Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke


Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 245

Book Club Read

Blurb

Piranesi lives in the House. Perhaps he always has.


In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls. On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone.

Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims?

Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

Review

Before I get to my thoughts about this book, I want to say this. I won’t be going into the story or try to outline it. I’m not sure I know where I should begin or how I would put it into words. What’s more, I feel that anything I might reveal would constitute a spoiler, so I’m afraid, the blurb is all you get.

With that out of the way:

Twenty-six pages into this book I had two thoughts:

1.     I’m not convinced (most of) my book club members are going to be impressed with this choice.

2.     Looks like this is one of those books that is going to leave me intrigued and totally confused by the time I finish reading it.


The house is valuable because it is the house. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end. - Page 61


Since the book club meeting won’t take place for another three days, I can’t say anything about how right or wrong I was in that first assessment. As for my second thought…

I am definitely intrigued. In fact, I was intrigued and engrossed from the moment I started reading. It’s fair to say that for about the first quarter of the book I had no idea what I was reading or what the story was supposed to be, but whatever it was, I was captivated.

As far as Piranesi is concerned, the House is the world. It is not quite that simple for the reader. I guess you can look at the House as a metaphor for Piranesi’s confused mind. Or you can embrace the mythical, surreal atmosphere of the narrative and accept the House as a different world, only accessible for familiar with the old knowledge. And it now occurs to me that there’s a third option in which the House is a combination of real-world and confused (d)illusions.

The main character, called Piranesi by his only human companion, the Other, came across as innocent and childlike. He doesn’t question his surroundings, his world, or anything else for that matter, when the story starts. What’s more, if it hadn’t been mentioned that he was male, I would have guessed Piranesi was female. But that innocence allows us to better view the world – aka the House – and Piranesi’s life there. Piranesi’s thoughts are very descriptive which allows the reader to see the halls and the statues. And I loved how Piranesi’s character was revealed through how he deals with the human remains he finds and again when he postpones his own requirements to meet the needs of nesting birds.

While I’m on the subject of those statues. I have absolutely no doubt I missed a lot of references there. I’m almost certain that those statues represented old Gods and I would be surprised if their placement in the story isn’t somehow significant. Most if not all of this went over my head, but I can’t say I minded or that I feel as if I missed (vital) parts of the story.

As I said earlier, this story grabbed me right from the start and kept me captivated until the very end. But, what I like even more, is that Piranesi still hasn’t let go. More than twenty-four hours after finishing the book I’m still playing ‘what-if’ games with myself. I’d love to get into those here but that would be very spoilery, so I’ll keep my musings to myself. All I can say is that if you like very well-written books that make you wonder, keep you guessing, and refuse to give you clear-cut answers, Piranesi is probably the book for you.




Home Stretch by Graham Norton


 Publisher: Coronet

362 pages

Book Club read


Blurb

It is 1987 and a small Irish community is shattered by a terrible accident. Young Connor is one of the survivors, but staying among the angry and the mourning is more than he can bear. He leaves the only place he knows, taking his secrets with him.

But the unspoked longings and regrets that have come to haunt those left behind will not be silenced. And before long, Connor will have to confront his past.

 

Review

 Careful: This review contains spoilers

Honestly? I find the blurb I copied from the back cover of the paperback rather insufficient. When I marked the book on Goodreads, I found the following book description and it works a lot better for me.

 

In this “compelling, bighearted, emotionally precise page-turner” (Sunday Times), the New York Times bestselling writer and acclaimed television host explores the aftermath of a tragedy on a small-town to illuminate the shame and longing that can flow through generations—and how the secrets of the heart cannot stay buried forever.

It is 1987 and a small Irish community is preparing for a wedding. The day before the ceremony, a group of young friends, including the bride and groom, are involved in an accident. Three survive. Three are killed.

The lives of the families are shattered and the rifts between them ripple throughout the small town. Connor survived, but living among the angry and the mourning is almost as hard as carrying the shame of having been the driver. He leaves the only place he knows for another life, taking his secrets with him. Travelling first to Liverpool, then London, he eventually makes a home—of sorts—for himself in New York, where he finds shelter and the possibility of forging a new life.

But the secrets—the unspoken longings and regrets that have come to haunt those left behind—will not be silenced. Before long, Connor will have to confront his past.

A powerful and timely novel of emigration and return, Home Stretch demonstrates Norton’s keen understanding of the power of stigma and secrecy—and their devastating effect on ordinary lives.


