Category Archives: Fluff

A Respectable Trade – Philippa Gregory – 3/10 (DNF)

“He did not know that for the first time and painfully, Frances was feeling emotions stir and warm into life.”

respectable trade

Josiah Cole needs cash and a socially connected wife. Frances Scott needs a husband. Once married, they find themselves dependent on sustaining a particular sort of lifestyle in order to keep moving upwards. They overpay for a house, over-furnish the house, all under the resentful eye of Josiah’s maiden sister.

I know very little about slavery, at any point or place, really. Only after watching Amazing Grace did I know anything about William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement here in the UK; only after watching and reading The Help did I really know anything about racial politics in 1960s southern USA, plus drawing on reading To Kill a Mockingbird at school (and I’ll admit to still not knowing very much). And I know even less about 1780s Bristol, the sugar trade or rum.

But I abandoned this after 370 pages out of 500 – so close to the end and yet I did not want to spend more time wasted on these insipid, fearful characters so bent on destroying their own lives.

I wanted to like this; I know very little of the topic and feel that I should know more. But I found the characters too irritating and undeserving of more of my time.

Additional info
Copy from Bookmooch, I think. Given that it seems to have been published in Canada.
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 501 pages
Order A Respectable Trade from Amazon*
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Can Anybody Help Me – Sinead Crowley – 7/10

“With consciousness came distress. Her eyes flickered open and met his. but her thirst was greater than her feat and she moved her hand feebly on the blanket, her fingers flickering in the direction of the bedside locker.”

Can anybody help me FINAL

(adapted from Goodreads) Struggling with a new baby in a new city with a new husband, Yvonne turns to an online support group for help and support. When one of her new friends goes offline, Yvonne is concerned but dismisses her fears. She doesn’t know the woman, after all. But when the body of a young woman with striking similarities to Yvonne’s missing friend is found, Yvonne realises that they’re all in terrifying danger. Can she persuade Sergeant Claire Boyle, herself about to go on maternity leave, to take her fears seriously?

This felt quite slow to get going (despite the nearly first-page murder), as two apparently separate storylines took their time to intermingle. Once we did get going though, there was no stopping our twisty-turny plot. Relatively straightforward to children of the internet age, some of it might be confusing to older readers. I loved it.Writing? So standard, so good, right? for a police procedural? I’ve got nothing to say on the writing – nothing exceptional, but certainly nothing that got in the way or in any way detracts from the book.

As I always do, I really like the lead police character in this one; and of course she’s a single-minded five-months-pregnant go-getter determined to absolutely get this bad guy right now. Yvonne came across as a bit pathetic, but on the whole totally believable and rounded. I was unconvinced by Eamonn as a character – he seems overly charming, too nice. But for me the most skilful bit of character-building was the online chat – Yvonne’s character chatted online in a manner that fitted her offline personality, and the other online voices were easily distinguishable and well-built up.

My knowledge of Dublin is zero (never having been), and Crowley sets the scene well with the run-down estate, the dingy pub, the pleasant terrace houses, the surety of rain at an Irish funeral. There’s a smattering of Irish dialect to make absolutely sure that you know you’re in Ireland – I didn’t mind it, and I imagine it makes the dialogue more authentic. It certainly doesn’t get in the way.

And I most definitely did not see the identity of the bad guy coming. I had a couple of indications in that general direction, but it was a huge surprise to me when it was revealed. A quick, thrilling read, and a slightly scary look into online forums (fora?) and life.

Additional info
Copy from publisher through NetGalley (which I have not used in a while!)
Publisher: Quercus Books, 400 pages
Order Can Anybody Help Me?from Amazon*
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The Divorce Papers – Susan Rieger – 8/10

the divorce papers

“Divorcing clients harbour murderous thoughts, they just have better impulse control than your regular clients.”

When Mia Mather Meiklejohn is served divorce papers in a humiliating scene at her favourite restaurant, she quickly turns to her father’s preferred lawyers to represent her. The day she wants to meet, the firm’s divorce lawyers are all out of the office and Anne Sophie Diehl, a top criminal associate lawyer, takes the deposition, having been promised she’ll have to do nothing more. Mia likes Sophie and insists she stays on the case. Can Sophie get to grips with civil law fast enough to get Mia a good settlement – and before office politics drive her totally crazy?

I love an epistolatory novel. 84 Charing Cross Road, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen are some of my favourite books. Letters and depositions/meeting notes permit lots of dialogue to shine through, while characters who might (like me) prefer the written form are permitted to flourish through their own writing.

