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.

A magical visit to Barcelona and to the world of books and stories. Unmissable!

The Labyrinth of the Spirits - Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Thanks to NetGalley and to Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion Publishing Group) for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I enthusiastically and freely chose to review.

I read the first two novels of the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books series years back, in Spanish. I have recommended The Shadow of the Wind to anybody who would bother to listen to me (probably multiple times, sorry) and was enthralled by the complex tale of creation and mental unravelling span by The Angel’s Game. In the maelstrom of the last few years, somehow I lost track of the series and missed the publication of The Prisoner of Heaven (although I have been trying to locate a copy since I started reading this volume), but when I saw the last novel in the series was being published in English and offered on NetGalley, I knew it was my chance to catch up. As I also do translations and had read two of the novels in their original Spanish version, I had the added interest of scrutinising what the translation into English would look like. Well, I must say I thought it was superb, in case I forget to mention it later. Lucia Graves manages to capture the style of the author, the complexity and beauty of his language, and translates the local peculiarities of the dialogue, helping readers feel the joy and the intoxicating and magical experience of reading the original. Hats off!

If you’ve read up to this point, you’ll likely have guessed that I loved this novel. To get it out of the way, I’ll clarify that I think it can be read by itself, or as a starting point to a reader’s visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and although perhaps somebody who starts by reading this book will feel s/he knows already the whole story, I suspect they’ll feel curious and intrigued and will want to learn the full details of the stories that come to fruition here (this is my case as well). Here, the author of the story inside the book, Julián, (yes, the story is full of books and writers) explains how the series works better than I can:

The way I dreamed of it, the narrative would be divided into four interconnected volumes that would work like entrance doors into a labyrinth of stories. As the reader advanced into its pages, he would feel that the story was piecing itself together like a game of Russian dolls in which each plot and each character led to the next, and that, in turn, to yet another, and so on and so forth. The saga would contain villains and heroes, and a thousand tunnels through which the reader would be able to explore a kaleidoscopic plot resembling that mirage of perspectives I’d discovered with my father in the heart of the Cemetery of the Forgotten Books.

This is a long novel, and a complex one, although not one difficult to read or follow (I don’t think). As the quoted paragraph says, there are many stories here, and many memorable characters, some dead, some alive, and some… (among them, Alicia Gris, femme-fatale, spy, little girl, seductress, avenging angel, long-suffering survivor of a terrible war; Daniel Sampere, bookshop owner extraordinaire searching for answers; Fermín Romero de Torres, whimsical, fun, full of life and common-sense, witty, heroic, down-to-earth;  Julián Sempere, the stand-in for the author and heir to a long tradition; Isabella, a mysterious figure much of the action revolves around; authors David Martín, Julian Carax, Víctor Mataix; the fabulous Vargas, a hard-working an old-fashioned honest policeman with some secrets of his own; the complex Leandro; the horrifying Hendaya; the intriguing Rovira…). The story moves back and forth in time, from the time of the Civil War in Spain (1938) to its aftermath during the Franco regime, and into 1992. We visit Madrid, Paris —however briefly— although the main setting, and the main character, is Barcelona, in all its glory and horror.

In the darkest corner of her heart, Barcelona, mother of labyrinths, holds of mesh of narrow streets knotted together to form a reef of present and future ruins.

I kept thinking what genre one would fit this book into. Amazon has it listed in the categories of literary fiction, historical fiction, and mysteries. All true, I guess. There are secrets, mysteries, action, revenge, intrigues, crimes, murders, torture… The novel reminds me, in some ways, of the big adventures and narratives of old, novels by Victor Hugo (whose pen, possibly?, makes an appearance in the novel), Jules Verne, the Dumas (father and son), with its sprawling narrative, its wondrous descriptions of people and events, its historical background (the Spanish Civil War and the postwar years, accurately reflected through a fantasy lens), and even its gothic setting (we have mysterious mansions, dungeons, cells, castles, underground passages, true labyrinths…). This book bears homage to literature, to books, to authors, to the power of imagination, and to the magic of reading.

The book talks about books and writing and contains plenty of advice on writing, some of it contradictory, and there are many different types of writers contained in its pages. It is metafictional at its best, and I was not surprised when I read that the author also composes music. There are variations on a theme in evidence (stories are told and retold: sometimes different versions, sometimes from different perspectives, and in different formats). There is plenty of showing, there is telling from direct witnesses, or third-hand, there are documents that bring us missing pieces from the pens of those who are no longer able to tell their own stories, and everybody gets a chance to tell his or her own story, be it in the first person or the third, be it directly or through a narrator. The author has explained that he writes his novels in a similar way to how movies are conceived and designed, and that is evident when one reads the story, as it is impossible not to visualise it. Carlos Ruíz Zafón professes his admiration for Orson Welles and that comes across loud and clear in this book. But, however much he loves movies, he believes books can conjure up worlds that no filmmaker would be able to bring to life, and that is his stated reason for not selling the rights for the film adaptation of the series. Part of me would like to watch it, but I am convinced I’d be disappointed, so incredible is the world the author has built.

I have mentioned the style of writing when I talked about the translation and I have shared some quotes. I kept highlighting and highlighting text while I was reading it and I found it very difficult to select some to share, but I hope the few fragments I have included will pique your curiosity and make you check a sample if you are not sure if you would like it (you would!). One of the tips on writing contained in the book highlights the importance of the way the story is written, above and beyond the plot, but in this case, the two mix perfectly.

I have mentioned some of the themes, the historical background, and the mystery elements included in the story, with some gore and violent scenes, but there are plenty of magical, lighter, and funny moments as well, and I wanted to share a couple of sentences from Isabella’s notebook that I particularly enjoyed, to illustrate the sense of humour (sometimes a bit dark) also present:

We were three sisters, but my father used to say he had two daughters and one mule.

I didn’t like playing with the other girls: my specialty was decapitating dolls with a catapult.

I’m not sure what else I can tell you to try and convince you to read this book. I am from Barcelona and love the city, even if some of the places mentioned in the novel no longer exist (or not in their original form). You could use the book as a guide for a visit (and I know there were tours visiting some of the streets and settings of The Shadow of the Wind), or you could lose yourself in the labyrinth of your imagination. You could imagine the movie, cast the characters, or put yourself in their place (I’d happily be Alicia Gris, pain and all). If you need to live some adventures and take a break from your life, go on, enter the labyrinth and visit the cemetery of the forgotten books. You might never want to find the way out. I am rearing for another visit soon.

A reluctant hero and an old-fashioned mystery in a world of small-town politics and corruption

The Mountain Man's Badge (The Mountain Man Mysteries Book 3)  - Gary Corbin

I was provided an ARC copy of this book by the publisher and I freely chose to review it.

I am always in two minds about reading books in a series, especially when I do not catch it right at the beginning, but when I was offered the opportunity of reading and reviewing this book, I was intrigued and could not let it pass. It was, I guess, a combination of the unusual protagonist (a mountain man, as the series title proclaims), the details of the case (who can resist a good dose of local politics and corruption these days?), and the details about the author, who is an experienced and well-respected writer who has written for a variety of media, including the stage.  This is the third book in the series, though, but I was reassured that it could be read independently from the other books. So, what did I think?

Gary Corbin is a skilled writer, with a talent for creating unforgettable characters and settings and convoluted plots. Clarkesville, Oregon, is not one of those enchanted little towns we find in some heart-warming books, but quite the opposite. The descriptions of the mountains and the surrounding area are compelling and appealing, but this is a town with a terrible coffee house, sleazy strip clubs,  ignorant and prejudiced inhabitants, and rampant corruption (from low-level civil servants all the way to the top). The novel follows on from the adventures described in the two previous novels (from what I gathered while I read the book), and the main protagonist, Lehigh Carter, is one of those mythical American literary (and film) figures, the reluctant hero.  In the two previous books he became involved in several mysteries that ended up in the removal of the long-term sheriff and, after things don’t work well for the replacement (I’m trying to avoid spoilers, in case people want to read the three novels in order), he is asked to step in. But he is a lumberjack (with his own business) and not a professional sheriff —as he keeps being reminded by the elected assistant DA, the media, and plenty of others. And he has not been elected either. His job is further complicated when there is a new murder (in a town where such crimes are almost unknown), and the evidence accumulates against his fairly recent father-in-law (and their relationship was anything but friendly even before that). His relationship with his wife suffers, he is kicked out of the marital home, and he is pushed and pulled in all directions, pestered by those who should be working with him, and enmeshed in a spider web of lies and deception. There are enemies and betrayers all around him and he has his own doubts and insecurities to fight against as well. He has no qualifications to show for the job, makes beginner mistakes at times, lacks modern equipment and technical skills, and is being taunted by the commissioners for not having been voted into the job and being an amateur, even when they were the ones signing his appointment.

Although I lacked the background into the protagonist and other important characters in the novel (that I guess would give a more rounded pictures of the relationships between them and the motivations for their actions), I still liked his honesty, his humility, his self-doubt, and his willingness to put everything on the line to do the right thing and to protect his constituency, no matter how much it might cost him. This is not one of those action heroes who never miss a shot or put a foot wrong. He feels real and by the end of the novel, I thought I would happily have voted for him as the new sheriff.  I also liked his collaborators, Wadsworth, in his mentor-like role, and especially Ruby Mac (she is fabulous!). His wife is caught up in a difficult situation but eventually, I got to understand and empathise with her and her predicament (and I think she is one of the characters that have grown over the series, so I missed much of that). The politicians, the rest of the sheriff department, other inhabitants of the town, and Bailey —the TV news anchor— are all well-drawn and distinct, and they run the whole gamut of human emotions, qualities, and vices. Some have bigger roles than others, but they give a bit of variety to a place that is portrayed as mostly stuck in its traditions and not very tolerant or diverse.

The plot reminded me of the old-fashioned mystery books and series we all know and love, and, in my opinion, it works better as such than as a detailed police-procedural investigation. As mentioned, Lehigh is an amateur and does not always follow due procedure. He has a good nose and intuition but sometimes misses things and is let down at times by his insecurity and his lack of knowledge. Although the book is set in the present, the sheriff department seems to be stuck in the past, and other than using his mobile for taking pictures, very little technology is in evidence or regularly used; even the computers are ancient and keep malfunctioning, so this is not a story for those fascinated by the latest techniques and the most accurate point-by-point investigations. Much of the police work consists of walking around, interrogating people, and setting up traps to catch suspects and double-crossing staff. There is also an overreliance on evidence that has been overheard and later reported by witnesses. This requires regular readers of detective novels and thrillers to suspend their disbelief to a certain extent, as baddies are overconfident and reckless, and the witnesses never seem to think about taking pictures or recording anybody’s conversations, which is unusual in this day and age, when everything anybody does is recorded and shared, but it gives the mystery a timeless feel, and there are plenty of plot twists and red herrings to keep readers turning the pages at good speed.

