Category Archives: Recommended

Elizabeth is Missing

Elizabeth is Missingby Emma Healey

Opening the first page on a highly acclaimed debut is always something of an adventure. Having read some good reviews my expectations were high but also tinged with a little trepidation. I have been disappointed by so many similarly praised books in the past that I am always half expecting to be disappointed.

For one thing, the premise behind the book is a little strange – an elderly lady with dementia trying to solve the mystery of a missing friend whilst at the same time trying to unravel the 70-year-old mystery of her missing sister, Sukey. Maud may have trouble remembering everyday things like why she has come to the shops or recognising her daughter, Helen, but one thing she is very clear about, her best friend Elizabeth is missing. The trouble is that no one else seems to be taking any notice of her and she can’t understand it. Woven into her frustrations over her missing friend are very clear memories of her childhood, particularly her sister and the year she went missing. Separated by a lifetime, Maud’s need to find answers to these mysteries is touching and emotional.

As Maud tells her own story, the present becomes increasingly confused and vague, but the disappearance of Sukey remains clear and very focused. For me, this is an outstanding piece of storytelling. Anyone who has lived with the realities of a loved one with dementia will understand Maud’s story and the mixed emotions of those close to her. There is no doubt that dementia is the cruellest of afflictions Having watched my mother-in-law succumb to Alzheimers, the book could have been difficult to read, but it wasn’t. Emma handles it with compassion and humour. There is a mystery to be solved, and the answer is not entirely unexpected.

Elizabeth is Missing is a unique and touching book that kept me enthralled from beginning to end. 

Artemis

Artemisby Andrew Weir

Andre Weir’s debut novel Martian” was undeniably, and justifiably, a great success. The combination of scientific accuracy, vision and natural storytelling made it one of the best new science fiction books for many years. The only problem with hitting the bullseye with a first novel is how on Earth do you follow it? The answer, it seems, is to go to the Moon.

I read Martian with no preconceived expectations other than the hope it lived up to the hype. Turning to the first page of Artemis was a whole different kettle of fish and I have to admit that I was prepared to be disappointed. As it turns out I really should have had more faith. Set in the not-too-distant future, Artemis is every bit as captivating and imaginative as its predecessor.

once again the science is well researched and very accessible and the plot is intense and unpredictable as the characters face the harsh realities of living on the inhospitable lunar surface.

However, for me, the outstanding feature of this book is its protagonist, the feisty and resourceful Jazz Bashara. Making her living in a tough and uncompromising frontier city like Artemis is never easy and Jazz is definitely the kind of girl you want on your side when things get rough. Like many of literature’s more interesting characters, Jazz is far from the traditional whiter-than-white hero. She is a smuggler, supplying all kinds of contraband to the Moon’s more discerning citizens.

Scraping a living on the Moon is not easy and for Jazz, the opportunity to earn a lot of cash very quickly is too good to turn down. But not everything, or everyone, is as they seem and getting herself wrapped up in a fight between big business and criminal gangs brings the kind of excitement she could well do without. Jazz very soon finds herself and the centre of a murder investigation that threatens not just her life, but also those of the people she loves. 

The story is told in Jazz’s own uncompromising and amusing style. Her character leaps out of the page and demands your attention right from the start. The book has a natural flow and reads as if she is there with you, telling her story over a glass or two of reconstituted beer. 

Artemis is every bit as intense and driven as Weir’s debut but is very different in many ways. In my opinion, Artemis proves beyond doubt that Andrew Weir as a writer every bit as exciting as Arthur C Clark or Niven/Pournelle at heir best – a visionary with both feet planted firmly on the ground. His books have adventure, hard science but are very character driven. Artemis is a classic in the making and a book I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who has even a just a remote interest in science fiction. After all, a good book is a goood book, no matter where or when it is set.

Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. 

