May the Books be with you – May Round Up

 

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The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Look, if you are reading a book blog, the chances are high that you’ve either heard of this and it’s on your TBR pile or you’ve discounted it as not your thing (or, some have said, too intimidating in size), so you don’t need me banging on about it. But I’m going to anyway. Cause I loved it and I want to talk about it!

Fantasy can sometimes be a struggle to get into, particularly if it’s done well – you’re learning a whole new world of names, geography and systems as well as new characters and it can seem bamboozling until you get into it. On top of that it is often loooooooong. Game of Thrones is 5 books long and came into existence in 1996 and still isn’t finished. Priory itself is an 800 page behemoth which my friend brought up from Glasgow for me and joked (Maybe not so much a joke) that it put her over her weight allowance. However the secret which lovers of fantasy are privy too is that no matter how long a fantasy book is it’s never enough. These books are so densely packed with rich detail and complex characters that the immersion is like nothing else.20190507_181343

Priory comes with handy maps (which I used a lot) as well as a character list and glossary which are tucked at the back and I didn’t find until the end so I can’t speak to how useful they are as I didn’t use them. But more than that it comes as a beautiful, fantasy balm, like a warm hug and a cosy blanket.

That’s not to say that there’s not tragedy and violence and genuine stakes – there is. But these things are not included just for the sake of brutality. This is a character driven story which follows Ead Duryan, an undercover mage, in the West and Tane, an ambitious Dragonrider, in the East as the end of a thousand year rule by the House of Berethnet threatens to awaken Draconian rule. It is complex and deep, part mystery thriller, part high level adventure, and infused throughout with genuine warmth and consideration for the characters and their choices. I can’t fault it. It’s a beautiful book, and a gorgeous story.

 

Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers

Any book I read after The Priory of the Orange Tree was going to have a very hard act to follow, so when I picked this up directly after it I thought it didn’t stand a chance. And then Sonny opened his mouth and I burst out laughing and Sonny and Billy had won me over.

This is the story of Sonny and Billy Daughter, two Stirlingshire lads who go to Battlefield High; A made up secondary school in a very real and tangible location. Written in broad 20190521_184044.jpgScots, Sonny and Daughter are real, identifiable and typical teenage boys (though perhaps a little more woke and tolerant than the ones I went to school with). The book is chocful of good Scottish Humour, and a little teenage idiocy as Sonny and Daughter stumble on a potential murder while trying to clear the name of Billy’s favourite teacher and pass National 5 Maths. And yet, despite the insane plot, every choice, every scenario is logical and entirely believable. In fact I can’t believe more teenage boys don’t find themselves in this situation!

Another young adult book that’s for everyone.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Told from two points of view, this is the tale of a widower and his two young sons facing the sudden and tragic death of their wife and mother. During the days following her death, they are visited by Crow, a tricky character who challenges and provides comfort in equal measure, and insists on staying until they no longer make them. Tragic and darkly funny, this book captures the immediacy of grief and the challenge of the healing process and a family re-finding each other in the wake of tragedy. It’s a strange and engaging parable which anyone who has lost someone will relate to deeply.

 

The Dry by Jane Harper

20190602_164457 (1)After the untimely death of his friend and first love, Aaron Falk fled his hometown of Kiewarra with his father, a pick up truck of their most valuable possessions and a dark cloud of suspicion. 20 years later he is pulled back when Luke, another of his childhood friends, committs a horrific act of murder/suicide against his own family. But in a run down town suffering from the Australian drought, Aaron’s attendance at the funeral brings up historical suspicions and questions about what really happened to Ellie 20 years previously and Luke and the Hadler family today.

It’s easy to dismiss this as a typical whodunnit thriller, and on one hand it definitely fits my “popcorn for the brain” criteria, but it’s also smarter and more engaging than the normal crime thriller. Written with a typical eye on potential cinematic adaptations (the Flashbacks reek of cinematic structure) the story is genuinely intriguing and unpredictable. I was kept guessing as to what had happened with both crimes right until the end, and on occasion even doubted the protagonist. The end was satisfying, logical and yet hadn’t been telegraphed too early. Really enjoyed this.

