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.

Great characters, a Northern Irish setting, and the devil is in the detail.

The Coven Murders (The Inspector Sheehan Mysteries Book 3) - Brian Hare

Thanks to the author for providing me an ARC copy of the novel that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed a previous novel in this series (The 11:05 Murders. The Inspector Sheehan Mysteries Book 2) some time back and really enjoyed the cast of characters (it was refreshing to see a team of the police working together and not full of corrupt individuals for whom solving a mystery is the last thing in their agendas) and the well-built plot, full of twists and turns.

The author pre-warned me that this was quite a different type of beast and the plot was less standard. If you’ve read the above description you’ll have realised already that is the case. I love horror, but perhaps because I’ve read and watched a lot in the horror genre, it takes a fair bit to scare me. From the genre point of view, although this novel has pretty eerie moments, I did not feel truly scared. It might depend on the readers’ personal beliefs and in how worried they are about Satan and evil powers.

This novel is again written in the third person. Although it is mostly told from Inspector Sheehan’s point of view, some other members of his team get some space as well, and this allows readers to catch up on some their personal developments, and also to get a detailed account of some aspects of the investigation that Sheehan is not directly involved in. I grew very fond of some of the characters in the previous book and I was pleased to see what they’d been up to. Readers who worry about head-hopping don’t need to be concerned in this case, as each individual chapter is solely told from one point of view, and it is clear whose head we are in.

The plot is once more well-constructed and involved, although I did not find it too difficult to spot (or suspect) who the guilty party was, but, in my opinion this novel was a bit different and the emphasis was not on guessing who’d done it. The prologue sets up the story for readers and give us clues that Sheehan’s team are not privy to, and therefore we are at a somewhat unfair advantage. If I had to put it another way, I’d say that ‘the devil is in the detail’ (pun intended). For me, the novel became a process to see how the investigation team would put all the clues together, and also how the different strands and the new and old crimes fitted in. How would an eminently practical team accept what the clues seemed to point at and how would they confront such otherworldly forces?

Once again I think one of the strong points is the team and the interaction between its members (we even get a new member, sort of, and some extra help) and especially the fact that this time the strength of the bond between its members is put to the test in a very extreme way.

I enjoyed the setting of the story in Northern Ireland, the reflections of the text on politic and religious matters there, and I enjoyed meeting two characters who become pivotal to the case and join forces with the depleted team (I understand one of these characters had appeared in book 1 of the series but I have yet to read it).They are stupendous and I hope we’ll meet them again in other books.

The writing is dynamic and flows well, and the intrigue will keep readers turning the pages, although it does not move at neck-breaking pace. There is sufficient detail to allow the readers to easily imagine where things are taking place without slowing the action, and despite the tense moments, there are also plenty of light and humorous interactions that allow us a bit of a break from the tension.

I know that some people do not enjoy books with satanic themes. If that’s the case, you’d better avoid it, although I don’t think one needs to have strong religious beliefs to enjoy the book (I am sure most paranormal readers enjoy the flights of fancy the genre allows without necessarily thinking all the premises are true if any). No matter what one’s position is, the plot requires some suspension of disbelief, and personally, I am not a big fan of blaming the devil for all the ills of the world, but I enjoyed the book and I’m keen on seeing where the next case will take Sheehan and his team.

I recommend it to those who enjoy mysteries, police procedural novels, who are especially interested in a Northern Irish setting, and who are willing to stretch their imagination beyond the usual suspects.

 

A truly romantic novel about a love that survives against all odds.

Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm - Hans M. Hirschi

I can reassure those who know Mr. Hirschi as the Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings. He’s done it again.

This book, perhaps the most romantic of the books I’ve read so far by this author, in my opinion, is about a love story that has survived incredible odds and lasted almost a whole lifetime. Despite being separated by different continents, being from different backgrounds, and hardly knowing each other’s languages and customs, two young men meet in Korea shortly after the war (in 1953) and feel attracted to each other. One, Martin, is an African-American soldier with a penchant for languages, helping the UN with the pacification tasks. The other, Ji-Hoon, is a young man working at the family restaurant, whose future path has been decided for him. He will get married and inherit the family business. They are both young, beautiful, and inexperienced. In such strange circumstances, they meet and get to know each other. Martin helps Ji-Hoon’s family providing supplies as often as he can, and he ends up becoming a friend of the whole family. But, they are not meant to be together. Martin goes back to the US and never meets anybody he feels the same about as he did for Ji-Hoon. He knows he was going to get married, but after a brief epistolary contact, they lose touch. Now in his eighties, thanks to a new nurse at the nursing home where he is staying, Kevin, and to the brother of one of the other residents, Eugene, he is encouraged to find out what happened to the true love of his life.

The story, although written in the third person, is told from Martin’s point of view. There are chapters set in the present, interspersed with chapters that took place in Korea after the war, providing the readers the background to understand both, the love story, and also how time has passed and changed things. There is a fair amount of telling in the book, as Martin, who is, in many ways, old-fashioned, not used to talking about his feelings, and of a generation where being openly gay was not the done thing (and in his case, being compounded by the race issue it would have made his life even harder), lives pretty much a quiet life, full of memories of the one event and emotion that really shook his world. Martin is confronted by some openly gay men (very different in outlook: Kevin, a Goth nurse who has trouble fitting in, but not with his sexuality; Eugene, who found a refuge for his more flamboyant mannerisms in an acting career; and Eugene’s nephew, who is married to another man and has children and a blissful family life, other than the conflict with his mother) and their questions and different outlooks make him, in a way, come of age and wonder, not only how things could have been, but also, why things could be. The fact that men still find him attractive, and there is still plenty of life left in him, together with the encouragement he receives, makes him go back to Korea pursuing the love of his youth.

The beautifully detailed writing manages to bring Korea to life, both in the post-war era and now. We share in Martin’s point of view and that makes us see the beauty of it, the wonder, but also the confusion and how much it has changed when we get to the present. The descriptions of places, food, and moments are emotional and beautiful. Korea and the way it has changed over time parallels what has happened to Martin. There are traces of the past, love for respect and tradition, but some of the old things had to be removed to make way for the new, and some could not be saved. It is not all for the better, but there is still beauty there, and its people are still the people Martin felt so fond of.

In some ways, we know little about Martin, who is not somebody who talks about him easily, and who only makes passing comments about his previous life and shares some brief snippets about his parents, his work, and his lovers over the years, but does not dwell on them. He is a modest and humble man who seems unaware of how much people like him or how fond they are of him. He is a credible character, and his doubts and hesitations fit in well with his age, his outlook on life, and also the effect he has on others. At the same time, his exploration of life and his perfect role as an observer when he first goes to Korea and on his return help readers explore and feel at one with him, sharing in his wonder and confusion.

Apart from Korea and the love story at the heart of the book, there are many other themes that come into play and create a complex background. The three men who end up going to Korea face some challenges and prejudice. While Martin could hide his sexual orientation, his skin colour was there for everybody to see, and being in the military he was fully aware of how different a treatment he was likely to receive from his colleagues. Eugene could not hide his gayness and pass for straight, and his lifestyle put him at risk. We know the #MeToo does not only apply to women, and in Eugene’s case, it had serious consequences for him. He was shunned by his sister all of his life, for being who he was. And his nephew suffered the same fate. Kevin, whose looks and style-choices have made him a bit of an outsider, is a loner and feels more comfortable with Martin than with people his age. There are parallels and similarities between the —at least at first sight— very different characters, and later on, we see these parallels are also in evidence across the world, with religious beliefs and conservative traditions coming in the way of love and understanding. We see Ji-Hoon only through Martin’s eyes at first, and he is not always insightful about people around him or about how he is perceived by others, but we have an opportunity to see what impact he truly had on his friends later on in the book.

Although the story of elderly men or women trying to find a lost love is not new, I enjoyed Martin’s process of discovery and his coming into his own. I love the comradery and the way the three men helped each other, with Eugene playing the fairy godmother and facilitating the trip, Kevin providing the technical and hands-on know-how, and Martin confronting his fears to become the hero he was meant to be. This is a novel about friendship, about history, about love, and about hope. We should never lose our hope and dreams. Nothing is impossible if we don’t give up. (Ah, there is no erotica, in case that you, like me, don’t particularly enjoy it).

