Review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

9780008196912What I Thought:

Aside from having a cover depicting cake (sold!) I had high hopes for this book anyway, having read (and loved) The Trouble with Goats and Sheep just a year earlier. In the same way that its predecessor did, Three Things About Elsie gently invited me in by way of a character whose story I immediately wanted to know more about, and whose side I walked by until the final page.

Florence, narrator for most of the book, is 84 years old and living in Cherry Tree home for the elderly with her best friend from childhood, Elsie. Flo is losing her memory and finds it hard to remember the simplest things sometimes,  and being part-narrated by two members of staff from Cherry Tree this also helps us to see how overlooked the elderly become, almost to the point of dehumanisation. There are times in the book when I had to pause and think. One example of this is when Flo is asked about another resident, Mrs. Honeyman, and whether she has lost someone: “only who she used to be” replies Flo.

What I didn’t realise this book would also be, was a mystery. A new resident moves into Cherry Tree; someone whom Flo recognises from her past and someone who causes her distress. Having Flo as our protagonist adds a whole extra level to solving the mystery, as she is an unintentionally unreliable narrator. As Flo picks away at the threads of her memory, supported by Elsie and another resident, Jack, we are able to put together pieces of the puzzle, but only at the same time as Flo, meaning that there are questions, doubts and hold-ups along the way.

Verdict:

Poignant, tender, delightful. A book about friendship, hope and about how our lives can touch others in such a small way but ultimately have the biggest impact. A wonderful read.

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Review: Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

34466492What I Thought:

When I read this book back in the summer, it was both shocking and unsurprising (that is, the content is shocking but unfortunately I wasn’t so surprised). What I didn’t realise, however, was how closely life would mirror art (or is it the other way round?) so soon after reading it. Seldom does a book I read become so topical so suddenly and in such a huge way.

James Whitehouse, a junior minister in the British Home Office, seems to have it all. Educated at Oxford, James is privileged, handsome, well-off and a close friend of the prime minister. Married to Sophie, whom he met at Uni, and father to Emily and Toby, he appears to have the perfect life from the outside. However, one night he finds himself having to confess to Sophie that he had an affair with his assistant, Olivia. The affair is finished, he says, but he had to confess as the tabloids have got hold of the story and are about to announce it to the world. Shocked and upset, just as Sophie is coming round to this revelation,  James is arrested. Olivia has filed a charge of rape against him.

The book is narrated in turn by James, Sophie and Kate, who is prosecuting James and seems to have an agenda of her own. James claims he’s innocent, Kate is determined to bring him down and Sophie wants to believe James and stand by her husband, preferring to believe his version that Olivia consented. We, in effect, are the jury as we try to piece it all together and work out who is telling the truth.

But that’s not all: there’s another story unfolding as well. This one is set in the early 90’s when James, Sophie and Tom (the current prime minister) were at Oxford. This is integral to the plot as it helps us to gain insight and also adds a layer of mystery to the plot.

Verdict:

Topical and shocking. I predict big things for this book in 2018. Would make a great read/debate for book groups too.

Review: How To Be Happy by Eva Woods

36113868What I Thought:

Reading this book over the new year period felt kind of poignant as this is the time of year when a lot of people make resolutions to try to better themselves. Fortunately, this wasn’t some eat clean, train dirty, find-your-inner-zen-in-order-to-better-yourself claptrap. In fact, much to my joy, eating cake for the hell of it features often among the pages. No, it’s more about trying to find even the smallest bit of happiness in the most mundane of things: eating breakfast off a nice plate, lighting an expensive candle rather than saving it for some undefined moment, getting away from your desk at lunchtime, getting off the bus a stop early to notice what’s around you or to go to a nicer coffee shop. Things that take minimum effort but that may just make your own (or someone else’s) day.

