Desert Island Books… with Katie Wells

Desert Island Books

Over the past eight months I have really enjoyed sharing with my readers the shortlist of books that I would want with me if I were to be stranded indefinitely on a desert island, all alone and forced to reread them in perpetuity (and there are still four more books to come on my list.)

Because I’d had such fun with this, and my choices have been getting a great response and inspiring debate, I decided to open the question up to my friends in the bookish community – authors, bloggers and anyone else who fancies having a go.

I’ve been a lot meaner to my guests though, I’ve only allowed them to choose five books to take with them instead of twelve, plus one other non-book item to give them some comfort (which can’t be a person, pet or escape aid!) They also have to tell me why they have chosen the books they’ve picked.

My very first victim is Katie Wells, my good friend, writing buddy and fellow blogger, and she has come up with some really surprising choices, so let’s have a look what she has picked, shall we?

Book One: The Ghosts by Antonia Barber

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When Lucy sat in the attic, she thought she heard the sound of voices calling…

That’s when she started to believe the rumors in the village that the old house was haunted. But no ghosts appeared – until the day Lucy and her brother Jamie stood in the garden and watched two pale figures, a girl and a boy, coming toward them.

That was the beginning of a strange and dangerous friendship between Lucy and Jamie and two children who had died a century before.

The ghost children desperately needed their help. But would Lucy and Jamie have the courage to venture into the past – and change the terrible events that had led to murder?

As a kid I watched The Amazing Mr. Blunden on repeat and was excited to discover they based it on a book when I was eleven. My local library had a copy, but I did not have room on my ticket to take it out. It was the days when there was a three-book limit, cardboard slips in the books and librarians that were not swayed by a child’s pleas for just one more book. When I returned the next day, it was missing. Every week I would search the shelves for it, but it never reappeared. A few years ago on eBay, I tracked down a second-hand copy and it was everything I wanted it to be. The film is great, but the book is better. It is how a ghost story should be – full of mystery, tension, and a drama in a spooky house.

Book Two: The Illustrated Herbiary by Maia Toll

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Rosemary is for remembrance; sage is for wisdom. The symbolism of plants – whether in the ancient Greek doctrine of signatures or the Victorian secret language of flowers – has fascinated us for centuries. Contemporary herbalist Maia Toll adds her distinctive spin to this tradition with profiles of the mysterious personalities of 36 herbs, fruits, and flowers. Combining a passion for plants with imagery reminiscent of tarot, enticing text offers reflections and rituals to tap into each plant’s power for healing, self-reflection, and everyday guidance. Smaller versions of the illustrations are featured on 36 cards to help guide your thoughts and meditations.

I have always had an interest in tarot and oracle cards, so when I saw this book on NetGalley to review I jumped at the chance to read it. I fell in love with the words, the flowers I had never heard of and the beautiful illustrations, so I bought a physical copy which included the cards. I discovered Maia Toll’s blog and listened to a talk on the origins of her book ; this inspired elements of the novel I have written, helped solidify the main characters history and encouraged me to grow some plants. Some are still surviving which is a miracle because I do not have green fingers. The cards are lovely to hold and the book gives ideas for meditation and guidance to see things clearly. Both would be useful on the island and it may also help identify some native plants I may find, which would always be handy.

Book Three: We Other by Sue Bentley

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Family secrets, changelings, and fairies you never want to meet on a dark night.

Jess Morgan’s life has always been chaotic. But when a startling new reality cannot be denied, her single mum’s alcoholism and violent boyfriend become the least of her worries. She is linked to a world where humans – ‘hot-bloods’ – are treated as disposable entertainment. Everything she believed about herself is a lie. Everything is about to change.

This was one of my favourite books in 2018 and remains in my top books 10 ever. The extensive world building is absorbing and disturbing, and the startling imagery brought the depiction of the fairy kingdom alive. It is no Disney inspired fairy tale as the fae are cruel and disturbing. It deals with parental alcoholism and obsession sensitively, but it is gritty and doesn’t shy away from its horrors. At 560 pages it is an epic, making it an ideal book to reread over and over. 

Book Four: The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland

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1968. Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. And then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.

Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica leads a reclusive life. Her groundbreaking career was cut short by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.

Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence, and step back into the light.

Like the series I watched recently, Mrs America, this novel opened my eyes to how little I knew about the history of feminism and the battles it took to get it to where it is today. It changed my outlook on many things. The character Leonie is abrasive and complex so it isn’t a cosy read but she is balanced by Veronica who is finding her way; it shows the power and determination of women and how things that seem set in stone can be changed with co-operation and vision. I also had the pleasure of going to a stunning writing retreat at Garsdale with the lovely author and it was a week of writing, learning the craft and pure culinary heaven. It was a magical experience full of inspiration and gave me a confidence boost in my writing I needed. The book will always remind me of those times. 

Book Five: The Xmas Factor by Annie Sanders

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Meet two women with two totally different approaches to the festive season.

Beth: it’s only September, and already she has performance anxiety. Not surprising when she has agreed to lay on the annual Christmas Eve village bash – the piece de resistance of her husband’s former wife – not to mention having to host Christmas for his difficult offspring. New to this frenzied build-up to the festivities, Beth begins to lose sight of what it all means. To her the Christmas lights are looking more like the headlamps of an oncoming train.

Carol: glamorous magazine editor, who put her aspirational Christmas issue to bed sometime in July and is so involved in finding a scoop to save her ailing magazine that she fails to notice the impending festive rush. Panicked and wracked with guilt, she is determined to make it a picture-perfect time for her little boy and, opting for convenience, books a lovely-sounding cottage in a quaint village.

