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review 2017-07-22 12:44
“Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” by John David Anderson
Ms. Bixby's Last Day - John David Anderson

I’m tempted to keep this review really short:

“Read this book. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly structured and shares the lives. problems, passions and fears of three young boys in a way that feels real and true without ever getting schmaltzy or maudlin.”

Except that doesn’t do justice to the impact this book had on me. It was one of the best reading experiences of the year so far.


I bought “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” in the hope that it might be good but the expectation that it would turn out to be too saccharin for me to make it to the end of. The reviews used words like “heartwarming” and “uplifting”. These terms have been so degraded by Disney and Hallmark that, to me, they scream “phoney”.


My wife read the book first. She recommended it but warned me that it was sad and that it had someone in it with cancer. I can’t always cope with sad and we’ve both lost too many people to cancer to approach it casually.


I waited for a sunny day when I was feeling relaxed and then tried the first hour. After that, I was committed. I needed to know more about the people and what they were up to. I found myself unwilling to stop for necessary but inconvenient things like work, food and sleep. I wanted to get back to the boys and their journey.


The book is told as three first person accounts, with each boy getting a chapter in turn. The pace of both plot and character development are perfect. There is a quest structure that is amusing and exciting and sad in turns but never leaves the real world 


At the centre of the book are three very different boys who each have a particular take on friendship, a teacher they all love but who is neither a saint nor a super hero and their mission to provide her with a perfect last day.


What I liked most about the book was the way the character of each boy was slowly built up through a series of interlocking events and insights that deepened my experience as the book progressed.


I was glad to see that, while the book did deliver a big finale that actually meant something, it didn’t pull any punches and the main focus remained on the boys themselves.


I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day”. Each of the boys has their own narrator, which emphasises their individuality. The performances are pretty close to perfect.


One last thing. My wife was right. It is sad. It will make you cry. Life is like that.

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review 2017-07-20 00:17
"Carrots - Shelby Nichols #1" by Colleen Helme - clever enough to keep me reading but not funny enough to make me laugh
Carrots - Colleen Helme

Carrots" is an escapist adventure that seems to be aiming for Stephanie Plumb zaniness but never quite gets there.


The premise is intriguing: 30 something stay at home mom stops to buy carrots, witnesses a bank robbery, gets a grazing head wound from a bullet and wakes with the ability to read minds.


Soon she finds herself being hunted by the robber, ensnared by a mob boss, consulting with the police and hiding things from her lawyer husband.


The plot is original and delivers several surprises of the "how is she going to get out of THAT?" kind but I kept being distracted by the fact that our heroine seemed implausible to the point of being insulting.


She was obsessively insecure with her looks, her weight and her age. She would flip from resourceful to ditzy in a paragraph. She constantly made stupid impulsive decisions that put her and her family in danger, had no will power and the moral compass of seven year old


I can see that she's meant to be a kind of everywoman overcoming the odds but it's a fairly insulting take on everywoman.


This is first of a series of adventures but it will be the last one I spend time on.

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review 2017-07-12 15:08
"The Guise Of Another" by Allen Eskens
The Guise of Another - Allen Eskens

“The Guise Of Another” was a very disappointing read. It was a book I persevered with rather than savoured.

It started as a fairly conventional police procedural novel, albeit with the original premise of finding that the victim of a fatal car accident had been living “in the guise of another”. The police procedural part lasted for a (very slow) first hour or so and then the book took a left turn into thriller land.

The idea was interesting but the characters were so clichéd I’m sure you’ll have met them before. Imagine a gone-to-seed, corrupt, American arms dealer, running a decades long scam on the Department of Defense. Then add the stone-cold killer from Serbia who acts as his muscle. Got a clear picture of both of them? Not hard is it? Not that interesting either, sadly.

The book livened up a little when our policeman hero goes to New York and meets a woman detective who at least feels real on the page.

After that, the plot moves along with the heroes slowly pulling together the pieces of the puzzle while the Serbian killing machine follows behind them like the Terminator, wiping out various people I’m supposed to care about.

Part of what kept me at arms length from this book is that the main policeman is a difficult man to sypathise with.  He's under investigation for corruption. His marriage is falling apart. He is easily distracted by women and has a moral compass that switches off for long periods of time. He is only interesting because his brother, who he describes as: "a better version of me", is an effective cop, unsullied by corruption.

The plot devices are clever. The action scenes are engaging. The pacing is often a little off. The characters read like a first draft rather than real people. The language and the imagery are functional and pedestrian.

Apart from the satisfaction of solving the puzzle and seeing if any of the good guys manage to survive, I really didn’t care about the events in this book or the people they were happening to.

What made this so disappointing is that I bought "The Guise Of Another" because I fell in love with Eskens' first novel, "The Life We Bury", which was a beautifully written thriller with well-rounded characters.

“The Guise Of Another” is listed (I think, wrongly) as the next book in the series. In reality it shares one character with the previous book and nothing much else.

If “The Guise Of Another” had been the first Eskens book I’d read, I wouldn’t be rushing to buy the next. Now I’m undecided as to whether or not to buy the third book in the “series”, “The Heavens May Fall”. If it’s as good as “The Life We Bury”, then it’s a must read. If it’s like “The Guise Of Another”, then I have a whole TBR pile that I will read first.

