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Friday, 21 April 2017

Review: Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys

With the seeming overabundance of historical fiction about World War Two, it's sometimes hard to find a story that is a completely fresh perspective on this period (which isn't to say those stories aren't good). With Ruta Sepetys' novel, "Salt to the Sea", you find something that is fresh, well-written and absorbing, and educational.

The book is divided between the POVs of four people - Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (German), Emilia (Polish), and Alfred (German), each haunted by dark secrets that are revealed in turn.

Joana, Florian, and Emilia are fleeing Eastern Europe with the Red Army hot on their heels. They have heard the horror stories. They also know that no official evacuation orders have been given so they have to be careful. Their aim is Gotenhafen, where evacuation ships await - so they hear. 

They meet in a forest under extreme circumstances. Emilia, beset upon by a Russian soldier, is saved by Florian just in time. Though he has no interest in her tagging along with him, she does so anyway. They meet a small group of people, of which Joana is a part. Other characters include a cobbler dubbed 'The Shoe Poet', a blind but extremely perceptive girl called Ingrid, a small boy whose grandma did not wake up, and a woman called Eva. They travel together towards Gotenhafen, though some of them are uncomfortable with having Emilia as part of their group. 

The group reaches Gotenhafen, but it is here that disasters start to happen. One of their number is lost beneath the ice. Gaining boarding passes for the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, is immensely tricky. And even once they are on the ship, all is not yet safe. 

The short chapters really help with the sense of pace and urgency these characters would be feeling in their flight towards the ship, and the promise of safety. Certain events are told from more than one point of view, just so we can feel empathy in all its forms. If this was on a cinema screen, the camera would often be darting around every few seconds. As each secret is revealed, your empathy is necessarily increased. None of these characters were necessarily persecuted in the way that we know victims of the Nazi regime were treated, but that does not render the devastation of their lives any less awful. These characters have lost every part of their lives but their own bodies - and even then, they are not fully perfect. It seems so important to have stories like this that tell just a small part about the tens of millions of lives in between Germany and the Soviet Union - the Soviet Union may technically have been on the Allies' side, but it was no less brutal than any other country who took part in the war. 

I would encourage everybody to read this if I could. Books about the Holocaust, the fighting in Britain, France, Germany, and other European countries will not become less important, but we need more stories like this, stories of civilians who suffered immensely just because they were in Hitler's sights for lebensraum. 

Review: Whispers in the Sand, Barbara Erskine

"What you need, my dear, is a holiday." So says our protagonist's (Anna's), Aunt Phyllis, during Anna's visit following a recent divorce. Phyllis speaks of Anna's great-grandmother, Louisa Shelley, a renowned artist, and Anna becomes inspired to retrace Louisa's journey through Egypt. Armed with Louisa's diary and mysterious small glass bottle, Anna books herself onto a cruise.

As soon as she arrives on the cruise, it becomes apparent that two men (Andy and Toby) are competing for her affections - but is it her affections they desire, or her diary and bottle? Both seem eager to examine the two possessions, and Anna has to struggle to fight them off. Not only is it them she finds herself battling against, however, but it soon transpires that there are mysterious and malevolent presences around Anna. 

She confides in Serena, a woman who partakes in the mystical arts, most notably those of a modern-day Isis worship. She sensitively explains and explores what could be happening. 

The longer the journey goes on, the more intense these presences get - and they no longer affect Anna alone.

Interspersed with Anna's story is that of Louisa Shelley, whom we get to know through Anna reading the diary. Louisa was gifted the bottle by her dragoman, Hassan, whom had no idea of the apparent curse surrounding it. For the most part, it causes no trouble except for when an English nobleman tries to wrestle it off Louisa, which leads to tragedy. 

This was a very enjoyable read, with a a blend of historical narrative, exploration of ancient mysticism and spirituality, and gorgeous descriptions of Egypt's landscape. There was one bugbear, however, and that was the ending. It just stops without a final resolution. Erskine wrote an "Afterthought" in which case she deliberately wanted to leave the story there, but it left me feeling unsatisfied. I know books, once finished, become independent of their authors, but I wanted to know Erskine's ending, not imagining one of my own. 

