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Instead of a Christmas Card: Two Short Stories for December
Instead of a Christmas Card: Two Short Stories for December
by Debbie Young
Edition: Paperback
Price: £0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Lovely stories!, 25 Feb. 2016
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What a brilliant idea, and beautifully written stories. I will give these to everyone I know this year.

Marry In Haste: 15 Short Stories of Dating, Love and Marriage
Marry In Haste: 15 Short Stories of Dating, Love and Marriage
Price: £1.99

5.0 out of 5 stars This collection may have changed my attitude to short stories forever., 25 Feb. 2016
Marry in Haste by Debbie Young is a lively selection of short stories around marriage, love and relationships in general. They are arranged in three sections, Seeking, Committing and Enduring.

And here I have to come clean: I don’t usually much enjoy short stories. And yet, I read Marry in Haste in two evenings flat.

I enjoyed the first part, Seeking, most, but then as a romance fiction writer, I guess this is the part of the relationship which I find the most exciting. There’s a short tale of a woman who finds love in a lunch queue, and an amusing story about two very different friends, Joanna and Clare, and their conversation about men.

"Joanna, more of a cat person, never took much notice of Clare’s dog. She secretly regarded George as a poor substitute for the ideal man that Clare had yet to find. Joanna was never short of men."

The second part, Committing, has a hilarious story about a couple whose conversation about wedding lists takes a surprising turn. This section ends with ‘An Appetite for Marriage’, which recounts the effect different tastes in food can have on a relationship.

The third and last part of the book is called Enduring, with five stories on the more mature relationships. Out of this final collection one story stood out for me. ‘The New Coat’ features a man buying a new hiking jacket for his wife. It’s a clever juxtaposition of the attitudes of the young versus the old, and of modern political correctness.

And it is Debbie Young's cleverness as an author and storyteller that shines through in this collection, which I highly recommend. Debbie Young may have changed my attitude to short stories forever.

Friends, Food, Family: Recipes and Secrets from LibertyLondonGirl
Friends, Food, Family: Recipes and Secrets from LibertyLondonGirl
by Sasha Wilkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent cook book for entertaining, 23 Jan. 2016
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I adore the simple, yet impressive recipes in this cook book by the glamorous Liberty London Girl, who's blog is the must-have guide to modern living. As a bonus, added to the recipes for entertaining, are small tips about such varied subjects as 'Flowers for the Table', Good Things in Thermos Flasks' and 'Fashion Museums I Love'. This cook book is all you need for stylish entertaining.

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike)
Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike)
by Robert Galbraith
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good detective story with romance sprinkled on top, 22 Jan. 2016
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I've read and liked all three Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) novels featuring the ex-army private detective, Cormoran Strike, and his aptly named side-kick, the young and beautiful Robin.

In Career of Evil, Robin's role as Cormoran's assistant is in jeopardy, when she received a gruesome package in the post. The world-weary detective thinks the sender of the parcel is trying to get to Strike through Robin, and advises her to go home and stay there. But Robin Ellacott is not a girl who's easily put off by the sight of blood. However, the violent attacks on women that follow force Robin to relive a pivotal event in her own past, increasing her vulnerability.

Cormoran has three candidates in mind for the attacks, all men who he has crossed in the past. Strike's previous career in the Army Vice Guard, and the circumstances surrounding his mother's sudden death, all come to play as he investigates these men. Events take a serious turn when another young woman is found dead, brutally attacked in a dark alleyway in central London. The killer has to be stopped and Cormoran thinks he is the only person for the job. Together with Robin, whose personal life is simultaneously combusting, they travel the length and breath of the UK in an attempt to find out the murderer's identity.

This third novel in the Cormoran Strike series is the best yet. The relationship between Strike and Robin is almost as intense and intriguing as the complicated hunt for the violent killer. In Career of Evil we get a deeper insight into the two main protagonists, and this, as well as the 'will they, won't they' nature of the relationship makes this reader long for the next instalment in the series.

In the acknowledgements, J K Rowling says that she's never enjoyed writing a novel as much as she did Career of Evil. This shows. The prose is effortless, with beautiful and evocative descriptions of the places Robin and Cormoran visit in trying to establish the killer's identity. I particularly enjoyed the way Rowling sketched Edinburgh, with its 'soot-black buildings', 'the spires and rooftops of the black and gold city', and the 'darkly forbidding' castle.

Second Life
Second Life
by S J Watson
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I read this in two days flat, 14 Dec. 2015
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This review is from: Second Life (Hardcover)
I read this second novel by SJ Watson in two days flat; I couldn't put the book down. Just as in Watson's best-selling debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, the reader begins to fear for the safety of the protagonist, the wife of a surgeon, Julia.

Julia lives in London with the successful and steady Hugh, and their 15-year-old son Connor, but there’s something in her past that haunts her. This something has left her with an addiction, which she fights every day.

