Category Archives: Review

The Flat Share

The Flat Share

By Beth O’Leary

by Beth O’Leary

The Flat Share is an unapologetic rom-com with all the highs and lows you would expect from the genre. And whilst not breaking any new ground, it is strangely original in its concept.

The small cast of characters is led by the book’s two narrators: Tiff and Leon. The style of their individual narratives is a perfect reflection of their very different personalities. Tiff is gregarious and scatty; Leon is steady, reliable and precise. Tiff loves words and they cascade from her mouth and pen and ants from a nest. On the other hand, Leon is quiet and uses words sparingly like a precious resource not to be squandered. 

Leon has a one-bedroom flat, a girlfriend and is in need of extra money to help his brother. Tiff needs a new place following the breakup from her long term boyfriend, Justin. Their friends think they are both crazy but for Leon and Tiff, it is a perfect solution. He works during the night and spends the weekends with his girlfriend. She works during the day. They share the flat (and the bed) without ever having to meet. The arrangement suites them both so what could possibly go wrong?

For the first few months the arrangement does work, but eventually their lives grow increasingly intertwined and the result are inevitable. 

As I said, the story breaks no new ground and there is an inevitability about the direction the story takes, but I enjoyed the book immensely. I particularly loved to hate the character of Justin who introduces a sinister edge to the tale. There are plenty of will-they-won’t-they moments and some very funny incidents along the way. The characters are all very interesting and the little sub-plots keep the narrative chugging along very nicely.

Tiff and Leon’s relationship blossoms slowly and at each turn I kept wishing for them to speak their minds and see what the reader can see. 

The Flat Share is a funny, delightful and easy read, perfect for those times when you just want to be entertained. 

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe

Before the Coffee Gets Cold

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)

The next in my occasional forays into the works of non-English writers introduced me to a world of fantasy unlike any I have encountered before. Japanese writer Toshikazu Kawaguchi certainly knows how to spin a tale and manages to squeeze a lot of story into the book’s 192 pages. 

This is his second novel, the first, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold”, was adapted from an award-winning play. I haven’t read the first book yet but don’t feel I have missed anything as this is fairly self-contained.

It is actually a collection of four short stories all set in the Funiculi Funicula cafe, tucked away down a Tokyo side street. The cafe boasts not only good coffee and company, but also a unique opportunity for customers to travel in time. There are some very strict rules to this particular service, the most important that you must return to the present before the coffee gets cold. 

For each of the four customers whose stories are told here, there are deeply personal reasons for wanting to travel in time. They may be unable to change what has or will happen, but they are each drawn to the opportunity this experience offers to reassure themselves and the ones they love.

I won’t lie, at first I was not sure I was going to enjoy this book. It took a little while for me to come to terms with the premise and the characters, but once I did I was hooked. Toshikazu has a simple and direct style of writing that gives the story a real pace and the characters are well defined and likeable. 

Although each of the tales is self-contained, the relationships between the characters and their individual arcs bind the collection together impeccably. 

Like most other translations I struggled with the character names, but thankfully the publishers include a “relationship map” that I found invaluable. 

 

Sheltering Rain

Sheltering Rain

by Jojo Moyes

by Jojo Moyes

Sheltering Rain is the story of three generations of women, each determined not to make the same mistakes as the one before. But one thing they seem destined to repeat is the fractured mother-daughter relationship that inevitably shapes their individual lives.

Relationships are not always easy, and that is certainly the case with Moyes’ interesting and troubled characters. They often require hard work, compromise and tolerance. That is true of all relationships whether it is romantic or familial. And it is this that provides the core of what was Jojo Moyes’ first novel.

One phrase that springs to mind when considering Joy, Kate and Sabina’s stories is that nothing truly worth having ever comes easily. They each deal with love in different ways. Even their ideas of what love is are poles apart. Bu below the surface, behind all the frictions and the misunderstandings, there is a bond that none of them can break.

Joy has been raised in the tight-knit and tight-lipped colonial post-war Hong Kong. Like a lot of teenagers in the early 1950s, she is determined to cast aside the emotionally repressive social niceties of her parents and generation and go her own way. When she meets the dashing naval officer Edward during the Queen’s coronation celebrations, it seems she is about to do just that. But it would seem that her upbringing is more engrained than she realised.

