Sunday 26 December 2021

My Top Five Books of 2021 (and some more...)

I've reviewed 51 books on this blog this year, and tried to do my usual top twenty or top ten ... but I couldn't.  Too many instances of 'which do I include, this one or that one?'  I found, however, that I was able to choose my top five.  I don't very often give my '5 GOLD stars' rating; there were only two last year.  It's for the books that make me think '5 stars doesn't really do it justice'.  These are my chosen five of the seven I awarded this year.

Click the book title for my review - includes Amazon/Goodreads links.

Mistress Constancy by Gemma Lawrence

Part one of the story of Jane Rochford, wife of George Boleyn

(I actually gave two more of Gemma's books 5 gold stars, but chose this one as my favourite!)

True story: the evacuation of the people of East Prussia at the end of World War II

The Silkworm Keeper by Deborah Swift

'a novel of nuns and courtesans, artists and priests, in the shadow and splendour of the Eternal City' - 17th Century historical fiction.  Stunning!

Life is Like a Mosaic by Sally Cronin

Pictures with free verse poetry - I am not a poetry lover, generally, but this is more like observations about life.  A real gem (and I bought the hardback!).

Cousin Calls by Zeb Haradon

If I had to choose one book as a favourite for the year, it would be this.  Man walks into a bar on Christmas Eve some decades into the future, to wait for a cousin he has never met.  While he's waiting, four others provide their stories about what happened when they got a phone call that said, 'you don't know me, but we're cousins'.  Unusual, hilarious, genre-free and brilliant!

Such a good reading year, so many I recommend; if you would like to take a look at those to which I gave 5 stars, please click HERE.  

Here are a few of them:

The Heart Stone by Judith Barrow 

A Matter of Conscience by Judith Arnopp

The White Rajah by Tom Williams

Trashlands by Alison Stine

Faring Forth Again on the Shoe by Val Poore

Catch Me If I Fall by Nikki Rodwell

For those I gave 4.5*, please click HERE.

Here are a few of them...

Mists and Megaliths by Catherine McCarthy

Near Death by Richard Wall

Black Irish Blues by Andrew Cotto

Later by Stephen King

...and here are some more I've loved - I hope you will discover some of my recommendations for yourself.

Happy reading!

Creation by Bjorn Larssen
Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review
Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Click HERE for review

Saturday 25 December 2021

TEARS OF AMBER by Sofia Segovia

5 GOLD stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: I read about it on book blogger Cathy Ryan's post Stand Out Reads of 2021

In a Nutshell: WWII evacuation of the East Prussians

I read this over two days, totally glued to it.  It's fiction based on a real life story as told to the author, based on two families in rural East Prussia and what becomes of them as the Germans begin to lose the war.  The families are not connected; we read their stories alternately.

The main characters are Ilse Hahlbrock, who is about six at the beginning of the story, and Arno Schipper, a year or so older.  When their parents hear that the Russians are advancing from the East, their parents make the decision to flee.  There follows a journey so treacherous it is no surprise that not everyone makes it, as they become starving refugees dependent on the charity of strangers, their wits and luck for survival over a long, perilously cold winter.  Even after the war is over their trials are not, as the families are split up, never knowing if those they love are alive or dead, or if they will ever see them again.

Now and again the narrative moves from Ilse and Arno to their mothers, Wanda and Ethel, or to their fathers, who are both in constant danger of being conscripted, once the German army becomes desperate for more bodies.  Also, Janusz, a Polish prisoner who was assigned to work on the Hahlbrocks' farm, and whose story is particularly emotive.  Knowing that he is in danger from the Nazis, they take him with them.  Even years after the end of the war, both families endure hardship and danger that we cannot imagine.

Wikipedia tells me that 'The German population of the province was largely evacuated during the war or expelled shortly afterwards in the expulsion of Germans after World War II. An estimated 300,000 died either in war time bombing raids, in the battles to defend the province, or through mistreatment by the Red Army or from hunger, cold and disease', but this book shows what these few words actually meant for these ordinary people who just wanted to live out their lives on their farms, but were driven out of their homes with only what they could carry. 

