Audio Book Junkie

Audio Book Junkie

My name is Mike Finn and I'm an Audio Book Addict.

I'm here to share my experience of the books I listen to.

Review
4 Stars
"Stillhouse Lake" by Rachel Caine
Stillhouse Lake - Rachel Caine

"Stillhouse Lake" is one of the most tense, realistic and original thrillers I've read in a long time. From the brutal discovery of the opening scenes through to the violence of the conclusion, this was a narrative that grabbed hold of my attention and never let go.

 

The story is told from the point of view of Gina Royale, the innocent-but-believed-by-most-to-be-guilty wife of a sadistic serial killer who abducted young women and tortured them to death in his garage workshop. Gina and her two children have been hiding from the many vigilantes who want to harm her and her kids to avenge the murdered women. They have moved home and changed identities many times and live as much off the grid as possible. Gina has made herself into Gwen Proctor, a woman who knows how to shoot and how to hide in plain sight and who lives in a permanent state of paranoia.

 

Gwen Proctor doesn't trust, doesn't relax and doesn't ever let herself of her kids do anything that attracts attention. Her constant alertness, her security drills, her background checks and her insistence on a zero social media presence would seem paranoid were it not the brutality of the threat she is under.

 

Living in Gwen's head felt filled me with a very uncomfortable level of tension, and claustrophobia. The violence of what was done to the murdered woman and what trolls are threatening to do to Gwen and her children is described with brutal bluntness. There's no ghoulish exploitation but the actions themselves are so vile that they stain your mind as you read them. Gwen's calm risk assessments and detailed planning to protect herself and her children are chilling. Her inability to trust those who may be trying to help her poisons everything. I admired her courage but wondered how anyone could survive living with so much pressure for so long.

 

Then, in the second half of the book, everything goes to hell and the tension goes from a constant dull-ache to a wild scream of pain and adrenalin.

 

The plot is full of surprises but there is no cheating. Everything works. It's just hard to see the truth. Gwen is warrior-strong: vigilant, disciplined, fierce but constantly afraid, and often flooded with guilt about what she should have seen and done when the man she lived with and shared a bed with was torturing women,

 

"Stillhouse Lake" is not a comfortable read but it is tense, credible, suspenseful and surprising.

 

The audiobook version is brilliantly performed by Emily Sutton-Smith. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

 

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Review
4 Stars
"Bone Crossed - Mercy Thompson #4" by Patricia Briggs
Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs

The fourth Mercy Thompson books starts right after the trauma of "Iron Kissed" and then kicks it up a notch by literally dropping a tortured, ravenous vampire into Mercy's arms.

What follows is clever, dual plot novel, focused on vampires and ghosts, that moves the whole series forward.

 

I was impressed at Patricia Briggs' ability to continue to be inventive in how she shapes the supernatural world. "Bone Crossed" gives me a kind of vampire I've never encountered before. It also succeeds at mixing werewolves, fae, vampires and ghosts in a way that feels credible and doesn't leave me feeling I need a field guide to supernatural beings to understand what's going on.

 

The main strength of the series is the strong focus on character-driven narrative, not just Mercy's character but for the secondary characters as well. Even the rather unpleasant leader of the local vampires gains some depth in this book. Everyone is granted some complexity that helps make them real.

 

I also admire the way humour, especially banter, is used to leaven the dark themes of the book without undermining or denying them.

 

What keeps things fantasy fretwork grounded is the willingness to take a realistic approach to the emotional impact of events. Patricia Briggs acknowledges that, even when you're a kiss-ass heroine coyote mechanic raised by wolves, the aftermath of rape is months of panic attacks that leave you vomiting and curling up into a ball.

 

She also allowed Mercy to make a choice between the two men who want her. I'm glad we avoided the Stephani Plumb Purgatory of never being allowed to choose one man because unresolved sexual tension sells. I also think she chose the right guy, so I'm smiling (who knew I'd care?).

Getting the best from reading short story collections

LitHub Short stories

I'm a fan of short stories. I love reading them and trying to write them. In my opinion, they have almost nothing in common with novels. My expectation and experience of them are quite different.

 

I first fell in love with Science Fiction through short stories. They tended to move fast, challenging me to keep up so that I could figure out the point they wanted to make.

 

Mainstream short stories are sometimes like that but the ones that hold my attention best aren't didactic, they're experiential. They don't make a point, they make a place or a person or a situation vividly real. They are the ultimate close-up, focusing my mind far more sharply than reality ever can. Their challenge is not for me to keep up but to stay open to the experience, to step back from plot or even narrative and soak up everything the text has to offer.

 

Brandon Taylor understands what short stories really are. In his excellent article "Against The Attention Economy: Short Stories Are Not Quick Literary Fixes" , he explains why those who expected the short story to become the reading matter of choice in an allegedly short attention span culture got it wrong. Short stories, he reminds us, are not fiction-lite. They are dense and intense, They are not the fast fix candy of the literary world but rather the slow-release dishes that continue to nourish you long after the meal is over.

 

This made me reflect on how I read and review short story collections. I'm normally a linear reader. I'm obsessive about starting a series of novels with the first book and then reading them in sequence. I read novels from the title page to the last page. I don't skip or skim or dip in for a non-sequential taste. With short story collections, I browse the contents page like a menu. I know I'm going to eat everything eventually but the sequence will depend on what I'm hungry for. Short stories are not chapters. They are not fragments. Each story is the whole thing, all by itself. My ideal short story collection would come with an iTunes "shuffle" option.

