Elizabeth's Book Reviews

February 28, 2015

CRUCIAL EVIDENCE by Margaret Barnes

Filed under: Book Review,Crime,Novels — by elizabethducie @ 8:25 am

Crucial EvidenceIt’s taken me a while to get around to reading this debut novel by Margaret Barnes. Not because I didn’t want to, but because we are members of the same Writing Circle and acted as ‘writing buddies’ while we were working on our respective novels. So I knew the story already and I wanted to have a break from it and come to it afresh. And I’m really glad I did.

Crucial Evidence is a great read on a number of counts: the courtroom setting, with its attention to detail on the legal process makes a nice change from the more usual police procedural crime novels; the build-up of tension in the closing chapters made it difficult to put down; and the growing relationship between the two female protagonists sets the scene for what will hopefully be more in the series. I look forward to reading more about Cassie Hardman and Alex Seymour.

 

You can find Margaret’s book on Amazon by clicking here.

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June 2, 2014

CROSSING QALANDIYA by Daniela Norris and Shireen Anabtawi

Filed under: Book Review,Non-fiction — by elizabethducie @ 8:32 am

Crossing Qalandiya officialThe early bonds of friendship were forged between Daniela Norris and Shireen Anabtawi before they had time to realise they were, or should be, ‘enemies’. Daniela is Israeli while Shireen is Palestinian. While they could meet in a neutral setting like a party in Geneva, where they were both working at the time, it would not be possible for them to spend time together when they returned to their respective homelands.

Crossing Qalandiya is a beautifully-written book, taking the form of a series of letters between the two women over a period of eighteen months in 2008 and 2009, charting the development of their friendship, exploring the differences and similarities of their cultures and containing some wonderful details like how they met their husbands; the relationships with their mothers-in-law; and the eternal question for every parent: what are we going to do to keep the kids occupied throughout the long summer holidays?

But underlying the domestic and the comfortable is a deeper exploration of the divide between their two peoples, its causes and its implications. The two women bombard each other with questions: in one letter, Shireen asks: Do you Israelis really think that we Palestinians are all cruel criminals? And in another, Daniela says: …both of us are paying the price for the mistakes that have been made in the past…How long are we going to continue paying this price. And when does this price become too heavy to bear?

Their questions are answered, sometimes in the next letter; sometimes a while later. Neither woman compromises her belief in the justness of her cause, but gradually they begin to sift the truth from the misinformation and separate the views and actions of the few from the behaviour of the many.

I was brought up on a diet of Daily Express stories portraying the Israelis as the victims and the Arabs as the aggressors. Then I worked briefly in Ramallah and travelled many times to Jordon; my views were turned completely on their heads as I saw for myself the reality of life for Palestinians either in their homeland or in exile. When I began reading this book, I could probably describe myself as being ‘on Shireen’s side’.  But as the relationship between the two women develops, so does their understanding of each other’s situations and the reader is reminded of the old saying about there being two sides to every story.

I was lucky enough to see Daniela and Shireen talk about their friendship and the writing of this book at the Ways with Words festival in Dartington a couple of years back. Despite being novices on the literary circuit, they greatly impressed the packed auditorium with the simplicity and humility of their presentation. More than 60 copies of the book were snapped up within minutes of the talk finishing, out-selling more well-known authors appearing at the same festival.

To some people, the thought that a conversation between two women can ever lead to an improvement in such an intractable problem as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a naive one. But by talking to each other, asking questions, and putting right miscommunications and misunderstandings, Daniela and Shireen are making a start. The over-riding impression I got from reading this book is hope, a hope that even the terrible sights on our television each night cannot completely snuff out.

[5* review]

 

May 5, 2014

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY

Filed under: Book Review,Comedy,Family Saga,Novels,Philosophy,Realism,Romance — by elizabethducie @ 8:05 am

Harold FryAt the start of this book, we see Harold Fry sitting at the breakfast table “freshly shaved, in a clean shirt and tie”.  He thinks “he might like to go out, but the only thing to do was mow the lawn and he had done that yesterday.” His wife Maureen is hoovering before breakfast. In these simple domestic scenes, we learn a lot about this elderly couple and their relationship, since he is retired, yet still makes the effort to dress as though going to work and she is obsessive about everything being just right.

Harold receives a letter from an old work colleague, Queenie Hennessy who is dying in a hospice. She “is writing to say goodbye.” Harold pens a reply, goes out to post it, but decides to deliver the letter personally — and on foot — instead. The fact that Harold lives in Kingsbridge in Devon while the hospice is hundreds of miles away in Berwick on Tweed do not deter him; nor that he has no suitable footwear, waterproof clothing, map or mobile phone. Harold Fry is one of life’s innocents. There are things he is able to do simply because he doesn’t realise he can’t to do them.

The journey of 627 miles takes 87 days. Harold walks much of it alone, relying on the help and kindness of strangers. At one point he attracts a follower, then a group, who walk with him, and for a short time he becomes a sort of guru, albeit an unwilling one. But in a wonderful commentary on modern life and the cult of celebrity, his followers turn on him and he is alone once more.