Even the best-laid plans have a habit of unravelling – and no plan at all is a recipe for disaster. So when these two Christmases collide, it looks like it’s going to be anything but goodwill towards men…

This one was the most difficult books to choose. I knew I wanted a Christmas novel; it is my favourite time of year and I have a tradition to binge read new festive releases and old ones on my shelf. Even on a desert island in the blistering heat, I would not want to let the tradition go. I’d decorate my camp with foraged foliage and fruit stringed up around the trees so I can indulge in some Christmas cheer and celebrate the season. Reluctantly I put my illustrated copy of Christmas Carol to one side and opted for my battered copy of The Xmas Factor by Annie Sanders which I read every Advent even though I know it word for word. It has everything you need in a Christmas romance – drama, family feuds, chemistry between the protagonists leading to will they won’t they moments, the tantalising descriptions of festive food and the reminder of the true meaning of what Christmas really means–friendship, love and warmth. 

My extra item:

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Since I am not allowed to take my dog with me for company, I would take a pack of playing cards. I have happy memories of playing cribbage with my dad when he was practising for his competitions at the working men’s club and as a kid, we would always play cards when camping. My Nan loved cards and she taught me numerous ways to play patience/solitaire and I would spend hours playing them when I stayed with her. There is something meditative about shuffling cards and solving a puzzle. This will be handy when in solitude and if I am ever rescued, playing cards is a good way to break the ice with strangers. 

About Katie Wells:

Kate lives not far from the coast in East Yorkshire with her family, three Jack Russells and a dopey ferret. She is an avid reader, book hoarder, blogger and tea addict. She is on the RNA New Writer’s Scheme and currently searching for a home for her first complete novel, A Blend of Magic. To raise awareness of a neurological condition, dystonia she is taking part in the #DystoniaAroundThe World challenge and sharing the flash fiction she writes on her blog. 

Find out more about Katie:

Website: https://katekenzie.com

Blog: https://fromundertheduvet.co.uk

Twitter: @DuvetDwellers@kakenzie101

Facebook: K A Kenzie Writer / From Under The Duvet

Instagram: @kakenzie101 / @duvetdwellerbooks

Dystonia Around The World Fundraising page: https://www.dystoniaaroundtheworld.org/fundraiser/katekenzie

I’ve got a feeling this feature may prove very bad for my bank balance! If anyone fancying having a go at picking their own Desert Island Books, please get in touch.

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Desert Island Books: Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy

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Generous-hearted Benny Hogan and the elfin Eve Malone have been best friends for years, growing up in sleepy Knockglen. Their one thought is to get to Dublin, to university and to freedom…

On their first day at University College, the inseparable pair are thrown together with fellow students: beautiful but selfish Nan Mahon and the handsome Jack Foley.

But trouble is brewing for Benny and Eve’s new circle of friends and, before long, they find passion, tragedy – and the independence they yearned for.

The sixth book I am taking to my desert island to be read endlessly until my sad demise is Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy.

Maeve Binchy is one of my all time favourite authors, and a huge inspiration to me, as she writes in the genre that I am attempting myself, emotional women’s fiction. Not only writes in it, is the doyenne of the genre. I have been a huge fan since I first borrowed a copy of Light A Penny Candle from my mother’s book shelf in my late teens. From that very first reading, I fell in love with her writing. Her gimlet eye for human nature. Her empathetic portrayal of emotion and the intimate frailties of the lives of real people. Her vivid portrayals of daily life in rural Ireland from the 1950s until modern times, and particularly the lives of Catholic women. Her books are a masterclass in how to write women’s fiction, and I am a true disciple, as my Maeve Binchy shelf will attest. I once saw someone dismiss her writing as ‘chicklit.’ Leaving aside the hot debate about the use of this intentionally derogatory term for books that are enjoyed by millions of women – and men – the world over, to label her work as chicklit is to fundamentally misunderstand it.

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Of all of her wonderful books, Circle of Friends has always been my favourite. It had a big impact on me when I first read it, and that impact has not lessened over the dozens of re-readings I have made of this book over the years, including the latest. The story still moves me emotionally, draws me in to its world and holds me in its grasp until the very last page, even though I know what is coming and how it ends. The ability to do this, to include layers of complexity and feeling so that the reader is held in thrall every time is a rare and beautiful skill that she possessed in boatloads and is the reason that her books have been bestsellers for decades, and are still popular many years after her death. Even now, new stage adaptations of her books are being written to delight audiences who can’t get enough of her intimate portrayals of women.

This book tells the story of the friendship of Benny Hogan and Eve Malone as they grow up as children in rural Ireland in the 1950s and eventually leave their small town to go to university in Dublin, and how the contrast between the small, safe childhoods they have known and navigating the expanded world of college, new friends and the city, impacts them individually and as friends.

Ireland, a strict Catholic country in the 1950s, held specific difficulties for women, but also the same challenges that we have faced the world over for centuries and, how the two girls navigate these challenges and support each other at the same time is at the core of the book and what will speak to women reading this book everywhere. Many of the issues that Maeve addresses are universal and will inevitably lead to the reader being able to identify with at least one of the characters in the book or one of the situations they have to face. Female friendship is an enduring topic in women’s literature, and one that is at the centre of many of Maeve’s books, and this one in particular.

Benny Hogan is one of my favourite ever characters in a novel, and one I always have, and still do, identify with strongly. The author does such an amazing job of portraying her insecurity and vulnerability through childhood and into her teenage years that I defy anyone not to be firmly on her side from the beginning of this book, not to see some aspect of themselves and any fear they have ever had about their place in the world reflected back at them. This then makes Benny the perfect character to draw us in to this story of a young, gauche girl trying to navigate the new and intimidating world of university, far away from home and all the security she has known. These are emotions that most of us can relate to in one way or another and, as such, it is impossible not to celebrate her successes in this new world and suffer her heartbreak at the same time she does. This book takes me back to my teenage years, the overwhelming emotions that you feel falling in love for the first time, how one person can come to mean everything to you and that relationship, the tornado of feelings that are unleashed and seem uncontrollable, how the end of the relationship feels like the end of the world; I remember it all and relive it again through the pages of this book.

