Category Archives: Review copies

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

The River of No Return – Bee Ridgway – 5/10

“Julia sat beside her gradfather’s bed, holding his hand. The fifth Earl of Darchester was dying.”

river of no return

To call this plot convoluted is an understatement. Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, cheats death on a battlefield in Spain in 1812 by jumping nearly two hundred years into the future. He accustoms himself to life as a New York socialite and cheese farm patron, until the Guild demands their pound of flesh and sends him to confront his 19th century past. Meanwhile, when the ancient Earl of Darchester dies leaving his teenage granddaughter estate-less, and the evil cousin turns up to take over things, well… it gets messier.

It’s been a while since I read this, and the difficulty I am having in remembering anything about it belies the enjoyment of reading it. Or perhaps that’s exactly it – it’s frothier than The Time Traveller’s Wife, with a less random mechanism of time travel, and a much larger world construct which makes considerably less sense. In essence it is a love story with one protagonist struggling across the centuries and an epoch-old conflict to find the other. There is an abundance of amusing note-taking on current and past cultures, particularly class and gender structures.

But in the end, nothing is resolved, and the characters are boilerplate romance standards – she is beautiful and independent but hamstrung by the conventions of the time, he is handsome and dashing and sensitive etc.

It was only as I googled for a picture of the cover to insert into this review that I discovered that the title of the book is the name of a Western film starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe. I assume that the allusion is intentional, but I cannot figure out why.

Borrow, read on a plane, leave on the plane.

Copy kindly provided by LoveReading.co.uk and the publisher in return for an honest review, so long ago that I have given up ever reviewing it for LoveReading.
Publisher: Penguin, 546 pages (hardback).
Order The River of No Returnfrom 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

Looking for Me – Beth Hoffman – 7/10

“Charleston was a unique place – one where it seemed as if two different worlds not so much collided but gracefully slid up beside each other and decided to just get along.”

looking for me

Teddi Overman loves her family, but she ran away from home and her mother’s dreams of secretarial school to build a life for herself restoring antiques in Charleston. Every time she returns home, she can’t help believing her brother, long disappeared and assumed dead, is still living in the beautiful nature around the family farm. Now grown-up and cleaning out the family property, she finds clues that maybe not all is as it appears.

This is a sweet, easy-reading piece of fluff. I whipped through it on a flight; while there is an ongoing background mystery as to what has happened to Teddi’s brother, really it’s a few months in the life of an antiques restorer. There are a couple of gently recurring arcs in the story, such as the adventures of Miz Tule Jane Poteet, the antique-focussed kleptomaniac, and Olivia, Teddi’s icy friend.

On a more serious note, Hoffman writes serious emotion well. She handles grief and loss very well and sensitively, as well as the itchy feet of a teenage girl wanting to make her way in the world, refusing her mother’s more sensible plans. Teddi’s conflicted feelings with her mother – devotion, with an undercurrent of resentment and impatience – are clear but heartfelt.

I loved the sense of Charleston conveyed – I’ve not spent much time in the USA but this sleepy, elegant, slightly behind the times but better for it, feeling is exactly what I imagine of the non-industrial South, and now I sort of want to go for a visit. Which is high praise for a location in a book. Equally, the nature around the novel’s other main setting, a farm in Kentucky, is also pictured well, the feeling of untouched nature slowly being encroached upon by city campers.

Definitely worth a read, particularly if you are looking for something relaxing. Come back Friday for a Q&A with the author!

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Viking
Order Looking for Mefrom 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

A couple of recent DNFs

Someone Else’s Wedding – Tamar Cohen – 2/10 (DNF)

someone else's wedding

Description from the blurb, because it’s very clever:

Mr & Mrs Max Irving request the company of:
Mrs Fran Friedman, mourning her empty nest, her lost baby, the galloping years, and a disastrous haircut.
Mr Saul Friedman, runner of marathons, avoider of conflicts and increasingly distant husband.
The two Misses Friedman, Pip and Katy, one pining over the man she can’t have, the other trying to shake off the man she no longer wants.
At the marriage of their son James Irving, forbidden object of inappropriate and troubling desire.

I never got off the ground with this one. I found Fran self-indulgent, self-pitying and the mystery of her relationship with the groom was very strange. Surely they should be totally different generations? Saul and the daughters were interesting characters and Cohen comes out with a spectacular turn of phrase every now and again, but I got really tired of Fran’s voice. DNF, and sharpish.

I don’t know whether this is just a piece of anti-romance snobbery I have – I just can’t be dealing with people’s nonsense.