Occasionally, we leave Harold on his walk and spend time with Maureen, whose world slowly unravels as she feels her husband moving further away from her, both physically and mentally. The clues to their relationship, and that with their son David, are gradually uncovered.

There are many reasons for picking one book to read out of all the millions of options. This debut novel by successful playwright Rachel Joyce had much to recommend it: it received excellent reviews; it was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize; I was given enthusiastic word of mouth recommendations including one from my husband; and it happened to be on the bookshelf when I was looking for something to read. But above all, I wanted to read it because Harold’s journey takes him through Chudleigh, the town we now call home. In fact, he stays the night there, although the experience is dismissed in a single sentence! But by then I was completely gripped by the story. It took 95 pages to get from Kingsbridge to Chudleigh, a distance of merely 30 miles. Yet the book is less than 400 pages in total. As the journey continues, we move from detailed description of surroundings and minutiae of daily life to a more broad-brush viewpoint, mirroring Harold’s mental state.

I was going to finish by saying this book made me cry; but as someone who goes dewy-eyed at everything from Bambi to the John Lewis Christmas adverts, that’s not saying much. In fact, this book made me sob, but in a good way. It is beautifully-written with realistic characters and great dialogue; funny, charming, and occasionally sad but never depressing. The ending is wonderful. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Out of 5 stars, it gets at least a 6.

THE ACCIDENTAL APPRENTICE by Vikas Swarup

Filed under: Book Review,Comedy,Conspiracy Theory,Novels,Realism,Thriller — by elizabethducie @ 8:03 am

Accidental ApprenticeSapna Sinha has already seen more than her fair share of tragedy and hardship. The eldest daughter in a family of three, she has lost one sister and her father. She is the breadwinner and mainstay of the rest of her family: an ailing mother and a self-obsessed younger sister. When she is approached by one of the country’s richest men and offered an unbelievable opportunity, she is naturally sceptical. But circumstances conspire to draw her, against her will, into his scheme. She is told if she can pass seven tests from ‘the textbook of life’, she will become CEO of his company.

What follows is a thrilling, fast-paced chronicle of six months in Sapna’s life. She is challenged, overcomes obstacles, makes friends and discovers enemies. The ending is ingenious and although I picked up some of the clues along the way and guessed some of the minor points correctly, I was completely surprised by the final twist.

Like most people, I have heard of Slumdog Millionaire and enjoyed the film. However, I had never read Q & A on which it is based. The Accidental Apprentice is Vikas Swarup’s third book and I suspect it is also heading for a film adaptation. Writing in the first person as a member of the opposite sex is not easy, but Swarup presents Sapna’s voice beautifully. We travel with her on her journey of discovery and self-development. We meet some great characters along the way. My favourite was the kleptomaniac Gandhian, Nirmala Ben. The vision of modern-day India is as believable as it is shocking.

This is one of those ‘can’t put it down’ books. I read it late into the night and then woke early in the morning to read the closing chapters. Highly recommended.

5* review.

February 24, 2014

BAD MOTHERS UNITED by Kate Long

Filed under: Book Review,Comedy,Novels,Romance — by elizabethducie @ 2:54 pm

Bad Mothers United“It’s just been a really shit year, Mum.” I doubt there’s many of us who can’t identify with a comment like that.

I spent a lot of this book wishing the main characters would behave differently. I wanted Karen to be less of a doormat, stand up for herself and act more like someone in her thirties than in her sixties. And I certainly wanted her daughter Charlotte to be less self-centred, more understanding of what her mother was doing for her. But that was the whole point: Kate Long’s characters are irritating because they are so well-drawn; we’ve all met Karen and Charlotte at some point.

And then at 93% through the book [I’m afraid Kindle doesn’t do page numbers], there is a wonderful episode that puts the whole mother-daughter scenario into perspective. One of Karen’s thoughts in particular had me punching the air, shouting ‘YES!’

I loved the other key characters, especially Steve, Daniel and Walshie, although I wasn’t too sure about Eric. I’ve never been a mother, which may be why Will and Kenzie didn’t engage me as much as I suspect they were supposed to, but I have been a daughter all my life – and this book sang to that part of me. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

[4* review]

 

TIDEWATER MURDER by C Hope Clark

Filed under: Book Review,Novels,Thriller — by elizabethducie @ 2:18 pm

Tidewater MurderThis is the second in the Carolina Slade series of mysteries and anyone who’s read my review of Lowcountry Bribe will know how highly I rate Hope’s writing (not to mention the generous support she gives to writers everywhere). Her second novel does not disappoint.

Carolina Slade is moving home, with her two children, hoping to leave behind memories of a bad husband who turned out to be really dangerous. A call from co-worker and friend Savvy pitches Slade into another mystery, more danger and further trouble with friends, colleagues and part-time lover, Special Agent Wayne Largo.

