOT FEEL LIKE SHE FITS IN, BUT READERS HAVE FALLEN IN LOVE WITH HER…

What a brilliant, brave, clever book Maddy P

‘A beautiful tale of family, of loss, of the awkward relationships we build with those we love the most…a must read!’ Amelia D

‘A powerful novel about fitting in, loss, & the people you really have connections with’ Siobhan D

‘The story made me laugh & cry in equal measure, and now it’s finished I’m at a slight loss as what to read next’ Laura W

https://www.amazon.com/Other-Half-Augusta-Hope-ebook/dp/B07KJSY1FV/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Other-Half-Augusta-Hope-ebook/dp/B07KJSY1FV/

https://www.amazon.es/Other-Half-Augusta-Hope-ebook/dp/B07KJSY1FV/

Author Joanna Glen
Author Joanna Glen

About the author:

Joanna Glen read Spanish at the University of London, with a stint at the Faculty of Arts at Córdoba University in the south of Spain. She went on to teach Spanish and English to all ages, and, latterly, was a school principal in London. Joanna’s short fiction has appeared in the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology. She lives with her husband and children on the River Thames in Battersea, returning to Andalusia whenever it gets too grey

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Joanna-Glen/e/B07SSGKW8C/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to HarperCollins UK/The Borough Press for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is an achingly beautiful book, one of those books that you read and don’t want to finish because… well, because you know you won’t find many, if any, quite like it. And certain experiences are there to be savoured.

The story starts with Augusta, one of a set of twins (her sister, Julia, was born on the 31st of July, therefore her name, and she was the second born, already on the 1st of August…) living in Britain, whose parents bought the first house in their neighbourhood, and who lead extremely conventional lives (their choice of names for their daughters seems to be the most adventurous thing they’ve ever done). Augusta —who narrates the story in the first person— and Julia are very close, although they are polar opposites (they look different, their attitudes to life are different, and other than their mutual affection, and their interest in Diego, a Spanish boy who moves to the same street, they seem to have little in common). Augusta loves words, reading the dictionary offers her comfort, her favourite poem is one about a pedlar [‘The Pedlar’s Caravan’ by William Brighty Rands], she sees herself travelling the world in a colourful caravan, when given the choice, she takes up Spanish at school —I love her teacher, Mr Sánchez— and starts chasing “el duende” (a concept difficult to translate, but something aficionados to flamenco music, singing, and dancing refer to when the experience of a performance reaches beyond aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment and transcends that, as if speaking directly to the soul), and decides to study far away from home, at Durham University. Her sister, by contrast, wants to make their parents happy, loves to live in their small town, become a nursery teacher, and marries her first boyfriend (the aforementioned Diego).

Augusta picks a country, seemingly randomly, just because she likes the sound of it, Burundi, keeps track of the events there, and she feels compelled to keep a big folder of notes on any interesting news item she comes across about Burundi (because, let’s face it, Burundi does not often make the news). Something happens during a holiday in Spain when they are teenagers, which Augusta is no party to, and the whole family, especially her sister, seem changed by the experience, but they don’t tell her anything, and that makes her feel even more of an outsider.

At the beginning of the book, I assumed that the other half of Augusta was her sister, but I was wrong (although yes, there is some of that as well). Some parts of the novel, alternating with those narrated by Augusta, are narrated by Parfait, a boy, slightly older than Augusta, from Burundi. He has six siblings, and his life couldn’t be more different to Augusta’s, although readers will pick up similarities as well (the love for words and learning, the eagerness to travel and move away, although here easier to justify due to the circumstances his family and the whole country are going through). He also meets a wonderful Spanish character, a priest, Victor, who inspires him. As we read, we start to make connections and the magic of the book envelops us. But, don’t be mistaken. The book is magical, lyrical, beautiful, full of poetry (Augusta loves Federico García Lorca’s poems and his plays, and there are many references and points of contacts with Yerma, La casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba), and Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), and there are also references to other poems, cante jondo songs, music, dance, and paintings), but terrible things happen as well to the characters, and although not described in detail (they happen “off-the-page”), they are hard and heart-wrenching. Some we are fully aware of at the time, some we only get to know in their entirety much later on. Like much of Lorca’s work, this is a book about death, grief, loss, and about topics as current as war-torn countries, migrants and refugees, race relations, Brexit, and families. But, there are wonderful and funny moments too, many touching ones (I did cry more than once reading this novel), and, well, the main character’s surname, Hope, is pretty becoming to the story as a whole.

Augusta is a fabulous character, and so are all her family, and Parfait and his, and also the friends they both meet in Spain. (Oh, and Graham Cook and his family. They are priceless). The two narrators are, in some ways, mirror images of each other, or even better, like the positive and the negative of the same image, in old-style photography. None of the characters are perfect, (well, Parfait fits his name well), but all, even the secondary ones, are complex enough, with their good and their bad things (of course, we see them through the narrators’ eyes, but the two narrators are not trying to deceive us here, and this is not a story of unreliable narrators, at least not intentionally so. They might be mistaken in their judgements or impressions, but they never try to lead the reader down the garden path). The places, especially La Higuera, the house in Andalucia and the town around it, become characters in their own right, and the writing is fluid, and gorgeous. The ending is also pretty wonderful, in case you were wondering.

I highlighted so much of the book that it was almost impossible to choose something to give you an idea of what the writing is like, but I’ve tried. In the first one, Augusta shares an anecdote that beautifully illustrates the different approaches to life of the two sisters.

We were given tricycles, mine, yellow, and Julia’s, pink. Julia drew chalk lines on the drive and spent the day reversing into parking spaces. I rode out of the drive, turned left, curved around to number 13, at the top of the crescent, twelve o’clock, crossed the road precariously to the roundabout and drove my trike into the fishpond singing ‘We All Live in a Yellow Submarine’.

There are places —aren’t there? Places which are so full of feeling you hardly dare return to them.

‘Do you think our brains will gradually evolve to hold less and less information? And soon we’ll be Neanderthals again but with iPhones?’

‘I suppose that could be a good definition of love,’ I said. ‘Crying for another person —like their pain is yours.’

In sum, if you love quirky and wonderful characters, you want to read about Spain, Burundi, and poetry, you enjoy beautiful writing, and you don’t mind having a good cry, this is the book for you. Personally, I can’t recommend it enough. And I look forward to more novels by this author.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE LAST THING SHE SAID by Rachel Walkley (@RachelJWalkley) #RBRT A beautifully written feel-good story.

Hi all:

I bring you a book by one of the authors I discovered though Rosie’s team. This is the second of her novels and… she’s a keeper!

The Last Thing She Said by Rachel Walkley
The Last Thing She Said by Rachel Walkley

The Last Thing She Said by Rachel Walkley. Women’s fiction with a touch of the paranormal. A beautifully written feel-good story.

“Beware of a man named Frederick and his offer of marriage.”

Rose’s granddaughters, Rebecca, Leia and Naomi, have never taken her prophecies seriously. But now that Rose is dead, and Naomi has a new man in her life, should they take heed of this mysterious warning?

Naomi needs to master the art of performing. Rebecca rarely ventures out of her house. She’s afraid of what she might see. As for Rebecca’s twin, everyone admires Leia’s giant brain, but now the genius is on the verge of a breakdown.

Rebecca suspects Naomi’s new boyfriend is hiding something. She begs Leia, now living in the US, to investigate.

Leia’s search takes her to a remote farm in Ohio on the trail of the truth behind a tragic death.

Just who is Ethan? And what isn’t he telling Naomi?

