Dear Edward – Ann Napolitano (BOOKGROUP) – 02.01.21

This was my book group read for December/January, and probably not a book I would have picked up otherwise, which just goes to show that book group enriches my life!

My review contains semi-spoilers, so read on at your peril…

It is the story of a twelve year old boy who is the only survivor of a plane crash which kills his parents and only sibling. Edward (formally know as Eddie) is stunned and initially badly injured and his rehabilitation, both physical and mental is slow. He is adopted by his aunt and uncle, a couple whose inability to have children of their own has stretched their marriage to its limits, and befriended by his new next door neighbour, Shay, a girl who is a loner and a unique personality (which I know from personal experience is the best type of person, cough, cough….) . Eddie’s adopted parents try to shield him from the huge storm of media and social media interest that surrounds him and his case, trying to make his life as normal as possible, but when he and Shay break through their defences and discover the thousands of letters written to Edward since the crash, it is this very discovery that helps Edward progress towards healing. The real time chapters about Edward are interspersed with flashback chapters about the flight where we get to know many of the passengers and learn something of what happened to cause the tragedy. By the time Edward finds the letters, written mostly by friends and relatives of the other passengers, we know their stories and can with him feel their pain.

I thought the book was very wise, without being preachy. I loved the friendship between Edward and Shay, and the chapters about the flight were quite exiting. It may be a cliché that we learn to help ourselves when we stop thinking about our own pain and concentrate on how we can help others, and yet I loved this about the story and how Edward’s character progressed as he dealt with his world being turned upside down and his grief. It is ultimately a very uplifting and feel good book and I really enjoyed it.

Horrorstorr – Grady Hendrix (AUDIOBOOK) – 31.12.20

I wanted an audiobook for my husband, Paul, and I to listen to on our road trip to my mother’s funeral. We were travelling between Christmas and New Year with the added fun of a surge in Covid cases making new travel restrictions be enforced daily! Our trip took us from our home in Northern Ireland, through the republic of Ireland, via ferry from Dublin to Wales, driving through Wales into the north of England for the funeral. Staying two nights in a Premier Inn, then doing the whole journey in reverse. We had to get special permission from the Irish Embassy to be allowed back since Ireland have a travel ban from mainland UK, plus extra customs checks now that Brexit is taking hold, and throw in some snow and ice on the roads – it was quite the trip!!

I have loved both reading and listening to Grady Hendrix books, and I chose this for our trip because it was just the right length at 6 and a half hours, and I hoped Paul would like it. It was the perfect choice. Set in an Ikea-like vast furniture store in America, the book builds tension and engagement as we get to know the main characters, all employees of the furniture store, and with them try to solve the mystery of why strange things seem to happen in the store overnight. A handful of characters end up spending the night in the store to investigate, and what a night it turns out to be!

It’s a really well written horror story, with great characterisation, quite a lot of humour as well as genuine tension and excitement. There were some quite gory moments as you would expect from the genre, and some really fun and increasingly strange adverts for products available at the store at the beginning of each chapter. Paul is a great movie watcher, but not really into reading fiction, but he, like me really enjoyed the book and was keen to start it up again after we’d paused to concentrate on a difficult bit of navigating. It had just the right level of surreal to perfectly fit with our trip and it kept us occupied and distracted on what might otherwise have been a more stressful journey.

The Copper Heart (Crow Investigations Book 5) – Sarah Painter – 29.12.20

I really love Sarah Painter’s Crow Investigations books. Like Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, Crow Investigations is a modern urban supernatural series set in London. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the characters of Lydia, the reluctant new head of the Crow magical family, her ghostly flatmate and her love interest policeman who is not magical (or is he….?). My only sadness is that the book was over too quick and now I can’t wait for the next installment!

Away With the Penguins – Hazel Prior – 27.12.20

My daughter recommended this book to me as a sweet and lovely read, and she was right! A grumpy old lady, Veronica, contemplates her legacy and decides she wants to visit a penguin research centre at the South Pole with a view to leaving her vast fortune to them after her death. We learn about Veronica’s life through flashbacks, and begin to understand why she is the way she is while at the same time getting to know lots of fun and fascinating penguin facts! As Veronica starts to love both the penguins and her fellow research centre occupants, she melts the frozen barriers she spent a lifetime building up and allows herself to feel and heal from the pain of her past.

The Ordeal of the Haunted Room (Chronicles of St Marys Short Story) – Jodi Taylor – 26.12.20

Every year Jodi Taylor releases a St Mary’s short story on Christmas Day and this is 2020s. I loved it! It’s an atmospheric Victorian haunted house murder mystery and I very much enjoyed reading it over snatched moments on Christmas Day and Boxing day. Thanks Jodi Taylor and happy Christmas to you and yours!

Deeplight – Frances Hardinge – 23.12.20

As I mentioned in my previous review (for Ready Player Two) my mum just died (on 14th December) and for that reason I decided to read this young adult fantasy novel by Frances Hardinge because I was looking for a gentle ‘easy’ read. Well, I should have know better than imagining that a Frances Hardinge novel wouldn’t pack both an emotional and intellectual punch! This is a deep, rich and incisive story mostly about growing up and becoming your own person. The main character, Hark, is a young orphan who lives in the shadow of his overbearing and manipulative friend and must find his own way when he is convicted of petty crimes and sent as an indentured servant to a island retreat for old ex-priests. All priest in this universe are now defunct because the gods were killed but a vast often criminal empire revolves around finding old ‘god’ artifacts because they contain magical properties. Hark is caught between priests, scientists and various criminal gangs all trying to exploit the magic and he has to struggle to know who to trust and what is the right thing to do. Like the previous book I read, this took me a while to get into, but once I did I found it gripping, compelling and ultimately satisfying.

