A Fi50 reminder and a Top Book of 2017 pick!

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Fiction in 50 NEW BUTTON

It’s nearly Fiction in 50 time for March and this month our prompt is…

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If you’d like to join in (and we would love to have you!) just create a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words, post it and then link your post in the comments of Monday’s Fi50 post.  If you would like more information, just click here.


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Today’s Top Book of 2017 pick is a wartime beauty that is also a celebration of the strength of womankind in adversity.  We received a copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan from HarperCollins Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Summer, 1940. In the Kentish village of Chilbury some are unimpressed at the vicar’s decision to close the church choir, since all the men have gone off to fight. But a new arrival prompts the creation of an all-female singing group and, as the women come together in song, they find the strength and initiative to confront their own dramatic affairs.

Filled with intrigue, humour and touching warmth, and set against the devastating backdrop of WWII, this is a wonderfully spirited and big-hearted novel told through the voices of four marvellous and marvellously different females, who will win you over as much with their mischief as with their charm.

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For the first few chapters of this epistolary, diary-entry novel I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but by the time I’d finished I felt that this book seemed to me for all the world to be a grown-up version of Goodnight Mr Tom.  Since that story is one of my favourites, it stands to reason that I would jolly well enjoy The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir too.

The book switches between the perspectives of a number of the ladies, young and old, of Chilbury.  There’s Kitty Winthrop, thirteen (nearly fourteen) year old sister of the wild beauty Venetia, and dead war hero Edmund, daughter of the brutish Brigadier and rising songbird, whose perspective we are privy to through entries in her journal.  There’s Venetia herself, older sister of Kitty and focused entirely (for the most part) on snagging a handsome, mysterious lover while leading on all the other lads in the village.  We see her side of the story through letters to her friend Angela.  Then there’s the shady Edwina Paltry, midwife of the village and not one to shy away from morally dubious dealings provided there’s something in it for her.  Finally, we have Mrs Tilling, a widow, whose son David is about to leave for the front lines in France and through whose diary we witness the major changes of Chilbury throughout the year of 1940.  We also get to see a few glimpses from Sylvie, a young child evacuee from Czechoslovakia who is living with the Winthrops until her parents can escape or it is safe for her to return, as well as Edith, the Winthrop’s maid.

At its heart, this is a book about personal growth, set against a backdrop of the ever-encroaching threat of invasion and loss, that highlights the strength of women under adversity.  Although each follows a different path throughout the story, the four main ladies whose stories we engage with all become very different people by the end.  It is this growth that reminded me so strongly of Goodnight Mr Tom: while the war and its effects play a large role in the book and in some instances create a shocking and frightening atmosphere, the plot is chiefly about decisions and their ripple effects and ways in which the women of the story choose to stand up in defiance of their situation or roll with the punches.

Funnily enough, the Choir plays a significantly smaller part in the overall story than I expected, but the sections that deal with the ladies coming together – be it for a local competition or to provide respite for a weary community – were always uplifting and provided a lightening of the atmosphere and enough humour to take the edge off some of the darker happenings going on in the plot.  My favourite character, apart from the enthusiastic, indefatigably positive Prim, the choir mistress, had to be Mrs Tilling.  As the only trustworthy adult narrator, I came to trust her judgement (except, of course, in regards to her opinion of the Colonel, her billet) and adored the way in which she grows into herself again as a confident, strong woman and a leader for the village.

This isn’t a light-hearted romp from beginning to end; nor is it a slow examination of the effects of war.  Rather, it is a snapshot of a village at the beginning of World War II, struggling to cope with change already happening and the inevitable change that is just over the horizon.  Hefty as it is at four hundred plus pages, this is one that you would do best to savour over time.  Get to know the ladies of Chilbury at your leisure and you certainly won’t regret that you took the time to visit.

As well as a Top Book of 2017 pick, I am also submitting The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir for the Epistolary Reading Challenge, the Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge and the Popsugar Reading Challenge.  You can check out my progress toward all those challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: Shake Hands or Die…

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How did it get to be Monday again so fast?  However it happened, Monday means murder and we received Shake Hands or Die by Michael Northey from the publisher via Netgalley for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

“Father John was friendly during the services. He had no problem in greeting people during the Peace, where people wander about mid-service saying hello, peace, waving, some greeting others with a chaste hug, in general recognition of being one big family. He had a nice smile. Only he never stood at the church door after service to shake hands or say goodbye…”

Wacky new vicar Father John aims to modernise St Martha’s church in the delightful city of Hillford. People love his fun gimmicks but cannot understand why he will not ever shake hands at the end of service. Even the charming archdeacon, Babs, cannot get him to change his mind. Until one day, the reason becomes crystal clear.

