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Thursday, 23 January 2020

Review: The Widows' Club by Amanda Brooke

"When April joins a support group for young widows, she’s looking for answers after her husband’s sudden death. What she finds instead is a group in turmoil.

Set up by well-meaning amateurs, the founders are tussling for control of the group, and everyone’s on edge. Added to that, secret relationships springing up between members and another new member, Nick, seems more than a little bit shady…

But the most dangerous secret of all? Not all members are who they seem to be. And they’ll go to any lengths to hide the truth…"

I picked this up at random while shopping the other day, and felt immediately intrigued by the blurb. Never underestimate the skills of blurb writers, fellow readers. 

It's a very clever premise. In almost a closed set, with minimal other locations throughout the story, Amanda Brooke cleverly weaves together a tale of intrigue and deceit between people who are at their most raw and vulnerable. Throughout the story is a constant guessing game of whether the secrets unfurled are tame or nefarious. More importantly, who are the actors in this group? Some of the supporting characters, such as Steve and Jodie, are easy to guess. But the ones who come to the fore present more interesting conundrums. 

It's a masterclass in showing how well a writer must know their characters in order to proceed with delicate webs such as these. Any false move or step from the characters would mean that the plot would fall apart at worst, or be implausible at best. Plot and character, of course, are important, but readers won't care about the plot if they are not invested in the characters. The people in this story provoke strong emotions, so you get invested in their arcs and desperately race ahead to find their resolutions. 

I stayed up unwisely late three nights to get to the end of this story, still guessing to the very end who deserves my sympathy as the reader, or not. But the beauty of this, no spoilers, is that these people are not black and white at all. It doesn't make things neat, but it makes them real. 

Thursday, 9 January 2020

New review: The Other You, S. J. Munroe

Note: I was given a free proof copy of this book in exchange for this review.

The Other You is a fascinating and captivating psychological thriller. Told through three points of view, the story centres on Kate, a 'super-recogniser' - that is, a person with the extraordinary ability to remember faces. She worked for the police, helping identify criminals, until an accident caused her brain damage. While in hospital, she met her partner - Rob, a tech entrepreneur - who helped nurse her back to health.

However, tensions quickly crack through the surface. Rob confides in Kate his fear of meeting his doppelganger, whom he has apparently met once before. This doppelganger threatened to steal Rob's life.Kate starts to fear that Rob has been replaced by his doppelganger. Soon, she worries that she has a condition caused by her accident, Capgras, which convinces her that Rob has been replaced.

Meanwhile, there are other elements to the story. The policeman for whom Kate used to work, and Kate's ex Jake, find out that her accident may not have been an accident after all. Meanwhile, super recognisers are disappearing all over Europe, sparking worries that this links to a much larger conspiracy.

The Other You is exceptionally well-planned and plotted, with many twists and turns that keep you guessing until the very end. Action and new knowledge emerges on every page - I was up until very late for a couple of days while reading this book. Once you read lots of psychological thrillers they start to feel quite samey, but the premise of this story with the super recognisers makes it feel fresh and original.

My favourite character was the no-nonsense Bex, Kate's friend, but my only wish was that she had been given a bit more to do rather than be there to serve Kate's character. Jake and the policeman, on the other hand, had their own far-reaching character arcs that complemented the main thread of the story.

Overall, this was a hugely entertaining read that I will most definitely read again to pick up on all the clues I missed the first time around. 

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

New Review: Springtime at Hope Hall by Pam Rhodes.

I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to review this novel. In these turbulent political and social times, when the country seems more divided than ever, it was a true delight to be able to read this novel, based on years of Pam Rhodes' experience travelling round churches and village halls.

This novel has a cast of truly wonderful characters: Kath, the administrator; Trevor, the caretaker; and Maggie, the cook. These three are the centre of the novel but there are many other great supporting characters as well - Shirley, the new no-nonsense cleaner; Della, a young dancer who is determined to provided classes for all ages; and the Can't Sing Singers - a new choir formed after the music director at their church unceremoniously kicked them out.

What of the plot? Mostly it's about the daily ins and outs of the village hall and its users, but they are all working towards something special - a Centenary Easter Monday Fayre which proves a harder task than any of them imagined, not to mention dealing with this as well as their personal lives as well. Trevor has a wife terminally ill with cancer and Maggie has been left by her husband for a much younger woman.

What's so heartening about this novel is that it reminds us of Britain at its best, when community spirit and solidarity is high. Pam Rhodes reminds us, the readers, of what really matters in life and how life works best in community, looking after each other, and what happens when we are divided. It's touching, funny, but heart-warming most of all, which is definitely the kind of story we need in times like this.

Springtime at Hope Hall will be available in paperback from 22nd February 2020.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

New review: The Death of Mungo Blackwell, Lauren H. Brandenburg

Note: I received a free proof copy of this book in exchange for a review.

The Death Of Mungo Blackwell is the perfect read for dreary winter nights. It's a book full of warmth, wit, growth, and eccentricity from the central characters. Reading this book felt like snuggling into a warm blanket; perfect, sweet escapism into the countryside.

Charlie Price, his wife Velveteen, and their son Gideon, leave their lives in the city (never specified) and move to a small town called Coraloo. Charlie used to be extremely senior in the world of finance but a bad judgement left him fired and without income. In Coraloo, he becomes a 'picker' - he looks for items of potential value in markets and resells them online.