 

It takes me much longer to read short story collection than it does to read a novel of the same length because I need to take time to digest each story before I start another. If I don't take a break, I find myself perception of the stories being shaped by a kind of gestalt effect, a need to make connections between the stories that first them into a pattern, whether or not one was intended by the author. As Forrest Gump might have said, "Short story collections are like a box of chocolates - if you eat them all one after another they all start to taste the same."

 

When I'm reviewing a short story collection, I start by listing the story titles, then, as I read a story, I capture my thoughts on that story in rough notes. When I've read the collection, I review the notes and finally allow myself to ask if the collection is, in some way, more than the sum of the stories and whether my perception of any of the stories has changed after reading them all.

 

I'm currently reading Danielle McLaughlin's short story collection, "Dinosaurs On Other Planets".Here's an example of the notes I've made on the first story: "The Art Of Footbinding".

Dinosaurs-cover-J5-e1488291550745 This is a quietly disturbing story that leaves the reader to arrive at an understanding of the meaning of the story or. perhaps, just to see clearly the people in the story.

 

We are presented with a woman trying to hold on to a husband she is fearful of losing and struggling to assert authority over an increasingly contemptuous and unhappy teenage daughter.

 

Descriptions of the art of footbinding, that read as if they are from a very old Chinese handbook for footbinders, are placed between the unfolding events. That the daughter then starts to bind her own feet, allegedly as part of a homework assignment, links the two streams of text.

 

I like the words that are left unsaid and the relationships and meanings that are left implicit in this story. The effect is to make the story more truthful and more compelling.

 

I was left to consider what I thought about the things women are willing to do or are made to or push their daughters into doing in order not to be abandoned.

I wasn't told what to think. I was invited to consider. I liked that. It's something a short story is uniquely positioned to do.

This process lets me savour each story for itself.

 

It strikes me that getting the best out of reading a short story collection is like getting the best from kissing. Your attention should not wander onto what may follow on from the current kiss not should you be occupied with comparing the current kiss to the last. All your attention should be on the kiss that is happening right now.

My Best Reads, Best New Finds, Best New Series and Biggest Disappointment in October, November and December 2017

2017 q4 domplete

 

This has been a good three months for mainstream fiction, science fiction and urban fantasy with a little bit of Christmas sparkle around the edges. I've read thirty-three books, although I declined to finish a record-breaking six of them.

 

ProvenanceAll systems red

In science fiction enjoyed Ann Leckie's quietly fascinating "Provenance" and Martha Wells' fast and inventive novella "All Systems Red"

 

 

flame in the dark

 

In urban fantasy, I visited with Mercy Thompson a couple of times and lost myself in the third Soulwood book, "A Flame In The Dark" a spin-off series from Faith Hunter's Jane Yellowrock stories that I think is starting to outperform its parent.

 

 

 

18782067For Christmas fun, I read "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" which was fun but not very festive, "Jacob T. Marley" which was one of the books I abandoned and the surprising and totally engaging "St, Nick" about a cop playing Santa Claus and learning a lot about himself along the way.

So here are my recommendations from the last three months.

 

 

 

Best  Mainstream Reads of the Quarter

This was another strong quarter for mainstream fiction, so I'm recommending three books rather than one.

Eleanor OliphantI didn't expect it to be, but "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine" turned out to be one of my favourite books this year.

 

Given that this is a book about a person who is very far from completely fine, who bears the physical and mental scar of childhood trauma and lives in a state of brutal isolation, this might sound like a depressing read. Yet I found it hopeful and sometimes funny, not because it escaped from reality but because it captured it so well but never gave in to despair.

 

There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are.

 

The writing is pretty much perfect.  The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor's perception. The emotions in the book are strong and real but not broadcast in soundbites or flash cards. If this was a movie, there would be no dramatic music, just close-ups of people being people.

 

My-Name-Is-Lucy-Barton-bu-Elizabeth-Strout-on-BookDragon-via-BooklistWhat I want to say about "My Name Is Lucy Barton" is: read it and read it soon. It's full of truth. It will make you cry. It will make you feel less alone. It will give you courage. It will fill your imagination as you read it and echo in your memory long afterwards.

 

"My Name Is Lucy Barton" is about "A poor girl from Amgash who loved her momma." It's not a plot-driven book or even a character-driven book. It's a book in which Lucy, talking to us directly and frankly shares her thoughts, emotions and memories about how she and her mother were together.

 

In a few hours of listening, I felt that I knew who Lucy Barton was, at least as well as anyone can know such a thing.

 

At one point in the book, Lucy says, "I know a true sentence when I hear one." Well, this seems to me to be a book full of true sentences. I kept interrupting myself as I read to make a note of another true thing. Then I realised that the only way to do justice to their truth was to read the book. I recommend you do the same.

 

 

 

I am not your perfect mexican daughterIn her interview with Hyable, Erika Sanchez gave this as the elevator pitch for "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter":

The novel s a coming of age story about Julia Reyes, a Mexican-American girl growing up in Chicago. The book begins with the death of her sister, Olga, who appeared to be the perfect daughter until Julia sets out to discover who she truly was. In the process, Julia begins to understand her family and herself.