The author includes a recipe at the end (the dish is central to the story, so I won’t go into detail), and he also explains some of the process and the language difficulties he faced and adds a glossary of terms at the end.

A gorgeous cover, for a truly romantic book that goes beyond the standard love story and includes an ensemble of characters you’ll feel sorry to say goodbye to. I’ll be eagerly waiting for Mr. Hirschi’s next book.

If you believe in the power of stories and love magic, theatre, families, and heart-warming novels, you must read this feel-good book. Love at first-read.

Days of Wonder - Keith Stuart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Hanna, talking about magic:

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

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

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

Oh, and another Star Wars reference:

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

And a particularly inspiring one:

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

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

A book for those who are not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions and are willing to challenge the status quo.

Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War: History, Fiction, Photography - Sebastiaan Faber

Thanks to Edelweiss and to the publishers (Vanderbilt University Press) for providing me a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

I was drawn to this book because although I was born and grew up in Spain, I have spent the last 25 years of my life in the UK, and between the time invested in education and work, I know I have missed some of the big debates about the past that have taken place in the country. From personal experience, I know that living abroad gives you a different perspective, usually wider, on a country’s history and society, and I was interested to learn the opinions of a foreign Hispanist on the controversial topic of the book.

This book was illuminating for me. I’ve discovered that I need to catch up and read books, watch documentaries, and explore the memory movement in Spain. I know some details thanks to my mother’s family, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to the many initiatives and projects that have been implemented. I learned about laws (helpful and, mostly, unhelpful), about controversy and debates, about the origin of well-known photographs and documents (including the fact that photographers shared cameras and subjects during the Spanish Civil War, and no matter what their intent, those photographs also had, even at the time, a commercial value), about the uneasy relationship between Culture, cultural objects, and History. Is fiction less valuable when it comes to documenting the reception and the collective memory of a historical event? Or more?

Although I am not an expert in History, I have read some History books over the years and one of the things I found more refreshing about this volume, which collects a variety of essays on topics that fit in well together, is the fact that rather than offering an authoritative version of events or pontificating about the right or wrong way of looking at a particular period in history, it asks questions. On relevancy: how can an academic book written in English discussing events and recent debates about Spanish history and politics reach a wider audience? Are academics simply talking to themselves without ever reaching the general public (unless given an “official” status)? On the approach and the position historians should take when researching and writing their findings: Can historical essays and books ever be “neutral”? And should they be “neutral”? Isn’t it better to be open about one’s point of view and allegiances? (As the author observes, WWII historians are clearly positioned when writing about the war, but in Spain, this is frowned upon). On comparative studies and the risks of conflating similar events in different countries and eras, thereby missing the most interesting and fruitful aspects for analysis: Is it legitimate to apply international models (like those developed through the Holocaust studies) to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist repression?  On the position of the intellectuals and how politics and affiliations affect even those who try hardest to be rigorous. How can those intellectuals who were heavily invested in the Transition open up to other opinions and not consider them a personal criticism? On the memory movement, the hurdles faced by those trying to find out more about relatives or friends, and about the resistance of historians to see any value in memory narratives. Is forgetting the past the best option, or do the unhealed wounds and traumas that have been festering, no matter how long for, always find a way to resurface? About the boom in historical fiction novels about the Civil War and what they tell us about society and popular opinion. Although the author’s opinions are clearly stated, the questions hang there and readers can take them up and find their own answers.

As I said, I cannot claim to any expertise on the topic, and I suspect experts will have much to take issue with in this book, but for me, it helps provide the tools to answer some of the questions that inform the author’s work and that are the same that a large part of the Spanish population are asking. Quoting from the book:

How have history, fiction, and photography shaped Spanish memory? How has democratic Spain dealt with the legacy of the Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and the Transition? And how have academics, writers, filmmakers, photographers, and journalists in Spain and elsewhere engaged with a collective process that is central to the country’s future as a unified, functioning democracy?

In view of recent events, these questions are more pressing and relevant than ever, and I hope this book reaches as wide an audience as possible. I recommend it to anybody who is open to fresh perspectives on the subject and is up for a challenging — but ultimately rewarding— read.

Compelling WWII historical fiction, coming-of-age and M/M love story, and a fascinating backdrop.

The Artist and the Soldier. A Novel - Angelle Petta

When I was approached about the possibility of reviewing this book, I was fascinated by the historical background behind it, which I was not familiar with. A book combining World War II, Nazi summer camps in the US, the filming of a movie by Vittorio De Sicca in Rome during the war, and a love story, had to be a winner.

The author manages to combine a coming-of-age (both male protagonists, Max and Bastian, are very young at the beginning of the book) and love story with a fascinating historical background. The two youths meet at a Nazi summer camp in New York. Both their fathers are German and want them to grow up aware of their heritage. Max and Bastian are, in many ways, mirror images of each other, opposites that, indeed, attract. Bastian looks German (blond, tall, strong), is impulsive and always excels when it comes to sports, and outdoor activities, whilst Max takes after his Italian mother, is quiet, and has the soul of an artist. They both suffer trauma and have difficult childhoods, although in different ways. The unlikely pair becomes close and Bastian supports Max when tragedy strikes, although things take a bad turn, and they end up separated by life and circumstances.

They go their separate ways, and we keep waiting, convinced they will meet again. Bastian is still daring, impulsive, and is plagued by self-hatred and doubt. Max, who has always been more accepting of his own identity and has become stronger and more determined, has been living in Italy, has studied film, and finds a great opportunity to help Italian Jews. He takes part in the project of filming a movie under the protection of the Vatican and comes up with the idea of offering them contracts there. De Sica is determined to keep filming for as long as he can to keep all those people safe, and this historical fact provides a fascinating backdrop to the story of the two lovers.

The story, told in the third person, follows the point of view of the two male characters first, and later we also get to read about the adventures of Ilsa, Bastian’s sister, a fantastic character, from her point of view. She is strong, a fighter, and is determined to find her brother, no matter how far she has to go and what she has to do. Her experiences as a nurse during the war are gripping, and she keeps working despite terrible personal loss, hardship, and deprivation. Her character allows us to see things from a different perspective and also provides us more background into Bastian’s character, that is, perhaps, the most complex of the book, at least in my opinion.

Although the love story is central to the book, this is not a light and easy book to read. Apart from the tragedy and the terrible events that happen during the war, there is child abuse, mental illness, bullying, and the novel does not shy away from the unsavoury aspects of life. The characters are not all good and perfect either, and they sometimes do things that are questionable, while at others they can behave like true heroes.

The writing beautifully conveys the emotions of the characters, the setting (Rome as an open city provides a great backdrop), and the relationships, without going over the top with the descriptions, and ensuring the story keeps moving at a good pace. Being a big movie fan, I would have liked to read more about the filming of the movie, but the author refrains from getting sidetracked, and the guest appearances by the actors of the film and the interventions by De Sica are all the more enjoyable for being kept under control and not overwhelming the main story.

I wanted to share a couple of quotes from the book:

“Travel safely, signora. It is a dangerous world we are living in.” Her world had always been a dangerous one. A gun instead of a fist, a war instead of an irate father, her present didn’t feel so different from her past.” (This reflection belongs to Ilsa, Bastian’s sister).

Did something as inconsequential as film belong in this new world? It was De Sica who’d helped him see his misconception. “We need film, and music, and art, more than ever now,” De Sica had said. “These mediums help us remember that we are humans living in a world filled with monsters. What we are doing here is not frivolous. It is saving us, our humanity.” (Max questions his vocation, but De Sica comes to the rescue).

The ending feels appropriate and fits in well with a love story. It shows that both characters have grown and learned to accept who they are and what their relationship means. Other issues are resolved as well, and although some of the coincidences and the way the characters always seem to be in the right place at the right time require some suspension of disbelief, this does not go beyond the expectations for the genre.

In an end note, the author explains the conception of the story and clarifies that although Max, Bastian, and Ilsa are creations of her own imagination, the historical events and backdrop are accurate, and she has used her fictional characters as a conduit to tell the story. I believe this would be a great selection for book clubs, as there is much to discuss and many interesting aspects that will attract readers of different types of stories.

I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction, especially those interested in WWII, Italian cinema, and love stories with complex protagonists. I look forward to following the author’s career in the future.

