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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

I had been wanting to read this book for a long time and when I finally got around to it, it was a difficult read – not only because my copy was over 600 pages of densely packed font, but also because there is simply so much information and so many names coming at the reader. In tracing the AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s, there are so many facets of the story, and it often switches between locations so concentration is key. For that reason I found I could only read 10 or so pages at a time before I needed to put the book down for a rest.

But for all that it almost felt like homework, it was an illuminating read, and I have kept my copy to read again in future. Randy Shilts was an American journalist and author, who obviously meticulously researched his subject and in the end delivered not just a timeline of an epidemic that ravaged the gay community, but a searing indictment on the Reagan administration who ignored it all for years despite thousands of people dying and despite being told frequently that this disease was tearing through the country. This book horrified me and made me furious at the lack of regard for the AIDS victims.

Shilts describes how in the early 1980s several young gay men started presenting with an unusual skin cancer, which led to much speculation about its cause. While doctors and scientists could see fairly quickly that there was a huge problem in the offing, and worked tirelessly to try to find the cause, they were up against not just an indifferent federal government, but politics at all levels, the gay community themselves, many of whom resented being advised to lessen their sexual activities, and the abhorrent negligence of such places as many blood banks in America, who refused to start testing their blood even after it was proven that AIDS could be caught through infected transfused blood. The national and local press were also largely uninterested in a disease that only affected gay men.

Amongst the scientific challenges and breakthroughs – including one very interesting narrative about the rivalry between American and French scientists – and the grass roots political attempts to get the Reagan administration interested in this disease, there are tales of key people in the epidemic, many of whom succumbed to AIDS themselves. These for me were some of the most interesting parts, as they focussed on the human aspect of living with a disease, or seeing friend after friend pass away. It portrayed the desperation and hopelessness that people felt, and the anger at their government for ignoring them. I often found myself googling certain people and events to find out more about them – which was another reason it took me such a long time to read this book.

So not an easy read, but an extremely worthwhile one and definitely worth the investment of time and concentration.

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This book is set in 2016 and is narrated by Nuri, a Syrian beekeeper who has a happy life with his wife Afra and their young son Sami, until their world is torn apart by their country’s civil war.

With their lives destroyed, they have no option but to flee their country and seek asylum elsewhere. There are two timelines in this book; one is in England, where they have arrived and hope to be allowed to stay, and the other charts their journey there, during which they face constant upheaval and terrible dangers.

I did enjoy the book on one level, but must also admit to being somewhat disappointed because I think I expected so much more. It’s such an important topic – and very eye opening regarding the harrowing experiences that asylum seekers face and the lengths that they will go to simply to find somewhere to live where they might not face death on a daily basis. However, while the story itself was interesting, I felt a strange kind of disconnect with the characters – they never felt very fleshed out and I found it hard to invest in them. Even though Nuri narrated the book, he still seemed very much to be at arms length throughout.

Overall, a book worth reading and very relevant in the current times, but could have been much more.

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This murder mystery is set in the small town in Giverny in France, where Claude Monet lived out his years, and where his house is still a tourist attraction today.

The mystery starts when the body of a well known philanderer is found murdered in the river. The police investigation is headed up by Inspector Laurenc Serenac, a newcomer to the village, and he is assisted mainly by Inspector Sylvio Benavides. Complications arise when Serenac is attracted to the local schoolteacher Stephanie Dupain, who is pivotal to his investigation.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Fanette, who also lives in the village, dreams of one day becoming a famous painter like Monet; a large part of the story revolves around Fanette and her various schoolfriend, who are pupils of the aforementioned Stephanie.

Finally, there is an old lady, who watches the police and the various goings on in the village from a detached viewpoint. She has lived in the village all of her life but is clearly something of a recluse, with her dog Neptune being her only companion.

The old lady’s chapters are told in the first person, but the rest of the story is told in the third person.

