‘I loved the lyrical quality of the language’. Says Rosie’s #Bookreview Team Member @OlgaNM7 About #LiteraryFiction Cenotaphs by @marcellor #TuesdayBookBlog

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading Cenotaphs by Rich Marcello

I have read two of Marcello’s novels, The Beauty of the Fall and the Latecomers, and I have quickly become an admirer of his books, as he combines a lyrical and poetic style of writing with a choice of subjects that transcend the usual genre novel and look deep into the souls and minds of his characters.

This novel is not heavy on plot or action (some things happen, of course, and there are references to pretty major events that took place before, although I won’t spoil the novel for future readers). It is primarily about relationships between all kinds of people. The primary relationship we learn about is the one between Ben, a retired man who leads a pretty quiet life in a cabin in Vermont and spends his time sharing his advice and wisdom with others, and Sam, a thirty-something hedge fund manager who spends most of her time travelling and conversing with strangers. They meet by chance and quickly realise that there is a connection between them. Although in appearance they are as different as could be, they come to realise that they share some experiences and feelings. They both feel guilty of something that happened to their families (they were both brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, although neither of them are followers of any official religion now), and they find companionship and comfort in each other. Their relationship confounds many, but although Platonic, they know they have found something special in each other and treasure it.

This book reminded me of some of my favourite French movies, especially Eric Rohmer’s, that made you feel as if you were a privileged witness to the conversations between two characters (or a few characters), as they slowly got to know each other and to discover that they were meant to be with each other (or sometimes, to be apart but to gain some important insight from their time together). This is a book of communing with nature, with your dog, of going fishing, of building a cenotaph, of stripping your life of unnecessary things and acknowledging what is truly important, and of understanding that you cannot heal from your emotional wounds by hiding your true self and pretending to be somebody else. People can help you along the way, but you have to come to accept your pain, your loss, your responsibility and, perhaps, if you’re lucky, meet somebody else and make amends.

It is difficult to talk about the genre of this book, because other than literary fiction, it doesn’t fit in nicely under any other category. There is romance, but not in the standard sense. It is not strictly a self-help book, because it is a fictional story, but I am sure it will inspire many readers. It deals in loss, grief, guilt, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and other self-destructive behaviours, but also in music, nature, friendship, family relationships, spirituality, religion, love, and the meaning of life. It even touches upon the paranormal and metaphysics, so anybody who likes to reflect, analyse, and dig into the depths of what makes us human could potentially be a good match for this book.

I wouldn’t say I quickly warmed to the two main characters. I was intrigued and puzzled by them, as it was clear that there were many secret motivations behind their behaviours and their actions, but slowly, as I learned about them, I came to understand them a bit better and to accept them as human beings (with all their faults and their gifts). Although we don’t learn that much about the rest of the characters, I quite liked Scott (terrible mistake and all) and would have liked to learn more about Marianne, one of Ben’s friends but not around when we meet him. Zeke, the dog, was quite a character, and I enjoyed the conversations between Ben, Sam, and all of Ben’s friends, so different but so happy to share and engage in serious debate.

I also loved the lyrical quality of the language, and the many thoughts and phrases that made me stop and think. As usual, I’d advise people thinking about reading it to check a sample of the novel to see how they feel, but I’ll also share a few quotations I highlighted. Please, remember that I am reviewing an early copy, and there might have been changes in the final version.

An aspiration for old age: When the weight lifts, float up over all the love harmed, and marvel that something as healing as forgiveness exists at all.

Sometimes an undercurrent joins two people right from the start.

My greatest learning is this —love people exactly where they are, flaws and all, for as long as they grace your life. We don’t get do-overs, do we?

We never really fully understand another human being, do we, only the ways they touch us.

The story is narrated in the first-person by both main characters, and if I had to highlight one of the things that got me a bit confused, it was the way the book was divided up. Who was narrating each part was clearly indicated, but there were several parts I and parts II throughout the book, and some ‘chapters’ with their own separate titles. I think part of the issue might be due to reading an e-book copy and not having a clear idea of its structure, but later on, there is a development in the novel itself that helps to give this issue a totally different perspective. So, although the novel is written in the first-person, and I know there are readers who don’t appreciate that, there is a good reason for the choice, and the quality of the writing is such that it should dispel any concerns.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy beautiful writing, who are looking for a different kind of story, one that makes you think, reflect and ponder, rather than turn the pages quickly to know what will happen next. To those who love to explore the reasons behind people’s behaviours, to look closely at their relationships, and to wonder about the meaning of life. And if you’ve never read any of the author’s books, you’re in for a treat and a delightful surprise. Don’t delay.

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AFTER A CHANCE MEETING, AN OLD MAN AND A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN CHART AN UNCONVENTIONAL PATH FORWARD.

When Ben Sanna, a contemplative retiree with a penchant for helping people, and Samantha Beckett, a secretive New York City hedge fund manager, meet by chance in a small Vermont town, they enter into a tenuous relationship. Over several weeks, Samantha and Ben open their pasts inch by inch, sift through their futures consciously, and come to terms with the strength and depth of their bond. A meditation on redemption told in alternating chapters of musings and scenes, Cenotaphs is about platonic love; the ways we close ourselves off in reaction to pain and what happens when we open ourselves up again; and the deep, painful legacy of loss.

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Guess the historical figures or famous people from the clues. @OlgaNM7 reviews Backstories by @SimonVdVwriter

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading Backstories by Simon Van der Velde

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I enjoy short stories, but recently I have not read as many as I used to, preferring to read novels that build up more slowly and give you the opportunity to get to know the characters and see how they evolve over time. So this was a bit of an unusual choice for me, but I kept reading intriguing reviews of this book, and after checking it out, I had to read the whole thing. And it was worth it.

I had never read anything by the author, although he has been writing for a while and his short-stories have earned him a variety of awards and accolades, but I suspect this won’t be the last of his books I read, and he is already preparing a second volume of Backstories for publication.

It is a bit difficult to talk about this book in any detail without giving too much away. The author explains his goals and what the book is about quite clearly in his description, so I won’t go over it again. I am not sure that I would describe it as a collection of short-stories. Some are biographical vignettes, moments in somebody’s life (or their backstories, if we like), where something momentous happened, or is about to happen (in some cases), while others fit in more easily with the standard understanding of a short story containing a full narrative. In some ways, I guess it is the reader’s job to complete the story, by guessing who the protagonist is and understanding how that snippet fits in with the rest of the person’s life, how significant or important it might be, and how much it reveals of what we know happened next to the person.