 

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A prequel novel set in the “Lady Astronaut” series, The Calculating Stars covers a period in an alternate 1950s which follows the impact of a catastrophic meteorite. Mathematician, Dr Elma York and her husband, manage to escape the immediate repercussions of the impact only to discover that it is a slow burn extinction level event which will lead to unsurvivable temperatures on Earth, and demands international co-operation to colonise the stars in order to ensure the survival of the human race. Battling misogyny at every term and facing her own privilege while witnessing her friends’ battle with racism, The Calculating Stars takes a high concept scenario and uses it to explore historical and contemporary issues from our own world. Elma York is an intriguing protagonist, battling to earn her due, and insisting on rocking the boat while simultaneously trying to work for the greater good. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this series and seeing where it goes.

 

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera Translated by Lisa Dillman

A dense and tightly woven narrative focused on Lobo, a musician whose talent earns him entry to the court of the charming and magnetic King, a local drug baron. Once there, Lobo finds himself getting got up in the power and egos of the “court” while also falling in love with the King’s Step-daughter, a girl desperate to escape the corruption that surrounds them.

 

The Carer by Deborah Moggach

The author of The Best Marigold Hotel returns this July with The Carer, the story of Phoebe and Robert, a brother and sister who are trying so hard to maintain the lives they’ve constructed to seek their parent’s approval that they have to hand the care of their elderly father, James, over to an in house carer. When Mandy turns up it feels like the answer to all their prayers, but slowly family secrets start to unravel and Phoebe and Robert begin to question all their choices.

This feels like two different stories, the first a sinister and creeping thriller where Mandy has questionable motives. I felt like I was heading for a prescient tale of elderly abuse. And then the reveal comes, which I admit I didn’t spot, and it became a very different story about questioning my own motives, privilege and choices. An interesting tale about priorities and being true to yourself as you get older.

 

Octavio’s Journey by Miguel Bonnefoy

Don Octavio is an illiterate gentle giant living in the slums of Venezuela. After a chance encounter with a vibrant woman named after the country itself, Octavio finds himself learning how to read and being split between his life with the Brotherhood gang and a woman he loves. Events conspire to mean that he has to leave both behind and journey across the Venezulan jungle on a journey which blends myth and reality and allows Octavio to find a true sense of peace and purpose.

This was a grand novel which managed to pack a life into a mere 95 pages and never felt like it was skimping. Jam packed with nature, the prose is poetical and hypnotic – a melodic ode to one man’s sense of self discovery. However the occasional flurries of myth sometimes jarred as they were woven abruptly into such a short narrative. Worth a read but not for everyone.

 

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

After reading Priory (yes it entirely dominated my reading direction and thoughts this month) I raced out to get Shannon’s first ever book. The Bone Season is the first in a proposed seven book series about clairvoyants and general super powered people who gain their powers from either manipulating or communicating with the Aether (spirit world) around them. As with her later work it displays a commitment to world building and complexity that is astounding, but this is a clumsier affair altogether.

Paige is a rare and coveted Dreamwalker who works for a criminal underground syndicate. Her role? To hack into the dreamscapes of other unnaturals. After an unfortunate incident where her power surges forward in self-defence she is captured and handed to an alien race which has set up base in what used to be Oxford. There she and other unnaturals are used as slaves, and the ruthless alien in charge has their eye on Paige and her unusual powers, while the royal consort, Warden, is interested in her as a potential rebel leader. It’s an interesting concept, but the love stories feel convoluted and unnecessary, while it takes a while to really comprehend what’s going on and the tale is, by necessity, very exposition heavy. It was intriguing, but not enough that I’m running out to get the sequels, although there are plenty of people who swear by this so it might just be me.

 

Pick of the Month: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

 

Dud of the Month: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannan

Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers

Book Review

After spending a week of my life immersed in my new favourite novel I picked up Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers to review, stealing myself that it just wasn’t going to be as good but “I’d better give it a chance”. And something amazing happened; it completely blew me over and stormed into my heart.

Set in Battlefield High in Stirlingshire, Sonny and Me follows two teenage boys; Sonny and Billy Daughter, best friends just trying to make it through secondary school with their dignity intact, when Daughter’s favourite school teacher, Miss Baird, is summarily20190521_183953 (1) kicked out of school and his hopes of making it through his Maths National 5 are dashed. Being a good Scots lad, Daughter is not willing to let this stand and he and Billy set about sticking their noses in and trying to unravel the web of gossip and intrigue that permeates their school. Is Miss Baird a home-wrecking villain, or is something more sinister going on?

