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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 2017-01-18 04:11
Untouchable (Blake Harte Mystery #1) - DNF @ 22%
Untouchable (The Blake Harte Mysteries Book 1) - Robert Innes

I could've muddle through the dry prose, I really could have. It lacked emotion, but it wasn't all telling/no showing. There was an attempt at showing in between all the info-dumping. But there were two things I just could not deal with:

 

1) The domestic abuse angle. It requires finesse and skill to tell this kind of story right, and I just wasn't feeling it here. It was very textbook. Maybe the execution of this plot line gets better as the story progresses, but I didn't have the patience to find out.

 

2) The grammar is terrible. Words are randomly capitalized in the middle of sentences. And Innes consistently, without fail, uses incorrect punctuation in all his dialogue. All of it.

 

"I'm going to the store." She said. - Incorrect.
"I'm going to the store," she said. - Correct.

 

This is Basic English 100.

 

Still, there are good bones here, considering this is the first story by this author. A better editor and some more filling in the corners, and you've got a promising story. It just isn't this story.

 

I can't comment on how the mystery aspect of it unfolds since I didn't get to that part before I gave up.

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review 2017-01-05 05:36
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston

Quick note on language: The phonetic spelling of the accents and dialects was a bit hard to get into at first, though thankfully growing up in the US, I'm at least familiar with the accent and know how it's supposed to sound like. It didn't take long to get into the rhythm of the story. Anyone who thinks that the language barrier might be a detriment to them should probably check out the sample first.

This is a truly enchanting story. I really enjoyed the sort of metaphorical writing that is used here to describe the story and the feelings and thoughts of the characters. There's a poetical quality to it and gives the story an unique voice so that the narrative almost becomes another character. The characters themselves are richly written and fleshed out with ease as we follow Janie as she navigates life's ups and downs. Janie isn't a perfect character. She has her flaws, as do all the characters here, but she represents the women who were raised in the generation after slavery, who were trying to fit themselves into a life that wasn't sure what to do with them. Everyone else has great ideas of what she can do with herself, how she can better herself - or better the men around her. She doesn't always make the best decisions, but she does eventually find her life and her reason for living.

This is a book of its time. Misogyny is commonplace and men are expected to beat there wives, so there is a lot of casual discussion about that. It also addresses the split in the black community itself, the divide based on how white a person is perceived to be based on how mixed they are - and the more mixed the better. There's the hypocrisy of society's expectations vs society's mores, which are often different sides of the same coin. The narrative doesn't judge any of these characters, just shows them to us and lets us decide what to think of them - which is a much harder thing for an author to do than you might think.

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