The book is written in the third person by a limited omniscient narrator, a technique that works well to allow readers to learn more about the characters, their feelings, and motivations (and some are not nice at all), while at the same time keeping the information necessary to solve the case under wraps, and helping to maintain the suspense and keep us guessing. There is an effective use of description and credible and lively dialogue that add to the characterisation. The book flows well, and there is sufficient information about the previous events to fill in the gaps and allow a reader starting here to follow the plot, although I have the feeling that those who have read the previous books will enjoy it more fully. (I am never sure how much information about previous books might be enough for new readers but not too much for those already familiar with the books. My experience reading series is that, unless you read all the books in quick succession, you need reminders of the previous plot, no matter how well you think you remember it, but different readers will be different on that respect). Although there is some violence, it is not extreme or shown in detail, and there is a good mix of intriguing, creepy, and light-hearted and humorous moments to suit most readers.

I enjoyed the book and feel curious, both about what had happened before and about what the future will bring Lehigh and his team. I was also intrigued by the samples of some of the author’s other books included at the end. I recommend this book (perhaps the whole series, but I cannot comment on the previous books) to readers who like mysteries in non-standard settings, with a good mix of characters and plots, and with a background into small-town politics and corruption that feels eerily relevant.

An enchanted town, the power of believing, a mystery, and the perfect romance.

The Christmas Wishing Tree. An Eternity Springs Novel - Emily March

I am thankful to St Martin’s Press for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review and for the opportunity to participate in the blog tour of its launch.

 Although I am not a big fan of Christmas, I do enjoy some Christmas stories, movies, and songs (especially out of season, when one isn’t surrounded by it). The offer to read and review this novel reached me in the middle of a pretty hot summer and it felt like the perfect way to combat the heat. It worked, for sure, and although I had never read any of the other novels in the Eternity Springs series, I quickly became enamoured of the place and its inhabitants. I can reassure you, though, that the story goes beyond the Christmas theme, and there are wonderful scenes that take place in other seasons (the Fall, the Fourth of July…) and other locations apart from Colorado (Nashville, Florida, Australia, and the Caribbean).  But I have to agree that the overall theme of the novel, and the spirit that suffuses it, is that of Christmas.

The novel, written in the third person, shares the alternating points of view (and locations) of a part-time resident of Eternity Springs, Devon Murphy (the son of Cam and Sarah Murphy, and brother to Michael, long-term residents of the town), and Jenna Stockton, a doctor specialising in Obstetrics and Gynaecology whom we meet in Nashville. While Devon seems to be a free-spirited man who loves the sea, boats, fishing, and women, but avoids commitment like the plague, Jenna is a model of responsibility. She is a single mom to Reilly, whom he adopted after looking after his mother, a young woman down on her luck who died when the boy was a toddler. She works hard and would do anything to ensure the safety and happiness of her son. But he has a Christmas wish that is out of her hands. Somehow, luck, magic, or the power of believing puts Reilly and Devon in contact, and in a roundabout way, the destinies of the three of them intersect in the wonderful town of Eternity Springs. Both main characters have secrets (as readers of the genre will probably expect): Devon has a traumatic past in the relationships department and has a lot in common with Reilly, and Jenna’s life is haunted by a stalker who seems intent on upping-the-ante and putting her and her son’s lives at risk.

I liked the characters and their relationship, that follows the well-known formula of will-they/won’t-they so successful in the romance genre (they both have very valid reasons for their hesitation, although if you get easily impatient, I must warn you that the book is quite long and the story develops over close to two years), and I liked many of the secondary characters as well (despite not having read other novels in the series, I got a fairly good sense of who they were, and I did not feel I could not fully enjoy the story because of lack of background information. And I wouldn’t mind getting to know more about many of them), particularly Celeste, her resort, and the wonderful idea of the Wishing Christmas Tree that gives the book its title. She has a touch of the magical and is the fairy godmother of the town and all the characters (and I’d love to meet her).

What I most enjoyed of the book was the town of Eternity Springs. I have read a number of novels that take place in charming towns (islands or other locations) where outsiders come and are quickly adopted by the community, becoming, in many cases for the first time, part of a big family. I always enjoy the fact that the town becomes a protagonist in its own right and when the novels works well, you feel as if you had spent time in a real place and look forward to future visits to the magical location. Eternity Springs is one of those towns, and to add to its attraction, it is located within a marvellous natural setting, and the writer does a good job of introducing us to parks, lakes, mountains, taking us on sledge rides, fishing, camping, and exploring the wonderful facilities and the traditions of the place. Although it has more than a touch of the fairy tale (everybody seems to be well-off, everybody is fairly happy, apart from the main protagonists, temporarily, and even the bad things that happen are pretty mild) and it can be a bit sugary at times, I think it would take a very cold heart to read the novel without falling for the magic of the town and its inhabitant. (And perhaps shed a tear or two. Good tears, though).

If I had to point out some things that readers might have issue with, one would be the mystery element. Jenna’s background story and her circumstances bear heavily upon her actions and how cautious she is when it comes to meeting new people and possible romances. Although the mystery element ramps up the tension and adds to the interest of the story, on occasions it seemed to be more of an afterthought and an opportunity to show Devon and his friends (all male) as a team capable of investigating and keeping everybody safe (and yes, some elements of the rescue fantasy and the knight in shining armour were clearly at work there). Although Jenna herself complains at times about being treated like a weak woman in need of protection —despite being a competent professional who had managed well by herself until that moment— this novel keeps to conventional and traditional gender roles rather than challenging them. I know that such plots and story-lines are typical of many romantic (wish-fulfilment) novels but might not suit all readers, especially those who prefer women in charge of their own destinies. As a reader of thrillers and mystery novels, I did not feel the mystery would have satisfied fans of the genre, as we are not given enough information to solve it (we get some details of the case but others are brushed over quickly and the resolution, when it arrives, is somewhat anticlimactic), and it takes a backseat to the romantic part of the story. Having read other books that mix both genres, and this being a romance with some mystery thrown in, rather than the other way round, I did not think its intended readers would be too disappointed.

There are many other subplots I have not mentioned, including dogs, pregnancies, health scares, fishing, older motherhood, baking, National Parks, love of nature, adoption, social media, stalking, counselling, vocation, tropical storms, family, traditions, Santa Claus, magic, traumatic relationships… There are wonderfully vivid and memorable scenes, the style of writing is easy and fluid, and the descriptions bring to life both the locations and the characters (without going overboard with the physical descriptions of the protagonists and love interests, although yes, don’t worry, they are attractive), and there are some sad moments, some funny ones, and many emotional and heart-warming scenes as well. There is plenty of sexual attraction and tension between Devon and Jenna, but there is no graphic sex and although there are some thrilling scenes, the doors stay firmly closed behind the protagonists when it comes to that side of things.

I know readers of romantic novels expect a happy ending. Well, you won’t be disappointed here. What’s more, I know some readers can get really upset if they feel there are elements in the story that are not fully solved and hate it when they feel that writers are using hooks and unresolved issues to keep them buying books in a series (not everybody feels the same, though). As I have said before, this novel can be read independently from the rest of the series, and all the plots and subplots of the story, even the secondary ones, are solved satisfactorily. So don’t hesitate to pick up this novel just because it’s part of a series. You will feel sad it has ended but it won’t keep you awake at night trying to guess what happened next. I kept imagining this novel as either a movie, or better even, a TV series, and would be surprised if some production company didn’t snatch it up. Done well it would be irresistible.

In sum, this is a novel that takes place in a magical location, in gorgeous settings, with a Christmas theme and a hopeful message, a romance that includes elements of mystery/thriller, with likeable characters that will make you feel home. I, for one, won’t hesitate to visit Eternity Springs again in the future.

 

A demanding mystery recommended to writers and lovers of complex stories.

The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair - Joël Dicker

I’m not sure if it was the cover (the old cover) of this book, or the title, the fact that wherever I went (Spain, the UK, France) I saw the same book in airports and bookshops, or a combination of all that together with the blurb of the book but I had been curious about this novel for a long time and, eventually, I got around to reading it.

The book and its author has received many accolades and awards, and it is one of those books that manages to combine a gripping story (a mystery that keeps wrongfooting investigators and readers alike) with an interesting narrator and a clever way of telling the story that becomes a part of the action and almost a character in its own right.

The book is divided into Three Parts (Part One: Writer’s Disease, Part Two: Writer’s Cure, Part Three: Writer’s Paradise), a Prologue, and Epilogue, a first scene and acknowledgements at the end. In brief, this novel is the story of the writing of a book, the book we have in our hands (we assume) by Marcus Goldman, also known as Marcus the Magnificent (you’ll have to read the book to know more about that, but let’s say that from a very young age, Marcus had been a man with a sense of his own destiny and had realised that there are ways of gaining fame and attracting everybody’s attention that are not all to do with hard work or talent). In part one, after an intriguing initial scene, we meet Marcus –who became famous after publishing his first book– suffering from writer’s block. Almost two years have passed since the publication of his novel (this is 2008), and he is desperate as his publisher has given him a deadline. To try and get out of the situation he goes to visit his writing teacher, Harry Quebert, whom he met at Burrows University, that he attended between 1998 and 2002. He lives in Somerset, Maine, and is happy to see him. While he is there, Marcus makes a discovery about Harry’s life, and as the novel progresses, we learn that there are many more secrets and mysteries hidden behind the letters and pictures he finds. A fifteen-year-old girl, Nola Kellerman, disappeared in 1975 and when her body is discovered in Harry’s property, all hell breaks loose.