The description of Sonny and Me doesn’t begin to touch on the warmth and humour that characterise this book. Sonny and Daughter are so well drawn, so recognisable and relatable, that I would willingly read about them watching paint dry; because I guarantee that their take on it would make me laugh. From the first time Sonny opens his beautifully naive mouth on page 1 I was laughing. These are two young boys who may not always have everything sorted, but deal with unrequited love, coming out and criminals with the same compassion, twinkle of wit and groan inducing jokes. Who express their “wokeness” with moral integrity but also a strong sense of Scottish mischief. Who, if my sons grew to be anything like them, I would be intensely proud; even while pulling my hair out with stress and despair. They feel like a true and honest depiction of kind and full of trouble teenage boys.

Around them the plot flows, always grounded in believability, even as it weaves its way through its mad cap revelations at the end (perhaps the one exception is the headmistress who feels a little pantomime villain in her boo-hiss evilness, but that is real nit picking.). Every step and choice the boys make is logical and relatable and often hilariously funny.

Maybe it’s because I spent four years in Stirling and so the geographical references made me feel like I’d come home, but Sonny and Me is so full of heart, humour and a rollicking good plot that reading it feels like hanging out with your best friends. This is a story targeted at young adults but endlessly enjoyable and highly recommended for everyone. Mature, thoughtful and genuinely laugh out loud funny.

Book Giveaway!

Snakeskins by Tim Major

20190513_172732 (1)Set in an alternate timeline, where a mysterious meteor shower known as “The Fall” hit Britain in the 1800s, leaving behind a lasting impact on the inhabitants of a nearby village and its descendants, Snakeskins is an intriguing exploration of what it means to be human and the absolute corruption of power.

As a result of the impact, a subsection of the British population known as “Charmers” now have skin shedding ceremonies every seven years, where they produce a conscious but very brief clone of themselves known as a Snakeskin, giving the original extended youth and lives. The snakeskin then dusts back into the atmosphere. But what are they really? Fully realised people or ghostly copies of their original? With Caitlin Hext’s first shedding ceremony coming up, a right of passage for charmers, she finds herself naturally curious to find out more.

This is an intriguing SciFi conspiracy novel which, as with all good SciFi, uses high concept ideas to explore prescient issues about our society’s treatment of people, and it’s bloody good too. From high powered political games, to everyday bullying it covers society’s complex push and pull in shaping its institutions for the benefit of the few.

Thanks to my friends over at “TitanBooks I have a copy of this to give away. All you have to do is head over to Instagram or Twitter and do the following:

Instagram: @HebrideanReader  Follow and Like the Snakeskins post, and comment on why you would like a copy.

Twitter: @HebrideanReader Follow, Like and Retweet the competition tweet.

The competition is open until 10pm on Wednesday 15 May 2019 when I will pick a winner at random. The competition is open to UK/Ireland/US and Canada only. Good luck!

April showers allow reading for hours

April Reading Round-Up

This is a bit of an unfair month; nothing I read was a particular DUD, although there were a lot of “average” reads. However nothing fell below 3 stars (out of 5). That said, there were a lot of very specialised genre books, so bare in mind that although I enjoyed them all, they are definitely not all for everyone.

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The Library Book by Susan Orlean

This was my surprise of the month. An impulse pick up from the Library display, it felt like Kismet and it was. Orlean is a staff writer for the New Yorker, who previously wrote the Orchid Thief, which I’ve heard of but yet to read. In The Library Book she re-discovers her love of libraries through her son’s school project and sets her journalistic eye on the history and depths of the Los Angeles Central Library which suffered a cataclysmic fire in 1986.

Part History book, part mystery investigation and part sociology study of the Microcosm of the Library’s clientele, no description can do this book justice. Try and tell someone what it’s about and it just sounds archaic, but like the libraries it waxes lyrical about, it 20190411_085121has hidden fathoms. It’s beautiful; atmosphere and quotes dripping from every page, and not only have I not stopped talking about it since I read it, but I’ve immediately had to go out and buy my own copy. Seriously, give it a try, if you love books I dare you not to fall further in love with libraries and librarians after reading this.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and other lies, curated by Scarlett Curtis

A collection of essays from activists, actresses, and women wanting to shout their autonomy from the hills, FDWP is a must read for anyone beginning their Feminist journey, or simply wanting to shore up their battle weary heart after another day of fighting the patriarchy. As with all essays, you may not agree with everything written here, but the book makes clear that you don’t have too. Everyone’s interpretation of Feminism is going to be slightly different, and each is equally valid. It’s about listening to all view points, educating yourself on experiences you may not directly 20190404_152104have had and supporting other women in their own battlefields, and all the proceeds go to Girl Up a United Nations Foundation Initiative, so you’re helping others while reading!

