Smoke by Catherine McKenzie

25317381When Elizabeth is woken by the smell of smoke, she is filled with panic.  It isn’t coming from inside the house but from outside – and, as a former forest fire fighter, she knows it’s big.  She also knows she and her husband (Ben) have to move – quickly.  The question is to where – and do they go together because the night before they had decided to divorce.

For Ben and Elizabeth life, which once seemed so simple, is complicated.  And the fire makes it more so. Elizabeth gave up her job (and her passion) for fire fighting to be home with Ben, a high school teacher, and start a family – a family which didn’t emerge as quickly as they had both expected, leading to resentment.

Now, there is a fire on the doorstep and Elizabeth is drawn to it and the life she used to lead.  As it gets closer to town, it is like she can’t turn away from the flames.  Elizabeth is also drawn into the investigation of what started it.  What, or possibly who.

The who could be the owner of the house near the fire’s origin.  Or it cold be the kids who have been hanging around his property, drinking beer and taunting him.  As the fire worsens and the town feels increasingly under threat, tensions rise and fingers are pointed.  Especially feeling the tension is Mindy, who knows her son Angus snuck out of the house the night of the fire and who she isn’t convinced didn’t have anything to do with it.

Angus isn’t the only thing on Mindy’s mind though, especially as Elizabeth’s investigation leads to their path’s crossing – something that hasn’t happened since the once best friends (yes, it gets more complicated than just Elizabeth and Ben’s relationship) had a major falling out.  The question is whether Elizabeth’s investigation will end up with them rebuilding their friendship or blowing Mindy’s world apart, destroying her and her family.

Whether Elizabeth can deal with the many feelings (good and bad) she has about Ben, her life and her friendships is the main thread through Smoke and it is very well done – especially when it could have been overly emotional.  It is why, I think, her story is told in the first person (with alternating chapters telling Mindy’s story and in the third person).

I found myself completely engrossed as the mistakes both women made are gradually revealed and the different perspectives helped show the different sides of their stories.  They also had different levels of intensity, which helped make it feel much more real. The fire added intensity too, and – again – a different perspective to what was happening.  It was so big and so life threatening that the issues Elizabeth and Ben and Elizabeth and Mindy were having seemed much smaller – something which is true of life I think.

Catherine McKenzie does a great job of bringing it all together.  She has a way of drawing her characters so they felt very real to me and didn’t tug on the heartstrings too much (just a bit!).  I could feel how conflicted they felt and how difficult the choices they were making were for them.  And I could feel the claustrophobia as the fire got closer and smoke was everywhere, the rising panic people felt as the almost inevitability of something it must seem impossible to fight.  It added to the tension and was a great catalyst for moving the story and characters forward – making this a great book, one I liked a lot!

Emma

Find on: Amazon UK / Amazon US / Goodreads

The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson

Never-Open-Desert Diner3Ben spends his days driving route 117, delivering packages to people time and the rest of the world seem to have forgotten.  He is their lifeline to the “real” world and they help him eke out a living in a town that is on the edge of nowhere and the desert.

There is a reason that people live off 117 – they want to be left alone or are leaving something behind.  For Ben, it’s being without family and with few friends; he was abandoned as a baby and is a loner by nature.  For Walt, it’s the diner he never opens – or hasn’t for a long time, ever since his wife died.  And for Claire, well – at least at first – Claire is a mystery, one Ben can’t help being drawn to.

He thinks he knows every nook, cranny and turn-off on route 117 until a random stop one day leads him to a house in the middle of the desert and Claire.  She is newly arrived and definitely not wanting to be found.  An ex-husband is in the wings – and might be the one following Ben as he makes his deliveries. It’s all very complicated but also very simple and his and Claire’s lives begin to intersect and then seek each other out as they fall in love.

As they do, life goes on in the desert.  People live, they die, they help each other when they need to.  Anderson’s characterisation of these secondary characters is wonderful.  I felt I knew every single one of them and liked every one of them.  I liked Ben, Claire and Walt too, the central characters.  All are completely dysfunctional but not in a bad way.

