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This is a novel idea - a series of easy-read short stories, each one an imagined snapshot of the early years of a well-known person, but 'the reveal' doesn't come until the end, so you can have a good time guessing the identity of the main character as you read.
They're clearly well-researched; I guessed all of them except one (Past Time), which was about someone I'd heard of without knowing anything about their life; however, I was able to do 'swapsies' with another member of the review team, as I knew a couple that she didn't!
Slight downsides - I found some were made too obvious; I'd have an idea who it was, then instead of there being a more telling hint at the end, it was given away too early or spelled out in black and white, and then underlined (metaphorically). Not all of them, just some. Also, the nature of the theme does rather tempt one to rush through to spot the clues, rather than just reading the story at a normal pace. They're all nicely written but, for me, lacked that 'X' factor. This is, of course, only down to personal taste.
My favourites were The Blank Face, Preserved in Amber and Tonight's The Night.
How I discovered this book: Have been waiting for it to come out since I read its prequel.
In a Nutshell: Book #3 in the Phoenix Trilogy, about the life of Jane Seymour
LOVED this book so much I read it over a period of 28 hours - and it's not a short book! One of those I wish I hadn't started so I would still have it to read. My favourite of the trilogy, it picks up Jane's story on May 19th, 1936, the day of Anne Boleyn's death.
Gemma Lawrence has dispelled many of the traditional ideas about Jane Seymour, to present her, through detailed research and a clever understanding of her subject, as a woman who was not naturally meek and submissive, but afflicted by that frustrating paradox: of strong opinions but lacking the confidence to express them. She is painted as having a certain fierce determination that she used with skill when she wanted to wrest Henry from Anne, but otherwise kept quiet - most of the time. As Ms Lawrence says in the notes afterwards, Jane chose to speak up for those who suffered under the brutal dissolution of the monasteries, knowing this could put her at risk.
Lawrence's Jane is realistic; she sees that she was married 'on a whim', having been pushed at Henry as the antidote to the vivacious, outspoken, far too intelligent Anne Boleyn, and once the wooing was over Henry lost interest in her, which would not be regained until she became pregnant with Edward; this was her only safety blanket. I saw much possible truth in her view that Anne's death and all those that preceded it (Thomas More, the men accused of sleeping with her, etc) completely changed Henry from spoiled yet charismatic, magnanimous prince into to a greedy, delusional tyrant, and also that Anne was the great love of his life ... and he would never recover from having murdered her on charges that he knew, deep down, were false. Jane's fear of him leapt off the pages; no longer was he the man with whom she had fallen in love. She thought she saw an evil in him that was inhuman, and began to think of him, as did the rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace, as the Mouldwarp of Merlin's prophecies - proud, malign and dangerous, yet cowardly.
'Thousands of monks and nuns...beggars were upon the roads of England in huge numbers. The King was displeased about this, and could not seem to see that he had created these people, thrown them into a life of desperation.'
'The King did not like the icons, but just wanted the money within them ... I had come to think that the King was lost to all reason, greed becoming his only master.'
Throughout, Jane talks to her dead predecessors, Anne and Katherine ... this is most effective, especially as she begins to see even Anne as a sister in arms. That their enemy is the man they fought over, not each other.
'Anne had gone to her death for standing in the way of what men wanted, for not bearing a son, not for a crime, not for betraying the King's life or his bed ... I was married to a murderer.'
I liked the evidence of the superstitions of the time, about conception, determining the sex of the baby, good and bad omens. They're fascinating to read. I loved the poetic descriptions of the landscape and the activities of the people, according to the seasons. The England of the 16th century, unsullied by industry, a time when the climate was quite different; good fiction of this time shows that climate change is certainly nothing new. The seasons did not mingle together with no clear definition as they do now; summers were hot, the autumn chilly, the winters ferociously cold, with rivers freezing solid enough to hold markets on them quite safely.
Frost Fair on the Thames. 1685, artist unknown
Jane's tragic death features throughout the book, short chapters interspersed within the main story, and this works so well, as does the epilogue from the POV of Mary, the King's daughter by Katherine.
Definitely up there with my favourite of this author's books, and also my favourite book of 2021 so far.
In A Nutshell: An American soul-searching in Tuscany
New Yorker Jacoby Pines takes a trip to Tuscany with his girlfriend, Claire, a travel/food writer. He's not having the best of times: a drunken text sent to the wrong person lost him not only his job but any prospect of getting another in that field*. Being unemployed is not doing much for his relationship with ambitious, status-orientated Claire. A frustrated former musician, Jacoby has no family, feels insecure, useless and worried that he and Claire are nearing the parting of ways - particularly concerning their very different reasons for wanting to go to this part of Italy.
The adventure side of the story is fairly low-key, with some interesting relationships and amusing situations. The descriptions of the area and the food probably make up half the book, and I enjoyed these to a certain extent, but I don't eat meat and dairy and am not a 'foodie' (I think knocking up a vegetable chilli with a ready-made sauce is cooking), so it was a bit wasted on me. If of the gourmet persuasion, though, you will adore this.
I liked: 1. Jacoby's realisations about himself, that he was at home in rural Italy and was not a New Yorker at all, and his observations about his previous wealth-orientated, competitive lifestyle - according to Claire, the 'real' world - and the ex-pats of 'Chiantishire'. 2. The depiction of the place itself, the people and the way of life. 3. The characterisation and dialogue. 4. The writing style. 5. The outcome.