The novel, although seemingly divided into the period before the writing of the novel, the actual writing of it, and its publication, keeps jumping backwards and forwards in time, sometimes through the narration of one of the characters (we go back to 1975, there are fragments where we learn more about Marcus’s relationship with Harry during university and in the in-between years, and we also travel to 1985 and to 1969), sometimes through letters and documents, sometimes we get to listen to recordings of interviews, or we get summaries of reports. There are also other written documents referred to throughout the book, the most important, The Origin of Evil, the novel that turned Harry into a famous writer, which everybody refers to as a masterpiece, and that he happened to write in Somerset, in 1975. Marcus narrates the story in first-person, but the fragments that are either written by others, or part of his novel, are written in the third person. And there are false starts (as Marcus and later Gahalowood, a cranky but likeable sergeant, uncover new information, the notes and the book gets reframed and rewritten), draft versions, false endings, plenty of misunderstandings and intentional misdirection as well. We get different versions of events, but we also get alternative versions of characters, particularly of Nola, who at times appears as a Lolita, a seductress who could manipulate all adults around her, while at others she is an innocent victim of family and lusty men, or a muse intent on inspiriting a masterpiece, or perhaps just a young scared girl trying to find happiness. Nothing is what it seems to be, when we consider both the plot and the characters, and even the basic things we think we know for a fact might require reconsideration.

It is perhaps not evident at the beginning, but each chapter starts with writing advice, that later we understand consists of thirty-one points Harry offers Marcus, starting from number thirty-one and going up the list. As a writer, I feel that most of the points are very insightful, and although most are not terribly personal, some, that we see given in context later on, help us get a sense of who the characters are, and we come to realise that all the advice is pertinent to the story as well. The book follows its own advice, and it piles layer after layer of story and meaning (like Russian dolls), increasing and releasing the tension as explanation after explanation is given and eventually rejected, and as our expectations and trashed time and again.

The characters are well drawn and even some of the seemingly minor characters end up amazing us when we get to know them better (and believe me, we do). There are surprises, as I said, there is humour (mostly provided by the publisher and by Marcus’s mother, perhaps both these characters are less well drawn and caricature-like, but they are not part of Somerset and the story but instead interfere and distract the writer from his task), there are are many touching moments and those are not limited to the main protagonists either (even the least likeable characters get their spot in the limelight). Despite the repetitions and the jumps in time, the book is not difficult to follow, although it is not easy to keep all the clues in mind and guessing who did what is not simple. Of course, that is the beauty of complex mysteries. I have not read the original version, but I cannot fault the translation into English, and I kept highlighting sentences and paragraphs, some to do with writing, but some with the story.

At times readers will be almost shouting, aligning themselves with the editor, demanding that the book gets finished and there is an end to the story, but the author keeps going, pushing the sense of frustration and the patience of the reader, looping the loop once more. It’s a tour-de-force. As Harry says: Books are like life, Marcus. They never really end. Having said all that, I enjoyed the ending, even if at some points it felt as if I was watching one of those horror movies with monsters in them, where you think they are dead, but no, they keep coming. Here, the different explanations, suspects, and red herrings keep coming as well, but I loved the actual ending (even if some of the details and the explanations stretched a bit the suspension of disbelief, but I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers).

I recommend this novel to lovers of mysteries looking for a long and involving read that requires your full attention and is fairly demanding, especially if you don’t mind complex narratives and jumps backward and forward in time. I also recommend it to writers who love novels about writers, for the plot, for the format, and for the advice (most of which will make you nod and smile). This book made me think about many other stories: Lolita, Beauty and the Beast, Cyrano de Bergerac… Although the book is not overtly sexually graphic, here goes a word of warning as it does discuss a relationship between an adult male and a young girl, and there are instances of violence and brutal assaults that could be upsetting. The book depicts a world where white men occupy the main active (and alive) roles (Marcus is Jewish and that plays a major part in the jokes about his mother’s behaviour) and in no way challenges gender or diversity prejudices either, but some of the characters offer insightful comments and have positive attitudes.

I thought I would leave you with a couple of quotations, especially dedicated to writers and readers:

You know what a publisher is? He’s a failed writer whose father was rich enough that he’s able to appropriate other people’s talents.

A good book, Marcus, is judged not by its last words but by the cumulative effect of all the words that have preceded them. About half a second after finishing your book, after reading the very last word, the reader should be overwhelmed by a particular feeling. For a moment he should think only of what he has just read; he should look at the cover and smile a little sadly because he is already missing all the characters. A good book, Marcus, is a book you are sorry to have finished.

An extraordinary satire with a narrator for the centuries and quite a twist

Scorn - Paul  Hoffman

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

When I was first approached about reviewing this novel I was beyond intrigued. It sounded like something utterly unique and out there. I wasn’t sure it would suit my reading taste, but I knew I had to read it because it sounded like nothing I had read before. And although it took me a while to get to it, I am happy to report my first impression was right. This book is… extraordinary.

Yes, this book is extraordinary because it is out of the ordinary, pretty much so. If we try to define its genre, we’ll have many difficulties. Is it a thriller? There is a pretty special serial killer (those of us who regularly read thrillers know that they are becoming more and more bizarre and extreme, but this one is beyond the usual, even by modern standards) and a series of murders and desecrations connected by a several cryptic clues (yes, crosswords also come into it), but it has too many other elements that do not fit in well with this genre. There are mystery and police-procedural elements to a point, and a couple of interesting and quirky detectives (Scrope and Lister, both from the upper crust with outstanding education, interesting connections, and an armed forces background), and a female PC, Molly Coates (a heroine of the working classes, from the North of England and from as different a background as possible to the dynamic duo but as clever).

There is a paranormal/fantasy element (well, there is a wolf/shifter involved, and there are references to other creatures that might fit into a number of different categories), but the plot takes place in the world we live in (scarily so at times) or a close version of it with ‘interesting touches’ (some fictional, some are a matter of interpretation). There is a scientific explanation for some of the events (involving the Large Hadron Collider) that could put one in mind of science fiction novels, but this is not the main focus of the plot.

There are plenty of references to religion (which is one of the main themes of the book, in particular, the Roman Catholic Religion) but a word of warning, I think truly devoted and orthodox followers of the Catholic faith or even convinced Christians might feel offended by some of the content. There are also plenty of references and a focus on current and recent events (like the sexual abuse of children by members of the RC priesthood, there are also comments about politics, media, and political figures, some international but many centred in the UK, and we have close encounters with preeminent figures like Tony Blair, the Queen of England, the Pope…) but although the references are accurate and there are plenty of quotations from books, newspapers, media, and the internet, these are weaved into the story and it is not non-fiction or a factual account. As I mentioned already, there are plenty of details about everyday British life peppered through the book, and although in my opinion it is not necessary to be British or an expert on the UK to fully understand or enjoy the book, I think people with a good knowledge of UK politics, society, and current affairs will find much to enjoy (and think about) when they read this book. There is also romance, a story of opposites attract that goes beyond the conventional, but it is only a subplot (and not typical of the romantic genre).

Oh, and there are some illustrations (like ink etchings) of characters and events in the book, but I wouldn’t call it a comic, or a picture book (although they add greatly to the overall effect).

The book has also an extraordinary narrator that from very early on challenges the readers, promising some things (a great twist at the end, that, let me tell you now, he delivers), coaxing them, warning them, and never letting them become too complacent or ‘safe’. The narrator, whose identity readers will wonder about for much of the book, is opinionated, has strong points of view and is not, and never pretends to be, a neutral observer. He is witty, well-informed, dismissive at times, rude and pushy, but never ever boring. Scorn, the title of the book, is the mode of much of his narration, and I loved his voice from the beginning, but if you don’t, you will have difficulties with the book. I always recommend readers to check a sample of the book before buying, and this is one of those cases when I feel that is a must. Although some of the narration, mostly to do with the investigation and the main characters (I am trying not to reveal too many details of the plot, but let’s say, things are not what they seem, as most readers will suspect from the beginning) is written in the third person, much of what makes the book special and gives it its structure and its distinctiveness is the narrator.

Do not get me wrong, though, there are plenty of other characters, like the investigators I have mentioned, whom we get to know quite well and whose personalities and adventures would provide sufficient material for gripping, if more conventional, novels in their own right. There is also Aaron Gall, the character at the centre of the plot, who is both the anti-hero and victim, and also acts as a catalyst for the action in the book. We get to know him, and the rest of the characters, quite well, and he is also a stand-in for the many people who have survived abuse (more or less extreme) at the hands of those who were supposed to be looking after their education and spiritual well-being. If I had to choose, my favourite would be Molly, perhaps because I have more in common with her than with the rest of the characters, and Lou, the therapist, but they are all interesting and likeable. Here I am referring to the main characters. Some of the other characters, many of whom we only get temporary glimpses of (including the victims) are not necessarily likeable, but they are far from caricatures or cut-out types, and we do get insights into their thoughts and motivations that make them, if not sympathetic, at least real and human. And, that includes the guest appearances by true historical figures.

I have tried very hard not to give away much of the plot, although I hope my mention of some of the themes would suffice to get prospective readers interested. I found it a compelling read, both due to the main storyline, and also to the detours, the narrator comments, and the fanciful asides. But this is not a book that zeroes on the action and dismisses anything that is not relevant to the plot (in that way it is perhaps more of a literary fiction novel, but not quite either). This is a long book that meanders on and off through tangents, which eventually we realise are relevant to the overall book but not always to the thriller part of it, so if you’re an impatient reader looking for a light and thrilling read or a who-done-it, this might not be for you. The style of writing is breath-taking, a tour-de-force, with detailed but clear explanations of scientific points, collections of facts and events that make for gripping reading, psychologically astute descriptions of characters and their motivations, philosophical and moral commentaries that will make readers think, and I highlighted so much of the book that I found it almost impossible to choose some fragments to share, but I will try (avoiding major plot points as well):

But that’s the thing about human beings. It’s not laughter or the ability to stand upright that distinguishes man from the animals, it’s the capacity for incompetence. When any other creature makes a mistake, it gets eaten.

It was a truth universally acknowledged in the police force that the middle classes were generally terrified of the police and would shop their grannies without a moment’s hesitation once a cop asked them a question.

Ever had a sudden moment of realisation, an epiphany of the truth that marked out a momentous line in the sands of self-knowledge between everything you thought was the case about the kind of creature you were and everything that was really true? Neither have I.

I have already warned readers about the religious aspects of the book that might not sit well with many readers (no, this is not a Christian book in the usual sense, probably a book that in certain circles and in eras past would have been called a ‘wicked’ book), and there is also violence and some sex scenes (the violence is far more graphic than the sex, in fact it is so extreme that the effect is somewhat cartoonish, but I am not squeamish, so don’t take my word for it). It also deals on a serious and difficult subject, and although it does so in a peculiar way, it does not shy away from the most horrific aspects of it. Having said all that, this is a book I thoroughly recommend. It is not a book for everybody, as you’ll have surmised if you’ve read the rest of the lengthy review (sorry. I got more carried away than usual), but if you like to challenge yourself, you love outlandish thrillers, cryptic crossword clues, unique scornful narrators, satire, and are looking for a new author to follow, do yourself a favour and check it out. It’s a ride on the wild side.

