July 28, 2014

Book Review - The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Told from the point of view of Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, the work takes place years after the crucifixion. She lives in hiding, with the only people aware of her identity and location being two of her son’s followers, whom she deems “misfits”. She recounts her perspective of her son’s life and death, while she fends off her “captors”, who are in the process of writing the Gospels.
There is a hint of Life of Brian (1979), as for Mary her son is not the messiah, he’s just a… well, you all know the line. He is one of many rabblerousers discontent with the current order, expressing ideas and thoughts as yet unimagined.
The language is unrelentingly modern and pessimistic. In fact, many reviewers have taken issue with the work’s depiction of Mary as a harsh, cynical, and cowardly old woman who condemns the change she witnesses in her son and runs before the moment of his death in order to save herself from a similar fate. But the actual text is far more sympathetic, more disparaging. True, this is not the sanctified Mary of the church, but nor is she a vile old crone. Her pessimism is not from hate, but sorrow.
A dirge of a lost life and a world destroying itself, the Testament of Mary is as enthralling as it is plaintive. 

July 24, 2014

Book Review - You're Mine Now by Hans Koppel

A middle aged woman has sex with a younger man she meets at a conference. Liking the excitement, she doesn't say no to further encounters but when she does finally say no, he won't let her go. It might have been a randomly idle fling for her, but she won't know until it is too late, why he chose her. Infiltrating her work, her family life and threatening her with scandal, Anna cannot make him go away. Then the pressure goes up when first her mother and then her daughter are taken. A very good argument for fidelity because crazy stalkers don't always seem that different to 'normal' people…. Until it's too late! Wendy

Book Review - The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell

The next in the story of Uhtred and the complicated politics and battles of Dane vs Saxon after King Alfred, to see whether England would be Englaland (sic) or Daneland). Historical action with visceral battle scenes and lyrical writing. I love the whale's path, the long waves, the wind flecking the world with blown spray, the dip of a ship's prow into a swelling sea and the explosion of white and the spatter of saltwater on sail and timbers, and the green heart of a great sea rolling behind the ship, rearing up, threatening, the broken crest curling, and then the stern lifts to the surge and the hull lunges forward and the sea seethes along the strakes as the wave roars past. I love the birds skimming the grey water, the wind as friend and as enemy, the oars lifting and falling. I love the sea. I have lived long and I know the turbulence of life, the cares that weigh a man's soul and the sorrows that turn the hair white and the heart heavy, but all those are lifted along the whale's path. Only at sea is a man truly free. P.53 I have tried to explain this to women, though few have understood. Gisela did, as did Athelflaed, but most have looked at me as if I was something disgusting when I talked of the joy of battle. It is disgusting. It is wasteful. It is terrifying. It stinks. It makes misery. At battle's end there are dead friends and wounded men, and pain, and tears, and awful agony, and yet it is a joy. The Christians talk of a soul, though I have never seen, smelt, tasted or felt such a thing, but perhaps a soul is a man's spirit and in battle that spirit soars like a falcon in the wind. Battle takes a man to the edge of disaster, to a glimpse of the chaos that will end the world, and he must live in that chaos and on that edge and it is a joy. We weep and we exult. Sometimes when the nights draw in and the cold days are short, we bring entertainers to the hall. They sing, they do tricks, they dance, and some juggle. I have seen a man tossing five sharp swords in a swirling, dazzling display, and you think he must be cut by one of the heavy blades as it falls yet somehow he manages to snatch it from the air and the blade whirls upwards again. That is the edge of disaster. Do it right and you feel like a god, but get it wrong and it will be your guts trampled underfoot. P 289 Wendy

July 23, 2014

Book Review - Strange Shores by Arnaldur Indridason

Police Detective Erlendur is on leave and returns to the area of his childhood in the countryside in the east of Iceland. Cold and harsh, the landscape has been the scene of his greatest childhood trauma – losing his 8 year old brother in an unexpected blizzard. Erlendur seeks answers not only to his own story but also to a mystery of a missing woman, lost in the snow many years before. Mystery novels take many shapes and this is far from a straight forward police procedural. The landscape and the weather are part of the story. Age and memory haunt many characters and the cold is visceral. Did the mystery of his brother's loss influence his becoming a policeman? Why can't he leave a mystery alone? Why do we need answers? Indridason remains one of my favourite authors. Wendy