I had high hopes for this book, but sadly came away disappointed. The story seemed very disjointed and the police investigation seemed ludicrous. The book was originally written in French and I’m not sure if it was the translation or not, but the writing seemed very clunky and didn’t flow well. Like Bussi’s book ‘Don’t Let Go’ there is very little in the way of characterisation, but while that book did at least have a lot of action, this one seemed to stagnate in a lot of places. I kept reading until the end, as the blurb on the cover promised a huge twist. Well…..there is one and I’m not going to reveal it, but suffice to say that it was ridiculous and just made me really annoyed. Twists are great when they are revealed and then you look back and see that the clues were there all along, but this was not one of those and I ended up feeling cheated.

The one thing I did enjoy were the descriptions of Monet’s house and gardens, as well as Giverny itself. I would like to visit there one day. Other than that though, this one is a thumbs down from me.

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I’ve just finished reading A Little Life, and am not sure how I feel about it. I probably should wait a few days to digest it before writing anything, but I doubt I will be any clearer in my mind then.

Essentially the story is about four college friends and their wider social circle, and it follows them throughout their lives. At the epicentre of the story and their lives is Jude St Francis. Brilliant, beautiful, talented and very very broken. Jude never talks to people about his childhood – and when we find out about it, it’s not hard to see why – but it is gradually revealed throughout the book. He has a problem with his legs, so sometimes he needs to use a stick and sometimes he needs a wheelchair. He has no biological family, and is a huge mystery to everyone else. But they love him and accept him just the same. His best friends, Willem, Malcolm and JB all have their own issues, but it’s clear that this is Jude’s story.

There were certain characters I liked; out of the four friends, Malcolm was easily my favorite – but my favorites were ones outside of the core group. Harold and Julia, the older couple who come to mean so much to Jude and vice versa were my absolute favourites.

Here’s where I feel bad though – I really really did not like Jude. When his terrible childhood experiences are revealed – to the reader at least, if not the other characters – I found it hard to imagine such a catalogue of horror happening to one person. (The author has admitted that she did not do research into this issue, and I think it does show.) And despite understanding why Jude has so many problems trusting people in later life, I found him to be tiring and exhausting to read about, and incredibly selfish. It’s hard to see why so many people loved and cared about him, or stuck around, because he generally treated most of the people who tried to help him pretty badly. I think he was supposed to be a sympathetic protagonist, but it didn’t come off that way.

The writing is often a bit overblown and too ‘wordy’ but despite this, I still kept reading and enjoyed parts of the book. If I didn’t feel compelled to finish every book I start though, I may have given up by about halfway. It’s not a book to make you feel good; in fact, it left me on a bit of a downer. There’s a lot of hype about it and I wanted to see for myself what it was all about. It’s not awful, but I won’t be in a rush to read anything else by this author.

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Reading this book in a post-pandemic 2022, I can see why it created such a buzz when it was released. The End of Men was written before Covid-19, and the story revolves around a global pandemic with a 90% mortality rate, which came to be known as The Plague. In this story, only men became ill or died with the virus, although women could be carriers. The book begins in 2025, with a Doctor first realising that there is a common link between a very small number of patients who are all mysteriously dying of an unknown cause, with the same symptoms. As the virus takes hold and spreads around the world, there is widespread panic – there were riots, protests, a race for a vaccine. People were told to stay home, shops were closed, public transport was grounded, and families were divided for fear of transmitting the disease. Of course in the real world this now all feels very familiar.

The book is written from the points of view of several characters, the vast majority of which are women. Some only occupy a couple of chapters, while others are main characters which drive the narrative. Despite the large amount of narrators, I did not find it difficult to keep track of who was who, and each character was clearly drawn and believable. There were also a few newspaper articles and blog posts which made up chapters of their own, again all of which added to the story.

