Just Olga and her books

I've loved books since I learned to read and now I love to read and writer books, to read about books, and although most of all I love fiction, I write other books that might tickle my fancy. I'm originally from Barcelona and I also read in Spanish and Catalan. I love movies and theatre so these are things I also love to read about.

Darker adventures and even more action

The Angel of Evil - Kenneth Bøgh Andersen

I received an ARC copy from the author but that has in no way influenced my review, which I freely chose to write.

This is the fourth book in The Great Devil War Series, a series that I’m enjoying enormously, and I loved this part as well. As I warned in my review of the previous book, that one ended with a huge cliff-hanger, but you don’t need to worry; that is not the case here. And not only that, but many of the mysteries and questions that had yet to be answered from the rest of the series get their answers here (we even learn the meaning of life! No, I won’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to read the book to find out!). In many ways, this book felt like the end of the series. But, luckily, there is a teaser with the first chapter of the next book included, so you can breathe easy if you’ve loved the series as much as I have. If you’ve read the previous novels a while back, don’t worry; there is enough information of what went on before to bring you up to speed, but I would recommend readers who haven’t read any other novels in the series to start at the very beginning, otherwise they’ll miss a lot of the fun, and the story won’t work as it should.

I am not going to discuss the plot in detail, for evident reasons, but we have Philip taking control of the situation and coming to the rescue more than once, and there’s also a mystery at the heart of the book (Aziel, Lucifer’s sworn enemy, is up to no good, the Devil War of the title approaches, but how is he planning to win it?), with plenty of cryptic clues (people with a knowledge of the Bible might have their suspicions, but it’s not straightforward), red herrings, twists and turns, plenty of action; we revisit some of our favourite characters, and meet some new ones (I particularly enjoyed Samson’s guest appearance, but I won’t spoil the rest of surprises). As the description promises, all Hell breaks loose, literally, and it is epic. Oh, I loved the ending as well, although it feels bittersweet.

The writing is as good as in previous books, with vivid descriptions of places and characters that don’t detract from the flow of the story. If anything, I’d say this book is darker than the previous ones, and although there are humorous moments, there is plenty of suffering (both physical and psychological), more explicit violence (young adults who love gore, bloods and guts will be happy), and subjects such as loss, death, choice, free will, betrayal, identity, sacrifice… are explored in detail, always within the realms of the story. The character is growing up, and so are his concerns and the seriousness of the decisions he is confronted with.

I was a bit disappointed with the role of the female characters in this instalment. Satina is not in a position to act as she usually does, for reasons to do with the story, and none of the females seem to take active part in the big scenes, but this does not detract from the enjoyment of the adventures (although it is, perhaps, a lost opportunity).

I recommend this book, and the whole series, to YA and adult readers who love fantasy, adventures, are not squeamish and love a touch of horror, monsters and dark events. This is a great coming of age story as well, and it will suit readers who appreciate complex characters to go with their thrills and exploits. There are tonnes of risky moments, scares aplenty, and surprises to keep readers hooked. Oh, and although many questions are answered, I’m already mulling over some new ones. I’m looking forward to The Fallen Angel already.

Recommended to fans of conspiracy theory novels and spy thrillers

Collateral Carnage: Money. Politics. Big Pharma. What could go wrong? - Chris Saper

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team, and thank her and the author for the ARC copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.

Having worked in the health services (although in the UK) for a number of years, and having treated some patients suffering from PTSD (although I’m no specialist), I was intrigued by this debut novel. I was even more interested when I read the author’s biography and learned of her first-hand experience as a healthcare administrator, as that promised to bring an insider’s perspective into the topic and add complexity to the plot.

This novel is perfect for readers who love conspiracy theory plots and also spy novels. I must confess that I am not much of a reader of spy novels, because I tend to get lost in the huge number of names, where characters often swap identities, and sometimes find it difficult to tell the different players apart. There is some of that here, because we are thrown at the deep end from the beginning. There’s no gentle easing into the subject or much background information provided before we get into the nitty gritty of the story, and the fact that we don’t know what’s happening parallels the experience of the main character, Claire Wilheit.

The story is narrated in the third person, but from a variety of points of view (I’d say almost as many as characters, or at least as many as characters that have some bearing into the outcome of the novel), and although some characters appear often and we become somewhat familiar with them, there are others that only make a fleeting appearance. The point of view, although clearly signalled, can change even within a chapter, and not all readers feel comfortable with so many changes. Chapters are short, the story moves at a quick pace, and although the language is straightforward, and there are no unnecessarily long descriptions, readers need to remain alert and attentive. This is not an easy and relaxed read; the plot has many strands that might appear quite entangled and confusing at first, but if one keeps reading, the story becomes clearer and the subject is both compelling and gripping.

Personally, I felt that this is a story heavier on plot than on characters. There are quite a number of characters I liked (mostly on the “good” side, although I felt some sympathy for the motives of some of the characters on the “bad” side as well), especially Claire, who is determined, intelligent, resourceful, and has managed to overcome pretty difficult circumstances, but because there are so many characters, and they all take their turn, it is difficult to get to know most of them in depth. I think that was in part the reason why, at times, I felt like an observer of the plot and the story, rather than being fully involved and sharing in the experiences of the characters. The end of the novel hinted at the possibility of further adventures involving Claire and some of the other characters (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here), so readers might learn much more about them.

I “enjoyed” (well, it worried me, but you know what I mean), the insight into the pharmaceutical industry, the way the novel spells out the relationship between Big Pharma and politics, and the reflections on how the healthcare system works (or rather, might end up working) in the USA. One of the aspects of the novel that I found captivating was the dystopian edge of the story. I haven’t seen it listed as a dystopia, but it is set in the very near future, with a social order very similar to the current one, but with subtle differences, or perhaps one could call them “developments” that, unfortunately, fit in well with recent events and with the way things are progressing. In the book, the efforts to control costs have resulted in the privatization of ever more services —the police force in Phoenix, for instance, deals with certain kinds of crimes, but at night there is a Militia in charge, and there is a curfew in place—, including the healthcare of the veterans of the many wars that the American military has participated in, and there are large interests involved in all these services. And, of course, those can be manipulated by less than scrupulous people. The most worrying part of the story is that it feels very realistic. It does not take a big stretch of the imagination to see something like this happening, and perhaps with an end far less satisfying than that of the novel (which I liked).

In summary, this is a novel for lovers of conspiracy theories and/or fairly realistic spy thrillers, that like puzzles and complex plots and don’t shy away from hard topics. The author injects her knowledge into the story without overwhelming it and the research is well integrated into the plot. There is no graphic violence and no romance here but a dire warning of how things could end up if money continues to be the governments’ (not only that of the USA) only consideration when dealing with people’s wellbeing. The characters are not as important as the story, but I think there is room for their development in future instalments. As a note to the author, I wonder if a list of characters might help people not to get lost, especially at the beginning of the book. I know that because of the nature of the plot, it might be difficult to do that without spoiling some of the surprises, although there might be ways around it. I will keep a close watch on the author’s writing career.

 

Fantastic. Unforgettable.

A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende

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

I have long been a fan of Isabel Allende’s novels, although I haven’t read any of her recent books, despite my best intentions. I read many of her early novels, in Spanish, and I enjoyed her take on Magic Realism, which I found inspiring. When I saw this novel, which combined Allende’s writing with a historical subject close to my heart (I’m from Barcelona, like the protagonist of the novel, and some of my relatives lived experiences quite similar to those Victor goes through), I had to read it. And although it is a very different reading experience from that of The House of the Spirits, I enjoyed it enormously.

This novel is the story of Victor Dalmau, whom we meet at a very difficult moment, during the Spanish Civil War. He was studying Medicine and helps look after the wounded in battle, while his younger brother, Guillem, fights for the Republic. Told in the third person, mostly from Victor’s point of view (there is a fragment where the novel deviates from that, but there is a good reason for it), the book follows his life pretty closely and in chronological order, although not all periods of his life are shared in the same detail. We learn about his family, his parents, Roser (his brother’s girlfriend and one of the students of Victor’s father, a musician), and hear first-hand of his experiences during the war, the retreat (“la retirada”), and the problems a huge number of Spaniards who escaped to France had to face once there.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, is fundamental to the story, not only because he chartered the SS Winnipeg that took many Spaniards (around two thousand) to Chile, escaping from Franco’s regime and the French camps, but also because he personally appears in the novel and each chapter is introduced by one of his poems. In fact, the title of the book also comes from one of his poems, and it is a descriptive metaphor of the country, Chile, that welcomed the refugees with open arms. The story also follows Victor’s later adventures, his studies and work as a cardiologist, Roser’s works as a musician and her creation of an orchestra, and the historical and political upheavals they have to confront, with further displacements and persecution. What is to be an emigrant, how different people adapt to different realities and countries (Victor and Roser are pretty different in this respect), and also the invaluable contribution those very same immigrants make to the very fabric of the country that takes them in, are threads that run through the whole novel.

