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Friday, May 31, 2019

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin

Read May 2019. Published 30th May 2019.

Laura Fjellstad, born in Norway, is plagued with medical problems from birth. She is diagnosed very early with hypersensitive allergies to many triggers in her environment, including many different foodstuffs. Her parents are both medical professionals and seem consumed with the need to ensure that their family lives as normal a life as possible, despite Laura's medical issues.

Laura yearns for a sympathetic home life, with parents who would make her feel safe and cherished, but instead she settles into a routine where it seems impossible to make a fuss and simply accepts everything that her many medical visits throw at her without complaint. She becomes used to seeming compliant on the surface, while her emotions are churning underneath the surface.
Laura's one solace is figure skating, which makes her feel strong and free.

Not content with subjecting Laura to the many limitations placed on her due to her allergies, Life has another curve-ball to throw her - after years of unexplained pain, Laura is diagnosed with severe endometriosis - so severe that many of her organs are fused and she requires urgent and extensive surgery to try to mediate the effects of this debilitating condition.

Laura becomes consigned to a life of chronic pain and must try to life as normal a life as she can with the limitations of her condition.

This is an unusual book in that it is written in reverse chronology. When we first meet Laura, she is in her thirties and living in New York. She is divorced and a single parent to a young daughter. Life is hard for Laura, living with chronic pain and exhaustion, while trying to be a good mother to her daughter. This sometimes seems an impossible task, but being a mother carries responsibilities that cannot be ignored. Laura must carry on for the sake of the daughter she thought she might never have.

The book then jumps back in time to describe other events in Laura's life, through her eyes - such as meeting her husband; first coming to New York; her past relationships (with both men and women); and the crushing diagnosis that changes the course of her life - all the way back to her childhood days of freedom on the ice. The text is interspersed with technical descriptions of jumps and spins from figure skating, like some sort of totem.

This book is understandably stark, but not depressing. Although it is sad to end the novel on the thoughts and dreams of the fifteen year old Laura.
Laura comes to realise that she can lead the kind of life she wants is to, although it will certainly not be easy. Her inner strength is unfathomable and although she thinks she may break at many points in this story, she does not. This is a story of incredible success against the odds - of being able to do the kinds of things you thought were denied to you, simply by being brave enough to give it a try.

Living with chronic pain is not a picnic. Parts of this book are necessarily distressing, raw and full of painful emotions. You do not need to be a sufferer of endometriosis to feel a connection with Laura's story. This will resonate with anyone who has suffered from a painful chronic condition or disability, especially the feelings of invisibility and powerlessness.

In Laura's case, she finds her way by doing things on her own, and moving away from her childhood home. There are two very strong reasons why she chooses this - firstly, she cannot deal with the guilt she feels at putting someone she loves through the experience of dealing with her illness (and so leaves her first love Kjetil behind, eventhough she knows he loves her); and secondly, because she needs to make a clean break from her past, and to live somewhere everyone she meets does not associate her with her illness. She finds her strength by relying on herself and throwing away the requirement to remain compliant.

There are lots of questions raised by this book and it is one you will find yourself thinking about a lot, after you have read it - which you must certainly do! It left me thinking a lot about compassion and whether this is something infinite, or whether those close to someone living with a chronic condition can suffer from compassion fatigue - like Laura's family and some of her friends. The sufferer does not chose to suffer, but it seems that sometimes those closest to them feel unable to forgive them for being ill, even though they love each other very much.

Ultimately, this is a powerful and intimate account of finding the your place in the world, despite tremendous adversity. It is about relationships; our connections with people; inner strength; hope; and the rewards gained from living our life the best way you can.

Thank you Karen Havelin and Dead Ink for this moving story.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

Read May 2019. Published 5th March 2019.

Clare Cassidy is an English teacher at Talgarth High, specialising in Victorian Gothic literature. She is an avid diary keeper, committing her deepest feelings to the pages of her journals.
The school where she teaches has an unusual history, because it is built in the grounds of the former home of one of her favourite Gothic authors, R.M. Holland, and it encompasses the old creepy manor house itself, including the author's study. Stories of spectral goings on at Talgarth have cropped up over the years, with some students and staff claiming to have actually seen the ghost of R.M.Holland's wife, who may have committed suicide there.
Clare is fascinated with R.M. Holland, especially his most famous, Gothic horror The Stranger, and has ideas to eventually publish a book about him - indeed, the connection with The Stranger is what attracted her to Talgarth High in the first place.

