Category Archives: Recommended

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.

Their Finest Hour and a Half

their finest hour and a halfby Lissa Evans

Set mainly in London during the Blitz, Their Finest Hour and a Half is a witty and heart-warming story about life on the home-front. It has a wonderful cast of characters, each dealing with the challenges of the war in different ways.

For some, like actor Ambrose Hilliard, times are tough as he tries to adapt to the changes in the film industry. For others, like advertising copywriter Catrin Cole and seamstress Edith Beadmore, the conflict opens new doors with unexpected opportunities. 

I found the book utterly compelling. Lissa Evans manages to combine a gentle wit with some touching and emotional moments. Her characters are believable and consistent throughout.

The war itself plays a large part in the plot, the deprivations and difficulties faced by Londoners during this period is brought vividly to life by Lissa Evans’ wonderfully crafted pros. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the style, plot and the historical realism of this book. 

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)

Game of Thronesby George R R Martin

Game of Thrones is a worldwide phenomena. The TV serialisation has captured the imaginations of millions, becoming one of the most talked about shows of the last few years. I am one of those who has found myself captivated by the intrigue and savagery of the story, so I thought it was about time I read the books.

Very often the book and the TV or film version differ a great deal, with screenwriters taking the plot off in a completely different direction and introducing new characters along the way. But I am pleased to say that in this case, this has not happened. The bulk of what I read on the page I could remember from the screen. This can sometimes be a hindrance as the producer’s vision is usually quite different from my own. 

Game if Thrones is set in a fictional world where dragons and magic exist, but only just. The story is centred around the fight for the Iron Throne, the seat of the king of the seven kingdoms of Westeros. But as the various houses fight with each other for what they see as the ultimate prize, events in the frozen north and the deserts of the east look set to upset all their plans.

The book is filled with wonderful characters, some you love, others you will hate (all for the right reasons) and the multi-layer storyline drives the characters and plots almost relentlessly. Despite the weaving in and out of the various stories, the book is easy to read and totally captivating. George R R Martin is a natural storyteller. He makes his characters believable and simple to understand, and the way he weaves the different threads of the tale together is nothing short of genius. I loved the book even more than the series, and that is saying something. 

Captivating, cleverly plotted and full of interesting characters, Game of Thrones is as immersive and imaginative tale of intrigue, murder, regicide, incest and war, with a little bit of magic and some dragons thrown in for good measure, as you could possible want? 

I will definitely be reading the rest of the series.

The Girl You Left Behind

by Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left BehindI was offered this book by my daughter who thought the subject might interest me. Although I was a little sceptical at first I very soon found myself drawn into the lives of two very similar women living a hundred years apart.
Sophie and Liv are linked by a painting called The Girl You Left Behind. It is a portrait of Sophie by her husband Eduard who is away fighting in the trenches of 1917 France. It is all that she has of Eduard as she struggles to protect her family during the German occupation of Northern France.
For both women, the painting is not just a link to the men they have lost, it has become a symbol of their relationships. Neither is willing to let go of either.
The book jumps between the two women’s stories, mixing first and third person help separate the two narratives.
Sophie’s story is particularly compelling and very tragic. Told from her perspective it gives a great insight into the frequently overlooked. Through Sophie we learn a lot the horrors of the trenches, but behind the lines people tried to continue their daily lives as best they could. Food and resources were scarce and Sophie must do all she can to protect what is left of her family.
Liv on the other hand is a widow who lives in contemporary London. The Girl You Left Behind hangs in her flat as a reminder of her late husband, a gift from their honeymoon.
Despite the differences in time and place, both women have to face great tragedy and loss. And for both of them, Sophie’s portrait has become a symbol of hope and love. And in both cases the introduction of a stranger into their lives forces them to make a difficult decision and tests their inner strength.
It is a gripping and emotional story. I found myself conflicted. On one hand I couldn’t put the book down and wanted desperately to get to the conclusion; on the other hand I didn’t want the story to end.
The way in which the two storylines are woven together is imaginative, keeping a thread that is easy to follow. I found both women to be strong characters and loved the way they are prepared to fight for the things that matter to them.
Sophie’s tale is the more intriguing of the two, mainly because it’s setting in a place and time I know little about. But it is Liv’s story that brings it all together. The ending is not what I expected but on reflection, is the only way it could have worked.
A really good read and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. It kept me hooked from the very beginning.


Anissa’s Redemption

by Zack Love

Anissa's RedemptionAnissa’s Redemption is the second and concluding part of Zack Love’s Syrian Virgin series. In the first book we were introduced to 16-year old Anissa, living with her family in the Syrian city of Homs at the start of the civil war. Being Christians, they became targets for the Islamist extremists and Anissa was forced to flee from her home. She must now build a new life for herself in New York as she comes to terms with the tragic loss of her family.

In this sequel, Anissa must make some difficult decisions about her relationships and finally come to terms with the secrets of her past she kept hidden from everyone, including herself.

But she is not the only one hiding deep and troubling secrets.

Through her letters we see Anissa’s struggle with her feelings for the two men in her life: fellow student Michael who leads the Mideast Christian Association, working to help fellow Christians in war-torn Syria; and Julien, her wealthy and charismatic college lecturer whose own secrets threaten their growing relationship.