Ambitious journalist Fred Vestal, on loan from a London tabloid, is trying to shake up the sleepy local paper. He turns up to a service at St Martha’s and sees an uninhibited children’s play. After getting a sniff of a story, he interviews the vicar and writes a vicious article, labelling Father John as a public menace.

When they next meet, Father John refuses to shake hands with Fred. Soon afterwards a body is found in a pile of compost in the churchyard. The little cathedral city of Hillford, where even the police seem off-beat, looks for an answer…

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Plot Summary:

John is a vicar with some madcap methods that seem to be bringing the punters back to the Church. Fred is a journalist with the aim of making a name for himself, no matter how many reputations he destroys in search of the truth. When Fred is found dead outside John’s church, for the police all roads seem to lead to Rome. (Well, C of E).

The Usual Suspects:

For much of the book, there are only two suspects: John the vicar and a gang of thugs who were last seen carrying Fred off on their shoulders, ostensibly in hero worship.  Really though, the police only ever suspect John, given the fact that he has motive and, rather stupidly in our opinion, buggered off immediately after the murder happened.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Starts off farcically, takes a slide through bizarre Shakespearean monologue and finishes without the police doing much at all.

Overall Rating:

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Two poison bottles for the kind of quirky comedy one might find in “Carry on, Vicar”.

 

This turned out to be wholly and utterly the kind of cosy mystery from which I normally steer well clear.

You know the ones.

There’s a veritable tsunami of ones set in America, with themes of knitting, baking or painting and suitably pun-laden titles such as Grand Hoummus-cide and Brushed Off and Hooked on Murder.  In these mysteries, the focus tends more toward the quirkiness of the setting/characters/situation and less toward an actual reasonable murder mystery with a logical and intriguing solution.

So it was with Shake Hands or Die.  Strangely though, the irritating quirkiness didn’t really start to show itself until about a third of the way through, so I was already drawn into the story before I twigged to exactly the kind of quicksand of ridiculum into which I had unwittingly stepped.  The first third of the story introduces John and his wacky, lively methods that have swelled the congregation of his parish church, as well as his idiosyncratic insistence on not shaking hands after the service.  By a third of the way through, the reader is given the necessary back story as to why shaking hands is such a stressor for John, and the story then moves on to introduce soon-to-be-dead Fred, the journalist with an axe to grind.  The second third of the book starts to deal with the relationship between John and Fred, features the murder of the aforementioned soon-to-be-dead Fred and then quickly descends into absolute silliness from which an ensemble cast of absolute loonies takes the stage.

We have the gang of thugs who are actually university educated professionals in disguise who spend their time calling each other canine-inspired names and being smugly sarcastic to those less educated than themselves.  There’s Karen, the fiancee of dead Fred, who gets pages and pages of soliloquy on the spot of her lover’s demise, replete with phrases like, “Oh Fred, my Fred, my darling, my only love, Fred!”

I kid you not.

There’s also a vigilante gang of old people (including the indespensible retired army Major character) who attempt to do some investigating of their own. Then there’s the police – an odd couple who are having an affair, of which much is made, as well as having difficulty agreeing on how to go about investigating the crime, of which little is made.  One of the policeman is also brother to a local councilman and these two speak in the most unlikely contrived way to each other that it had me scratching my head throughout.

The ending and reveal eventually come with a whimper rather than a bang, and by this stage I could not fathom what it was that I had just read.  Either this cosy mystery thing has blown out toward whimsy beyond all proportions, or the editor of this one read the first third, decided, “Yep, that should be fine”, and subsequently didn’t bother casting an eye over the rest.

I’d recommend this is you like murder mysteries that make you feel as if you’ve tripped and stumbled into the twilight zone of contrived English countryside villages.  Otherwise, it’s probably best to move right along.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Lockwood & Co #4: The Creeping Shadow…

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We Shelf-Dwellers love Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series.

We know it.

You know it.

Let’s just accept it as fact and move on.

If you haven’t had a crack at this series yet and you are a fan of paranormal, ghost hunting books, you are missing out.  Enough said.  We jumped at the chance to review book four in the series – The Creeping Shadow – when it was offered by the publisher via Netgalley (even though we haven’t got to book three yet), and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Lucy has left Lockwood & Co. A freelance operative, she is hiring herself out to other agencies – agencies that might value her ever-improving skills.

But now Lockwood needs her help.

Penelope Fittes, leader of the well-renowned Fittes Agency wants Lockwood & Co. – and only them – to locate and remove the ‘Source’ for the legendary Brixton Cannibal.

