An Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: The Snow Rose…

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If you are looking for something to keep you occupied over the Christmas break – either cosied up in front of a roaring fire or barricaded in an air-conditioned room – then today’s book is definitely one to consider.  I wasn’t sure that I was going to love this one because it’s not my usual sort of adult fiction, but The Snow Rose by Lulu Taylor, which we received for review from PanMacmillan Australia, sucked me in hook, line and sinker.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Kate is on the run with her daughter, her identity hidden and her destination unknown to her husband and family. She’s found a place where she and Heather can be alone and safe, a huge old house full of empty rooms. But it turns out she’s not alone. There are the strange old ladies in the cottage next door, Matty and her blind sister Sissy. How long can Kate hide Heather’s presence from them? And then the newcomers arrive, the band of eccentrics led by the charming and charismatic Archer. Kate begins to realize that she is involved in something strange and dangerous, and the past she’s so desperate to escape is about to find her . . .

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Read it if:

*you are a fan of stories that seamlessly blend contemporary and historical fiction in a twisty, intertwined way

*the idea of running away to a beautiful old isolated house sounds like paradise when adulting becomes all too much

*you prefer to organise your holiday accommodation through mysterious, untraceable companies offering employment to single ladies

*the likelihood of you being manipulated by a swindler is directly proportional to the youth, attractiveness, wealth and charisma of said swindler

What an absorbing book I found this to be!  The story turned out to be little of what I expected, but better than my expectations nonetheless.  The first thing you should know about The Snow Rose is that it is not one story, but two (possibly even three, depending on how you look at it) related but separate stories.  The first plotline features Kate, who has run away with her daughter for reasons that are only hinted at in the beginning, but become clear further down the track.  The second, related, storyline features past residents of the house, whose experience appears to be repeating itself with its new residents.  As well as those two main storylines, there are also segues into moments in the present that look to be history repeating, and some focus on the people that Kate left behind when she left.  All in all, this isn’t a basic relationship/finding-oneself type novel, as I expected it might be, but a complex, intricately woven combination of historical fiction and contemporary fiction with a hint of speculative fiction and the briefest of nods toward the paranormal thrown in.

The thing that I found most appealing about The Snow Rose was the fact that Kate, as the main character, seemed to be constantly evolving in her understanding of her bizarre situation and how it came to pass.  At no point was I able to predict how her story would turn out because she is, in some senses, unreliable in her insight into her motivations and the outcomes that she is chasing.  The old ladies that she meets while caretaking at the Big House, Sissy and Matty, provide a balance to Kate’s chaotic situation but also throw in new factors to complicate matters – Are they who they say they are?  What do they actually know about the house’s history?  Can they help Kate find her feet?

I loved the historical sections of the book.  Apart from being an abrupt change of pace from the contemporary sections featuring Kate, the characters in the historical section were so vivid and the events so surprising that I was happy to keep coming back to this time period to see what might happen next.  Like Kate, the main character in the historical plot line, Letty, is also going through some turbulent personal growth.

I suppose there may be some readers of this story who dislike the more bizarre, unexpected elements of it, given that these elements are quite unlikely, but these are exactly what lifted the story above your typical tortured soul story in my view. Kate’s story isn’t predictable.  It is quite unlikely.  There are elements throughout that will have the reader questioning what is real and what is not.  And it’s these characteristics that had me totally absorbed in the lives of the characters.

I’d highly recommend this for readers who want to lose themselves in someone else’s life, because in the coiling plotlines of The Snow Rose, there is plenty of opportunity to do so.

Until next time,

Bruce

An Fi50 Reminder and a Time Travel Murder Mystery…

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imageIt’s almost time for everyone’s favourite micro-flash-fiction challenge once again – Fiction in 50!  July’s challenge will open on Monday and the prompt for this month is…

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If you’d like to play along – and we sincerely hope you do – just create a piece of fiction comprising fewer than 51 words and pop back on Monday to add your link to the comments on my post.  For more detailed information and prompts for the next six months, just click on the attractive button at the top of this post.

Now on to the bookery!

