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.

Recommended to those who enjoy action novels, spy novels, thrillers, and definitely to Baldacci fans.

Zero Day - David Baldacci

Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher, MacMillan, for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

David Baldacci is one of these authors whose names a reader (and even a non-reader) cannot escape. His books are widely distributed and he always seems to have a volume or two in the bestsellers list (no, not the Amazon one on a little-known genre, but the real thing). Despite all that (or perhaps because of it, as sometimes some names seem so familiar that I feel as if I had already read/watched or whatever it is they do, them before) I had never read any of his books. I saw that coinciding with a book launch, NetGalley was offering a copy of the first book in the John Puller series, and I decided perhaps it was time I read him. (I don’t have any specific opinions on best sellers as such and I don’t necessarily avoid them as a matter of principle but I do prefer to discover them early on, so I can make my own mind up).

The story, narrated in the third person, mostly follows John Puller, a military investigator that is all you probably would wish for in such a character. He has complex family relations (including a genius brother imprisoned for life for treason), he has seen his share of combat and has the medals and the scars to prove them, he is as skilled at fighting as he is at investigating, and although usually he works as part of a team, he can be a one-man-band when required (as is the case here).  There are some moments (like the first chapter) when we follow other characters, but this is for a very good reason, and we, by and far, experience the events from Puller’s perspective. Of course, that does not mean we know everything he knows, because the book hides information at times and that means there are some surprises (the number of surprises might depend on how close your attention and on how many books of the genre you have read).  The story is a combination of a spy story with highly skilled military investigator/hero in charge, and a more standard police procedural, with big secrets, conspiracies, and environmental issues thrown in for good measure. There are hints of a possible romance, but nobody is up to the task, and the time frame is very tight for such developments.

The investigation is very detailed, and we get to know quite a few of the characters in the small West Virginian town of Drake, a coal mining place that has become almost a ghost town due to the environmental and economic consequences of the exploitation and depletion of its resources by the sole industry in the area. Baldacci shares as much loving detail on the way the coal industry works (or at least some far-from-exemplary companies), as he does on everything else: the way the military works, the different roles of the investigating and security agencies and how they interact, the equipment used, the weaponry… This might be too much for some readers, but I am sure it will make others very happy. I did enjoy more the discussions of the environmental issues and the socio-economic effects of the coal-extracting industry than the details about the equipment, but there is plenty of action and intrigue to keep readers of mystery, and also spy novels, entertained.

My favourite character is Sam Cole, the female police officer in charge of the investigation. She has problems of her own and also a difficult relationship with her family, and seems the perfect match for Puller. I would probably have preferred the novel to be about her, but that is not the genre or the focus of it. In many ways, her character is the one that makes us see Puller as something more than a perfect fighting and investigating machine, all professional, and efficient. Yes, he has a cat, some sort of relationships with his father, and an interesting dynamic with his brother, but she is the only person who is not a relative he seems to relate to at a level beyond the casual, and it is not only because it is helpful to his mission.  

I agree with comments that the novel is formulaic in many ways (Puller survives several attempts on his life, has to subvert orders and get inventive to save the day and manages to pull an incredible feat at the end), although as I haven’t read other Baldacci’s books, I cannot comment on how much better or worse Puller is compared to some of his other heroes (Reacher is mentioned often in the reviews, sometimes agreeing he’s as good, others denying it). I imagine once you have such a following as an author, you know what your public wants and expects, so it is perhaps disingenuous to accuse him of writing to a formula. It is not a genre I read often, and I prefer something more distinctive, less heroic, and with a bit of humour.

The book is well paced, the writing supports the story rather than calling attention to itself (as I said, some readers might find there is too much detail, but I doubt his fans will, and after reading the acknowledgements, it is clear that he is well-informed and has had access to first-hand information not many would have), and if you like lone heroes with a conscience, John Puller makes a pretty decent one. Recommended to those who enjoy action novels, spy novels, thrillers, and definitely to Baldacci fans. I am not sure I’d say I’ve become one of them, but I might try another one of his stories at some point.

 

For lovers of historical fiction and the French Resistance, a novel based on a true episode of cruelty and destruction that should never be forgotten.

Wolfsangel - Liza Perrat

This is the third book by Liza Perrat I have read, and it won’t be the last one. After The Silent Kookaburra set in Australia in the 1970s, I read the first book in the Bone Angel Series, Spirit of Lost Angels. (Read the review here). This is a series that follows the women of a French rural family through the generations, with big jumps in time. The name comes from a little bone angel talisman these women wear and inherit down the female line, together with a skill and talent for nursing (including knowledge of herbs and natural remedies) and midwifery. While Spirit of Lost Angels is set around the time of the French Revolution, this book follows the main character, Célestine (Céleste) through the difficult years of the German occupation of France during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath.

The book is again narrated by its protagonist, a young girl, eager to prove herself and to lead an interesting life away from her seemingly uncaring and cold mother, in the first person. I know some readers do not like first person narrations although they bring an immediacy and closeness to the proceedings, and help us understand better the main character (well, to the point she understands herself). This device also means that we share in the point of view and opinions of Céleste and we are as surprised by events as she is, as we do not have any more information than she does. I am fascinated by narrators, and although Céleste is not an unreliable narrator by design (she does tell things and events as she experiences them), her rushed and unthinking behaviour at times, her quick reactions, and her youth make her not the most objective of people at times. Of course, if readers cannot manage to connect with Céleste at some level, the novel will be harder to read, but she is a likeable character. She is young, impulsive, and enthusiastic. She is eager to help and will often do it without thinking about the consequences and risks she might be taking. She helps a Jewish family very early on, hiding them on the farm, even when she is convinced her mother will not be happy. She wants to help the Resistance cause and is frustrated by the assumption that she is incapable of making any meaningful contribution to the war efforts because she is a woman. She works hard to prove she can be as useful and courageous as a man and runs incredible risks to achieve her goals.

She is not perfect, though, and her youth is particularly well reflected in her romantic attachment to one of the German officers. As is often the case for young lovers, Céleste seems to fall in love with her idea of romance, having only very limited and furtive contact with the officer. If at first she tries to convince herself that she is only playing a part to gather intelligence (and even her sister Felicité encourages her to try and obtain information), soon things turn serious, proving that she is not as calculating and mature as she would like to believe.

Céleste develops throughout the novel, moving to the city, becoming a true resistance fighter, helping the war effort as a nurse, feeding the prisoners at the station on their way to the camps, spying and passing secret information, and becoming a determined and independent woman. She also proves her strength and determination and survives a terrible ordeal and severe losses.

The cast of secondary characters is also exemplary. Céleste’s family (except for her father that we don’t know much about) are well-drawn and fascinating. The relationship mother-daughter is one of the strongest points and it reminds us of the strong bonds and connections between women (not always straight forward) the series is built on. Felicité, Céleste’s sister, is an amazing character, brave beyond the call of duty and, as we learn later, based on a historical figure. Her actions and her courage are very touching. Her brother is strong and supportive, and also a member of the resistance, and we get to know her friends, the doctor, the priest, and to understand that a lot of the population supported the resistance (some more openly than others), although there were collaborationists there too.

The author creates a great sense of place and historical era. The language, the foods, the clothing, the difficulties of an occupied nation trying to survive and resist are vividly brought to life thanks to the detailed descriptions of the landscape and the events, that make us share in the experience, without burdening the novel with extraneous information. The research is seamlessly incorporated into the story and it reminds us of how close the events are to us and makes us reflect on historical similarities with current times. The style of writing is poetic at times (the descriptions of the forest, Céleste’s love for her home and her pendant…), dynamic and flowing, and it has psychological depth and insight too.

The novel is harrowing and realistic as it describes death and tragedy on a big scale. The events that took place in Oradour Sur Glane in 1944 (and that inspired the novel) are horrific and reading them in the first person helps us understand more fully the kind of horror experienced by the victims and also the survivors.

The ending ties all loose ends together and is perfect for the story.

This is a great book for anybody who loves historical fiction and is interested in the French resistance from a more human perspective. It personalises and brings the readers closer to the experience of the era, at the same time helping us reflect on events and attitudes that are all too familiar. If you prefer your history close, personal, and in the first person, this is your book.

 

 

A rallying cry towards unity, care, and humanism.