Rieger has written a set of solid, interesting characters here. Sophie is great – I recognise a certain amount of that young professional striving to impress while occasionally being pushed well outside of her comfort zone. Trying to keep her personal life on an even keel, with the help of a best friend in a totally unrelated job, while she puts in crazy hours at the office. I love her stream of consciousness memos. Mia is a great wronged wife – amusingly angry, witty, badly behaved in a highly entertaining way. Sophie’s family and friends provide a non-legal support cast who through her life into relief, as does her mentor David. Of the bit-part characters, I particularly liked Jane, the eleven-year-old “minor issue” of the dissolving marriage, and Bruce, her inordinately rich doting grandfather. Both are delicately written while funny and honest.

New Salem might as well be Rich Everyville. I don’t know where it is (outside New York, apparently), but it just seems to have a lot of rich people and their lawyers. Fine. Rieger gets away without bothering much with setting, as everything is documented rather than described. In terms of plot development it feels a bit slow – Rieger could have edited 50-100 pages out of this but I don’t mind. This is the kind of light reading you don’t really want to end. If it had been 800 pages with more turns, that would have been fine. As it is, there’s a bit of development just often enough to keep you interested, and the private life intercessions help to keep the sense of time progressing.

It’s not the Next Great American novel, but I loved this. The test for me of whether I’m into a book is whether I read it when I’m not on public transport – and this one I even thought about taking to bed to read. It’s easy to read (some of the extracts of the Narragansett Legal Code are not so legible) and funny. You care about the characters just enough to be engrossed but able to leave them behind.

Definitely recommended as a light and easy read any time there’s a Tube strike on.

Additional information:

Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review. Publisher: Crown Publishing USA, 461 hardback pages
Order The Divorce Papersfrom Amazon*
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Of Love and Other Wars – Sophie Hardach – 6/10

“I hope I would have the faith and strength of mind to peacefully resist and dissuade him.”

of love and other wars-1

Quaker brothers Charlie and Paul Lamb are caught up in the pacifist movement, then called to account for their actions when they register as conscientious objectors. For Paul’s girlfriend Miriam Morningstar, his actions are less palatable – and Miriam’s mother has plenty of her own demons to face.

This *really* picked up towards the end. I posted a few weeks ago that I wasn’t very enthused about this? Well, by the end it still didn’t make my list of favourites but I broke through and finished it. (the fact that I had to break through to finish it is perhaps not the biggest compliment towards the book…) But suddenly it all got much more interesting – the strands started to come together, the end of the war was in sight.

Paul Lamb was by far the more sympathetic brother – Charlie is rambunctious and impetuous and a little too clever for his own good, convinced of his actions to run his life however he likes with little thought for others. Paul is much more gentle, more secure in his faith but less able to articulate it intelligently. Miriam is confident and likeable and impassioned – a pleasant blend of the two brothers. In the alternative timeline, I felt I should like Esther (as a fellow young female physicist from a specific minority religion – or at least I used to match all those adjectives), but she comes across as so hard and with so little love for her husband, so little rationality behind some of her personal interactions, that I found it very hard to support her perspective. I think I’d have enjoyed this a lot more if I had identified with one or more of the characters, but I found them all rather remote.

Obviously I didn’t live through WWII London but this felt pretty credibly set – the geography seemed to flow (although they are areas of London that I don’t know that well) and the time was vivid – particularly Miriam’s experiences in wartime London and Charlie’s life on the farm.

This is the first novel I’ve come across addressing life from either a Quaker or pacifist perspective, and I was quite surprised to find it was written by a German who had little experience of either in her personal life – it’s a very unusual perspective to take.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Additional information:
Copy kindly supplied by the publisher in return for an honest review. 
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 376 paperback pages
Order Of Love and Other Warsfrom Amazon*
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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson – 7/10

Herbert obeyed, and then it was okay, just as most things were okay, apart from the lack of vodka. Allan put up with it for exactly five years and three weeks. Then he said: ‘Now I want a drink. And I can’t get that here. So it’s time to move on.'”

100-year-old man

(from the back cover…) Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, Allan Karlsson is waiting for a party he doesn’t want to begin. His one-hundredth birthday party to be precise. The mayor will be there. The press will be there. But, as it turns out, Allan will not… Escaping (in his slippers) through his bedroom window, into the flowerbed, Allan makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, Allan’s earlier life is revealed. A life in which – remarkably – he played a key role behind the scenes in some of the momentous events of the twentieth century.

There are two stories here – one of 100-year-old Allan escaping from his retirement home, accidentally stealing 50 million krone, and his subsequent journey around Sweden with some unlikely accomplices, and the stories of Allan’s earlier life in which his expertise with explosives got him into tangles in Franco’s Spain, the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, the Korean War, Iran and Stalin’s Russia. I found the latter much more interesting than the former and would happily have only had that half of the story! His “present-day” adventures tended more to the ridiculous. This is as plot-dependent as the trashy thrillers which line my hand-luggage on any long-haul flight – but less tense and dramatic somehow. It’s perfectly put-down-able, because a long read leads to a farce overdose and the story is very easy to remember on recommencing.