Now for my thoughts:

I have to be honest and start by saying that it took me a few chapters to fully get into this story. Initially, it felt as if I was told far less than I needed to know in order to appreciate what exactly was going on. As it turned out, I was right. What was more, that was exactly what I should be feeling. This story is cleverly composed in such a way that the truth about what really happened and about Connor and Martin, in particular, is only revealed slowly by means of small hints that eventually build up to huge truths.

This story broke my heart several times. It starts with the day of the crash and that in itself was a devastating scene. What follows just makes matters worse. Poor Connor is basically banished from the place where he grew up, only to find himself alone and lost again not much later when his true nature is discovered by one of his housemates in Liverpool.

Which brings me to one aspect of the story that made me both sad and furious. To this day there are those who hate what they are themselves so much that they will take it out on others who are exactly like them. I guess beating up yourself is all but impossible, whereas unleashing that anger on others is relatively easy, but that doesn’t make that form of self-hatred less horrific and devastating.

To think that young Connor would rather have people thinking that he’d killed three other people through reckless driving than have them find out that he’s gay is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. Especially since I have no doubt that for all too many (young) people the fear of being ‘outed’ is so deep and ingrained that they would rather be seen as something – anything – else, no matter how despicable.

But, the flipside of Connor’s banishment and him being forced to find his own feet at a very early age means that his journey made for fascinating reading. The secrets from the past hold him back for so long; he avoids any and all contact with the family he left behind in Ireland for decades. But, while he goes through ups and downs and it takes him a very long time to become his own man rather than what he thinks others want him to be, it is an interesting and eye-opening journey.

All characters in this story are flawed. For a long time, everybody in this book allows their fears, prejudices, and insecurities to direct their path through life. It is easy to sit in judgment of people’s actions when you’re ‘only’ the reader. The wonderful thing about this book is that no matter how questionable some actions and decisions are, by the end of the book, not only did those choices make sense, but they also led to better, healthier choices.

While it is easy to pinpoint Martin as the villain in this story, I think that would be too easy. While I have certainly had my own ups and downs in self-confidence, I can’t imagine making it to the age of forty or fifty without ever being able to just be who I am. Sure, every single act of Martin’s was despicable, but by the end of the book, it was impossible not to wonder if the biggest victim of Martin’s actions wasn’t Martin himself.

While Home Stretch is very much a story about a man coming to terms with who he is and his past before he can find his way to himself, it is also the story about Ireland and generations of people who were forced to flee everything they knew because the community they lived in wasn’t capable of seeing beyond the values they were spoon-fed from the moment they were born and, for far too long, saw as more important than even the people they were supposed to love unconditionally.

Over the decades described in this book, Ireland has come a long way and it would be nice to think that situations like the one young Connor found himself in are now a thing from the past. I fear that the reality isn’t quite as rosy. We’ve come a long way, but I feel we’ve got an equally long way still to go.

My final thought is that it proved impossible to read this book without wondering how much of Connor’s experiences were taken straight from the author’s life. Not the accident, but the feeling that the place where you were born, where your family continues to live, can no longer be your home feels pulled straight from the heart. Which makes me very happy that, eventually, both Connor and Graham Norton found their way back home, even if it was after a long stretch.





Tuesday, 5 October 2021

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

 


Thursday Murder Club Mystery #2

423 pages

Publisher: Penguin Random House

 

Blurb

It's the following Thursday.

Elizabeth has received a letter from an old colleague, a man with whom she has a long history. He's made a big mistake, and he needs her help. His story involves stolen diamonds, a violent mobster, and a very real threat to his life.

As bodies start piling up, Elizabeth enlists Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the hunt for a ruthless murderer. And if they find the diamonds too? Well, wouldn't that be a bonus?

But this time they are up against an enemy who wouldn't bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians. Can The Thursday Murder Club find the killer (and the diamonds) before the killer finds them?

 

Review

WOW

As soon as I finished The Thursday Murder Club—a book I didn’t write a detailed review for, for some unknown reason— I wanted to pick up this sequel. Unfortunately for me I had to wait about nine months but, now that I’ve finished The Man Who Died Twice I can say it was well worth the wait.

Here is the little I did write about The Thursday Murder Club:

This book was a revelation. I'm not sure what I expected, besides a mystery, but it wasn't this complex, charming, funny, touching, and enthralling story.

To be honest, I could simply repeat those two sentences and leave it there. The first book was indeed a revelation and I have to admit I was concerned that maybe the sequel wouldn’t live up to expectations. Fortunately, I worried about nothing. The Man Who Died Twice is at least as complex, charming, funny, touching, and enthralling as The Thursday Murder Club was.

Of course, at first glance, neither of these stories should work. For starters, it is impossible to classify these books precisely. Part cosy mystery, part crime caper, part suspense, and featuring spies, it is remarkable that not only do these stories work, they do so exceptionally well.