No Is Not Enough - Naomi Klein

Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher, Penguin Books UK-Allen Lane, for providing me with an ARC e-copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have a long list of books to read and I am trying to organise it somehow, mostly in order of acquisition, but this book arrived just as I had finished reading another book and it stuck in my mind. It is a very current and momentous book, so it was for the best that I read it promptly.

I am familiar with the name of Naomi Klein and I have seen many of her books and read about her and her ideas, but this is the first book I have read by her (I have read some short articles but although I kept seeing books by her that sounded interesting, it was usually when I was doing research on an unrelated topic or at a time when I could not read them and this time I grabbed the opportunity).

The book builds on much of her previous work, particularly on the issue of brands and how they have come to dominate our lives (the subject of No Logo) and also how politics and politicians exploit any disasters and shocks to impose ever harsher neo-liberal economic policies (that she discusses in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism) and applies it to the current situation, particularly to Trump’s election and his policies since.

I started highlighting text through the book, to the point that sometimes I would be doing something and listening to the text to speech version and would have to stop to highlight something. This happened very often and I realised Klein was saying many of the things I had been thinking and some that I had not thought of but I recognised and agreed with as I read them. Her reflections about Trump as a brand and his presidency as the latest feather to add to this brand made sense (I learned new things about him and was reminded of others that had long forgotten but helped to build up a clear picture). It was curious that she referred to his time in the Apprentice and his appearances in WWE (televised professional wrestling) as (in a certain way) training for what was to come. She noted that some of his behaviours during the campaign were very similar to those of the fighters in WWE. And lo and behold, a few hours after I had read that part of the book, Trump tweeted the doctored video of one of his appearances in the WWE putting the CNN logo instead of the head of Vince McMahon, whom he was pretending to punch. And if I had already thought that was a very convincing comparison when I read it, even more so now.

The book is well-written, easy to read (well, or not, depending on what your point of view and your political leanings are), and develops the thesis that although many are shocked by Trump’s rise to power (and Brexit), it was not a total surprise, and there are people, organisations, and even whole countries who have resisted the move towards materialism and brands where only things, money, and profits matter, and where fingers are pointed at sectors of the population (immigrants, asylum seekers, ethnic minorities, women, environmentalists…)  who become the scapegoats for a situation they are the victims of. Klein looks at many of these groups and populations and how they have resisted the situation and taken a stand but she also notes that something else is required. Resisting and saying no is important, and it does not matter how big or small we are, we can all do it, but we need to find something to aim for, something that can unite us and something we can fight together for.

She discusses in detail the importance of trying to find common ground, rather than working for small goals, and states that the way the political centre has tried to introduce minor changes will not suffice. As an example of what could be done she focuses on the meeting that took place in Canada, bringing many groups together (unions, environmentalists, indigenous people, women’s groups, groups working towards racial equality…) and that produced the Leap Manifesto, because they think a leap is required to truly change things. We must leap towards hope and dare to embrace a revolutionary way of changing the world.

She notices the rise of dystopian fiction (and films) and the ever growing popularity of some classics (Orwell’s 1984) that she observes are a warning (not necessarily a prediction) and says we need more utopias; we need to be able to think of a better future. And she writes (and as she quotes a big favourite of mine, Oscar Wilde, I could not resist sharing it):

Because, as Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.”

I read some of the comments on the book, and they are separated along ideological lines. I agree that perhaps she uses examples that might not be as simply black or white as she makes them sound, and I also agree (and thought the same as I read it), that perhaps the Leap Manifesto falls short of going as far as it should (as it offers and statement of good intentions but not much in the way of implementation) although it is an attempt at reaching an agreement and a compromise between very different groups, so it is not surprising that it is not all that radical. I must clarify that I read an ARC copy and therefore did not have access to what I have read are very extensive notes at the end of the final version of the book. Without the notes, it is not a very long book.

The book made me think of an essay we had to write, when I was studying American Literature at the University of Sussex, discussing what could have been done, or rather, what could be done in the present, to somehow repair the gap between whites and African Americans in the US that comes from the time of slavery and was discussed after the Civil War and the freeing of all slaves, a gap that has never been fully resolved (as we all know). At the time of the Reconstruction, the suggestion had been that each freed slave be given 40 acres of land (therefore redistributing the slave owners’ property) and a mule (if you’ve ever wondered why Spike Lee’s production company is called that and never checked, now you know) so they could build up a life for themselves. Of course, that did not happen (or only in few cases) but I remember that after talking to the professor I did write a somewhat utopic essay that he could not fault for its reach, although he could not see how any government would go down that route. (I’ve been looking for it but I think it must have been in one of the floppy disks that disintegrated, although I might have a paper copy. I’ll investigate).  It also made me think about how much emphasis on brands is made, even in the world of writing, and how a lot of the advice to sell anything (a physical product or anything else) is to create a brand and market yourself (rather than the product). As she notes, if you are swimming in the world of media, in whatever capacity, it is very difficult not to be swamped by the allure of branding and its fraught logic. This is something that I have been thinking more and more about recently, and something that I care for less and less. Yes, perhaps this book arrives at the right moment, at least for me, but hopefully for many others too.

As I said, I highlighted a lot of content, and of course, I cannot share it all. But I could not resist and had to share a few bits.

First, one that shows her wit (and that made me write: olé! as a comment)

The truth, which doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous, is that the Trump brand stands for wealth itself or, to put it more crassly, money. That’s why its aesthetics are Dynasty-meets-Louis XIV. It’s why Trump’s relationship to gold is the inverse of Superman’s relationship to kryptonite: Trump crumples when he is more than three feet away from something big and shiny.

This one I think will give you an idea of what the book is about, in her own words:

We have to question not only Trump but the stories that ineluctably produced him. It’s not enough to superficially challenge him as an individual, foul and alarmingly ignorant though he may be. We have to confront the deep-seated trends that rewarded him and exalted him until he became the most powerful person in the world.  The values that have been sold to us through reality TV, get-rich-quick books, billionaire saviors, philanthrocapitalists. The same values that have been playing out in destroyed safety nets, exploding prison numbers, normalized rape culture, democracy-destroying trade deals, rising seas and privatized disaster response, and in a world of Green Zones and Red Zones.

And I love the way she ends the book (do not worry, it is not a spoiler):

 My deepest thanks are for patient little Toma, who missed his mom over these last months, but feels strongly that, “Donald Trump is too rude to be president.

This book is not for everybody and if you really like Trump and what he stands for, or do not care about climate change and other issues such as the rights of women, equality, diversity, the rights of indigenous people… I’d advise you not to read it. If you don’t, I’d recommend you check a sample of the writing and see if it speaks to you. I now know why she is so well-known and respected. A compelling writer, whatever one’s political views.

 

Such a sad post for us book lovers. I want to go and rescue them. Any book superheroes around?

Abandoned Books (#3) - Revealed!

Reblogged from ~*Krissys Bookshelf Reviews*~ :

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tunis

 

 

Tunis

 

Privately owned bookstore that was abandoned due to lack of interest in reading from its community residents.

 

 

 

France

 

Abandoned library in France that left behind its outdated indexing and sorting system.

 

 

 

 

Detroit

 

One of the many city libraries that were abandoned fully stocked in the crash of the surrounding factory and manufacturing industries.

 

 

 

 

Undisclosed location

 

Referred to as The Book Dump - is an area rumored to be several miles wide and 80 ft deep. Its filled with numerous books that are no longer of use to its owners meant for recycling plants, and donation centers that never arrived.

 

 

 

 

Berkshire UK

 

One of the many buildings abandoned in a ghost town inside of Berkshire this bookstore was left with its books exactly the way they'd been placed by the hands that put them there.

 

A light, fun, and dynamic story set in the 1920s, particularly recommended to those with an adventurous and playful spirit.

Three Things Serial Story: A Little 1920s Story - Teagan Riordain Geneviene

I was the lucky winner of this book as part of a promotion the author run on her blog, Teagan’s Books and I freely chose to review it.

