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review 2017-04-09 23:10
Dark chick-lit or humorous mystery wonderfully written and with great characters.
Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for offering me a copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I read and reviewed Liane Moriarty’s recent novel Truly, Madly, Guilty and when I was checking the reviews I read many comments referring to the author’s sense of humour that was not so evident in that novel (don’t let that put you off. It’s a fascinating story and the style of the narration is pretty unique) and I read many people referring to this novel. I also happened to watch a couple of the episodes of the HBO series and wondered how they might compare to the book. I haven’t watched the whole series, so I can’t comment in full but I must say the book is fantastic.

The novel tells the story of the events that take place at an Australian primary school (Pirriwee Public School) during an event organised for parents, the Trivia Night (where the participants are supposed to dress up like Audrey Hepburn and Elvis Presley. Yes, you can imagine the scene). To tell the story, the action takes us back to the school’s induction day. While some of the mothers (and fathers, well, only one man is looking full-time after the kids but many fathers attend too) already know each other, Jane is new to the area and doesn’t know anybody. By accident, she meets Madeline, who has three kids and has seen it all. Madeline is a force of nature and adopts Jane, who is much younger and far less glamorous. Celeste, a friend of Madeline and the most beautiful and rich woman around, is the third in the fabulous trio.

The story is told in the third person from the point of view of these three women, and there are interspersed fragments of what appears to be an interview with a variety of characters, all of them parents of the children at the school, that are evidently being asked questions about what happened on that fateful night. It is no spoiler (as that is clear from very early on) if I tell you that somebody has died. The novel builds up slowly, introducing the characters and their personalities and concerns. Jane is a single Mum who’s struggling but loves her son Ziggy and does the best by him. Things start going wrong early on for her and her son due to an accusation of bullying and that sets up a number of things in motion, splitting up the parents and creating a lot of misunderstandings and resentment. Jane is also hiding some secrets that have seriously affected her life and she moved there seeking some sort of closure. Madeline is the funniest characters. She is quick-witted, loves clothes and shoes, does not tolerate fools gladly and hates the fact that her ex-husband (and father of her teenage daughter Abigail, Nathan, who abandoned her leaving her to bring up their child alone when she was only a baby) has remarried and is now living in close proximity. Not only that but, his daughter, Sky, goes to the same school as her youngest one, Chloe. She is not one for forgiving and forgetting and she has a very hard time accepting that Abigail is becoming close to her father. Her character offers light relief as she’s quite extreme in her passions and behaviour and seemingly superficial —hers is a familiar character of chick-lit books — but it’s impossible not to like her or side with her as her heart is in the right place and she is very funny. Celeste is also keeping secrets. The perfect family, and her oh, so perfect husband, is anything but, and the novel is very good at portraying the complex nature of domestic violence and the kind of mental processes the victims go through.

The short interludes, at the beginning of each chapter, of fragments of interviews with other characters manage to create a sense of what the whole community is like, and by contrasting two completely opposite answers to the same question (some hilarious, others in earnest) one easily gets a sense of how what happened, happened. Of course, the real causes of the incident go much deeper than the disagreements between the parents and the amount of alcohol consumed, as will be slowly revealed. One of the reviewers compared these fragments to a Greek chorus and it is a very apt comparison (minus the moral undertones).

This novel is very good at creating characters that we can care for, although perhaps we might not fully identify with any of them. I’ve laughed out loud at Madeline’s antics quite often (although not all is fun and games for her either) and I have worried with Celeste and Jane. The writing is agile and fluid, with the different character’s voices well captured, differentiated and believable. The small community, that becomes also another character, is vividly portrayed and the ending is surprising, as it should be in all good mysteries (I kept worrying about who the dead person might be and just worked out what was going to happen a couple of paragraphs before it did), positive and heart-warming (despite the tragedy). The book’s lightness of touch and the interspersed comedic events make it easy to read but it does not detract from the seriousness and the sensitivity with which it touches upon serious matters. Bullying, family relationships (especially the complexities of non-traditional families), domestic violence, the influence of our childhoods and the experiences we go through in later life, and of course, the dangers of secrets and lies, are all important elements of this novel, that despite the style and the subject matter fits also within the mystery category.

I recommend this novel to any readers of women’s literature, chick-lit with a sting, domestic mystery and in general to anybody who wants to have a fun time whilst reading about serious matters. Now I know for sure I must read more books by this author.