I was less keen on: 1. the food detail. 2. Some of the dialogue being written in Italian. Obviously it was necessary for authenticity, but as I can't speak it, I didn't actually know what they were saying. Sometimes I could guess, but more often not. My only other comment is directed at the publisher - does this book not deserve to be wrapped in colour? I can imagine a cover splashed with luscious olives, lemons, bottles of red wine, pizza dripping with tomatoes and olive oil, sunshine and blue skies, that would leap out at those who long for a Tuscan idyll.
To sum up: a rather lovely book in many ways; not quite my thing but if you do fancy it, there's a sequel, too!
(I started idly DuckDuckGo-ing paintings of Tuscan food....)
On the blog of Sue Jane - not clear if her work or not.
*having once had a serious verbal warning for a near-the-knuckle email joke sent to the wrong person, who then reported me, I loved this bit!
How I discovered this book: I was aware of Susie Kearley on Twitter, and out of the blue she asked me if I would be interested in appearing in a feature she was compiling for Writers' Forum magazine, about making money out of writing. After the article was published Susie asked if she could add it to this book, so of course I said yes, and bought the book.
This is an honest and objective review, and I confirm that I do not have any financial interest in the book's sales. The author did not request this review; I chose to buy and read it.
In a Nutshell: Non-fiction, advice for feature writers, inspirational and helpful stories of success.
Keeping it current, this books starts with an introduction outlining publishing and book-buying trends during the year or so of government restrictions on movement, the cancellation of events and the closing of businesses, and about the emotional impact of being 'locked down' on writers.
The next six out of sixteen chapters are an essential guide to freelance writing for magazines/newspapers/anthologies, as well as information on launching a newspaper. I have no desire to go down any of these roads, but I found this part fascinating. If anyone is thinking of trying to earn from this sort of writing, I would advise you to buy this book immediately - Susie is an 'old hand', at freelance journalism, and it's packed with information about submissions, pay, and various 'tricks of the trade' that she has learned over the years. It's clear that she really knows her stuff, and it's a nicely written easy read, too - I was most impressed.
The next part is the first-person story of Peter Jones, a highly successful self-help writer and speaker. I loved this part, and was totally absorbed in his story.
In the second half of the book Karl Drinkwater talks about being a multi-genre, self-published author, Dave Sivers talks about crime writing, there's the aforementioned article in the Writers' Forum, and Susie delves into writing novels based on the classics, the injection of humour into stories, and talks about her own experiences.
At only £1.99 (or free on Kindle Unlimited) it's a great buy for anyone starting out either in the freelance journalism or the self-publishing world.
How I discovered this book: friend's recommendation.
In A Nutshell: A girl who can see dead people... and a certain evil.
Oddly, the last book I read was about a boy who could see dead people - just coincidence, it's not my new favourite genre!
Fifteen-year-old Sophie Lydon's father is an undertaker, which is somewhat disturbing for a girl who can communicate with the recently deceased. The gift was inherited from her mother, now dead; Sophie lives with her father and her mute, intellectually disabled uncle. Life is not easy for her, and being bullied at school by the cool queen of the class, Cassie, makes it a whole lot worse. Then again, Cassie has her own problems.
Bob Curran is a former detective who grew obsessed with the work of a serial killer, and is sure that an unnamed evil lies beneath his crimes, one that has not yet been laid to rest. Then the murders begin again...
I very much liked the concept of 'the Long View', a long, long walk after death, destination unknown, during which the walkers are tempted by offers of rest and comfort. This is an unusual story, and unpredictable, which is always a plus. The characterisation is good, particularly Cassie and Bob, and the plot is cleverly worked out.
The story has an omniscient narrator, which did not always work for me; it's a hard style to carry off, as too often it can slide into confusing 'head-hopping' - this is when one minute the reader is inside Sophie's head, the next inside Bob's. This can be executed convincingly, but in this book there were no gaps between 'heads'; a row of asterisks before the next person's POV can make all the difference. Similarly, when there is a time gap, or a change in setting, so that the reader doesn't think, 'hang on a minute, isn't she supposed to be in a kitchen in the day time? How come it's suddenly all dark?'. I think it could have used the eyes of an experienced editor, for this reason. However, the person who recommended it to me was not bothered by these aspects, so you may not be, either!
Recommended to those who love a dark paranormal story, and who are not too squeamish - it's far from grisly but there is a fair bit of well-written graphic detail about the murders.
I love some Stephen King (The Stand, Misery, Thinner, IT before the bit at the end with the daft spider), but am not a massive fan, finding some of them unnecessarily long with too many daft spiders, etc, but that fabulous cover made me look twice.
Jamie Conklin can see dead people. As he explains, not like in the Bruce Willis film; he sees them just after they die, for a short period of time until they fade away. During this time he can talk to them - and once dead, they never lie.
Jamie lives in New York with his mother Tia, a literary agent. He was a young child when he first discovered he could see the dead; terrified of this at first, he learns to live with it. The story takes a darker turn when others want to exploit his gift for their own ends.
Of course Mr King is a master storyteller and this had me pretty much glued to the page all the way through; it's gripping, funny, sinister and relatable, all at once, and coasts along nicely, always with the hint that something much, much worse is going to happen. I enjoyed the whole New York vibe, though I was disappointed by the ending - it just sort of stops. Like King couldn't think of a really good way to end it, so he wrote the last big action scary bit then wrapped it up. There's a bit of a twist at the end, but it doesn't have that much bearing on the story. It's a good length for a quick, couple of days read - about 230 pages - and a book I looked forward to getting back to each time. If it'd had a worthy ending, I'd have given it 5*.