In a story full of drama and mystery, the sisters discover there is more that connects them than they realise, and that only together can they discover exactly what’s behind Rose’s prophecy.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Thing-She-Said-ebook/dp/B07L2XFPPV/

https://www.amazon.com/Last-Thing-She-Said-ebook/dp/B07L2XFPPV/

Picture of author Rachel Walkley
Author Rachel Walkley

About the author:

Born in the Midlands, I grew up in East Anglia and am now firmly lodged in the North West of England. My first writing achievement was my Brownie badge and after that I’ve never let go of the dream of becoming an author. Once a librarian and caretaker of books, I’m now a teller of tales and want to share with you the secrets that hide in the pages of my books.
Please stop by my website – rachelwalkley.com and find out more about my books in the making.

https://www.amazon.com/Rachel-Walkley/e/B07B5G7VZP/

My review:

I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you’re looking for reviews, I recommend you check her amazing site here), and I thank her and the publisher for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I recently read and reviewed Rachel Walkley’s first novel The Women of Heachley Hall (you can check my review here) and enjoyed it so much that I had to check her second novel as soon as it became available. And I thoroughly enjoyed it as well.

This is the story of three sisters, twins Rebecca and Leia, as different as two sisters can be (or perhaps not), and younger sister Naomi. Their parents move to the US when the youngest sister is in her late teens and she refuses to go with them. Rebecca becomes her ersatz mother (Nancy, their mother, does not seem particularly close to any of them, although perhaps that is the sisters’ impression) and eventually Leia also moves to the US to work on her medical research.

The three sisters are gifted, although they all have trouble dealing with their gifts, which are very different. Rebecca gives up her career as a lawyer to take refuge at home, bringing up her children and looking after her husband and the house; Naomi, a talented flute player, loves to perform but does not feel confident and dedicates most of her life to teaching music to children; Leia has a big brain and dedicates her efforts to useful research, but hates the limelight and would prefer all the credit to go to her team. Their grandmother, the member of the family that managed to get them all together with her traditional birthday celebration, also had a gift, but most people dismissed her birthday predictions as an eccentricity. When Rebecca starts investigating her grandmother’s past pronouncements —for very personal reasons—, she gets a big surprise.

The story is told in the third person from different points of view, mostly those of the sisters, although we get some glimpses into other characters’ minds as well, and in chronological order for the most part. There are some short chapters that go back to show us past events (there are no lengthy explanations or “telling” in the novel), and these flow logically from the narrative. For example, if Naomi is thinking about the relationship with her parents, her memory might go back to how she had felt when her parents decided to leave the country. It is a great way of layering the background story of the characters without disrupting the action for too long, and it also helps us understand where the characters are coming from, and their reasons for being the people they are. Each chapter and fragment is clearly labelled with the character’s name and the date, and it is not an effort to follow the story, as it flows naturally, at a sometimes wandering but engaging pace.

There are some descriptions of places and locations, but these are limited to what is necessary to tell the story and to allow readers to see it. The story is more interested in the psychological makeup of these characters, and the author does a great work of making us understand them in their own terms. We see each protagonist from her sisters’ point of view first, but on later seeing things from their perspective, we get a completely different picture of them. By the end of the story I was attached to all of the characters, even the ones that at first I was not sure about. And although not all the characters are sympathetic, the novel is not judgmental about any of them, giving them the benefit of the doubt.

I particularly enjoyed the character of Rose, the grandmother, the passages about Naomi’s playing and her thoughts about it (if you read the author’s note at the end you’ll understand why these scenes appear so vivid), and grew very fond of Leia and Howard. That is not to say I don’t like Rebecca and the rest of the chapters from Naomi’s perspective, but perhaps because they are the ones we get to know first, we are on their side from the beginning, and the rest of the characters came as a revelation much later on. There are secrets and lies, but none are Earth-shattering or beyond most reader’s expectations and experiences, and they do not require a huge amount of suspension of disbelief, even the paranormal elements. There is mystery, but the strongest element of the story is the relationship between the three sisters and how they all become more their individual selves by working together and protecting each other.

The novel is both easy to read and beautifully written, and the ending… No, I won’t give you details, but let’s say I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did. Definitely a feel-good story.

A book I recommend to anybody who enjoys contemporary women’s fiction, optimistic stories about family relationships with a touch of the paranormal, and who are eager to discover a new and talented writer.

Thanks to Rosie and to the author for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always, keep smiling! And reading (even in Christmas)!

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview DAYS OF WONDER by Keith Stuart (@keefstuart) (@LittleBrownUK) #Daysofwonder A love-at-first-read book. A must read if you love theatre, stories, magic, and feel-good novels.

Hi all:

I read the first novel by this author some time ago and I was very pleased when I was invited to read the next one. I’m publishing the review on the day of its publication, so don’t delay and get it now!

Review of Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart
Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart

From the 200,000-copy bestselling author of A Boy Make Of Blocks

Days of Wonder by KEITH STUART

Published in hardback by Sphere on 7th June, £12.99

#DaysOfWonderBook

 A lead fiction title for Sphere (Little, Brown Book Group)

 Keith Stuart’s debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick, and a major bestseller. A reader favourite, it has over 1,000 5-star Amazon reviews.

 Magical, heartbreaking, beautiful – Days of Wonder is a tale about growing up, the beauty of a father and daughter bond, and finding magic in everyday life. Reminding us that stories have the power to save lives, Days of Wonder is the most moving novel of the year.

 Ruth Hogan and Joanna Cannon have provided beautiful endorsements for the book

In the beautiful, funny and moving second novel by the author of A Boy Made of Blocks, a father and his daughter discover that stories can save lives.

Tom, single father to Hannah, is the manager of a tiny local theatre. On the same day each year, he and its colourful cast of part-time actors have staged a fantastical production just for his little girl, a moment of magic to make her childhood unforgettable.

But there is another reason behind these annual shows: the very first production followed Hannah’s diagnosis with a heart condition that both of them know will end her life early. And now, with Hannah a funny, tough girl of fifteen on the brink of adulthood, that time is coming.

With the theatre under threat of closure, Hannah and Tom have more than one fight on their hands to stop the stories ending. But maybe, just maybe, one final day of magic might just save them both.

‘Utterly enchanting . . . a truly beautiful story’

Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things

‘So powerful, yet incredibly gentle and poignant. Utterly and completely beautiful’

Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

Keith Stuart is an author and journalist. His heartwarming debut novel, A Boy Made of Blocks, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and a major bestseller, and was inspired by Keith’s real-life relationship with his autistic son. Keith has written for publications including Empire and Edge, and is the former games editor of the Guardian. He lives with his wife and two sons in Frome, Somerset.

Keith Stuart on Days of Wonder

Days of Wonder is a story about love, life and magic, but I hope it deals with all three of these things in unusual ways. After finishing A Boy Made of Blocks, I knew I wanted to write another novel about families in crisis, but this time with a very different set of characters – and a very different crisis. As a Manchester City supporter, I was greatly affected by the death of midfield player Marc-Vivien Foé from a rare form of cardiomyopathy. He was 28. Later, I noticed other news reports about the same heart condition, which often struck young people seemingly out of nowhere. I wondered how you would live your life as a teenager with such a serious condition. What would it take to get you through?

The obvious answer is a lot of love and support and belief and passion. As an ex-drama student who loved my time directing and acting in plays, I thought that a small local theatre would be an interesting, supportive place for my protagonist Hannah to grow up in. I loaded her life with quirky, eccentric characters and I brought in fairy tales and comic books to accentuate the value of stories and myths in our lives. I just wanted to write this big, warm, funny book about something potentially tragic. I think in a lot of ways this comes from my own experience of grief. When my dad died of cancer in 2003, my mum, my sisters and me sat around and told each other stories about his life; we swapped memories and it was almost like we created a narrative of his life – that’s how we coped. Memories are the stories we tell about our lives, and I think we all – in a lot of ways – live through stories. It’s love, laughter and imagination that gets you through. This is what Days of Wonder is about.

