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.

3.5 Stars
"Frost Burned - Mercy Thompson #7" by Patricia Briggs
Frost Burned  - Patricia Briggs, Lorelei King

It was mid-February. The sky was pregnant with grey snow that turned to rain when I dropped 200 metres down the hill to the lakeside. The noon-time temperature was just above freezing. I had proposals to write in my deliberately small and dark office.


So, before I started my day, I decided to spend some time with Mercy Thompson and remind myself how much fun reading can be.


I opened up "Frost Burned" and found that it was Thanksgiving in Washington State, so the weather was no better than here but within a single chapter, I'd been transported from here to somewhere where all I have to do is relax and admire how skillfully Patricia Briggs re-immerses me into Mercy's world through the mundane activity of Black Friday shopping and then blows everything apart, leaving me keen to know what happens next.


Better yet, I'd been able to get "Frost Burned" in the audiobook version (books 2-6 aren't available as audiobooks in Switzerland) so I let Lorelei King lay the whole thing out for me as I walk beneath slowly brightening sky to get a café creme and a couple of croissants for breakfast.


I consumed the rest of the book over the next two days with a growing sense of contentment because the writing was good, the plot was engaging and Mercy keeps getting more and more real.


I'd wondered how Patrica Briggs would keep Mercy at the centre of things now that she's married to Adam Hauptman, the Pack Alpha and is surrounded by protective and scary werewolves. The solution was simple and brilliant: have the Pack abducted and leave Mercy to protect Adam's daughter and try to rescue the Pack.


I liked the fact that Mercy has to solve this problem by collaborating with others and by being willing to make sacrifices on a human and believable scale. The book also neatly folded in characters and themes from the earlier books. The big bad doesn't emerge out of nowhere. In retrospect, I should have been able to see something like this coming. Of course, the fact that I didn't is part of the fun.


The only criticism I have of the book is that there was a hiatus in the middle as one problem was solved only to reveal a much bigger problem underneath. I can see why the pause was there but it felt a little flat all the same and left me feeling that I had two stories stitched together.


Still, both parts of the story were good. The baddies were credible. The outcome was dramatic but feasible and Mercy has established herself as a force to be reckoned with.


I've been rationing myself to one Mercy Thompson book a month but it's March now and there's still snow outside so I'm looking forward to opening up "Night Broken" and letting Patricia Briggs and Lorelei King light up my imagination again.


Listen to the SoundCloud link below to sample Lorelei King's performance.


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3 Stars
"The Dispatcher" by Jon Scalzi
The Dispatcher - John Scalzi, Zachary Quinto

"The Dispatcher" is a novella-length piece of speculative fiction, written from the point of view of an almost-but-not-quite anti-hero, that explores the impact of on VERY big change in the natural order of things: murdered people come back from the dead.


If you can swallow that completely-unexplained hey-strange-shit-happens premise, then the rest of the book is fairly logical working through of the consequences, wrapped around an investigation into the apparent abduction of a Dispatcher.


The writing is sparse and functional but very effective. The voice of the main character has a hard-boiled detachment that would be consistent with being able to do his chosen line of work. The puzzle and how it is solved are entertaining. The idea is original and is manipulated with skill.


There wasn't much by way of emotional engagement and none of the characters makes it beyond what's needed for them to carry out their function in the plot.


John Scalzi kept everything moving along at a good pace. Zachary Quinto's narration was well-judged: lively without being melodramatic. It was an enjoyable, undemanding four hours.

3 Stars
"Wylding Hall" by Elizabeth Hand
Wylding Hall - Elizabeth Hand

"Wylding Hall," tells the story of a group of folk-rock musicians who spend the summer of 1972 in a remote Manor House in the wilds of Hampshire to put their second album together. By the end of the summer, the lead singer, a beautiful but shy young man who is fascinated by the "Magik" with a K, Alistair Crowley style, has disappeared without a trace.


The story is told in a series of modern day, rockumentary style interviews with members of the band, their manager, a psychic girlfriend, a music journalist and local boy who briefly played roadie/photographer.


This format makes the story perfect for being turned into an audiobook. The version I listened to had a different narrator for each person being interviewed. Apart from an article written at the time by the journalist, there was no text beyond the statements made by the interviewees.


The book cuts from one interviewee to the next, revealing events with bit by bit. It's easy to imagine the once beautiful, now ageing musicians, seated against a dark background and speaking directly to camera.