A book about mothers, sons, emigrations, and how to survive when you’ve lost a part of yourself.

The Leavers: A Novel - Lisa Ko

Thanks to Little Brown UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book and for inviting me to participate in the blog tour on the occasion of the UK book’s launch.

The Leavers comes highly recommended (winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction) and it feels particularly relevant to the historical times we live in. The plight of emigrants, issues of ethnic and national identity, transnational adoptions, alternative family structures and mother and son relationships. There is plenty of talk and official discourses about laws, building walls, and placing the blame on Others for the problems of a country these days, but this is nothing new. As I read the book, I could not help but think that the situation is a cyclical one, and perhaps the countries the immigrants come from, go to, or their circumstances change over time, but people keep moving. Sometimes they are met with open arms and others, not so much.

This novel is divided into four parts, and it is narrated by two characters. Peilan (Polly) is a young Chinese woman who initially leaves her fishing village for the city (to have access to better opportunities) and eventually takes on huge debt to move to America, already pregnant. She narrates her story in different time-frames (she recalls past events back in China, the difficult time when she had the baby and could not work in New York, her hard decision to send her child to live with her father in China, and the boy’s return after her father’s death), in the first person, first in America, and later, in present-day China. Deming (Daniel), her son, is born in America, shipped back to China, then back to America, and eventually ends up being adopted by a white American family. His story is told in the third person, and we follow him from age 11 (and some earlier memories) all the way to his early twenties. This is the story of two character’s growth, their struggle to discover (or rediscover) who they are and to make sense of their complex history.

The book is beautifully written, with enthralling descriptions of places, sounds, and emotions. If water and nature are particularly significant for Peilan, music makes life meaningful for Daniel and gives him an identity beyond nation and ethnic origin. Like our memories, the book is contemplative and meandering, and the thoughts of both characters reflect well how our minds work, as a smell, a sound, or a glimpsed figure can conjure up an image or a flood of emotions linked to a particular moment in time.

There is a mystery at the centre of the story. Polly leaves her son and nobody knows why. The alternating points of view put the readers in both roles and make us feel lost and abandoned on the one side, and on the other feel puzzled, as we clearly see that Polly loves her son, although she might have felt desperate and done extreme things at times. The explanation, when it eventually comes, is heart-wrenching and particularly poignant in view of some of the policies being enforced and implemented by some countries. Although it is not a traditional mystery novel, and it does not lose its power even if the readers get a clear idea of what had happened, I will try and avoid spoilers.

Both characters feel real, understandable and easy to empathise with, although not necessarily always likeable or immediately sympathetic. Deming is no star pupil, studious and well-behaved, and he makes many mistakes and has a talent for doing the wrong thing and upsetting almost everybody around him. Polly keeps her emotions under wraps; she works hard and puts up with incredibly hard situations until she suddenly does something that comes as a big surprise to everyone who knows her. They are not the perfect Norman Rockwell family by any stretch of the imagination, but that is what makes them more poignant and gives the novels its strength. It is easy to accept and sympathise with those we like and we feel are exceptional cases, but every case is unique and exceptional. The secondary characters are well-drawn and not simple fillers for the main story, their circumstances and personalities are interesting and believable, and the subject of the Deming’s adoption is afforded the nuance and complexity it deserves. The book deals with those issues from a personal perspective, but it is impossible to read it and not think about the effect that policies and politics have on the lives of so many people.

I highlighted many fragments of the book and it is difficult to select some that don’t reveal much of the plot, but I will try.

Instead of friends, Kay and Peter had books they read in bed at night. (Kay and Peter are Daniel’s adoptive parents).

He counted the heartbeats during that little catch between songs, savoring the delicious itch as the needle dropped and the melody snuck its toe out from behind a curtain.

A record was to be treasured, its circle scratches a mysterious language, a furtive tattoo.

“And that is it?” you said. “You forgot me?” “I didn’t forget. I just survived.”

Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.

This novel reminded me of two of the books nominated for the Booker Prize I read last year, one of the finalists, Exist West by Mohsin Hamid (which explores emigration in a very novel way), and the other one Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (which also deals with identity and displacement, but it was the character of the brother and his descriptions of music that brought the book to my mind). I recommend it to readers who enjoyed those two books, and also readers interested in memory, identity, emigration, adoption (especially across ethnic and national boundaries) or anybody keen to discover a new writer who can paint images, emotions, and sounds with her words.

A fascinating look into the past and a great source for writers and social history researchers

Elegant Etiquette in the Nineteenth Century - James Mallory

Thanks to Alex and the rest of the team at Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I am a big fan of Pen & Sword books and I have learned a lot on a variety of subjects thanks to their great selection, but I must admit to having a soft spot for social history. Although I love history books and have recently become keen on historical fiction, I think that social history helps us get a better sense of what life was like in the past, not only for the kings, aristocrats, and powerful people but also for the rest of the population. The everyday life of going around one’s usual business, talking to people, working, rarely makes it into the big books, but it is what life is truly about. And those are the details that bring the past to life. As I have mentioned in previous reviews, these books are also great to provide background to writers, filmmakers, and, in general, artists looking to create works set in a particular time in history, as it helps them gain a better understanding of what it would have been like to live then.

This particular volume is a delight. I have read a number of novels set in the era and watched uncountable movies and television series that take place in the XIX century as well, and although I thought I was familiar with the customs, social rules and mores of the time, I was surprised by how truly complicated following proper etiquette was. As the author often explains, rules were not set in stone and they changed throughout the century. What was a must at the beginning of the XIX century would have been out of fashion by the end, and rules were open to interpretation, as sometimes different sources offered completely different advice. Should you eat fish with a fork and bread, two forks, or a fork and a fish knife (the answer depends on at what point of the XIX century we were eating it)? Would it have been proper for you to introduce people you knew, or even greet people you met in the streets even if you had been introduced? What was the best time to go for a walk or to visit your acquaintances? What did it truly mean if somebody was ‘not at home’?

Such topics and many more are discussed in this short volume, and it makes for fascinating reading. The author is skilled at summarising the rules from a large variety of sources (there is a detailed bibliography at the end and footnotes to check where each point can be expanded on), and also at providing practical examples that help clarify matters like how would you address somebody you are introduced to, or in which order would guest enter the dining room. Her turn of phrase is particularly apt, as her own explanations and the quotes and references to texts blend seamlessly, and she manages to write clearly and engagingly in beautiful prose.

The tone of the book is light and there are funny moments, but there are also reminders of how different things were for those who had more serious concerns than following the rules of etiquette. The book includes 11 chapters that deal in a variety of topics, from rank, precedence and title, to what was considered good company, paying calls, dining, ballroom behaviour, conversation, and correspondence, how to treat the service, courtship, and it also offers hints for ladies and gentlemen. The book (I had access to the paperback copy but I know the pictures are available in the digital version as well) contains a number of plates that help illustrate the proper dress etiquette throughout the century for different occasions and there are also pictures of some of the fashion accessories of the period.

I had to share a couple of examples from the book, so you can get a feeling for the writing style and the type of advice it contains:

If a lady or gentleman was plagued by a person saluting them in the street who they did not like, who they did not want to call upon, and who they thought was taking a gross impertinence continually bowing to them, it was still better for the afflicted lady or gentleman to return the recognition. (For some reason, this brought to my mind the nodding bulldogs that used to grace the back windows of cars).

Talking about men’s fashion, the book has this to say:

Similarly, a gentleman would have been restrained in his use of personal ornamentation. After all, a gentleman was a gentleman, not a magpie hankering after shiny trinkets.

Although some of the rules contained in this book might seem too fussy and silly nowadays, there are some about listening to people and being respectful towards others, no matter what their social circumstances (in fact, being more polite and generous the more difficult things are for them) that will make readers nostalgic for those more gentile and kinder times. There are always things we can learn from the past and it is important to learn and remember.

Another great little volume from Pen & Sword and one that I particularly recommend to anybody interested in XIX century history, novels, movies set in the period, and to writers and creators looking for inspiration or researching that era. It is also a fun read for people that study social history or are interested in the origins of some of our customs and on how these have changed. Unmissable.