July 21, 2014

Book Review - Christmas at the Cupcake Café by Jenny Colgan

Christmas at the Cupcake Café by Jenny Colgan This is one of the better ones of recent offerings which combine recipes with a romantic story. Isabel (Issy) Randall has a cupcake store which is doing well and a collection of staff and friends going through various problems – divorce, parenting etc. Her boyfriend, Austin has the chance of a great career move but it is to New York – all the way across the Atlantic. How will Issy and Austin work through this issue and will they end up together and if so, where? Pleasantly charming, light entertainment including some lovely younger characters. Wendy

July 19, 2014

Book Review - A Darkness Descending by Christobal Kent

Sandro Cellini and his wife Luisa are wise and kind people. Sandro is a private investigator and is caught up in the mysterious collapse of a left wing politician and the disappearance of the politician's defacto wife. At the same time, Chiara, the daughter of their friends, moves out with a mystery boyfriend. Sandro and Luisa each try to help their friends and clients but in the end, people will do what they do for both simple and complex reasons. Death comes. "Some people were able to sidestep a death as if with a practiced movement – nothing to do with them, they were alive. But for most it stood in their path a long time, like a beggar with his hand out. And when they managed to edge past death, even if they never turned around, they knew it would still be there, watching." Christobal Kent in fine from with this latest outing for Sandro et al. Wendy

July 17, 2014

Book Review - Just One Evil act by Elizabeth George

This is an Inspector Lynley story but it truly belongs to his sidekick DS Barbara Havers. Barbara, the shambolic, Barbara the determined and Barbara the passionate are all invoked her as she desperately tries to help her friend and neighbour Azhar, who is trying to get his daughter back. Barbara will be pushed to the limit of her professional ethics and her unacknowledged love for Azhar and for his daughter, Haddiyah, the nine year-old at the centre of the plotting and counter-plotting. This is a dense and complex novel yet immensely readable. At 700 pages, you need to set aside some decent time but you will be rewarded. George knows her characters intimately and she introduces the Italian countryside and some marvelous Italian characters in weaving this story. I was going to say it contains many shades of grey rather than just being black and white – I think I will anyway and try to reclaim the phrase! Wendy

July 15, 2014

Book Review - The Giving Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

This is a gentle novel but it doesn't shy away from serious and difficult topics. This is the second of the Elm Creek Quilts novels I have read. They don't need to be read in any order as they all involve people coming and going from a quilting centre – some of the stories are about ongoing characters and some are not. They are female in their concerns and orientations although an open minded male would no doubt enjoy them also. This setting is a quilt retreat for Thanksgiving where women come together to learn and share quilting techniques and to create quilts for charity. It is common for there to be a charitable element in any gathering of crafty people as we see in Camden with our Wrap with Love blankets, our Christmas stocking for the Hospital auxiliary etc. Each of the women who come to the retreat has their own story and we explore a couple of them including the cheerleader who has had a critical fracture, the wife who became a coach to help the school's team in a challenge where other teams cheated and the woman who didn't get a job at the Elm Creek centre when she applied some time before. Life events are often upsetting but there is comfort in helping each other through them. Wendy

July 13, 2014

Book Review - Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Another intriguing legal thriller by the master. Why did Seth Hubbard, an anti-social businessman leave 90% of his considerable estate to his housekeeper of three years? Struggling street lawyer, Jake Brigance, lands the second great case of his career in being appointed attorney for Seth's estate. The estranged family are outraged and packs of lawyers circle like hungry sharks when the true extent of his estate – over $20 million - is revealed. A court case ensues and there are many surprises in store for Jake and his support crew. Masterly plotted entertainment with a tragic twist in the tail. Wendy

July 11, 2014

Book Review - Blood Song: Born for Battle, Bred for War by Anthony Ryan

I try not to read new series until they are all published because I don't like to wait for the next installment but I'm glad I broke my rule for this one. It contains all the classic elements of the fantasy genre and they are put together in a very classy way. A young boy, Vaelin Al Sorna, is sent by his father to a warrior monk's enclave after his mother's death. He hates his father for this but commits himself to this future. With a group of companions, he endures training and hardship, forging links of steel within his cohort. By the end of this book, we have learnt more of why his father acted as he did and that it was not as black and white as Vaelin first thought. We understand a little more of the personal, political and religious forces at work. We have met several enigmatic and significant women and we have endured with Vaelin and his companions through physical and moral challenges. The author has followed the best examples in fantasy writing in introducing the world of the book to our consciousness slowly, as the boy, Vaelin, learns about it himself. No worrying about who is related to whom or what the social mores are, we learn about them through the action of the story. Each element of the story adds seamlessly to our knowledge of the complexity of this world. This is excellent and I can't wait for the next one.