This is my first experience of reading Allende’s work in English, and I thought the translation was excellent. The language is both functional and beautiful, capturing the emotions of the characters, and vividly portraying their experiences, at times harrowing and at others uplifting. I was very touched by the narrative, and although that might be in part due to my personal connection to the material (not only the historical aspect, but also the experience of life in a different country) , the effect was not limited to the parts of the story I was familiar with. The adventures of Victor and Roser in Chile, Allende’s government (of course, Salvador Allende was Isabel’s uncle), and the military coup, further tested their endurance and made them start again in Venezuela. Added to the larger historical events, we have a story of love, family, and displacement, which will resonate with many readers, even if they are not familiar with the particular historical and geographical setting. Circumstances might change, but the problems are universal.

The author talks about the genesis of the book in a note at the beginning of the book and explains it in more detail in the acknowledgements at the end. Although this is a novel, it is based on real accounts, and its main character was inspired by another Victor, Victor Pey, who lived to be 103, and who experienced many of the trials and tribulations we read about. Allende creates a catalogue of varied characters, complex and credible, and mixes historical figures with fictional ones seamlessly. Victor is a quiet man, hard-working, who prefers action to idle talk, and whose mission in life seems to be to help others. He is a survivor who can be naïve about the consequences of his actions and about the motivations of others, but he always expects the best of others and hopes against hope. Roser, his wife, is a fabulous character, a strong woman who keeps going no matter what, and their relationship evolves through the book, never getting old and with plenty of surprises. There are plenty of memorable characters in the book, some that play a larger part than others, and some that keep popping up at regular intervals as time passes. I was intrigued by the Solan family, fascinated by Juana, their lifelong servant, and also appreciated the small details that add a human touch to the historical figures, Pablo Neruda in particular.

I loved the writing style, poetic and lyrical at times, despite dealing in some very harsh topics. The flow varies, and some historical periods are described in more detail than others, as happens in memoirs. I’ve read comments of readers who say there is too much telling in this novel. There is a fair amount of telling, that is true, by the very nature of the story, but it suits the personality of the protagonist, and to be honest, I cried with the story as it is. I’m not sure I would have managed to read it if it were even more emotional. (I smiled as well, and it is a hopeful story overall, but it did touch me deeply).

I have highlighted many passages, and it’s difficult to choose one or two, but I decided to give it a try.

Here Victor Dalmau observes the work of the female volunteers looking after injured soldiers in the Spanish Civil War:

Volunteer women would moisten their lips, whisper to them, and comfort them as if they were their own children, in the knowledge that somewhere else, another woman might be cradling their own son or brother.

If you are very sensitive, you might want to look away now:

This was to be his most stubborn, persistent memory of the war: that fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy, still smooth-cheeked, filthy with the dirt of battle and dried blood, laid out on a stretcher with his heart exposed to the air.

And I had to include one from Pablo Neruda, quoted here in chapter 2.

Nothing, not even victory,

Can wipe away the terrible hole of blood.

I love this novel, which I recommend to readers of historical fiction, particularly those interested in the Spanish Civil War and/or the history of Chile, to fans of Isabel Allende, and also to those who’ve never read her before, but are looking for a compelling story, masterfully written, with a memorable cast of characters and a story with many parallels to recent events. I attended a conference about la Retirada (the retreat of around 500000 Spaniards, both military and civilians, escaping to France from Spain at the end of the Civil War, in February 1939) on its 8oth anniversary earlier this year, and looking at the pictures, it gave us all pause, because if we just changed the background of the photographs and the clothes, we could have been watching the news. Like those images, this is a novel that will stay with me. I might be biased but that’s my prerogative and I can’t recommend it enough.

Beautiful writing and compelling characters and setting

Invisible, as Music - Caren J. Werlinger

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank her and the author for the ARC copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.

This is the second book by this author I read, and it shares many of the characteristics of the previous one (a great setting, a love story at the centre of the book, a sense of time and place, great characters, both protagonists and secondary, wonderful writing…).

Here we have two characters that seem total opposites at first sight. Meryn, Ryn, a young woman, openly lesbian, newly qualified to teach history, from a large family, gregarious and friendly, dynamic, with strong convictions, and happy to stir things up. Henrietta, on the other hand, contracted polio in the 1940s and has lived with its sequelae ever since, leading a reclusive life, restricted to a small town, with a tiny circle of friends (mostly not deserving of the name), dedicated to her art, and dependant for her everyday life on paid help and living-in companions. Although the book starts in the 1980s, in many ways Henrietta still lives in the fifties. Due to the braces she wears and to her level of disability she has built up a protective shell around herself, and she’s never dared to change anything or explore beyond her self-imposed boundaries.

The story is narrated in the third person, alternating the two main characters’ points of view, and this works very well, as we have the contrast between a total newcomer who finds it difficult to fit into the stuffy and stifling society of the small town and of the Catholic college (where men reign supreme and misbehave without anybody taking them to task) where she works, and an older woman who might not like her lifestyle and those she mixes with if she stops to think about it, but cannot imagine a different life for herself. She fears the pity of others and has never allowed herself to love, after an experience she had as an adolescent prior to her illness. The girl disappeared, and she never heard from her again. That coupled with her conviction that nobody could look at her and feel anything but pity means that she is closed off and does not let anybody in, in case they hurt her.

The author creates two complex characters we get to empathise with and sets them in a recent historical period, but like the best historical fiction, the novel highlights how much some things have changed since, and also how little  other things have truly changed. The gender politics at the college are appalling but not miles away from what still exists today in some places; the prejudice might be less open but is still present (and it takes many forms here: gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, political beliefs…); and as the epilogue reminds us, the parallels with the current political situation (Reagan was in power at the time the story starts and the Democrats lost their campaign, and the book closes after the 2016 election with Trump’s victory) are evident.

Above all that, the novel talks about love: about different kinds of love (religious love, family love, friendship, romantic love…), about acceptance and tolerance of diversity, about letting others in and learning to look with new eyes at ourselves and those around us. Although there are some truly appalling characters, Ryn and Henrietta manage to find a community of friends who make them feel welcome and accept them for who they are. Henrietta’s love for art and painting, and Ryn’s enthusiasm for history and women’s history in particular, their passion and creativity, make them more alike than they realise at first, and although their story is not without complications, and there are sad as well as joyful moments, this is ultimately an inspiring and beautiful read.

This is a novel that explores issues of identity, prejudice, diversity, different definitions of love, and what life (and love) is like for a person with a disability and for those around her. I enjoyed becoming a part of the story and, as was the case with the previous novel by Werlinger, I was sorry to get to the end, and I hope to read more of her stories. Recommended to readers who are looking for LGTB and diverse romances or simply enjoy beautifully written stories that will make them think.

A chronicle of a life spent chasing the news

Deadlines on the Front Line. Travels With a Veteran War Correspondent - Paul L. Moorcraft

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I have become interested in the world of the press and reporters of recent, and when I read the information about this book, I had to check it out.

This book is part memoir/part chronicle of Moorcraft’s life as a war correspondent, but it is not only about that, as he does talk in detail about periods of his life dedicated to teaching (for example in Australia and New Zealand) and also about a variety of other projects he took on, like creating documentaries of all kinds, mostly following his instincts and his interests. If he was living in a particular country, and he heard about something going on in a neighbouring one, he’d always manage to find a reason to be there. He knew how to sell his ideas and how to get news agencies and broadcasters interested, for good reason, as he is an engaging and knowledgeable reporter, with a knack for meeting all kinds of people and getting into difficult places. Some of the stories of his trips to meet fighters, guerrilla leaders, and his stays at dangerous places at particularly risky times make for scary reading, as it’s impossible not to think what we would have felt like in that situation. I don’t think many of us would have dared to try some of the stunts he pulls, and it is easy to see why he wonders about the nature of courage in his conclusion. Courage might take many forms, but there is little doubt that what he and many of his colleagues did, and do still, takes courage and something we might call a true vocation or “calling”. And yes, perhaps some form of “madness”.