I have been a follower of the author’s blog for several years, although I was not following her when she wrote this serial. Teagan Geneviene is a fascinating and versatile writer. I have read her novel Atonement, Tennessee (check my review here) that is a magical experience, full of finesse, beauty, and attention to detail, evidently the fruit of a lot of thought, careful planning, research, and revision. On the other hand, she is also able to produce her legendary serials. She starts with an idea, or an image, and asks the readers of her blog to contribute certain elements. These might be things (objects, words, concepts), foods, words related to a certain era… She links each one of the posts to the blog of the contributor, and progressively builds up her story, going wherever the three things (foods, objects, or whatevers) and her imagination take her. Although, as I’ve said before, I wasn’t following the author’s blog when she wrote this serial, I have met the main character, Pip in a later serial and I have followed several others, some with familiar characters and a recent one with different characters, and more in the steampunk style. Unsurprisingly, they have a big following and the authors keeps her followers (and I suspect, herself) guessing where the story is going to go next.

Many of the readers of her blog had asked her to publish the serials in book format and finally, she obliged.

Anybody reading the description of this volume will get a sense of how it came into being. The story has a wonderful sense of time (the jazzy 1920s, brilliant, young, full of flappers, parties, movies, and excitement) and it is told in the first person by Pip, a young woman transplanted from the South to the big city, with a huge imagination and an endless curiosity that gets her involved in all kinds of adventures, including but not limited to: kidnappings, rides in fire trucks, romances, secret coded messages, international intrigues, hidden treasures… Pip also has a wonderful turn of phrase (she never swears, at least not as we understand it, and there is no bad language in the book, although she uses her own expressions that colour her language and readers will come to love) and believes she is a very modern woman, although she is less savvy and cool than she would like to believe.

This is a short novel, quick, fast and full of adventures that will delight readers of all ages and will not offend those worried about bad language, erotica or graphic violence. Although in this format readers do not have access to the wonderful images, fruit of the author’s research, which illustrate her blog posts, it does offer continuity and an easier to follow story that will keep readers on their toes. It has elements of historical fiction, of mystery (although not by design, it could fit into the cozy mystery category), and a few touches of romance (or rather, romantic interest).

Although this work is too short to fully demonstrate the author’s abilities, it does give the readers a taste of her sense of fun and adventure, and it introduces a character that will become a close friend in series to come. As an exercise, I would suggest you try and put yourselves in the author’s shoes and every time you start to read a new chapter, headed by the three things, try and imagine how you would use those three words to continue the tale. I am sure you’ll be even more amazed at the story.

The author is working on turning some of her other serials into books, so if you enjoy this one, there are more delights to come your way. And, do not forget to check Atonement, Tennesse.

Recommended to anybody looking for a light, fun, and dynamic story set in the 1920s, particularly those with an adventurous and playful spirit.

A solid and entertaining cozy mystery set in the world of the circus, and a must for those who love big cats

A Spark of Justice - J.D. Hawkins

I was sent an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This book is classed as a cozy mystery and is set in the world of the circus, probably in the recent past, although this is not specified and the novel has a somewhat timeless feel.  There are mobile phones (but hardly ever used, and most people rely on land lines as nobody is located unless they are at home or at work), computers (but only an old-fashioned one is ever mentioned or seen and reports are paper based) but most people do not seem to use any modern commodities, although the mauling of Rolo, the lion tamer and the victim whose murder/accidental death is the mystery at the centre of the novel, is available on YouTube. And of course, the circus where the story is set still has performing animal, including big felines (lions, leopards, tigers, and panthers). In the US there is no federal ban as such yet (although they are banned in many countries) but most of the big circuses have stopped showing those numbers (and indeed Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance in May this year) and there are many local bans, so that adds to the feeling of a somewhat idealised and old-fashioned world.

The story is told in the third person but from the point of view of John (Juan) Nieves, an insurance investigator of Puerto Rican origin, born in New York, who left his studies as a vet to join the police, and after working for the police for a time, moved to the Mid-West and changed his job to try and save his marriage. Unfortunately, it did not work, but he loves his son, thinks about him often and lives for his visits.  His lifestyle is itinerant and he feels no strong attachment to his current job or to his apartment. For some reason, he feels irresistibly attracted to the world of the circus from the moment he sets foot in it. Although he does not like clowns and he is less than welcome by the circus artists initially, he cannot stop going back, even when he does not have a very good reason to. At first, it seems it is due to his attachment to detective work and to his wish to solve the mystery, but later we realise there is something else at play.

As happens in all good detective or mystery novels, the story is not only about the mystery but also about the investigator. In this case, John’s motives and sense of self and identity are put into question from the very beginning, and eventually, the process of self-discovery becomes more interesting than the case itself. If circuses have traditionally been places where people could run away from their circumstances and become a new person, this novel shows them as a big family happy to accommodate those who might not fit into normal society and others who want to become who they feel they really are, no matter how alternative. It is perhaps significant that Rolo did not spend all year with the circus but lived at times with his outside family, and was not as fully invested as the rest of the artists and did not truly belong.

The mystery is pretty intriguing too, don’t get me wrong. A death by a deadly tiger attack is not everyday news, and the fact that the tiger had been spooked by an electrical spark from a damaged cable makes it even less common. There are a suitably large number of suspects (both from within the circus —as Rolo was not very well liked, for reasons we discover later—, and from his personal life, including a wife, a lover, and a brother), a complex web of deceit and betrayal; there are threats and warnings to John to keep out of circus’s business, and there are wonderful descriptions of the world of circus, wild cats, clowns, and behind the curtains insights that will delight anybody who has ever felt curious about this world.

Although there are anxiety provoking and scary moments (near- miss accidents, close calls with a knife thrower, eerie moments with a lion and a panther, and also more run of the mill human violence), there is no actual gore and the investigation itself is not precise and full of detail (in fact, once some of the suspects are removed from the scene they practically disappear from the story).

I liked John (Juan) Nieves, the main character. He is not the usual noir detective, full of clever repartees and sarcastic comments. He thinks before he acts (mostly); he is not unduly violent and uses no foul language; he thinks of his son often and is kind towards animals and kids, and he acknowledges his weaknesses, his doubts, and his mistakes. He is happy to let certain things drop and to hide others that have no real bearing on the matter and will not affect his employer. He is not a rigid believer in the value of finding the truth and revealing it at all costs and is more interested in human beings (and big cats) than he is in some perfect vision of duty.  The author, who describes a personal background in carnival attractions, creates some interesting secondary characters, particularly the circus’s performers, although due to how different clowns look with and without makeup, it is quite easy to get confused as to who is who, but this does not prevent us from following the plot and enjoying the story.

I have read some comments that describe the ending as a let-down and this is true if we think of the novel as being only about the investigation of Rolo’s death. On the other hand, if we see it as a process of investigating and revealing who the real John (Juan) Nieves is, there is no disappointment at all.

Recommended to lovers of cozy mysteries set in original settings, to those who like big cats (or cats of any size), and to readers who appreciate a good background and an inside knowledge of the world of circus, especially those who feel nostalgic about a world that seems to be on the verge of disappearance. A solid and entertaining read.

Multi-award winner historical fiction in pre-revolution New York with a fabulous narrator and an intriguing main character

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York - Francis Spufford

Thanks to Net Galley and to Faber & Faber for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I had an interesting experience with this novel. In the last few weeks, every time I reviewed a novel that was nominated for an award and checked out what novel had won it, it was Golden Hill (among them, the Costa First Novel Award, The Desmond Elliott Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2017…) and I thought I had to read it and find out what the fuss what about.

It is not difficult to see why people are fascinated by this novel. It is a historical fiction novel by an author who has written non-fiction extensively and has chosen a very interesting narrative style. (I must confess to being very intrigued by his book called The Child that Books Built. A Life in Reading, especially in view of a recent discussion we had on my blog about books on reading). The story is set in the New York of the late 1740s and is narrated by an anonymous narrator (or so it seems as we read) who tells the story of a man, Richard Smith, who arrives in the New World with a money order for 1000 pounds and acts quite mysteriously. The story is told in the third person, but the narrator breaks the third wall barrier often, at times to despair at being unable to describe a card game, or a fight, at others to decide where we can or cannot enter. Although the book’s language and style are word-perfect (and will enchant those who love accuracy), it appears more sensitive to certain aspects of the society of the time than perhaps a novel of the period would have been (slavery, gender, and race issues…) but the narrating style reminds us of Henry and Sarah Fielding, and in a nod to metafiction, in the book itself there are discussions of novels that include Joseph Andrews or David Simple. I have talked often about my fascination for narrators and this is one of those novels that will keep it alive for a long time.

