Challenges

All posts in the Challenges category

Hush Little Baby – Joanna Barnard

Published November 17, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

When baby Oliver breaks his arm, no-one can (or will) say how it happened.

His mother is exhausted.

His father is angry.

His older sister is resentful.

And they all have something to hide

What did I think?:

First of all, a big thank you to Ebury Press, part of Penguin Random House publishers for sending me a copy of this fantastic thriller in exchange for an honest review. Hush Little Baby was released in August 2017 and apologies that I’m only getting round to reading it now, I certainly won’t make that mistake again with any future novel I happen to read by Joanna Barnard. This book was such a wonderful surprise, exciting, tense and twisty that delves into some very dark places and controversial issues with ease and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment, racing through it in less than twenty-four hours like a woman possessed!

The above synopsis says everything you really need to know concerning what this book is about. As you may know, I’m not one for revealing spoilers so I’m hoping to be as deliberately vague as possible regarding the plot. It’s basically the story of a family – Sally, her husband Richard, their baby Oliver and Oliver’s teenage half-sister Martha. All their lives are turned upside down one night when Oliver has to be rushed to hospital after mysteriously breaking his arm with an injury the hospital are certain is unequivocally not accidental. No one is accepting responsibility for the incident and each member of the family has their own issues to deal with about the night in question i.e. where they were, what they were doing etc. Now social services have become involved and have removed Oliver from his parents to his grandparents custody whilst they try to find out what has happened. Hush Little Baby is a novel where parental responsibilities are questioned, dark secrets are unearthed and the actions of all our characters are revealed slowly and steadily with an ending that will leave you dumbfounded and in my case, slightly unsettled.

This fascinating novel is told in one of my favourite ways, from multiple perspectives. We hear from all three “potentially guilty,” parties in alternating chapters: Sally, Richard and Martha who were all there in some way when baby Oliver was injured. It was quite early on in the story that I began to have opinions on all three persons concerned, all of whom have made mistakes on that night but it’s up to the reader to decide who indeed might have made the biggest mistake. The plot itself deals with multiple issues, apart from the obvious issue of child abuse/neglect, it also explores mental illness, relationship difficulties and there are trigger warnings for self-harm which you should be aware of if you are sensitive to this subject. Because of this, it goes to some incredibly murky depths to paint the picture of what *might* have happened to Oliver and who *may* be to blame.

I have to say it made my emotions go haywire at points, particularly with the character depiction. I wanted to shake one of them at one point, I despised another with a passion and then I wanted to just take another far away from it all. It is the story of what happened to Oliver but mainly, it’s a novel about how a relationship can be affected by a crisis such as this, how people either do or do not take responsibility for their actions and how detrimental your actions can be to another person (or people) without even being aware of it. If you’re after a psychological thriller that is much more about the reactions of characters rather than what actually happened to the child, I would definitely read this book. Personally, I’ll definitely be checking out Joanna’s first book, Precocious on the strength of this one and I can hardly wait.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Advertisements

The Things We Learn When We’re Dead – Charlie Laidlaw

Published November 15, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

With elements of The Wizard of Oz, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Lovely Bones, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead shows how small decisions can have profound and unintended consequences, and how sometimes we can get a second chance.

On the way home from a dinner party, Lorna Love steps into the path of an oncoming car. When she wakes up she is in what appears to be a hospital – but a hospital in which her nurse looks like a young Sean Connery, she is served wine for supper, and everyone avoids her questions. It soon transpires that she is in Heaven, or on HVN. Because HVN is a lost, dysfunctional spaceship, and God the aging hippy captain. She seems to be there by accident… Or does God have a higher purpose after all?

At first Lorna can remember nothing. As her memories return – some good, some bad – she realises that she has decision to make and that maybe she needs to find a way home.

What did I think?:

First of all, thank you so much to the author Charlie Laidlaw for reaching out to me via email and offering me the chance to read this wonderful novel in return for an honest review. To be perfectly honest, as soon as he mentioned “a modern retelling of The Wizard Of Oz,” I was pretty much sold and when it arrived, I was completely charmed by the cover (yes, that’s a little hamster’s face in a spaceship!) but was even more delighted by the story that I found within.

