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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

This book is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series – a set of modern retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays, by various acclaimed authors. Hag-Seed is a modern re-telling of The Tempest, and in the capable hands of Margaret Atwood, it is a triumph.

Felix Phillips is artistic director at the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, but is usurped by his traitorous assistant Tony, just as Felix is planning a staging of The Tempest. After hiding away and licking his wounds, Felix takes up a job teaching Shakespeare in a prison, and staging plays with the prisoners as the cast, but all the time he is plotting his revenge upon Tony and others who treated him unfairly.

It’s not necessary to know The Tempest to enjoy this book – you can definitely read it as a novel in its own right – but it is interesting to see how the two stories run parallel to each other. I actually think that if you were studying The Tempest, this book might help you understand it (because The Tempest is one of the most beautiful but also one of the most difficult to understand of Shakespeare’s plays in my very humble opinion).

As always with Atwood, the writing flows beautifully and there is dark humour sprinkled throughout. I loved reading about the prisoners and who taking part in the play came to mean so much to them. It’s a quick and fairly undemanding read, and I throughout enjoyed it.

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This is an audiobook narrated by Karen Cass, and is actually a collection of four books gathered into one.

The story starts with best friends Cat Garcia and Sadie Smart moving into their new business premises, Smart Cookies, in Castle Court, Chester. Castle Court is a three storey food court, where frankly I would be all the time if it were real and I lived nearby!

Sadie is recovering from a messy marriage break up and is moving on with her life, with daughter Lisa in tow. Cat meanwhile, was a top chef in a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, but for personal reasons has moved back to England to start Smart Cookies with Sadie.

They soon become part of the community at Castle Court, making friends – and a few enemies – amongst the other business owners, and maybe a hint of romance too. As you would expect. they have ups and downs, sometimes man related, other times not, but through it all their friendship remains solid as they navigate some choppy waters.

As far as chick-lit goes, this is an enjoyable book, although it definitely left me craving a plate of biscuits every time I listened to it, as there is quite a lot about the cookie making. I do sometimes find it annoying that smart, intelligent and independent women still have to have lives revolving around men, and that sometimes these women do stupid things which are clearly written in to move the plot forward. (No, chick-lit is not my favourite genre, but it’s easy listening while I’m out running, which is why I will choose it sometimes.)

Having said that, it’s got some lovely characters, and Castle Court itself sounds like a dream. Some parts were predictable – like who would end up with who for example, which was clear from the first few pages – but it was nicely written and one of the few books to feature a small child who was actually very lovable and not irritating.

Excellent narration by Karen Cass too.

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The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley have been living among humans since the beginning of time, and they quite like it. And despite being theoretical enemies, they quite like each other too. So neither of them really wants the world to end, but yet it must – next Saturday in fact, starting in a little village named Tadfield. Aziraphale and Crowley need to try and stop it, and fast! All this was predicted centuries earlier by Agnes Nutter, a witch who wrote a book of her predictions, and which one of her many descendants lives her life by. That descendant, Anathema Device, decides that she needs to try and stop the oncoming apocalypse.

Meanwhile, due to a clerical mixup, the young anti-Christ has gone missing, which only makes stopping the apocalypse more difficult. Chuck in a Witchfinder General and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse – now riding motorcycles, and with Pollution replacing Pestilence who has becoming large obsolete, and the stage is set for a huge showdown.

Unfortunately this book was a big disappointment to me. Let me say that I am probably not the target audience – I don’t generally like fantasy novels, apart from Stephen King, who is a very different type of writer to either Gaiman or Pratchett. I’ve never ready anything else by either of these two authors, and was largely tempted to buy this book due to the TV adaptation starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen (which I haven’t watched, but was intending to). But I still had high hopes, due to the amount of love for this book, online and offline. Even the man who served me when I bought the book, told me it was his favourite book of all time.

It started off quite well, and there is no doubt that one or both of these authors has a great sense of comedy – I laughed out loud a few times near the beginning and everything seemed to bode well. However, I think it got a bit too convoluted with too many characters, and too much going on, plus it kept jumping around a lot. This is also not the kind of comedy I enjoy – it’s like Monty Python on paper (even Monty Python’s The Life of Brian left me cold), and largely just daft.

So overall, definitely not for me. But if you are thinking of reading it, don’t be put off. This is a widely loved book by two very acclaimed authors, so you might absolutely love it.

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This was an audiobook narrated by Lisa Coleman, and is the seventh book in the DCI Tom Douglas series. I have previously listened to another book which is later in the series than this one, and while there are personal aspects of Tom’s life included in the storyline, it is easy enough to follow as a standalone novel, or if you do the same as me and read/listen out of order.