The market is owned by a family called the Blackwells who provide the heart and soul of this book. Most welcome him, but one of them - Shug - stands out in his hostility. The Blackwells often act out their family stories - or 'histories', as they insist - and also hold funerals of family members before those members actually die.

The point of the story is to show how Charlie, Velveteen and Gideon, a family who had everything and who quickly get reduced to nothing, start again and find themselves in the process. Their individual stories are handled with care and compassion, gently guided by various members of the Blackwell family.

This story is fun, vibrant, sweet, and quietly remarkable. It's hard to put it in a genre but I would put it on a bookshelf next to the brilliant "The End of Mr Y" by Scarlett Thomas.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

New review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

As soon as I finished Circe I thought about how great it would be to have Penelope's side of the story during The Odyssey. Luckily, one of my greatest friends had an answer for me - one did indeed exist, written by none other than Margaret Atwood.

It's no secret that rich, noble women were used as tools in marriage contracts throughout history, but the use of Penelope in this story puts paid to the idea that Odysseus and Penelope necessarily married for love. Theirs is touted as one of the greatest loves of all time - the weary hero who spends ten years after a ten year war in Troy trying to get back to his wife, the woman who is separated from her husband for twenty years, not knowing if he is alive or dead, surviving only on rumour.

Some of this is true. But as for their love - well, Penelope (at least, in this retelling) is only fifteen when she is married off to Odysseus. In Atwood's version, Odysseus and Penelope do have great affection for each other, but not necessarily reaching the great heights as shown in The Odyssey. 

But that's not the point of Atwood's story. The point is how Penelope had to defend her home for nearly two decades - including her maids, the ones who were so callously murdered by Odysseus at the end of the Odyssey. This was justified then because they were disloyal to Penelope and Odysseus and ingratiated themselves with the suitors, but Penelope spins a different yarn. She shows more of their humanity - the fact that these maids were teenagers, therefore used and abused by the suitors. She asked them to ingratiate themselves with the suitors, who were eating Penelope out of house and home, in order to find out their true minds. After all, they were spewing out declarations of love all day and every day to Penelope, when all they wanted was her property.

Penelope tells her story from Hades - she is already dead when the story begins. The maids have their moments, too, and show their side through the medium of a traditionally Ancient Greek dramatic chorus line. It's a very clever book, considerably deep in spite of its brevity. What's particularly clever is at the finale of the book when Odysseus is represented by an attorney, a whole moment that resonates in the #MeToo era, despite being written over a decade before the Weinstein story broke.

Saying Margaret Atwood has written a brilliant story is like saying the Pope is Catholic but just because something is obvious does not make it any less worth stating. I definitely recommend this if you are looking for a different angle on a well-known epic story, most particularly one that humanises otherwise fairly 2d characters from the original.

New review: Circe by Madeline Miller

The first thing I need to say about this book is that it is a must-read. It is an epic in every sense of the world.

Most of what we know about Circe comes from the story of a man - Odysseus. She is the beautiful, powerful witch who lives alone on an island and has a habit of turning men into swine (Homer clearly was having fun there). However, when Odysseus leaves Circe's island, so does all knowledge of her and what happens next.

Circe is nothing if not an origins story, but it's so much more than that. It's a Greek myth in its own right, and opens up a whole world of possibilities in retelling and recreating Greek myths about the women who feature in them - why not a story on Medea? Medusa? (Margaret Atwood wrote one about Penelope, Odysseus' wife, and the maids who were hanged - I'll review that in the future).

Circe is the daughter of a nymph and Helios, the sun-god. However, she is frequently derided by her own parents and her kin - she's not beautiful, she sounds like a mortal (shock, horror), and seems to be wholly ordinary for a divine being. However, she soon (and kind of accidentally) discovers the power of pharmaka - witchcraft. After committing acts of witchcraft on a rival for her love, who transforms into the monster Scylla, Circe is banished in perpetuity.

She doesn't stay alone for long - for a divine being, anyway. However, she gets raped by a visiting crew of men once they realise she's alone, and this episode starts to turn her into the witch she's known as, transforming men into swine when more show up and reveal their true intentions.

We know what happens when Odysseus shows up, so I'll gloss over that, but what's interesting is what comes after. Odysseus is shown to be more cruel and careless than he appears in The Odyssey. The same goes for Athene (who used to be my favourite goddess, but not so sure if she is anymore, after this novel!) All this is to say that Circe's life does not stop after Odysseus leaves - far from it. There are also many interesting crossovers with other heroes and stories - Circe's sister creates the Minotaur; Jason and Medea take refuge on her island; Hermes and Circe are lovers for a while... the list goes on.

What Madeline Miller has created here is an intensely rich tapestry of stories based around one of the most enigmatic and interesting women of antiquity. This novel is truly a triumph, both in depth and in breadth. I don't say it lightly when I say this is my favourite novel that I have read this year.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

A break from usual news...

Hello, everyone. 

Firstly, thank you so much to readers of this blog, I really appreciate the support!

Secondly, reviews might come a bit more slowly in the next few months due to some exciting news. I am running for office in the U.K! For my U.S. readers, this is the equivalent of running as a Congresswoman. 

It's an exciting time but I need your support - running as an MP requires an initial deposit of £500, and my county (district) is fielding three candidates for our Green Party - we are running on Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez style policies! Our priorities include addressing the Climate Crisis, reinvesting in our healthcare service, education, and reversing cuts to public services. 

If you feel at all able to chuck in a few quid to help us get on the ballot, the link is here. 

Thank you, and normal service will resume soon!