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.

I liked the main character but not enough attention to detail for me

Nine Elms - Robert Bryndza

I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review. This has in no way influenced my review.

I’ll try to be brief and provide information that might help others decide if this is a book they’d like to read. On the whole, I had far too many issues with the book to enjoy it as others have, but I am a regular reader of thrillers and have fist-hand knowledge of many of the issues central to the plot (I have worked as a forensic psychiatrist in the UK, where the story is set, and I have experience of working in a high secure hospital, so I’m more familiar with their security procedures than most readers will be), so I understand that my reading experience is likely to be very different to that of others. (And I won’t mention what my issues were not to derail others’ reading experience).

I had never read any of this author’s books before, and it is evident that he is well attuned to what people expect. He keeps the rhythm of the narration fast; this books starts with quite a bang, and there are only brief moments when the reader can have a bit of a break from the tension and the flow of the story. The plot covers many favourite points of the genre. We have not one but two horrific serial killers (even if the second one is a copycat, he is quite twisted in his own right); their murders are discussed in detail (although I’ve read books where the violence is more extreme, this is not for the fainthearted); we get the story told from a variety of points of view (although for the most part each chapter follows only one point of view), including victims and killers; we do not get all the information about the motivations until the end; there are characters to root for as well, and a complex investigation where the police get the assistance of outsiders (although in this case, Kate Marshall used to be a police detective, so she’s not quite the true amateur of other stories).

I did like Kate Marshall and her assistant, Tristan. It’s true that we do not learn a lot about him, but this is the first book in a new series, so there’s plenty of time for that. Kate seems to combine the characteristics of the main characters in many thrillers, as she is both a victim who survived a terrible attack and has suffered trauma due to that, and she is also a disenchanted and retired member of the police force, who due to her experiences and her way of coping with them lost her career, her way, and her family and is now asked to take a look at a case related to her past. I thought that the peculiarities of her circumstances, her relationship with her son, and her attempts at forging a new life for herself make her an interesting character in her own right, even if some of her actions and decisions are not always consistent.

As I have already said, I found that the story stretched my suspension of disbelief too far, and as I am a bit of a stickler for details and love a well-constructed police procedural, it did not work for me. I am aware that I only had access to an ARC copy, and it might well be that some of the minor issues I detected are not present in the final version. If you are a reader who enjoys novels and TV series about serial killers, who prefers fast action, an easy read, don’t mind a good deal of explicit violence and some less than savoury characters and family relationships, focus more on the overall plot than on the details, and are looking for a satisfying ending, you’re likely to enjoy this novel. Do check a sample of it and see what you think.

A wild ride for lovers of historical fiction, amusement parks, and great female protagonists

Dreamland - Nancy Bilyeau

I thank NetGalley and the publisher for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for the launch of this book and for providing me an ARC copy of it, which I freely chose to review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.

I recently read and reviewed Bilyeau’s novel The Blue and loved it so much that I did not hesitate when I got an invitation to read her new novel and join the blog tour. Like the previous one, this book also successfully combines history with intrigue, adventures, mystery, a fantastic cast of characters, and a heroine who is trying to find her own way amid a society in turmoil due to changes in the status-quo and to international historical events.

As the description explains, the novel is set in New York and Coney Island in the summer of 1911. Peggy Batternberg, the protagonist (the author explains that she was inspired by the historical figure of Peggy Guggenheim when she created her main character), belongs to the upper class, although as she observes, her family is only a couple of generations away from very humble origins as immigrants, and they would not have figured among the very select of society a few years earlier. They are also Jewish (not very religious), and although their money protects them from the worst of prejudice and antisemitism, that does not mean it does not exist, as the novel exposes time and again. She is trying to lead her own life as a modern woman, but her family’s power and influence, and society’s double standards of morality for men and women make it difficult for her to break completely free, and she ends up having to leave her job at a bookstore and spend the summer holiday at a posh hotel near Coney Island. Of course, although the hotel is very close to the three amusement parks, including the Dreamland of the title, the clientele of both are separated by the chasm of money and social class.

Peggy is a fascinating character. She is very young, determined, and contradictory at times. She is strong but naïve, passionate and rushed, headstrong and totally unrealistic. She tries to be practical and become independent from her family, but she acknowledges that much of what she does is only possible because she has the support of her family, and she does not have to rely solely on her salary, like her colleagues at work. She lost her father when she was young, and she is aware of the kind of hypocritical behaviour the males of her family engage in, but no matter how she struggles against it, she is still trapped by the morality of the period. Following some fairly traumatic experiences with men of her own class (and the male sense of entitlement —especially of men of a certain class— runs through the novel as a theme, and unfortunately recent events only prove that things haven’t changed as much as we might like to think), it is unsurprising that she feels attracted to an artist, a futurist painter, a foreigner, and somebody who is genuinely interested in her as a person, and not as a rich heiress. I am not a fan of love at first-sight (or insta-love) stories, but considering what we know of the character and of her circumstances, it is easy to understand the attraction, and let’s say that I was quite reconciled to it by the end of the story. The character is forced to question herself and her motives more than once throughout the novel, and she does grow and develop as a result.