Praise for A Boy Made of Blocks

‘The publishing sensation of the year: a compelling, uplifting and heart-rending debut novel’ Mail on Sunday

‘A great plot, [with] a rare sense of honesty and insight’ Guardian

‘Stuart writes from heartfelt personal experience – and you cannot fail to be won over by this unsentimental but, warm, humorous and touching story about fatherhood and family’ Sunday Mirror

‘A wonderful, warm, insightful novel about family, friendship and love that tugs at your heart’ Daily Mail

‘One of those wonderful books that make you laugh and cry at the same time’ Good Housekeeping

‘Even the hardest of hearts will be warmed by this poignant tale’ Event magazine

‘A wonderful, funny and touching story of a modern family’ Woman & Home

‘This is a heart-warming and wise story about love, parenting and the long-ranging effects of trauma. I shed a few tears but was left with a warm glow’ Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love

‘Searingly honest and poignant without being in any way cheesy, this gentle exploration into the tricky relationship between a father and son is tremendously moving’ ‘A truly beautiful story’ Heat magazine

‘Funny, expertly plotted and written with enormous heart. Readers who enjoyed The Rosie Project will love A Boy Made of BlocksGraeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project

Days of Wonder: The most magical and moving book of the year by Keith Stuart If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book.

 

The incredible new novel from the author of 200,000-copy bestseller A Boy Made of Blocks, ‘the publishing sensation of the year’ (Mail on Sunday)

‘So powerful, yet incredibly gentle and poignant. Utterly and completely beautiful’
Joanna Cannon, author of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie

Magical, heartbreaking, beautiful – Days of Wonder reminds us that stories have the power to save lives.

 

A tale about growing up, the beauty of a special bond between father and daughter, and finding magic in everyday life, Days of Wonder is the most moving novel you’ll read all year.

Utterly enchanting . . . a truly beautiful story’
Ruth Hogan, author of The Keeper of Lost Things

‘A story of life, love and hope – the perfect antidote to today’s world. Phenomenal.’
Clare Mackintosh, author of I Let You Go and Let Me Lie

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Days-Wonder-most-magical-moving-ebook/dp/B06VVH559Z/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Days-Wonder-most-magical-moving-ebook/dp/B06VVH559Z/

Author Keith Stuart

About the author:

KEITH STUART is games editor at the Guardian. He started out as writer and features editor on the highly influential magazine Edge before going freelance in 2000 to cover games culture for publications such as The Official PlayStation Magazine, PC Gamer and T3, as well as investigating digital and interactive art for Frieze. He also writes about music, film and media for the Guardian and is a regular on the Tech Weekly podcast. He is married with two sons.

He lives in Somerset.

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown and Company UK (Clara Díaz in particular) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Keith Stuart’s first novel A Boy Made of Blocks ( you can check my review here), a truly extraordinary book, a couple of years ago, and loved it. I could not resist when I was offered the opportunity to read the author’s second novel. And, again, it was love at first read.

Days of Wonder has some similarities to A Boy. It does center on the relationship between a father and his child (in this case, Hannah), and how their relationship is shaped by a specific condition affecting the child (Asperger’s in the first novel, a chronic cardiac illness that cannot be cured and will only get worse in this novel). All the characters are beautifully portrayed, not only the protagonists but, in this case, also an array of secondary characters that become an ersatz family unit.

Tom, the father, runs a small theatre and has close links to the amateur theatrical group. His wife, Elizabeth, left the family when their daughter was three and leads the life of a high-flier, with no real contact with her family. Hannah has grown-up in the theatre, surrounded by the players and by stories, both on stage and out.

The book, narrated in the first person by both Tom and Hanna (mostly in alternating chapters, although towards the end there are some that follow the same character’s point of view, due to the logic of the story). Hannah’s narration in the present is interspersed with what appear to be diary entries addressed to Willow, (the theatre is called The Willow Tree). She is a strong girl, who loves her father, the theatre and the players, her friends, and who has a can-do attitude, despite her serious illness, or perhaps because of it. She knows how valuable each moment is, and lives it to the fullest (within her limitations). She is worried about her father and how much he has focused his life on her and decides that he must find a woman and live a fuller life. She loves comics, fairy-tales, is funny (having a sense of humour does help in such a situation, without a doubt), witty, and wise beyond her years, whilst being a credible teenager who worries about boys and can sometimes have questionable judgement. I challenge anybody not to fall in love with Hannah, her enthusiasm, and her zest for life.

Tom is a father who tries his hardest in a very difficult situation, and who sometimes finds himself in above his head, unable to function or to decide, frozen by the enormity of the situation. He is one of the good guys, he’d do anything to help anybody, and some of his philosophical reflections are fairly accurate, although, like most of us, he’s better at reading others than at understanding himself. His date disasters provide some comic relief but he is somebody we’d all love to count as a friend. Or, indeed, a father.

One of my favourite characters is Margaret, an older woman who has become a substitute grandmother for Hannah, and who is absolutely fabulous, with her anecdotes, her straight speaking, her X-ray vision (she knows everything that goes on even before the people involved realise what is going on sometimes), and she is a bit like the fairy-godmother of the fairy tales Hannah loves so much. As for the rest, Callum, Hannah’s boyfriend, is a very touching character, with many problems (the depiction of his depression is accurate and another one of the strong points of a book full of them), and the rest of the theatre crew, although they appear to be recognisable types at first sight (the very busy mother who wants some space for herself, the very capable woman whose husband is abusive, a retired man whose relationship with his wife seems to be falling apart, a gay man who can’t confess his attraction for another member of the group…), later come across as genuine people, truly invested in the project, and happy to put everything on the line for the theatre.

The novel is set in the UK and it has many references that will delight the anglophiles and lovers of all-things-British, from language quirks to references to plays, movies, TV series and festivals. (Oh, and to local politics as well), but I’m sure that the lack of familiarity with them will not hinder the readers’ enjoyment. Although there are also quite a number of references to theatre plays and comics (and I don’t know much about comics, I confess), they never overwhelm the narration and are well integrated into the story, adding to its depth.

The book deals in serious subjects (family break-ups, abuse, chronic physical and mental illnesses [affecting young people, in particular], aging and death, growing-up, single-parent families) and whilst it makes important points about them, which many readers will relate to, they are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric of the novel, and it never feels preachy or as if it was beating you over the head with a particular opinion or take on the topic.

Reading the author’s comment above, I can vouch for his success. This is indeed a book about love, life, and magic. It is a declaration of love to the world of theatre and to the power of stories. The novel is beautifully written, flows well, and the readers end up becoming members of their troupe, living their adventures, laughing sometimes and crying (oh, yes, get the tissues ready) at other times. Overall, despite its sad moments, this is a hopeful feel-good book, heart-warming and one that will make readers feel at peace with themselves and the world. It has a great ending and although I wondered at first if the epilogue was necessary, on reflection, it is the cherry on top of the trifle. Perfect.

The book is endlessly quotable and I’ve highlighted a tonne of stuff, but I couldn’t leave you without sharing something.

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

I don’t mean pulling rabbits out of hats or sawing people in half (and then putting them back together: otherwise it’s not magic, it’s technically murder). I just mean the idea that incredible things are possible, and that they can be conjured into existence through will, effort and love.

As I’m writing this review on Star Wars Day, I could not resist this quote, again from Hannah:

I feel as though it’s closing in around me, like the trash-compactor scene in Star Wars, except I have no robots to rescue me although I do have an annoying beeping box next to the bed doing a twenty-four-hours-a-day impression of R2-D2.

