Category Archives: Review

White Teeth

White Teeth

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is Zadie Smith’s acclaimed debut novel, and what a great debut it was. It was published to much critical acclaim and is as relevant today as it was back in 2000. It is not the first of her books I have read but is undoubtedly the best so far.

It tells the story of two unlikely friends and their dysfunctional families across three generations. Concentrating on three points during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we are introduced to the most mixed-up set of characters outside of a TV soap. 

It is a chance meeting during the later stages of the Second World War that first bring Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal together. Thirty years later, and both with young wives, the pair are reunited. Their shared experience creates a bond that will last a lifetime, but it a friendship not without its problems. Struggling with the challenges of parenthood, the old friends follow very different paths.

Taking up the reigns of the story, the next generation of Jones’ and Iqbal’s face very different challenges.  

What I really liked about this book was the way that cultural clashes between the characters highlight the struggles within multicultural Britain through the decades but in a very amusing way. There is comedy in even the most serious of situations and in White Teeth, Zadie Smith captures it perfectly. There are plenty of laughs but also some touching insights into how the various prejudices and assumptions on every side impact our relations.

White Teeth is a compelling yet surprisingly easy read. The subjects tackled by Zadie are as serious and relevant today as they ever were, but the way she deals with them is more entertaining than preaching. 

As an introduction to Zadie Smith’s writing, this is as good as it gets. It is a book I would happily recommend to anyone. 

The Thursday Murder Club (The Thursday Murder Club #1)

The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

by Richard Osman

Richard Osman is a well-known face on British TV, involved with several popular game shows. The Thursday Murder Club is his first novel and became an instant hit on its release. The question is though, would it have been so popular if its author wasn’t already a popular figure?

My first instinct is to say no. I don’t think it would have been such an instant hit. No doubt without his name on the top it would have got there, but much more slowly. As it is, Richard’s name has propelled it into the charts, but it is the quality of the story at the writing that has kept it there. 

The copy I have just read was read first by my wife (who loved it) and then my daughter before making its way to me. As I write this it is making its way to a family friend who is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get stuck in.

I love a good mystery. I also love a good comedy. A book that combines the two is definitely going to arouse my interest and in The Thursday MurderClub, we get both in spades. Set in a peaceful retirement village, The Thursday Murder Club is a group of four friends who get together each week to investigate unsolved murders. They are a very unlikely bunch, lead by the enigmatic Elizabeth whose past is as mysterious as the events begin to unfold when they find themselves in the middle of a live murder case. 

The official investigation is being run by DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas. DCI Hudson is sceptical of the Club’s involvement at first but soon has to admit that Elizabeth’s unorthodox methods get results. For PC De Freitas, Elizabeth becomes something of a fairy godmother. 

As one crime leads to another, the intrepid sleuths, both official and unofficial, uncover more than one mystery. There are several strands to the story that the teams must try to unravel. Part of the narrative comes from Joyce’s diary entries which offer the best insights into the characters involved. 

The Thursday Murder Club is an excellent murder mystery neatly wrapped up with humour and compassion. In parts, it is extremely funny, with observational comedy reminiscent of the late great Tom Sharpe. From beginning to end, it is entertaining and compelling. It is one of the very few books that have made me laugh out loud recently. 

It was recommended to me and I can highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good laugh and a bit of a mystery.

 

Conjugal Rites (Brenda and Effie #3)

Conjugal Rites

Conjugal Rites by Paul Magrs

by Paul Magrs

Once again, Brenda and Effie find themselves at the centre of a supernatural mystery. The two friends also find themselves the focus of far more attention than either of them would like. 

in Conjugal Rites, all kinds of things come together in an adventure that takes the two ladies away from their beloved Whitby to, well, Whitby-in-Hell! 

As you might expect, if you have read any of the previous books (I, for some reason, seem to have missed out on book 1, something I intend to rectify very shortly), not everything is as it seems in the weird and wonderful world imagined by Paul Magrs. Brenda and Effie themselves appear, on the face of it, to be two ordinary, elderly ladies, muddling along and learning a quite living by the sea. But beneath that bumbling exterior lie some very dark and sinister secrets. But secrets have a habit of bubbling up the surface, particularly if you are the kind of people who enjoy nothing better than sticking your nose into other people’s business. 

In Conjugal Rites, it is Brenda’s past that has come to slap her in the face, in the form of her fiance Frank. The pair were literally made for each other by their “father”, Victor Frankenstein. But right from the start, Brenda has been very clear about not wanting anything to do with the human jigsaw puzzle, Frank. What Brenda can’t figure out is why Mrs Clause, owner of the Christmas Hotel and local crime magnate, has got to do with it. 

