The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Pearl by John Steinbeck; Narrated by Hector Elizondo #Audiobook

51HJi3+T4NL._SL500_

‘In the town they tell the story of the great pearl – how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind.’

The Pearlis Steinbeck’s heartbreaking short parable about wealth and the darkness and evil it can instill in even the most generous of men’s hearts.

Category 13 in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge is ‘Read a book with less than 100 pages.’ John Steinbeck’s classic, coming in at a mere 96 pages, falls cleanly within this remit. (Yes, I am now doing the categories completely out of order and have yet to review books to fit categories 7, 11 and 12. They are coming, I promise.)

I haven’t read any Steinbeck novels since school, and I am wondering why because The Pearl is so stunning, in both the writing and the story itself, that I now feel like I need to go and pick up more of his work.

This is the story of Kino, his wife Juana and their baby Coyotito who live a hand-to-mouth on the shores of the Gulf until Kino, a fisherman, finds a huge and exquisite pearl that he believes will elevate his family from the cycle of poverty which traps them. He longs for opportunity and education for their son, so that he will not be prey to being kept down by their fear and lack of knowledge. However, greed and envy, the determination of those above to keep them down and the fear of the unknown of those around them, conspire to rob Kino of his dreams.

The writing is beautiful from the very first page. It is not flowery, but powerful, with the descriptions of the simple life of the fisher folk bringing their world to stark life. Their fear and panic when misfortune befalls their child, their rage when they know they are being manipulated and robbed by lack any ability to prevent it, the unfairness of their situation burns brightly on the page through Steinbeck’s prose, and leaps from their into the soul of the reader. I felt their pain very keenly and deeply, and was left with lasting pain on their behalf long after the book was finished.

Despite this being a very short book, Steinbeck manages to explore in detail the themes of evil in the hearts of man. How one person’s good fortune inspires darkness in the hearts and minds of others, and how difficult it is for people to break out from under the yoke of poverty when to do so does not serve the people who benefit from exploiting them. If this book does not make you angry, I would be very surprised.

This book is a shining example of how to write. Not a word is wasted, and the picture is painted in the reader’s mind’s eye with clarity and intensity. It is both inspiring and daunting to read as a writer, demonstrating what lofty heights are possible and making one despair of ever getting anywhere close to them.

The Pearl is out now in all formats and you can get a copy here.

About the Author

download

John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author and the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature winner “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters.”

During his writing career, he authored 33 books, with one book coauthored alongside Edward Ricketts, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas The Red Pony (1933) and Of Mice and Men (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies.

Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Ranges region. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyman protagonists.

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede; Narrated by Ray Porter #Audiobook

511ujPgoMuL

When 38 jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada by the closing of U.S. airspace on September 11, the population of this small town on Newfoundland Island swelled from 10,300 to nearly 17,000. The citizens of Gander met the stranded passengers with an overwhelming display of friendship and goodwill.

As the passengers stepped from the airplanes, exhausted, hungry and distraught after being held on board for nearly 24 hours while security checked all of the baggage, they were greeted with a feast prepared by the townspeople. Local bus drivers who had been on strike came off the picket lines to transport the passengers to the various shelters set up in local schools and churches. Linens and toiletries were bought and donated. A middle school provided showers, as well as access to computers, email, and televisions, allowing the passengers to stay in touch with family and follow the news.

Over the course of those four days, many of the passengers developed friendships with Gander residents that they expect to last a lifetime. As a show of thanks, scholarship funds for the children of Gander have been formed and donations have been made to provide new computers for the schools. This book recounts the inspiring story of the residents of Gander, Canada, whose acts of kindness have touched the lives of thousands of people and been an example of humanity and goodwill.

Category 10 in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021 is ‘Read a book with a vehicle on the cover,’ so I chose this non-fiction book from my TBR pile, bearing the image of a plane. I have been meaning to read The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede for a long while, and this provided the perfect opportunity, although I actually ended up listening to this as an audiobook.

No one who was alive and of sufficient maturity to understand what was happening on 9/11 will ever forget where they were when the planes struck the World Trade Centre. A day on which the evil that man was capable of wreaking on their fellow man was terribly evidenced to the eyes of the world. Well, this book displays the other side of that coin and demonstrates the love, generosity and selflessness that humans can lavish on one another at times of great need. Whilst the world reeled in the face of absolute, unbelievable horror, the airline passengers who found themselves stranded in Gander, Newfoundland on that terrible day saw the antithesis of this is the welcoming people of this tiny place.