What caught me by surprise was the simple beauty of the prose, the depth of the insight into depression and the skilful pacing of Julia's emotional journey.

 

Erika Sanchez's simple, precise, beautiful prose, captures Julia perfectly and helps the reader see her clearly in a way that seems effortless and natural but which requires great skill.

 

The novel deals with death, love, cultural and personal identity and the impact of trauma and secrets on our ability to be honest with ourselves and others. This is not an easy ride but it is one that is filled with deep compassion, a reluctance to judge and a refusal to simplify or avoid unpleasant things.

 

Best New Finds of the Quarter

The Bette Davis Club“The Bette Davis Club” by Jane Lotter, is a larger than life comedy, structured around a chaotic road-trip in a classic 1938 MG that careens from Malibu to Manhattan by way of Chicago.

 

Margo Just, a single woman in her fifties whose life is slowly falling apart attends her niece’s wedding in her childhood home in Malibu, despite being estranged from her half-sister.

When the bride jilts the groom and makes a run for it, Margo’s financially straitened circumstances, combined with the impact of the several vodka martinis and the promise of the use of her dead father’s classic little red sports car, lead to her accept a mission, from her half-sister to join with the groom and bring the runaway bride home.

 

What follows is a riotous journey with some classic scenes, including a crazed attack on the highway and Margo, who is straight, doing the samba in a lesbian dance competition. It's also an engaging internal journey for Margo, who is on the cusp of confronting some deep truths about her life that will determine her future.

 

 

51uJOh7t7xL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Matthew Sullivan's "Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore" is darker, more compelling and much more moving than the title suggests.

 

The publisher's summary told me the story would start with a suicide.

"When a bookshop patron commits suicide, it’s his favorite store clerk who must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer."

I thought the suicide would have all the emotional impact of a body found in a locked room in an Agatha Christie murder mystery.

 

This book isn't a puzzle. It isn't cute. It's a story about a woman in her twenties, damaged by a night of violence when she was ten, for whom The Bright Ideas Bookstore is a place of refuge, not just a place of work. She is the bookseller who best connects with the "bookfrogs", the damaged, often homeless, always slightly lost, people who hang around the bookstore for its warmth and shelter as well as its books.

 

Finding one of the youngest bookfrogs just after he suicides in the store is not the start of a puzzle to be unravelled, it is a traumatic event that is the first tremor in a quake that will collapse her understanding of her own past and leave her scrambling to stand in the rubble.

 

This is a book filled with sadness, with bad decisions, with love overpowered by guilt or loss and with the genuine evil that sometimes finds us.

 

It's also a book about the persistence of the need for love and the possibility of survival through retaining the ability to be kind to others and yourself.

 

Best New Series of the Quarter

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Helen Harper's "Slouch Witch" is a light, witty, laugh-out-loud, ever-so-slightly-RomCom Urban Fantasy. It twists and tickles Urban Fantasy, odd-couple buddy movies and RomCom tropes until they collapse in a fit of giggles, while still managing to build a credible magical universe and deliver a satisfying whodunnit plot.

 

This is clever stuff that Helen Harper makes look completely effortless.

 

Ivy Wilde drives a taxi in Oxford, but it would be a mistake to think of her as a taxi driver. She's a witch. True, she's not in the Order like other witches, at least not anymore and her favourite occupation is watching "Enchantment" from the comfort of her sofa while eating food that has been delivered to her door, but she's still a witch who knows a thing or two.

 

A misunderstanding compels her to work with a senior witch in the investigative arm of the Order. He is everything Ivy is not. Although he is many things Ivy finds attractive.

 

As the two of them track down wrong-doers within the order, sparks fly, spells are cast, karaoke is performed and a great time is had by all (well, not the bad guys of course, but everybody else).

 

This was escapist fun that I sorely needed. Read it and smile.

 

 

Biggest Disappointment of the Quarter

WHITE-SILENCE-kindle

"White Silence" isn't the worst book I've read this quarter, nor it is it the only book I didn't finish but is the one that disappointed me the most because I love Jodi Taylor's St, Mary's books and had high hopes of this new series.

 

The cover is beautiful and the publisher's summary describes it as: "The first instalment in the new, gripping supernatural thriller series." and as:
a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.”

 

I got twelve chapters and four hours into this ten-hour audiobook and without experiencing anything like tension. I had difficulty maintaining more than mild curiosity so I gave up.

 

The premise of “White Silence” is intriguing. It tells the story of Elizabeth Cage, an adopted child with the ability to see people so clearly that she knows their character, intent and inclinations on sight. Trained from childhood to hide her powers, she seeks out a quiet life with a quiet man, only to be manoeuvred into the hands of unscrupulous people who want to use her powers for evil.

 

Sounds like stirring stuff in a sort of Superman meets Sixth Sense meets Medium kind of way. Except it isn’t. The pace is agonisingly slow. Elizabeth Cage has so little personality that I struggled to care what happened to her and the England of the story seems to be trapped somewhere in an idealised 1950s.

Review
4 Stars
"Slouch Witch - The Lazy Girl's Guide To Magic #" by Helen Harper - tremendous fun
Slouch Witch - Helen   Harper

I knew Helen Harper could write original, compelling, dark, angst-ridden Urban Fantasy, her Bo Blackman series proved that.

