Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Book Review: BENEATH THE SURFACE by Sibel Hodge

Author: Sibel Hodge
Publisher:
Thomas & Mercer
Read:
August 2017
My Rating:๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ1/2



Book Description:

After the breakdown of her marriage, a failed career and the loss of her pregnancy, Holly returns to her hometown to work for a small-town newspaper and mourn her losses. Defeated and ashamed of her thwarted ambitions, she does not make contact with many of her old friends, keeping to herself and plugging away in her joyless job with little hope for something better to happen in her life. 

She is shocked and saddened to hear of the murder/suicide of one of her former best friends at the hand of her friend’s own teenage son, unwilling to believe that the sweet little boy she knew in the past could do such a terrible thing. Reaching out to the victim’s mother Barbara, who used to be a mother figure to her in her childhood, Holly learns that Barbara also finds it impossible to believe that her grandson would be capable of such a horrific act, and begs Holly to investigate, hoping to be able to clear his name.

My musings:

Beneath the Surface has been touted a “gripping suspense thriller”, which is usually something I cannot resist! Not having read any previous books by Hodge, I was also curious to explore a new author and was thrilled to have been granted a preview copy of the novel on Netgalley. Hodge’s writing drew me into the story very quickly, and I was intrigued by Holly’s damaged character and the unspeakable crime, which took up the first chapters of the book. Who would not be shocked and saddened to hear that their best friend had been murdered, especially at the hands of her own son? I could imagine the grief that rocked the whole community, and understood Holly’s desire to investigate.

However, it was after this point that things started to bug me. Despite admitting to having been a journalist working for a fluffy women’s magazine, Holly makes some vast leaps of imagination and deduction to very quickly come up with her conspiracy theory into what had caused young Dean’s descent into madness and murder, which seemed a bit far-fetched to me. For a person without any medical background, or previous experience of the field through investigative journalism, some of Holly’s convictions didn’t ring true to me. I would have preferred if more time had been spent on Holly investigating the crime and finding a lot more clues before being convinced of her (at that stage rather far-fetched) theory of what had caused Dean’s murderous rampage.

I am trying to tread carefully here, so as not to give anything away, so will only say that the author spends some time later in the book explaining her theory – and she has obviously done her research into the topic at hand – but to me it felt a bit too conspiracy-theory like all the way through. Perhaps I am just the wrong audience for this type of book, as I felt that the background conspiracy got in the way of being able to engage with the main characters, and I totally lost any emotional connection with Holly in the process. The ending also seemed rushed to me, tying all ends just a bit too neatly and quickly, and I turned the last page feeling rather let down by the whole story. There just wasn’t enough tension or mystery in it for me, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a psychological thriller, as it is pretty obvious from the start where the book is heading. The story didn’t mess with my mind nearly enough to justify the tag in the genre, in my opinion. However, I am sure that a lot of readers will enjoy the fast-paced last third of the novel, and concede that if I had known the focus of the book I would not have chosen it, as I am well aware that I am the wrong audience for this type of story. 


Thank you to Netgalley and Thomas & Mercer for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.




Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Book Review: THE OTHER GIRL by Erica Spindler

Author: Erica Spindler
Publisher:
St Martin's Press
Read:
August 2017
My Rating: ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ1/2



Book Description:

Officer Miranda Rader of the Hammond PD in Louisiana is known for her honesty, integrity, and steady hand in a crisis—but that wasn’t always so. Miranda comes from Jasper, just south of Hammond, a place about the size of a good spit on a hot day, and her side of the tracks was the wrong one. She’s worked hard to leave the girl she used to be behind and earn respect in her position as an officer.

However, when Miranda and her partner are called to investigate the murder of one of the town’s most beloved college professors, they’re unprepared for the gruesomeness of the scene. This murder is unlike any they’ve ever investigated, and just when Miranda thinks she’s seen the worst of it, she finds a piece of evidence that chills her to the core: a faded newspaper clipping about a terrible night from her long-buried past. Then another man turns up dead, this one a retired cop, and not just any cop—Clint Wheeler, the cop who took her statement that night. Two murders, two very different men, two killings that on the surface had nothing in common—except Miranda. 15 years ago.
And when her fingerprints turn up at the scene of the first murder, Miranda once again finds herself under the microscope, her honesty and integrity doubted, her motivations questioned. Alone again, the trust of her colleagues shattered, Miranda must try to trust the instincts she’s pushed down for so long, and decide what’s right—before it’s too late.


