Book Reviews: Literature & Fiction

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Earthfall: The Battle Starts Here by Mark WaldenBook Cover of Earthfall:  The Battle Starts Here by Mark Walden

Read by Tracy in December 2013

Tracy recommend as a great action/adventure/sci-fi novel for the tween age bracket (or older!)

The Blurb: The battle for mankind is about to begin in this riveting story of Earths invasion from the author of the H.I.V.E. series. Sam awakens to see strange vessels gathered in the skies around London. As he stares up, people stream past, walking silently toward the enormous ships, which emit a persistent noise. Only Sam seems immune to the signal. Six months later, he is absolutely alone. Or so he thinks. Because after he emerges from his underground bunker and is wounded by a flying drone, a hail of machine-gun fire ultimately reveals two very important truths: One, Sam is not, in fact, alone. And two, the drone injury should have killed him but it did not. With his home planet feeling alien and the future unstable and unclear, Sam must navigate a new world in this gripping adventure.

The Reality: Not my normal kind of book - sci-fi, but never say never and this one suddenly appeared at the top of my to read pile. I have not heard or read any previous work by Mark Walden, so it wasn't until I was writing the review of Earthfall did I realise he isn't new to this genre, with the very successful action series with a sci-fi twist H.I.V.E. under his belt.

Earthfall follows the story of Sam Riley who must overcome insurmountable odds in surviving. Sam finds himself alone after an alien invasion, eking out an existence where he is forced to live and hide underground in London - knew all those tunnels would come in handy! We first meet Sam as he is running for his life from the drones, but this time he isn't so lucky and finds himself trapped. Until another survivor, Rachel steps into his life and saves him. Sam is seriously injured but slowly comes to realise he is no longer alone; there are other survivors, not many, but enough to give the human race hope. Led by scientist (Dr Stirling) and an ex-sas (or Royal Marine, couldn't work it out) fighter (Jackson), the group of teenagers are armed and able to inflict some damage as they fight for their freedom. As you can expect the action is fast and hardly a minute goes by without a battle to try and cause the aliens as much damage or problems as possible. However, it is not just an aliens versus humans story. Underneath this are many sub-plots, which are gradually revealed, but the twists keep coming until the end. There were plenty of cliffhangers that run you through the gamut of emotions from triumph, disaster and tragedy, as this is just the first book in a series and would be ideal for the tween age group. All the characters have strong personalities and it will make the future series interesting as they develop and age.

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The Bear by Claire CameronBook Cover of The Bear by Claire Cameron

Read by Tracy in December 2013

Tracy recommends as an uplifting story of the courage of children

The Blurb: While camping with her family on a remote island, five-year-old Anna awakes in the night to the sound of her mother screaming. A rogue black bear, 300 pounds of fury, is attacking the family's campsite, pouncing on her parents as prey. At her dying mother's faint urging, Anna manages to get her brother into the family's canoe and paddle away. But when the canoe dumps the two children on the edge of the woods, and the sister and brother must battle hunger, the elements, and a dangerous wilderness, we see Anna's heartbreaking love for her family--and her struggle to be brave when nothing in her world seems safe anymore. Told in the honest, raw voice of five-year-old Anna, this is a riveting story of love, courage, and survival.

The Reality: The Bear is narrated by five year old Anna, probably in a similar style to Room by Emma Donoghue. Based loosely on a true story of two campers two were killed by a black bear in the Algonquin Park, approximately 250 miles northeast of Toronto in 1991. Claire Cameron has adapted it to tell the story and imagined what would have happened if the two campers had taken small children with them. Anna awakens one night and hears her mother screaming. However, she is unable to separate reality from her dreams and manages to block out the fact that a black bear, or black dog is attacking her parents as she surmises. Finally Anna and her three year old brother, Alex (or Sticks as he is known), leave the safety of their Coleman storage chest where they had been placed by their father during the attack and soon find not a lot left of their father and their mother barely alive. She urges Anna to take her brother from the island and canoe anywhere. Anna convinces Sticks to get in the canoe and they make it across the water. There they are faced with the elements and their battle to survive. It is hard to understand Anna's comprehension of the situation Anna as she struggles to fulfill her mother’s request in the face of starvation, isolation and rain. There were parts of the narration that I didn't feel were true, but on the whole, if you put yourself in a five year olds situation, it would be almost impossible to describe exactly how you would react. The last part of the book is the older Anna and we realise just how devastating that night was for her and how it has impacted on her decisions today. She must face her demons when she returns to the island with Alex. I found the ending to be one of the best parts of the book; Claire Cameron handled the emotional trauma that both children had probably long since attempted to bury.

Keep up to date with Claire Cameron through her website. I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan StroudBook Cover of Lockwood & Co:  The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Read by Tracy in December 2013

Tracy recommends as a great all round family read with plenty of adventure

The Blurb: When the dead come back to haunt the living, Lockwood & Co. step in . . . For more than fifty years, the country has been affected by a horrifying epidemic of ghosts. A number of Psychic Investigations Agencies have sprung up to destroy the dangerous apparitions. Lucy Carlyle, a talented young agent, arrives in London hoping for a notable career. Instead she finds herself joining the smallest, most ramshackle agency in the city, run by the charismatic Anthony Lockwood. When one of their cases goes horribly wrong, Lockwood & Co. have one last chance of redemption. Unfortunately this involves spending the night in one of the most haunted houses in England, and trying to escape alive. Set in a city stalked by spectres, The Screaming Staircase is the first in a chilling new series full of suspense, humour and truly terrifying ghosts. Your nights will never be the same again . . .

The Reality: Although The Screaming Staircase is aimed at children 8 and upwards, I actually really enjoyed it. This is the first in a new series for Jonathan Stroud so will be a great collection to start. Set in London during a plague of ghosts, or visitors as they are named, we find out detective trio of Anthony, Lucy and George working together to eradicate them. Anthony Lockwood is the owner of the Psychic Detection Agency, who along with his best friend George employs Lucy to work for them and to help uncover the source of each haunting which will see the visitor removed before they cause death. Their only tools of the trade are iron, salt, silver and rapier swords, which add a sort of swash buckling aspect, which I am sure, will make this a possibility for a TV series. The trio find themselves working for the Combe Carey estate (owned by the very strange Mr Fairfax), which is the home of the Screaming Staircase and the even worse Red Room. They are tasked with the job of removing the visitors and will receive payment, which will clear their ever-increasing debts. However, almost unbeknownst to them, there is greater evil at work and as the sub-plots are revealed (think a very young Sherlock Holmes team) the trio is put through their paces. There is loads of action to keep even the most cynical tween entertained. There are also good character discussions as they find their place within the team. The characters are interesting and strong. I am keen to get the next book to see how they develop.

Keep up to date with Jonathan Stroud at this website. I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The Returned by Jason MottBook Cover of

Read by Tracy in December 2013

Tracy recommends to get you thinking about the parallels between the dead and the living

The Blurb: All over the world, people's loved ones are returning from the dead. Exactly as they were before they died. As if they never left. As if it's just another ordinary day. Jacob Hargrave tragically drowned over 40 years ago. Now he's on his aged parents doorstep, still eight years old; the little boy they knew they would never see again. As the family find themselves at the centre of a community on the brink of collapse, they are forced to navigate a whole new reality and question everything they've ever believed. No one knows how or why this mysterious event is happening, whether it's a miracle or a sign of the end. The only certainty is that their lives will never be the same again.

The Reality: This is the debut novel from Jason Mott and is kind of a post apocalyptic novel without the oat apocalyptic event! Suddenly the dead start to return, good news for some, bad news for other. Central to the story is the Hargrave family (Harold and Lucille) who lost their only child Jacob when he was 8. Suddenly Jacob is returned to them. This is a joy filled event, but it raises rifts in the family on how to deal with Jacob's return. The Hargrave's are now in their twilight years; whereas Jacob has come back as the 8 year old child he was when he died. As more and more returned arrive, the tension on society is palpable. Nobody is sure what to do and how to cope with the sudden increase in population. The community is unable to find the middle ground and society starts to unravel. I suppose similar to the tensions surrounding migrants today and how people have their own preconceived ideas. Mott focuses the story on a small American town within the Baptist Bible belt (Arcadia) which allows him to introduce an element of religion and therefore some militants fundamentalists under the guise of the Montana True Living Movement who are unwilling to accept any change to their life and seem to have no morals in addressing the issue.

"If there's one thing America will always lead the world in," Harold said, "it's assholes with guns."

Of course the issue is - why have the returned from the dead. The government seems to have its own agenda and coral the returned into large camps barely providing enough sustenance for their continued existence. I felt the book had many parallels with today's society and was sadly an indictment of our lack of cooperation to address the issues of migration globally, instead working as silos. At the end of the book there were no answers, instead leaving questions that made you wonder about the value of one life over the other.

Keep up to date with Jason Mott through his website. Thank you to NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for an honest review!

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Fracture by Megan MirandaBook Cover of Fracture by Megan Miranda

Read by Tracy in December 2013

Tracy recommends as a great young adult read that deals with some realistic scenarios

The Blurb: By the time Delaney Maxwell was pulled from a Maine lake's icy waters by her best friend, Decker Phillips, her heart had stopped beating. Her brain had stopped working. She was dead. But somehow Delaney survived--despite the brain scans that show irreparable damage. Everyone wants Delaney to be fine, but she knows she's far from normal. Pulled by strange sensations she can't control or explain, Delaney now finds herself drawn to the dying, and when she meets Troy Varga, a boy who recently emerged from a coma with the same abilities, she is relieved to share this strange new existence. Unsure if her altered brain is predicting death or causing it, Delaney must figure out if their gift is a miracle, a freak of nature--or something else much more frightening....

The Reality: At first impressions this didn't seem to be my kind of cup of tea, more a teenage read with lots of angst and what ifs. However, it was surprisingly more than that. Delaney Maxwell is your average high school student who is aiming for top of her class. She lives next door to Decker and they seem to have had an on again off again crush until Delaney gets caught snogging Decker’s best friend. So yes, this bit does fall into that "angsty" feel. One day Delaney and Decker are crossing a frozen lake arguing, when Delaney falls through the ice. She is rescued, but not until she has been under for 11 minutes. When she finally comes out of her coma, her life has changed, against all odds she isn't a vegetable, instead finds herself with the horrible ability of being able to tell when someone is about to die. Unable to explain what is happening, Delaney's parents start to believe she has suffered brain damage and that she has become mentally unstable and even think Delaney may have been involved in the death of their elderly neighbour, so they start to drug her at night to ensure she stays put. The only one that tries to understand is Decker, but their relationship is fragile and they suffer trust issues. Delaney meets Troy, who himself had suffered a similar accident, although she soon realises that he thinks their gift should be used in a much different way and leads for a dark component in the book. Albeit on that would involve a lot of discussion - what would you do if you knew someone was about to die. The book also looks at the issues surrounding survivor guilt - why does Delaney survive a horrific accident when some of those around her don't. This causes friction amongst friends and family and starts to open up secrets that have long been buried. All in all the plot of the book was interesting, the characters were relatively believable and for a debut author the work was well rounded.

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The Summer We All Ran Away by Cassandra ParkinBook Cover of The Summer We All Ran Away by Cassandra Parkin

Read by Tracy in November 2013

Tracy recommends as a light hearted murder mystery

The Blurb: Nineteen year old Davey finds himself drunk, beaten and alone. He is rescued by the oddly-assorted inhabitants of an abandoned and beautiful house in the West Country, whos only condition for letting him join them, is that he asks them no questions. Nearly forty years ago in that same house, burned-out rock star Jack Laker writes a ground-breaking comeback album, and abandons the girl who saved his life to embark on a doomed and passionate romance with a young actress. Set on his own destructive path, alcohol fuelled parties lead to deceit, debauchery and even murder. As Davey and his fellow housemate Priss try to reconstruct the pieces of the past and uncover the secrets of the house's inhabitants, both past and present, it becomes clear that the five strangers have all been drawn there by the events of that long-ago summer.

The Reality: The Summer We All Ran Away is centred on a crumbling mansion and set in the past and present. In the present we find teenager Davey who has been beaten, yet again, by his step father for not living up to his ideals. He fuels up on alcohol as he runs away where he eventually finds himself on the doorstep of the house. He is taken in and allowed to heal, on one condition; he doesn't ask any questions on how the other inhabitants found their way there. So Davey joins Priss, Kate, Isaac and Tom, the incumbent guests and they start to live their lives in harmonious silence! Priss immediately involves him in her wild theories on the house and they secretly try to build the story of how Kate, Isaac and Tom found themselves there, where is the owner, why is there a cage in the backyard and more importantly a discovery of a skeleton. As the story moves to the past we are flung into the chaotic life of Jack Laker, he has been thrown into the rock star lifestyle, when in reality he just wanted to write and record music. He seems unable to escape the clutches of a maniac manager and an even more maniac girlfriend/keeper. He just wants to record music and not have to live the lifestyle expected of him. The stories progress through the history of each character and we find out how their lives are linked together. The highlight of the story is of course, the house. The front has been decorated to the fashion in the 1970/1980's, but of course today it is like living in a time capsule. The mystery of why the back half of the house and the panther in the back yard are slowly revealed in an unexpected manner and one I enjoyed, I didnt guess some of the answers which is always great when reading a mystery. The characters are brought together in a realistic story line and the plots are woven together well. This book would be a great teenage read with the mixture of murder, deceit and mystery without the blood and gore of a lot of other books is almost seems unheard of today. Oh it doesn't have any supernatural characters either - thank goodness.

Thank you to Legend Press for providing an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!

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The Web and the Wing by Teresa RafteryBook Cover of The Web and the Wing by Teresa Raftery

Read by Tracy in November 2013

Tracy recommends as not just your average historical romance novel

The Blurb: The Web and the Wing is set in the aftermath of the 1914-18 war, an era of unrest and social change. It opens on Armistice Day, in the Lancashire village of Ardleagh and ends at Christmas 1930, in Ardleagh Hall, home of the Earl of Eglinton. It tells of the love of the Earl's son James and Claire, whose father was killed in one of the Earl's mines. It is a love thwarted by class distinction and greed. After the defeat of the miners in the bitter strike of 1926, James leaves home to become a concert pianist in Berlin in the Weimar Republic, now a mecca of the arts, where he watches, with concern, Adolph Hitler's rise to power. Meanwhile, the Earl's sister, Amelia, who lives her cloistered life in southern Spain, a land of wilting heat, violent revolts and no divorce, is wed-locked inharmoniously to Alva, one of the wealthy, powerful class of estate-owners with close ties to the Army. Drawing together history and fiction, The Web and the Wing shows how power and wealth do not guarantee happiness - and although this story is of a by-gone age, it is still relevant today.

The Reality: The Web and the Wing is the first in a trilogy and is an ambitious book. The story is set in the aftermath of World War I where we follow two main characters; James, the younger son of the Earl of Eglinton, who has grown up with no responsibility until the tragic death of his older brother and the heir to the earldom and Claire who used to work at the house. They were both raised together as children, after Claire went to live with her aunt after her parents were killed. Claires aunt managed the washhouse and we see first-hand how difficult it is to maintain a large household. Claire and James find themselves under increasing scrutiny to adhere to society requirements and their love seems to be one of undying and unfulfilled passion. One thing that does bind them both is their love for the house, until James finds himself increasingly bearing the brunt of his family commitments whilst learning to manage the estate and staff. He soon finds out it is a balancing act and any ideas of following his heart are soon ruled by his head and his family's desire for stability.

This wasnt a world I imagined, or one that is portrayed in Downton Abbey, it is depressing and filled with greed and social ladder climbing. In addition, there is the inability to escape from the class hierarchy and that means up and down. This is probably highlighted more in the secondary story line of the Duke of Arradove, his daughter (Leonora) and his wife Amelia (who happens to be the sister of the Earl of Eglinton). The Arradove family are living in the increasingly unstable Spain which is in the grips of a revolution. Britain too is under increasing pressure from the Trade Unions and the spread of Communism and both families find their riches dwindling until it reach breaking point. Particularly in England where those that manage the majority of capital wealth of the country take a stand to break the union hold. Both families find the burdens of their aristocracy difficult to bear and although it is a different type of burden, it almost strangles some of them in its Victorian stuffiness. This isn't a book I usually enjoy, but the dialogue was interesting and the plot was well thought out and researched. It was a bit lengthy in parts, but that is probably because the author was trying to provide depth into the history of the time.

This book was provided via NetGalley for an honest and unbiased review.

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The Rosie Project by Graeme SimsionBook Cover of The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Read by Natalie October 2013

Natalie recommends as quirky, funny, romantic and original

The Rosie Project is one of those books that I'm not sure I would have ordinarily picked up, but am really, really glad I did. One of the first things I immediately liked about this book is how quirky and original it is. Told entirely by our male protagonist, Prof Don Tillman, it is the story of a genetics professor who also happens to have Aspergers, looking for the perfect wife. Fussy in his requirements for a life-long companion, and frustrated by the never-ending list of women who don't meet them, either because of one or more "faults" that include; smoking, heavy drinking, not punctual, vegetarians, etc etc, Don devises The Wife Project, complete with questionnaire for all prospective partners to fill out. Hoping this will stop Don wasting his time with unsuitable women, he puts it to the test through speed dating, online dating and "regular" dating, surprisingly with no success!