When one of Clare's fellow teaching staff, and close friend, is found murdered, with a line from The Stranger left by her bloody corpse, Clare is horrifed to discover that real life is echoing the story-line of her favourite book. This will not be the last murder.
The police suspect that the killer may be someone Clare knows, and this suspicion becomes a real possibility when she finds some writing in her diaries - writing that is not her own.

Can the mystery be solved before time runs out?

I have not read one of Elly Griffiths' books before, but I am mightily impressed with this one.
The story is told from three perspectives - Clare herself; Georgia, Clare's daughter; and Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, who is leading the murder inquiry - and is interspersed with consecutive excerpts from The Stranger, which relate to each stage of the contemporary murder investigation. I really liked that The Stranger is also repeated at the ending of the book, this time in its entirety, so you get to read the terrifying conclusion of the tale - very Shirley Jackson/Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected it is too.

This is a delicious mix of Gothic horror and contemporary murder-mystery, that will keep you guessing until the triumphant end, and I could not put it down once I had started.
I will certainly be looking out for more Elly Griffiths books in the future.

Highly recommended for those who like a murder-mystery with supernatural undertones, The Stranger Diaries is recently out in paperback, so go pick up a copy now!

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Woman Who Wanted More by Vicky Zimmerman

Read May 2019. Published 30th May 2019.

Kate Parker, self confessed foodie, is approaching the dreaded age of forty and her life has been turned upside down.
Just as she is about to move in with her boyfriend Nick, he declares he is not sure whether he is ready to take such a big step in their relationship - made all the worse by him telling Kate this while they are on holiday in France, on what was supposed to be a romantic break.
Kate's heart is bruised, but she is not ready to give up on Nick just yet. Kate gives Nick a couple of months to sort himself out and decide what he wants.

To make matters worse, Kate's job prospects are looking about as healthy as her romantic ones. Kate has worked at the head office of Fletcher's supermarket chain for more years than she cares to remember. Her job as a copy editor, thinking up pithy slogans for below-par products, is hardly her dream job, but she is comfortable there, and the spectre of possible redundancy is looming.

Meanwhile, Kate is reduced to returning home to stay in her mother's spare room, like a teenager, which is not helping her depressed state of mind.

In order to give Kate a pick-me-up, her friend Bailey suggests that she offers her services as a volunteer somewhere local. This is how Kate finds herself at the door of Lauderdale House for Exceptional Ladies, a care home for elderly ladies who have lived distinguished lives, and gets introduced to the formidable, sharp-minded and equally sharp-tongued, Cecily Finn.

Cecily is ninety-seven and has lived the most amazing life, but she spends most of her days shut-up in her room, bored, detesting the other residents of Lauderdale and waiting for death. It seems that Cecily is determined to belittle Kate at every opportunity, but they eventually begin to bond over a shared love of books and food. Cecily has the most impressive collection of books Kate has ever seen, including an extensive selection of cookery books.
Cecily takes an interest in Kate and in an attempt to get her to appreciate her true worth, she persuades her to read a 1950s self-help recipe book, called Thought For Food. And so begins a remarkable friendship between two lonely and stubborn women.

Can Cecily persuade Kate that food is for feasting, life is for living, and it is not wrong to ask for more?

What an absolutely lovely and beautifully written book, based in part of the life of Vicky Zimmerman's own grandmother, Cecily Finn - and the 1957 recipe book Cecily wrote with Joan O'Connor!
The developing friendship between Kate and Cecily so reminds me of the relationship between Iris (Kate Winslet) and Arthur (Eli Wallach) in the film, The Holiday (one of my absolute favourite films, by the way). In the film, retired screen-writer Arthur makes Iris see that she needs to behave like the leading lady in her own life, because she is important, just when her self-esteem is at its lowest.
Cecily is the Arthur of this book, who aims to get Kate (Iris) to see exactly the same - that she is the leading lady of her own life too, and should not settle for second best when she deserves much better - it is ok to ask for more! Fantastic!