As for whether I liked the book – put it this way, I started this book on a long haul flight; I had downloaded a couple of films to watch during the journey but I didn’t get to them, because I could NOT put this book down. I would have found it very uncomfortable reading in 2020, but felt able to tackle it now, and I found it utterly absorbing, with every page and every character drawing me in, whether I liked them or not. It actually made me cry on a number of occasions when people were discussing their sorrow and grief, either for the people they had lost or the lives that they had planned and now would never had. Not all of the characters were likable, and some of them did some pretty awful things, but these were people dealing with a situation they never could have envisioned.

I stayed up late one night (I was jet-lagged but that wasn’t going to stop me) to finish it, and when I had read the last page, I thought it was one of the best books I have read in recent years. If I could read all books with the urgency I read this one, I would triple my reading output!

Anyway, I highly recommend this book (although beware that it may be triggering to people who are suffering emotionally with the fallout from Covid-19), and will definitely be buying anything else that Christina Sweeney-Baird writes.

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In this non-fiction book, powerlifter and journalist Poorna Bell discusses the barriers for women and minorities when it comes to getting into exercise. She uses her own story about how she got into powerlifting following the suicide of her husband, and talks about how gyms and personal trainers need to be more inclusive. She also incorporates societal barriers and diet culture, such as how particularly for women, exercise is generally viewed as a way of losing weight, and women are encouraged to do cardio while men are encouraged to lift heavy weights (I’m not actually sure that this last point is actually the case based on my own, admittedly very personal, experience).

There is an important message here – yes, gyms need to be more inclusive and welcoming for women (again in my experience most gyms are already), minorities, and people of all genders and sexualities. The issue is that it feels like every few pages there is the message to ‘make gyms more inclusive’ – but how this can be done is never really explored, and it ends up just feeling like a bit of a rant.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the book – certain parts did resonate very strongly, especially the parts about diet culture, and I thought the parts about how Poorna Bell came to deal with her own grief surrounding her husband’s death were very poignant. However, I do feel that this was a book in bad need of an editor – each chapter was just a list of people from a certain category (maybe a certain age group, religion or sexuality) who described how they felt that exercise was not for them, and then a call for personal trainers and gyms to be better equipped to welcome people from every way of life. It ended up feeling repetitive, and I’m not entirely sure that this wouldn’t have been better as an article rather than a full length book.

I do also feel that while Poorna Bell speaks very highly of the two personal trainers she has herself had, and the gym that she belongs to, the book almost felt like an attack on gyms as a whole and personal trainers in general.

So overall – a great message gets lost in the repetitive style of writing. BUT I enjoyed the parts about Poorna’s own family and her love of powerlifting.

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Hope Arden is a woman who everyone forgets – quite literally. Someone can meet her, have a conversation with her, sleep with her even, and when she goes away they have no recollection of her, so every time she meets someone it is the first time for them. This makes it hard for her to make friends, forge relationships or hold down a job, but it’s very useful tool for an international jewel thief, which is what Hope becomes. She then becomes embroiled in a plot to steal an app called Perfection. The app awards points to people for improving themselves or their lives, such as having the right cosmetic treatments, going to the right gym enough, or buying the right food; it tracks your every movement – and quite frankly sounds awful, and perilously close to where we are in real life.

There are some interesting ideas about what it means to be perfect, and what it means to be memorable, and there is no doubt that some of the writing is very beautiful and clever. However, this book did not really work for me – I did not like the stream of consciousness style of narrative (although I have previously written other books written in a similar way and enjoyed them) and I did not like the constant flying off at tangents.

I did think that for someone who is forgettable, Hope was a very fully fleshed out character who the reader got to know and essentially root for, even if she was not always likeable. But none of the other main players were ever really more than cardboard cutouts. I stayed up late to finish this book, which usually means one of two things; either I am loving a book and can’t put it down, or I want to get to the end of it, precisely so that I CAN put it down. This was a case of the latter. It’s not badly written, far from it, and I liked the two main threads – Hope’s forgettability and the Perfection app. But it never really worked and I didn’t feel any sort of connect. I do have another book by Claire North, and I will give it a go at some point.

