Friday, 1 December 2017

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

Publication date: 6th November 2001
Published by: DoubleDay

Publisher's synopsis
Imagine a year without Christmas. No crowded malls, no corny office parties, no fruitcakes, no unwanted presents. That’s just what Luther and Nora Krank have in mind when they decide that, just this once, they’ll skip the holiday altogether. Theirs will be the only house on Hemlock Street without a rooftop Frosty; they won’t be hosting their annual Christmas Eve bash; they aren’t even going to have a tree. They won’t need one, because come December 25 they’re setting sail on a Caribbean cruise. But, as this weary couple is about to discover, skipping Christmas brings enormous consequences–and isn’t half as easy as they’d imagined.

A classic tale for modern times, Skipping Christmas offers a hilarious look at the chaos and frenzy that have become part of our holiday tradition.

My Review

Skipping Christmas is an alternative look at the festive occasion.  Here is a couple who have decided, in order to get through their first Christmas without their daughter (who has grown up and left the nest and is spending time overseas), to skip Christmas and use the money they will save to go on a Caribbean Cruise.

The story shows just how difficult it is to withdraw from Christmas for someone who habitually celebrates it.  It is fine if it is against your religion, so you never do, or if you are an atheist, but if you just decide to opt out one year, it is not fine at all.  

There is plenty of comedy in this book but it is also very true, and truth can be uncomfortable.  Most of the people in this book prefer conformity, not only conforming themselves but expecting those around them to conform, alsoThey don't like it when people upset the status quo - possibly for fear of change: others might follow suite and the outcome could be that Christmas may disappear from our lives - foreverThey believe it is better to force everyone to join in and the Kranks are in danger of becoming social outcasts for not doing so.  The Kranks continue to behave in a rebellious manner, even though it is being made increasingly difficult for them, and they do not care about the consequences.  I kept thinking, for goodness sake people, they have no intention of giving up Christmas forever, just for one year

I learned from this story that skipping Christmas is a bit like escaping captivity.  The only way is to secretly plan your escape, and do so as quickly as possible (the closer it gets to Christmas Day, the harder it will become). Then, when they least expect it and when no one is looking, grab your luggage and run!!!!  

It is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but Skipping Christmas is an excellent book, in my opinion.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Down time - update

Update, 2 August 2017.

Unfortunately, I have had to cancel summer reads 2017. 

SBRs will be back later in the year.

In the meantime, feel free to check out my archives.

Bye for now,

Friday, 26 May 2017

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Publication date: 1st September 2015 
Published by: Delacorte books
Genre: YA contemporary

Publication synopsis
My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.

But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.

Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

My Review
The synopsis of this book made me a little apprehensive to read it.  I had a pretty good idea what to expect - a tragic love story.  Even so, I wanted to read it because Nicola Yoon's latest novel, The Sun is Also a Star, was my best read of 2016.

The story played out pretty much as I had thought.  It is a bitter-sweet love story and the writing style is as good as I expected.  I did find myself picking holes at the story; certain things just did not make sense to me, and it felt rather contrived - all in an effort to manipulate my emotions and make me cry (something I dislike, intensely).  As it turns out, the plot was a lot more sophisticated than I thought.  In the end, all those issues I had were resolved, everything fell into place and it all made perfect sense. 

I was not surprised at how beautifully written Everything, everything is, but I was pleasantly surprised at its unpredictability.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Leuven

Publication date:  21 April 2016
Published by: Penguin
Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher's synopsis
A GIRL NAMED ROSE IS RIDING HER NEW BIKE NEAR HER HOME IN DEADWOOD, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square-shaped hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved - the object's origins, architects, and purpose unknown.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top-secret team to crack the hand's code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the relic they seek. What's clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unravelling history's most perplexing discovery-and finally figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

My Review

I am generally not keen on books that are told in the style of found text (be they letters, emails or, as with this book, documents and audio transcriptions of interviews).  In the case of Sleeping Giants this style mostly works well, but there are problem areas.  At times the interview discussions cover bits of information that one would not expect to appear as part of an interview and I got the impression this was more for the benefit of the reader than the 'nameless interrogator'. Also, I felt the dynamic between important characters was weakened, as was the impact, because their interactions and reactions were not being experienced first hand.

I found the story intriguing in the beginning but, if I am honest, my interest wained as the book progressed.

As a sci-fi novel, it was not like anything I have read before, which made it a novel reading experience.  I think this story would work well if told through a visual medium (i.e., for the big or small screen), and I wonder if the author had this in mind.

