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October 17, 2013

Review - Life, Death and Vanilla Slices by Jenny Éclair

Jean is hit by a car on her way back from the shop with a box of vanilla slices. She always buys them when she wants to celebrate but what is the event that she is celebrating? Her grown-up daughter Anne, comes back home to care for her and they both have time and space away from their daily routines to reflect on their shared history and how their family was formed. Anne was her father's favourite, her sister Jess was her mother's. But when Dad died it got a bit lopsided, Mum, and I know it must have been hard for you because I think you did love me, it was just you liked Jess more. I'm glad I don't have a favourite with my boys, though to be honest, I don't like either of them much at the moment. The reason your parents make decisions may be based on things you knew nothing about; and children have inner lives that their parents cannot fathom. Jenny Éclair is one of my favourite Grumpy Old Women and a noted stand up comedian and this is her third novel. Some of the words from the reviews on the cover include unflinching, brilliantly sharp, black humour, brave, angry, melancholy, rich and honest. I agree with all of them. It made me think differently about being both a daughter and a mother. Wendy

October 16, 2013

Review - The Venetian Contract by Marina Fiorato

Feyra is a Turkish Muslim young woman from Constantinople, who has trained as a doctor but is on the run to Venice after the Sultan dies and his son inherits power. Their ship brings plague to Venice and Feyra takes refuge in the house of Palladio, the great architect, who has been contracted by the Doge to build a great church so that God will help Venice in her time of trouble. She is able to share the secrets of the great Islamic buildings in Constantinople with Palladio, which inform his designs. She then forms a professional working relationship with a Venetian doctor who has set up a hospital on an island where he can try new methods of combating the plague. This is an interesting time in medicine and the passages with Feyra and the doctor are the strongest. The author states that she wanted write a story about Palladio, but I think she has been taken over by her young heroine and the medical story. Although the different parts of the story do not really hang together well, you get an excellent feel for Venice in the late 1500s and a charming romance. Wendy

October 15, 2013

Review - Norwegian by night by Derek B. Miller

I was at first quite annoyed by Sheldon, the 82 year old slightly demented hero of this book but he surely grows on you. Sheldon has come to Norway to live with his grand daughter after his wife died. He has only been here a couple of weeks when there is a murder in their apartment and he goes on the run with a small boy because he isn't sure who may try to hurt him. We learn of Sheldon's war history and how he lost his son in the Vietnam war. He had wanted to fight for America because although European countries were based on tribes, America was based on an idea – an idea for all who came to the country to share regardless of their origin. The strands of family and belonging that cloud his remembrance as he navigates an unfamiliar land are built into an absorbing tale of love and loss. He is hunted by the police and by the killers but the journey also gives him a new view of his adopted country and its beauty of land and of people. There is a dramatic conclusion when all the strands come together. By the end, Sheldon has become exactly the romantic warrior hero he always pretended he wasn't albeit with arthritis and much reduced eye sight. It's worth persevering until he gets you under his spell. Wendy

October 13, 2013

Review - The Single Girl's To-Do List by Lindsey Kelk

This is a fluffy romp through modern romance. Rachel has been in a relationship with Simon that is comfortable and that she doesn't question. When he wants a break from their relationship, at first she is devastated but with the help of her two best friends, she makes a list of actions to enable her to take charge of her life. The ensuing adventures help all three of them understand just who is Mr Right for each of them. If you wanted to revitalize your own life, what would be on your list? Light entertainment for an idle afternoon Wendy

October 12, 2013

Review - The Black House by Peter May

Inspector Fin McLeod is returning home to assist with a murder inquiry to the Isle of Lewis off northern Scotland, a land of harsh beauty. He hasn't been back for many years. It was a brooding landscape that in a moment of sunlight could be unexpectedly transformed. Fin knew the road well, in all seasons, and had never ceased to marvel at how the interminable acres of featureless peatbog could transform by the month, the day, or even the minute. The dead straw colour of winter, the carpets of tiny white spring flowers, the dazzling purples of summer. To their right, the sky had blackened, and rain was falling somewhere in the hinterland. To their left, the sky was almost clear, the summer sunlight falling across the land, and they could see in the distance the pale outline of the mountains of Harris. Fin had forgotten how big the sky was here. When Fin grew up, the swings were chained up on a Sunday. The community was close-knit, united in a harsh and dour faith. Fin has escaped but never really left. The current investigation brings him back to where it all began. I particularly liked the way in which Fin comes to revise his thinking about his best friend and the school bully who made their lives miserable. An evocative probing of human failings and the long term effects of choices you make along the way. Wendy