The other characters, particularly Julius and Herbert Einstein, fulfil their obligations as comic foils well, but Allan is the star of the show. Sceptical of priests, politicians and anyone who drinks fruit juice, he is both Everyman and delightfully wacky. He has a slightly unrealistic knack of making everyone more likely to negotiate with him than shoot him (Kim Jong-Il being high on that list), but that’s necessary to keep the book going so we’ll set aside expectations of reality. The incompetent bad guys from “The Violins” gang and the press-hungry Chief Prosecutor Ranelid complete the cast of absurdity.

Worth a read if only for the light-hearted tour of the 20th century world events. Or Sonya the elephant.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Additional information:
Copy from a friend who was moving house and wanted to purge books before packing. Wise woman. 
Publisher: Hesperus Press, 387 paperback pages
Order The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappearedfrom Amazon*
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Bellfield Hall – Anna Dean – 9/10

“It was the under-gardener who found her.”

bellfield hall

When Catherine Kent’s fiance suddenly breaks off their engagement and vanishes, she is distraught. Who better than maiden aunt Miss Dido to rush to the country house of Catherine’s in-laws-to-be, to solve the mystery of the missing heir and groom? And while there, also to solve the mystery of the young woman found murdered in the shrubbery?

All the mystery happens before we start our journey with Miss Dido Kent, but we get plenty of shots at it with assorted re-tellings and interviews. Dido gets it all hopelessly wrong lots of times, but on each occasion her deductions seem logical. I spotted one or two things before she did, but they turned out to be wrong anyway. There was a great deal of plot thickening with assorted character twists and revelations, all great fun.

Miss Dido Kent is right up there with my favourite investigating protagonists. She’ll brook no nonsense, she indulges her niece too much, she knows her way in the world and doesn’t stand on ceremony. The rest of the characters left a little to be desired – the bullying Sir Edgar, mad Lady Montague, the two silly Misses Harris and their busybody mother… it was a carefully crafted cast of caricatures. However, crucially, there were enough other characters to keep this interesting – often these ye olde country mysteries can feel a bit stifled when the guest list is too short. And there was the odd promising side character who might hopefully turn up in a sequel…

Dean cheats a little, having Dido recount much of the tale through letters to her sister Eliza, but the writing is generally smooth and clever. Dido is given to some rather modern opinions for the time (or rather, less snobby opinions than one might have held in her position at the time) and unsurprisingly has a lot to say about the roles of women and professional people – which is of course what a modern reader wants! The sub-title was “Or, The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent” which sets the tone perfectly – a very cozy mystery but longer and better developed than other cozies (e.g. M. C. Beaton’s works)

I loved this – hopefully Dean will write some more Dido Kent mysteries! My copy of this had a preview of “A Gentleman of Fortune” in it so I shall be keeping an eye out for it!

Additional information:
Copy from Bookmooch. Publisher: Minotaur Books, 310 paperback pages
Order Bellfield Hall: Or, the Deductions of Miss Dido Kent (Dido Kent Mysteries)from Amazon*
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Two recent DNFs

The Incredible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday – 4/10 – abandoned after about 70 pages. I picked this up because I loved Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, but this is the story of an alcoholic, from the perspective of said alcoholic, who inherits a truly absurd quantity of high quality wine. Being a non-drinker, this didn’t speak to me at all! And I found it deeply frustrating. That said, I suspect wine connoisseurs might find it quite funny.

(bought at the Lancaster market about 2 years ago – which means it’s moved house at least twice with me…)

The Sacred River by Wendy Wallace – 2/10 – abandoned after about 70 pages. This story of a Victorian family who travel to Egypt for the sake of the daughter’s consumptive lungs failed to grab me. By page 70 they were on board with the strange aunt, there was obviously some intrigue with the painter, Harriet had made friends with a newlywed who then suddenly gave birth (without there having been any indication of pregnancy at all)… it felt disjointed to me and wasn’t hard to set aside.

(review copy kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns – Margaret Dilloway – 7/10

“Difficult and obstinate. Thriving under a set of specific and limited conditions. That pretty much describes me. Maybe that’s why I like these roses so much.”

care and handling

Gal has struggled all her life with a kidney failure, going to dialysis several times a week, hoping upon hope that she’ll get a transplant soon. While she waits, she teaches biology very strictly at the local Catholic high school, and cultivates roses. As an amateur breeder, she tries to create a unique new strain of the Hulthemia rose. When her niece Riley turns up unannounced, she turns Gal’s well-ordered life inside out… and breathes fresh life in.