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Today I have an unexpected delight for you that involves murder, mystery, magic doors, time travel and pen pals. Not necessarily in that order. We received a copy of The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks from the publisher via Netgalley.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Annabelle Aster doesn’t bow to convention—not even that of space and time—which makes the 1890s Kansas wheat field that has appeared in her modern-day San Francisco garden easy to accept. Even more peculiar is Elsbeth, the truculent schoolmarm who sends Annie letters through the mysterious brass mailbox perched on the picket fence that now divides their two worlds.

Annie and Elsbeth’s search for an explanation to the hiccup in the universe linking their homes leads to an unsettling discovery—and potential disaster for both of them. Together they must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen…and yet somehow already did.

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The Good

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As far as time travel mysteries go, this is very well put together with a lovely blend of action between the present and the past. The tale starts off slowly (and innocently) enough, with two ladies becoming trans-temporal pen pals after each suddenly discovers the other’s house in their back garden. As  Annie and Elsbeth try and figure out why they are suddenly connected in this manner, more pressing issues come to light and the ladies are drawn into trying to stop a murder that may (or may not) already have happened.

As the story unfolds, the author deftly reveals subsequent layers of the connection between the two women and the events surrounding Annie’s current circumstances in the present. The characters of Christian (Annie’s long-time, stuttering friend), Edmond (befriended by Christian due to an inexplicable familiarity of face) and Nathaniel (old-fashioned romantic interest for Annie) all add to the depth of the story and kept me guessing about who was who and how they were all linked. Or not linked.

The villains, Culler and Danyer, are violent and unpredictable and cast a deliciously creepy shadow over proceedings that is necessary to dispel Annie’s unfailing belief that meddling in time will result in things turning out perfectly alright. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the ordinary issues of Annie’s life melded with the time-travelly, magical aspects of the tale and I think this book will have a wide audience that encompasses those who enjoy plain literary fiction as well as those who like an unreal twist to their novels.

The Sad

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The only thing that mildly soured the experience of this book for me was the fact that I felt the pace slowed unnecessarily in some places, making the book feel a bit overly long. This is one of those books that, like the final film in The Lord of the Rings franchise, has an action-packed climax and then continues on for another half hour or so as all the loose ends are tied up. While the post-climax information is interesting and enlightening, and a satisfactory conclusion to the tale, it falls into the category that I like to call the “pre-empted bladder annoyance”. This may be familiar to you (or not), being the situation in which you think something (usually a film) is about to end and therefore you give your bladder permission to relax, knowing that within minutes you will be free to attend to its needs. When the film (or book, or play or whatever) then continues for longer than expected, you are forced to fidget uncomfortably while the author takes the time to neatly tie off the ends of the narrative.

Again, this certainly wasn’t a big enough complaint to sour the experience for me, but I do like a bit of warning where bladder pre-empting is concerned.

The Quirky

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The thing that stands out for me about this book as opposed to other time-travel jaunts I’ve read is that it really does read like a family drama/comedy with time travel thrown in, rather than focusing on the mechanics of the time-travel and paradoxes and so forth. As a veteran reader of time-travel novels, this felt like a lovely, gentle yet exciting entry into the genre.

If you’re a fan of contemporary fiction that doesn’t feature any unbelievable or magical elements, I would definitely recommend you give this book a try because it has all the best features of contemporary and women’s fiction (the friendships, the focus on relationships – both romantic and otherwise, the growth of the characters) as well as the added interest of the problems posed by finding a magic door at the back of your house and being unwittingly drawn into a century-old murder investigation.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the buoyant tone of this book and the way in which the author has intertwined time-travel with the general excitement and intrigue of a murder mystery. Annie and Elsbeth are both strong characters with a great sense of humour and wills of iron. The male characters run the gamut from shrinking violet to homicidal maniac and flesh out the narrative so that you can never quite be sure where each fits in (or will fit in in the future).

Give it a go, I reckon. If nothing else, you will find out the meaning of the word “lemoncholy” which you can then use in general conversation to annoy those who don’t know what it means, while simultaneously feeling superior in your ever-expanding vocabulary.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

An MG Double-Dip Review: Alexander Baddenfield and Joe All Alone…

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I invite you to collect a portion of your favourite salty snack, pour out some delectable dip and jimageoin me for a tasty double-dip into some MG fiction.  Today I have a new release that I received from the publisher via Netgalley and a tome that has been sat on my shelf for at least six months (which in no way reflects the astronomical levels of excitement and desire that pushed me to buy it in the first place), so with this review I shall also be taking one step closer to the peak of Mt TBR.