A solid and well-written historical fiction book with few surprises.

Munich: A novel - Robert Harris

I obtained a hardback copy of this novel through a giveaway and thank Ash (@FTLOBOOKS) for her kindness and for the opportunity. I freely chose to review it.

Robert Harris is a familiar name for most readers and moviegoers. His novels and popular and many have been adapted to the screen (I particularly enjoyed The Ghost as I have a soft spot for films about writers). But although I have watched several adaptations of his novels, I cannot recall having read one of them, and I was happy to be given this opportunity. After reading it, I understand why he is so popular, and I don’t think this will be the last one of his novels I read.

Until I started to read the novel and later read some of the reviews, I did not know much about the historical background to it. The novel is classed as historical fiction and deals with the Munich Conference, that took place in September 1938, in a last ditch attempt at avoiding war with Germany (and Italy). The novel takes place in 4 days, from the 27th of September 1938 onwards, and covers the meeting between Hitler (for Germany), Mussolini (for Italy), Daladier (for France), and Chamberlain (for England), to try and settle Hitler’s demands for a return of the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia (mostly inhabited by German speakers and people of German origin) to German hands. The actual agreement was signed on the 30th, without the presence of the Czechs, who worried the return to Germany of that region would leave them weakened and unable to defend themselves against further German expansion. Harris sticks to the facts, and the novel is divided into four parts, one for each day of the conference, with the historical figures who were present represented fairly accurately, and the events following the correct chronology as well.

What makes it historical fiction is the fact that he introduces into the story two characters who did not exist in reality, and Englishman, Hugh Legat (one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries) and a German, Paul Hartmann (a German diplomat and member of the anti-Hitler resistance). They had met in Oxford and had also spent some time together in Germany, but had not seen each other in 6 year and had a bit of history, which we learn more about throughout the book. Whilst Legat is a family man and seems to be focused on his career and on doing things by the book, Hartmann is a bit more mysterious and has the heart of a spy. He is not averse to taking risks, has no family, is much more clued on what is at stake, and is seemingly more reckless as to putting others at risk. Of the two characters, perhaps Legat is the one we get to know better and the more recognisable and sympathetic type, whilst Hartmann shares less of his personal life. He is the one calling the shots but we get fewer glimpses of his true motivation and he seems to have less to lose, and that might make him more difficult to identify with but more interesting and intriguing. Both men are highly intelligent and sharp analysts, ideal candidates to become observers and stand-ins for the readers.

The book is written in the third person (extremely well) and alternates the point of view of both characters always making clear who we are reading about. Harris has a way of making characters and events that might feel familiar sound and look intriguing (something extremely difficult when there are so many players involved) and uses descriptions to great effect. As we follow these two characters, who are both insiders of this world of diplomacy and politics but not big influencers and therefore very restricted in what they can do without risking their own lives and those of others, we share with them the wonderment, the worry, and the awe at being in the presence of such important people and at such a momentous event. We also share their frustration at being unable to intervene and change the course of history (and that would have made an interesting speculative historical fiction novel, for sure) that in our case we know will end up in tragedy.

The pace of the novel is uneven. Due to how closely Harris follows the events, there are moments when the leaders are travelling, paperwork is being prepared, or when due to their roles, both characters and not in the thick of things, and although the novel is never boring (because of the great characterisation and the level of detail), it is not a page turner where the rhythm is frenzied and never lets off. There are tense moments at the beginning, then there are the actual meetings between the leaders, which are not witnessed by the two men, and then things pick up again. The secret documents being exchanged, the difficulty in arranging meetings or even exchanging a few words in such circumstances become increasingly clear as the conference comes close to an end, and both men become bolder and take bigger risks. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic (though realistic) but I don’t want to reveal too much.

I am not an expert in this historical period, but I did feel that I got a better insight into the events and also the historical protagonists of the Munich conference thanks to the novel. Reading some of the comments, it seems that many feel Harris has managed to make Chamberlain’s position and manoeuvres more understandable and agreeable, rather than adhering to the popular view that he was too weak and did not handle the negotiation well. Harris explains that after working on a documentary about the subject many years back, he had remained fascinated by this historical event and felt he had to write this book. (He also includes a lengthy bibliography acknowledging the sources he has used to write the book, which will be of great help to anybody looking for further information).

Here some examples of Harris’s writing in this novel:

Legat took out a large white cotton handkerchief and wiped his face. It would not do to turn up red-faced and perspiring. If there was one sin that was frowned upon above all others in the Private Office, it was appearing to be in a flap. (Harris, 2017, p. 10)

…because people believed what they wanted to believe — that was Goebbel’s great insight. They no longer had a need to bother themselves with inconvenient truths. He had given them an excuse not to think. (Harris, 2017, p. 139)

There is a very memorable scene, when shortly after the English delegation arrives at their hotel in Munich, they are regaled by  an oom-pah band playing in the street, in front of the hotel, The Lambeth Walk. Legat, very aptly, describes it as “surreal” (p. 212).

One of the moments that I thought better defined and explained Hartmann and his actions (because he had always been a firm believer in Germany and its nationhood and that had caused some friction with Legat in the past) was when he talks about Hitler and how they had ignored “the power of unreason” (p. 297), that he goes on to explain, saying that people kept making excuses for Hitler’s most extreme and bizarre behaviours (his antisemitism, his ethnic policies…), telling themselves that these were one offs that could be overlooked or ignored, whilst he now believed the most evil and the most extreme ideas and behaviours someone is capable of are what truly define him or her as a person.

I think this book works well as historical fiction and I’d recommend it to people who want to learn more about this particular historical episode without having to read several historical volumes. On the other hand, this is not a thriller or a standard spy novel, and although there are intriguing and mysterious aspects that quicken the pace, Harris sticks so closely to the actual events that he does not introduce major changes or surprises, even when it comes to his fictional characters. A solid and well-written historical fiction book and one that has convinced me I must read more of Robert Harris’s work.

Harris, R. (2017) Munich. London, UK: Hutchinson, Penguin Random House UK.

For lovers of poetic prose, complex narration and unique voices, a book about faith, guilt, and identity

The Incendiaries - R.O. Kwon

Thanks to NetGalley and to Grace Vincent, on behalf of Virago, Little Brown Book Group UK, for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. Thanks also for the opportunity to take part in the blog tour for the launch of the novel, the first book published by R.O. Kwon, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

This novel describes the attempts by one of its protagonists, Will Kendall, of making sense and understanding the events that have led to his girlfriend’s, Phoebe Lin, participation in a horrific event. As often happens in novels with a narrator (or several), no matter what the story is about, the book often ends up becoming a search for understanding and meaning, not only of the events that form the plot but also of the actual narrator. Why is s/he telling that particular story? And why is s/he telling that story in that particular way? This novel is no different, although the manner the story is told can, at times, work as a smokescreen, and we don’t know exactly who is telling what, and how accurate he or she might be.

On the surface, the novel is divided into chapters, each one headed by one of three characters, John Leal (this one written in the third person and always quite brief), Phoebe (written in the first person), and Will, also written in the first person. At first, it’s possible to imagine that Phoebe’s chapters have been written by her, but later, we notice intrusions of another narrator, a narrator trying to imagine what she might have said, or to transcribe what she had said, or what she was possibly thinking or feeling at certain times. As we read this book, that is quite short notwithstanding the seriousness of the subjects it deals in, we come to realise that the whole novel is narrated by Will, who, after the fact, is trying to make sense of what happened, by collecting information and remembering things, and also by imagining what might have gone on when he was not present. He acknowledges he might be a pretty unreliable narrator, and that is true, for a variety of reasons, some of which he might be more aware than others.

The novel is about faith, about finding it, losing it, and using it as a way to atone and to find meaning, but also as a way to manipulate others. It is about love, that can be another aspect of faith, and they seem to go hand in hand in Will’s case. He discovered his Christian faith in high school, in part as a refuge from his terrible family life, and lost it when it did not live up to his expectations (God did not give him a sign when he asked for one). He moved out of Bible School and into Edwards, and there he met Phoebe, a girl fighting her own demons, a very private person who did not share her thoughts or guilt with anybody. Will falls in love with her and transfers his faith and obsession onto her. But she is also unknowable, at least to the degree he wishes her to be open and understandable for him, and she becomes involved in something that gives meaning to her life, but he cannot truly become a part of. He abandoned his faith, but he seems less likely and able to do so with his belief in her.

The novel is also about identity. The three main characters, and many others that appear in the book do not seem to fully fit in anywhere, and try different behaviours and identities for size. Will invents a wealthy family who’ve lost it all, to fit into the new college better; Phoebe hides details of her past and her wealth, and is Korean but knows hardly anything about it and John Leal… Well, it’s difficult to know, as we only get Will’s point of view of him, but he might, or might not, have totally invented a truly traumatic past to convince the members of what becomes his cult, to follow him.

The language used varies, depending on what we are reading. The dialogue reflects the different characters and voices, whilst the narrator uses sometimes very beautiful and poetic language that would fit in with the character (somebody who had been proselytizing, who was used to reading the Bible, and who tried to be the best scholar not to be found out). Also, he tends to use that language when remembering what his girlfriend had told him or imagining what John Leal might have said as if he remembered her as more beautiful, more eloquent, and more transcendent than anybody else. This is a book of characters (or of a character and his imaginings and the personas he creates for others he has known) and not a page-turner driven by plot. The story is fascinating and horrifying but we know from early on (if not the details, we have an inkling of the kind of thing that will happen) where we are going, and it’s not so much the where, but the how, that is important. The book describes well —through the different characters— student life, the nature of friendships in college, and some other serious subjects are hinted at but not explored in detail (a girl makes an accusation of rape, and she is not the only victim of such crime, there is prejudice, mental illness, drug use, abortion…).

I read some reviews that felt the description or the blurb were misleading, as it leads them to expect a thriller, and the book is anything but. I am not sure if there must have been an earlier version of the blurb, but just in case, no, this book is not a thriller. It’s a very subjective book where we come to realise we have spent most of the time inside of the head of one single character. Nonetheless, it offers fascinating insights into faith, the nature of obsession, and what can drive people to follow a cult and to become strangers to themselves and to those they love.

