07 August 2013

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling
Published by Little, Brown and Company
First Edition:  September 2012

This is a perfect example of "don't judge a book by its cover".  This is truly one of the worst covers I have seen and if the book had not been written by J. K. Rowling I doubt I would have picked it off the shelf.  That said, I have since seen the cover for the paperback version and I really like it; that's a book I would pick up and look at.

Cover looks aside, the book is terrific.  The story takes place in the village of Pagford where the death of councillor Barry Fairbrother puts the residents of the village at odds with each other.  Some residents want the changes that came around because of Fairbrother to stay, while others want his vacant council seat to be filled with someone who can undo what has already been done.  The most contentious issue for Pagford is the Fields, the scruffy social housing part of town that houses the local methadone clinic, and where its boundaries should lie.

The cast of characters is huge and Rowling does a good job of managing them.  From the opening chapters where news of Barry Fairbrother's death spreads like wildfire, to the depths of the book where the political plotting is at its utmost, to the resolution, the characters remain interesting and true to life. 

There is a lot of darkness in this book.  There is drug abuse, rape, domestic violence, bullying, prostitution, and self-mutilation.  I found, however, that I cared deeply about the characters and their lives.  If you read in bed, this is the sort of book that will leave you lying awake long after you have closed the cover, unable to sleep and wondering what will happen next.

I hear the BBC is airing The Casual Vacancy as a television drama in 2014.  Read the book first; it's rare for any movie or series to ever live up to the world you imagined whilst reading the book.

04 August 2013

A Week in Winter

By Maeve Binchy
Published by Orion Books
an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd.
First published in Great Britain in 2012

It's taken me a long time to write something about this book.  Knowing it will be the last Maeve Binchy book I will review is making this an unpleasant task.  I have read every single one of her books, her short stories, her plays; whatever she has written, I have read.  I have spent many a day in the Ireland of my mind's eye - an Ireland only Binchy could write about.

Set on the cliffs of the west coast of Ireland, Stone House is where guests arrive to stay for a week in winter.  Each guest brings their own story to the hotel, and the hotel itself has its own story - previously, it had been the home of the Sheedy sisters and is now owned by Chicky who worked herself to the bone to get where she is. 

As with a lot of Binchy's books, the characters are allotted their own chapters, with some intermittent crossing over of other characters both old and new.  The week brings John, an American movie star; Nell, a retired school headmistress; Freda, a librarian; Anders, a Dutch businessman; future in-laws Winnie and Lillian; and the prize-winning Walls, among others.  It is Chicky's belief that the lives of her guests will change once they are settled in and discover that walking on the local cliffs and trails and spending time with other people is far better than modern life with all its so-called conveniences.  In true Binchy style, the lives of the guests blend nicely with the lives of the staff.  Not all of the stories are happy ones, but they are all interesting.

I enjoyed this book and wanted to savour every word.  It's a lovely book, and if you're already a Maeve Binchy fan you will certainly enjoy it.  If you are new to the Maeve Binchy world (shame on you!), I would suggest starting with the same book I did:  Light a Penny Candle.  I have only re-read two books in my life and Light a Penny Candle was one of them. 

I will miss Maeve Binchy.  She brought a lot of joy and introspection to my life as I discovered Ireland through her words.

28 June 2013

Saved by Cake

By Marian Keyes
Published by the Penguin Group
First published 2012
As anyone who has read her novels already knows, Marian Keyes is a very funny woman.  What is not so funny is her battle with depression.  It's no secret - she has talked openly about her depression, her good days and her bad days, and how Twitter in particular has helped bring her back into contact with the world.  What really saved her, however, is baking. 

In the book's introduction, Marian recounts some of her darkest hours:

"I had a 'suicide bag' that included, among other things, sheets of A4 paper, Sellotape and big markers.  These were to write big warning signs to be stuck to the door of the hotel bathroom...I'd decided, after lots of deliberating, that it would be better to kill myself at a hotel."

Then, one day, she baked a cake.

"...I can kill myself or I can make a dozen cupcakes.  Right so, I'll do the cupcakes and I can kill myself tomorrow."

The concentration required to read the recipes and measure the ingredients was what Marian needed to keep the suicidal thoughts at bay.  Lucky for us, her depression started to lift and Marian started to become her old self again.  Her old self with new skills, that is.  She is now an official cook book author and a pretty dab hand at decorating.

The recipes in her book are a mixture of ingredients and Marian's personal experience in baking the cake (or pie, or meringue, or biscuit).  These tidbits of information are often quite funny but seem to be particularly helpful if you have not baked before and are in need of advice from someone who has already made the same mistake you are about to make.

If you are vegan or vegetarian you will probably not be baking most of these goodies.  There are some recipes there that can be veganised, but not all of them can be changed and still provide the flavour of the original.  Vegan or not, baker or not, this book is still interesting to read.  I enjoyed reading all the recipes, planning what I could do to tweak them to my needs, and laughed out loud at Marian's many asides. 

Mostly, I enjoyed her passion for baking.  It's a reminder that, when you least expect it, something can happen to turn your life around.

09 April 2013

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure

By Joanne Harris
First published in Great Britain in 2012
by Doubleday a division of Transworld Publishers

Vianne Rocher returns to Lansquenet after receiving a letter from her old friend, Armande.  Her old DEAD friend, Armande.  Armande believes Vianne should return to Lansquenet as the people there need her.  As the wind blows, Vianne returns.