 

A thrilling and fun adventure for lovers of Ancient Egypt and Indiana Jones

The Secret of the Lost Pharaoh - Carolyn Arnold

Thanks to the author’s publicist for offering me this opportunity to participate in the blog tour for the launch of this novel and for providing me an ARC copy that I freely chose to review.

I have read one of Carolyn Arnold’s Police Procedural books (Remnants, Brandon Fisher FBI Book 6) and when I was approached about this book, that is quite different in genre, I was very curious. I know I’m not the only reader fascinated by Ancient Egypt, Archaeology, and the secrets hidden by the pyramids and the hieroglyphs. I still have a copy of Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology by C. W. Ceram (well, Dioses, Tumbas y Sabios, as I read the Spanish Translation), which I was given as a child, and I remember how much time I spent reading it and imagining that I was there, in Tutankhamen’s Tomb. Of course, the book is quite old now, and I was delighted to be given the opportunity of following an expedition in modern times, and seeing how much things have changed. But some things haven’t, and the magic and the excitement are still there.

This is book 2 in the Matthew Connor Adventure series, and although I can confirm it can be read independently, there are quite a few references to the previous book, City of Gold, so if you’re intending to read the whole series, I’d advise you to start by the first book, as you might otherwise miss some of the surprises. There is enough information about book 1 to get a good sense of the closeness between the friends, the dangers they encountered in their previous adventure, and also to understand what makes them tick.  But when it came to the intricacies of their personal lives, I was curious about how much background I had missed, because, in such matters, nuances are important.

The story is told in the third person from a variety of characters’ points of view. It is Matthew Connor Series, and he is one of the main characters, but the story starts with Alex, an Egyptologist who knew Matthew from before and who calls him when she realises what she has come across. Both of Matthew’s friends, Cal and Robin appear reluctant to join him at first, for different reasons, but they cannot resist the adventure, and they make a great team. Robin is the studious and organised one, and she’s always dreamed of Egypt. Cal is a photographer who loves adventure and is always trying to bring a light touch and a joke to the proceedings, and the fact that he is not knowledgeable about the topic offers the author the perfect excuse to explain the background, both historical and procedural, to their expedition. Matthew is an interesting mixture of intuition, deduction, and determination. He has great instincts even if sometimes he might get side-tracked by his emotions and his flirting with danger.  I know some readers are reluctant to read books where the point of view changes often, but it is well-done here, and it helps keep the mystery and the intrigue, as each character’s personality and insights provide us different clues to what is really going on. It is up to us to put the pieces of the puzzle together and it is great fun.

The book is fast-paced, and it will delight lovers of adventures. If you love Indiana Jones, you will be fascinated by the Emerald Tablets, the lost pharaoh, the snake whisperer, the treasure map, the betrayals, and the many secrets. In an ideal world, I would have loved to know more about the pharaoh and his secrets (he sounds like a fascinating character), and I was much more interested and convinced by the adventure aspect of the story than by the personal relationships and the love stories of the characters. Matthew came across as quite fickle at times, but he is very young (that is more evident emotionally than professionally), and I think his reactions and behaviour are understandable. The three friends go through emotional turmoil, and in all cases, it is related to their profession and their love of adventure, which brings an interesting and realistic aspect to the matter. We are used to adventurers who are either loners, or somehow come across a kindred spirit who loves adventures as much as they do, but rarely do we find a group of friends who know the value of their friendship and appreciate the difficulties of fitting their love for adventure into a ‘normal’ life. None of the main characters are flawless heroes (some hate snakes, there are jealousies, unfunny jokes, superstition, lack of commitment, and lies) and, for me, that is a strength, because it makes them human and easier to identify with.

The author once more shows her skill at research, and the technology used as part of the expedition, the procedures followed, and the setting blend smoothly into the story without delaying the action or going into unnecessarily detailed descriptions. There are clues, red herrings, plenty of suspects, and twists and turns to keep the mystery readers engaged too.

A thrilling and fun adventure that I recommend to anybody who loves the Indiana Jones movies and has always been intrigued by archaeological mysteries. The plot is particularly strong, but the characters are relatable and likeable, and I would love to join them on their next adventure. I am sure you will too.

An intense psychological thriller about a disturbing topic.

The Fear - C.L. Taylor

Thanks to NetGalley and to the Publishers (Avon) for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

After reading this novel, which is a page-turner and moves at a fast pace, I checked the reviews, and it is one of these odd cases when I agreed both with the positive and with the negative reviews about the book. Some of them compared it to other novels by C.L. Taylor, an author who has a big following (this novel is a bestseller Amazon UK), but as I had not read anything by her before, I cannot comment on that. But I agreed with some of the other opinions.

The novel revolves around three females, two grown women, and a thirteen-year-old girl. In fact, they are three generations, with Wendy the oldest and Chloe the youngest. We follow the points of view of the three women for most of the novel, although there is more of the story told from Lou’s point of view. Her part of the story is narrated in the first person, while the rest are in the third person, and, at least at the beginning, she is the most active of the three. Due to her father’s death she has to go back to the town where she grew up, to deal with her father’s house, and her past comes back to haunt her, both figuratively and literally, when she sees the man who had abused her (Mike) when she was a teenager and worries that he is at it again. The three women have been affected by what Mike did, and the novel is very good at focusing on the emotions of the characters, that go from love to denial, and to absolute fear. Lou’s account is interspersed with fragments from her diary as a teenager, where we get to fully understand the background of the story and how dangerous this man truly is. The combination of charm, manipulation, and his skill at picking up girls lacking in confidence and easy targets for his advances is well portrayed. The subject matter reminded me of an Australian novel I’ve really enjoyed, The Silent Kookaburra.

The subject remains as relevant (if not more) as ever, unfortunately, and this book offers a good perspective of the psychological damage such abuse can have, not only on the direct victims (that might never get over it) but also on those around them (family, wives, friends…). Should they have believed the abuser’s excuses? Are they guilty by association? What is their responsibility? The book is set in the UK and it refers specifically to changes in Criminal Law (like the introduction of the sex offenders register) but although it does not discuss those issues in detail, I don’t think that would cause difficulty to readers from other places.

The three characters fall (or have fallen) prey to Mike and find themselves in very vulnerable positions. It is impossible not to wonder what one would do faced with their dilemma, particularly that of Lou. Her impulsive actions are extreme and I agree with the readers who have commented that at times the book is over the top, although Lou’s doubts, her continuous hesitation, and her fear feel real. She is not alone in being pushed to the edge, and this is a book where characters do not play safe, rather the opposite.

The writing is fluid, and brings to life the three female characters, whose only connection is through Mike, perhaps with more immediacy in the case of Lou —this is helped by the first person narration and her diary— but it manages to make us empathise and feel for the three by the end of the story. And no, not all of them are likeable, to begin with.  I know some readers worry about head-hopping, but each chapter states clearly which character’s point of view we are following and there’s no possible confusion. Although there are brief moments of relief when things seem to be about to take a turn for the better, this is only to lure us into a false sense of security, and the tension and the pressure keep increasing and so does the pace. The ending is satisfying and will have most readers cheering on.

If you’re wondering what are the negative comments I agreed with, well, I was not necessarily talking about the degree of suspension of disbelief (yes, readers will need a fair deal of this, but as we are engaged with the characters and their plight, this is not difficult to maintain), but about some anachronisms, some details that seemed incongruent to the time when the story is set. I felt that the emphasis on Facebook messages, fake accounts, hacking, etc. seemed excessive for a story set in 2007. Other readers, who decided to research in more detail, discovered that indeed, some of the things mentioned, Apps, songs, etc., were not available yet. One reader noted that she could not understand why the story wasn’t set in the present, as that would have avoided these issues, but another pointed out that some aspects of the plot would only make sense if the story was set up in the recent past (including some of the legal issues). I wonder (as a writer) if the story was originally set in the present but somebody spotted the plot issues and came up with the solution of moving it back in time (without changing some of the modern references).

This novel does a good job of creating believable characters and making readers think about the plight of the victims of paedophiles. Although it might be less satisfactory to die-hard lovers of police procedural books, I think it is difficult to read it without empathising with the female characters and having to pause to reflect on this serious issue. And the questions at the end will further engage book club readers and encourage meaningful discussion. I don’t think this will be the last novel by C.L. Taylor I’ll read and I can easily understand why she is popular. (Ah, and she calls book bloggers book fairies. I like that!)