The book transports the reader to the New York of 1747, a provincial and small place, with only a few streets and a mixture of inhabitants mostly from Dutch and English origins, with a jumble of different coins and bank notes in circulation, what appear to be the equivalent of small-town politics and an interesting judicial system, and dependent on ships from London for news and entertainment. Although I have read historical tracts and fiction from the era, I don’t think any of them managed to give me as good an understanding and a feel for what colonial New York was like.

The story itself is built around the mystery of Smith’s character. Who is he? Is the money order real, or is he a con-man? Is he a magician, an actor, a seducer, a trouble-maker, all of the above? Everybody wants him, or better, his money, for their own goals (political, financial…) and he allows himself to be courted by all, although he is only really interested in the daughter of one of the Dutch businessmen who is holding his money order until they receive confirmation of its true value, Tabitha. Tabitha is my favourite character, a shrew, sharp and witty, and somebody I wouldn’t mind learning much more about.

Smith is a good stand-in for the reader because although he is from the era, he is naïve as to the colonies and the different social mores, politics, and customs there, and keeps getting into trouble. Although his adventures are interesting, and the mystery that surrounds him seemingly propels the story (although half-way through the novel we get a clue as to what might be behind the intrigue), I found it difficult to fully empathise with him, perhaps because of the style of narration (although the story is told by a narrator, and in the third person, at times we get a clear look at what Smith is thinking, but, for me, the hidden information somehow hindered my full investment in the character). There are many other interesting characters, although we do not get to know any of them in a lot of detail. For a great insight into the book and all that it contains, I recommend you read the About the author note I have included above. The man can write, for sure.

The ending… Well, there is an ending to the story and then there is a final twist. If you picked up the clues, the ending will not be such a big surprise. The twist… Yes, it makes one look at the book in a completely different way, although it makes perfect sense.

I highlighted many fragments that I particularly liked, but on checking them again I was worried they might, either give too much away or confuse somebody who is not following the story. So I’d advise you to check the book sample available on your favourite online bookstore and see if you enjoy the style. If you do, it only gets better.

I recommend this book to anybody curious about its reputation, to lovers of historical fiction, in particular, those set up in the colonies prior to the revolution, and to readers and writers who enjoy narrators and look for something a bit different.

A symbiosis of the genres of the noir detective novel and science-fiction with a hero with a dark-sense of humour and a heart

The Last Detective - Brian Cohn

Thanks to Rosie Amber for organising Rosie’s Book Review Team and for providing this great opportunity for reviewers and authors to meet. If you’re an author, check here how to submit your books to the team.

I don’t read many purely science-fiction books (I’m not a big fan of lengthy descriptions, and world-building can take a fair amount of space while I generally care more for characters) but I’ve read a few recently that I’ve enjoyed, enough to make me pay more attention to sci-fi offerings. Some novels combine sci-fi with other genres and that usually brings them onto more familiar territories. This novel is one of those cases. It is a fairly classical (in style) noir detective novel:  you have the disenchanted detective who has left the police disappointed with the way things are done now (in his case, though, there was an alien invasion on Earth that all but destroyed Humanity’s achievements and progress over centuries [no electricity, limited access to fuel, no telephones, no TV, no democracy]… Humans have become prisoners, rationing of food has come back, and aliens control access to the few resources left, and they send humans to ‘labor camps’ somewhere outside of Earth with some cooperation from the human ‘authorities’) and who is called back because he’s the only one who can solve a murder. Now that the police have become no more than puppets of the aliens (also called ‘slicks’, because of the peculiar aspect of their skin), there is nobody else who still remembers how things were done. This is a DIY police procedural novel (no computers, no DNA analysis or blood tests, only very basic gathering of evidence and use of deductive powers, almost back to Conan Doyle or Christie) with a main characters, Adrian Grace (a very apt name, as we discover), who has probably lost everything and who describes himself as being ‘addicted’ to detective work. There might be other reasons (read excuses) why he chooses to accept the case of the murder of a Slick (they have somewhat of a herd mentality and do not hurt each other but it seems unthinkable that a human would dare to try and kill one of them) but the main one is because he misses being a detective.

The story is told in the first person, present tense, from Grace’s point of view, and it follows the chronological order, with the main action taking place over only a few days. Although he has fallen quite low, he hasn’t reached the level of others, and he is smart, witty, and has a rather black sense of humour that is what keeps him going.  Although he does not dwell for too long on his circumstances, or those of humanity (the novel starts with a brief chapter that takes place right at the moment when the aliens arrive, that allows us a glimpse into Grace’s work before normal life came to an end, and we get to meet his partner, Yuri, who is missing by the time the main action of the novel starts), he is harder in appearance than in reality. He trusts his instincts; he suspects everybody but is also quick to believe in first impressions and happily accepts as a partner a young female detective, whom he trusts from very early on (because he needs somebody to trust). Grace reminded me of many of the hard-boiled detectives of old, but he is not violent by nature and avoids guns if he can help it, and in contrast to more modern models, he is witty but not foul-mouthed. He drip-feeds us details about his life (he was brought up a Catholic, he was married with kids, he talks about his mother’s death when he explains his lack of faith…) and he still looks after his father. His relation with his father is heart-warming, despite the terrible situation, and it only reinforces the fact that we are dealing with a human being and not a collection of clichés. Although I’m very partial to unreliable narrators, Grace is not one of them, at least not by design. This being a mystery, we are not always given always given all the information, but if we are misguided, it is because Grace is mistaken or wrong-footed (by others or himself).

The book is not heavy on descriptions and the world the book describes is like a ghost of our world, like those empty and abandoned towns we sometimes see on TV that have fallen prey to disasters (economic, natural, or man-made). We have human beings that have lost their purpose, groups of religious extremists (the Abandoned, who sustain God has abandoned Humanity), resistance groups, and the aliens can also function as stand-ins for many dictatorial regimes bent on the destruction of all opposition (Nazi Germany comes to mind, but many other, recent and distant, would also fit the bill). Some of the humans are complicit with the regime whilst others are not what they seem to be. The book allows for reflections on the nature of society, politics, religion (there is a priest that plays an important part), family, betrayal, guilt, and ultimately hope. Grace is not always right, but he has not lost his humanity, and he is a realistic character we would all like to befriend.

This is a tremendous book, where the science-fiction and the detective genre work in symbiosis and create a novel that is more than the sum of its parts. Recommended to fans of both genres, especially those who don’t mind experimentation within the genre, and in general to people who enjoy fiction that pushes them to think whilst keeping them turning the pages.

Recommended to fans of romantic historic novels looking for a short, enjoyable and thrilling read set in the early Civil War era

Genteel Secrets - S.R. Mallery

I have read, enjoyed and reviewed several of S.R. Mallery’s novels and short story collections (most recently The Dolan Girls, check the review here) and she has a knack for combining historical fact and characters with gripping stories that grab the readers, transporting them into another world, sometimes closer and sometimes  far back in the past.

In this novella, the author takes us back to the period of the early American Civil War, and our guides are two characters, James, a medical student from New York (an Irish immigrant who moved with his parents when he was a child and suffered tragedy and deprivation from an early age) and Hannah, a Southern girl, the daughter of slave owners, although not a typical Southern belle, as she enjoys books more than balls and feels closer to some slaves (including her childhood friend, Noah) than to her own cousin, the manipulating Lavinia.

The story is told in the third person from both characters’ point of view. They meet in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the novel, realise they have plenty in common (their love of books and their political sympathies among other things) and fall in love (more at at-first-meeting than at-first-sight) as they should in these kinds of stories. There are many things that separate them (I’m not sure I’d call them star-crossed lovers, but there is a bit of that), and matters get even more complicated when James decides to join the Pinkerton Detective Agency and ends up chasing Confederate Spies. At the same time, Hannah is forced to spy for the South, much against her will, and… Well, as the author quotes at the start of one of the chapters (thanks, Shakespeare) ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’. I won’t give you full details but let me tell you there are secret codes, interesting hiding places, blackmail, occult passages, and betrayals galore. The underground railway is put into action, Frederick Douglass (one of my favourite historical figures of the period, and I’ll recommend again his  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave here in Project Gutenberg) makes a guest appearance, and famous spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow plays an important part. (I must confess I hadn’t heard of her before but the author’s decision of using her as one of her background characters is a great success).