The story is told, almost in its entirety, in the first person, from Peggy’s point of view, but there are many other characters that create a rich tapestry of both, the wealthy upper-class society of the era (there are some real historical characters that make brief guest appearances as well), and also the working class, the underclass, and the artists working at the fair. The author paints a clear picture of the Batternberg family, its power structure, the differences between male and female roles within the dynasty, and it makes for a sobering and absorbing read, especially because over the course of the story, Peggy discovers things are even worse than she thought, and the web of deceit, secrets, and false appearances is woven thick. The fact that this people of loose morals look down upon hardworking individuals without a second thought is highlighted by the murders that take place in close proximity to the hotel, and how nobody (other than Peggy) seems to care about the victims or their relatives, only about preventing anything from disturbing the elegant guests. By contrast, some of the lower-class characters, that have the most to lose if things go wrong, go out of their way to help, even at a serious personal cost.

I must admit to being quite taken by some of the secondary characters that appear in the story, and in many cases I’d love to know more about them (the whole of Lilliput scene is amazing; Madame Kschessinska is very intriguing; the police detective; Stefan, of course; and what to say about Ben, Peggy’s cousin, a real puzzle), but I agree with many of the reviewers and Lydia, Peggy’s sister, is a favourite of mine as well. She knows her own mind, she is supportive of her sister, and she grows in strength and maturity through the story. With her like with most things and characters in the story, appearances can be deceptive.

The historical background is well achieved, and I loved the descriptions of Coney Island, the seaside hotels, the fast trains, the clothes, the incubators, the art, the buildings… It felt as if I was peering into that era, and even experiencing the heat, tasting the food, and joining in the rides. The descriptions don’t overwhelm the story but help create a realistic setting and increase our understanding of what the period and the place were like. This is a work of fiction, and although some characters and events are recreated, the novel does not claim to historical accuracy (in fact, Dreamland was no longer functioning in the summer of 1911), but I have no doubt that it will encourage readers to learn more about the period and about Coney Island.

As for the mystery side of things… There are red-herrings; there is misdirection, and several suspects, as it pertains to the genre. There is a fair amount of action, surprises, scares, and Peggy’s turn as an amateur detective is fraught with risk. Although she is neither experienced not particularly skilled as an investigator, she makes up for it with her determination, persistence, and a good nose for choosing her collaborators. This part of the story is the one that requires a greater suspension of disbelief, but the novel is not intended to be a police procedural, and the intrigue fits well into the overall story arc and will keep readers turning the pages at good speed.

I have already talked about the issue of gender and gender politics that is explored in the novel. Although things were moving and women were fighting for the vote, it was not easy, and if it was hard for privileged women to have a say on how their lives should be run, for working-class women it could get positively dangerous, when not lethal. The author also explores the issue of migration, the suspicion towards foreigners (despite the melting-pot mythos of the United States society), the prejudice of society and authorities towards newcomers, and this is also linked to international politics (and, of course, we readers know that the situation was about to get much worse and it would result in World War I). These subjects are well integrated into the fabric of the novel, elevating it beyond the typical historical adventure romp, and they make comparisons to current historical events unavoidable.

The writing style is compelling, with beautiful descriptions combined with a great skill in making us feel and experience the events first-hand, and a good pace, alternating between action and more contemplative scenes, without ever stalling the flow.

I’ve read some reviews that complain about the ending being somewhat rushed and sudden. It speaks to the skill of the author the fact that we don’t want the story to end, and although there are elements of it that I think could have been further developed, overall I enjoyed the ending, especially because it isn’t a conventional one.

In sum, I enjoyed the wild ride that is Dreamland. I wish I could have visited the real one, but lacking that opportunity, this is a close and satisfying second best. I congratulate the author for this great novel, and I look forward to the next.

A fascinating visual document for those interested in military vehicles and the Spanish Civil War

German Military Vehicles in the Spanish Civil War - Lucas Molina Franco, Jose María Mata, José María Manrique

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

I am not a connoisseur when it comes to military history or military vehicles, but I have recently become fascinated by unusual documents and photographs about the war, as they have the power to make the past come to life in a vivid way even for those who never experienced it. In the case of this book, 2019 marked the 80th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War, and I have watched programmes and read articles about different aspects of it. Many talked about the air raids by Italian and especially German bombers in support of the Nationalist army and against the Republic, which worked well as a testing ground of their equipment prior to WWII. When I saw this book, it struck me that I hadn’t heard anything about other German vehicles used during the Spanish Civil War, although it made perfect sense that they would also send other military equipment to aid the war effort. And I felt curious.

This book is a treasure throve of pictures of the vehicles used in the Spanish Civil War. Apart from the photographs of vehicles (and not only German, as there is also the odd captured vehicle, like some Russian tanks), there are also pictures of insignias, medals, and some fabulous illustrations, both in black and white and in colour, of the vehicles and the soldiers. The collection includes tanks, cars, buses, trucks, ambulances, motorbikes (some with sidecars), and plenty of support vehicles (signal vehicles, anti-tank, anti-aircraft vehicles, mobile communication units…), and of course, the soldiers as well.

The text is minimal, and it contains factual information about the negotiations with the Germans, the number of vehicles and men they sent to train the rebel army, where they were posted, and there are also some charts summarising the numbers and the makes of the vehicles in each unit. As the authors explain, it is difficult to be precise when it comes to numbers, and in fact they ask readers to get in touch if they find any discrepancies or have any further information that can be updated in future editions.

The main interest for a non-expert like me, apart from seeing many pictures of vehicles I’d never seen before, was to see the soldiers and the different locations also. Many of the pictures are clearly posed, but some seem to have caught soldiers going about their everyday lives (peeling potatoes, chatting, washing by the river…). There are no overly dramatic pictures or action pictures as such, but the uniforms, insignias, and vehicles could prove invaluable to historians and writers interested in obtaining an accurate description of the era. I also read reviews that commented on how useful such a book would be for people interested in building realistic military models, and by the same token, it would also be useful to people who provide props or create sets for movies or TV programmes.