 

Great characters, mind-bending twists and turns, and a fantastic ending.

The Fraud or Miracle Trilogy - Christoph Fischer

I have decided to review each story separately. So here goes…

First:

The Healer (Fraud or Miracle? Book 1)

by Christoph Fischer A psychologically astute book that will make you think about your own mortality. And what an ending!

I have read and reviewed a couple of the author’s books in the past and enjoyed them, and I was intrigued by this book when it came out, but due to my personal circumstances (my father suffered from cancer and died around the time of its publication) I didn’t feel I was in the best frame of mind for it. Now that it has been published as part of The Fraud and Miracle Trilogy, I was very pleased to receive a paperback copy and finally get to read it.

The story is deceptively simple. A woman suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer, desperate, follows the advice of her personal assistant and approaches a healer, Arpan. I am not sure if he would call himself a “faith” healer, but he insists that those he treats should be totally invested in the process, including transferring 50% of their assets to his account. Although he states all that money goes to charity, it caused suspicion and scandal years back, and he has been keeping a low profile ever since. After much insistence and a different deal, he agrees to treat Erica, who also has secrets of her own. There are strange conspiracies surrounding Arpan and his healing process but Erica’s life is changed forever. Things are not as they seem, of course.

The story is written in the third person from Erica’s point of view, and we get to share in her doubts, suspicions, paranoia, hope, and also to experience the healing with her. The book transmits a sense of claustrophobia, and although there are treks around the Welsh countryside and later we move to a different country, most of the story takes place within Arpan’s tent, and there are only a few main characters (mostly Erica (Maria), Arpan (Amesh), and Anuj) with some secondary characters that we don’t get to know very well (Hilda, Julia, Gunnar). There are no lengthy descriptions of settings or of the appearance of the characters, because we follow the point of view of a woman totally preoccupied with her health and her mortality, and that makes her not the most reliable of narrators. She describes the physical and mental effects that the illness and the healing process have on her, and we are also privy to her suspicions and doubts. The book offers fascinating psychological insights into how much our “rational” point of view can change when our life is at stake, and it is impossible to read it and not wonder what we would do in Erica’s place.

I kept thinking that the story, which relies heavily on dialogue (both between characters and also internal dialogue), would make a great play, and its intensity would be well suited to the stage. Although most of the characters are not sympathetic, to begin with, their humanity and the big questions they are forced to deal with make them intriguing and worthy subjects of our observations.

The ending brings a great twist to the story. Although I think most readers will have been suspicious and on alert due to the secrets, false information, continuous doubts, and different versions of the truth on offer, the actual ending will make them question everything and re-evaluate the story in a different light. And, considering the nature of the subject it deals with, that is a great achievement.

I recommend it to those who enjoy stories that make them think, to readers who are not searching for cheap thrills and prefer a psychologically astute book and especially to those who want to feel personally invested in the stories they read. I look forward to the rest of the books in the trilogy.

Second:

The Gamblers (Fraud or Miracle? Book 2)

My review:

This is the second book I read in the Fraud and Miracle trilogy, and its inclusion there is sure to put readers on their guard. But that is the beauty of it. You know something is going on, and you might even suspect what (although not, perhaps, in detail) but you can’t help but eagerly keep reading and follow the story, enmeshed in the same web of illusion and deceit that traps the main character, Ben.

The story is written in the third person and follows the point of view of Ben, the protagonist. He is a somewhat socially awkward young accountant who leads a modest life in London, who is not precisely streetwise, and who feels more at ease playing games in online communities than interacting socially in person. He is obsessed with numbers (in real life, I wondered if somebody with similar personality traits might fit into the very mild range of autistic spectrum disorder. He acknowledges that he is bad at reading people’s emotions and expressions, he is anxious in social situations and functions by imitating other people’s behaviour, he displays obsessive personality traits…) and does not believe in luck and chance. He is convinced that random events (like lottery or games of chance results) follow a pattern and he is determined to find it. He gets a bit lottery win (£64 million), and although he does not value money per se (at least at the beginning of the story), he decides to treat himself travelling to New York. Everything seems to change from that moment on, he makes a new friend (the glamorous and charming Mirco) and meets the girl of his dreams, Wendy.

The third person point of view suits the story perfectly. On the one hand, we follow Ben’s point of view and his thought processes. We are aware of his misgivings and doubts. He does not believe in luck, after all, and he cannot accept that all these good things are happening to him, especially as they seem to coincide with his lottery win. At the same time, the third person gives us enough distance to observe and judge Ben’s own behaviour (that does not always fit his self-proclaimed intentions and opinions) and also that of those around him. There are things that seem too good to be true, there are warnings offered by random people, there are strange behaviours (both, Mirco and Wendy, blow hot and cold at times), and there are the suspiciousness and rivalry between his new friends. We warm up to his naiveté and to his child-like wonder and enjoyment at the fabulous new life that falls on his lap, but we cannot help but chide him at times for being so easy to manipulate. 

The author reflects perfectly the process Ben goes through in his reading. Mirco keeps telling him that he should forget about methods and just “feel” the game, and despite his attachment to his theories, there is something in him that desperately wants to believe in miracles, in good luck, and, most of all, wants to believe that he deserves everything he gets: the money, the friendship, and the love. This is a book about con artists and the book implements their technique to perfection. Con-games are a big favourite of mine, and I love how well the book is designed, and how it treats its readers to a peep behind the scenes of the big players, while at the same time making them play the part of the victim. Yes, we might be shouting at Ben and telling him not to be so gullible, but what would we do in his place? Wouldn’t we just want it to be true too?

The story takes place in glamorous locations and it revolves around the world of high-stakes gambling, night-clubs, and big spenders. It might be particularly interesting to those who love casinos and betting, but that is only one aspect of the book. It can be read independently from the first book in the series, and although there are tense and emotionally difficult moments, there are no violence or extreme behaviours. And the ending… You might be more or less surprised by the big reveal, but the actual ending is likely to leave you with a smile on your face.

A book that will make you question yourself and that will keep you guessing until the end. A fun read for lovers of con-games and those who always wondered what they would do if their luck suddenly changed. I’m looking forward to the third book in the trilogy.

And third:

The Sanctuary on Cayman Brac: Key to the Truth (Fraud or Miracle? Book 3)

by Christoph Fischer Plenty of lessons to learn in a twisty mystery with a jaw-dropping ending

My review:

This is book three in the Fraud and Miracle Trilogy, and after reading it, I confess I’ll miss the characters and the twists and turns.

The series deals in subjects that seem more relevant now than ever. In a world dominated by fake news, where elections are doctored, and the future of a nation might be in the hands of people who manipulate data to benefit the highest bidder, the status of the information we take for granted, who deserves our trust and how far we would be prepared to go to learn the truth have become pressing matters we all must seriously think about.

Author Christoph Fischer brings together the cast of the two previous novels, delighting the many readers who felt, like Erica, that things were not settled and they wanted to know what would happen next. Had she really discovered the truth, and was she going to let it go at that? Like we did in The Healer, we follow Erica, who has managed to locate Arpan in Cayman Brac, and has decided to confront him, gun in hand. But, no matter how determined she is, she cannot resist the connection she felt to Arpan, and she accepts his version of the truth. Of course, that might be “his” truth, but is it what really happened? Erica once again cycles from belief to doubt and back again, and although her feelings for Arpan intensify, she needs to know if she was ever “healed” or not. Thanks to her insistence we get to meet Hilda, but like many other characters in the story, appearances can be deceptive.

Readers of the series will recognise some of the characters from The Gamblers and that will make them keep a close eye on what they do. But even with the advantage we have over Erica (we follow her and share in her clues, but have good reason to doubt some of the events, as we know who some of the students at Arpan school really are), the author once more keeps adding twists to the story, and the final reveal scene (worthy of an Agatha Christie novel) is as tense as any of the poker games in The Gamblers. I will not reveal the many bluffs, but if I had to summarise it I’d say… Wow.

I particularly enjoyed meeting Erica again. Although the nature of her healing might not be what she had initially expected, she is much more open and human, able to recognise her own limitations and weaknesses, and prepared to experiment and enjoy life. While some of the other characters might not have changed much (and continue to play for high stakes), others, like Ben, have learned their lessons and now focus on what really matters. Beyond the twists and turns of the plot, there are solid characters that grow and change throughout the series and we root for them and care for their well-being.