Of course, there are far more explanations as to why they do work so brilliantly, such as the fantastic cast of characters. It would be hard to find four people as unlike each other as Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron but it is exactly the differences between them that make them so good together. The host of secondary characters, both those who return and those only present in one of the stories, are as distinctive, original, and yet very recognisable as the four protagonists. The mysteries, while very well and cleverly plotted, lean toward being over the top but somehow manage to stay both believable and fascinating.

Away from the mystery and all the mayhem resulting from it, there is this deep and warm humanity to these stories. As much as they are mysteries, they are also stories about friendship and tolerance. Without ever getting sentimental, they show the fragility that comes with getting older. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron are all matter of fact about where they are in their lives. They're getting on with it. But between the lines and without ever getting sloppy you can read the fear, the insecurities, the loneliness, and the frustration.

I can’t help feeling that Richard Osman must like people and not only observes those around him but also really sees and understands them.

I can’t imagine anybody reading these books and not getting drawn in. As much as I want to avoid ever having to live in a retirement home or village, these stories almost managed to convince me it might be fun. And, if my accommodation came with the promise of mysteries and a group of friends like the foursome in these books to help me solve them, I might yet be persuaded. 😊

Finally, I want to say something about the title. But I can’t. So I’ll restrict myself to two words: utter genius.

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Seb’s Summer by K.C. Wells

 


Main Men #3

282 pages

Buy links: Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available with Kindle Unlimited

 

Blurb

Steamy summer nights with a hot older man aren’t the smooth sailing Seb expects.

A mysterious older guy

Seb Williams has one plan for the hot, sultry nights of his summer vacation—to get laid. What isn’t on the agenda? Running his uncle’s fishing business. Seb has no choice but to help his family. So it’s goodbye, Ogunquit’s gay bars and hook-ups.
And it’s hello, Cape Porpoise, a quaint, quiet fishing harbor. A small town that promises to be boring AF until he meets Marcus Gilbert. His summer prospects start to look promising. Silver fox—hell yeah. Hot bod? Check. Slow sultry gaze? Oh yes!

Only one problem. Marcus Gilbert plays hard to get.

A hot distraction

Cape Porpoise is exactly how Marcus remembers it from long-past childhood, and just what he needs. A sabbatical to get his life back on track, and work on his book. Peaceful surroundings. The calm of the ocean.

Perfect—until Marcus’s boat is well and truly rocked by a hot, younger guy.

Marcus can’t ignore the lure of Seb’s lean frame and gorgeous eyes. One night can’t hurt, right?

Except one night leads to another, and another.

It’s just a summer fling—until it isn’t, and the pair are suddenly in uncharted waters.

Because now, Marcus’s past threatens to tear apart their future.

 

Review

The Main Men series has so far given me three delightful stories. While they’re all interconnected and have some similarities, each story comes with a new and fully fleshed-out dilemma. In Finn’s Fantasy, the issue was coming out at a later age, and in Ben’s Boss K.C. Wells dealt with bullying. Seb’s Summer has another, equally hefty, topic at its core. I won’t tell you what it is though. Spoilers should always be avoided and in this case even more so.

This third book in K.C. Well’s Maine Men series is as captivating and sexy as the two prequels. If I take my queue from the official blurb, my summary of the story looks something like this:

Hot men

Age-Gap Romance

Hot and Sexy

Memorable characters

Realistic

But I won’t leave my review there. It won’t surprise anybody when I say I’m a huge fan of K.C. Well’s books. While there hasn’t been a single story I didn’t like, I do have my favourites, of course. Seb’s Summer has found its place among those favourites.

There’s a lot to love in this book. Seb is a wonderful MC. At first glance, he may seem a little selfish and somewhat obsessed with hook-ups, but it soon becomes very clear that he has a heart of gold and tends to put others ahead of himself. All of which doesn’t mean that he’s happy about having to spend the summer he had huge plans for in a small fishing village working on his uncle’s boat. There go all his dreams of gay clubs and steamy nights…or so he thinks.

Enter Marcus. While Seb resents having to spend his summer in Cape Porpoise, for Marcus the tiny town is a refuge, allowing him to put distance between himself and issues he has been dealing with. Seb may be looking for fun and sex, Marcus very much isn’t. He just wants to be left alone so he can sort himself out. Except that Marcus can’t deny that Seb is both attractive and next to impossible to resist, no matter how hard he tries to keep his distance.

What starts out as a summer fling for both men, soon turns into something more…something neither of them expected…something that may not have a future considering where they both normally live…and something that turns out to be all too fragile once Marcus’s secret is revealed.