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review 2017-07-11 17:46
“A Peace Divided – Peacekeeper #2” by Tanya Huff
A Peace Divided - Tanya Huff

“A Peace Divided” follows on directly from “An Ancient Peace”, making it the seventh Torin Kerr book. If you haven’t read the others, don’t start here. Give yourself a treat and read “Valor’s Choice” and come back here when you’ve caught up


Torin Kerr isn’t a Gunnery Sergeant in the Confederation Marines, fighting a war against the Primacy any more. The war is over. Primacy are no longer the enemy, if they ever really were.


Now Torin’s life is much more complicated. She leads a Peace Keeper Strike Force, dealing with violent people churning through civilian space in the wake of an unexpected peace. Torin’s not a soldier anymore. Winning  now involved more than getting in, killing the enemy and getting her people home. Now she has to uphold the law and make sure as few people as possible, on either side, die while she’s doing it.


“A Peace Divided”  is full of action. Itopens with a firefight between Torrin’s Peace Keeper Strike Team and a heavily-armed gun-runners and swiftly moves on to a mission to rescue Federation scientists being held hostage by mercenaries. Both situations illustrate the shift in the context of Torin’s violence from fighting a war to keeping the peace.


The book moves beyond the action to reflect on its causes as Torrin asks herself why the Strike Force is necessary and what should really be done about the veteran soldiers, damaged in the war and displaced in the peace, who spread violence and whether she and her people are being manipulated.


Torin is still the heart of this book and it was good to spend more time in her company but I liked the fact that we saw large parts of the story from the point of view of other, usually alien, characters. We shared the experience of a young human mercenary, caught up in violence he doesn’t approve of but can’t walk away from, an elder race scientist who struggles even to imagine violence, until her colleagues fall victim to it and she has to decide whether to fight or die and a pair of Cray coming to terms with marriage and the vulnerability it brings.


I admired Tanya Huff’s skill in presenting the large number of alien species in this book, without confusing me or diluting the identities of the species. I liked her ability to show the species as very different from one another and yet showing that they are still more likely to be bound together by their occupational roles (scientist, soldier) than by their genetics.


The “Humans First” organization (who have now lost the annoying apostrophe) are used  not just to demonstrate the power of bigotry and hate but to show that the issues that feed that hatred are real and tosuggest that the people who fund the hate have a darker, more personal agenda.


What made “A Peace Divided” compelling was that it kept fusing simple explanations..  The complexity isn’t added just to enrich the puzzle, it’s there because life is like that.


The appeal of Torin’s mantra of getting her people home safe  is that it gives her the certainty needed to act decisiviely but she is aware that it filters out the bigger picture. Now she’s having to confront that there is no officer to frame the bigger picture for her and recognises that she will have to form that picture for herself and her people.

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review 2017-07-09 12:12
“The Dry – Aaron Falk #1” by Jane Harper
The Dry - Jane Harper

“The Dry” seeps into your imagination like a stain. It clings to you like a smell of something foul that you can’t wash out of your hair. It opens with a description of the aftermath of violent death that is steeped in a harsh indifference that sets the tone for the book.

“It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.”

“The Dry” is set in a small, drought-ridden community in south east Australia. The place is so remote that new arrivals are…

“… always taken aback by the crushing vastness of the open land. The space was the thing that hit them first. There was so much of it. There was enough to drown in. To look out and see not another soul between you and the horizon could be a strange and disturbing sight.”

This is an unforgiving place. A place so harsh you have to get along with one another to survive, even when that means turning a blind eye to things that should be confronted and stopped. Like the land it sits on, this community is a dry husk of its former self and needs only a spark to be engulfed in flame.


Aaron Falk grew up there. He left. He’s never been back. He’s built a life for himself in Melbourne, working as a Federal Agent investigating  fraud. Shortly after seeing on the news that Luke, Aaron’s besrt friend growing up, has taken a shotgun to his wife, his young son and then himself, Aaronreceives a note from Luke’s father. It says:

“Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral”.

Aaron is not welcomed back to his home town. He is reviled and threatened. He wants to leave but he can’t let himself do that until he has looked into the shootings and their possible links to the death that caused him to leave this community decades earlier.


The plot is this book is both complicated and realistic. It kept me guessing but solving the puzzle was a secondary part of the experience. The main focus was on the Aaron Falk coming to terms with his past and his present by understanding with an adult’s eyes what living in this harsh place did to him and the people he grew up with.


The story is laced with threat and guilt and without becoming too overtly violent. The threat sits on you with the oppressive weight of an over-hot, windless day. It’s always there.


The dialogue is bang on, summoning up a world that is distinctively Australian both in its pace and its content.


Stephen Shanahan narrates the book at slow, deliberate pace that matches the mood perfectly. His performance is first rate.


I was surprised to find that “The Dry” is Jane Harper’s debut novel. Her writing is accomplished. She has created an interesting and original character in Aaron Falk and has given me a taste of rural Australia that felt as real as it was disturbing.

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