I had never really thought about what happened to all the hundreds of planes that were in the air, bound for the USA, when the terrorist attacks caused the closing of US airspace until I came across this book but the story of what happened to those planes, or a small proportion of them anyway, is unbelievable and fascinating as laid out in the pages of this book. How the hundreds of stranded flights were handled by the air traffic controllers, then at the over-whelmed airports, then by the places they ended up, is all laid out here as shining examples of what can be achieved by good-hearted people rallying to the cause and performing amazingly under pressure. Everyone was united in the horror at what had been done in New York and determined to support people affected by showing them that goodness still existed in a world gone mad.

I have to tell you that I spent nearly the whole of this book on the verge of tears (not great when you are listening as you drive!), because all the stories are so moving. I have visited the WTC site and 9/11 museum since that awful day and seen the aftermath of the horror. It is something that will never leave me – and rightly so because it is only by remembering these things and understanding (as far as it is possible to understand such evil and madness) why they happened that we can take steps to ensure we personally act in a way that tries to ensure they don’t happen again. So, to read stories of the opposite side of the coin, that reassure you that good still exists in the world, that most people are basically decent and loving – well, it restores your faith in humanity. Given some of what is going on now and the rhetoric we see, we need reminding of this from time to time.

I really loved this book, it moved me in a way I wasn’t expecting and that doesn’t come often in non-fiction and I will definitely come back to it again when my soul needs a lift. It is strange to say that any book dealing with the events surrounding 9/11 can be uplifting, but it is definitely true of this book. I can’t recommend it enough if you are feeling jaded and need reminding that good people exist in the world.

The Day The World Came To Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland is available in paperback and audiobook formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

download

Jim DeFede has been an award-winning journalist for sixteen years, first with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and then with the Miami New Times. His work has appeared in TalkThe New Republic, and Newsday. He is currently a metro columnist for the Miami Herald.

Connect with Jim:

Facebook: Jim DeFede

Twitter: @DeFede

Instagram: @jim_defede

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Nesting by C. J. Cooke #BookReview

51N-ifxXisL

A house stands alone in the woods.

Deep in the forests of Norway, Lexi finds a fresh start with Tom and his two young daughters, working as their new nanny.

The darkness creeps closer.

But Lexi is telling lies, and she’s not the only one. This family has a history – and this place has a past. Something was destroyed to build this house, and in the dark, dark woods, a menacing presence lurks.

Lexi must protect the children in her care – but protect them from what?

Challenge number 9 was ‘Read a book that is on the TBR of a Fiction Cafe Member.’ As The Nesting by C. J. Cooke was on the TBR of Charlene Mattson, and also on my NetGalley shelf, it seemed like the obvious choice. Two birds, one stone and all that. I actually listened to the audiobook, narrated by Aysha Kala, which is a great option if you are considering it. The narration was excellent.

This book is a really interesting mix of gothic fairytale, environmental parable and exploration of depression. It is dreamy and ethereal and dark and scary, and surreal all at the same time. The threads are so tightly and cleverly woven together by the author that, even by the end, you won’t be quite sure what is real and what has been a dream.

The book is told through the voices of a number of people. Troubled Lexi, running from her demons and her problems, finds herself hiding out in Norway, pretending to be someone she isn’t in an effort to find a life better than the one she has been living. Tom, battling the forces of nature in a remote Norwegian forest to balance building his beloved wife’s dream holiday home with protecting this unspoilt wilderness. And Aurelia, feeling isolated in the aftermath of her second daughter’s birth and haunted by the ghosts of the Norwegian forest. Each of them experiences supernatural events in the dark, Norwegian forest and the remote fjord, but which are real, and which are products of troubled minds.

The dive into Norwegian folklore and stories was the part that most drew me to this book, because anything along those lines fascinates me. I loved the way that the author wove them in to the narrative of the novel, and used them to make commentary on the impact of human beings on the planet and its non-human inhabitants without being preachy. It was also a clever way to explore why we are drawn to stories of darkness to explain things that we are afraid to confront inside ourselves.