I’m not going to tell you what that secret is, or how it gets resolved. What I will say is that it is a tricky and sensitive issue, and that K.C. Wells deals with it in a responsible and empathetic manner without allowing it to take over the story, turn it into a heavy read, or get in the way of the romance.

Yep. Seb’s Summer is yet another winner for anybody who loves a well-plotted romance with a powerful back story, imaginative and hot scenes, and a lot of heart. How long until we can get our hands on book four?

 

 

Win by Harlan Coben

 


Windsor Horne Lockwood III (Win) #1

Publisher: Century

274 pages

 

Blurb

From the #1 bestselling author and creator of the hit Netflix series 'The Stranger' comes a riveting new thriller, starring the new hero Windsor Horne Lockwood III – or Win, as he is known to his (few) friends …

Over twenty years ago, heiress Patricia Lockwood was abducted during a robbery of her family's estate, then locked inside an isolated cabin for months. Patricia escaped, but so did her captors, and the items stolen from her family were never recovered.

Until now.

On New York's Upper West Side, a recluse is found murdered in his penthouse apartment, alongside two objects of note: a stolen Vermeer painting and a leather suitcase bearing the initials WHL3. For the first time in years, the authorities have a lead not only on Patricia's kidnapping but also on another FBI cold case - with the suitcase and painting both pointing them towards one man.

Windsor Horne Lockwood III - or Win as his few friends call him - doesn't know how his suitcase and his family's stolen painting ended up in this dead man's apartment. But he's interested - especially when the FBI tell him that the man who kidnapped his cousin was also behind an act of domestic terrorism, and that he may still be at large.

The two cases have baffled the FBI for decades. But Win has three things the FBI does not:: a personal connection to the case, a large fortune, and his own unique brand of justice ...

 

Review

Almost a decade has passed since I last read a book by Harlan Coben. I’m not sure why, since I remember thoroughly enjoying every story of his I’ve read. More than anything, I was a huge Myron Bolitar fan (and I’m kinda horrified to discover that I never read the last book in that series). What’s more, Myron’s sidekick, Winston Horne Lockwood III, has always intrigued me. So, when I spotted a book titled Win on the library’s shelves and I realised who the title referred to, I brought it home instantly.

I didn’t regret that decision for even a moment. Win has been the first book in far too long that I read in less than twenty-four hours. I’m not going to say anything about the story itself since the blurb tells you everything you need to know; anything more would mean spoilers. Suffice to say that this is one action-packed, often violent, frequently funny, and occasionally surprisingly touching story.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the break-neck speed at which events unfold, my favourite aspect of this book was how it allowed me to get to know Win better. In my (rather vague) memories he was a not particularly social, violent, and no-bullshit sorta guy who also happened to be filthy rich and happy to use his wealth to achieve what he perceived as justice. My memories weren’t wrong. They weren’t entirely right either. While he was certainly as entertaining a character as I recalled, Win had far more dimensions and depth to his personality than I remembered from the earlier Myron Bolitar stories.

Win’s musings often hold uncomfortable truths. Uncomfortable for the reader that is, Win himself is very comfortable with these thoughts most of the time. He’s very self-aware and makes no excuses for what some might consider his darker side. And I guess that’s part of his (secret) charm. Because he doesn’t try to make himself (look) better than he is, I’m inclined to look for the good in him. Win may claim that his actions stem from self-interest, but if you read between his words and pay attention it’s hard not to recognise that while his methods may be brutal, his reason for taking action are often at the very least understandable.

I don’t need to tell you that Harlan Coben is a master and in a class of his own when it comes to thrillers. Win confirmed that status with a well-plotted mystery, a fast-paced story, fascinating characters, and more than enough twists and turns to keep me guessing.

I’m looking forward to more Windsor Horne Lockwood III books and will make sure to get my hands on that last Myron Bolitar title (Home) in the not too distant future.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Resistance by Val McDermid

 


Art by Kathryn Briggs

Publisher: Profile books

Title in the Wellcome Collection

Graphic Novel

160 pages

 

Blurb

It's the summer solstice weekend, and 150,000 people descend on a farm in the northeast of England for an open-air music festival. At first, a spot of rain seems to be the only thing dampening the fun - until a mystery bug appears. Before long, the illness is spreading at an electrifying speed and seems resistant to all antibiotics. Can journalist Zoe Meadows track the outbreak to its source, and will a cure be found before the disease becomes a pandemic?