 

I didn't know that she could also write light, witty, laugh-out-loud, ever-so-slightly-RomCom Urban Fantasy.

 

I know it now.

 

"Slouch Witch" is a delightful piece of comedy that twists and tickles Urban Fantasy, odd-couple buddy movies and RomCom tropes until they collapse in a fit of giggles, while still managing to build a credible magical universe and deliver a satisfying whodunnit plot.

 

This is clever stuff that Helen Harper makes look completely effortless.

 

Ivy Wilde drives a taxi in Oxford, but it would be a mistake to think of her as a taxi driver. She's a witch. True, she's not in the Order like other witches, at least not anymore and her favourite occupation is watching "Enchantment" from the comfort of her sofa while eating food that has been delivered to her door, but she's still a witch who knows a thing or two.

 

A misunderstanding compels her to work with a senior witch in the investigative arm of the Order. He is everything Ivy is not. Although he is many things Ivy finds attractive.

As the two of them track down wrong-doers within the order, sparks fly, spells are cast, karaoke is performed and a great time is had by all (well, not the bad guys of course, but everybody else).

 

This is escapist fun at its best. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Tanya Eby. She's a talented narrator and does a great job but I'm puzzled as to why Ivy seems to have an American accent when the story is set in Oxford, is laced with English vernacular and where the other characters are given some form of English accent. I forgave this after a while because Tanya Eby's comic timing is perfect. I'm happy to listen to her perform the next two books in the series.

 

Review
2 Stars
"Jacob T Marley" by R. William Bennet - DNF
Jacob T. Marley - R. William Bennett

I chose "Jacob T. Marley" because I was searching for festive cheer and the premise of the book sounded interesting. The publisher's summary promised a story that:

"... focuses the spotlight on Scrooge's miserly business partner, Jacob T. Marley, who was allowed to return as a ghost to warn Scrooge away from his ill-fated path. Why was Marley allowed to return? And why hadn t he been given the same chance as Ebenezer Scrooge? Or had he?

Written with a voice reminiscent of Dickens, Jacob T. Marley is to A Christmas Carol as the world-famous Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz as this masterfully crafted story teaches of choices, consequences, and of the power of accountability."

I listened to the first two hours of this four-hour audiobook before abandoning it.

The idea, at least at the beginning, was as original as it sounded. The writing is well crafted and sounds suitably Victorian without lapsing into pastiche. The narration is first rate.

 

I abandoned the book, despite its strengths because I felt it was withering in the shadow cast by a "Christmas Carol". Dickens' novel has a light touch that delivers a unique blend of humour, pathos, horror and moral certitude. By comparison, this book feels weighed down by the need to honour its progenitor while generating something novel of its own.

 

To me, it seemed that after-life that Jacob T. Marley encounters was more firmly rooted in Christian myth than "A Christmas Carol" was. As I read "Jacob T. Marley" I realised that Dickens had painted a mostly pagan view of the Spirits of Christmas and that much of its joy and sense of possibility comes from not being held to account to Judeo/Christian Ledger of Atonement.

 

I'm sure many people will enjoy the four hours that they spend in Jacob T. Marley's company but it wasn't what I was looking for.

Review
4 Stars
"Flame In The Dark - Soulwood #3" by Faith Hunter
Flame in the Dark (A Soulwood Novel) - Faith Hunter

The Soulwood series is probably the most original Urban Fantasy series that I've come across.

 

It shares the same world as Jane Yellowrock and was introduced through a Jane Yellowrock short story but, over the course of the first three books, it has established a strong, independent identity.

 

Nell Ingrams, the main character in the books, is not human, at least not anymore. Fighting for her freedom from the polygamous church she was born into and from men who wanted to seize the land she inherited when she became a young widow woman, has caused her to draw upon her connection to Soulwood, her land, in ways that have made her less and less human.

 

She is a now a probationary Special Agent in the part of the FBI set up to deal with parahuman cases. The cases themselves are fascinating but the power of the books comes from Nell's development as a person, living in a world where she has to make hard choices that will define who she will become.

 

"Flame In The Dark" sees Nell and the other members of Unit 18, faced with a series of attacks that may be political or parahuman or both but which always include fires at the scene of the attacks and are committed by an attacker who scorches and kills the land he steps on.

 

Discovering what this is about and trying to bring the bad guys down provides an entertaining, action-packed mystery that is the source of about half the pleasure I got from this book. I didn't guess where the mystery was going but I did believe the outcome. This is the hallmark of a good mystery for me.

 

The rest of the pleasure I got from the book was watching Nell grow and change in unique and unpredictable ways while still remaining recognisable as the Nell I met in the first book. In this book, Nell confronts the fact that she is not human and works through what this means. She starts to build closer links to the people in Unit 18 and becomes more confident in her work. She also makes some decisions about the relationship that she will have with her family, especially her younger sister who is the same kind of non-human as Nell, and with the Church she left but cannot fully leave behind. As the book progresses, Nell's non-human nature becomes more apparent, yet her appeal as a person gets stronger.

 

I think Faith Hunter has struck gold with this series. I hope she gives us many more opportunities to follow Nell's path through life.

 

I recommend listening to the audiobook version of "A Flame In The Dark" which is skillfully narrated by Khristine Hvam.

