Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Still Me – Jojo Moyes

Contemporary Fiction
5*s

2019 whilst being a little poor on the actual reading front has been a great year in respect of the audio book having followed on from great success I had with this format especially with non-crime fiction genre.

Still Me is the last part in the trilogy written by the fabulously talented Jojo Moyes which started with Me Before You which I read as back in January 2013 where Lou Clark takes on a job being a nurse/companion to a quadriplegic man. This story was so popular, being later made into a film that Jojo Moyes bought Lou Clark back for more adventures. In After You we see her living a new life, meeting new people and coping with grief and her journey kept me company during my walks home from work and preparing food that I missed Lou Clarke so very much when this book finished and felt that the narrator Anna Acton now encapsulated the story for me so despite having a physical book it seemed obvious to continue in audio format.

In Still Me Lou Clarke has takes up a new job in New York through an old friend. New York is new and exciting and although Lou misses her boyfriend Sam in London, at times he seems very far away. With a whole new cast of characters in New York and this really is how Jojo Moyes captures the hearts of her readers – they are so well drawn, multi-layered and as far removed from clichés and stereotypes that lesser authors employ. There is no doubt in my mind when I was listening that Lou Clarke was a real woman, with problems not so very different to those that I have suffered, and despite being a fair bit younger than I am, it still manages to feel relevant as the cast of characters takes in the whole spectrum of people. We have the fussy old woman with her beloved dog, the unfriendly housekeeper, the spoilt rich wife, the personal trainer, the jock, the vintage clothes shop owner to name but a very few.

So although the characters are the chief pull of course even the most captivating of studies can’t stand up without a plot. Perhaps this novel has more of the general romance pitfalls than the previous two books, chiefly misunderstandings that are left to fester rather than spoken about on both sides, but despite this I was still swept along hoping for a good result for Lou whether that be a good man or no man at all. Pleasingly the latter is always a possibility especially as we also catch up with Lou’s brilliantly portrayed parents and sister as they come to terms with life not following the predictable route they thought it would. In fact Lou’s mother and her father’s reaction to life’s changes provided some of my favourite comedic moments in the book.

I finished Still Me quite some time ago but I won’t forget Lou Clarke in a hurry. It takes a special kind of skill to pen a story that has all the ranges of human emotions without it tipping into the sickly sweet arena and for someone like me who has an antipathy to ‘romantic’ tales that is high praise indeed!

First Published UK: 24 January 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books
No of Pages: 496
Listening Length: 13 hours 37 minutes
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Evidence Against You – Gillian McAllister

Psychological Thriller
5*s

Gillian McAllister has already cemented herself as an author whose books I must read so it is fair to say I had very high expectations for The Evidence Against You. Once again the author almost poses her question from the first page of the book, in this case how would you feel if your father, a man who has been in prison for the last seventeen years for the murder of your mother, wants to convince you of his innocence. Yes I acknowledge it’s unlikely that that happens to many people but what Gillian McAllister is great at doing is that after she has posed her question she introduces you to characters that you can absolutely believe in.

Izzy’s mother Alex was murdered. Her body was found in woods some twenty years ago and her father was imprisoned for her murder. But that was then, now Izzy runs her mother’s restaurant even though she isn’t particularly fond of the industry or that interested in the food created there but she has the support of her cousin. Izzy is married to Nick, a police analyst who is her ‘rock.’ Nick would rather her father, Gabe, was left in the past and he’s undoubtedly worried when Gabe turns up seeking Izzy’s undivided attention, seeking to prove that he was innocent of any wrongdoing.

So we have a great premise, some well-drawn and convincing characters and into the mix the author places them all on the Isle of Wight. This being a small community which of course gives us endless secrets either kept close to chests by those islanders who either didn’t want to get involved or those who thought that they would benefit more from keeping quiet. Of course when Gabe makes his way back to the island the news is out – Gabe and Izzy can’t meet without being spotted by someone. A small town setting gives the reader a whole spectrum of levels of secrecy to deal with and it is one I am particularly fond of; living on an island myself I know how precarious secrecy can be depending who knows the secret!

The structure of the story is that of flitting backwards and forwards through town to the events before and immediately after Alex’s murder to those in the present day. The author has done a great job of making the character of Izzy consistent enough to recognise that it is the same person while providing some aspects to show both character growth and change due to the trauma that she has had to deal with since that day.