In some cases, we see a famous person (some are musicians, some important historical figures, some sports personalities, some less-than-savoury characters…) as children or very young adults, and the author cleverly creates a picture of who they were and how that relates to who they will become. Sometimes, we see somebody on the verge of doing something that would change things forever, and at others, we get an inkling of what things might have been like if something hadn’t happened or circumstances had been different. One of the stories illustrated perfectly a quandary I’ve had for years about a historical figure, as if the author had read my mind, but I’ll keep my peace about it as well.

There are 14 stories, tightly written, some in the first and some in the third person, and they move quickly, the style of writing easy but at the same time adapted to the personality, the era, and the location of the individual portrayed by each. Most of them are told from the point of view of the famous person, although there are some in which we see them reflected through somebody else’s eyes. It is very difficult to stop reading the stories, especially if you enjoy guessing games or quizzes, as one gets gripped by what is happening at the time and also hooked on trying to find who the person is. If you want to know how well I got on, yes, I guessed all of them (although in one of the cases I had only a passing acquaintance with the character, and I ended up checking to make sure), and some had me scratching my head until the very end or changing my mind several times as I read, while others I suspected from early on.

I enjoyed them all, in different ways (some because I felt the build up of the situation, others because the story itself was moving and/or inspiring, some because I loved the protagonists, and some because they chilled me to the bone), and I think most readers will find some that work better for them than others, particularly if they admire some of the protagonists, but there isn’t a bad one in the lot. These are not sanitized and clean stories, and readers must be warned that they will find all kinds of violence, abuse, prejudice… depicted in its pages. The author has explained his reasoning behind his choices, and a percentage of the book’s earnings will go to good causes, so this is more than justified, in my opinion. I recommend this highly enjoyable collection to anybody who loves quizzes, who has ever wondered what happened before historical figures or famous people became who they are, and particularly to those who prefer their reading short, crisp, and based on facts rather than fancy. And, if you like the formula, don’t forget that there is a second book coming your way soon.

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These are the stories of people you know. The settings are mostly 60s and 70s UK and USA, the driving themes are inclusion and social justice – but the real key to these stories is that I withhold the protagonists’ identities. This means that your job is to find them – leading to that Eureka moment when you realise who’s mind you’ve been inhabiting for the last twenty minutes.

I should also add that this is a book that operates on two levels. Yes, there’s the game of identifying the mystery activist or actor, singer or murderer, but there is then the more serious business of trying to understand them. This in turn leads to the challenge of overlaying what you now know about these famous people onto what you thought you knew – not to mention the inherent challenge to your moral compass.

These are people you know, but not as you know them. Peel back the mask and see.

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One Woman’s Spiritual Journey In A Convent. @OlgaNM7 reviews In This Small Spot by Caren Werlinger

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading In This Small Spot by Caren Werlinger

In This Small Spot by [Caren J. Werlinger]

The description provides enough information for readers to get a good sense of what is to come, but I’ll add a few of my thoughts. Michelle (Mickey), the main character, is a successful surgeon, who also teaches at an important medical school, and who often worked with cancer sufferers. She had lived for many years with her partner, Alice, who had died from cancer a few years back by the time we meet her in the novel. She doesn’t suddenly decide to leave everything and go to the convent, as some of her friends and people who knew her might think, as we learn that she had thought about it when she was much younger, just out of high school, but decided to go to university, study, and then met her partner. The book is narrated in the third person, mostly from Mickey’s point of view, although there are some chapters where the third person becomes that of an outside observer with some moments of insight into one of the characters’ minds (I’m being a bit cryptic, but I don’t want to reveal any spoilers).  The novel initially alternates chapters from the now of the action (from the time when Mickey is setting off to go enter the convent), with others from her life before that, offering us an insight into her relationship with Alice, her interaction with others, and also Alice’s illness and its aftermath. There is no confusion between the different chapters and timelines, and the format works well to offer us a good understanding of what Mickey’s life had been like before and how she got to the convent, while also learning about convent life and about the process of her integration into the religious community.

Faith, vocation and spirituality play an important part in the novel, as you can easily imagine, but you don’t need to practise Roman Catholicism or be particularly religious to enjoy the book. Anybody who has wondered about the meaning of life or spiritual matters would find much to identify with in the pages of this book. This novel is about the journey of a particular woman struggling with grief, trying to recover her zest for life, and to discover what is really important for her. Her life outside was full of stress and pressures, but although life in a convent is completely different, it is not without its challenges, and she discovers that you cannot hide from yourself, and you cannot put off dealing with things and people forever, however difficult and painful they might be. And, a convent is not a place where everybody is perfect, tolerant, and patient either, as she soon finds out. There is prejudice, pettiness, likes and dislikes, and the enclosed atmosphere and the fact that you are forced to live together with people you might not have chosen makes it all the harder, amplifying annoyances that you might, otherwise, have easily dismissed. But, there are some wonderful moments, and the novel is also full of joy, beauty, inspiration, and a few laughs.

We get to know Mickey quite well, and although I’ve read that some reviewers disliked her, that was not my case. Having worked as a doctor and left Medicine as well, I felt particularly drawn to her, perhaps because I was aware of some of the challenges of the profession, and although she is far from perfect and can be annoying at times, she does try to do what she thinks is right, even when it is not what might come naturally or make her happy. She is far from humble and doesn’t always ask for help when she should, but she tries her best, and she has a sense of humour and is always ready to help others, even those she doesn’t particularly like. She discovers that there are plenty of things she has to deal with before she can truly move on, and she struggles with her feelings and emotions. I did find her a believable character, and I got to feel for her, as I did for the rest of the convent. We don’t get to know all the other characters as well, but I grew fond of the convent and its inhabitants, as I did of Mickey’s brother, of Alice’s sister, and of some of the other characters who make brief appearances. I particularly enjoyed the way the author creates a powerful picture of the abbey and its inhabitants, and I loved the sense of community, the different roles and personalities, and the way they all find a place and become a part of something bigger.