The story flows easily and although there are no lengthy descriptions that deflect from the action, we get a clear sense of the locations and of the atmosphere of the period, including the abuse slaves were subject to, and the social morasses of the time, particularly the different treatment of women and the expectations of the genders and races. I was fascinated by the Washington of the period, the political machinations, and the fantastic description of the Battle of Manassas from the point of view of the spectators (as it seems that the well-off people decided it was a good occasion for a picnic and they ate and observed the fighting from the hilltop). The two main characters and Noah are likeable and sympathetic, although this is a fairly short story and there is no time for an intense exploration of psychological depths (their consciences struggle between complying with their duties and following their feelings but their conflict does not last too long). There is no time to get bored, and the ending will please fans of romantic historical fiction (although some might find it a bit rushed).

My only complaint is that the story is too short and more traditionally romantic than I expected (pushing the suspension of disbelief a bit). I would have liked to learn more about the Pinkerton’s role chasing spies during the war (one of the author’s characters in the Dolan Girls was also a Pinkerton detective), and I hope there might be a more detailed exploration of the underground railway in future stories (although the role of quilts to signal secret messages is discussed in one of the stories of Sewing Can Be Dangerous and Other Small Threads).

Recommended to fans of romantic historic novels looking for a short, enjoyable and thrilling read set in the early Civil War era. Another great story from S.R. Mallery.

 

For lovers of historical fiction (late XIX-early XX c), particularly British (Manchester) and those looking for novel explorations of issues of gender identity.

The Night Brother - Rosie Garland

Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins UK for providing me with an ARC of this book that I voluntarily chose to review.

Gender and gender identity are complex subjects and have always been, even at times when this was not openly acknowledged. Characters who change gender are not new (although not very common either): Virginia Wolf’s Orlando is perhaps one of the best known, and his/her fictional biography offers the reader a chance to observe historical events from the point of view of a character that is an outsider in more ways than one. Maria Aurèlia Capmany’s Quim/Quima uses another character that goes from male to female as a way to revisit the story of Catalonia, in an open homage to Woolf whom she addresses in a letter that serves as a prologue to her novel. Much more recently, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel that deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize (and that I recommend wholeheartedly as I do the other two, although I don’t think Quim/Quima is easy to find other than in the original in Catalan), uses a similar plot device, although this time clearly addressing intersex and focusing more on the difficulties and struggles of living outside the gender norm (a subject the other two novels I mention don’t focus on).

What marks the difference between those books and The Night Brother is that rather than the main character living a part of his/her life as pertaining to a gender and, at some point, switching (similar to what happens in Kafka’s Metamorphosis although not quite as surreal), in this novel, the main character is both, male and female, and daily morphs from the one gender into the other, at least for a time. Edie is a woman (a girl when we meet her) who lives with her mother and grandmother in a pub in Manchester at the end of the XIX century, during the day, and at night she transforms into Herbert (or Gnome, as he prefers to be called), as if she were a shapeshifter creature of sorts, or a being from some paranormal genre (but that is not at all the feel of the novel). At the beginning of the novel Edie thinks of Gnome as her brother, always by her side, a wild creature who shares adventures with her (although we soon realise there is something peculiar about their relationship, as they seem to know what each other thinks without talking). Edie’s mother insists she is making Gnome up and is imagining things and although the girl tries hard to ignore it, unexplained things keep happening. At some point, she realises what the truth is (at least in part, as secrets are a big subject in this story) and discovers a way to keep her ‘brother’ at bay, although this comes at a heavy prize and it is difficult to maintain. Edie tries to live a discreet life and not get too close to people to avoid the risk of revealing her secret and that results in a sad and sombre life. When she becomes friendly with a gay co-worker and later becomes a suffragette, things get complicated and Gnome won’t stay put. I won’t discuss the plot in more detail to avoid giving any spoilers away.

The story is told in the first person from the points of view of Edie and Gnome (although Edie’s narration has more weight for reasons that soon become evident to readers) and a final chapter from the point of view of Abigail, one of the suffragettes. This style of narrative gives the reader a good sense of how different the perceptions of the two characters are, their behaviour, expressions, and what reactions they elicit from others. The novel excels at depicting the Manchester of the turn of the century, its buildings, its neighbourhoods, its businesses, the savoury and unsavoury areas, the social mores of the era, the secret places where those whose tastes did not fit in with society at large met, and the atmosphere of the city and the times. We have ladies from good families, blue collar characters, prostitutes, ruffians, street urchins, policemen, publicans and everything in between, all beautifully observed. For me, this is one of the strongest points of the novel, and although I only know the Manchester of modern times, I felt as if I was wandering its streets with the characters at the turn of the century. The Suffragist rallies and their repression are also shared in great detail, to the point where we are one of the fallen bodies about to be trampled over, in a scene difficult to forget.

As the novel is told in the first person from those two character’s perspectives, it is important that they come across as fully realised individuals. For me, Edie is the more convincing of the two. This is perhaps in part due to her having more space (and also probably because I am a woman and find it easier to get into her shoes) and that allows us to understand better what goes through her head. I don’t mean she is a particularly likeable character (she refuses to listen to reason, she is hard and tries to close her heart to others and she does bad things too), but she is easier to understand and she grows and evolves through the novel, becoming… Well, I’ll keep my peace. However, Gnome remains impulsive, childish at times, and seems not to have a thought beyond getting his revenge and satisfying his needs. He is not a well-rounded character, and as a depiction of masculinity I found it very limited —although it makes sense if we view the novel as an allegory that turns on its head the old view of the genders, with women being close to nature, earth, the moon, natural beings, slaves to their hormones and anatomy, and men who were the intellectual beings, rational, controlled, dominant, the sun, head over feelings— but he is a force of nature, although not very likeable either. Edie’s mother and grandmother are intriguing characters, with her mother being a great example of bad motherhood (not only for what she does and the way she treats Edie but for what she tries to do to sort her problems, an extreme but not false ‘treatment’ on offer at the time), while her grandmother is the voice of reason, and we eventually get to understand her circumstances well. Although the ending is perhaps a bit rushed, it is satisfying and its message of tolerance and acceptance of difference is a very welcome one.

I’ve seen this book described as magical realism and as an allegory and both concepts are fitting to a certain extent, although I suspect this is a book that will mean different things to different readers and its interpretations will probably tell us as much about the reader as about the writer (as should be the case). I recommend it to readers interested in historical fiction (particularly within a British setting) of the late XIX c /beginning of the XX c, those interested in novels that explore gender and gender identity issues in new ways and who don’t mind a touch of the unexpected, and to anybody intrigued to try a fairly original take on the subject. A word of warning: there is some sexual content (only one scene and not the most graphic I’ve read, but it is there) and there is violence, particularly in the scene of the repression of the Suffragist event. 

 

A great book for researchers of the topic and anybody curious about the history of psychiatry and psychiatric treatment in the UK in the XIXc

Lunatics, Imbeciles and Idiots: A History of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland - John R F Burt, Kathryn Burtinshaw

Thanks to Pen & Sword for gifting me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have read and reviewed several books by Pen & Sword and have commented on their great catalogue before. As you know, I’m a psychiatrist and could not resist it when I saw this book.

The authors, who are well-known for writing about genealogy, note in their introduction that when people try to trace their ancestors and find that some of them seem to have disappeared from records or be lost, a possibility worth considering is that they might have had a history of mental health problems or epilepsy. If that is the case, checking the records of lunatic asylums, workhouses and the poor law records might provide plenty of information not available elsewhere. Their book focuses on mental health care during the XIX c. although there is a chapter about the pre-nineteenth century situation (that chapter, in particular, is very hard, and the way patients were cared for at the time until new reformers came along, is scary to read).

The book is divided into chapters that revise the laws in different areas of the United Kingdom, the asylums that were built, who run them, how they worked, and always offers some case studies, that share the stories of some of those patients, for the most part, voiceless and lost to history.

Later chapters look at the life in asylums (that as a psychiatrist, I found fascinating), the staff and their work, and then at different types of patients (the criminal lunatic, imbeciles and idiots, epilepsy, general paralysis of the insane, puerperal insanity, suicide). The chapters on diagnostic and causes, and treatments were particularly illuminating for me (even though I had read of some of them, the case studies and the details brought it to life).