Once again I found this to be an incredibly addictive read. I did not want to put the book aside, I needed to know what conclusion Izzy would come to and how she would deal with whatever that might be. I was not disappointed and so I’m left hoping that this brilliant author has another incredible idea up her sleeve for me to consume soon.

I am extremely grateful to the publishers Penguin UK The Evidence Against You, and of course Gillian McAllister. This unbiased review is my thanks to them.

First Published UK: 18 April 2019
Publisher: Penguin
No. of Pages: 448
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Previous Books by Gillian McAllister
Everything But The Truth
Anything You Do Say
No Further Questions

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

No Way Out – Cara Hunter

Crime Fiction – Series
5*s

Having been blown away with the quality of the first two books featuring DI Adam Fawley I had high expectations of this, the third in this series set in Oxford. The expectations were completely met in this topical thriller.

The crime this time is arson, a particularly brutal means of killing and in this the victims appear to be a young boy Zachary Esmond who has been killed in his home in North Oxford. His elder brother Matty is desperately ill in hospital and their academic father and mother are nowhere to be found. Family annihilation is suspected but only time will tell if the facts fit the theory. First job is to find Michael Esmond and find out if he has deliberately sought to wipe his family off the earth and that is Adam Fawley’s job.

I particularly enjoy the style of Cara Hunter’s writing. All her crime fiction books have been pacey with the main story told in the first person present tense while the reader is treated to news extracts and on-line comments at regular intervals throughout. In this book we are provided with the storyline on what led to the fire, a story covering the best part of a year. The investigation is rapid and a master in police procedural while the on-line excerpts keep the storyline feeling exceptionally current given how most of us digest the news these days and I enjoy having a flavour of the crime being investigated alongside some more generic local news from the Oxford area.

The plotting was, as always, superb. The author manages to provide the reader with a whole host of red herrings without giving this reader the feeling that it is simply a complex puzzle to be solved. I need to feel the potential suspects are there because that’s how the investigation has unfolded rather than they are being conjured up just for the story’s sake.

One of the things I enjoy about this police procedural series is that the team get along with each other. There is little in the way of politics and they provide the reader with a solid team that although aren’t devoid of personality, this isn’t the defining part of the story. I will admit I often like the forays into personal lives of our detectives but I have to admire those writers who manage to keep the investigation itself in the frame through any personal ups and downs the team may encounter. Cara Hunter’s writing falls into the latter camp.

Of course in crime fiction it isn’t just the detectives that need to keep you entertained, we also need to feel something for the victims, the potential perpetrators and all the witnesses that we meet along the way. Cara Hunter has a real knack for bringing the whole cast together with a lightness of touch that certainly kept me turning the pages as the book worked its way towards an accomplished finale.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to the publishers Penguin Books UK who allowed me to read a copy of No Way Out which was an enormous honour. I’ve already put the fourth in the series (due out in December 2019) onto my wishlist.

Previous Books in the DI Fawley Series
Close to Home
In the Dark

First Published UK: 22 March 2019
Publisher: Penguin Books Uk
No of Pages: 367
Genre: Crime Fiction – Series
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Murder by the Book – Claire Harman

Non-Fiction
4*s

Another book in this year’s favourite topic; Victorian true crime, with the crime in this case committed in the early part of the young Queen’s reign. It was 6 May 1840 when Lord William Russell was found lying on his bed with his head almost severed. Quite a shock for the servants who found him. This isn’t a story from the backstreets of Whitechapel either, rather the scene of the crime was on a smart street in Mayfair.

The crime itself was shocking enough and kept those who followed the subsequent investigation duly scandalised, and to be fair, frightened. If a crime like this could happen in Mayfair, was anywhere safe in these ‘modern times’? What worried everyone even more though was when a culprit was found and questioned. The story he gave was that he’d changed from a former gentle young man to savage murderer because of his reading matter – the best selling crime novel of the day being Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth. A book that had gained a widespread following in part due to the rising levels of literature amongst the lower classes. Given that the story was of a daring (and dashing) jail-breaker in the style known as a Newgate Novel. The key to success for writers at this time were to be published as serials in the style of Charles Dickens and coincidentally Jack Sheppard appeared in some of the same editions of Bentley’s Miscellany as Oliver Twist himself and it seems Ainsworth jumped on the popular genre of the day and with a bit of slang and plenty of references to robbery and violence with a dollop of romance, the public couldn’t get enough. Giving the novel even more realism Jack Sheppard was a well-known criminal in 18th-century London.