How To Be Happy is inspired by the Facebook challenge that did the rounds a year or so ago – #100HappyDays. The book begins with Annie, alone and desperately unhappy, visiting her mother in hospital when she is knocked off her feet by a kaleidoscopic whirlwind by the name of Polly, who has been diagnosed with a brain tumour and has 3 months left to live, and who also insists on infiltrating Annie’s miserable life in the most irritating manner. After several unsuccessful attempts to avoid Polly, is Annie finally ready to let a little colour back in to her life?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Each chapter is one of the 100 days and during those days, secrets are shared and obstacles overcome, there is joy and there is sorrow and much heartache but despite that this is such a heartwarming book. The developing friendship between Polly and Annie is touching and real (nothing is sugar-coated) and I love the fact that the challenge was about doing and celebrating the little things and not about bucket lists or trying to make yourself into something that you’re not.

Verdict:

Funny, sad and very real. A tonic without being schmaltzy. I loved it.

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Review: Faking Friends by Jane Fallon

91lsl5dyDQLWhat I thought:

I am like a child at Christmas when a new Jane Fallon book comes out: wide-eyed and giddy with excitement. Just so with Faking Friends: it’s chock full of laughs, romance and revenge…

You know when you’re reading a book and your mouth does this – O. That happened. Lots. I love that! Getting so lost in a plot and the in the company of the characters that something sideswipes you without you seeing it coming is one of my favourtie plot devices.

Amy is a budding actress, working on a series in New York. She has a great new job, a gorgeous fiance, Jack, at home in London and a best friend, Mel, who she’s known since they were children. She’s on the up and she’s happy and who better to share in her excitement than her best friend and fiance? On a surprise trip back to London, Amy finds out that the one person she thought she could trust more than anyone has been making herself at home. In her flat. With her boyfriend. Amy has two choices: she can walk out and move on, or she can have a little fun of her own…

I love a good revenge plot, but I love it even more when the author throws in a few surprises to keep us on our toes.

Verdict:

Gipping, unpredictable, a hoot.

Warning: Keep your friends close and your best friends damn close!

 

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Review: Anything You Do Say by Gillian McAllister

A1KeMQs1M0LWhat I thought:

This book started off great guns: I started the book one night before bed “just to see how it is…” and found myself flipping the pages furiously and unwilling to put it down. It was less than halfway through that I then noticed my interest waning and by three quarters I could happily have abandoned it and moved on… but I still liked the idea of the plot and really wanted to see how it would all resolve itself.

Set in a sliding-doors fashion, the first chapter follows Joanna on her night out with friend Laura, from her selfie with a stranger through to unwanted attention from a man that leads to them leaving the club early. Walking back along the canal side, and still upset from her earlier ordeal, Joanna hears quickening footsteps behind her and a split second decision makes her do something that will have long-term consequences for so many. The following chapters are then alternate between reveal (she confesses) and conceal (she runs away).

Such a great idea for a book and one I was looking forward to enormously to see how the consequences of our actions can affect us so utterly. It should have been great. But I got bored: bored of Joanna, whom I found it was difficult to empathise with, bored of the plot which didn’t seem to go anywhere for a huge chunk of the book and bored of waiting to find out how it would all pull together. If in fact, if it had pulled nicely together at the end (by way of a twist or something jaw-dropping) it would quite possibly have redeemed itself but I found the ending to not only be convenient in an attempt to wrap it all up but a bit of a damp squib.

I feel my main issue is that I couldn’t connect with Joanna or any other members of the cast, at all. It wasn’t simply that I didn’t like her; I couldn’t “get” her in either the reveal or conceal stories. That made it difficult to invest in the book overall as I was not engaged.

Verdict:

Not a bad book, just not a great one. I haven’t read Everything But The Truth (McAllister’s first book) yet but I do have a copy and I have heard great things so I wouldn’t be put off reading this at all.

Great concept, not so great execution.

Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper

35323055What I thought:

Earlier this year I read Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry, and loved it! A fresh new voice in an overcrowded genre: I loved the setting, the protagonist and the plot. I couldn’t wait to get my mitts on her second book, Force of Nature, and was thrilled that it started in a way that drew me straight back in. Unfortunately, this book didn’t continue down that same route for me: the one that pulls me along with it. For a whole section in the middle, I actually grew bored. I don’t need a crime book to be high octane all the time, but I actually found myself losing interest in both the characters and plot for a large chunk.