Then one day Rosie walks into Don's office. A woman who would fail just about every single question on Don's wife questionnaire, he nevertheless thinks she's been sent here by his friend Gene, who told him to lighten up on his requirements. Despite thinking she's unlikely wife material, Don listens to her request for help in working out who her real father is, after all, genetics is his specialty. As the two of them embark on The Father Project, Don's once ordered life is thrown into chaos. Rosie thinks nothing of turning up late, disrupting his schedule or making what Don's sees as unreasonable and at times illegal requests. However, for some strange reason, which he has yet to understand, Don finds himself going along with it all, seemingly abandoning The Wife Project for this newest project. As their escapades take them on a DNA hunt to other cities, to a 30 year reunion party and to New York, Don finds himself learning to mix cocktails, covertly obtaining DNA samples, faking research projects and ethics approvals, all in a bid to identify Rosie's real father.

As the quest to find him continues without success, Don also finds himself having the "best days of his adult life" as Rosie introduces him to new and exciting things, changing not just his schedule, but also his life. Although both Don and Rosie admit to not wanting a relationship with each other, Don's friends, Claudia and Gene (an interesting and somewhat unlikeable character in his own right) start to see what is happening here. As Claudia, a psychologist tries to open Don's eyes to the fact that he may be falling in love with Rosie, the relationship between Don and Rosie starts to fall apart. Finally, as Don discovers the true identity of Rosie's father, he also starts to realise what she's done to him, made him want to change. And with the help of Claudia, he starts too. Throwing out his weekly meal plan, Don also starts to pay attention to his appearance, cutting his hair, buying new clothes and changing the way he speaks to people, by throwing out his normal approach of "greetings" and replacing it with the more socially acceptable "hello." Will his changes win Rosie, the woman who would fail every question on his Wife Project questionnaire, back? Well, let's just say she doesn't make it easy for him, and it's certainly a funny ride.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Yes it probably over-glamourised Aspergers, giving Don all of the loveable quirks, but none of the socially incompatible ones, but I think it also put a positive spin on the syndrome. Aspergers is a spectrum and it is plausible that Don fits somewhere on it in the real world. What it also is, is a refreshingly original, funny, quirky and highly romantic love story that shows you that not only is true love accepting of someone's "flaws" but that it can come from the most unlikely of places. Adapted from a screenplay and now sold in over 30 countries around the world, The Rosie Project would make an excellent movie. The author, previously famous for giving an IT lecture dressed as a duck, is now working on a sequel.

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Made of Stars by Kelley YorkBook Cover of Made of Stars by Kelley York

Read by Natalie October 2013

Natalie recommends as a beautifully written book

I had previously read and absolutely loved, Kelley's first book Hushed so I was excited to pick up this one. I remember from her first book, not only how fantastic the writing was, but how original and engrossing her stories are. This is a writer that pulls you in from the first page and doesn't let you go. And I will say, to a certain extent, it was the same feeling when I picked up Made of Stars.

Made of Stars is the story of half-siblings, Hunter and Ashlin, who while spending their summers with their father, meet a boy named Chance when they stumble across him drowning Barbie dolls in the creek. Over the next few years, the three of them spend their summers together, quickly becoming friends. However, there is a side to Chance that Hunter and Ashlin never get to see. Despite his stories about his family, how wealthy they are, how big his house is and how they often go away on spur of the moment trips, Chance is hiding secrets. Not only do Hunter and Ash never get invited to Chance's house, but they also have no way of ever contacting him, the excuse being, he's not allowed a phone. As a result, Chance will often disappear for days on end and Hunter and Ash have no way of finding him or even knowing if his is ok.

Despite this, their summers together continue until the age of 15, when Hunter and Ash's father is shot in the line of duty. Forced by their respective mothers to stay away while he recovers, three years go by where the three of them don't see each other. Then, when Hunter and Ash are both 18 and have graduated high school, they decide to take a year off and spend it with their dadand Chance. And when they do, they start discovering that the stories Chance used to tell them, might actually be lies. Finally finding out the identity of Chance's parents and where he really lives, Hunter and Ash try to get more information out of him. However, Chance won't talk, clearly hiding secrets, he'd much rather hang out at Hunter and Ash's house and act as though everything is normal. But then he starts showing up with bruises, or disappearing for days on end again or refusing to talk about his family, defensively trying to rationalise his lies. Ash and Hunter want to believe their friend more than anything, but everything changes when his mother is murdered, his father goes missing and the police want to speak to Chance. Hunter and Ash, determined to protect the boy they both love, try everything they can to not only look after Chance, but to get him to finally tell them the truth. However, as Chance continues to run, from both the police and his friends, Hunter and Ash both go to extraordinary and dangerous lengths to protect him. As the full story is revealed, including the secrets Chance could never tell, both Hunter and Ash are left wondering if they ever really knew their friend at all. And just when they think they can understand what he did, Chance does something that will affect them both forever. Underneath the mystery of Chance's life and what happened to his mother, is a blossoming love between Hunter and Chance, a love that ultimately saves both of them; Hunter from living a life that is not what he wants and Chance from the family who don't love him at all.

Without giving the ending away, I will say it is half what I expected, but half not. I understand the motivations of Chance and why he thought this was the best course of action. A final POV from him finally lets the reader see his side of the story, so while it's not exactly the happiest of endings, I do sort of understand it. I guess what I didn't like so much was the way we got to this point. The story was beautifully written and the author took her time in getting us to the point of revelations, both between Hunter and Chance and also about Chance's life. And then we just got a quick rescue, reveal and ending and I was left a little bereft to be honest! Still, none of that takes away from the beautiful writing and I will definitely be picking up more of Kelley's books in the future.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriBook Cover of The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Read by Tracy in September 2013

Tracy recommend as an epic family drama across continents

The Blurb: From Subhash's earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother's sight. So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass - as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India - their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives. Udayan - charismatic and impulsive - finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him: his newly married, pregnant wife, his brother and their parents. For all of them, the repercussions of his actions will reverberate across continents and seep through the generations that follow. Epic in its canvas and intimate in its portrayal of lives undone and forged anew, The Lowland is a deeply felt novel of family ties that entangle and fray in ways unforeseen and unrevealed, of ties that ineluctably define who we are. With all the hallmarks of Jhumpa Lahiri's achingly poignant, exquisitely empathetic story-telling, this is her most devastating work of fiction to date.

The Reality: The Lowland has been included in the Man Booker Shortlist for 2013 and as usual I was extremely sceptical that it would live up to the amount of press the book has garnered. Jhumpa Lahiri has previously published only one other novel, The Namesake, and two collections of short stories (The Interpreter Of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth) and these small literary offerings seem to have conferred her with literary stardom. The Namesake was made into a film by Mira Nair and The Interpreter of Maladies won a Pulitzer Prize. In April 2008, Unaccustomed Earth performed the rare feat for a short story collection of going straight to No.1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Initially set in India; we follow the stories of two Bengali brothers - Subhash and Udayan Mitra. Growing up in a middle-class Bengali family in Tollygunge, Calcutta during the 1950s. Subhash is the oldest (by 15 months) and lives his life quietly always doing what is right and expected of him. Udayan is the polar opposite. Brought up as twins, Subhash has no sense of himself without Udayan. From his earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. The neighbourhood is bordered by acres of reclaimed swamp on the outskirts of Calcutta. East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque. A turn leads to a quiet enclave. A warren of narrow lanes and modest middle-class homes. Once, within this enclave, there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres.. The Tolly Club is a hidden world for the colonials that live in the area. As Udayan encourages Subhash to venture into the grounds, Subhash is astonished, never seen such grass, as uniform as a carpet, unfurled over sloping contours of earth.

As they get older Subhash finds his path in life through science and the environment which sees him eventually moves to Rhode Island, America to fulfil is postgraduate qualifications. Udayan stays behind, his life now filled with political activism and motivated by a conviction that he must redress the injustices suffered by Indians less fortunate than himself. Udayan joins the radical Naxalites, a Maoist-influenced rebel group originally started when Indians rose up against the horrific conditions inflicted by the tea plantation owners in Darjeeling. When Udayan ventured into the Darjeeling country-side he meets tenant farmers who were on the brink of desperation. Their subsistence was contingent on arrangements with landowners, moneylenders - people that took advantage of them. As a sedentary Calcutta moves into turbulent times during the 1960s and 1970s by increasing political violence, the state rounds up suspects and they disappear or are killed. In the meantime Subhash is facing difficulties himself fitting into an isolated university culture, struggling to find his place in a country that is so different to anything he has known before. I have not read Lahiri before but her descriptions of the landscape is just mesmerising, she captures the sights, sounds and emotional turmoil on a page beautifully. Eventually Subhash receives a letter that his brothers has gone against the family and has married for love. Udayan and his new bride, Gauri move back into the family home. Whilst Udayan works as a schoolteacher during the day, at night he carries out subversive work for the Naxalites. Gauri is sympathetic to Udayans political affiliations.

In a bitter twist Subhash must travel back to India. On his return he finds a family devastated and Udayans window, Gauri with a bleak future as a widow. Subhash goes against his family and marries her proposing to take her back to America where they can raise Udayans child together. Unfortunately Gauri is unable to love him, or even the child, Bela. Gauri is a difficult character to like. She leaves Bela alone in the house, ignored Subhash and is unwilling to socialise and assimilate into campus life. She does however return to her studies ignoring all else and we see Gauri changing from an uncaring to a callous mother. We follow Bela as she grows up, eventually becoming a mother herself, I felt on an emotional roller-coaster as the secrecy of Belas heritage is finally revealed. The story is an epic tale following the solitary characters across continents and back. My only criticism is that the ending was old-fashioned, too many loose ends tied up. However, on a plus side, the narrative of switching point of view and flashbacks was superbly carried out a lot of other authors cant carry it off and could learn some literary lessons from Ms Lahiri.

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Wool (Wool Trilogy Part 3) by Hugh HoweyBook Cover of Wool (Wool Trilogy Part 3) by Hugh Howey

Read by Tracy in September 2013

Tracy recommends a book full of twists, turns and a scary look into the future

The Blurb: In a ruined and hostile landscape, in a future few have been unlucky enough to survive, a community exists in a giant underground silo. Inside, men and women live an enclosed life full of rules and regulations, of secrets and lies. To live, you must follow the rules. But some don't. These are the dangerous ones; these are the people who dare to hope and dream, and who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple and deadly. They are allowed outside. Jules is one of these people. She may well be the last.

The Reality: I presume this book would be in the post-apocalyptic genre, but it doesn't have the same bleak outlook at The Road by Cormac McCarthy, instead it provides a more hopeful outcome for the human race albeit in a dystopian style outside our belief. It is Howey's imagination at what this life is that is scary, it seems unbelievable, but the more you read the more you can see it actually happening. People live in underground silos - nobody can now remember why, or knows a different lifestyle. The silo is hundreds of stories (144 to be exact) below ground and is broken down into sections i.e. top, middle and bottom, each managed in line with their duties for example the bottom third of the silo is inhabited by the mechanics and farmers, information technology in the middle and the professional classes in the upper level. Those lucky enough to be at the top can see a view of the outside world which portrays a dead landscape. This view is projected by outside cameras. One of the downsides of this is that the cameras become coated in dirt and someone must venture outside into the toxic environment to clean them. So how do the cameras get cleaned? Capital punishment is used for "cleaning" purposes. The convicted criminal polishes the lenses as they slowly die when the suits they have donned to protect them disintegrated. To date nobody has managed to invent something that will keep the cleaners alive and allow them to re-enter the silo nor has anyone every decided not to clean in a last form of defiance. It is the strict rules that govern life within the silo that also keeps it hanging together. Talk of the past or the outside are forbidden. Each class of person wears a strict colour of uniform which keeps them mentally and physically isolated into their own groups. Think that is bad, there isnt a lift in the silo, just a very big spiral staircase making any trips a long and arduous journey. What is interesting is that normal human nature seems to push us to question, but in this scenario, people accept instead.

It is extremely difficult to do a review of the book without giving away any of the plot, so I have tried to stay clear of any showstoppers. However, there are a few main characters that focus the story:-

Holston Sheriff. He starts to realise there may be more to the world than just the silo. His wife, Allison, had been sent to cleaning three years previously, leaving cryptic puzzles on why she was adamant that outside held a better life.

Jahns Mayor. Struggling to accept the death of an old friend, she must journey through the silo to find a replacement Sheriff. As she journeys down the silo she reacquaints herself with people and starts to think about her future.

Marnes - Deputy Sheriff. Travels with Jahns through the silo as they try to find a way of facing their attraction.

Jules (Juliette) Mechanic and new Sheriff. She has never yearned for anything other than keep the machines working.

Bernard IT Head. As the protagonist of the story, Bernard will do anything and everything to keep his position in the silo.

The story of Jules is the main focus of Wool. We follow her as she starts to uncover how the silo is mysteriously managed and some even scarier scenarios. Jules isn't the all empowered heroine; she has her own faults and seems to be loaded with enough self-doubt for the whole silo. As she quickly tries to come to grips with her new job and new life, she is thrown into the deep end and must stand on her own two feet. As she investigates a previous death, she uncovers something shocking, something that changes the way she feels about the silo and one that will pull the wool back from everyone's eyes. Unfortunately this leads to more and more twists and her situation worsens. Jules takes the monumental decision to confide in another mechanical. That discussion gives her a chance at life and on the flip side takes away lives of others. Jules does what no other has done before her and those left behind start to question and speak up leading to an uprising aimed at taking down IT's control on the silo. Whilst Silo 18 battles for supremacy, she finds herself in a new silo (17) where she seems to be the only one alive. Again there are a lot of plot changes as she pieces together more and more of the history of the silos. After a strange twist of events the story ends unexpectedly.

The story does have problems. There are areas that seem to drag on, but this is tempered by other parts engrossing you. Could this be because the book started as a short-story which was subsequently lengthened. I didn't particularly like the character of Lukas - I felt the story was going one way and then changed just to make a few loose ends join. Howey does put a lot of information into the story and there were a few strange sub-plots that had me puzzled, but I presume they will all become clearer in the sequels.

Wool was originally a stand-alone story but is now part of a series with Shift and Dust making up the trilogy (also available in a single novel). Also to give authors out there who are self-publishing some hope, this is how Wool started and once it had garnered significant popularity, Howey was able to sell the international rights. Simon & Schuster purported paid $500,000 for a print-only deal which interestingly doesn't stop Howey from distributing Wool online.

Hugh Howey has a Website.

This book was provided via NetGalley.

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Under the Jeweled Sky by Alison McQueenBook Cover of Under the Jeweled Sky by Alison McQueen

Read by Tracy in September 2013

Tracy recommends as a tear jerker that will have you dreaming of India

The Blurb: This is not the Indiaor the manthat Sophie fell in love with ten years ago... Sophie never meant to come back to India, yet when her new, diplomat husband is posted to New Delhi and she steps once again onto the country's burning soil, she realizes her return was inevitable. As her ill-fated marriage begins to unravel, it sets in motion a devastating chain of events that will bring Sophie face to face with a past she's tried so desperately to forget, and a future she must fight for. Under the Jeweled Sky is a tender story of love, loss of innocence, and the aftermath of a terrible decision no one knew how to avoid.

The Reality: We are introduced to the family of Sophie Schofield. A teenager who finds herself living in an Indian Palace. The book journeys between the 1940's and the 1970's as Sophie reminisces about her childhood and the impact that has had on her adult life. When her father returns from the War, he takes a medical position working for a Maharaja in an Indian Palace. He believes the change after post war London will bring the family together. Alas, his wife (Veronica) is absolutely awful with no redeeming characteristics - seemingly having no joy in her life or the ability to bring it to others. Luckily, Sophie has managed to overcome her mother's extreme forms of punishment and inherited her father's best personality traits. As Sophie starts to explore the Palace, she meets Jag, a young Indian boy, whose father works for the Maharaja. They are thrown together and left to spend their days exploring all the secrets within the Palace walls. They both know that their friendship would be frowned upon, but are unwilling to give it up. Enter into the story the wonderful Mrs Ripperton (her husband is the head Doctor) who takes Sophie under her wing, helping her escape her mothers clutches and giving her freedom to grow. Mrs Ripperton soon introduces Sophie to the hidden parts of the palace - the Zenana where the Maharani's and their staff live. The descriptions of this part of the palace are as I imagined it to be. You are drawn into a life of opulence and even though the practice of Zenana (or purdah) is no longer followed, at the time men were killed for setting eyes on a Maharani, effectively closing the women off from the outside world. When we were visiting Jodhpur we went to the palace and were fascinated by the pictures and artefacts of that way of life, which wasn't that long ago. Of course you may think that the women would become isolated and insular, whereas they appeared to have a great knowledge of world events and more importantly human nature. When the relationship between Jag and Sophie escalates it also reaches breaking point with both their families. Although I think Jag's family made the larger sacrifice, Sophie had to suffer the humiliation and ire of her mother. Luckily Veronica Schofield leaves at the first available opportunity. I am sure when she returned to England; she complained to anyone and everyone about the hardships she faced living in a palace surrounded by servants. Unwilling to accept that life of the expat and learning everything she could about another way of life. I think it was a lucky escape for the remaining Schofields, except it came too late for Sophie to find happiness.