But let’s push on. Our first tome is new release UKMG novel Joe All Alone by Joanna Nadin.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When thirteen-year-old Joe is left behind in Peckham while his mum flies to Spain on holiday, he decides to treat it as an adventure, and a welcome break from Dean, her latest boyfriend. Joe begins to explore his neighbourhood, making a tentative friendship with Asha, a fellow fugitive hiding out at her grandfather’s flat.

But when the food and money run out, his mum doesn’t come home, and the local thugs catch up with him, Joe realises time is running out too, and makes a decision that will change his life forever.

Dip into it for… joe all alone

…a sensitively rendered account of a young lad whose mother has chosen a man over her son.  Joe is a likeable, ordinary kid and I think a lot of young readers will relate to his matter-of-fact narration and the anxieties that sit in the back of his mind.  The book touches on themes of domestic violence, racism,  family breakdown, trust and identity and subtly balances the neglectful actions of Joe’s mother and father-figure with the cautiously caring actions of the adults in Joe’s block of flats. The friendship between Joe and Asha is believable and adds a bit of fun and banter to a story that has a pervasive atmosphere of loss and fear.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re wanting a fun, lawless romp featuring a cheery young lad who is happy that his parents have left (as indicated by the cover, and the tagline “No parents, no rules…no problem?”).  This really is a book that focuses on the deeper issues that Joe is facing and as the story progresses, Joe’s fears about what will happen next and who to trust are palpable.

Similarly, if you’ve read a lot of UK fiction in this kind of vein – kid with violent/absent/mentally-ill/drug-addicted parent struggles to find friendship and help to live a normal life – you might get the sense of having read this all before.

Overall Dip Factor

Joe All Alone is a solid addition to the MG literature featuring realistic, contemporary storytelling focusing on important social issues in an accessible way.  The diary format worked well in building up the suspense of what might happen if Joe’s mum didn’t return and also helped the reader focus in on Joe’s day-to-day struggles once it was apparent that his mum wasn’t coming back.  The ending was a surprise for me, given how realistic it actually was in terms of where a young person might find themselves once the adults in their life have abdicated responsibility for them.

While I did enjoy the book, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this story was nothing new.  I suspect this is one of the problems of reading as a reviewer with a special interest in MG and YA – although I haven’t read a story featuring exactly this plot before, I’ve certainly read more than a handful that deal with the same themes and same sorts of characters and that does take some of the sparkle out of the story.  If you enjoy this genre though, or haven’t read a lot featuring these themes, Joe All Alone is definitely worth a look.

Now onto some real wickedness.  Here’s The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield by John Bemelmans Marciano.  From Goodreads:

Alexander Baddenfield is a horrible boy—a really horrible boy—who is the last in a long line of lying, thieving scoundrels.  One day, Alexander has an astonishing idea.  Why not transplant the nine lives from his cat into himself?  Suddenly, Alexander has lives to spare, and goes about using them up, attempting the most outrageous feats he can imagine.  Only when his lives start running out, and he is left with only one just like everyone else, does he realize how reckless he has been.

Dip into it for… alexander baddenfield

…a delightfully droll tale in which a naughty boy gets his just desserts. Eventually.  This cheekily illustrated book is Edward Gorey for children (and their subversive parents) and I don’t feel too bad in telling you that Alexander dies in the end. Multiple times.  There’s also a shocking reveal about the real name of Alexander’s gentleman’s gentleman.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re after a tale in which the bad guy learns his lesson and turns over a new leaf – Ebenezer Scrooge this kid ain’t.  Also, if the thought of a young child dying in various horrible ways offends you, you should probably steer clear.  And there’s at least some surgical mistreatment of a cat.

Overall Dip Factor:

This is a completely quirky and unexpected trip into the philosophical origins of good and evil and whether or not a villain can ever really change his ways.  Also, it’s just a pretty funny romp through the death-fields with an arrogant little snot and his long-suffering babysitter. Keen-eyed readers will also appreciate the playful anagrammatic name of Alexander’s surgeon and the phonetically named cat.  This would be a great read-together for parents with left-of-centre offspring in the early middle-grade age range.