Set in Edinburgh and North Berwick, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead is the story of Lorna Love who steps out in front of a car on the same day of the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. She wakes up in what she believes to be a hospital bed but she is astounded to discover that she’s actually dead and in heaven, more specifically HVN, aboard a spaceship where they have a serious hamster problem as they continue to breed and nibble through the wiring of the ship (See, the hamsters were relevant!). Lorna has always been an agnostic but this idea of heaven is like something she could never have imagined. All the inhabitants choose to look like a celebrity of their choosing, for example, her nurse looks like Sean Connery and the chain-smoking woman who helps her adjust to life after death Irene, is a dead ringer for Kate Winslet.

When Lorna comes face to face with Captain God she learns that there is a real purpose to her being there and a reason why he has chosen her out of many people to live in the ship with the lure of being able to eat and drink whatever she wants when she wants, choose from a range of designer clothes that she never would have been able to afford on Earth and be able to transform her face and body to match any celebrity that might take her fancy. (Kate Winslet is quite popular, it turns out). However, until she recovers all her memories of her life, God will not tell her why she is there. We then follow Lorna’s life from childhood and adolescence to adventures with her best friend, the outgoing Suzie, her meaningful (and not so meaningful) relationships with men, how she juggles a menial job that she hates in a supermarket with training to be a solicitor and the struggles she has faced throughout her life. As Lorna looks back over significant events in her life, she begins to appreciate just how wonderful living is after all.

I have to admit, when I started this novel, I wasn’t too sure about whether I was going to enjoy it. I loved the fact it was set in Scotland being a Scots girl myself, and I instantly warmed to Lorna, a fantastic character who makes some bad decisions in her life but is so wonderfully endearing and an all round “good egg” that you can’t help but admire her. However, The Things We Learn When We’re Dead was a whole lot darker and infinitely more humorous than I first gave it credit for and by about one hundred pages in, I was completely hooked. This book was poignant, heart-warming and made me feel quite nostalgic as I look back over my life so far, the paths I’ve chosen to take and the people I’ve met (good and bad) along the way. It’s a quirky look at an alternative life after death and the highly charged emotional parts are perfectly balanced with some fantastic comedy moments. If you’re in the mood for something a bit different that warms the cockles of your heart this is definitely the book for you.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands by Stephen King from the collection Skeleton Crew

Published November 14, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands all about?:

The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands follows a group of friends who gather to hear spooky tales. The tale for this evening involves a man whom as the title may suggest does not under any circumstance shake hands… but why?

What did I think?:

You must all be bored of me professing my love for Stephen King by now surely? If you haven’t been here before or haven’t heard me gushing on about him before I’ll just say he is without a doubt my all time favourite author. However, I have come to realise over all the years that I’ve read him that at times, I do need to take those rose-tinted glasses off. I don’t love absolutely everything he has ever written and sometimes, I haven’t been as enamoured with one of his short stories as I would have liked but damn, Skeleton Crew has to be one of his finest collections so far.

It opens to a group of friends who are meeting to tell each other frightening stories. One of the men, George Gregson is particularly adept at holding his friends in utter rapture with his tales and that evening, he begins to tell a true story of a man that he professes to have been murdered in the exact same room that they find themselves in just over sixty years prior to this evening. This story involves George and a group of his friends who want to play a hand or two of cards but are lacking another man to make up the numbers. Enter Henry Brower, a friendly enough stranger to the group but with a strange tendency to shy away from anyone shaking his hand or in fact, coming near to touching him at all. We soon find out why exactly Henry fears the touch of anyone else when after a bit of drink, one of George’s friends takes his hand mistakenly to congratulate him on winning a hand. Henry’s reaction is extreme to say the least but it is only when George follows him outside when he flees that he begins to understand Henry’s reasons for keeping away from human touch.