 

 

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review 2017-04-06 11:55
A great example of the genre and the characters and the setting complement the mystery perfectly
11:05 Murders (The Inspector Sheehan Mysteries) (Volume 2) - Brian O'Hare

I write this review as a member of the Online Book Club org.

This police procedural novel, the second in The Inspector Sheehan Mysteries series, is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and it has it all: mysterious murders, a complex set of suspects that will keep fans of the genre spinning the wheels of their brains, a fascinating backdrop that includes political and religious issues, secondary themes that are in everybody’s minds (police corruption, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape, stalking, financial crisis…), a team of policemen made up of distinct and realistic individuals, great dialogue, detailed crime scene investigation, touches of humour and even a dab of romance.

The story is told in the third person and it is narrated from the point of view of a variety of characters (mostly members of the police team, although also some chapters by some of the suspects), but there are no sudden changes in viewpoint and it does not cause any confusion. Instead, the style of the storytelling helps create a puzzle where the reader has more clues than any of the given characters, but there are also delayed discoveries and many red herrings, so things aren’t quite as easy as one might initially think. Being able to share in the different characters’ opinions and motivations gives the reader a multifaceted view that increases the intrigue.

At the beginning of the story we have a female Sergeant Detective, Denise Stewart, join Sheehan’s team. She has been through a harrowing experience at her previous post that has made her defensive and suspicious. Despite that, it doesn’t take long for her to realise Sheehan’s team is different and she starts to relax. Unfortunately, other things start going on in her life that seem, initially, completely unrelated to the murder they are investigating, a rather gross and well-planned crime that took place on a Tuesday at, exactly, 11:05 pm. There are several lines of enquiry, a fragment of a cufflink that keeps popping up, suspects galore, assaults on one of the detectives (young and handsome Tom Allen, who has taken an interest in Stewart), and Sheehan has the feeling that he’s missing something. His famous intuition seems to be letting him down but…

This is the second book in the series and although I have not read the previous one, I had no difficulty getting into the story. This is a standalone book that can be enjoyed without having read the first one but after having read this one I hope to read more in the series.

This novel could serve as an illustration on how to write mystery and police procedural books. The writing is precise, with enough descriptions and fleshing out of the characters to make the readers recognise them and care for them, with clues masterfully shared throughout the book, with no extraneous details or anything that does not move the story forward included. Even seemingly innocuous or passing comments have a reason and the twists and turns of the story will have readers choosing and discarding numerous suspects, keeping them always on their toes. The pacing and timing of the reveals work very well. When I was getting close to the end, I kept stopping and trying to run all the clues in my head to see who the perpetrator was. I had my suspicions from the beginning but kept changing my mind as the story went.  Ah, and the ending did not disappoint.

Both the murder being investigated and the detectives are interesting in their own right and readers will end up feeling a part of Sheehan’s team. The light and humorous moments alternate with tense and scary moments enhancing both. The local touches and references to locations and historical events (the troubles) make it particularly memorable and distinct. I recommend it to any readers who love police procedural mysteries with great characters and complex plots. A word of warning, due to the nature of the crime and to some of the other scenes, this is not a book for the faint-hearted and is definitely not a cozy mystery.

 

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review 2017-02-12 19:35
A beautifully written novel about loss, meaning and relationships, with its heart in the right place.
The Beauty of the Fall - Rich Marcello

I received an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team.

This beautifully written novel touches on many subjects that are important at different levels: some, like loss (be it the death of a child, a divorce, the loss of not only a job but also a life-project) can be felt (and there are heart-wrenching moments in the novel) understood and managed at a very personal level, others, like the role of communications technology (who must control it? Should it remain neutral or become involved in the big issues? Should it ally itself with governments or be creatively independent?) or domestic and gender-related violence, although no doubt having a personal component, also seem to require global solutions.  This ambitious novel tries to give answers to many of these questions and it does so through a first person narrative interspersed with poetry.

