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Archive for April, 2010

This is the very charming story of a gentle friendship between the author Helene Hanff, a writer trying to get by on her meagre earnings in New York, and the genteel English bookseller Frank Doel, who works at Marks & Co. Booksellers, at 84 Charing Cross Road, London.

It is told entirely through the letters exchanged between Helene and Frank (and later, his family and colleagues).  What starts as a business correspondence when Ms Hanff is seeking some books, soon becomes a true friendship as she sends gifts of food during rationing, and they learn about each other’s lives and friends.

It is a gentle and charming book, and some of the letters written by Helen Hanff, who has a fabulous sense of humour and turn of phrase, made me laugh out loud.

The book is undemanding, but delightful.  A gentle true story which I am sure I will read many more times in the future.

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Click here for my review of the 1987 film adaptation.

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Stephanie (Stevie) Searle is a young girl when her father dies, and years later is the driver in a car accident when her mother dies. And Stevie herself almost died, which took her to a dark room where she meets everybody she has ever offended or slighted, all waiting for her after she dies. She is brought back to life, but this is neither the first nor last time she will visit her dark room. She becomes obsessed with finding out what people see in their own dark room just before they die, and eventually employs her own methods to enable her to find out. Throughout the story her own family history is uncovered leading her to realise things that she had never had any idea about.

Stevie – who is the narrator – is not a pleasant person – she is deliberately rude to her brother and his wife, she has a huge pile of manure on her lawn, and she terrifies children with tales of death and depravity. But it is her obsession with what lies beyond life that makes her really dangerous.

This book is certainly compelling and hard to put down. I raced through it, but I don’t know if I can say that I enjoyed it. Rarely has there been a main character who is so utterly dislikable, and I find it hard to empathise with a narrator who truly seems to have no redeeming features whatsoever.

The writing is pacy and the story never gets boring. However, the narrative did sometimes become a little confusing – this may of course be because of Stevie’s unreliability as the teller of the tale.

Overall, I would definitely read more by this author – I would recommend this book, but if you get squeamish easily, this might not be one for you.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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This is the fourth and final book in Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap series. I was sorry to finish it and know that there was nothing more to read about Ave Maria MacChesney, and her friends and family. I have enjoyed the previous three books immensely, but this is probably my favourite one out of the whole set, and it made me want to go back to the beginning and read them all over again!

In this book, Ave feels that life is changing – and she isn’t sure she liked it. Her good friend Iva Lou seems to be keeping secrets, Ave’s daughter Etta has got married and is living in Italy, and scariest of all, Ave’s husband Jack is taken into hospital with a suspected heart condition. The prospect of losing Jack makes both of them face up to what they still want to do with their life, and face up to the changes taking place around them. Ave has to face her fears and Jack has to face his mortality.

I love these books. As always, in this slice of life, there is a colourful cast of funny, flawed, compassionate and eccentric characters, who are by now familiar to readers of the series. I find myself really investing in the characters and caring about them. The way of life in the mountains is well depicted, and the closeness of living in a small town is so well portrayed, and as always, this book left me wanting to visit Big Stone Gap, Virginia, for myself.

Adriana Trigiani novels are the written equivalent of curling up on the sofa with a cup of hot chocolate – undemanding, enjoyable and a treat to be savoured. Highly recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Quentin Hawk is a young CIA Agent – loyal, honest and effective.  But he has a problem with authority.  This book is apparently the first in a series about Hawk, and it’s a series that’s worth keeping an eye on.  Luke Towne, a former and highly decorated military man is now the Head of the US Military Department of Laser Research and together with his partner Cynthia Teller, he has created a lens which could be life changing for people with poor eyesight – and which could be used as a valuable defence against terrorism.

When Luke gets involved with the beautiful Kathryn de Kennessy, daughter of Lebanese Surgeon Leon de Kennessy, he falls for her almost instantly.  But Brigadier General Orin Pierce – who reports directly and sole to the US President – believes that Kathryn is mixed up in a terrorist plot to bomb the country.  Luke suddenly finds himself pulled in all directions as he tries to work out the truth for himself, while keeping both parties happy.

Meanwhile, we learn about the terrorist plot itself from the people who are directly involved with executing the plan.  Will the powers that be work out what’s going to happen?  And more importantly, will they be able to stop it in time, before there are countless innocent lives lost?  Quentin Hawk finds himself firmly in the middle of the chaos, never sure who to trust, or what consequences his actions will have.

I enjoyed this book – it’s fast paced with an intricate (but easy to follow) plot, full of double crosses, secret plans, and surprising twists.  There is genuine tension at the end, and I found myself eager to find out what would happen.

Quentin Hawk is a great hero – handsome and trustworthy, but with real attitude. My only complaint would be that despite the book being named after him, he isn’t actually in it all that much, until the end.  The real focus of the story is Luke Towne, a man caught between his devotion to duty and his devotion to his girlfriend.  Luke is a hero from the same mould as Quentin – he’s tough as nails and as honest as they come.  (He does seem to cope with authority better – possibly due to his more mature age).  Other characters are Kathryn; her father Leon de Kennessy – who as we find out early on – is most definitely a terrorist as well as being a respected surgeon; Luke’s work partner Cynthia Teller; and Farad Aziz, a psychotic terrorist, intent on causing destruction and pain on a country he feels only hatred towards. Aziz was also a fascinating character, a man of conflict and untempered fury, who hates his colleague Leon de Kennessy.

I do feel that while the story is interesting, with plenty of background explained for all characters, it would have benefitted from being perhaps 100 pages shorter. Occasionally there were parts which I thought were unnecessary, and it might have been a ‘tauter’ story if it had been a bit quicker.  Overall though, this was a very enjoyable read, and I look forward to the next adventures of Quentin Hawk.

