The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I was doing a book signing at a sensational book store (Petrarch’s in Launceston, Tasmania Australia) when the owner, Peter, and I began to discussing books we love. Apart from me being a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, our tastes were very similar. We started waxing lyrical about great historical fiction and crime fiction/thrillers. He asked me if I had read, I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes and when I confessed I hadn’t (I hadn’t even heard of it), he insisted I must. He pointed out the book even came with a “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” clause. Well, how could I resist that?

18144124So, I started reading the novel. Written in the first person, it follows the life of, and investigation into, a terrorist plot by a man who has had many identities but in this book is mainly known as “Pilgrim”. Working for a top-secret US government organisation, Pilgrim, a man who has been involved in so many operations and worked all over the world, is forced back from premature retirement to find and halt a lone-wolf terrorist who plans to bring down the USA and its allies in the most diabolical of ways.

Taking the reader all over the world and into the hearts, minds and histories of both “pilgrim” and the lone-wolf, as well as different cultures and countries, the novel is vast in scope and very hard, once you get past the initial set up and what appears to be a red-herring murder in the USA, to put down. Parts of it are very well written, you feel like you are part of the action (Hayes’ screen-writing background is put to good use as the book is very cinematic) and the heart-racing consequences of some of the decisions both the “good” guys and those with nefarious intentions make.

However, it wasn’t always plain-sailing with this book. I have to say I found the main character almost too-perfect – like a James Bond/Jason Bourne and any other action and superhero rolled into one and then on steroids. There didn’t seem to be anything he hadn’t done or couldn’t do and was the “best” at – as an assassin, an investigator, an author (!) (yep), and even about art. Raised by a billionaire philanthropist, apart from a few family issues, the guy doesn’t even have to worry about money. Oh, and he’s really handsome… how do I know? Because he basically tells us – and smart – he tells us that too. Did I mention he’s also a doctor? Yet, there was so much telling rather than showing of all this throughout the novel (a major flaw in the book), Pilgrim came across as a bit of an egotistical prat (who nonetheless could demonstrate empathy for Holocaust survivors, appreciate art, and love kids – and ogle all the beautiful women that pepper the book. Apparently, unattractive or homely women don’t enter Pilgrim’s sphere) rather than the patriotic and ethical guy he apparently is.  Not only that, but when he did act/show, he made really basic mistakes and incorrect assumptions about those he was supposed to be an expert on. I found this tendency to “tell” all the time frustrating because, when Hayes “shows” he’s good at it and it’s mainly in the final stages of a very long book that he does this well.

Another aspect of the novel I struggled with was the portrait of the Islamic world. It was very negative and, frankly, clichéd. It was as if all the Arab characters, with few exceptions, were drawn from reductive and often horrible templates, created post 9/11, to justify invasion, racism, Islamophobia and so much more. I found this quite disheartening. It was very U.S.A “ra ra” (all the men in the White House, including the President, are “good blokes”, while the Turkish, Saudi and other Middle Eastern authorities are a range of negative and often idiotic stereotypes) in so many ways and I can see that it would be the kind of movie a post-Trump America (or at least those who voted for him) might love. I didn’t love the book, but I do understand its appeal – it’s simplicity. It creates a world of black and white, where there are clear-cut goodies and baddies and even when the good guys do bad things, it’s for a greater good. I couldn’t help but think of a line from the movie True Lies, when Jamie Curtis discovers her husband, played by Arnie Schwarzenegger, is a spy. She asks, “Have you killed anyone?” He answers (affected by a truth serum) “Yes. But they were all bad.” This is that kind of book; Pilgrim is that kind of “hero.”

Overall, this is a fast and quite gripping read (despite its length) that would be great for holidays or long plane trips – but be prepared to suspend your disbelief. While I don’t want my money back, it didn’t live up to the hype.

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The Quakers’ A Very Short Introduction by Pink Dandelion

2237189This wonderful, brief overview of Quaker faith and history by Pink Dandelion, commences with the beginnings of Quakerism during the Interregnum in Britain and George Fox’s early epiphanies and moves to establish a “church”, to the 21st century. Following the practices, trials and tribulations of early and persecuted Quakers, Dandelion takes the reader through the intervening years and the splintering of one faith into, basically three and more branches, and the various styles and belief systems that dominated and thus established differences within the faith. While silence as a means of a direct encounter with God dominates most variations of Quakerism, a handy table towards the back of the book reveals major points of difference and equivalence in terms of worship and leadership among other things.

Mostly ignorant about this gentle but socially-conscience faith (Quakers are renown for their political actions against slavery, practical help for victims of war, those who suffer as a result of government policies, and natural disasters as well as for business acumen and honesty – in the past and present), I found this introduction (being read in conjunction with a biography of George Fox) not only managed to quash the many stereotypes and incorrect assumptions about Quakers and their faith I possessed (for example, I didn’t know about the many intra-faith divisions and co-operation but also acceptance of other faiths and even incorporation of some aspects of Christianity into doctrine and practice that has occurred over the centuries), but provided a fascinating insight into an often misunderstood religion as well.