The writing is beautiful, as I have come to expect from this writer, and although this is not a page-turner in the traditional sense (much of what happens is every day and not the stuff of adventure books or thrillers), it flows well, and it has a sense of rhythm to go with the seasons and with the character’s experiences. There are melodramatic moments as well, when life puts not only Mickey, but others also, to the test. And don’t expect everything to go smoothly and a traditional happy ending. This is not a fairy tale, and I have seen that some readers felt disappointed when they got to the ending. No, this is not the typical lesbian romance novel, H.E.A and all. Tears also make an appearance. To be fair to Werlinger, though, even if we might have missed the clues, what happens is not surprising or totally unexpected. And, personally, I thought the ending was more than appropriate and quite optimistic, in a bitter-sweet way.

I always advise possible readers to check a sample of the book, if they can, to decide if the writing style suits them, and that applies here as well. I highlighted a lot of sentences and paragraphs that seemed particularly beautiful to me and/or gave me pause, and I have chosen a few to give you an idea of what to expect.

But remember that an abbey is not a place where you can run from yourself. Quite the contrary. Having stripped away the disguises and distractions of the outside world: clothes, career, material possessions, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.

Prayer wasn’t dependent upon the skill of the person offering the prayer; it wasn’t limited geographically or physically; it wasn’t even limited by reality or any of the laws of science.

The two people in our lives who could never be married gave us the best example of how to build a life together as completely equal partners.

Sometimes God knocks us off our feet with something dramatic, but, in my experience, more often, he simply whispers and waits for us to be quiet enough to hear.

Any warnings? Well, this is not a “clean” novel, and although there is no violence, there are some hard scenes to do with injuries and sickness and the odd swear word. There are also some mild lesbian sex scenes (nothing full-blown or explicit), and there is much talk about grief, illness, and death of loved ones, so those who could be badly affected by these topics might want to skip it or wait until they feel they are in a better place. As I have said, I found it quite hopeful and inspiring, so I wouldn’t discount it just because of the storyline, either.

I recommend this novel to people who enjoy beautiful writing, reading about enclosed communities (particularly of women), those who might feel curious about monastic life (I’ve always been), and anybody interested in characters going through major changes and crisis in their lives. The author explains in her acknowledgments that she had thought about becoming a nun when she was younger, had researched the topic at the time, and she also had family connections in the church, so this is a book born of her personal search as well as a work of fiction. It works wonderfully on both counts, and I can’t wait for her next book.

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“Here, the true you is most often magnified, for better or for worse.” Abbess Theodora

In a world increasingly connected to computers and machines but disconnected to self and others, Dr. Michele Stewart finds herself drowning in a life that no longer holds meaning. Searching for a deeper connection after losing her partner, Alice, she enters a contemplative monastery, living a life dedicated to prayer, to faith in things unseen. Though most of her family and friends are convinced that she has become a nun to run away from her life, she finds herself more attuned to life than she has been in years. Stripped of the things that define most people in the outside world – career, clothing, possessions – she rediscovers a long forgotten part of herself. But sooner than she expects, the outside world intrudes, forcing her to confront doubts and demons she thought she had left behind. The ultimate test of her vocation comes from the unlikeliest source when she finds herself falling in love again. As she struggles to discern where she belongs, she discovers the terrifying truth of Abbess Theodora’s warning. For better or for worse.

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In This Small Spot by [Caren J. Werlinger]

An #HistoricalFiction Boxset. @OlgaNM7 reviews No Woman Is An Island, for Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT @LizaPerrat, @LornaFergusson, @clarefly @helenahalme

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading No Woman Is An Island

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Blood Rose Angel by Liza Perrat.

The novel’s plot is fascinating and as good as any historical fiction I have read. History and fiction blend seamlessly to create a story that is gripping, emotionally satisfying, and informative. The life of the villagers is well observed, as is the relationship between the different classes, the politics of the era, the role of religion, the power held by nobles and the church, the hypocrisy, superstition, and prejudice, and the social mores and roles of the different genders. The descriptions of the houses, clothing, medical and midwifery procedures, and the everyday life are detailed enough to make us feel immersed in the era without slowing down the plot, that is a page turner in its own right. I particularly enjoyed the sense of community (strongly dominated by women) and the optimism that permeates the novel, showing the strength of the human spirit even in the hardest of circumstances. The author includes a glossary at the end and also provides background information on the Black Death and the historical figures that grace its pages. The research into the era is flawlessly weaved into the story and adds to the feeling of authenticity.

Hidden by Linda Gillard

This historical novel is a dual-time story, combining a contemporary chronological timeline (set in 2018) following Miranda Norton, a woman who inherits a beautiful building from a famous father she never knew, and decides to move in with her whole family (her mother, her adult pregnant daughter and son-in-law and her twin teenage sons) to make ends meet, and the story of a previous owner, Esme Howard, a painter whose family had lived in the house for generations, who after several losses during the Great War, makes a decision that will have drastic consequences for all involved. There are all kinds of links and connections between the two stories, and even a touch of the paranormal.

I loved it. Some of the high points for me were: the relationships in Miranda’s extended family, and how well the different generations get on; the way the author handles the experience of domestic abuse/violence, including fascinating comparisons and parallels between the circumstances of two women separated by 100 years; the descriptions of London and the UK during WWI and the experiences of the people in the home front; shell-shock and how it affected soldiers during the war; I loved the descriptions of Esme’s creative process, her inspiration, and her paintings (which I could see in my mind’s eye), and also the true story of  Baroque Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (which I am fascinated by), a woman deserving of much more attention than she has been given so far. I also enjoyed the mystery side of things, and trying to piece the details of the story together, although for me, Esme’s story, the house, and Miranda’s family were the winners.

Any readers who love historical fiction set in the early XX century, particularly during WWI, in the UK, who are keen on mysterious houses, a good love story, and  prefer stories told (mostly) from a female perspective, should check this one. Oh, and the ending is… as close to perfect as anyone could wish.

The Chase by Lorna Fergusson

The action of the book alternates between chapters set in different historical periods (from prehistory until WWII), and those telling the chronological story of a couple of Brits expats who move to France (to the Dordogne, the Périgord) trying to leave their tragic past behind.

This is a novel where the historical aspect is less evident than in the previous two, and it might not appear evident at first, although, eventually, the historical fragments fall into place and readers discover what links them to the story. Secrets from the present and the past coalesce  and the influence of the region and its past inhabitants on the present come full circle.

