Category Archives: Review copies

Mini-reviews: Strings Attached and Bellman & Black

strings attached

Strings Attached – Joanne Lipman & Melanie Kupchynsky – 6/10

“Mr K had achieved the impossible: he had made us better than we had any right to be.”

A memoir after a fashion – Joanne and Melanie learnt violin from Melanie’s father, the fabled Mr. K. Famous as an incredibly tough but motivational teacher in their New Jersey school district. The writers alternate chapters, and it’s also partly a family memoir for Melanie, writing about her invalid mother and missing sister.

Coming from a half-musical, half-education background, I found a lot of the material about Mr K’s enthusiasm and teaching styles and musical tuition really interesting. I was less interested in the stories of growing up and school awkwardness and actually the storyline of Melanie’s missing sister (a heartbreaking story and I know why it was included, but it felt like an incongruous addition).

bellman and black

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield – 7/10

Another e-book that spent a year unreviewed. See a theme here? Also I should start with a note – I am not a fan of supernatural storylines. And I did really enjoy another of Setterfield’s novels, The Thirteenth Tale, though there was a strong homage tone there.

William Bellman kills a rook with a catapult at the age of 11, and for years it seems to bring him good luck. Slowly his wonderful life is eroded and he spends more and more of his time at funerals, where he always sees a ghostly stranger. The stranger has a business proposition for him…

This reminded me very much of another book, and I cannot think which one it is (I think it’s a Philippa Gregory one?), in which the women are very conscious of the circle of fortune – sometimes a family is at the top, and sometimes at the bottom.

Really well written, though like Life After Life, could have done with some of the chapters having been cut down. I wasn’t a fan of the supernatural aspect and in fact found the non-resolution of it quite frustrating. But, it didn’t bother me as much as it might have.

Old mini-reviews

Some of my reviews have been outstanding since 2012, to the point where I can’t remember very much about the books any more. So it’s time to jot down some thoughts and move on.

Also – 3 of these were NetGalley copies i.e. on the Kindle – which is how they got forgotten about for so long (and the other one I had in paperback but lent it to a friend and haven’t got it back… though I don’t really want it back). So the moral of the story is here, my friends, out of sight, out of the review chain.

little night

Little Night - Luanne Rice – 5/10

I don’t remember very much about this one at all except that it centred on domestic violence. Now that I’ve read the internet a bit to remind myself, it was more complex than that. It’s a web of family dysfunction – very pronounced characters struggling to play nicely together. It’s very New York, but apart from that nothing really stands out. Next.

last apache girl

The Last Apache Girl – Jim Fergus – 5/10

An amateur photographer signs onto the “Great Apache Expedition”, one of dozens of men hoping to free the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher kidnapped by a violent band of Apaches. A wild Apache girl is being held as counter-argument, and Ned slowly builds a relationship with her, but their relationship is doomed from the start.

Somewhat like Dances with Wolves. I don’t remember struggling to get through it, but if you’re going to read something like this, I’d stick with Dances with Wolves.

house of serenades

The House of Serenades – Lina Simoni – 6/10

Historical romance/social study set in 1910 Genoa. Romeo & Juliet after a fashion – rich girl meets poor boy, falls in love, daddy says no. Has some interesting things to say about treatment of women in that age – particularly women who we would expect to be financially independent. Don’t remember a lot about it but I did zoom through it pretty quickly – that’s always a good sign.

world without you

The World Without You – Joshua Henkin – 8/10

I actually remember really enjoying this one – it’s sentimental and tear-jerking, but in a good way. It’s the story of the family left behind when a US journalist dies in Middle Eastern conflict; how his wife struggles to interact appropriately with his grieving parents – she wants to be part of this family and give them access to their grandson, but also wants to move on. The parents are struggling in marriage and in grief. The three siblings are each fighting their own demons – including one who has embraced Orthodox Judaism and feels excluded from her family as a result. Would definitely recommend (but keep the Kleenex handy).

Lizzy and Jane – Katherine Reay – 6/10

“The cake and I faced each other – the last two elements of a discarded celebration. I covered it, shoved it into a corner, and started to wipe down the counters.”

lizzy and janeElizabeth is making it in New York as a chef, but something’s not quite right and she can see the writing on the wall of her restaurant. She decides to fly home for the first time in 15 years to visit her widowed father and her sister, who’s struggling with cancer. Can Elizabeth cook the family back into happiness, and will prickly Jane let down her defences enough for Elizabeth to help?