As Jag and Sophie leave the Palace, to different destinations, a worse fate awaits albeit on different scales. India is in the throes of Partition which sees Muslims and Hindu's butcher each other as they make the great migration which has been dictated by arbitrary lines on a map. The lines were drawn by the political powers of the time and delivered as the British left Indian to rule itself. The country was divided into Hindu India and Muslin Pakistan. Of course as history has shown, no matter how hard Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru pleaded this was no harmonious division. Driven by the single mindedness of Muhammad Ali Jinnah who demanded separation, the two religions clashes in a horrific way. I doubt any one side was to blame more than the other, but there were no processes put in place to ease the transition, instead thousands moved on their own two feet and took what they could from whoever they could to survive. It was this mass transition that saw Jag and his father face horrors as they tried to head back to Amritsar. For Sophie she had to give up the life that would have been expected of her and finds it increasingly difficult to accept what has befallen her. Underneath all the horrors that fill their lives, both Sophie and Jag always believe they have met their one true love and even though they must obey their families they are adamant that one day they will be back together. You would expect the book to get rather sloppy and rely on the usual mushy emotions, however it doesn't. Alison McQueen gives us an intelligent and heroic Sophie who adapts to whatever life throws at her, not seeming to hold anyone responsibility (yes even her horrid mother). The story evokes a childhood that contains beautiful imagery, but with the help of her father, Sophie is able to fashion a life of sorts. Mr Schofield is a wonderful genuine character, although I have no idea why he stayed with his wife - her treatment of him and Sophie would surely constitute basis for divorce even back in the 1940's.

As Sophie starts a new chapter of her life in London; she meets Lucian who eventually proposes. Sophie must now make the choice of giving up her past and accepting a different relationship. One that she believes will be based on companionship and mutual understanding. Although you understand, as an outsider, that Lucian has realised that Sophie would be extremely good for his career. He has previously applied for a diplomatic posting in Delhi but didnt get the position due to his bachelor status. The fact that Sophie has lived there before and has an understanding of the position and lifestyle required, he is guaranteed a promotion into a coveted role. I might not like Lucians character, but when he talks about India "You know what they say about India," Lucian said. "Once it's got its hooks into you, you never want to leave." I wholeheartedly agree. Sophie's father has never left India, instead settling in a small village where he has made a life for himself in running a small medical clinic for locals. The opportunity to move back to India and see her father causes Sophie a lot of soul searching. Eventually the decision is made and Lucian and Sophie become ensconced in the diplomatic lifestyle. Sophie is much more realistic about their position in the diplomatic hierarchy and finds herself thinking more and more about her past. As the book draws to its conclusion it throws up a considerable amount of unexpected twists, placing it above most books in this genre and a word of warning - you will find yourself grabbing a box of tissues at more than one point.

This book was provided via NetGalley.

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The Bookstore by Deborah MeylerBook Cover of The Bookstore by Deborah Meyler

Read by Tracy in August 2013

Tracy recommends book to sink into the couch with.

The Blurb: Brilliant, idealistic Esme Garland moves to Manhattan armed with a prestigious scholarship at Columbia University. When Mitchell van Leuven a New Yorker with the bluest of blue New York blood captures her heart with his stunning good looks and a penchant for all things erotic, life seems truly glorious . . . until a thin blue line signals a wrinkle in Esme s tidy plan. Before she has a chance to tell Mitchell about her pregnancy, he suddenly declares their sex life is as exciting as a cup of tea, and ends it all. Determined to master everything from Degas to diapers, Esme starts work at a small West Side bookstore, finding solace in George, the laconic owner addicted to spirulina, and Luke, the taciturn, guitar-playing night manager. The oddball customers are a welcome relief from Columbia s high-pressure halls, but the store is struggling to survive in this city where nothing seems to last. When Mitchell recants his criticism, his passion and promises are hard to resist. But if Esme gives him a second chance, will she, like her beloved book-store, lose more than she can handle? A sharply observed and evocative tale of learning to face reality without giving up on your dreams, "The Bookstore" is sheer enchantment from start to finish.

The Reality: A bookstore that is squashed between buildings and full of treasures - The Owl is second hand bookstore staffed by an eclectic mix of individuals. For 23 year old Phd Graduate Esme, The Owl becomes a haven from studying art history at Columbia University and her increasingly complicated life. Esme has swapped England for New York City. She is busy with university, making friends and after dating Mitchell for several months, she finds herself pregnant. Mitchell, is also in academia, working as an economics teacher, and from an old moneyed family. Esme describes Mitchell as a sun; people react to him as if they are being warmed by the first spring sunshine. It is exhilarating to be with him, to be a satellite to that radiance. Although when he says that he doesn't need books in his apartment - he has everything he needs on his laptop and his iPad, you know there is something wrong with him. You get the impression that New York isn't the hard city you imagine, but there are still pockets where inhabitants care for each other. Esme finds she needs the eclectic group of friends as her pregnancy progresses and her relationship becomes more unstable. You find yourself waiting for the penny to drop for Esme that Mitchell is "irretrievably damaged", but she is unwilling to accept she can't fix him and live the happily ever after fairy tale. As her life crumbles around her, the inhabitants of The Owl provide her sanctuary as well as much needed income. She in turn must face her prejudices in dealing with different people and it is the stories of the supporting characters that provide a wonderful comedic value to the story. They are so varied, and in some cases bring a human face to the homeless. You may be living on the streets, but that shouldn't dampen your love of books. Strangely enough Esme turns out to be one of the least interesting characters, instead becoming a magnet for them. From George, to Luke, to Stella, they all have their own lives which seem incredibly thought-provoking and you want to delve into them.

This is not a fast paced action novel, instead it is a book you settle down with. I was even inspired to look for jobs in quirky bookstores in my city - alas having no experience and sadly no inclination to take such a pay drop, I will have to leave this fantasy for another time. Although this book is probably going to be given a "chick lit" genre, it is much more than some of the fluffy novels filling stores today. It makes us think of gentler times when spending time with people was more important than throwing money at them. You don't have to be a book lover to enjoy this book but it may lead you down that path. I dare any reader not to be drawn in by the descriptions of the book store - there is the smell, the reassuring smell of paper, new paper, soft old paper, recalling each person to the first time they really did press their nose into a book.

This book was provided via NetGalley.

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The Orphan Master's Son by Adam JohnsonBook Cover of The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Read by Tracy in August 2013

Tracy recommends as an intellectual fairy story

The Blurb: Pak Jun Do knows he is special. He knows he must be the son of the master of the orphanage, not some kid dumped by his parents - it was obvious from the way his father singled him out for beatings. He knows he is special when he is picked as a spy and kidnapper for his country, the glorious Democratic Republic of North Korea. He knows he must find his true love, Sun Moon; the greatest opera star who ever lived, before it's too late. He knows he's not like the other prisoners in the camp. He's going to get out soon. Definitely.

The Reality: I feel like I am going to go against the flow of reviews about this book. I didn't find it spectacular and readable (The New York Times called the book "exceedingly readable"), instead I found it quite slow going and lacking climatic development. Yes I know Adam Johnson is a Stanford University Professor of English and this book also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2013, but alas, maybe it is tarred with the brush of other award winners and didn't stand up to the high standards I had expected. Don't get me wrong I don't think the book is bad, it was just okay. Whether or not it was factual in areas, I don't know, unlike Johnson I have never had a chance to visit North Korea. Johnson's visit was closely chaperoned and his research did involve testimonials of defectors. Maybe it is because I know so little about North Korea, I was unable to be absorbed into the story, and I could not imagine how a whole population of people stand by and idly accept such maniacal rule. But then is our way of life so much better - "[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.' hmm not so far from the truth in some places.

Jun Do lives in North Korea which is then ruled with an iron fist by Kim Jong-Il. He must do anything that is dictated to him, so his jobs range from soldier, kidnapper, naval spy and eventually prison inmate. Jun has a hard life, brought up in an orphanage, although he believed the Orphan Master was his father. Coupled with the harsh treatment he receives and that he is never adopted this somehow turns into a belief he is loved. Throughout the story it is difficult to separate lies from facts. Everything is done with a desire to be seen to idolise the leader and even under the worst torture imaginable this faith to please never falters. Everyone must listen to the daily propaganda reports - you can't help it as the loudspeakers are hardwired into every apartment, all providing a constant dialogue of western hatred, although the feeling seems to be mutual! There are some parts that were truly inspiration in descriptive writing. The shark finning was extremely sad and undoubtedly extremely profitable for a country desperate for hard currency, there is not a thought that they are doing something wrong.

The second part of the book is the uncovering of Jun Do's (or Commander Ga as he becomes known through a strange twist of fate) story by his captors and torturers. You start to realise that the secrecy is deeply ingrained and you cannot even reveal to your family a personal feeling, let it get them denounced. I felt the loud speaker announcements were off-putting and didn't allow the story to flow, although it did give an insight into the daily grind of residents. First prize for a recipe that includes Celery Root Noodles would surely test most fine dining chefs. Throughout the book you are hoping that Jun Do will triumph or at least escape. It seems he has plenty of opportunity but is unable to leave a country where its greatest actress "Sun Moon" is his heart's desire. When we do meet Sun Moon, she may be one of the leader's favourites, but her life is far from easy as she too is unable to speak, think or act normally, everything word could mean the end of her reign in cinema. In the meantime she is Kim Jong-Il's play mate and he lavishes gifts on her. The "Dear Leader" says to Sun Moon: "'Its called a gee-tar. Its used to perform American rural music. Its said to be especially popular in Texas,' he told her. 'Its also the instrument of choice for playing "the blues," which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making.'" I so desperately wanted to like this book, but finished it believing that I just don't get it, maybe I am not literary enough to understand the subtle nuances.

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Good by S. WaldenBook Cover of Good by S Walden

Read by Natalie August 2013

Natalie recommends as uncomfortable and a little disturbing

Good is a novel with a similar premise to the fantastic Unteachable, unfortunately it's no where near as "good". In place of the beautiful and completely believable story of an eighteen year old woman falling in love with a man who turns out to be her teacher, we have an immature seventeen year old religious girl who is actively pursued and manipulated by her twenty-eight year old maths' teacher. And I have to say there were times this book left me feeling a little sick and times it had me wanting to punch someone.

So Good follows the story of Cadence, a good little Christian girl who makes one mistake that no only lands her ten months in juvie, but also sees her bullied and ostracised by both her parents and her friends. While a chance encounter with a man during her community service gives her something good to think about, the last thing she expects, is to find him standing at the front of her maths class when she returns for her senior year. Mark, or Mr Connelly as he is initially known, also recognises her and while his first reaction is to punish Cadence for refusing to back down when her former friends pull a prank, he soon takes pity on her. This starts off as an innocent gesture, lending her a handkerchief when she's upset (seriously, what 28 year old man carries one of these?), but soon snowballs into buying her lunch, inappropriately cleaning her after another prank, buying her records and finally, inviting her to his house. All the while, Cadence is wondering what Mark's motives are, even if she is having her own naughty fantasies about him.

Once Mark extends the invitation to Cadence to come to his apartment, this is when the relationship starts. I must admit, I was a little surprised at how quickly it moved. Somehow, suddenly, both of them are on the same page and there was absolutely no hesitation in admitting their feelings to each other, despite the fact they were standing in the classroom at school. As their relationship progresses, aided by Cadence's "friend", Avery, a fellow church goer who has her own secret relationship to hide, Cadence finds herself pulling away from her family and lying more and more about what she's doing. At the same time, she's nervous and scared about how far she's going to go with Mark, because of course she is a virgin. She wants to sleep with him, but not yet and Mark is surprisingly "cool" about it all, assuring her they won't be sleeping together until she is 18 and ready (how nice of him), even when she tries to make it happen earlier. Of course, this doesn't stop him from doing other sexual things to her. In the early months of their relationship, we see Mark taking her out to a club (an awful scene between Mark and his friend, involving a fist bump and "score" when the friend discovers how young Cadence is), some truly cringe-worthy discussion about sex, and some eye rolling moments from Cadence when her 17 year old personality shines through loud and clear. All of this is compounded when she turns 18 and they start having sex and her jealous insecurities really take hold.

The story is somewhat predictable in it's nature and this is aided by the prologue spelling it out to you from the start. It's obvious Cadence's parents are going to find out, and they do. It's obvious there will be fights and jealousy and a pregnancy scare (she is a good Christian after all), and there is. And it's obvious Mark has a secret that he's hiding, which he does, only we don't find out about it yet, because there's a second book coming out later on. My money is on him having done this before. But predictability aside, what really got to me with this book were the two main characters, Mark and Cadence. Cadence is, without a doubt, one of the most annoying and inconsistent characters I have read in a long time. I get that she's only 17, trust me, it definitely shows, only highlighting how immature she is. But then she has periods of being a confident, sexy adult, which would rival most 40 year old women. Plus she is constantly going on about church and God and religion and the bible, but at the same time she is lying to her parents and friends, she's sleeping with her teacher, she's drinking etc etc. She can't be both, and unfortunately she is. Throw in her absurdly out of left field "crime" which landed her in juvie in the first place, and I just don't get her. Then there's Mark. Disgusting, sleazy, disturbing Mark. There is nothing even remotely sexy about him, not his actions, his words or him. He comes off as controlling and manipulative, constantly throwing Cadence's age in her face when he wants to get her to shut up. He criticises her parents, but at the same time is just as controlling and manipulative, and some of his behaviour is actually over the top disturbing. Valentine's Day and his attempt to win her back, I cringed.

The ending of the book has a minor cliffhanger. It basically provides the "end" of the prologue and we see Cadence and Mark together, after the cat has been let out of the bag, but we have no idea what's going to happen to them and we don't yet know Mark's secret. I have no doubt I will be picking up the second book, because like a slow motion car crash, sometimes you just can't look away.

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Marriage Material by Sathnam SangheraBook Cover of Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

Read by Tracy in August 2013

Tracy highly recommends for a look at how family pressure can change how you approach the world

The Blurb: If youve approached Bains Stores recently, youd be forgiven for hesitating on doing so. A prominent window advert for a discontinued chocolate bar suggests the shop may have closed in 1994. The security shutters are stuck a quarter-open, adding to the general air of dilapidation. A push or kick of the door triggers something which is more grating car alarm than charming shop bell. To Arjan Banga, returning to the Black Country after the unexpected death of his father, his familys corner shop represents everything he has tried to leave behind a lethargic pace of life, insular rituals and ways of thinking. But when his mother insists on keeping the shop open, he finds himself being dragged back, forced into big decisions about his imminent marriage back in London and uncovering the history of his broken family the elopement and mixed-race marriage of his aunt Surinder, the betrayals and loyalties, loves and regrets that have played out in the shop over more than fifty years. Taking inspiration from Arnold Bennetts classic novel The Old Wives Tale, Marriage Material tells the story of three generations of a family through the prism of a Wolverhampton corner shop itself a microcosm of the South Asian experience in the country: a symbol of independence and integration, but also of darker realities. This is an epic tale of family, love, and politics, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, and the start of the twenty-first. Told with humour, tenderness and insight, it manages to be both a unique and urgent survey of modern Britain by one of Britains most promising young writers, and an ingenious reimagining of a classic work of fiction.

The Reality: This is a witty and heart-warming look at immigration and the impacts on later generations who find themselves trying to live up to the ideals set by their immigrating families. Mr Bains, the patriarch of the Bains family, was the sole surviving member of the family to escape the West Punjab in India during partition. Eventually Mr Bains brings his wife and two daughters, Kamaljit and Surinder, to England, where they are faced with the typical hatred of immigrants by those who cannot comprehend the hardships that those escaping from war-torn countries face. The two sisters struggle to find their place in society, eventually leaving Kamaljit isolated to the kitchen preparing family meals and Surinder who is intelligent, eventually allowed to stay on at school to continue her education. When India and Pakistan were handed the vast ex-colonial lands, the Sikhs of the Punjab were effectively displaced forcing a large proportion to set up a new life in England. Instead of taking on the English way of life, they brought with them the caste system and their culture which, in some ways, was stronger than at home. The caste system plays a huge role in the Bains family, who themselves are a high caste, but this all changes when they employ Tanvir Banja, a Chanmar boy to assist in the store. Eventually against all advice Tanvir and Kamaljit marry, I think idolising that they would be above the system, but in reality find themselves facing hidden racism from their own family and friends. In retaliation Kamaljit finds herself increasingly following the Sikh religion becoming reverential of spiritual figures and ancestors.

Although narrated by the men of the story (Mr Bains, Tanvir and his son Arjan), the focus is on the women in the story and how they faced moving from their homeland to a society there fundamentals and principles are so different that it is a minefield to navigate. Arjan finds himself lucky enough to have broken free of his heritage, on the surface anyway, and attends university. Of course, he goes on to break his father's heart when he transfers from medicine to art. Arjan lives the dream - he has a graphic design job, does art on the side, has a wonderful caucasian girlfriend (Freya) and is a long way from his roots in Wolverhampton. However, when family tragedy sees him return back to the shop, he finds himself quickly drawn into the web of intrigue surrounding his family, and the secrets surrounding his Aunty Surinder. On the periphery of the story is the lifelong friend of Mr Bains, Dhanda and his son Ranjit. Dhanda is helped to set up a shop by Mr Bains and between them agree not to compete against each other, which we all know, always starts off as a good idea until someone starts to become more successful. Dhanda has political leanings and fights for the rights of Indian migrants from being able to wear turbans to being taught their homeland languages. As Dhanda becomes increasingly successful, Mr Bains and Tanvir find themselves increasing poverty stricken as their part of the agreement shrinks. Although there is a preconceived idea that Sikhs don't drink, in fact Sikhs of the Punjab have one of the highest alcohol consumption rates in the world, but this is an area that only Arjan can see as worth pursuing and one his mother is fundamentally opposed to selling. As Arjan spends an increasing amount of time in the shop, his life is left at a cross roads, he desperately misses his London life, but can't leave his mother running the shop by herself. He gradually realises that the arrangement that Dhanda and his grandfather had brokered is unable to be sustained and in his efforts to broker a new arrangement, Arjan and Ranjit find themselves on opposite sides - the old and the new. As Arjan finds himself increasingly in Wolverhampton he rekindles his relationship with Ranjit and falls under the spell of the new India where alcohol and drugs seems to be more important in life than anything else. After a typical night out, Arjan is skulking around his store trying to keep away from his mother when he realises that the microwave cheeseburger tasted amazing; it may as well have been something served at The Fat Duck as far as I was concerned. Eventually it is a discussion with his aunt that makes him question who dictates marriage material and maybe an arranged marriage is the easy way out. In amongst all that, Arjan must face his own issues within his relationship with Freya, and he gradually starts to believe that if he was marrying an Indian girl, all his issues would dissolve. I laughed when eventually Arjan finds himself having to have "the chat" with Freya, he instead picks a science DVD to watch where the presenter of the documentary in question stands on a mountain top, banging on about how the universe was a 'billion billion billion billion billion billion' times larger than anything we could conceive, supposedly making his problems feel a little less significant. Of course this presenter can only by Professor Brian Cox, who I was lucky enough to hear speak recently, who told the audience about a drinking game on Twitter based on how many times he says billion or million. Surinder was one of the great characters of the book. Anyone who follows my speed limit rules where I believe that if you were within 10 per cent of the speed limit you will be okay and I enjoyed her musings that you only get banned if you tip into three figures. Then again she also had the very interesting concept of vegetarianism or fanatical vegetarianism in discussions between herself and her sister.

'So you don't eat meat?'


'And you don't touch food that has been cooked by someone who has cooked meat?'


'And you won't be in the same room as people eating meat?'


'But I see you wear leather shoes.'

'It is important to be practical.'

As a vegetarian, I often get questioned as to why I wear leather shoes - well there is the anser!

The story has some surprising twists that set up an unexpected ending. I was captured by the social and political challenges that Sanghera brought into the story. It could easily have been a heavy handed complex story focusing on culture and interracial relationships but instead Sanghera provides a satirical voice.

This book was provided via NetGalley.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel JoyceBook Cover of The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Read by Tracy in August 2013

Tracy recommends if you are stuck in a rut.

The Blurb: Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance. Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie--who is 600 miles away--because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die. So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories--flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband. Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?

My Review: I am - as you rightly point out - fucked.' Harold hung his head. His trousers were splattered with mud, and frayed at the knees. His shoes were sodden. He wishes he had taken them off at the door. 'I admit it is an awfully long way to Berwick. I admit I am wearing the wrong clothes. And I also admit I have not the training, or the physique, for my walk. I can't explain why I think I can get there, when all the odds are against it. But I do. Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can't. Even when I don't want to keep going, I still do it.' He faltered because what he was saying was difficult and caused him anguish. 'I am terribly sorry but my shoes appear to have wet your carpet.' This perfectly sums up Harold, a mild, meek, elderly gentleman who along with his wife of 47 years, Maureen, has led a quiet life and now in retirement, it is equally as quiet. Until a letter arrives in the morning post. The letter is from an old work colleague, Queenie Hennessy, brings surprising news and also opens the door for memories that had been locked tightly away. Harold writes a brief reply but on his way to the letterbox something happens and he can't bring himself to post the letter instead walking past and so begins his journey to be reunited with the terminally ill Queenie who now resides in a hospice 627 miles north in Berwick-upon-Tweed. This is a fascinating journey as Harold, and in turn Maureen, relive the past and what happened in their past. At the start of his walks he finds himself pouring out his feelings to a garage attendant and almost has an epiphany that if he walks to see Queenie he will also cure her illness.

"You have to believe. Thats what I think. Its not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we dont understand. But, you see, if you have faith, you can do anything."

As he walks through the laneways, roads and motorways from southern England, he meets a variety of characters who feel themselves drawn to Harold and he finds himself almost a religious character with larger and larger crowds flocking to his side. Harold is totally unprepared for the whole journey which makes the story interesting. He doesn't have all the trekking gear that is so prolific today, instead he has a plastic bag and a pair of yachting shoes. What Harold discovers about himself on the journey is the joy of everyday things from fresh air to open skies. This make him realise how much he has given up on life and how much he had actually missed it and we are taken on a journey through his childhood, his marriage, his son and what happened between Harold and Queenie. As the end of his journey nears, Harold realises that his love is for Maureen and he is scared to actually come face to face with Queenie, as if meeting her again will break the mystery of their relationship. The book manages some satire as Harold's growing band of merry men become focused on media and in the end leave Harold behind in their desire to reach his goal - which they do before him. Some may find the book a bit sugar sweet, but underneath there is a lot of loneliness which is tinged with disappointment at what could have been.

This is Rachel Joyce's first novel and was long listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Rachel Joyce is not unknown to the arts as she is an actress and has also written radio plays for the BBC. I wonder if a movie or TV adaptation won't be far away?

Keep up to date with all things Harold at Rachel Joyce's website.

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Apple Tree Yard by Louise DoughtyBook Cover of Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

Read by Tracy in August 2013

Tracy recommends as a gripping and fantastic court room drama

The Blurb: Safety and security are commodities you can sell in return for excitement, but you can never buy them back. Yvonne Carmichael is a geneticist, a scientist renowned in her field but one day, she makes the most irrational of decisions. While she is giving evidence to a Select Committee at the Houses of Parliament, she meets a man and has sex with him in the secluded Chapel in the Crypt. Its the beginning of a reckless liaison, but there is more to her lover than is at first apparent as Yvonne discovers when the affair spins out of control and leads inexorably to violence. Apple Tree Yard is about a woman who makes one rash choice that ends up putting her on trial at the Old Bailey for the most serious of crimes. Like the highly acclaimed 'Whatever You Love', it is part literary investigation of personal morality, part psychological thriller. Both a courtroom drama and an exploration of the values we live by, it is the gripping seventh novel from an author who has been acclaimed as a 'courageous writer, willing to explore deeper territory with each book' (Independent) and 'terrifically compelling' (Daily Mail).

The Reality: This book is one of the best I have read this year, it was gripping. Yes it involves the genre flavour of recent times in erotic fiction, but it is so much more, it is a fantastic story with twists and turns on every page. Yvonne is a renowned scientist who is providing expert advice for a House of Parliament committee. After taking a break she finds herself followed by an attractive man and she finds herself falling in step beside Mark (although she doesn't find out his name for some time). She is unexpectedly drawn to him and she he takes her to the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft underneath the Hall of Westminster their affair starts. It is a strange but poignant place for the start of an affair - Emily Wilding Davison hid in the broom cupboard of the crypt the night before the 1911 census so she could record her place of residence as the Houses of Parliament. Of course the story is sad as Davison ended up throwing herself under the King's horse at Epsom Derby to protest for women's rights. This is the start of an affair fuelled by a desire for illicit sex. They are both married with children, this much we know, but other than that their lives are secrets to each other. Then one evening it changes to something darker. Yvonne is on the way to a University party when she meets Mark who takes her to Apple Tree Yard for a quickie. After they part and Yvonne makes it to the party, she has too much to drink and is soon being pursued by work colleague George Craddock with tragic consequences. The narration is by Yvonne both verbally and in the form of letters she writes on her computer late at night. Her narration attempts to articulate the things in her head that saw her put her previously cautious life on hold and have an affair that spiralled out of control as she sits in court on trial for murder. Slowly she is faced with the truth of her affair and not everything seems as it first appears. Louise Doughty highlights the differences in community opinion of an affair from both the male and female perspective. Made more realistic by the intricate characters, not just of the lead characters, they were all wonderfully rounded and realistic. If Yvonne was a stereotypical single mother on a housing estate - would she even be in court? Cleverly, Yvonne is a geneticist who has much to lose in going public with her story which puts her in the position of having to lie to protect her anonymity or lose everything she has built up. As the court case continues Yvonne ponders at how her life changed but she has not lost faith in her relationships until she is asked one question and her world tumbles down "You are familiar, aren't you with a small back alleyway called Apple Tree Yard? During the court case she finally finds out who Mark is.

At the end I was left in awe at how gripping the story had been and I would rate it as a believable psychological thriller which is fuelled by love and lust. That feeling of the taboo or the unexpected will take you to places you never thought you would. You might not agree with Yvonne's choices, but I did understand them and yes with hindsight, I am sure Yvonne would have changed some of her decisions, she, like most people, was caught up in the moment and rationale thought doesn't come into that. This book is also well researched, apparently Doughty spent time at the Old Bailey watching court proceedings which provided authenticity. "There is no natural light in Courtroom Number Eight and that bothers me. In the ceiling there is an arrangement of latticed fluorescent squares and there are white tubs on the walls. It's all so sanitised and modern and stark. The wood panelling, the drop-down seats with their green cloth covers, none of it fits: the life-changing drama of why we are here versus the deadening mundanity of procedures." I was also a huge fan of the setting, the hidden lanes, cafes and meeting places in that part of London just added to the atmosphere of the story.

This is the second Louise Doughty book I have read, Whatever You Love was not a favourite read for me, but this seventh book was a highlight so far in 2013. Keep up to date with Louise Doughty at her website.

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Unteachable by Leah RaederBook Cover of Unteachable by Leah Raeder

Read by Natalie August 2013

Natalie recommends as a beautiful and unlikely love story

Unteachable is one of those beautiful stories that completely sucked me in, from the minute I started reading it. From the lyrical and poetic writing, to the strong characters you can't help but like and hope for the best for, to the intriguing plot. For me, it had it all. Narrated to us by 18 year Maise O'Malley, the story almost feels as though it is being told to us from the future. While there is a lot of "telling" as opposed to "showing", for the most part, this works.

The story starts two weeks before Maise's final year at high school. Alone and desperately seeking both an escape and a refuge from her absent father and drug addicted/prostitute mother, she has numbed herself by refusing to make friends and jumping from bed to bed, usually with older men she has no intention of getting involved with. Until she meets Evan Wilkie one night at the carnival. Their first meeting, on a roller coaster that becomes hugely symbolic for their relationship and the Maise's senior year at school, the two of them form an unlikely connection, recognising the pain each other carries. After a steamy tryst in Evan's car, Maise does what she does best and flees, leaving him behind, despite having a stronger than usual connection and attraction to him. Although she thinks about him frequently, she never expects to run into Evan again, until she walks into her film studies class at school.

Evan or Mr Wilkie, as he now becomes to Maise, is the new 34 year old teacher of film studies at her high school. Despite his initial shock at running into a student who he has had a previous intimate encounter with, he doesn't deny the attraction he still has for her. Neither does Maise. As the two of them initially try to fight their connection, they quickly give in, embarking on a passionate affair that sees them lying to everyone they know and using any and all means they can, including a secret loft across state lines, to be together. As their passion and attraction only grows, so to does their daring affair. With regular trysts in the classroom and at Evan's apartment, as the reader, you know it's only a matter of time before they are caught. When they eventually are however, it is not from the person I expected and I can honestly say that my heart broke at what this person did to Maise. Although I could in some way understand his actions, I don't believe the intentions were completely honest. As Maise and Evan struggle with the fall out, they are both forced to face several questions, including whether their relationship is purely based on the forbidden. Will they still feel attracted to each other when Evan is no longer Maise's teacher?

I don't want to give much more away, particularly what happens to Evan and Maise in the end. What I will say though is there were two things that completely pulled me into this story. Firstly, the writing. It was absolutely beautiful. Poetic, lyrical and amazingly descriptive, I felt every single emotion, pictured every single scene and heard every single word that was in this book. It was amazing. Throw in the movie references and analogies and I was in heaven. The second thing, was the characters of Evan and Maise. Finally, we have two strong characters who are undeniably attracted to each other and don't try to fight their feelings. Finally we have two characters who talk to each other, communicate how they are feeling and don't back down when the shit hits the fan. Finally! It was such a refreshing change to read about. The other thing I will say is yes, the subject matter is taboo, it's a student/teacher relationship, that is extremely sexual and spans almost all of Maise's entire senior year, and involves a significant amount of naughty behaviour. But for the record, Maise is 18 years old and when her and Evan first meet, they are not teacher and student, nor do they know they will be. Does this excuse their behaviour, I don't know. They say the heart wants what the heart wants and in this case, I truly believe they were meant for each other. Despite their actions, their relationship and the things they were forced to do in order to be together, I never once doubted whether they should be. I never once thought about their age difference or the student/teacher aspect, to me they were two souls who connected and found what they both needed in each other. And for that reason alone, I thought this story was beautiful.

This is Leah's debut novel and I can honestly say I loved it. I was hooked and I fell in love with both Maise and Evan. Pick it up.

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A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty AldridgeBook Cover of A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge

Read by Tracy in July 2013

Tracy recommends as a quirky read about funeral care and family breakdown.

Lee Hart is the breadwinner, supporting his grieving stepfather Lester and deaf brother Ned after their mother dies of cancer. Lee is a trainee undertaker at Shakespeare & Son, learning the trade of preparing bodies and making sure their last requests are adhered too under the tutelage of stalwart Derek. The crux of the story is the relationship between Lee and Ned which is brought to life in sign, not that either of them appears to be particularly good at it. Ned is unable to function socially and Lester is now a mere shadow of his previous self, stagnating in front of continual reality TV episodes. Although Ned's deafness can be accredited to Lee's episode of Measles when he was a child, the real culprit was his mother's refusal to have her children vaccinated and this book could easily become absorbed in what decision was right or wrong, instead the current altercations between Lee and his brother are not related to that decision. Lee has always felt that their mother treated Ned as gifted, whereas Ned blames Lee for his mothers death. His best friend, Raven, is too struggling with ignominy and boring drudgery as he lives at home and has an uninspiring job at Gatwick. The only bright spark in Lee's life is Lorelle, who delivers flowers to the funeral home. Lee finds himself increasingly smitten with Lorelle and after reading a magazine article titled Five Things Girls Can't Resist Lee sets out to win her heart. Sadly he way overthinks the situation. The omnipresence of Lee's mother allows him to reminisce through his life from childhood until more recent events take over with her diagnosis of cancer. As she moved away from traditional medicine and became engrossed in alternative therapy, you feel saddened by the families total believe in positive thinking and instead of using traditional and alternative medicines together, there is hatred from alternative groups for traditional and I am sure at your weakest moment you find yourself hoping that the next bout of positive thinking will solve all your problems, which in some cases it might, but as nicely commenced not without paying for it first. As Lee's life crumbles around him, you realise that his work in the funeral home helps him look at death differently, more realistically, instead of becoming emotionally drained, he focuses instead on the skills he has learnt in laying out bodies. The funeral home staff are hilarious with their foibles and intricacies. Their daily work lives bring about a lot of wisdom with dealing emotions and how to join the family's perceptions with what is possible in preparing bodies for viewing. Lee soon realises that funeral care has become his career and puts it very succinctly - Within the week I was talking to dead men and thinking, I know living people less interesting than these. That was his moment of realisation and he knew he looked forward to going to work. This book doesn't look at the big issues, instead focusing on the daily lives of the characters that drink tea and talk about the weather, small things, but in fact where all the big thoughts, emotions and decisions are made. It is a sad read, but with plenty of humour and quirkily written. Definitely worthy of being long listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013. Oh and for a bit of showbiz gossip, she is also married to Mark Knopfler and is also an actress.

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Tampa by Alissa NuttingBook Cover of Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Read by Tracy in July 2013

Tracy recommends as a controversial novel about a controversial topic

The Blurb: Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She's undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her. But Celeste's devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsessionfourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfil her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning. In mere weeks, Celeste has chosen and lured the lusciously naive Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his teacher, and, most important, willing to accept Celeste's terms for a secret relationshipcar rides after school; rendezvous at Jack's house while his single father works late; body-slamming encounters in Celeste's empty classroom between periods. Ever mindful of the dangerthe perpetual risk of exposure, Jack's father's own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behindthe hyperbolically insatiable Celeste bypasses each hurdle with swift thinking and shameless determination, even when the solutions involve greater misdeeds than the affair itself. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monster driven by pure motivation. She deceives everyone, and cares nothing for anyone or anything but her own pleasure. With crackling, rampantly unadulterated prose, Tampa is a grand, uncompromising, seriocomic examination of want and a scorching literary debut. From Goodreads

My Review: Well this book is certainly going to polarise readers and how. I can honestly state I have never read a book before covering these topics a female sexual predator that seduced two students and contributed to the death of one of the students fathers. Celeste Price is a woman with a purpose. Happily married on the outside, Celeste and her husband make a startlingly good looking couple. In the best man's speech at their wedding, Ford's brother said "You two are like the his-and-hers winners of the genetic lottery." However, on the inside, , on the inside she will do anything to avoid sex with her husband, mainly because he is not 14 year old boy. "My real problem with Ford is actually his age. Ford, like the husbands of most women who marry for money, is far too old. Since I'm twenty-six myself, it's true that he and I are close peers. But thirty-one is roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.". Initially she married Ford because of his money; she needed a way to afford to keep her body looking young by using expensive beauty products and undergoing a number of skin treatments. However, the drudgeries of marriage saw her resort to drugging him so he would fall asleep, preventing any intimate contact. When he is asleep she focuses on her obsession and achieving it, even down to becoming a teacher so she could access boys. This is a thought provoking yet repulsive concept, but I couldn't put the book down. Nutting's writing was intense - she didn't shirk away from the topic or, I felt, attempt to make the story anything other than what it was. Celeste is not a likeable character, but you are drawn into her mind and even though it is difficult to identify with her, you realise that this isn't a passing phase. She cares nothing for herself or anyone except sating her desires. With the current slew of female erotica, this books stands out - for once the female character is not the victim but can mix with some of the great psychopathic minds we know. Nutting, apparently set out to fill a void in literature about female sexual psychopaths - click here for a Cosmopolitan interview. When finally Jack Patrick walks into her classroom she finds he meets all her requirements: it refined for me just what it was about the particular subset of this age group that I found entrancing. Celeste stalks Jack Patrick, using binoculars to watch him while she masturbates. She asks him to stay after class. She watches his behaviour in class to make sure he's vulnerable enough to both seduce and be able to sedate into silence with sex. At one point, Celeste offers herself to his father in order to divert attention from her affair with Jack. Of course it isnt an affair in the true sense, it is statutory rape, even though he's willing and besotted beyond all belief. That's about all I can tell you about Jack as anything about their story together would spoil the read. From the beginning Celeste knows who she is - she had no doubt that one day someone would realise she was a soulless pervert and eventually as the story of Jack interweaves with the story of Boyd, the second boy in the story, the secrecy starts to unravel. I think the relationship between Boyd and Celeste was one that was more interesting, undoubtedly due to Boyds over protective mother and his owns desires, which puts nothing off limits. Tampa could not in any way be described as a comedy, but there are moments of humour and satire especially with the character of Janet. She is a teacher who, after 20 years of teaching teenagers, has given up and although Celeste has no remorse, sympathy or selflessness, her interactions with Janet do seem to indicate there is possibly some humanity in her.

So at the end of the story, how did I feel, I realised one thing. If the main character had been a male, discussions would be totally different as we expect that. One thing that was strange about the book was the cover - it sort of looked like a chalkboard, but it is made of black velvet which certainly makes the whole experience of reading strange something that ereaders can't provide. It was also interesting to learn that the author attended high school with Debra LeFave, the infamous "hot child predator." Alissa Nutting is an assistance professor of creative writing at John Carroll University so I can only imagine the discussions this book generated in the faculty, least of all between students and their parents. If you are a typical Fifty Shades reader, don't read this book expecting romance. This book is also garner a lot of press with a particularly interesting article by Good Reading Magazine which talks about who dictates what we read.

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The Round House by Louise ErdrichBook Cover of The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Read by Tracy in July 2013

Tracy recommends as a look at how far would you go for your friends and family

The Blurb: One Sunday in the summer of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to reveal the details of what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. While his father endeavours to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them to the Round House, a sacred place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning. (From the publisher.)

My Review: The Round House was the winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. The novel is narrated by the now grown up Joe (or Antone Bazil Coutts as he was named) who has since become a lawyer and who is unravelling and trying to understand the moment when his life changed. The then 13 year old Joe lives on a Native-American reservation. Set in the 1980's, he lives what most would call a good family life, living with his father who is a judge on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota and his mother Geraldine. When Geraldine receives a phone call and then scurries away on the purpose of getting a file from her office, when she doesn't return, he heads out with his father to go looking before finally returning to the house where they make the horrific discovery of his mother after having been brutally beaten and raped.

Obviously this is monumentally life changing for the family, but the story is interesting as it is from Joe's perspective and he all-consuming desire to turn the clock back and go back to before all this had happened. He felt left out and abandoned as his mother and father become engrossed in their own demons. Joe and his father do not fully understand the mental anguish suffered by Geraldine and instead focus on the pursuit of justice. As Geraldine is gripped by depression, surrounding family help out and Joe is fed and mentally nourished by, even providing ways to respond to his mother's grief. As Joe and his friends Angus, Cappy and Zack do some investigative works, Joe starts to question his Mother's story - there are gaps; what happened to the file, why won't she say who called. As Joe searches for the assailant he uncovers the dark secrets of his community. In the end Joe feels he must seek justice that is denied by the inconsistency of the courts and judicial systems. Louise Erdrich managed to weave some of the history of the tribal lands into the story. The medieval doctrine of discovery which gave Indians a right of occupancy, which could be taken away at any time. These laws also make it extremely difficult to non-Native men to be prosecuted for the rape of Native-American women on or off reservations.

There is a lot going on in the story, not only with Joe trying to uncover the truth behind his mothers attack, but his own growing up and the onset of puberty. He is still a boy wanting to go and ride his bike and muck around with his friends, but he is also in love with the breasts of his Uncle Whitey's wife, Sonja.

This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.

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The Dog Stars by Peter HellerBook Cover of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

Read by Tracy in June 2013

Tracy recommends as a cut above the usual post apocalyptic novels

The Blurb: Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. His wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, his only neighbour a gun-toting misanthrope. In his 1956 Cessna, Hig flies the perimeter of the airfield or sneaks off to the mountains to fish and pretend that things are the way they used to be. But when a random transmission somehow beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life - something like his old life - exists beyond the airport. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return - not enough fuel to get him home - following the trail of the static-broken voice on the radio. But what he encounters and what he must face - in the people he meets, and in himself - is both better and worse than anything he could have hoped for.

My Review:

The Dog Stars was one of Oprahs books of the month in 2012 but don't let that turn you off. I had the good fortune to hear Peter Heller talk at the 2013 Perth Writer's Festival which spurred me on to buy his book. I don't tend to focus on "post-apocalyptic fiction" after all reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy must surely be the ultimate in this genre, but Peter Heller has given us an insightful and thought provoking narration and it isn't all bleak.

Ten years ago, a flu-pandemic has wiped out most of earth's population and those that are left are either sick from a contagious blood disease or have descended into waring savagery. Luckily our hero appears to be in the one percentile that is immune. There are still those with some moral virtue even when having to live by the mantra: what are you prepared to do to survive? The book is narrated by Hig, a very old forty year old man who lost his wife and their unborn child to the flu. Hig has managed to survive against attacks and worse depressions, loneliness and his conscious. He is gradually faltering under the toll of his actions to survive and is questioning whether it is worth continuing on. His journey bares his soul and he looks around at how society used to be which had focused on superficial consumption. Take that away and what do you have left - a man and his dog living day to day before making the decision to leave behind the safety of his home and find answers. The book is written similar to a journal, short sentences/paragraphs, as if Hig was talking to himself, which he, unsurprisingly does spend a lot of time doing, after all there isn't a lot of characters, but you do get to know a lot about Hig and as the story unfolds about his human off-sider Bangley. Of course there is sadness and you know it is coming: They bred dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn't they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man.

Hig, his dog Jasper, and his neighbour, gun-toting Bangley have built themselves a very strong fort encompassing a hanger, airport and a neighbourhood filled with McMansions that are now decaying (thank goodness for that). They can protect themselves from outsiders and have accumulated large supplies mainly from Hig's travels. Hig constantly tries to escape the daily drudgery by heading into the hills with Jasper to fish and hunt. He spends a lot of this time reliving his youth and how things changed so dramatically. Back in reality the trio do anything to protect their existence, but this is not an action book, there are moments of encounters, but soon they are back into their equilibrium. Hig flies the perimeter of their holding twice a day in addition to ransacking all the abandoned homes for supplies, whilst Bangley provides the weapons and is happy to kill scavengers with his arsenal of weaponry including his project a homemade grenade launcher. What was strange is that Bangley and Hig never tried to talk to any of the trespassers, they did that true American thing of "shoot first, ask questions later". I would have thought they would try to reach out and maybe grow their community. The only regular interaction for Hig is with a farm whose residents who have a blood disease. I think this is probably a realistic scenario, based on human history it is well documented that although some people band together the rest fight and loot to try and accumulate to try and replace their old life with something exactly the same.

On one of Hig's flights, he hears a random radio transmission setting in place a chain of events that will see their lives changed completely when Hig risks everything and flies past his no return-not enough fuel to get him home, he encounters people. As the story unfolds we are now taken into Cima and her fathers life and instead of the past, Hig must thing of the future as climate change takes a hold and drought becomes ever present. This is an intelligent and well-written debut book that steps outside of the usual books in the genre. What does shine through is Heller's love of the natural world and his descriptions of the outdoors draw you in. Keep up to date with Peter Heller at his website.

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Big Brother by Lionel ShriverBook Cover of Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Read by Tracy in June 2013

Tracy recommends this as an all consuming read about obesity, family and guilt.

Okay I am a massive fan of Lionel Shriver and have either loved or hated all her books. She managed to write about issues of the day and draws you into her stories that it is difficult to believe she is not writing autobiographically. However, after writing We Need to Talk About Kevin and for me, the even better So Much for That. Maybe it's Shriver's own fault. She doesn't make life easy for herself with her choice of subject matter. Mass murder, snooker, the US healthcare system who but Shriver could pull off a novel about terminal cancer that's angry, yes, but also warmly, movingly upbeat? And now, obesity. But despite the unpromising theme, this one, like the rest, is really about love, loss, family ordinary human beings struggling to do the right thing by one another. It's also possibly her very best. It must be incredibly hard to keep the spark alight, but she does not disappoint with Big Brother which is a book targetting obesity, one of the biggest health issues of today and combined a story of guilt, familial ties and the weight loss industry.

Summary: For Pandora, cooking is a form of love. Alas, her husband, Fletcher, a self-employed high-end cabinetmaker, now spurns the "toxic" dishes that hed savoured through their courtship and spends hours manically cycling. Then, when Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at the airport, she doesnt recognize him. In the years since theyve seen one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds. What happened? After Edison has more than overstayed his welcome, Fletcher delivers his wife an ultimatum: Its him or me. Rich with Shrivers distinctive wit and ferocious energy, Big Brother is about fat: an issue both social and excruciatingly personal. It asks just how much sacrifice we'll make to save single members of our families, and whether it's ever possible to save loved ones from themselves.

My Review: Now based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 40 year old Pandora Halfdanarson loves to cook as well as managing a highly successful business producing novelty custom "Baby Monotonous" dolls, which are programmed with the recipients' oft-repeated platitudes. The business has helped her become financially successful and also famous. Her husband of 7 years, Fletcher Feuerbach, is a furniture craftsman who is unable to sell his gorgeous hand crafted furniture due to the economic crisis, has two children for a previous marriage that ended badly after his ex-wife became hooked on crystal meth. Fletcher is a health nut who, it seems, spends all his waking moments not letting an unhealthy calorie pass his lips and the rest of the time either manically cycling or being a killjoy. Pandora's brother, Edison, was a former high-school track star, chick magnet and once-successful jazz pianist whos played with a number of the greats, he has now hit the skids and worn-out his final couch-surfing welcome in New York. Although Pandora hasn't seen Edison for nearly four years, she sends him an airline ticket and invites him to stay with her family for a few months. At the airport she doesnt even recognize him, after all Edison now weighs nearly 400 pounds. As Edison settles into home life he disrupts their entire routines with his sarcasm and uncontrollable eating until breaking point is reached, literally, the first happens when Edison breaks a precious piece of Fletcher's furniture which is soon followed by a horrific bathroom blockage incident. Fletcher issues an ultimatum and Edison finally confides to Pandora that he has no upcoming gigs - nada. Fletcher puts is succinctly: "He's a sponger you're related to by accident. I'm your husband by choice. If you 'love' that loudmouth it's a kneejerk genetic thing; I'm supposed to be the real love of your life." While helping her brother pack his belongings, she makes a fateful decision: she will take Edison under her wing and help him get to his goal weight within a year. To do this, she must leave behind her home, husband and family and force Edison to confront his addiction to food. As Lionel Shrivers narrator in Big Brother tells her obese older sibling, after he claims he got hungry when she catches him mid-pig-out (spooning icing sugar from the carton), "You got something, and I dont know what its called, but its not called hungry.".

The majority of the book follows the weight loss journey of both Pandora and Edison and you watch them swap one addiction for another, where they become totally focused on a diet of meal replacement shakes. This terrifying liquid diet does start to work and the old Edison is soon being unveiled, however, the toll is huge. The concept of actual food becomes foreign and just as petrifying as anything they have faced before. Shriver handles these scenes wonderfully, I had never really thought of how addictive weight loss diets can be and the difficulty in leaving them behind. Coupled with the sheer boredom that was felt by Pamela and Edison as they become increasingly ostracised from friends, family and colleagues who start to feel uncomfortable eating around them. You start to wonder how far Shriver will go. All is not lost though as the weight starts to drop off Edison and Pandora start to look differently at their surroundings, suddenly they have more time to help others, start hobbies, introduce exercise - after all it isnt like they need to eat! Luckily Pandoras friend Oliver finally says what others are thinking and breaks into Pandora and Edisons isolated world by introducing the starvation words which opens up a whole new series of angst ridden conversations and realisations. What you will never guess is the ending. It was dark, daring and shocking (not of the Kevin kind) and will no doubt polarize people in their thoughts. Either way it will change your whole point of view of the book. If you are looking for a light hearted beach read this is not for you - however it raises some very interesting questions and if you are like me, will make you appreciate it even more.

This book is a personal journey for Shriver whose own older brother did from obesity complications at the age of 55. As such I thought it would have been significantly cynical about the health industry, similar to So Much for That which would have seen her target the weight loss industry and discrimination, but it isn't. Instead it is a social commentary that leaves you thinking about so much more.

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The Heart Broke In by James MeekBook Cover of The Heart Broke In by James Meek

Read by Tracy in May 2013

Tracy recommends as a look at families who are nice on the outside, but underneath lies something dark and unsettling

I don't quite know how to classify this book, there is so much going on that follows families and how they perceive each other and their careers and it would seem everyone is jealous. There are plots, twists, more plots, more twists it did become a little bit confusing in some parts to remember all the connections, but it moved along at a pace, you kept devouring all the family dramas. It was voyeuristic as we followed the different characters and how they coped with blackmail, ethical dilemmas, murder, intellectual debates and sexual infidelity. I came across this book during the Perth Writers Festival in 2013 and was gripped by the title - totally misunderstanding what it would all be about and I am certainly glad.

Ritchie Shepherd is the 40 year old has been ex-front man for rock band - Lazygods. Not content with a beautiful and talented wife, two gorgeous kids, a country estate and a relatively successful TV show which is dedicated to discovering anodyne and marketable mediocrity - he has to have an affair with a 15 year old. He only becomes shamed when he worried that his wife will find out, although I think it is more the threat of prison that makes him feel slightly guilty. Apart from Ruby and Dan, Karins happiness was more important to him that anything. That was why he would do whatever he could to protect her from the knowledge that he was having sex with someone else. His sister, Bec, is the opposite, a quiet achieving scientist focused on a vaccine for Malaria. When she finally ends her engagement with the newspaper editor Val Oatman, little did she know it would threaten the whole family? Ritchie and Bec have a strange relationship, it seems to be fairly stable when Ritchie is the big success, but when Bec starts to make garner her own success, and Ritchie feels himself slighted. He believes he is a good person - seemingly not understanding the heart break he could bring on his wife and children. Although you get the feeling that he wants the perfect family life more in theory than practicality.

Alex Comrie, once a drummer in the Lazygods, is now a geneticist who is trying to find a cure for cancer after being inspired by his eminent cancer scientist Uncle Harry, who is now dying from cancer himself. He is in a relationship with Maria and they are struggling to conceive even with the assistance of IVF. Alex's younger brother Dougie is unable to find his place in life preferring to bludge off his family, whereas their other brother Matthew has found god in a major way and has little to do with the family. When Harry dies, he bequeaths the house to Alex to the exclusion of Dougie and Matthew and suddenly the family is at loggerheads over the blatant favouritism. Although in reality Alex was the one that made Harry proud, followed in his footsteps and spent quality time with him, even caring for him right up until the end.

Eventually Alex and Bec start a slow bubbling and monogamous relationship that sees them question some of their life decisions and decide to start a life together. They were both so focused on their careers - Bec, when denied permission for full medical trials, infects herself with a haemoproteus virus which she believes will offer immunity from malaria, named after her murdered father, and becomes so attached to it, she feels like she would be murdering her father all over again if she takes the antidote. Of course the sporadic bouts of temporary blindness do cause some issues.

It would seem no subject is off topic for these families and strangely enough, nothing is seems to be beyond their scheming against each other. Particularly when Val turns into the villain and starts the Moral Foundation under the guise of getting people to dob others in for immoral behaviour. When Ritchie is given the option of providing information on someone else, or accepting the consequences and having his adulterous affair with a child told to the world, it is a no-brainer and being the law abiding upstanding brother he is, he dishes the dirt of Bec, who had shared her deepest secret with him. In addition to Val, there are some other fantastic characters, from the ex-IRA torturer who murdered the Shepherd's father, to Matthew's daughter Rose who escapes ultra-orthodox Christianity to stumble into Islam.

The Heart Broke In was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Novel Award.

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White Dog Fell From the Sky by Eleanor MorseBook Cover of White Dog Fell From the Sky by Eleanor Morse

Read by Tracy in April 2013

Tracy recommends as a beautiful and sad look at how to escape the apartheid in South African.

The Blurb: An extraordinary novel of love, friendship, and betrayal. Eleanor Morses rich and intimate portrait of Botswana, and of three people whose intertwined lives are at once tragic and remarkable, is an absorbing and deeply moving story. In apartheid South Africa in 1976, medical student Isaac Muthethe is forced to flee his country after witnessing a friend murdered by white members of the South African Defence Force. He is smuggled into Botswana, where he is hired as a gardener by a young American woman, Alice Mendelssohn, who has abandoned her Ph.D. studies to follow her husband to Africa. When Isaac goes missing and Alice goes searching for him, what she finds will change her life and inextricably bind her to this sunburned, beautiful land. Like the African terrain that Alice loves, Morses novel is alternately austere and lush, spare and lyrical. She is a writer of great and wide-ranging gifts. (From the publisher)

My Review: This book was fantastic and if it was a word unputdownable would sum up my reading experience. It certainly deserves the praise that has been heaped on it - even by Oprah Winfrey who listed it as one of the must read book for January 2013. Although be warned, this book does not display a perfect life; it is a look at the horrific consequences of apartheid in South Africa, particularly if you are born on the wrong end of the colour spectrum. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster from crying to smiling to laughing. Although as we all know, apartheid is no longer the political flavour in South Africa, how can those that encountered it ever attempt to rebuild their lives, the suffering was beyond endurance for most people and the treatment of people based on the colour of someones skin is just incomprehensible. Luckily White Dog Fell From the Sky wasn't all bleak and there are absolute highlights where you see the good in people, who will stop at nothing to provide an education and some hope for the future. Morse does a fantastic job at describing the landscape. Her depiction of its insurmountable beauty and its equally insurmountable cruelty had me gripped from beginning to end. Then there were the character, all so full, flawed and unforgettable.

The story centres on the relationship between Alice and Isaac - on the surface seemingly so far apart; yet underneath not as far as we expect. Alice is going through a divorce and must come to terms with trying to make a place for herself in Botswana. She realises that her job of policy writing does not particularly help anyone, so sets out to make all parties happy. She slowly realises that previously policy and decisions have been made by academics and politicians who have no real experience in Botswana, but instead hail from America (as she does) or other European countries and doesnt understand the local lands. Into her life appears Isaac - he has left behind everything he loves and cares about and must learn to adapt. After watching the murder of one of his friends, Isaac flees Pretoria in the base of a hearse. He finds himself dumped in the Botswana scrub with no papers, no money and no contacts. He first sees a woman who offers him food and then he sees White Dog a dog he would normally chase away; but he realises she is his companion whether he lives or dies on this bleak spot. Walking towards the nearest town, Isaac meets Amen, an old friend who he goes to live with and who has become involved in the militant arm of the ANC and travels to Angola for training in terrorism and attacks. Isaac soon finds himself walking the streets looking for work until Alice agrees to take him on as her gardener, a very different career than he would have imagined only weeks before when he was studying medicine at university. Some authors might have highlighted the differences in these characters and how lucky Alice is and in her life and how lucky Isaac is to find her, but Morse manages to focus on how they are both helping each other; neither is "in it for any gain". For me, however, the main character is White Dog, who refuses to leave Isaacs side. She is like a guardian angel, never wavering in her loyalty for Isaac.

As the story unfolds we follow Alice as she takes a work trip where she stumbles on Ian and suddenly finds the all-encompassing love that she had never realised was missing in her life. They share so much and she starts to realise her place and those around her in the magical backdrop of Botswana. On one of their escapes together they uncover the real carnage in the massive death toll of the local animals who are unable to cross the fence (a bit like the Rabbit Proof Fence in Australia) that has been installed to stop the spread of disease in cattle, but doesnt allow for the migrations of herds in search of food and water. She realises the impacts of the fence on the local tribes with a declining food source. We move onto Isaac who is looking after Alices house whilst she is away. He is desperately trying to save every dollar to help his family back in South Africa and when Amens home is raided by South African soldiers crossing the border; he sneaks back into the house to retrieve is savings, but is unfortunately caught and is declared a spy and returned to the country from which he so recently escaped.

On Alice's return to her home, she finds White Dog half-starved at the end of the driveway, the house seemingly abandoned and Isaac's plants almost dead. There is no news of him, no messages from him - he has disappeared and she must painstakingly retrace his steps. She is unwilling to accept that Isaac would have left White Dog.

White Dog would not leave his side. She knew his grief, this dog who was more than a dog, this dog who had fallen from the sky (page 90)

Although Botswana and South Africa are neighbours, there seemed to be little understanding of the atrocities being carried out in South Africa. It was only when Alice attempts to find and have Isaac returned to Botswana does she realise how precarious his situation is. She luckily finds a letter from Hendrik Pretorious, the man responsible for Isaacs schooling and contacts him to see if he can help and without their assistance and input, you can only imagine the outcome would have been significantly different; if only more people had stood up for their beliefs in the 1970s in South Africa, you could only imagine the country would be a much better place. The story sees a twist whereby earlier plans by Isaac are suddenly fast forwarded and Alice and Hendrik work fearlessly to free Isaac, regardless of their own safety.

The powers of injustice, of oppression, of exploitation, have done their worst, and they have lost. They have lost because they are immoral and wrong, and our God is a God of justice and liberation and goodness. The Reverend Tutu was a man worthy of respect, but Isaac could not agree with him. If our God is a God of justice and liberation and goodness, why does He not intervene?

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The Marlowe Papers by Ros BarberBook Cover of The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

Read by Tracy in April 2013

Tracy recommends for lovers of poetry, but if you aren't, this book could either make or break the friendship

The Blurb: On May 30th, 1593, a celebrated young playwright was killed in a tavern brawl in London. Or so the official version goes. Now Christopher Marlowe tells us the truth: that his death was an elaborate ruse to avoid prosecution for heresy; that he lived on in lonely exile, pining for his true love from across the Channel; and that he continued to write plays and poetry, hiding behind the name of a colourless merchant from Stratford one William Shakespeare. Ros Barber is the author of three collections of poetry, the latest of which (Material, Anvil, 2008) was a Poetry Book Society recommendation. Her poems have appeared in many publications including Poetry Review, London Magazine, the Guardian and Independent on Sunday. Her short fiction, which won prizes in the Asham and Independent on Sunday short story competitions, has been published by Bloomsbury and Serpents Tail. The Marlowe Papers was written as part of a PhD funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Born in Washington DC and raised in England, Ros Barber now lives in Brighton. The Marlowe Papers has been included in the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.

My Review: Okay I bought this book because it made it onto the Longlist for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction, I bought it without even reading the blurb above! I have to say I didn't get it, although I am not particularly a poetry fan, I felt that this novel in verse took me to the edge of my comfort zone. The premise of the story is very interesting though; Christopher Marlowe (or Kit as he was affectionately known) was not killed as history has decreed, instead he moved to the shadows of the literary world and wrote under a fairly well known nom de plume - William Shakespeare. Initially Marlowe is the love of everyone; he is creative, daring, intelligent and a spy rooting out Catholic sympathisers in Europe, however, as he increasingly finds it difficult to distance characters from himself, he is uncovered as an atheist and as he already had enemies; this godlessness and heresy escalated. His beloved Tom Willingham and friends step in to stop him being arrested and tried, so they arranged a fake murder. I am not an author myself but I can see that this kind of work is a labour of love and I would even argue that it is infinitely more difficult to write than the more traditional novel. As I struggled with this book I did a bit more research into poetry and found that the style of this poetry is iambic pentameter which gives it that rolling style in its cadence. So I think the author is brave and certainly attempting to break down barriers in regards to mainstream writing, but the style for me was a distraction, I wanted to experience the rule of Queen Elizabeth I and all the twists and turns required to stay ahead in such dangerous times with every person a possible spy.

'In a Minute There Are Many Days':

Between our letters, this adopted death becomes more real. My heart slows to a crawl,

chilled by your absence, waiting for the fall of written words to warm it up like breath.

I'm cut like a lily water cannot save.

The endless nights are stitched into a shroud that takes my shape, and has my weeping bound.

The weeks until I hear gape like the grave.

But when your letter opens in my hands

my heart starts up, a wild bird to a clap,

and air fills lungs as though some arid land

were suddenly ocean, charted off the map.

Two pages of your hand can bring such bliss;

and yet, without your love, I don't exist.

Interesting this book started out as Ros Barbers PhD on the life and works of Christopher Marlowe and instead of the usual weighty tome we submit, Ros turned it into a piece of fiction. Find out more about Ros Barber on her website.

Find out more about Ros Barber on her website.

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Skios by Michael FraynBook Cover of Skios by Michael Frayn

Read by Tracy in April 2013

Tracy recommends as a hilarious and satirical look at the international lecture circuit.

Outline: Stepping off a plane onto the sunny Greek island of Skios, the impulsive Oliver Fox sees the welcoming smile of discreetly blonde and discreetly tanned Nikki Hook and decides he should try to pass as the name on her card - Dr Norman Wilfred. Dr Wilfred, who is due to give a lecture at the Fred Toppler Foundation, is too weary to notice he's managed to be mistaken for Oliver - but the woman in his bed isn't about to make the same mistake. This farce plays out over a few days, as we wait for Dr Wilfred (one of them, anyway) to deliver his headlining lecture, or for everything to come crashing down around them. Skios was on the Man Booker Prize Longlist for 2012.

Review: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take over the identify of another especially when you arrive at the airport and are surrounded by name cards; none of which are for you! Welcome to Skios. Skios is the location of the wealthy Fred Toppler Foundation who are currently wining and dining their wealthy and high paying guests who all look forward to the penultimate event: the annual Toppler Lecture. Previously the lecturer is extremely dull, but now PA to Mrs Toppler, Nikki has arranged the guest herself - the pre-eminent Dr Norman Wilfred who is an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science and who she is now waiting for at the airport. Nikki is caught up in the prospect that everything will go to plan and she will be given the directorship of the foundation, something she covets above all else. Dr Norman Wilfred and Oliver Fox are on the same flight and when Oliver grabs Normans luggage by mistake and walks into the arrivals lounge to a sign saying "Dr Norman Wilfred", he decided to assume the academic's identify. Nikki likewise can't believe how young and handsome Dr Wilfred is, not at all what she was expecting.

Good God, thought Oliver, as he saw the smile. She thinks I'm him! And all at once he knew it was so. He was Dr Norman Wilfred. He saw his life as Dr Norman Wilfred stretching in front of him like the golden pathway into the rising sun. He had no choice but to walk along that pathway, towards the warmth, towards the light. So he did, pulling his suitcase behind him.

Oliver is one of those men who glide through life as the fun of the party, never really achieving anything. His sugar-mummy Annuka Vos has kicked him out of their London home, so on a whim, Oliver has invited Georgia, a girl he met in a bar, to join him. Georgia is an old friend of Nikki (six degrees of separation!), who due to a misunderstanding thinks is in Switzerland with her skiers and not on the island of Skios. Georgia has escaped her own beau to spend a furtive horizontal weekend and is dismayed when Oliver isn't at the airport to meet her. She makes her way to the Villa and as she starts her amorous activities, instead finds the bed taken up by Dr Norman Wilfred who is befuddled by jet lag and doesn't know his own whereabouts, or that of his luggage and thinks he is in the guest quarters of the Toppler Foundation.

He struggled to sit up, so as to think more clearly. At once the bundle of mosquito netting screamed louder than ever, picked up various pieces of clothing scattered around the floor, and ran into the bathroom. There was the sound of a bolt being slammed home. He remembered that he had uttered two words, but not, in his state of shock, what they were. What could they have possibly been? Never, surely, in the history of travelling lecturers had two words produced such an abrupt and total reversal of fortune.

Meanwhile back at the Toppler Foundation, Oliver has assumed Normans identity and luckily he is gifted with a chameleon-like ability to roll with the punches and fit into any situation. He is soon the centre of the party and has accepted numerous board positions and various other projects and starts to actually believe he is "Dr Norman Wilfred".

The story progresses with various shady characters becoming involved with the Foundation, which appears to some to be a front for money laundering, or at least artefact laundering and is losing its lofty aspiration of an academic institute. Meanwhile to add additional spice to the situation, Annuka relents on her stance with Oliver and decides to surprise him at the villa.

I am sure everyone has at some point in their life jumped to inaccurate conclusions based on the information before them and it doesn't matter whether you are on the inside or the outside, there can be hilarious results and Skios provides that. You can see all the story lines unite and then diverge whilst still being perplexed that someone like Oliver isnt immediately spotted as a fake. As the story races a million miles a second to the end, you are faced with several possible endings which could be described as over the top, but what else would you expected?

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Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonBook Cover of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Read by Tracy in April 2013

Tracy recommends as a book that takes you from tears to laughter and although its premise is deceptively simple, you cant predict the twists.

Here at OurBookClub we are big fans of Kate Atkinson and her Jackson Brodie series, so when Life After Life was released we snapped it up albeit with lots of questions floating around - would it be good and more importantly would it be as good as per previous books. Life After Life is very different to the Jackson Brodie (Case Histories) series, we are taken through a journey of rebirth via alcoholism, domestic violence, war, death, Hitler and everything else you can imagine in your life(ves). This isn't the first time that Kate has ventured into time travel with her previous book Behind the Scenes at the Museum following a woman who has an uncanny knowledge of events that are outside of her personal knowledge.

Life After Life investigates the arrival of Ursula Todd. Born on a snowy February day, she is initially stillborn, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. However, in the next chapter we see that despite the winter storms, a doctor makes it through and is able to help Ursula survive, and then again later, her mother has the scissors ready for the arrival practice makes perfect concludes Atkinson. After each death, Ursula is reborn her past lives float in her consciousness.

Ursula Todd is the third of eventually five children born to banker father Hugh and opinionated mother Sylvia. The Todd family inhabit an idyllic corner of the English countryside in their equally idyllic home named Fox Corner (named after fox cubs were sighted on the grounds and also to avoid naming it something middle-class!). At the centre of Ursulas life are her older sister Pamela and her younger brother Teddy, with her other two brothers, particularly the horrible prig, Maurice, holding a lesser connection The house is managed by Mrs Glover, the cook, and Bridget, the maid. As Ursulas childhood progresses, she meets a variety of deaths, all of which make you realise that living in that age came with a lot of fragility. As Ursula travels through her lives each story is ended when the Darkness falls before we are whisked back to the same place, same players and same infant to meet a happier fate. As Ursula escapes death and is reborn, her progress is a different route, as if she learns from her past, but isn't fully aware of why she changes some of her actions.

Each of Ursula's lives are set against the changing backdrop of Europe, through several world wars, the Spanish Flu epidemic, least of all the life style changes that see Ursula wonder what on earth she can do with her life as the role of women changed faster than societal attitudes. The characters that surround Ursula are interesting in their own right, in a lot of cases all just surviving the plots they have been dropped into. Ursulas mother, Sylvie, is an ardent wife and mother but strains under the restrictions placed on her role in society. After an elopement gone wrong, Ursulas Aunt Izzie now resides in London with a string of lovers, but struggles with the choices she has made in her life. There are also many others that flit through Ursulas life not least of all Eva Braun - all living their impacts. The storyline regarding Braun was a strange one; revealed as pathetic, desperate for attention and hidden away from the public eye a victim!

Some of the stories are fantastic, as you see Ursula return and return, struggling to get it right and meet the outcome, we as the reader want. In one life, Bridget, goes off to London to celebrate the end of the Great War but unwittingly brings the deadly Spanish flu back home on the train. In the subsequent reincarnation, Ursula is racked with terror at the thought of Bridget going off to London and so pushes her, spraining her ankle, and averting her contact with the flu. Luckily after this incident, Sylvie sends Ursula to a psychiatrist. Dr Keller talks to Ursula about reincarnation, circularity and Buddhism with its fundamental idea of eternal return. He teaches Ursula to compartmentalize her sense of repetition and live her life unburdened.

Whilst most of the stories leave us feeling dark and bleak, Atkinson does open the curtains and we are allowed a glimmer of hope. In a particularly riveting section, Ursulas priggish brother Maurice brings home an American friend who subsequently rapes Ursula; Aunt Izzie arranges an abortion. In her next reincarnation we revisit the rape scene, but this time a tougher Ursula beats off her attacker and escapes humiliation and the eventual clutches of a very hostile and abusive husband.

Life After Life takes you from tears to laughter and although its premise is deceptively simple, you cant predict the twists in Ursulas life, instead you have a suspicion which leaves you with inexplicable dread in some cases. Not bad for a book that takes on the worst of Europes recent history - Hitler.

Life After Life is getting rave reviews in different media outlets which is great to see and has been shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013.

This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page. Life after Life was voted into the Readers' Choice Top 15 Books for 2013 at Bookpage.

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Ignorance by Michele RobertsBook Cover of Ignorance by Michele Roberts

Read by Tracy in April 2013

Tracy recommends beautifully crafted novel of society and its preconceived ideas

I have to admit to never hearing of Michele Roberts until the recently released Womens Fiction Prize 2013 shortlist. I had no idea that she was so prolific have authored 12 books as well as plays, poems, short stories and two non-fiction books. Her earlier novel, Daughters of the House was shortlisted for the Booker and won the WH Smith Literary Award.

Set in France in pre, midst and post Second World War years, we are drawn into the lives of Jeanne Nerin and Marie-Angele Baudry growing up in in the rural French town of Ste-Madeleine. Jeannes mother is a Jew who struggles to earn the barest of a living by cleaning after her husband tragically dies. Marie-Angeles mother is the middle-class wife of the local grocer and who passes on her own importance to her daughter. Madame Nerin was sponsored by Madame Baudry to convert to Catholicism as being a Jew was becoming dangerous. The children have very different upbringings although are involved in each others life on the periphery as Madame Nerin cleans for Madame Baudry, when both mothers become sick and unable to care for the girls, they become borders at the local convent, but no love is lost.

Marie-Angle had spelled it out: youre a charity child; other people have to pay your fees. I retorted: but my father was an educated man. Unlike yours!

Ignorance partly comes in the form of Jeanne and Marie-Angele only being taught the bare minimum by the nuns, leaving them totally unprepared for the world outside. Michele Roberts takes us into their world and lives where we experience their innocence and their treatment by those around them, dictated by their place in society. We arent hidden from the sexual predilections of the church and how difficult life was in rural France as the war gripped their homes. The two towns of Ste-Marie-du-Ciel and Ste-Madeleine are the backdrop as the girls reach adulthood. Jeanne finds work as a housemaid in a local brothel in Ste-Marie-du-Ciel, whereas Marie-Angele stays in Ste-Madeleine and aspires to a future of comfort and influence. Into the story comes Maurice Blanchard. He attends the local brother almost like a godfather; taking out his frustrations on the various women. He also woos Marie-Angele; who he treats in the style she is accustomed too. He manages to capture both women through his black market racketeering activities. However, he can only marry one and provide his name to their legitimate children. Maurice is brutal to Jeanne taking everything that she offers, but to Marie-Angele he is seen as the freedom fighter who transports Jews to safety. The story has strong anti-semantic undertones to fit in with the period and although on the surface, the Jews are welcomed into the village, underneath there is jealousy regarding hidden monies.

The decisions the girls make in childhood impact their lives and the story jumps between the past and the future showing their desire to survive at any cost. Part of the story becomes narrated by Jeannes daughter Andree with some input from one of the Nuns at the convent, but it is the narrations by Jeanne and Marie-Angele that make your literally keep turning the page. As the war takes a hold over the village, the girls experiences are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Jeanne struggles to earn an income, it would seem everything she tries goes against her and Marie-Angele becomes a wealthy married woman. I do think sometimes that Jeanne was her own worst enemy, she could have put aside her pride and ask for assistance. After the war, things do not get any better and Jeanne is treated horrifically for her fraternisation with Germans, whereas Maurice and Marie-Angele continue their luxurious lifestyle. At the end you want to cheer for Andree though as she is the one forced to carry the burden of others.

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen RussellBook Cover of Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Read by Tracy in April 2013

Tracy recommends a very quirky collection of short stories.

Karen Russell is a Pulitzer Prize nominated author for her previous novel Swamplandia which I havent read. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of short stories which borders on the weird to the very weird side of life. I am not usually a bit short story fan, as I find when you just get into the storyline it ends all too soon, or sometimes not soon enough. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection unlike anything I have read before and each topic was so diverse from horror to humour and beyond, I really wonder where Karen Russell gets her imagination. Although not all the stories were a great hit with me, there were some thought provoking sections. I have to admit that I felt that because of the disparate nature of the short stories, it was difficult to get into each one as quickly as you needed and I did have to re-read a few sections as I hadnt realised what was happening quick enough.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: The title story of the book focuses on Clyde and Magreb, vampires who have found that a particular lemon in an idyllic Italian lemon grove can sate their thirst for blood. Before they found the lemon grove, they had tried everything and lived everywhere before they stumbled onto the magical quenching properties of what they can only describe as a vampires analgesic. However, they also encounter all the dreary human problems that come with living together for eternity. As Clyde struggles with his lifestyle he realises he has forgotten how to fly and still harbours a deep desire for blood which he eventually succumbs to, but cant share it with Magreb as he is unable to reach her high above in her new cave like residence.

Reeling for the Empire: This is a strange short story during Japans industrialisation, young women are sold into slavery by their impoverished parents who unknowingly send their daughters off to become half-girls and half-silkworms. Kitsune, the narrator, is stunned by the colour of the silk she produces and tries to make peace with the life that she signed up for. There is pride in the fact they have become the most productive machines in the empire. Enslaved in Nowhere Mill the women are unable to escape sitting for thirteen to fourteen hours each day emptying a kaiko-joko of thread before they can feel indescribable relief. When Kitsune gets sick and her silk changes she becomes engulfed in her regret and memories which spurn her on to change her destiny and the destiny of those around her.

The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach: I was baffled by this story line, Nal, a teenage boy finds the nest where Seagulls hide objects. He has become trapped in a life he was never meant to experience, giving up his dreams and his future after his mother is terminated from her job and there is no longer money for his education. The objects he finds impact his life and he changes his decisions around what he sees. I couldnt quite see the point in this one.

Proving Up: This was a beautiful story. As families struggle to survive the American Western Migration, we see how hard they strive to meet the governments requirements of home/land ownership under the Homestead Act whereby a window was needed in a structure to be officially recognised as a dwelling. Following an adolescent boy taking a glass window to his neighbours, he struggles against the elements to beat The Inspector. The window is shared by the community to the requirements of the Act in the hope they will get the all-important deeds to their home and land, but as drought takes over, so does their madness.

The Barn at the End of Our Term: Another story totally out of left field. Former presidents are reincarnated as horses in a barn. We meet Rutherford Birchard Hayes as he realises that he is no longer human, but that doesnt stop him from trying to seduce a sheep who he believes is his wife. There are different rules in limbo, so its hard to tell. Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D Eisenhower and the others give Hayes a hard time about all of this. All the presidents dream about is escaping from their stable in the afterlife.

Dougbert Shackletons Rules For Antarctic Tailgating: A sporting contest called Food Chain Games involves real marine life who would you vote for Team Whale or Team Krill? There are no rules, no refs, no box seats and not hot pretzels and it really is a fight to the end.

The New Veterans: Beverley is a Wisconsin massage therapist who starts to treat a traumatised veteran (Derek Zeiger) of the Iraq war. On his back is an elaborate tattoo depicting the moment his friend was killed by a roadside bomb. The tattoo comes to life beneath Beverleys fingers, and she starts to believe she is helping her patient, but all too soon she is the one experiencing flashbacks of the attack herself. As she learns more about the story behind the tattoo she finds it is changing after each massage session until eventually no-one dies, but this doesnt assuage Beverleys grief, she and her sister clash over the events surrounding their mother's death. She realizes that there's no longer anyone alive who can confirm her version of events. Can history so easily be altered?

The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis: New Jersey bullies finding the scarecrow version of a now-gone classmate they tormented tied to a tree. I liked the secrets we discovered about our main narrator bully.

I have a feeling most people will either Vampires in the Lemon Grove or hate it. This is wrong, you need to take the individual stories and grade them separately as they are so different. So for me, it was a bit of a hit and miss affair, I enjoyed some and didnt enjoy others. The ones I didnt enjoy it was because the story lacked definition.

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Gold by Chris CleaveBook Cover of Gold by Chris Cleave

Read by Tracy in March 2013

Tracy does not recommend if you are looking for another Water for Elephants

The Blurb: Building on the tradition of Little Bee, Chris Cleave again writes with elegance, humor, and passion about friendship, marriage, parenthood, tragedy, and redemption. Gold is the story of Zoe and Kate, world-class athletes who have been friends and rivals since their first day of Elite training. They've loved, fought, betrayed, forgiven, consoled, gloried, and grown up together. Now on the eve of London 2012, their last Olympics, both women will be tested to their physical and emotional limits. They must confront each other and their own mortality to decide, when lives are at stake: What would you sacrifice for the people you love, if it meant giving up the thing that was most important to you in the world?

The Reality: Like most novels about sport, Chris Cleave's Gold isn't really about sport. Sport as an activity, of course, is unbeatably thrilling if you're a participant or a fan. The problem is, if you're neither of those things, it can be the most astonishing bore. Twitter, for example, is a lonely place on a Saturday afternoon if you happen to find football a bit dull. Sports as a prism, however of personality, of nationhood, of drama and sacrifice and humanity can take some beating. Raging Bull is most certainly not just a film about boxing, though it is that, too. Gold, Cleave's first novel since his bestseller The Other Hand, is about Olympic cycling, which is to say it's really about people. British cyclists Zoe Castle and Kate Meadows are despite having names that sound like romance novelist pseudonyms the world's top two sprint cyclists. Which of the pair is number one, however, is a matter that history hasn't quite settled, and it's a question that's heating up as the London Olympics loom. Having competed against each other since they were 19, they're now, at age 32, both facing their last chance for Olympic gold. Zoe's been there before, having won two gold medals in Athens in 2004 as Kate stayed home with newborn daughter Sophie, and an additional two in Beijing. She's by far the fiercer competitor, not above playing head games with Kate, despite Kate being more or less her only friend in the world. Her coach Tom worries about her, despite her huge endorsement contracts and high-rise flat in Manchester. She's fragile, self-destructive, with a smile that "came out like a newborn foal its legs buckled immediately". Kate is the more naturally talented cyclist, but she's sometimes fatally soft. After she takes six months off following the death of her father, Tom describes her accurately, brutally as "the kind of girl who would stop training when her dad died", a line that tells you a lot about both Kate and the world of elite athletes. Kate not only missed out on Athens, but had to leave Beijing in 2008 when Sophie was diagnosed with leukaemia. With Sophie in her second round of chemo after a recurrence, is Kate set to miss out one more time to Zoe in 2012? Things are further complicated by a sudden Olympics rule change a real one, by the way, that will almost certainly prevent a repeat of Great Britain's 2008 cycling medal haul whereby the sprint events are now limited to one competitor per country. It doesn't matter that Kate and Zoe are the world's fastest. Only one of them is going to get to compete. But who? If that summary sounds a bit soapy, well, it is, and the twists and emotional breakdowns that await only get soapier still, finally verging on the implausible, or at least the Hollywood. Cleave, however, is such an energetic writer that most of the time it doesn't matter. Gold flows with the vitality of the sport it covers. Cleave is very good on the mechanics of velodrome cycling and the gruelling training necessary for it, and his supporting characters are fun and memorable, particularly Tom the coach, with his dodgy knees, and Jack, Kate's husband (who also provides an occasional love triangle interest with Zoe). Jack is a cyclist himself, and brilliant with Sophie, feeling that he could "win against leukaemia by being sufficiently Scottish". In the end, Gold is a bit of a crowd-pleaser, and though I wished things didn't all come together quite so neatly, there's no denying that the novel is, ahem, an entertaining ride.

Gold had a great premise - two female track cyclists competing for one spot in the London Olympics. This doesn't just focus on the cyclists but their families. The main character, or more pertinent, protaganist is Zoe. A very troubled young woman who is dedicated and focused to her career as a cyclist. She is intense at everything she does including her relationships. Her best friend is Kate, another cyclist, but one those has found a "sort of" balance in her life, the opposite of Zoe. Kate is sweet (sometimes saccharine), devoted to her husband and daughter, and at times naive, gullible, and a pushover. It remained inexplicable throughout the story why Kate remains friends with the caustic and conniving Zoe, but there you have it: the set-up. As the two women hit their 30s and gear up for a chance to reach one more Olympic games in London before their careers are over, the real tension arisesthey will go head-to-head for the last spot, which takes on new weight when we discover that Kate has missed her chance at Olympic gold more than once. To me, Zoe was the most fascinating character. I kept picturing her as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: tons of badass packed into a hot cyclists body. But her facade wears thin after a couple hundred pages, and she comes across as exceptionally self-centered. I just couldnt imagine why Kate and Jack would stick by her after all those years, nor why anyone would want to associate with her at all. When her impetus for cycling away from her demons gets revealed, I wasnt convinced. Her promiscuity and abrasiveness make her interesting and fun to a point, but she also occasionally transforms into that one high school sophomore with a vanity complex and a rich daddy. Its hard to feel sympathy for someone so completely entitled. Shes a fun read, though, and I found myself cheering for her often. One thing I really liked about the book was Cleaves ability to humanize the athletes. The story takes place in and around London, but I thought this was applicable in the U.S. particularly. We tend to have a wee bit of hero worship here in the states, especially when it comes to athletes, and we rarely get a glimpse into those lives until they do something so stupid they end up on the front page of the newspaper. Cleave does a fine job of giving the reader a glimpse into the marriage of Kate and Jack, which is staggeringly normal. They handle fame as though its just office breakroom gossip, and their focus is on real emotions, real stresses, and real daily grinds. Zoe, on the other hand, embraces her fame and takes advantage of sponsorship deals that have her plastered on billboards all over town; this not only damages her psyche, but also affects the way people perceive her. Cleave handled this paradigm without becoming trite or preachy, making Gold exceptionally readable during such analysis. Cleave writes the cycling scenes well, and in my mind, those were the best scenes in the book. Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between. Instead, we hear more about Kates relationship with her husband Jack, and their ailing daughter Sophie, who is all-too-bravely fighting Leukemia at age eight. I found Sophie irritating at times, though I did find myself pulling for her. Cleaves method for keeping her grounded as an eight year old was to have her lost in a Star Wars fantasy pretty constantly. This was the most annoying and uninteresting partor partsof the book. I found myself wanting to skip ahead because the sentimentality of it all got so cloying I couldnt stand it; I have to admit, though, that Ive never been a Star Wars fan, which may make me a bit biased. Sophies battle with Leukemia acts as the glue that holds Jack, Kate, and Zoe together, and Sophie herself seems more emotionally developed than the three adults combined. While sweet, I found this pretty unbelievable. Sophies battle with Leukemia opened up opportunities for the most sentimental and cloying parts of the book, which got annoying. I feel like the story would have progressed more quickly and more believably without her in it, but I understand why shes there. As far as the audience Cleave is trying to reach, well, if he was looking to reach female cyclists, he nailed it. But thats a pretty limited audience. Guys, you might find yourself getting bored with the pacing of this book, unless youre the sentimental type. Cleaves analysis of female relationships was fairly compelling, though I wonder how accurate it was. I suppose the relationship between female friends who have such intense competition between them might be different than, say, the relationship between two women who grow to know each other over tea or casual runs through the park with strollers; the analysis of female athletes in particular was interesting throughout. My one complaint was the characterization of Kate. I thought she was a bit too much of a pushover, which made me question why she had a competitive bone in her body to begin with. For the most part, Cleaves story moves quickly and it is very engaging. I zipped through the book, and while I cant say I really cared too much about the characters, I was constantly interested in finding out what happened next. That brings me to my biggest gripe. Most of you DC readers know Im a writer myself, which means Im either in awe of published writers or completely disgusted by their writing. In this case, I was not in awe of Cleaves writing, though I wont go as far as to say I was disgusted. I found it overly sentimental, and every few pages he would lay down a clunker of a line that would have me rolling my eyes. Similes and metaphors that just went on and on endlessly were part of Cleaves routine, and as the story lost steam in some parts, the clunkers came more often. Cleave nailed the plot pretty well, but if hed spent half as much time on his language as he did on his plot, hed have a helluva book here. So is this a book for cyclists? No. The cycling scenes are entertaining, dont get me wrong, but the main characters easily could have been swimmers, or shot putters, or runners. Is this a book for anyone with a competitive spirit? Damn right it is. Whenever Kate and Zoe went head to head, I was there, watching the tires zip on the sloped walls of the velodrome, feeling the pumped calves and lactate-addled thighs. With the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics coming up at the end of July, Gold is a timely novel about two British cyclists who are both desperate to win gold. Chris Cleave is an absolute master in writing compelling, layered characters, and it shines through in every moment the reader spends with Kate and Zoe. On the surface, and at first glance, Kate is the more sympathetic of the two. She has given up her chance at gold time and again because being a mother comes first. She's a kind, caring person who also happens to be a very gifted cyclist, and the reader will want nothing more than for Kate to come home with the gold. It also doesn't help that Zoe is rather unlikeable when Gold begins. It seems as though she will do anything to win, at any cost, and it is a bit unpalatable. As Zoe and Kate's history is fleshed out, the reader comes to see how desperate Zoe is to win. But the genius of this novel lies in the reasons behind Zoe's determination. She has to win because if she doesn't, she doesn't know who she is. She has nothing if she doesn't have the gold. The sheer sadness of this realization is enough for Zoe to gain the reader's sympathies, or at least their pity. The emptiness of her life, and the void which she feels within herself, is almost painful to read about. The most surprising aspect of Gold is how suspenseful it is. Cleave weaves an intricate tale about these two cyclists, tugging on the reader's emotions and investing them in Kate's and Zoe's futures. As they learn more about each of these characters, as well as get to know Nick, Kate's husband, and Sophie, her incredibly adorable, Star Wars-obsessed eight year old daughter, it becomes a race to discover the final outcome. Who will it be - Kate or Zoe? And what of Sophie's sickness, and the fact that she is more important to Kate than any gold medal out there? Will Kate once again be forced to choose? Even if you aren't interested in sports or the Olympics, Gold is an absolute must-read. These characters leap off the page, and Cleave does an excellent job establishing and explaining the complicated history among them while keeping up the fast pace and suspense of the book. It's an incredible achievement, a literary novel that is completely unputdownable and compulsively readable. I can't praise Cleave's latest book highly enough, and look forward to discovering what subject he tackles in his next book. I can't with this one. I just can't. I'm going to be honest with you: I didn't finish this book. Don't think I ever will. The plot is nothing but ham-fisted emotional manipulation with poor writing, and it's insulting. You have Kate and Zoe, two female cyclists getting ready for their final Olympics. Zoe inexplicably has rock-star athlete status and a tabloid lifestyle thanks to her previous gold medals. This is inexplicable because, really, put Lance Armstrong to the side and name one other cyclist--current or retired. Can't do it, can you? Thought so. Anyway, Zoe has dedicated everything to her craft. She's succeeded and wants one last gold medal before saying goodbye to the sport that has defined her life. Then there's Kate. Despite the fact that she's naturally talented (probably even better than Zoe), Kate has no gold medals and no fame. While Zoe sacrificed her life for her career, Kate has repeatedly had to give up her career for her life. She has a husband and a daughter with leukemia (more on that later). Her daughter Sophie has indirectly kept her from the Olympics twice (first by being born, then by having her first bout of leukemia). Now Kate has her last shot at Olympic glory and what do you know, Sophie's leukemia is having a recurrence. Will she once again have to put her dream to the side? I choose to ignore her husband as much as possible, because his wooden presence and connection to both Zoe and Kate (which is not as shocking or as revelatory as the author seems to think it is) was nothing short of a snoozefest. There's something going on between Kate, Zoe, and Jack (probably relating to an affair), but it's really too bothersome to care. I might have accepted the cliched set-up, the stock characters, the mediocre writing, the reliance on cheap gimmicks to get the reader emotionally involved instead of actual character development--but the Sophie angle was my breaking point. It's a bridge too far to use a dying child to wring tears out of your readers. Emotional manipulation never sits well with me anyway, but this was particularly egregious. One could argue that Sophie raises the stakes for Kate, but in the end this character doesn't exist to teach you a life lesson or to further the plot; she exists to make you feel sad. There are real sick kids in the world, and they deserve better than to be reduced to a clumsily cloying presence in trifle like this. Sophie vomiting into her beloved Millennium Falcon toy to try to hide her sickness from her parents was the moment I broke up with Gold. It's a horrifying moment, to be sure, but it exemplifies what's terribly wrong with this book: it's an emotional reaction Cleave is exploiting, not earning. And, to me at least, it's beyond grotesque.

Read the review of Little Bee.

This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.

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Ape House by Sara GruenBook Cover of Ape House by Sara Gruen

Read by Tracy in March 2013

Tracy does not recommend if you are looking for another Water for Elephants

The Blurb: Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationshipsbut unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language. Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn't understand people, but animals she getsespecially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she has ever felt among humans ... until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what's really going on inside. When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and "liberating" the apes, John's human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he'll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becomes the biggestand unlikeliestphenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them. Now, to save her family of apes from this parody of human life, Isabel must connect with her own kind, including John, a green-haired vegan, and a retired porn star with her own agenda. Ape House delivers great entertainment, but it also opens the animal world to us in ways few novels have done, securing Sara Gruen's place as a master storyteller who allows us to see ourselves as we never have before.

The Reality: Ape House asks some very ethical questions based around humanity and science. Looking at a group of six bonobos and their respective humans who conduct language studies at a "fictional" lab in Kansas. Surrounding the research is a myriad of questions from communication between species, family dynamics and therefore dysfunction and the biggie; animal enslavement. Possibly too many topics to be handled correctly in one book? The main human characters in the book are scientist Isabel Duncan and journalist John Thigpen. John is sent to investigate the work being done on the apes at the language lab which ends in the lab being bombed and the animals disappearing - only for them to turn up on a very bizarre TV show called Ape House. Meanwhile Isabel, who was badly hurt in the explosion, is desperate to be reunited with the apes, which she sees as her family. This sees Isabel and John join with Isabel's lab assistance Celia, in a joint cause to rescue the apes and settle them away from exploitation.

Gruen ensures that the apes are treated affectionately, although I didn't feel connected to them. The story was all about our needs (as humans) to supposedly save these creatures and keep them in an area where they will be safe - but in reality that would be their natural habitat which due to our increasing greed with resources has now so diminished it is impossible. I felt the storyline became relatively predictable - just as they get close, something gets in their way, they get over it, etc etc.

Read the review of Water for Elephants.

This is a fantastic choice for your book club. If you want some further information and book club discussion questions - check out the OurBookClub Book Club page.

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The Innocents by Francesca SegalBook Cover of The Innocents by Francesca Segal

Read by Tracy in March 2013

Tracy recommends a very impressive debut novel

This debut novel has recently been announced as a long list inclusion for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 and for once, I can certainly say it is a worthy inclusion. The Innocents also won Segal the Costa Book Awards in 2012. Everyone knows my love/hate relationship with book award winners as they so rarely deliver on their hype. Supposedly a modern day reworking of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton was a Pulitzer Prize winner), and instead of being set in the upper classes from New York in the 1870s we are instead transported to a modern day Jewish community in north west London.

The idyllic relationship between Rachel Gilbert and Adam Newman is at a crossroads. After going out for more than decade, Adam has finally proposed to the perfect Rachel and finds himself suddenly thinking about the future. Enter Rachel's cousin Ellie Schneider, recently kicked out of Columbia University for a porn movie and now back in the fold of the very tight knit Jewish community. Ellie could not be more different from Rachel who is cute, curvy and content with her place in the world, whereas Ellie is seedy, transient and willing to try and do anything. It is this difference that attracts Adam as he realises that Rachel is so steady and loyal and therefore not exciting anymore. In fact his life is not exciting, he has a job where his boss is Rachel's father, he holidays with Rachel's family in the same Israeli resort each year. He wants Rachel to realise there is a work outside, but she is happy to be where she is. Gradually Adam is pushed towards Ellie in a very seedy court case and as such we find out why Ellie is so disconnected from the family.

As the wedding planning starts to take over their lives, Adam is desperate to be heard - he doesn't want to wait, but Rachel's mother is a machine who has been planning this event since Rachel was born. So while everyone is organising the much heralded event, Adam is left to his own devices and continues to have increasing pre-wedding panic attacks. This leads him down the should he - shouldn't he road and brings about lots of discussions on love, temptation, confusion and commitment. Shouldn't he go along with the flow and cement his place in the community or should he pick the road of the great unknown? The families are fantastically described, I just wanted to fit in with their lives - don't get me wrong it isn't all roses, there are the usual daily dramas, but Segal takes you inside a fiercely devoted Jewish family.

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The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo MoyesBook Cover of The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Read by Tracy in March 2013

Tracy recommends a love story with a twist.

After reading and loving Jojo Moyes Me Before You. I eagerly picked up The Girl You Left Behind, waiting to be disappointed as so often happens, but I wasn't, it was a totally different book and had me sobbing and wishing for some happiness to the main characters. I am not a romance book reader usually and tend to shy away from them, but this managed to avoid the soppiness that seems prevalent amongst this genre. The book starts in 1916 inside a small-town hotel, Le Coq Rouge, run by Sophie Lefevre and her family. Their French village of St Peronne is under German occupation where they are slowly being starved and mentally downtrodden with the villagers gradually turning on each other if they even get a whiff of possible favoritism between the inhabitants and the Germans. They still manage small victories though with the village burying their family treasurers and the raising of a piglet that is against the new rules. Life follows a fairly slow pace with the Kommandant ensuring they jump to his beat with the occasional violence. However, when a new Kommandant arrives things change rapidly.

After the men folk have gone to war, Sophie, her sister and brother and their respective children run the local bar and after the Kommandant becomes obsessed with a painting (a portrait of a young Sophie by her husband Edouard, named The Girl You Left Behind). He soon dictates that the hotel must provide meals to all the officers. Suddenly the Lefevre family find themselves at the mercy of the local gossip. Sophie sees the opportunity as a way to find her husband who she has not heard from for a long time and uses the Kommandants’ love of art to try and convince him to help.

The second part of the book finds us in London, 90 years later. Liv Halston is a 30-year-old copywriter and widow, her husband having died several years earlier, not before he gave her a painting (yep the same painting in the first part of the story). Liv finds herself at the mercy of her friends who want to set her up, with some particularly awful men, so much so she finds herself hiding away. Her husband had been an architect on a stella career trajectory and she is now housed in a spectacular apartment that is the envy of so many, however, she may be property rich, but she is extremely cash poor struggling to make ends meet. After one such disastrous dinner, Liv finds herself aided and abetted by a goth waitress called Mo, and they soon become friends and Mo moves in with Liv. Mo is down to earth and understands with Liv is going through, but tries to drag her into the here and now and not live in the past. Enter Paul McCafferty, a former NYPD cop, works for a company that locates stolen works of art during the war eras. Recently divorced, he is struggling with supporting his son and also trying to come to terms with the people he meets. He tracks down artwork only to find as soon as it is returned to the original owners; they really just want the money and are not interested in the art itself. Just as Liv feels she may be able to move on with Paul, the Lefevre family engages Paul's company to recover the painting. He soon realises that Liv is emotionally connected to the painting and she won't give it up without a fight. Eventually it turns into a high profile court case, which polarises the country. Although we all believe that stolen works of art should be returned to where is belonged, this case rests on the fact, was the painting actually stolen. There are some interesting twists and turns that sees Liv about to declare bankruptcy and she only continues on her quest to find out what really happened to Sophie and the story is tragic.

Moyes shows skill in keeping the two story lines going at the perfect pace. Although there is huge sadness in the book (not in the same vein as The Road), there is also some very funny bits (Liv going out and getting drunk at a gay bar). It is interesting to read a story where the characters are dedicated to their point of view above all else.

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Me Before You by Jojo MoyesBook Cover of Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Read by Tracy in February 2013

Tracy recommends a love story with a fantastic ending.

What an opening chapter - you don't really understand what is happening, but you know it is life changing, not least for the main character of Will Traynor. We are then whisked away on another completely different tangent. The second chapter follows Lou Clark and the news that her beloved employment at The Buttered Bun tea shop is about to come to an end. She also realises that she has limited skills for any work at the job centre. She loved her job and the daily routine of its customers. She also loves her boyfriend Patrick, although I am not sure why, as he seems like a total git. Anyway her family are reliant on her income, so she must suck it up and find another job, no matter what. We are taken into the demeaning life of someone on the dole attempting to find a job, when there is nothing out there they are skilled to do, and even being told that unless she accepts a job, any job, she will now be entitled to qualifying for the meagre allowance. Lou is desperate for work, she misses her old job terribly and is in fire about money and her future. Eventually the job centre comes up with a job as a care assistant, without the usual carer functions, so she heads off for an interview with the indomitable Camilla Traynor. She is given the six month contract, which has an income more than she would ever hope of earning. Unfortunately she must care of Will Traynor who, after an accident, which is graphically described in Chapter One. Will is unable to accept his new life where he is a quadriplegic living a life abhorrent to himself and finds himself without a desire to live. So when Lou arrives in his life, turning it upside down, he won't change his mind. Lou uncovers a plan between Will and his mother and decides to change his life and bring back that desire to live.

The village that the story is set in, is relatively typical to a lot in England, the main employer is the National Trust castle and which for Lou hides a horrific teenage incident which, she isn't fully aware of, has changed her life forever, and we see her settling into a life of boring anonymity. In her mid-twenties she is still living at home with no aspirations or desire to leave this insular lifestyle. So she is the opposite of Will. Will in his life before the accident, lived everything to the max - he travelled everywhere and worked at a frantic pace. After the initial getting to understand each other. They both see each other as a charity case. Will is desperate to Lou to see the world, but Lou wants Will to tell her where to go and what to do! She plots a series of adventures to make Will realise there is a life after the accident, but instead finds herself realising how difficult it is for him to melt into the crowd.

This novel could so easily have been a weepy love story, but it isn't. Moyes doesn't hide the difficulties Will faces being unable to do anything for himself and his constant pain and frustration he must live under, everything in his life must be orchestrated just to keep him alive. This is something he isn't necessarily convinced of. Lou and Will find a relationship of sorts, but is it enough? I won't spoil the ending, but it was the right ending. This novel had me sobbing at the end, there is no happy ending. In fact it made me thankful that in the end, Will was able to address his situation in a loving family atmosphere, something that is impossible for so many.

Me Before You was voted into the Readers' Choice Top 15 Books for 2013 at BookPage.

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The Corrections by Jonathan FranzenBook Cover of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Read by Tracy in January 2013

Tracy recommends a sweeping social panorama of life in our times.

I was a huge fan of Freedom which I reviewed in December 2010. It has taken me a while to finally pick up The Corrections but it was certainly worth it, even Oprah picked it for her televisual book club.

At the centre of The Corrections is the Lambert family who live in the typical midwestern American suburb of St Jude. Led by Albert, a difficult and domineering patriarch who has also started to exhibit the signs of Parkinsons and has taken to spending most of his time in the basement of the family home encased in his beloved great blue chair. His long suffering, but in my view, more domineering, wife, Enid, who hates the blue chair with a passion. They have three grown-up children, Gary, Chip and Denise who are all scarred by the unhappiness of their parents and spend their lives attempting to break from their domination. The book revolves around the big question - will the whole family gather, one last time, in the family home for Christmas. This is necessitated by the need of the elder Lamberts to sell their home to support their retirement and as Albert's condition worsens, the insane medical system in America could quite simply see them losing everything. Not that anybody other than Enid seems devastated to see the end of the childhood home that only seems to hold memories of guilt and unhappiness.

The story follows the family through their daily tribulations as they navigate life with other interlinked stories involving a biotech company, a midwestern railroad, and a life gradually absorbed into the pharmaceutical culture and not just for Alberts Parkinsons, but abetted by the cruise ship doctor who is able to prescribe some very untried narcotics.

The oldest of the children is Gary, who leads the perfect life - perfect wife, perfect children, perfect job as a banker where he can fulfil his stock-market obsessions. Alas this hides a form of paranoia and mental illness which nobody really addresses or even acknowledges. He is keen for the family to get together but is unable to gain an agreement from his wife for her to attend. And what a wife - Caroline is the sort of mother that doesn't agree with her children reading Narnia - C.S. Lewis was a known Catholic propagandist and the Narnian hero, Aslan, was a furry-four pawed Christ figure! I would never have realised, I just thought it was a great adventure story. Denise is the sane member of the family, having built up a very successful restaurant through sheer perseverance, although much to Enid's embarrassment, Denise is divorced. Denise is Albert's favourite, they seem to understand each other. Denise tries to keep the family together and is the one that ensures Chip doesn't become disenfranchised and bankrupt! However, all is not well with Denise's love life as she ricochets from one gender to another and eventually from husband to wife, before her world also comes tumbling down. Chip is the black sheep of the family, he had proved unfit for any form of economic activity except buying things and so he'd chosen to pursue a life of the mind and a doctorate in humanities. He soon finds himself having to leave his teaching job due to some inappropriate sexual conduct and after a foray into writing a screenplay, he finds himself caught up in a political coop in the eastern Europe country of Lithuania where he has been involved in an internet scam.

Franzen manages to keep himself neutral on all the issues he addresses and I also found myself gyrating between the pros and cons of drugs, corporate buy-outs and just family life in general. There were times you just wanted to knock heads together, but then the character showed a glimmer of humanity and you gravitated back the other way. It isnt a book that is all happy families, in fact it is the opposite, Franzen is unsympathetic when he is anatomizing his characters emotional lives and leads us through the doom and gloom, but just giving us enough glimpses of how it could be turned around.

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Care of Wooden Floors by Will WilesBook Cover of Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Read by Tracy in January 2013

Tracy recommends a slapstick comedy where you just know you should stop, but that little voice eggs you on.

The unnamed narrator takes up an invitation to look after the apartment of university friend Oskar and his recently separated wife, Laura, in an Eastern European city. Oskar has been called away too urgently to deal with the divorce lawyers in America. Arriving in the city with all good ideas and purpose to spend the free holiday escaping his daily life back in London as a council copywriter and using his time to write something more than pamphlets. The apartment seems to be the opposite of the city it inhabits which is itself described as bleak. The apartment is all sleek lines, beautiful furniture, spotlessly clean and also full of little notes to encourage the narrator to not touch anything. As well as a list of instructions to look after Oskar's cats (Shoosy and Stravvy) who seem not to be allowed to go anywhere or on anything - wish my cats were so obedient. Oskar also seems to be the antithesis of the narrator - who is inexplicably unorganised, talentless and unable to follow basic instructions, instead Oskar is methodical, meticulous and a well-known musician and composer. Initially the narrator becomes an unwilling tourist, deciding that he has to see something of the city and under instruction and arrangements made by Oskar finds himself seemingly spending his days in an almost drunken stupor and before you know it, the situation is spiralling out of contract, the cats have scratched the leather couch

The cat was now standing, turning a slow, tired circle on the black leather, white-tipped tail periscoping left and right. Our eyes locked, feline on the Swiss sofa, me by the study door, and I had a sense that something passed between us, some iota of information or moment of understanding. In this premonitory nanosecond I knew that the cat was about to do something.... the cat arched up its hindquarters, stretched out its front legs, and exposed its claws, which it then raked back across the leather with a terrible ripping, popping noise. This was why Oskar did not allow the cats on the sofa

and even worse, a red wine stain is on Oskar's most prized possessions - his floor. Over the next eight days, the situation continues to spiral into an almost slap-stick comedy of one tragic event after another. One of the cats meets an untimely end with the piano lid, a second red-wine stain blossom on the kitchen floor and the cleaner meets an even worse end. Wiles is an architecture and design journalist by trade (writing for Icon, a monthly architecture and design magazine in the UK), which is why the descriptions of the apartment, concert hall etc are so descriptive and you felt yourself drawn into the world of wooden floors and the pressure of responsibility for their care. The inability to communicate with the locals puts added pressure on maintaining the apartment and he feels like he is competing with the cleaner who looks at him disdainfully and is soon nicknamed Batface. I loved the first 80% of the book, but then it became a bit too farcical although it does highlight the problems with housesitting for someone and attempting to take care of their property as your own - something I think should be second nature, but alas you can see how difficult it is for some people to feel the same way. The end did have a nice twist, who would have thought of reversing the floor boards! Although by then it was a bit too late for some of the characters.

I can't wait for the next book though - Toxic Tourism, where Wiles whisks us off to tourist destinations such as Chernobyl, Aral Sea and the Baikonur space launch facility - I wonder if I should be updating my bucket list.

Read an interview with the author at NPR.

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