But then again, does anyone really know what Mrs Clause is up to? And why has she arranged to fill her total with a gathering of ancient costumed superheroes? 

Does any of this have anything to do with Mr Danby’s latest incarnation as a genial late-night radio host? And why is he using his phone-in to spread rumours about poor old Brenda?

All will be revealed in good time, but not before the ladies and their friends find themselves, quite literally, in Hell. 

A wonderful tour-de-force of a story. Great characters and an intriguing story, held together with penetrating wit and style. I found myself chuckling throughout the book. Why Paul is not yet a hero in Whitby I don’t know. For me, he has put the town back on the map with his wonderfully descriptive view of the streets and buildings of this beautiful location. 

All I need to do now is go back and find the first book so I can see how the whole thing started. I am looking forward to that. 

Murder of the Bride (DI Hillary Greene #3)

Murder of the Bride

Murder of the Bride by Faith Martin

by Faith Martin

Once again, DI Hillary Greene and her intrepid team find themselves investigating a suspicious death under rather unusual circumstances. The victim is young Julia Reynolds, a guest at an anniversary party who came to a somewhat sticky end in a cowshed, dressed as a bride.

The bride part is a bit of a red herring; it was a costume party and her choice of dress was intended as a jibe to her would-be fiance. 

There is no question about the fact she was murdered, but what was she doing in the cowshed and who would want to kill such a popular and lively young woman?

As with Hillary’s previous cases, nothing here is quite what it seems and she and her team soon uncover a web of jealousy and intrigue. Potential suspects begin to emerge out of the woodwork but all lack either motive or opportunity. None of it makes any sense and all avenues seem to be dead ends.

There are plot twists aplenty as Thames Valley’s finest inch ever closer to the truth, uncovering more than they bargained for along the way.

Faith Martin has created a likeable hero in Hillary Green, surrounding her with a supporting cast that is varied and colourful. Each has their unique idiosyncrasies and troubles. There is also the ongoing saga of Hillary’s now dead husband, Ronnie, and his nefarious exploits that continue to follow her like a bad smell. She may have been cleared of any wrong-doing herself, but there is still the question of Ronnie’s ill-gotten gains. One man at least, is determined to get his hands on the money, Sargeant Frant Ross. Frank is a permanent thorn in Hillary’s side, but one that has his uses which she is happy to exploit if it will help with a case.

The book also has a couple of interesting twists as part of the ongoing arc. 

Murder of the Bride is a well written, well-structured crime novel that is both challenging and easy to read. I like Faith’s almost simplistic style. There is a lot of plot and character development but all done in an easily accessible way. The narrative is clean and pacey with little padding.

This being the third on the series the characters and their backstories are already well developed so there is little time spent going over old ground.

I am enjoying these books and look forward to getting into number 4. 

The Left Hand of Darkness

How To Be Deadby Ursula Le Guin

Once again I take the risky journey into another “classic”. First published in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness was Le Guin’s fifth novel and went on to win both Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel. No mean feat and an achievement that would make any book worthy of the “classic” status it has achieved.
One of the best features of science fiction is that as a genre it is quite hard to define and novels within the sphere range from all-out space operas and boys-own adventures, to the thought-provoking and visionary. Sometimes, all the same book.

So how does The Left Hand of Darkness fit into this?
Well, I do approach all “classics” with an open mind and some trepidation. I have only too often found myself disappointed. And I have to say that, at first, I thought that this was going to be one of those. It got off to a stuttering start and I struggled a little with the characters and the distant world they inhabited.

The main character, Genly Ai is a representative of the Ekumen, a collection of worlds linked only by their humanity. His role is to observe the people of the winter-world Gethen and to work towards bringing them into the fold. In this universe, mankind is spread throughout the galaxy but there is no explanation of the background to this, just an assumption the reader is happy to go along with it.

The Gethenians are unique amongst the known worlds as they are the only androgynous race whose lives are governed by a sexual cycle that can lead to them becoming male or female at the height of their cycle. To them, Genly’s permanent sexuality is a perversion.

The thurst of the novel’s narrative comes from Genly as he becomes inadvertently drawn into the complexities of the politics and national conflicts of this winter world.

When his only true friend and ally falls foul of the political intrigues of the court of King Argaven, Ai begins a journey across the continent that puts him in great personal danger. His escape and the challenges presented by his journey across the vast ice fields with his now-disgraced friend are the book’s most memorable moments.

