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

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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

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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

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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

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Book Review: A Favor for a Favor by Nat Chelloni

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“Forget favors given; remember those received.” – John Wooden

A time for love can’t be more deadly…

Julia Leonardi thought she put her past behind her. The widow of a mobster, all she wants is to steer clear of the criminal elements. Then she meets Domenico Bonacci…

Dom is handsome, charming, and intense. The world knows him as a prominent businessman, but Julia sees him as everything she fought to escape.

Once the scion of a powerful Mafia family Dom left the world of organized crime after his father’s death. And he swore he would never go back.

No matter how hard she tries, Julia can’t seem to ignore the powerful spark of attraction between them and her growing feelings for him. But when Dom’s shady past catches up with him, the two forbidden lovers find themselves trapped in a deadly game.

Will Dom renege on his vow and lose the woman he loves, or he will manage to break free of his past for once and for all?

This wouldn’t be the kind of book I would normally read, romantic suspense is not a genre I read much, but it is good to go out of your comfort zone every now and again and I do like to support debut authors, so I thought I would give it a try.

The main protagonist is Julia, the daughter of a Mafia boss who was married and widowed young due to a feud between underworld gangs and has since turned her back on that world, determined never to suffer that heartbreak again. However, when all your family are connected, it is hard to escape that world completely. Then she meets Dom, the son of a murdered don who also claims to have left that world, but Julia isn’t sure and is resisting her undeniable attraction to him.

The book starts off in dramatic form with their first meeting, and the initial impressions I formed of Dom weren’t great. In fact, if I hadn’t been mindful of the genre I was reading and determined to keep an open mind, I might have walked away quite early because he is everything I hate in a man and the thought of him being a love interest to anyone was off-putting. The author does include a trigger warning for this part, and I can see why it is needed, but I ploughed on and it turned out that first impressions can be deceptive. Dom did grow on me, although I’m not sure I ever got completely past his initial behaviour.

There are lots of great characters in this book, and lots of action. It was interesting to read a book set in an alien world, and see all the tensions and relationships that are involved, see how matters are negotiated and resolved. I could sympathise with Julia’s dilemma of being attracted to a man but resisting because she isn’t sure of his lifestyle, and I think this played out well. There is a lot of sexual heat in the book between the two main characters, which is well written and believable. If you enjoy this type of book, and this type of relationship, I think this book will work well for you.

The book has a few problems. Some of the pacing was a little uneven, and it did plough some of the same issues repeatedly, but overall I enjoyed it as a step outside my comfort zone. After my initial baulking at Dom, I was gripped by the story and wanted to know how it ended. I can’t tell you it has been the book that converted me to a romantic suspense groupie, but then I’m not sure that book exists, because it is just not my bag. However, it is a really excellent debut, I would not have known this was a first book if I hadn’t been told, and I’m sure fans of the genre would be delighted with it.

A Favor for a Favor is out now and you can buy it in paperbook or ebook here.

About the Author

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Nat Chelloni is a TV personality, a screenwriter, a film critic, an avid book reader across all genres, and now a published author of a debut novel A Favor For a Favor. Nat’s overactive imagination and a passion for storytelling have finally found an outlet.

Connect with Nat:

Facebook: Nat Chelloni

Twitter: @natchelloni

Instagram: @nat.chelloni

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Book Review: The Last Thing To Burn by Will Dean

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He is her husband. She is his captive.

Her husband calls her Jane. That is not her name.

She lives in a small farm cottage, surrounded by vast, open fields. Everywhere she looks, there is space. But she is trapped. No one knows how she got to the UK: no one knows she is there. Visitors rarely come to the farm; if they do, she is never seen.

Her husband records her every movement during the day. If he doesn’t like what he sees, she is punished.

For a long time, escape seemed impossible. But now, something has changed. She has a reason to live and a reason to fight. Now, she is watching him, and waiting . . .

How do you write a review of a book like The Last Thing To Burn? It has been seeming like an impossible task to put down in words the feelings I have about this book and yet, review it I must because word of this book needs spreading far and wide so that as many people as possible read it. I’ve yet to come across anyone who has read this book who hasn’t been blown away by it, and I am no different. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the most outstanding books I have ever read.

When I was thinking about writing this review, I was so overwhelmed by the idea of having to put down on the page my complex feelings about it, I joked with a fellow blogger that I was just going to try and sum up a reason for someone to read the book in a single line, and spare myself the pain of trying to communicate with my inadequate words anything more. I still think I could make you want to read this book with that single line, so here it is:

I have never hated anyone, in real life or in fiction, as much as I hate the antagonist in this book.

You see, you want to know why now, don’t you? Why is he the worst person I have ever come across? Well, pick up the book and find out and, by the time you have finished, I know you will agree with me. This person is stone cold evil in a way you will probably have never read about before, and the author will stun you throughout by peeling back more and more depths to his sadism as you go through the book and think you have already plumbed the depths to which a human can sink. The most terrifying part of it is, the plausibility of the scenario. This is no wild flight of fancy where Will is writing a really obvious piece of fiction for entertainment. This book is so horrifying because you know that this could absolutely happen, is likely happening somewhere in this country. That is what makes is so disturbing.