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

It’s as though the spirit of Margaret is working through me, like a cross between Maggie Smith and Yoda.

And a particularly inspiring one:

Margaret told me that you must measure life in moments —because unlike hours or days or weeks or years, moments last forever. I want more of them. I am determined. I will steal as many as I can.

A beautiful book, a roller-coaster of emotions, and an ode to the power of stories, to their magic, and to family love, whichever way we choose to define family. I urge you to read it. You’ll feel better for it. And I look forward to reading more books by its author, who has become one of my favourites.

Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and to keep smiling! 

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book promo Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview MACBETH by Jo Nesbo (@NetGalley) A dark and twisted take on the original for readers interested in morally ambiguous characters. #JoNesbo #Shakespeare

Hi all:

I was very intrigued by this book and well… Here is the review, finally.

Review of Macbeth by Jo Nesbo
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

JO NESBO: #1 Sunday Times bestseller, #1 New York Times bestseller, 40 million books sold worldwide

He’s the best cop they’ve got. 

When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath it’s up to Inspector Macbeth and his team to clean up the mess.

He’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past. 

He’s rewarded for his success. Power. Money. Respect. They’re all within reach. 

But a man like him won’t get to the top.

Plagued by hallucinations and paranoia, Macbeth starts to unravel. He’s convinced he won’t get what is rightfully his.

Unless he kills for it.

Links:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Macbeth-Jo-Nesbo-ebook/dp/B01N6STDIS/

https://www.amazon.com/Macbeth-Jo-Nesbo-ebook/dp/B01N6STDIS/

Editorial Reviews

“Majestically satisfying…a deliciously oppressive page-turner” (Steven Poole Guardian)

“Immensely enjoyable and gloriously dark… He has accomplished that toughest of literary feats: putting his own unmistakable mark on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays” (Matt Gibson Daily Express)

“Inventive and deeply satisfying… a dark but ultimately hopeful Macbeth, one suited to our own troubled times” (James Shapiro New York Times Book Review)

“Nesbo makes excellent use of all the atmosphere of his genre, and the stakes at play are every bit as convincing as those in the original… This is Nesbo doing what he’s good at” (Lucy Scholes Independent)

“Macbeth as a SWAT team leader. His wife as a former prostitute. The three witches as drug dealers. It’s Shakespeare’s darkest tale — reimagined by the king of Nordic noir” (Graeme Thomson Mail on Sunday)

“Majestically satisfying…a deliciously oppressive page-turner”

“Immensely enjoyable and gloriously dark… He has accomplished that toughest of literary feats: putting his own unmistakable mark on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays”

“Inventive and deeply satisfying… a dark but ultimately hopeful Macbeth, one suited to our own troubled times”

“Nesbo makes excellent use of all the atmosphere of his genre, and the stakes at play are every bit as convincing as those in the original… This is Nesbo doing what he’s good at”

“Macbeth as a SWAT team leader. His wife as a former prostitute. The three witches as drug dealers. It’s Shakespeare’s darkest tale — reimagined by the king of Nordic noir”

Author Jo Nesbo
Author Jo Nesbo

About the author:

The gripping new thriller from the author of The Snowman 

Jo Nesbo is one of the world’s bestselling crime writers, with The Leopard, Phantom, Police, The Son and his latest Harry Hole novel, The Thirst, all topping the Sunday Times bestseller charts. He’s an international number one bestseller and his books are published in 50 languages, selling over 33 million copies around the world.

Before becoming a crime writer, Nesbo played football for Norway’s premier league team Molde, but his dream of playing professionally for Spurs was dashed when he tore ligaments in his knee at the age of eighteen. After three years of military service, he attended business school and formed the band Di derre (‘Them There’). They topped the charts in Norway, but Nesbo continued working as a financial analyst, crunching numbers during the day and gigging at night. When commissioned by a publisher to write a memoir about life on the road with his band, he instead came up with the plot for his first Harry Hole crime novel, The Bat.

Sign up to the Jo Nesbo newsletter for all the latest news: jonesbo.com/newsletter

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jo-Nesbo/e/B004MSFDCG/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Vintage Digital for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This book is part of the Hogarth’s Shakespeare project, a project designed to create novels based on some of Shakespeare’s original plays and bring them up-to-date thanks to best-selling novelists. Although I have been intrigued since I’d heard about the project (because I am a fan of some of the authors, like Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler), this is the first of the novels to come out of the project that I’ve read. Evidently, the idea behind the series was to try and bring new readers to Shakespeare and perhaps combine people interested in the plays with followers of the novelists. My case is a bit peculiar. I love Shakespeare (I prefer his tragedies and his comedies to the rest of his work) but I can’t say I’m an authority on him, and although I’ve read some of his plays, I prefer to attend live performances or watch adaptations (I’ve watched quite a few versions of Hamlet, but not so many of the rest of his plays, by poor chance). I’ve only watched Macbeth a couple of times, so I’m not the best person to comment on how closely Nesbo’s book follows the original. On the other hand, I have not read any of the author’s novels. I’ve watched a recent movie adaptation of one of them (mea culpa, I had not checked the reviews beforehand) but, although I know of him, I cannot compare this novel to the rest of his oeuvre. So I’m poorly qualified to write this review from the perspective of the most likely audience. But, that’s never stopped me before, and this review might perhaps be more relevant to people who are not terribly familiar with either, Macbeth or Nesbo’s books.

From my vague memory of the play, the novel follows the plot fairly closely, although it is set in the 1970s, in a nightmarish and corrupt city (some of the reviewers say it’s a Northern city somewhere not specified. That is true, and although some of the names and settings seem to suggest Scotland, not all details match, for sure), where unemployment is a huge problem, as are drugs, where biker gangs murder at leisure and control the drug market (together with a mysterious and shady character called Hecate, that seems to pull the strings in the background. He’s not a witch here but there’s something otherworldly about him), where the train station has lost its original purpose and has become a den where homeless and people addicted to drugs hung together and try to survive. The police force takes the place of the royalty and the nobles in the original play, with murders, betrayals and everything in between going on in an attempt at climbing up the ladder and taking control of law-enforcement (with the interesting side-effect of blurring any distinction between law and crime), with the city a stand-in for the kingdom of Scotland in the original.

The story is told from many of the characters’ points of view (most of them) and there is a fair amount of head-hopping. Although as the novel advances we become familiar with the characters and their motivations, and it is not so difficult to work out who is thinking what, this is not so easy to begin with as there are many characters with very similar jobs and, at least in appearance, close motivations, so it’s necessary to pay close attention. The technique is useful to get readers inside the heads of the characters and to get insights into their motivations, even if in most cases it is not a comfortable or uplifting experience. The book is truly dark and it seems particularly apt to a moment in history when corruption, morality, and the evil use of power are as relevant as ever. (Of course, the fact that this is an adaptation of a play written centuries before our era brings home that although things might change in the surface, human nature does not change so much). The writing is at times lyrical and at others more down to earth, but it is a long book, so I’d advise readers to check a sample to see if it is something they’d enjoy for the long-haul. I’ll confess that when I started the book I wondered if it was for me, but once I got into the story and became immersed in the characters’ world, I was hooked.