Left Hand of Darkness is a slow burner of a book, but one worth the effort. The Gethenian’s androgynous nature allows Le Guin to question our own preoccupation with gender, something very relevant today. Although I would not list it as one of my “classics”, it is certainly a book worthy of its accolades. Le Guin’s easy style and driving narrative give the book real pace, even when there seems to be little happening. The swapping between narrators allows the reader to see events from two different perspectives that I found interesting and kept me on my toes.

So, a good book. One I would certainly recommend, but not to the more casual Sci-Fi reader. It is a book of its genre.

The Cursed Wife

The Cursed Wifeby Pamela Hartstone

The Cursed Wife is one of those books that is difficult to categorise. There is murder, suspense, revenge, mystery and even a hint of witchcraft, all centred around two “sisters” living in Elizabethan London.

Mary and Cat are thrust together when they were very young. Distant relations, they become as close as sisters. Loving and fighting in equal measure. But they are not and never can be equals. One is the orphaned daughter of a penniless country gentleman, the other titled and privileged. 

But their lives are entwined, even as their fates diverge on different paths. 

Cat has led a privileged life, but following the death of her father, she becomes little more than a pawn as her brother effectively sells her off to the highest bidder. It isn’t long before her husband’s depravity and games lead Cat to make a decision that will change both of their lives forever. A chance meeting in the summer rain brings the two women back together throws Mary’s life into turmoil as Cat’s presence threatens everything she has spent the past 16 years building.

The narrative alternates between the two women, each telling the story from their own point of view. With their fortunes reversed, their former friendship turns to rivalry and they are forced to hide their true pasts. 

There are plenty of twists and turns as the story unfolds. I enjoyed the story, the characters and the pace. I also found the interaction between the two protagonists fascinating. The way each of the interpreted the events of their past acts as a reminder that not everything is as black and white as it seems. Truth is sometimes malleable and often biased. 

Pamela Hartshorne uses all her experience as a historian to ensure consistency and authenticity. It is a great story and an enjoyable read. 

How To Be Dead (Books 1-3)

How To Be Deadby Dave Turner

It is true that I have a strange sense of humour and there are certain types of books that simply call out to me. From the strange imaginings of Terry Pratchett and Tom Sharpe to the gentle humour of Leslie Thomas or Pauline McLynn, they offer an escape from reality. Humour is subjective and just because a book makes me chuckle merrily to myself doesn’t mean it will do the same for someone else. I am a fan of romantic comedies in any form, be it book, film or theatre, but my favourite release has to be the more zany worlds envisaged by the likes of Dave Turner. A world where reality comes face-to-face with the best of human imagination. 

Dave Turner’s “How To Be Dead” is not the first to give the likes of Death human form and a personality, and I am sure it won’t be the last. And whilst it has an uncanny resemblance to at least one Terry Pratchett adventure, it is extremely funny in its own right. 

The first character we meet is Death himself. Unlike most of his other appearances in literature, Turner’s Death is very human in his frailties and his obsessions. His inability to pronounce Beelzebub, his craving for biscuits and his need for reassurance make him a vulnerable and likeable character. And throughout the three books here we will meet his colleagues, War, Famine and Conquest. And Beelzebub of course. 

The story really begins when young Dave Marwood, stuck in a dead-end job and drifting aimlessly through life, becomes a hero. Saving the life of the woman he loves (even if she isn’t aware of it at the time) changes everything. But then, coming face-to-face with Death will do that every time. Following his near-death experience, Dave discovers he has gifts he never knew he had. He is also now living in a world he never knew existed. And for the first time in his life, he has a purpose. He also has a new relationship with the girl of his dreams, so what could possibly go wrong?

The three individual books of this trilogy focus on different strands of the overall story, but at the heart of each of them is Dave’s relationship with Melanie. It was his unrequited love for her that led to his near-death encounter with his new boss. And it is his passions that drive him to beat the odds when faced with a hastily assembled and not very successful attempt at a budget Appocolyps.  

There are some very original elements to this very funny book. I particularly enjoyed the back story to the Four Horsemen of the Apppocolyps. Their relationship was believable, considering they had been working together for millennia. 

But what makes the book such a joy to read is the relentless humour. From moments of slapstick gold to the most subtle of turns of phrase, every page offers something to laugh about. I love the kind of subtle humour that was so well perfected by Tom Sharpe, and reflected here in what I found to be a real page-turner. 

