Mike Finn
Reading progress update: I've read 75%.
Peace Talks - Jim Butcher

here's only a quarter of the book left- ok that's still another four hours of audiobook - BUT it feels like I'm heading towards a cliff-hanger ending. I know the next book is out in a couple of months but I still hope I'm not left hanging

Reading progress update: I've read 7%.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal, Caitlin Thorburn

For a man passionate about food and his baby daughter, our hero is almost unbelievably... naive? unworldly? ignorant about basic facts about infants? To believe in him, I have to think of him as one on those men where other people say, 'He's a nice guy, but...' all the time.

The American food keeps surprising me. He's using his mother's recipes, which are rich in canned goods and use canned soup as a basis for a casserole. I had to look up 'salad oil' and it turned out to include at least three of the oils in my kitchen. I know the couple with a new baby are short of time and money but why would they make Macaroni Cheese from a box when it takes less twenty minutes to make from scratch with dried pasta? And how does a chef not know the varieties of tomato but can name four different kinds of carrot?

This is an education on American food before the emergence of a foodie culture. I feel like a kid raised with iPhones being presented with a rotary dial telephone. Except I lived through this period but in the UK and we never had food like this.

Reading progress update: I've read 2%.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest - J. Ryan Stradal, Caitlin Thorburn

Our involuntarily celibate hero (a state attained by always smelling of fish in his teens) finally falls for a waitress with 'strong erroneous food opinions. His reaction made me smile:

 

'He couldn't help it. He was in love by the time she left the kitchen but love made him feel sad and doomed as usual.'

Reading progress update: I've read 46%.
Peace Talks - Jim Butcher

I'm enjoying James Marsten's narration. He's making Harry (finally) sound quite grown up, partly because he's not rushing through Harry's internal reflections. He's giving them some weight.

Reading progress update: I've listened 418 out of 533 minutes.
Fingerprints Of Previous Owners - Rebecca Entel, Ron Butler, Cherise Boothe, Robin Miles

While staying a very human, quietly told but emotionally rich story, this book shows me the ways in which modern Corporate Colonialism carries the ethics of slavery with it.

 

The removal of dignity. Turning local people into second class citizens. The assertion of the rights of the owners over the needs of the people. And the so-taken-for-granted-we-don't-think-about-it racism.

 

Read it and flinch.

Reading progress update: I've read 33%.
Peace Talks - Jim Butcher

No one does supernatural fight scenes as well as Jim Butcher. He starts with an attack from a knee-weakening, apparently invulnerable monster and then escalates until that feels like the easy part.

 

He makes every step physical and immediate so that, by the end of it, you're exhausted.

Reading progress update: I've read 21%.
Peace Talks - Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files are behaving like London Buses. I've waited six years since I read 'Skin Game' and now we have two books coming along almost together: 'Peace Talks' published today and 'Battle Ground' scheduled for the end of September.

 

I'm only at the set up of 'Peace Talks' but I'm already remembering why I loved these books. I'm glad I won't have to wait more than a few weeks for the next one.

Look what just arrived. I'm going to have to push a book back so I can read this immediately.

Reading progress update: I've listened 370 out of 533 minutes.
Fingerprints Of Previous Owners - Rebecca Entel, Ron Butler, Cherise Boothe, Robin Miles

This is beautifully written but very hard to take. I've just been through a chapter that finally gives a view (albeit an owners view) of plantation life. The details of the way in which the slaves were treated, punished, used, sold are not new to me but this book makes them real. It's the difference between reading a map and walking the land.

 

Take this in, what it means, what the wealthy English did, for decades, to hundreds of thousands of people, and tell me again that we need a statue to Colston in Bristol.

'The Last Of The Moon Girls' by Barbara Davis - abandoned at 25%
The Last Of The Moon Girls - Barbara Davis

The Last Of The Moon Girls' is a catchy title. The cover is eye-catching and has a wistful feel to it.


The premise also has promise: our heroine is the last of a long line of Moon women, each gifted in their own special way, who have lived at Moon Farm in a small New England town. She's stepped away from The Path, fleeing the farm after her grandmother is assumed to have murderer two dead girls whose bodies are found on the farm. Eight years later, after her grandmother's death, our heroine returns to tidy up affairs and stays to clear her grandmother's name.


Sounds like the basis for a good mystery/thriller with a twist of magic to add spice.


But it isn't.


From what I've seen so far, this is a romance. It's wrapped in an investigation into the murder of the two girls and tied up with a bow of pagan magic but its got in its DNA it's a Romance.


I could roll with that except I don't find the people believable. Our heroine seems barely to have grown up. The man helping her is so nice, butter wouldn't melt. The woman staying at the farm is a psychic from central casting.


Everything seems a little too neat and tidy to be real. It's like those shows on American TV where the actors all seem to have been taught the same set of facial expressions so that they can emote on command: I always know what they mean. I just don't believe they really mean it.