The story has a paranormal feel to it but leaves room for other interpretations - just about. To me, it seemed slightly spooky rather than chilling.


What held my interest was how clearly the characters were defined by the way they gave their account of events. They were heavy on nostalgia, looking back on the golden summer of their youth and that gave me permission to be nostalgic too. I liked the way their accounts were inconsistent with one another, in the way in which any long-ago event that has since become legend will be. 


The chaotic, semi-childish, drug-enabled way the young people live in their isolated house, the fugue that they fall into when spending their whole time making music seemed real to me.


The introduction of the supernatural elements was subtle. Ideas were wound around the history of the house, the warnings contained in the old folk songs they studied, the strange woods surrounding a Long Barrow and the pictures in the local pub of Wren Hunting.


It was an entertaining way to spend four hours, although it seemed to me that the drug and sun-soaked summer of seventy-two was a stranger land to visit than any of the hinted-at faerie realms touching the house.


21 book recommendations to celebrate the 21st World Book Day

21 book recomendations

I’m celebrating the 21st World Book Day today by recommending twenty-one books that have brought me pleasure over the past four years.


I’ve split the recommendations into three: Seven Mainstream Reads, Seven Speculative Fiction Reads, and Seven Series built around strong female characters.


I've included a link to my original review of each book if you'd like to know more.


I hope at least one of these catches your eye and leads you to celebrate a new book.


Seven Mainstream Reads



These are all books which engaged my emotions with credible characters that I cared about.


idaho"Idaho" by Emily Ruskovich is a  non-linear novel in which each chapter is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility. It is an intense, absorbing experience.


The narrative is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.


My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry“My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry,” tells the story of an almost eight-year-old girl confronting grief and loss while pursuing a quest set by her grandmother. It is a unique novel that spoke directly to my emotions while still giving the rest of me plenty to work with.





rain reign"Rain Reign" by Ann M. Martin, tells that story of Rose Howard, a high-functioning autistic little girl who will win your heart and may change your mind.


Rose's narrative voice is direct, compelling and sometimes heart-breaking. She tells us, with structured, straight-forward honesty, about her life , her lover for homonyms, her father’s life, why she isn’t allowed to ride the school bus anymore,  her teacher, her classmates, her uncle, the damage that Super Storm Hurricane Susan did and her dog, Rain (whose name is a homonym: R A I N and R E I G N), whom she loves even more than homonyms and who loves her back


As Rose told her story, I began to understand the clarity and honesty of Rose’s vision and to share her ability to take joy in things that most people don’t value (what can I say: I really do enjoy homonyms) and to admire the effort she puts in to communicate with the people around her despite their tendency to break rules and to be mean to each other


broken wheel“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” is a charming book about how reading creates community and how communities create readers. It’s a love story that is as much about the love of reading as it is about the love people have for each other.









everything I never told you“Everything I Never Told You”, by Celeste Ng had my full attention from the opening sentence: :

“Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.”

I wanted more and more of it, even though it was so unbearably sad that I could not listen to it without finding myself in tears, time and again. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know what happened next – Lydia is dead. I’ve known that from the first sentence – but I wanted to deepen my understanding of what that death and that life had meant.


My-Name-Is-Lucy-Barton-bu-Elizabeth-Strout-on-BookDragon-via-BooklistI highly recommend “My Name Is Lucy Barton” . 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.

The book 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.



Eleanor OliphantGiven that Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” 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, it 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.




Seven Speculative Fiction Reads




These are stories about AIs and identity, survival in, dystopias and post-apocalyptic worlds, using time travel to try and control history. What they have in common is that they stretched my imagination and let me re-examine things I take for granted.



the-unseen-world"The Unseen World"   by Liz Moore was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had this year. I connected with it on many levels. It wasn’t just a storyline I was following or a character that I could vicariously live through. It was much more immersive that.


"The Unseen World” took up residence in my head and my heart. It's a book about identity and memory and above all, about the compassion for all of the characters in the book who are unable to bridge the distance between themselves and people that they love.


Station Eleven“Station Eleven” is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia but its focus is not on the disaster or the destruction that follows. It is a beautifully told story about how the need for art that speaks to our imagination and our emotions is strongest when we are dealing with personal or global adversity.









Speak-by-Louisa-Hall"Speak" by Louisa Hall is an exciting, original, haunting book about AI and sentience. Told through a series of compelling first-person accounts that an A.I. has stored, "Speak" looks at the difference between memory, sentience and intelligence in a way that made me think and touched my emotions.









the girl with all the gifts“The Girl With All The Gifts” is a fresh, surprising and skillfully told take on a well-worn theme of a post-apocalyptic mayhem that moves beyond scenario and plot to become a character-driven view on what makes us human and how the stories we tell each other change the world.