A heart-racing thriller, Resistance imagines a nightmare pandemic that seems only too credible in the wake of COVID-19. Number one bestseller and queen of crime Val McDermid has teamed up with illustrator Kathryn Briggs to create a masterful graphic novel.

 

Review

You might wonder what possessed me to read a book about a pandemic while living through a pandemic. Good question. I mean, if I want to know how the world reacts to a deadly disease, I just need to turn to my Twitter feed. It is almost as if my curiosity is rather morbid.

Morbid or not, I can’t deny I was curious how a writer like Val McDermid might approach the pandemic. But that was before I discovered that this story was written and performed as a radio play a few years before I first heard the word ‘Covid’. That knowledge was rather disturbing. So much in this story reminded me of everything we’ve been through over the past eighteen months. Especially the early denial of anything really serious happening and governments dithering before taking decisive action was all too familiar. After reading this book I guess we can only be grateful Covid isn’t quite as nasty as the bacterium in Resistance. Because the reason we’re still more or less functioning as a world and haven’t faced larger loss of life has little to do with our leaders being on the ball. While Covid has been devastating, it (so far) isn’t horrific enough to produce the scale of death and destruction as described in this book. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fill me with confidence that should things get worse, or should we face a similar but more aggressive epidemic, we will be able to handle it.

I’m not usually a graphic novel reader and I’m not sure if that is going to change. But, for a story as horrific as this the fact that words tend to hit me harder than images meant that graphic was the right way to go. Not that the fear, devastation, and despair are in any way subdued, far from it. But it would have been more difficult (if not impossible) to make my way to the end of this story if everything had been detailed in words.

This cautionary tale is, as I said before, all too realistic, and as such not particularly hopeful. Given everything the world is facing right now, it is a timely tale too. While it is all to tempting to stick our heads in the sand, get on with our lives, and hope that the various disasters approaching us won’t hit during our lives, the time for such an attitude (if it ever existed) is well and truly over. So maybe, while they may be hard to read, we need more, not fewer books like this one. Because we are in dire need of anything that might make more of us think about what we’re doing to our planet and each other. Think first and then, very rapidly, change our ways.

A girl can hope.



 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Crime and Punctuation by Kaitlyn Dunnett

 


Deadly Edits Mystery #1

280 pages

Publisher: Kensington

 

Blurb

After splurging to buy her childhood home in the Catskills, recently widowed Mikki Lincoln emerges from retirement as a freelance editor. With her ability to spot details that others fail to see, it's not long before Mikki earns clients--and realizes that the village of Lenape Hollow isn't the thriving tourist destination it was decades ago. Not with a murderer on the loose . . .

When perky novice writer Tiffany Scott knocks at her door holding a towering manuscript, Mikki expects another debut novel plagued by typos and sloppy prose. Instead, she finds a murder mystery ripped from the headlines of Lenape Hollow's not-too-distant past. The opening scene is a graphic page-turner, but it sends a real chill down Mikki's spine after the young author turns up dead just like the victim in her story . . .

Mikki refuses to believe that Tiffany's death was accidental, and suspicions of foul play solidify as she uncovers a strange inconsistency in the manuscript and a possible motive in the notes. Then there's Tiffany's grandmother and husband, who aren't exactly on friendly terms over the local area's planned rejuvenation efforts . . .

Unable to convince police that they are focused on the wrong suspect, Mikki must rely on her keen eyes to catch the truth hidden in Lenape Hollow. As she gets closer to cracking the case, only one person takes Mikki's investigation seriously--the cunning killer who will do anything to make this chapter of her life come to a very abrupt ending . . .

 

Review

This was my first cosy mystery in ages. I used to read them all the time and enjoyed them thoroughly. As my 3-star (3.5 really, but that option's not available) rating indicates, I wasn't overly impressed with this story. I'm not sure if that is because this simply isn't a very good cosy or because I've outgrown the genre. Only time (and more cosy mysteries) will tell, I guess.

Without going into the details of this mystery I blame my reservations about this story on the following. Descriptions were too frequent, detailed, and, as far as I could tell, mostly irrelevant. The identity of the killer didn't come as a (huge) surprise. It felt like a lot of information was repeated time and again. And I didn't really warm to Mikki Lincoln and didn't quite buy her motivation for investigating the mysterious death either.

While I like the idea of a punctuation rule being the primary clue in this mystery, it wasn't enough to carry the whole story for me especially since a lot was made of the manuscript in question only for it to reveal little to nothing. In fact, a lot of questions posed by that document remained unanswered by the end of the story.

I’m fairly sure I’ll read more cosy mysteries in the future. Whether I’ll read more stories in this series or other books by Kaitlyn Dunnett remains to be seen.