If you're looking for a cosy New England romance with a few trope twists and a garnish of mystery and magic then I think you'd enjoy 'The Last Of The Moon Girls'.


I'm setting it aside as a poor buying decision on my part or at least a poor selection from the free books Amazon offered this month.

 
 

 

Off Topic Post: Some thoughts on ‘Welltread’ by Carol Ann Duffy and my own experience of being caned.

I was reading Carol Ann Duffy's 1993 'Mean Time' poetry collection today and found that a lot of the poems spoke to my own experiences of growing up. Carol Ann Duffy and I are of an age. Like me, was raised a Catholic, although she was in Glasgow and I was on Merseyside, where she later made her home. I love how clearly she sees and how fearlessly she writes. It's a great, if rather a gloomy collection.

 

The poem that brought back the most vivid memories to me was 'Welltread', her poem about a headmaster. Here it is:

 

 

 

'Welltread' by Carol Ann Duffy

 

Welltread was Head and the Head’s face was a fist. Yes, 
I’ve got him. Spelling and Punishment. A big brass bell 
dumb on his desk till only he shook it, and children 
ran shrieking in the locked yard. Mr Welltread. Sir. 

He meant well. They all did then. The loud, inarticulate dads, 
the mothers who spat on hankies and rubbed you away. 
But Welltread looked like a gangster. Welltread stalked 
the forms, collecting thruppenny bits in a soft black hat. 

We prayed for Aberfan, vaguely reprieved. My socks dissolved, 
two grey pools at my ankles, at the shock of my name
called out. The memory brings me to my feet 
as a foul would. The wrong child for a trite crime. 

And all I could say was No. Welltread straightened my hand 
as though he could read the future there, then hurt himself 
more than he hurt me. There was no cause for complaint. 
There was the burn of a cane in my palm, still smouldering.

My headmaster in Infants School had the 'big brass bell' to control us and would turn up at random intervals to give us tests on spelling and our Times Tables that felt like a ritual for publicly identifying the weak and the afraid.

 

The 'Mr. Welltread. Sir.' summons up that whole regime of standing for the feared authority figure who demanded an obeisance.

 

And the 'mothers who spat on hankies and rubbed you away.' The hankies part happened all the time but it's the 'rubbed you away' part that resonates.

Then we get to the caning. Corporal punishment meted out immediately with no appeal, no redress, 'no cause for complaint' is something I remember well.

 

It's the last two words of the poem 'still smouldering.' that I thought about the most. I looked online to see what other people thought and I was surprised to find that the 'smouldering' is sometimes read as an abiding shame at having been caned. I don't see it that way. I know that smouldering. It's not shame. It's anger.

 

That anger took me back to memories of my own school days. Not the part when I was almost grown up and knew how to defend myself from teachers who mistook authority for power. The part before then, when I was twelve and barely awake and school was a ritual, like Mass, that I attended every week but never thought of as real.

 

I wasn't the kind of boy male teachers liked. It wasn't how I looked, although that didn't help: overweight, sink-washed, too-long hair falling in lank, hormone-soaked locks over my forehead to my black plastic NHS specs. It wasn't even because I was often away in my head, bored and disconnected. It was because I failed to demonstrate deference.

My lack of deference wasn't defiance. I wasn't spoiling for a fight, that came later. I just didn't see these men as anything more than furniture in my life. I can see now why they hated that but back then I didn't even notice their reaction most of the time.

 

But what they hated most, what prompted them to violence, was my laugh. lt was an unpleasant, nails-scraping-the-blackboard laugh. A high-pitched, uncontrolled thing that spoke of hysteria rather than joy. I know now that it was a laugh of embarrassment and despair but the male teachers seemed to hear it as a jackal's laugh, a disrespectful challenge.

 

I had good, kind, clever teachers and I remember them fondly. I also had some men who were as trapped in that school as I was. The one Carol Ann Duffy summoned up for me today, the one who literally made the most impression on me, was a florid, redheaded Welshman, who taught geography and brutality. The first he achieved by transcribing his notes onto a blackboard so we could copy them into our books. The second was delivered via his cane, which he called Rufus. He was the only teacher who kept a cane in his classroom. Others might throw chalk or hit with a ruler but no one else had a weapon of choice. A weapon with a name.

 

It wasn't the classic cane of the comic books, long and thin and vicious. It was made of bamboo and, like the man himself, was thick and hollow.

 

We all knew Rufus. We all knew our teacher was not quite right. We all knew none of that could be changed. There was 'no cause for complaint'.

 

It was my laugh that brought me to Rufus. I no longer remember exactly what made me laugh. It was something to do with what the teacher had written on the board, a phrasing of his that struck me as absurd perhaps, or perhaps he had (yet again) spelt peninsula with the second n missing. Whatever it was, I laughed that high annoying laugh, not really expecting to be heard except by myself, but he heard me and decided to make a performance of it.