I absolutely loved this story. It made me laugh and cry (sob all the way through "Dinner for an Absent Friend", in fact) - and very hungry too! As a compulsive collector of books - including owning over 100 cookery books alone (I just counted!) - I would love a copy of Thought For Food to remember this book by, but sadly this seems to be unavailable as the moment. I live in hope that the publication of this glorious book, may persuade the publisher to reissue this.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Devil's Half Mile (Lawless New York Book One) by Paddy Hirsch

Read May 2019. Published July 2018.

The year is 1799 and New York is a growing town that is busting at the seams.
Irish gangs rule the waterfront and the seedy sides of town, but the black gangs are starting to make their presence felt, especially with the growth of the Manumission movement.

Meanwhile, the nobs are trying to establish New York as the financial powerhouse of America, especially around Wall Street - the Devil's Half Mile.
Seven years ago, there was a financial crisis that nearly brought everything crashing down, but the country is now recovered, thanks to the intervention of eminient characters like Alexander Hamilton. Things are going well for the traders, but there is a certain amount of unease due to the trading regulations that are being drawn up, in order to ensure that another crash can be avoided.

Justice Flanagan, a young lawyer, has returned to New York, after studying the law back in Ireland. Justice's studies have been supplemented by studying the ways of the fledgling police force in Paris, which has given him some expertise in the methods employed to kill and the new study of forensics. His killing skills have also been honed by a sideline in scouting for the Irish Rebels during the Rebellion, while he was a student.
Justice's time as an erstwhile soldier has left its mark and may have affected him more than he realises.

Newly returned, Justice is on a mission to find out the circumstances behind the death of his father, around the time of the crisis. His father's death was made to look like suicide, but Justice believes that he was in fact murdered - a belief that has been confirmed by the specialist training he has received. He intends to find out why his father was killed and who was behind this.

Justice's return has also reunited him with some old friends - his comrade Lars, who fought with him during the Rebellion and is now a sailor; and with the grown-up Kerry O'Toole who he remembers fondly as a young girl full of promise, but who is deeply scarred by her experiences during Justice's absence.

As Justice undertakes his investigations, he exposes a massive fraud, which could topple the financial world all over again. He must fight his way through the web of secrets and lies, corruption and cover-ups, in the murky worlds of finance and slavery in order to uncover the shocking truth. It is not easy to walk the line between criminality and respectability.

I read book two in the Lawless New York series, Hudson's Kill, back in March, and was absolutely bowled over by it. The writing, the story and the characters were so enjoyable, that I practically read the whole book in one sitting.

Having enjoyed Hudson's Kill so much,I was very keen to go back and read The Devil's Half Mile to fill in all the back stories of my new favourite characters. I have not been disappointed.

There is a different flavour to this book than book two, as the story is much more personal to Justy and it is more difficult for him to be controlled in his actions. This is compounded by his recent experiences during The Irish Rebellion - some of the things Justy has seen, and been forced to do, have deeply affected him. Justy does not want to become part of the criminal world, despite his family ties, so he must learn to find a way to live with himself.
Fortunately, Justy has some good friends to help him on his journey, especially the trusty Lars. Along the way, Kerry can also begin her recovery too.

The financial details about the early days of Wall Street are very interesting, and the plot goes along at a good pace. The threads come together nicely and everything ends up well set up for Hudson's Kill, which begins four years after the events of The Devil's Half Mile.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and I am very glad you chose to write this, Paddy Hirsch, rather than the history of the 1792 crash you originally planned!

The Devil's Half Mile is out now in paperback, and Hudson's Kill will be released on 4th July 2019. Both books get 5 stars from me!

P.S. Can Kristofer Hivju play Lars if this ever gets to the screen please????

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

Read May 2019 (audio book). Published September 2018.

This story takes place in the 1970s, in an unnamed city rife with sectarian violence.

Middle Sister likes to keep her head down, walking while reading, as a way to live in the constrained and violent world she finds herself in. She is not keen to draw attention to herself in any way.

Unfortunately, Middle Sister finds herself the latest hot topic of the district's gossip mongers, after The Milkman (a much older, eminent para-military gunman) decides to target her as his new girlfriend.

Middle sister is already busy enough trying to deal with life as an eighteen year-old, and establish what her actual relationship is with her own Maybe Boyfriend car mechanic, while keeping him secret from her intrusive mother who is keen to know when she is going to settle down and get married.
She has no time for the gossips, or for the things they are saying about her and The Milkman, because the whole thing is ridiculous. Why should she have to give explanations to people who have nothing to do with her, especially since there is nothing going on between her and The Milkman? Silence is her chosen response, but this does not save her.