The novel is narrated by Dan Underlight, whom we meet at a particularly difficult time in his life. His son died a couple of years earlier and he feels guilty about it (we learn the details quite late in the novel), he is divorced, and now, the technology company he helped to create, and by extension his business partner and the woman he’d been closer to than almost anybody else for many years, fires him. His job, the only thing that had kept him going, is taken away from him. He has no financial worries. He has a good severance pay, a huge house, two cars, but his life is empty. Through the novel, Dan, who still sees his son, has conversations with him and wants to start a project in his memory, meets many people. Most of them are enablers. He has known Willow, a woman who works helping women victims of domestic violence, and herself a survivor (although she doesn’t talk much about it, at least with Dan) for some time and eventually, their friendship turns into a romantic relationship for a while. He has also been attending therapy with Nessa, a very special therapist (as a psychiatrist I was very curious about her techniques, but working in the NHS in the UK I must admit I’d never even heard of a Buddha board) since his son’s death, and during his peculiar pilgrimage, he gets ideas, encouragement, and a few brushes with reality too.

Much of the rest of the novel is taken up by Dan’s creation of a new company, based on his idea that if people could converse about important subjects and all these conversations could be combined, they would reach agreements and solve important problems. As conversations and true communication in real life amount to more than just verbal exchanges, there are technical problems to be solved, funding, etc. I found this part of the novel engaging at a different level and not having much knowledge on the subject didn’t detract from my interest, although I found it highly idealistic and utopian (not so much the technical part of it, but the faith in the capacity of people to reach consensual agreements and for those to be later enforced), and I also enjoyed the underhand dealings of the woman who had been his friend but seemed somehow to have become his enemy. (I wasn’t sure that her character came across as consistent, but due to the subjective nature of the narration, this might have more to do with Dan’s point of view than with Olivia herself).

Dan makes mistakes and does things that morally don’t fit in with the code he creates for his company, or with the ideals he tries to live by (he is human, after all) and things unravel somewhat as life has a few more surprises for him, but, without wanting to offer any spoilers, let’s say that there are many lessons he has learned along the way.

As I said before, the language is beautiful, and the poems, most of which are supposedly written by Willow, provide also breathing space and moments to stop, think and savour both the action and the writing style.

First of all, let me confess I was very taken by this novel and I couldn’t stop reading it and even debating the points with myself (I live alone, so, that was the best I could do). I also was touched by both the emotions expressed and the language used. As a sensorial reading experience, it’s wonderful.

Now, if I had to put on my analysing cap, and after reading some of the reviews on Goodreads, I thought I should try and summarise the issues some readers have with the novel.

The themes touched are important and most people will feel able to relate to some if not all of them. Regarding the characters and their lifestyle, those might be very far from the usual experience of a lot of readers. Although we have a handful of characters who are not big cheeses in technology companies, those only play a minor part in the book. The rapid expansion of the technology and how it is used in the book is a best case scenario and might give readers some pause. Personally, I could imagine how big companies could save money using such technology, but charitable organisations, schools or libraries, unless very well-funded, in the current financial times when official funding has become very meagre, would have problems being able to afford it all, and that only in theoretically rich countries. (The issue of world expansion is referred to early on in the project but they decide to limit their ambitions for the time being).

Also, the fact that issues to be discussed and championed were decided by a few enlightened individuals (although there is some debate about the matter) could raise issues of paternalism and hint at a view of the world extremely western-centred (something again hinted at in the novel). Evidently, this is a novel and not a socio-political treatise and its emphasis on changing the US laws to enforce legislation protecting equality, women’s rights and defending women against violence brings those matters the attention and focus that’s well-deserved.

For me, the novel, where everything that happens and every character that appears is there to either assist, hinder, or inspire Dan (it is a subjective narrative and one where the main character is desperately searching for meaning) works as a fable or perhaps better a parable, where the feelings and the teachings are more important than the minute details or how we get there. It is not meant to be taken as an instructions manual but it will be inspirational to many who read it.

In summary, although some readers might find it overly didactic (at times it seems to over-elaborate the point and a word to the wise…) and might miss more variety and diversity in the characters, it is a beautifully written book that will make people think and induce debate.  This is not a book I’d recommend to readers that like a lot of action and complex plots, but to those who enjoy a personal journey that will ring true with many. It is a touching and engaging read to be savoured by those who enjoy books that challenging our opinions and ideas.