If you are now wondering why you should read a book that I have described as something horrifying and disturbing, I will tell you. On the flip side of cruelty and depravity, this book explores the power of love and the resilience and determination of the human spirit in its face. Brought as low as a human can go, subjected to inhumanity that is too horrible for most of us to think about on a daily basis, inside the protagonist is a spark that the antagonist has not managed to quell. There is life and there is fight and, where that exists, there is a glimmer of hope. This hope, and this evidence of humanity and dignity in the face of adversity that seems insurmountable, is what will keep you glued to the pages. It is what will make you invest in and care for the protagonist as much as you loathe the perpetrator of her misery and will her to prevail. And you will be desperate for it, desperate to know if the human spirit will triumph in the end. You won’t know, but you will hope, and hope and hope as you frantically turn the pages and read until your bath water is cold, and your daughter comes to check you haven’t drowned and all of your chores go undone until you know, one way or another, what will happen. Thank goodness that this book is only 250 pages long, because you will absolutely have to, as if YOUR life depended on it, start and finish this book in a single sitting.

I don’t know if you have come across Will Dean before, but he is a bit of a heartthrob in the book world. He looks like a knitwear model. He lives in a remote forest in Sweden, in a house he built himself. He has the most gorgeous dog you’ve ever seen. But I tell you, this book makes him even more attractive than all of that, because it is obvious that this is a man who really understands women, and you can tell that from the way he writes ‘Jane.’ There are things in this book that this woman goes through that would make most men blush to talk about and yet Will writes about them, and her reaction to what happens to her, as if these are things he has experienced and understands intimately. Honestly, this was one of the things that really struck me, just how truthfully, compassionately and empathetically he writes the experience of this woman, so that she is totally real to the reader. If you really stand back and look at it, it is an astonishing accomplishment.

I still don’t think I’ve done this book justice, but I have done my best. Just read this book, it is an unbelievable piece of literature. One of my writer friends, who finished the book just last night, talked this morning about having to ‘pull herself out of his world,’ and I can relate completely to that statement. This is a completely immersive piece of work that takes you entirely out of your world and plonks you directly into the life of someone else, until that is all you can think about. And, even when you have finished, you still won’t be able to stop thinking about it entirely for weeks afterwards. I already knew, on 10 January when I finished this book, that it would be one of my Top Ten Books of 2021. Scrap that. it might be in my Top Ten books of all time. Just read it. Even the title is absolute genius.

We Begin At The End is out now in hardback, ebook and audio formats and you can buy a copy here. It will be available in paperback in December 2021.

About the Author

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Will Dean grew up in the East Midlands, living in nine different villages before the age of eighteen. After studying law at the LSE, and working many varied jobs in London, he settled in rural Sweden with his wife. He built a wooden house in a boggy forest clearing and it’s from this base that he compulsively reads and writes.

DARK PINES, the first in the Tuva Moodyson series, was published to huge critical acclaim in 2018, was shortlisted for Not the Booker prize, selected for Zoe Ball’s TV Book Club and named as a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year. THE LAST THING TO BURN is his first standalone novel.

Connect with Will:

Twitter: @willrdean

Instagram: @willrdean

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Book Review: An Eligible Bachelor by Veronica Henry; Narrated by Jilly Bond

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Upstairs, downstairs… it’s all going on at the manor.

When Guy wakes up with a terrible hang-over and a new fiancée, he tries not to panic. After all, Richenda is beautiful, famous, successful… What reason could he have for doubts?

As news of the engagement between the heir of Eversleigh Manor and the darling of prime-time television spreads through the village, Guy wonders if he’s made a rash decision. Especially when he meets Honor, a new employee of the Manor who has a habit of getting under his skin…

But Honor has her own troubles – a son who’s missing a father, and an ex-boyfriend who has made an unexpected reappearance…

Being a massive fan of Veronica’s books, I thought I had read them all but – joy! – I discovered one I had overlooked and, feeling a bit down in the early, grey days of January, with post-Christmas blues and another lockdown taking force, I knew listening to it would be the perfect pick me up as I did my new year clean up.  (Is that the longest sentence I’ve ever written? Possibly.)

This book takes us back to the Cotswold countryside, location of Veronica’s earliest books, to the village of Eversleigh, where the young, handsome heir to the local manor house wakes up with a hangover and a fiancee he doesn’t really remember proposing too. Meanwhile, Honor is juggling life as a single mum down the road, pulled between spending time with her young son and trying to put food on the table. Their lives could not be more different, so we know that the author is going to find some way of bringing them together, and I settled back to enjoy seeing how Veronica was going to do it.

If you are thinking that this sounds a little ‘Jilly Cooper’ you’d be correct, and in absolutely the best way possible. This book would be absolutely perfect for anyone who loves Jilly’s books (as I do) but hasn’t got the time to listen to one of the massive Rutshire novels on audio (I listened to Riders and Rivals during the first lockdown on audio and they are 28 hours 17 minutes and 27 hours 41 minutes long respectively! Great value for an Audible credit if you have any going spare). This has the same light-hearted, romantic vibe, whilst still tackling some issues that will resonate with listeners; single parenthood, unhappy childhoods, being torn between personal desire and family duty. Plus, chuck in some fabulous descriptions of beautiful Gloucestershire countryside and you are on to a winner as far as I am concerned.