Of course I’m not going to give anything away except to say I really didn’t realise where this story was going, even though it was hinted at merely a few pages in. The reason for Henry Brower’s complete terror of touch comes from an event in his past that continues to haunt his future and gives him little rest, making him almost an outcast from society and completely miserable to boot. To be honest, when the group were playing cards, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit disappointed. It was dull, I didn’t find it interesting and I couldn’t tell where Stephen King was taking the story. If like me, you decide to read this and feel the same, I beg you to please, please read on because as soon as Henry receives that well intentioned touch of a hand, the story explodes and becomes something entirely more horrific and wonderfully compelling. Stephen King often gets a bit of a reputation as a horror writer because of a few novels he has written (not necessarily because of the vast majority of his work) but when he chooses to write something a bit frightening, think there’s very few people in the world that can do it better.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY: Unplugged by Dianne Gray from the collection Manslaughter And Other Tears.

 

A Dangerous Crossing – Rachel Rhys

Published November 10, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

England, September 1939
Lily Shepherd boards a cruise liner for a new life in Australia and is plunged into a world of cocktails, jazz and glamorous friends. But as the sun beats down, poisonous secrets begin to surface. Suddenly Lily finds herself trapped with nowhere to go …

Australia, six-weeks later
The world is at war, the cruise liner docks, and a beautiful young woman is escorted onto dry land in handcuffs.

What has she done?

What did I think?:

I was first made aware of A Dangerous Crossing through a good blogger friend, the wonderful Cleopatra from Cleopatra Loves Books and you can read her fantastic review HERE. She gave it five stars and called it “a story not to be missed.” Cleo also won the opportunity to have her name appear as a character in this novel by means of a charity auction on behalf on CLIC Sargent so look out for her fabulous cameo near the end! Cleo is one of a special group of people to me that when she makes a recommendation I really listen and I’m so glad I did because I cannot stress enough how wonderful this book was. Rachel Rhys (the pen-name of a successful psychological suspense author) writes such a vivid historical fiction novel that I was completely swept up with the time period, the characters and the evocative, mysterious nature of the narrative.

Our main female protagonist is Lily Shepherd and she has recently boarded a massive cruise ship en route to Australia in search of adventure, to see the world and escape certain events from her past. She gratefully seizes an opportunity to pursue domestic work in Australia in the late 1930’s when they were crying out for British workers for a fixed period of time. On the voyage, she instantly connects with a brother and sister, Edward and Helena Fletcher and a Jewish refugee called Maria but also comes into contact with the glamorous and rich couple Eliza and Max Campbell, strange and interfering Ida and fascist bully George. Interestingly, all the characters she comes into contact with appear to be running away from something and as the voyage continues, Lily slowly discovers what this is. At the very beginning of the novel, the prologue describes a woman being led off the ship in handcuffs but just what the woman has done and what precipitated her crime is all left for the reader to discover, piece by delicious piece.

A Dangerous Crossing was picked for the Richard and Judy Autumn Book Club here in the UK and it’s easily one of my favourites in terms of writing style, characters and plot. How can I describe the characters? There’s only one word really – just GORGEOUS. There’s such a variety of individuals to enjoy, each drawn beautifully with their own distinct personality, motives and morals that it’s almost like watching a blockbuster movie in your head. I was taken directly into the author’s world (a very willing and excited participant) from that show-stopper of a prologue right until the sensational finale which shocked and delighted me in equal measure. England is on the brink of war but on this cruise liner, in the middle of the ocean, it’s a completely different world entirely with its very own heroes and villains, morals and obligations, drama and danger. Basically, this book is perfection and I have not got a bad word to say about it – please read it and discover its brilliance for yourself!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

imagesCAF9JG4S

 

Short Stories Challenge 2017 – The Moons Of Jupiter by Alice Munro from the collection Stories To Get You Through The Night

Published November 9, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s The Moons Of Jupiter all about?:

The Moons Of Jupiter follows our protagonist Janet as she visits her father in hospital and comes to terms with the probability of losing him.

What did I think?:

I’m fairly familiar with Alice Munro’s work having read and enjoyed her short story collection, Too Much Happiness a few years ago. However, I often find that a book of short stories by one author has peaks and troughs and there always seem to be some stories that you favour whilst others seem to lack that extra something. It’s perfectly obvious (even to the non-analytical short story reader like myself) that Alice Munro is a talented author and a master of her craft and The Moons Of Jupiter is quite a clever little tale with multiple hidden meanings all revolving around the importance of family and how we re-analyse our own close relationships during times of crisis.