Pictures are all of the evacuation from East Prussia in 1945

In the beginning of the book, I was most interested to see how the children were groomed at school to believe that Hitler was something close to a god, that Jews and Poles were subhumans and deserved ill treatment, or worse.  But not just the children - many of the adults, too, were brainwashed by the propaganda.  For instance, some people on whose charity the Hahlbrocks were forced to depend would not allow Janusz in their house.  Also, all they heard on the news was endless reports of impending German victory, though some of the people tuned into, for instance, the British radio stations, where they discovered that the Führer was not as invincible as they had been led to believe.  At the beginning of the story, we see how the people truly believed that in the glorious future that awaited all Germans.  

(Incidentally, I read that in 1920 the people of East Prussia voted on whether to become part of the Second Polish Republic or remain under the command of Weimar Germany; 97.89% voted to remain).

This is an incredible story, written so compellingly.  The only miniscule complaint I have is that I wish it hadn't been translated using American words like 'cookies', 'candy', 'movies', etc, as the people are European.  But that hardly matters - can't recommend this book too highly, and I definitely want to read more about it.

Monday 20 December 2021

The Eradication of Humanity by Social Media by Lena Ma #TuesdayBookBlog

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book:
 It was offered for review by book blogger and blog tour operator @shanannigans / RR Book Tours

In a Nutshell: Exploration of social media, mostly TikTok, and how its obsessive use affects young people.

This book was not quite as I expected from that dramatic title, and I soon discovered that I am definitely not within the target demographic. It's an exploration of the culture surrounding the TikTok app; other sites are briefly touched upon, namely Facebook, Twitch and Instagram, but mostly as a comparison, examining only one or two areas of the sites.  Having said this, I now know a great deal about TikTok, all of which was most interesting; many members of its royalty are named, and I found myself wondering who Charli D'Amelio was.  I looked her up on Youtube and ended up spending half an hour watching her dance videos - I can see why she's so popular.

Ms Ma has concentrated her study around those who use the platform to gain fame and fortune, and writes extensively on how damaging this can be, and the lengths to which users will go to achieve their goals, from the silly and fun to the darker than dark.  I did find this all quite fascinating, as well as her in depth look at how the site works; its algorithms, and so on.

Where the book falls down is in its limited outlook.  It assumes everyone uses social media in the same way, addicted to the 'likes', constantly checking for evidence of popularity, sharing all manner of personal content with no thought for privacy.  Ms Ma makes constant generalisations:  

'Most of us live mundane lives that leave us unmotivated, work 9 to 5 jobs and come home to alcohol and television.'  Um, no, we don't, but this is, apparently, why 'we' are all so addicted to social media.

'Why are we so desperate for internet and TikTok fame?  Why do we see losing followers and fame as the end of the world?' (Answer: millions, of us aren't, and don't).

'We constantly feel the need to check up on our own profiles or feeds to see if people like our material or not'.  Every day I see many young users of Twitter who use social media for reasons other than posting selfies and videos of themselves to get attention.  I have a bright, attractive, outgoing niece of 20 years old, who doesn't use any of the sites much at all.  My nieces-in-law are of a similar age and have 'lives', not just phone screens.

Ms Ma writes well and this is a basically a good book; if it wasn't, I wouldn't have read it all.  However, I think it needs more thinking through, and most definitely a different title.  She does not have enough material to cover the present one; Twitter, for instance, is scarcely mentioned.

To write a proper study of this massive and complex subject, Ms Ma would need to look at the beginning of social media and how it evolved - MySpace, the original, is not mentioned at all.  Her ideas are good, and have weight, but I think that she needs to use Facebook and Twitter more to actually understand how they work, and research how people other than her contemporaries use them.  Alternatively, give the book a different title that indicates what it actually is: an exposé of all that is wrong and dangerous about TikTok.  As such, it is extremely good, and I can imagine many disillusioned users of the site lapping up every word - and telling their friends about it. Of course, the place to promote it would be TikTok itself; I hope she realises this!