Aside from these themes, this is just a cracking good story that is a compelling read. What is actually happening out there in the Norwegian forest? What is Aurelia really experiencing, and what is just a result of the problems that can afflict women after child birth that can go unnoticed and unrecognised by those around her? Is Lexi’s past going to come back to haunt her? Is Tom everything he seems to be? I was eager every time to get back to listening to the book, and it made some mundane chores seem a lot less arduous, I was so engrossed.

The Nesting is a great book for anyone who loves the gothic and the mythic, but also for anyone interested in the human brain and the things it can do for us when we are thrown off balance. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and will definitely be recommending it to a few friends.

The Nesting is out now in all formats and you can buy it here.

About the Author

A1Fz+uUDAwL._US230_

C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film.

Connect with Carolyn:

Website: https://carolynjesscooke.com/

Facebook: C J Cooke Books

Twitter: @CJessCooke

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett #BookReview

41tkOiFcPwL

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

I am so behind with the reading and reviews for this challenge but I am determined to catch up! So today I am reviewing the book I chose for the eighth category in the challenge, ‘Read a book by a BAME author’ and the book I have chosen is one of the top books from 2020, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

(For those with very eagle eyes, I have missed out category seven, I know. I had to stop reading the book I chose for that category part way through because of the demands of blog tour books and haven’t had chance to go back to it yet. It’s coming soon, I promise!)

This book is an eye-opening exploration of what it meant to grow up in the segregated south of the US in the 1950s and the practice of ‘passing,’ where light-skinned people of colour would pass themselves off as white to avoid the stigma and hardship inflicted on their community. The lengths that people would go to, the sacrifices they were prepared to make, and the consequences of these decisions that echo down the generations are all addressed in this novel with tenderness, understanding and compassion in a book that is beautiful and illuminating but deeply melancholy to read.

Desiree and Stella Vignes are identical twins growing up in the small Southern town of Mallard, where being a light-skinned person of colour is revered and those with darker-skin are shunned. Both sisters leave the town for New Orleans, but then their paths diverge. Desiree later returns to Mallard with her daughter, who has very dark skin, whilst Stella lives as a white woman, having to hide her real self from everyone around her, including her own daughter. However, order is disrupted and secrets come to light when the cousins unexpectedly meet.

This book examines in detail the idea of transformation. Aside from Stella, there are other characters in the book who start off as one thing and, through determination and force of will, morph and mould themselves into something different, all for different reasons. The author looks at how these metamorphoses are viewed by the people around them, and how being true to yourself, your identity, ambitions and desires, can alienate you from the people you love. Are these sacrifices worth it? Which course has made the person happiest in the end? What does it mean to really be true to oneself? How does it feel to hate the body you were born in? To be persecuted for merely being who you are?

The author’s writing is absolutely stunning, and I thought she explored every facet of the story and the themes with real care and deep thought, which provoked the same reaction in me, as the reader. The book is s slow, gentle but demanding read, not one which is full of action and startling event. It is entirely character-focused, which I loved but I know does not appeal to everyone. The themes addressed are complex, sometime controversial and make for an uneasy emotional reaction. It was a book that left me examining my thoughts and feelings on the issues for a long while afterwards, and I know it is a book that will linger in the back of my mind for a long while, and one I will probably return to soon. I listened to it as an audiobook – the narrator did a great job – and I fully intend to return to it again in physical format to see if there is more I can get from it.

I understand fully why this book has been the hit it has and why it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize For Fiction. A memorable and accomplished novel that really rewards and provoked the reader.

The Vanishing Half is out now in all formats and you can find your copy here or at all good book shops.

About the Author

A1RQ31p7FEL._US230_

Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. Her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller, and her second novel The Vanishing Half was an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. She is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and in 2021, she was chosen as one of Time’s Next 100 Influential People. Her essays have been featured in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

Connect with Brit:

Website: https://britbennett.com/

Facebook: Brit Bennett Writes

Twitter: @britrbennett

Instagram: @britrbennett

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Little Shop on Floral Street by Jane Lacey-Crane #BookReview

51j61WWaKHL

In the wake of tragedy, two sisters have to piece their family back together…

Grace never thought she’d have to return home to Floral Street. Having spent most of her life building a successful career in London, she’s done everything she possibly can to avoid the flower stall that’s been in her family for generations. But when tragedy hits, she’s got no choice. It’s time to face the demons of the past and support her family.

Faith has returned home after years travelling the world. The baby of the family, she always struggled to find her place. She thought that her life would be different after a trip across the globe, but as she settles back into life in her childhood room she has to come to terms with the fact her life isn’t quite what she expected. And she has no way of getting out of the rut she finds herself in.