So there you are.  One seriously realistic read and one seriously ridiculous read.  Take your pick.  Or better yet, dip into both!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Speculative Sequels…

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A fine afternoon to you all – as you can probably guess from the title of this post, it’s time for one of my random occasional jaunts into meme territory, namely the ever-popular Top Ten Tuesday hosted by the Broke and The Bookish! This week’s topic is…..

BOOKS THAT I WISH HAD A SEQUEL

While most of these books are for the very young (or young at heart), I believe that they could all have done with a nicely marketed follow-up title.  I have given my suggestions (and in some cases, possible synopsises synopsi plot descriptions), but please feel free to add your own if any better ideas spring to mind.

oh the places youll go1. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr Seuss

This seems to be a perennial favourite on my TTT lists…I would like to see a sequel to this one that honours the parents and caregivers who read this one over and over to their offspring, titled….

Oh, the Places I’LL Go Once You Kids Have Moved Out

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2. Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

This was a great little read, but I would like to see a sequel that is in keeping with the aftermath of most of my journeys on public transport, titled….

Mrs Queen Takes Two Aspirin and Has A Good Lie Down

guernsey3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary-Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This one, despite being a firm favourite of mine, is unlikely ever to get a sequel given that the author has since passed on, but I would like to see something to bring the story into the new millenium, titled….

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’s Organic Vegan Cookbook (for iPad)

goodnightmrtom4. Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

A childhood favourite that I discovered (and loved!) as a grown-up.  Once again, in deference to the experience of parents everywhere, I would love to see a range of increasingly short and frustrating sequels to this one titled….

Mr Tom, Can You Read Me A Story?

Mr Tom, Can I Have A Glass of Water?

Mr Tom, I Need to Go to the Toilet…

and finishing up with Mr Tom Needs A Good Stiff Drink

 

curious incident5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

A bestseller if ever there was one, and I would love to see intrepid Christopher Boone turn his detective wiles to a sequel for the feline fanciers amongst us, titled….

The Puzzling Occurence of Cat Sick in My Slipper

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6. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I would love to see this classic of silliness and punnery followed up by something a bit more sensible and dour, titled….

The Ph-inancially Viable Tollbooth:  A No-Nonsense Guide to Beating Rising Travel Costs

wherethewildthingsare7. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Once again, I’d love to see this children’s classic tackle some of the problems that more modern children (and their imaginary friends) may be facing, in a sequel titled….

Where the Wild Things Were: Children’s Excessive Screen Time and the Demise of the Mythical Creature

harold and the purple crayon

8. Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

The oft-told tale of the small child and his creative spirit….I would be hoping for a sequel in a sort of “Where is he now?” type of vein, titled…

Harold and the Neutral Paintbrush.…being a memoir of a young graffiti offender’s participation in community beautification programs

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9.  Where is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek

For this fun and frolicky tale, I’d love to see the sequel that charts the farmer’s instant emotional reaction on discovering that s/he is missing a sheep, titled….

Who Left the Bloody Gate Open?

and finally,

neverending story10. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

I don’t have a suggested title for this one, but if it doesn’t have a sequel it’s just a case of false advertising really.

So that’s my two bob’s worth – feel free to chime in with your own suggested titles – I’d love to hear from you!

Oh look, here’s a large enticing button…

Follow on Bloglovin

Until next time, my friends!

Bruce

Perfect: Read it if……

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Evening all! Today’s “Read-it-if…” is hot off the press of my brain given that I only finished the book this afternoon. Today’s offering is Perfect by Rachel Joyce, the author of one of my personal favourites, and subject of a previous R-I-I review, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

I was eagerly awaiting this one as soon as I heard about it, such was my enjoyment of old Harold’s antics in Joyce’s previous work. Did I enjoy Perfect as much? No. No, I didn’t. Is it nevertheless as worthy of a look as Joyce’s first book? Yes. Yes it is.

Perfect is told from two perspectives and in two time periods and follows challenging periods in the lives of its two protagonists.  Byron, a young lad growing up in 1972, discovers the plans of the powers-that-be to add two seconds to time, and must deal with the slow disintegration of his comfortable world after this added time causes his mother to make a terrible mistake.  Jim, a middle-aged, loner tormented by mental illness, attempts to make a new life for himself on the outside after the psychiatric facility in which he has long resided, is closed and the residents discharged into the wide world.