(I would like to thank the author for sending me this book to review.  I would also like to thank him for including me in the acknowledgements section of the second print.  Brian Neary’s website can be found here.)

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March 6th 2007 starts off like any normal day at Sterling High School, New Hampshire.  All that changes when one of its students, Peter Houghton, walks into the school armed with guns and starts shooting people.  Ten people are killed and a further nineteen are seriously injured.  Peter has been bullied and victimised at school ever since he can remember, and it seems that when it all got too much for him, he snapped.

As the community of Sterling tries to come to terms with the aftermath of the horrific event, Peter’s family question what could have made their son do something like this, and if they missed any warning signs.

I thought this was a wonderful, compelling read.  Jodi Picoult always creates entirely believable characters, and I found myself caring for these people and eager to know how their individual stories would turn out.  Although a large number of key players in the story are introduced into the story very early on, it did not get confusing, and they were all instantly distinctive, with their own stories well told.

The main characters the story focuses on are Peter and his parents; Josie Cormier – former best friend of Peter’s and now the girlfriend of Matt Royston, one of Peter’s main tormentors and also one of the casualties of the shooting; Alex Cormier, Josie’s mother and the Judge likely to be sitting on the case; Patrick Ducharme – the policeman in charge of the investigation, (who apparently also features in an earlier book by the author), and who was my personal favourite character; and Jordan McAfee and his wife Selena – Jordan has the difficulty of being defence attorney at the trial.  Each of them have their own part to play in the tale and the shooting and subsequent trial causes them all to look at their lives in a new light.

The story is told in two parts.  The first part starts with the events of the day of the shooting, and then the narratives goes backward and forward; from years beforehand when Peter was a young child, taking in several stages of his life, up until very soon before the incident; and to various times afterward, which show the wheels being set in motion for Peter’s trial, and how fellow students are coping with the tragedy.  The second part concentrates on the trial itself, with just a few very short flashbacks to the day of the incident.

Clearly this is a very sensitive subject – sadly there will be very few people who would be able to read this book without being able to recall hearing of a similar incident in real life.  Jodi Picoult does a good job of examining what might lead up to such a horrific event, and also manages to create interest in and sympathy for each character, even including Peter himself.

Certainly a very thought provoking story, which made me want to explore the subject further.  It’s quite a thick book – just shy of 600 pages – but none of the story felt superfluous, and my interest was held throughout.  Highly recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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A young Dutch couple named Rex and Saskia are on holiday in France, when they stop at a service station.  Saskia goes inside to buy some cold drinks, and disappears, never to be seen again.  Eight years later, Rex is still haunted by memories of Saskia, and the mystery behind her disappearance, and he launches a campaign in the French press, to see if he can unearth the truth.  He then meets a man who can answer all of his questions – but how much does he want to learn the truth?

This was such an unusual book.  It’s very short (115 pages), but but very gripping. There is a plot device which is rare in psychological mysteries – halfway through the book, the reader finds out exactly what happened to Saskia, and who is responsible for her disappearance.  This part of the story is told in detail, explaining about the life of the protaganist and what led him to the actions he committed.  A genuinely creepy psychopath emerges from the pages – a man without emotion, who seems to plan his life in a logical and cold hearted way.

The writing is very spare, with no unnecessary words, and had a ‘detached’ quality to it.  It is hard to feel much empathy for Rex – indeed he comes over as a somewhat unfeeling man, in his attitudes towards women especially – but the driving force behind the story is the reader’s desire to learn Saskia’s fate, and then the witnessing of Rex learning the same thing.  Rex has been driven almost to the point of madness by his not knowing, but he also seems apathetic about his own life, with no real enjoyment in anything anymore.

A genuine mystery then, but one where the mystery is how far one man will go to have his questions answered, when the reader already knows the answers.  Unusual and intriguing, it made me want to seek out more work by this author.

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When Beth Parker’s estranged sister Lucy turns up on her doorstep needing a place to stay, Beth is dismayed, but she and her husband Simon allow Lucy to stop with them for a while. Tension is evident between the two sisters, and Lucy’s references to Beth’s inability to bear children only deepens the wound, and Beth ends up wishing that her sister would just go away. However, when her wish is granted in shocking fashion, a tiny part of Lucy is left behind – her baby. Heartbroken by the fact that she can never have children of her own, Beth decides that she wants her sister’s child, and she is determined that nothing will stand in the way of her getting the baby. But there are forces at work which want to make sure that she doesn’t get what she has always dreamed of.

Meantime, Beth’s psychiatrist husband Simon has a new patient to cope with at the hospital where he works – a disturbed young woman who has murdered her own children, and who seems to know too much about Simon and Beth for comfort…

I’ll start with the good points of this book. The story is fast paced, and (despite the criticisms of the book which are about to follow), I did find myself anxious to read on to see what happened, on several occasions.

There’s a good story in here somewhere, but a few things ruined my enjoyment of this book. I couldn’t engage with any of the characters at all. I don’t think it’s necessarily important to like a central character, but certainly some feeling about them should be evoked. In this case however, I found I just didn’t care about Beth, Simon or any of the other characters.

The other problem was that there seemed to be an inordinate number of explicit sex scenes in the book – in the first half especially, it felt as if they have been shoehorned into the narrative at every opportunity, necessary or otherwise (usually not necessary at all). I am not usually bothered by sex scenes, but there were so many here that it got a bit tedious. Most of them added nothing whatsoever to the story, and seemed entirely gratuitous.

Finally, the story started out apparently as a psychological horror, but seemed to change genre halfway through! This probably wouldn’t have been a problem, but it took me by surprise!

Overall then, while this had good elements, it was a bit of a disappointment.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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