I would recommend this book, but if you would feel frustrated at a non-ending, like me, it might be best to leave it as it's not the shortest of reads!

Monday, 3 April 2017

Guest post: Dan Whitehouse

Today's post comes from Dan Whitehouse, from an organisation called "Into Forward."  Into Forward is a cutting edge, industry recognised technology and future trend predictions blog. We use a special blend of machine learning and search data for all our trend predictions! Plan from three years from now and you'll never fail. We'll share all we know to keep you in the loop with the next biggest thing in technology, the markets, green tech and many more.

Dan wrote an article about Latest Books and Reading Trends. I hope you'll enjoy it!

You would think in this technological age that books would not be so popular anymore. The truth is that books are actually making a comeback because of electronic books that can be read on devices like Amazon Kindle. The popularity of digital books has increased tremendously in recent years and they are only getting more popular. Not only that, but independent authors now have an easy way to publish their own books to an audience without needing to hire a traditional book publisher or invest their own money into printing copies of the books.
Also, Amazon has a service through their subsidiary company “Createspace” where independent authors can actually self-publish printed books online. The way it works is when someone purchases the print book, Createspace will manufacture that book specially for the customer and then the author will get a royalty on that sale. This means the author doesn’t have to investment any of their own money into printing copies and then hoping they sell. Instead, they can just have Amazon print the copies when they sell and then deduct the printing costs from the money already received. As more authors are discovering Createspace, more self-published printed books are being brought to the marketplace.
Of course, it is still hard for self-published authors to get their books recognized and selling like crazy. Instead, you’ll see more publicized authors like Bill O’Reilly or John Grisham having an easy time selling their books. Bill O’Reilly, who is the host of the “O’Reilly Factor” on FOX, has published numerous books within the last few years which are still trending. These books include Killing the Rising Sun, Killing Kennedy, Killing Reagan, Killing Patton, and Killing Jesus. Despite how negative these titles may sound, they actually touch upon some very sensitive issues about great American men of the 20th century.
With all the success of movies like “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the “Harry Potter” series, the books that the movies are based on are becoming increasingly popular. Fans of these franchises are discovering additional books and storylines which have not been made into movies yet. For Fifty Shades of Grey fans, there is a trilogy of the three books that you can purchase in a package called the Fifty Shades Trilogy. It contains the books Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. Fans of Harry Potter are currently flocking toward the bestselling book “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Review: Heartbreak Hotel, Deborah Moggach

Despite me never reading the book The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, on which the film adaptation is based, I had a feeling I would love "Heartbreak Hotel", since it's written by the same author.

I was right.

Our hero is Buffy, a retired actor with a confusing collection of ex-wives, children and step-children which requires a detailed family tree of which to keep track. One day, he finds out he has been left a B&B by one of his dearest friends (whom he consequently had lost touch with for a while) near Wales. He takes the leap and moves away from London into the shabby B&B and starts out on a little adventure.

He quickly realises, though, that he needs to offer more than the standard service - particularly because the B&B itself has seen finer days. He has an idea to run "Courses for Divorces", different things that exes might recently find themselves unable to do as their ex used to do it - car maintenance, cooking etc.

Interspersed with Buffy's plans are an array of chapters about different people whom end up on these different courses. For most, it is a welcome week away; for others, it represents the start of a whole new life.

Moggach's book is written with warmth, humour, and the belief that while one doesn't necessarily need romantic relationships, they can be wonderful to the people that are in them. It's not just romance, however - friendships are made and rekindled, pasts reconciled, and new avenues explored. It really is a little gem of a book that will keep you smiling and laughing the whole way through.

Review: The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

South Carolina at the height of segregation, and racial tension is at its highest. Lily, a fourteen year old living on a peach farm with a harsh father and a black servant (her only friend), longs more than ever before for her mother - a mother she believes she killed.