When her younger sister, Kate, is found dead in Paris, Julia's world falls apart. Guilt drives Julia to search for her sister's killer, and she soon gets involved in the murky online dating world, which her sister inhabited. Julia begins a double life, but her second life spins rapidly out of control and she knows she has to end it all. This isn’t as easy as she thought, and soon Julia realises that she has a lot more at stake than she initially thought.

The pace of this thriller is fast, and the tension builds to a shocking conclusion. The narrative is intensified by the first person point of view. I enjoyed the way the author weaved Julia’s past, and the guilt she carries from it, into the tragedy of her sister’s murder, giving credence for the, sometimes questionable, choices she makes. The descriptions of Julia’s constant fight with her inner demon, her addiction, are cleverly interwoven into the story too.

I highly recommend this novel and cannot wait to see what Watson comes up with next.

The Past
The Past
by Tessa Hadley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, precise language, but I needed a bit more action., 7 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Past (Hardcover)
I’ve been a fan of Tessa Hadley’s writing for some time, and have loved many of her novels, such as The Master Bedroom and The London Train. Hadley’s writing is beautiful and precise; she can describe her characters’ emotions to a T, but she is also brilliant at evoking a sense of time and place.

In The Past, the rambling falling-down house set next to a stream in the English countryside becomes another character in the book. Its fate, whether it should be sold, renovated or kept as it is, has to be decided by the four grown-up siblings, grand children to a respected minister and poet. The future of the house runs as a theme through the book, and is the reason the four are united for a last 3-week summer holiday in Kington.

Alice is a failed actress, and at 46, the middle daughter. She has asked a young student of economics, Kasim, who is the son of Alice’s ex-lover, to accompany her. Alice's older sister, Harriet arrives alone, while her older brother, Roland, brings his new wife – his third – the glamorous and exotic Argentinian, Pilar. There’s also a dreamy teenage daughter, Molly. The youngest of the sisters, Fran comes with her two children.

So as the reader, you think the scene is set nicely for at least some serious family fall-outs, or even some disaster, be it loss of life, dignity or virginity.

The tension is beautifully built in the first half of the novel, where we find about the siblings' childhoods, how their mother died when Fran was still very young, and how they lost their grandparents, the original occupants in Kington. There’s the promise of a burgeoning romance or two.

This is when the story moves back to the past, and we meet the grandparents, Sophie and the Vicar, and Jill, their daughter. We also get a glimpse into Jill’s turbulent marriage with her husband, the idealistic journalist, Tom.

When the story moves back to the present, the events which the author had been building up to in the first part come to pass – but mostly off camera.

And this is my only gripe with The Past. Tessa Hadley sets up the action beautifully, tantalisingly, only to let the events unfold without allowing the reader in. Only one of the outcomes is described in the present, and that too happens so quickly, as a reader you could have blinked and it’s done. The author even states this herself, ‘The whole scene was over in a matter of a few seconds.’

Still, I would recommend this novel, for the pleasure of its use of the English language and sentences such as the one below:

‘Kasim picked another stem of grass and dusted its drooping, plumy head, heavy with seeds, against Molly’s cheeks and her closed, protuberant, mauve eyelids.’

A Spool of Blue Thread
A Spool of Blue Thread
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

62 of 63 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not Tyler's best work, 17 Sept. 2015
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This review is from: A Spool of Blue Thread (Paperback)
Anne Tyler’s books are never predictable – she creates characters that you love to love, but also those that you love to hate and those you cannot get any grip on at all. In A Spool of Blue Thread, among the Whitshanks, there are very few characters that you could even begin to love.

The family of Whitshanks (or Shitwanks as one of the sons' friends rename them) live in a large house in Baltimore, with wooden steps and a wooden porch, lovingly built by their grandfather, the talented carpenter. They think they are special, but as Tyler writes, ‘There was nothing remarkable about the Whitshanks.’ A statement such as this, quite early on in a novel, about the subject matter of your book, is brave. No author usually wishes to tell her audience that the characters are unremarkable. But then Tyler has a strong career behind her, so she can afford be brave.

Tyler is also correct, there is nothing special about the Whitshank family. The long-suffering Abby, who as the family matriarch do-gooder puts up with her husband, Red’s stubbornness and her children’s selfishness is an annoyingly scatty-brained character. As well as looking after her four children, she fills her life with ‘misfits, loners and unfortunates’ for whom she holds what the family have dubbed, ‘orphan dinners’. But much like her family, these loners too, soon take advantage of her generosity.

There are four children, Amanda, Jeannie and the troubled Denny, plus Stem, the latecomer. When Red, who runs the family construction company falls ill, the grown-up children with families in tow all arrive at Abby and Red's side, and although on the surface they seem concerned about their ageing parents, their old sibling rivalries soon begin to show.