The beauty of having access to the material in a novelised form is that we can get to explore the characters’ subjectivity and motivations, their psychology, in more detail than in a play. Shakespeare was great at creating characters that have had theatregoers thinking and guessing for hundreds of years, but much of it is down to the actors’ interpretation, and two or three hours are not space enough to explore the ins-and-outs and the complex relationships between the characters fully. I was particularly intrigued by Duff, who is not a particularly likeable character, to begin with, but comes into his own later. I liked Banquo, who is, with Duncan, one of the few characters readers will feel comfortable rooting for (Banquo’s son and Angus would fall into the same category, but play smaller parts), and I must warn you that there is no such as thing as feeling comfortable reading this book. I thought what Nesbo does with Lady is interesting and provides her with an easier to understand motivation and makes her more sympathetic than in the play (it is not all down to greed or ambition, although it remains a big part of it). No characters are whiter-than-white (some might be but we don’t get to know them well enough to make that call), and although the baddies might be truly bad, some remain mysterious and unknown, and they are portrayed as extreme examples of the corruption that runs rampant everywhere. Most of the rest of the characters are human, good and bad, and many come to question their lives and what moves them and take a stand that makes them more interesting than people who never deviate from the path of rightness. Macbeth is depicted as a man of contrasts, charitable and cruel, a survivor with a difficult past, perhaps easy to manipulate but driven, full of doubts but determined, addicted to drugs and ‘power’, charismatic and dependent, full of contradictions and memorable.

The ending of the novel is bittersweet. It is more hopeful than the rest of the novel would make us expect, but… (I am not sure I could talk about spoilers in this novel, but still, I’ll keep my peace). Let’s just say this couldn’t have a happy ending and be truthful to the original material.

Although I have highlighted several paragraphs, I don’t think they would provide a fair idea of the novel in isolation, and, as I said before, I recommend downloading or checking a sample to anybody considering the purchase of this novel.

Not knowing Nesbo’s other novels, I cannot address directly his fans. I’ve noticed that quite a number of reviewers who read his novels regularly were not too fond of this one. Personally, I think it works as an adaptation of the Shakespeare play and it is very dark, as dark as the plot of the original requires (and perhaps even more). It is long and it is not an easy-going read. There are no light moments, and it is demanding of the reader’s attention, challenging us to go beyond a few quotations, famous phrases, and set scenes, to the moral heart of the play. If you are looking for an interesting, although perhaps a not fully successful version of Macbeth, that will make you think about power, corruption, good and evil, family, friendship, and politics, give it a try. I am curious to read more Nesbo’s novels and some of the other novels in the project.

On a personal note, as I was reading this novel, the relationship between Macbeth and Banquo brought to my mind one of the novellas included in Escaping Psychiatry, Teamwork. Readers have described it as noir, and it is fairly twisted. Here is a sample:

“Who is this Justin, then?” Mary asked.

“Oh…Poor guy. He’s going through a really hard time. He comes from a very traumatic background. One of Tom’s men, Sgt. David Leaman…did you meet him?…took him under his wing and…treated him like a son. A truly good job he did with him. Recently…about two months ago, they were working together in a case and…Sgt. Leaman was killed. Tom is quite concerned about Justin, who seems to have reacted very weirdly to the whole thing. He just wants to go back to work, won’t talk to anybody, won’t have counselling…”

So that was it. An informal consultation. That’s what Tom wanted. Fair enough, but at least he could have told her. However hard she tried to leave psychiatry behind and get on with her other career, it didn’t seem to work. She was always pulled back.

“Is it nearly ready?” Tom asked from the dining-room.

“Yes. Ready!”

Dinner was somewhat weird. It was evident that Justin wasn’t a regular visitor to the house and didn’t quite know what to say. And he didn’t seem the talkative type either. He was sitting opposite Mary, and asked her:

“Doctor in what?”

“Literature and film, aren’t you?” Tom replied for her. Once Tom got distracted by his wife’s conversation she added:

“I also studied Medicine. And Psychiatry. I still work at it sometimes.”

She’d hit the target. His face changed and he became even quieter. Shortly after, he said that he needed to make a phone call. He wasn’t too long and remained as quiet as before when he returned. Both Justin and she made their apologies quite early and left together. Once in the street, as he opened his mouth to say goodbye, Mary said:

“Listen, I didn’t know anything about it. I asked Maureen in the kitchen and she told me what happened to Sgt. Leaman. I’m terribly sorry. But Tom hadn’t told me anything. I can see why he invited me, and I must say I found it a bit weird at the time, but he’d always been helpful and kind to me, I couldn’t say no for no reason. I just wanted you to know that I didn’t come here with the intention of analysing you or anything like that. Goodnight then. And good luck.”

As she turned to leave, he asked:

“Could we…talk? In confidence?”

“If you think it might help…”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t talk much. David was one of the few people I’ve ever talked to…And his wife Lea, but less…She’s too distraught to bother her with the way I’m feeling right now.”

“Let’s go somewhere. Do you know any place?”

“There’s an all-night diner not very far away from here. There’re never too many people there.”

He was right. There were a couple of people having something to eat, but otherwise, the place was dead quiet. Mary ordered a hot chocolate and he had some ice-cream and coffee. He had a spoonful of the ice-cream and put it to one side.

“No appetite? You didn’t eat much at the McLeods either.”

“No. I don’t feel like eating.”

“Have you lost weight?”

“Probably. Clothes seem loose now.” He went quiet. Mary asked.

“Are you sleeping all right?”

“Not really…I fall asleep easily enough, and then…I wake up in the middle of the night. I keep having these horrible nightmares…I can see David being shot in the head over and over again…”

“Did you see it?…I knew you’d been there, but I didn’t realise…”

“Yes. I was there. When I close my eyes I keep seeing him…falling down…Yes, I know…post-traumatic stress and all that crap. I don’t care what you call it; I’m not going to let it beat me. Not after what I’ve been through. I was beaten up by my father, tortured by him, really…He sent my mother and me to hospital time and again until one day…he hit her; she knocked her head against a banister and died. I pushed him downstairs, he was drunk…He didn’t die but ended up in a coma, like a vegetable. He finally died a couple of years ago and I couldn’t have cared less. It was a relief. I was 14 when all that happened. And then…They put me in a children’s home, and I did drugs, and drank, and…other things…And David caught me at a robbery…I was 16 at the time, and…I don’t know what it was, but he felt sorry for me. Lea says I probably reminded him of the son he lost as a child. Anyway, he took an interest, took me home with him and…He can’t be dead!” Justin burst out crying and Mary kept quiet, offering him a tissue after a few minutes.

“I hadn’t cried…for a long time. It makes me feel stupid and…”

“Vulnerable?… We’re all human and we hurt. It’s allowed, you know?”

“No. Not me. If I let everything come out…It’s a can of worms, Mary…Can I call you Mary?”

“Sure you can.”

“It’s…The only way I can get on with my life is by forgetting what went on before. Dave used to tell me that I didn’t have control over what the bastard of my father did to me and that he’d been punished for it, and I might as well concentrate on the rest of my life, because over that…I had some control and I could decide what to do. I could change it over; I could become anything I wanted if I just tried hard enough.”

Here, a reminder of the whole book and links:

Escaping Psychiatry cover by Ernesto Valdés

Escaping Psychiatry

‘Escaping Psychiatry’ is a collection of three stories in the psychological thriller genre with the same protagonist, Mary, a psychiatrist, and writer. She is trying to develop her literary career but circumstances and friends conspire to keep dragging her back to psychiatry.

In ‘Cannon Fodder’ Mary has to assess Cain, an African-American man accused of inciting a religious riot when he claimed that he could hear God and God was black. He might not be mad, but Mary is sure he’s hiding something.

‘Teamwork’ sees Mary hoodwinked into offering therapy to Justin, a policeman feeling guilty after his partner and ersatz father was killed on-duty. Before Mary can extricate herself from the case, things get personal.

In ‘Memory’ Mary goes missing after an incident with Phil, who is manic as he hasn’t been taking his medication. When she is found, she has been the victim of a horrific crime, but they soon discover she was luckier than they had realised.

The epilogue revisits Mary at the point of the trial of her abductor and sees what changes have taken place in her life. Will she finally manage to Escape Psychiatry?