 

He stood in front of my desk, cane in hand, demanding to know what I found so funny. I knew I was in trouble and not just because no answer I gave him would be acceptable but because he was making me afraid and that pushed me over into truly hysterical laughter, well beyond my ability to control.

 

He shouted at me to stand up. I did. He shouted at me to stop laughing. I couldn't. He slapped Rufus on my desk and told me to stop laughing or take the consequences. My laughter increased. He shouted at me to come to the front of the class and hold out my hand.

 

The whole class was looking at me now. Everyone, including me, knew that the teacher had lost control of himself and I should stop laughing. I couldn't do it.

 

I knew what was coming next, or I thought I did. I'd been caned regularly in Infants School for lateness, a habit which followed me the rest of my life and which caning did nothing to change. While those canings hadn't taught me to be punctual, they had taught me that most teachers did not really want to inflict pain, they just wanted my attention. They hit hard enough to sting but they didn't put their weight into it.

 

I held out my hand, palm up, still laughing in a desperate way and he took the first blow. He didn't hold back. This wasn't about getting attention. It was about anger, perhaps even hate.

 

It hurt. I wanted to put my hand under my arm. To ask him to stop. My laugh had become quieter, more like crying, but still enough like a laugh to keep him enraged.

He hit me again. The whole class seemed to wince. He and they paused and looked at me. I saw something in his eyes that I couldn't name but didn't like and decided not to even try to stop laughing.

 

The third and hardest stroke went wrong. He missed my palm and hit my fingers a glancing blow. The pain was immense but even through it my focus was on what happened next. In the follow-through of his indisciplined blow, the tip of the teacher's cane had hit the edge of his desk and Rufus cracked.

 

Finally, I was able to stop laughing and shove my hand into my armpit.

When the teacher looked up from the cracked bamboo in his hand, I thought for a moment he would punch me. I didn't duck or plead. It wasn't bravery, just powerlessness. He walked out of the class, taking his broken cane with him.

There were no consequences. His action sank into our memories like a stone falling into a muddy pond. It rested in the silt but it wasn't ours to move. I made no complaint. He made no apology. Rufus was never replaced. The only thing that remains is my anger, 'still smouldering'.

 

I'm told schools aren't like that any more. I wonder whether the kids who are given 'Welltread' to read in their Sixth Form English Lit classes have any idea what Carol Ann Duffy is talking about or if 'Welltread' is as arcane to them as 'Paradise Lost' was to me?

Reading progress update: I've read 17%.
The Last Of The Moon Girls - Barbara Davis

Ok. I think I get this now.

 

This is a romance. It's wrapped in an investigation into the murder of two girls and tied up with a bow of pagan magic but its got romance in its DNA.

 

So my earlier comments about it not feeling real need revision. It's not meant to be real. It's meant to evoke archetypes and twist tropes and it's doing that fairly well.

Reading progress update: I've read 12%.
The Last Of The Moon Girls - Barbara Davis

I'm not sure this one is going to work for me.

 

It's an intriguing idea but everything seems a little too neat and tidy to be real. It's like those shows on American TV where the actors all seem to have been taught the same set of facial expressions so that they can emote on command: I always know what they mean. I just don't believe they really mean it.

I'll try a few more chapters and then decide if I'm in or out

Reading progress update: I've listened 318 out of 533 minutes.
Fingerprints Of Previous Owners - Rebecca Entel, Ron Butler, Cherise Boothe, Robin Miles

This is astonishingly powerful.

There are things called 'Bench Stories' between the chapters of the main narrative. Each has an islander sitting on a bench, telling a story from his or her life to a stranger (we don't know who but it's fun to guess). They're basically short stories with a common context and they are so intense. I'd buy the book for them alone.

There's one where a man explains why he walks the island wearing an old sock with a worn violin hanging on his back. It is human, so full of remembered love and pain and present courage that it hurts.

Review
4 Stars
'Her Final Words' by Brianna Labuskes
Her Final Words - Brianna Labuskes

Tightly plotted and tensely told mystery that kept me guessing and gave me a strong sense of a place and its people.

 

 

The only thing I didn't like about 'Her Final Words' was the opening. It's the hook the rest of the book wriggles on: a teenage girl from rural Idaho drives for five hours, crossing a State line, to the FBI field office in Seattle, asks for agent Lucy Thorne by name, confesses to having murdered a twelve-year-old boy, explains that the boy's body has a bible verse carved into it and then refuses to say more. It's a great hook that was never going to need much to sell it, yet I felt like everything in the opening was too bright and too loud and trying too hard to tell 'look how dramatic this is!'