The ending is left open (if we accept the narrator’s point of view, although there is an option of closure if we don’t) and I was impressed by one of the longest acknowledgements I’ve ever read. It hints not only of a grateful writer attentive to detail but also of a book which has undergone a long process and many transformations before getting into our hands.

A couple of examples of the poetic language in the book:

Punch-stained red cups split underfoot, opening into plastic petals. Palms open, she levitated both hands.

The nephilim at hand, radiant galaxies pirouetting at God’s command. Faith lifted mountains. Miracles. Healings.

Not a light or easy read, but a book for those eager to find a new voice and to explore issues of faith, love, identity. Oh, and for those who love an unreliable narrator. A first book of what promises to be a long and fascinating literary career.

A good old-fashioned and convoluted mystery with a Poirot in good shape.

The Mystery of Three Quarters: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries) - Sophie Hannah

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK for the ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had not realised that an author had been commissioned to write new Poirot mysteries, and as I saw this book after a conversation about Agatha Christie, I could not resist requesting a copy of it. This means I have not read the author’s two previous New Poirot Mysteries (The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket), so I cannot discuss the evolution of the characters or compare this one to the previous two. I am not familiar with any of Hannah’s previous writing either. I have read some of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories, some of them I read translated into Spanish many years back (and might not have fully reflected her style of writing although I remember enjoying them) and I have not read a Poirot one in many years, although I have watched both films and TV series adapting some of Christie’s classic Poirot novels, so I would not dare to address this review to connoisseurs. Still, for what is worth, this is my opinion.

I enjoyed the novel. The case starts with four seemingly random people accusing Poirot of sending them letters accusing them of a crime. Not only has Poirot not sent them such letters, but the alleged victim died of natural causes (he was an elderly man and drowned whilst bathing, alone in his bathroom). So, who is behind the letters? And what’s his or her motive? I will try and not reveal any spoilers, but I can say that there are plenty of clues to follow, red-herrings along the way, peculiar characters, true and false motivations, slices of cake, dogs, a public school for boys, a wonderful old mansion, faulty typewriters, likeable and less likeable characters, and a Poirot in full form.

The novel is told by Edward Catchpool, a Scotland Yard Inspector who, like Captain Hastings in Christie’s stories, is the scribe behind the stories. He is a new creation and one of a couple of characters that, from the comments, I have read, are regulars in The New Poirot Mysteries. The narration is split between parts written in the third person (when Catchpool is not present) that, when we are some way into the book, he explains he has compiled through later discussions with Poirot, and those written in the first person, that pertain to events he witnessed or participated in himself. This works well, in general (we might wonder briefly how Poirot might have become aware of some detail or conversation, but we all know he has his ways), and it also allows for any differences in style with previous novels to be blamed on Catchpool’s own style of writing (that would not be the same as Hastings’). The language is straightforward and effective in conveying the story, without any jarring moments due to usage inappropriate to the historical period. Catchpool himself does not reveal much of his own personality through the novel and he is mostly a blank canvas to reflect Poirot’s thoughts and his deductive process. There are some interesting personal morsels about the inspector included in the narrative (he does not like his boss at work and he is averse to the idea of marriage, especially one to suit his mother’s taste) but not enough for readers to become truly attached to him. As this is the third novel and I have not read the two previous one, it is likely that people who have followed the whole series will know and appreciate the character more fully (but this is not necessary for the enjoyment of the mystery).

Notwithstanding my disclaimer on my limited expertise in all things Poirot, the Poirot in the novel will be recognisable to most people who have some familiarity with Christie’s detective. People still think he is French, his ‘little grey cells’ are mentioned often, he sprinkles his dialogue with French terms and some peculiar English translations (‘oil of the olives’ instead of olive oil, for instance), he is a keen observer, opinionated, with high regard for himself, and a lover of comfort and good food and drink. Perhaps he is an extreme version of Poirot, but I could not help but remember, as I read the book, that Christie expressed her dislike for the character and called him: detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep. (We might agree or not with her assessment, although her Poirot had some moments of weakness and sometimes showed more of a soft heart than he would have liked to admit). He is that here and keeps making demands on people, puts to the test his ideas and theories in pretty cruel ways, and drags the resolution of the case, creating anxiety and disquiet among all. But he can come up with pretty amazing insights and his figure has always been one of those that perhaps we would not like to meet personally, but we nonetheless admire.

Some of the secondary characters are almost caricatures, and the story is fundamentally about the plot and not about the psychological complexity of those involved, but there are some likeable characters, and I had a soft spot for the younger generation (and the dog). There are good descriptions and observations that will keep people guessing and turning the pages, although the story is not told at a fast pace, and the ending drags on (as is usual for this type of stories, where the reveal can become as frustrating for the readers as for those present). Although the evidence, in this case, remains mostly circumstantial and stretches somewhat the imagination, everything is explained and tied up and people who like a definite ending will have no complaint. There is a murder but there is no explicit violence or bad language and although it will not suit readers looking for gritty and realistic thrillers, it should not offend or discourage most readers who love a gentler mystery.

I am not sure if this would fit into the category of cozy mystery. By its tone and nature, it should do, but many books marketed as cozy mysteries abound in over-the-top characters, seem to place more emphasis on other aspects rather than the actual mystery (romance, recipes, pets…), include elements of other genres (paranormal, for instance), and can be frustrating to any readers looking for logical explanation and a meaty, intriguing, and complex mystery they can actually solve. This is like a good old-fashioned mystery, with plenty of character, a light read that will keep you entertained, and if that’s what you’d like to read, I’d recommend it. (Does it add anything new to the Poirot canon? Well, that is a matter for another discussion. Judging by the reviews, most people think the author has done a good job and has made the character her own). Personally, I’ll keep track of the author and future novels in the series.

 

Short and packed with useful advice. Because being polite has never hurt anyone.

The Little Blue Book for Authors: Essential Manners for the Modern Author  - Gisela Hausmann

I have read and reviewed two of Gisela Hausmann’s books from her little books collection before and enjoyed enormously her no-nonsense attitude and the easy-to-use format. These are books that, as the author explains, should take a short time to read (she aims for less than 90 minutes, and I don’t think I’ve gone over 30 minutes for any of them), and the advice offered should be easy to implement, so that anybody who’ve just read one of them could apply what they’ve learned, rather than having to go through a lengthy process, take a course, or make a huge investment. (With regards to this last issue, that does not mean there is no cost involved at all, as in this book she emphasises the importance of finding an editor and states that is much more useful investing your hard-earned cash on that than spending money on things like tools to automatize marketing or on exchanging reviews with other authors).

This book will be appreciated by authors and reviewers alike. I had to smile at her examples of some of the e-mails she has received asking for book reviews. As a book reviewer, I’ve had similar experiences (authors sending an unsolicited copy of the book, without even bothering to find your name, and stating they read your blog, although you’ve never seen them there and from the content of the letter is evident they haven’t) and I can’t but agree with her recommendations to authors. (Although I am an author, other than in my own books and the blog, I rarely approach reviewers directly, but I’ll try and make sure I remember her advice in the future). I really liked her suggestion that we should try to introduce our book as if we were preparing the book for a date, making sure to try and choose the right partner and find the points of connection between our book and the possible date (reviewer). As she puts it:

A creative, exciting, funny, and unique “dating profile” will attract “matching” readers to start a relationship made in “book heaven.”

The author covers etiquette as pertains to various social media as well (Facebook and Twitter) and the etiquette of blogging. Her advice might not suit everybody and I suspect some of her tips might be more or less useful depending on the readership and genre of the author, but I have personally concluded that we must remain true to ourselves, and not just adopt passing fashions because they seem to work for somebody else, and I am with her on the importance of adhering to proper etiquette. (It might seem unnecessary to some people, but I can’t imagine many people will take offence to being treated politely).

This is another solid offering in a series of books for authors that has become one of my favourites, and I recommend it to authors with little time to waste (all of them, I guess) who prefer realistic advice to pie-in-the-sky promises, and who don’t mind some straight-talking (or writing). If you check the sample of the book and like what you read, it is worth following the author as she runs regular promotions and offers of her back catalogue.

A blend of psychological (noir) thriller with domestic drama, with a conflicted

Saigon Dark - Elka Ray

Thanks to the publishers, Crime Wave, for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel is a thriller that takes place within the domestic sphere and one of its unique features is that it is set (mostly) in Vietnam. The main character is a paediatric surgeon, Lily, whose family escaped to the United States when she was a child, and after studying Medicine decided to go back and work there. Although she is a successful professional, her personal life is not a happy one. Her husband, another doctor from a similar background to hers, has left her, and her youngest child, a little girl, suffers from a rare genetic condition, and she does not know how well she will develop. Tragedy strikes; the character seems unable to react rationally due to the pain and makes one disastrous decision after another. We all know that secrets have a way of coming back and biting us, and although Lily is quite lucky, not even she can escape the consequences of her actions, or can she? (I am trying not to reveal any spoilers).

The novel is told, in the first-person, from the point of view of Lily, and as was the case with a recent novel in the same/similar genre I read and reviewed, that might be a problem for some of the readers. It is impossible not to empathise with Lily, and although some of her reactions are bizarre, the author is very good at getting us inside her head and making us understand her disturbed mental state. Perhaps we think we would never do something like that, but we can understand why she does. Personally, I did not sympathise with her (or even like her very much) and at times felt very frustrated with her. I had to agree when one of the other characters told her that she was selfish, blind to other’s needs, and she never thought of anybody else. This is all the more evident considering her privileged existence in contrast to that of the general population, and how much of what happens is a direct result of her actions and her decisions, whilst others are victims of the circumstances with no options to escape. She seems to realise this towards the end, when even her son is more together than her, but all that notwithstanding, the action of the novel is gripping, and it is impossible not to feel curious about what will happen next and wonder if fate and karma will finally catch up with her.

The novel moves at a reasonable pace, at times we seems to be reading a standard domestic drama (about child-rearing and the relationship with her new husband), whilst at others it is an almost pure thriller, and we have blackmailers, red herrings, betrayals, and plenty of suspects. I think those two elements are well-combined and are likely to appeal to fans of both genres, although those who love hard thrillers might take issue with the amount of suspension of disbelief required to accept some of the events in the novel.

The ending is fairly open. Some questions (perhaps the main one) are resolved, but some others are not, and this might be frustrating for readers who prefer everything to be tied up in the end. There is a hint of some insight and growth in the character, but perhaps not enough considering the hard lessons she’s gone through.