Fast forward to the late 1970s and Joy’s teenage daughter, Kate, is just as determined as her mother was to live life by her own rules, away from the constraining expectations of her socially conscious mother. Fleeing to London under something of a cloud, Kate does just that. Where her other put all her eggs in the one basked with Edward, Kate seems incapable of sustaining a long term relationship. Her life becomes a veritable harvest festival of egg baskets. But even as she struggles to endure he daughter doesn’t face the same constraints as her own formative years, she only succeeds in alienating her in other ways.

For Sabine, now 15 and finding herself back at the family home in southern Ireland, the freedoms her mother allowed her seems to widen the gap between them. She simply does not understand her mother’s apparent inability to sustain a relationship. Despite all her efforts to distance herself from the constraints of her own upbringing, Kate is making the same mistakes with Sabine that Joy did with her, just in a different way.

Sheltering Rain offers an intriguing and compelling insight into the bonds of female relationships. There is something warm and comforting about the story, despite the almost constant conflicts between the various characters.

For me, Jojo Moyes tells wonderful stories and the journalist in her can’t help but add the realism and insight that make them that little bit different from the rest.

The Edge of Dark

The Edge of Dark

by Pamela Hartshorne

by Pamela Hartshorne

Jane and Roz live very different lives.

Jane, tricked into a loveless marriage, struggles to live up to the expectations of her husband and mother-in-law. Her life is full of secrets and promises she is determined to keep, not least the one made to her dying sister.

Roz has no family of her own, or so she believes. Her past has hidden secrets that she is only just beginning to come to terms with. She has no memory of the tragedy that killed the rest of her family, but her new job at the newly restored Holmwood House in York triggers disturbing memories.

The one thing that they do have in common is the secrets that lie beneath the surface.  Their lives in inexplicably linked to Holmwood House and its tragic history, but separate by 400 years.

For Roz, taking the job in York is an opportunity to strike out on her own and developed the career she has been dreaming of. It is also an opportunity to reconnect with the city where she was born. She is not looking for answers to her past, but entering Holswood Housen triggers some very disturbing memories. The only thing is, they are not her own. 

Jane’s life in Elizabethan England is far removed from the freedoms and privileges enjoyed by Roz. But they are not the only players in this malicious game. Jane is not the only one reaching across the centuries.

The Edge of Dark is a tale full of hidden secrets, broken promises and faded dreams. Pamela Hartshorne’s knowledge and understanding of Elizabethan England, and particularly York, gives the narrative and characters real authenticity. But it is the intensity of the plot and the sense of menace that really make this book stand out. 

As the story switches between Jane and Roz’s stories, there is a real sense of foreboding. From the Prologue to the last page, the story never lets up. There is mystery, deceit, secrets and dark supernatural forces at play, all in very capable hands.

A very enjoyable read.

 

Late Summer in the Vinyard

 

Late Summer in the Vinyard

by Jo Thomas

by Jo Thomas

This is my third culinary adventure in the company of Jo Thomas and was everything I expected it to be: a fun, easy read and a perfect counterbalance to the stress and strains of everyday life.

If, like me, you read as much for pleasure as enlightenment, then writers like Jo Thomas are a perfect choice. In “Late Summer in the Vinyard” we have all the right ingredients: downtrodden heroin (Emmy Bridges), a captivating location (a French vineyard)and a couple of unlikely suitors (Isaac and Charlie). 

Emmy is single, living at home with her widowed father and facing the prospect of eviction from the family home. She works (very badly) at a call centre and is on the very of losing her job when circumstances place her in the right place at the right time and she finds herself flying off to France to work with a new client, winemaker Charlie Featherstone. 

In some ways, once the scene has been set and the characters set in motion, you can probably work out most of the plot yourself. What makes Jo Thomas’ so interesting is her obvious love and knowledge of food and drink. She manages to weave so much information into her narrative that I am beginning to wonder what comes first: the characters or the food.

Here we learn a little about French cuisine and a lot about winemaking. Each element of the book – the characters, the plot and the wine – are woven into a delightful tale. Jo Thiomas’ books have become something a guilty pleasure or would if I were in the least guilty about it. 