Maeve’s writing is so tender and knowing, she really understands what makes people tick and is able to portray this in a way that makes us understand it too, but effortlessly, so you can’t even see how she is doing it. The lives of these women, their relationships and the settings of the stories come alive on the page, it is like watching a technicolour movie, and you can’t even see the joins. She writes the way I want to write, and I have spent a lot of time looking at how she does it, in the vain hope I can emulate her to some small degree. There was a discussion in my writing circle only yesterday about describing settings in books, how to do it vividly but discretely. Anyone wanting to see how it is done could do a lot worse than reading this book.

Maeve’s work led me on to reading a lot of other Irish writers who quickly became huge favourites of mine, Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly to name but two, and on to people such as Veronica Henry and Erica James, who also write this genre similarly beautifully and who are all heroes of mine. But Maeve Binchy is the reason I feel in love with this genre in the beginning and she will always hold a special place in my heart. I miss her still and my desert island would not feel like home without my copy of Circle of Friends.

You can buy a copy of Circle of Friends here.

About the Author

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Maeve Binchy was born in County Dublin and educated at the Holy Child convent in Killiney and at University College, Dublin. After a spell as a teacher she joined the IRISH TIMES.

Her first novel, LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE, was published in 1982 and she went on to write over twenty books, all of them bestsellers. Several have been adapted for cinema and television, including TARA ROAD. Maeve Binchy received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the British Book Awards in 1999 and the Irish PEN/A.T. Cross award in 2007. In 2010 she was presented with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Irish Book Awards by the President of Ireland.

She was married to the writer and broadcaster Gordon Snell for 35 years, and died in 2012.

Desert Island Books: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham; Narrated by Graeme Malcolm

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David Strorm’s father doesn’t approve of Angus Morton’s unusually large horses, calling them blasphemies against nature. Little does he realise that his own son, and his son’s cousin Rosalind and their friends, have their own secret abberation which would label them as mutants. But as David and Rosalind grow older it becomes more difficult to conceal their differences from the village elders. Soon they face a choice: wait for eventual discovery, or flee to the terrifying and mutable Badlands. . .

The Chrysalids is a post-nuclear apocalypse story of genetic mutation in a devastated world and explores the lengths the intolerant will go to keep themselves pure.

I don’t know whether you are someone who likes to read dystopian fiction, especially in this current time of pandemic, but if you are, then John Wyndham is a writer you should know about and this novel is, in my humble opinion, his best. I have read all of his books and, although he is better know for The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos (which was made into a film called The Village of the Damned which did not in any way do the book justice), none of his other books have the emotional impact of The Chrysalids.

I was first introduced to the works of John Wyndham in my early teens by my excellent high school librarian. Along with Dorothy L. Sayers (one of whose novels will be featured as a Desert Island Book later in the year), John Wyndham was an author I would never have picked up without her encouragement, but who has since become a lifelong favourite. The first of his books I read was Chocky, and it (excuse my language) scared the crap out of me, but it was this book that really made me think and which continues to linger in my mind long after I finish reading it, even after multiple re-reads.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic corner of Canada. The Earth has been blighted by a tragedy that the reader assumes is nuclear war, but this is never confirmed because the people living at this time don’t actually know what happened to make their world the way it is. Their reality is that vast tracts of the planet are uninhabitable, and the earth is so ravaged by radiation fallout that large proportions of everything are deformed and distorted from what they perceive to be the ‘true’ image. For comfort, the population have grasped on to religion with fervour to control their lives and they ruthlessly pursue what they consider to be gospel as regards how man should look and behave, to the extent that they destroy crops and animals they consider deformed or ‘Offences’ against God and inflict unspeakable horrors on humans that do not conform to their belief of the True Image of God, whom they label as Blasphemies.

The story follows the life of David Strorm, the son of one of the most rigid leaders of their  community, and his group of fellow telepaths, who have managed to say hidden from people as they are physically ‘normal’, but who fear persecution because their telepathic ability is not shared by the majority of people (the Norms).

This is basically a book about bigotry. About fear of people who do not look or act exactly the same as the majority, and who are persecuted for their differences, despite the fact they do not hurt anybody. When I listened to this book a few weeks ago to prepare for this piece, I had no idea just how relevant the story was going to feel when I came to post it.

The Audible version of this book is extremely well narrated and very easy to listen to and, as someone who loves and has read the book many times, I can attest that the story loses none of its impact when consumed as an audiobook.

You can buy a copy of The Chrysalids here.

About the Author

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John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was born in 1903, the son of a barrister. He tried a number of careers including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, and started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 to 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications, while also writing detective novels. During the war he was in the Civil Service and then the Army.

In 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of science fiction, a form he called ‘logical fantasy’. As John Wyndham he wrote The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes (both widely translated), The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), The Seeds of Time, Trouble with Lichen, The Outward Urge (with Lucas Parkes) and Chocky. He died in March 1969.

Desert Island Books: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

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When Siddalee Walker, oldest daughter of Vivi Abbott Walker, Ya-Ya extraordinaire, is interviewed in the New York Times about a hit play she’s directed, her mother gets described as a “tap-dancing child abuser.” Enraged, Vivi disowns Sidda.

Devastated, Sidda begs forgiveness, and postpones her upcoming wedding. All looks bleak until the Ya-Yas step in and convince Vivi to send Sidda a scrapbook of their girlhood mementos, called “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”

As Sidda struggles to analyze her mother, she comes face to face with the tangled beauty of imperfect love, and the fact that forgiveness, more than understanding, is often what the heart longs for.