I missed an index and a bibliography, although the book seems to be based on an individual collection, that of J.M. Campesino, and that might explain why there is no detailed information.

This is a book that will delight fans of military history and military vehicles, with the added interest that many of those vehicles were tried and tested in Spain first and were later put to use in WWII. The authors have published a number of books in Spanish on historic subjects related mostly to the Spanish Civil War, and I understand that Pen & Sword are working on publishing other related titles. An informative and visually engaging book about a period of Spanish history that remains very present, and we should never forget.  

 

A protagonist you’ll love to hate in a book that will make you think hard

Number Eight Crispy Chicken - Sarah Neofield

I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you’re looking for reviews, I recommend you check her amazing site here), and I thank her and the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. By the way, personalising the ARC copy for the reviewer is a particularly nice touch. Thanks!

I was intrigued by the description, the title (oh, that title), and also the cover of this book. The topic is one that interests me, and I’m sure I’m one among many who have become increasingly alarmed by the situation of asylum seekers all over the world. Although due to my location I’m more familiar with the happenings in the Mediterranean area, this book set in a fictional country (although most readers will reach their own conclusions as to the author’s inspiration for Furtivus, and she openly discusses it on her website) highlights the fact that things are not that different elsewhere (or perhaps that the differences are more cosmetic than substantial).

It’s difficult to discuss the merits of this book separately from its subject. As a politico-social satire, the beauty is in the way it sends up the situation and it pulls up a distorting mirror to the main character, Peter, who is a composite of the worst “qualities” of politicians and public figures whose take on the subject of the asylum seekers’ plight is the hardest of hard-lines and, on top of that, don’t hesitate on personally profiting from the issue (and not only at a political level). I’ve talked before about books whose main character is nasty and despicable, and how reader might find it counterintuitive at first, but in this genre of political satire, this is to be expected. If you’re looking for a book where you can identify and cheer the main character, and you want a hero to follow, please, don’t read this book. Peter is thoroughly dislikeable. The author chooses to tell the story in the third-person, and although at times we are offered an omniscient (observer’s) point of view, which gives us a bit of a break from being inside of Peter’s head (and his rather disgusting body as well) while at the same time clarifying things and giving us an outsiders perspective, most of the time we experience things from Peter’s point of view, and let me tell you, both mentally and physically, it is not a nice place to be.

There are other characters and even one, Jeremy, who is the complete opposite to Peter, and most readers will like, but they don’t play a big part in the story, and although in the case of Jeremy, he is there to show that other options and points of view exist, for the most part we don’t know them in their own right, as true people, but only as obstacles or points of friction for Peter, and that is at it should be, because it reflects perfectly the policies the real-life counterparts of the protagonist formulate and/or adhere to. Only this time he is not in charge, and he does not like it one little bit.

There is a fair amount of telling in the book (the character is forever running his schemes in his mind, feeling self-important and thinking about his “achievements”, and later on, feeling sorry for himself); the author is wonderfully descriptive when it comes to explaining what is happening in Peter’s body, how he sees things, and there are many moments when the books is almost cinematic (oh, the dreaded red buttons, and the feel of his clothes as they degenerate over 24 hours). Peter is a man who judges others by their appearance, and he is very fastidious when we meet him, moaning at everything that is not right to his liking. Self-centred doesn’t quite capture the degree of his egotism, and the little bits of personal information we gather from his rambling mind do nothing to justify his inflated sense of ego.

The plot of the story is simple, and it is clearly explained in the description. Imagine what would happen if somebody who is responsible for making decisions about the refugee policy in a country (and let’s say his policies are less than generous and welcoming), ended up detained at an airport in a foreign country who does not recognise his status, does not accept his money, does not speak his language (or barely), and, basically, does not care an iota about him and does not see him as a person but as a nuisance repeatedly trying to get into the country uninvited. If you think that sounds like he’s got his comeuppance, well, you’d be right, and if you, like me, think that going through a bureaucratic Kafkian nightmare must be hell, I’d recommend you read this book.

The book is not a page-turner in the usual sense. There are many moments in the book when time drags for Peter, and Neofield makes this experience vivid to the reader. Many things happen in the book, but a lot of it is also spent waiting for the nightmare to end. Let me tell you that I loved the ending, that although understated, I thought was perfect.

The novel is full of quotable moments, but one of my favourites must be a conversation when Peter is trying to explain to the security guards (and it’s not his first encounter with the woman in charge) the nature of the blueprints he carries. The fragment is too long to share in its totality, but I thought I’d give you a taster of it, and also of the reply of the guard (whom I love).

‘It’s our Offshore Processing Centre.’

‘What that?’

‘It’s where illegal immigrants-‘

‘You mean refugee?’

‘No, boat people. Queue jumpers.’

The guard’s English was even poorer than Peter had realised, if he had to explain the difference. ‘It’s where they are held for processing.’

‘You process their claim?’

‘Well, not exactly-‘

‘What you do?’

‘Mainly we just hold them there.’

‘Ah, yes. We had also. Long time ago. Concentration camp. This electric fence, no?’

‘No, no. It’s a Courtesy Fence. And it’s not a camp. It’s a Concentration Centre. I mean, Detention Centre. I mean, Processing Centre.’

The conversation carries on for a while, but I had to share the guard’s summing up of her understanding of the situation (after she tells him he must have taken drugs because of the type of things he is saying):

‘Then why you talk crazy? This,’ she said, pointing back at the plans, ‘is not a picture of house. Is tent. This,’ she rolled up the blueprint and slammed it on the desk, ‘is not process centre if you no process. And four year is not ‘temporary’.’