Gal is a bit of an odd fish – but to me, a fairly understandable one. She sees everything very much in black and white, is ambitious and scientific and colours very much within the lines. She’s so keen to be considered a legitimate rose competitor, to be validated, while she copes with the devastating reality of her kidney issues. Dilloway includes in Gal the depression of a chronic illness sufferer, the logistical difficulties of dialysis and rose-tending, and the elation, jealousy and heartbreak of watching other patients on the same transplant list.

Like all these types of books (Looking for Me, SisterlandMeet Me At the Cupcake CafeLove Anthony), the writing is easy and munchable without impediment, but equally not unappetising. Extra characters are as developed as necessary (i.e. often, not very), and certain conflicts and romances are easily foretold. The drama of the kidney failure is in a sense secondary to the main suspense of the Riley-Gal relationship. 

Riley, the unexpected teenager, is the unsung heroine of this story. It would have been easy to cast the teenager as the disruption, the troublemaker, but Riley is actually a cleverly constructed character, full of surprises and gentle actions rather than trouble. She’s honest but sullen, open and secretive in turns.

Not difficult to read at all – but quite good fun.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Penguin, 397 paperback pages
Order The Care and Handling of Roses with Thornsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes – Marcus Sakey – 7/10

(at least 18 months since I read this. Might be a little vague)

“‘Y cuidate lo que dices,’ Daniel replied over his shoulder, then did a double take. Huh. I know Spanish. Cool.”

The-Two-Deaths-of-Daniel-Hayes-HB

Daniel wakes upon on an “apocalyptic beach, water frothing beneath a shivering sky, wind a steady howl over the shoals”, naked and with no memory of how he got there, why he’s there, or even who he is. In an attempt to resolve the mystery, he gets in the car and heads as far west as he can, piecing his life back together before it gets ripped apart again.

This sort of “forgotten identity” novel is pretty unusual and the whole plot construct was impressive. He gets back West and then ends up in a cat and mouse-with-no-memory game, no idea who he can trust, what is true, what is an illusion, what is a mis-memory. It gets very confusing as lots of people play multiple characters or there are only glimpses of them and Daniel isn’t sure who they are.

As a result, the characters don’t have to be particularly magnetic; Daniel is a dark sort of person who is driven to anger and violence by extreme circumstances. Bad guys are bad guys, the wife is a bit strange but in the end her motivations are straightforward enough. I particularly liked the older woman, Sophie, the guiding aunt figure – she’s a useful plot device and a nice person into the mix.

The emptiness of the Hollywood life is laid out pretty starkly here – less humorously than in The Lawgiver. Daniel and Laney’s relationship is sweetly captured in emails and notes – actually a funnier way to give credence to an unlikely romance. I did not see the enormous twist at the end coming at all – I couldn’t figure out what was going on for ages and then it suddenly hits you. Not sure that’s where I wanted it to end up, but it’s all slick and throws the rest of the book into the right angle to make sense of.

Interesting, unusual, massive twist at the end.

Additional information:

Copy sent by We Love This Book so long ago for review that I missed every deadline imaginable.
Publisher: Bantam Press, 388 paperback pages 
Order The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayesfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls – Anton DiSclafani – 7/10

“But then, I knew nothing about the place except that it was where my parents were sending me so they wouldn’t have to see me.”

yonahlossee

Thea has brought disgrace on her Florida old-money Great Depression family and is sent away for the summer to a riding camp. When it becomes clear that her stay is not just for the summer but that her parents want her permanently out of their sight, she tries to make herself more welcome in her new world, trading favours and gossip for social elevation…

Thea is an intriguing character. In some senses she is wise beyond her years, acting more adult than many of the adults around her, but still very much a teenage girl with that brutal mix of sharpness. Her odd relationship with her twin – maybe it only seems odd to me because I’m not a twin. The liaison with a far-distant cousin, who at the same time is like a brother to her, predictable and yet tragic. Her parents, considering that she spends very little time with them in the book, are also sharply captured – on the cusp of modernising while buried in their orange grove dollars. 

DiSclafani (what a great surname!) captures the fading South well; the drip-drip-drip of family money down the Depression drain while girls are packed off to finishing school. The importance attributed to decorum and the age of family money is thrown into relief against the lacking morals displayed by several characters and the spicy ambition of the girls to succeed.

In a sense I found it disappointing that the plot continues to return to Thea’s sexual adventurousness – as if there was no other aspect of her that could cause conflict (when there were plenty of other aspects). But I often find that frustrating in a novel. The inevitable decay of the old money system was much more interesting, as was the evolution of Thea’s relationship with her parents.

A much darker, more American boarding school tale than those of Enid Blyton on which I grew up. Just as addictively readable.

Additional information:

Copy sent by the publisher, Tinder Press, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Tinder Press, 389 hardback pages 
Order The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girlsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
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