The Vanishing

The Vanishingby Wendy Webb

You just know that when your hero finds themselves in a large old house in the middle of nowhere, things are going to get a little spooky. Whilst that may be a given, the intriguing twists and turns of “The Vanishing” certainly isn’t. Julia Bishop’s life is a mess. Through no fault of her own, she finds herself totally alone and facing ruin when a total stranger offers her a lifeline in the shape of a home and a job. It may sound too good to be true, and any rational person might question the offer, but with nowhere else to turn, Julia accepts and twenty-four hours later finds herself at Havenwood, the Sinclaire’s rambling family estate close to the banks of Lake Superior.

Her new job is as a companion to horror novelist Amaris Sinclaire. Once famous, she is now a recluse who the rest of the world believes to be dead. But coming face to face with a dead author is the least of the surprises that await Julia as she learns more not only about the estate but also about her own past. 

From the very first day, Julia begins to suspect that things are not as they should be. ON the surface everyone is friendly and she feels accepted as if part of the family, but something isn’t quite right. She begins to see visions that she at first puts down to not taking her medication, but then begins to believe have a more sinister origin. It doesn’t help when all she gets from those around her are platitudes and reassurances.

No one denies that the house is haunted. The question is what or who by, and what does it have to do with Julia who has never been to the house before. Or has she?

Like her previous books, Wendy weaves a tangled web (sorry about that!) that left me gripped and fascinated right to the very end. For me, The Vanishing is further proof, if it were needed, that Wendy Webb is a great storyteller and a master of the gothic horror genre.

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Oveby Fredrik Backman

Every now and again you come across a book that really says something to you, and for me, A Man Called Ove is just such a book. From the very first page, I felt I understood Ove. To many of the people he meets he comes across as a grumpy old man, but, as is often the case, there is more to him than first meets the eye.

For Ove, life is simple and made up of two types of people: those who drive Saabs, and twits. And there are a lot of twits about! 

As the book progresses we learn more about Ove’s past and the events that shaped the man he became. The biggest single event being the day he met his wife-to-be Sonja. To everyone who knew them, Ove and Sonja were an odd couple, like chalk and cheese. But to Ove, Sonja was his world and without her, nothing makes sense any more.

But with the arrival of new neighbours, Ove’s life is about to take on a whole new meaning. 

A Man Called Ove is a delightful and very moving story. Fredrik Backman has a real gift for blending humour and pathos in a totally compelling way. There is a slapstick element to the story that makes the tragedy even more profound. For me, it is one of the best books I have read this year and one I can wholeheartedly recommend. 

First Frost

by James Henry

First FrostR D Wingfield’s loveable detective DI “Jack” Frost has long been a favourite of mine, both the books and their TV adaptation. The irascible, bumbling and totally politically incorrect detective’s original appearances are a great example of how this kind of stories should be. For me, Frost’s irreverent ways, his disinclination for completing paperwork and his constant battles with authority present a character I can relate to. In this, the first prequel written by the team of James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton, we are transported back to 1981. Frost is a Detective Sergeant and already has a reputation as a good detective, even if his ways are sometimes unorthodox and his matter makes him difficult to work with. Superintendent Mullet has recently arrived at the Denton station and is determined to stamp his authority on the place. For him, Frost epitomises all that is worst about the place.

Keeping with the format that made Wingfield’s original series so popular and successful, in First Frost, DS Frost has to deal with several unrelated crimes, including terrorists, murder, bank robberies and a missing young girl. Trying to keep track of all the separate cases, whilst covering for absent inspectors and missing paperwork, Frost and Mullet clash from the very start.

The interweaving plots ensure the pace is consistent and at times as messy as the belligerent detective trying to unravel it all. The character of Frost os maintained throughout and this peek into his pre-Inspector days is a very clever way for the two writers to resurrect the grumpy old so-and-so.

I really enjoyed the story, the characters and the uncompromising way Gurbutt and Sutton kept faith with R D Wingfield’s creation. First Frost is an excellent novel in its own right, but as part of the Frost series, it is indistinguishable from the originals. A great piece of fiction very well written. 

The One Plus One

One Plus Oneby Jojo Moyes

Having previously read several Jojo Moyes books I was pretty sure what to expect – captivating characters, a great plot and quality writing. And that is exactly what I got. The plot itself is typical rom-com fodder, but the important thing is the way it is told. Jojo Moyes has the ability to make her characters come to life on the page. 