The thing I particularly loved about this book was that Veronica gives us a love triangle that is a real dilemma because there is a lot to admire about both the women involved. I love reading books featuring strong women who know their own minds and don’t need a man to solve their problems, these are the type of characters I relate to, not wilting flowers with no self-determination. There was no obvious right or wrong answer for Guy in his romantic conundrum and I had huge amounts of sympathy and affection for both Honor and Richenda. For most of the book I could not decide who I wanted him to end up with and I was going to be sad for whichever one of them was left in the cold. Within the main characters, they were all likeable and worthy of happiness, there was no obvious villain (although this is not true of the minor characters. We always need some baddies to direct our ire at, don’t we?) This is not always the case in romance novels, very often it is too easy to guess what the ending to be, and I found this book very refreshing and appealing in this approach.

This book is the perfect piece of escapism, full of warmth and humour and plenty of tension to keep the reader enthralled. The narration was excellent and complemented the book perfectly, really bringing the story to life, and the whole experience of listening to this book was a delight. I don’t often listen to romance novels on audio, I prefer thrillers in that format because the narrative is usually more pacy which works better for audio, which takes much longer to listen to than it would take me to read the book in text format. However, there are some romance authors that buck this trend, and Veronica is one of them. This book made my mucking out chores a lot more pleasurable than they normally are in a cold, wet January and I can highly recommend it to anyone looking to lift their spirits in these trying times.

An Eligible Bachelor is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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I’m Veronica – otherwise known as Ronnie – and I’m delighted you’ve found your way here!

People often ask me what kind of books I write and it’s a very difficult question to answer in one sentence. Primarily, I love to take my readers somewhere they might like to be, whether a gorgeous house in the countryside or on a seaside clifftop. There, my characters go through the trials and tribulation of everyday life, embroiled in situations and dilemmas we can all relate to. Love is at the heart of it, but all kinds of love, not just romantic: the love of friends and family, or a place, or a passion for what you enjoy (food, wine and books, in my case . . .)

I have a background in writing television drama (Heartbeat, Holby City) so that has been an influence – creating lots of characters whose lives impact on each other. Working on The Archers I was taught ‘Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; but above all, make ’em wait’!

I hope my books are beautifully written, uplifting and a little bit escapist. I’d love to know what you think, so do leave a review.

A little bit about me: I live by the sea and head to the beach every day with my dog Zelda. I love cooking and discovering new restaurants on city breaks, with a bit of yoga to offset the calories – and I’ve just bought an e-bike. My biggest writing influences are HE Bates, Nancy Mitford, Jilly Cooper and any book that has a big rambling house and an eccentric family . . .

Connect with Veronica:

Website: www.veronicahenry.co.uk

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/veronicahenryauthor/

Twitter: @veronica_henry

Instagram: @veronicahenryauthor

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Book Review: We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker

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Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer.

Now, he’s been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven, California. Not everyone is pleased to see him. Like Star Radley, his ex-girlfriend, and sister of the girl he killed.

Duchess Radley, Star’s thirteen-year-old daughter, is part-carer, part-protector to her younger brother, Robin – and to her deeply troubled mother. But in trying to protect Star, Duchess inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will have tragic consequences not only for her family, but also the whole town.

Murder, revenge, retribution.

How far can we run from the past, when the past seems doomed to repeat itself?

How to begin to review this book? I don’t know how I’m going to do it justice, to be honest. It was my first read of the year, and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to write this review for almost three weeks. There is so much I want to convey about my feelings, and not the words to do it adequately. Still, I can put it off no longer, so here we go.

This book is ostensibly a thriller, spanning a period of decades, and it works extremely well purely on that level. Thirty years ago a murder shook a small town to its foundations and had lasting consequences for everyone closely connected with the case, and down into the next generation. It has robbed Duchess Radley and her brother of a stable family life, and of police chief, Walk, of his best friend and peace of mind. And now the man convicted of the crime is about to be released from prison and return to Cape Haven. This is the catalyst for massive upheaval in the community and a new spate of disturbances that affect all the main players all over again to devastating effect.

The plot of the thriller is complex and surprising, with twists and turns you will not see coming, but it offers more than a straight forward mystery. We are shown the wider consequences of crime, the cause and effect, the life-altering repercussions it has for so many people, not just the victim and perpetrator. How it changes people, rips apart families, ripples through a community as a whole, and is felt for many, many years after the events took place. It is such a considered approach to telling the story of crime that you have to admire the author’s skill, and it rewards the reader with a more cerebral experience than you might usually expect. It will provoke a lot of ruminating on the nature and consequences of both crime and the way we punish criminals in anyone who chooses to take a considered approach.

But this book is so much more than a simple thriller, and it is in the development and examination of the characters that the true beauty and appeal of this book lies. Chris Whitaker has created real people here who will not only get under your skin, but also into your heart and will haunt your thoughts for days, even weeks, after you have finished the novel.

The story is told by two people. The first is the police chief, Walk. As a boy, he was best friends with the person accused of killing Sissy Radley. Thirty years later, he is the chief of police in Cape Haven, faced with having to integrate a murderer back into the life of a town that doesn’t want him, look out for his great friend, Star Radley, when her sister’s killer is released, all the while not being able to reconcile the idea that his childhood friend is a murderer. This is a man at war with himself, torn between his job and firm sense of justice and responsibility to the town, and ingrained loyalty to his childhood companions. Walk’s struggle permeates every page of the book. We watch as the battling sides of his conscience inform his actions, and the impact that has on other players in the story. We ask ourselves constantly is he is doing the right thing. What would we do in his position? Is life always as black and white as we comfortably view it from a distance? Of course, it isn’t and we live that struggle through Walk’s eyes throughout the book. It is such a clever and impelling mechanism for conveying ideas and issues for the reader to grapple with.