The author of our book, Claire Harman goes onto describe how the theatres were quick to put their adaptions of the novel on the stage so aspiring criminals didn’t have to read the book itself for the power of crime to seep into the bones until it would seem that there was hardly a man or woman in the land from the lowliest to the mightiest who hadn’t read or watched Jack Sheppard’s daring dos.

The newspapers who were as quick back then as now to have something concrete to blame. Newgate Novels were held up as the cause of the murder of Lord William Russell and Jack Sheppard in particular. All of this is terrifically interesting especially the reaction of Ainsworth’s former friends including Charles Dickens who went out of his way to explain why Oliver Twist wasn’t a Newgate Novel despite many of the themes in the two books being remarkably similar.

Needless to say for all the hoo-ha the books continued o be popular but Ainsworth toned down the writing style in subsequent books and was never as successful again.

Unfortunately from an interest perspective this wasn’t the most exciting of investigations as the police fairly quickly alighted on their main suspect, although of course from this distance of time and knowing how few scientific resources the police had to use, there is always a level of wonder about the apprehension of the right man. The interest comes from the reading matter of our ancestors who’d have thought a book could cause quite such a stir? This alongside the interesting legal facts the author presents from the day meant that the result was I felt I’d got some real insight into social history from an unusual angle.

I’d like to thank the publishers Penguin Books UK for allowing me to read a proof copy of Murder by the Book. This review is my unbiased thanks to them.

First Published UK: 25 October 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
No of Pages: 224
Genre: Non Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal

Contemporary Fiction
4*s

Love and loss are the big questions that most of us have to deal with in life which on the one hand makes them universal but of course each love is different as is each loss. Kit de Waal has penned an almost understated story populated by seriously lovely characters devoted to the subject.

Mona sits in her flat in London staring at the day dawning when she notices a man in the block across the way from her. He is also awake and looking out, perhaps reaching out to those around him.

I wanted to both be friends with Mona and mother her, an odd combination particularly as she celebrates her sixtieth birthday during the course of this book. She’s a doll-maker, real old-fashioned dolls are made from wood by the carpenter and painstakingly painted and dressed by Mona and then sold, often to overseas buyers in Japan and America. Each doll is unique with a similarly unique wardrobe. Mona has a shop too and here she works day in day out with young Joley with her big boots and crop tops assisting her. Twice a year she meets her old friend Val from Birmingham, where Mona lived in the early 70s.

Mona also offers a personalised service for bereaved mothers and this is her side-line. Not one that is advertised or has a website like the dolls, but one where people are referred for help when a baby has died. In short Mona is a lovely lady with a big heart and whilst that had probably always been the case, we learn what led her to both professions by going back to the beginning when a young girl crossed the Irish Sea and made a life for herself in Birmingham. Living in a boarding house over time she meets William and so this becomes their story.

This is a gentle book which doesn’t mean boring, in fact far from it. The Trick to Time is fearsomely well-written and despite the subject matter it never descends into mawkishness, but rather I was impressed by Mona’s strength, although like her friend Val couldn’t help but feel that perhaps she should put herself first once in a while.

The book shifts backwards and forwards in time pulling in the details of Mona’s childhood, her mother’s illness, her father’s steadfastness and the ongoing sense of obligation to her distant relation Bridie. Ireland was too stifling for many youngsters at the time and so they moved to Birmingham where they stayed in boarding houses and missed their homes. Mona’s time in Birmingham is full of colour, of love and telephone calls across the water, but nothing stays the same, the trick to time is making the most of the good times.

Although this review mentions just a few characters, there are lots, all exquisitely detailed, and on the whole they are lovely people, unlike the majority that perhaps populate my normal reading matter. This is, like My Name is Leon, undoubtedly a character led novel with a message, but not one that the author feels she needs to force, her writing gives us all and I think that The Trick of Time will touch many people’s lives on a personal level, after all, most of us will love and lose throughout our lives.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Penguin Books UK who allowed me to read an advance copy of The Trick to Time ahead of publication in the UK on 29 March 2018. This unbiased review is thank you to them and the very talented Kit de Waal who bought Mona into my life.

First Published UK: 29 March 2018
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
No of Pages: 272
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Blood Sisters – Jane Corry

Psychological Thriller
4*s

If you want a good psychological thriller to keep you engaged on the sunbed this year, you could do an awful lot worse than pick Jane Corry’s second novel, Blood Sisters.