Tom and his team are called in to investigate when a young woman is found dead at a frozen lonely scene. Who is she, and how did she get there? Did she commit suicide or was she murdered? None of these questions are easily answerable.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Callie is trapped in a miserable relationship with an abusive and parasitic boyfriend. When she decides to travel to Myanmar to honour a promise to her grandfather, she befriends an older couple who take her under her wing, and help her realise that she needs to end things with Ian. But when she tries to do so, things take a sinister turn.

And in a lonely kitchen, two women sit and eat their meals in almost complete silence, trapped as they are in a prison of their own making. What are their stories and how did they arrive at this low point?

Slowly all the threads of the stories come together…

I’ll start with the good parts of this audiobook, including the narration. Lisa Coleman did an excellent job, and managed to distinctly voice all of the characters.

I also really like the character of Tom and all of his colleagues. They are believable and likeable – and deserve a better storyline than the one they had here.

Unfortunately the twists and turns in this book were so well signposted that the characters – Callie mainly as large parts of the book are told from her point of view – just end up coming across as unutterably stupid and naive. Without giving anything away, I wanted to shake her for putting up with her awful boyfriend, and then for her subsequent actions, which I won’t reveal here. Many of the characters apart from the officers – and maybe this is because the police characters have had several books through which to develop their characters – were like cardboard cut outs, and never easy to invest in. And there was a huge dollop of coincidence, which never rang true. I did listen to the end, but found myself underwhelmed by the conclusion, which left some strands of storyline hanging.

Despite all of the above, I would consider listening to more in the series, because the investigators were great, and according to other reviewers who have read the whole series, this is a particularly weak book compared to others. So maybe at some point I will pay another visit to Tom Douglas and co.

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Brian Bilston has been hailed the poet laureate of Twitter – a 21st century title if ever there was one! – and while I generally struggle with poetry, I have found his poems delightful, amusing, and utterly relatable. Here, he writes as a fictional version of himself, having decided that he is going to write a poem every day of the year, while also keeping a diary of his year. (The poems are all included in his diary, and while there are a minority of days when he doesn’t write one, he more or less keeps his resolution.)

The Brian Bilston of this story is a likeable character, with a sharp eye for life’s minutiae, and while he often writes about the mundanity of life, he always makes it highly enjoyable. He is also a genius at wordplay!

Brian and his wife Sophie have broken up and she has fallen for a new, indefatigably enthusiastic man; his relationship with his teenage son is strained; work is boring to Brian and he has no interest in it; the insufferable fellow poet Toby Salt is finding fame and fortune, much to Brian’s disgust – in fact the only bright spots in his life are his cat and Liz, the new lady at his poetry club, but he can’t seem to get things going with her.

As we follow Brian through his calamitous existence, there is a smile or laugh to be had on every page, even though much of the story is actually quite poignant, and there is a mystery element thrown in which was enjoyable, although probably not necessary. I found myself rooting for Brian throughout, although I sometimes wanted to give him a good shake as well.

Overall I would certainly recommend this book and I do hope that Mr Bilston releases another novel before too long.

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Having previously enjoyed Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ and bearing in mind the myriad of excellent reviews for ‘The Secret History’, I was looking forward to reading this, and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint.

The book is narrated by Richard Papen, a young man who leaves his dead end town in California to become a Classic Greek student at Hampden College in Vermont. He quickly becomes drawn into the friendship group of the five other students in his class. However, on the very first page of the book, before the story proper even really begins, we learn that things have taken a very sinister turn and five of the group have murdered one of their own.

Richard tells the story of what happened and why, from an undetermined time in the future, and in doing so describes the intricacies of the group’s relationships, everybody’s character flaws, and how their actions affect them all differently. It’s a murder mystery of sorts, but instead of being a whodunnit, it’s a whydunnit.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, especially the first half. At that point I thought that although it is only the first book I have read this year, it’s certain to be one of the best. I still feel that way, because even though things did slow down somewhat in the second half, I was still fascinated by it and looked forward to coming back to it each evening.

I’m somewhat surprised that this hasn’t been adapted into a film, as I could easily see it translating to the screen – if it ever is, I shall be in line to watch it. Meanwhile, if you haven’t read this yet, I highly recommend it.

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I listened to this audiobook, narrated by Philip Stevens, over the course of two weeks. The story is mainly narrated by Ed Collier, with chapters also told in the third person but showing the point of view of other characters.

When Ed and his wife Claire meet their daughter Abby’s boyfriend Ryan for the first time, Ed instantly distrusts him. He is shocked when Abby and Ryan announce that they are going to get married in just over a month, and he instantly determines to find out more about this stranger who has entered their lives, and get his daughter to at least postpone the wedding.