The paths of the two seem disconnected, albeit with some parallels, until late in the book, when certain commonalities are revealed for a very satisfying ending.

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Read it if:

* you’ve ever suspected that time will do funny things to you if you don’t keep a very close eye on it

* you’ve ever been forced to wear a ridiculous outfit in the course of your work

* you’ve ever felt totally responsible for something that wasn’t actually your fault

* you like an author who can render characters in difficult situations with great sensitivity and skill

 

As I mentioned, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Harold Fry, but that may have been due to my high expectations.  I found Perfect a little bit slower than I would have preferred, but Joyce’s characteristic turn of phrase and clever plot progression kept me hanging in.  There is a nice twist toward the end of the book that I actually suspected from very early on, but this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the story at all – in fact, if anything, I felt more committed to seeing out the journey with the characters due to the gentle reveal.

In short, this was a good solid read with so much happening that one could be forgiven for feeling like they’d just finished a much longer book. Go on, give it a bash!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Read it if…..: Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling

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Today I’m bringing to you some good reasons to pick up Michael Boccacino’s first effort (and a pretty darn impressive effort it is!) at a full length novel, Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling.  It is a delightfully different hybrid of ghost story, science fiction and Victoran gothic, but comes together in a very satisfying and spooky fashion.

Read it if…..

* you like books authored by people whose name resembles a tasty foodstuff (in this case cheese, but really, it could be any foodstuff)

* you have ever had a dream about a lost loved one and wished that it (a) could go on a bit longer or (b) make some sense

*you enjoy a spooky, traditional ghost story that seamlessly integrates creatures that could have escaped from HP Lovecraft’s imagination

*you enjoy stories in which Death appears as a cheerful and amiable chap

*you’re a sucker for a plucky young governess who is drawn into events beyond her wildest imaginings and somehow finds the strength within herself to fight back

This is a great little read – I finished it in just a few sittings and was drawn in from the very first page.  Boccacino delivers some startlingly good prose here and I’ll be keeping my eyes out for any further efforts on his part.  So do yourself a favour and wrap your suckered tentacles around Charlottel Markham and her quirky, creepy, deadly adventures.

Until next time,

Bruce

Read it if…..: The gargoyle’s reviews for the time-poor…or goldfish-sized attention spans.

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It has slowly dawned on me as I delve more deeply into the blog-o-sphere, that there is more interesting content out there than could ever be read by one individual.  It has also come to my attention that many people, including myself, are time poor.  “But Bruce,” I hear you think, “you are a bookshelf gargoyle, unable to leave your shelf.  Surely you have all the time in the world to accomplish your goals.”  Yes, well, you’ld like to think that, wouldn’t you?  But it seems that, for gargoyles as for fleshlings, time marches on.

To this end, I would like to assist Mad Martha in her attempt to provide you with succint recommendations of unmissable reads.  She really has cornered the extreme end of the market with her reviews in 17 syllables, but for those of you who prefer a slightly longer, but still fairly time-managed review (say, longer than a sneeze, but shorter than a drawn-out coughing fit), I would like to begin some reviews titled “Read it if…”

This will hopefully allow me to share many of the books I have enjoyed and recommend, without burdening you, the reader, with too much information.  After all, let’s face it, you all have other blogs to look at now, don’t you?  It’s alright. I understand.  You can’t be expected to hang around with a stony old brute like me longer than you have to…..no, don’t apologise, I’m used to it.

So I present to you my first “Read it if…review”: Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Read it if…..

* you’ve dreamed of running off and leaving your problems behind while dressed inappropriately for the weather

* you are fond of horses or cheese

* you are, or know of, a horse with a fondness for cheese

* you have ever had an interesting conversation with complete strangers on a train (or other means of public transportation)

* you are partial to relatable characters who, despite harbouring strong suspicions that you may be a street-dweller, would happily offer you tea, a bacon sandwich and a chat in a polite, British fashion if you turned up unexpectedly in the small hours of the morning

* you enjoy delightful and witty tales that don’t require too much effort on the part of the reader and won’t generate the kind of angst that comes from consecutively reading three or more dystopian YA fiction titles featuring zombie plagues, nuclear holocausts or other forms of creeping death

Really, this is a great little read if you’re looking for something light and comfortable.  Go on, give it a burl.

Until next time,

Bruce