The psychological portrayal of the main characters is powerful as well. These were not superheroes or insightful and virtuous individuals, perfect in every way, and although by the end of the story they’ve suffered heartbreak, disappointments, and have been forced to confront their worst fears, this is not a story where, as if by magic, they are totally enlightened and all their problems have disappeared. The ending is left quite open, and although some aspects of the story are resolved (in a brilliant way, in my opinion), others are left to our imagination.

This novel will be of particular interest to readers who love detailed descriptions of places, local culture, and food and drink, especially those who know or are thinking of visiting la Dordogne; readers who are interested in embroidery, mythology, and history of the region will also have a field day; its treatment of bereavement is interesting and compelling; and I think all those elements would make it ideal for book clubs, as there is plenty to discuss and think about.

The Chalky Sea by Clare Flynn

Clare Flynn is a favourite author of many readers, and based on this novel, she is a fine writer, who combines a strong sense of place and historical detail (WWII, especially the home front experience in the UK, particularly in Eastbourne, East Sussex, a seaside resort in the South of England that was heavily bombed during the war), with characters who undergo many trials and challenges, remain strongly anchored in the era, and whose innermost thoughts and motivations we get to understand (even when we might have very little in common with them or their opinions and feelings).

The story is narrated in the third person, from the points of view of the two main characters: Gwen, an upper-middle class British woman, well-educated, married, who enjoys volunteering and helping out, but whose life is far from fulfilled, and Jim, a young Canadian farmer, engaged to be married and happy with his lot when we meet him, whose life takes a sudden turn for the worse, and ends up enlisting and being sent to England., and the author writes beautifully about places and emotions, without getting lost in overdrawn descriptions or sidetracked by titbits of real information. The novel touches on many subjects beyond WWII: there are several love stories, legally sanctioned and not; the nature of family relationships; morality and what was considered ‘proper’ behaviour and the changes those concepts underwent due to the war; women’s work opportunities, their roles, and how they broadened during the war; prejudice and social class; the Canadian contribution to the UK war effort; miscarriages/abortions and their effects on women; childless marriages; the loss of a sibling; was destruction and loss of human lives… Some of them are dealt in more detail than others, but I am sure most readers will find plenty of food for thought in these pages.

Although this is the first novel in a series, I found the ending extremely fitting and satisfying, and it can be read independently.

Coffee And Vodka by Helena Halme

This is another story set in the recent past, but in contrast with many of the other texts in this volume, it is a pretty personal one. The story is told in the first person by Evva, and the timeline is split-up into two. One half of the story takes place in 1974, when Evva is only a teenager and her family migrates from Finland to Sweden; and the other half takes place thirty years later, in 2004, when she is in her early forties and has to go back to Finland (not having been there even for a visit in the meantime) because her beloved grandmother is dying. The chapters in the two timelines alternate (although sometimes we might read several chapters from the same era without interruption), building up to create a clear picture of what life was like before, and how things have moved on.

The author captures well the era and the teenager’s feelings and voice, and although I have never visited Finland or Sweden, I got a strong sense of how living there might be. She also manages to structure the novel in such a way that we get to know and understand Evva (young Evva is much easier to empathise with than older Evva, although I liked the way she develops and grows during the novel) whilst getting a strong suspicion that she is missing a lot of the facts, and the two timelines converge to provide us a reveal that is not surprising for this kind of stories, but it is well done and beautifully observed and written. I particularly appreciated the understated tone of the funeral and the conversations between the family members, and the fact that despite their emotions, they all behaved like the grown-ups they are.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy a well-written family drama, especially those interested in new settings and Nordic literature, those who love stories set in the 1970s, and anybody who enjoys dual timelines, coming-of-age stories, and beautifully observed characters.

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1930s Virginia, Sprinkled With #MagicalRealism @OlgaNM7 Reviews #ComingOfAge Fleuringala by M.K.B. Graham, for #RBRT

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading Fleuringala by M.K.B. Graham

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Although M. K. B. Graham had submitted her first novel to Rosie’s team a few years back, I somehow missed it then, but I’m very pleased to have discovered this gem now. What a gorgeous read!

The novel is listed under the categories of ‘historical fiction’ and ‘coming of age fiction’ and they are both appropriate. The story is set in the late 1930s and early 40s, mostly in Virginia, a setting that the author knows well and several generations of her family have grown in. The protagonists (Tack [he is called Albert, like his Dad, but from the beginning it proved difficult to share the name, and he became known as Tack], and Ruby) live plenty of adventures, many together and some separately, but Lauderville and the rest of the settings they visit play almost as important a part as they do, and the book excels at making readers feel as if they were totally immersed in the experience, walking the streets, smelling the aromas, touching the fabrics, seeing the colours, and talking to the inhabitants of the town, and later, of Suwanalee (North Carolina), Charleston, and Fleuringala (yes, the title comes from a property and its quasi-magical gardens), and although some of those are fictional, it is evident that their creation has been inspired by real small towns and by a period of history that might feel far off, but it not as distant some things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

This is Tack’s coming of age story, although Rudy does a lot of growing as well (but she is much younger and still a child as we leave her). He graduates from high school, gets his first car, gets his first job (and that causes upset with his father, as he wanted him to carry on with the family business, because he is the only boy in a family of girls, and the youngest), and eventually gets to move away from home, live independently, and takes on the responsibility of looking after another human being. I don’t want to summarise the whole novel here and leave readers with no surprises,  but the story brought to my mind some of the classics in the genre, like Huckleberry Finn (mentioned in the book as well), To Kill a Mockingbird (although here, poverty, lack of social standing, and behaviours that are not considered ‘socially acceptable or in good taste’  are the cause behind much of the discrimination and suffering that ensues, rather than race, which does not feature in the book), and others like Little Women, a big favourite of mine. Tack is a young man, of course, but his selfless behaviour and the way he cares for others place the focus of the novel in characteristics other than those that tend to be more common in coming of age novels whose central characters are male, which often focus on the quest motif, adventures and dangers. Yes, Tack experiences plenty of those as well (they come across many obstacles, moments of self-doubt, and terrible trials), but not just out of a thirst for adventure or a desire to become independent and go looking for freedom. Those things also happen, but seem to be the unintended consequences of the interest he takes in Ruby and her welfare.