The bulk of the book mainly follows Ed’s investigations, with the last part being the culmination and consequences of what Ed does or doesn’t discover.

I liked the premise of the book, but unfortunately did not find that it lived up to its promise. Whether or not Ed was right about his suspicions (I’m not saying), his instant and extreme reaction seemed unbelievable. Based on literally nothing more than an uneasy feeling, Ed starts following Ryan and using underhand methods to discover more about him, even paying thousands to a private investigator.

The characters – even Ed, who narrates large parts of the book – never really seemed fleshed out or ‘real’ and it was hard to invest in any of them. Abby and Claire were bland, Ed was obsessive and Ryan was a cardboard cut out.

It’s a real shame because there was potential for a great story here. Still, lots of other reviewers online seem to have enjoyed it, so if this a genre you enjoy, you may want to give it a go.

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I’ve read this book before, but it was several years ago, after reading Bridget Jones’ Diary. I admit that when I reread the first book, I felt somewhat disappointed and wondered if I would feel the same way after rereading this one, the first sequel.

Bridget starts off this book in a good place. Happy relationship, good friendships etc etc, but naturally she can’t help screwing things up. Through a colossal and somewhat unbelievable series of misunderstandings, she and Mark end up splitting up (don’t these people ever actually just sit and TALK to each other).

As before, her friends Shazzer and Jude feature heavily and while they are both well meaning and loyal, they are also full of ridiculous advice. This books takes Bridget to such far flung shores as Rome and Thailand, sees her life threatened, and her having to live through several embarrassing and cringeworthy situations.

On the positive side, it’s an undemanding read – perfect for that strange week between Christmas and New Year when you have no idea what day it is, or what’s going on (which is when I read it) and Helen Fielding definitely knows how to write humour. I did on several occasions burst into giggles.

On the other hand, Bridget herself is – let’s face it – a hot mess. Living her life according to self-help books which usually contradict each other and only having herself to blame for lots of the problems that arise just made me frustrated. For example, at one point she gets the chance to fly to Italy and interview her favourite actor. Instead of preparing her questions beforehand, packing in advance and getting an early night the evening before she is due to fly, she fails to prepare anything, gets drunk the night before, doesn’t pack and therefore misses her flight, causing everything to need to be rearranged. She is always late for work and it’s always her own fault. So when people say that Bridget is relatable, I have to say – to WHO exactly?

So overall, a slightly frustrating experience rereading this. But not altogether unenjoyable. Maybe I’ll pick it up again in another 15 years and see what I think then.

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I do enjoy Hercule Poirot stories, and this Christmas themed one was perfect for this time of year. Simeon Lee, a cruel patriarch of his family, invites his four sons to spend the Christmas season with him. However, when he is found viciously murdered by having his throat cut, suspicion abounds as all four men have their own reasons for wanting him dead. The inimitable Poirot is called in to help with the investigation and he soon starts to uncover family secrets…

For me, this was one of the better Poirot stories – I enjoyed it a lot and crucially did not guess the ending which was very cleverly done. Poirot is as entertaining as ever, and it’s fascinating reading as all the clues come together. Also, it is set in one location with a small cast of characters, two things that I always enjoy.

If you are an Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot fan, or if you like classic British crime stories, I am sure this book would appeal to you.

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I like to read and listen to Christmas themed books at this time of year, so I chose to listen to this one while out on my runs during the lead up to Christmas (finished it on Christmas Eve, which was ideal).

It’s one of a series of books about DCI Jack Ryan, but it was the first one I had listened to/read. There are obvious references to previous books, but nothing that made it difficult to understand this one, and you could pretty much enjoy this as a standalone novella.

Ryan and his historian wife Anna, with their friends Frank and Mackenzie, who are also married, are on their way back from a short break when they get stranded by the snow and have to spend the night at England’s apparently most haunted castle, in Northumberland, with a motley crue of staff and other guests.

When a grisly murder occurs, the Ryan and co have to interrupt their holiday to investigate the crime. With everybody being snowed in, and nobody able to enter the premises, it is clear that the murderer is somebody already there, meaning that time is of the essence before another murder occurs.

I definitely enjoyed listening to this book. I enjoy mysteries set in one location with a small cast of characters, as this was. I also liked the DCI Ryan character and his friend Frank. Mackenzie and Anna were good characters, but I suspect I would have liked them more in print, as unfortunately the narrator Jonathan Keeble, while generally good, was TERRIBLE at female voices. The mystery itself was entertaining enough, a touch Agatha Christie-is (no bad thing) and I didn’t guess the ending. All in all, a likeable enough story and I would happily listen to more in this series.

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