 

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The 14th Colony by Steve Berry

26159183I’ve not been feeling quite the love for Steve Berry’s books as I used to, finding the more recent ones (The Patriot Threat is so far exempt – I’m currently reading it) relied to heavily on exposition rather than simply allowing the characters and plot to drive the story. With The 14th Colony, however, Berry has a return to form with a fascinating, fast-paced and action-filled adventure that pits Cotton Malone and what remains of the Magellan Billet and friends against the US’s old foe – the former Soviet Union and a number of retired agents who have allowed their misplaced loyalty to a dead ideology and regime to not only fester, but metamorphose into something deadly.

In the final days of the presidency of Danny Daniels, Malone is sent into Russia by his former boss, Stephanie Nelle to see if he can discover the whereabouts of a missing Russian archivist. Instead, Malone fights for his life as he is first shot down, attacked, relentlessly chased and then encounters first hand the drive and passion of ex-KGB agent, Aleksandr Zorin.

Discovering a huge flaw in the US constitution that would render the country ungovernable should the unthinkable happen and the incoming president, VP and all under them perish, Zorin and remaining sleeper agents in the west, have kept secret the means to bring political chaos about – until now.

Armed with weapons thought to belong more in the realm of fiction than fact, and information garnered from the archives of a reclusive patriotic group, the Society of Cincinnati, Zorin and those who share his myopic vision, set about bringing America to its knees.

From the first chapter, the clock counts down as preparations for the presidential inauguration commence and Zorin’s diabolical and, it seems, unstoppable plan, are put in motion.

From the ice-wastelands of Russia, to Canada and various locations around the USA, the reader is taken on a roller-coaster ride as not only Malone, but those he’s relied upon in previous adventures, rush to his aid: Luke Daniels, Stephanie, the soon-to-be-retired, Daniels, and even his estranged lover, Cassiopeia.

Shifting points of view and missions as well as enemies both within and without the two major powers make this a rollicking read. Mixing fact and fiction, Berry poses the question “what if?” and then creates a terrific read around an improbable and frightening possibility.

My only reservation is his tendency to didacticism – the need to incorporate what’s clearly painstaking research into the novel. I would prefer to be shown or have the parts of the constitution and various documents that are utilised paraphrased. As a reader, I trust Berry to take me for the ride without these sidebars of “proof”. I found them interesting but ultimately, in terms of reading pleasure, distracting.

Overall, a good, exciting read that kept me awake into the wee hours.

Berry is back.

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Make Me by Lee Child

When you pick up a Lee Child, Jack Reacher novel, you know you’re in for one rollicking ride and this latest instalment in the series, Make Me, is no exception.

25017440-1Commencing with a train rumbling through the American heartland, the story begins just before it screeches to a halt in a small town called Mother’s Rest. Embarking is none other than our man-with-no-(obvious) baggage, Jack Reacher.

Finding the deceptively sleepy place filled with suspicious folk behaving strangely, and none of whom seem to be able to tell him why the town bears such a sweet appellation, Reacher’s curiosity is piqued. Helping fuel this is the lovely, Michelle Chang, a retired FBI agent who now works privately as an investigator and who happens to be in town because she’s responded to a back up call from her partner, Keever. A big man who resembles Reacher, Keever, it turns out, has gone missing and no-one claims to know where he is.

Teaming up with Chang, Reacher determines to help her find her partner and, if not, at least uncover what happened to him and why. Only, this scant place with the appealing name and odd residents is not what it seems. The further Reacher and Chang delve into Keever’s fate, the less they seem to understand. Barriers are thrown up and hostility greets every enquiry. Left with no choice but to leave Mother’s Rest, they back and forth across the country and in doing so start to piece together a shocking puzzle, one they know they’ll finally solve when they return to where they started.

But that proves harder then they thought. There are those determined to prevent Reacher and Chang from progressing any further, but if there’s one thing Reacher cannot abide, its being told what to do or forced to stop something he’s started, even if he knows what he finds could have deadly consequences…

In the first half, this novel is a slow build that really takes the reader along for the investigative ride. Flanking Reacher and Chang, we patiently sift through the clues, listen to various people reveal or conceal what they know and then follow as Chang and Reacher try to work out how what they’ve learned or found fits (or doesn’t) into the dilemma they’re trying to unravel.

Dogging their every move, their every call, are groups of shady people – assassins, tech experts and those with no other motive than to obey their faceless superiors and do whatever it takes to ensure these two people get no further. With dead bodies either in their wake or awaiting them, Chang and Reacher know time is running out and they must discover the dark secret at the heart of Mother’s Rest and Keever’s disappearance and what it is the citizens of that dozy town will do anything, pay anything, to protect.

When the climax of the novel comes, just what this secret is comes as a terrible shock – not just to Reacher and Chang but to the reader. It was unexpected, horrific at so many levels, and thus the enormity of what the entire investigation and the people involved are about is shown in a new, ghastly and desperate light.

A well-paced read, much like the train that appears and vanishes, the book takes you from one point to another, yet with a visceral thrill running through every page that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Like all Child’s books, Make Me delivers the kind of punch and panic at which he, and his protagonist, are so good.

 

 

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