Aaron Falk, our Detective from The Dry, is back which pleased me, as did the setting which was remote and away from the more usual urban backdrop. Falk is drawn into the mystery of a missing woman, Alice, who is on a corporate team-building hike in the bush. Four of the five women in the group return late, battered, bruised and frightened as not only did they lose their way in the bush, they also lost one of their group along the way. As a search party sets out to find Alice, the book alternates between the present time and going back a few days to allow the reader into the women’s trek and what really happened.

I think my main issue was that I never really got a feeling of how frightened or exhausted the women must have been. They were lost in the wilderness with dwindling supplies and it was raining and cold. I would have been terrified. I have done a solo hike of 120 miles in the UK and at one point I got lost on a foggy moor for an hour or so and the feeling of frustration and weariness just in that short timeframe was so hard to deal with, never mind wandering around with no food for days on end. There wasn’t enough plot to grab me in the middle section and with no real sense of terror or impending doom, I lost interest to the point that I almost gave up altogether.

I am glad I stayed with the book, however, as it did pick up again in the last quarter but even so I wasn’t blown away by the book.

Verdict:

Somewhat disappointing after having loved The Dry so much, but I will definitely read more of this series with Aaron Falk. I am still a fan of Jane Harper despite not being so enamored with Force of Nature.

 

Have you read either book? What did you think?

Throwback Thursday: Halloween Special

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With it being Halloween shortly, I have decided to do a special spooky edition of Throwback Thursday … OOoOoOOoooOOOOooooooghost-03 Throwback Thursday is a meme created by Renée at It’s Book Talk to share old favourite books rather than just the new shiny ones. This is a great idea to bring back to life some much-loved books. Please feel free to join in.

Here is a selection of books I have read over the years and their spooky ratingsghost-03ghost-03ghost-03ghost-03ghost-03

 

Halloween Party by Agatha Christie ghost-03

halloween partyI have read this book so many times and I never fail to enjoy it. It was one of the first Agatha Christie’s I read as a teenager when I went through a phase of devouring everything I could get my hands on. Even though I have read it so many times now, it has never lost its appeal to me. Spooky? No, not at all. Fun? Yes, absolutely!

The story starts with a famous author, Ariadne   Oliver, who is attending a children’s Halloween party in a pretty little English village. She is recognised by some of the children who start to quiz her about her books and complain that there isn’t enough murder in them. One of the group, a rather unpopular 13-year-old called Joyce, then pipes up “I saw a murder once” before being shouted down and laughed at by those around her. Trying to explain herself she then adds “but I didn’t realise that it was a murder at the time.” The party gets into full swing but before the night is out, Joyce has been found murdered face down in a bucket of bobbing apples…

Ariadne sets off to see her old friend Hercule Poirot for help as she has become convinced that someone who overheard Joyce’s claim to have seen a murder had wanted to shut her up. Poirot then sets about busy-bodying his way around the village, in true Poirot style, asking questions to anyone and everyone about what Joyce may have seen. And as in true Christie style, expect the unexpected!

I’m so glad I read this book again – picking up an Agatha Christie is like meeting up with an old friend; it’s a real tonic.

Spooky rating:

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A great mystery book set at Halloween. Will it scare you? Not a chance. Will you love it? Absolutely!

 

Dark Matter: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver ghost-03

dark matterThis book is written in the form of a journal by Jack Miller, a London misfit with a dead-end job and no friends who joins an expedition to the Arctic Circle in 1937. Jack is desperate to go and has looked forward to this adventure for six months before setting off so his spirits are high as soon as he steps onto the boat to take them to the bay of Gruhuken in northern Norway.

However, Jack’s joy soon takes a downward turn as one by one, members of the expedition drop like flies and he is left alone, with just a pack of huskies and a self-built hut in one of the remotest parts of the world. Not only that, but Jack begins to see and hear things that aren’t really there. Or are they?