This reminded me so much of The Love Verb, that it’s not funny. Also a little bit of Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (although really the only connection there is the friend as impatient patient). The writing isn’t very demanding, but pleasant enough; it tugs on the heartstrings every now and again and there is the occasional plot twist, but much of it predictable and comforting. Like hot chocolate. What I did particularly like about this is that while it looks like it’s going to be an Austen retelling, it actually wasn’t; in fact, even though the two main characters are named for Austen’s most famous sisters, neither of them is (I thought) particularly like Austen’s Bennet girls. They are much more alike, both hot-tempered, proud and indignant, but capable of great compassion.

Instead, the Austen reference is about the experience of having read Austen – what the reader learns from Pride & PrejudiceSense & Sensibility and Persuasion (and I was glad to see some references in there to Persuasion which I think is a vastly underrated Austen novel!).

The New York setting doesn’t feel that strong – but we don’t spend very long in New York. Seattle felt very small-town – they seem to walk nearly everywhere or take very short car rides – is it really that small? That said, culturally it was a pleasant and consistent depiction of a relaxed way of life contrasting with New York’s hecticism (I may have just made up that word).

One niggle (and it’s possible that this is fixed in the print version, but it wasn’t in my eGalley): in The Love Verb and other cooking-related fiction (e.g. Meet Me At The Cupcake Cafe), the author included the recipes. I would really have liked the recipes to be included in the book so I could replicate some of them at home!

Enjoyable, light; it won’t stay with you long but it’s a very pleasant read while you’re at it.

Additional information

Copy through NetGalley from the publisher in exchange for an an honest review.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 220 pages (hardback)

Order Lizzy and Jane from 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

Review copy amnesty

As I’ve mentioned a few times recently, some strange instinct is making me want to get rid of unread books. I’m going through my review shelves and casting a critical eye over the books that have sat there for at least 6 months. I’m going to post here a few books at a time to see if there are any that I might get rid of that I definitely shouldn’t… otherwise they’re on their way out the door. Particularly the massive chunky hardbacks which don’t fit in my handbag.

review copies

The Orchard of Lost Souls – Nadifa Mohamed. I know Black Mamba Boy did very well and I’m a little hesitant to bin this one, but I just read the blurb and put it down 10 minutes ago and have already forgotten what it was about.

Red Sparrow – Jason Matthews – a Cold War thriller. ?

A Ghost at the Door – Michael Dobbs. Thriller of some variety. Seems to have been an unsolicited copy.

The Last Conquest – Berwick Coates. This is a retelling of the Battle of Hastings. This one I did at least tell the publisher I’d be willing to read, but I just haven’t got anywhere near it and it’s huge. This is probably the one I’m most likely to hang onto of these 5.

In Malice, Quite Close – Brandi Lynn Ryder. This seems to be a Lolita retelling, which is lost on me because I haven’t read Lolita and am unlikely to in the next year, so this book is taking up space until I read its cousin. I’ve had it at least 2 if not 3 years.

(and a cup of decaf tea. Because it’s an essential component of a book photograph.)

2014-11-24 20.25.07

A couple more (I think you can read all the titles and authors here). These are all paperbacks so I’m less openly prejudiced against them… They all sounded interesting when they were pitched, but for one reason or another I haven’t got to them.

Anyone out there love any of these? Or can I get rid of them in clear conscience?

A Dangerous Fiction – Barbara Rogan – 7/10

“In the well-ordered world of fiction, murder and mayhem never arrive unheralded. For as long as men have told tales, disaster has been foreshadowed by omens and signs. But if there were portents the day my troubles began, I never saw them.”

dangerous fiction

Successfully running a publishing firm, Jo Donovan’s life seems to be coming together again after the shock of the death of her husband. When a would-be client starts stalking her, she starts to see ominous shadows everywhere. Then someone close to her dies in suspicious circumstances, and Jo herself becomes a suspect.

It’s been a few months since I read this one so I’m struggling to remember all the details, but it was very enjoyable. For a start, I didn’t figure out who the baddie was at all – massive surprise at the end. And the way that Jo’s security was taken away, step by step, was quite… not chilling, but obviously devastating for Jo.

The cast size is just about right. Rogan develops 5-6 characters enough that they could all be suspects and that Jo has thorough interactions with them, without any of them feeling like they take over the story. There are some cute bit-part characters too. I loved the ex-Marine with the guard dog.

It’s all set in New York and is very New York, though not as totally New York as a couple of other books I read later in the year (particularly Let The Great World Spin and My Salinger Year).

Definitely worth a read – it’s a quick thriller, but with a fun literary setting and pretty well done.