The other narrator is Duchess Radley, niece of the murder victim and a girl whose life has been shaped entirely by events that pre-dated her birth and over which she has no control. The murder of her aunt has made her who she is, pre-ordained her circumstances and opportunities, even though she never knew her, and it is monstrously unfair.

Duchess Radley is the most extraordinary character I have ever come across in a novel. I can’t think of another who has affected me so profoundly as she has. She has completely wormed her way into my psyche to the point where I was feeling every single emotion she was going through. As a consequence, parts of this book almost cracked my heart in two. We get to see what has created this  bravado shell she puts up against a world that has been against her since the day she was born, but we also get to see the terrified child underneath, the beautiful love she has for the little brother she protects like a fierce momma bear, and her longing for someone to take her burdens from her shoulders, but her suspicion of a world, and people, who have failed her at every turn before. It is so beautiful and honest but totally soul-destroying at the same time. No child should be in this position, the world asks too much of her, and yet her resilience is amazing. We know there are children in the world suffering in similar ways, and it is shameful. The author has created in Duchess one of the most perfect and memorable and truly successful characters that has every really lived on the page and I know she will stay with me for a long, long time.

This is a book, ultimately, about love and loss and consequence. About family and friendship and the bonds we build with people throughout our lives in different ways, and how strong those bonds can be in the face of adversity. And about sacrifice. About what we are prepared to give up to protect the people we love most in the world and allow them to thrive, no matter what the personal cost to ourselves. It is the most extraordinary feat of novel-writing and I urge everyone to pick up a copy as soon as you can. You won’t find a much more rewarding and moving reading experience anywhere.

We Begin At The End is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Chris Whitaker is the award winning author of Tall Oaks and All The Wicked Girls. Both books were published to widespread critical acclaim, with Tall Oaks going on to win the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.

His latest novel, We Begin At The End, is available now.

Chris lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and two young sons.

Connect with Chris:

Website: https://chriswhitaker.com/

Twitter: @WhittyAuthor

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Desert Island Books: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Desert Island Books

Following on from my earlier post, I now have my twelfth and final, personal Desert Island Book. If I am ever pressed to nominate my favourite book of all time, this is my choice. The book is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

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When sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen, she decides her only choice is to descend upon relatives in deepest Sussex.

At the aptly-named Cold Comfort Farm, she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the last twenty years.

But Flora loves nothing better than to organise other people. Armed with common sense and a strong will, she resolves to take each of the family in hand. A hilarious and ruthless parody of rural melodramas and purple prose, Cold Comfort Farm is one of the best-loved comic novels of all time.

Why do I love this book so much? Oh, for so many reasons. Firstly, its protagonist is one of my two favourite heroines in English Literature (the other, in case you are wondering, is Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing) and the one to whom I most closely relate. In fact, if those who know me had to pick out a character from literature that I most resemble, it would be Flora Poste. Flora hates messes, as I do, and she loves to organise people, as I do. Bossy, you say? I don’t think so, just sure in her own rightness, and there is nothing wrong with that! Sadly, I don’t think I am as chic, crafty or quick-witted as Flora turns out to be in this book, but one can dream.

Secondly, the cast of characters in this book are perfectly drawn, and every one is delightful, in their own peculiar way. Morose cousin Judith, over-sexed Seth, faux-hippy Elfine, fire-and-brimstone preacher Amos, Flora’s sensible friend Mrs Smiling who collects brassieres as a hobby, fecund maid Miriam; every one of them is pitch-perfect. Best of all is Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a tiny tot, and has used the trauma as an excuse to rule the family with an iron fist ever since. After all, ‘there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm,’ and nothing can ever be allowed to change that, especially not Robert Poste’s child. The standoff between young but wily Flora and stubborn Great Aunt Ada is one of the greatest battle of wills ever written, and it is a joy to read.

The book is just beautifully pitched and executed in every single respect. Apart from the characterisations, the pastiche of romantic but doom-laden writing of other authors of the time is a wicked delight to read – I defy you to read her deliberately purple prose and not giggle – and the way she leaves some of the biggest mysteries of the book unanswered, to be speculated over and debated down the years, is just brilliant. There are a million tiny and subtle comments, asides, observations and conversations to delight over. The part where Flora is explaining the process and merits of the use of birth control to the randy serving girl, who then repeats it to her mother, is a perfect example, and one of my favourites. Over and above all else, this book is hilarious, sharply witty and oh-so-clever. I delight in every reading anew, and this is why it would accompany me to my desert island. It is a book that never fails to cheer my soul.

I am a person who does not often watch TV or movie adaptations of my favourite books, because I have too often been disappointed. I haven’t watched recent adaptations of Little Women or Anne of Green Gables for this reason. This being said, the version of Cold Comfort Farm starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora, Joanna Lumley as Mrs Smiling and Rufus Sewell as Seth is absolutely brilliant. It really portrays the story and the characters exactly as I imagine them, and it maybe the only adaptation of one of my favourite books that I love as much as the novel itself, so if you don’t have time to read it, maybe give it a watch instead. I am sure you will end up loving it as much as I do.

Cold Comfort Farm is available to buy in all formats here.

