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review 2019-01-08 19:25
As good, if not better, than Harper’s previous books. Read it now!
The Lost Man - Jane Harper

Thanks to NetGalley and to Little, Brown Book Group UK, for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. I’m also grateful to have been given the opportunity to participate in the blog tour for the launch of the book. After having read both of Jane Harper’s previous books, The Dry and Force of Nature, I rushed to grab this one as soon as I saw it was available. And yes, although it is quite different from the other two, it is another winner.

The two previous books, two thrillers/mysteries, had as protagonist Aaron Falk, a federal investigator of fraud and related crimes, who somehow gets involved in cases outside his comfort zone, for different reasons. Here, there is no professional investigator (however loosely Falk’s credentials might relate to the mystery at hand). I had mentioned in my reviews of the two previous books the fact that the stories put me in mind of domestic noir, and this is even more the case here. It might sound strange to talk about noir when the setting is the Australian outback (the nearest town is Balamara, Winton, Queensland), but plot and character-wise, it fits neatly into the category. And it is atmospheric, for sure. Harper is masterful at making us feel as if we were there, in this unusual and totally unique place, where going out for a walk might end up getting you killed.

The story is set around Christmas time, (summer in Australia), and is told in the third person from the point of view of Nathan Bright, the oldest son of the Bright family, who lives alone in his farm after his divorce, four hours away from the rest of his family, and very far from his ex-wife and his son, Xander, who live in Brisbane. Xander is visiting his father for Christmas (he is sixteen and due to his studies it is likely this might be the last Christmas they spend together for the foreseeable future), and as they prepare to celebrate the holidays, Nathan gets a call. His middle brother, Cameron, has been found dead in pretty strange circumstances. His dead body was by the stockman’s grave, a grave in the middle of the desert subject of many stories and local legends, and a place Cameron had made popular thanks to one of his paintings. Bub, the younger brother, is waiting for Nathan and explains to him that their brother’s car was found nine miles away, in perfect working order, fully stocked with food and water. So, what was their brother doing there, and why did he die of dehydration? When the questions start coming, it seems that Cam, a favourite in town and well-liked by everybody, had not been himself recently and seemed worried. Was it suicide then, or something else?

Nathan is not the typical amateur detective of cozy mysteries, another aspect that reminds me of domestic noir. He is not somebody who enjoys mysteries, or a secret genius, and he only gets involved because he keeps observing things that don’t seem to fit in with the official explanation. As this is his family, he cannot help but keep digging and has to remain involved because, for one, he has to attend his brother’s funeral. The main characters in domestic noir tend to have troubled lives and be hindered by their problems, no matter how convinced they are that they have it all under control. As the book progresses, they learn how wrong they are. In this case, Nathan is a flawed character and lacks insight into his state of mind and that of his life. He has committed some terrible mistakes (perhaps even unforgivable ones), and he is the black sheep of the family, in appearance at least. As you might expect, things are not as they seem, and during the book he grows and learns, and not only about his brother’s death. Nathan might not be the most familiar of characters or the most immediately sympathetic to many readers due to his closed-off nature, but through the novel we also learn about his past and the circumstances that made him the man he is now.

The clues and to the case appear at a slow pace and naturally, rather than feeling forced, and they do not require a lot of procedural or specialized knowledge. There are also red herrings, but most of them go beyond an attempt at wrong-footing readers, and provide important background information that helps build up a full picture of the people and the place. In style the book reminds us of old-fashioned mysteries, without extreme violence or excessive attention being paid to the procedures of the police or to complex tests. No AND tests and no CSI on sight here. This is a book about characters, motivations, and the secrets families keep.

In contrast to the first two novels written by Harper, this book is deceptively simple in its structure. The book takes place over a few days, around Christmas, and, as I said, it is all told from the point of view of Nathan. The story is told chronologically, although there are moments when we get some important background into the story, be it thanks to Nathan’s memories, or to episodes and events narrated to him by other characters. The book manages to keep a good balance between showing and telling and it is very atmospheric, although it moves at its own pace, meandering and perfectly suited to the setting. I’ve never visited the Australian outback and have never experienced anything like the extreme weather conditions described in the book, but I felt the oppressive sensation, the heat, the agoraphobia induced by the open spaces, and the horror of imagining yourself in Cam’s circumstances. The initial setting, with the lonely gravestone, made me think of a Western, and the life in the ranch, isolated and extreme, where surviving requires a daily fight against the elements, made the story feel primordial and timeless. Although the story is set in modern times (there is no specific date, but despite the distance from civilisation, there is talk of mobiles, internet, GPS, etc.), due to the location, people are forced to live as if time had not truly moved on, and they have to depend on themselves and those around them, because if your car or your air conditioning break down, it could mean your death.