The Water Knife"The Water Knife" by Paulo Bacigalupi is set in a near future where water has become more precious than oil in the Western States of what used to be the USA.  This is a grim, difficult, disturbing book that mirrors the nature of the world being described. There are no heroes, just people trying to do what they can with what they have in a world that doesn’t care about them or what they want.


Paulo Bacigalupi writes with wonderful clarity and an emotional impact that comes from truthfulness. The truth about the world he is describing in “The Water Knife” is almost unbearably brutal and cruel. No one escapes undamaged and the damage is described with a degree of detail that is nauseating at times but which remains honest rather than gratuitous.


The WOlf Road“The Wolf Road”,  by Beth Lewis, is told as first-person account of events through the eyes of Elka, a seventeen-year-old woman who is almost feral. She lives in the wild by becoming part of it not by trying to tame it. She is another predator in the forest, moving soundlessly, killing efficiently, hiding her tracks and building shelters and making fires to keep herself safer at night. It is only when she has to deal with people and their rules and their written-down words that Elka is vulnerable.


The novel opens with Elka hunting a monstrous man: large, fierce and bloodied, in a snow-filled forest, marked with a trail of blood. Hiding in a tree, she throws her serrated knife with enough power to pass through the man beneath his collarbone and pin him to a tree. Then she leaves him, cursing behind her, knowing that the Sheriff will find him soon. The murdering monster she has pinned to the tree is the man who raised her from the age of seven and taught her how to move through the world.


Most of the rest of the novel tells us how this came to be.On the surface, the book is a picaresque novel, following an outcast as she makes her way across the country, running from her enemies and constantly under threat from the people she meets. Underneath, the structure of “The Wolf Road” is more complicated. It isn’t about Elka’s adventures. It’s about Elka coming to understand who she is and how she got to be that way.


Time And Time Again“Time and Time Again” by Ben Elton is ‘what if?’ time travel story that turns from Boy’s Own Adventure into something dark, bleak and pitiless. Once again, Ben Elton delivers a fascinating but uncomfortable read.


"Time And Time Again" starts as a travel-back-in-time-to-save-the-world book but becomes something with a much less romantic view of history. It is an often brutal reminder that the past was someone -else's present and that the present is the only opportunity we have to act.




Series Built Around Strong Female Characters




I enjoy novel series that are based around strong woman facing difficult challenges. I enjoy watching them change and grow. I’ve picked seven of my favourites. I've called them "female characters" because only three of them are human. They are a diverse group: a zombie, an android, an AI, a Native American investigator, a cleaner, a shape-shifter.


Kate Shugak


Dana Stabenow's twenty-one Kate Shugak books have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Kate is a Native American living in a National Park in Alaska.

cold day for murder

The first book "A Cold Day For Murder", starts with Kate living like a recluse on her homestead, recovering from an attack that left her scarred and resulting in her leaving her investigator job in Anchorage. Her return to herself begins with her former boss asking her to investigate a disappearance in the Park.


Kate is a remarkable character: strong, brave, ruthless, sometimes reckless. She is surrounded by a cast of interesting, believable characters that run the course of the series. Alaska itself is a character in these books: its geography, its fauna, its history, its politics and its people. I recommend the audiobook version, read by Marguerite Gavin.


mercy thompson.jpg

I was a late finding Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson urban fantasy series but so far I've read seven of the ten books and none have disappointed me.


moon-calledWe first meet Mercy Thompson in "Moon Called". With each book after that, her world gets richer.


This is Urban Fantasy at its best.There's a likeable, kickass heroine who was raised by werewolves, makes her living fixing German cars, can take on the shape of a Coyote at will and is happy to spend time with fey, vampires, werewolves and humans as long as they're interested in cars. There's a complex cast of weres and vampires and fey and humans who are written up as people rather than game avatars.


What I like most is that Mercy is that Mercy grows as the series progresses and she does so as much because of her vulnerabilities as her strength.






Joel Shepherd's Cassandra Kresnov is one of my favourite characters in Science Fiction. Kresnov was built as a super-soldier to fight an interstellar war. She is deadly when she chooses to be. She is sentient but not human. What makes her interesting is her choice to walk away from the people who created her and try to live a life a free person in the midst of her former enemy.


crossover"Crossover", the first book in the series, looks at how a society that sees itself as libertarian and easy-going,  reacts to discovering a killer android living covertly in their city.