This is the best line in the whole book, and one to bear in mind, for many reasons:
No social media site has ever been created or optimised for the sake of its users.

THE PASSAGE by Justin Cronin #TuesdayBookBlog

 4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: Recommended to me by Twitter writer friends John F Leonard and ST Campitelli.

In a Nutshell: Post Apocalyptic Epic

Doing something a little odd here - reviewing a book of which I have only read 60%.  The reason is that this is a LONG book and I have temporarily abandoned it so I can catch up with some other reading.  

What it's about:


First, the unthinkable: a security breach at a secret U.S. government facility unleashes the monstrous product of a chilling military experiment. Then, the unspeakable: a night of chaos and carnage gives way to sunrise on a nation, and ultimately a world, forever altered. All that remains for the stunned survivors is the long fight ahead and a future ruled by fear—of darkness, of death, of a fate far worse.

As civilization swiftly crumbles into a primal landscape of predators and prey, two people flee in search of sanctuary. FBI agent Brad Wolgast is a good man haunted by what he's done in the line of duty. Six-year-old orphan Amy Harper Bellafonte is a refugee from the doomed scientific project that has triggered apocalypse. Wolgast is determined to protect her from the horror set loose by her captors, but for Amy, escaping the bloody fallout is only the beginning of a much longer odyssey—spanning miles and decades—toward the time an place where she must finish what should never have begun.

I loved the first part, the character of Brad Wolgast, and death row inmate Carter chosen for the military experiment.  I was 100% into the setting up of the story, reading about Jeanette, a single mother who tries to do the best for her daughter, Amy - the central character.  The thirty-two minutes mentioned in the blurb are gripping, as the speed in which the world falls.  I especially liked a section from the POV of Ida, a young girl sent away by her parents to live in a new, safe colony.  

Then I arrived at the world two or three generations along, when most detail about the 'Time Before' has been forgotten, with only Ida left from that era; she is an old, old woman now, whose mind falters.  I enjoyed it very much at first and was particularly interested in the threat that none of them are aware of - that the power will run out.  However, as it went on I found myself skip-reading a little, because there are so many characters in this new colony, and only a few of them (Peter, Martin, Alicia) stood out with much of a personality - I got confused trying to remember who was who and how the relationships all fitted together.  I still wanted to know what was going to happen, but it seemed a bit too drawn out.  My interest was piqued once more when Amy reappeared, but because I no longer found it as 'must read' as I had at first, I decided to put it aside, or I will still be reading it this time next month.

To sum up: it's a rather stunning book, a great achievement, and if I was on holiday or ill in bed I might even have finished it.

Sunday 19 December 2021

THE DOLL by Laura Daleo

out of 5 stars

On Amazon
On Goodreads

How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member.

In a Nutshell: Scifi novella

When I started to read this story and realised that it involved a man who couldn't get over the death of his girlfriend and heard about a company who made synthetic humanoid replicas, I was immediately reminded of a TV programme I saw a couple of years back in which the same took place - I don't think it was Black Mirror, but something similar.  It's a basic idea that I've come across a few times, and it's an interesting one.  

This was an easy-read, entertaining book and I did enjoy the middle third.  I had a few misgivings, though, mostly to do with the main character, Jeremy, in whose first person POV the story is related.  He is meant to be a rich, good-looking, hipster sort of guy who flips houses for millions of dollars, but I felt I was seeing inside the head of a rather nervous woman, not a confident, successful man.  He kept referring to his 'man bun' (do men who wear their hair this way actually call it that?), describing the clothes he put on in the way that women do, and coming across hesitant and rather gauche.  He just didn't feel ... masculine.

I think it's got potential, but needs more thinking through, maybe with the help of a good professional developmental editor.  However, from an 'is this a fun read or not' point of view, it certainly ticks a box - if you're not as picky as I am you may enjoy it a great deal!