Ben, especially, is the type of character I like and, whilst this isn’t a piece of crime fiction, I was reminded in a way of James Sallis’ characters.  He is a man of few words who has made mistakes.  He tries to live his life the best way he can and accepts people for who and what they are.  He doesn’t conform – and doesn’t intend too.    I wanted to be Ben’s friend, or at the very least, have him on my side in a fight.

I also liked the way the novel was written in general, the descriptions of the desert.  I felt how lonely and isolating and harsh it could be but also it’s beauty.  There are moments when I felt I was there and there are moments when I was glad I wasn’t because I’m not sure I would survive.  I was completely drawn in from the beginning.

If I had any criticism it would be that I, personally, didn’t need the ex-husband story line.  I wanted more of Ben and Claire falling in love, more of their relationship developing.  It was the heart of the story and could, for me, have been the story.  That said, it wouldn’t stop me recommending the book at all – I liked it a lot.

Emma

Note: I received this book from blogging for books in return for a fair and honest review.  All thoughts, feelings and opinions are my own. 

 

 

 

 

Her Mother's Shadow by Diane Chamberlain

Thirteen18891093 years after Annie O’Neill was killed, shot by another woman’s abusive husband whilst working at a women’s shelter, her daughter Lacey is still dealing with the repercussions; not just because she was with her mother when she was shot but because of the secrets that were revealed after Annie died.

Secrets that included the fact her mom cheated on her dad repeatedly throughout their marriage…meaning Lacey’s dad wasn’t Annie’s husband and sending Lacey into a 10 year spiral. First, she tried to match her mom’s public persona – she was known locally as “St. Annie” because of all her good deeds – and then, as the truth emerged, Lacey took on her mom’s worst traits – sleeping with men but not building lasting relationships.

A lot of this has happened in the first two books in the trilogy and, in her Mother’s Shadow, Lacey has mainly come to terms with her past, though her taste in “bad boys” still scares her. Mainly, though, she is a good place. Then she finds out that the man who shot her mom is up for parole. And her best friend dies, leaving her 11 year old daughter in Lacey’s care. Neither are expected and send her into a bit of a tailspin.

Thankfully, newcomer to town Rick is there to help, listening to her and supporting her. If only she felt something for him and not Billy, Lacey’s father. And if only he was telling the truth about why he is visiting the outer banks…because the secrets and lies didn’t end with Annie O’Neills death. They go on and on and nobody seems capable of being honest.

Some lies are white lies, some told for the good of others – supposedly to protect them – but none work out for the best. Knowing how much hurt the lies caused in the first two books in this trilogy, I am amazed people don’t always tell the truth at the first opportunity but they don’t. Still, that’s life. It takes times in most cases for lessons to be learnt…and telling the truth is often the harder option because it can hurt people more than a lie.

One of the things I like about Diane Chamberlains books is how she shows how complicated life can be and how the best option isn’t always the easiest or the one we are likely to take. But she does it without judging. No one is right or wrong in her books – just human – and it makes me think…what would I have done if I was Lacey? Would I tell the truth?

The questions aren’t necessarily life changing but they are relatable….even if the people with the problems are all too pretty (my one complaint with the whole series is how gorgeous everyone it, not something I have come across in Chamberlain’s other books). The gorgeousness issue aside, the book is well written and does well closing the circle from the first in the series and helping Lacey find closure, which was much needed. I would recommended it to fans of Chamberlain or Jodi Piccoult…though you need to start at the beginning. Liked it a lot.

Emma

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

imageBefore the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

It’s rare nowadays I finish a book in a day, never mind a single sitting, but that’s what happened to me this time last week after picking up The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Despite the good reviews I’d read, it wasn’t a book I’d expected to love as much as I did.  I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t stopped turning pages.

One night Yeong-hye has a dream. In it there is blood, lots of blood. She wakes up full of dread and decides she must give up meat in order to get rid of the lump she now feels in her chest, becoming the vegetarian of the title. It might not be the most conventional way to make such a decision but here, in the UK, deciding to become a vegetarian wouldn’t be much of a big deal, regardless of why you made the choice. This is South Korea though (and the book a translation) and Yeong-hye’s decision is greeted with surprise by her husband. Still, he thinks, it won’t last.  It is just one her quirks.