In this short story, our narrator is Janet and she is visiting her father in Toronto General Hospital after he has been told he has a very serious heart condition. The surgeons are willing to operate but make it quite clear to them both that his life expectancy is very much reduced. As well as (or maybe because of) all of this, Janet begins to look deeper into the relationships with her own children, Nichola and Judith which haven’t been plain sailing for one reason or another. After a trip to the planetarium and a heart-to-heart with her father before his operation, Janet begins to put things into perspective and feel grateful for the small moments in life and the love she has for her family.

If you haven’t read any Alice Munro before and you’re looking for something that is quite fast-paced beware, this probably isn’t for you. However, if you enjoy the intricacy of family relationships then this is an enjoyable little read. Personally, I have mixed feelings. I love the sentiment expressed in the story and the writing is obviously that of an author at the top of her game but….(and this is probably going to come out all wrong!), I appreciate a short story that I can get my teeth into, that plays on my mind and I have to think about, and with The Moons Of Jupiter it felt like I had to think too hard to discover what the author was trying to say. I fully admit that after finishing I had to google the story just to make sure I had got the right end of the stick and I had, thank goodness but for a little while, I felt a little bit stupid. I don’t tend to like stories where I have to analyse too much and with this one, it almost felt a little too clever for me and I hate feeling that way! On reflection though, when I had confirmed what the story was trying to say, it did make me look at it in a more positive light and I appreciated all the nuances the author used.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

NEXT SHORT STORY: The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands by Stephen King from the collection Skeleton Crew.

 

Stranger – David Bergen

Published November 8, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

Íso Perdido, a young Guatemalan woman, works at a fertility clinic at Ixchel, named for the Mayan goddess of creation and destruction. Íso tends to the rich women who visit the clinic for the supposed conception-enhancing properties of the local lake. She is also the lover of Dr. Mann, the American doctor in residence. When an accident forces the doctor to leave Guatemala abruptly, Íso is abandoned, pregnant. After the birth, tended to by the manager of the clinic, the baby disappears.

Determined to reclaim her daughter, Íso follows a trail north, eventually crossing illegally into a United States where the rich live in safe zones, walled away from the indigent masses. Travelling without documentation, and with little money, Íso must penetrate this world, and in this place of menace and shifting boundaries, she must determine who she can trust and how much, aware that she might lose her daughter forever.

In David Bergen’s Stranger, with its uncanny lake, human monsters, and a stolen child, an ageless story is freshly recast in a modern setting, where themes of dislocation and disruption, exploitation and vulnerability, rich and poor collide. Intense and beautifully rendered, Stranger is a powerful and affecting novel for our times.

What did I think?:

First of all, a huge thank you to Duckworth Overlook Publishers for allowing me to read a copy of this touching novel in return for an honest review. This book is fairly short at 272 pages but manages to pack in a great deal within its pages and at times, I was extremely moved by what I read. It’s quite a hard book to classify genre wise – there is a contemporary edge, a vague mysterious undertone and it even read like a thriller in parts but overall I found it to be a very positive reading experience and I instantly felt a connection with the main character and the plight that she suffers.

Our protagonist for the journey is Íso Perdido, a young woman working in a fertility clinic in Guatemala who embarks on an affair with one of the American doctors working there, Dr Mann. Awkwardly, she ends up treating his wife who confides in her that her and Dr Mann have been trying to conceive a child for many years unsuccessfully. It is not long before Dr Mann returns to America in the company of his wife and leaves Íso in a difficult situation as she finds out that she is pregnant. However, things take a turn for the worse when Íso gives birth and shortly afterwards her baby disappears. Once she is told what has happened, she is determined to retrieve her child by any means necessary even if that involves illegal border crossings, homelessness, hunger and precarious situations. These are all things she must suffer if she is to have any chance of bringing her baby back home where she belongs.