Ready Player Two – Earnest Cline (AUDIOBOOK) – 23.12.20

So, my mum died on 14th December. It was pretty sudden; she had been hale and hearty the last time I spoke to her on the phone, two days later she had a massive stroke from which she never fully regained consciousness and died after eleven days. Because of Covid rules, she wasn’t allowed visitors until just hours before she passed, by which time it was too late for myself or her other children or grandchildren to get there in time, but she was with her friend and church pastor. The reason I’m including this in my review, is just to put it into context – for me, often I hang my memories of books read on the same hook as memories of what else was going on in my life at the time, and also because I really didn’t give the book the concentration it deserves, so inevitably, my review will be coloured by this distraction on my part.

I loved Ready Player One, both the book and (to a slightly lesser degree) the movie. I used my audible monthly credit to buy the audiobook of Ready Player Two as it worked out cheaper for me than buying the kindle version. I found the book slow to get into (although perhaps this was for reasons already stated in my opening paragraph…). Like the first book, it quickly becomes a treasure hunt through the virtual world where clues must be interpreted to find artefacts and defeat fiendish plans of bad guys and save the world. Again there were lots of fun references to geekish things from my youth, like The Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy, The Princess Bride, various old video games and movies, even Harry Potter. I have to admit I loved the references to Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the quest that mirrored the plot of The Silmarillion. There were character journeys and some touching romantic arcs as well as some interesting philosophical stuff about AI consciousness and immortality and that kind of thing.

I think I’ll wait until the kindle gets cheaper, and my mind gets onto a more even keel and maybe give the book another go, as I’m sure I missed lots from my half hearted listen and it should probably have been a more engrossing experience than it was for me.

We Sold Our Souls – Grady Hendrix – 13.12.20

I loved this book! I’m a member of a book group that happens to be all female (a man did come a couple of times but he hasn’t been in a while) and at 51 I’m the youngest member. The girls are by no means ‘fuddy duddy’, and yet they are unanimously horrified when I tell them that I like to read and or watch horror. I don’t like the rubbish jump scare scantily clad young women running about screaming type of horror, but when it is done well, with an interesting plot that makes sense and characters with depth who face challenges and go on journeys of discovery then horror can be a really good genre for thought provoking essays on the human condition. Great examples are The Babadook and the recent movie ‘His House’ as well as the French tv series ‘Marianne’ and everything written by Grady Hendrix! I’ve read/listened to most of his novels now and they have all been brilliant. (I initially assumed Grady Hendrix was female as all his books seem to be female centric and he does the female mind so well!). This book follows a middle aged failed former heavy metal guitarist who is making one last-ditched attempt to get recompense from her former band member who screwed over her and the rest of the band and now has a phenomenally successful solo career. Her journey quickly moves her down terrifying paths and she uncovers terrible secrets. The book is a love letter to music in general and heavy metal in particular (a genre I don’t enjoy, and yet was still moved by the passion towards it of the character). It was a bit overly gory for my taste at times (although I guess the violence was maybe necessary to progress the plot) but all in all it was a moving, exciting and satisfying read.

Sleeping Beauties (AUDIOBOOK) – Stephen King, Owen King Narrated by: Marin Ireland – 11.12.20

This is a long audiobook (over 25 hours) and due to a glitch with my audible not synching properly between the different devices that I listened to it on, I must have listened to about 40 hours of it! This was actually not a bad thing, because there are a lot of characters and a lot is going on and often I only picked up on things on the second (or even third) listening of a certain passage. Also, I was never bored even with the overlaps. The narrator, a woman with a lovely southern American accent is a joy to listen to, and brings the characters and plot to life really well. The book is set in the recent past (just pre-covid, I guess) in the small town of Dooling, West Virginia. The appearance of a mysterious woman in town coincides with a world-wide phenomenon where all female people who fall asleep are covered in a weird fibrous cocoon and enter a sort of sleeping coma. If anyone tries to remove the cocoon the women rouse long enough to react with extreme violence before returning to their sleep. We discover that their conscious minds are inhabiting a sort of parallel town of Dooling in a new society without any men. As more women fall asleep, the two societies polarise with the male Earth erupting into violence and mayhem while the female place gets on with life peacefully.

The book was a lot of fun to listen to, although it paints a really bad picture of men, with most of the male characters being total toe-rags, and most of the women bearing the scar of systematic male abuse. The ending was interesting and satisfying.

The Quantum Curators and the Enemy Within – Eva St. John – 09.12.20

This is the second book in the series by Eva St. John about a parallel Earth whose inhabitants can travel to our Earth at set points in time and they use this ability to retrieve precious artifacts just before they are lost or destroyed and display them (or at least holographic images of them) in museums. In this parallel world, Julius Caesar was lost as sea which changed the course of history, meaning the Roman Empire did not flourish and the Greek and Egyptian societies did. The result is that the world view of the people is much more ‘civilised’ at least on the surface and crime is low. A man from our Earth was trapped in this other Earth at the end of the first book, and this book is about how he copes with the culture shock and trying to fit into this new society. As he begins to suspect corruption and foul play amongst high ranking citizens, he meets resistance from those he tells who just can’t fathom that anyone would do that. The book led to some interesting discussion with my husband on our daily dog walk about human nature and why utopian political ideals don’t work in practise because there are always enough selfish or immoral people to mess with the system. Even though the book raised deep questions, it is not a heavy read – it’s fun, similar in feel to the Jodi Taylor Chronicles of St Marys.