There are elements of the fairy tale as well (Fleuringala and its owner made me think of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant,’ minus the religious symbolism), and as would be the case in a fairy tale, there are characters that play the part of fairy godmothers (several in fact), out and out villains (Ruby’s mother, Gilda, although one has to wonder at how she might have been like, had her circumstances been different; Tack’s older sister; the car man [a true monster]…), there are magical castles/gardens, animal companions and defenders (Arly is a hero), something close to a miracle transformation, happy coincidences aplenty, and yes a HEA ending as well (with a final surprise, although I had my suspicions about that). Some of the characters seem to be larger than life, as if a caricaturist had emphasised their features for laughter or to bring them to our attention, but they all  (or most) have their human side. Don’t think that means this is a book that deals in light and fluffy subjects. Far from it. Even though this is not the typical story about the dark side of small America, where behind the veneer of civilization festers an underbelly of crime and corruption, we can still find child abuse and neglect, a horrific scene where Ruby is in terrible danger (well, two, but quite different in nature), plenty of prejudice, gossip (oh, those Mavens), and a good deal of suffering and disappointment. But, fear not, there are moments of comic relief (Maxine is wonderful if a bit over the top and I quite appreciate her friend Ira as well; Albert had his moments; and I loved Francine’s Beauty Parlor and the goings on there), plenty of smiles and happy events, beautiful descriptions of places, and a gorgeous rendering of the language of the people, turns of phrases, and local sayings and idioms. And, Ruby. The little girl is a light that shines through the whole story, (almost) always optimistic, willing to think the best of people and to give everybody a second chance. She is a transformative force, and she changes all she meets for the better.

I’ve mentioned the beautiful language and writing. The story is written in the third person, from an omniscient point of view, which, although I know some readers don’t appreciate, I felt that in this case it worked well to bring us closer to all the characters and to make us appreciate what moves them and what they are really like. It also foreshadows what is to come, giving us hints and insights, and preparing us in advance for both good and bad news. Most of the story follows chronologically the events from the moment Tack sees Ruby from the first time, although there are some chapters where it provides background information about some of the other characters, allowing readers to get a clearer picture of where they are coming from and helping us get a clearer understanding of their reactions, their behaviours, turning it into something of a collective narrative, and not only the story of the two main characters. We might or might not like some of the people we meet, but we get to understand them a bit better.

I highlighted plenty of sentences and full paragraphs as I read, and I’ll follow my usual policy of recommending possible readers to check a sample of the book if they can, but I’ll share a couple of random examples, to give you a taste:

All Tack knew was that here in Lauderville, a little town tucked in the bumpy toe of Virginia as close to Tennessee as a blanket is to a sheet, the winters were cold, the springs and autumns were nice, and the summers could be pleasant —or hot as Hades. Like today.

Here, talking about the Maven’s behaviour at Francine’s Beauty Parlor:

They shamelessly, deliberately, and corporately encouraged Gilda the way a child is prodded to repeat a dirty word. That she could run her mouth faster and louder than an un-muffled Chevy only added to her appeal. And with her ability to spin an innuendo faster than a frog can snatch a fly, she entertained the Mavens who would not miss it for anything short of the funeral of a close relative—although not one among them would admit it. Everybody around her sat and listened, assured that their own stations in life were considerably loftier than Gilda’s.

I have mentioned the ending, and yes, I’m sure it won’t disappoint readers. I felt sad for losing sight of the characters, but the ending is pretty perfect, in the way the best fairy tales and happy novels can be, especially when the characters have gone through so much. It’s easy to imagine what their lives will be like from then on, and the outlook is excellent.

This is a wonderful novel, and I enjoyed it enormously. It is not realistic and gritty in the standard sense, but if I had to include any warnings, as I’d mentioned before there is a scene that is fairly explicit and terrifying, and another one that will cause heartache to most readers who love pets; and child abuse and neglect are important themes in the story. Of course, if one thinks of classic fairy tales, they are not mild or non-violent, can be terrifying, and often feature abuse, neglect, abandonment, cruel behaviours and worse. I wouldn’t recommend this novel to people looking for a hard and totally realistic account of life in 1930s small town America, but readers looking for a magical story, with wonderful characters, a strong sense of place, the nostalgic feel of an era long gone, and beautiful writing peppered with local expressions and idioms, will love this novel. I can’t wait to see what the author with delight us with, next.

Desc 1

Abandoned by her no-count mother in a rundown shack on the outskirts of Lauderville, Virginia, seven-year-old Ruby Glory is alone. Her only friend and sole companion is her faithful dog, Arly. Then along comes Tack, the teenage son of Lauderville’s prominent and well-heeled Pittman family. Despite his sincere desire to help Ruby, Tack learns quickly that no good deed goes unpunished. His involvement with the child of a women of ill-repute sends his family and the citizens of Lauderville into a frenzy of rumors and gossip, presenting Tack with a dilemma. Will the uproar spell the end for the mismatched friends—or set in motion opportunities that Tack and Ruby could only imagine?

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander To Hitler To The Corporation by Joseph Abraham MD

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander To Hitler To The Corporation by Joseph Abraham

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I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team, and I thank the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

This is an ambitious book, and one that is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one for anybody who wants to look at the history of modern civilisation through anything other than rose-tinted glasses. The author refers often to the Emperor’s New Clothes’ tale, and it is very apt, although perhaps it is not always a case of the spectators knowing what they are watching but trying to appear honest and compliant, but rather that the stories weaved around the emperor have become alive and true in the eyes of those seeing him (or reading about him in this case), or perhaps it is a combination of both, a self-delusion helped by years of whitewashing the facts or putting a romantic spin on things that are anything but romantic.

I have long held a pretty negative view of many of the famous conquerors and civilizations in history, although I must confess that I didn’t know many of the facts and figures Abraham quotes, at length, in the book, and it makes for a terrifying read at times. Although he does not cover all historical periods and all empires (I suspect it would occupy many volumes, and it would be a truly harrowing reading experience), he does a good sweep from classic times to Vietnam, not forgetting Alexander, Genghis Kahn, or the Victorians.