I really didn’t know what to expect from this novel but on reading the synopsis my interest was certainly piqued. Parts of it made for incredibly tough reading on a personal level as it deals with some issues that I have had the bad luck to suffer with myself, but I do love books that manage to speak to my emotions and that was certainly the case with Stranger. I loved Íso as a character – not at the start, I have to admit, I was internally screaming at her not to get involved with a married man but when she goes through the unbearable loss of her child, I almost wept for her. She became at this time a character I could definitely get on board with. Determined, ruthless and hell-bent on getting her daughter back regardless of any danger to herself, are all admirable qualities to read about and only served to make me more interested in how her story would end. There were points of the narrative I almost had to suspend my disbelief to be perfectly honest but generally, this was a great story that explored some important issues of fertility, culture, immigration and the extreme lengths a mother would go to for her child.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Is Monogamy Dead? – Rosie Wilby

Published November 6, 2017 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

‘My favourite way to learn is when a funny, clever, honest person is teaching me – that’s why I love Rosie Wilby!’ – Sara Pascoe

‘Bittersweet, original, honest and so funny.’ – Viv Groskop

In early 2013, comedian Rosie Wilby found herself at a crossroads with everything she’d ever believed about romantic relationships. When people asked, ‘who’s the love of your life?’ there was no simple answer. Did they mean her former flatmate who she’d experienced the most ecstatic, heady, yet ultimately doomed, fling with? Or did they mean the deep, lasting companionate partnerships that gave her a sense of belonging and family? Surely, most human beings need both.

Mixing humour, heartache and science, Is Monogamy Dead? details Rosie’s very personal quest to find out why Western society is clinging to a concept that doesn’t work that well for some of us and is laden with ambiguous assumptions.

What did I think?:

First of all, thank you so much to the author, Rosie Wilby for allowing me to read a copy of Is Monogamy Dead?, a beautifully honest part-memoir and part humorous philosophical musings on the nature of friendships, love, monogamy and relationships in the modern world. I’m delighted to provide an honest review and really enjoyed Rosie’s candid thoughts on all these topics and much more. It made me look at social media and dating apps in a whole different light, provided a whole new vocabulary to get to grips with (breadcrumbing anyone?!) and really made me think about what I look for in a relationship versus what my partner might want. It turns out he wants the same as me (phew!) but Rosie definitely made me question what might be going on in someone else’s head and opened up that window of communication where we could talk more honestly about our relationship and where we saw it going.

Rosie is an award-winning comedian, musician, writer and broadcaster based in London and much of the book was quite nostalgic for me as I used to live in London and continue to work there on a daily basis. From describing her current relationship with Jen which troubles her at times because she is so unsure about where it is going, Rosie takes us back to her very first relationship, the first time she fell in love, the girl that changed her outlook briefly for the worse regarding relationships and where she finds herself now. Interspersed with this are her thoughts on monogamy and what that means to people in a relationship, how much potentially easier an “open relationship,” could be where both parties get exactly what they want and still have someone to come home and cuddle on a night, and how technology and expectations have upped the ante in the way we meet and date people.

Of course, I have gay and bisexual friends but I feel like I have got much more of a personal insight into the world of lesbian relationships from Rosie Wilby than I ever would have done from my friends. Well, some things you just don’t ask, right? I loved how sincerely she talked about her past relationships. her current situation and her potential future and my heart broke a little when she and Jen decided to “consciously uncouple,” even though it was obviously the best thing for both parties concerned! I was also fascinated when she described those intimate, very intense female friendships that you form on occasion that are so strong that when they fall apart spectacularly it is almost like a break-up. I’ve certainly had a few of those in my past and I remember how devastating the feeling was.

With Is Monogamy Dead?, Rosie takes us into her confidence, tickles our funny-bone with the things she says and certainly had me rooting for her, hoping that she would find her own happy ending, whatever that might look like to her. If you like your non-fiction with a bit of an edge and a whole lot of heart this is definitely the book for you.

Rosie is appearing at Write Ideas Festival in Whitechapel, London on Sunday 19th November from 13:00-14:00 to talk more about Is Monogamy Dead? Tickets are free but you must register if you’re interested!

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/rosie-wilby-is-monogamy-dead-tickets-37755301122

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0