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Home Stretch by Graham Norton.

I’ve been a long-time fan of Graham Norton and his self-named chat show, where celebrities of all ilk grace his couch as he not only puts them at ease, but entertains his guests and audience alike by unearthing gems about those he interviews. The same can’t be said for the folk who are foolish or brave enough to dare the Red chair… Though I’ve known for a few years that Norton had also written some well-regarded novels, such is my funfair bias against celebrities who write a singular book, let alone books, and receive the kind of publicity that most authors can only dream about – whether the famous person ever wrote the book or not – that I tend to avoid reading them, unless they’re memoirs or come with a recommendation. While I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past, I still find myself feeling irrationally annoyed when, say, someone highly regarded and successful for acting writes one book and calls themselves an author, and then appears on every chat show and newspaper and online, using their “celebrity” to promote their work. But the rational part of me also thinks, why wouldn’t you?  Good for them! (I told you I was biased about celebrities who become writers (as opposed to celebrity writers – no problem with them) – and I’m not proud of it). But this is something Norton doesn’t do. Like other people more famous for one or two things than writing, he humbly creates his fiction and allows it to speak for itself. And my, awards and accolades aside (which he’s deserved) does it do that. Let me tell you Norton can not only tell a cracking good yarn, but his writing is moving, evocative and filled with insights about what makes people tick. Homestretch opens in...

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Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly.

You know when you pick up a Michael Connelly book you’re in great story-telling hands. This novel, featuring the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, is no exception. This time, Haller has been accused of murder and all the evidence is against his protestations of innocence. Determined to represent himself, Haller is not without colleagues and friends – past and present – who believe he’s not guilty and insist on helping him, no matter what it takes. From the confines of his jail-cell, Mickey decides a not-gully verdict isn’t enough; he wants complete exoneration-to be declared, publicly in court, and found innocent. But the law is strict in this regard and, as his day in court draws near, Mickey finds that his enemies – past and present – are against him. Try as he and his team might, the odds are stacked against him. Yet again, this is a superb rendering of not just characters old, beloved and new, but the intricacies of the law and the criminal justice system in the USA (and California in particular) as well as the schism and tensions that exist between prosecutors and defenders, criminals and those who claim their innocence. Taut, tense and beautifully paced. A great...

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People of Abandoned Character by Clare Whitfield.

It was the fantastic title and wonderful historic and dark premise that had me purchasing this book the moment I set eyes on it. I mean, imagine a novel that features a woman who comes to believe she has married Jack the Ripper! Set in the grim dank streets of Victorian London in 1888, the reader follows thirty-year-old Susannah as she falls head over heels for young, handsome surgeon, Thomas. But just as former- nurse, Susannah, keeps secrets from her new husband, so too Thomas and his wilful and quite creepy housekeeper, appear to be keeping very dark ones from her. But when their efforts to hide the truth from Susannah become deadly, she is forced to act. I know many readers loved this book, and what sharing impressions of novels and their impact does is expose how wildly divergent readers’ tastes can be, and this is a wonderful thing. We each bring our own context, genre preferences and expectations to a book (for better and worse!). Sadly, while I so admire the notions underpinning this book, adore historical fiction (and crime!) and the push to give women of the past a voice, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped. There’s a number of reasons, but mainly I found I didn’t relate to or care about any of the characters, not even Susannah. I also found some of the plot points and character motivation more convenient than logical vehicles for moving the narrative forward. What I did enjoy was the evocation of the city, the descriptions of dirty, fog-bound London and the gap between newspaper reports of the brutal murders, and even the brief experiences of the poor victims and those upon whom the grisly deaths impacted. I also love the chutzpah and imagination writers show...

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The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku

I’d heard so much about this book before I read it, how it was life-changing and joyous for so many readers. When a friend bought it for me for Christmas, I was delighted. At last, not only would I get to experience this amazing book, but after a very ordinary year, lose myself in some happy and wise recollections… Oh. Boy. Now, I know this might come across as foolish and/or naive, but what I didn’t expect when I started The Happiest Man on Earth was a memoir of a Holocaust survivor. Don’t get me wrong. I knew Eddie had endured and survived Nazi atrocities – I just didn’t realise this book was mostly about his shocking experiences. If I’d known that at the start, I never would have read it and, I tell you now, I would be so much poorer for not having had the experience. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother, before the pogroms started. My reasons for not wanting to read Holocaust stories is deeply personal. Please, bear with me while I explain. Over the years, I’ve read so many accounts, so many histories of Nazi barbarism; I studied, with desperate passion the history and literature of the era, watched endless documentaries (remember the gut-wrenching World at War series popular in high schools in the 1970s?) in an effort to understand how and why the attempted genocide of Jewish people (and homosexuals, gypsies and so many others) happened, it almost broke me. You see, I lost so many of my family during the Holocaust. In fact, my great-grandfather and great-uncle were interned in Buchenwald (and, I believe, pretty much when Eddie was there) and, later, my great-grandmother and great- grandfather died, a year apart (suicided) in Theresienstadt. So did numerous cousins and other family members and their...