Be this a warning to all spin doctors.

The novel’s description already mentions some writers that might come to mind on reading this book. As a political satire, Swift comes to mind, and I must say that the main character and some of his problems reminded me of the protagonist of Ian McEwan Solar, at least in the early part of the book. And the fixation of the character with his belongings reminded me as well of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. But you can read it and make up your own mind about it. I recommend it to people interested in the subject of the politics of immigration and seeking asylum in many Western countries, especially if looking for a critical and analytical take on it, which is at the same time sharply and painfully funny and entertaining. You’ll love to hate Peter, and the book is particularly suitable for book clubs, as there is much to discuss and mull over, both in the book itself and in the subject it deals with. The author even offers a guide for readers belonging to book clubs and shares some of the sources she used as an inspiration, and you can access them here. I don’t know what the author plans to write in the future, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on her, and I hope plenty of people read this book, and it makes them think.

 

Beautiful writing and a romance with a timeless quality

Find Wonder in All Things - Karen M. Cox

I have read several stories and books by Karen M. Cox, both set in and out of the Austen universe, and have enjoyed her beautiful writing, so I did not hesitate when I was offered the opportunity to review the new edition of this novel, which was well received a few years back. Although this is a retelling of Austen’s Persuasion, I can confirm that it is not necessary to have read that novel to enjoy this one, as I could barely remember the plot of Austen’s original, and it did not detract from my appreciation of the quality of the writing. Fans of Austen will have the added enjoyment of comparing the two, but the rest can be assured that the novel works as a romance in its own right.

I have commented before that this author’s writing has a timeless quality, and even when she sets the action in the present (or very close), there is something that makes one feel nostalgic, and I experienced this very strongly at the beginning of the book, when the male main character, James, recalls his summers at the lake, the time he spent there with his best friend, Stuart, and ends up falling for Laurel, the sister of her friend’s on-and-off girlfriend. The author’s description of the Kentucky foothills of Appalachia made me experience a weird sense of longing, as I’ve never visited but I felt as if I had. It is evident that the author knows and loves the area and can transmit her affection to her readers, who get to understand why Laurel feels so attached to it as well.

The story is narrated from the two main characters’ point of view, and the author clearly separates the two, with the first part (and intermezzo) written from James’s point of view; the second, set several years later, from Laurel’s; and the third alternating both. This allows readers to experience their doubts, frustrations, confusion, and mixed feelings, while at the same having a greater understanding of what lies behind some of their behaviours, words, and actions. If you love stories of the “will they/won’t day” type, you’ll have a field day here, because there are many close encounters, lost opportunities, misunderstandings, and numerous occasions when you’ll wish you were there to tell them to just get on with it and talk to each other. But we all know what they say about the course of true love.

The novel is about second opportunities. James and Laurel fall in love when they are quite young, and although he tries to convince her to move in with him when he goes to Nashville to try and make a living in the music business, she’s just started college and decides to follow her family’s advice, carry on with her studies and stay at home. He makes it big —although not exactly how he expected— and seems to have moved on, but he still thinks of her. And it’s mutual. In this retelling of Austen’s story, the characters don’t challenge traditional gender conventions upfront as is common these days, and therefore the book stays closer to the spirit of the original (well, not in all aspects, and the subtlety of the author’s touch is perhaps what most reminded me of Austen). It might be frustrating for those who look for a heroine with a more modern outlook, but, personally, I liked Lauren, understood her plight and her reasoning, and felt her choice of priorities marked her as a very strong woman. James is the one who leaves home and tries to become a success by going wherever the opportunity arises, while Laurel remains close to home, helping her family, and become an artist, living fairly isolated in a mountain cabin, in touch with nature and needing that inspiration to grow into herself. The novel is also about identity, strength, courage, and belonging. We might think we know these qualities and concepts, but they are ultimately very personal and there is no one definition that fits all. The novel also reminds us that we might get to regret the decisions we make, but we’ll never know how things would have been if we’d chosen another path, and we have to live our life now and not get stuck on what may have been.

I enjoyed the setting of the story and the little community of friends and relatives that develops around the two protagonists. I liked the secondary characters, although some of them only appear for a brief period of time, and I was particularly touched by Laurel’s mother and her plight. There is no great emphasis on social mores and the wider world around the main characters (as there would have been in Austen’s novels), and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more on Laurel’s art and James’s music, but this is pretty much a romance focusing on the two characters’ relationship, and very romantic at that, so I’m sure fans of the genre will be more than happy with the story arch. Ah, there are sex scenes (three), which are not extremely graphic, but as somebody who doesn’t care for erotica, I thought I’d better warn you about them. Although it could have been done in other ways, these scenes go some way to challenge the status quo and the way we see the characters, and also exemplify the different phases of the relationship.

I thought I’d share a couple of samples from the novel to give you a taster.

James is remembering the summers he spent at the lake with his friend Stuart.

Mrs. Pendleton had said they were eating dinner at the marina restaurant that night, and then there’d be more walking around the dock and maybe some fishing as the sun set. The next day, it would all start again. It seemed as if days on the lake lasted forever and ran one into the other, as the long, lazy days of summer should.

Here Laurel is talking to her sister, Virginia.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“Yes, I know. You’re always fine. I just wish you could be happy too.”

This is a novel for romance lovers, especially those who enjoy stories about second chances, and also for fans of Austen. It is beautifully written, and it would be a great choice for book clubs interested in romances and Austen. It includes a number of questions at the end that would help get the discussion started as well. I am pleased to say I have another one of the author’s novels waiting to be read, and I hope they’ll keep coming.