Slade is impetuous, fiercely defensive of her friend – even when the evidence all points to Savvy being involved in crooked deals – and at times, downright irritating. But I guess that’s the point. Hope doesn’t write boring characters; she invents real-life, flawed individuals, then throws them into exciting situations. Another great read, highly recommended.

[4* review]

 

February 18, 2014

CHARTON MINSTER TRILOGY by Margaret James

Filed under: Book Review,Family Saga,Novels,Romance — by elizabethducie @ 11:20 am

Charton Minster 2I’d previously read and loved The Wedding Diary so I knew I was in for a treat with this trilogy of early twentieth century novels from Margaret James. As the title suggests, all three are set around a main location, although the action ranges widely, both in UK and beyond.

Charton Minster is a house in Dorset, where Rose Courtenay is born. The Silver Locket tells the story of  the repercussions of her love for Alex Denham against the backdrop of WWI.

In The Golden Chain, the Denhams return from living in India, although Charton Minster is forbidden to them; Daisy Denham meets Ewan Fraser and opts for the precarious life of an actress during the 1920s and 1930s.

In The Penny Bangle we have reached WWII. Daisy’s brothers, Robert and Stephen are now grown men, helping their parents to train land girls to replace the brothers who are about to go back to war. Young Cassie Taylor is one such land girl, a townie who is quickly, if somewhat reluctantly, drawn into the Denham family dramas.

Margaret James develops wonderfully rounded and flawed characters and each of the pairings works very well, although I found I had a special empathy with Cassie, probably since we are both Brummies brought up in devout catholic families.

I normally mix up the books I read: classic followed by fantasy; romance followed by thriller; but here, I broke my own rule and read all three novels one after another – and enjoyed every moment.

[5* review]

BLOOD ON THE BULB FIELDS by Judith Cranswick

Filed under: Book Review,Novels,Thriller — by elizabethducie @ 10:32 am

Blood on the Bulb FieldsThis is the first Fiona Mason mystery and is a promising start, based on an original idea. Recently-widowed, Fiona takes a job with Super sun Tours and is thrown in at the deep end from day one when the courier she is supposed to be shadowing is taken ill. Fiona finds herself leading a tour of Holland; trying to avoid admitting it is her first assignment; dealing with difficult clients; and the odd murder or two along the way.

I have to admit to guessing who the chief baddie was quite early on (too much Poirot and Miss Marple, I suspect) but there were enough twists in the plot for my interest to be held right to the end.

I once planned to write a novel based on a tour guide, as it gives good reason for characters to be in specific places at specific times. It looks like Judith Cranswick has beaten me to it – and has a whole series on the way. I will certainly be reading more, if only to see if Fiona meets the mysterious Montgomery-Jones again.

[4* review]

PAULA by Isabel Allende

Filed under: Book Review,Memoir,Non-fiction — by elizabethducie @ 10:12 am

PaulaThis book is written in the form of a letter by the author to her daughter who is in a coma for a period of twelve months. It could have been very harrowing – and indeed there are some harrowing moments – but overall, it is an optimistic book, telling in parallel the story of Paula’s illness and Isabel’s life: her birth in 1940s Chile; her parents” short-lived marriage; growing up under the influence of various eccentric relatives and the upheaval and exile associated with sharing her surname with the Marxist politician who led the country prior to the military coup in 1973. We follow Allende to Venezuela and finally to America where she meets her second husband.

There are some very funny episodes: I loved the stories her stepfather Tio Ramon tells his grandchildren; and the way she bluffs her way into journalism. I found the overview of Latin American politics interesting. However, I enjoyed less the touches of magical realism and found the sexual awakening of an 8 year old Allende unconvincing.

Isabel Allende is not an author I’ve read before. I rarely read non-fiction, especially memoirs, and bought Paula only because it is the featured work for my book club. However, I’m glad I did and it has encouraged me to search out some of her fiction too.

[4* review]

WANT TO KNOW A SECRET by Sue Moorcroft

Filed under: Book Review,Novels,Romance — by elizabethducie @ 9:38 am

Want to Know a Secret Moorcroft

When Diane Jenner is told about the accident in which her husband has been seriously injured, she thinks ‘car’. Learning he was actually in a helicopter at the time is only the first of a series of surprises she is about to receive: a family, a second home, a loaded bank balance…and there’s more. As Gareth recovers and the story unfolds, we see Diane growing in strength and gradually taking control of her life – a life very different from the one she had been living.

But, as with all Choc Lit books,  we also see life from a male perspective, through the eyes of her newly-discovered brother-in-law James. Occasionally we look through the eyes of James’ troubled daughter Tamzin, whom Diane befriends. A great mix of viewpoints that sit together well but also show different aspects of the same series of events.

I read this book in less than twenty-four hours and thoroughly enjoyed it. Moorcroft develops her characters very well and always has a twist up her sleeve when the plot starts to follow a well-worn path. Even the last few pages held one more unexpected situation – and the closing lines are inspired.

[4* review]

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