There is some violence (although not extreme), serious issues are hinted at (domestic violence, poverty, bullying), and I particularly liked the realistic setting, and the way it depicts Vietnam, Hanoi and Saigon, the big social differences, and the expat scene.

In sum, a blend of psychological (noir) thriller with domestic drama, intriguing and heart-breaking at times, which takes place in an unusual and fascinating setting, recommended to those who don’t mind first-person narration and slightly open endings and who prefer their thrillers with more drama and less emphasis on procedural accuracy.

Mucho y muy variado talento contra la violencia de género e infantil

¡Que entre la luz! - Varios autores

Mi reseña: He seguido este proyecto desde su concepción,  y aunque no he participado con ninguna de mis historias, sí que contribuí con la traducción de una historia, ya que no podía dejar pasar la oportunidad de colaborar con esta causa. Una vez empecé a leer la recopilación, decidí dedicarle un breve comentario a casa historia, poema y ensayo porque todas se lo merecen.

Naiara (Nuria del Saz) Un poema conmovedor basado en un hecho real.

Encerrada en la nada (Enrique Laso) Una triste y bella reflexión, en primera persona, sobre el cruel destino de Camille Claudel, escultora y compañera de Auguste Rodin, que ejemplifica el de tantas artistas y creadoras cuyo genio no fue reconocido en vida y que fueron cruelmente tratadas por la sociedad de su época. Si les inspira y les conmueve esta historia, les recomiendo El abismo de Camille, del mismo autor.

Cauces (Cristina Jiménez Urriza). Una historia que puede resultar familiar con un final sorprendente e inquietante.

El diario (Ricardo García Aranda) Una intrigante historia corta sobre las dificultades a las que se enfrentan las víctimas y la sociedad que las rodea. La poesía y su poder terapéutico juegan un papel fundamental en la narrativa.

El viaje de Ángela (Alberto Rueda) Una historia con un toque de la Dimensión Desconocida, simbólica e inquietante. Me encantó.

Yo solo quería ver el mar (Alicia Domínguez) Una protagonista que por fin cumplirá su promesa sin importarle el precio.

Shaíla encontró el amor (Blanca Miosi) Breve historia que nos recuerda que las diferencias culturales no justifican la violencia de género, y que en algunos países el amor puede estar considerado un crimen.

Las tablas de multiplicar (Carmen Cano Soldevila) Esta desgarradora historia, contada por una niña abusada, pone de relieve que detrás de una apariencia de normalidad se pueden esconder horribles crímenes.

La hija del mar (Chia Giráldez Tinoco) Este relato plasma el trauma y el impacto a largo plazo del abuso infantil, dejándonos una nota de esperanza.

El genio verde (Ramón Somoza) Una preciosa historia con final feliz gracias a la imaginación de un niño y a unos genios verdes muy especiales.

Ácido (Rosa María García Palacio) Breve pero no por ello menos impactante historia que refleja la realidad de una atrocidad que va en alza.

El último soldado de plástico (Fernando Ezquerra) En esta historia el abuso cobra dimensiones históricas y los poderosos no consiguen destruir la verdad de los labios de un niño.

Zazú (Eva Barroso) Una historia conmovedora cuya protagonista os romperá el corazón.

Cuándo dirás no (F.J. Bravo) Un ejemplo de las preguntas que se hacen muchas personas del entorno de los que sufren este tipo de abuso y que no tienen respuesta ni fácil ni simple.

El despertar de Bernardo (Francisco Tessainer) Una historia con un toque de humor que nos recuerda la actitud de la sociedad hasta hace muy poco y que, desgraciadamente, persiste en algunas esferas, hacia este tema.

A mí no me tocas más (Isabel Mata Vicente) Una historia situada en un futuro próximo, que nos recuerda que la violencia de género es un problema en todos los niveles de la sociedad y puede afectar a cualquiera, sin importar su profesión, su educación, o sus conexiones. Y que si sospechamos algo, no debemos quedarnos callados.

Caminos sin salida (José Francisco Sastre) Un adulto que pasó su infancia en una casa donde la convivencia era una pesadilla recuerda su experiencia y está decidido a que eso no le pase jamás a él.

Cuatro sílabas (Teresa Maldonado) Una historia desde el punto de vista de un niño, que destaca tanto la crueldad de la infancia como su maravillosa capacidad para recuperarse de los golpes más duros.

Legado de una madre (María Teresa Bernal de la Cuerda) Una inspiradora carta dedicada al legado y al empoderamiento de las mujeres.

Con un par de tacones (Lydia Tapiero) Corta pero impactante historia con un gran final.

Mamá, cuéntalo (Manuel García Sanahuja) Una historia con final feliz que resalta la importancia de que todos estemos atentos a los signos de abuso y ofrezcamos nuestro apoyo.

La nota simple de una vida (Manuel Alonso Martín) Contada desde el punto de vista de un hombre, y uno especializado en el tema, ayuda a despejar algunos mitos sobre la violencia doméstica.

La cicatriz y la caricia (Mari Cielo Pajares) Un bello relato, con un toque de realismo mágico, donde el desengaño, el miedo y la esperanza se dan la mano.

Diana (Sally Cronin) La historia de una mujer que siempre trabajó duro para ser feliz y está dispuesta a hacer lo que sea para proteger lo que más quiere.

Hasta aquí (Myriam Cobos) Una breve historia que consigue encapsular lo difícil que es aceptar que el abuso te pueda afectar personalmente, porque siempre pensamos que esas cosas solo les pasan a otros.

Como muestra, una cita, contundente e imposible de olvidar.

Porque no había hecho falta que la matara, había muerto tantas veces y de tantas maneras…

Una muñeca con gafas de sol (Mercedes Pinto Maldonado) Algunas personas llegarán hasta donde sea para acabar con el sufrimiento de sus familiares, sin importarles el precio que les pueda costar.

No hay verdugo sin una víctima (Raquel Herrero) La autora capta a la perfección el proceso de internalización de la oratoria de menosprecio y abuso que acaba grabada en el subconsciente de las supervivientes y sugiere estrategias para adoptar discursos más positivos.

A Salvo (Roberto García) Corta historia sobre el miedo, los mecanismos de defensa, y los límites de los recursos legales. (En caso de duda, huye).

Tatuada en el alma (Ruthy García) Una lírica viñeta que permite a los lectores experimentar, de forma subjetiva, el perturbado estado mental que resulta del abuso, no solo físico, sino también psicológico, al que se ven sujetos tanto madres como niños.

El réquiem del suspiro (Roberto Soria Iñaqui) Historia de una mujer que tras ser empujada hasta el límite toma un decisión que no tiene marcha atrás.

Cada ocho horas (Teresa Guirado) Un ejemplo y un recordatorio de lo prevalente de un tipo de situaciones que la campaña #MeToo ha puesto de relieve.

Una cena especial (Teresa Sánchez) Las apariencias engañan incluso en lo que se refiere a nuestros más allegados.

Entre punkindio y soldadoso (Fran Hernaiz) Una bella historia que nos acerca al mundo de un niño que podría convertirse en víctima de abuso tan solo por su inocencia y su alegría de vivir.

Desde el mismo andén (Avelina Chinchida) Relato sobre lo duro que es dar el primer paso y seguir avanzando, sobre la supervivencia y la nostalgia.

Crónica de unos corazones desgarrados (Mercedes Maldonado) Una aportaciónón muy personal de la autora, que comparte su experiencia con un grupo de niños que han sobrevivido al abuso familiar.

Otoño (Lydia Tapiero) Un poema en el que una flor se convierte en un símbolo muy apto para las relaciones abusivas.

Una rosa sin espinas (Marian Rivas) La misma flor se convierte en esta historia/poema en el símbolo de una mujer y su vida.

No es bueno para ti ni para nadie (Xelima G. Arnedo) Una historia que acaba bien gracias al apoyo de los amigos y familiares y a la determinación de una mujer a seguir luchando.

El poder del miedo (Ana Larraz Galé) Un relato sobre el bullying, el acoso escolar, y la presión que las amistades pueden ejercer sobre los niños y que pueden resultar en el aislamiento y la desesperación.

La inusual tumba de Soledad (Cristian Perfumo) Una historia de amor distinta sobre una mujer nada corriente.

¿Mi príncipe azul? (Adolfo Pascual) La crónica de un príncipe azul (bastante descolorido) para recordarnos que los cuentos de hadas, cuentos son.

Vacío (Julio Santos) No hay gesto pequeño en cuanto a la amabilidad y a las buenas obras se refiere y todos podemos ayudar como demuestra esta narración.

Cuando el amor te encuentra (Enrique Eloy de Nicolás) No hay que olvidar que los crímenes contra mujeres no se limitan al ambiente familiar, y hay que estar siempre alerta porque cuando las cosas parecen demasiado buenas para ser verdad, a menudo lo son.

Destellos demasiado humanos  (Juan Adalid) Una bella oda a la no violencia.

Hoy te hablo a ti (V. Contreras Vascom) Poema incluido en la solapa delantera que es otra oda, esta vez a todas las supervivientes de la violencia de género.

Epílogo. Notas de autores colaboradores.

                La verdad ante todo (Álvaro Vázquez-Figueroa). Una reflexión/anécdota de un autor que lo ha visto y lo ha escrito todo y más.

                Réquiem por una mujer maltratada (Toti Martínez de Lezea) La famosa autora nos recuerda que aunque las cosas hayan cambiado, aún queda mucha distancia por recorrer y debemos continuar luchando contra esta lacra social.

                La sociedad facilita el crimen, el criminal lo comete (Alok Dixit. Fundador del proyecto Sheroes Hangout, de Stop Acid Attack, en Agra). El fundador del proyecto Sheroes Hangout en India, dedicado a empoderar a las supervivientes de ataques de ácido, nos explica su proceso de concienciación, y lo difícil que resulta ir contra la presión social y familiar en su cultura.

                Sentencias machistas de famosos de la historia (Recopiladas por Toti Martínez de Lezea) Colección de citas desde la antigüedad a nuestros días que evidencian lo poco que ha evolucionado el pensamiento con respecto a algunas cosas.

Se secaron las lágrimas (Ricardo García-Arana) Poema incluido en la solapa trasera, que es un homenaje a las supervivientes y un  precioso canto a la esperanza.

Y como muestra y cierre, las últimas líneas de este poema:

Es tu destino renacer,

que nunca, mujer,

la noche oscura

pudo con el amanecer.