If you want to know if you are going to like this book or not, all you need to do is to read the prologue. It is only a page and a half long, but it perfectly encapsulates the setting, tone and characterisation of the book. It wraps you in the mood, sounds, tastes, smells and feelings of the Louisiana bayou and pulls you in to the book; a literary seductress of a prologue – I defy you to resist its siren call.

This is the third of the books I have chosen to accompany me to my Desert Island, to be read repeatedly in perpetuity and I had absolutely no doubt at all as to whether to include it in the list. I fell hopelessly and irrevocably in love with this book the first time I read it, and that love has remained unaltered – steadfast and true – through repeated readings over the intervening twenty-plus years. It is a book that has grown with me over that time, as I have matured from naive twenty-something to a woman in her mid-forties with now a history of relationships and children to inform my understanding of the book. It is a novel that gives you different things depending on from where in your life you come at it. A novel so rich in insight and understanding of the female condition that it will not age.

This book is, without doubt, the best book about female friendship that I have ever read, and given how much I read that is no minor feat. When I first read it in my early twenties, I was so moved by the depiction of the relationship between the four Ya-Yas, that I immediately bought a copy of the book for each of my three closest female friends, so I could share the experience with them, and I know I am not alone in feeling this. A whole movement of Ya-Ya clubs sprang up around this book as it moved readers to celebrate their own relationships with the women in their lives. Close female friendship is a unique and special thing, and Rebecca Wells portrays this perfectly. Just as in this book, my girlfriends have been there with me through all the important times in my life, good and bad. They have celebrated with me, commiserated, listened, advised, laughed and cried. At times they have literally carried me through periods when I thought I could not go on. They are always on my side, never judging, never criticising. They are the scaffolding that has kept me upright when my very foundations have been shaken by seismic life events, and this book dissects and celebrates the true bones of these relationships and their role in our lives.

As I’ve grown older and had relationships and family of my own, the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship which is also central to this book have also come into sharper focus for me and meant more. I have come to understand it better from the perspective of Vivi, rather than Siddalee, and it has added an extra layer of richness to the narrative for me. There is always some new perspective to find on every reading, it is a book rich in nuance that takes more than one reading to mine and, as a result, I never get tired of it.

In addition to the above, this book also gives the most magnificent sense of place of any book I have read and was the reason that I fell in love with the Deep South of the USA before I even visited, and Louisiana in particular. I wanted to experience all the richness that this book promised awaited me there, the heavy warmth, the spice of the food, the twanging patois of the vernacular, so unique to this place and its mongrel history and when I finally got there, it exceeded every expectation. This book took part of my heart and planted it in Louisiana and the call to return and find it continues to draw me back to this day. This is an extraordinary feat for any book and reason enough to pick it up, if the preceding praise was not sufficient. If you want a book that transports you to a different time and place, look no further, this novel will carry you away; it is a book you can lose yourself in completely.

This book touches on some difficult subjects, but that is part of what makes it so glorious. This book is real. It deals with real people, real problems, real feelings, real relationships. The characters are flawed but compelling and the reader cannot help but be drawn into their drama. The writing is sublime. It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, to give people this experience, this connection with characters, this sense of empathy. When Rowan Coleman gave a talk at the RNA Conference last year about finding the three words to describe your writing, the top one on my list was affinity. I want people who read my book to feel an affinity with my characters and what they are going through, even if they have not been through the same experience themselves. That is what I feel for the characters in this book, even though they inhabit a different world than mine. And it makes me want to weep, because I know that I will never write anything as good as this.

If you haven’t got the message by now, I adore this book. It is one of those novels that, when you have read it, you feel that it has changed you.

You can get a copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood here and I think I might have to insist that you do.

About the Author

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Rebecca Wells was born and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana. “I grew up,” she says, “in the fertile world of story-telling, filled with flamboyance, flirting, futility, and fear.” Surrounded by Louisiana raconteurs, a large extended family, and Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s Parish, Rebecca’s imagination was stimulated at every turn. Early on, she fell in love with thinking up and acting in plays for her siblings—the beginnings of her career as an actress and writer for the stage. She recalls her early influences as being the land around her, harvest times, craw-fishing in the bayou, practicing piano after school, dancing with her mother and brothers and sister, and the close relationship to her black “mother” who cleaned for the Wells household. She counts black music and culture from Louisiana as something that will stay in her body’s memory forever.

In high school, she read Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” which opened her up to the idea that everything in life is a poem, and that, as she says, “We are not born separately from one another.” She also read “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s indictment of the strangling consumer-driven American culture he saw around him. Acting in school and summer youth theater productions freed Rebecca to step out of the social hierarchies of high school and into the joys of walking inside another character and living in another world.

The day after she graduated from high school, Rebecca left for Yellowstone National Park, where she worked as a waitress. It was an introduction to the natural glories of the park—mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, and geysers—as well as to the art of hitchhiking.

Rebecca graduated from Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where she studied theater, English, and psychology. She performed in many college plays, but also stepped outside the theater department to become awakened to women’s politics. During this time she worked as a cocktail waitress–once accidentally kicking a man in the shins when he slipped a ten-dollar bill down the front of her dress—and began keeping a journal after reading Anais Nin, which she has done ever since.

Connect with Rebecca:

Website: https://www.rebeccawellsbooks.com

Facebook: Rebecca Wells Author

Twitter: @rwellswrites

Instagram: @mizrebeccawells

 

 

FCBC Reading Challenge 2020: Neon Empire by Drew Minh #BookReview

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In a state-of-the-art city where social media drives every aspect of the economy, a has-been Hollywood director and an investigative journalist race to uncover the relationship between a rising tide of violence and corporate corruption.