July 09, 2014

Book Review - Loss of Innocence by Richard North Patterson

June 1968. USA. Whitney is the daughter of privilege and engaged to be married to an acceptable suitor, when she meets a charismatic and unsettling boy from the wrong side of the tracks. A social conscience is not necessarily encouraged in her social set, but the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and the general turmoil of social, class and racial upheaval, act as a catalyst in changing her future. More reflective than his earlier books, this is an assured and confident novel. Wendy

July 07, 2014

Book Review - Perfect by Rachel Joyce

This is by the author of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' which I totally adored. This is good .. perhaps not as good for me as Pilgrimage was. The stories are not connected but what does link them is the author's consideration of what can happen when a life is derailed by a single incident, especially for people who are detached from a close social circle for whatever reason. Her descriptions of place and her uncanny use of each character's voice are superb, as are her gentle and penetrating observations. "It occurred to Byron that over the summer holidays Diana had become someone else. She was not like a mother anymore. At least not one who told you to clean your teeth and wash behind your ears. She had become someone who was maybe more like a friend of your mother's or her sister; if only she'd had either of those. She had strayed into being someone who understood it was not always pleasant or interesting to keep cleaning your teeth or washing behind your ears, and turned a blind eye when you chose not to do them. It was a gift to have a mother like this. He was lucky. But it was also unsettling. It left him feeling slightly out in the wind, as if a wall had fallen down that was something to do with why things kept going. It meant he wanted to ask sometimes if she had remembered to clean her own teeth or wash behind her ears." Wendy

July 05, 2014

Book Review - Tempting Fate by Jane Green

Gabby has a satisfyingly normal suburban life which she thinks is enough and more than she ever dreamed she would have until she meets someone and has a fling. This careless action has consequences that affect everyone in her life. The fallout is handled believably but the ending maybe a little too convenient? Not up to her usual standard but a well-realised set of characters were pleasant to spend some time with. Wendy

July 03, 2014

Book Review - Deadline by Sandra Brown

Dawson Scott is a journalist suffering from PTSD after a tour in Afghanistan with the US troops. He is not trying very hard to get along with his editor who wants him to do fluffy human interest stories, when his godfather, Gary Headly, a nearly retired FBI agent, sends him to cover a bizarre murder case. The main witness for the prosecution, Amelia Nolan, attracts him and he is interested in the potential for one of the murder victims, her ex-husband, to be still alive. There is a DNA link to an FBI cold case, the one who got away from Headly many years ago. It's all fairly implausible but Sandra Brown ratchets up the suspense and the love interest and throws in enough twists and turns to keep you turning the page. Wendy

July 01, 2014

Book Review - Seven Elements that have Changed the World by John Browne

The author joined BP in 1966 and ended up as Group Chief Executive from 1995 to 2007. Here he provides a potted history of the seven elements that he has selected as world changers: iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon. This is a very interesting book but one to be read in small stages rather than all in one gulp. His views as an industry insider on coal seam gas are fascinating and it is certainly interesting to hear how the major energy players get to sit down with political leaders to discuss business. It's that important! His exploration of these elements is more than that, however, and full of interesting facts. For example, titanium was first isolated by an English clergyman chemist in 1791 but not put to real use until 1910. Later, when its lightness and strength were used for an aircraft that could fly high and evade radar in the late 50s, they made a frame that had to withstand such high temperatures and consequent large expansion at altitude, that on the ground there were such large gaps that it's fuel tank leaked. Before Silicon Valley, the glass blowers of Murano Island in Venice were so important to the Venetian economy, that any glass blower who left and took their trade secrets would have remaining family members executed in an attempt to frighten them into staying. The Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (1682) was not only a demonstration of vast wealth, it was cutting edge technology in the latest mirror manufacture. And many more stories are of good general interest. Not the most readable book, but it does reward you. Wendy