I’ve read a review that says the author has covered all countries almost from A to Z (and yes, Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and many in between, all around Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, some which no longer exist as well) and that is true. He writes well, extremely well, and he is far from politically correct or careful when it comes to stating his opinions, that are deeply personal and do not ever purport to be neutral or even fair. Some of his views will be unpopular with some readers (I must admit I do not share his point of view on many subjects), but he narrates his own experiences candidly, he does not take himself too seriously, being as critical of himself as he is of the rest of the people who make an appearance in this book, and he humbly acknowledges that his opinion might be biased and one-sided.  Although his adventures reminded me of James Bond at times (a character I must confess I’ve never been fond of), he shows empathy and a deep concern for those in a position of weakness and powerlessness, suffering due to the poor decisions of those who are supposed to protect them. He is self-deprecating at times, and there are plenty of jokes and humour, very British humour (or Welsh, although he acknowledges that for someone who deeply loves Wales, he has spent most of his life away) in the book. There are also many photographs, maps, a timeline, and great observations of places, countries, and ways of life that, in some cases, have totally disappeared (his early chapters on Africa and South-Africa I found particularly illuminating in this respect).

I recommend this book to people interested in how being a war correspondent and a reporter has changed over the recent years, to those who want to read a personal account of what it was like to live in some of the most conflict-ridden areas in the world from the early 1970s until recently, and to people interested in life as a university professor in different countries over the years. The author has written many other books, fiction and non-fiction, and if readers enjoy his writing, there’s plenty more to explore.

As an example of his style, I’ll leave you with his closing reflections:

I still plan a few more comebacks, just like the guy who grew up in the same Pontypridd street where my mother’s family lived: Tom Jones. I have accepted that instead of always wondering why I inevitably sat next to the nutter on the bus, train or plane, I realize that people often thought I was the nutter. I spent my working life at places such as Sandhurst or Staff College assuming I was the only sane man in the lunatic asylum. I finally realized that they couldn’t all be wrong.

 

Compelling, both living up to and challenging the tropes of the slasher genre.

Slash (Fiction Without Frontiers) - Hunter Shea

Thanks to NetGalley and to Flame Tree Press for providing me an early ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I recently read one of Hunter Shea’s books, Creature, that I really enjoyed, and this novel shares quite a few characteristics with that one. I find it a bit difficult to sum up exactly what I think about it, but I’d say it is a book that both indulges in and challenges the usual tropes of the slasher subgenre, while digging dipper into some of the characters’ backgrounds and emotions. Yes, there is a monster (with a horrific past and a number of paranormal characteristics), there is a group of friends (more or less) in a creepy location, there is plenty of action (especially in the second half of the book), there is gore by the bucket load, and some dark humour. But the first part of the book looks into survivor’s guilt and grief, and it might feel slow to readers expecting a standard slasher novel, and the second part might prove too heavy for those interested in psychological horror but not so much in bloody mess and body parts galore.

The book is narrated in the third person, mostly from Todd’s point of view, although we are shown some other characters’ perspectives at the beginning and the end of the book. Through Todd, we get a fair amount of background information into what happened to Ashley, his fiancée, a final girl proper. There is much discussion about her final girl status, and I particularly enjoyed that aspect of the book, and also the exploration of Ash’s and Todd’s state of mind and difficulties coming to term with what had happened to them. Todd clings to Ash’s memory, and it makes perfect sense that he would want to hold on to her and explore any clues she has left for him, especially in his disturbed frame of mind. He continually wavers between trying to avoid putting others at risk and his need to keep on looking for any vestiges of his girlfriend.

We don’t know so much about the rest of the members of the team that end up joining the mission. One of them, Sharon, the sister of one of Ash’s friends, is not welcomed by most, and she is treated rather badly, especially by Jerry, the policeman, who is far from likeable. As is typical of the genre, the other characters are reduced to their habitual behaviours and salient characteristics (we have a gambler who is forever quoting odds, the friend who always tries to avoid conflict, Todd’s closest friends are a couple devoted to each other…). None of them are particularly sympathetic (perhaps also due to the somewhat distanced and obsessive point of view provided by Todd), but then, you don’t want to get attached to the characters in a slasher novel or film, as you know what will likely happen to them. I did like Sharon, who kicks ass, but I wasn’t sure about the depiction of women in the book. Again, the book tries to balance genre expectations and challenges, but I’m not sure it always works. We have Heather, Vince’s wife, who seems to play the part of the woman in old-fashioned films and books. She is the carer, looks after everybody, worries about Todd and her husband, spends a fair amount of the second part of the book unconscious and being carried around, and… (no, no more spoilers). Sharon, on the other hand, is a tough chick, determined, and courageous, sometimes too hot-headed for her own good, and she is an exotic dancer (or a stripper, as Jerry insists in calling her). As I said, I liked Sharon, but I didn’t appreciate the abuse she has to put up with, some of the jokes, and would have liked to know more about her, and not just the little snippets we get. We meet Ash when she has been torn out by her experience, and it’s difficult to get a full sense of her.

I’ve read reviews decrying plot holes (I wondered about quite a few things as well, but this genre is not about fine plotting, in general), others complaining about the ending and the explanation behind the murderer/monster (I agree with reviewers that compared the book to a series-B movie, particularly when it comes to the action and the paranormal elements), and emphasising their lack of empathy for most of the characters. I agree with all these points, although they seem typical of the genre, rather than problems specific to this book per se.

For me, the main strength of the novel —apart from the psychological aspects, the exploration of grief and survivor’s guilt, and the wonderful setting (that, as tends to be the case in horror novels, becomes another character)— is Shea’s writing. He writes beautifully and compellingly, making it impossible to stop reading even when he is describing horrific and vivid scenes of carnage and violence.

I’d recommend this book to readers who enjoy horror books and love genre tropes but want a bit more depth and appreciate a challenge. This is a book full of horrific scenes graphically rendered, with a murderer/monster with paranormal features, and some of the characters are prejudiced and misogynistic, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people who prefer their horror more low-key and insidious rather than in your face. I have become a fan of Shea’s writing style and look forward to reading more of his books.

 

A solid first novel for lovers of psychological suspense and Basset Hounds

Closer Than You Think - Lee Maguire

Disclaimer: the publisher offered me a free ARC copy of this book. This this not affect my review.

In brief, this is a promising debut novel (in a planned series of psychological thrillers), narrated in the first person, with a solid stalker plot (clues, red-herrings and twists likely to make most readers of the genre happy), an interesting setting (a mental health treatment facility for troubled youths) and a good development of the main character (psychologist Bryce Davison, a man with an unsettled and traumatic past), and a wonderful Basset Hound. On the minus side, it could do with a tighter editing, more development of the secondary characters, and more attention to the pacing of the action.

This book will be especially appealing to those who enjoy psychological suspense, with particular emphasis on the “psychological” part. The author’s professional experience shines through, and that aspect of the novel is particularly well achieved, although it might seem overdetailed to people used to faster-paced thrillers.

The first-person point of view works well for the type of story, as it allows readers to share in the doubts and thoughts of the victim, experiencing his anxiety, reliving the trauma he experienced when he was young, and also trying to piece together the clues with him. On the other hand, the novel reads, at times, like a poorly focused memoir, with plenty of repetition of everyday living activities and chores that don’t help move the action forward and don’t add much to our understanding of the character. (There are so many times we can read about the character having a shower, the fact that his fridge is empty, or his switching or on off the computer). I’ve read novels that meander through stuff that does not seem particularly noteworthy, but the style of writing makes it impossible not to enjoy the detour. In this novel, neither the style of writing nor the genre are best suited for it. The other characters are not very well developed, partly perhaps to do with the choice of point of view, and in some cases, like Bryce’s wife, that has the effect of making them appear inconsistent or totally at odds with the protagonist’s opinion of them.

The suspenseful plot and the way it builds up work well, although I agree with some of the reviewers that complain about the ending and the final explanation being too rushed. The story is not heavy on action or violence, although there is some, and the ending itself is satisfying.

As I said, this is a solid first novel that could be further improved by another round of editing, and I’d recommend it to people who prefer psychological suspense and who value plot over character building. Also recommended to Basset Hound lovers.

 

A beautiful family saga full of magic and compelling writing

The Dutch House - Ann Patchett

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

I’ve heard of Ann Patchett but hadn’t read any of her novels until now, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to get started. And I really liked the book cover and was intrigued by the title as well. Having read this novel, I’m sure it won’t be the last of the author’s books I read.

Although most reviews are positive, some readers who are familiar with her previous novels felt disappointed, while others loved it as much, if not more, as her previous work. As I said, I have nothing to compare it with, but I enjoyed it. I loved the characters (most of all), I loved the setting, and the writing, that can be lyrical, touching, and humorous in turns.