If you want to get a more detailed sense of what the book covers, I recommend checking the ‘look inside’ feature on your favourite store, and reading the list of contents, as that contains a good description of each chapter, but it would be too long for me to include here. As an indication, these are the titles of the chapters: Prologue: Fantasy and horror, Chapter 1: Kings (the comparison with gangster is very apt), Chapter 2: Conquerors (who are characterised as serial killers), Chapter 3: Psychopaths (where he diagnoses successful conquests and the monarchy rather than only the individuals), Chapter 4: The Breeding Program (we are all descendants of the conquerors or of the compliant victims), Chapter 5: The Noble Classes (hierarchies always work to ensure their self-preservation and dominance), Chapter 6: Privilege & the Double Standard, Chapter 7: The Authoritarian Personality (where the author looks at issues of compliance and obedience in the masses), Chapter 8: The Atrocino (if the conqueror is the Atrox, now we have the big corporations and political leaders who don’t quite reach their level, but are toxic nontheless), Chapter 9: The Modern World (prosperity and modernity arrived when the old order was questioned), Chapter 10: The Ugly Truth (the true cost of civilization), Epilogue: Response (education and early intervention can help us avoid similar excesses in the future).

I am a psychiatrist, have worked in forensic psychiatry, and was trained into using the PCL-R (The Psychopathy Checklist Review, which the author mentions). Psychopathy is not a psychiatric diagnostic as such (a diagnosis of antisocial or dissocial personality disorders would cover many of the traits that score highly on the checklist, although not all, and traits of other types of personalities can also score highly), but it is used because it gives a good indication of the risk a person might pose. The highest the score, the higher the risk. Having worked and met some people with high scores, I can say I do agree with the author’s assessment in general terms, although with the caveat that the sources of information, especially for the historical figures of ancient times, are limited and biased, so we need to take it all with a pinch of salt, but Abraham makes a good case, for sure.

I have already said that I had long thought along the same lines the author expresses in the book, and the more I read, the more examples came to my mind, even if the author didn’t mention certain names many of us might think about when we read it. (I, for one, can think of many atrocinos that grace the news very often, both in my country, Spain, and at an international level as well).

I was intrigued by his comments about genetics and also about people who might fulfil the criteria for psychopathy (score highly in the checklist) but seem to have managed to control the most harmful aspects of their personalities. Evolutionary biology is not my area of expertise, but I felt that perhaps this aspect of the argument was less developed than some of the other ones, and I would have liked a bit more information, although I admit I would probably be in a minority here.

I also had some queries regarding his comments on compliance, because although I appreciate his overall argument, the validity of some of the psychological studies he mentions (Milgram still holds quite well, but Zimbardo’s not so much) has been questioned. (Last year I read and reviewed a book by Rutger Bregman called Humankind. A Hopeful History, where the author manages to put a positive spin on human being behaviour, and he does a good job of criticizing many of the negative studies).

Regarding the format, I am not sure footnotes and endnotes work too well in e-book format (and the end notes and bibliography occupy 14% of the content), so people who want to dig into it and not miss anything might be advised to consider a paper copy. The book also includes illustrations (some of them are as harrowing as the descriptions of violence in the book, if not more), and the notes and the bibliography will help anybody interested in researching the topic in more depth.

I highlighted a lot of content, and I advise, as usual, that future readers check a sample of the book to see if it suits their taste, but I thought I’d share a few random quotes to give you a taster:

Napoleón arrive in Egypt with a second army of scientists and historians. It is not surprising that innovation under his Empire produced far-reaching technical advances such as the modern ambulance, widespread inoculations, food canning, and others.

Napoleón was also a remorseless butcher.

The conqueror is a thug. Rationalizing his crimes is a variation on blaming the rape victim. If she fights back, he rapist claims he is perfectly justified in torturing and murdering her. It is a variation of the exploiter’s defense: “Now see what you’ve made me do?!”

We are always one demagogue away, we are always one angry, jaded electorate away, from letting Hitler sleep back inside the walls of civilization, assemble his brutalizers, and resume his slaughter.

One of the reviewers commented on the USA perspective of the book, and that is true. Not that the conclusions are not relevant to all countries, but some of the solutions and further advice suggested seem tailor-made for the United States, although the overall message is easy to extrapolate and adapt to other countries as well, and the individual insight provided is priceless.

This is one of those books that make us sad as we read them, because we know full well that those who need to read them the most are unlikely to do so, but Abraham holds no false illusions and is clear that the most entrenched radicals cannot be swayed by rational argument.

I don’t think one needs to be an academic to read and ‘enjoy’ (at an intellectual level at least) this book, but the amount of detail and the format might put some people off. Also, as I’ve said before, the book is not an easy read, and  it might not be suited for those who shy away from violence or descriptions of extreme and cruel behaviour. Other than the minor personal queries, preferences, and warnings mentioned above, the book is a gripping, thought-provoking, and informative —although somewhat gruelling— read. I learned plenty of new information that disabused me even more about romanticized versions of the past, and some of the comments about politics in general (the importance of not confusing right and left-wing politics with conservatism and liberalism, for example) were right on target. Highly recommended, but be prepared to be challenged and shaken.

Desc 1

Xenophobia.  Racism.  Fascism.  Intolerance.  Inhumanity.  Coercion. 

Right wing populists increasingly draw attention around the globe, but the attention is misdirected.  The real problem is not the the authoritarian, but the authoritarian personalities who follow him.  If people do not blindly follow and obey the despot, he is irrelevant.

Why do we attach ourselves to demagogues and mountebanks?  Why do we defend even their most obvious hypocrisies and lies?

The answer is found in the history of civilization.  For the past 10,000 years, those who disagreed with the king or his nobles risked ruin and death. 

But that is only part of the answer.  The other part is that, despite our romantic traditions, kings and conquerors were vicious criminals.  They represent the most evil psychopaths, narcissists, and sadists in the history of humanity.

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT #LiteraryFiction Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by @Annecdotist

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin

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I arrived in the UK in September 1992. My goal was to qualify as a psychiatrist (I had studied Medicine back home in Barcelona, Spain) and, also, to improve my English. I started working as a junior doctor in psychiatry in February 1993, and Anne Goodwin’s new novel is set (mostly) just a couple of years earlier, at a moment when mental health services in the UK were undergoing a major change. The move from the big old-style asylums —where people who suffered from chronic mental health conditions, sometimes poorly defined, were “warehoused”—to “care in the community”, with its resulting emphasis on normalisation, on reintegration, and on support within the family, and/or the community, rocked the foundations of the system, and resulted on new practices, roles, and also in bringing to the fore a number of patients who had spent most of their lives in institutions and had real difficulties finding a place in an outside world they no longer recognised.