(review copy from Doubleday, affiliate link to Amazon in case it looks interesting)

The Burgess Boys – Elizabeth Strout – 2/10 (DNF)

Burgess boys

Jim and Bob Burgess have escaped their Maine upbringing to Manhattan; of the three siblings, only sad single mother Susan is left, struggling with her teenage son Zach. When Zach is caught goading local Muslim Somali refugees, high-powered lawyer Jim won’t give up his exotic holiday and sends tender but ineffectual Bob home instead. Old tensions rise unbidden…

This is written in that ethereal style of much successful contemporary literature – vignettes and snapshots of sad lives, tangled by some bizarre event (it takes quite an imagination to leave a frozen pig’s head outside a mosque…). I didn’t like it in A Visit to the Goon Squad, and I didn’t like it here. If you like this style of writing, this book may hold a lot more promise for you because I didn’t think it was badly written, I just don’t like that style of writing!

(review copy from Simon & Schuster; affiliate link to Amazon)

Fear not, this isn’t all I’ve been reading recently – more positive reviews soon!

Close My Eyes – Sophie McKenzie – 7/10

“Of course, what I didn’t realise then is that grief, like the seasons, is cyclical. I would just start to feel open to life again, then find myself thrust back under the water, drowning in loss.”

closemyeyes_paperback_1471111733_300

Geniver Loxley lost her daughter Beth in a stillbirth eight years ago, and has been struggling ever since. When a stranger turns up on her doorstep, claiming that Beth is still alive and that there was a huge conspiracy to have Geniver believe that Beth is dead, and then that stranger is killed in a hit-and-run, Gen can’t help but cling to the thread of hope, and, terrified of the violence seeking to catch up with her, she starts to try to track down her daughter.

This is a very tightly written thriller; McKenzie steers Geniver neatly down the line between compulsion and madness, between paranoia and reasonable fear. Like Geniver, the reader never knows whether her husband is involved or not, whose information she can trust, or whether Geniver is actually mad. The voice of a child weaves through the story, popping up intermittently, and remains a mystery until the end – enough to keep the reader looking for the next interruption. It reminded me a lot of Louise Douglas’ The Secrets Between Us, although the characterisation is tighter and the mystery/madness angle more delicate than in TSBU.

In a sense, there is a little too much background information on the main characters: so much time and so many words are spent on Art’s background, his rise to money and fame – it’s clear that he is desperate to succeed at all costs. Similarly, we spend just a bit too time in Geniver’s reproductive doldrums; as if a stillbirth wasn’t traumatic enough, she hasn’t fallen pregnant since and remains single-mindedly focussed on Beth, excluded from her friends’ worlds of muddy football kit and birthday parties. In some ways, her exclusion from the world of a mother calls into question her suitability to take charge of a child, should Beth be found alive.

I’d figured out that the villain must be one of three people, given the assortment of red herrings, and was gratified to discover that one of them was the main villain, with a lot of help from a second one! There’s a really chilling ending to this one, after the big climax/shoot-out/confrontation which we all knew was coming, which I didn’t expect and which ends the reading experience with quite a cold, brutal feeling – as if the rest of the book wasn’t brutal enough!

A well-paced, enthralling debut – I look forward to more of McKenzie’s work.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 390 pages (paperback)
Order Close My Eyesfrom 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

Simple Saturday – Manuscript Found In Accra part III

Previous entries: 1, 2

Coelho_ThereisOnlyMo#C92D90
Unlike the previous two of these koans, I pretty much agree with that one. I’ve seen it referred to in The Lady of the Rivers, the idea of a cycle of fortune. Sometimes one is at the top, sometimes at the bottom. It always changes.

Thoughts?

Simple Saturday – Manuscript Found In Accra part II

Last week’s entry

Coelho_LoveisPriceless_webMy cynical world view disagrees with this one. Yes, love may be, like the Mastercard adverts, priceless, just like the Beatles told us, but I think even the most hopelessly romantic among us would agree that there is a cost to any love.

Thoughts?

Simple Saturday – Manuscript Found In Accra part I

Paolo Coelho’s latest is sitting on my desk waiting to be read, but the publisher has kindly sent through a couple of graphics to go with the book, which I’ll be posting on Saturdays for a few weeks.

Coelho_OnlyDifference_WebThis is a really tricky koan for me, because I love to see things neatly tidied away and smooth and uniform, but I sort of understand where it’s coming from. Thoughts?

 

The Secrets Between Us – Louise Douglas – 6/10

“I didn’t like the thought of Genevieve’s mother having our boy all to herself. I imagined her dusting him down, metaphorically, and wiping any trace of me from him. I imagined her wrapping him up in Genevieve again like a lamb wrapped in the bloodied fleece of another to disguise its smell.”

secrets between us

Sarah is running away from personal tragedy and relationship breakdown – and runs headlong into Alexander’s life. She eagerly takes on a job as housekeeper and nanny, not quite realising the height of the pedestal on which his presumed-deceased wife was held by the community. Sarah has to win over Genevieve’s family, put her own life to rights, and try to figure out what happened to Genevieve along the way.