This is the story of a family, or, to be precise, of two siblings and the people they meet along the way. Maeve and Danny become a family-unit through unfortunate (and at times bizarre) circumstances. Their mother leaves when Danny, the younger of the two, is only three years old, and Maeve becomes his sister/mother/life coach/career advisor and many more things. Their father, Cyril, a real estate magnate, is consumed by his business and never explains much, either about his background, their mother, or the house, the Dutch House of the title. When he marries Andrea, who has two daughters of her own, things change, and when he dies, things take an even more dramatic turn.

The story, such as it is, is narrated in the first person by Danny, who claims to have intended to tell the story of his sister (a rather extraordinary individual I’d love to meet in real life), but he realised that this could not be done in isolation from his own and from that of many others who had also played parts in the events they might not have been fully aware of at the time. Although there is an overall chronological order to the novel, Danny’s memory sometimes circles back and forth to moments or events that are related or linked, at least in his mind, to what he is thinking or talking about at the time. He explores the memories around the Dutch House (a seemingly mysterious place although things don’t go in the direction readers might expect), and how the different people seem to have contrasting versions of what went on and totally different feelings about it as well. Was their mother a saint, or a heartless woman who abandoned her children in her eagerness to help unknown others? Was Andrea a greedy woman (the wicked stepmother of fairy tales) who married their father for his money and then threw them out? Or did she truly love him and resented them for their connection to him? Was Maeve domineering and manipulative or selfless and generous? Why didn’t Danny’s wife, Celeste, and his sister get on? What power did the Dutch House have over its inhabitants?

As I have already mentioned, I loved the characters. Although we don’t get to know all of them completely (this is the story Danny is telling, and at times he can be remarkably lacking in insight and even curiosity), that is part of the charm of the story. This would make a great novel for book clubs, as there is much to discuss, and I am sure different readers will have totally different opinions on the characters and their possible motives and/or justifications. Interpretations are left open, and although there is an end (yes, a happy ending of sorts), the ending does not necessarily provide an explanation for everything that happens, at least not a definitive one. As is the case in real life, people are unknowable, and even those we think we know best can surprise us at times.

I also loved the house. The similarities to a fairy tale are mentioned in the description and in many of the reviews, and perhaps because we first see the house from the perspective of a little boy, there is something magical about it. There are secret drawers, paintings of previous owners, gold leaf decorations, hidden storage places, and the house seems to hold an ongoing influence over those who’ve ever lived or worked there. I would love to visit it, and the combination of grand mansion and some of the characteristics of a gothic castle work well and give it a strong personality, although it might not live up to everybody’s expectations.

I have read some of the negative comments, and I do understand them and don’t necessarily disagree with the points they make, although I feel they don’t detract from the novel. Some people note that there is no plot or story behind it and complain that it is slow. This is a family saga, and as such there is no conventional plot or a great revelation (there are quite a few secrets and misunderstandings that get cleared out, but that is not the same) at the end. Because this is a book about memory, family life, growing older, and forgiveness, it is not a straightforward narration or a page-turner where the main point is to keep the action moving. Life happens at its own pace; there are funny moments, sad moments, enlightening moments, inspiring ones, and disappointments as well. The writing is compelling, but people who love stories full of action and a quick pace should not attempt this novel, unless they are willing to try something different. Some readers also complain that some of the storylines are unrealistic… Well, this is a novel, and I’ve read some that required a much higher degree of suspension of disbelief than this one, but I am sure realism is not what the author was after.

I loved this novel and would recommend it to readers who appreciate a focus on character, beautiful writing, and some touches of magic and are fond of the adult fairy-tale. As usual, I recommend readers who aren’t sure if they’d enjoy it or not, to try a book sample and see how they feel. I look forward to reading more of Patchett’s stories in the future. I have the feeling that they won’t disappoint.

 

 

Highly recommended to Brontës fans and to early XIX century historians

The Mother of the Brontës: When Maria Met Patrick  - Sharon Wright

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

Despite being a fan of the Brontës, having visited Haworth, and read about them (although I’m no expert), on seeing this book I realised I didn’t know much about their mother, other than she had died when they were very young. The author explains quite well why that is the case, as there seems to be very little trace of her, other than some letters she wrote to her then husband-to-be, Patrick, and a religious tract she wrote. There are also comments and memories collected by others, mostly by those writing the biographies of her famous daughters, but little dedicated solely to her. I am grateful to the author for putting that to rights. She has done a great job, digging factual information about Maria Branwell, compiling written records (be it newspaper cuttings, diaries written by neighbours or social connections, correspondence and accounts by others), introducing and interpreting the few writings we have by Maria herself, and pulling together information about the era and the places where the family lived to help readers place the family as actors and social beings in the period and the locations where they lived.  The level of detail is just right, as well. Wright explains how dangerous and dreary the trip from Penzance to Yorkshire would have been in the early XIX century, the unrest in Yorkshire due to the Industrial Revolution and the machines replacing workers (the Luddites had much to say about that, although their actions didn’t have any long-term impact), and the differences in the social settings of Penzance and Thornton, for example, but these explanations never detract from the story. Rather the opposite; they make it all the more compelling.

I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil the enjoyment of the many interested readers, but I thought I’d share some of the things I noted as I went along. I’ve already mentioned that Maria was from Penzance, but it seems that her father and the rest of the family were likely involved in smuggling (that, to be fair, seems to have been an almost universal occupation in the area). Hers was a large family, and to illustrate just how hard life was at the time, although they were fairly well off, five of her siblings died before they got to adulthood. Religion played an important part in her life, and it’s only fitting that she would end up marrying a priest. She knew Humphry Davy (later Sir Humphry Davy) when she was young, her life was quite full and she was well-connected in Penzance, so we get a sense of how much she must have loved her husband to sacrifice all that to follow him in his career moves, and also what a change in her circumstances she must have experienced. She was a keen reader, and their love of books was one of the things likely to bring her and Patrick together, and it is clear from her letters that she was a good (and even passionate at times) writer, with a sense of humour. She was a woman of her time, and although she had the confidence of those around her, she wished for a life-long companion to support her and guide her in accordance to the norms of the time and as we can see from her own religious tract, her ideas (or at least those she expressed in writing for the public) were pretty conventional. I was gripped by the difficulties Patrick had to face to get the post as priest in Haworth. It seems they were not fond of being told what to do or who to choose there, and he renounced twice to his position before everybody was finally in agreement with his nomination.

I was fascinated by the comments of the author about women’s diarists and their importance to get to understand what everyday life was like at the time. Men of the period wrote the official history, but they hardly ever took the time to note the little details, those we are truly interested in, that help us bring to life a particular era. I am particularly fond of the entries from the diary of Elizabeth Firth, one of the Brontës’ neighbours. My favourite must be: “We sat up expecting the Radicals.” For your peace of mind I’ll let you know that it seems they never came. Wright also defends the importance of the local press, as again they are the ones that keep records of those things that are not considered notice-worthy by big publications, but help make a community what it is. She laments the demise of many of those papers, and I could not agree more.

The book includes two appendixes with the full text of Maria’s letters and also her religious article titled “The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns.” There is also an index with all the texts the author has consulted when writing this book, and I am sure people interested in learning more about the Brontës will find plenty of material there. There are also a number of illustrations, mostly photographs from the houses and locations mentioned in the book, some portraits and illustration, and also a recreation of what Patrick and Maria might have looked like on their wedding day (that I loved).

I recommend this book to anybody interested in the Brontës, in the history of Haworth and Thornton, and in the history of the early XIX century England, especially those who, like me, enjoy getting transported to the era and having a sense of what life was really like then. A deserved homage to a woman whose heritage was so important and so little acknowledged.

Recommended to lovers of historical fiction, pioneer narrations, and women’s stories

Not My Father's House: A Novel of Old New Mexico  - Loretta Miles Tollefson

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

When I first read about this book, I was intrigued by the setting (one I must confess I’m not very familiar with but I’ve always been interested in) and the period of the story most of all. I’ve become an eager reader of historical fiction, and I’ve learned plenty about times and places I knew nothing about. This is another perfect example of the way novels can inform and entertain at the same time, immersing us on a time and place completely at odds with our everyday experience. This is book two in the series of novels of Old New Mexico, and although it can be read independently, I must admit I would have liked to be better acquainted with the previous lives of the characters.

Suzanna is very young. Newly wed and only sixteen, she is thrown in at the deep end. She is not very domesticated for a woman of the period (the story is set in the early XIX century): she does not know how to cook, and she was brought up by her father to love books rather than other more feminine tasks, although she does sew, cleans, and knows how to keep a house, more or less (but she did have help back at her father’s house, in Taos, and she still has some help here, because Ramón does the cooking, otherwise they’d die of hunger). She loves to be outdoors and grow plants and vegetables most of all and that is another source of irritation for her in her new location, as this is high mountain territory, and neither the weather nor the seasons are as mild as what she was used to at home.