 

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review 2016-08-15 12:48
Action packed, with an engaging protagonist and a hopeful and inspiring message
Street Soldier - Andy McNab,Henry Lloyd Hughes,Random House Audiobooks

Thanks to Net Galley and to Penguin Random House UK Children’s for providing with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Andy McNab and I was intrigued by his foray into young adult writing and particularly by the main character. Sean Harker is a young boy (sixteen at the beginning of the novel) who loves cars and speed, whose life has been quite difficult, with no male role figure, a mother who has struggled through difficult and often violent relationships and he find his identity and his sense of self through his belonging to a gang. He ends up in prison and is given the opportunity to join the army and make good. Although at first it sounds to him as if he’d be betraying his friends, when one of those comes to a bad end, he rethinks his priorities. But not everything is plan sailing and old acquaintances and new temptations come his way.

The story is set in the UK (and it uses its location, and particularly London at the end, in a very effective and spectacular way), told in the third person, from the point of view of the young protagonist, Sean, who is street wise but not always good at fully appraising his circumstances or seeing the whole picture. He has his heart in the right place (he feels for his friends, is loyal and wants to protect his mother, and dislikes the racist and sexist comments of some of the other members of his unit) but he can be manipulated and influenced by those more experienced than him. Although the story does not go into psychological depths regarding Sean’s personality and thoughts, and it does not dwell in detail on his past, there is enough to make him sympathetic, and his reactions, doubts, mistakes and fears are all too recognisable and real. He is the small guy everybody tries to take advantage of, who doesn’t know whom he can trust, but he eventually finds his way.

There is plenty of action, including violence (and traumatic and sad events) and use of swearwords (although this is not extreme considering the genre), and the novel deals with difficult subjects throughout, including: suicide, extreme maiming and death of a teammate by bombing, terrorism, ultra-right politics, gang warfare, domestic violence, imprisonment… The pace is fast, fluid, and there’s not let down of tension and intrigue. It is a true page-turner, and although at times it seems about to go on a dangerous direction, it pulls it all together beautifully at the end. The protagonist is put to the test emotionally, physically and psychologically and although his reasons might be good (or so he thinks) he makes many mistakes. Thankfully he is given a second chance and he proves himself worthy of it.

At the end of the book the author identifies himself with the main character and explains that his life circumstances were quite similar to those of Sean Harker and how he was also given a chance and now he spends part of his time going to schools to spread the word.  The character and McNab’s own story made me think of many young men I’d met in prison (when I worked as a forensic psychiatrist) whose lives and circumstances were not that different to those of the character depicted in this novel. I just hope they all have the chance, the opportunity and the will to make good too.

Street Soldier is a great read for young adults (and adults) who like action, a well-plotted book, full of tension and emotions. It also delivers a positive and wholesome message and I can see it turned into a successful TV series or an action film. I’m sure this won’t be the last of Andy McNab’s books I’ll read.

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review 2016-07-15 17:40
"Steadfast" by Sarina Bowen
Steadfast (True North Book 2) - Sarina Bowen

I really enjoy Sarina Bowen's books, and I loved the first in this series, Bittersweet (True North #1). The books are set in rural Vermont, where I live, and they feel authentic and genuine (unlike most small town contemporaries, which depict a more Hollywood-esque perfection of imagined small town life). I was really looking forward to Steadfast because of the premise: the hero is a recovering heroin addict who has just gotten out of jail for killing his girlfriend's brother while driving while high. I mean, that's some pretty heavy conflict, right? And I love a good redemption story.

 

Sadly, while the writing was good and the main characters were compelling, and Bowen did a really good job in depicting Jude's addiction and his daily struggle in recovery, Steadfast was a disappointment. The supporting characters were not well developed -- the main characters' parents, siblings, and friends were very two-dimensional, which made plot lines involving these characters less compelling and often less believable. Also, in an effort (I think) to make the hero more heroic, the plot took shortcuts that really disappointed me. (SPOILER HERE:

we learn in the end that Jude wasn't actually driving in the accident that killed the heroine's brother, which struck me as a cop out -- the story would have better if Jude had been redeemed rather than exonerated

(spoiler show)

.)

 

I was also distracted by some of the things Bowen got wrong about Vermont's criminal justice system, which likely wouldn't bother anyone who doesn't work in the field. The silver lining, though, is that the morning after I finished the book, I emailed Sarina Bowen (which is not something I ever do; generally I prefer not to directly interact with authors) and offered myself as a contact should she ever have research questions (I've been a prosecutor for 14 years) or need a beta reader, and she wrote back immediately and was thrilled by my offer. So, that was kind of exciting.

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