 

Death’s End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #3)

Death's End

by Cixin Liu

by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu)

Death’s End brings the “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy to a climactic and unexpected conclusion. The vision of this series is staggering. Cixin takes his readers on a journey to the ends of the universe via some rather dramatic shifts in scenery and time.

Taking up where The Dark Forest left off, Earth is in a standoff with the Trisolaran’s Keeping the upper hand is not going to be easy and complacency threatens. Enter Chang Xin, an imaginative aerospace engineer recently awoken from hibernation. She is one of many who bring knowledge and insight from the twenty-first century in the hope of securing mankind’s future.

What follows is an insightful view of human frailties and strengths. Through several periods of hibernation, young Cheng finds herself at the centre of the human race’s unfolding story. Reluctantly she becomes a catalyst for change and a powerful figure in the race for answers to the ultimate challenge of survival in a universe where we are surrounded by enemies.

Death’s End is not an easy read. The science is challenging and the twist and turns of the plot are a little unnerving at times, but the narrative and characters drive the story forward at a relentless pace. 

As a conclusion to the series, it is all I had expected and more. It is clever, insightful, enjoyable and thought-provoking. Is it the ending I was expecting? No, not at all. And right up to the very end I had no idea where the story was going.

There is a lot of story packed into its 700+ pages, so be sure UI is ready for the long haul.

As for the series as a whole, it is quite spectacular in its scope and delivery. It is a long time since I have read anything with the same breadth and intensity. Remembrance of Earth’s Past is a visionary epic that deserves a place on the list of sci-fi classics. Cixin Liu is a visionary who I am sure we are going to see more from in the future. 

 

 

Murder in the Village (DI Hillary Greene #4)

Murder in the Village

by Faith Martin

by Faith Martin

The ensemble cast is back for more murder and mystery in the picturesque Oxford suburbs. During the course of the first three books, the regular crew of the Thames Valley force have become well established. Their relationships and idiosyncrasies have woven themselves into the fabric of the books. But in this new adventure things begin to unravel in unexpected ways.

The arrival of new Superintendent, Jerome Raleigh. Raleigh is something of a high-flyer from the Met, but there is something about him that just doesn’t sit right with DI Greene. Why would an ambitious and driven man like him swap the Met for the leafy suburbs of Thames Valley?

Greene is a natural and instinctive detective with an uncanny ability to see when something isn’t right. In the new Super’s case, alarms bells are ringing loud and clear. And she is not alone in her suspicion that there is more to Jerome Raleigh’s move than meets the eye.

But before she can give any time to her thoughts about the new boss she has a murder to solve. Her investigation into the unexplained death of a would-be politician is going nowhere when an unexpected twist in another case leaves Greene with unplanned time on her hands.

With DI Greene’s forced absence from the station, DS Tyler takes over the murder investigation whilst trying to deal with a shocking upheaval in her personal life.

Murder in the Village sees our regular cast of characters thrown off-kilter by the plots interesting little twists. Whilst I have enjoyed the previous three books in the series, I felt there was a greater maturity to this one that indicates Faith Martin’s growing confidence in her characters and their stories.

I do enjoy the way she writes. The books are full of twists and turns, told with a directness and lack of unnecessary detail that makes them very easy to read. DI Greene herself is a character I find it easy to empathise with. She is good at her job and good with the people around her, but she isn’t perfect. She has her own secrets that continue to pull at her conscience like a broken thread.

I have to admit I have become a fan of the Hillary Green stories and look forward to reading the next instalment, already sat on the shelf awaiting my attention.

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man

by Miranda July

by Miranda July

Picking up a book by a new-to-me author brings with it a mix of excitement and mystery. This is particularly true when all the chatter around it make the sort of claims this book has attracted. Judging by the quotes that emblazon the cover and leading pages, this is a novel that will leave an indelible mark on my soul. 

Mind you, if I have learned anything from a lifetime as a book addict, it is to be wary of such self-promotion. In fac, CanonGate has included so many glowing testimonials that they ran out of room to print even a brief synopsis.

For anyone who needs to know, the book follows a year in the life of Cheryl, a single woman in her forties, whose stable and routine life is just about to be turned upside down. There is no great tragedy, just the arrival of her boss’ daughter, Clee. 