Suzanna finds fault with everything and she is not the most likeable of characters to begin with, although as we keep reading, the sheer drudgery and harshness of her life, and her brave attempts at making the best out of it end up by endearing her to the reader. We also come to understand that there is something more behind the changes in mood and she needs help, although it is difficult to imagine what form it could take at that point and in that place. Gerald, her husband, does his best and tries to understand her, although he has little time and no workable solutions to make things better. Ramón is a quiet presence and a likeable one, as he is always at hand to help. A perfect example of the strong and quiet type, Mexican style. He and the main characters in the novel experience major and very traumatic losses, and they use different coping strategies to deal with very difficult circumstances. There are other very colourful characters that make their appearance in the book, including Native Americans of different tribes, trappers, Mexican Army soldiers, and assorted animals as well. Some of them, as the author explains at the end of the book, where real historical characters, and they seamlessly mix with the fictional characters whose story we are reading.

The story is a slow burner, rather than a quick page turner, and it is narrated in the third person, mostly from Suzanna’s point of view, but also from a pretty nasty character’s viewpoint (I’m trying to avoid spoilers, although the description will give you a fair idea of the plot), that gives us a different perspective and also creates a fairly uncomfortable reading experience, as we get to share in the thoughts of a man who does not seem to have a single redeeming feature. The author does an excellent job of capturing the natural rhythm of the seasons, and we experience the harshness of the natural environment, the difficulty of coping with extreme weather conditions and having to survive on one’s own wits, but she also brings to life the beauty and the joy of the landscape and the location.

Another very strong point of this novel is the way it reflects the mental health difficulties of Suzanna. Her dark moods, the way she is influenced by the seasons and the lack of light and exercise in the winter months, her irritability, her difficulty explaining her feelings, and how she is further hindered by several losses throughout the book and the effect the birth of her children has on her already fragile mental health are explored and made palpable. Because we share in her perspective, although at first we might think she is just too young and immature for the situation she has landed herself in, we later come to see how hard her circumstances would be for anybody. And when her father visits and explains that she’s always had difficulties in certain times of the year, but they’d managed it well, we understand that she had not been aware of these problems until she had to face them by herself, in more extreme and tough conditions. The author explains her research on depression (post-natal depression and also seasonal affective disorder) and provides the historical context as to how the condition would have been dealt with at the time, in her note at the back of the book. From my experience as a psychiatrist, having talked to and looked after many patients suffering from similar conditions, her portrayal is realistic and vivid, and it reflects well the feelings and desperation of the sufferers.

I learned plenty about the New Mexico of the era, its inhabitants, its customs, and its politics. The author’s research shines through, and she makes an excellent use of it without overbearing the reader. The book also includes an index of the sources used, and a list of the historical characters that make an appearance in the series.

I would recommend this book to anybody who loves historical fiction of this era and location, in particular people who enjoy books about the pioneers and the settlers of the Southern United States. It is not a book for people looking for constant action or for a light read. There are humorous moments, and there is light relief (mostly provided by the dogs. I loved all the dogs, although my favourite was Chaser), but there are also sad and scary moments, and although the book is not terribly graphic in its depiction of violence (and there is no erotica at all), there is violence and a sense of menace and threat that permeates a lot of the novel. If you are fans of Little House in the Prairie and prefer narrations that build up slowly but have a realistic feel, you must check this novel out. I am intrigued by the series, and I hope to learn more about the further adventures of Suzanna and her family.

 

A fun read, unique, quirky, and full of love for art.

Stealing The Scream - Theodore Carter

I thank the publisher for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had a ball reading this book. This is one of those books that are fun to read (even if you think you know where things are headed, you still want to read all the nitty-gritty details and end up discovering that things can go in unexpected directions), and are also great fun to tell others about. Because the plot of the book is both out-there and plausible at the same time, it’s impossible not to keep thinking about it, pondering over the details, and wondering how far things will go. And my bet is that anybody you tell about this book will also be left wondering and will want to know more.

The book’s description explains the main points of the plot in detail (too much detail for my liking, although luckily for me I didn’t remember the description when I got immersed in the book), so I won’t go over them again. This is a book suffused by art, painting in particular: love of art, the technique of painting, studying art, the obsession for art, collecting art, art museums and how they work, art as a business, but also and more importantly, the way art can communicate and affect people. The author, an artist in his own right, captures and transmits the way some art pieces can have an incredible effect on people, how we can feel moved, stirred, saddened, horrified, or utterly joyous by contemplating some artworks.  The power of some images (or sounds, or movements…) is undeniable and, as the main protagonist of the story learns, does not reside on a perfect technique. Some paintings have a soul that reaches out, touches our hearts and, like here, even screams at us.

The story is narrated in the third person from the four main characters’ points of view. This does not cause confusion as each chapter is told from a single character’s perspective, and it is clearly signposted. Percival, the retired CEO who takes up painting, is the central character, the one whose actions set the story in motion, although he does that at the suggestion of Lucinda, whose role in the story seems to be that of observer/facilitator, but whose motives and actions are, perhaps, the most intriguing of the whole book. She was an actress and seems to have fallen into her role as a mixture of PA, housekeeper, and live-in help of Percival quite by accident. She has lost her self-confidence and is both restless but unable to act, having lost her sense of purpose. Percival is a quirky character, who seems to show traits of Asperger’s (he has difficulty dealing with people other than a few individuals who know him well, is obsessive and once he has focused on something, he finds it difficult to switch off, he is rigid and inflexible in his routines…), and has a peculiar, sometimes child-like, sense of humour. Towards the end of the book his mind goes into freefall, and he reminded me of the Howard Hughes’s character as portrayed in the film The Aviator, but here the focus is on painting and art. Red, the shadiest character, is perhaps the most easily recognisable and familiar of them all, but although not particularly likeable, his resourcefulness and the ease with which he accepts the most bizarre requests make him rise above the typical crooks of novels and films. My favourite character was Leonard, the museum security ward. Although he is not well-educated or sophisticated, he is an observer of people, loves art (for its own sake), and has a curious and clever mind. He is the amateur detective, the only one to make sense of what is going on and who pursues the answers, no matter how difficult it might be.

The author assembles a cast of characters that seem, at first, to be familiar types we’ve all read about or watched on movies, but we might not feel a particular connection to. (As I said, Leonard is perhaps the most “normal” of them all, and, at least for me, the easiest to empathise with). But as we read about them, we discover they all have something in common. They are lonely and disconnected from others. Percival and Lucinda live in the same house (although it is a huge mansion, the author manages to create a sense of claustrophobia and encroachment) but, as Lucinda eventually realises, they live in separate worlds. Red has chosen to live in the edges of society and doesn’t know how to relax or enjoy other people’s company, other than at a very basic/business-like level. And although Leonard has a regular job and some friends, he lives alone in his apartment, has been stuck in his job for years, and has no meaningful relationships to speak off. The “common” experience they go through teaches all of them something, not the same, but important lessons nonetheless.

The language is versatile, adapting well to each different character, with some very funny lines at times (Lucinda keeps collecting Percival’s pearls of wisdom, and some are laugh-out-loud funny), lyrical descriptions of paintings and experiences (some take on an almost hallucinatory quality), and accurate depictions of paranoid and disturbed mental states. The plot involves a variety of locations and settings, and some action scenes, without any real violence (although there is menace and veiled threats), and the narration moves at a good pace, with some reflective and contemplative moments, but never slowing down to a halt.

I also loved the end. As I have mentioned, all the characters learn something new about themselves, and the end of the central story (the robbery of The Scream) will bring a smile to readers’ faces.  I hope somebody decides to make a movie out of it, because it would be a joy.

This is a book a bit difficult to categorise, as it has elements of the mystery novel (perhaps a cozy mystery with a difference), of the alternative historical fiction, even if it is real history (a reimagining of what might have truly happened when The Scream was stolen), of literary fiction, it’s also a study on obsession and art… I’d recommend it to people who love quirky stories with intriguing characters that do not fit into a given genre and are not followers of trends. If you love art, have a sense of humour, and are looking for something fresh and different, you must read this.  I am very intrigued by the author’s biography and his other books, and I’ll be checking out the rest of his work.

 

 

A quick read, full of frights, tension, and touches of dark humour

Dead Meat : Day 1 - Nick Clausen

I received an ARC copy of the story from the author which I freely chose to review.