But it does last – a week, a month – and her husband goes from surprised to angry, involving his wife’s family who are just as bemused and annoyed as he is. They can’t understand Yeong-hye’s behaviour but are all agreed it isn’t right and it’s an embarrassment. What will people think? No one stops to ask Yeong-hye what she thinks or why she is doing it. No one seems to wonder what is behind her decision or feel anything but annoyance at how she is wasting away. It is all quite sad and I felt for Yeong-hye as she was attacked by her family. It was a fascinating glimpse into the social mores of South Korea, the strict rules and the role of women.

All are so constraining. No deviation is allowed, even in the artistic. This can been seen in the second of the three parts that’s make up The Vegetarian, all of which involve Yeong-hye, when her brother-in-law develops an obsession with his sister-in-law that can only end in disaster and in the third, when Yeong-hye has been abandoned by all but her sister for not doing what she is told. Through it all, it is apparent how little control over her life Yeong-hye has other than the food she puts in her mouth.

This isn’t an easy story to read. It deals with difficult issues and does so head on. Yet, despite all this it isn’t a depressing book, though I would describe it as harsh and hard hitting. And powerful. There is a sadness there too and I found I cared a lot for Yeong-hye from the first few pages on, coming to feel the same about her sister by the end. A week on, I am still thinking about the book, which was beautifully translated, a real compliment to the author and the story. Loved it and can’t recommend it enough.

Emma

Note: I received this book in return for a fair and honest review from blogging for books. All thoughts and feelings are my own.

Buy now: Amazon UK / Amazon US

The Sudden Departure of the Fraser by Louise Candlish

imageEarlier in the year, I read some good reviews of The Sudden Departure of the Frasers and put the book on my to read list where it has been making it’s way slowly to the top ever since.

One of the downsides of having a never ending to read list is that, sometimes, you get to the book and you can’t remember why it made it on there and this was the case here I must admit. I couldn’t bring to mind one review, other than people liked the book.

My own rule of not reading reviews right before I read a book in case it spoils it for me meant I pretty much picked it up blind then, not sure what to expect. In the end, I think this a good thing because I spent a lot of the book wondering just where it was going and I loved this. It made it a real page turner (or at least I would have been turning the pages if it hadn’t been on audiobook).

The story starts with Christy feeling a sense of dread at opening the door to her new house. It might be because her husband has had to work and she is doing an important thing on her own. Or it might be because buying the house of their dreams has saddled them with a huge mortgage that means they will be eating value brand beans for the rest of their lives.

And value brand beans do not fit with the street they’ve moved to, desirable Lime Park Road in the London suburbs, or the house itself, which is perfect in every way. Except Christy can’t shake the feeling something must be wrong because the previous owners – the Frasers – moved out after just over a year…and sold them the house at a discount price.

This feeling is compounded when she starts getting the cold shoulder from all of her neighbours, with one – Rob – being rude to the point of aggression. Something, she is convinced, happened in her house and the Frasers are at the centre of it. Unable to let go, she starts asking uncomfortable questions and – if not quite stalking – as good as spying on the other residents.

While Christy is in the dark, as the reader, you start to get clued in through alternate chapters told by the beautiful, glamorous, and enchanting Amber Fraser, a woman everyone seems to love and can be forgiven anything. Behind the perfect image, though, she isn’t quite what she seems.  It’s interesting to see how her welcome to Lime Park Road was so very different to Christy’s but also how her behaviour is – ultimately- responsible for Christy’s situation.

It’s also interesting to see how people’s response to money and good looks change their behaviours to the two women. The alternating chapters show this well and I started out feeling very sorry for Christy at the beginning. I also wondered just what type of sticky end Amber had come to. I couldn’t imagine it was anything good.

Unfortunately by the end, I had lost that sympathy and was starting to get quite frustrated with Christy and how her obsession was stopping her live the rest of her life. I didn’t like Amber from almost page one, but I think that was the idea, showing the not so nice side of people.

Throughout, Louise Candlish does such a good  job of pacing the novel, keeping the tension going all the way through before presenting an ending that I found quite morally ambiguous. I think it’s hard to do this and always admire an author who leaves me with a question at the end. which means that, frustrations with Christy aside, I liked this book a lot and will be definitely be looking for more books by the author. Recommended read!

emma

Fallout by Sadie Jones

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Trying to write the summary of Fallout, I was struggling to say much that didn’t include spoilers so I’ve decided instead to go with including the blurb below rather than trying to write something myself (a cheat I know but it seemed the better option, plus it really does sum up the book better than I can).