I almost stopped there. Except it really was a great hook and I wanted to wriggle on it a little so I persisted. I'm very glad I did. The tone changed as soon as Lucy Thorne arrives in Idaho, with a long weekend to check out the details of an apparently open and shut case that feels off because there is no motive. The image of the Sheriff standing in the rain waiting to meet Thorne and take her to where the body was found was dramatic without being pushed hard.


It quickly becomes clear that the teenager who confessed to the killing and the boy who was killed were both members of a local Church/Cult and I wondered for a while if we were up for Federal Government rescuing the poor country folk from an abusive cult sort of story, because that never ends well but, thankfully, Brianna Labuskes was more ambitious and more original than that.

This is a story where good guys and bad guys are hard to tell apart. Where everyone is connected to everyone else but how and what it means are not clear and where the only thing the FBI agent is certain about is that she doesn't understand what's really going on.


The false simplicity of 'the bad cult must be to blame' is quickly replaced with something denser and more textured. I liked the way Brianna Labuskes brought out the geographical isolation of this rural community while showing how aware everyone is of what everyone else is doing and who they're doing it with.


Telling the story through multiple points of view and cross-cutting timelines that flip from 'Now' to 'Three Days Earlier' really tightened the tension and kept the surprises coming. The more Agent Thorne learns about the people and their history with one another, the more complicated the puzzle becomes and the fewer people she can trust. Discovering the story from the point of view of the teenagers involved and the Sheriff as well as Agent Thorne made everything more personal and more human as well as deepening the mystery.


The plot, the characters and the tightly controlled pace kept me engaged all the way through. The denouement was unexpected, memorable, believable and deeply sad.


I'll be back for more of Brianna Labuskes' stories.

'Like A House On Fire' by Caroline Hulse
Like A House On Fire - Caroline Hulse

Family life so closely observed it will make you laugh, wince and go – ‘So other people do that as well.’ Like her previous book,

 

‘The Adults’, ‘Like A House On Fire’ is a ‘what could possibly go wrong?’ novel where the answer is, ‘just about everything.’ Hulse has a talent for exposing all the stresses and strains of family life and using them to build a comic farce that is laugh-out-loud funny and cringe-worthily honest. Her dialogue is perfect,

 

The premise seems simple enough: a nice party for family and friends to celebrate Margaret’s fortieth wedding anniversary and to spice things up, the party will be structured around a Murder Mystery with guests playing the key roles.

 

Except that Margaret has cancer, and one of her daughters has separated from her husband but hasn’t told anyone in the family yet so she persuades him to come along and pretend everything is fine, while her other daughter, the dutiful, responsible, always positive one, is so depressed she can’t get out of bed and Margaret’s husband, who took a little job at the supermarket so he’d have something to do outside his shed now he’s retired, cannot adjust to a world were saying, ‘Cheer up love. It might never happen’ to a customer is not seen as appropriate and calling the ‘World Food’ aisle the ethnic section is seen as offensive, and where the young granddaughter has developed an unhealthy obsession with setting fire to thing. The characters all ring true both in how they see themselves in the privacy of their own heads and how they all misunderstand one another while trying hard to pretend nothing fundamentally bad is happening.

 

One of the main subplots is around how Stella, one of Margaret’s daughters, comes to separate from George. Bit by bit, we learn how they met, what they liked about each other, what they fought about and what finally drove them apart (which was probably a Coke can – you have to know the context for that to make sense). It’s the little details that bring this alive, like Stella’s simple requests to George when they move in together: can he please close cupboards and drawers after using them and please stop switching off the kettle and the toaster at the wall. George is, of course, incapable of remembering these instructions or understanding why they’re important. This stuck with me because my wife also keeps asking me to close cupboards and doors, even though I’m going to have to open them again shortly.

 

The book is cleverly structured for everything to slide slowly but inexorably towards disaster. I kept thinking: ‘This can’t get any worse’ but I knew that it would but not exactly how. Each frustration and misunderstanding and incompatibility is a small thing but they build up like rubbish blown against a fire door in a hot dry summer.

 

At one point, waiting for the disaster, whatever it was going to be, to happen became so angst-laden that I found myself hoping that the ancient labrador would make it safely to the end of the book, which, given all the other people involved and the traumas they were facing, may say a lot about my priorities.

 

What really set Hulse apart for me is that she doesn’t just use her characters as kindling for a comic fire, she carries them through the traumas and allows them to be changed but not destroyed by them. I thought the way things played out for everyone was on the hopeful, ‘phew, that was close’ side of things but remained credible.

 

The only thing in the book that I thought was a little clumsy was the murder mystery game but this may have been because it was difficult to cope with all those instructions in an audiobook.

 

I still recommend the audiobook. Rachael Louise Miller did a fine job with the narration. 

currently reading

Progress: 6%
Progress: 7%
Progress: 38%
Progress: 51%
Progress: 4%