My musings:

The Other Girl was my first book by Erica Spindler, and its premise really intrigued me – I am always eager to discover a new appealing detective protagonist. Miranda Rader of the Hammond PD in Louisiana is certainly a character with an interesting back-story. When she and her partner Jake are sent to investigate the brutal murder of a local college professor, she is convinced that the crime is connected to an incident in her teens which has haunted her for years. The problem with having been a wild teenager who was generally known in town for running off the rails and telling lies is that at the time nobody believed her, and her claims were dismissed as just another story she told to get herself out of trouble. Miranda had not expected, however, that she would still have difficulties convincing people of her suspicions – even her boss, who she has always had the utmost respect for, is hesitant to take her seriously. When the body count mounts, Miranda knows that she has to take matters into her own hands...

Told alternately from the perspective of Miranda’s life today and offering flash-backs from the past, the reader slowly discovers the full extent of Miranda’s trauma. I really felt for this young woman, who has worked so hard to leave her past and reputation behind, only to find that it has suddenly caught up with her again. Worse still, nobody is willing to believe her, and she feels as if her hands are tied. Spindler is achieving a good balance in offering just the right amount of flashbacks to reveal the background story without slowing down the main storyline, and I found both the teenage as well as the adult character of Miranda sympathetic and engaging. Small town politics are well depicted, highlighting the difficulty of ever being able to escape your past, no matter how many years may have passed by.

I liked Spindler’s writing style, and  the book grabbed me instantly, holding my interest. My only gripe is that whilst it held a few unexpected surprises, I felt that some events towards the end were a bit predictable and Miranda veered a bit too much into the “misunderstood detective” territory, her actions questionable at times. However, even though I may have hoped for a twist to prove me wrong, the book turned out to be an enjoyable, quick read – perfect entertainment for a cold and wet day. I look forward to reading more books from this author.


Thank you to Netgalley and St Martin's Press for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.




Saturday, 12 August 2017

Book Review: THE WISH CHILD by Catherine Chidgey

Author: Catherine Chidgey
Publisher:
Random House UK
Read:
August 2017
My Rating:๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ


I am the wish child, the future cast in water. I am the thrown coin, the blown candle; I am the fallen star.


Book Description (Goodreads):

Germany, 1939. Two children watch as their parents become immersed in the puzzling mechanisms of power. Siggi lives in the affluent ignorance of middle-class Berlin, her father a censor who excises prohibited words (‘promise’, ‘love’, ‘mercy’). Erich is an only child living a lush rural life, aware that he is shadowed by strange, unanswered questions.

Drawn together as Germany’s hope for a glorious future begins to collapse, the children find temporary refuge in an abandoned theatre amidst the rubble of Berlin. Outside, white bedsheets hang from windows; all over the city people are talking of surrender. The days Siggi and Erich spend together will shape the rest of their lives.

My musings:

Everyone who knows me knows that I am a sucker for WWII books, so when I saw The Wish Child on Netgalley I couldn’t resist! After closing the last page, I am not quite sure where to begin, because The Wish Child must be one of the strangest – or should I say most unusual – and haunting WWII books I have ever read! The entire book is being told in the surreal voice of a ghostly omniscient being which seems to follow the two main protagonists Erich and Siggi wherever they go, infiltrates their lives and commentates on the environment of the times. I spent the first half of the book wondering who this narrator could be, and how it is connected to the story. There are a few hints throughout the book, but its true identity is not revealed until the end, when it all falls into place perfectly. As in The Book Thief, where Death narrates the entire novel, this mysterious voice added an air of mystery to the story that made the book stand out for me.

Erich and Siggi are two innocent children caught up in the events of WWII, one growing up as the daughter of a censor in Berlin, the other on a rural property near Leipzig. Bit by bit, their innocence is shattered by the horrors of war, their lives connecting due to unexpected circumstances. By offering a child’s perspective of the propaganda and the general hype surrounding Hitler, the author catches a unique snapshot of this time in history not usually found in other novels of the genre.

“On these nights, when the planes were almost too remote to hear, Sieglinde wished she could climb into her parents’ bed. But this was not a gypsy camp; this was not a den of dogs.”