I found it inspirational and funny and I think if you come to it willing to learn then you’ll definitely gain something from it.

Snakeskins by Tim Major

I’m not going to say much about this, because I have book giveaway and fuller review coming later in the month – but it’s definitely worth it. An excellent and intriguing Sci-fi novel which deals with themes of humanity, empathy and power and which I could not predict even down to the last couple of chapters.

Death Sentence by Stuart Moore (Published 2 May 2019)

I have an Avengers itch that needs scratched (It’s not on in the cinema here until the 24th of May. Avoiding spoilers is HARD), so this came along at the right time. Thanos is my Ultimate villain right now and so getting a book looking at his internal motivations has the same feel as reading a serial killer psychological study…who says Marvel fans take things too seriously?

This book is NOT set in the cinematic universe, but it is close enough to scratch that itch for me. Having suffered a final defeat at the hands of the Avengers Thanos begs his beloved Mistress Death for a final chance to prove his devotion and she puts him through an afterlife walkabout that steadily reveals hidden depths to Thanos and his motivations, as well as some welcome cameos from more heroic characters.

The Titanic Detective Agency by Lindsay Littleson (Published 15 May 2019)

Trembling with excitement, Bertha Watt sets out on the adventure of a lifetime: her and her mother leaving behind their old life in Aberdeen to meet up with her father in Oregon and start a new life full of promise and opportunity and, if she behaves herself, a pony. Facing several boring days crossing the Atlantic onboard a ship, she and her new friend, Madge, decide to set up The Collyer-Watt Detective Agency. Along the way, Bertha befriends Johan, a 3rd class passenger with a desperate passion to reunite his family. But something even more ominous is lurking over the horizon: It’s April 1912 and Bertha, her family and her friends are sailing to America aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

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The Titanic Detective Agency by Lindsay Littleson is a tale of two halves. The first; a look at the innocent and nostalgic childhood from the early twentieth century – both that of the privileged, and the heavier responsibilities of those in poverty. The second half is wrought with tangible horror and heartbreak, as the ending that you almost forgot was looming comes to fruition. Littleson has done her research, and although the narrative is fiction, all the characters are based on true-life passengers aboard the doomed Ocean liner with some of the more out there twists and turns being based on fact – truth is often stranger than fiction after all. An excellent introduction to the Titanic for younger readers.

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Macarenhas

In the 60s four female scientists make a landmark breakthrough that will transform the world – Time travel. But their paths soon diverge as one of them has a shakey temporary reaction and is unashamedly pushed out in order not to tarnish the project. Meanwhile, in the present a mysterious and unidentified dead body appears in a locked room, but without any way to identify it how can the case be solved.

I am a SUCKER for Time Travel. It doesn’t need to make sense for me, I just love the different narrative options it can open up for a story – it feels like a sandbox of possibilities for me. So when this fell through my letterbox courtesy of my monthly book subscription I was giddy. It was a dark exploration of how power corrupts and that we should be careful what we wish for, alongside a healthy dose or mystery thriller, and female lead to boot. My only complaint was that it felt a little like it was playing it safe to appeal to the mainstream market and that it could have let loose and gone even darker.

Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

Alison is a high flying London Barrister deep in a guilt ridden affair and who’s family life is falling apart, her husband Carl systematically pulling away and taking their daughter with him. When Alison is handed her first murder by her lover, things start to come to a head. But who is really manipulating who and can Alison find her way back from the brink to the life she really wants?

It’s a typical mystery thriller, well-written but fairly predictable, and with a messy alcoholic female protaganist. A must read for anyone who loved Girl on a train and Anatomy of a Murder, but still a mystery thriller by numbers.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos (Published 7 June 2019)

Le Sigh. I enjoyed The Farm; it was a good read but it simply didn’t live up to expectations. It was sold as a feminist almost dystopian tale, and while all the main characters are complex women, it is much more focused on current world issues which we’re grappling with and moral and ethical questions around surrogacy and potential exploitation. While these are interesting and prescient topics and the characters were engaging and well written, the ending felt like a cop out. I’m not sure it ever really reached a conclusion. I was happy for the outcome for most characters, but it felt like it dodged the overarching issues and complexities in order to wrap everything up in a nice little bow, without ever truly delving that deeply into the issues of exploitation and racism that it hinted at.
A good read but not as world shattering as had been implied.