I received an ARC copy of this novel. This has not affected my review, which I freely chose to share.

Fun historical facts with a twisted sense of humour #history #non-fiction

The Peasants' Revolting Crimes - Terry Deary

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

I’ve long been intrigued by the Horrible Stories books, and when I saw the stage adaptation advertised, I thought about going to watch it, but, as was the case with the books, I never managed to make it. That, combined with my interest in criminology and the criminal justice system (particularly in the UK), made this book irresistible. Although I cannot compare it to other books by the authors, and must warn readers that this is, by no means, a book written for children, I loved every minute of it. The author combines a vast number of UK historical (and also some fairly recent) facts and events, with a sharp sense of humour (beware of papercuts. Some pages ooze poison), to the point of crossing into satire and black humour at times. The book shows a great deal of social consciousness, and it is far from complacent with the status quo, but it does not glamorise “peasant criminals” either, and it is harsh on popular renderings of figures like the highway man (Dick Turpin is no favourite), or pirates.

Deary explains in his introduction (after three great quotes, and there are many interspersed throughout the whole text) the reason why he decided to write the book. He observes that most books and plays featuring crimes and criminals tend to focus on kings, queens, or high-class characters (he mentions Shakespeare and Agatha Christie), and even when lower class characters are mentioned, they are not usually the heroes or the central figures. And he decided it was time to put it right, and here we have this book. As you can imagine from the topic and the title, there is plenty of gore, detailed accounts of crimes and punishments, and despite the wit and the humour, I’d recommend caution to those who prefer a truly light and cosy read.

The book is divided into seven chapters, plus the already mentioned introduction, an epilogue where the author reflects upon how little things have changed over the years, and an index. The chapters seem to follow a chronological order (or almost): Norman Nastiness, Mediaeval Misery, Wild Women, Tudor Twisters, Sinful Stuarts, Quaint Crimes, Georgian Jokers and Victorian Villains, but the content of each individual chapter is not limited to the period mentioned in the title. Every chapter focuses on a series of crimes that became typified or described for the first time in that historical period, or that are particularly associated with it, but Deary sometimes includes recent examples of similar crimes, to compare the types of punishment then and now or to emphasise the fact that history repeats itself and certain things change little, if at all. Although I have lived in the UK for many years, I didn’t grow up here, and there are periods of UK history and events that I’m not familiar with, so it is likely that much of the information that was new to me might be well-known to others, but the author presents it in an entertaining and seemingly light-hearted manner (I’d leave that to readers’ interpretation and opinion) that makes the book impossible to put down and the facts stick in one’s mind.

I, for one, was fascinated to read about football hooligans and their shenanigans as far back as the 1100s, about clan clashes, to discover the origin of ‘brawling’ (quarrelling in a church or a churchyard), to read about wife-selling (and how it often seemed to be a good option if divorce was not an option and both parties wanted out, no matter how illegal)… And yes, husband-selling also took place. Deary writes also about peasant revolts, about the machine wreckers of the Industrial Revolution era, or the many attempts on Queen Victoria’s life. I don’t want to spoil the book for you, so I won’t go into more detail, but apart from managing to cover a lot of ground, and having a knack for finding the perfect quote, Deary’s sharp wit and his talent for highlighting the connections between historical events and the present make this book a must read for those interested in crime, criminology, and UK history in general. Especially if they have a slightly twisted sense of humour.

I marked so many pages of the book that I had difficulty choosing a few to share here, but I’ll try to give you some sense of what you might expect from the book.

Here is one of his notes (they are priceless) in reference to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

Some critics interpret eating your sons, not so much as ‘cannibalism’ as ‘incest’. Whatever the legality of eating your children, just don’t try it at home.

In Chapter 2, Mediaeval History:

Peasants were at the bottom of the feudal system pyramid. And if you were at the bottom of a pyramid you’d be crushed. As if that weren’t enough, your evil lord made you work like a slave labourer; meanwhile, your Good Lord sent you something to help relieve your misery. He sent you plagues.

This reflection seemed particularly relevant to some recent events in my country.

The Seditious Meeting Act was passed in March 1817. What constituted ‘sedition’, you might ask? Well, like ‘treason’, pretty much anything the Lord Lieutenants of the counties fancied, really.

The book ends in a hopeful note, well, sort of, but not quite.

In summary, this is a great book for people interested in the history of crime and the criminal justice system (and history in general) in the UK, particularly if they enjoy a humorous and ironic take on received wisdom. I am sure fans of Deary will enjoy it as well, but, despite the cover, this is not a book for young children, and I’d advise parents to check it out to decide its suitability for themselves. The book’s back cover states that the author is working on The Peasants’ Revolting… Lives, and I’ve added it to my wish list already.

Do not wait. Read it. Now.

Equal. A Story of Women, Men & Money - Carrie Gracie

I am grateful to NetGalley and Virago for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. What a book!

This is a fantastic read and an important book about a topic that, as the author notes, it feels strange to have to be still talking about in this day and age.

The author, a well-known and award-winning BBC journalist, chronicles her fight to get equal pay for her job as China editor for the corporation. The BBC is publicly funded, and after some pressures, in 2017 they published the salaries of the highest paid of their employees. All of them happened to be white males. Gracie, who was the China editor at the time, was surprised to see that the USA editor was earning almost double her salary, when one of the conditions she had asked for when she accepted the job (she was highly qualified for it, as she had studied Mandarin at university, had lived in China, married a Chinese, and had lived there and worked there on and off for long periods of time) was that her pay would be equal to that of male colleagues doing a similar job, and the comparison agreed was the USA editor. She was not the only female employee to take issue with the list of salaries and while Gracie chronicles her own fight (it was hard and arduous to put it mildly), she also emphasises the importance of the support of her colleagues and the encouragement she received from family, friends, and strangers who also told her their stories.