Perhaps the characters were just too true to life, but I had difficulty in identifying with any of them. There are many funny moments in the book, and at the end, I felt great sadness, but I still don’t think this novel, which has just made the Booker short list, is Ann Tyler’s best work.
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The Whitehall Mandarin
The Whitehall Mandarin
by Edward Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A very disappointing Cold War spy novel, 17 Sept. 2015
This review is from: The Whitehall Mandarin (Hardcover)
The start of this spy novel is pure pleasure - there's intrigue, there's grey, drizzly post-war London, there's covert espionage, KGB double, even triple agents, and an unknown mole in MI6.

But, about a third way through, this Cold War thriller stops being a novel and becomes a series of what I can only describe as Whitehall and CIA reports on the security situation in the world. The point of view wanders from Mao, Kennedy, to the hero of the novel, MI6 spy Catesby, and many characters besides.

Up to the end of the novel, the namesake of the book, The Whitehall Mandarin, aka Lady Somers, the first female to head the UK Ministry of Defence, remains in the background. Because of the title of the novel, you know she has to be a crucial part of the story, so in a way, the twist is already known to the reader from the onset. This knowledge becomes more and more frustrating because, until the very end, she does not seem to be part of the plot.

I don't often give books just a one star review, but this was a very disappointing read. Wilson's spy thriller showed much promise, but in the end lacked a clearly defined plot, had weak, one-dimensional characters and poor prose.

The Living and the Dead in Winsford
The Living and the Dead in Winsford
by Hakan Nesser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant new Scandinavian psychological thriller by a seasoned Nordic Noir author, 9 Aug. 2015
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The tension, which builds up slowly in this genius psychological thriller, only gives up on the last pages of the book when we finally find out what really happened to the central Swedish celebrity couple in Nesser's gripping new novel.

Maria Holinek has decided to spend the winter in a remote Exmoor cottage, with the single ambition to outlive her dog, Castor. Although she tells the locals she’s Maria Anderson, a Swedish author seeking the seclusion of Exmoor to write her latest novel, we soon discover that she's in fact a well known TV personality in Sweden, and that she's hiding a terrible secret.

In truth Maria should now be in Morocco, having fled a scandal in Sweden, with her equally famous, or even infamous, literary professor husband, Martin.

As the late autumn in Darne Cottage, the old stone dwelling she's renting together with her dog, turns into a unforgiving Exmoor winter, Maria begins to feel less and less protected by her anonymity and remote location. The long walks along the wild, desolate moors no longer calm her nerves, but the opposite; the moors begin to scare her. The secret she hides, and the secrets of Martin's decade old exploits in Morocco, increasingly and persistently continue to disturb Maria, and she feels more and more vulnerable to both the forces of the Exmoor winter, and the people in her past.

On top of her own inner demons, other strange goings on haunt Maria. Is she being followed by stranger in a car? Has her terrible secret been discovered? Trying to keep her terror at bay, she befriends the nearest neighbour, an Englishman called Mark Britton who lives a few miles away in an equally lonely location. Mark Britton has a perfectly innocent reason to have settled where he is, but is he really as nice and as uncomplicated as he seems to be?

I understand that this novel is the result of some time Nesser spent in the UK, and this certainly shows in the descriptions of the harshness of an Exmoor winter and the long, muddy walks along the moors, where Maria often gets lost, and as a reader you feel a real fear for her safety.

I loved this book, but then I've been a fan of Nesser's writing for more than a decade. Still, even if you're new to Nesser, and to Nordic Noir or Scandinavian fiction, I believe you'll enjoy this brilliant novel.

When the Doves Disappeared
When the Doves Disappeared
by Sofi Oksanen
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars An engaging and riveting read on the little known, but tragic, Estonian history, 4 Aug. 2015
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Once again Sofi Oksanen excels in making the recent tragic history of Estonia and its people into an engaging and riveting read.

In her previous, much acclaimed novel, Purge, the story follows three generations of women, while in When the Doves Disappeared, we trace the fates of two male cousins, each of whom deals very differently with their lives marred by war, the Red Army’s invasion, the brief but devastating period of German rule, and eventually the Soviet era.

Roland is a passionate freedom fighter, desperate for an independent Estonia. His younger cousin, Edgar, however, is more pragmatic and easily aligns himself with whoever is in power, without much thought to principles. Edgar’s wife Juudit too, is a survivor, but she has more difficulty in escaping her Estonian conscience, or Roland, who is often at hand to remind her.

The story is told from the point of view of the three main characters, Roland, Edgar and Juudit, and is set during two particularly violent periods in Estonian history; 1941 under Communist and Nazi rule, and 1963 when the Soviet Union increased its stranglehold of the small Baltic nation.

But this novel isn't merely a story of tragedy brought on by war and oppression, but also a tale of love, sexual identity and the secrets that haunt Roland, Juudit and Edgar.

The heart-warming description of Edgar’s attempts to please his various masters is squirm-making; while the infatuation and passion Juudit feels in the height of her doomed love-affair is heart-breaking; and the seemingly mysterious and futile loss Roland suffers makes you wish you were reading a comic novel. However, the twists and turns of this brilliant book make you read on – and when you've finished, you wish you could read When the Doves Disappeared again.

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