It’s a tough assignment. Made worse by the tensions between Lucy and the other agents – even the skull is treating her like a jilted lover!

What will it take to reunite the team? Black marketeers, an informant ghost, a Spirit Cape that transports the wearer, and mysteries involving their closest rivals may just do the trick.

But not all is at it seems. And it’s not long before a shocking revelation rocks Lockwood & Co. to its very core . . .

*There may be spoilers here from book two and beyond.  Read at your own risk*

I think this is the most intriguing book of the series so far (although, admittedly, I haven’t read the third book yet – The Hollow Boy), with Lucy’s relationship with Lockwood & Co being first and foremost in the mind of the reader the whole way through.  Having skipped straight to book four when opportunity arose meant that I haven’t been privy to the events of book three in which Lucy parts ways with Lockwood & Co and strikes out on her own as a freelance operative, ably aided by the skull in a jar.  Even though it’s obvious that book three dealt with some pretty major events, I didn’t feel particularly out of the loop here because essentially, all the reader needs to know is that (a) Lucy left Lockwood & Co and (b) the skull played a part in this leaving.

The early chapters of the book have a distinct air of melancholy about them as Lucy spends most of her time, when not freelancing for various sub-par agencies, alone in her bedsit with the skull, which, I’m sure we can all agree, is a bit depressing really.  It’s obvious that she misses the team, but feels that she must stay away for the greater good of everyone and Lockwood particularly.  Soon enough though, excitement kicks off as Lockwood invites Lucy back for a one-off job that quickly turns into a second job and so on.  The initial two ghost hunts (involving a historical witch and a seriously creepy cannibal serial killer) are particularly atmospheric and frightening.  The unexpected inclusion of Quill Kipps – ex-Fittes agency smug git and Lockwood & Co antagonist from way back – adds a new dimension to the tale as the team swells to five members, all of whom seem to have a bit of a beef (or at least a niggling irritation) with at least one of the other members.

There are some amazing reveals at the end of the story that I didn’t see coming and these will certainly be of great interest in the fifth (and final, apparently – booooo!) installment when it is released.  I won’t spoil any of the action for you, but the final hunt for the team involves a seriously haunted village that seems to be experiencing a sort of plague of ghosts, ever since a well-known research institute moved in down the road.  If you count the skull as the sixth member of the team – which Lucy obviously does – it is apparent that all six members will need every ounce of their wits about them for the next book, due to a “warning” (read: threat) from one of the top folks in the ghost hunting field, as well as a shocking tidbit of information that gets dropped just pages before the end.

The Creeping Shadow is simultaneously more of the same from the Lockwood & Co gang and the potential for fascinating new directions, so I am definitely looking forward to the final book in the series.  Now I just have to go back and read book three before number five is  released.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: The Chalk Pit…

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As promised, here is my second Murderous Monday for February – and it’s a cracker of a read for those of you who enjoy serial police procedurals.  We received a copy of The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths, the ninth book in the Ruth Galloway series, from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When Dr Ruth Galloway discovers they are recent – the boiling not the medieval curiosity she thought – DCI Nelson has a murder enquiry on his hands.

Meanwhile, DS Judy Johnson is investigating the disappearance of a local rough sleeper. The only trace of her is the rumour that she’s gone ‘underground’. This might be a figure of speech, but with the discovery of the bones and the rumours both Ruth and the police have heard of a vast network of old chalk-mining tunnels under King’s Lynn, home to a vast community of rough sleepers, the clues point in only one direction. Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?

As the weather gets hotter, tensions rise. A local woman goes missing and the police are under attack. Ruth and Nelson must unravel the dark secrets of The Underground and discover just what gruesome secrets lurk at its heart – before it claims another victim.

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Plot Summary:

Bones are found at the site of an underground development. A homeless woman goes missing (or does she?).  Two homeless men are murdered.  A young mother vanishes without trace, leaving her four young children behind.  Is there a link?  Only time (and thorough investigation) will tell.

The Usual Suspects:

This is a bit of an unusual read in terms of suspects, because for the majority of the book, the police don’t have any.  Well, any suspects with any particular evidence attached to their names.  While this does make it difficult for those wishing to guess ahead to who the murderer might be, it did up the suspense and mystery factor because these things seemed to be happening completely out of the blue.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

While there are murders in the story, the hunt is mostly geared toward finding the links between various happenings…because as I mentioned above, the police don’t really have any suspects.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the heavy sigh of someone being murdered in their sleep

I will admit to loving a good police procedural, and this is a good police procedural.  I had no idea when I requested it that it was number nine in a series and it certainly doesn’t read like a story in which the characters are mired in backstory that is impenetrable to the reader new to the series.  It is obvious that there are many connections between each of the characters, but these are discussed just enough to ensure that you know who’s who and how they are related, but not so much that it drags the focus off the investigation.  Essentially, Ruth is an archaeologist, Nelson is a policeman, they have a past, now let’s get on with it.