Apart from her evident skill in describing Australia and everyday life in the outback (she refers to her research and sources in her acknowledgments), the author is masterful at creating characters that are multi-dimensional and psychologically and emotionally believable, as I explained when talking about the main protagonist. These are people used to living alone and not allowing their vulnerabilities to show. Even within the family, its members keep secrets from each other and don’t share their feelings, although they might all know about what has happened, because that’s what they’ve always seen and known, and perhaps they believe that if you don’t talk about it you can keep it contained. The secrets are slowly revealed, and although many readers will suspect the nature of some of them, that does not diminish their power and impact. The themes discussed are, unfortunately, very current, and although I won’t talk about them in detail, to avoid spoilers, I am sure they will resonate with most readers. Although the ending will probably not be a huge surprise to most readers, it is built up expertly, and I found it very satisfying.

I had to share a couple of samples of writing, although it was a hard choice:

In the centre was a headstone, blasted smooth by a hundred-year assault from sand, wind and sun. The headstone stood a metre tall and was still perfectly straight. It faced west, towards the desert, which was unusual out there. West was rarely anyone’s first choice.

The name of the man buried beneath had long since vanished and the landmark was known to locals —all sixty-five of them, plus 100,000 head of cattle— simply as the stockman’s grave. That piece of land had never been a cemetery; the stockman had been put into the ground where he had died, and in more than a century no-one had joined him.

There was something about the brutal heat when the sun was high in the sky and he was watching the slow meandering movement of the herds. Looking out over the wide-open plains and seeing the changing colours in the dust. It was the only time when he felt something close to happiness… It was harsh and unforgiving, but it felt like home.

In sum, this is a book for people who enjoy an unusual mystery and books focused on characters rather than fast-paced plots. If you love well-written books, and don’t mind investing some time into the story and its characters, especially if you are keen on an Australian setting, you should not miss this one. I will be on the lookout for the author’s next book.

 

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text 2018-11-29 13:44
4 little known tips to keep your home clean longer

There are few things in life as inevitable as the fact that your home will continuously be in need of cleaning. Whether it is an immediate mess that you need to address or perhaps just the regular domestic cleaning round, you will have to invest the time and effort to restore the conditions in your place back to normal.

Without a doubt, you wish to spend as little time cleaning as possible. After all, it is not the best of activities. To do that, you need to look into a few ways that keep your home clean for longer and minimise the need to clean it all that often.

  • You should think fast – when you create a mess in the kitchen countertop, do you often think to yourself that you will deal with it the first thing in the Saturday/Sunday afternoon? While it is completely normal to want to wait till the time you have more free time on your hands, it is not always the best strategy. The more you let a stain linger, the more difficult it becomes to remove it later on. Instead of doing that, you should get right onto it. That way it will be easier to remove, and you will be sparing yourself a lot of future effort.
  • Scrub areas selectively – if you are not familiar with the concept of spot cleaning, you have to consider it now. The idea is that you don’t always have to clean everything around your home. Some areas and items can do with just a routine wipe. However, some items require specific attention. For instance, when you are cleaning a door, do you wipe the whole of it from top to bottom? That is a waste of time and effort because the thing you should be concentrating on is the door handle. It is the one part that accumulates grime the most, because of the human activity associated with it.
  • You should take precautionary measures – if you wish to clean less, you should take some preventive actions. For instance, you can place a doormat and an area rug near the entry area. That way dust and dirt will never have a chance to enter your home. You should also insist on everyone leaving their shoes at the door so that they don’t track in dust and dirt.
  • Teach your children to clean – people often complain about how difficult it is to keep their home clean with children around. What you should do is try to make little ones part of the cleaning solution. Teach them about the importance of cleaning and even show them how to address a few chores. The earlier in their lives you do this, the more they will learn to take responsibility and adopt useful skills, such as picking up clutter and not making a mess of the place.  

There is little doubt that these tips will help you keep the mess at home under control and reduce the amount of effort you have to invest in the job.

At London Domestic Cleaners we always try to teach our clients how to clean at home with ease and expertise. Be sure to contact us on 020 3907 7267 for further details.

 

©  London Domestic Cleaners

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review 2018-11-20 14:37
Domestic noir, dark humour, and a fantastic new voice
My Sister, the Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite

Thanks to NetGalley and to Atlantic Books (Doubleday) for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

The title of this book hooked me. The fact that it was set in Lagos, Nigeria, made it more attractive. I could not resist the cover. And then I started reading and got hit by this first paragraph:

“Ayoola summons me with these words —Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.”

Told in the first person by Korede, the book narrates her story and that of her “complex” relationship with her younger sister, Ayoola, beautiful, graceful, a successful designer, beloved of social media, irresistible to men, the favourite of everybody… She’s almost perfect. But, there is a big but, which you will have guessed from the title. She is a serial killer.