About the Authors

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Stella Gibbons is best known for her comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm. A witty parody of the pastoral fiction written by authors such as D H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb, it won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais in 1933 and established her literary reputation. Gibbons also wrote 22 other novels, including Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1940) and Starlight (1967), as well as three volumes of short stories and four poetry collections. She died in 1989, aged 87.

Book Review: More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran

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A decade ago, Caitlin Moran thought she had it all figured out. Her instant bestseller How to Be a Woman was a game-changing take on feminism, the patriarchy, and the general ‘hoo-ha’ of becoming a woman. Back then, she firmly believed ‘the difficult bit’ was over, and her forties were going to be a doddle.

If only she had known: when middle age arrives, a whole new bunch of tough questions need answering. Why isn’t there such a thing as a ‘Mum Bod’? How did sex get boring? What are men really thinking? Where did all that stuff in the kitchen drawers come from? Can feminists have Botox? Why has wine turned against you? How can you tell the difference between a Teenage Micro-Breakdown, and The Real Thing? Has feminism gone too far? And, as always, WHO’S LOOKING AFTER THE CHILDREN?

Now with ageing parents, teenage daughters, a bigger bum and a To-Do list without end, Caitlin Moran is back with More Than A Woman: a guide to growing older, a manifesto for change, and a celebration of all those middle-aged women who keep the world turning.

It’s taken me ages to get round to writing this review, I finished the book weeks ago. I’m not sure why, I think I’ve been worried that I can’t do justice to how I feel about More Than A Woman within the confines of a blog post. I’d actually like to read it again and try and distill my thoughts a bit more but there isn’t time so I’m going in, for better or worse. Sometimes it’s harder to write a review of a book you loved passionately than it is a book you felt lukewarm about.

Caitlin’s previous book, How To Be A Woman, made me snort a copious quantity of hot tea down my nose on a crowded train back in 2011, which was both painful and embarrassing, so I approached this book with some caution. More Than A Woman has the same mixture of humour, brutal honesty, searing insight and pathos as the last one, but this time Caitlin has grown up, hit middle age and is sharing that experience with us, no holds barred and, just like last time, I recognised so much of my own life and experience between the pages.

Caitlin and I are of an age so, although much of our life experiences have been very different, the basic building blocks of being a forty-something woman in modern Britain are universal. Relationships, children, body issues, emotions – they work pretty much the same for all of us, and acknowledging this is a fundamental way of allowing us to empathise with and support our fellow women, and this is one of the great joys of this book. It’s like having a slightly drunken chat with your best mate, the one where you have imbibed just enough to bring down any nicety barriers, the woman is someone you have known so long that she is privy to all your embarrassing secrets and you can just lay it all out on the table for dissection. Catharsis for when you are struggling.

That’s what this book is. Catharsis. A sharing of pain and problems so that you don’t feel so alone, or abnormal, in the things that bother you from day to day. Caitlin is painfully blunt, she doesn’t hold back on telling it like it is, warts and all, and it is a beautiful thing to read. Every worry you ever had about your life is set out here and she shouts, ‘Look, me too, this is normal, YOU are normal!’ It is so comforting. It allows you to laugh at yourself, and put some things into perspective. It’s not the end of the world, we’re all going through it, and survive. Like the last book, she has such a skill in expressing things in a way that just make them hilarious, I found myself laughing out loud in many places. Luckily, I’ve learnt not to read her books in public any more. See, I’m growing and learning too, there are some benefits to ageing.

That’s not to say this book is all fun and jolly japes. She addresses some very serious issues too, the care of ageing parents, struggles with parenting. The chapters dealing with her daughter’s anorexia are heart-wrenching. There were points where I was in tears and my soul was cracking in sympathy with what she was going through, because I can all too clearly imagine how I would feel in that situation. That is the genius of this book, and Caitlin’s writing in particular. It is just so true, all of it, and she is not afraid to put it out there for us all to see. Her writing is really brave and insightful and comforting. I really, really loved this book and will be keeping it on the shelf next to How To Be A Woman, ready to dip into next time I need a friend. Especially important in this year when our real support network of friends have been out of reach in real life much of the time.

This is a book I would like to gift every woman of my age, because I want them all to read it and realise that we have much more in common that we have differences and it is really important for us to be there to support one another. You never know what the next woman is going through, and hiding under the cheerful and competent facade we often plaster on for the rest of the world. Maybe she needs a friend. A pat on the arm. A squeeze of understanding. That simple act can make the difference between surviving and going under. I know I couldn’t get through without the amazing female friends I have, this book is friendship between two shiny covers.

More Than A Woman is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Caitlin Moran became a columnist at The Times at eighteen and has gone on to be named Columnist of the Year six times. At one point, she was also Interviewer and Critic of the Year – which is good going for someone who still regularly mistypes ‘the’ as ‘hte’.

Her multi-award winning bestseller How to Be a Woman has been published in 28 countries, and won the British Book Awards’ Book of the Year 2011. Her two volumes of collected journalism, Moranthology and Moranifesto, were Sunday Times bestsellers.

Her first novel, How to Build a Girl, debuted at Number One, and is currently being adapted as a film. Bloody hell, that’s actually quite impressive.