AMAZON (e-book)    KOBO           NOOK            APPLE           SCRIBD        

PAGE FOUNDRY   OYSTER  GOOGLE     PAPER

And also in AUDIO: in AMAZON  and i-TUNES
And if you want to check a sample of the audio you can go here!

Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher for the book, thanks to all of you for writing, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and to keep smiling!

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE ENGLISH WIFE: A NOVEL by Lauren Willig (@laurenwillig) (@StMartinsPress) Recommended to fans of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen’s novels. #bookreview #historicalfiction

Hi all:

I am sure today’s book won’t be to everybody’s taste, but I loved it. See what you think.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig
The English Wife by Lauren Willig

The English Wife: A Novel by Lauren Willig

From New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Willig, comes this scandalous novel set in the Gilded Age, full of family secrets, affairs, and even murder.

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life in New York: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

https://www.amazon.com/English-Wife-Novel-Lauren-Willig-ebook/dp/B072TY6MS6/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/English-Wife-Novel-Lauren-Willig-ebook/dp/B072TY6MS6/

Author Lauren Willig
Author Lauren Willig

About the author:

Lauren Willig is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Pink Carnation series and several stand alone works of historical fiction, including “The Ashford Affair”, “That Summer”, “The Other Daughter”, and “The Forgotten Room” (co-written with Karen White and Beatriz Williams). Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. After graduating from Yale University, she embarked on a PhD in English History at Harvard before leaving academia to acquire a JD at Harvard Law while authoring her “Pink Carnation” series of Napoleonic-set novels. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.

https://www.amazon.com/Lauren-Willig/e/B001IGQV62/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

In case you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to read the whole review (you know I can go on and on), I love this novel. I recommend it to anybody who enjoys historical fiction with a mystery at its heart, especially if you enjoy gothic novels. If you love Rebecca and Jane Eyre, I would advise you to check it out. And, for the insights it offers on the society of the time (both sides of the Atlantic), I think fans of Jane Austen who are interested in novels beyond the Regency period will also enjoy it.

This historical novel, set at the end of the XIX century, starts with a murder and the mystery surrounding it. On the day when Annabelle and Bay, a couple of the best of New York society (Annabelle, the aristocratic English wife of the heir of the Van Duyvil dynasty) have organised a ball to celebrate the completion of their new mansion, he is found dead with a knife (a dagger from his costume) in his chest, and his wife is presumed drowned under the icy waters of the river. Janie, Bay’s sister, alarmed at the different versions of the story that circulate (either her brother killed his adulterous wife and then committed suicide, or his wife killed him intending to run away with her lover, although her brother is also accused of adultery with their cousin Anne…) and how they will affect her little niece and nephew, decides to try to find the truth. She chooses an unlikely ally (more unlikely than she realises at the time), a reporter (her mother values privacy, appearances, and reputation above all, and she appears to be the perfect obedient daughter), and the novel tells the story of their investigation, that we get to follow chronologically from the moment the body is discovered, in January 1899, for several weeks. We also get to read about events that took place several years earlier (from 1894 onward), when Annabelle (also known as Georgie) first met Bay, in London. She was working as an actress and they become friends. These two strands of the story, told in the third person, but each one from the point of view of one of the main characters, Janie and Georgie, run in parallel until towards the very end, and that offers us different perspectives and insight while at the same time helping keep the mystery going. The more we know about the ins and outs of the characters, their relationships, their families, and their secrets (and there are many. Other than Janie, who only starts keeping secrets after her brother’s death, all the rest of the characters carry heavy loads, sometimes theirs, sometimes those of others), the more we feel invested in the story, and the more suspects and red herrings that keep appearing. I have read some reviewers that complained about the story not being a mystery or a thriller. Well, a thriller it is not, for sure (although I found the reading experience thrilling for other reasons). It has some of the elements of a classic mystery of the era, with the added beauty of the detailed setting, the appreciation of the subtle social nuances of the time, the strong portrayal of the characters, and the beautiful language. You might guess who the guilty party is (I must confess I kept wavering between several possible explanations), and also some of the other secrets (some are more evident than others), but I thought it worked well, although not, perhaps, for a reader who is looking, exclusively, for a mystery and wants to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. This is not a book written following the rules of the genre we are so familiar with (nothing extraneous that does not move the story forward, kill you darlings, keep descriptions to a minimum) and, in my opinion, is all he better for it.

This book is full of great characters. We are limited to two points of view only, which might be biased due to personal reasons, and some characters, like Cousin Anne, generates strong emotions from all those involved (she never conforms, she steals the man her cousin Janie was going to marry, later divorces, and her attitude towards Annabelle is not supportive), but she has some of the best lines, and we get to understand her quite well by the end of the story. Janie, who has always been dismissed by her mother and ignored by the rest of the family, is an articulate, intelligent, cultured, and determined woman. Burke, the reporter, is a complex character with stronger morals than anybody would give him credit for, and Mrs. Van Duyvil, the mother, is a larger-than-life woman, whose influence is felt by those who come into contact with her, and she is far from likeable, and there are other characters that appear in a negative light. Even the “good” characters (Bay and Janie) have complex motives for their actions, and nothing is a black or white as we might think at the beginning.

As I mentioned above, the author (whose work I’d never read before but I’ll make sure to check) captures well the nuances of the time, the dress, the setting, the social mores (yes, a little like Jane Austen, although in a very different historical period), writes beautifully, and her choice of female characters as narrators allows us a good insight into what life was like at the time for women, whose power always had to be channelled through men. Times were changing already, and people keep referring to the Vanderbilts’ divorce, but this was not generally accepted yet, and certain things had to be kept hidden. The dialogue is full of wit and sparks at times, and although there is drama, sadness, and grief, there is also merriment, fun, romance, and very insightful comments on the society of the time (and yes, our society as well).

The book is full of literary references, historical-era appropriate, and most readers fond of the genre will enjoy the comments about books (and plays) of the time. I did. The narrative takes its time to explore the situations and the characters in detail, but I felt it moved at the right pace, giving us a chance to reflect upon the serious questions behind the story. Who decides who we truly are? How important are appearances and social conventions? What role should other people’s opinions play in our lives and actions? I don’t want to give any spoilers away (I enjoyed the ending, by the way, but that’s all I’ll say about it), but I thought I’d share some snippets from the book.

The juries of the world were made of men. A man could hold his honor dear in masculine matters such as gambling debts and never mind that he left a trail of ruined women behind him. Men diced with coin; women diced with their lives.

Georgie took a sip of her own tea. It was too weak. It was always too weak. She blamed it on the Revolution. Since the Boston Tea Party, the Americans had apparently been conserving their tea leaves.

“So you came rushing through the ice?” Janie didn’t know whether to be touched or shake him for being so foolish. “Slaying a dragon would have been easier. And warmer.”

Viola lifted her head. “I don’t want a lullaby. I want a story.” “Even better. I have a wonderful one about a prince who turned into a toad. You’ll adore it. It’s very educational.” (This is Anne. She has many wonderful retorts).

And this one must be one of my favourite sentences of the year so far:

Janie felt like a prism: fragile, but with the chance of rainbows.

In sum, a beautifully written historical fiction novel, with a mystery (several) at its heart, memorable characters, fantastic dialogue, and a gothic touch. Unmissable.

 

Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, and REVIEW!

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#Bookreview THE DRY: The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year 2017 by Jean Harper (@LittleBrownUK) (@janeharperautho)Tense, atmospheric, and reflective Australian #crimenovel.

Hi all:

This is the second part (although it should be the first) of the post I published last week. Oh well, this is me we’re talking about, after all.