I started working in psychiatry in the UK in 1993 and by then many of the asylums had disappeared, but, although I’ve only ever talked to people who had worked in them in the late XX century, I’ve had a chance to visit some of those fascinating buildings (some are listed buildings now and have been transformed into apartments and offices) and some are still dedicated to caring for people with mental health disorders, although, evidently in a very different form. With the changes to the philosophy and theory of caring for people with mental health problems, the discovery of new medications and a more enlightened attitude towards learning difficulties, it is important to record and revise how much the situation has changed, and not lose sight of the history of those places and particularly of the people (reformers and especially patients). In my professional capacity I’ve heard many discussions as to the advantages and disadvantages of the different models of care, and after reading this book I have gained perspective and feel much better informed.

As I read, I highlighted many points and quotes I wanted to share, but some are so extreme (when talking about ‘care’ pre-asylums) that they put horror movies and books to shame. I did not want to sensationalise a book that is, above all, a chronicle and a study that reflects changed social attitudes and laws, and that is invaluable to anybody who wants to have a good overview of mental health care in the UK in the XIX c.  and part of the XX (a recent book about R.D. Laing reminded me that even with the discovery of new medications, some things had changed little regarding the care of the mentally ill until the later part of the XX century).

This is a good compendium of the care of people with mental health illnesses, learning disabilities and epilepsy in the XIX century, and it encompasses laws, reformers, workers, buildings, and more importantly, patients. It is a great resource for researchers looking to gain a general view of the subject and offers biographies of the main players, a glossary and bibliography. The paperback copy also has great drawings and also pictures of ledgers, buildings, patients. I recommend it to anybody looking for information on the subject, to genealogists interested in researching in depth some of the lesser known records and to anybody interested in the history of psychiatry and psychiatric care, in particular in the UK.

A well-paced mystery that takes us back to a fascinating and tragic historical era

The Lover's Portrait: An Art Mystery - Jennifer S. Alderson

Thanks to Rosie’s Book Review Team and to the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily chose to review. (If you are a writer and are interested in getting first-class reviews do check here).

I love art but cannot claim to be a connoisseur and I’ve never been to Amsterdam (well, I stopped at the airport to change planes once but that was that) but I can reassure you neither of those things prevented me from enjoying this solid mystery set within the world of big art museums and exhibitions, with a background story that would comfortably fit into the genre of historical fiction.

The story is written in the third person but from several characters’ point of view, although it is easy to follow and there is no head-hopping as each chapter, some longer and some shorter, is told from only one character’s point of view. There are two time frames. Some chapters are set in 1942 and tell the story of an art dealer from Amsterdam who is being blackmailed by one of the Nazi occupiers due to his homosexuality. In 2015, Zelda, the intrepid protagonist, is trying very hard to get into a Master’s Programme that will qualify her to work in museums and agrees to help with some very basic editing tasks for an exhibition of art objects confiscated by the Nazis that has been organised in an attempt at locating the rightful owners of the paintings. Readers get also a good insight into the thoughts and motivations of other characters (the evil nephew of the original Nazi blackmailer, Rita, the owner of one of the portraits in the exhibition, Huub, the curator of the exhibition…), although we mostly follow Zelda and her adventures. Although this is book 2 in the series, I have not read the first one and had no problem getting into the story. Zelda at times reflects upon how she got here and we learn that she moved from working with computers to a stay in Nepal teaching English and finally Amsterdam. In effect, I felt the novel was better at offering factual information about her than developing her character psychologically. I was not sure of her age but at times she seemed very naïve for somebody who has travelled extensively and has held important jobs, not only with the mystery side of things but also with her personal life, but she has the heart in the right place, and I appreciated the lack of romance in the story.

The different points of view and time changes help keep the suspense going, as we have access to more information than Zelda, but this can sometimes make matters more confusing (as we are not privy to everybody’s thoughts and there are a few red herrings thrown in for good measure). The author is also good at keeping us guessing and suspecting all kinds of double-crossings (perhaps I have been reading too many mystery books and thrillers but I didn’t trust anyone and was on the lookout for more twists than there were).

The setting of Amsterdam, both in the present and in the 1940s is very well depicted and, at least for me, the wish to go there increased as I read. I really enjoyed the description of the process of documentation and how to search for the provenance of artworks (the author explains her own background and its relevance to the subject [very] in an endnote that also offers ample bibliography)  that is sufficiently detailed without getting boring, and the background theme of the fate of art and the persecution of Jews, homosexuals and other minorities in occupied Europe is brought to life in the memories described by several of the characters and also the fictionalised entries of the art merchant. It is not difficult to see how a book about the research of actual works of art could be gripping too, and the fictionalisation and the mystery elements make it attractive to even more readers.

This is a gentle mystery, with no excessive or graphic violence, with an amateur sleuth who sometimes is far too daring and impulsive (although otherwise there would not be much of a story), with a great background and sufficient red herrings and clues to keep the suspense going. I suspect most readers will guess some aspects of the solution, but perhaps not the full details, and even if they do, the rest of the elements of the story make the reading worthwhile.

A good and solid book, an interesting intrigue that combines present and past, set in a wonderful Amsterdam and the art world, with likeable and intriguing characters,  but not heavy on the psychological aspects or too demanding.

 

A gentle read for those who love books set in Britain, short-stories and Blithe Spirit

The Keeper of Lost Things: A Novel - Cecily Ruth Hogan

Thanks to NetGalley and Two Roads for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Although I am not sure this is ‘the feel-good novel of the year’ I’d have to agree it is a feel-good novel, although perhaps not for everybody.

The novel tells many stories, although it tells two in more detail, those of Anthony and Laura (later of Laura and her new family) and Eunice and Bomber. Although those stories are separated by forty years, they are parallel in many ways: an older man who puts an advertisement for an assistant, a younger woman —very young in Eunice’s case— who ends up becoming a personal friend of the man and whose life ends up enmeshed and entangled with that of her employer, both men’s work relates to literature (Anthony is a fairly successful writer of short stories and Bomber is a publisher), both males die leaving some sort of legacy to these women (and also asking them to fulfil their final wishes). As we read on, we might suspect that the relationship between these two stories runs deeper than at first appears, but it is not confirmed until very close to the end.

There are other important elements in the novel, which functions also as a collection of short stories, as Anthony, after experiencing a terrible loss, started to collect lost things, cataloguing them and using his study for safe keeping, in an attempt at recovering something he had lost himself. Throughout the novel, there are stories about those objects (written in italics so it is easy to differentiate them to the rest) interspersed with the two main stories. We are told, later in the book, that Anthony used those objects as inspiration for several collections of short stories, but the novel allows for several possible interpretations of what these stories really are. Are they imaginary stories? Are they the real stories behind the objects? If they are imaginary short-stories who has written them? Anthony? Somebody else? Each reader can choose whatever explanation s/he prefers and I’m sure there are more possibilities.

I mentioned the two main stories that frame the novel and the short stories within. Each chapter is told (in the third person) from one of the characters’ point of view (mostly Laura or Eunice) and this is is clearly indicated, as it is the year, because Eunice and Bomber’s story develops from the 1970s up to the current days. We get to know his family and follow his father’s illness (Alzheimer’s) that unfortunately later also afflicts Bomber himself. There are comments on movies of the period; there is the wonderful relationship with Bomber’s parents, the two dogs that share his life and an unrequited and impossible love story. Ah, and Bomber’s sister, Portia, her awful behaviour and her even worse attempts at getting her brother to publish one of her rip-offs of well-known and loved classics, that make for hilarious reading, especially for authors and book lovers. I must confess that, perhaps because their story develops over time and it has none of the paranormal elements added to the other, I particularly warmed to it. I found the depiction of the dementia sufferers (both father and son) touching, humorous and bittersweet, and although we don’t get to know Eunice well (other than through her devotion to Bomber and his life-work), she is a character easy to like and some of her actions make us cheer her on.