Connect with Caitlin:

Website: https://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk/

Twitter: @caitlinmoran

Instagram: @mscaitlinmoran

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Book Review: Fake Law: The Truth About Justice in an Age of Lies by The Secret Barrister

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Could the courts really order the death of your innocent baby? Was there an illegal immigrant who couldn’t be deported because he had a pet cat? Are unelected judges truly enemies of the people?

Most of us think the law is only relevant to criminals, if we even think of it at all. But the law touches every area of our lives: from intimate family matters to the biggest issues in our society.

Our unfamiliarity is dangerous because it makes us vulnerable to media spin, political lies and the kind of misinformation that frequently comes from loud-mouthed amateurs and those with vested interests. This ‘fake law’ allows the powerful and the ignorant to corrupt justice without our knowledge – worse, we risk letting them make us complicit.

Thankfully, the Secret Barrister is back to reveal the stupidity, malice and incompetence behind many of the biggest legal stories of recent years. In Fake Law, the Secret Barrister debunks the lies and builds a defence against the abuse of our law, our rights and our democracy that is as entertaining as it is vital.

I vividly remember an evening in 2016 when I went out to dinner with a group of around eight of my closest friends. Earlier that day, the retrial of a footballer previously convicted of rape had resulted in an acquittal, and conversation inevitably touched on this current hot topic. To my dismay, there were lot of harsh words directed at the victim in the case, with assertions that she was clearly a ‘liar,’ that the law needed to do something about the problem of ‘fake claims’ of rape and the subsequent destruction of the lives of ‘obviously innocent’ men. I refer to dismay, because this is what I felt upon realising that my group of well-educated, largely liberal, tolerant, engaged and generous friends were so ill-informed as to what the acquittal of this footballer really meant with regards to the honesty of the woman involved and the appropriateness his behaviour. None of them had actually read any detail as to the facts of the case or the grounds on which he had been acquitted, they had simply accepted at face value the many sensational and inaccurate news reports on the case. It was eye-opening. I tried my best to explain why these assumptions were untrue, but was not entirely successful as a lone voice crying against a storm of popular misinformation.

I mention this story, because it is one of the cases referred to by The Secret Barrister in their new book, Fake Law, in which they try to counteract some of the inaccurate stories we are constantly being fed by various sections of society, including the media, vested interest groups and, sadly, to an increasing degree, our own government, why this misinformation is so damaging to the very fabric of our society and why each of us on a personal level should care. Reading this book, for me, is like reliving most of the Twitter arguments I have had over the past five or so years, much more clearly articulated. In fact, I first stumbled across the Secret Barrister on Twitter in 2018 on a thread regarding the hot topic of that particular moment, the arrest of pensioner Richard Osborn-Brooks for the ‘crime of defending his own home,’ a story that is discussed in the opening chapter of this book, and I have been an ardent fan ever since.

The book sets out many of the most contentious legal firestorms of the past few decades, recaps on what the general public have been lead to believe about these issues by certain factions, explains very clearly why much of the information we have been fed is misleading at best and downright dishonest in some cases, and then asks why it may be the interests of certain parties for us not to be given the whole truth about these matters, and what negative consequences for each of us arise when we nod along with this misinformation. For anyone taking the time and trouble to read the book and really think about what the author is saying, it is a deeply disturbing read.

Coming as I do from a background in law myself, I am familiar with the majority of the legal issues and concepts that The Secret Barrister puts forward in the book, hence why many of the cases they highlight here are ones that have had me personally raging on Twitter. However, the writing is set out clearly with the lay reader, not the legally educated, in mind and all of the principles are set out in a basic fashion using simple language and illustrated with easy to digest examples and comparators. Anyone can pick up this book and understand the points being made. In addition, The Secret Barrister has a delicious turn of phrase, and an absolutely wicked tongue which is truly pleasurable to read. I know if we met we would get along famously. I raise as particularly delightful examples their glorious descriptions of potential pleasures lost due injurious cases of negligence on page 83, their sly references to ‘neo-Dickensian sportswear retailers’ and their accurately unflattering assessment of the mental capabilities of a former Justice Secretary at the bottom of page 93. This is no dry, dusty tome to be waded through as if studying a textbook, this is an entertaining, informative and, ultimately, important text that is accessible to everyone who has an interest in understanding more about their legal rights and why it is important that we do not allow them to be undermined by factions with any agenda other than the best interests of us as individuals, and society at large, at their heart.

Because this stuff matters to all of us, whether we realise it or not. The law and the legal justice system underpins the very fabric of our society, ensures the smooth running of our lives and even our safety and liberty. You may think, as we are encouraged to do, that, if you are a law-abiding citizen, being kind to your fellow man and minding your own business, the law has little to offer you. You would be wrong. The law, and your ability to turn to it for redress when you are wronged, is what is preventing you from being irreversibly mangled by an intoxicated surgeon in a botched operation and then uncompensated; from a manufacturer selling you a faulty dishwasher without liability when it subsequently burns down your house ; from an ex-partner maliciously being able to keep you from seeing your children because you doinked the babysitter; from your boss capriciously firing you because he doesn’t like the fact you wear brown shoes with a black suit to work; from you being wrongfully identified as an armed robber by the short-sighted bank teller who came to work without her contact lenses that day and banged up for a ten stretch; or from a government deciding that the freedom of religion is no longer a human right exercisable by the denizens of our country and forcing you into trying to find an affordable house with a priest-hole in which to hide the unfortunate administrator of your future clandestine religious services. Extreme examples? Maybe but I think they illustrate the main point being made through the book. The law is for everyone, and we all need to protect its integrity and our access to it. My favourite quote from the book, which neatly sums this up with a comparison to a ‘giant game of Jenga,’ falls at the end of Chapter 8. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