Over the six books of the series, Joel Shepherd delivers a character-driven storyline, set in a satisfyingly complex universe, while exploring what it really means to be human.






Tanya Huff is one of my favourite writers. She has a knack for trope-twisting and for having powerful people choose the path less travelled by. Gunnery Sargeant Torrin Ker is one of her finest creations. She is a soldier, fighting an endless war on behalf of a Confederation of races, the most senior of whom see themselves as too civilized to fight and so use three younger races to fight and die for them.


On one level, the books are straight Military SF, packed with fighting and intrigue On another they look at what it means to be a soldier, the impact of honour on power and what courage really is. You can find my review of the first three books here.



I confess to a prejudice here. The gender of Brek, the main character in these books, is not specified. Gender-neutral honorifics are used throughout. The character is an AI that used to be a Ship but is now bounded by the human body it has occupied. Calling Brek a woman is just the leap my imagination made.


Starting with “Ancillary Justice”, Ann Leckie builds a whole universe, spanning many worlds and huge tracts of time but she keeps the focus of her story human and character driven.


Brek is an AI who seems to be a better person than the humans around her even though she was conceived primarily as a weapon of conquest. As the series progresses the focus is on what it means to be sentient and civilized. There's lots of action but this is primarily as a set of books about power and the choices we make when we have it.



I think the Lily Bard series, starting with "Shakespeare's Landlord" is Charlaine Harris' best work. Get past the slightly silly title's and the low production standard covers and you'll find one of the best series I've ever read about what it means to be a rape survivor.


While each of the five books has a standalone mystery in it for Lily to help solve, the real driver of the series is Lily's struggle to re-engage with life after having been the victim a brutal rape.


There's nothing trivial or exploitative here. There is a lot of truth and some of it is hard to take. I admire Charlaine Harris for having written a hero is marked by her rape but refuses to be destroyed by it.



My final recommendation is the irrepressible Angel Crawford in Diana Rowland's White Trash Zombie series.


I've followed Angel Crawford since her appearance in "My Life As A White Trash Zombie". It was my first ever zombie book and not at all what I was expecting. Angel has her life saved by becoming a zombie. She takes the opportunity to drag herself out of the drugs and abuse life she's been living and tries to make herself into something more.


I love her humour and her courage and her frailties. This is one of the few series I pre-order. I recommend the audiobook version.



OFF TOPIC POST: Five things that help me stop living my life in the future tense.



Joanna Trollope, who is now seventy-three, said in a recent interview:

"I have an impulse, that I'm trying to control, to live in the future, not least because there's so much less future than there used to be."


I read this on a day when I was meeting with some of my colleagues for the last time. I've been working with most of them for a decade. Half a decade before that, I helped found the first version of the company I'm now leaving. In that decade and a half, I've spent a great deal of my time imagining and planning for things that take years to unfold.


Joanna Trollope's comment reminded me that this is a habit of mind that, at sixty-one, I need to abandon.


Of course, I still have to plan ahead for all the things that relate to managing money but I need to remember that money is only there to give me the freedom to choose how to live today.


I don't want life to be what happens while I'm busy making other plans.


So, I'm trying to teach myself to spend long periods of time living in the present.

It's not easy but here are five things that are working for me:

  1. Sleeping when I'm tired. Waking when I'm not. This may not seem like seizing the day but I have spent years depriving myself of sleep so that I could get more done.  It turns out that NOT making my body work when it wants to sleep lifts my mood, increases my energy and reduces my aggression.

  2. Focusing on one thing at a time and focusing on it completely. I'm resisting the urge to multi-task. I've never enjoyed it. I know it means that I end up doing things less well than I'm able to. It's a compromise that I've accepted to meet deadlines and cope with interruptions. Granting myself the time to give my concentration completely to one task turns out to be both productive and refreshing.

  3. Finding daylight early and often in a day. I have spent more of my life in artificial light than in sunlight. In the winter, it was not uncommon for me to leave in the dark, return in the dark and spend the time in between in meeting rooms. Now, I go out to meet the day and see what it has to say to me. I build walks into my day, even if they are only for fifteen minutes between tasks. It makes me feel more connected.

  4. Eating only when I'm hungry and only eating food that gives me pleasure.  Too often, I've used food as a fuel and as a substitute for sleep. I've been driven by convenience. Now I'm trying to make preparing and eating food into a pleasurable part of each day.