This is a short and very funny book, although it requires a certain kind of sense of humour on the part of the reader. You need to be able to appreciate sarcasm and dark humour (very dark) to find it funny, but if you do, this is a fresh voice and a different take on what has become an extremely popular genre recently, domestic noir. I kept thinking about the many novels I had read where I had commented on the setting of the book and how well the author had captured it. There are no lengthy descriptions in this novel, but it manages to capture the beat and the rhythm of Lagos (a place where I’ve never been, I must admit) and makes us appreciate what life must be like for the protagonists. Because, although Ayoola is a murderer, life goes on, and Korede has to keep working as a nurse, she is still in love (or so she thinks) with one of the doctors at the hospital, their mother still suffers from her headaches, Ayoola wants to carry on posting on Snapchat, the patient in coma Korede confides in needs to be looked after, the police need to be seen to be doing something, and there are more men keen on spending time with beautiful Ayoola…

I found Korede understandable, although I doubt that we are meant to empathise with her full-heartedly. At some points, she seems to be a victim, trapped in a situation she has no control over. At others, we realise that we only have her own opinion of her sister’s behaviour, and she has enabled the murderous activities of her sibling, in a strange symbiotic relationship where neither one of them can imagine life without the other. We learn of their traumatic past, and we can’t help but wonder what would we do faced with such a situation? If your sister was a psychopath (not a real psychiatric diagnosis, but I’m sure she’d score quite high in the psychopathy scale if her sister’s description is accurate) who kept getting into trouble, always blaming it on others, would you believe her and support her? Would you help her hide her crimes? Is blood stronger than everything else?

I loved the setting, the wonderful little scenes (like when Tade, the attractive doctor, sings and the whole city stops to listen, or when the police take away Korede’s car to submit it to forensic testing and then make her pay to return it to her, all dirty and in disarray), the voice of the narrator and her approach to things (very matter-of-fact, fully acknowledging her weaknesses, her less-than-endearing personality, sometimes lacking in insight  but also caring and reflective at times), and the ending as well. I also enjoyed the writing style. Short chapters, peppered with Yoruba terms, vivid and engaging, it flows well and it makes it feel even briefer than it is.

If you enjoy books with a strong sense of morality and providing deep lessons, this novel is not for you. Good and bad are not black and white in this novel, and there is an undercurrent of flippancy about the subject that might appeal to fans of Dexter more than to those who love conventional thrillers or mysteries. But if you want to discover a fresh new voice, love black humour, and are looking for an unusual setting, give it a go. I challenge you to check a sample and see…

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text 2018-11-04 21:23
6 Things You Should toss From Your Bathroom Now

 

Sometimes you will walk into your bathroom thinking that it is rather cluttered. Chances are, it truly is. Much like every other room of your home, you have to stay on top of cleaning and decluttering it, if you wish it to remain functional and organised. Here is a quick list of things you should purge from the area:

  • Hair products – sometimes you will see a great ad or a video of a new hair product and rush to buy it. Then, as you try it out, you find out that it doesn’t work that well. What you might do is simply store it under the sink for later use … and then forget about it for the next six months. What you should do instead is browse through your collection of such products, decide what you are going to use soon and dispose of the rest. Whether it is by giving it away to someone else or donating, you can free yourself a lot of space by doing such a purge.
  • Medications past their expiry date – when you buy something for your cold, you will probably toss the remaining items back in your medicine cabinet. In doing this, you can clutter the place with expired medications. Not only do they take precious space, but are also a health risk. Go through the medicine cabinet and dispose of anything that is way past expiry date.
  • Bath items – if you have too many bath items that you rarely use, perhaps it is time to dispose of them. They could be the reason why you aren’t getting stuff that is actually useful. Inspect the bath products you currently have in the room and consider which ones you will need and which ones you can dispose of.
  • Toothbrushes – believe it or not, toothbrushes are useful not only for your teeth. You can use them in various cleaning chores around the house. But you can have too much of a good thing. You can keep 2 or 3 of them, and they will not contribute to clutter all that much. However, if you have over 10 toothbrushes, it is perhaps more than you will need.
  • Old shower items – is there an old pumice stone, a dull razor blade, perhaps a crusty sponge? Everything that looks old and dingy has no place in the bathroom. Throwing things out may not seem like the best solution for you, but it is.
  • Travel size items and samples – these can easily build up, especially if you get them on your travels on a frequent basis. Free samples are available everywhere, but you have to remember to use them as soon as possible, or else they become a burden to free space in your bathroom.  

Take your time to check your bathroom for these items and dispose of them if needed. You will free some much-needed space and make cleaning of the place much easier.

If you ever need further cleaning assistance, make sure you contact Domestic Cleaners Ltd on 020 8884 9146.