I made pages and pages of notes on this book in preparation for writing this review, and there are so many more things I could say, but I run the risk of getting on my personal hobby horse, rather than writing a book review, and The Secret Barrister rides this hobby horse with much more elan than I ever could, so you should just read the book for yourself. I love the law, I have since I was 13 and first became entranced by the idea of pursuing it as a profession. Even though I no longer practice, it still fascinates me intellectually, and I am horrified at the way it is being eroded, and with the presumed consent of large swathes of the population. It genuinely scares me, if I’m being honest. The fact that this consent is being gained by the dissemination of lies and distortions of fact is abhorrent. This is why you need to read this book. Understand what you are being fed and why, so you can make informed decisions about what to believe and what to support. Don’t allow yourselves to be conned. Knowledge is power.

I have read this book twice this year, it is so good and, since this book was published in September, there have been so many more examples of misinformation arousing misdirected public outrage on legal matters. The government have passed a statute which breaches international law, whilst telling us they haven’t. Only this week there were false claims that the approval of the first vaccine against COVID by the UK regulator was a Brexit benefit. These falsehoods are being perpetuated by Government ministers, people we elected to act in our best interests, including the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor, who are supposed to protect the integrity of the law. As I recently completed the second read through, I had visions of the poor Secret Barrister sitting despairingly in their writing garret, self-medicating with gin as they frantically scribble daily addendums to this book, emailing increasingly harried messages to their beleaguered publisher, trying to keep up to date with the latest chipping away of the legal framework on which we all depend. Their desk is covered with dozens of sodden post-its, used to mop up their tears of frustration as they fight the rising tide of misinformation that threatens to engulf us. They have my deepest sympathies.

The fact this happens is outrageous. Be outraged. Refuse to accept it. But how can we reject these actions when many of us don’t even know we are being lied to? The media are complicit in the deceit. We deserve better and we should demand it. We need a basic legal education for all, and a media that reports on these things honestly. We currently have neither. What we do have are individuals such as The Secret Barrister, and a wealth of other lawyers and legal commentators who are trying to shine a light on these fabrications and why the law matters to all of us and deserves protection.

Seek them out, arm yourselves with information and decide for yourselves what it important. Start here, with this book, it’s a great read, and an important one. It’s my book of the year for 2020. Sadly, I fear the people who most need to read it are the very ones who won’t.

Fake Law: The Truth About justice in an Age of Lies is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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The Secret Barrister is a junior barrister specialising in criminal law.

The law can often feel to the public like an alien and impenetrable world, linked to everyday life only by selective news reportage and artistically-licensed tv dramatisation. The Secret Barrister aims to bridge that gap by providing a candid, and hopefully accessible, explanation of our criminal justice system, of how it works, and of how, all too often, it doesn’t.

The Secret Barrister has written for the The Times, The Guardian, New Statesman, iNews, Esquire, Counsel Magazine and Solicitors Journal, and has appeared in The Sun, The Mirror and Huffington Post.

In 2016 and 2017, the Secret Barrister was named Independent Blogger of the Year at the Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. In 2018, they were named Legal Personality of The Year at the Law Society Awards.

The Secret Barrister is a patron of FRU (Free Representation Unit) and the Aberdeen Law Project.

Their debut book, Stories of The Law and How It’s Broken, was a Sunday Times bestseller for 24 consecutive weeks, and was named the Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2018 at the Books Are My Bag Awards.

Connect with The Secret Barrister:

Website: https://thesecretbarrister.com/

Facebook: The Secret Barrister

Twitter: @BarristerSecret

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Book Review: Mordew by Alex Pheby

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GOD IS DEAD, his corpse hidden in the catacombs beneath Mordew.

In the slums of the sea-battered city a young boy called Nathan Treeves lives with his parents, eking out a meagre existence by picking treasures from the Living Mud and the half-formed, short-lived creatures it spawns. Until one day his desperate mother sells him to the mysterious Master of Mordew. 

The Master derives his magical power from feeding on the corpse of God. But Nathan, despite his fear and lowly station, has his own strength and it is greater than the Master has ever known. Great enough to destroy everything the Master has built. If only Nathan can discover how to use it. 

So it is that the Master begins to scheme against him and Nathan has to fight his way through the betrayals, secrets, and vendettas of the city where God was murdered, and darkness reigns… 

…WELCOME TO MORDEW THE FIRST IN A MONUMENTAL NEW TRILOGY

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with this book. It was on page 13, before I even got to the start of the story and I was reading the Dramatis Personae. I came across a reference to ‘a family of elephants, unfamiliarly labelled,’ and that was it. I knew then that this was an author in whose imagination I was really going to enjoy getting lost. (Although, I’m not happy at how the unfamiliarly labelled elephants’ story turns out, Mr Pheby!)

Mordew is an amazing feat of a novel. Dense, rich, complex, perplexing and rewarding, it requires a commitment of reading and is not going to be for everyone. However, if you are a fan of gothic fantasy, dedicated and imaginative world-building, challenging characters and ideas that ask questions of you, a book that demands participation from the reader, rather than sitting as an idle bystander to the story, you will love this. It reminded me so much of my first experience of reading Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, and left me with the same desperate anticipation to read more that I felt at the start of that trilogy.