  5. Talking just to connect. I make my living by talking. I talk to find facts, solve problems, promote ideas, build teams and get my own way. I want to move away from talking that pushes my agenda and towards talking that lets me share experiences, hopes and fears. I want to hear and tell stories. I want to be surprised. I want to connect purely for the comfort of the connection.
"Rosewater" Reading progress update: I've read 16%.
Rosewater - Tade Thompson

This is a startlingly original piece of Science Fiction, set in Nigeria in 2066.


It's been a long time since I've encountered a powerful new voice in Science Fiction that combines new ideas with a distinctive storytelling style.


I love how the main character thinks. Here's an example of how he describes suddenly becoming aware that he knows something:


It is a certainty, not just a conviction, the way believing in God is a conviction, but believing in gravity is a certainty .

"Anything is Possible" Reading progress update: I've read 6%. - wonderful stuff
Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

I'm barely thirty minutes into the eight and a half hour audiobook and the standard of the writing is outstanding. Elizabeth Strout's prose is effortlessly accessible while still engaging me in the nuances of an old man's perceptions and opinions, building his worldview with such deft strokes that I can't even see how's she doing it,

1 Stars
"Sting" by Sandra Brown - DNF - abandoned at 33% - too beige and magnolia for me.
Sting - Sandra Brown

I’m abandoning this at the 33% mark. It's not awful. It's just not good.  It's as inoffensive as a beige and magnolia room and about as stimulating. I'd rather spend my time on something that excites my imagination.


I made it through the first third of the book because I liked the idea of a thriller with a slow start that drops me in the middle of a complex but unexplained situation. There's a clever idea at the core of this book and I'm sure there'll be a surprise or two along the way but as I read on, I found I just didn't care.


My interest collapsed under the weight of the pedestrians execution. The writing is competent but uninspired. The descriptive language is lazy to the point of sloppiness. The characters are mono-dimensional and unconvincing.


The only tension comes from the relationship between the assassin and the woman he has abducted. I’m fairly certain this is the pivot of the plot but the implied will-they-fall-for-each-other? dynamic is clumsily handled and fundamentally toxic. I struggle to believe that a woman who has just witnessed a man shoot his partner in the head from behind, been splattered by the resulting blood and brains, abducted, restrained and repeatedly threatened with death, is going to fall asleep fascinated by the way her assailant touched her bra strap. If you’re going to head in that transgressive direction you need to do it with flair and aggression. When it's delivered with this bland prose, it becomes exploitative.


This is my first book by Sandra Brown. I have another in my TBR pile. I can see that she is extraordinarily prolific. Perhaps that is why "Sting" reads like a production line effort: a clever idea competently delivered through multiple points of view but with nothing original to make reading it worthwhile. This is good TV fodder but it's not something I'm willing to spend hours on.

4 Stars
"Dance, Gladys, Dance" by Cassie Stocks
Dance, Gladys, Dance - Cassie Stocks

I have a bad habit of critiquing books while I'm reading them. Even when I'm immersed in the story and enjoying myself, part of my attention is on how and why the book works. It gives me pleasure and mostly I can't help it.


"Dance, Glady's Dance" was an exception. It reached past my over-analytical head and connected with my emotions. It made me happy, even when it was making me sad.

I'm not entirely sure how Cassie Stocks did that but I'm very glad she did.


"Dance, Glady's, Dance", like many of the best things in life, requires you to use a little bit of imagination and to be willing to hope.


The story starts with Frieda Zweig looking, at twenty-seven, for a fresh start where she can put aside her former life as a would-be artist and live a life more ordinary. She asks herself:

"Who was I going to be? I was more inclined towards inertia than upward mobility and didn’t like most people enough to devote my life to helping others less fortunate than myself. I’d work somewhere, I thought, watch TV in the evenings, and become wholly involved in the lives of non-existent people. I’d develop my own life of quiet desperation, as Emerson’s buddy Thoreau suggested the mass of men (and, presumably, women) led."

To help with this self-imposed task, Frieda defines  "Five Steps To An Ordinary Life":

1. Get a real job.
2. Stop seeing the world as a series of potential paintings.
3. Learn how to talk about the weather.
4. Do the things that normal people do.
5. Figure out what normal people actually do.