Bold, colorful, and dangerously seductive, Eutopia is a new breed of hi-tech city. Rising out of the American desert, it’s a real-world manifestation of a social media network where fame-hungry desperados compete for likes and followers. But in Eutopia, the bloodier and more daring posts pay off the most. As crime rises, no one stands to gain more than Eutopia’s architects—and, of course, the shareholders who make the place possible.

This multiple-POV novel follows three characters as they navigate the city’s underworld. Cedric Travers, a has-been Hollywood director, comes to Eutopia looking for clues into his estranged wife’s disappearance. What he finds instead is a new career directing—not movies, but experiences. The star of the show: A’rore, the city’s icon and lead social media influencer. She’s panicking as her popularity wanes, and she’ll do anything do avoid obscurity. Sacha Villanova, a tech and culture reporter, is on assignment to profile A’rore—but as she digs into Eutopia’s inner workings, she unearths a tangle of corporate corruption that threatens to sacrifice Cedric, A’rore, and even the city itself on the altar of stockholder greed.

This is Book 6 for the 2020 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. The category was ‘A book which is a dystopian novel.’ The eagle-eyed amongst you will note that I have not reviewed book five in the challenge, ‘A book from my favourite genre.’ Unfortunately, the book I chose for this category was not to my tastes so, in line with my policy of not including negative reviews on the blog, I have decided I will not be reviewing it.

Neon Empire is a dystopian novel set in a not-too-distant future where the world’s increasing obsession with social media status has developed to the next level and a whole city has been constructed where popularity and social media influence are the sole currency and where flocks of people gather to pursue fame and fortune and hedonism. But the maintenance of status becomes all-consuming, and people’s desire to achieve or maintain their position drives them to further and further extremes and the corporations in control go to ever more desperate lengths to monetise experience to the last degree, regardless of the danger to human life. This all leads to a tautly-wound society that is only ever seconds away from violence and civil disobedience and it is only going to take one wrong move for the tinder-box to erupt.

The pace of the book is frenetic, and the story arc is spliced and jumbled and told by different voices and all angles, to reflect the fast, constantly-changing, crazy world of utopia, where things move and change from second to second and everyone is constantly reacting to changing stimuli and running to catch up. The world-building is detailed and evocative, in my mind Eutopia is a cross between Las Vegas on acid and Minority Report and, for some reason, a place where it is permanently night. Sometimes the text provides too much information to take in, and your brain is chasing the detail, unable to keep up, but again this is deliberate, to reflect the reality that the book presents, which makes for an exciting read, but it is not remotely relaxing!

This is an interesting exploration of where our society could go, given the trajectory we are on at the moment. Bearing in mind the scandals there have been with regard to data-mining and social media influencing of our decision-making in recent years, of how susceptible we all are to online marketing and rumour, how we know that the internet seems to predict our every move by monitoring our online interactions, the world portrayed here is no so far-fetched as to be unimaginable. It is not, however, a pretty or comfortable picture and should give us all pause for thought.

A future of online manipulation, superficiality and artifice is not a place I want to live, or for my children to grow up in. This book made me want to get out in the fresh air and touch something real.

Neon Empire is out now and you can buy a copy here.

 

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher #BookReview (@CharlieFletch_r) @orbitbooks @TheFictionCafe @dstackedshelves #FictionCafeBookClub #FictionCafeReadingChallenge2020 #challenges #readingrecommendations #TemptedBy #YoungAdult #ABoyAndHisDogAtTheEndOfTheWorld

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My name’s Griz. I’ve never been to school, I’ve never had friends, in my whole life I’ve not met enough people to play a game of football. My parents told me how crowded the world used to be, before all the people went away, but we were never lonely on our remote island. We had each other, and our dogs.  

Then the thief came.  

He told stories of the deserted towns and cities beyond our horizons. I liked him – until I woke to find he had stolen my dog. So I chased him out into the ruins of the world. 

I just want to get my dog back, but I found more than I ever imagined was possible. More about how the world ended. More about what my family’s real story is. More about what really matters.  

Book four for the 2020 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club is in the category ‘A book with an animal on the cover’ Well, I see a dog so I think this counts!

This post also represents a special edition of my Tempted by … feature, as I bought this book after reading this fabulous review by my friend Jill over at Double Stacked Shelves. Make sure you pop over and check out her blog.

This book lived up to all Jill promised. Although it is a young adult book, readers of all ages will take away something from it, and you’d need to be some kind of curmudgeon not to enjoy it just because the writing style is pitched at a young adult reader. This is a dystopian story, a tale of adventure, an exploration of human nature and frailty, a morality tale, and a treatise on the love than humans have for their pets, all rolled in to one great book.

We meet Griz & his family at the end of days, when the human population has all but died out and the few people who are left are scattered far and wide across a barren landscape. Everyone is living a hand to mouth existence, which makes them suspicious of strangers and protective of the things they have. So when a visitor to their remote home steals Griz’s dog, he sets off in pursuit. The rest of the book then follows Griz’s journey as he travels across an unknown land to find his lost companion.

The story is gripping from the first page as we try to understand what has happened to the world and what kind of devastation humans have wreaked on themselves and the planet. It is fascinating to look through the author’s imagination to see what someone who has never experienced life as we currently live it makes of our world through the decaying remnants left behind. What kind of things are still of value to humans on the edge of existence, and what has become worthless.

The book is full of emotion, as the bonds of family are tested, and the importance of relationships, trust, understanding, empathy and kindness are explored through Griz’s journey and the challenges he meets along the way. The book explores how we can change and grow in the face of adversity, confirming the old adage, ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.’

I have been a huge fan of dystopian fiction since my old school librarian introduced me to the books of John Wyndham as a teenager, but I don’t remember there being any books like this specifically aimed at my age group. This book brought back echoes of those books to me, along with a sniff of Treasure Island for some reason. I was thoroughly invested in the story, and found it moving, melancholy and uplifting, all at the same time. I am also happy that I have found a book I can share with my teenage daughters and discuss and enjoy with them. A book to be passed along between generations, which makes it a great find.