Supernatural – Children of Anubis by Tim Waggoner

I’m a Supernatural Fan. For a brief period I was even part of the Fandom. I’m on my third full rewatch and I will absolutely feel like something is missing when the show ends next year (God help me, those boys BETTER get a happy ending!..although I’m not holding out much hope), so I jumped up and down with excitement when I was offered this for a preview, and I did enjoy it. But it did not feel like a Sam and Dean story.

20190422_163153Introducing a new monster after so many seasons is impressive, and this story, which is set during season 12 introduces a family of Jackals, a monster that has generally stayed off the radar of hunters by not rocking the boat and only harvesting after natural deaths. However they do rub Werewolves up the wrong way, and this unfortunate pack find themselves in a town already marked as the territory of a particularly aggressive pack of werewolves. So begins a turf war which is essentially a bloodier version of Westside Story, or Romeo and Juliet to go back to the original. And Turf wars Definitely attract the attention of hunters. So enter Sam and Dean and a couple of other fan favourites, but the story still belongs to the Jackals. And it’s engaging, and the characters are excellent so I’d definitely pick up another one. But that still doesn’t mask the disappointment that this wasn’t a story focused on Sam and Dean, despite some illuminating flashbacks.

All My Colours by David Quantick (Published 16 May 2019)

Todd Milstead is a jackass; barely tolerated by a few close friends who love his whiskey more than him and loathed by almost everybody else, his arrogance and self-satisfaction mark him for a comeuppance well overdue. Until one night when he discovers that he can recall a book, word for word, that no one else has ever heard of – the titular All My Colors. Being a wannabe writer who, until this moment hasn’t managed to construct enough narrative to fit on a napkin, Todd decides that this is his chance, and while fending off an acrimonious divorce sets about writing the next Great American Novel.

All My Colors is the latest novel from David Quantick, who this time takes a twisty look at the Publishing industry and the pain of trying to write something, sometimes anything, that might help you leave a mark. In this case it comes with a high price for Todd and his long suffering friends, proving a cautionary tale at chasing your dreams at any cost, and serving up an end reminiscent of an episode of Tales from the Crypt – weird but deserved and with a cackley twinkle.

All My Colors is dark and twisty and has a horrible protagonist, even in his nicer moments and so-called reformation. While the end feels a little bit too rushed and the atmosphere is all over the place, it carries enough threads of curiosity through it to keep you turning the pages and wondering how they can all be tied together.

 

 

A Titanic story for young readers

The Titanic Detective Agency – Book Review

Trembling with excitement, Bertha Watt sets out on the adventure of a lifetime: her and her mother leaving behind their old life in Aberdeen to meet up with her father in Oregon and start a new life full of promise and opportunity and, if she behaves herself, a 20190417_172015.jpgpony.

Facing several boring days crossing the Atlantic onboard a ship, she and her new friend, Madge, decide to emulate Holmes and Watson and set up The Collyer-Watt Detective Agency. They quickly stumble across two intriguing mysteries, one involving treasure and another involving a mysterious family with a shady father. Along the way, Bertha befriends Johan, a 3rd class passenger with a desperate passion to reunite his family. But something even more ominous is lurking over the horizon: It’s April 1912 and Bertha, her family and her friends are sailing to America aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The Titanic Detective Agency by Lindsay Littleson is a tale of two halves. The first; a look at the innocent and nostalgic childhood from the early twentieth century – both that of the privileged, and the heavier responsibilities of those in poverty. The second half is wrought with tangible horror and heartbreak, as the ending that you almost forgot was looming comes to fruition.

Littleson has done her research, and although the narrative is fiction, all the characters are based on true-life passengers aboard the doomed Ocean liner with some of the more out there twists and turns being based on fact – truth is often stranger than fiction after all.

It’s a challenging introduction for its target audience of 8 to 11 year olds. One which focuses on the humanity involved in the maritime tragedy, but it’s all the more worthwhile for this focus, The Titanic Detective Agency doesn’t shy away from the horror and lasting impact the accident had on the few survivors.

It’s well written, engaging and doesn’t talk down to younger readers. More than that it brings a hundred and seven year old tragedy to life. And just look at that cover – it’s beautiful!