Review
4 Stars
“All Systems Red – The Murderbot Diaries #1” by Martha Wells – fresh, fun, science fiction novella
All Systems Red - Martha Wells

I picked up “All Systems Red” because it was one of the Best Science Fiction Nominees in the GoodReads Choice Awards 2017   It’s my first Martha Wells book, but I’m sure it won’t be my last.

 

I’ve been reading Science Fiction for more than forty years and it’s rare for me to come across a novella as fresh, engaging and original as “All Systems Red”.

 

Told from the point of view of a part machine, part organic, Security Bot that secretly refers to itself as “Murderbot”, “All Systems Red” is a turn-the-page-I have-to-know-what-happens-next read. Murderbot has gone rogue, is proud of himself for not having murdered everybody yet and mostly wants to be left alone to watch entertainment videos. Strange and violent happenings that threaten “his” humans mean that he has to put the entertainments aside and take risks to keep his humans alive.

 

Murderbot’s interior monologue is simple, alien and compelling. He is not human but he is not just a machine either. He’s a person that you end up rooting for.

 

The mystery at the heart of the book is relatively simple and is soon resolved but a whole universe of expectations and rules and behaviours are revealed along the way.

 

The ending is pretty much perfect. It allows “All Systems Red” to work as a standalone novel while leaving me hoping that there will be a sequel soon..

Review
2 Stars
"Snow" by Howard Odentz - not worth the time it took me to read its 34 pages.
Snow - Howard Odentz

I bought "Snow" as a short story to help read myself into Christmas. Even though it's set in October, it is a Christmas-related story albeit in an unconventional way.

 

I won't go into to the story, other than to say that it involves some teens doing things they shouldn't, a big bad who is a threat to them and some snow. Although the opening sentence reads:

"The night my friends and I almost triggered the next ice age, I was with Danny McDermott and Jackie Kagan"

I didn't feel any real sense of threat in this story and certainly nothing that meant anything to anyone except some high school kids with a lot of growing up still to do.

 

The writing is slick and skilful. The pace is fast. The idea is novel. It's a good goosebumps story to tell around a campfire.

 

But mostly what it is is disappointing. It fizzles out rather than ends. It never gets beyond a cartoon view of the world. This idea, in the hands of King or Simmons, might have been chilling. In Odentz's hands, it's a draft for pitching an episode in a teen high school drama.

Review
4 Stars
"The Bette Davis Club" by Jane Lotter - a fun, original road-trip novel with surprising emotional depth.
The Bette Davis Club - Jane Lotter

"The Bette Davis Club" is a larger than life comedy, structured around a chaotic road-trip in a classic 1938 MG that careens from Malibu to Manhattan by way of Chicago.

 

Margo Just, the main character, is a single woman in her fifties whose life is slowly falling apart. She's been a fully paid-up member of the Bette Davis Club for many years (I'm not going to spoil things by telling you what that means but I'm sure most of you will have met a member or two) and can't find a way to move on.

 

A New Yorker from the age of nineteen, Margo attends her niece's wedding in her childhood home inMalibu more for the free accommodation, food and drink than out of any sense of family connection.

 

When the bride jilts the groom and makes a run for it, Margo's financially straitened circumstances, combined with the impact of the several vodka martinis and the promise of the use of her dead father's classic little red sports car, lead to her accept a mission from her half-sister bring the runaway bride home. Ony after she accepts the mission does she discover that the jilted groom will be her driver and that her sister is as concerned to retrieve some things the bride took with her as she is to have her daughter return.

 

What follows is a riotous journey with some classic scenes, including a crazed attack on the highway and Margo, who is straight, doing the samba in a lesbian dance competition.

 

As a backdrop to all this, we learn Margo's backstory and how she came to join the Betty Davis Club. It's the backstory that adds emotional weight to what could have been just another light comedy. When we finally see Margo in her entirety, we meet a woman on the cusp of confronting who she is and what she's going to do with the rest of her life.

 

I'd expected the "The Bette Davis Club" to be a fast fun read. It met those expectations and then exceeded them by constantly surprising me and engaging me more and more deeply with Margo's story.

 

jane lotterSadly, there are no more books by Jane Lotter. She self-published "The Bette Davis Club" just before she died of cancer. She then wrote her own obituary. You can read it here.

 

It seems to me that Jane Lotter was an extraordinary woman who gifted us with one extraordinary book.

Review
3.5 Stars
"Hercule Poirot's Christmas - Hercule Poirot #20" by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot's Christmas: A Hercule Poirot Mystery - Agatha Christie

I picked "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" as part of a read-my-way-into-the-Christmas-spirit effort but this book is definitely not a cosy Christmas read. It was though, thoroughly entertaining, at least up until the denouement which was clumsily presented, incredibly contrived and more than a little disappointing.

 

The title of the book, which I understand was changed from "Murder At Christmas" is a little misleading.  Poirot doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book and, for the most part, speaks only to advance the plot or to feed the reader wild and usually false theories about who the murder is.