Faith and Grace have never seen eye-to-eye, always clashing, never forgiving. But they might just find a way to understand one another, to fight their way through their grief and come out stronger. By opening up, they’ll discover they aren’t so different at all. And family will always be there for you.

Category six of The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge was ‘Read a book by an author with the same name as your best friend.’ Now, this caused me a bit of a dilemma as I have a number of close friends and didn’t want to offend the others by naming any one of them ‘best.’ So I chose the name of my first best friend at senior school who moved to Cornwall after a year and who I haven’t seen since 1984! It also allowed me to tick a book off my NetGalley list, so it was win-win. The book I picked was The Little Shop on Floral Street by Jane Lacey-Crane.

I am ashamed that this book has been languishing on my TBR for so long, because I have loved Jane’s previous two books. This one was another great piece of women’s fiction, that spoke to me on a personal level, dealing as it does with the relationship between three sisters. As someone who is the eldest of four girls, and who counts her sisters as her closest friends as well as siblings, the dynamics of relationships between sisters is always something I am interested in seeing explored in a novel.

In this book, two of the sisters have remained close, despite the fact that the eldest left home at a young age after become largely estranged from their father. The youngest sister has been away travelling and her return to the family home marks a period of upheaval for them all, that culminates in a family tragedy that changes them all forever, and has the power to push them all apart or pull them back together.

In this novel, Jane has drawn a truly authentic and believable family dynamic that plays out honestly on the page. I felt that each of the characters, and their relationship to one another, were beautifully realised and explored and I could really relate to all of them. Despite my own closeness to my sisters, the tensions and rivalries between the three girls were very recognisable to me; with the best will in the world every family has difficulties and areas of friction, and the way each of the sisters interpreted events differently depending on their position and role within the family was all too familiar!

As the eldest, Grace was the one to whom I most related. I recognise that feeling of responsibility and having the weight of sorting out the family’s issues and taking on its burdens, whilst the younger sisters have a much more carefree existence. I am sure my sisters would argue that the younger girls have their own crosses to bear, and would recognise themselves more in Hope or Faith, which is the genius of Jane’s drawing of the characters!

The story centres around the family’s flower stall business, and its future in the wake of the tragedy and the shockwaves of its aftermath and, in this regard, it is a tight, small story that could be happening to any family up and down the country today and, in fact, in the wake of so many losses suffered by so many families in the last twelve months, many of the issues explored will be painful and relevant to a lot of people at the moment. In this regard, the book will speak to a lot of people and touch many of us with its message. This is a book that takes a step beyond a typical women’s fiction novel.

I really enjoyed this book. It is a novel with a big heart and a gentle exploration of issues that will have touched most of us in some way at some point in our lives. I would be surprised if there is anyone who can’t find some recognisable experience or emotion in its pages. Well worth reading.

The Little Shop on Floral Street is out now in ebook and paperback formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

59tt1QT8_400x400

Jane has reached the age now where she no longer tells people her age! She’s old enough to legally be able to do everything and that’s all that matters. Secrets & Tea at Rosie Lee’s is Jane’s debut novel. Born and brought up in London’s East End, she now lives in Lincolnshire with her family. Thankfully she recently discovered the joys of mail order pie, mash & liquor, so she can relive her youth anytime she feels like it!

Although writing stories was something that Jane had always done, she never thought anyone would pay her to do it so she focused on learning to act instead, figuring that this was a much more reliable way to earn a living. Sadly, her career as an actress was shortlived, actually it was non-existent, so she turned her attention to another reliable line of work – Cable Television! This was where Jane managed to finally get paid (badly!) doing something she enjoyed – writing. She began with scripts for a series all about Serial Killers (imaginatively entitled ‘Serial Killers’) and then moved on to a series of history documentaries. This series never saw the light of day in the UK but Jane has been informed that it used be very popular with insomniacs staying in hotels in the Far East. This may or may not be true.

Jane’s latest book, The Little Shop on Floral Street, is out now and returns to the familiar East London streets where the author grew up.

Connect with Jane:

Facebook: Jane Lacey-Crane

Twitter: @JaneLaceyCrane

Instagram: @janelaceycrane

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely #BookReview

41pzP-cXDYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_-1

Two teens–one black, one white–grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.