Anissa’s Redemption, told through letters and journal entries takes the reader on a roller-coaster journey. Written with a sympathetic understanding of the realities of the situation in the Middle East and its affect on the people involved, this book presents both a touching and romantic story combined with stark reality and a glimpse of the darker side of the human soul.

In Anissa, Zack Love has created a strong but vulnerable character who I found myself wishing was real. It is much more common these days to find strong female characters, both in books and in film. As she fights her demons and builds a better life for herself, Anissa is one of the most captivating of this new breed of leading ladies.

An excellent conclusion to a moving and well written story.


Hidden Knowledge

by Bernardine Bishop
Hidden KnowledgeDespite this books seemingly dark and serious subject matter, Hidden Knowledge is a surprisingly upbeat and interesting read.

The story itself centres around two families, the Trees and the Winterbornes, each dealing with tragedies both old and new. Roger Tree is a Catholic priest facing an accusation of child abuse ten years previously. He confesses at once to the crimes but there is a much darker secret that he cannot bring himself to admit to anyone. His brother, a famous writer, lies in a coma and he find himself supporting his sister, Romola, who is struggling to come to terms with life without he beloved Hereword, and his brother’s much younger fiancé, Carina.

Life for the Winterbornes is also facing great upheavals as mother and daughter, Betty and Julia, find themselves reassessing their own relationship in the face of the challenges they both must face.

The story of the two families are linked by the tragic death of Julia’s brother Mark on a school trip twenty years earlier. It is Betty Winterborne’s decision to re-examine her son’s last days that bring her some hope of closure.

For me, Hidden Knowledge proved to be something of a hidden gem. It is not the kind of subject that would normally attract my interest, but I am glad I did.

It seems that Bernardine wrote just three novels in her retirement after a varied and full life. I am certainly going to look out for the other two on my travels.

Child abuse is not an easy subject to write about, but Bernardine does it with great compassion and empathy. As the story unfolds it is easy often to forget that Roger is the abuser. There is no getting away from the serious nature of his crimes, but for the duration of the story Roger is the rock that supports his family. 

We all have secrets, some we keep from those closes to us, some we try to hide from ourselves. Each of the characters in Hidden Knowledge find themselves confronting their own demons. Some are more profound than others, but are equally demanding emotionally.

In the end, Hidden Knowledge is a book about ordinary people having to face extraordinary truths. It is a powerful story told with skill and experience. It is a much easier and more satisfactory read than I had imagined it would be. It challenges the reader, but doesn’t overwhelm.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis book was passed onto me by a work colleague who couldn’t recommend it to me enough. And almost immediately I could see why.

Even without the recommendation, the title alone would have attracted me to this poignant and touching story about life in German occupied Guernsey. Told through a series of letters between a young writer, Juliet Ashton, and members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. The book follows the highs and lows of life on the islands during the Second World War.

The book opens in 1946 with Juliet seeking inspiration for her second novel. When she stumbles across the Literary society shew soon finds herself on a ferry to Guernsey to find out more. Still suffering from the ravages of the war, the people of the island take her as one of their own and Juliet’s life begins to change forever.

The use of letters to tell the story makes it much more intimate than a normal narrative would have been. You get a much better understanding of each of the characters and how the two strands of the story impact on all their lives.

For Juliet, the islanders provide not just the inspiration for her own book, but also a new direction for her life.

Populated with beautifully portrayed characters, this is an inspiring, touching and compelling take. I found myself totally captivated by the members and their stories.

What really comes across is the author’s fascination with Guernsey, but what is not so obvious is that she was American. Mary Ann Shaffer wrote the book after prompting from her local book club, but due to ill health, asked her niece, Annie Barrows to help her finish the book.

It’s a totally captivating book. What a shame it was Mary Ann’s only novel. 

The Alchemist

by Paulo Coelho

The AlchemistThe blurb on the back of this edition claims that The Alchemist is one of those books that has changed the lives of people who have read it. A  proud claim indeed, but is it justified?

Maybe, but to be honest, I am still the same person I was before reading it!

The plot and story are both very simple.

The story follows a young Andalusian shepherd as he seeks to fulfil his destiny and realise his dreams. After a meeting with a gypsy and a mysterious fellow traveller, the shepherd boy gives up everything and heads across the Mediterranean to begin his journey.

He meets several people on his journey, all of whom bring him a little closer to his final destination, including the Alchemist himself. Are the events and the people he meets random, or is there some mysterious force leading him to fulfil his destiny? Whether you believe in the idea of a universal force guiding our lives, or that we are the sole arbiters of our own destiny, The Alchemist raises some interesting points and questions.

There is very little in the way of physical descriptions of either the characters or their surroundings. In many ways it reminded me of Bible stories I read as a child. The main driving force is the message. It is also unclear exactly when the book is set, but in some ways this is an advantage making it almost timeless.

The Alchemist is a quick and easy read that may well give you something to think about. Whilst I question the life changing claims of the publishers, it is certainly an intriguing book that benefits from its simplicity and directness.