 

All My Colors – Review

Todd Milstead is a jackass; barely tolerated by a few close friends who love his whiskey more than him and loathed by almost everybody else, his arrogance and self-satisfaction mark him for a comeuppance well overdue. Until one night when he discovers that he can recall a book, word for word, that no one else has ever heard of – the titular All My Colors. Being a wannabe writer who, until this moment hasn’t managed to construct enough narrative to fit on a napkin, Todd decides that this is his chance, and while fending off an acrimonious divorce sets about writing the next Great American Novel.

After all, if no one else can remember the book, then surely it’s his for the taking? And that’s when the weird starts.

IMG_20190416_205803_984All My Colors is the latest novel from the writer of Veep and The Thick of It, David Quantick, who this time takes a twisty look at the Publishing industry and the pain of trying to write something, sometimes anything, that might help you leave a mark. In this case it comes with a high price for Todd and his long suffering friends, proving a cautionary tale at chasing your dreams at any cost, and serving up an end reminiscent of an episode of Tales from the Crypt – weird but deserved and with a cackley twinkle.

Titan Books is promoting this to fans of Chuck Palahniuck and I can’t think of a more appropriate comparison. All My Colors is dark and twisty and has a horrible protagonist, even in his nicer moments and so-called reformation. While the end feels a little bit too rushed and the atmosphere is all over the place, it carries enough threads of curiosity through it to keep you turning the pages and wondering how they can all be tied together. Has Todd really witnessed what he thought he witnessed? Is he going mad? Or is something more malevolent at work? And will it all be worth it in the end?

I was provided a copy of All My Colors for a fair and honest review. I’d give it about 3 and a half stars (out of 5). It’s not average, but it’s not shot to the top of my must read lists either.

March reading round up

Sal by Mick Kitson
Sal and her little sister Peppa have suffered for years at the hands of their step-father. But with a new horror threatening Peppa’s innocence, Sal decides that enough is enough and they’re leaving. The 13 year old Glasgow girl takes matters into her own hands and her and Peppa flee for a life in the Scottish hills fuelled by Youtube survival videos and a desire for safety.

Sal is an undervalued hardened, traumatised and big hearted heroine, who’s love for her sister is her guiding star. Kitson nails the voice of a young survivor who takes solace in her own capabilities for survival and creates one of the most wonderful protaganists. It’s a slim book which packs a punch and gut punches you at the everyday ordeals our children are having to face while also proving optimistic and is one I’ll be recommending to people for a long long time.

The Burning by Laura Bates
Anyone who likes to dismiss the lives of teenagers as playground politics NEEDS to read this Young Adult book. Anna and her mother pitch up in a small Scottish town with no background and new names. In the course of settling into a new life Anna begins researching the witch hunt of a woman who lived in her new home over 200 years earlier. But what she finds dovetails horribly with her own past which begins to catch up with her.

This is the first generation that has had to

deal with persecution by internet and the humiliation that entails, but the drive to persecute women for their mistakes is as old as time and Bates manages to weave a powerful and gripping novel that deals with misogyny, social media and the hazards and challenges of being a modern teenager trying to navigate a world with no guidance or understanding from previous generations. It really is a must read for everyone.

On the front line with the Women who Fight Back by Stacey Dooley
Stacey Dooley may have risen to fame this year thanks to her warm performance on Strictly, but she has long been a journalistic force to reckon with. Down to earth, direct and endlessly empathetic she has shone a light on issues in some of the most dangerous places in the world and humanised the people experiencing things beyond our imagination. She brings this same warmth and curiosity to this book about some of the most incredible women she has met and the horrors that they have survived and overcome.

It’s a lovely book that is easy to read in style and challenging in content but focuses, appropriately, on the women she has met rather than on herself (although fans of Dooley won’t be disappointed either.)

Blindness by Jose Saramago
I love dystopian fiction. I’m not sure why. I don’t think I’m a masichist, but I do enjoy thought experiments on how people might react if everything is flipped on them without any warning. In Blindness, a contagious disease which causes sudden blindness suddenly pops up and spreads rapidly and indiscriminantly around the world. What follows is a horrific look at how quickly structural respect and authority breaks down and how dependent people would become on the fickle kindness of individuals. It’s engrossing and predictably tragic in some places but still manages to introduce glimmers of hope towards the end.