I found this book incredibly well written and what I found was that the way the isolation and deprivation were played out over the pages was far more spooky than the ghost that was inhabiting the bay with Jack. The sense of fear as Jack slowly began to lose his mind imagining things that had moved or appeared was palpable and made for very chilly reading.

Jack’s relationship with one of the dogs, Isaak, was the only warming part of this icy tale but it was a welcome relief in such a desolate text.

Although I enjoyed this book immensely and would recommend it as a great read, I am disappointed to report that it didn’t scare me in the least (and I am a complete wimp when it comes to scary things).

Spooky rating:

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Definitely eerie and atmospheric and a great ending to the book, but alas it did not actually scare me.

Those of a nervous disposition may want to avoid or read with the light on though.

 

Comes The Blind Fury by John Saul ghost-03

comes the blind furyI first read this book as a young teenager (so just a few years ago then…). I remember one half-term shutting myself away in my bedroom with a stack of John Saul novels and scaring myself silly. I had completely forgotten all about John Saul until I stumbled across this book many years later and decided to see if I still felt the same.

Fast forward a few (!) years, it didn’t have the same impact on me as it did as a teenager in terms of reading it from behind a cushion, but I still loved it and remembered just why I was such as fan of Sauls books back then.

The book starts with the death of a twelve-year-old blind girl, Amanda, in 1886. She is a kind and gentle girl who has been routinely teased and tormented by her classmates, and one day that they go too far and put an object in her way on the cliff path, sending her free-falling into the sea. Amanda may be dead but she is not done yet…

One hundred years later, twelve-year-old Michelle moves with her family from Boston to Paradise Point to live in a big old Victorian house on the edge of the cliffs. When she picks her room, she finds an ancient doll at the back of the closet and names her Amanda.

Michelle quickly makes friends at school, and enjoys her new life, until one day at a picnic on the beach, things take an ugly turn when one of the group begins teasing her and Michelle runs off and tumbles down the side of the cliff. From then on she must use a cane to walk with the teasing becomes worse…until the fog comes out of nowhere and Michelle meets the ghost of Amanda who vows to help her get revenge…

This is a great book to keep you on the edge of your seat. I had forgotten just how great John Saul is able to do that. While not actually scary, it certainly had an eerie feel to it and it kept me on my toes.

Spooky rating:

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A great Halloween read. Eerie and creepy. Read on a dark, cold night…but watch out for the fog drawing in….

 

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters ghost-03

little strangerThis story is narrated by Dr. Faraday, a local village Doctor, in 1940′s rural England. He is called to Hundreds Hall, a huge mansion with acres of land where his Mother was a nursery nurse when he was a boy and he remembers, fondly, the extravagant tea parties and fetes that the Ayres family used to throw for the village. When Dr. Farady arrives at the house after not having seen it for decades he is shocked at the crumbling and dilapidated state that it’s in. The owners of the property are now Mrs. Ayres and her two children, Caroline and Roderick (both in their twenties); her eldest child, Susan, died 30 years ago aged nine. Faraday has been called to see the maid, Betty, who is complaining of stomach problems and saying that she wants to go home, but when Faraday delves deeper he finds out that it is because she is hearing strange things in the house and she is scared. Farady is invited to have tea with the family and this is the start of a friendship with the family just at a time when things start going bump in the night……

Despite casualties of the spooky goings on a-plenty, Faraday managed to find an explanation for everything: the fires, the writing on the walls, the tapping etc. What frustrated me was that while this was going on I was expecting things to start falling into place and make sense, but it never did. I am no more clued up now that I was when I started it. What I think Waters has done is left readers to make up their own minds about what was going on in the house. Where there really ghosts or was the family in melt-down as well as the house? The book is set in post WWII England, on the eve of the NHS, when class is becoming less important and the upstanding members of the community aren’t necessarily only those with wealth anymore: Mrs. Ayres still likes Betty the maid to dress in full black and white and courtesy etc which is even starting to be amusing to members of her own circle. With the going’s on in the house, we are left to wonder whether there really is the pitter-patter of little ghosty feet or whether the demise of the house is mirroring the demise of its occupants?

I would definitely recommend this book as a really good read. I was reading late one night and put the book down just after an episode of tapping on the walls and was drifting to sleep when I swear I was woken up by tapping on my bedroom window! It could have been a dream, but hey……..you never know!

Spooky Rating:

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Although this book wasn’t actually scary per se, the ghostly goings on in the middle gave me the chills while I was up reading late one night.

Good spooky parts but the book won’t turn your hair grey with fright.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger ghost-03

TImage result for her fearful symmetryhrow a huge cemetery, a cold & wintery London, bizarre mirror twins, a feral kitten and a recently dead Aunt into a pot together and the result is a wonderfully quirky, melancholy, spooky book.

The story is set around Highgate Cemetery in London where a recently dead Elspeth has left her apartment to her twenty-year-old American nieces, Julia and Valentina, who are mirror twins. When the twins arrive in their new home they soon learn that they are not alone as it appears their Aunt Elspeth has never left. While it’s sometimes difficult to know who to root for in this book, there is a wonderful cast of both primary and secondary characters that kept me glued to the story and there is a sense of such powerful emotions that they almost feel tangible: The twins new neighbour, Robert, was their Aunt’s lover and his feelings of loss for Elspeth are painful to read at times. I felt completely absorbed in this book and I have to admit that I never saw what happened in the last 50 pages coming at all!

It is ultimately a book about love, loss and betrayal with a gothic backdrop of ghosts, cemeteries and enough twists and turns that you never feel completely comfortable. With the Cemetery itself a character and echoes of Henry James and Charles Dickens, “Her Fearful Symmetry” is a delicious and deadly twenty-first-century ghost story.

Spooky rating:

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Mild spookiness. Unless you have a particularly weak heart, you should be OK with this one.

 

Naomi’s Room by Jonathan Aycliffe ghost-03

naomi's roomThe really weird thing about this book is that I picked it up for a few pence in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago; I had no desire to read any horror books at the time and when I got home I remember wondering what had possessed me to get it as I thought I might find it too scary to read. On a whim a while later, I took it off my shelf and dusted it down – and I swear I kept getting déjà vu while I read it (just little snippets that would make me shiver and convinced I’d read it before but I really don’t think I have). Spooooooky!

The book is a ghost story that starts off with the abduction of a four-year-old girl, Naomi, from a busy toy shop in London on Christmas Eve in 1970. Her father, Charles Hillenbrand gets separated from her in the shop and she is never seen again. By the afternoon of Christmas Day Naomi’s body has been found – she has been murdered.

While trying to cope with their grief and come to terms without their little girl, back in Cambridge, Charles and Laura find themselves on the receiving end of some very strange events. They are woken one night by a piercing scream coming from Naomi’s room, and they hear footsteps in the attic above their bedroom. The mystery and nightmare only deepen when a photographer who has been camped outside their house waiting for glimpses of the grieving parents has his role of film developed and finds strange faces that appear at the attic window and two little girls dressed in Victorian clothing in the garden where he was sure there was nobody there. Together, Charles and the journalist, David Lewis, try to work out what’s going on……but nobody could predict what more was to come!

This is a really spooky tale of things that go bump in the night, ghosts who have had a particularly gruesome end to their earthly lives and are trying to communicate, and the ending is pretty shocking – and totally unexpected!

This book was out of print for some time but it appears to be back on Amazon (yay!), along with Aycliffe’s other books which I now fully intend to check out.

Spooky Rating:

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A good spooky yarn – scary and shocking.

In the middle of reading this book I was taking a shower (not with the actual book, obviously!) and I swear I saw something brown flash across my mirror just outside the shower door on the bathroom wall – it was only there for a fleeting second – but then I realised it was probably just my arm or something so I started waving my arms around to prove my own point. I couldn’t see them in the mirror – the angle was wrong!……

Recommended for sitting in a dark room with just your reading lamp on and a cup of hot chocolate.

 

Happy Halloween!

So there we have it: a little selection of spooky-themed books for the run-up to Halloween. Have you read any of these? Which other books do you recommend for this time of year?

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