There are strong Jane Eyre homage tones here – Sarah is haunted by Genevieve’s ghost metaphorically and a few times believes herself literally haunted; she is hired as a housekeeper/nanny although there’s a romantic angle with the father; she comes to the job running away from another existence and runs away from this job too at one point. But Douglas avoids falling into that trap (after all, with Rebecca enjoying such iconic status, why limit yourself to that story) and introduces a few other strands too.

Sarah herself is a bit odd; moves across the country and into someone’s home at a moment’s notice, and there are occasional doubts cast on her sanity – for a while I wondered if she was actually Genevieve and it was going to turn into a bizarre Stockholm Syndrome novel… She’s deeply affected by her stillbirth and the breakdown of her marriage, but then takes up a holiday fling quickly and the romance element bubbles on through the novel.

The village of Burrington Stoke is quite stifling for Sarah – everyone knew Genevieve and many are suspicious of Alexander, and naturally of Sarah now she has come to fill Genevieve’s shoes. Douglas writes a nearly closed-set of characters well, adding even more to Sarah’s feelings of unease. While the family house seems a little opulent, on the whole it had the feeling of a real place; ambitious, given the range of settings (Alex’s house, the family house, the mine, the school, pub, Claudia’s house… we do move around quite a lot).

This novel was selected for the Richard & Judy book club and while I don’t remember being all that positive about it as I read it, I can sort of understand why, given the various aspects I’ve discussed above. It suffers a little from falling between genres; it’s a thriller/family drama, but starts off as a pretty heady romance and there’s still thick romance strands every now and again, there’s a definite murder mystery angle although it’s not really followed up on… Good holiday reading if you’re not really sure what you want, I guess!

Additional information:

Love Anthony – Lisa Genova – 8/10

“I’m always hearing about how my brain doesn’t work right… But it doesn’t feel broken to me”

Beth is left alone in her large house coping with three children after she evicts her philandering husband; Olivia arrives on Nantucket seeking solitude and refuge after her only child, the demanding and all-consuming focus of her life for eight years, dies young. Beth finds herself turning back to her writing amid a crisis of self, inspired by a unique boy in her dreams who struggles to move between rooms of his brain and loves Always Rules. Olivia discovers a talent for photography which forces her out of her sanctuary of a house. They will be each other’s salvation.

Olivia and Beth are both strong, interesting women who are very normal – both of them sacrificed their identify for the sake of a more demanding section of the family unit. Both have an inherent creative gift which they only discover later in life, but they deal with personal tragedy in very different ways – Olivia’s stoic silence and shut-off-ness from the rest of the island contrasts strongly with Beth and her support network of her children and her friends. As in When It Happens To You, the men in this book are generally negatively characterised – they’re all a bit useless. Jimmy is lazy, smokes, is in an apparently dead-end job, and causes the crisis that takes over Beth’s storyline. Olivia’s husband David is also gone, although I was never really sure why – he seems like a nice guy and nothing seemed to happen to tear them apart other than Anthony’s autism and death (I know is sounds odd to say that’s nothing, but I don’t see why they should have broken up because of it). Beth’s book club friends’ husbands are almost non-existent.

Genova interleaves the lives of the two women skilfully and neatly; it took a while to realise how they would meet and then a while longer before they did, but that their experiences of Nantucket are so different while they obviously visit the same places helps with the dual storyline idea.

I don’t know anyone autistic, so I can’t judge how valid the imagined perspective of Anthony is (although “if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism”, so maybe Genova could pick pretty much any interpretation and it would be true for at least one child…). But hers was consistent and understandable and rationalised Anthony’s behaviour, so certainly better than I expected.

While Genova spends a fair amount of time with Olivia’s frustrations as parent to an autistic child and then imagines her way into Anthony’s mind, there is also a lot of other stuff going on – especially Beth’s story, her marriage, her children, her friends – which, while well-written and I wasn’t about to put the book down at any time, is a distraction from the autism line and will, I think, negatively impact the reception of the book. Genova has written about Alzheimer’s and Left Neglect syndrome in the past – I’ve only read Left Neglected but it had a reasonable amount of science/imagined experience of a certain mental disability and stuck almost exclusively to that theme. I’m concerned that Love Anthony, while imaginative and looking at the parent’s perspective too, will lose some credibility for its slightly chick-lit style (which is not really alluded to in the blurb); it is a well-written piece of women’s fiction dealing with family issues, rather than a novel about living with autism, in a family context.

I did love the idea of therapeutic cooking though.

Additional information:
Copy kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 303 pages (paperback).
Order Love Anthony 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
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