October 10, 2013

Review - A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

I first read Alison Weir many years ago when I read her elegantly wonderful biography of Eleanor of Acquitaine. Her scholarship in English history is well respected and forms a firm foundation for her story telling skills. This is her fourth historical novel and it is the story of two girls who were close to the English throne, Kate Plantagenet, base born daughter of Richard III, in the 1480s and Lady Katherine Grey, cousin to Elizabeth I and sister of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, who was briefly put on the throne by Protestant sympathizers in the 1550s, prior to Mary I's ascension to the throne. At first I was a little confused as to who was who as the narrative shifts between the two girls and I needed to keep referring to the extensive family trees given at the front of the book. But fairly quickly, the two stories took shape, each Kate's voice became distinctive and the feeling of being right beside them developed. Period detail is excellent (especially the sumptuous clothes and the streetscenes) and her re-take on the mystery of the Princes in the tower, which exerts fascination to both Kates, is excellently imagined and described. Both girls love deeply but their fates are determined by their family connections and their dangerous closeness to the throne. Thoroughly recommended. Wendy

October 08, 2013

Review - Rush of Blood by Mark Billingham

Mark Billingham has a very good series featuring Inspector tom Thorne, but this is a stand alone which follows 3 English couples who meet on holiday in Florida. Shortly before they all fly home, a girl goes missing. She isn't found until weeks later and by then they have begun a series of dinners at each of the couples' homes. An inexperienced trainee detective constable is tasked with follow up interviews with the holiday makers and she notes some inconsistencies in their accounts. Then a girl goes missing in England and suddenly a Trans-Atlantic investigation is underway. Billingham does a good job of revealing the personalities and the stresses affecting them. More than one person has opportunity but who has the motive. It culminates in a shocking discovery and a death. A very well constructed thriller and a page turner. I didn't guess it although I was on the right track. Wendy

October 06, 2013

Review - The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson

This is a short but difficult book to come to grips with. Set in the 1600s in the height of the witch mania which has blighted our western history, Winterson evokes the hard conditions afflicting the poor and dispossessed. Scratching a living on the margins of society and with no-one to speak for them, the characters in this novel who find themselves locked up and awaiting trial for witchcraft live through dreadful travails. By the end of it though, I didn't find any character I could care about. Just about everyone was rather wretched. It feels historically accurate largely due to her sure usage of local dialect and sure hand with the living conditions but I'm not really sure why Winterson has told the story? What do you think? Wendy

October 05, 2013

Review - The Truth by Michael Palin

Palin's second novel is the story of an ageing writer who yearns for success and he is planning his great novel when he is offered the biography of one of the world's heroes, a humanitarian and environmental activist, Hamish Melville. This is a thoughtful and layered look at fame and how it is used and abused. If you seek after truth, whose truth are you seeking? Keith's adventures in following his subject eventually lead him to understand himself. I enjoyed this book. Wendy

October 04, 2013

Review - Taboo by Casey Hill

Reilly Steel, which has to be one of the most deliciously imagined names for a detective heroine, is a forensic expert who has been trained by the FBI but finds herself living in Dublin, where she has moved in order to be closer to her father. There is a frisson of cross cultural conflict as she adjusts to the Irish way. Contrary to expectation, Dublin provides a series of murders which she solves with the help of Detective Chris Delaney. A nice amount of revealing depth about the detectives and an intricately plotted whodunit. It feels a little light but mysteries come in all shapes and sizes. Wendy

October 02, 2013

Review -Scream by Nigel McCrery

DCI Mark Lapslie has an intriguing neurological condition – synaesthesia – which means he experiences a taste sensation when he hears sounds. The tastes are not at all related to the sound and may be pleasant or nasty. The story involves his condition in an intricate plot where a tape of a woman screaming is the only clue that the police have to go on. Why does she scream 27 times before she dies and who else has gone missing? This is a well written, competent police procedural but be warned there are very gruesome murders. Wendy

Review - Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

The Number 1 Detective Agency series by this author is rightly acclaimed but I think I prefer the Scotland Street series with its gentle musing on modern manners and the perennial problems of human nature. The gentle skewering of middle class pretensions continues as does the warm understanding of people's individual worries and concerns. McCall Smith is witty and engaging as Bertie and his neighbours and friends have another series of adventures. Pure bliss. Wendy