I have recently read a novella from the same author that I enjoyed, and when he contacted me and offered me a copy of the first part of his new zombie series (new in English, although already published and successful in Danish) I had to say yes. Despite being a horror fan, I haven’t read many zombie books but, like many of us, I’ve watched enough living-dead movies and series to be familiar with the genre.

In this brief narrative (the first in the series, as the title indicates), we are plunged into the action (or rather, the tense waiting) from the very beginning. The author does a great job of making us feel the heat, the anxiety, and the claustrophobia of the basement where the three youths have taken refuge and the fear and uncertainty of the characters, whom we don’t know yet but will soon get to grips with. We have Thomas, his girlfriend Jenny, and Dan, Jenny’s younger brother. What had started as a standard newspaper run, ends up getting them into real trouble.

The action, narrated in the third person from different characters’ point of view (not alternating, so there’s no risk of getting confused. I don’t want to discuss this in detail to avoid spoilers, but we all know mortality is high in zombie stories) is pretty relentless. There are brief intervals when the characters are waiting and trying to decide what to do, but this is, perhaps, more scary and anxiety-provoking than the actual direct confrontations.

The explanation behind the zombies’ existence is believable within the constraints of the genre; there is plenty of gore (despite the young protagonists, I wouldn’t recommend this story to people who are squeamish); due to the use of alternating points of view, we get to experience the story as if we were there, and I kept wondering where and when the next zombie would turn up (and trying to come up with a workable solution to their predicament). There were a few moments when things seemed to be about to get sorted, but weren’t, and also hair-raising scenes aplenty. Oh, and there is some slapstick and dark humour as well (although it might depend on what you find funny).

As for the characters, although we don’t know too many details about them, due to the extreme situation they find themselves in, to their normalcy (from the bits of information we learn they are not extraordinary in any way, and it’s easy to imagine we might have reacted in similar ways if we were in that situation) and to the way the story is told, where we hardly get any break, it’s impossible not to empathise and root for them to survive. Of course, this is only the first book in the series, and we’ll have a chance to learn more about the characters in the next books. Although… well, this is a genre book.

As you can imagine, there is no definite conclusion or closure to the story. Although things change and it looks at some point as if everything might work out all right (at a heavy price, of course), well, there is no happy ending, and I suspect most of you will spot what is the missing element and why this is only day 1.

I enjoyed this short read, which provides thrills and scares aplenty, captures the claustrophobic atmosphere and the anxiety of the situation, and makes good use of all the tropes of the genre. I look forward to learning more about the characters and also seeing what happens next.

A coming of age story with a big heart

The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae - Stephanie Butland

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

This is the first book I’ve read by the author and can’t compare it to her previous work, although I’ve noticed reviewers show plenty of love for The Lost for Words Bookshop, and I’m keen to check it out.

The plot of this book is easy to summarise, and the description is quite detailed. Ailsa was born with a congenital heart condition (Hypoplastic left heart syndrome) and has been ill (to a greater or lesser degree) all her life.  Now, when there isn’t much time left, she gets a new heart. The novel follows her journey to learn how to live her new life, which in her case is also akin to a coming of age story. Although she is 28, due to her circumstances she has lived a very sheltered life, always protected by her mother, her aunt, and her friends, and now she has to face lots of challenges.

The author chooses an interesting way of telling the story. The bulk of the story is narrated in the third-person, although exclusively from Ailsa’s point of view, and alternates between the “now” of the story, and what was going on in Ailsa’s life a year ago. Some readers complained about the jumps in timeline. I did not find them too confusing (the timeframe was clearly stated, and it was easy to tell from the content as well), and those chapters did add some perspective on Ailsa’s situation. Because we meet her just before her operation, this device works as a way of letting us know what her life was like before, and also helps us understand some of the difficulties she faces now. I wasn’t sure all of the chapters set in the past added new information or were particularly significant, but they didn’t slow down the pace of the story either.

Apart from the third person narrative, we can also “hear” Ailsa’s narrative in the first-person thanks to her blog. She has a blog where she had been writing about her illness and the difficulties of being on a transplant waiting list, and we get access to some of her posts.  The book also includes her e-mails and text exchanges with some of the other characters. These provide us with a different perspective on the events, even with the caveat that blogposts are written to be published and are not spontaneous pouring of one’s heart (well, most of the time), and we get to hear from other characters as well. This is the third book I’ve read recently featuring a blogger as one of the main characters, so there seems to be a trend. The most curious part of it, in this case, is that Ailsa seems to be otherwise pretty disconnected from some aspects of everyday life (she does not know Seb, the young actor she meets, although he is well-known, and seems oblivious to much of what is shown on UK television, for example). One of the particular characteristics of her blog, though, is that she asks her readers to participate in polls that inform her decisions and the way she lives her life. Although in some cases the decisions are pretty neutral (choosing a name for her new heart, for example), others are more fundamental, and there’s much discussion about that throughout the book.

As for the characters… I liked Ailsa, although I agree with some comments that say she seems much younger than she is. I have mentioned above that the book, at least for me, reads like a coming-of-age-story, and although she’s gone to university and had a boyfriend (and there’s a story of loss and grief there as well), there’s much of normal life that she has not experienced and that explains why there is much growing up she still needs to do. She is childlike at time, stubborn, selfish, she lacks self-confidence, and struggles between her wish to grow up (she insists on sticking to the plan of living independently) and her reluctance to take responsibility for her own life (she is so used to living day to day and not making long-term plans that she uses her blog and the polls as a way to avoid ultimate responsibility). I loved her mother, Hailey, who can be overbearing and overprotective, but she is strong and determined, cares deeply for her daughter and has sacrificed much for her (even if she finds it difficult to let go now),  and I felt their relationship was the strongest point of the novel. I was not so convinced by Seb, her love interest, and their on-off relationship, although it adds another dimension to Ailsa’s experience, seemed too unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, he is handsome, a successful TV actor, and he is interested in her from the beginning, and yes… it reads like a very young and idealised romantic fantasy, so it might work in that sense, but as a character… What I liked about his part of the story was the acting background and the references to the Edinburgh Fringe. We only know Lennox through Ailsa’s memories and some of the chapters set in the past, and he is the other side of the coin, the one for whom luck run out too soon. This highlights the randomness of events and it makes more poignant the plight of so many people waiting for transplants. The efforts to keep his memory alive and make it count ring true.

The book is set in Edinburgh and I enjoyed the setting (although I’m only a casual visitor) and the references to the weather and the location. There are some local words and expressions used through the novel; although I cannot judge how accurate they are (the author is not Scottish although has done her research). I particularly enjoyed the Tango lessons and the setting of those above a pub.

The writing flows well and although in some ways the book is a light and gentle read (the romance is behind closed doors, and despite the talk of illness and hospitals, the descriptions of symptoms and procedures are not explicit or gore), it deals in serious subjects, like chronic illness, transplants (and it debates the matter of how to increase organ donations by changing it to an opt-out policy and removing the right of relatives to overrule the desires of a loved one), parental abandonment, grief, mother-daughter relationships, side effects of medication, popularity and media coverage of famous people, fat shaming… Although some of these topics are treated in more depth than others, I felt the novel dealt very well with the illness side of things, and it opened up an important debate on organ donations. As I said, I also enjoyed the mother-daughter relationship, and the fact that Ailsa becomes her own woman and grows up. I do love the ending as well.

This is a novel with a likeable main character who has had to live with the knowledge that she might not grow to be an adult, waiting for a miracle (unfortunately the miracle requires somebody else’s death, which deals sensitively in some very important topics, and is set in wonderful Edinburgh. I loved Ailsa’s mother and although some aspects of the novel work better than others, in my opinion, the quality of the writing and the strength of the story makes it well-worth reading. And yes, it is a heart-warming story (forgive the pun)! I’ll definitely be checking out more of the author’s books.

A must read for anybody interested in London crime history

The 19th Century Underworld. Crime, Controversy & Corruption - Stephen Carver

Thanks to Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, for providing me a hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

I am not a scholar in the topic of XIX century Britain, London in particular, although I have read a number of fictional books set on that period and place (it has always proved popular, especially with crime writers, for evident reasons) both recent and from the era, and also some historical books (some of the best coming from Pen & Sword as well) on specific aspects of the era, like children’s deaths. I was therefore not sure about what I would find here but hoped that it would enhance my understanding and give me a better sense of what life might have been like, away from the sometimes romanticised version we have of the Victorian era. This volume did that and more.