A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

There were witnesses: Quinn Collins–a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan–and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team–half of whom are Rashad’s best friends–start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.

It’s category five in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge, ‘Read a book by two authors.’ For this category I have chosen the award-winning YA novel, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

Dealing with a subject matter that has been at the forefront of media attention over the last twelve months due to the killing of George Floyd, this would be a great book to give a teen who wanted to read something that grapples with issues that they see in the news in a way that is approachable but also makes them think and try and understand the tensions that arise after such incidents.

The book is told from the dual viewpoints of Rashad, the victim of the violent act, and Quinn, his classmate and friend of the brother of the policeman involved in the arrest. Quinn is very torn between loyalty, and the tensions that arise in his school as everyone begins to take sides. It is a very effective way to present the different perspectives on the events of the book and to see how people are pressured to taking a stand for one side or another, and how the tension spreads quickly through a community. The subject is dealt with very sensitively, and it really brought the reality of the fallout from these events home in a way that we can all relate to.

The book is emotional and difficult to read in parts, but these are issues that need to be brought into the open and discussed in the light, even if that makes us uncomfortable, so I would highly recommend this as a book you can give to young people in your life as a way of introducing them to the topic and giving you a jumping off point for discussion. I am certainly going to be encouraging my teenage daughters to read it as another step in the conversations I have already had with them following the events of the last twelve months.

The writing between the two authors is seamless, you wouldn’t know it was co-authored if you hadn’t been told, but I am sure the input of both made this book the balanced and considered telling of the story that it is. A great and important read, especially for the young adults it is aimed at.

All American Boys is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Authors

713PUDnMGrL._US230_

Jason Reynolds is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, a two-time National Book Award finalist, a Kirkus Award winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. He’s also the 2020-2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His many books include StampedWhen I Was the GreatestThe Boy in the Black SuitAll American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), As Brave as YouFor Every One, the Track series (GhostPatinaSunny, and Lu), Look Both Ways, and Long Way Down, which received a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Honor. He lives in Washington, DC.

Website: https://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/

Facebook: Jason Reynolds

Twitter: @JasonReynolds83

Instagram: @jasonreynolds83

81AFoeijqqL._US230_

Brendan Kiely is the New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), The Last True Love StoryThe Gospel of WinterTradition, and The Other Talk. His work has been published in ten languages; received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award; has twice been awarded Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association; and has been a Kirkus Reviews Best Book. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives in New York City.

Connect with Brendan:

Website: https://www.brendankiely.com/

Twitter: @KielyBrendan

Instagram: @brendankiely

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: Tall Tales and Wee Stories by Billy Connolly #BookReview

51aZccsCITL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_

In December 2018, after fifty years of belly-laughs, energy and outrage, Billy Connolly announced his retirement from live stand-up comedy. It had been an extraordinary career.

When he first started out in the late sixties, Billy played the banjo in the folk clubs of Scotland. Between songs, he would improvise a bit, telling anecdotes from the Clyde shipyard where he’d worked. In the process, he made all kinds of discoveries about what audiences found funny, from his own brilliant mimes to the power of speaking irreverently about politics or explicitly about sex. He began to understand the craft of great storytelling. Soon the songs became shorter and the monologues longer, and Billy quickly became recognised as one of the most exciting comedians of his generation.

Billy’s routines always felt spontaneous. He never wrote scripts, always creating his comedy freshly on stage in the presence of a live audience. A brilliant comic story might be subsequently discarded, adapted or embellished. A quick observation or short anecdote one night, could become a twenty-minute segment by the next night of a tour.

Billy always brought a beautiful sense of the absurd to his shows as he riffed on his family, hecklers, swimming in the North Sea or naked bungee jumping. But his comedy can be laced with anger too. He hates pretentiousness and calls out hypocrisy wherever he sees it. His insights about the human condition have shocked many people, while his unique talent and startling appearance on stage gave him license to say anything he damn well pleased about sex, politics or religion.

Billy got away with it because he has always had the popular touch. His comedy spans generations and different social tribes in a way that few others have ever managed.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories brings together the very best of Billy’s storytelling for the first time and includes his most famous routines including, The Last Supper, Jojoba Shampoo, Incontinence Pants and Shouting at Wildebeest. With an introduction and original illustrations by Billy throughout

The fourth category in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021 is ‘Read a book by an author you would like to meet.’ I could not choose between two authors for this challenge, so I decided to do one in paperback and one in audiobook format. The first book I have chosen is Tall Tales and Wee Stories by Billy Connolly. As an interesting aside, this was the last book I bought in an airport, on a trip to New York in February 2020. Remember the days of buying books in airports? I  wonder when they will come around again!