Even though this is a work of fiction, it is evident that the author is writing from personal experience, and that lends immediacy and depth to the story. Goodwin captures perfectly the atmosphere of the mental health asylums, where routine was sacred, and everybody had a part to play they were not allowed to deviate from. She offers readers several points of view: that of a newly-qualified social worker (Janice), who is going through an unsettling time in her personal life, and whose values and certainties will be put to the test by this job, especially by Matty’s case; Matty’s, one of the long-stay patients, whose story is less-than-certain after having been institutionalised for over 50 years, who allows us a peek into her unique world (stuck as she is in the past, an imaginary refuge from her less than glamorous reality); Henry’s, a man who also lives stuck in the past, waiting for a sister/mother whom he is no longer sure ever existed; and Matilda’s, who takes us back to the 1930s and tells us a story full of everyday tragedy, loss and despair.


Although I only experienced the aftermath of the closing of the big asylums, I got to talk to many nurses and doctors who had spent most of their working lives there, and had been involved in the changes as well. I also met many of the patients who hadn’t been lucky enough to move back into the community and ended up in newer long-term units, and also some of those who managed to create new lives for themselves, with the dedicated support of members of staff who were usually stretched to their limits. I worked in a newly-built unit in the grounds of one of the big asylums in the South of England, and walked the beautiful gardens, saw the impressive buildings (it had even had a railway station in its heyday), and it was easy to imagine how things must have been. Hardly any of the patients who’d spent years there had any contact with their families any longer, and their worlds had become reduced to their everyday routine, the tea with the sugar and milk already in, and the daily trip to the shop that the novel so realistically portrays. The way the author contrasts the experiences from the characters who live “normal” lives in the community (Henry’s life is “peculiar” to say the least, and Janice is in a sort of limbo, an impasse in her life) with Matty’s life in hospital emphasises the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, and also reminds us of the need to take control and to impose our own meaning in our lives. If we don’t, we are at risk of becoming the person or the version of ourselves that other people decide. And that is the worst of tragedies.


This is not an easy story to contemplate, and most readers will soon imagine that the truth about Matilda’s past, once revealed, will be shocking and tragic. Worse still, we know that it is all a too-familiar story, and not a flight of fancy on the part of the author. But she manages to make it deeply personal, and I challenge any casual readers not to feel both, horrified and moved, by the story.


As a mental health professional, this novel brought goosebumps to my skin and a lot of memories. As a reader, it gave me pause, and made me care for a group of characters whom I share little with (other than my professional experience). As a human being, I can only hope no girls find themselves in the position of Matilda ever again, and also that, as a society, we always remember that there is no health without mental health. Thankfully, many people have come forward in recent years and shared their mental health difficulties and their experiences trying to find help. It was about time, because those patients not at liberty to leave the hospital always reminded us that we would go home at the end of the day, but they had no home to go to, or, worse even, the hospital was their only home. Out of sight, out of mind is a terrible attitude when it comes to people’s suffering. Hiding away mental health problems does nothing to help those suffering them or the society they should be fully participating in, and Goodwin’s novel reminds us that we have come a long way, but there’s still a long way ahead.


A fantastic novel, about a tough topic, which highlights the changes in mental health policy and forces us to remember we are all vulnerable, and we should fight to ensure that nobody is ever left behind.
Thanks to the author for offering me the opportunity to read her novel ahead of publication. It will stay with me for a long time, and I’m delighted to hear that she’s already working on its second part.

Desc 1

In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.

Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.

As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.

Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.

A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?

In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career. 

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Rosie’s #BookReview Team #RBRT #HistoricalMystery The Book Of Skulls by @davidwhutchison

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading The Book Of Skulls by David Hutchison

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As I know we are all busy and I can go on and on with my reviews, I leave you the summary recommendation first, and then, you can go ahead and read the more detailed review, or not. This is a fun and easy to read historical mystery novel, set in Edinburgh in the Victorian Era, with some touches of horror and Gothic, a diverse cast, and fully adapted to modern sensibilities. I particularly recommend it to readers interested in the history of women in Medicine, those who love a Scottish setting, and those who enjoy a good adventure  that doesn’t get too caught up in procedural details. It is also the first of a series, so if you strike it lucky and love it, you’ll have more to come. I will also recommend it to older YA and NA readers, as long as they don’t mind (or like) a gruesome story. (Although I don’t want to give much of the story away, I’ll let you know that there are headless corpses aplenty, so you’ve been warned).

I had never read any of Hutchinson’s books before or seen his artwork, but there is little doubt that he is a multitalented individual (the cover and the illustrations inside the book are also his, and I loved them as well), and I know we’ll cross paths in the future.

The description of the book does it justice, and because of the mystery side of the story I want to make sure I avoid spoilers and say too much. In his biography, the author describes the book as “a BAME and LGBQT story of hidden identity and murder, inspired by Edinburgh’s murky medical history” and that contains plenty of information as well. If I had to highlight something is that it made me think of the type of stories and novels written at the time the book is set in, with plenty of adventures, excitement, dangers, very bad baddies, very resourceful heroes (and heroines), some Gothic and gore elements, which were not always a hundred per cent realistic and required a degree of suspension of disbelief perhaps greater than we are used to with mystery or thrillers nowadays. When we are first introduced to the main protagonist, Liz, her orphanage made me think of Jane Eyre, but there the similarities end. There are other characters and situations that brought to my mind other novels of the period, but I can’t go into detail without revealing too much of the plot, so I’ll keep my peace.

This is a solid historical novel and offers plenty of information about the period, some of the important figures in women’s fight to gain entry into the Faculty of Medicine, and other historical events and locations of the Victorian Edinburgh, including language and turns of phrase that add authenticity to the story. I have mentioned the diverse cast of characters, and the author’s description also highlights that the two female protagonists are from non-white ethnic backgrounds (they aren’t the only ones), and there are LGBT characters and themes integral to the story as well, but although prejudice is quite evident and something the protagonists struggle against, this is not a book that reflects and portrays the views of the time as realistically as possible but rather one that reflects the spirit of the time whilst avoiding what most readers nowadays would find repugnant. Even the “bad” characters are not as vocal and nasty as they would have been at the time in their epithets (and some of their actions), and I felt that the novel would be unlikely to offend modern sensibilities (as is to be expected, the most enlightened individuals are the main protagonists and their friends).  I don’t mean that the topics are not serious and even shocking at times, especially for those not familiar with the era and its mores, but it is a good entry point read with plenty of characters determined to do the right thing we can root for.