Although Gracie explains her story and how she felt, she is not a reporter for nothing, and she goes about the task of discussing equal pay for women (although she also acknowledges and talks about other types of discrimination: race, sexual, disabilities…) in a methodical manner, quoting facts and figures all over the world, talking about the law, the developments over time, the different cases that brought about new legislation, and intersperses this with a chronological account of the stages of her grievance with the BBC. Although her references to the law and the grievance process are specific to the UK (and to her organisation), the principles are applicable to many other cases, and the examples she uses are universal, unfortunately. She does recognise that she is privileged (she had access to free legal advice, she was able to resign from her job without being concerned about her financial situation, and she had another position to go back to), and she did not feel she was badly paid, but felt she had been treated unfairly, and she had to take a stand, not only for herself, but also for others.

The process she had to undergo was soul destroying, not only for the types of games and techniques used (she mentions Orwell in a number of occasions, but Kafka’s The Trial and Terry Gillian’s Brazil also come to mind), but also because she loves the BBC, believes what it stands for and felt terribly disappointed by the way they behaved. She tried to see things from their point of view and gave them the benefit of the doubt, but she was stretched almost to breaking point. This is not a fiction book, so there are no real spoilers, but I’ll leave you to read exactly how things settled in the end.

Apart from the interest of the story itself (and it is gripping), Gracie is a compelling writer, and she is evidently passionate about the topic, although that does not make her lose her objectivity. She does talk about her own battle, and she does mention the effect it had on her, how it made her feel, and the way it made her question her beliefs and, at times, even her own sanity, but she does not spend an excessive amount of time on that, and she focuses on providing useful advice and guidance for others. The back matter of the book includes a section of acknowledgements, an epilogue with cases and data that have come to light since the resolution of her complaint, also advice she provides to companies, men, and women, resources (including videos, books, information about a variety of organisations, links to important documents), and detailed notes for all the chapters, with references and links to all documents, studies, and cases she mentions.

Here a tiny sample from the book:

But when it comes to deep-rooted patterns of power and money, history shows time and again that justice for women does not come through patient persuasion. Instead women must find their power and use it. In January 2018, I went over my employer’s head to write directly to the public because I wanted an end to pay discrimination in my workplace and my bosses weren’t listening. The answering echo from women everywhere made me feel the BBC was a mirror of the society it served.

In sum, this is a fascinating book, and one that is bound to make many readers’ blood boil. Why are things still like this in this day and age? This is an important book, well-written, full of valuable information and much food for thought, no matter what your gender, your position, or your status may be. Go and read it, and share it with others. The fight is not over.

Oh, I couldn’t help but share two videos Gracie mentions in the book. One that shows that Capuchin monkeys “get” equal pay, and a Norwegian study where kids demonstrate they also understand the concept of equal pay and are happy to apply it of their own accord. Priceless.

Capuchin monkeys reject unequal pay

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2ui97YPPsg

Finansforbundet on Equal pay: What do these kids understand that your boss doesn’t?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snUE2jm_nFA

 

A cozy mystery full of Southern charm, wit, and many laughs

Liars & Lunatics in Goose Pimple Junction - Amy Metz

The author provided me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. This in no way influenced my opinion.

I have read and enjoyed some of the books in the collection, but I somehow missed number 4, and that, perhaps helps me tailor my comment also towards readers who might be considering reading this book without having checked the rest. Yes, the story is self-contained, although there are references to events that have taken place in previous books, and a lot of the characters will be familiar to those following the series, who will be in a better position to understand the background to some of the interactions and also the web of relationships and the ins and outs of life at Goose Pimple Junction. And yes, in case you’re wondering, I love the name of the place! So, regarding the issue of reading it as a standalone, I’d say one does not need to have read all the books in the series to enjoy it, but because some of the characters have names and nicknames (witty and funny, I admit), and their relationships are not always evident, it might get a bit confusing to follow the story if you are totally new to it. On the other hand, as I said, I had missed one of the books, and I could pick up the narrative without any problem. I am convinced, though, that reading them all in order enhances the experience, and it’s like visiting a familiar place where you always have fun and renew old friendships every time you go.

The way the story is told is quite interesting, and it adds to the mystery. We start with a murder (a new character, Virgil, who is in the race to become the mayor of the town, is murdered in mysterious circumstances), a confession, and then we go back to several months before the event, counting back to the time of the crime, and then moving forward with the investigation. It works well, because we keep mulling over in our minds how everything we read might relate to the crime (and there are other suspicious deaths as well), and this results in plenty of red herrings, more and more suspects and plenty of possible motives (Virgil is far from a nice man, as we discover. In fact, he is a narcissist who treats women badly, and his business practices and politics aren’t much better either). Although told in third person, the narration follows the points of views of several of the characters, without ever giving us an advantage when it comes to solving the mystery. We might think we know what has happened, and we are privy to some information the sheriff department don’t have, but things are, of course, not as straightforward as they seem to be.