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Charlie’s a screenwriter and a novelist and he lives on the edge of Edinburgh. He’s been lots of other things too – temperamentally unsuitable bar staff (grumpy, not talkative), temporary laundry manager in a big London hotel, detail-shop car-wash jockey in Reno, Nevada, despatch runner for a film company in Soho,  food critic (not a very good one, basically never met a meal he didn’t like. Or at least eat too much of), national newspaper columnist (Scotland’s a nation, right?) and a film editor at the BBC. He studied Literature at St Andrews University, and later took a grad degree in Screenwriting at USC.

He swims a lot, keeps thinking of taking up cycling, likes forgotten books, summers on the Outer Hebrides, terriers, his wife and his children – not necessarily in that order.

Connect with Charlie:

Website: http://www.charliefletcher.com

Twitter: @CharlieFletch_r

Desert Island Books: The Edge by Dick Francis @felix_francis #BookReview #racingcrime #thriller #crime #bookbloggers #bookblog #desertislandbooks #readinggoals @VIA_Rail @ExploreCanada #TheCanadian #CanadaByTrain #VIARail #ExploreCanada #bucketlist

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Tor Kelsey, an undercover agent for the Jockey Club’s security service is involved in the attempt to rid racing of one of its most notorious villains, Julius Apollo Filmer. The court however, does not go along with their beliefs, but Tor knows that to let Julius even suspect the service are still on his tail would mean certain death for a number of witnesses.

Meanwhile, several racehorse owners have planned a luxurious train trip across Canada, with race meetings fixed for every major city. Julius Apollo Filmer and Tor are on the passenger list. The beautiful journey through the Rockies gets uglier by the minute and Tor finds himself pushed to dangerous limits to defeat Filmer’s wily scheming.

I can’t remember exactly when I read my very first Dick Francis novel, but I know it was some time early in my horse-mad, teenage years. I know that it was lent to me by my friend, Mary, and that the first one I read was one of his books featuring racing detective, Sid Halley. I also know I was hooked from that very first book and quickly raced through his back catalogue. I then waited eagerly each September for his latest book to come out and bought every new one in hardback. He wrote 44 thrillers before his death in 2010, the later ones with his son, Felix, as co-author. Since his death, Felix has continued to write racing thrillers under the Francis name, and I have continued to buy them.

I have huge nostalgic affection for these books, as Dick Francis was one of the first authors I discovered for myself, without the books being parentally approved, and he was an author that was just my own. No one else in my family was particularly a fan, I didn’t have to share the books with my sisters (who never took care of my books properly- remember the Freya North book you left in Australia, Catherine? Remember the book you dropped in the bath, Rebecca?), these were just mine.

Do you want to see my Dick Francis shelf? Of course you do, here it is:-

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Anyway, of all of these excellent books, The Edge is my standout favourite. I must have read it at least a dozen times over the years. In fact I could probably recite it off by heart by now, but I never get bored of it and it was a no brainer as one of my Desert Island Books.

The blurb of this book singularly fails to do the plot justice, so I will try and explain to you what exactly is so marvellous about it, even to people who are not remotely interested in horses or racing.

Although Dick Francis is dubbed the king of the racing thriller, his books are about so much more than horse racing. His plots have involved stories centring around reporters, photography, gold mines, movie-making, wine experts, air taxis, art fraud, diamond dealers, authors, medical experiments, hurricane-chasing and toy making, amongst many other subjects, all of them meticulously researched. To say that he writes racing thrillers does not do his imagination justice, and The Edge is one of the best examples of this diversity in his writing.

The book follows Jockey Club investigator, Tor Kelsey, a man who works undercover investigating racing crimes. When the Jockey Club believes the biggest villain in racing might be plotting a major sting, Tor is sent on the trip of a lifetime across Canada to try and discover and foil his plans.

So far, so ordinary. However, there are things about the book that make it a cut above the average thriller. Firstly, it has the topsy-turvy plot device of the reader knowing who the villain is from the off, but both the investigator, and the reader, not knowing what crime he is planning and having to find this out together. Secondly, the action is set mostly on a glamorous train travelling coast-to-coast across Canada with the elite of the racing world, plus their horses, aboard. There is also a murder mystery being acted out on board for the entertainment of the passengers, so there is fun in trying to work out which parts are the real mystery and which are part of the entertainment. There is also a love interest sub-plot for added spice. A huge cast of great characters, descriptions of a great train journey visiting some of the amazing sights of Canada, and a gripping mystery plot which delivers continual twists and turns and highs and lows – what’s not to love?

This book has a special place in my heart. It has also inspired one of my top Bucket List destinations which I blogged about here (picture below might give you a clue!). Having read it again, I am also struck by how well the book has stood the test of time, despite it being 30 years old and not featuring cell phones, the internet or other modern equipment. There are not many crime books that I can read over and over and still enjoy, despite knowing whodunnit, but all of Dick Francis’s books fall into this category and this is the best of the crop IMHO. Definitely a keeper.

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The Edge might be difficult to get your mitts on new now, but try your local library or you should be able to track down a copy in some format here. Sorry, there is no way I am lending out my copy, no matter how much you beg!

About the Author

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Richard Stanley Francis (31 October 1920 – 14 February 2010) was a British crime writer, and former steeplechase jockey, whose novels centre on horse racing.

After wartime service in the RAF, Francis became a full-time jump-jockey, winning over 350 races and becoming champion jockey of the British National Hunt. He came to further prominence in 1956 as jockey to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother riding her horse Devon Loch, which fell when close to winning the Grand National. Francis retired from the turf and became a journalist and novelist.

Dick Francis was widely acclaimed as one of the world’s finest thriller writers. His awards include the Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for his outstanding contribution to the crime genre, and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Tufts University of Boston. In 1996, Dick Francis was made a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master for a lifetime’s achievement and in 2000 he received a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

Four Weddings and a Festival by Annie Robertson Narrated by Ellie Heydon #BookReview #audiobook (@annierauthor) @EleanorHeydon @orionbooks @TheFictionCafe @NetGalley @audibleuk #FictionCafeBookClub #FictionCafeReadingChallenge2020 #challenges #NetGalley #FourWeddingsAndAFestival

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Four months. Four weddings. One happy ending…?

Lifelong friends and rom-com fans Bea, Lizzie, Hannah and Kat have curled up with Bridget Jones, sobbed at Love, Actually and memorised the script to Notting Hill. They always joked about getting married in one summer – their own Four Weddings – and it seems like this might just be the year . . .

That is, until Bea turns down her boyfriend’s proposal. Is her own Hugh Grant waiting for her amid the champagne and confetti? Can real-life romance ever live up to a Richard Curtis movie?

As the wedding – and festival – season gets into its swing, can all four friends find their happy ever after…?

This is the third book I have chosen for the 2020 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. The third category for the challenge is ‘A book which includes a wedding.’ Well, what is better than one wedding? Four!

I’ve chosen this book because it also represents a step forward in my other goal for 2020, which is to reduce my NetGalley backlog. My thanks to the publisher for my digital copy of this book, received via Netgalley, and I have reviewed it honestly and impartially.

Okay, so you’ll get the immediate impression that this book is inspired by the Richard Curtis movie and you wouldn’t be wrong. The author is obviously a fan and there are a number of references to his films throughout, so if you enjoyed those films you’ll enjoy this.

This was s fun read, following the weddings across one summer as three of them get married and Bea, having turned down the proposal of her perfect-on-paper boyfriend, tries to decide what she is going to do with the rest of her life, now all of her friends are settling down.

The details surrounding the four weddings are fun to read about, especially the unexpected one, and my favourite part was the description of the festival they all attend. Festivals in books have been a bit of a thing for me this week, after the Dave Holwill one.) I completely sympathised with Bea’s predicament, not wanting to settle and also not wanting to be left behind and alone. Life is tricky to navigate when you are in your twenties, I sometimes think people should be banned from marrying until they hit 30!

The thing that made this book for me was the character of Aunt Jane, she is a total legend and a role model for women of a certain age. I fully intend modelling myself in my seventies on a cross between her and Zillah from This Could Change Everything by Jill Mansell.

All in all, an enjoyable romcom for fans of Richard Curtis-esque movies and novels about female friendship. and finding The One.

Four Weddings and a Festival is out now and you can get your copy here.

About the Author

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Annie Robertson trained in London as a classical musician, then worked as an assistant for an Oscar winner, an acclaimed artist, a PR mogul and a Beatle. After several years of running errands for the rich and famous, she went to medical school where, hiding novels in anatomy textbooks, she discovered her true passion for writing, and went on to complete a Creative Writing MA with distinction.

Annie now lives back home in Scotland. When not writing Annie enjoys playing the piano, swimming with her young son, and visiting antiques markets with her husband.

Connect with Annie:

Twitter: @annierauthor

 

Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer Narrated by Robert Hardy #BookReview #audiobook @audibleuk @TheFictionCafe #FictionCafeBookClub #FictionCafeReadingChallenge2020 #challenges #freereading #RumpoleOfTheBailey

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In these witty and comic stories, Horace Rumpole takes on a variety of clients and activities. He, of course, brings each case to a successful end, all the while quoting poetry and drinking claret.

This is the second book I have chosen for the 2020 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. The second category for the challenge is ‘A book by an author who shares your initials.’ Hence, Julie Morris = John Mortimer.

It was Crown Court that started it. A lot of you won’t remember it, but those of a certain age may recall this TV show which ran during my childhood, to which I was completely addicted. In fact, I didn’t even realise that it was drama to begin with, I thought they were real criminal trials being shown on TV, and this was made me want to become a lawyer.

To begin with, I wanted to be a barrister, and this ambition led me in turn to the novels of a real-life barrister, John Mortimer, and his most famous character, Horace Rumpole.

I read all of the Rumpole books multiple times when I was younger, rabid as I was for tales of legal life. Of course, these books are not really representative of life as a barrister, and I ended up taking an entirely different route in my legal career, away from the Bar and criminal law to the non-contentious role as a corporate solicitor. I continue to love a legal-based book though, and discovered Caro Fraser’s Caper Court series, John Grisham and, more recently, the novels of Gillian McAllister and Peter Murphy. But Rumpole will always have a soft spot in my heart.

I haven’t revisited the books in a long time, although I still have my original copies, and they do feel somewhat dated now. The law and society have changed so much in the interim, and the writing may come across as rather un-PC when viewed through a modern lens. They are certainly books of their time, and Rumpole is no modern man by today’s standards. He could not get away with referring to his wife as ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ these days, thankfully.

However, if you read them of products of the time in which they were written, you can still see the appeal they had to a young, wannabe barrister. The writing is clever and fluid, Rumpole is a loveable rogue and defender of the underdog, wily but charming, a distinctive personality of a type which I doubt exists at the Bar any more. The books portray an era of legal practice long gone which, in some respects is to be mourned although in others society has improved. And the books are very funny (maybe only in some respects to lawyers. There were blank looks on my daughters’ faces as I laughed like a drain at the joke ‘Agent provocateur, you don’t get many of those in conveyancing.’) I still found much to enjoy in the book when I listened to it within its original frame of reference.