The book describes a complicated world that is an entirely new creation and takes some time to ease yourself into. There are so many new ideas and new terms to get your head around (the glossary for this books runs to a massive 84 pages), and it is all so alien at first that the less-than-intrepid reader may be tempted to give up, feeling the going too hard. Don’t do that. Once you get over the first hurdles and suss out the terrain, the writing has such cadence you will ease into its rhythm, it will sweep you along and the sights to be found up ahead are more than worth any early effort. I promise you, this book will reward you one hundredfold for perseverance and you will be desperate for more, even once you reach the end of the 500+ pages.

The book isn’t always easy, there are some shocking developments that will rock the reader to the core. Sacrifices are made. Disturbing imagery abounds. Unfamiliarly labelled elephants! It is hard at times to know who to trust, who to pity, who to love. Good characters do bad things. Bad characters do good things, no one is entirely virtuous or entirely contemptible. In this way, if no other, Mordew is as our world and this is how we go on an emotional journey with Nathan through the pages and the streets of Mordew.

The ending may not be as you would expect or wish, but the author has set it up brilliantly for the second part of the projected trilogy and, I am hoping that it is well underway and we are not going to have to wait Game-of-Thrones-esque lengths of time for part two. This can’t be the end, it just can’t. There has to be more, an alternative, a salvation. I need to know what it is, I’m fully invested in this world, this journey now.

I had high hopes for this novel and it delivered on them in every respect, and then some. I’ve not read anything like this for a long time and it deserves wide attention and respect. Pick up a copy today and you’ll be thanking me tomorrow.

Mordew is out now in hardback and as an ebook, and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Alex was born in Essex, but moved to Worcester in his early childhood. He has masters degrees in critical theory (Manchester Metropolitan University) and creative writing (Goldsmiths) and a doctorate in critical and creative writing from the UEA. He currently lives with his wife and two children in Greenwich.

Alex’s work deals with madness and social exclusion, loss, and the middle ground between reality and fantasy. Critics have described his writing style as strange, poignant, and luminous.

Connect with Alex:

Twitter: @alexpheby

Instagram: @alexpheby

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Book Review: Wall Of Silence by Tracy Buchanan; Narrated by Moira Quirk #AudiobookReview

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Her children have a deadly secret. Can she uncover it before the police do?

Melissa Byatt’s life in Forest Grove seems as perfect as can be: a doting husband, three loving children and a beautiful house in a close-knit community. But appearances can be deceiving.

One evening, Melissa arrives home to the unimaginable: her husband lies stabbed on the kitchen floor, their children standing calmly around him…. With horror, she realises that one of them is to blame. But which one? And why would they attack their own father?

Her loyalties torn, in a split second she decides to protect her children at all costs – even if that means lying to the police. But when someone in the neighbourhood claims to know more than they should, Melissa discovers that some secrets are beyond her control….

Can she find out the truth of what happened before the rumours spread? And can the family unite to escape the spotlight of scandal – or are none of them as innocent as Melissa insists?

There was something about this book that I absolutely loved, above and beyond what I normally feel about this kind of psychological thriller. The bad news for you and this review is that I am still trying to work out exactly what it is that made it stand out for me so much!

I think a big part of it was the setting. I really loved the idea of an idyllic community set up in the heart of the forest, where everything is supposed to be perfect, but actually is beset with exactly the same problems as everywhere else because, as we know, people are people, wherever they choose to settle themselves and, wherever people live together, tensions are bound to arise.

Actually, the author has drawn a brilliant premise here because the citizens of this community, or many of them at least, believe they are a cut above everyone who lives outside their haven, and this makes them a self-satisfied and judgemental bunch who are quick to criticise and ostracise anyone who doesn’t toe the community line. Tracy evidences this really cleverly with use of the community Facebook group to display people’s inner characters and feelings. After all, people are far less guarded online than they are face to face. It gives a really good sense of the different factions within the community and how the battle lines are drawn as the town works through the shocking events surrounding the Byatt family at the heart of this story.

The author has drawn some brilliant characters in this book, focusing on Melissa Byatt as the main protagonist, and she is a thoroughly sympathetic character. I could easily put myself in her shoes as a mother and try and imagine what I would do in her position. I am not entirely sure I would make the same decisions she did, but I could understand why she did what she did, and feel for her as events played out. This story has tons of drama and plenty of shocks and surprises to keep the story moving along engagingly and I was completely engrossed in the story. I listened to it as an audiobook and it was another one that I found myself wanting to listen to so badly that I was seeking out tasks that allowed me to indulge myself.

This is an engrossing and shocking family-based thriller with an original and shocking premise, a marvellous sense of place and a searing examination of inter-personal relationships in a fairly closed community. I enjoyed it very much and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys this type of book.

Wall Of Silence is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Tracy lives in Buckinghamshire, UK with her husband, little girl and (very naughty) dog, Bronte.

She travelled extensively while working as a travel magazine editor, and has always been drawn to the sea after spending her childhood holidays on the south coast visiting family – a fascination that inspires her writing.

She now dedicates her time to writing and procrastinating on Facebook.

Connect with Tracy:

Website: https://www.tracy-buchanan.com

Facebook: Tracy Buchanan Author

Twitter: @TracyBuchanan

Instagram: @tracybuchananauthor

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