As I said at the beginning of this review, humour is subjective. If you are one of those that simply don’t get the Discworld or have never laughed at Monty Python, then give this one a miss. If, however, you can believe there is a world where Death is a Billy Joel fan with an obsession for bourbons, then this is defiantly for you.

 

Neutron Star

Neutron Starby Larry Niven

This is my third time reading this collection of short stories from the award-winning Larry Niven. I am more used to reading his collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, but was given this book as a Christmas gift in the late 1970s and loved the concept. Each of the books 8 stories are set in Niven’s “Known Space“, four of then featuring the same principal character, Beowulf Shaffer, a pilot looking for work wherever he can find it.

Although all the stories here are worthy and interesting, it is the, without doubt, the title story itself (Neutron Star) and “At The Core” that makes this collection such a delight.

The first four also feature the enigmatic and ancient race known as the Puppeteers (featured ion the cover of this edition). 

The stories themselves were all first published in 1966 and 1967. At the time that this collection was first published in 1978 the concepts and featured technology were still valid, but time has overtaken Noven’s visions of the future. That does not however distract from what are imaginative and compelling stories. I am not by a rule a fan of short stories, but this is one of those collections that kept me intrigued to the end of the final story. Maybe this is due to the links between them all. 

Larry Niven’s work has always been rooted in the big science and theoretical concepts and much of the science in these stories is as fresh and intriguing as it was when I first read them.

Neutron Star is an interesting and intriguing collection. There is pure science, thriller and even a smattering of crime. As good a selection as you will find anywhere.

A Question of Us

A Question of Usby Mary Jane Baker

It’s the opening match of the Denworth Quiz League. Enter Clarice Midwinter, know to all as Clar, captain of the Mighty Morphin Flower Arrangers. More than just a quiz team, the Flower Arrangers have been friends since their school days and it sometimes feels that they are the only thing keeping Clarice sane.

Beside her for every match is Simon. Clar and Simon have been best friends since they were at nursery together but now, at 26, something is changing. Simon’s attempts to whisk Clar off on a date are not new, but they have become more intense and frequent. It seems that their relationship is on the brink of change and either way it goes, things will never be the same again.

As the team embark on the 14th season, Simon challenges Clar to go on a date with him if they can win the league this year. Although their chances seem fairly remote, the fact that he is prepared to make such a bold move sets warning bells off in Clar’s head. Now it is all too real. She can no longer shrug off his intentions, nor can she ignore Simon’s determination to win the league and the bet – not necessarily in that order.

Clarise and Simon are both forced to face their true feelings for each other and things will inevitably go wrong before Clarise comes to terms with the truth behind the decisions she has made throughout her life.

A Question of Us is a very funny and well-observed romantic comedy that ticks all the boxes as far as I am concerned. 

I loved the characters and their friendly banter. They understand each other in a way only life-ling friends can. There are no secrets and nothing is taboo. 

The only strange thing about reading this book, and it is probably more to do with me than Mary Jane Baker is that as I read the dialogue, I heard Welsh accends and not the Yorkshire twang I should have. I think it is because of the relaxed way in which the characters interact with each other. 

This is the second Mary Jane Baker book I have read and it was even better than the first (Bicycle Made For Two). I would heartily recommend this to anyone who is looking for a very funny escape from the realities of everyday life.  

 

Daughters of the Lake

Daughters of the Lakeby Wendy Webb

Daughters of the Lake is, like all Wendy Webb’s books, set on the shores of Lake Superior. And once again she has produced a book that kept me enthralled from the first sentence to the last. It seems that this woman can do no wrong.

The story itself spans a hundred years, unravelling a bond between two very different women. 

When Kate Granger returns to her home town following the break up of her marriage, she is already experiencing strangely clear and very disturbing dreams. But when a body is discovered on the shore close to her parent’s house, the dreams become a reality. 

Kate soon finds herself a suspect in a murder case. To clear her head she visits her cousin at the old family home in Wharton. But rather than provide comfort, the house itself, as well as the mysterious woman in her dreams, seem to be using Kate to tell their own stories.

With some interesting twists and a lot of supernatural intervention, Kate begins to unravel the mystery, but not before some sinister interventions and a discovery that will surprise her whole family.

One again Wendy Webb has woven a chilling tale of death, deceipt, love and fear. I enjoy the little twists and turns of the plot and the wonderful characters she creates. Her love of the Great Lakes is clear as is her mastery of Gothic Horror. 

A really great read from an author who it seems can do no wrong. Bring on the next one…