The Reckoning by John Grisham
I loved this, right up until the end. Grisham is a master at weaving stories full of humanity and compelling characters but presenting them in analytical case study type ways. In The Reckoning, popular farmer Pete Banning gets up one day, calmly goes about his business and then walks into his local church and executes local pastor Dexter Bell. What follows is a character study of a community and time period to try to ascertain what possible motive there could be for such a cold killing. And it does keep you gripped, right up until the big reveal which I found a massive let down.

Without giving any spoilers, I think I understand how in the time period and location the motive might have proven scandalous, but in this day and age and after such a tightly wound pre-amble, it felt senseless and unnecessary and simply not worth the destruction the crime wrecked through the family and community. This may have been the point – how senseless it was, but given the time spent building empathy for Banning and the horror felt by his family at the reveal I think we are meant to be as shocked as them. I wasn’t, and it undid any intrigue and sympathy I did have for the characters. I’ll still read every Grisham I can get my hands on though!

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
Mattie is an aging suffragette, still full of passion but pushing a cause that society has lost interest in, so she channels her energy into setting up the Amazons. A local girl’s group aimed at demonstrating first hand that the attendees can be intelligent, capable and ambitious.

Mattie is a loveable barging train of a character who can’t understand the complex emotions in the characters around her, even when they are directed at her, but is full of heart and good intentions. It’s a nice novel about what happens to protestors once their fight is deemed over, and they’re not ready to walk away.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis has spent some time moving around the US Government departments that no one understands and identifying the essential and completely underestimated services they provide. It is clear that while it might be frustrating, but acceptable that the average US citizen does not understand these agencies, the terrifying reality is that the current administration does not understand them, has no interest in understanding them, and is slowly and irrevocably descimating them and that thousands of hidden essential services they provide.

There is a general feeling that the world is burning right now with Global Politics and the erosion of human rights, but what this does is provide the evidence in greater detail that any collapse may come not just from intentional destruction but from nonchalant brushing under the rug of issues that just aren’t “sexy” enough.

Sherlock Holmes Vs Dracula by John H Watson
According to a forward by Watson, Holmes actually ended up investigating and helping to take down Dracula and was a key protagonist during the events of Bram Stoker’s tale, but thanks to Van Helsing’s ego his contributions were erased from history, except in this “re-discovered” account.
It’s written as a Sherlock Holmes novel, with the concise style and sudden leaps of ‘logic’ and follows the story of Dracula, slotting in Holmes and Watson were they can reasonably be expected to have an impact. It’s a neat little read, although my pleasure was mitigated by the understandable restrictions on how much Sherlock can actually effect. In the end he basically washes his hands of it saying “job done” despite Dracula still being at large, but as a thought experiment it is good fun.

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton
Peggy, Nora Jack and Mike run away from abusive and neglectful guardians and set up a new life for themselves on an island in the middle of a lake. With farming and survival skills what follows is a nostalgic look at an extended game of playing house, whereby the children prove how much more capable and better off they are when left to their own devices.

This was my favourite book as a child and I recently picked it up again as we were looking at Children’s Books in my book club. The cover has long been falling off it, and I remember how I used to finish it and flip to the start to begin again. For nostalgia’s sake I still love it, but I think we can all agree that a lot of Enid Blyton just doesn’t sit comfortably anymore. Full of privileged children exhibiting spoilt behaviour and horrible levels of toxic masculinity, it may send lovely big messages but the more subtle messages it sends mean I will not be reading this to my children. Even if I will still keep my old battered copy and occasionally re read it.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Siddhartha was a tough read. I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist texts recently and really enjoying them, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Siddhartha was simply playing with his privilege.
It follows the story of a man looking for meaning and enlightenment in the time of the Buddha and plays a little like an ancient Forrest Gump, but with a less likeable lead. It’s short, and there are some interesting Buddhist principles in there but it wasn’t the most engaging tale.

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer
I was desperate for something funny and ridiculous, so a buddy comedy where Barak Obama and Joe Biden go off to solve a murder case seemed perfect and I sat down ready to laugh with two beloved characters. It. Was. Awful. Biden was portrayed a jealous jilted partner simpering after Obama who was distant, egotistical and dismissive. Neither was likeable and the plot was barely there. I wasn’t expecting it to be realistic to the President and vice-president – obviously. But given the success the internet had with generating a funny and warm bromance between the two through meme wars, I did expect them to be a little…nicer. And to like each other a little more. Shouldn’t have bothered finishing it.

Pick of the month: Sal by Mick Kitson

Dud of the month: Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer