An explanation (for the absence of reviews of late) and a new review: The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes

The cover of my next novel, due out March 1st 2020. Set in Scotland in the early 1700s, it’s based on a true story.

I’ve been a bit remiss with my book reviews of late – but not, thank goodness, my reading (I have devoured so many books – fiction and non-fiction – they are my solace, joy and inspiration). Nevertheless, reviewing has taken a back seat as the last two months have seen me immersed in my own writing (a novel due for release in 2021) and editing my next novel, The Darkest Shore (which I will blog about soon) and which is being released March 1st 2020 in Aus/NZ. As a consequence, I have a number of simply wonderful books I’ve been bursting to review, but have had to wait until I’ve had a bit of breathing space – oh, and my computer. You see, on top of everything else, my computer decided to go ballistic. It had a bit of help though. I decided I was going to store my documents on iCloud. Actually, I was persuaded by my husband who said I should have backup beyond a time machine (apologies to Dr Who) just in case someone breaks into my house and steals my computer. Fair enough, I thought, and bought iClould space and voila! My files not only disappeared, but those remaining became scattered into different hundreds of folders etc. A “geek” (his name for himself) called James was my saviour and, after saying he’s never seen anything like it, spent five days trying to rebuild my computer back to the way it was. Turns out, iCloud has eaten some of my files and we don’t think I’ll ever get them back :(. Overall, I have what I need, so I am trying to think positively and tell myself I Marie Kondoed my computer… let go of what didn’t spark joy. Problem is, I don’t yet really know what I have “let go” of and dread finding out lest it doesn’t spark joy so much as rage or despair… Anyhow, onto more interesting things… like books.

I honestly, I have been so spoiled with my reading of late, there are just so many fantastical books out there, I wasn’t sure where to start until I remembered The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. It was recommended to me by my beloved reading buddy and while I was enchanted with the title, little did I know I would swiftly fall under the spell of the story as well.

Set during the Depression in the US and based on a true story, this about a group of disparate women living in the mountains of Kentucky who, for various reasons, decide to create a mobile “horseback” library in the small town of Bailyville.

The story opens by introducing the reader to the recently wed, British immigrant, Alice Wright. Wed to the handsome and very desirable and wealthy, Bennett Van Cleeve, Alice believes she is escaping the prison of her home in England and embarking on a grand adventure with the man of her dreams. Sadly, the reality is far from what she hoped and soon she finds herself in the company of other women who, for reasons that become apparent as the story unfolds, are also searching for something and someone beyond what their lives have offered. There’s sassy and independent Margery, shy young Izzy, the widow, Kathleen and Sophia, an educated black woman tasked with caring for her crippled brother who, due to prejudice, decides to only work in the library in the evenings, becoming, effectively, the library’s administrator and bringing order to potential chaos.

Known as the WPA packhorse librarians, of course, there are objections among certain townsfolk, not only about women mounting horses daily to take books, magazines and comics out to those who either live remotely or are unable to come to the library, but also about the fact they’re peddling stories. Stories are powerful, unpredictable and potentially dangerous. As the books and magazines and the tales contained within start to not only unite the readers, but also teach them about life beyond their mountains and about possibilities, the township begins to stir. In this sense, the book is about the way in which stories can literally transform lives – and not just those of the packhorse librarians – and for the better.

Brave, bold and kind, the librarians endure personal hardship and professional criticism, but it’s their work and their love of it that binds them together. The lives of the locals are also brought into stark relief; their poverty, their struggles, but also their joy in the tales the women bring them and how they come to slowly regard themselves and each other in a different light. But not everyone can tolerate what the packhorse librarians are doing, the way it’s empowering certain people and, before too long, there are moves afoot to prevent the women not only delivering their tales, but the changes they stimulate. But when tragedy strikes, no-one could have foreseen the lengths those opposed to the library and the independent women at its heart were prepared to go…

Beautifully written, this tale is stirring, heart-felt and inspiring. It reminds you of the power of good stories, the importance of friendship and above all, how decent people united in a great cause can bring about justice and positive change. Messages we all need to remember; lessons we need to heed. A wonderful read.

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All That’s Dead by Stuart McBride



Each new addition to the Logan McRae series by Stuart McBride has become my “reward” book: that is, I set myself certain writing and research tasks and only once they’re finished do I permit myself to read the next installment in the life of Inspector Logan McRae and the motley band of loyal, hilarious, brave, foolhardy and often clever people who work with and, sometimes, against him. As a consequence, I relish the experience and then mourn when it’s over, knowing I have to wait at least a year until once more, I can be, albeit for a brief time, part of this madcap, dangerous world that is policing in Aberdeen, Scotland.

In this book, Logan, Steele, Rennie and co have to pit their wits against some Alt-Right Scottish nationalists who go on a spree, committing terrible atrocities against those they believe have betrayed Scottish independence and fostered more than cordial relations with the Brits. The results are bloody and terrifying and the criminals, though identified early, hard to pin down. As a result, the media make scapegoats of the police, representing the law as buffoons who are about as much use (as one great phrase in the book puts it) as a plasticine bicycle.

Against time and bad will, Logan and the team try to prevent another crime, another grisly death. But just when it seems they have all the answers, more questions surface which throw the entire investigation on its ear.

Filled with fabulous, quirky characters, crackling dialogue (that has you alternately splitting your sides laughing or appreciating the emotional depths of a seemingly simple phrase) and written at a pace that will keep you reading well into the night, this is another splendid addition to one of my all-time favourite crime series. Cannot wait for the next one. 

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The Blood Road by Stuart McIntyre.

Yet another sensational instalment in a Scottish crime series that even though it started fabulously, just keep getting better and better. In this latest “episode” DI Logan McRae and his team of Tufty, Rennie and the best written female detective in any series (alternately infuriating, funny, clever and outrageous), DS Roberta Steele, confront a shocking truth: someone they thought they’d buried and farewelled with mixed feelings is resurrected albeit, briefly. Nevertheless, the short return sets off a chain of events that lead Logan and his colleagues to confront a dreadful truth: someone is selling children at auction. There is nothing else that can explain the disappearance of young boys and girls from the local area nor the fact that no evidence or trail is ever discovered, leaving behind misery and despair – and not just for the parents.

But when Logan understand the connections between an old case, a difficult colleague and the current ones, a series of tragic events is set in motion that puts not just the force at grave risk, but innocent children as well.

As usual, McIntyre doesn’t steer away from exposing the terrible underbelly of Aberdeen and the type of crimes committed as well as the lives of perpetrators and their victims. Brutal, McIntyre also manages to not only introduce a gallow’s humour through his main characters, but the warmth of their interpersonal relationships and the desperate lengths they go to try and help the community and the victims of crime. Nevertheless, the ingratitude of society, the culpability of the media in generating this and the way in which even good intentions can not only be foiled but misrepresented and the consequences of this are all there on the page.

Rich in so many ways, the Logan McRae series (and associated spin-offs) are a fantastic read that I find myself savouring because I don’t want the book to end. Alas, it does, and now I have to wait what will seem an eternity for the next one. *sigh*

 

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A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer

What a marvellous and original book. In blending history and science fiction, Angela Meyer has created a work of literary prowess that lingers in the imagination long after the last page.

Told from two viewpoints (mainly), this is the story of Australian Jeff who, longing to escape not merely his past, but his secret, hidden self, flees Melbourne for the Scottish Highlands and, eventually, an island. But Jeff carries more baggage than simply what he regards as his shameful desires. He also has a device that allows him to escape his deteriorating corporeal frame and enter the mind and soul of someone from the past. That someone is young Leonora. Warned he can only use it three times, Jeff ignores the advice, and uses the equipment to escape his own life and experience Leonora’s at will.

Motherless Leonora lives in the Scottish Highlands in the 1860s with her father, tending the land and animals of the local laird. Content with her lot, loving the knowledge passed onto her by Mr Anderson who manages the laird’s many animals, Leonora is inquisitive, kind and keen to learn as much as she can. When she not only befriends the young laird but starts to have strange visions and yearnings which she cannot reconcile, she wonders what is happening to her.

When her father sends her to join her aunt in sooty, noisy Edinburgh, Leonora is inconsolable. Torn from her old life, the only constant is the man she senses lurking behind her eyes, on the periphery of her mind and the strange, impossible visions and strong, sensual urges his presence arouses. Uncertain what is happening to her, fearful she is going mad, possessed or both, Leonora’s life begins to unravel. There is only one way she can be saved, but selfish, indulgent Jeff is no hero.

Two lives are at stake, but only one can survive…

Exquisitely written, this book evokes both a distant future where human contact and companionship can be replaced by life-like devices and technology gives us entrée to the past and others that is both dangerous and exhilarating. It also plunges readers into history and Scotland post-enlightenment. This was a time when women and science were pushing boundaries and the mind was a new territory, ripe for exploration and exploitation.

Unique, rich and incredibly sensual and sexual, this novel takes us to the edges of desire and beyond, exploring issues such as loss, regret, choices, shame, sexual fantasy and reality, and the depths and heights to which human nature can both plume and strive. It also examines boundaries – those imposed by our sex and sexual desires, social constraints and culture and how, even we’re free, we create our own cages and then rail against them.

What also makes this novel so very different is the way it not only segues between male and female point of view but how, at times, these either blur or become so distinct as to appear as if they’re alternate species.

Clever, convincing and unputdownable, Meyer’s debut novel is sensational. My sincere thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for a copy. What a ride. What a read.

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A Room at the Manor by Julie Shackman

A Room at the Manor by Julie Shackman is a delicious romantic romp set in contemporary Scotland and which tells the story of Lara McDonald who, after a relationship fails, returns to her home town of Fairview, near Glasgow. Broken-hearted, she takes a job with the catty Kitty Walker in her tea room called True Brew. Unhappy, but determined to heal, Lara befriends the local, elderly laird, Hugh Carmichael, sharing with him her hopes and dreams for a future she fears will never come to pass. When Hugh suddenly dies, Lara finds herself in a strange position: one of her dreams is about to come true, but as it unfolds, in ways she never could have imagined, she begins to wonder if the price is simply too high.

Filled with love lost and won, amazing recipes and descriptions of cakes, breads and slices which, I confess, had me rushing to the kitchen to bake (and eat) myself, the greatest threat this light, fun and always heart-rich tale poses is to your waist-line! The relationships Lara forges and those she resists are wonderful to behold, especially the one she has with her best friend, Morven and her prickly, militant mother. Slowly, as Lara begins to repair her heart, she finds it under threat again, only this time, she seems powerless to prevent herself repeating the same mistakes…

Told with pathos and humour, the story moves at a good pace and the characters crackle with vigour. The Scottish town of Fairview and the grand manor, Glenlovatt, and the food Lara and her friends make and consume also become characters and you’ll find it hard not to fall in love with them as well. As I was reading, it struck me that this would make a terrific Hallmark movie – which is interesting as one of Shackman’s roles (apart from author) is to write for greeting cards!

Recommended for lovers of romance, and those who want to escape into a good book, curling up by a winter fire or in some sand, beneath golden sun and heat, Shackman’s novel is a great companion.

Thank you very much to Allen and Unwin for sending me a copy. 🙂

 

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