Leaving behind an emotionally disastrous childhood in a provincial northern town, budding playwright Luke Kanowski begins a new life in London that includes Paul Driscoll, an aspiring producer who will become his best friend, and Leigh Radley, Paul’s girlfriend. Talented and ambitious, the trio found a small theater company that enjoys unexpected early success. Then, one fateful evening, Luke meets Nina Jacobs, a dynamic and emotionally damaged actress he cannot forget, even after she drifts into a marriage with a manipulative theater producer. As Luke becomes a highly sought after playwright, he stumbles in love, caught in two triangles where love requited and unrequited, friendship, and art will clash with terrible consequences for all involved.

The only thing that doesn’t fit here is the terrible consequences because, in the end, things didn’t seem to end too badly for most of the characters, although they might not have ended up where they expected or wanted to be.  Then again, they are all in their early twenties so why should their lives be quite so mapped out? That’s what I thought I might be getting at the beginning, a story with a perfect happy ending, and then the book took some twists and turns and ended up in a different place, which was fine with me.

Along the way, I came to like all the characters but Nina, who I felt the opposite about. I found her shallow, self-centred and flat. With Luke, Leigh, and Paul, however, I thought Sadie Jones did a really good job of making them real, filling in enough of their back story to explain their actions but not so much that it dragged the book down. Given Fallout was very much about emotions and how they lead each individual to make some pretty bad choices, this could easily have happened.

I’ve said in previous posts that I like Sadie Jones’ writing style and this was the case here. It’s descriptive and detailed without being boring and gave Fallout a good pace that kept me turning the pages. Setting the story in the 70’s, a time of change, and the world of theatre, worked well as it allowed characters to be a little off-centre and their more extreme behaviours seemed less extreme as a result – though I still couldn’t forgive Nina her behaviour. She was the one weak link for me because there was nothing redeeming about her. But that wouldn’t stop me recommending the book because I liked it a lot!

Emma

Note: I received this book in return for a fair and honest review all opinions are my own.

Tuesday Intro: 21st July, 2015

This week, I am linking up again with Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea who hosts a post every Tuesday for people to share the first chapter / paragraph of the book they are reading, or thinking of reading soon. I really enjoy these tasters when I read them on other blogs so wanted to join in.

Up next on my reading list (and being started today) is Fallout by Sadie Jones.

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Leaving behind an emotionally disastrous childhood in a provincial northern town, budding playwright Luke Kanowski begins a new life in London that includes Paul Driscoll, an aspiring producer who will become his best friend, and Leigh Radley, Paul’s girlfriend. Talented and ambitious, the trio found a small theater company that enjoys unexpected early success. Then, one fateful evening, Luke meets Nina Jacobs, a dynamic and emotionally damaged actress he cannot forget, even after she drifts into a marriage with a manipulative theater producer. As Luke becomes a highly sought after playwright, he stumbles in love, caught in two triangles where love requited and unrequited, friendship, and art will clash with terrible consequences for all involved.

I really should have read this by now as it is a review copy but I kept getting waylaid by other books, not sure why but such is life – especially as I do want to read this (I’ve enjoyed all Jones’ other books).  Here’s how it starts:

Afterwards – New York – 1975

New York was not his city and this was not his life.  He bought postcards and wrote them to the people he loved but he did not send them. At night he dreamed the ache of human kindness and every stranger’s face he saw reminded him of home. The title of his play and the name that was not his real name, and other names on other theatres on the crowded billboards of the street, shone on canopies ringed by lights. It was every Broadway film imagining made humble by the rubbish-blowing poverty of the world; nostalgia torn down in the grey afternoon – this is what it feels like, not that, but this.

What do you think? Would you keep reading?

Emma

Tuesday Intro: 7th July, 2015

This week, I am linking up again with Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea who hosts a post every Tuesday for people to share the first chapter / paragraph of the book they are reading, or thinking of reading soon. I really enjoy these tasters when I read them on other blogs so wanted to join in.