The Dry by Jane Harper
The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry: The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Year 2017 by Jane Harper

‘One of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever read…Read it!’ David Baldacci

WINNER OF THE CWA GOLD DAGGER AWARD 2017
AMAZON.COM’S #1 PICK FOR BEST MYSTERY & THRILLER OF THE YEAR 2017
The Gold Australian Book Industry Award for Book of the Year
Australian Book Industry Award for Fiction Book of the Year

WATERSTONES THRILLER OF THE MONTH
THE SIMON MAYO RADIO 2 BOOK CLUB CHOICE
SUNDAY TIMES CRIME THRILLER OF THE MONTH

 

‘Packed with sneaky moves and teasing possibilities that keep the reader guessing…The Dry is a breathless page-turner’ Janet Maslin, New York Times

WHO REALLY KILLED THE HADLER FAMILY?

I just can’t understand how someone like him could do something like that.

Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, it hasn’t rained in small country town Kiewarra for two years. Tensions in the community become unbearable when three members of the Hadler family are brutally murdered. Everyone thinks Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty.

Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.

And if you loved The Dry, don’t miss Jane Harper’s second novel Force of Nature, now available

Editorial reviews:

Review

It is hard to believe that this accomplished piece of writing, which returns again and again to the savage beauty of the landscape, is Harper’s first novel – Sunday Times, Crime Book of the Month January 2017

Wonderfully atmospheric, The Dry is both a riveting murder mystery and a beautifully wrought picture of a rural community under extreme pressure – Mail on Sunday Thriller of the Week, January 2017

The writing is fantastic, and the plot – where many mystery/thrillers fall short these days – was completely unpredictable in the best ways possible… Aaron Falk, returns to his hometown in Australia to mourn, and inevitably investigate, his best friend’s apparent suicide. What comes next is a series of twists and turns that will keep you guessing all the way until the end. I repeatedly found myself shocked and pulled in by Harper’s fast paced and engrossing writing. Truly a fantastic read and hopefully the first of many to come from Ms. Harper – An Amazon Best Book of January 2017, Amazon.com

One of the most assured crime debuts I’ve encountered in many years . . . It grips like a vice from first paragraph to last, atmospherically evoking the small town of Kiewarra . . . Told with heart-breaking precision and emotional power . . . If you read only one crime novel this year make it this one – Daily Mail

Solid storytelling that, despite a plethora of flashbacks, never loses momentum, strong characterization and a sense of place so vivid that you can almost feel the blistering heat add up to a remarkably assured debut – Laura Wilson, Guardian

A sad, beautifully told tale of lives regretted – The Times

‘Jane Harper’s fleet novel about a triple killing is packed with sneaky moves and teasing possibilities that keep the reader guessing…hard to believe this is her first novel… The Dry is a breathless page-turner…The dryness that gives the book its eerie title looms large in the novel’s finale, when certain kinds of weapons become even more terrible than those used to butcher the Hadlers. And a book with a secret on every page now has threats blooming everywhere, too. The Dry has caught the attention of Reese Witherspoon, who has a solid track record for spotting novels with strong movie potential. (Want some evidence? Gone Girl.) But Ms Hadler has made her own major mark long before any film version comes along – Janet Maslin, New York Times

Like True Detective set in the Australian outback…Amid the worst drought in a century, the tension and stifling heat running through the small town of Kiewarra crackle off the pages – Stylist magazine, this month’s most exciting new novels

Set in a small Australian town during a blistering drought, this creepy and tightly woven tale about a detective investigating a brutal triple-murder is getting huge global attention for all the right reasons – it’s brilliant! – Heat magazine

Pulse-thumping suspense… Building from the first page, rammed with atmosphere, suspicions, lies and tension, this is a first-class crime debut’ – Fanny Blake’s Great Reads, Woman & Home

Settle in a comfy chair and read . . . The Dry by Jane Harper. This gripping novel charts a policeman’s unwilling participation in the investigation of a terrible murder in the town of his youth, and is set to be the biggest crime release of 2017 – GQ magazine

Tipped to be one of the biggest novels of the year . . . a gripping read – Hello magazine

Jane Harper creates an atmosphere of simmering tension right from the off. Her version of High Noon in the Outback flickers between past and present to slowly reveal what actually happened between characters who are far more engaging than the cogs usually found in clockwork thrillers . . . A more than promising debut – Evening Standard

One of the most stunning debuts I’ve ever read. I could feel the searing heat of the Australia setting. Every word is near perfect. The story builds like a wave seeking the purchase of earth before it crashes down and wipes out everything you might have thought about this enthralling tale. Read it! – David Baldacci

One of the best crime debuts of 2017 – literary Broadchurch meets Top of the Lake – Joseph Knox, author of Sirens

There is something about isolated communities and secrets and lies that just really intrigues me and this is one heck of a thriller with all of those things and more . . . [this thriller] slowly bubbles like a pan on a stove and you think you can guess the moment when the pan lid is just going to explode. But it’s only been a little while since the water started to bubble, it’ll be ages yet…..then BOOM. I had my eye on that pan lid from the start and I didn’t guess what would happen. My heart is still beating like mad days after finishing the book – The Book Trail (via NetGalley)

You can almost feel the searing heat of the Australian drought in this intense, gripping, atmospheric tale. A compulsive read. – Kate Hamer, bestselling author of The Girl in the Red Coat

Put up your tray table, buckle your seatbelt, and sit back: you’ve found the right book for this flight. Set in the flash-ready tinder of a town going under, The Dry is a cracking good read that will have you hoping the pilot decides to circle the airport before landing. A hit by land or air. – Laura McBride, author of We Are Called to Rise

You will feel the heat, taste the dust and blink into the glare. The Dry is a wonderful crime novel that shines a light into the darkest corner of a sunburnt country – Michael Robotham, CWA Gold Dagger Winner, bestselling author of Life or Death

Every so often a debut novel arrives that is so tightly woven and compelling it seems the work of a novelist in her prime. That’s what Jane Harper has given us with The Dry, a story so true to setting and tone it seemed I fell asleep in Virginia only to wake in Australian heat. It’s rare, that sense of transportation, and I loved every minute of it – John Hart, New York Times bestselling author of Redemption Road

Terrific characters, unique and evocative setting, knockout plot construction. This book has it all – John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author of The Fall

Every now and then an Australian crime novel comes along to stop your breath and haunt your dreams…There is about The Dry something mythic and valiant. This a story about heroism, the sins of the past, and the struggle to atone – Sydney Morning Herald

[A] devastating debut…From the ominous opening paragraphs, all the more chilling for their matter-of-factness, Harper …spins a suspenseful tale of sound and fury as riveting as it is horrific – Publishers Weekly, starred review

A mystery that starts with a sad homecoming quickly turns into a nail-biting thriller about family, friends, and forensic accounting. Debut author Harper plots this novel with laser precision, keeping suspects in play while dropping in flashbacks that offer readers a full understanding of what really happened. The setting adds layers of meaning. Kiewarra is suffering an epic drought, and Luke’s suicide could easily be explained by the failure of his farm. The risk of wildfire, especially in a broken community rife with poverty and alcoholism, keeps nerves strung taut… A chilling story set under a blistering sun, this fine debut will keep readers on edge and awake long past bedtime – Kirkus, starred review

A stunner…It’s a small-town, big-secrets page-turner with a shocker of an ending. .. – Booklist, starred review

The Dry is one of the most talked-about debuts of the new year….Harper’s story is tightly plotted and moves briskly, the tension as brittle and incendiary as the dried-out crops on the Kiewarra farms. But it is the beautifully evoked landscape and the portrayal of a gloomy outpost on the edge of a desert that are the stars of the show – BookPage