The trouble is, gossip has a way of sticking and in a community where it is best to remain in the background, being noticed can be very dangerous.

This is the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2018, and it has been short-listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2019 (among other eminent prize competitions recently).

I am always a bit wary of the Booker Prize winners, because they tend to split the crowd and elicit strong reactions of either love or hate, and I have not always liked the books which win - although I have to say the superb Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel both deserved their prizes. However, since this book is on the Women's Prize for Fiction radar this year, and I have been trying to work my way through some of the titles that were long-listed, this was always going to be on my tbr. I did buy the book, but actually listened to the audio book instead.

I have to say that I am very impressed with this book. The audio book is absolutely fantastic, read beautifully by the Northern Irish actress Brid Brennan.

Although unnamed, this book is obviously set in Belfast of the 1970s, when the sectarian violence was at its height. Middle Sister clearly lives on the Catholic side of the divide, which is controlled by the IRA. This was a dangerous and difficult period of Northern Irish history. Protestants vs Catholics, with the added restrictions of a British Military presence, meant that violence was a frequent occurrence and people would find themselves so used to death that is was considered an everyday thing, on both sides of the divide.

I have seen a few reviews referring to this book as dystopian and can only say to these people that they really need to read some history about the troubles in Northern Ireland. I am old enough to remember the news stories about the violence and bombings, and can assure you that the people in Northern Ireland were living like this. Thankfully, the Peace process gathered enough momentum that real change eventually came about, and the majority of the Northern Irish population today are not keen to go back to the old days of sectarian violence.

Interestingly, the characters themselves are also unnamed, but are described either by their local nick-names, or by their relationship to Middle Sister - such as, Third Brother-in-Law, The Wee Sisters, First Sister, Longest Friend and so on. I have seen from some reviews that people have found this confusing, but I could not disagree more. The story centres around Middle Sister so it makes perfect sense for the characters to be described in terms of their relationship to her, and their given roles.

Middle Sister is living under the control of the strict rules of the paramilitary overlords about where you can go and how you should behave. These rules are ingrained in the community and anyone acting in an unusual manner finds themselves being labelled as "Beyond the Pale".
There are some pretty interesting characters who have found themselves in this Beyond the Pale group, and again they are referred to not by the real names, but by the names given to them by the community - Nuclear Boy, Tablets Girl, The Issues Women, to name a few - these characters are not seen as real people, but only in terms of the behaviour that have caused them to be given their nicknames. They are not behaving in the prescribed manner and have drawn attention to themselves as a result. As I have said above, drawing attention to yourself is dangerous.
Middle Sister is horrified to find that she becomes tarred with the same brush because of her new found fame and the Walking While Reading thing!

Middle Sister's world shrinks ever smaller through the book, as the weight of the gossip causes her to withdraw into herself more and more, until she cannot even allow herself the luxury of feeling or displaying any emotion at all. It is important to remember, that even without all the violence and bearing in mind where Middle Sister is living, it is difficult enough to be a young person trying to work out you place in the world anyway - especially for a young girl in the 1970s. Girls were expected to act in the stereotypical female role, wherever they lived in Britain at this time. Girls were used to being treated in a certain way by men and it is understandable that Middle Sister had no idea she was being sexually predated upon by The Milkman - it would have been rude and unthinkable to call him out on it, in any case. Do not despair Middle Sister, things will get better.

The text is very rambling, with chapters starting out on one subject and then taking a long and winding passage in lots of different directions, before returning to the matter in hand. The spoken text just picks you up and carries you along with the flow, and the lyrical sound of the Northern Irish accent. It is wonderful, and I think this is a distinct advantage of listening to an audio book, rather than reading the text alone.

Yes, the subject matter is inevitably heavy, given the period of time and the situation that Middle Sister is living in, but this book is so full of dark humour that you almost do not notice.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough - although I am aware that some people will be unable to get on with it at all too!
I do not envy the Women's Prize judges their task of choosing a winner this year. Having now read three books from the short-list, which are all quite different, I cannot imagine this will be an easy thing. If you are inclined to read a bit of literary fiction, then check out Milkman and the other excellent books on the short-list too.

Find my post about the short-list here:

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Your Deepest Fear (DS Nathan Cody Book 4) by David Jackson

Read May 2019. Published 16th May 2019.