As I’m almost all the way through Silent Scream, it didn’t feel right to post the teaser for this as (hopefully) there’ll be a review later in the week. I thought, instead, that I would crack the spine on the next book I plan on reading – The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.

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It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa — a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants — life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

With the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the “clerk class,” the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. Little do the Wrays know just how profoundly their new tenants will alter the course of Frances’s life — or, as passions mount and frustration gathers, how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

This has actually been on my list for a while but it’s a hardback and quite hefty so I haven’t gotten round to it until now. I’ve read mixed reviews of it but have enjoyed all Sarah Water’s other books so have high hopes. Here’s how it starts….

“The Barbers had said they would arrive by three. It was like waiting to begin a journey, Frances thought. She and her mother had spent the morning watching the clock, unable to relax. At half-past two she had gone wistfully over the rooms for what she’d supposed was the final time; after that there had been a nerving-up, giving way to a steady deflation, and now, at almost five, here she was again, listening to the echo of her own footsteps, feeling no sort of fondness for the sparsely furnished spaces, impatient simply for the couple to arrive, move in, get it over with”

What do you think – would you keep reading?

Emma

Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman

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When a young reporter knocks on Georgia’s door she knows what his visit is about before he even speaks. Ten years ago, whilst studying at Harvard, a fellow student, Julie Patel, was murdered. The anniversary of her death has sparked renewed interest in the case because the killer was never found. There was, though, a prime suspect, a professor named Storrow. He also happened to be having an affair with Georgia, linking her to Julie in the eyes of the press, despite their barely knowing each other.

After opening with the memory of the murder and few other facts, Bradstreet Gate goes back in time to when Georgia was a student and how her affair with Storrow started, and ended, before moving on to life after college and then the present of the anniversary. It does the same with Georgia’s best friends Charlie and Alice, who are also linked to Storrow and whose own lives, it appears, have been just as affected by Julie’s murder as his and Georgia’s.

These affects though aren’t always that simple. They are to do with the loss of innocence and trust and the impact of one, single, event on the rest of their lives. Told in three parts with chapters focused on the story from each separate character’s point of view (though not told in the first person), this isn’t really the story of a murder but of love, lies and friendships. It isn’t what I expected – I was thinking more straightforward crime fiction when I picked it up – but I really enjoyed it regardless.

I liked the way the story was structured, slowly revealing just who each character was, warts and all, and the secrets they are hiding. Kirman does a good job of giving Georgia, Charlie and Alice their own personalities and voices and, although I can’t say I liked them, I did sympathise with them and understood how they ended up as who they were. Each felt real to me and so the final reveal made perfect sense. I haven’t felt that way about a few books lately, so I have a renewed appreciation for a good ending. I was left a happy bunny and will be recommending this book – liked it a lot!

Emma

No text: I received this book from Blogging for Books in return for a fair and honest review.

This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes

553476Richard is in pain. What type of pain, he isn’t sure and the doctors can find nothing wrong.  But still he hurts. Lying in the hospital bed, he realises that he doesn’t know who to call. His ex-wife, his estranged son, the brother he hasn’t seen in years, his parents who have decamped to Florida and who he doesn’t speak to either? He is, it turns out, a man very much alone and the pain isn’t so much to do with his heart but with his head.

A self-made man with a lot of money, Richard lives like a recluse.  His life is one of routine, exercise and health food. He has trainers, nutritionists and a cleaner he doesn’t speak to but no friends. He watches stocks and shares and makes money but doesn’t leave his house for months. Now, sitting in hospital, he realises he doesn’t want to go home and he doesn’t want to be alone.

Finally, after years of inertia, Richard starts to live. It’s a strange living, one that starts in a donut shop and where he meets and makes friends with misfits, movies stars and novelists.  His son comes to visit and they begin to rebuild their relationship.  Along the way, he rescues a horse, a dog, and a kidnapped woman. It’s all a bit surreal and very funny. By the end I was really rooting for Richard who hadn’t quite figured it all out but you get the feeling he is doing more than existing.

You might be able to tell – I enjoyed this book. I like A. M. Homes, the way she writes. Her novels make me laugh and I love her take on the world, which is slightly off centre. I came to her books late and am slowly working my way through them. So far, this is my favourite and I can’t wait to read more. 

Emma