The next instalment is out this month.  I was kept interested enough to want to see what happens next and, for some reason, I have a feeling that the next book will be a better read.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Crime fiction: Sophie Hannah's The Other Half Lives (Culver Valley series book 4)

Publication date: 5th February 2009
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

The US publication of this book has a different title: The Dead Lie Down

Publisher's synopisis
Ruth Bussey knows what it means to be in the wrong - and to be wronged. She once did something she regrets, and was punished excessively for it. Now Ruth is trying to rebuild her life and has found a love she doesn't believe she deserves. Aidan Seed is a passionate, intense man who has also been damaged by his past. Desperate to connect with the woman he loves, he confides his secret: he killed a woman called Mary Trelease. Through her shock, Ruth recognises the name. And when she's realised why it's familiar, her fear and revulsion deepen. The Mary Trelease that Ruth knows is very much alive...

My Review 

Once again we the readers get a panoramic view in this the 4th story in the Culver Valley series, which is partly told by Ruth and partly from the perspective of plain clothes police officer, Charlie Zailer.  See reviews of Little Face, Hurting Distance & Point of Rescue for further details.

I had suggested that Book 3 could be 'The Point of Rescue'  for the series, i.e. the point at which the standard has been raised.  I am pleased to say that 'The Other Half Lives' confirms that Sophie Hannah is improving the quality of these books with each publication.

The crime mystery is as complex as ever but I really liked this one.  It is very imaginative and comes together very nicely.  I still had some issues however - too many layers and too much going on in the central plot (less is more), and, as always, a civilian, in this case Ruth, takes on the role of Sherlock Holmes; her investigation runs in parallel with the Culver Valley CID and she is a step ahead of them.  Simon is the exception - he is basically the star of the show - and is as persistent at uncovering the truth as ever.

Charlie is a difficult character and one not easy to like.  She is a porcupine (prickly towards anyone who tries to get too close), but this is understandable considering what she has had to endure (albeit self-inflicted).  Her relationship with Simon continues to develop in an unconventional way.  As I have mentioned previously, the romance scores zero on the fluff-o-metre (yay!), and is quite realistic.  Their story is told in tiny drips so that it does not dominate the central plot, and yet so much is revealed about them as characters, as well as the deep feelings they share. (See, less is more!)  I would say this in particular is quite masterly in its execution.

What can I say? I am completely hooked!


Friday, 5 May 2017

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Publication date: 7th February 2017
Published by:  W.W. Norton & Co.
Genre: Fantasy

Publisher's synopsis

Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales. In Norse Mythology, Gaiman fashions primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds; delves into the exploits of the deities, dwarves, and giants; and culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the rebirth of a new time and people. Gaiman stays true to the myths while vividly reincarnating Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, the son of giants, a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator. From Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerges the gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to dupe others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

My Review

With Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman has gone back to the original tales of the Norse gods.  He has said that he wanted to stay true to the original source material while at the same time developping the storiesMy own knowledge of the Norse gods is very limited (basically, the Marvel characters), so this was all fairly new to me.  I found the book to be a page-turner.  I think what made it such a compelling read for me was the Gods themselves.  Loki in particular is quite the anti-hero.  His antics made me laugh out loud a few times.  The stories all head in one direction - towards Ragnarok (Doomsday). 

I found myself drawing parallels with the real world, e.g. The gods decide to build a wall to keep the giants out of Asgard (the realm of the gods).  Also, alarmingly, the slow and steady decline that ends in Ragnarok had an awfully familiar feel to it.  That said, I am pleased to say, there is hope in the end.

For those who love the physicality of books, the hard back version is a beautiful thing to behold.  

Norse Mythology is a book that will appeal to anyone of any age who enjoys fantasy fiction.  My copy is a prized possession and, I am certain, one I will re-visit on numerous occasions.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

Publication date: 11th October 2016
Published by: Dutton books for YAs
Genre: YA Contemporary

Publisher's synopsis

“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”

Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.

But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

“I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. That should be enough.”

My Review

Warning - may contain spoilers

The idea of this book - a sixteen year old being visited by past and future versions of herself - intrigued me.  The reader discovers quite early in the story that Sarah keeps skipping school, and after a short time stops going altogether.  When asked why, she says it is because nothing original happens at school.   As her art teacher has pointed out 'there is no such thing as an original idea'.  A response like that raises eyebrows and it soon became clear that something happened at school that caused her to stop going, but she is not ready to share what it is.  It seems as though Sarah is going through an emotional crisis that is affecting her mental well-being.  The event that occurred at school is only a catalyst to something that has been brewing for some time. Something traumatic occurred in her past that she is not fully aware of. Sarah's crisis is that, until now, she has not had the chance to fully face up to her trauma.

This book covers some serious issues about a troubled family.  It is a thought-provoking story and I found myself contemplating the issues as I read.  In this book King has explored how people deal with emotional trauma: the malevolent approach, as demonstrated by Sarah's father, the benevolent approach, as demonstrated by her brother and the 'bury one's head in the sand' approach, as demonstrated by her mother.