 

© Domestic Cleaners Ltd

Source: www.domestic-cleaners.biz
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review 2018-10-04 14:48
A love letter in the guise of a horror book dealing with a painful topic. Highly recommended.
Creature (Fiction Without Frontiers) - Hunter Shea

Thanks to NetGalley and to Flame Tree Press for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I have read great reviews of this author’s books, all in the horror genre, and a recent one (by Char Horror, whose reviews I follow on BookLikes) convinced me to read one of his novels. I was lucky enough to find it on offer at NetGalley, and yes, the reviewers were right. It is a book worthy of reading.

It is difficult to review this book without giving too much of the plot and possible spoilers away. If I had to define this book, I’d say it is a love letter. I know it might sound strange when we are talking about a horror book, but there you have it. Of course, there are many elements of horror as well, but from reading some of the comments I guess this is a far cry from the author’s usual romp-and-munch monster books (or “cryptozoological”, as he defines them). There is a monster, well, a creature, although it comes in quite late in the book (we do feel some dark presence well before that, though), but this is a story that starts as a domestic drama and shares many of its elements. The protagonists, Kate and Andrew, are a young couple. Their life is completely taken by the wife’s chronic autoimmune and genetic illnesses (Ehlers-Danlos and lupus) and what it takes to keep her alive. She is a virtual prisoner at home and most of the time she struggles to even get out of bed. Her husband has a job but spends most of his spare time looking after his wife, and the rest of the time thinking about her. They have a dog, Buttons, who keeps watch over Kate, and she survives thanks to cocktails of pain relief medications, experimental treatments that bring on their own kind of hell, watching black and white movies and the support of her husband. When he manages to secure a few weeks off and a cottage by a lake in Maine, they both hope they will have a reprieve and a break from real life. Unfortunately…

The book, written in the third person, alternates the points of views of wife and husband, and the author is very skilled at describing the feelings of the couple, the effects of the illness, both physical and psychological (although Kate is the perfect example of the unreliable narrator, due to her illness and the pain-killers and other medications she takes, she is very articulate and finds ways to explain her symptoms that make us share in her suffering more vividly than many scare books) on both, and the toll it takes on a relationship to have to battle with such terrible monsters day-after-day. Yes, there are “real” monsters and also the illness, which is more monstrous, in many ways, than any monster, because it lives inside and it feeds off the person, literally. It is evident on reading it that the author has close and deep knowledge of the subject, and this is confirmed later in the afterword, which I found very moving.

The characters, which include the couple, Kate’s brother, Riker, and British sister-in-law, Nikki, are sympathetic, likeable, but also realistically portrayed, especially the central couple. If at times Andrew seems almost saintly in his patience and never-ending acceptance of his caring role, there are times when he gives way to anger, frustration, and a touch of egotism and selfishness. He also acknowledges that after so long battling with his wife’s illness, he might no longer know how to be anything else but her husband and carer. Kate is in and out of medication-induced slumber, at times hides things from Andrew, is not always wise and takes unnecessary risks, at least from her husband’s perspective. Theirs is not a perfect relationship, but considering the strain they labour under, it is pretty amazing in its strength and solidity.

The novel is claustrophobic despite its location and the brief excursions into nature. We are mostly reduced to the inside of the house/cottage, and to a single room most of the time, and that adds to the feeling of anxiety and tension that increases slowly but ramps up towards the end of the story. I kept thinking about Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game because of the location, and the way the story plays with the power of the mind to conjure up ghosts and monster from the dark recesses of our consciousness, but the background and the central theme are very different.

What about the creature? I am sure readers of horror will wonder from early on what the nature of that presence is. At first we have unexplained attacks on the couple and they do try to find rational explanations to allay their fears (and at some points, it looks as if the story is going to bear off into home invasion ground), but eventually, a not-easy-to-explain-away-rationally creature appears. What this creature is and where it comes from is something you can decide for yourselves, although there are clear indications and even explanations offered during the novel that make sense within the context. I did suspect what might be behind it from quite early on, but it is very well done and it fits into the logic of the story (however we might feel about horror and its hidden meaning).

Now, some notes of caution. There is a scene where the characters exchange jokes in poor taste, which might offend readers (yes, even horror readers), and although people in extreme situations might find refuge in pretty dark humour, there are topics that many people find disturbing. There is also quite extreme gore and explicit violence, although I don’t think that would put off fans of the genre.

As mentioned, this is not a standard horror book and it might be enjoyed by readers interested in domestic drama, chronic illnesses, and great writing, if they have a strong enough stomach to deal with the gore. There are also questions and answers at the end that would make the book suitable for book clubs interested in the genre and the central topic. Although I know this is not perhaps a typical example of Shea’s writing, I am impressed and intend to catch up on some of his other books, and his podcast. Hats off to him for his bravery in tackling this difficult subject, and I hope it was as therapeutic for him as he states.

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