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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Although marketed as a novel, this is really eight short stories most of which have two narrators, and all of which are linked by a writing desk. It spans decades and countries and is essentially about the secrets we hold within us, even from those closest to us, and how we often don’t know people half as much as we think we do.

Honestly, I wanted to like this so much, but I felt that I just did not end up getting it. A couple of the stores sort of held my interest, but I was bored by most of them and found them self-absorbed. It’s a shame because Nicole Krauss is obviously very capable of eloquent writing, but this felt repetitive – I get the point, there’s no need to keep repeating it – and most of the narrators had the same voice, with little to distinguish them as characters.

I need to get past the idea that once I start a book I have to finish it. Sometimes it’s okay to leave a book unread if you are not enjoying it, and I sort of wish I had with this one. I did enjoy the feeling of relief once I got to the end of it though.

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In Los Angeles in the late 1960s, brothers Billy and Graham Dunne form a rock band called The Six. At the same time, teenager Daisy Jones is discovering her identity, crashing clubs on the Sunset Strip, discovering drink and drugs, and sleeping with rock stars. She eventually becomes a singer and ends up joining The Six. The band went on to huge success and sell-out tours, until mid 1979, when they split up abruptly and without warning. Finally in this book the reasons behind their shock split are revealed.

This was the first book I read in 2022, and I think the third book I had read by this author (although the other two were audiobooks). I breezed through this one very quickly and if it wasn’t for things like eating and sleeping, I probably could have read it in one sitting!

Daisy Jones & The Six are a fictional band, but there were certainly bands like them around in the late 60s and 1970s. This book is written as a sort of interview with different band members and people around them, so the events described are sometimes told very differently by some characters, because of course memory is not always reliable and people always bring their own biases to the table. It’s a style of writing that not everybody will love, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I really liked seeing the development of the band, spotting things that were happening before the characters themselves were always aware, and watching tensions arise and relationships – good and bad – forming.

Daisy was definitely what you would call a hot mess. WAY too into the alcohol and drugs, and I feared for her. The rest of the band were very relatable and believable with their own distinct personalities. My favourite character was Camila, who was not actually in the band at all but is a very important character throughout. I didn’t always agree with her choices, but she is very much a friend that someone would want to have by their side.

Anyway, a fascinating story that moves apace to keep you interested together with characters that you can really invest in even if you don’t always like them make this a great read. Perfect for kicking off this year of reading.

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This book is a collection of essays about the transformative and healing power of running. Phil Hewitt has been a runner for many years, but after being mugged and stabbed in South Africa it became a kind of therapy for him.

Here he publishes the stories of many other people around the world who have also gone through their own trauma or tragedy, and who found solace through running.

I dipped in and out of this book, reading it between other, longer books, and for me that was the best way to read it, as I think if I had simply set out to read it from beginning to end, it could have brought me down somewhat. All the people featured have gone through something terrible, and as much as they have found a way of dealing with it, it’s still not always easy to read about.

As a runner myself, I can certainly attest to the therapeutic powers of the sport – especially in 2020 during the first Covid-19 lockdown, when I was on furlough and running was the one chance I got in the day to not screw my mind up with fear and worry about what was to come. However, I would say that yes, running is great – for SOME people. For others, it might be swimming or walking, or something non-physical like knitting or doing a jigsaw. And whatever it is that helps, if you are going through a particularly hard time, it probably won’t be enough on it’s own. (This book does state that, but it does veer towards putting running on pedestal.)

Phil Hewitt does write well, and also comes across as a thoroughly lovely man; however for me, I far preferred his book Keep on Running, about his addiction to marathon running, as it was just much more light-hearted than this one.

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I always like to read a Christmassy themed book at this time of year, and for 2021 I chose this book of short crime stories all set at Christmas time. The book is part of the British Library Crime Classics series and each story has a short biographical introduction about it’s author.

There are eleven stories in all, and as with any compilation, some are more enjoyable than others – and which are which will be down to the personal opinion of the reader. I particularly liked The Christmas Card Crime by Donald Stuart, Sister Bessie or Your Old Leech by Cyril Hare and Twixt the Lip and the Cup by Julian Symons (the last one was probably my overall favourite).

The book also features stories by Baroness Orczy, Carter Dixon, Francis Durbridge and others. Some are rather old fashioned and as such feel quaint or tame, but given when they were written this is only to be expected. I would have preferred a more Christmassy feel to most of them – some of the stories were deemed to be seasonal just because they were set in December or there was a bit of snow falling and in most cases, the season itself was irrelevant. Nonetheless, the book was an interesting diversion and for the most part very enjoyable.