I really enjoyed my amble down youthful memory lane with this book. I won’t consign my old Rumpole books to the recycling bin just yet. I’m not sure I’ll be persuading my daughters to pick them up any time soon though.

Rumpole of the Bailey is available here.

About the Author

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Sir John Mortimer was a playwright, novelist and former practising barrister. During the war he worked with the Crown Film Unit and published a number of novels, before turning to theatre. He wrote many film scripts, and plays both for radio and television, including A Voyage Round My Father, the Rumpole plays, which won him the British Academy Writer of the Year Award, and the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

Mortimer wrote four volumes of autobiography, including Clinging to the Wreckage and Where There’s a Will (2003). His novels include the Leslie Titmuss trilogy, about the rise of an ambitious Tory MP: Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained and The Sound of Trumpets, and the acclaimed comic novel, Quite Honestly (2005). He also published numerous books featuring his best-loved creation Horace Rumpole, including Rumpole and the Primrose Path (2002) and Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (2004). All these books are available in Penguin.

Sir John Mortimer received a knighthood for his services to the arts. His authorized biography, A Voyage Around John Mortimer, written by Valerie Grove, is also published by Penguin (2007).

Sir John Mortimer passed away on January 16, 2009.

Desert Island Books: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson #BookReview #travel #travelwriting #bookbloggers #bookblog #desertislandbooks #readinggoals

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In the company of his friend Stephen Katz, Bill Bryson set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing tics, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors.

So, the first of the twelve books that I will be taking with me to my desert island for my Desert Island Books feature is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

I love Bill Bryson’s writing, his travel books in particular, but out of all of them this one is my favourite. I must have read it half a dozen times now and it still fascinates me, makes me thoughtful and makes me laugh, all at the same time. I don’t think I will ever get bored of it.

I had a quick look at the reviews on Goodreads of this book just prior to writing this review. The book has an average of 4 stars, but the most prominent review on the first page was a one star by someone who took exception to pretty much everything about the book’s content and the way it was written, which quite surprised me. The review is so prominent, despite being 13 years old, because it has an exceptionally high number of comments on it, as other Goodreads members debated the merits of the review, and the book, back and forth. It is quite clear that this is a book that divides people.

Oddly, the majority of the things people listed as reasons for disliking the book, were the things that make it one of my favourite reads, so I guess you need to decide if these are things that appeal to you.

This is a book about Bill Bryson’s mid-life trek along the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200 mile wilderness footpath that traverses a mountainous route through the forests of the eastern USA from Georgia to northern Maine. Now, I love to read about other people’s travel adventures, and I find this one particularly appealing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I love the USA and this book covers a couple of the areas of the US that I am particularly fond of – the south eastern states and New England. I  personally have been to the mountains of North Carolina, parts of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampsire and Maine. I’ve stayed at the Mount Washington Hotel and travelled to the top of Mount Washington via the famous cog railway mentioned in the book. I’ve been to Franconia Notch State Park in Vermont. I’ve visited the town Bryson lived in when he wrote this book, Hanover in New Hampshire, so some of the places he talks about are familiar and I can clearly visualise them and it is always interesting in a book to get someone else’s view of something you yourself have experienced. Equally, there are many places in the book I have never been but sound enticing, and I know for a fact that, whilst I might dream about hiking the Appalachian Trail, it is something I will never do, so I can live it vicariously through Bryson’s experience.

This book is extremely varied as it covers, not only his actual experience of physically hiking the trail, but a lot about the people he meets, the climate and weather of the region, geology and history of this part of the USA, information about the flora and fauna and how that is changing, the development and management of the trail, socio-political history of some of the areas he passes through, and much more. Some people find this annoying and accuse him of ‘hopping about’. I find it all fascinating and, for me, it gives the whole experience a context and a richness that really brings it to life and gives it relevance in the mind of the reader. The author obviously shares my insatiable thirst to know everything about everything he sees on his travels and really understand it. I do huge amounts of reading about a destination and its history before I travel, which deepens my interest and enjoyment of a place, and this is the perfect approach for those fact hounds amongst us.

Another thing some people seem to find a negative about this book is Bryson himself and his authorial voice. I do wonder if this is a matter of national perspective. Whilst Bryson is American by birth, he has spent the better part of his life living in the UK and his humour is very British in nature. He relies heavily on self-deprecation, sarcasm and irony and this is not a type of humour that appeals to everyone. I recall from his book, Notes From A Big Country, (a book about how he and his British family adjust to life in the US after living in the UK for many years) an anecdote about how his wife had to ask him to stop making jokes with his American neighbour, because his neighbour didn’t understand them and their exchanges were giving his neighbour migraines. Some people seem to think Bryson comes across as mean and a bit superior, but I actually find that the biggest butt of his jokes is always himself and he is actually very amusing and gives the book a very light-hearted and entertaining tone, rather than it being a heavy and torpid read, despite the fact in contains huge amounts of factual information. He has a real way with words; his prose is vivid and lyrical. He writes the way I would love to write and I could read it endlessly.

I read a lot of travel writing, because travel is a passion of mine, and for me this represents the absolute best of the genre, mixing anecdotes with a lot of interesting factual information and history, and conveying it all in a clear, fun and pacy package. If you have enjoyed Bryson’s other writing, you will love this book. If you don’t like him, you will hate it because his voice is strong and clear throughout. Maybe the Marmite of travel books, but I, for one, will never tire of Marmite on my desert island.

If you have been tempted by this review to want to read A Walk in the Woods for yourself, you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1951. Settled in England for many years, he moved to America with his wife and four children for a few years, but has since returned to live in the UK. His bestselling travel books include The Lost Continent, Notes From a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods and Down Under. His acclaimed work of popular science, A Short History of Nearly Everything, won the Aventis Prize and the Descartes Prize, and was the biggest selling non-fiction book of the decade in the UK.