The investigation is expertly paced and involves multiple interlinked events culminating in an unexpected and sort of tabloid (but satisfyingly so) ending.  The focus is so much on the various events that happen – discovering the bones, the two separate murders, the missing lady and so forth – that the tension is continually building as the investigation continues and the pieces start to fall into place.

I enjoyed this as a story that I could just fall back into every time I picked it up and I will definitely seek out more from this series in the future.  Have you read any of Ruth Galloway’s previous adventures?

Until next time,

Bruce

Creepy Adult Fiction Review: The Ghosts of Sleath…

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Meet an old story in a new jacket!  We received this gorgeously covered copy of The Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert from PanMacmillan Australia not realising that the story was originally published in 1994.  All things considered though, this didn’t really matter to us because we’ve never read any of Herbert’s work anyway!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Can a ghost haunt a ghost?
Can the dead reach out and touch the living?
Can ancient evil be made manifest?

These are the questions that confront investigator David Ash when he is sent to the picturesque village of Sleath in the Chiltern Hills to look into mysterious reports of mass hauntings. What he discovers is a terrified community gripped by horrors and terrorized by ghosts from the ancient village’s long history. As each dark secret is unveiled and terrible, malign forces are unleashed, he will fear for his very sanity.

Sleath. Where the dead will walk the streets.

Sleath, it seems, is a picturesque village that is haunted by…well, pretty much everything that ever happened there.  When psychic investigator David Ash is called to Sleath at the behest of the local vicar amid whispers of hauntings, he is woefully unprepared to deal with the sheer backlog of instances of human misery that this town seems to be hiding.  Along with Grace, the vicar’s daughter, and later on, a mysterious Irish man who turns up out of the blue, David must try and get to the bottom of the diverse phenomena appearing all over the village and discover whether they have paranormal origins or are driven by something more mundane.

Before you pick this one up you should probably be made aware that it isn’t your average, run of the mill ghost story, but also features some quite graphic, stomach-churning violence that is sprung on the reader without warning in various places.  We Shelf-dwellers, being fans of ghostliness, but not necessarily goriness (unless we’re in the mood!), found this to be a bit of a stumbling block to getting into this book because after a while we became hand-shy that something icky would be around the next corner.  For those who appreciate trigger warnings, you should be made aware that this book features descriptions of child sexual abuse that are quite confronting.

This is the second book in a series featuring psychic investigator David Ash.  Not having read the first book wasn’t a major problem as the author provides enough information here and there to ensure that the reader gets an idea of his backstory. Ash is a bit of a tortured character by all accounts who is committed to his job but still coming to terms with some seriously nasty psychological trauma from a past case.

I couldn’t quite make up my mind as to whether I enjoyed this book or not.  On the one hand, it certainly satisfies the criteria of “totally creepy paranormal phenomena” and “reveals you didn’t see coming”, both of which I appreciate in a good ghosty story.  On the other hand, the aforementioned violence seemed shockingly out of place and was so graphic in places that it made me feel a bit sick.   I also had a few issues with the slow pacing of the investigation and constant interjections of flashbacks from various townsfolk.

While this one didn’t quite hang together in the most appealing way for me as a reader, I’m sure there will be plenty of folk who will appreciate the dark, brooding atmosphere of this book and the multiple narratives that have been woven together to contribute to the surprising reveal.

I will be submitting this one for the Colour Coded Challenge 2017   You can check out my progress toward all my challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Adult Fiction Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day…

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Today’s book is an original ghostly tale that delves into the question, “if your afterlife was spent stuck on Earth, how would you spend it?”  The characters in this story answer that question in a range of ways that you might not expect.  We received a copy of Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire from the publisher via Netgalley, and I will be submitting it for the Colour-Coded Reading Challenge 2017 and the PopSugar Reading Challenge, under the category of a book from a non-human perspective.  You can check out my progress toward my challenges here.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.

But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

Considering that, at its heart, Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is a ghost story, there is a significant amount of philosophising about the nature of life and the meaning of atonement in this book.

This is not a bad thing.

In fact, it gives what could have been a basic urban fantasy (or urban paranormal, possibly) story a deeper element on which to ponder.