The visits from Sarah's younger and older selves are a sort of therapy for her.  It is interesting that they are not imaginary since everyone else can see and speak to these versions as well (therapy for the whole family?).  

The book also has her mother narrate to us about how she met her husband and the choices/mistakes she made along the way.  We see how powerless and guilty she feels.  She concludes by giving the readers advice - don't do what I did, learn from my mistakes. 

What lets the book down for me is the writing style. The author had Sarah spend too much time psychoanalysing herself for the purpose of helping the readers understand what is going on. This is also the point of her mother's story.  It is as if the author is not confident that readers are able to work this stuff out by themselves - which is a pity.  I would contemplate Sarah's situation and draw my own conclusions (some of which I have described in the first paragraph of this review) and would then have my thoughts confirmed by Sarah informing me she is 'going through an existential crisis', that her mental health is at risk, that she has experienced trauma, etc. I felt as though I was being spoon fed ideas (when, as far as those ideas were concerned, I was way ahead of her and she was playing catch up).  Some may say this could be because I am not the target audience and therefore am too mature for this book.  I disagree.  Teenagers don't need to be spoon fed, either.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Crime Fiction: Sophie Hannah's The Point of Rescue (Culver Valley series book 3)

Publication date: 1st January 2008
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton

The US publication has a different title: The Wrong Mother.

Publisher's summary
Bestselling author Sophie Hannah explores the various sides of motherhood in her third psychological suspense novel.

My synopsis
Sally Thorning, a wife and mother of two small children, has a hectic life running her home and managing her career.  One evening, after dinner and the children have been put to bed, she and husband Nick, are watching a news report about a woman who is reported to have killed herself and her daughter.  To her shock, Sally realises she knows these people.  Sally knows that something is not quite right: the man on the TV screen, Mark Bretherick, reported to be the husband of the dead woman is not him, but an imposter claiming to be him.  Her reason for knowing this is because she knows Mark Bretherick - intimately.  Revealing what she knows could destroy her marriage.  However, this is vital information that the police need to know and Sally has to make a decision, should she contact the police, or should she withhold the information?

My Review
This is the third in the Culver Valley series.  I have also reviewed Little Face and Hurting Distance, books 1 & 2, respectively.

It is probably clear from my previous reviews of the series that I have not been hugely impressed by them, and yet I have succumbed to their addictive qualities.  I am glad that I have (succumbed) because The Point of Rescue is a marked improvement on the other two.  This one reads more like a crime mystery and less like a soap opera.  Hannah has ditched the story lines that focus heavily on the personal lives of the police officers of Spilling CID and has focused on the crime.  At the same time, she offers up snippets of what is going on in the officers' personal lives - just enough to keep the characters well developed and the reader interested.  As a result, the Spilling CID come across more like professionals than in previous books. 

As usual, the plot is intricate and complex.  As alluded to in the publisher's summary (and the title of the US publication), Hannah is exploring motherhood in this book and she does so in a multifaceted way.  Gender inequality is a common theme in this series of books, but sexism towards women and misogyny are particularly prominent in this book

Where crime fiction is concerned, I think there is a danger of ruining a plot when too much is being thrown at it because it becomes less feasible*.  This is a problem I come across with all of her books (read to date). I think they would be improved with a 'less is more' approach.  She could probably get two crime mysteries out of one of her novels and double the length of the series! 

Caution: potential spoiler alert! I think it is fair to say Sophie Hannah's target audience is women, and she has skillfully managed to reel many of us in. I think one of the secrets of the series' success is the extended sub-plot running through all of them, which is about the relationship between Charlie and Simon.  In this book the story takes an unexpected turn.  Simon is a complex (and fascinating) character. I particularly like that the dynamic of his relationship with Charlie is one that is not typically portrayed in fiction; one that is quite realistic.  These books score zero on the fluff-o-metre. There is mutual attraction that is being hampered by a battle between the genders, caused because Charlie is highly educated, in a more senior position and therefore better paid than Simon, and he feels emasculated because of it.  Charlie may be completely besotted but she has no intention of stroking his ego. In books 1 & 2 Simon keeps her at arms length and the result is many awkward moments and on-going UST** - for Charlie, not Simon.  However,  in this novel things change because Charlie has become weakened and vulnerable, causing Simon to see her, and their relationship, in an entirely different light. The sub-plot has been dialed down significantly in this book, and it is a better read because of it (it does not compromise the central plot).  Also, it keeps us wanting to know what will happen next.

It was worth reading the first two books in order to get to this point [of rescue] and, of course, I am now reading the next one....

*Despite being compelling viewing, the UK TV Drama Line of Duty is a good example
**Unresolved sexual tension

More Reviews of Culver Valley Series

Coming Soon
The Other Half Lives (Book 4)
A Room Swept White (Book 5)