As the mystery part of the plot advances, we also get to learn more about some new arrivals to the town (not totally new, but I’ll avoid spoilers), and also catch up on what has happened to those inhabitants we have come to know and cherish. There are romances developing, a new cupcake shop (if you’re on a diet, I’d take care with the book, as there are many reference to Killer Cupcakes, both the shop and the actual items), there are shady business deals (moonshine liquor, buying land with coercion and under false pretences), there is Oktoberfest to spice up things and bring in the party atmosphere (the fancy dresses, mostly wordplay related, bring in plenty of chuckles), and the ending is very satisfying, and it hints at even better times to come for Goose Pimple Junction. (Yes, I want to move there, or at least go for a very long holiday).

The story flows well, moves at good pace, and the combination of the mystery aspects with the lives of the characters is seamless. I highlighted so many parts of the dialogue, funny repartees, and quotes, that I was unable to choose just a few to add to this review, so my recommendation is to check a sample of the book if you’re trying to decide if you’ll enjoy it or not. I wonder if a list of characters, with their names, nicknames, and relationships might serve as a memory aid for readers visiting the town again, and might also assist readers totally new to the series.

The Southern-style sayings and the dialect of the region (Tennessee), the peculiar lingo and expressions of some of the townspeople, the new characters (I liked Daisy, but her mother, Kaye, must be my favourite new addition), and the quotes at the beginning of the chapter (all about lying and liars), give this book its unique flavour, and people who’ve read previous books in the series and loved them, will have a blast with this one.

I recommend this book to lovers of cozy mysteries, especially those who enjoy stories set in the Southern part of the USA and prefer their crimes laced with plenty of humour, wit, and local flavour. I think the novel works better as part of the series, and I’d recommend people who like the sound of it to start at the beginning, with Murder and Mayhem in Goose Pimple Junction. I hope to keep on visiting the town in the future, that is, if I don’t manage to move there!

A satirical vintage cozy mystery with an awfully funny (anti) hero

Dover One (Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover Novels) - Joyce Porter

I thank NetGalley and Farrago for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. Let me clarify that this novel was first published in 1964 by Cape, and Farrago is now republishing all the books in the series.

In brief, this book is a blast. I hadn’t heard of the Dover series and had never read any of Joyce Porter’s books before (more fool me!), but I’m pleased to have discovered both, the character and the author. While the character is truly dislikeable, the author had a talent for creating solid and engaging mysteries inhabited by a fantastic array of characters, and her observational skills and her comedic timing turn her books into a peculiar creation, somewhere between the satire and the farce.

I’ve been trying to find a way to describe this book. It is clearly a mystery and as I said above, it is a good, solid mystery, with red herrings, twists, turns and enough clues to make most lovers of the genre enjoy the putting together of the puzzle. You even have the mandatory summing up at the end, by Detective Chief Inspector Dover, but like everything else in the book, any similarity with what would happen in a true golden age mystery (yes, Agatha Christie comes to mind) is pure coincidence. You’ll have to read the book to judge by yourselves what you think of the ending, but it made me chuckle. I guess I would call it a vintage cozy mystery (if such a thing exists). It is not a standard modern cozy mystery, because although we do have some of the typical elements of those (a peculiar investigator, a strange crime, and a weird assortment of characters), the investigator here is a professional of law enforcement (to call him something) from Scotland Yard and all (the fact that the Yard are keen on sending him as far away as possible notwithstanding), and rather than being engaging and likeable, he is quite the opposite. In some ways, the novel has element of the police procedural, of the period, of course, and the mystery plays a more important part than it does in some of the modern cozy mysteries, where the main character is usually an amateur and his personality, her relationships, her business/profession, and her adventures can take up much of the novel.

Dover is a great creation. He is terrific and horrible all at the same time. He is lazy. He will go to any extents not to make any effort, either mental or physical. He is completely self-centred and totally uninterested in his job. There is no rule he won’t break in order to make his life easier and get a quick result. He exploits Sergeant MacGregor, making him do all the donkey work, and scrounging his cigarettes; there isn’t an invitation to food or drink he ever turns down; he is prejudiced, short-tempered and blows his top at the drop of a hat; he is pompous and never listens to anybody… As the back matter of the book says: “Detective Chief Inspector Wilfred Dover is arguably the most idle and avaricious hero of any novel, mystery or otherwise. Why should he even be bothered to solve the case?” This is not a novel for those who are looking for a character to root for. Although his sergeant is the total opposite, when it comes to solving crimes, he is methodical but not a great asset, either. The mystery takes place in a small town, mostly around what would nowadays be called a luxury housing state, and we come across a fantastic catalogue of characters and suspects, from the slightly odd to the wildly eccentric, and every shade in between. The local law enforcement sounds pretty normal in comparison, although the police women we meet are something else as well. Sorry, I’d rather not spoil it for readers.

The story is narrated in the third person, and although we mostly follow Dover’s adventures, we are clearly outside observers, rather than seeing things from his point of view. We might be privy to some of his thoughts and those of the other characters, but always as spectators. People who read the novel and feel disgusted by the lack of political correctness and the character’s flaws miss the distance between the narrative’s perspective and the character, in my opinion. We are not meant to like him or agree with his approach, quite the opposite. Of course, the novel is of its time, and that’s another one of the joys of it. I loved the language, the references to popular culture, the snippets of information about clothing, habits, social mores… It occurred to me that people researching the era (writers, designers, scholars…) would have a field day with this book.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the plot, but we have a pretty special victim, a bunch of characters from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous (dope fiends, yapping dogs, leery aristocrats, amateur detectives, defrocked priests (well, sort of), a writer interested in little known tribes…), blackmail, a ransom note, a missing body, adultery… and more. Take your pick.

