Category Archives: Fluff

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
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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

The Bedlam Detective – Stephen Gallagher – 6/10

“The names of the house always charmed her. They hadn’t when she’d lived here, but they charmed her whenever she returned. Prospect Place. St Cuthbert’s. Puffin. St Elmo’s. Evangeline was a city dweller now, a grown woman, and these names were her childhood.”

bedlam

Two country girls have been found brutally murdered, not far from the estate of Sir Owain Lancaster, who returned alone some years ago from a disastrous trip to the Amazon. Sebastian Becker is sent to investigate, wondering if Sir Owain needs treatment in the infamous hospital above his office – Bedlam…

Becker is a solid everyman sort of detective, sympathetic without being ingratiating, persistent without being omniscient. Some home troubles make him a slightly more rounded character but not all that much time is devoted to making him an interesting person – he is the vehicle for the story. On the other hand there is a huge amount of time and paper devoted to the tale of Sir Owain’s misadventures in the Amazon – we have his diary as well as the observations of those around him so his is really the most rounded character in the book. Which begs the question – why bother with the London side-story and the murder of the girls? If the author just wanted to tell the tale of Sir Owain’s (literally incredible) visit to South America, why not just tell it by itself?

As with all these historical endeavours, one wonders how authentic it is. Would Sebastian’s autistic son really have fared so well in 19th century London? Is the life portrayed in Bethlehem Hospital accurate (or even close to accurate)? The London of the book felt quite sanitised, compared to the bleakness of country living. There’s an assortment of bit parts which are cleverly and amusingly put together – I particularly liked Becker’s family and the country plod who is supposed to assist Becker in his investigations.

I felt that towards the end, the author was in a bit deep with the plot/stories he had constructed and it needed to be wrapped up – the episode at the country hall has heavy touches of deus ex machina to it. As I look at the slim book beside me (it’s only just over 300 pages), more and more threads of plot come back to me and it’s surprising to consider they were all included in the same novel!

Overall, an enjoyable enough mystery; a bit dark for what I’m used to, and if you don’t mind the heavy-handed wrapping up, you should find it pretty gripping.

Additional information:

Copy kindly sent by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Broadway Paperbacks, 305 paperback pages 
Order The Bedlam Detectivefrom 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

Things We Never Said – Susan Elliot Wright – 3/10 (DNF)

The-Things-We-Never-Said-SEWIf it’s not an unfaithful partner, it’s a fraught pregnancy. Why, oh why, are we as readers condemned to these miserable renditions? Why can there not be a happy marriage? A simple pregnancy? Children who are well-behaved and intelligent? I suppose none of that makes for much drama, but still. These recurring slow personal tragedies exhaust me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Maggie awakes in what is undeniably a mental health facility in the 1960s, back in the day when mental health facility was not a way in which one would have commonly heard such a place described. I didn’t get to read much of Maggie’s story but there is a mystery as to why she ended up there, and how she is going to be treated by the psychiatrist who seems to pride himself on pioneering methods. In our other storyline, Fiona has fallen pregnant in the probably here and now (certainly London after 1990-ish), and is delighted, and Jeremy is glad to be at the end of two years of trying, but cannot bring himself to tell his family. Fiona is not happy that he won’t tell his grouchy father; and at the point at which I abandoned the novel, Jeremy’s mother was on the phone.

I like these historical investigative novels. I loved Russian Winter and Blackberry Winter, and I quite enjoyed Before I Met You, but I gave this 50 pages and it hadn’t got going yet. I hope others out there had more success!

(this review is really a whinge about how many “women’s fiction” novels are about infidelity and problems with pregnancy. Why can’t we have more books like Code Name Verity?)

Additional information:

Unsolicited copy sent by the publisher
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 384 paperback pages 
Order The Things We Never Saidfrom 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

House Rules – Jodi Picoult – 7/10

“Motherhood is a Sisyphean task. You finish sewing one seam shut, and another rips open. I have come to believe that this life I’m wearing will never really fit.”

house rules

Jacob has Asperger’s. His little brother Theo doesn’t. Their mother Emma is struggling to keep the three of them on the same track. When Jacob’s fascination with sleuthing makes him the prime suspect in a murder case, it all could go horribly wrong…

So the vehicle is a standard Picoult 5 door hatchback… family drama against legal proceedings, secrets being kept within the family that would really make everything a lot easier if they were out in the open. Feel free to say it’s easy-to-read writing, but it’s so moreish.

As with all of Picoult’s books, there is a particular personality/mental health aspect being explored here. I’m not in a position to say that the representation of Asperger’s, including what life is like with a son or brother who has Asperger’s, is authentic, but it is thoroughly and sympathetically conveyed. Different aspects are explored – the triggers (sensory overload, changes to routines), the outcomes (tantrums, violence, getting more difficult to manage as the person gets older), and the often-forgotten positives (helpful, sweet, funny, devoted, lives by the rules, including “look out for your brother, he’s the only one you’ve got”). 

And, as with all of Picoult’s books, there is at the heart of the book a dilemma about family life. In others of hers which I’ve enjoyed, there has been forgiveness, trying to help someone through depression, using one child to save another. Here it is Emma’s two faces – doling out advice, including parenting advice, for an agony aunt column, while feeling like she can’t manage at home any more. She can’t control her son physically. A more general question: where are all the adults with Asperger’s? In this, the father has a dash of it himself and ran away from the confronting reality of his son.

Younger brother Theo is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered to date in a Picoult novel. Resentful that his plans always get shelved because of some drama with Jacob, hormonally pubescent, feeling abandoned by his unknown father, he’s several shades darker than most side characters. I would have liked to see a few more chapters from his perspective. Our template lawyer Oliver is young, inexperienced, heart in the right place – a typical Picoult litigator. Emotional angst with the client – again standard. But sweet and funny. And critically – sympathetic to the Asperger’s angle. Somewhat like the lawyer in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (one of my favourite books).

Of course, almost in the background, there’s a murder investigation. I worked out how the “murder” had been committed, and also how the assault fitted into the picture quite early on, but the suspense became about whether Jacob would totally incriminate himself, the damage to Theo, and the ongoing economic difficulties of the Hunt family.

Another perfectly satisfactory cocktail of drama from the Picoult production line.

Additional information:

Copy borrowed from Mini-Me
Publisher: Hodder, 640 paperback pages 
Order House Rulesfrom 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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