 

Christmas plays an even smaller part in the book than Poirot does. It provides a reason for gathering a strife-torn family in a country house for a few days so that a suspect-rich locked-room murder can take place but blood flows before the festivities begin, so this could just have easily have been "Hercule Poirot's  Long Weekend Family Murder", although that title probably wouldn't have sold as well.  The only extended reference to Christmas is a fire-side speech in which Poirot explains why the "benign hypocrisy" of pretending, for many days over Christmas, to like people for whom we do not care and who we may even detest, but with whom we are forced to eat and drink and carry out rituals that feign fun, may build up a pressure to act more like ourselves that may seek to find its outlet in violence.

 

Although "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" is the detectives twentieth outing, this is first of the novels I've read. My expectations of Poirot were set by David Suchet in LWT's long-running TV series "Agatha Christie's Poirot". The TV series was very much centred on Poirot and his little grey cells. I was pleasantly surprised to find that "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" didn't follow this pattern until almost the end. Instead, the story starts by showing how each of the brothers invited to the family Christmas at which the murder will occur, interacts with his wife and reacts to the invitation itself. I enjoyed these vignettes, which mostly gave me strong or intriguing woman and weak or boring men. The time invested in the characters moved to book from a rather dry-locked room puzzle to a family struggle filled with suppressed anger and resentment and long-standing feuds.

 

We are also introduced, by way of a chance meeting on a train, to two foreigners who do not know that they will both be guests at the murder-plagued country house Christmas part. I was intrigued and horrified in equal parts by how Agatha Christie described and uses these foreigners. There is a Spanish woman, inevitably described as a dark beauty. Her mother was English and related to the family hosting the weekend and yet it is clear to everyone that this one is in no way English. There is a South African man who described himself as "British, of course" but who knows very well that this will never make him English.

 

The two foreigners are the jokers in the suspect deck, unpredictable, wild and exotic and obviously not to be trusted. The Spanish woman is described as if she comes from some semi-savage place of violent passions and inappropriate manners. The men treat her as if she were an exhibit in a zoo, something wild that might be dangerous but which they'd enjoy trying to tame. The South African man does a better job of passing for civilized but his energy and aggression and used to show how the very old man who heads this unhappy family might have been in his unscrupulous youth when he was making his fortune. Both foreigners are used to show London as dirty and overcrowded and the English as dull and repressed. I suspect Agatha Christie was using them and Poirot to take shots at a society that she found stifling.

 

Once the death occurs and Poirot gets involved, everything becomes more predictable, except that the police were more educated and confident than they ever where in the TV series and the process of trudging through the evidence is far more protracted than any TV audience would have patience with.

 

I was kept amused and engaged until the very end when the great reveal occurred. It took too long and, while technically possible, was so improbable as to be insulting.

Then the book fizzled out with a lot of happily ever after exchanges that seemed unlikely and inauthentic.

 

I listened to the audiobook version, which was enlivened by the narration of Hugh Fraser who played Hastings in the TV series and made a good fist of the whole thing. You can hear a sample of his work on the SoundCloud link below.

 

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Review
4 Stars
“St. Nick” by Alan Russell – a perfect read for getting into the Christmas spirit.
St. Nick (Kindle Serial) - Alan Russell

I see three challenges for any Christmas book:

  1. Find an original angle that's grounded in something real but allows reality to bend for Christmas
  2. Evoke the spirit of Christmas without being too saccharine
  3. Make me care about the people as people rather than as avatars for Christmas messages

 

Allen Russell's "St. Nick" manages to pass all three tests. He managed to make me laugh at bad Christmas jokes that I hadn't heard in a long time and cry at the unfairness of a universe in which children get cancer.

 

"St. Nick", tells the story of Nick Pappas, a San Deigo cop who has been through a recent trauma that has him suspended from the police force. It's Thanksgiving and he's living alone in a shoddy apartment and seriously contemplating eating his gun. He gives himself a reprieve to help his former partner catch some muggers at the shopping mall he runs security for. To catch the muggers, he goes undercover as Santa.

 

From there, Nick's life gets taken over by the responsibilities that come with the new uniform he's wearing. It brings him into contact with a terminally sick boy with an impossible Christmas wish and sends him searching for Laura, a little girl whose letter to Santa is so moving that Nick ends up starting a search to find her and help her.

 

Along the way, he builds relationships with a relentlessly cheerful Head Elf, a nurse in the Pediatric Oncology ward and a woman TV reporter who films a segment from his lap and the quarterback from the San Diego Football team.

 

Throughout, Nick remains the cop he always was. He never loses touch with reality but he does allow himself to re-engage with hope and drives himself to do the right thing for children who need him.

 

This is an engaging read, with a great pace, a good mix of laughter and tears, a plot that surprises but remains believable and a spirit of Christmas that is about finding the hope and the love to push through the depression and the pain that life offers us. I think it's a perfect  December read.

 

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"St. Nick" was my first Alan Russell book. Looking at his bibliography, it seems that he writes all kinds of fiction but always starts by imagining a real person in a real situation.

In this interview, "True Confessions Of St. Nick",  he explains how he went about writing "St. Nick", including the time he spent working as a Santa in San Diego.

Good Reads Best Books of 2017 – fun to disagree with

Good Reads have just announced which books their members voted for in 2017.

 

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It turns out I didn't pick a single winner, although two of the winners, "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng and "Into The Water" by Paula Hawkins are in my TBR pile. Perhaps, if I'd gotten to them in time, they'd have been my choices too.

 

I like this award as it's based on votes from readers and not on sales or critical acclaim.