I’ve been a massive Billy Connolly fan for many years. I’ve got lots of DVDs featuring his standup and travelogues, and I was lucky enough to see him live twice. He never fails to make me laugh, even just on a chat show. So it was with great sadness I heard about his retirement, although entirely understandable in his circumstances.

I was looking forward to reading this book in which he has gathered many of his most famous stories for posterity. Billy never really told ‘jokes,’ they were always funny anecdotes and tales, often poking fun at himself or other absurdities he saw in every day life. He often talked about sex and bodily functions, and was very sweary and he makes no apology for that, so the book would not be for anyone who did not like this in his live shows because Billy is exactly the same in the book as when performing. If you did love his humour though, you will find many of your favourite stories within these pages.

The book is split in to chapters on different, loosely connected topics, but otherwise it is fairly randomly organised with just little anecdotes and longer ones interspersed with comments, thoughts and musings on his life and career. Some people won’t like it because it isn’t a particular linear format, but then Billy’s comedy was never like that. He would start on a topic and then wander off at a tangent when other things occurred to him before looping back round to the original story (or sometimes not!), so the book is a good reflection of his style and really brought him to life for me.

I could hear his voice telling these familiar, and some unfamiliar, stories very clearly. Parts of it made me laugh out loud and I had to keep stopping to read bits aloud to The Irishman who kept asking me what I was laughing at. It was a book that really cheered me up during this lockdown. However, it is not the same as watching Billy perform, and you realise how much his expressions and gestures and movements added to the comedy of his story-telling. The ‘Wildebeest’ example illustrates this best. It is many people’s favourite story of Billy’s, but it just isn’t as funny when you can’t see him doing the vacant expression of the wildebeest and the actions of the lions as they plan their attack.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this but it can’t replace Billy’s performances, and I for one will miss him terribly. I wish I could have met him in real life just once before Parkinson’s started to take effect. I’m sure it would have been great craic.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories is out now in all formats except audio and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

download

Sir William Connolly, CBE is a much-loved Scottish comedian, musician, presenter and actor. He is the recipient of a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award and is regularly voted the nation’s favourite stand-up comedian. Billy was born and raised in Glasgow and now lives in America. He announced his retirement from live performance in December 2018.

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman; Narrated by Lesley Manville #BookReview

513jtOrbxVL

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved killings.

But when a local property developer shows up dead, ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ finds themselves in the middle of their first live case.

The four friends, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, might be pushing 80, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?

It’s book three of the 2021 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. The challenge is to read a new book every fortnight that fits the prescribed category for that two-week period. The third category is ‘A book by someone who is famous for something else.’

I have chosen The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, who is obviously better known for being the co-host of Pointless as well as presenting other TV shows. This was one of the biggest books of 2020 and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it!

I am often a little wary of picking up a book that has had as much positive hype as this had, for fear of being disappointed, but I have to say that I was charmed and delighted by this book, which gave me everything I was expecting and so much more. It is a fun, cosy crime novel, as you would expect from the blurb, infused with the humour of four OAPs investigating a crime in their retirement village, but it is also an affectionate and authentic look at what it means to get older and the challenges and obstacles that brings.

Four friends in a retirement village set up an amateur sleuthing group to mull over cold cases, details of which have, rather naughtily, been squirrelled away by a retired female Detective Inspector, who is now in a coma after a stroke. The remaining members recruit a replacement, just in time to investigate a real crime that lands on their doorstep, when a local property developer turns up dead. They employ all kinds of tricks and wiles to infiltrate the official police investigation (highly improbably, but this isn’t meant to be realistic in this regard, it is all very tongue in cheek) and exhibit some real ingenuity in cracking the case. The joy and gusto with which they embrace the investigation are entertaining to read about. Richard has created four different, realistic and absolutely delightful characters to take us through the story. They are very unlikely friends, but gel brilliantly together and I adored each of them. Man-mad Joyce, fiery ‘Red Ron,’ the ex-Union agitator, cerebral and methodical Ibrahim and Elizabeth, queen bee with a mysterious past in … well, we never quite know what it is she did, but their are hints from which we can draw our own conclusions. Age has dulled none of their faculties and, add to this their age-earned no-longer-give-a-toss attitudes and they are a force that no one can withstand, certainly not the unfortunate police officers who are given their ‘help’ in the investigation.