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Imagine if Princess Diana had not died in a car crash in Paris, but had instead faked her death, changed her appearance and escaped to small-town America, to live a life free from the glare of publicity and gossip. That is the premise of Monica Ali’s novel untold story and as preposterous as it sounds, it is told in a way which makes it feasible.

Lydia Snaresbrook is a British woman living in a quiet town in America. She has made a small but close circle of friends, she has a job at a local dog rescue centre, and she has even started a relationship with a lovely man. However, she is never quite able to relax for fear that someone will find out her true identity, and she will once again become the focus of publicity. Only one person knew the truth about her death and that was her private secretary Lawrence. But then a face from the past comes to town and spots Lydia – and he thinks there is something very familiar about her indeed…

The story is told in chapters which alternate between Lydia’s point of view, and the point of view of a significant other character (no spoilers though) – both told in the third person. There are also a few chapters which are excerpts from her private secretary’s diary, which give insight into the state of mind which Lydia was in before, during and shortly after her disappearing act.

I really enjoyed the first 80%-ish of this book. Monica Ali writes beautifully and brings all her characters to life. She captures both the freedom and the fear of exposure that Lydia feels – freedom to finally live her life as she chooses, but all the while worrying about threats to that freedom. Bravely she portrays Lydia as a complicated woman, sometimes high-maintenance and difficult to deal with, but also having had to deal with tremendous pressure.

However, I did feel that the story took a strange turn towards the end and I was slightly disappointed in how it turned out. But I was interested throughout and I always enjoy when the same scene is shown from different points of view, which happens here several times.

Overall an enjoyable reading experience, and I would definitely read more by Monica Ali.

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I wasn’t entirely sure that I had picked the best time to read this book – after all it is about a global pandemic which brings about the collapse of civilisation and changes life as we know it for ever. And I read it during the current Covid-19 pandemic, just as the world was made aware of a new variant of the Coronavirus that is certain to become the dominant strain.

Nonetheless, I decided to give Station Eleven a go, having heard so many good things about it. The play opens in the present day, in a theatre in Toronto. Famous film star Arthur Leander is on stage playing King Lear, when he collapses and dies in front of the audience. On the same night, a deadly flu virus which comes to be known as the Georgia Flu, due to where it originated, starts sweeping the world, wiping out thousands of people every day.

Twenty years later, civilisation has collapsed. There is no electricity, there are no computers or mobile phones, cars and aeroplanes have become obsolete, and the world is no longer a safe place to live.

Kirsten, a child actor in Arthur’s King Lear play, who saw him die on stage, is now part of a travelling symphony – a group of musicians and actors who travel around the country performing Shakespeare plays and musical concerts. They face the possibility of danger and hostility at every turn but they are determined to survive.

The book alternates between the lives of Kirsten and the symphony, and Arthur’s life and rise to fame as well as his complicated love life. There are also several chapters centering on Arthur’s old friend Clark, who is determined to preserve the memories of the old world.

I’ll be honest, that when I started this book I was not at all sure I was going to enjoy it, and not just because of the reasons I mentioned at the start of this review. I initially found it difficult to invest in the descriptions of life 20 years after the pandemic; however, this story took hold of me and I ended up getting really drawn in, and I would say that this is definitely one of my favourite reads of 2021.

There are a large cast of characters, who we read about and then come back to later on in the story, and they were all so realistically drawn that I really cared about what happened to them. My favourite two characters were probably Jeevan (a somewhat peripheral character, maybe almost unnecessary character, but his part definitely added something for me) and Clark, who initially seemed like he would just be a background player, but ended up becoming central to the story.

Science fiction fans should be aware that this book does not fall into that genre. It’s definitely a dystopian novel, but it’s much more than that. It’s a book about appreciating what we have, remembering the beautiful things in life, and trying to remain humane to others during catastrophic times. It’s desperately sad in parts, but curiously uplifting at times.

I loved it, and highly recommend it.

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Originally published in Swedish, this book revolves around a curmudgeonly man named Ove, who is exasperated by – well, everything really. He just wants to be left alone in his misery and annoyance at the world, but then a young gregarious family move into the road and they are determined to befriend him. And that’s when Ove finds himself unwillingly drawn back into the community.

There’s so much more than the above to this story, but I don’t want to give too much away. I really enjoyed this story, and how it revealed Ove’s childhood and early youth, which explained why he is the way he is. His marriage to the vivacious Sonja seemed on paper like a match made in hell, but as the story progresses, the reader can see what Sonja saw and loved in Ove. He may be a grump but he has a strong sense of right and wrongs and is never afraid to stand up for what he believes in. Oh, and the cat! My favourite character of the lot!