 

Of course, GoodReads decides which books will be nominated and almost all the nominations have been pushed to me by Amazon or Audible during the year so it's not exactly a neutral list.

 

I enjoyed cheering for the authors I already knew and checking out some I hadn't met yet.

 

Here's who I voted for. I recommend them to you.

 

Fiction

Eleanor Oliphant

I thought the Fiction nominations were the strongest this year. As well as the winner, "Little Fires Everywhere", I'm looking forward to reading Elizabeth Strout's "Anything Is Possible" and Ruth Hogan's, "The Keeper Of Lost Things".

"Beartown" is a great book, even if I couldn't get myself past the emotionally challenging content to finish it.

 

Even so, I had no hesitation voting for "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine". It is original, honest, authentic, challenging and yet still manages often to be funny and always to be humane.

 

Gail Honeyman is now on my Must Read list.

 

 

 

Mystery and Thriller

THE DRY

This is a genre I've only really begun paying attention to this year so many of the books nominated passed me by.

 

Based on the list, I've picked up the winner, "Into The Water" by Jane Hawkins, who is new to me, and "Stillhouse Lake" by Rachel Caine who I know only from her fantasy books.

 

I would have bought "Glass Houses" by Louise Penny, but it's the thirteenth Chief Inspector Armand Gamache book, and I've only read "Still Life" the first in the series and I like to read series in order.

 

So my vote went to Jane Harper's debut novel, "The Dry", set in a dying small town in Australia. It's an atmospheric, mostly character driven book, that I found to be fresh and engaging.

 

Aaron Falk, the detective at the centre of this story about a murdered family seems authentic and relatively cliché-free. The second Aaron Falk book "Force Of Nature" is now on my TBR pile.

 

Fantasy

 

IMG_0048I'm a fan of Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson and, to a lesser extent, Ilona Andrews' Sweep series but I'm well behind the current releases so I couldn't vote for them.

 

"Etched In The Bone", the last in Anne Bishop's "The Others" series has been on my shelf since it was published but it hasn't called to me yet. I think I'm delaying bringing the series to an end and a little worried that I'll be disappointed.

 

I'm a longstanding J. K. Rowling fan and I enjoy the movie of  "Mythical Beasts And Where To Find Them" but I'm disappointed to see the screenplay win this section. It got almost twice as many votes as its nearest rivals so it's a clear winner but screenplays are not books. Not even close.

 

My vote went to Mark Lawrence's "Red Sister", which is original, bloodthirsty and bold. Some of the themes are distressing and all of the (frequent) violence is graphic but it swept me along in its own self-confidence.

 

Science Fiction

And the rest is history

Science Fiction also has a strong set of nominees. I loved "Provenance" by Ann Leckie for its quiet evocation of another world and its insights into people, not all of whom were human.

I'm curious about "Waking Gods" by Sylvain Neuvel. I want to see if the technique changes from "Sleeping Giants" to become something more like a novel and less like a play.

 

The list tempted me to add new authors to my  TBR pile: Martha Wells "All Systems Red", Omar El Akkad "American War",  and Jeff Vandermeer, "Bourne".

 

Andy Weir, who won with "Artemis" doesn't appeal to me: too hard science, too puzzle-based.

 

My vote went to "And The Rest Is History" because Jodi Taylor, in the eighth book of what used to be a fun series about time traveller historians causing mayhem, played my emotions like a violin and made me cry. That's character driven writing  at its best.

 

 

Best Debut GoodReads Author

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I'm grateful to GoodReads for providing a platform for new talent.

 

Jane Harper is on here for "The Dry" and Omar El Akkad for "American War" and Jennifer Ryan for "The Chilbury Ladies Choir".

 

I voted for "Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore" by Matthew Sullivan.

 

I would probably not have found this book if it hadn't been on the longlist for this award.

 

It's not as bright and cheery as the title suggests but it is a wonderful look at how books give the damaged hope. It's wrapped around a good mystery and has memorable, believable people at its heart.

 

Stacking up books for Christmas

christmas reads 2017Christmas is a precious consensual delusion. It's a once a year opportunity to place my hope and perhaps even my belief, in the magic that could be wrought if we really acted with goodwill towards each other.

 

The rest of the year, I school myself to avoid delusions and to examine carefully the motives and actions of those around me. Unless I check myself, I'll carry this mindset over into Christmas and my jaded eyes will see a slightly frantic couple of weeks, focused on cooking to impress, shopping to appease, and going to parties that serve food I can't eat and alcohol that I don't want to avoid offending people that I don't really know.

 

I check myself through rituals that change my internal monologue. I stop following politics. I reduce my workload. I spend more time at home and I tailor my reading to give Christmas a home in my imagination.

 

Here a the five books that I've chosen as this year's Christmas Totems.

 

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"

St. Nick" by Alan Russell is about a suicidal, suspended cop, pushed into playing Santa in a shopping mall to help a former colleague catch some violent men but who ends up entangled in the almost-impossible-to-achieve Christmas wishes of two children he refuses to let himself disappoint.

 

I love the potential that comes from having a cynical, depressed cop, who is close to giving up on everyone, including himself,  be the medium for bringing the spirit of Christmas into the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9869733"Silver Bells" is a collection of four short stories about Christmas.