I found Jenna to be an immediately likable narrator.  Having accidentally met her own death while grieving after the suicide of her older sister, Jenna spends her afterlife working on a volunteer suicide prevention hotline in order to avoid other families having to experience the death of a loved one by their own hand.  In doing so, Jenna is “earning” her way towards her final death – the day on which she was intended to die, had she not run out into a lightning storm and been prematurely frazzled.

The early parts of the book are heavy with world-building, because the author has set up specific rules regarding the type of person who can become a ghost, what ghosts can affect in the living world and why some ghosts have been around longer than others.  In fact, the bulk of the story involves Jenna finding out more about the laws that govern her afterlife, as ghosts start disappearing and her semi-comfortable existence begins to crumble.  For those who like a fantasy twist in their paranormal, McGuire’s world also includes witches (who can be male or female), whose powers link them to a particular object, be it organic or built, and shape how that power might be wielded.

The characters are the strong suit of this particular story, with Jenna ably accompanied by Delia, an elderly ghost who provides cheap housing for both living and dead tenants, Sophie, a homeless young woman with an affinity for rodents, and Brenda, a corn witch who has made Manhattan her home.  This is definitely as much a story of relationships and social connections as it is a ghost story.

After all the build up and time spent developing the afterlife concept at the beginning of the book, the resolution came along quite quickly and was all tied up in record time, which surprised me a little.  Having said that, I was quite satisfied with the pace of the final chapters because there is nothing worse than having a book drag out the denouement when there is no need to do so.  There is plenty of action and some unexpected reveals regarding who is behind the ghostly disappearances that I certainly didn’t see coming and by the end of the book, Jenna comes to terms with her misplaced guilt regarding her role in her sister’s death.

While I didn’t find this to be an absolutely stellar read, it was certainly original and had a tone that will appeal to those who enjoy books about female and family relationships, as much as those who enjoy paranormal and fantasy stories.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Bone Witch: A Great Expectations Review…

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Given that I adored Rin Chupeco’s first two novels, it was only natural that I would have massive expectations regarding her third.  We received The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco from the publisher via Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. But Tea finds solace and guidance with an older, wiser bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training.

In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha — one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles…and make a powerful choice.

Memoirs of a Geisha meets The Name of the Wind in this brilliant new fantasy series by Rin Chupeco!

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What I Expected:

*an enchanting blend of magic and creepiness with a complex plot and plenty of action, as in the previous two novels from this author

*a memorable story in which the imagery created by the author sears itself into your brain as you read and leaves a lasting impression

What I Got:

*seemingly endless descriptions of the setting and the “rules” of the world in which the book is set

*a completely different narrative tone from the other books I had read by this author

*an extremely slow-placed story that resulted in my DNFing at 15%

The Bone Witch is such a massive shift in content and voice from Chupeco’s first two horror/supernatural novels that I felt all at sea from the very first chapter.  The story opens with an unnamed narrator searching for the girl who turns out to be the protagonist of the story, as the narrator tries to convince this girl to tell him the story of how she became a Bone Witch….or something like that.  I’m not 100% sure because I didn’t finish the whole book, but essentially, the bulk of the book is the story that is being told by the girl to the narrator of the first chapter…if that makes sense.

The story that is being told features Tea as the protagonist, a young girl who accidentally manages to raise her brother from the dead and in doing so, marks herself out as a Bone Witch.  Bone Witches are reviled by most good folk for….reasons that aren’t exactly clear…but Tea attaches herself to an experienced Bone Witch as an apprentice and together, the two, plus Tea’s undead brother set off to do…Bone Witchy things.

You may think that I don’t really know what’s going on because I gave up on the book so early – and you would probably be right – but there is so much description and “telling” about the setting going on that I found it really hard to keep the important bits of information – such as who the main characters are and what they’re meant to be doing – in my head while reading. Unfortunately, the interminable description of everything from architecture of certain towns to the particulars of Tea’s brothers ex-regiment in the army, is not balanced out by explanations of important aspects of the world, such as what heartglasses are and what purpose they serve.  This might come along later in the book, but heartglasses were mentioned so often in the first 15% of the book that I really needed a fuller explanation of what these were in order to get a grasp on the story.

The last few bits I read before putting the book down did seem to be picking up a bit and I began to enjoy the undead brother character’s interventions, but not to the extent that I felt like I could wade through more dry descriptions of the setting.

If you are a fan of Rin Chupeco’s work, you should probably know going into this that it is a departure from the style that readers will be familiar with from her earlier works.  This may not be a problem for you and I hope you enjoy this book much better than I did…for me though, this was a miss.

Until next time,

Bruce