The island and the retreat, which we enjoy both as visitors and as participants thanks to Erica, are beautiful and inspiring and although most of us would find it difficult to cope with some of the rules and restrictions of the sanctuary, we’d all love to visit it and spend some time recovering and reenergizing. Personally, I would love to experience the inner workings of such a place and perhaps even to bear witness to some of the mind games.

A great ending to the trilogy, entertaining, satisfying, and surprising, that will leave readers feeling hopeful and confident. Sometimes the teachers are the ones who need to learn the lessons and letting go of control is the way to progress and evolve. My congratulations to the author.

Plenty of lessons to learn in a twisty mystery with a jaw-dropping ending

The Sanctuary on Cayman Brac: Key to the Truth (Fraud or Miracle? Book 3) - Christoph Fischer

This is book three in the Fraud and Miracle Trilogy, and after reading it, I confess I’ll miss the characters and the twists and turns.

The series deals in subjects that seem more relevant now than ever. In a world dominated by fake news, where elections are doctored, and the future of a nation might be in the hands of people who manipulate data to benefit the highest bidder, the status of the information we take for granted, who deserves our trust and how far we would be prepared to go to learn the truth have become pressing matters we all must seriously think about.

Author Christoph Fischer brings together the cast of the two previous novels, delighting the many readers who felt, like Erica, that things were not settled and they wanted to know what would happen next. Had she really discovered the truth, and was she going to let it go at that? Like we did in The Healer, we follow Erica, who has managed to locate Arpan in Cayman Brac, and has decided to confront him, gun in hand. But, no matter how determined she is, she cannot resist the connection she felt to Arpan, and she accepts his version of the truth. Of course, that might be “his” truth, but is it what really happened? Erica once again cycles from belief to doubt and back again, and although her feelings for Arpan intensify, she needs to know if she was ever “healed” or not. Thanks to her insistence we get to meet Hilda, but like many other characters in the story, appearances can be deceptive.

Readers of the series will recognise some of the characters from The Gamblers and that will make them keep a close eye on what they do. But even with the advantage we have over Erica (we follow her and share in her clues, but have good reason to doubt some of the events, as we know who some of the students at Arpan school really are), the author once more keeps adding twists to the story, and the final reveal scene (worthy of an Agatha Christie novel) is as tense as any of the poker games in The Gamblers. I will not reveal the many bluffs, but if I had to summarise it I’d say… Wow.

I particularly enjoyed meeting Erica again. Although the nature of her healing might not be what she had initially expected, she is much more open and human, able to recognise her own limitations and weaknesses, and prepared to experiment and enjoy life. While some of the other characters might not have changed much (and continue to play for high stakes), others, like Ben, have learned their lessons and now focus on what really matters. Beyond the twists and turns of the plot, there are solid characters that grow and change throughout the series and we root for them and care for their well-being.

The island and the retreat, which we enjoy both as visitors and as participants thanks to Erica, are beautiful and inspiring and although most of us would find it difficult to cope with some of the rules and restrictions of the sanctuary, we’d all love to visit it and spend some time recovering and reenergizing. Personally, I would love to experience the inner workings of such a place and perhaps even to bear witness to some of the mind games.

A great ending to the trilogy, entertaining, satisfying, and surprising, that will leave readers feeling hopeful and confident. Sometimes the teachers are the ones who need to learn the lessons and letting go of control is the way to progress and evolve. My congratulations to the author.

Darcy as an amateur detective, secrets, lies, and a peep into crime detection in the Regency period.

Lover's Knot: A Mysterious Pride & Prejudice Variation - Jenetta James

I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, do check here) and was provided an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I have recently read and reviewed several books that take place in Jane Austen’s universe, from sequels to versions transplanted to modern times. One of them was The Elizabeth Papers by Jenetta James (you can read my review here), the author of this book. I was so impressed I could not resist getting an ARC copy of this book before its publication.

This is a more straightforward (and shorter) story, although it shares with the other the element of mystery, although, in this case, the story is not a domestic mystery but a police procedural of sorts (the police as we know it now did not exist at the time). Readers familiar with Pride and Prejudice will walk right into familiar territory when reading this story. We pick up the story when Bingley has moved into the area where the Bennetts live, with Darcy as his guest, and Jane Bennett is staying at the Bingley’s due to her illness, and her sister Elizabeth is looking after her. Rather than what happens in the original story, here we have a murder, and a bit later, another one (this one of a character we know, but I won’t give anything away). There are many familiar elements but interspersed with those, we have the investigation of the murders and the secrets behind it. As the description states, this is a variation on the story, as all the original elements are there, and the characters remain true to the original, but new events come into play and disrupt the action.

The story is told by Darcy in the first person and the present tense, and that makes readers feel they share his thoughts and his detecting process. This is quite different from the original novel, and it is one of the attractions of this variation, as rather than judging Darcy by his actions and having to second-guess him most of the time (let’s face it, he is the prototype of the strong and quiet man), we are privy to his thoughts and understand his motives and feelings. In this story, he becomes involved in the investigation, and that means it also fit into the genre of amateur detective fiction. In his case, though, he is not an old hand at this, eager to participate and imposing on the official team, but rather he is recruited by the magistrate investigating the case, Mr. Allwood, a fabulous character. Contrary to expectations, Darcy is not an immediate success at detecting as he is somewhat marred by his belief in appearances and his prejudices, but he is motivated to discover what happened to ensure Elizabeth is safe and goes out of his way to follow clues. The case helps him discover things about himself and about the society he lives in that make him change his outlook on life.

The case is intriguing. There are plenty of red herrings, devious characters, and, of course, there is romance. As I mentioned, Mr. Allwood is a great character. This magistrate doggedly pursues the investigation, not concerned about who might be discomfited by his methods, and making no distinctions according to social classes. People underestimate him at their peril, and I hope he might reappear again in later books (or get his own). I particularly enjoyed the mock paper by a Professor acknowledging the role of Allwood in the creation of the Metropolitan Police. A nice touch and a good way of providing more information on a star character that is not part of the original novel. Having studied Criminology, I only wish that many of the papers I had to read were written in such an engaging manner.

I am aware there are other mystery novels set up in the Pride and Prejudice universe (although I have not read them, so I can’t compare), although not at this particular juncture of the story (as this affords quite a different twist to the relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth). I enjoyed Darcy’s point of view, having access to his thoughts and getting to see a more human and less stiff version of the character (he still has his pride, of course), although as this book is very short, some of the changes of heart in the main characters feel somewhat rushed (and, personally, the process by which both of them end up changing their opinions and the way they feel about each other is one of my favourite parts in the original, but that does not detract from the writer’s skill). The scenes that take place in London and the friendship that grows between Georgiana and Elizabeth are among my favourite parts in this story.

The writing style is perfectly in sync with the original and it flows well. The mystery elements are well worked into the story, and they respect the nature of a criminal investigation of the time. In keeping with the proceedings, and with the role Darcy plays, there is a certain degree of telling and not showing, especially when it comes to tying loose ends, but that is also typical of the genre. Although the mystery elements would work in their own right, even without knowledge of the original novel, I think the ideal readers are those familiar with Austen’s work.

An interesting variation on Pride and Prejudice that offers a new perspective on their favourite characters for fans of Austen. And for fans of mystery/crime books, an intriguing insight into crime detection prior to the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in England.

 

A Romantic mystery, with a touch of the paranormal, a gothic mansion and wonderful characters.

The Women of Heachley Hall - Rachel Walkley

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, check here if you are looking for reviews) and thank her and the author for the ARC copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.

I love old mansions, old houses, and antiques, and that was one of the things that attracted me to this book, together with the mystery aspect of it. As I’m in the process of moving, and I’m dealing with a house sale, the topic felt timely, and I am pleased I decided to go with my gut feeling.