Although I know comedy and sense of humour are very personal, and many of the references in the book are very British, I found it really funny and witty. The book is eminently quotable, but I had to try to offer you at least a few snippets, so you can get an idea:

I was nearly fifty when I married. Up till then I had always avoided matrimony like the plague, going on the principle that there is no need to throw yourself into the river to get a drink of water.

Dover didn’t approve of foreigners, mainly on the irrefutable grounds that they were un-English, and he was looking forwards to giving Boris Bogolepov, guilty or not, a rough old time just for the sheer hell of it.

It’s no good going round with an open mind like a vacuum cleaner because all you’ll finish up with is…’ Dover paused to work this one out ‘… is fluff!’ he concluded triumphantly.

I recommend this book to people who love cozy mysteries but are looking for something leaning more towards the police procedural side, and who prefer their humour rather sharp and British. Although I’ve read far worse, and there is only limited violence (fairly slapstick), the novel is non-PC (not that it condones the points of view exposed, but…) so it could be offensive to people reading it as a straight narrative. On the plus side, royalties from the book got to the work of the Friends of Friendless Churches (yes, they do exist, and do a great job as well). Go on, try it. You know you want to!

A fabulous gift, for you or for those you love

Dickens and Christmas - Lucinda Hawksley

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review. Although I’m not a big Christmas fan, I couldn’t resist this book, and I thought it would make a great gift for this time of the year.

The book (which contains a bibliography, a detailed index, and illustrations) is a great read, no matter how much or how little you like Christmas. Liking, or at least being curious about, Dickens would enhance the experience, but I’d dare say that even people who only have a passing acquaintance with his word can enjoy it.

The structure of the book, written by Dickens great great great granddaughter, follows his life, although it is not a detailed biography. We look at the tradition of the Christmas holiday, mostly in the UK (although we hear about Christmas celebrations in the USA when Dickens embark on his lecture tours in America, later in the book), as it was (or wasn’t), and I found it an invaluable source of information from a historical point of view. Although I was familiar (or so I thought), with the elements of what we consider a traditional Christmas and their origin, I have learned plenty about it, from the fact that the celebration in the early XIX century used to focus on the 12th day of Christmas (with a big cake and parties where people played different parts), Christmas trees, Father Christmas, Christmas card… to the first introduction of the Christmas cake and the way the Christmas pudding and the mince pies have changed over the years (yes, I think most of  us had heard that originally the mincemeat contained real meat… and that’s true).

I am not an expert on Dickens, although I’ve read a number of his novels (and A Christmas Carol, of course), and I don’t think much of the biographical information about him will be new to those who have studied his work and life (although as it is written by one of his relatives, and as we all know stories about family members circulate and are passed on through generations, it is always possible that if not the facts, the details and anecdotes might be more vividly portrayed), but I did learn much about him, his childhood (that I was familiar with), his struggles, his friendships… The book centres on the writing of A Christmas Carol, which was hugely successful and Dickens wrote in an attempt at raising people’s social awareness of the plight of the poor and the terrible conditions of the working classes in Victorian England, and how it would become the beginning of a tradition (still followed by many authors) of publishing novels and books in time for Christmas. Initially, in the years after Carol, he would write a new story for publication at that time, but later he would publish Christmas books, compiling his own stories and those of writer friends and collaborator, mostly not on the subject of Christmas. These proved popular, and as his fame grew, he spent more and more of his time touring, reading fragments of his books or some of his novellas in full (A Christmas Carol remained popular and still is), and also preparing the Christmas number. There are titbits of information that bring Dickens, the individual, to life (he had pet ravens and loved his dogs), with his qualities and defects (his behaviour towards his wife was horrendous, even if it was not uncommon for the period, and women had little in the way of legal rights at the time), and the focus of this volume on the yearly Christmas celebrations fits in with his enthusiasm and his interests. I loved the way he would get involved in pantomimes, which grew more and more elaborate over time, to the point of writing what sound like true plays to perform with his children and friends.

The book is peppered with fragments from his stories, which are set apart from the rest of the text, also quotes from his letters, and passages from newspapers of the period reviewing his work and/or his lectures. One of the aspects I particularly enjoyed —and I think most writers or people interested in the writing business will also appreciate— is the insider information about the publishing industry of the era. How Dickens would change publishers, his fight against piracy (oh, yes, it’s nothing new), his anger on seeing so many versions of his books turned into theatrical performances without his authorisation, the fact that there was no international copyright law, so although his books were very popular in the USA he did not receive a penny from the sales (and of course, they tried to tax his gains from lecturing, but he managed to escape the American taxmen), and other juicy bits. There is also plenty of material about his writing methods, and he often talks about it in his correspondence.

There are some photographs included, but my favourite illustrations are those taken from Dickens’s stories and others that capture the Christmas period of the era. They are a joy and further enhance the reading experience.

This is a book for lovers of Christmas, for people interested in the Victorian period and its traditions, for people who want to learn more about Dickens, and it will be of particular interest to writers who want to learn more about what writing was like at the time. I loved the fragments of Dickens’s stories that exemplify why he continues to be love, valued and appreciated. A fabulous gift, for you or for those you love. Merry Christmas, and God bless Us, Every One!

Darker adventures and even more action

The Angel of Evil - Kenneth Bøgh Andersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended to fans of conspiracy theory novels and spy thrillers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fantastic. Unforgettable.

A Long Petal of the Sea - Isabel Allende

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing, not even victory,

Can wipe away the terrible hole of blood.

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

Beautiful writing and compelling characters and setting

Invisible, as Music - Caren J. Werlinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A chronicle of a life spent chasing the news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Slash (Fiction Without Frontiers) - Hunter Shea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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