Additional information:

Copy kindly provided some months ago by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Penguin, 324 pages
Order A Dangerous Fiction: A Mystery from 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

All That I Am – Anna Funder – 6/10

“Hans, who was shy speaking to the English, spoke of them as they fitted his preconceptions: a nation of shopkeepers, tea drinkers, lawn clippers. But I came to see them differently. What had seemed a conformist reticence revealed itself, after a time, to be an inbred, ineffable sense of fair play. They didn’t need as many external rules as we did because they had internalised the standards of decency.”

all that i am

(from the blurb) When Hitler comes to power in 1933, a tight-knit group of friends and lovers become hunted outlaws overnight. United in their resistance to the madness and tyranny of Nazism, they must flee the country. Dora, passionate and fearless, her lover, the great playwright Ernst Toller, her younger cousin Ruth and Ruth’s husband Hans find refuge in London. Here they take breathtaking risks in order to continue their work in secret. But England is not the safe haven they think it to be, and a single, chilling act of betrayal will tear them apart.

Often a book seems driven by one of three things to me – plot, characters, or beautiful writing. This seemed a half-and-half study of plot and characters. The plot moved at inconsistent speed (and jumped around – but more on that later), but while we stayed in one place and time, particularly in the early 30s in Germany and then in the mid 30s in London, it was well-crafted and progressed. A level of tension is well-maintained without being exhausting. I didn’t see the plot twist coming at all. I was surprised when it came, who it was that was responsible, and the effects.

I already protested about the back-and-forth perspective, the way we flick from Ruth as an old woman, to Ruth as a young woman during the Nazi years, to Ernst Toller at the start of the war, and back again. I still maintain that Ernst’s story served no purpose at all – it was necessary that some of the information about Dora came through him, but that was really it.

Young Ruth was my favourite character (I suspect this is Funder’s intention); gentle and idealistic, committed and loving. I found Dora more difficult; headstrong, impetuous, strangely unconcerned with consequences. Ernst was sanctimonious and selfish, and Hans was strangely nothing. He was inspired and gregarious as a young man, but he petered out into nothingness in a new country. I loved old Ruth’s observations on Bev (her carer) – a little comic relief in the other timeline.

This is such a depressing book. So naturally I read it on holiday in Rome in the sunshine. But still. I can’t decide whether it needed heavier editing, redirecting, or whether I was never going to like something so dark.

One thing this book did teach me was the experience of living in 20s Germany. At school we only heard about the rampant inflation and needing a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a loaf of bread; this book managed to convey the joy and freedom and idealism and optimism of the early 20s. No mean feat.

Not bad, and others will enjoy it more than I. But so, so depressing.

Additional info
Copy borrowed from the Book Accumulator quite some time ago. Now finally I can return it. 
Publisher: Penguin, 363 pages (paperback)
Order All That I Amfrom 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

My Salinger Year – Joanna Rakoff – 8/10

“Carolyn began talking about friends of hers named Joan and John, and their daughter, who had an odd name, an odd name that sounded oddly familiar to me. I’d heard her discuss Joan and John before, but now I realised, with a jolt, that she was talking about Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunn. These were Carolyn’s intimates, the people whose pedestrian travails – bathroom renovations and missed flights – she chattered about.”

my salinger yera

Joanna is a newly minted Master of a literature degree, badly in need of a job. She wheedles her way into a job assisting a literary agent – and discovers, several weeks into the job, that the agent represents J. D. Salinger. With no background in Salinger at all, she muddles along in the job and in the big city, while trying not to let leech-like boyfriend Don scupper her prospects.

Not masses happens in the course of this year – although obviously enough to fill a short book, it’s not action-packed. Which is fine; it gives Rakoff plenty of time to muse on being young and broke and working in the literary world in New York. I would happily read more of Rakoff’s writing; maybe it is easier to be funny and light-hearted and insightful when writing about one’s own life rather than making up a world, but I liked what I read. It was intelligent without being overwrought, evocative without being cluttered.

At this point in a review template, I have the prompt “characters”. Which is tricky when reviewing non-fiction. The protagonist is impossible to review, given that it’s the author! But Rakoff does a good job of moulding the people around her into characters on the page, particularly helpful office furniture Hugh, deadbeat boyfriend Don, Next Big Thing in Literary Agency Max. I liked these people (apart from Don, who sounds like a waste of space), and they were fine to spend some time in the company of.

This was yet another instalment in my recent New York themed reading and watching – as I mentioned in my post on the subject, I loved the frequent references to a little bit of New York I spent some time in recently (and I was most amused to find the quoted reference to Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking which I read immediately before this!). I know it was set 20 years ago, but apart from the technophobic set-up in the office, I hardly noticed this at all. I suppose not knowing what Brooklyn rents are these days probably helped, that the figures given didn’t age the book!

Well worth the quick read, whether you’ve read Salinger or not, just as a fun “a year in the life” story. If you’ve read Salinger, possibly more interesting?

Additional info
Copy from publisher through NetGalley (which I have not used in a while!)
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 273 pages
Order My Salinger Yearfrom 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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