Great female narrator and a must-read for lovers of all things Tudor.

The Tudor Crown - Joanna Hickson

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I must start by saying that although I’ve been reading more historical fiction recently, I am not an expert on the subject, and I know a bit more about other historical periods than about the rise to power of Henry VII of England. I was familiar with the bare facts and, like many people, knew of Richard III through Shakespeare’s play. So, please take my comments about historical accuracy with a pinch of salt (I might be totally wrong!).

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I had not read any of Joanna Hickson’s previous books but thought this would be an opportunity to familiarise myself with the period and to discover her writing. The book follows the adventures of Henry Tudor, whom we meet as a youth, as he escapes England with his uncle Jasper Owen, and also his mother’s, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who is left in the unenviable position of being widowed and a known supporter of the losing side (the House of Lancaster) in the new court of Edward IV (of the House of York). The chapters, written in first person from the points of view of the two protagonists, alternate as required by the action (at times we might have several chapters from Margaret’s point of view, and towards the end, when Henry returns to England, while his mother is confined to her husband’s household, we have several from his point of view), and we also have access to their epistolary interaction (as many years passed before they set eyes on each other).

To begin with I was overwhelmed by the large cast of characters, some with pretty complex titles and similar names, but the book offers a Family Tree and a Map at the beginning, that allow us to follow some of the intricacies of the relationships and to better understand the movements of the characters, and a glossary at the end, that includes definitions of some of the historical terms in use and others relevant to the story (some French and Welsh words that are introduced in the action). (Those who access the story in e-book format should be able to find most of the terms in the dictionary included with the e-reader). Do not be put off by talk of historical terms, as the language used in the story, although not jarringly modern or inadequate to the times, is easy to follow, flows well and feels completely natural to the setting and the situation.

As for the characters… I liked Margaret from the very beginning. Even though her circumstances are miles and centuries apart from most of us, it is easy to empathise with a woman who has lost her husband, is separated from her son, and has to make difficult decisions in order to survive and to further the cause of her son. She is intelligent, astute, determined, but also caring, generous, and kind-hearted. She takes on the children of noblemen and women who have lost their lives in the war or fallen on hard times (perhaps as a way of compensating for the loss of her son), and she is presented as a woman particularly attuned to the difficulties and tragedies other women are faced with. She is a staunch supporter of her son, schemes and puts herself at great risk, at times, to try and further his cause.

I found the early chapters from Henry’s point of view, less interesting. Although he finds himself in dire situations, he is too young to fully understand what is happening, and he gets side-tracked at times and behaves like a boy his age, no matter what fate might have in store for him. This is as it should be and shows the skill of the writer, who presents Henry as somebody aware of his position but also a young boy with much to learn, not only about becoming a king but also about life in general. The book is, in part, his coming-of-age story (including a romance, which the author explains in her note at the end, she made up), but as he grows, he comes into his own and ends up being the one to drive the action. Whatever our opinion of the historical events of the time, his life in exile, always at risk of assassination due to his bloodline, the early loss of his father and the forced separation from his mother make him another character easy to side with. The fact that we see the story from his point of view, and have no insight into Richard III or his actions (other than third-hand through comments and gossip from others) adds to our enjoyment of the story as it is told, although I found that, like Margaret, we come to appreciate some of the members of the York House (Edward IV, his wife, and his daughter, Elizabeth of York) and, like the country, we see that politics and alliances can be difficult to fathom and understand without full knowledge of the circumstances.

There are enigmatic characters (Margaret’s husband, Lord Stanley, is fascinating and plays his cards very well, although he is not heroic in the standard sense), and the novel offers us a good sense of the complexity of the historical period, of what passed for diplomacy at the time (that might include marrying somebody to further one’s claims to land, power, and titles), and of how easily somebody’s luck can turn. Survival was complicated in such a period, no matter who you were (in fact, it might be more difficult if you were of royal blood), and knowing how to present yourself and who to choose as your ally could be (and often was) a matter of life or death.

The author includes recent discoveries (like Richard III’s body being unearthed from a Leicester’s car park) and research to bring to life Bosworth Battle (or Redemore Battle, if we were trying to be more precise). The scene is set in detail and she manages to convey the brutality of it and the tactical elements. Richard III’s determination also comes through, and no matter what we might think of him as a person, it seems he was a brave and determined fighter.

The ending, which is satisfying (of course, not surprising), leaves us with Henry waiting to be crowned and talking about his marriage, after having finally been reunited with his mother. In her note, the author tells us she plans more books with Margaret as a character, and she explains her first-hand research (including visiting some of the Bretton and French castles where Henry spent his youth, and the Battle of Bosworth Heritage site, which sounds like a must for anybody interested in the topic), and the books and sources she has accessed. She also explains which liberties she took with the story and how much she made up (very little is known of Henry’s life in France), and it did not sound excessive, considering this is not intended as a history book but as a novel.

In sum, I enjoyed learning more about this historical period; I felt the first-person narration made it easier to get invested in the fates of the characters and enjoyed the mixture of politics and action. I recommend it to people interested in this historical period, lovers of historical fiction and all things Tudor, and to fans of the author. I will keep my eye on future releases and will check her other books.

Fun sci-fi for lovers of action, genetics, and intriguing monsters.

Survivors' Club - Ann M. Martin

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber (check here if you would like to have your book reviewed) and the author for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

Let me start by saying that this book is a pretty wild ride. I quote one of the Amazon reviewers (Eric Witchey) because he says it very well and more concisely than I can (as those who read my reviews know all too well): If Andromeda Strain had mutant, undead Cthulhu babies, this would be the offspring. Yes, indeed. Those of you who follow my blog and my reviews probably know I read some science-fiction but I’m not a big authority on it and it is not one of my default genres. But somehow, when I read the description of this book and the biography of the author, I decided to give it a go. I’ve been interested in genetics since long before I decided to study Medicine, and although I pursued a different line of work, I know I’m not alone in following new discoveries and studies on that field. The book also promised plenty of action, and the author’s own military experience and her degree in psychology intrigued me as well.

The story is narrated in third-person from a variety of characters’ points of view, although each chapter is only told from one point of view, so there is no head-hopping or confusion (although due to the frantic pace the story moves at once the infection starts, it’s important to remain attentive). The three main characters are a scientist (a geneticist), Marius, the head of security at Chrysalis Biopharmaceuticals, John Courage (perfect name), and Miranda, the 18-year-old daughter of the company’s CEO (she joins them later in the book, during the first appearance of the monster/infection). Other members of Chrysalis and other settings also play a part and help create a more rounded view of the events and provide an outsider’s evaluation of the characters. Although there are no lengthy disquisitions, navel-gazing, or tons of biographical information, the main characters are fleshed-out, and they have their quirks (Marius is quite nerdy, with a love of British TV series, while Miranda is a credible young girl, at times losing focus of what is at stake to moan about lack of TV, and she can easily be swayed by the winning smile of a charmer, while John is strong and professional but not without his humanities), their strengths and weaknesses.

The voices of the characters are credible and they use the jargon and technical terms appropriate to their jobs and positions, although the alternating points-of-view ensure that we gain the necessary knowledge from other characters who are also novices, and the story is not difficult to follow, without ever falling into dumbing down or easy explanation. There are likeable and less likeable characters and we get to change our minds about some of them as we read, but I think most readers will find somebody to identify with or care about (and a few individuals to hate too, not to mention the monstruous creature, which has more nuances and is far more intriguing than at first might appear).

The first part of the novel is mostly about setting up the characters and introducing the background information (equivalent to world building) necessary to fully appreciate later the scale of the threat and the difficulties in navigating Chrysalis. The company and its labs are set in an isolated location and their procedures and features turn it into a complex and effective setting for the action scenes, as eerie and creepy as the gothic mansions of the classic horror genre.

The writing is nimble, the scientific and the security topics are well-researched, the action scenes very visual and gritty, showing the expertise of the author, the pace increases as the infection/invasion advances; there is gore, the creatures… Well, the Cthulhu mention is quite apt. There is humour and there are lighter moments, although towards the end of the novel there is not much letting off and the rhythm ramps up to a mad crescendo.

There are pop culture references and some themes running through the novel (what happened in Argentina?) that will amuse some readers more than others, but I feel they add to the atmosphere. I particularly enjoyed the mix of danger and humour, the realism and inside knowledge of how the ex-army security personnel worked and their esprit de corps, and the way the three seemingly disparate protagonists come to know and care for each other. Ah, and there is no explicit love story (there are hints at possible loving feelings between some of the characters but, thankfully, no true or fake romance going on. Hooray!).

The is a sample of the catalogue from the publishers, Not a Pipe Publishing (I love Magritte as well), at the very end of the book, so don’t get too comfortable while you read it, as it will end before you expect it, but the blurbs of the novels made me feel very curious and I’ll have to try to explore it further.

Talking about the ending, yes, it ends with a promise of more adventures and a twist that did not surprise me but I found satisfying. (Oh, and I’ve also read that the author is thinking about writing a short story about what happened in Argentina for her subscribers. I think that’s a great idea and something I was thinking of suggesting as well). I wonder if adding a list of abbreviations or technical terms at the end might assist readers in not missing a single detail, but it is not essential.

In sum, a wild ride, with plenty of thrilling action, scarily credible science, likeable and relatable characters, good doses of humour, in a great setting, and with horrifying and intriguing monsters, who are not, by far, as guilty as the corporate greedy industry behind the plot. I recommend it to lovers of adventures set in a scientific/genetic research environment, especially those who like their monsters to go beyond easy scares. An author to keep an eye on.

 

An unsettling page turner recommended to lovers of first-person narratives.

The Party - Lisa Hall

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

This is an unsettling novel. It starts with a woman, Rachel, who wakes up after a New Year’s Eve party not remembering what has happened and feeling quite vulnerable, and as she tries to get her bearings and find out what went on, while keeping face (as she’s in one of her neighbours’ houses and feels more than a little embarrassed), she comes to realise that something horrible has taken place. The author’s use of first-person narration immerses the readers in Rachel’s mind and makes us share in her fear, confusion, and contradictory feelings. There is physical evidence that something has happened to her, but she cannot recall what, or who might have done the deed.

The story moves between the immediate aftermath of the story, in chronological order, and interspersed chapters that share the events prior to the party, always from the protagonist’s point of view, but they don’t reach into the faraway past and only takes us a few months back, giving us some background that helps us understand why the people closest to Rachel (especially her husband, Gareth) react as they do to the events.