But Chidgey doesn’t stop there – she also includes small chapters of two ordinary German women’s conversations in the story, as well as the internal dialogue of a teacher taking a class of children on school excursions to Berlin’s factories, where items necessary to the war effort are being produced (and other things too – some very chilling moments here!). The constant danger of living under a dictatorship is beautifully demonstrated in the conversations between Frau Miller and Frau Mรผller, two factory workers, discussing daily life under Hitler as the war progresses. This may sound unusual, and it certainly was! I loved the way the author manages to capture the essence of the times in those snippets of conversation and musings in often hidden phrases and seemingly innocent words – it was so very cleverly done!

Due to our ghostly narrator, there is an era of mystique but also malice underlying the entire story, which often gave me goosebumps. There are many elements of a kind of magic realism, or symbolism, hidden amongst the pages that convey the full horror of the war, reflected in somewhat puzzling scenes in the book (like the shifting walls of Siggi’s apartment or the snippets of words she keeps hidden in her tin of treasures that take on a life of their own). Whilst most of the actions pertain to the two children’s lives and fates during those horrible war years, the author also catches a perfect snapshot of the general atmosphere and attitudes of many German people during that time, even those small doubts and acts of passive resistance that were often the only thing people felt safe to offer.

Frau Mรผller: There’s no need. I meant nothing. It means nothing.
Frau Miller: Everything means something.
Frau Mรผller: The lies that fall from the sky – they are not suitable reading. You should not be reading them. They should be burned.
Frau Miller: Quite right. Quite right. And I do. But sometimes one notices a sentence here and there as one is gathering them to burn.
Frau Mรผller: One should stop noticing.

This is a very difficult book to review, as it relies so much on its “unusual” elements! I really enjoyed it, although it was (expectedly) very disturbing at times, and had me asking many questions along the way, many of which still haunt me. The Wish Child would undoubtedly make a fantastic book club book, as everyone will have a different take on some of these elements, and I personally would love to be able to discuss them a bit more deeply. 

Summary:

The Wish Child is a clever, multi-layered novel offering a very unique perspective of the events of WWII. Told by a ghostly omniscient narrator and including unusual elements not often found in other novels of the genre, the story takes on a haunting and thought-provoking air that stayed with me long after reading it and made it memorable for me. I thoroughly enjoyed The Wish Child and can fully recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction. 


Thank you to Netgalley and Random House UK - Vintage Publishing for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.






Friday, 11 August 2017

Friday Funny: WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN (the hidden dangers of bookstagram, continued)

It’s been cold and wet for weeks now, and the motivation to go outside is inversely proportional to the outside temperature and wind speed. But since I love hiking almost as much as I love books, I tried to use the moments between showers (and hail, and thunder, and gale force winds) to quickly sprint up another mountain track today, in the light of some serious eating to be done later for my husband’s birthday feast. All was well until I spotted an interesting outcrop of rocks in the distance, which offered a perfect view over the coastline and a nice little reading nook to shelter from an approaching dark cloud, promising an imminent shower. And a great bookstagram photo opportunity! I have reflected on the dangers of bookstagram before, and the instant suspension of any reason when it comes to the pursuit of the perfect photo. So, ignoring the rain and the wind and the slippery rock I climbed up the steep granite rock face, carefully wedging my hiking boots into small crevasses and admiring my “pretty-good-for-my-age” climbing ability. The view was spectacular! And the little rock cave just big enough to shelter me from the rain, which sleeted down horizontally, wind whistling mournfully around the rock. I sat with my little book  feeling slightly smug and righteous to have braved the elements, and waited for the sun to come out.

What goes up, must come down
 

Hmmmm, it’s time to climb down the rock now and it’s gotten all slippery from the rain, glinting menacingly like a black ski slope, water still pouring off it from above. A stray ray of sunshine reflects in its greenish-black slick, making tiny rainbows. I test the surface with my left boot – slippery. Crap! I get down on all fours backwards (in what my yoga teacher calls the table position), searching for footholds whilst my cold and numb fingers clamp down on the granite beneath me. Still slippery! On all sides of me is sheer rock. Clouds are brewing up in the distance. My right foot finds a tiny foothold and I decide to “Go for it, sister! You’ve got this!” I shimmy down the rock backwards like a crab, my breath coming out in tense little hiccupping puffs as I imagine myself stranded on the rock, spread eagled, a news helicopter circling over me as the cliff rescue is being dispatched to save the idiot who got herself stranded on a rock in the middle of a severe weather warning. My left foot is scrambling for purchase now, and this is the moment I lose my hold on the rock. Landing hard on my butt, I find myself sliding, sliding, sliding down the sheer rock face towards the abyss. In the split seconds of my life flashing in front of my eyes, I draft my obituary:

Died in the pursuit of bookstagram.