However, aside from the fun and games of the investigation, the book gently explores what it means to get older and the challenges that brings. Loss of partners and friends, memory loss, neglect by children, the feeling of being a burden, loneliness, being misunderstood and treated like you have suddenly become ‘less’ than you were before, are all explored here with kindness and care. Richard does not belittle or mock his characters for their ageing bodies or minds, he acknowledges that, whatever age you are, we are all the same inside and deserve the same care and respect, and that these people still have a great deal to offer society and the people they come into contact with. He offers them dignity, agency and excitement and we enjoy going along with them for the ride. He has really captured their voices, and the things that they care about (an obsession with cake being one!) and I just really loved his portrayal of them all.

This book is warm, fun, humorous, kind, enchanting, intelligent and entertaining. It was exactly the tonic I needed at the time I read it (during the grim, cold, dark January lockdown days) and left me with a warm glow at the end. I cannot wait for the second book to come out this autumn. Lesley Manville is the perfect narrator for the audiobook, she really brought the characters to life, and the audio version also includes a 45-minute interview of Richard Osman by Marian Keyes at the end, which was a bonus delight. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a bit of a lift.

The Thursday Murder Club is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

UYh7CKC6_400x400

Richard Osman is a British television producer and presenter. The Thursday Murder Club is his first and, so far, best novel.

Connect with Richard:

Twitter: @richardosman

Instagram: misterosman

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins; Narrated by Emily Shaffer, Kirby Heyborne & Lauren Fortgang #BookReview

51qiVO9Y7AL

A girl looking for love….

When Jane, a broke dog-walker newly arrived in town, meets Eddie Rochester, she can’t believe her luck. Eddie is handsome, rich and lives alone in a beautiful mansion since the tragic death of his beloved wife a year ago.

A man who seems perfect….

Eddie can give Jane everything she’s always wanted: stability, acceptance and a picture-perfect life.

A wife who just won’t stay buried….

But what Jane doesn’t know is that Eddie is keeping a secret – a big secret. And when the truth comes out, the consequences are far more deadly than anyone could ever have imagined…. 

Time to review the second book I have chosen this year as part of the 2021 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. The challenge is to read a new book every fortnight that fits the prescribed category for that two-week period. The second category is ‘A book with a type of relative in the title.’

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins is a book that is getting a lot of positive attention at the moment. It is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre, but with enough twists to keep you guessing, even if you are a fan of the original book.

The book takes place in an affluent neighbourhood in Alabama, where appearances are everything, but nothing is what it seems to be on the surface. Tensions lurk beneath the polished facades that the residents present to the world, and cracks begin to appear once Jane arrives on the scene and upsets the order of society by taking root where she doesn’t belong. Her relationship with Eddie stirs up secrets that were previously buried and reveals facts about the disappearance of his wife that were hidden.

The book is narrated by three characters, Jane, Eddie Rochester and the missing wife, Bea, so we are getting each of their perspectives on the story, but it is impossible to know whose version of events to believe. I have to say, there were no characters in this book that I particularly liked, which would ordinarily make it hard for an author to carry me through a book with them. I normally need to have some sympathy for at least one of the characters for me to invest in a novel to the end, but I didn’t feel any here. This Jane is very different from the Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s novel and I did not warm to her at all. It is testament to how well the author has constructed the mystery through the book, because it was that and not the characters that kept me listening.

I really enjoyed the setting of the book, the descriptions of the exclusive enclave and the pretensions of the people who lived within it. The show they put on, compared to the reality of what is happening beneath, was entertaining, bitchy and authentic and had me gripped. I loved the ambiguity of the story, the way the author teases us with the different voices so we don’t honestly know who is telling the truth and who has spun their own version of it. There are also questions left hanging at the end for the reader to interpret as they will in the light of what has gone before and I think this added an extra dimension to the story.

The narrators were great, they really brought the story to life, and the book made my chores pass quickly. I am perhaps not as in love with this book as some other reviewers I have seen, but it will not disappoint fans of this type of domestic thriller, and it was an interesting, modern interpretation of a beloved book. A solid read.