In the present time, somebody starts playing with the protagonist, in a game of cat-and-mouse (which sometimes takes on gaslighting characteristics) and manages to make her doubt herself and everybody around her, from mere acquaintances to those closest and dearest to her.  The first-person point of view works well at making readers feel the claustrophobia, paranoia, anxiety, and sheer terror of not knowing who to trust and seeing your whole life crumble around you.

The book, which fits into the domestic noir category, uses well some of the tropes of the genre, including the protagonist who feels trapped and not taken seriously by the police and therefore has to do her own investigating. There are also plenty of red herrings and a number of credible suspects that make us keep turning the pages to see what will happen next, although readers of thrillers will probably guess who the culprit is (I did).

On the negative side, personally, I did not feel a connection to the characters, particularly Rachel. I empathised with her circumstances, and with the terrible crime she has survived, but I did not feel there is enough information provided about her to create a credible individual. One of the other characters at some point talks about her belief that she is a strong woman, and I wondered what that was based on, as we are only given snippets of her current life and her recent past, and nothing that makes her come alive (What does she like? What did she do before she got married? Does she have any passions, apart from her relationships? She has a friend but other than calling her for support, there is no indication of what that friendship is based on). She does things that are morally questionable, but that was not my issue (I have long defended unlikable main characters, but I still need to feel that they are real, somehow). I wondered if this was intentional, trying to make sure that everybody would be able to identify with Rachel and her plight, rather than making her too distinctive and individual, but, for me at least, the opposite is the truth, and we know enough about her to make her different from us, but not perhaps to make us feel as if we know who she is. This would not bother me so much in a standard plot-driven thriller, but when the book depends so closely on the protagonist’s voice and on her sense of identity, it didn’t gel for me. There were also some things that I thought readers who are not fond of first-person narratives might find annoying (like the character looking at herself in the mirror as a way of providing us a description, something that is frown upon in general writing advice, and a leaning towards telling rather than showing in the bulk of the writing).

The novel moves at a good pace, it creates doubt and hesitation in the readers’ minds, and it has a good sense of timing. And the ending will probably satisfy most fans of the genre. It also touches on an important and, sadly, topical subject, although it does not cover new ground. It brought to my mind C.L.Taylor’s The Fear and I noticed the author, Lisa Hall, had reviewed that novel. I have not read the author’s previous books, but I am curious to see how this compares to her other novels.

A page-turner I recommend to lovers of domestic noir, particularly those who enjoy claustrophobic and unsettling first-person narratives.

Experimental, challenging, touching and funny at times but not a crowd-pleaser.

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

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

First, in case you have not read the book or anything about it, and wonder what the bardo of the title refers to, it is a Buddhist concept (in Tibetan Buddhism, it seems, and I’ve read that Saunders is a Buddhist) referring to an intermediate state between death and rebirth (between two lives on Earth).

Now that we’ve cleared that out, if you follow my blog, you might remember that I reviewed some of the books that had made the long and the short-list of the Booker Prize. I enjoyed some of them more than others, but I had not read the book that actually won the Prize, and when I saw it come up on NetGalley, I could not resist. I had heard and read a great deal about it, and I felt I had to check it for myself.

This is not a standard novel. It is composed of fragments, divided into chapters, some that appear to contain extracts from a variety of written historical documents (diaries, newspapers, books, memoirs) which provide background to the events, Lincoln’s presidency and the tragic death of his son, Willie, victim to typhoid fever. Other chapters, also fragmented, contain first-person observations by a large variety of characters that ‘live’ at the cemetery where Willie is laid to rest. Call them ghosts, spirits, or whatever you prefer, they seem to have been there for a while, some longer than others, and they interact with each other, while at the same time talking about themselves and taking a keen interested on little Willie Lincoln and his father. We have the spirits of black and white characters, young and old, men and women, well-off citizens and paupers, people who had lead seemingly morally exemplary lives and others who had gone down the wrong path, some who had taken their own lives, others who had died by accident or in bed. There are some actively atoning for their sins while others only seek entertainment. They are a motley crew, and although we hear mostly from three of these characters (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas) and from Willie, they all make important contributions and help create a whole that is more than its parts.

The structure of the novel is puzzling and intriguing, and although it made me think of postmodernism and pastiche, the methodology used to construct the novel is not an attempt at emptying it of meaning or making us reflect upon the artificiality and futility of seeking truth and understanding. The death of a child (even if we are not parents, most of us are close enough to the children of relatives and/or friends to be able to imagine what it must be like) is a terrible tragedy and although there are light moments in the novel, there are touching and moving ones as well. Some of the fragments emphasise the diverse opinions and judgements about Lincoln and his presidency (by the way, although some of these fragments are real documents from the period, others have been created by Saunders, and it is not evident while reading which ones are which), but everybody agrees on the devastating effect the death of his son had over the president. The hopeful ending might feel somewhat surprising but is open to interpretation, like the rest of the text.

There are fragments that will make readers wonder about religious beliefs, others that question the social order, racial ideas, and the Civil War. But I fully understand the puzzlement of many readers who leave negative reviews on this book (and the negative reviews are many) stating that they don’t understand anything, it goes over their heads, and it is not really a novel. Some readers, familiar with Saunders’s short-stories, prefer those to the novel, but as I have not read them, I cannot comment.

Here some examples of the style of writing in the book (in this case, I definitely recommend prospective readers to check inside or get a sample to see if it suits their reading taste).

…only imagine the pain of that, Andrew, to drop one’s precious son into that cold stone like some broken bird & be on your way.

Mr. Collier (shirt clay-stained at the chest from his fall, nose crushed nearly flat) was constantly compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment.

The money flows out, tens of thousands of men wait, are rearranged to no purpose, march pointlessly over expensive bridges thrown up for the occasion, march back across the same bridges, which are then torn down. And nothing whatsoever is accomplished.

Blame and Guilt are the furies that haunt houses where death takes children like Willie Lincoln; and in this case there was more than enough blame to go around.

The book collects a large number of endorsements and reviews at the end, and I’ve chosen this one by James Marriott, from The Times, for its briefness and accuracy: ‘The book is as weird as it sounds, but it’s also pretty darn good.’

In sum, this is a highly experimental book, for readers who enjoy a challenge and don’t mind a non-linear narrative, who enjoy literary fiction not focused on plot, and are intrigued by new writers and what makes critics tic. It is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one and I, for one, hope to catch up on some of the author's previous books.

A light, feel-good read, for those who enjoy choral books full of larger-than-life characters.

The Not So Perfect Plan to Save Friendship House - Michelle Gorman

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber (check here if you would like to have your book reviewed) and the author for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

Sometimes it seems as if all the books and movies on offer are centred on young protagonists, and I’m not only talking about Young Adult books. However, recently there has been a move towards including older protagonists and subjects. I enjoyed the two Dutch books about Hendrik Groen, a man in his eighties living in a nursing home, and have watched a few movies, usually choral, about older protagonists (like The Exotic Marigold Hotel). The setting of this novel, in a residential home, and the promise of a comedy made it sound like the perfect choice for me.

The first-person narrator of the story is Phoebe, a chef who had a very successful career in a bistro before disaster struck. She loves her job at the residential home (The Jane Austen Home for Ladies, and, as we discover, the name is meaningful in several ways), but has always felt frustrated because her parents (and her mother, in particular) do not seem to value her job and are dismissive of her career. To make matters worse, her mother (a larger-than-life character) dies suddenly at the beginning of the book, but her internalised voice keeps gnawing on her confidence.  Her best friend, June, is the manager of the home, and she fancies Nick, who is the official physiotherapist but also takes on any odd jobs going on (art therapy, gardening, handyman…). I know some readers don’t like first-person narratives, although Phoebe is unassuming, witty and an excellent friend. (On the minus side, her lack of self-confidence can make her sound paranoid and bitchy, and she keeps mulling over things, unable to decide what to do, trying hard to feel comfortable in her own skin and accept the credit for her achievements). We learn some surprising things about her family life together and by the end of the book, although I don’t have much in common with her character, I felt connected to her and appreciated her role as a narrator. Her friendship with June is convincing and their relationship is one of the strongest points of the book.

I also loved the residents of the home, and in many ways (not only due to my age, I hope), I felt closer to them than to the protagonist. We get to know some of them more than others (Maggie is fabulous and I loved Dot, Laney, Sophie, and yes, even Terence). They all feel real, with their foibles and their endearing traits, and make the book memorable. We follow the intrigues that have to do with the home and the changes that take place there (from a women’s only place to a mixed one) and learn about its inhabitants, their secrets, and their past lives. We are both observers and participants in much of the action, and we feel invested in their fates. We learn the importance of accepting people for who they are and moving beyond appearances and prejudices.

There are several romances with happy, or at least hopeful, endings (for the young and the older generations), broken hearts and disappointments, secrets and lies, and there is also the connection (pointed out through references to the book club and their discussions) to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I would not call the novel a variation on Pride and Prejudice but if we think of Austen’s text as we read it we can discover nuances that might be easily missed otherwise.

Although there are many amusing lines in the novel (and some pretty touching ones as well. As we know, humour can be an excellent defence mechanism against hurt), I thought I’d share a few (remember that I got an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final version of the novel):

We’ve never let something as trifling as the spectre of death stand in the way of a good snipe.

My mother didn’t get ulcers, she gave them.

He’s a perv-whisperer.

She wouldn’t like my ponytail, though. I did try taking it down, but having it up in a hair tie the entire weekend meant my hair had a ridge along the back that gave it a very White Cliffs of Dover effect.

I’m surprised he doesn’t need an oxygen tank with all the social climbing he’s been doing.

The writing flows well and fits in perfectly with the voice of the narrator, who can spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about her beau but is also attuned to the feelings of the residents and her friend. There are plenty of amusing events taking place throughout the novel that keep the action moving, but the characters are much stronger than the plot and by the end of the book (that I enjoyed) they have all become good friends (or most of them have).

The author defines her books as light reads, as beach novels, and says her readers describe them as “feel-good.” All that is true, although behind all the funny goings-on the book illustrates the importance of keeping expectations and prejudices under control, and it reminds parents that they should encourage their children to find fulfilment in their own terms rather than expect them to make their parent’s dreams come true.  If you are looking for a light read, full of memorable characters, plenty of humour, and a big deal of heart, I’d recommend this novel. And, if it existed in real life, I wouldn’t mind working at the home (and in time even living there) either.

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