 

"Silver Bells" by Fern Michaels is about a film star leaving the shallowness of Hollywood to return home to Apple Valley, Pennsylvania. Once there, she encounters her high school crush and... I'm expecting a twisty but good-natured path to a happy ending.


"Dear Santa..." by JoAnn Ross is about a mystery author, portentously named Holly Berry, (-who would do that to a child?)  whose SUV has broken down, stranding her in a hamlet called Santa's Village in Washington for the hated holiday season. There she meets the Lodge owner and his five-year-old daughter and has a Christmas epiphany (can you have an epiphany at Christmas or do you have to call it something else?)


"Christmas Past" by Mary Burton is a darker offering about a photographer who receives a letter with a clue to a killer's identity, that takes her on a dangerous road trip over Christmas.


"A Mulberry Park Christmas" by Judy Duarte is about a resident of "Sugar Plum Lane" ( I kid you not) whose flagging passion for Christmas (and presumably, other things) is rekindled by a chance encounter with her first love.

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"The Santa Klaus Murder" by Mavis Doriel Hay is a classic 1930s English Country House murder mystery. The Melbury family's Christmas takes an unexpected turn when a guest, dressed as Santa Klaus, finds the family patriarch has been shot in the head.

 

I'm hoping this will be a light, period piece, wrapped up in Christmas garlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hercule-Poirots-Christmas"Hercule Poirot's Christmas* by Agatha Christie is a seasonal, locked-room mystery, with a vast cast of unpleasant family members who provide Poirot with a suspect pool to wade through.

I'd promised myself a proper Poirot story this year after it turned out he only has a cameo appearance in "Elephants Can Remember", so this has an extra benefit for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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"Snow" by Howard Odentz is my final choice. It's a short story, currently being offered for free on Kindle  

It's set in October and it's about a killer stalking a High School in a snowstorm so it's not really on topic but I thought, snow, winter, short story, why not?

 

 

 

"Beartown" by Frederik Backman - beautifully written but too painful for me to finish
Beartown: A Novel - Fredrik Backman

I read the first half of "Beartown" in about three days back in May, some seven months ago now. I was delighted. Here's what I said about it after the first day:

    Beartown” is the latest book from Fredrik Backman ( “A Man Called Ove” and “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”).

    It’s about a remote, slowly dying, small town in the middle of the woods where the success of the Junior Hockey Team is the last hope for the town to grow rather than continue its slow decline

    I’ve barely started the book and it's already holding my imagination hostage. The language is simple and undramatic yet it gets to the heart of the things that shapes lives.

    Here’s how it starts:

    “Late one evening, towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there”.

As I read more, I was carried along by the rhythm of the sparse language, which beat into me, like the smack of a puck against a fence, how much a hockey team and a hockey game can mean to a small, failing town in need of hope and pride. It drew me into the lives of people I could see as clearly as if I'd lived with them for years and let me see the world through their eyes

And with each page, as we journeyed towards that shotgun in the woods, my sense of dread grew.

Then I reached the rape.

I saw the damage it did. I imagined the damage it would do. I understood how the ordinary, everyday nature of the act intensified its evil at the same time that it made it credible. This is how life is. I know that. But I couldn't bring myself to read more of it.

I set it aside for a while. I didn't want to abandon something so well written and so true. I was sure I'd pick it up again and savour it.

Today, I tried, not for the first time, to go back to it.

I can't, or, more honestly, I won't.

It's painful to see the world that clearly and then focus on how we do each other harm and how the harm is amplified by poverty, desperation, and a culture where the right of the powerful to do wrong is accepted with sad resignation rather than challenged with righteous anger.

I'll move on to Backman's next book and leave this one closed.

Review
4 Stars
“Provenance” by Ann Leckie
Provenance - Ann Leckie

"Provenance" is a delightfully deft piece of genre-twisting science fiction that pivots around the idea that our identity is the product of the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and where came from. It examines how the things that give that story a provenance, a history of ownership, become as important to us as the identity itself.

 

"Provenance" is a stand-alone novel, set in the same universe as the "Imperial Radch" triology, but focusing on humans living outside the Radch. The main character is a young woman, who has been adopted from a public creche by a noble family and given the opportunity to compete with her adopted brother to become the heir to the family name.

 

The story unfolds in an unhurried way, allowing time for building worlds and revealing characters. The actions starts off as a sort of heist/forgery idea, then morphs into a murder investigation and morphs again into a military thriller. The tone throughout is civilized, introspective and self-deprecating. If Jane Austen has written science fiction, this is the kind of humane comedy of manners she might have produced.

 

What I enjoyed most was that the main character kept making choices that, while fair, honourable and even quietly courageous, were unexpected in the circumstances she found herself in. The choices she makes create a chain of provenance that slowly shapes her definition of who she is and who she wants to become.

 

Ann Leckie has a gift for world building and for making us look with a fresh eye at things we might think we already understand. She creates aliens who really are alien to our way of thinking and our way of living but with whom we can be empathetic and from whom we can learn more about ourselves. It turns out that she also has a talent for humour that the Imperial Radch trilogy gave her almost no opportunity to demonstrate.

 

I listened to the audiobook version which is delivered flawlessly by the talented Adjoa Andoh, who also narrated the Imperial Radch trilogy. You can listen to a sample of her performance by clicking on the SoundCloud link below

 

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