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The Colorado Kid is definitely not your typical Stephen King novel. For a start, it’s not scary, there’s no sci-fi or dystopian element, and there’s nothing supernatural here. It’s pulp fiction and an interesting crime noir.

It opens in 2005, when a young female newspaper intern on a small island in Maine is chatting to her two colleagues, who have lived on the island their whole lives, discussing the subject of local unsolved mysteries. They tell her the story of the man they nicknamed the Colorado Kid, a young man who was found dead on the beach one early morning in 1980. The story revolves not only around identifying the man and finding out how he died, but also what he was doing there in the first place.

Due to the fact that the story is being told 25 years after it happened, there is no sense of urgency or danger, it’s just an interesting story. Although it’s not typical Stephen King fare, you can feel his writing come through – mainly in the description of the small town characters with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, and of course the fact that, like so many of his stories it is set in Maine.

It’s short – coming in at 180 pages, but in reality not even that, as my copy had a long introduction from the publisher, so the story itself actually started around 30 pages in, and there are several full-page illustrations of events throughout the book.

It’s not classic crime and it’s not one of King’s best, but as his books always do, it pulled me in and held my interest throughout. I also really liked the typically pulpy cover picture! Recommended to Stephen King fans as well as those who might not always enjoy his books, but like crime fiction.

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I first read this book when I was a teenager, and if I cast my mind back through the many years that have passed since, I’m fairly sure that at the time I thought it was a true story. It isn’t, but that doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the reading.

The story is, on the face of it, fairly simple. In Victoria, Australia in 1900, the students and two teachers as the prestigious Appleyard School for young ladies are preparing to go for a Valentine’s Day picnic at the famous landmark Hanging Rock. During the picnic, four of the students go off for a walk and only one returns, in a state of hysteria, and unable to recall what has happened to the other three young women. Also missing is one of the teachers.

The book explores the ripple effect of the disappearance and how it changed the lives even of people who were initially only on the periphery of the story, and illustrates how one event can have far reaching consequences. The disappearance itself happens in the first quarter of the book and the rest of the book deals with the after-effects.

I did enjoy this book very much, both times that I read it. There was a surprising amount of humour, or at least acerbic wit, but the main atmosphere is somewhat ethereal and dreamlike. My favourite characters were the coachman Albert Crundall and Madamoiselle De Poitiers, the French teacher who genuinely cared about her students.

It’s a short read (just under 200 pages) but an enjoyable one, and I would recommend it. I’d also like to see Hanging Rock for myself!

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This is the first novel I have ever read by French writer Michel Bussi, and it certainly drew me in quickly. It’s a thriller that definitely kept me guessing…

Martial and Liane Bellion are on holiday in the French island of Reunion when Liane goes missing after leaving the hotel pool to go up to their room. All evidence points to Martial having murdered her, and when he goes on the run, an island-wide manhunt is set up by the police in order to catch him. Beyond that it is difficult to say much without giving away spoilers, and this is a book that really deserves to be read spoiler-free.

On the whole I enjoyed it, as the writing was fast-paced and almost every chapter ended in a cliffhanger. The initial mystery was very intriguing and well put together. I also enjoyed reading about Reunion, a place which I admit I had never heard of prior to reading this, but I felt that the island almost became one of the characters in the story.

However, I did not feel that the main characters were particularly well fleshed out; I did like the police officer Christos and his girlfriend Imelda, but other than that the characterisation was thin. Not altogether a bad thing, as this is definitely a plot driven story, but I would have liked to have had someone to really root for.

Although I was absorbed in the story right until the end, I did feel that the ending itself was a bit of a let-down. This is probably because the story had started off and carried along at high-octane pace so the conclusion felt like an anti-climax; just my opinion and I suspect lots of readers will disagree with me.

One thing to note – some of the characters are told in third person and some are told from different characters’ points of view. This wasn’t a problem, and I generally enjoy multiple narrators but some readers may not like it.

Essentially this was a quick and enjoyable read, and I look forward to reading more by Michel Bussi.

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