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Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

The moment I read the first few sentences of this glorious book, I knew I was going to love it – and I did. The writing is lyrical and lovely, the story fascinating and clever, and the history that weaves through its pages brought to life in simply stunning ways. But what really makes this utterly engrossing novel so captivating is the premise that underpins the entire narrative.  While most of us either grew up with Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue/novel, Gulliver’s Travels, or know of the extraordinary adventures its protagonist, ship‘s surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver underwent through various popular culture retellings (eg. the movie starring Ted Danson as Gulliver) not much thought at all is given to his wife or family who were left behind. Well, Chater changes that. This is the story of Mary Gulliver and her two children and how they survived in Lemuel’s absence on upon his unexpected return.  The book is set during a time when women were completely subordinated to their husbands and society was patriarchal in every sense. When Lemuel is believed dead after three years missing at sea, Mary Gulliver not only provides for her family through her formidable skills as a healer and midwife, but excels. Imagine then, after attaining liberty, repaying her selfish husband’s debts and raising her children, her husband returns, expecting his household to revert back to the way it was – with him at its head and his every need and whim met. Furthermore, though he’s ill, he won’t be shifted from telling incredible tales of what happened to him while he was away, stories that threaten to undermine and even destroy the reputation Mary has, through hard graft and determination, restored.  This is the story Chater gives us – from the point of view of Mary and...

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The Phone Box at the Edge of the World Laura Imai Messina

This exquisite book, set after the shocking Tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 and took so many lives, wreaking havoc upon the people and land, tells the story of how some survivors handled their overwhelming grief in the aftermath.  While the book focuses mainly on Yui (whose mother and daughter were swept away) and Takeshi, a doctor whose wife died of cancer and whose young daughter has fallen into silence ever since, we’re introduced to a host of other characters who find solace, not just in each other (though not in the sense you’d usually expect – they don’t console one another in the ways we traditionally understand this), but in their memories, actions and choices and, through a special place. In a garden by the ocean, Bell Gardia, an elderly couple have a disused phone box which houses the “Wind Phone.” Here, people who are grieving, are welcomed to come and speak into the hand piece, communicate with those who’ve died or who are no longer present in their lives. In expressing their pain, dreams, love, rage etc and sharing with those they’ve lost, these people find ways to connect their past, their sorrow, and reconcile their present. That this place and the phone and its purpose really exist (how wonderful!) gives the tale a special frisson.  I admit, I was a little concerned that a book that focuses so much on such tragedy, on death and its impact on the living, would be bleak and miserable. Far from it. This heart-achingly lovely book has moments that do explore the depths of sadness, but it’s done with such beauty and thoughtfulness, imbuing even the smallest actions and thoughts with deep meaning. Yes, I ached, I cried, but I also felt a warm bud of happiness that grew as...

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The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

This book was unexpected. While the premise was fairly typical of a mystery/crime novel (a group of old friends travel somewhere remote – the Scottish Highlands – to celebrate New Year when tragedy strikes and they’re stranded), the style was very original. Written as a number of first-person narratives, the reader gets to know a few of the characters intimately whether they’re the London guests with relationships spanning up to twenty years, or the staff that work at the gorgeous lodge they’ve booked in the wilds of Scotland. While the tale commences with the tragedy, it then segues back and forth to three days before, to “Now” and then brings the reader ever closer to the moment death strikes.  The combination of first-person POV, which means we sometimes see the same set of circumstances and interactions from completely different perspectives, as well as the shifting time frame, gives such immediacy to the story. I found I wanted to keep reading, even as my eyes grew heavy. Turning the next page, I would experience a chill, a frisson, that made me keep going. In that sense, the book is a real page turner. I have seen criticism of the book in relation to the characters, some readers finding them genuinely unpleasant. There is that – most are not ‘nice’ with secrets and flaws that make them unlikable but never, I felt, unrelatable. They admit to their faults, even try to psychoanalyse themselves. While the this generally fails, it’s the fact Foley gives the reader contexts and other perspectives for understanding certain characters’ actions and motivation that redeems them somewhat. I found it refreshing to have characters portrayed in such shades of grey. It’s also what made the perpetrator hard to pick. Overall, I thought his a great, escapist read. So...

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The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle

This is yet another book that has received a great deal of hype (debut novel that blew the publisher’s mind re the quality of the writing, Hollywood knocking, an author with a terrific back story herself etc), only this time, I didn’t hesitate, but went along for the ride and what a ride it was.  The Girl in the Mirror is the story of mirror twins, Summer Rose and Iris who, along with the rest of their extended family (their father was married three times and they have a number of step-siblings and a brother) find themselves pawns in their dead father’s will. You see, their filthy rich and manipulative father (he’s a man who tells his children “nice is dumb” – what a charmer) has written some strict rules for inheriting his wealth: forget dividing his incredible legacy between his kids. Oh no – not this bloke. Only one will get the lot: the first of his children to be legally married and then give birth to a living child will inherit his enormous wealth – $100 million no less (did I say this was very soap opera?). So, the race is on. With six daughters and a son – and the twins with a chronological advantage (they’re older) – who will be the first? But with Summer refusing to bow to her father’s unethical instructions, choosing love over money, and the other children far too young to even be able to conceive, Iris appears to have it in the bag – or would if her own, hastily conceived relationship hadn’t self-destructed.  Just when all seems lost (including the money), perfect Summer, the twin Iris wishes she was, throws her “Twinnie” a life-line.  Believe it or not, what I’ve revealed above is not a spoiler, but just the...

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