Sara is just back to her empty home, from a trip to visit her family in Denmark, when she sees a message flashing on her answer phone.
It is an enigmatic message from her estranged husband, Matthew, which ends with the sound of a bloodcurdling scream. Sara is no stranger to danger, having been in the Danish military and spent time in war zones, so she is not afraid to head straight over to her husband's home in the middle of the night to see if he is alright.

Sara finds Matthew's house locked and silent, but when she breaks-in, it is clear that someone has ransacked the house. What also becomes clear is that Matthew is dead - nailed to the floor in one of the upstairs rooms. Sara knows that Matthew was going through a difficult time, but why would anyone want to murder him - especially in such a gruesome way?

Detective Sergeant Nathan Cody is in a bad way. He has recently been part of a case involving a child abduction, which has gone badly and ended up with him being in hospital. His boss is worried about his mental state and has ordered him to seek counselling. When Cody turns up at the murder scene, his boss refuses to let him in to see the body, as she is concerned about the effect this might have upon him,and she is right to be anxious.

When Cody interviews Sara, he is struck by how calm and composed she is, but he believes she has had no part in the murder of her husband - not that his team of fellow officers are so easily convinced. Sara claims she does not know what Matthew's last message to her means, and that she cannot be of any help to the police. Cody feels a kinship with Sara - he recognises that they may be similar underneath, menaing both of them are them willing to go their own way to search for the truth, and he is inclined to let her do so without his interference.

As it happens, Sara is more than capable of pursuing her own investigation into Matthew's death. Her investigation will lead her into dangerous waters.

Cody has problems of his own, that he cannot share with anyone. A spectre from his past has appeared. A malevolent criminal from a previous case, which cost the life of his partner, is playing games with Cody. Games which may cost him his job.

The stakes are high in this game of life or death...

This is a tightly plotted psychological thriller that will keep you guessing. It is deliciously twisty, gruesome, gripping and hugely enjoyable. I read it in one glorious sitting.

I did not realise when I started this book, that it is actually part of a series about DS Nathan Cody. This is book four in the series.
I will certainly be going back and reading the previous three books, which I am hoping will be as twisted and spine-chilling as this one.

Degrees of Guilt by H.S.Chandler

Read May 2019. Published 16th May 2019.

Maria is trapped in an appalling marriage, with a man who controls her every move, and almost her every thought. Little by little, her life has shrunk to an existence which is confined to her home and garden - her beautiful home and garden that her husband insists she should be grateful for. To outside eyes, her husband, Edward is a well respected campaigner for animal and environmental rights. Only Maria knows the truth behind Edward's public persona.

Then one day....a fateful call to the police..."I've killed my husband".

Maria now finds herself on trial for the attempted murder of her monster of a husband. How can she make a jury believe that the violence inflicted upon Edward was justified?

Lottie has found herself a member of the jury called to pass judgement on Maria. Lottie is lacking in confidence since the birth of her child, and feel herself confined to the role of wife and mother. She feels unqualified to make the decision that will affect another human being's freedom.
Excited at the prospect of a break from motherhood, Lottie finds herself drawn to another member of the jury and becomes entangled in a situation that proves to be far more complicated that she imagined.

Who are the guilty and who are the innocent?

This book is brilliant! It is so easy to call a thriller unputdownable these days, but believe me when I say that this one is a genuine page turner. I actually could not put this down until I had reached the climax and found out the truth - which hits you exactly like Edward was hit with the chair leg!

The plot pays out as the court case progresses, until the truth unfolds right at the end of the book. The tension during the trial is palpable and builds beautifully. You can almost feel yourself sitting in the court room, listening to the judge, barristers and witnesses.

There are a couple of superb twists, that you will genuinely not see coming. You may even find yourself using a juicy swearword out loud when you find out what actually happened - I know I did (fortunately within the privacy of my own kitchen!).

There has been quite a lot in the press recently about coercive abuse within a relationship, so this debut is particularly well timed. Some of the moments described here are quite difficult to read, but I think it is important to be aware that this type of abuse is real.

This book is a first class debut and I am looking forward to more from H.S. Chandler.

The Night Before by Wendy Walker

Read May 2019. Published 16th May 2019.