A firecracker debut . . . Journalist Jane Harper proves literary is often mysterious, with her thriller The Dry capturing readers’ attention both for its final twist and its depiction of a hostile small Australian town beset by drought – West Australian

It’s extremely rare and exciting to read a debut that enthralls from the very first page and then absolutely sticks the landing. Told with heart and guts and an authentic sense of place that simply cannot be faked, The Dry is the debut of the year – C.J. Box, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Off The Grid

A razor-sharp crime yarn dripping in the sights, sounds and smells of the Australian bush…The storytelling is accomplished, with a bald sparseness to the writing that draws you in and characterization that rings resoundingly true…as the action twists and turns, the pace build[s] to a fantastic finale that will leave you breathless – Australian Women’s Weekly

A tightly plotted page-turner that kept me reading well into the night…Harper shines a light on the highs and lows of rural life – the loyalty born of collective endurance in adversity, as well as the loneliness and isolation, and the havoc wrought by small-town gossip. She also explores the nature of guilt and regret, and the impact of the past on the present. In this cracker of a book Harper maintains the suspense, with the momentum picking up as it draws to its nerve-wracking conclusion – Australian Financial Review

In this exhilarating debut (which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript), Falk goes back to a town ravaged by feelings of resentment and distrust that are exacerbated by drought . . . A community psychologically and socially damaged, Kiewarra resembles Henry Lawson’s bush. Australian novelists such as Harper, in a small and select company, are exploring disquieting, imaginative territories, far from the littoral or metropolis – Weekend Australian

In Jane Harper’s debut The Dry, long-held grudges are thrown in the mix to make for an absolute tinderbox – and a cracking read. Harper has delivered a tense, evocative thriller that paints a stark picture of what desperate times can do to a community. She slowly reveals the deep-worn tensions between characters in the small town, and it’s this that makes The Dry such a good read . . . tension crackles . . . It’s not surprising that Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, has already snapped up film rights for The Dry. It has some decidedly Australian aspects but Harper’s basic point – about the desperate things people will do in desperate times – is universal – Adeleide Advertiser

Atmospheric and riveting, this remarkable debut announces a significant new talent – Morning Star

 Links:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dry-Sunday-Times-Crime-Book-ebook/dp/B01C37W582/

https://www.amazon.com/Dry-Sunday-Times-Crime-Book-ebook/dp/B01C37W582/

Author Jane Harper
Author Jane Harper

About the author:

Jane Harper is the author of The Dry, winner of various awards including the 2015 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, the 2017 Indie Award Book of the Year, the 2017 Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year Award and the CWA Gold Dagger Award for the best crime novel of 2017. Rights have been sold in 27 territories worldwide, and film rights optioned to Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea. Jane worked as a print journalist for thirteen years both in Australia and the UK and lives in Melbourne.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jane-Harper/e/B001KI8MCE/

My review:

This is a bit of a peculiar situation. After reading great things about this novel and requesting the author’s second novel Force of Nature (you can check my review here) from NetGalley, I had to read it quickly to take part on a blog tour. When I looked at other reviews, there were so many comparisons to the first novel (although it can be read as a standalone) that I felt I should read the first novel to make my own mind up. That means I will be comparing the first novel to the second, rather than the other way around. Sorry. Why do things the easy way when one can complicate matters?

There is no doubt that Harper knows how to set a story and how to take full advantage of the landscape, atmosphere, and characteristics of the place and the people. She sets the story during a terrible drought in Australia, specifically in Kiewarra, and has the main protagonist (who is also the main character in Force, Aaron Falk, a police detective specializing on fraud and financial crimes) return to his place of birth, twenty years after having left in unfortunate circumstances. The story is also told in the third person, mostly from Falk’s point of view, although we also have fragments, that are differentiated from the rest of the story by being written in italics, that go back to the events that happened many years back (the events that made Falk and his father leave town when he was an adolescent), and also to the more recent deaths. These fragments, also written in the third person, are told from a variety of points of views, although it is not difficult to know which character’s point of view we are sharing. (Some readers enjoy the style and others don’t, so I’d recommend checking a sample of the book before making a decision).

In this story, Falk is called to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke, who has seemingly killed his wife and young son, and then committed suicide, only leaving his baby daughter (13 months old) alive. Luke’s parents are convinced that their son has not killed his family and himself, and ask for Falk’s help. The current killings bring back memories of the death of a young girl who was Falk and Luke’s friend and with it the suspicions of his possible involvement.

The mystery has some elements of the police procedural (as Falk joins forces with the new police Sergeant, Raco), also of the domestic noir (there are many secrets, mostly family secrets buried deep, and relationships that are not what they seem to be at first sight), and there are plenty of suspects, clues, red herrings, to keep us guessing. But the book does not follow a straight linear narrative, as I mentioned;  it does go into plenty of detail about things that do not seem to be always relevant to the murders, and its pace is not what we are used to in more formulaic thrillers. It is slow and contemplative at times, and the past weighs heavily on the investigation (especially on those who have matters pending). Although most of the violence takes place outside the page, and this is by no means the most explicitly violent novel I’ve read (I’m difficult to shock, though), there is violence and it deals in pretty dark subjects, so be warned. Whilst in some crime novels, even very dark ones, there are light and humorous moments that help release tension; there is hardly any of that here. What we have are insightful and contemplative moments, which go beyond the usual snarky comments by the cynical detective.

As an example, a particularly touching comment by Barb, Luke’s mother, talking about the aftermath of her son’s death:

‘No-one tells you this is how it’s going to be, do they? Oh yes, they’re all so sorry for your loss, all so keen to pop round and get the gossip when it happens, but no-one mentions having to go through your dead son’s drawers and return their library books, do they? No one tells you how to cope with that.’

I thought the small town was  realistically portrayed. The envies, the resentment, the discomfort of knowing that everybody is aware of everybody else’s business, and the prejudices and the tensions in a place where nobody can hide, and where you are never given the benefit of the doubt, felt true to life. Although I’ve never visited Australia, the dynamics of the place and its inhabitants, subject to major tensions due to the uncertainty the drought had brought to the local economy, create an atmosphere that is tense and oppressive, even if the story is not fast-paced.

The characters, in my opinion, are somewhat more clearly divided down morality lines in this novel than in the second, although it is not so evident in the beginning. Whilst in Force none of the characters come out of the book unscathed, and most of them are morally suspect, here there are good characters (although they might not appear to be) and some truly bad ones. Most of the characters (at least the good ones) carry a burden of guilt (in most cases for things they are not truly responsible for), whilst the bad characters seem unable/unwilling to take responsibility for their actions, no matter how cruel. As is the case for many investigators, Falk is also investigating his own past, and that is why he finds it so difficult to resolve the case. This process of rediscovery and personal digging will continue in the next novel. I would not say Falk is an immediately likeable character. I found him more consistent and easy to understand in the second book (of course, by then he had survived to the events of this novel, which would have had an impact on him), although he seems to come alive in some of his interactions with others (particularly Luke’s mother, a great character).

Overall, I felt the mystery part of the story is more intriguing and well-resolved here (even though the past case keeps interfering with the present; there are not as many loose ends and red-herrings here), although I did not mind that aspect of the second novel (that I found more morally complex). For me, this one is more of a novel for mystery lovers, especially for those who prefer to take their time and enjoy a different setting to the usual urban thriller. The second novel in the series pays more attention to how the story is told and to the characters themselves. But there is no doubt that Harper is a great writer and I’m sure we’ll keep reading her and about her in the future.

Ah, don’t miss this post with a recommendation of a book that people who have enjoyed The Dry might like (and I could not agree more. I love The Silent Kookaburra by Liza Perrat. You can read my own review, here).

Thanks to the author, to Cathy for her recommendation, to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

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