Alison teaches art at evening classes, being talented but far too introverted to brave standing in front of a room full of teenagers it feels that this is the perfect solution, the trouble is, it isn’t enough to pay the bills and keep the wolf from the door, even when supplemented with her stained glass creations. Then she sees an advert to become the artist in residence at the local open prison, Alison applies and is successful and soon it is time for her to give those men who are deemed near to release a chance to find their own way of expressing themselves through art.

Kitty her half-sister is severely disabled and lives in a care home, unable to speak so that others can understand we do hear her rather fruity take on life through her thoughts which are ordered and often perceptive. Kitty was determined before her accident and that quality wasn’t removed by the accident.

With Alison becoming increasingly anxious that someone has discovered her secret, one which we can’t help but feel has its roots in the accident that both girls were in some fifteen years previously, the book soon takes on a dark and claustrophobic feel.

While neither sister was particularly ‘likeable’ both having more than the odd quirk, I did like the way the author chose to promote the lives of the disabled which felt like it was invested with far more than a gimmick in mind. The depiction of Kitty’s and the fellow resident’s, most notably Margaret and Jonny was sensitively but realistically done. This author isn’t one for fairy tales, the characters we meet have the feeling of real people even if in the earlier part of the book I did wonder how many coincidences we were expected to believe in but rest assured, even this part of the psychological thriller writer’s armoury is later revealed to be not exactly what I’d earlier assumed. While the scenes in the prison were in part used to increase the tension to the uppermost threshold, Jane Corry easily avoided the use of clichés when describing the men incarcerated there.

Given the title you can be forgiven for wondering if this is a book about a pair of siblings and their lives, and of course it is in part, but there is far more to this book than an event in the past, even if that is the hook that everything else revolves around.

Jane Corry has categorically proved with this second book (her first, My Husband’s Wife also being totally gripping) that not only can she write the twistiest and turniest of engaging thrillers but that she has nailed the absolute must for writers of this genre, her books are compelling precisely because the characters, no matter whether they are in prison or hospital or just clinging onto everyday life, are believable and consistent. People are complex and those who feature in Blood Sisters mirror that complexity in a terrifically satisfying read.

I’d like to say a big thank you to the publishers Penguin  for providing me with a copy of Blood Sisters, this unbiased review is my thanks to them.

First Published UK: 29 June 2017
Publisher: Penguin
No of Pages: 464
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction
4*s

Wow this is one powerful, yet short novel. I wonder at the author’s ability to convey so much about the relationship between Lucy Barton and her mother.

The bulk of the book looks back to a period in the late eighties, when Lucy was ill in hospital. Her husband who was not at all keen on hospitals makes contact with Lucy’s mother and she comes to visit and stays in the hospital with Lucy telling her stories about people in the Amgash , Illinois, a place that Lucy left as soon as she was old enough. Contact between Lucy and her family has been more or less non-existent for many years and yet, Lucy’s mother doesn’t talk very much about their family, instead concentrating on other’s woes, successes and everyday lives.

It soon becomes very clear that Lucy’s childhood wasn’t a happy one as she reminisces about events from long ago, but Elizabeth Strout has not made her protagonist a victim, not at all, in fact the narrative about the poverty, the neglect and abuse is all the more powerful for the short yet powerful insights delivered almost entirely without blame. This is not a character looking for sympathy, rather a person who wonders at the route her life has taken especially when she eventually becomes a novelist of some note.

We also get some insight into Lucy’s marriage although she continually pronounces that this book, the one she was meant to write, is not the story of her marriage there are enough hints that the reader is able to spin an entire story from the bits we do hear about.

Like me you may start this book and feel that it is a gentle read, an introspective look at one woman’s life. Albeit a life that started without much in the way of advantage but you’d be wrong. As with Lucy’s marriage, there is almost as much said by the unsaid, as there is by that which is explicitly, yet gently presented to us. There is the yearning for a mother’s love, for her children who visit her in hospital with a friend, the stark reality of joining the world after an extended stay in hospital in the present. While the memories take her back to being an outcast amongst her peers, a child who had no references to what was happening in the outside world until she went to college and as a result, part of her always felt that difference keenly, although she would deny it. I found the subtlety of the storytelling, at times almost too tragic to read – but I’m so glad I did! This is an excellent portrayal, full of overt gentleness but with a rawness at the centre that took my breath away.

I’m very grateful to the publishers, Penguin Books UK, who gave me an advance copy of this book to read. My Name is Lucy Barton will be published on 4 February 2016.