Rosie and Laura are sisters, but are different as can be. Rosie was their parents' golden child, while Laura was the difficult sister. They have grown up in the Connecticut woods, running wild with their close friends Joe and Gabe, in what should have been a happy childhood - but all families have secrets.

Rosie, as the eldest, has always tried to protect fierce little Laura, especially after their father walked out on them as children, but Laura's past is troubled - there is a darkness about her that seems unfathomable, and she has found it difficult to get over the brutal murder of her first boyfriend one night in the woods around their home. No one is really sure what happened that night, including Laura.

In the present, Rosie is happily married to Joe, and they have a young son together. They are content. Gabe still lives nearby, but Laura has moved away - trying to escape her past and find the love that she feels has always been missing from her life.

Laura goes from one doomed relationship to the next. Her latest relationship has broken down and she has left her high-powered Wall Street job and New York apartment to return home to spend some time with Rosie and her family.

One night, Laura goes on a blind date with a man she has met on an on-line dating site, still trying to find the man who will offer her everything she needs. Rosie is concerned that Laura is taking things too fast, after the latest break-up, but tries to be as supportive as she can.

Unfortunately, Laura does not come home from her date. Where is she? Is she safe?
Rosie starts to question Laura's state of mind, as the search for her missing sister gets underway. Should she be worried about Laura, or should she be concerned for the man she was dating instead? What is Laura really capable of?

This is a great, pacy thriller with some excellent twists that I did not see coming at all. This is one of those books that pulls you in and you will not be satisfied until you have read to the very end - it is always good when that end is satisfying too.

The story alternates between the night before the date, mostly from Laura's point of view, and the day after when Laura is found to be missing and the search begins - with snippets of Laura's sessions with her therapist thrown in. I really liked this, as it builds suspense well and slowly reveals the horrifying truth about what happened "the night before" and all those years ago in the woods.

I have read a few psychological thrillers this year, some of which were hyped to the max, but this is actually the best one so far. The story is gripping, the pacing is good, and the twists actually work. Good job, Wendy Walker!

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Plus One by Sophia Money-Coutts

Read May 2019. Published 9th August 2018.

Polly is fine.
What does it matter if she has just turned thirty and her love life is virtually non-existent?
Her job as an article writer for Posh magazine is not exactly what she envisioned when she decided to be a journalist either - how many articles can you write about the dogs/houses/babies/love lives of the aristocracy before you become as mad as they seem to be?
To top it all, her best friend Lex is getting married to the dubious Hamish, and wants Polly to be her maid of honour (with hideous dress, of course).
Polly may not be looking for "The One" just yet, but she would certainly settle for someone to her "Plus One" for the wedding.

When Polly is sent on an assignment to a huge mansion to interview the handsome Jasper, Marquess of Milton, she finds that he is not quite what she is expecting. Jasper is charming and funny, and does not seem to be the playboy everyone assumes him to be - although his family are, of course, totally bonkers.
Polly tries to remain professional, but it hard to be unmoved when you are being pursued by someone like Jasper, and she finds herself falling for him. Her friends, Lex, Joe and the dependable Bill, are not so keen, but her mum says he has excellent manners!

Is Jasper "The One", the "Plus One", or the wrong one?

I loved this book from start to finish. Imagine a Bridget Jones for the social media age, with a bit of Jilly Cooper and Richard Curtis thrown in for good measure.

Sophia Money-Coutts worked as a journalist for Tatler magazine, so she must have a good knowledge of the weird and wonderful ways of the British aristocracy - wonderfully fancy names and obsessions with dogs and horses seem to abound, from what I can gather from this book. There are some hilarious moments of culture-shock between the worlds of Polly and Jasper - I particularly enjoyed Polly musing about the differences in conversation topics between her own friends and Jasper's.

This is a fine romantic comedy, with laughs, tears, friendship and true love. It is a tale about finding "The One" where you least expect them to be, but realising that you secretly know they were the one for you all along. Gorgeous!
I really hope that this book gets optioned for a film, as I would love to sit down and enjoy the whole thing again by watching it with a big bag of popcorn and a box of tissues for the happy crying at the end.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

White Gold (Gaia Trilogy Book Three) by David Barker

Read May 2019. Published 9th May 2019.