Upon her return, Vianne discovers Lansquenet is not as she had left it.  Gone are the days of the river gypsies and Vianne's chocolate shop.  There is friction between the Catholics and Muslims; a church bell competing with a call to prayer.  Vianne, always the peacemaker, tries to bring the community together with her magical chocolate and her good common sense. 

Harris explores the very contemporary topic of different religions trying to co-exist with respect and intelligence.  More difficult topics are handled sensitively; the situations never getting to the point where the reader can't take any more.  Quite possibly, Harris has many readers questioning their own beliefs or, at the very least, wondering why they can't be more open-minded towards others.

A wonderful book for those who have loved Chocolat and The Lollipop Shoes.  An introduction to Harris' brilliance for those picking up one of her novels for the first time.

07 April 2013

Rules of Civility

By Amor Towles
Published by the Penguin Group
First published in the United States of America by
Viking Penguin, 2011

On New Year's Eve, 1937, Katey Kontent's life changes when she meets Tinker Grey.  That's all you need to know.  Really.  This book is so beautifully written, once you start it you will be unable to put it down. 

You will be caught up in the New York of 1938 and the complicated, gorgeous characters Amor Towles has created:  Katey Kontent, Tinker Grey, Dicky Vanderwhile, Eve Ross, and Wallace Wolcott. 

Buy it.  Read it.  Love it.

24 March 2013

Been Away Too Long...Reviews of Sharon Owens, Kate Collins, Shappi Khorsandi, Marian Keyes

Wow...I didn't realise how long it had been since I last posted until just now, when I saw the last post was almost a year ago.  It's been busy - teaching, studying, living.  While I have managed to squeeze in a book for pleasure here and there, its mostly been a textbook world for me.  I vow to try to get back on track with reading and reviewing.

With that in mind, I have read a few books over the last year that I would like to mention.  Unfortunately, they won't get their own full-page review, but I promise they all are interesting books and worth a read.

By Sharon Owens
Published by Poolbeg Press Ltd.

Julie is a wedding planner who doesn't believe in weddings, marriage, or love.  Julie's company, Dream Weddings, is the hot wedding planning company that will plan a Gothic-style wedding for an aging rock star and a supermodel.  Mags is Julie's personal assistant who, like most personal assistants, ends up with all of the work and none of the glory.

The story really kicks off when Julie meets a young hottie and spends her time with him, instead of spending time on her business.  Mags is left running the business and trying to plan the aforementioned wedding on her own.  But Mags has her own problems, not business related but family related. 

This is a funny, easy to read book.  Even in the more dramatic moments, Owens keeps it light.  There are many chuckles along the way (particularly with the Goth wedding plans), but there is also a lovely theme throughout of friendship and family love.

By Kate Collins
First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First printing, November 2012
ARC courtesy of Kate Collins
The thirteenth installment of the Flower Shop Mysteries centres around Abby's ex-fiance, Pryce Osborne, when Abby helps him find a woman who has gone missing from the Osborne's beach house.  This brings about a cast of interesting characters as Pryce's neighbours are all considered suspects in the case.  As usual, Abby's cousin, Jillian is hilarious in her ditziness, especially now that she is pregnant but doesn't want anyone to know. 

Of course, Abby still runs the flower shop, her mother still tries to pawn off her crazy art projects there, and Marco is still the hunk of all hunks.  Abby is finding it difficult to balance all of this with planning her wedding shower which, in itself, is not an easy task as the wedding couple's mothers want to be involved, as well as the flower shop staff, and (it seems to Abby) everyone else she meets.  Really, she just wants to run everything herself.  But can she?

Another delightful book by Collins.  Her characters make me happy and the plots keep me interested.

By Shappi Khorsandi
First published in 2009 by Ebury Press,
an imprint of Ebury Publishing
Random House Group 2010

I saw Shappi Khorsandi interviewed on The Graham Norton Show and liked her immediately - she was extremely funny and interesting.  Admittedly, I had never heard of her, but I was interested in reading her book.

The book tells the story of Khorsandi's family and their transition from living in Iran to being exiled to London.  The story is written from Khorsandi's perspective as a child experiencing these changes and not necessarily understanding why things are unfolding as they are.  Her story is funny and moving, although not as well written as I would have liked it to be (she is, after all, a comedian, not a writer). 

By Marian Keyes
Published by the Penguin Group
I waited so long for a new book from Marian Keyes, and she didn't disappoint.  Helen Walsh, who has appeared in many of Keyes' other novels centering around the Walsh family, is a private investigator going through some tough times. She has lost her flat because she's not getting enough PI work and has to move back home with her parents.  Just when things are at their bleakest, an ex-boyfriend of Helen's hires her to find a missing person - the missing person being a member of a former boy band trying to make a comeback.
Keyes is back on form with her quick wit and hysterical descriptions of Walsh family life.  I found this book most compelling, however, in the way Keyes wrote of Helen's depression, how it was slowly consuming her and how she struggled daily to keep from falling back into the pit of depression despair.  While I laughed at the funny bits, I found a I had stomach pangs for Helen's challenges with depression.  This is a talent only Keyes could have - to bring one from laughter to tears in such a short time is a true writing talent.
I'm glad Marian Keyes is back and I look forward to reading anything she has to offer.