One afternoon, Lily accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote. However, three white men stand in the way. Refusing to kowtow, Rosaleen gives them a piece of her mind but unfortunately gets more back than that.

Lily helps Rosaleen break free from the hospital in which she's being kept (after said men came to the prison to beat her to within an inch of her life). The only route Lily can think of going is a route marked out by a picture of a black Virgin Mary.

The road leads them to the home of three beekeeping sisters; August, June and May Boatwright. They offer sanctuary to Lily and Rosaleen, as well as (in August's case) warmth.

Rosaleen is entirely at ease straightaway, but Lily takes a little longer since she has lied about why she has come. Fearing she might be sent away, she keeps the truth inside but her suspicions are that August knows.

Free from her father's fearsome shadow, Lily is able to rebuild herself with the help of August, whom shows her the ways of beekeeping. By the time Lily realises she needs to tell the truth, however, terrible events occur that make her hold the truth tighter still.

 It's refreshing, though, to see a historical novel about black women whom are the mistresses of their own lives, rather than trying to display their own identity within the constraints of their white masters and mistresses. The women clash and bond and look after each other, and there's no question of August, June and May being beholden to any one else. They are well known and respected in the community and the honey business does not suffer with the knowledge that the creators are black. Relationships - familial, romantic, platonic - form the heart of this story with an undercurrent of racial issues being explored. It's a rich novel with substance and depth, with much of what we know about the time being questioned within the microcosm of the Boatwright family.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Review: Little Face, Sophie Hannah

Alice Fancourt steps out of the house for the first time without her baby. It's a momentous step but hopefully just a short one. However, when she returns from her errand - visiting a gym for which her mother-in-law has paid for membership - the unthinkable happens.

She goes upstairs to check on her baby but her baby is not there.

There is a baby there, but Alice swears it is not hers. Her husband, David, thinks she's mad or lying. Alice turns to the police, but they think she's bonkers, too. What is she going to have to do to prove herself?

Eventually, the story turns not just into a question of getting Florence, the baby, back, but more. Alice sees a darker, more sadistic side to her husband and feels the suffocating 'love' of her mother-in-law even more. It becomes a battle not just for a baby, for the truth, but for herself.

It's a fantastic thriller/mystery novel, and Sophie Hannah keeps you guessing at every turn. What really is going on in Alice's mind? Who should she trust? Who should we trust? For a story that is almost closed set - the settings don't range much between the house in which Alice and David live with their mother-in law, the gym, and Alice's workplace - it is hugely absorbing and fast paced.

Fans of Gillian Flynn and the unreliable narrator style of novels will hugely enjoy this.

Review: My Husband's Wife, Jane Corry

The Husband's Wife by Jane Corry is a tense, gradually building psychological thriller that has the question "what if?" at its core. What if Lily had not come home from work early that day? What if her boss had sent someone else to interview Joe Thomas, the prisoner Lily was sent to defend? The thousands of daily decisions that we make can make huge ripples with effects even years later, which this novel explores. 

Lily MacDonald is a solicitor whom her boss has chosen to meet with a man called Joe Thomas, serving life for murdering his girlfriend. While visiting him, Lily is warned by a prison officer to keep strict boundaries, lest she become conditioned by Joe. It's our first signpost that something huge is going to happen. 

Her husband, Ed, works as a graphic designer but has dreams of being an artist. Both Lily and Ed have secrets from each other, but Lily thinks hers is too horrific to be shared with anyone, whilst Ed's later comes out during a visit to his family. 

Their neighbours are an Italian woman, Francesca, and her daughter Carla. They have never had anything much to do with Lily and Ed until, one day, Carla is brought home early by a teaching assistant and Lily offers to watch her as Carla's mother is out. 

From there blossoms what we think will be a lovely friendship, but knowing the genre of this novel, we know it will turn sour. The question is when and what the effects will be.

Just a few simple decisions means the lives of the characters end up entangled is furiously complicated ways that have devastating effects for all of them. It's a hugely addictive read - fans of The Girl on the Train and The Husband's Secret will enjoy this.