We all know how hard it can be to recover when life when knocks us down, and how difficult it can be to retain our optimism when you feel that universe is conspiring against us. But that eternal optimism despite everything life has thrown at her is what makes the leading lady, Jess Thomas, such an endearing character. Despite having to hold down two jobs to keep her and her two children fed and watered, she remains confident that things will get better. 

On the other hand, Ed Nichols has it all: the perfect job, a flat in London, a holiday home by the sea, his own company and, on the face of it, a bright future.

But all is not as it seems, and that is where the story begins. 

The One Plus One is a modern love story with just a hint of the Romeo and Juliet about it. But like all good books, there is a lot more going on underneath the surface. Jess’s optimism is tested to its limits by the circumstances of a life she no longer seems to have any control over. But it is that very “silver lining” approach that turns Ed’s life around. As he faces losing everything he has ever worked for, seeing at first hand Jess’s determination to do the best for her children is something of a revelation. He begins to realise that for one he has the opportunity to do some real good, to do something that will improve the life of someone else.

It doesn’t hurt that on their journey – physical and metaphorical – they find themselves growing ever closer.

For me, Jojo Moyes is one of those writers that can turn a seemingly simple tale into something quite deep and inspiring. Her characters are easily identifiable and I can’t help feeling some empathy towards them and their plights. Whilst tragedy is always at the heart of a good novel, particularly a love story like this one, humour is also a key element, and in The One Plus One Jojo Moyes gets the balance just right. It is witty, absorbing and a joy to read. 

 

 

 

The Other Hand

The Other Handby Chris Cleave

According to the blurb on the back of this book, the story is too special for them to say anything about what happens. They even implore the reader not to tell anyone once they have read it. All we are told is that it is the story of two women whose lives “collide” where there is a terrible choice to be made. Then they meet again two years later. And that’s it! There is even a letter inside from the editor saying all kinds of wonderful things about the story.

But does it live up to these lofty expectations?

This is not just the story of the two women whose tales are being told. It is the story of a clash of cultures, of hope, desperation, despair and love. On the face of it, Sarah and Little Bee’s live’s are about as different as you can imagine, but underneath the surface, they are not too dissimilar. 

In my experience, over-hyped books tend to be disappointing. However, in The Other Hand, Chris Cleave has written the kind of story that is bound to make everyone that reads it stop and think about the absurdity and the cruelty of the world we live in. Both of the women here make sacrifices that will cost them dearly, but they do so without hesitation. 

I found it to be very moving, told in two distinctly different voices that Cleave maintains throughout. Whilst I wouldn’t say the book has changed my life or perspective, it was as enlightening as it was entertaining. 

The Other Hand is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort.

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project #2)

Northanger Abbeyby Val McDermid

Northanger Abbey is the second in the series of books reimagining some of the works of Jane Austen. Of Austen’s books, Northanger Abbey is probably the least well known, but it has always held a certain fascination for me. Although it follows the traditional girl meets boy, they fall in love, are separate by circumstances before finally coming together for the obligatory happy ending, Northanger Abbey has a darker and more intriguing theme. And it is that element of the story that seems to have attracted McDermid to the Austen Project.

At first it might seem rather strange to have a respected crime writer tackling a piece of romantic fiction. But Northanger Abbey’s sinister undercurrent provides the perfect vehicle for McDermid’s style.

Bringing these books into the 21st century does require some imaginative thinking, but to me what is most intriguing is just how little needs to change. In this interpretation, only the location has changed, moving the bulk of the action from the original Bath to modern day Edinburgh, where the Fringe provides the necessary gatherings and public events. Consequently, Northanger Abbey is now in the Scottish Lowlands which seems rather more fitting than the original.

The story remains virtually unchanged, as do the characters, with just the occasional tweak to bring their stories up to date. Catheryn Morland is the same innocent young woman, sometimes struggling to tell the difference between reality and the plots of the books she reads and begins to invent her own theories about the family and events that inhabit Northanger Abbey.