This book manages to combine quite a few elements that I love in stories. There is a lone female protagonist, Miriam, that has to face challenges (OK, she is not fighting with a sword, but she has to confront difficulties she has never had to deal with before) and she gets to learn plenty about herself in the process. There is an old mansion (there is more than a touch of the gothic novel) that hides mysteries and tragedies of old (there are rumours that it is haunted and… well, I’m trying not to include any spoilers in this review, so I’ll keep my peace). There are family secrets, both Miriam’s and those of previous occupants of the Hall, that Miriam feels compelled to investigate, to fully understand her legacy and her feelings about Heachley Hall. There is a small town with friendly folks (and some not so friendly) that help give the place a genuine feel. The struggles of Miriam to make a living as a self-employed illustrator of children’s stories made me feel particularly connected to the character. I also enjoyed the way her relationship with Ruth, an older woman, a client and now a friend, is portrayed. There is also an element of historical fiction, as later in the book Miriam has access to a document that covers past events in the house (again, I’m trying not to give too much away), and we get to experience the way time transforms the mansion and also see how much society has changed since the XIX century. Ah, and let’s not forget, there is also a very romantic love story. (And a paranormal element…)

Imagine getting stuck, alone, in a huge old house that is falling to bits, with hardly any money to make any renovations or even make it liveable, and having to stay there for one year and one day to receive your inheritance. Although money is initially a big draw for Miriam (she is not in a particularly good place and feels she should show people she can rise to the challenge), she is also intrigued about her aunt Felicity’s reasons for setting up such strange condition. She only remembers having visited her aunt a few times as a very young child, and it makes no sense. Like so many amateur detectives, she is like a dog with a bone and has to keep making enquiries, no matter how many times she seems to have hit a dead end.

I liked Miriam. Although she has suffered tragedy and losses as a young child, she has reached adulthood as a well-balanced individual. She does have insecurities and issues, but she does not allow any drawbacks to bring her down and keeps going. She becomes stronger and more determined as the book progresses, but she does not waste much time feeling sorry for herself (only a little bit). I enjoyed the rest of the female characters as well, and although we only learn about some in the retelling of their stories, the author manages to bring them to live and make us connect emotionally with them.

The story is mostly narrated in the first person by Miriam (apart from the document I mentioned before), and she is excellent at describing, not only people and places (she is an artist after all), but also her own feelings, doubts, and mental processes. Although I know not all readers are keen on first-person narratives, I think the author does an excellent job of creating an engaging and genuine character. She is no superheroine who can do everything as soon as she steps into the property (she gets some help with her project), and she gets distracted, forgets things, gets scared, but does not give up. The story ebbs and flows as the time passes and the mystery aspects kept me reading on, although this is not a fast-paced action novel. The writing is beautifully descriptive without going over the top, and although there are sad moments, there are also light and joyful moments its readers can enjoy.

The mystery aspect of the novel is well integrated into the narrative, and although I had my suspicions about what was going on, the story is beautifully constructed and precious, and it is very satisfying. If you are one of those readers who hate cliff-hangers and always feel that there is some explanation missing and you’d like to know a bit more, you’ll be over the moon when you read this novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, which combines so many of my favourite things, and I’d recommend it to people who enjoy gothic stories (it is not scary but it has some eerie moments), who love old mansions, mysteries without blood and guts (no explicit violence), who like to read a romance with a difference (no explicit sex either), and who like to make friends with the characters of a novel and feel at home with them. Although it does remind me of some books (Rebecca, Jane Eyre…) and movies, I don’t want to go into any detail to avoid spoiling the story for you. But do check it out if any of the things I’ve mentioned appeals. It’s a winner.

A book about con-games that will trap readers and make them question everything.

The Gamblers - Christoph Fischer,  Wanda Hartzenberg, David Lawlor

This is the second book I read in the Fraud and Miracle trilogy, and its inclusion there is sure to put readers on their guard. But that is the beauty of it. You know something is going on, and you might even suspect what (although not, perhaps, in detail) but you can’t help but eagerly keep reading and follow the story, enmeshed in the same web of illusion and deceit that traps the main character, Ben.

The story is written in the third person and follows the point of view of Ben, the protagonist. He is a somewhat socially awkward young accountant who leads a modest life in London, who is not precisely streetwise, and who feels more at ease playing games in online communities than interacting socially in person. He is obsessed with numbers (in real life, I wondered if somebody with similar personality traits might fit into the very mild range of autistic spectrum disorder. He acknowledges that he is bad at reading people’s emotions and expressions, he is anxious in social situations and functions by imitating other people’s behaviour, he displays obsessive personality traits…) and does not believe in luck and chance. He is convinced that random events (like lottery or games of chance results) follow a pattern and he is determined to find it. He gets a bit lottery win (£64 million), and although he does not value money per se (at least at the beginning of the story), he decides to treat himself travelling to New York. Everything seems to change from that moment on, he makes a new friend (the glamorous and charming Mirco) and meets the girl of his dreams, Wendy.

The third person point of view suits the story perfectly. On the one hand, we follow Ben’s point of view and his thought processes. We are aware of his misgivings and doubts. He does not believe in luck, after all, and he cannot accept that all these good things are happening to him, especially as they seem to coincide with his lottery win. At the same time, the third person gives us enough distance to observe and judge Ben’s own behaviour (that does not always fit his self-proclaimed intentions and opinions) and also that of those around him. There are things that seem too good to be true, there are warnings offered by random people, there are strange behaviours (both, Mirco and Wendy, blow hot and cold at times), and there are the suspiciousness and rivalry between his new friends. We warm up to his naiveté and to his child-like wonder and enjoyment at the fabulous new life that falls on his lap, but we cannot help but chide him at times for being so easy to manipulate.  

The author reflects perfectly the process Ben goes through in his reading. Mirco keeps telling him that he should forget about methods and just “feel” the game, and despite his attachment to his theories, there is something in him that desperately wants to believe in miracles, in good luck, and, most of all, wants to believe that he deserves everything he gets: the money, the friendship, and the love. This is a book about con artists and the book implements their technique to perfection. Con-games are a big favourite of mine, and I love how well the book is designed, and how it treats its readers to a peep behind the scenes of the big players, while at the same time making them play the part of the victim. Yes, we might be shouting at Ben and telling him not to be so gullible, but what would we do in his place? Wouldn’t we just want it to be true too?

The story takes place in glamorous locations and it revolves around the world of high-stakes gambling, night-clubs, and big spenders. It might be particularly interesting to those who love casinos and betting, but that is only one aspect of the book. It can be read independently from the first book in the series, and although there are tense and emotionally difficult moments, there are no violence or extreme behaviours. And the ending… You might be more or less surprised by the big reveal, but the actual ending is likely to leave you with a smile on your face.

A book that will make you question yourself and that will keep you guessing until the end. A fun read for lovers of con-games and those who always wondered what they would do if their luck suddenly changed. I’m looking forward to the third book in the trilogy.

 

A Nordic noir thriller with two fascinating protagonists, D.I. Hulda Hermannsdóttir and Iceland.

The Darkness - Ragnar Jónasson

Thanks to NetGalley and to Michael Joseph for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve followed with interest the rise in popularity of the Nordic/ Scandinavian Thrillers in recent years, although I have read random titles rather than becoming a dedicated fan of any single writer. (I’ve also watched quite a few of the crime TV series produced in those countries and I’ve particularly enjoyed Wallander, The Bridge, and The Killing). This is the first novel I read by Ragnar Jónasson, although I suspect it won’t be the last.

The novel contains some familiar elements, although with interesting variations. The main character, Hulda, a Detective Inspector, that works in Reykjavík, is 64 and on her way to retirement. She is surprised by the news that this retirement has been brought forward, and, as an afterthought to keep her quiet, her boss tells her she can work on a cold case of her choice. She chooses the apparent suicide of a Russian girl, an asylum seeker because she mistrusts the lead investigator. The novel, written in the third person, mostly from Hulda’s point of view, follows her last three days in the force. I say mostly because there are other fragments that are told from other characters’ points of view, although at first, it is not that clear who they are. We come to understand how they relate to the main story later, but I must clarify that they are clearly distinct, easy to follow, and do not cause any confusion. They do provide additional information, a different perspective, and they help us understand the story and the characters more fully (and yes, they might also mislead us a tiny bit), although I suspect some readers might catch on faster than others as to their true relevance.