Laura’s story is that of somebody lost, perfectly in keeping with Anthony’s life mission. She made some questionable decisions when she was younger, married too young and her knight in shining armour turned up to be anything but. She is very insecure and full of self-doubt and that makes her a less likeable character as she pushes people away rather than risk being rejected, but she is also the one who has to change more and work harder to get out of her shell. Sunshine, a young neighbour, Down’s syndrome, also shares her point of view with the reader at times and becomes a member of the family, although she has her own too. She is less hindered by concern about what others’ might think, or what is right and wrong, and she has a special connection (not sure ‘power’ is the right word) with the objects and with the paranormal elements that later appear in the novel. Fred, the gardener, is the love interest, handsome and kind, but he seems to be there to provide the romance and second chance more than anything else, and he is not very well developed.

I’ve mentioned the paranormal elements. There is a ghost in the house and that takes up a fair amount of the book as Laura keeps trying to work out how to make things right. I am not sure this added much to the story but references to Blithe Spirit (that is being performed by an amateur theatrical group in the neighbourhood) put an emphasis on the effect the writer might have been aiming for (each reader can decide how well it works for them).

This is a well-written novel, with effective descriptions of objects, locations and people. There are elements of chick-lit (the descriptions of Laura’s disastrous date, her chats with her friend…), romantic touches, some elements of mystery, plenty of loss, death and second chances, a fair bit about literature… The whole feeling of the story is somewhat old-fashioned (and very British. I’ve lost count of how many ‘lovely cups of tea’ are prepared and drunk during the novel, and although that is partly in jest, yes, there is a fair amount of repetition, foreshadowing and signposting, perhaps unnecessary in this kind of story). Some of the references, including songs and films, will be lost on the younger generations. Everything is fairly gentle; even the bad characters (Portia) are only moderately nasty and they are the object of fun rather than being truly evil. There are gossip and misunderstandings but nothing really awful happens. No gore details, no huge surprises, no hot sex (I think you’ll have to buy Portia’s stories of Hotter Potter for that), and even technology only appears by the backdoor (people send text messages and a laptop and a website  appear towards the end, but this is not a book where characters follow mother trends).

Funnily enough, a publisher (rival of Anthony) sums up what the books he publishes should be like, thus:

I know what normal, decent people like, and that’s good, straightforward stories with a happy ending where the baddies get their comeuppance, the guy gets the girl and the sex isn’t too outré.

The structure of the novel and some of the short-stories are not at all like that, but the spirit behind it perhaps it and its charm might be lost on some readers who prefer more action and adventures and a more modern style of writing.

In summary, a gentle read, bittersweet, with plenty of stories for those who love short stories, of particular interest to lovers of books and movies set in Britain, stories about writers, the publishing world and women’s stories. It has sad moments and funny ones but it is unlikely to rock your world.

A bizarre true story brought to life in a novel that moves across genres.

Devil in the Countryside - Cory Barclay

I write this review as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. Thanks to Rosie Amber and to the author for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is a book based on a real case (although so many years later and with the few documents and written clues available it is difficult to know what might have been ‘real’ and ‘true’ at the time) that has all the elements to be a fabulous novel, or a TV investigative documentary, or a movie. You can check the Werewolf of Bedburg and you’ll find a lot of information (or rather, a bit of information elaborated upon and repeated everywhere, but not many different sources). It’s easy to understand why the author would become fascinated with the subject and I also see how a writer would feel that the bare bones of the case that can be found through research would make a great starting point to write a fully-fledged and fleshed-out story. And that is what the author decided to do. In such a case, decisions have to be made as to how close to keep to the facts (such as they are) and how many fictional elements should be introduced. With this particular story, there were also many possibilities with regards to genre. Should it be a historical novel, researching the place and times and fitting in the specifics of the story around the findings? Should it be a mystery/thriller, chasing and investigating an early example of a serial killer? Should it be a horror novel? Personally, I’m not sure what I would have done, but as a reader, this novel was not what I expected. This has probably more to do with me than with the book itself but, in my opinion, it tries to be too many things.

The novel has elements of historical fiction. The author explains, in an end note, who were the real characters, and who the ones he created, and also briefly exposes some of the liberties he took. The historical background and facts are fairly accurate (although if you research the story, it seems that the fate of the daughter was very different to the one in the book, that seems an attempt at introducing a romance and a happy ending of sorts, that, in my opinion, does not befit the subject), and one of the things that the author does very well is to reflect the conflict between Catholics and Protestants at the time, the atmosphere of deep suspicion and hostility, and the paranoia that permeated all levels of society, whereby nobody was safe and anybody could be betrayed and accused of being a follower of the wrong faith. The author uses modern language, a perfectly good choice to ensure more readers access the text, but there are anachronisms and expressions that felt out of place (and perhaps using a more neutral, rather than a very casual language would have been less jarring, as some expressions sounded particularly weird in such setting. We have references to teenager, an expression only in use in the XXc. , characters drink coffee whilst it was never introduced to Germany until the late part of the XVII century…). I also wondered about some of the characters’ actions. Sybil, a young girl who lost her mother and looks after her father and younger brother, challenges her father’s authority with no consequences, goes out by herself and does things I would have thought would be out of character (but I will try and not offer too many spoilers). Dieter is a young and pious priest that seems to change his faith and his mind practically overnight (no matter what he thought about the bishop, the religion he’d dedicated years to, one would expect it would mean more to him than that) as a result of falling in love at first sight (as there is nothing in common between him and the girl) and in general I felt most of the characters were not psychologically consistent. I am not an authority on that historical period, although I have read other books about that era that created a clearer picture in my mind, about the historical period and also about the society of the time.

Whilst the novel opens as if it was going to be a straight investigation into bizarre murders, with a suggestion of the paranormal, there are some elements of investigation (following people, plenty of intrigues, researching paperwork), but a lot of the novel is taken up by telling (more than showing) us about the religious situation, the machinations of the powerful of the time (particularly Bishop Solomon, not a real character who is truly despicable and has no redeeming features at all) and it stirs the book towards the territory of the intrigue/conspiracy-theory novel  (it appears likely that those aspects played a big part during the trial of the man who was found guilty of being the werewolf).

Although at the beginning there is the suggestion that there might be elements of horror in the novel that is not the case. Or rather, the real horror is the way the truth is sacrificed to political and religious interests and how no side is above using any means to win (the Catholics come out of it slightly worse off, but nobody is truly blameless).  There is action, violence (some for comic relief, but some extreme and graphic, including torture scenes and gross deaths), and war, so this is not a gentle novel for people intent on learning a bit about the historical era, but it is not scary in sense horror lovers would expect.

The story is told in the third person from the point of view of different characters, and each chapter starts with the name of the character whose point of view we share, although at times we get reflections and comments from an omniscient point of view (comments about character’s feelings or motivations that do not seem to come from them). Heinrich, the investigator, is an enigmatic character we never get to know well, as although we see things from his point of view, we aren’t privy to his full motivations (and that is aided by the third person narration). He is at times presented as weak and ineffective (a bit like Johnny Depp’s depiction of Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow) and at others, he is clever and manipulative (and the ending is quite eerie, but no, I won’t say anything else). He seems determined to carry on with his investigation and get to the truth one minute, and then he settles for what he knows is a lie, behaving as a corrupt cog-in-the-machine.

I suspect it was partly because of the point of view changes but I found it difficult to connect with the characters (my favourite was Georg, a conflicted character whose motivations are easier to understand and who was, despite his flaws, a good man.  I felt sorry for Sybil but her character didn’t quite gel for me) although it is impossible not to be horrified at what went on and I didn’t manage to get the timing of the events straight in my mind.

Some of the comments expressed unhappiness with the ending, but for me, that is well resolved (perhaps apart from the happy ending part of it, but then that is a matter of genre) and I did not find its openness a problem but rather a plus.

Most of my difficulties with the book stem from my own expectations about what the story was going to be about and how it was going to be told. I’ve read many positive reviews about the book, and as I said, it does create a sense of dread, paranoia, and suspicion that can help us imagine what living in that historical period, so uncertain, must have been like.  And it has a chilling and eerie ending. So, if you are intrigued by the history behind it, don’t take my word for it and check a sample of the book. And do a bit of research. It will prove, once more, that reality can be stranger than fiction.

A solid thriller, with an intriguing dynamic between the lead investigator and the killer. Beware of evil hiding under the appearance of normality.