There is lots to enjoy here, with plenty of humour, but also a lot of poignancy and sadness. I admire the author for going where I absolutely did not expect at the end, and I will definitely read more by Fredrik Backman.

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In the mid 1740s, a young Englishman named Richard Smith arrives in New York, a city in its infancy, with a money order for £1000. As none of the counting houses have that kind of cash available and as there are questions surrounding his honesty and the authenticity of the order, Mr Smith is obliged to wait in New York until the money can be raised and he can be proven to be trustworthy.

The reader is also kept in the dark about Mr Smith’s intentions – we don’t know if he is honest and we don’t know what he plans to do with the money, and we only find out the truth about both questions at the end of the book. No spoilers here though!

His presence in the city divides the people who live there – some believe him and like him, others are convinced that he is a liar and a cheat – and he finds himself in some dangerous and unsavoury situations – some of his own making and others in which he is an innocent party. There are a number of twists and turns along the way.

A curious one this, for me. I really struggled with some parts of it and found it difficult to maintain interest. But other parts were fascinating and exciting and I raced through them. There is a LOT of description about New York in the 1740s, which does really help to set the scene. Spufford also employs the use of language of the era, which could sometimes mean that it didn’t flow as easily as it might have. So all in all a bit of a mixed bag. I did like the main character of Mr Smith, but most of the other characters were not particularly well developed. There is a strong female character named Tabitha, who I wish could have been pleasant as well as strong and smart. She had a much more pliant sister, and I was reminded of Katherine and Bianca from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (although Katherine is more of a sympathetic character than Tabitha, who I just found unpleasant).

With all that said, there was a lot here to enjoy and I would consider reading more from this author.

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New York in the late 1960s, and the four young Gold siblings – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – are on their way to see a mysterious fortune teller who is said to be able to tell you the date you will die.

The novel then follows each sibling in turn, starting with the youngest (Simon) and ending with the oldest (Varya) as they grow up and live their lives, and how the prophecy each received affects their behaviour and choices. Simon moves to San Francisco to find love and adventure, Klara becomes an illusionist and magician but is a haunted soul. Daniel tries to make his place in the world a worthy one by becoming an Army medic, while Varya turns to science.

I’m not going to reveal spoilers here as this book deserves to be read with no idea of what’s going to happen. But it’s fair to say that if you knew the date you were going to die, would it affect the way you chose to live? And would the prediction you had received become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Anyway, I loved this book. I felt that each character was brought to life beautifully and was entirely believable. The four lives were very different, but the human emotions and feelings were so well written and described.

Despite the subject which was at times fairly heavy, the book never become clogged down or difficult to read. I enjoyed Simon’s section a lot and was sorry when it ended but then Klara’s part was just as good. The same with Daniel and Varya, both of whom could be difficult to like at times, but never difficult to invest in.

All in all, an excellent read, and I will definitely look out for more books by Chloe Benjamin.

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This is a novelisation of the 1993 film Philadelphia, which won Tom Hanks his first Academy Award. It’s important to note that the book is based on the film script rather than the film being adapted from the book, because when the book comes first there are usually at least some changes in the film. In this case however, the novel is quite literally a scene by scene story of the film, with the same dialogue throughout.

For anyone who isn’t aware, Philadelphia tells the story of a talented and successful lawyer named Andrew Beckett. He is gay and has full blown AIDS, which he has so far managed to keep to himself, his partner and family and his close friends. However, when the partners at the huge corporate law firm that he works at find out about his illness he is fired. Although they claim that it is due to the mediocre standard of his work, he is convinced that it is because of his illness and/or sexuality, and he decides to sue them. But finding a lawyer who will act for him in court proves difficult and he ends up hiring homophobic personal injury lawyer Joe Miller. Joe does not want to take the case because of his own prejudices, but his prevailing sense of fairness compels him to do so and now the two of them have to prepare for the biggest legal battle either of them have ever faced.

It’s virtually impossible to review the book without also reviewing the film, and while I have always considered both Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington to be superb in their respective roles in the film (Hanks is Andrew Beckett and Washington is Joe Miller), there are better films about HIV/AIDS crisis, and there are definitely better books about the subject.

Because the book is just a recap of the film, there is very little characterisation, because that all came through on screen. Consequently, all of the characters are basically cardboard cut-outs – Andrew is a brilliant and intelligent opera lover, Joe is a charismatic but prejudiced family man, Andrew’s partner Miguel is a hot-headed Spaniard. (Miguel’s character suffers the most from not being more fleshed out – I would have liked to have seen more about how he coped with his lover’s illness, in an emotional sense.)

The prose is certainly undemanding, despite the subject matter and I read the book very quickly. However, while it is perfectly functional, it never really does more than scratch the surface of the situation.

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