As a bright ray of sunlight breaks through the clouds and I feel myself airborne, sailing through the air and landing – with a soft plop as air is expelled from my lungs – feet first on the soft forest floor. Staring down at the boots of a bemused hiker, who has undoubtedly watched the whole funny performance from beginning to end. Just shoot me now!

Now, reflecting rather sheepishly on my near death experience whilst trying to dry off my cold and wet (and bruised) derriere, I need to start planning how to make it sound heroic rather than foolish, to polish the near-death experience like a shiny marble to make it fit for telling around a camp fire. Because, as an ED nurse, I recognise the implications of a “just hold my beer and watch this” moment. Really, I should know better!

But wasn’t it all worth it, for this delightful landscape?








Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Audiobook Review: THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE by Lisa See


Author: Lisa See
Read: July / August 2017
My Rating: ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ๐ŸŒŸ 1/2


Book Description:

Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate - the first automobile any of them have seen - and a stranger arrives. In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people.

Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city. After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley's happy home life, she wonders about her origins, and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family's destiny for generations.


My musings:

I can’t start this review without first saying a HUGE thank you to the Goodreads community, who continue to put me on to fantastic new books I wouldn’t normally pick up. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a perfect example – with a title that is so obviously not my usual genre, I would have never read this marvel of a story had I not stumbled across a few rave reviews by much respected readers on Goodreads, who highly recommended it. Feeling like something different from my usual fare of gruesome murder mysteries and psychological thrillers, I downloaded the audiobook and - WOW! What a fantastic read!

I have longed for some armchair travel to a remote and culturally diverse place for some time, and Lisa See’s book delivered it in spades. Transported off to a different world altogether, I not only discovered the culture of the Akha people (one of the 50 ethnic minorities living in China), but learned so much about my favourite beverage – tea – that it has added a whole new depth to my morning cuppa of Chinese Jasmine tea. See seamlessly blends facts and fiction, educating the armchair traveller as the story progresses and adding depth to her characters. I fell in love with Li-yan, and felt quite bereft when the book ended. Li-yan’s journey from her simple and yet culturally rich life in the remote mountain village in Yunnan to being confronted with all the trappings of 20th century life was fascinating. I often tried to put myself in her shoes, thinking how strange it must feel to come from a place without cars and electricity, and suddenly having to learn her way around a computer, catch a plane, drive a car. Such different worlds! See’s astute descriptions of how the 21st century finally catches up with the Akha people were also thought provoking, as I have witnessed these changes myself when travelling to previously untouched regions, where everyone suddenly owns a mobile phone.

Following Li-yan’s life from her early childhood to young adulthood and finally being a wife and mother, the book took me on an incredible journey I will remember for a long time to come. I thoroughly admired Li-yan’s courage and resilience in the face of adversity, and she soon was as real to me as someone I had known all my life. I now feel like I want to go to Yunnan and sip some of the famous Pu’er’ tea that influenced Li-yan’s life so much! Whilst most of the book is written from Li-yan’s POV, See incorporates some clever and unusual chapters revealing the fate of Li-yan’s abandoned daughter, who has been adopted by a wealthy American couple and is struggling with her own identity as she grows up not knowing her origins. Whilst I initially struggled with Hailey’s voice in the narration, I was able to connect more deeply with her towards the end of the book, and found her story a worthwhile journey in its own right. See’s insights into cross-cultural adoption made for some interesting reflection and discussion points, and it would be interesting to read more about Hailey’s life in the years following the book’s ending.

Hours of pleasure and joyful anticipation of my commute (and listening to the story) later, and I am still rocked by the emotional impact the story had on me. A fantastic read, and very much recommended. Don’t be put off by the title, as I was, because this in an author that really packs some punch and you won’t regret picking up this marvel of a book. Definitely on my favourite list for the year!