The book, which contains illustrations of the period as well (some black and white photographs, but mostly sketches and ink drawings that appeared in publications of that era, with a separate table of illustrations), contains facts and descriptions of the less savoury aspects of the XIX century life in London, but the emphasis is not on a XXI century perspective, but on written (and illustrated) sources of the period, and how the different topics were approached by the press, literature, and theatre of the time (movies are also mentioned, although those are references to later versions of the stories and characters discussed). Although most of us will be familiar with the penny dreadfuls, the author shares his expertise and offers us a catalogue of publications, authors (quite a few anonymous), publishers, guides and popular venues that reflect the fact that the hunger for certain types of subjects and the morbid interest in crime and vice are nothing new.

The book combines scholarship (there are detailed footnotes including information and sometimes explanations about the quotes and sources used in the text, at the end of the book, and also a lengthy bibliography and an index) with an engaging writing style, and manages to include plenty of information in each chapter, without cramming too much detail or leaving us with the impression that we are missing the most important part of the story. Although I’m sure most readers will be intrigued by some of the events and characters mentioned in the book and will want to learn more about them, Carver facilitates that task with his sources, and this book is a goldmine for researchers, writers, and anybody interested in the era in general. I usually mark passages I find interesting, to research later or to mention in my review, and in this case I can honestly say I broke the record for number of notes.

To give you an idea of the topics, I’ll briefly (-ish) go through the chapters. Chapter 1: Various Crimes and Misdemeanours, where the author explains that our view of the XIX century underworld is a product of popular culture, and he explains the efforts the society of the time made to try to categorise and control the crime in the capital. Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and magistrate who liaised with Jeremy Bentham (a philosopher and social reformer we studied in Criminology for his ideas about prisons and reforms) wrote a book called A Treatise of the Police of the Metropolis in 1796, where he classified the criminals in London into 24 separate categories and estimated that there were around 115000 of them. The Radcliffe Highway murders and how these influenced some of the legal reforms are also discussed in detail.

Chapter 2: A Corinthian’s Guide to the Metropolis, talks about bare-knuckle boxing, betting, and also about a number of articles, guides, and books, purporting to inform discerning gentlemen of the entertainments and lifestyle that could be found in this part of town. We learn where Tom and Jerry came from (Pierce Egan’s writings and his characters seem to have inspired Hanna and Barbera), and the author notes that at this point (early in XIX century), the underworld was not represented as the gothic nightmare it would become later.

In Chapter 3: Bad Books for Bad People, we hear about authors that are more familiar to us, like Dickens and Thackeray, although also some others who’ve faded into oblivion mostly because their take on the topic lost the favour of the Victorians. They chose to write about criminals and outlaws (like Dick Turpin), but not in an overly moralistic or condemnatory manner, and although that was popular at first, later reformists condemned that stance, and it resulted in their loss of popularity and later ruin. There are wonderful examples of the use of jargon and vernacular, very popular at the beginning of the period but that would later fall out of fashion.  (This chapter reminded me of the gangster movies of the 1930s, which could depict violent and immoral characters as long as they ended up getting their just deserts).

Chapter 4: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, looks at the Resurrectionists, those who stole bodies from graves and sold them to medical schools. Although I’ve read some fiction about the subject and knew about Hare and Burke, I didn’t quite realise it was such an organised trade and the huge amounts of money involved. The inquiries and the law changes these incidents caused are discussed, and it is difficult to imagine how such events could have been ignored for so long, but there were powerful interests at play.

Chapter 5: The Real Oliver Twist, focuses on how life was like for children living in poverty, and it reminds us that studies of the 1840s showed that half the children born in the UK at that time died before age five. Children living of picking up dog’s dung, or being trained to become pickpockets or worse were not only the protagonists of fictional stories. They were all too real.

Chapter 6: Fallen Women, talks about prostitution, and I was fascinated by the author’s account of the biography and writings of French writer and activist Flora Tristan, a woman who was a feminist, a social commentator and reformer, who rather than blame prostitution on women’s lack of morals, blamed society and the lack of opportunities for women to get an education and make an honest living. She talked to prostitutes and wrote about what she found in 1840 and she anticipated some of Marx and Engels ideas. A woman I definitely want to learn more about.

Chapter 7: The Greeks Had a Word for It, talks about pornography, the ups and downs its publishers went through (as the period grew less and less tolerant), and it starts by reminding readers of the fact that pornography as a subject is very ancient, as people digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum found out. Many ancient objects of this nature that were recovered made it into private collections, mostly those of discerning gentlemen, and many museums had (and still have) hidden stashes of them. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this chapter, not because of the topic, or the content of the books mentioned (although some of the samples are hilarious) but because of the cat-and-mouse games writers and publishers played with the authorities and also of the evident hypocrisy of the whole endeavour.

Chapter 8: The Death Hunters, treats about what the author describes as “another type of pornography”, the interest in crimes and murders. True murder is not a new genre and although there were not many murders in London (or even the whole of Britain) at the time, the public appetite for it was huge, and sometimes writers would make them up. I had a chuckle at some of Illustrated Police News headlines (‘A Burglar Bitten by a Skeleton’ and ‘A Wife Driven Insane by a Husband Tickling her Feet’ are my favourites). The chapter ends up with Jack the Ripper’s murders, which the author elaborates further on Chapter 9: A Highly Popular Murder, where he notes that much of the speculation about the murders was created by media, and Jack the Ripper has become a phenomenon that combines reality with fiction. He does note that while the Ripper has grown in attention and popularity over the years, little time is dedicated to the victims. I am pleased to say that there is a new book due to be published by Pen & Sword about the victims of Jack the Ripper, and I hope to comment on it in the future.

I recommend this book to anybody interested in London history, history about crime in the XIX century, researchers and writers keen on exploring and writing on any of the topics covered in the book, and to anybody who wants to gain a different perspective on the London of the Victorian era. Highly recommended.

 

A lyrical and romantic story set in a magical Ireland

Seven Letters - J.P. Monninger

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. Because I read an early copy of the story, some of the details mentioned might not fully correspond to the final published version of the book.

I had never read any of the author’s work before, but the description of the setting, the protagonist and her reasons for visiting Ireland drew me in. I had read about the Blasket Islands in a previous book and become fascinated by what I came across, and, personally, I would love to have the opportunity to be a scholar researching the topic, in Ireland. The novel offered me the chance to vicariously live that experience through the main character, and I did enjoy it enormously. The beautiful writing, interspersed with Irish sayings, stories, and references to books were pure delight.

I am not a big reader of romance, and perhaps for that reason, the aspects of the novel that I most enjoyed were not the truly romantic ones, that I found a bit over the top. Kate, the protagonist, has a strong Irish (and Blasket Islands) connection, and she seems more than ready to fall in love —and under the spell— of Ireland, and the islands in particular. I did love the setting of the story, the description of her life at the university, her research, the people she meets there, and I would have loved to know more about some of the secondary characters (the Bicycle  Society members, for example, Gran, Seamus, Daijeet, Dr Kaufman, and even Milly although we learn more about her later). Also, and I suspect I might be in the minority here, I would have loved to have had more details of Kate’s research, for example, samples of the stories she reads and of the book she writes (she is studying women’s accounts of the life in the Blasket Islands before they were abandoned and the few inhabitants left there had to move out), although I know there are accounts published and available, but her work process, and her description of how she felt as she engaged in it resonated with me (yes, I have a PhD and re-experiencing that period was a huge bonus for me).

Of course, Kate’s experience in Ireland would not be complete without a romance, and we meet the man in question very early on, and no, readers don’t need to be avid romance consumers to spot him and know where things are headed. As I said, not being a habitual romance reader, I wasn’t too convinced by that side of things. I never felt we got to know Ozzie well, but that is reasonable in the context of the story, as Kate seems to falls in love/lust with an idea or an image in her head, more than with the real man, and neither one of them give each other much chance to know what they are getting into and who with. Because we see the story from Kate’s perspective, we are expected to see him through rose-tinted glasses, at least initially, although things (and him) don’t fit neatly into the romanticized image she has in her head. (Oh, there are sex scenes as well, but they are not explicit and are overly romantic and totally unrealistic, but hey, as I don’t like sex scenes, I was pleased they were not many and didn’t mind they were unrealistic). Theirs is the perfect embodiment of a whirlwind romance. As we all know, the course of true love never did run smooth, and there are separations, trials, and many obstacles in the way, some that go well beyond what most people would expect from a typical novel in this genre, and deal in some very serious issues (like the Mediterranean refugee crisis), so although this is a romantic novel, it is not a light and cheery read (although yes, there is the mandatory happy ending that I won’t spoil for you).