Although the initial tone of the book is light-hearted, "Dance, Gladys, Dance", is not a comedy. Frieda uses humour to distance herself from her problems and to suppress the strong emotions that always result in her needing to paint. True, Frieda's reality is often orthogonal to the surface of life as most of us live it and she spends a good deal of her time puzzled and occasionally defeated by everyday things like shopping for clothes, but Frieda is bright and intuitive and kind and fundamentally serious in her approach to life.


Frieda's doomed attempt to embrace the ordinary leads her to renting a room in a Victorian house owned by a widower who teaches photography at a local Arts Centre. After she moves in, she meets, Gladys, the ghost of the first woman to live in the house.

In addition to a cleverly designed set of events in the present day that weave together the fates of a number of strong characters, we have chapters that tell us more about Freida's life and how she came to give up on the idea of being an artist and, bit by bit, we hear Gladys' story.


Many of the characters in the book are damaged or in pain because they lack belief in their own talent or they have given up on their belief that they can be who they want to be. The book shows women in particular as being at risk of losing themselves in this way or being denied the right to use their talent.


The message of the book seems to be: trust yourself, use your talent and take the small opportunities we all have to make the world a less awful place to live in. Delivering this message without coming across as either didactic or sentimental is what makes this book such a triumph.


stocksphoto"Dance, Gladys, Dance" was Cassie Stocks' first novel. In 2013 it won the Leacock Memorial Medal, awarded to the best book of humour written in English by a Canadian writer.


You can find an interview with Cassie Stocks on writing "Dance, Gladys, Dance" here.


You can find details of her biography here.



A Valentine poem by Wendy Cope that speaks to me

I'm falling in love with the poems of Wendy Cope. This one is from "Serious Concerns" and it sums up how I feel on Valentine's day.





My heart made up its mind fourty-two years ago. We got married twelve years later. She's still my Valentine.



by Wendy Cope


My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.

Whatever you’ve got lined up,

My heart has made its mind up

And if you can’t be signed up

This year, next year will do.

My heart has made its mind up

And I’m afraid it’s you.

"Force Of Nature - Aaron Falk #2" by Jane Harper
Force of Nature: A Novel - Jane Harper

"Force Of Nature" takes place some months after the events in "The Dry". Aaron Falk is back working in Financial Crimes in Melbourne, tracking down contracts to make a money laundering case against a family firm. The firm has an "Executive Adventure" retreat in the mountains which involves a team of five men and a team of five women navigating through the bush over the course of a weekend. At the end of the weekend, only four of the women make it out. The missing woman is the contact Falke has been pressuring to steal copies of contracts for him. Falk and his partner go to investigate.


This is very cleverly told tale, moving along two timelines in parallel. The main timeline, the search for the missing woman and the investigation of the circumstance of her disappearance, is interspersed with the details of what happened in each day in the women's team as the hiked the trail.


Without ever making me feel like I was being cheated, Jane Harper fed me bits and pieces of information about the women on the hike that kept changing my assessment of them as individuals and of their relationships to each other. Naturally, I was also kept guessing about what happened to the missing woman. The resolution was satisfying and plausible.


Unlike in "The Dry", Falk is not the focal point of this investigation. We continue to learn more about him and he behaves in a way that is consistent with the man we met in "The Dry" but he is instrumental rather than central this time. I thought the book was stronger for that.


I liked the way this book presented women. It's quite rare to read crime books that pass the Bechdel Test of having at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man. "Force Of Nature" is MAINLY about women talking to each other.


We see the power of the bond between mothers and daughters and between (twin) sisters and the conflicts that arise from hierarchy and dominance. These women are clearly drawn and very believable. The verbal fights and physical violence that these women get into are tough and harsh but still different from the same kind of conflicts between men. My impressions of the women kept shifting as I learned more about them and they emerged as individuals with very different views of the same events.


It seems to me that the title refers to two forces of nature: the power of the bush to threaten our well-being and trigger survival behaviours that conflict with how we present ourselves back in the city and the power of family to summon sacrifice and guilt as well as love.


The book also looks at the pressure the Internet puts young girls under and what they do to themselves and each other to deal with that pressure.


This is a good, page-turning, mystery that is made richer by strong characters behaving realistically in a difficult situation.


I liked Falk and enjoyed seeing his view of events. There was just enough development of him to build a basis for a great series here.


I listened to the audiobook version. Although it had the same narrator as "The Dry", it didn't work quite so well this time. Partly this was because it's a challenge to have a narrator do so many different women's voices and partly because the editing was a little sloppy with a couple of sections with repeated sentences of mispronounced words. It was still a comfortable listen but adding a second narrator for the second timeline would have made for a better listening experience.


Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample

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BookLikes is so slow it hurts


Since the update last week, BookLikes has slowed way down.


It's so slow that I'm being timed out while posting or commenting. 


It's nice that ASIN now works but I'd rather do without that than live with this performance

5 Stars
"American War" by Omar El Akkad - highly recommended.
American War - Omar El Akkad

I believe the thing that sets Omar El Akkad's "American War" apart is not his ability to build a powerful and compelling view of a 2075 America, damaged by global warming and collapsing into a civil war, prompted by the South's refusal to stop using fossil fuels, it is his creation of Sara T Chestnut - who calls herself Sarat. Sarat is a bright, curious young girl from Louisianna who is broken and finally destroyed by a war she had no part in making and a need for revenge that she cannot let go of.


Sarat is neither hero nor saint. She is strong, brave, bright and fierce. She has also been fundamentally ruined by the war she has lived through. What she does is literally atrocious. Why she does it is completely understandable.


It is this ability to help me understand Sarat without turning her into an object or either worship or contempt, that makes "American War" a great novel.


In the opening chapter of "American War" the narrator tells us that:


"This isn't a story about war, it's about ruin."

In this war of the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia) against the North, everything and everyone is ultimately ruined. America becomes a place of violence and vengeance. A place where you or either "Us" or the enemy. A place filled with the desperate poverty of refugee camps, the truculent aggression of militias, merciless oppression by the government and self-interested interference by foreign powers who covertly fuel the conflict with weapons and subversion while publicly offering humanitarian aid. There are assassinations, massacres, torture and bone-deep hatreds.


Yet there is nothing here that I cannot look around and see today in the Middle East or the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp or Turkey or in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Omar El Akkad is a journalist who has covered many wars and revolutions. He has not had to make up the things that come with war, What he has had to do is to help us see them with fresh eyes, to put ourselves in the shoes of the losing side, the oppressed, the refugees, the ones who have seen everyone they love and everything they care about destroyed by an enemy so powerful that victory is unimaginable and the only possibilities are survival or revenge.


"American War" is not a book that preaches through soundbites. The pace is slow, You feel the years passing and experience hope being slowly extinguished and being replaced by shame and anger and an insatiable need for revenge.  The book avoids being a series of platitudinous abstractions by focusing on Sarat's slow transformation from a bright, curious child, into fierce fighter and then to a woman broken and in constant pain.


Sarat doesn't theorise about war. Perhaps, as the product of it, she is too close to it to be able to see it as anything other than how the world is.


The theorising is left to an outsider, Karina, who keeps house for the Chesnuts at one point. She is the one who understands that, diverse as people are when there is peace, they all become the same in war. She believes that:

“The misery of war represents the world’s only truly universal language.”

and that:

"The universal slogan of war, she'd learned, was simple: if it had been you, you'd have done no different."

Karina also sees Sarat differently:

"Unkike everyone else, she didn't admire Miss Sarat or hold her in some revered esteem. The girl was still a child. At seventeen she was still less than half Karina's age.  She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early."

The only other commentator on what truly drives the conflict Sarat is engulfed by is made by her childhood friend, who, trying to explain why she thinks a certain action is right, says:

"In this part of the world right and wrong ain't about who  wins or who kills who. In this part of the world, right and wrong ain't even about right and wrong. It's about what you do for your own".

This is a statement you could hear all over the world, Treating others differently than your own seems to be a basic human response. When war comes, this response is the oxygen feeding the fire.


This novel reminded me that, if I want to understand acts or war or terrorism, I should always remember the "before" that led that person to that event. I don't have to condone them, but I'll never understand them if I stay ignorant of the "before".


"American War" is a grim book but an honest one. It is heartbreaking without being in the least bit exploitative. It's wonderfully well-written and brilliantly narrated by Dion Graham.  Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample:


og_image_nprbooksClick on the npr books logo to hear Lulu Garcia-Navarro interview Omar El Akkad on how "American War" explores the universality of revenge. In it, Omar El Akkad talks about Sarat and says:

"No. I don't think you're supposed to have sympathy for her. My only hope is that you understand why she did it. I think one of the things that's been lost in this incredibly polarized world we live in is the idea that it's possible to understand without taking somebody's side. So my only hope is that when you get to the end of the book, you're not on her side, you don't support her, you're not willing to apologize for her — but you understand how she got to the place where she is."