It is difficult to describe what follows. As Cheryl tells her story in a frank and open way, we see the complex relationships that glue her life together become unstuck.

The characters we come across are all as mixed up as Cheryl herself, some more so. Whilst the book has its moments of both comedy and tragedy, for me, it just didn’t come together in the way I would have liked. For one thing, I never really felt much empathy for any of the characters. Even poor Cheryl, who tries so hard to do the right thing I found it hard to like.

One thing that does come across is the inherent instability of everyone in her life. Even her doctor and psychiatrist really need professional help.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the book. It is well written and at times very entertaining. For me though, it was over-hyped. I had been led to expect a book that would change my life. Instead I found a story I couldn’t fully relate to, populated with characters I didn’t understand.

The First Bad Man is an interesting read, just not one I would feel comfortable recommending to friends. 

Once Upon a River

Once Upon A River

Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield

by Diane Setterfield

Life on the Thames could be hard, but the people who lived by and along it learned to respect its mercurial nature.

Set in the early 1869s, a time of enlightenment and scientific progress, the old ways of the river folk compete with the new.

For the regulars of the Swan Inn, retelling old stories of the river is a way of life. These stories are often embellished in the retelling but the sense of awe and mystery always remains the same. Little did they suspect that on the wet solstice night they themselves would become part of one of the river’s strangest tales.

As they tell their tales a stranger bursts in, carrying the drowned corpse of a young girl. Hours later the child is very much alive, turning a simple tragedy into something much more intriguing and mysterious. Over the course of the following year, the true identity of the girl (who does not speak) remains in question. Everyone who meets her wants to protect her. Well, almost everyone. She seems to reach into the hearts of those with compassion, but in a small few, she becomes a commodity – a means to a villainous end.

At the heart of this compelling story are two families, each laying claim to the child. s she the baby kidnapped from her bed two years earlier or is she the little girl thought drowned by her distraught mother that very day?

For everyone involved, the child’s presence opens up doors and half-forgotten past events unearth secrets that will ultimately lead to new revelations. 

Almost as mysterious as the girl herself and the links that bind the characters. It is as if some unseen hand has brought them all to this place and time. Through the child they find not only their own salvation but also a reason to live and new hope for the future. 

Dark, Mysterious and beautifully told, Once Upon A River is a brooding mystery that kept me enthralled from the first line to the last. It has as many twists and turns as the river itself, and a comforting continuity that links all the different elements together.

A great book by a natural storyteller. Her stories may be dark, but there is a lightness to the telling and a sense of hope that make them easy to read and to believe.
She is a writer whose books I can thoroughly recommend.

 

Us Three

Us Three

Us Three by Ruth Jones

by Ruth Jones

Anyone who has seen Ruth Jones’ TV work on Stella and Gavin & Stacy will already be aware of her gentle but sharp observational comedy. She has a way of capturing the humour in everyday situations with her clever use of language and her eye for detail.

In Us Three she does this in spades. It is a touching story of three girl’s lifetime bond, sometimes stretched but never completely broken. Lana, Catrina and Judith are very different girls from diverse backgrounds, but they become the closest of friends through shared experiences and a bond that goes beyond the obvious. They support each other through family tragedies and the angst and turmoil of adolescence. They are inseparable, or so it seems.

Throughout their childhood, they have never been apart. Then comes university and things begin to change. There are new friendships and relationships that challenge the status quo. Their love for each other remains, but cracks begin to show.

For me, this is one of those books I couldn’t put down once I had started it. As Larna, Cat and Judith face love and heartbreak together I felt envious of their relationship with each other. One of the things I like about Ruth’s work is that she doesn’t sugarcoat things. The highs and lows of the three friends are realistic. Friendships are not always easy to maintain. Sometimes it takes work. And betrayal, whether it is real or imagined, hurts all the more because of it. 

It is an endearing story that examines the strengths and weaknesses of female friendship. It is warm, uplifting and brutally honest. This could be the story of any group of young women anywhere, but as always, Ruth Jone writes about the people she knows best – the Welsh. You can almost hear the comforting Welsh lilt in the dialogue. 

A great book.