Hulda is a known standard of the genre: the old detective forced to leave the job that is determined to solve one last case before retirement. Only, in this case, she is a woman, and she does reflect on how difficult things have been for her because she is a woman, glass ceiling and all. She does share some of the other attributes sometimes typical of these characters: she is very good but not that very well liked; she has to work alone because she is not a favourite among the other detectives; she resents her younger boss and many of her teammates; she is effective but might bend the rules slightly; she is reserved and has suffered tragedies in her life… The author is very good at creating a very compelling character and then making us question our judgment. At least in my case, I really liked Hulda to begin with, but after a while, I realised that she might be one of those favourites of mine, an unreliable narrator (or, although not directly a narrator, her point of view is unreliable). She makes decisions that are morally questionable; she drinks a bit too much; and well… I am keeping my mouth shut. My feelings for this character went from really liking her, to not being so sure, to not liking her very much, and then… This change in opinion and perception is cleverly achieved and extremely well done, and it reminded me of books like We Need to Talk about Kevin (not the story itself, but the way the writer slowly makes us empathise with a character to later pull the rug from under our feet).

The story is dark in more ways than one. As I said, there are morally grey areas (or even quite dark): the subject matter and the fact that a young asylum seeker and her death are not considered important and have been all but forgotten a year down the line (unfortunately that rings true), Hulda’s own life and the secrets she keeps, and Iceland. Although there is not a great deal of violence (and definitely not explicit), there is a certain unsettling air and a cold and menacing atmosphere, that comes in part from Hulda’s paranoia and her personality (suspicious and mistrustful), but goes beyond it. The setting is very important and it contributes to the story and its effect on the reader. Iceland is a character in its own right. The descriptions of the many locations in the book create a picture in the reader’s mind and help understand how important the place is to the mood, the characters, and their way of life. A place where light and darkness rule people’s lives, and where the inhabitants have adapted to conditions many of us would find difficult and hostile. The title is apt for many reasons (as we learn as we read on). It is a noir novel, where nobody is exactly as they appear at first, and where red herrings, false clues, and side-stories muddy the storyline, adding layers of complexity to what appears straightforward, at first.

The writing is fluid, and versatile, providing different registers and clearly distinct voices for the different aspects of the story and the varied points of view, and although it is a translation, it is well-written and the style fits in perfectly the content. It is not the usual fast-paced thriller, but one that builds up tension and organically incorporates the psychology of the characters and the setting into the story.

A couple of examples:

Time was like a concertina: one minute compressed, the next stretching out interminably.

‘She’s being deported. It happens. You know, it’s a bit like those games of musical chairs you play as a kid. The music starts, everyone gets up and walks in a circle and when the music stops, one of the chairs is taken away and someone’s unlucky.’

The ending… I will not talk in detail about it but although perhaps not unexpected, is a bit of a shocker.

A great (and not long) novel for lovers of Nordic thrillers, or anybody who enjoys thrillers that deviate from the norm. I’d also recommend it to anybody intrigued by Iceland and unreliable narrators. And I’d also recommend it to authors always intrigued by other authors’ technique and voice. I intend to keep reading the series. And enjoying it.

An epic-story, which will make you reconsider what you thought you knew about angels, demons, and everything in between.

The Fall of Lilith (Fantasy Angels Series) 1 - Vashti Quiroz-Vega

I have seen this book described as “epic” and I agree, not only for its length (it is two books in one) but also for its topic. It does talk about all things in Heaven and Earth, near enough, from the creation of the angels and the battle of good and evil to the fall of the angels and their revenge plans once on Earth (that don’t bode well for humanity).

The author’s writing style in this book is reminiscent of the Bible, although the story is told from quite a different point of view, and it deviates from the narrative most Christians are familiar with (I am intrigued to know how the story will resonate with readers not familiar with the Christian tradition, although the world building is detailed enough for anybody to be able to follow the events). I am not a bit Fantasy reader, mostly because I am not that fond of lengthy descriptions (I admire authors who do it well), although this story has the added interest of providing a major variation on a story many of us are familiar with. As typical of the genre, there is plenty of telling (in fact, all the characters are storytellers, and we get to hear the angels’ voices often, narrating their own adventures, or even fictional ones, like a fascinating story Lilith narrates in book 1), and beautiful descriptions of Floraison, the part of Heaven inhabited by the angels, of the angels, and also of the creation of Earth, and of Earth itself in book 2. We follow the story in a chronological order, from the time when the angels are quite young, growing up and learning about their powers (this part reminded me of YA books set up in special schools for young people with special abilities, and also of parts of The Hunger Games, when the characters had to train for the battle ahead), through to the battle between good and evil and their fall to Earth. Although the story is narrated in the third person, we follow the points of views of a variety of angels, mainly Lilith, the main character, but also most of the others at some point.

These angels reminded me of the Greek gods. They are not the celestial beings many of us imagine, but more human than human. They have their personalities, their peculiar characters, their flaws, their desires, and they are far from goodie-goodie-two-shoes. Even the good angels have faults… (Oh Gabriel…). We get to know Lilith’s cunning and devious nature better than that of others (she is rebellious, proud, has a superiority complex, and does not seem to feel true affection for anybody, even her supposed friends), but we see that Lucifer is proud and is not a good looser from early on (when he is following the rules), and some of the other angels are weak, easily manipulated, and only worried about their own well-being and interests. The God of this story does not tolerate rebellion or deceit, and he severely punishes his children for their misdeeds. The author excels at writing the punishments and tortures the angels are subject to, and these parts of the book are not for the faint-hearted. I know she writes horror too, and this is quite evident in her penchant for devising monstrous characters and pretty cruel and sadistic tortures.

As is often the case, the bad characters are more interesting than the good ones (that we mostly lose sight of in book 2, apart from some brief appearances). I would not say any of the characters are very sympathetic. Lilith is put to the test and punished for being what she is (and considering angels are given free-will, that seems quite cruel), but she displays psychopathic traits from the beginning and it is difficult to blame her nasty personality on her experiences. She is strong and determined, but she abandons her friends, is manipulative, and goes to extremes that make her exceedingly unlikeable. I have no problem with having a truly horrible character as the main voice of a book, although I missed something that helped me connect with her (there are moments when she hints at a weakness or hurt, but I did not feel they were particularly convincing. Perhaps a sense of humour, no matter how dark, would have helped, but other than some instances of silly behaviour very early on, there are moments of wonder but not many laughs). Gadreel is perhaps the easiest character to empathise with, and she grows and develops during book 2 (to begin with she is constantly complaining and moaning, but she gets more confident, although she is not traditionally good either). Satan does horrible things, especially to Lilith (who is not blameless by a long stretch, not that such abuse could be ever justified in real life), but he is an interesting character and quite loyal to his friends. And he also does much of what he does out of love, however misguided. I don’t know what that says about me, but I really like Dracul, Satan and Lilith’s child. He is described as quite an ugly thing, but I find him cute. There you have it.

For me, book 2 is more dynamic and moves faster than book 1. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the adventures of the fallen angels on Earth allow us to read about their first impressions of the world as it would appear to somebody who had never been here, a totally brand new place. Such estrangement and sense of wonder are fascinating and the writing captures it well. The fact that the fallen angels find themselves in a hostile environment and have to learn to work together to survive adds to the interest. Of course, Lilith has her own plans, and she makes sure she convinces others to follow.

The character of Lilith reminded me of the typical figure of the femme fatale in film noir (or the spider woman, or… well, I’m sure you can think of many epithets such females have received over the years), who is powerful but her power consists in manipulating and deceiving males, convincing them that they are in charge, while she pulls the invisible strings. I do admire such characters, especially when the circumstances are dire and that seems to be the only option to get ahead. There is always a difficult balance to maintain between creating a strong negative female character that can hold her own and ensuring it does not reinforce the usual story tropes that blame women for all of world’s ills from the beginning of times.

This book made me wonder once more about the well-known narrative (and let me tell you, there are some twists that will keep readers on their toes) of events, which amounts to a civil war in Heaven, where there is no reconciliation and no possible redress or forgiveness for those who rebelled against the established order and lost. I also had to wonder about the rules imposed in Floraison and what seems to be a bias against LGBT (sex is bad, but same-sex sex is worse and is more severely punished), which has always been an issue that has caused much religious debate.

This book is a tour-de-force that I’d recommend to readers who love to be challenged by narratives that push the limits of well-known stories and make us rethink and reconsider the stories we have been told. And one for those who love strong and wicked female characters. And baby demons…

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