As you would expect from a writer with McDermid’s reputation, Northanger Abbey is well written and full of pace and drama and not a little wit and tension. As a fan of Miss Austen’s work, I have approached each of these reimaginings with just a little trepidation. These books have become part of our literary heritage, but their language and settings are not to everyone’s taste.

What this series does is make Austen’s original stories more accessible to a wider audience. For me, the originals can never be improved on. The language, settings and manners of the time are as much a part of the book as the story itself. However, I very much enjoyed this retelling of one of my favourite Austen stories and would happy recommend it to fans and novices alike.

Reading this book has also reminded me of the works of one of our most respected modern authors. I will definitely make an effort to pick up a book or two in the near future. 

Me Before You

Me Before Youby Jojo Moyes

Me Before You is not a romance, it is a lover story as intense and compelling as any I have read before. 

Lou Clark and Will Traynor are the unlikely couple at the centre of this tale. Will is a former high flyer from the City. He has travelled the world, enjoyed extreme sports and love more than his fair share of women. But following a tragic motorcycle accident, his life has changed dramatically and it is not a life he wants to continue living.

Lou Clark, on the other hand, has hardly every travelled beyond the confines of her home town, has a long-term boyfriend and has just lost her job at the local tea shop. 

When the two are brought together, it looks as if the clash of their very different personalities can only mean disaster. But no, whilst there is plenty of friction between the two characters, the sparks that fly ignite a flame that neither could have anticipated.

Whilst this may sound like a typical bit of romantic fiction, it is not. Jojo Moyes doesn’t write that kind of fiction. Through Will the reader is forced to face the question of assisted suicide. For him, the life he faces as a quadriplegic is an anathema, it is the very opposite of everything he wants for himself, and the prospect of a life of pain, sickness and dependence is too much. For Lou, life is precious and she will do anything she can to make Will change his mind. She has just six months to convince Will that he does have things to live for before he makes his one-way trip to Dignitas.

The subject is handled with real care and respect. I cannot tell from the writing which side of the argument she herself supports. I enjoyed the love story that runs through the book, but was also moved by the tragic tale of a man facing his own morality. 

Jojo Moyes has a relaxed but engaging style that pulls the reader in from the very first page and doesn’t let go until she has wrung all the emotion out of you. As I said at the beginning, this book is much more than romantic fiction. I was transfixed by the characters and their stories. The way that Lou’s relationships with her boyfriend and family develop as she begins to discover new depths in her own character as heartwarming. 

A really good book that will keep you hooked to the very end. 

The Girl on the Train

the girl on the trainby Paula Hawkins

I read this book just a matter of weeks before the film was released, and at the time of writing I had not yet seen it, so can’t comment on any similarities or differences between them. What I can say is that I can understand why it was transferred to film.

The story is told through the eyes of the three women at the centre of the action. Each tells their own story in the form a diary, but not all running synchronously. 

The first we meet is Rachael, on her morning commute into London. She catches the same train every day and knows the stops and houses on the route very well. She begins to invent stories about the people she sees, in particular the young couple whose house she invariable stops beside as the train waits for signals to change. Little does she know that very soon she is going to be more intimately involved in the life of Megan and Tom than she could ever have anticipated. 

Next up is Megan, whose story begins a year before Rachael’s. As her tale creeps closer to the present we discover that pretty young Megan has a dark secret that threatens not just her relationship, but her life.

The third side of this intriguing triangle is Anna. Now married to Rachael’s ex-husband, Anna struggles to keep her new husband on the path she has set out for him. 

As their separate stories weave in and out of each other, each must face their own demons, be that drink, sex or a past they cannot hide forever. Each character has something to hide, something that threatens everything they have built, and it is the unraveling of these secrets that makes the book so utterly compelling.

From the very beginning this book grips the reader and keeps you guessing right to the very end. Just when you think you know the truth, Hawkins pulls the rug out from under your feet! The Girl on the Train is full of imaginative twists and turns, whilst keeping the integrity of the characters and the overall plot. Well written and utterly compelling, The Girl on the Train is a book that is well deserving of its position on the bestseller lists.