White Gold is the thrilling climax to the Gaia trilogy, following on from Blue Gold and Rose Gold.
This book carries on straight away from Sim Atkins' previous mission to save the World, on the Moon Base. Sim is consumed with the desire to avenge the death of his young son, but is finding it difficult to become part of the CIA investigation into the tragic events that took place on the Moon. Sim needs to be wily to get what he wants, and he uncovers some interesting leads to the identity of those responsible for the release of the Ebola virus on the Moon. How far will Sim go to get his vengeance, is he prepared to die to get to the truth?

Freda, Gopal and Rabten have managed to escape from the Russian prison, and are engaged in a cat and mouse road trip across the Asian countryside, followed by a mysterious assassin.

Meanwhile, Matthias Larssen and his Terror Formers are up to their old tricks. This time, their scheme is the most ambitious yet and involves the theft of a nuclear warhead, which they plan to use to initiate a massive volcanic explosion.

To complicate matters further, OFWAT have to uncover a mole within their own ranks, while fighting off the danger of being closed down, as the powers that be feel they are no longer needed. Can the team head off the most dangerous Terror Former's plot yet and save the World one more time?

Yet again, we have a fine rollicking ride of a thriller from David Barker, and an exciting climax to the Gaia Trilogy. This is totally un-putdownable.

There is plenty going on in this final installment and all our favourite agents have to pull their weight to succeed in their mission.

Expect bags of James Bond and Ethan Hunt type goings-on, with a bit of Star Wars and Minority Report thrown in for good measure.

I must confess to be feeling a little sad now I have reached the end of the road for Sim and Freda. I really hope you write some more adventures for them in the future, Mr Barker, as I have become very attached to them. I loved that Freda finally found love with someone who is able to banter with her about film and TV references too.

The Gaia Trilogy has been so much fun to read and it poses some interesting questions about geo-politcs. The fact that these books are set in the near future, brings a sense of realism to the problems the World is suffering from in these stories, and does make you wonder how far some people may go to bring about real change. I, for one, hope this does not involve blowing up a massive volcano!

I highly recommend these books for those of you that like your thrillers on the intelligent side, with lots of action, and good female characters too. More please, Mr Barker!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Seven Or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames

Read May 2019. Published 7th May 2019.

Mariastella Fortuna is born in the tiny, poverty stricken, Calibrian mountain village of Ievoli. Born just after the First World War to Assunta and Antonia Fortuna, she is named for her dead sister - the sister who died from suspected Spanish Flu, brought back from the war by her good for nothing father. The father that leaves for America, when she is only a few weeks old, to make his fortune.

Antonio is more or less absent throughout Stella's childhood - only returning occasionally for brief visits home and to plant more children in his long-suffering wife's belly and terrorise his family. No one misses him when he is not there, although it would be nice if he actually sent money back to his wife to support their growing family.
Assunta bears three more living children as a result of Antonio's increasingly infrequent visits, another daughter, Concettina, and two younger sons. She does her best to support them any way she can and they are happy living their hard, simple lives - lives they understand.

Stella loves her mother and sister deeply. Her father is another matter. As the oldest child, Stella is witness to the tyranny Antonia inflicts upon them all during his visits, and is disgusted by the way he makes sexual demands on, and degrades, their mother. Stella has no wish to become a wife and live the life her mother lives. She vows she will never marry and have children.

Stella is beautiful, intelligent, unconventional and fiercely independent. Unfortunately, she is also destined to nearly die several times throughout her life. Maybe calling her Stella Fortuna (lucky star) has tempted Fate and attracted the Evil Eye? Or is Stella haunted by her namesake that died?
Whatever the reason, Stella nearly dies three times during her childhood alone, but survives each time, against the odds. These will not be the last times Stella must fight for her survival - through both physical and mental damage.

Before the outbreak of World War Two, good for nothing Antonio insists that it is time for his wife and children to join him in America. Assunta and the children are reluctant. This will mean leaving everything the know behind, including Assunta's blind mother, to travel to a strange country, where they will not even be able to speak the language.

Unfortuntely, they have little choice and after one aborted attempt, which could have resulted in all of their deaths (one more attempt by Death to claim Stella), the family finally reach the shores of America in 1939. Assunta and the children now have no reprieve from Antonio's rule of iron and any freedom they experienced in the mountains of their homeland is gone forever. America is a strange new world, with strange ways, and they will all have to get used to living with their father. Can Stella remain true to herself and her vow, or will she have to bow to patriarchy in order to survive?