Reading progress update: I've read 7%. - one chapter in and already happy
Frost Burned  - Patricia Briggs, Lorelei King

After deciding to DNF "Need To Know", which I'd been looking forward to enough to pre-order, I needed something to remind me how much fun reading can be.


It's mid-February. The sky is pregnant with grey snow that turns to rain when I drop 200m down the hill to the lakeside. The noon-time temperature is just above freezing. I have proposals to write in my deliberately small and dark office. 


So, before I start my day, I decided to spend some time with Mercy Thompson over in Washington State. It's Thanksgiving there, so the weather's no better but within a single chapter, I've been transported from here to somewhere where all I have to do is relax and admire how skillfully Patricia Briggs re-immerses me into Mercy's world through the mundane activity of Black Friday shopping and then blows everything apart, leaving me keen to know what happens next.


Better yet, I was able to get this book in the audible version (books 2-6 aren't available as audiobooks in Switzerland) so I can let Lorelei King lay the whole thing out for me as I walk beneath slowly brightening sky to get a café creme and a couple of croissants for breakfast.


"Need To Know" by Karen Cleveland - DNF - abandoned at 20% mark
Need to Know: A Novel - Karen Cleveland

The hype that brought me to this book was mostly accurate. It is fascinating to read a novel about a CIA analyst, written by someone who was a CIA analyst for a decade. The premise - what would you do if your work to uncover suspected Russian sleeper cells in the US identified your huaband of seven years and father to your four children as a suspect. I suspect that, as the book unfolds, there will be a complex hiw-do-I-get-out-of-this? plot.


Unfortunately, this book is not for me. The pace is slow. The emotions are too wholesome. The characters are vamilla. I expected more anger and more scepticism. There's  too much motherhood and apple pie here for me to enjpy myself.


After two hours of a nine hour book, I've decided that I don't Need To Know.


Try the audiobook sample on the SoundCloud link below and see if this book is for you.

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Reading progress update: I've read 14%. "The Husband Stitch" - the first story
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories - Carmen Maria Machado

I've read the first story in this collection and I can see that this is going to be a remarkable reading experience: challenging, engrossing and perhaps a little unnerving.


I can also see that I need to review it one story at a time. So here's my review of the first story (about thirty-five pages long).


The Husband Stitch

"The Husband Stitch" showed me that stories are dangerous. Its muscular form squirms in my imagination's grasp, sleek and slick but with razor-sharp edges that slice and make me gasp with surprise.


This is a story filled with other stories, stories that you will half-recognise and half be surprised by. Stories that make you ask yourself what it tells us about the world that we all know these stories? Are they lessons? Warnings? Truths? Myths? Desires? Whatever they are, they persist and they have power.


At one point the teller of the tale (who never shares her name and who says that she has been telling stories all her life, says:

"When you think about it, stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart."

Her stories are all about women and the things that happen to them, few of them good and they power her own story, which is a story and not a documentary and therefore holds meaning but does not always release it easily. 


She is a passionate woman, who chooses her boy at a party at the age of seventeen and then gives herself to him and teaches him how to use what he's been given. She becomes first a lover, then a bride ("Brides", she tells us, "never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle."), then a wife and a mother.

Years pass and the only thing she withholds from her husband is the right to touch the green ribbon that is always tied around her throat.


The ribbon is the heart of this story. You'll have to decide for yourself what it means.  I believe it represents identity. The part of her that makes her who she is. The part that she cannot be without. Yet, in this story, only women have ribbons.


If the story has a moral (as opposed to having many or even a different one depending on who reads it) then I think it is about the inevitable destruction wrought by husbands on wives. I think the "Husband Stitch" of the title is an extra stitch that husbands ask the doctor to add when sewing up an episiotomy wound, to make the vagina tighter, almost virginal. This selfish re-shaping speaks to male arrogance and a refusal to accept their wives in their true forms.


In the story, her refusal to let him touch her ribbon becomes a source of strife:

“A wife,” he says, “should have no secrets from her husband.”

“I don’t have any secrets,” I tell him.

“The ribbon.”

“The ribbon is not a secret; it’s just mine.” “

Were you born with it? Why your throat? Why is it green?”

I do not answer.

Her husband, she tells us, " not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep dis-service to him. And yet-"


That "And yet?" is where this story and all the stories within it, take us. It is a place both mysterious and sadly familiar. It is how things are.








currently reading

Progress: 31%
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Progress: 31%