The Fourth Monkey - A.J. Barker

Thanks to Net Galley and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel ticks many of the boxes of successful thrillers: interesting and gruesome crimes (and a pretty bizarre serial killer), police procedural elements (and an investigating team easy to connect with and amusing at times), tension ticking (a girl has been taken by the 4MK [Four Monkey Killer] and she must be found before she dies), twists and turns (I suspect most avid readers of thrillers will guess some, at least, of them), red herrings… It is fairly long, although it keeps a good pace. If I missed anything, it was perhaps more psychological insight. And if we stop to think about it, the police force seems pretty ineffective but…

The story is told in chapters written in the third person from different points of view, mostly Porter’s (the lead investigator in the case although not fully back to work after some time off. We learn the reason later in the book) and Emory’s (the young victim), although there is the odd chapter from one of the other detective’s points of view, Clair. Interspersed with this we have fragments of the killer’s diary, which is found in the pocket of a man killed by a bus at the beginning of the book. The diary, that starts out pretty harmless, as the account of what seems to be a pretty normal childhood, gets creepier and creepier as it goes along and it provides an understanding (or justification of sorts) for the killer’s later behaviour (blood is thicker and all that, but there are also lies, secrets and betrayals. That is, if we are to believe the diary).  That and other aspects of the book (and I don’t want to say much to avoid spoilers) including the cat-and-mouse chase, provide us with some interesting insights into the mind of the killer and emphasise the fact that appearances can be very deceptive. A seemingly normal middle-class family can hide all kinds of dirty secrets. And upper-class families can too, as becomes evident through the book. The revenge/avenging aspect of the murders (the sins of the fathers are visited…) is not new, although it makes the murderer more intriguing.

The other parts of the book help move the story forward and the events are set chronologically, from the moment Porter is awakened by a phone call that brings him back to the police, as he’s been chasing the 4MK Killer for over five years. Although Porter’s point of view dominates the novel, I did not feel we got to know him all that well. Yes, something has happened to him (I guessed what it was early on) and he is suffering and unwilling to openly acknowledge that or discuss it; he is not keen on gadgets and seems utterly out of touch with new technologies and social media, and he is determined and driven, putting himself at risk repeatedly for the good of others. But, although I liked the fact that the team of detectives investigating the case were pretty normal individuals (not corrupt, not twisted and bitter, even when it would be more than justified, not morally ambiguous psychopaths), I still missed having more of a sense of who Porter really is. Clair has little page space and I got no sense of her own personality, other than knowing that she cares for Porter and her colleagues and she has an amusing love/dislike relationship with Nash (who is the character that provides the light relief throughout the book). In the case of Emory, who finds herself in a terrifying situation, we get to share her experiences with her, and it is one of the most effective portions of the book, adding to the tension and the need to keep turning the pages.

The style of writing is direct, with only the necessary descriptions to allow us to follow the investigation (including descriptions of clues and places. I particularly enjoyed the idea of the tunnels from bootlegging times that help bring the setting’s history into the novel). The chronological storyline and the signposting of the different points of view, make it a story dynamic and easy to read, and although it is perhaps longer than the norm in the genre it is a fairly quick read.

As I said, there are plenty of twists and turns, enough to keep one’s mind busy, although I suspect avid readers of the genre will guess a few of them, if not all. I have read some of the comments disparaging the fact that the police seem to be pretty ineffective and they only get to rescue the victim thanks to the clues left by the killer. Indeed, that is so (in fairness, Porter, who seems the most clued-on of the team and the expert on this case, is battling personal issues of his own and not at his best) but, if anything, that further emphasises the relationship between Porter and the killer. What attracts the killer to Porter? The ending (oh, yes, very satisfying, although, of course, it creates intrigue for the next book in the series) highlights that issue even more. I get the feeling that this series will improve as it goes along but only time will tell.

In summary, a story of evil hiding in unexpected places, of secrets and lies that are covered by a thin veneer of normality, and a solid police procedural thriller, with a main character and a killer whose relationship holds the key to more mysteries to come.  Ah, a word of warning. If you don’t like graphic violence and torture, you might want to give it a miss.

For readers with a good attention span who enjoy Hitchcockian suspense set within the world of science and books about writers

The Planck Factor - Debbi Mack

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber and the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely decided to review.

This thriller (technothriller according to Amazon) tells a complex story, or rather, tells several not so complex stories in a format that can make readers’ minds spin. A thriller about a student who decides, on a dare, to write a genre book (a thriller) and whose life becomes itself another thriller, one that seems to mix spies, conspiracies, terrorism, the possibility of the end of the world, and it all relates to quantum physics. (Or, as she describes it in the book: “…a suspense story with a hint of science fiction and a touch of espionage at its heart.”) The parallelisms between the story of Jessica Evans (the protagonist) and that of her fictional character, Alexis, become more convoluted and puzzling as the book progresses and the astounding coincidences will ring some alarm bells until we get to the end and… It is a bit difficult to talk about the book in depth without giving away any spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest.

This book will be particularly interesting for writers, not only because of its storytelling technique (talk about metafiction) but also because of the way the main protagonist (a concept difficult to define but Jessica is the one who occupies the most pages in the book and her story is told in the first person) keeps talking (and typing) about books and writing. No matter how difficult and tough things get, she has to keep writing, as it helps her think and it also seems to have a therapeutic effect on her. It is full of insider jokes and comments familiar to all of us who write and read about writing, as it mentions and pokes fun at rules (“Show, don’t tell. Weave in backstory. Truisms, guides, rules, pointers—call them what you will… And adverbs. Never use an adverb.”) and also follows and at the same time subverts genre rules (we have a reluctant heroine, well, two, varied MacGuffins and red herrings, mysteries, secrets, traitors and unexpected villains… and, oh yes, that final twist).

Each one of the chapters starts with the name of the person whose point of view that chapter is told about —apart from Alexis’s story, told in the third person, written in different typography, and usually clearly introduced, there are chapters from the point of view of two men who follow Jessica, so we know more than her, another rule to maintain suspense, and also from the point of view of somebody called Kevin, who sounds pretty suspicious— and apart from Jessica’s, all the rest are in the third person, so although the structure is somewhat complex and the stories have similarities and a certain degree of crossover, there is signposting, although one needs to pay attention. Overall, the book’s structure brought to my mind Heart of Darkness (where several frames envelop the main story) or the Cabinet of Dr Caligary (although it is less dark than either of those).

As you read the story, you’ll probably wonder about things that might not fit in, plot holes, or events that will make you wonder (the usual trope of the amateur who finds information much easier than several highly specialised government agencies is taken to its extremes, and some of the characteristics of the writing can be amusing or annoying at times, although, whose story are we reading?) but the ending will make you reconsider the whole thing. (I noticed how the characters never walked, they: “slid out”, “shimmied out”, “pounded”, “bounded down the steps”, “clamored down”…) As for the final twist, I suspected it, but I had read several reviews by other members of the team and kept a watchful eye on the proceedings. I don’t think it will be evident to anybody reading the story totally afresh.

The novel is too short for us to get more than a passing understanding and connection with the main character, especially as a big part of it is devoted to her fictional novel, (although the first person helps) and there are so many twists, secrets and agents and double-agents that we do not truly know any of the secondary characters well enough to care. Action takes precedence over psychological depth and although we might wonder about alliances, betrayals and truths and lies, there are no complex motivations or traumas at play.

Due to the nature of the mystery, the novel will also be of interest to those who enjoy stories with a scientific background, particularly Physics (although I don’t know enough about quantum physics to comment on its accuracy). A detailed knowledge of the subject is not necessary to follow the book but I suspect it will be particularly amusing to those who have a better understanding of the theory behind it. (The author does not claim expertise and thanks those who helped her with the research in her acknowledgements). The book also touches on serious subjects, including moral and ethical issues behind scientific research and the responsibility of individuals versus that of the state regarding public safety. But do not let that put you off. The book is a short, fast and action-driven story that requires a good attention span and will be particularly enjoyed by writers and readers who enjoy complex, puzzle-like mysteries, or more accurately, those who like stories that are like Russian dolls or Chinese boxes.

I enjoyed this book that is clever and knowing, and I’d recommend in particular to readers who are also writers or enjoy books about writers, to those who like conspiracies, spies and mysteries, especially those with a backstory of science and physics, and to people who prefer plot-driven books and who love Hitchcock, Highsmith and Murder She Wrote.

 

Currently reading

El poder de la Sombra: Trilogía del Mal. Libro 2: La Huella (Spanish Edition)
María José Moreno