The Wife Upstairs is out now in ebook, hardback and audio formats, and will be published in paperback in April and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

31OMrfgro0L._US230_

Rachel Hawkins is the New York Times bestselling author of multiple books for young readers, and her work has been translated in over a dozen countries. She studied gender and sexuality in Victorian literature at Auburn University and currently lives in Alabama with her husband and son. The Wife Upstairs is her first adult novel

Connect with Rachel:

Twitter: @LadyHawkins

Instagram: @ladyhawkins

A Little Book Problem banner

The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: Home Before Dark by Riley Sager; Narrated by Cady McClain & Jon Lindstrom #BookReview

51uBlTJt1eL

What was it like? Living in that house.

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into a rambling Victorian estate called Baneberry Hall. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a memoir called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon.

Now, Maggie has inherited Baneberry Hall after her father’s death. She was too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist.

But when she returns to Baneberry Hall to prepare it for sale, her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the pages of her father’s book lurk in the shadows, and locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself – a place that hints of dark deeds and unexplained happenings. 

As the days pass, Maggie begins to believe that what her father wrote was more fact than fiction. That either way, someone – or something – doesn’t want her here. And that she might be in danger all over again….

This is the first book I have chosen this year as part of the 2021 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. (If you love books, you must check it out, it is the friendliest part of the internet for bibliophiles). The challenge is to read a new book every fortnight that fits the prescribed category for that two-week period.

The first category is ‘A book that was a Goodreads top read of 2020.’ I have again vowed to try and pick unread books from my TBR to fit the challenge categories, rather than buy new ones. So I chose this book, as I had it already as an audiobook.

I love to listen to Riley Sager novels as audiobooks. There is always so much action and tension in his books that they keep the narration rolling along, despite the fact that the narrators always read a lot slower than I could read them myself if I sat down with the paperback. This one was no exception, and it made me eager to get on with my chores so that I could listen to the next segment. The only drawback was that I could not use this audiobook to send me off to sleep at night as I sometimes do, it was too scary! I was afraid I would have nightmares, or frighten myself to death if I woke up in the night and caught sight of my reflection in the bedroom mirror.

The book is told in the voices of two narrators. The first is Maggie who, in the present day, returns to the ‘haunted house’ that her family fled from when she was five years old. Her family grew rich on the back of a book detailing their experiences in the ‘House of Horrors,’ but the experience has marred Maggie’s life since and, on the death of her father, Maggie returns to the house to find out what really happened back then. The second narrator is the voice of Maggie’s father, Ewan, telling the story of their time in the house as detailed in the book. But it is fact or fiction? Honestly, the reader/listener can’t really know until right at the end of the book, both stories (the one in the book, and the book itself) are very convincing. The audiobook is voiced by two different narrators for Maggie and Ewan who are both excellent and it works really, really well as a listen.

There are lots of twists and turns in the book that keep the reader gripped and guessing, right to the end. Parts of it a really unsettling, I quite often felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end and, as I said, I was afraid to listen to it just before sleep. All great signs of this type of ghost story/thriller and things I have come to expect from a Riley Sager novel. If you have enjoyed his books before, you will like this one.

Yes, it’s preposterous. Yes, the ending is absolutely ludicrous. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief so far that it will feel like it is hovering over the Grand Canyon. But these are the things that make this kind of book so much fun and why this book was so popular that it ended up in the Goodreads Top Reads of 2020. It gave me everything I expected in spades and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Can’t wait for his next book.

Home Before Dark is out now as an ebook and audiobook, and will be published in paperback in July, and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

e3mbn0hkcigt0adcub551odl0q._US230_

Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a former journalist, editor and graphic designer. Now a full-time author, Riley’s first thriller, FINAL GIRLS, became a national and international bestseller that’s been translated into more than 25 languages. His subsequent novels, THE LAST TIME I LIED, LOCK EVERY DOOR and HOME BEFORE DARK, were instant New York Times bestsellers. His newest thriller, SURVIVE THE NIGHT, will be released in June.

A native of Pennsylvania, Riley now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. When he’s not working on his next novel, he enjoys reading, cooking and going to the movies as much as possible. His favorite film is “Rear Window.” Or maybe “Jaws.” But probably, if he’s being honest, “Mary Poppins.”

Connect with Riley:

Website: https://www.rileysagerbooks.com/

Facebook: Riley Sager Books

Twitter: @riley_sager

Instagram: @riley.sager

A Little Book Problem banner