The structure and the way the story is told is quite original, as it revolves around letters, the seven letters of the title, some formal and official, some personal, and they help create the backbone of the novel, written in the first person, from Kate’s perspective. In fact, although the novel is classed as a romance (and I’ve mentioned some of the more conventional romantic aspects of the story), for me it seemed to fit better into the Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story (although the character is perhaps a bit older than most of these kinds of characters tend to be), and it is written as if it were a memoir, where the letters serve as anchors, points around which the protagonist organizes her memories of the events, because although the story is told chronologically, it is not linear and there are jumps in time, during which life has gone on and settled, but the narration is only retrieved when something of some significance to Kate’s journey and to her relationship with Ozzie takes place. (There are scenes that showed potential, for example, an archeological trip Kate gets involved in, but it ends up becoming only a setting for an encounter with Ozzie, and we are given no details as to what else might have happened during the trip). Although she is not the typical innocent-abroad of many XIX and early XX century novels, she does not know herself, her trip abroad changes things and she goes back to the USA a changed woman, although there are many more things that she must learn, not only about herself but also about others, before the end of the book. Her process of discovery felt realistic, and I empathized with her struggle between her idea of what her life should be like, what her heart wants, and her attempts to reconcile the two, if possible.  Oh, there is also a prologue including a lovely Irish story about a man falling in love with a fairy woman, although, to me, in this case Kate plays the part of the man —who cannot settle in the magical land and misses home— and Ozzie that of the fairy woman.

I agree with comments that say perhaps the story would have gained in depth and become more realistic if some part of it had been told from Ozzie’s point of view, but, considering Ozzie’s backstory, that would have been a completely different book, and one that would have taken the focus away from the romantic angle.

In sum, this is a story I enjoyed, and I don’t hesitate in recommending it to romance readers, in particular to lovers of Ireland and anything Irish. There are many elements that make the story worthy of reading even for those who are not big on romance, especially the setting, the beautiful language, and the protagonist, who although flawed and contradictory, loves books, scholarship, her friends, Ireland and has a wonderful zest for life. The descriptions, not only of Ireland, but also of New Hampshire, Italy, and other settings, take readers on a lyrical journey, and I was sorry it came to an end. Oh, and there’s a wonderful dog too.

A complex book with an incredibly simple and sound suggestion.

Junglenomics: Nature's Solutions to the World Environment Crisis: a New Paradigm for the 21st Century & Beyond - Simon Lamb

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review, and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this non-fiction book.

I must confess to feeling totally unequal to the task of reviewing this book. I did mention that to the author of the book, who insisted that it would be of interest to authors and to the general public, as well as to economist, and particularly to anybody interesting in preserving the environment and finding new (and workable) ways to do it.

I am not an expert in Evolution, Economics, and/or Environmental Sciences, and this book’s approach uses and builds on elements and concepts of all three, so my opinion is far from a knowledgeable one when it comes to evaluating it. All my comments about this book are, as are all reviews, only an expressional as my personal point of view, and in this case I feel particularly unqualified to make an in-depth analysis, as I lack the knowledge required and cannot debate the nitty-gritty details to be able to either agree or disagree with the research. Don’t get me wrong, the basic idea is easy to grasp, but, as usual, the devil is in the detail.

Junglenomics proposes using Nature’s blueprint —the way ecosystems work— to solve the environmental disaster we’re quickly approaching. The author uses evolutionary theory to illustrate how we have got to where we are, explaining that all species are hungry for resources, and that is a normal evolutionary trait. The fact that Homo Sapiens is more successful at it than the rest of the species in our planet, means that we have exploited and accumulated Earth’s resources beyond the point where Nature itself can counteract our actions and re-establish the balance. Although ecosystems can adjust to increases in one bio product or species in different ways, our disruption of our environment has been so quick and drastic, especially in the last couple of centuries that our recent attempts at redress seem to be too-little/too-late.

The author goes on to analyse both, the situation and the attempts at redress, noticing that most have been piecemeal and lacked in a consistent application, for a variety of reasons, but most of all, because rather than appealing to the market (money makes the world go around, let’s not forget, and Lamb makes a good case for how money came to be what it is, a stand-in for our hunger for resources), and trying to find solutions that make sense from an economic point of view (something that will either produce money or reduce costs, or both), so far the focus has been on penalising and restricting practices that, until now, have resulted in great profit and advancement for the markets. Getting a lot of nations, not only developed ones, but also developing nations (that feel they are bearing the brunt of such policies without any of the benefits Western developed nations had had years to reap) to sign up to agreements is difficult, and enforcing them is near impossible, as we have all seen. Rather than accusations and counter-accusations (and the author discusses in detail the reasons for the difficult relationships between ecologists and economists, but also points at some positive recent trends), a combined effort based on a new perspective and understanding of the issues could be the way forward.

This is a book full of gems and information (some totally new to me, and other that I had only heard about in passing), and although what I’ve said might make it sound as if the text deals only in generalities, nothing is further from the truth. The author looks at all (or most) aspects of the question, from climate change (noticing that there is now an extreme focus on that to the detriment of the rest of the imbalances in the ecosystem equation), to waste management (not only factories but also human and animal), not forgetting the pollution of the seas, and the depletion of certain animal species, to name just a few. He highlights organisations, programmes, schemes, industries, and even countries (Costa Rica gets the gold star) that have found workable solutions to some of the problems, proposes specific ways to deal with issues such as funding (issuing bonds, and he mentions war bonds and the similarities with the situation we are in now), the need to find international organizations to monitor the implementation of such plans, and also, the importance of coordinating the efforts and working together at a supranational level.

I am not sure if I am a sceptical who tries hard to give new (and idealistic) proposals a chance, or I’m a dreamer trying hard to be a sceptical. In any case, as I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but write down many of my ideas and my objections/questions in relation the content, and was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that most of them were tackled by the author, who has done much research and has tried to be as even-handed as possible, presenting always the two sides of any argument, and also dealing with the possible criticism and objections. Although his attitude is never complacent and he points out the facts, he does not point the finger of blame at individuals (while he praises those he feels are already applying a Junglenomic-like approach), and despite his realism, he remains optimistic and encouraging.

As I said, I don’t know enough about Economics or Environmental Sciences to offer an informed opinion as to how successful a model Junglenomics would be. It made me think, and at a completely untrained level, the suggestions make sense, although implementing them would be as complicated as the author already envisages. This is clearly a labour of love and much time and effort has gone into the creation of the book and the theoretical/philosophical/practical approach behind it.

Regarding the style of the book, it is not an easy book to read. It is a very ambitious text, and it seems to try to be all things to all people. It does contain some examples and anecdotes to try to make it accessible to all (and it has great quotes in all the chapters), but it also contains tonnes of footnotes, and detailed disquisitions on subjects that are quite specialized, sharing much in common with academic texts (there is an index at the end, and illustrations, charts and diagrams to explain some of the concepts). I kept thinking that a non-expert reader might benefit from more of the examples and stories (we like stories), while if the book is addressed at policy-makers and analysts (both Ecologists and Economists) they wouldn’t necessarily care for the basic explanations. Perhaps two versions, or two separate texts, might achieve both, to reach a wider audience and raise awareness, and to also get into the hands of the people likely to be able to influence policies and induce change. I am sure it would make for a very compelling documentary in the right hands. I’d recommend possible readers to check a sample of the book to decide if they think it would be a good fit for them.

At an anecdotal level, I observed that many of the studies mentioned come from the UK and the European Union (probably down to availability of studies and familiarity with the material, although it does reflect the true situation of the research as well); I wondered about the use of words such as “benign” (it might depend on one’s perspective or definition) and also about the fact that despite trying to be as inclusive and non-Eurocentric as possible, there are topics that are culture-sensitive (the issue of the kinds of animal products used in Chinese Medicine, which he discusses, although I couldn’t help but notice that he uses rabbits as an example of an animal most people would only eat in dire circumstances. I don’t eat any meat, but rabbit is regularly grown for food and eaten in Spain, and I’m sure in other countries as well). I’ve always wondered, when it comes to Ecology, if we can truly observe the ecosystem we’re a part of in any objective manner (we are, indeed, part of the problem, and we know about the observer’s paradox), but…

In summary, this is a book that requires a dedicated reader, keen on digging beyond the surface into the topic of how to save the environment, taking as an example the way ecosystems work (symbiotic relationships in particular) and using sound market strategies. I’ve learned a great deal from it, and I thought I’d leave you with the last quote from the book, a particularly relevant one when it comes to this topic:

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something I can do. Edward Everett Hale

You only need to think of Greta Thunberg (that the author mentions as well).

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