This is the most wonderfully written, sprawling tale that spans decades, two continents, and the dark secrets of the Fortuna family. You become totally immersed in the world and history of these characters.

Stella is fighting against subjugation by the patriarchy with every fibre of her being, but she is a woman ahead of her time. She sees no need for her life to follow the path laid down by tradition, but her options are limited. How does a young immigrant woman escape from the dictatorship of her father, especially when she has no money and speaks very little English?

Although Stella has managed to survive all that life, and death, could throw at her in her rural homeland, life in America will be very different for her. The Fortunas will be leaving poverty behind, but how much better will their lives be really?

Stella is not always likeable, but she is a survivor, even though her journey will not follow the path she desires. Stella's life will be in danger at least three more times, and she will also have to survive the death of her own spirit when she is unable to escape her fate.

There are some hard moments to read in this book, but it tells so beautifully of the struggles of women in the last century against the expectation that their lives must revolve around being wives and mothers. Most women today, thankfully, have choice and are not forced into marriage as a way to escape their own fathers. Antonio will also prove himself to be more of a monster than even Stella thought possible.

I particulary liked that the story is told by a female descendant of Stella's who has been able to enjoy the kind of life that Stella wanted for herself - free to make her own choices - but who would not exist if Stella had been able to choose.

I was completely engrossed in this book and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It covers some important issues through the telling of the story, as the Fortuna family pass down the decades, and will leave you with a lot to think about when you are finished. Fantastic debut Juliet Grames!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Rose Gold (The Gaia Trilogy Book Two) by David Barker

Read May 2019. Published 1st August 2018.

This is the second book in the Gaia Trilogy, and is set a few years after the adventures of Blue Gold.
Sim is now married to Rosie and is back working for the satellite division of OFWAT, having decided that the excitement of the Overseas Division is not for him.
Freda has retired to New Zealand for a quiet life, and is no longer on active duty for OFWAT; although she has left her options open.
Gopal and Rabten are also back, having been drafted into OFWAT after helping Freda and Sim with their previous mission in China.

The book starts with Sim discovering that he has a son he did not know about - a bit awkward considering he and Rosie have been trying unsuccessfully for their own baby. This son is the result of his brief encounter with Elsa Greenwood, head of Marinus, which happened during the Blue Gold mission.
Elsa is now running the Rare Earth Moon Unit for a company called Adams Holdings. She is in charge of the mining operations on the Moon and oversees the research projects running there. She is concerned that there have been some strange goings-on at the Moon Unit - including the suspicious death of one of the miners - and she does not trust anyone working there. Apparently, she will only trust Sim to come to her aid, as he is the father of her child.
Sim is drafted back into the Overseas Division, to help save the World from danger again - this time from the Moon!

Meanwhile, there are strange goings-on on Earth too. The Terror Formers are still up to their terrorist tricks. There are bombings; stolen strains of diseases that attack crops; and the spreading of lethal human infections too.
Gopal and Rabten have a mission of their own, and they will need Freda to return to active duty to aid them.

This book is another absolute winner from David Barker!
I particularly enjoyed the addition of Sim watching Gerry Anderson's Space 1999 TV programme while he was undertaking his investigation at the Moon Unit - it brought back memories of Saturday mornings watching this when I was a child! If you have not seen this, please look it up on YouTube - you will not be sorry, although you might be a bit bemused (remember this was the 1970s!).

This time, Sim gets to be the hero of his own mission. He will need to combine the traits of James Bond and one of Agatha Christie's finest detectives (Hercules Poirot is always my first choice) for this one...and he will need to overcome his hatred of the Chinese too. Sim will also experience a lot of difficult emotions during his spell on the Moon - not all of them happy ones.
Sim has grown in confidence since the Blue Gold mission, and definitely proves himself worthy of a place in the Overseas Division in this book.

Rose Gold ends on a bit of a cliffhanger re Freda, Gopal and Rabten. I hope Sim can use his new found confidence and skills to aid them in their difficulties! I need more of Freda and the gang in the next book.

There are a few new characters introduced in Rose Gold too, who would make good additions to the team, so I hope to see more of them.

This book can be read as a stand-alone, but is so much more enjoyable if you know the history between the characters, and why wouldn't you give yourself the pleasure of reading the whole series?

I am very much looking forward to the finale of the Gaia Trilogy, White Gold.