Liz is a fantastic character. A self-made woman, she wants to become a doctor more than anything, but she sticks to her morals as well and thinks of others before she thinks of herself. She is very lucky (chance plays a big part in the story, and she has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, as well as a pretty lucky star), and despite her enemies (she comes across a few, and there are some surprises as well) from the beginning meets a cast of characters that will be fundamental to the story and are mostly there to help her achieve her goal. Amulya Patel becomes her friend and peer, and together they fight the prejudice against women they find at the medical school. We don’t know much about Amulya’s background, although we get some hints about her history and her circumstances, and the same is true for most of the other characters, whom we meet mostly as either helpers or hinderers of Liz’s adventures and quest to become a doctor. I liked Liz and Amulya, and many of the other characters they meet (Campbell, Hector, Charles and Florian in particular), but this is a novel where we learn about the characters from their actions more than because we get access to their thoughts or psychological processes, for the most part. As this is the first novel in a serial, it is likely that we will get to learn more about the characters in future books, so it is not a big problem but rather gives us something to look forward to.

The story is written in the third-person, sometimes omniscient and sometimes from the point of view of one of the characters (plenty of them, even minor ones, get a chapter or a part of a chapter narrated from their point of view), and that gives us a pretty varied perspective while avoiding head-hopping, as each episode is clearly delimited. This also helps maintain the element of mystery, and although we don’t need to get to the end of the novel to learn what is happening (there are quite a few reveals and twists) and some of the secrets and surprises we might guess in advance, there are plenty more to come before the final page. I feel this story works well within its genre, as it alternates the investigation of the mysterious deaths with the story of Liz and Amulya’s adventures as medical students, and manages to keep a good pace and also to maintain the mystery. However, it might not work as well for readers used to modern police procedurals, because we have a lot depending on coincidence and chance, and I felt that the timing of the investigation didn’t always match the other events taking place, as Liz’s studies and knowledge seem to advance at an incredible speed while the investigation progresses at a much slower pace. As long as one is happy to work within the parameters of the story and stretch a little the suspension of disbelief, this is a rollicking good read.

With all those caveats in place, I confess to having had a great time reading this novel. I loved the ending, and I look forward to reading more novels in the series and, hopefully, catching up on the adventures of Liz and her friends in the future.

I’ve summarised my recommendations before, and as far as warnings go: there are gruesome murders; there is discussion of illnesses and medical procedures, evidently; there are historical events and descriptions of life in the period that are not always pleasant, but, as I said, I feel the book is adapted to modern sensibilities, and it successfully manages to be faithful to the period while avoiding reproducing some of the least savoury aspects of the era.

Desc 1

A Victorian tale of gender-bending, hidden identity, obsession and gruesome murder, set in Edinburgh’s Old Town.1875. Liz Moliette; a poor orphan of unknown heritage, and Amulya Patel; from a wealthy Indian family, are the only female students at the Edinburgh Medical School, where a hostile attitude towards women is driven by Professor Atticus. However Liz and Amulya have allies in fellow student Campbell Preeble, The Reekie reporter Hector Findlay and the charming Dr Paul Love.In dire need of funds, Liz becomes assistant to gruff lecturer and police surgeon Dr Florian Blyth. When a series of grisly murders take place the doctor and Liz help Inspector Macleod in his investigation, which leads to the Edinburgh Asylum, the Burry Man festival and the quack science of phrenology. The search for the killer comes dangerously close to Liz as she uncovers her own family secrets.

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Rosie’s #Bookreview Team #RBRT Amazon Jungle #thriller Untouched by @JaymeBeanAuthor

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

Rosie's #Bookreview Team #RBRT

Olga has been reading Untouched by Jayme Bean.

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This is a debut novel, and based on the acknowledgments, it seems that despite the author’s initial reluctance to write a book, her enthusiasm for the Amazon rainforest, her contact with other writers, and her husband’s support encouraged her to embark on the project, and I am grateful for it. It is a great story, and I’ve enjoyed it enormously.

The plot is not too complicated, although this is a book where the devil is in the detail. What if the Amazon rainforest could defend itself against the intrusions and destruction it is suffering at the hands of the human being? What if the plants and the trees fought us back? The Day of the Triffids came to my mind, but let that not confuse you. That’s not what this is about. The beauty of the story is that the protagonists who end up fighting for their survival are not “baddies” in the classical sense, but quite the opposite. They are not there to destroy the forest but to research and learn about it, to try to preserve it. But, research and experiments, as we all know, are not always harmless, and the best of intentions can have terrible consequences. In that peculiar setting, we have the protagonists (Marisol and David are the research students, and they get separated from Dr. Morrow quite early in the book, although they become a trio again when they meet Ben, who’d gone missing before their arrival), and the novel is, in a way, something I’ve referred to before: a “coming of age”-style or “rite of passage” novel with a grown-up protagonist. Although the three: Marisol, David, and Ben are put to the test by what happens, David is the one that goes through a major change, and whose experiences get him further away from his comfort zone. In their own different styles, the three are geeks: studious, bookworms, and more focused on their research and learning than on their social lives, but David has always loved the indoors and seems totally unprepared for the expedition. Despite that, his contributions are very important to the resolution of the novel (although I won’t spoil the whole of the story for you), and he comes out of it a changed man.

If I had to choose a genre, I am not sure which one I would use to describe the story. It is an adventure story, a mystery (as two people go missing in the story, and later on there are other mysteries to try to solve, as the protagonists get lost in the rainforest and don’t know how to get out) that veers into horror at times, but also a story about learning who you are by confronting your fears, learning to work as part of a team, and to trust others.  Along the way, we learn a lot about plants, biology, and the Amazon rainforest, about the organisation of a research expedition, about some Peruvian traditional beliefs, about panic attacks and its symptoms, and there is an interesting —if somewhat brief— conversation about bisexuality and how people react to it. There is a love story as well, and although I don’t think it will take anybody by surprise, it works well, and it adds further depth to the characters.

Although there are some other characters that contribute to the story (like the local guides, some of the other members of the research team), and I would have liked to get to know Dr. Morrow a bit better, the story centres on the three characters I’ve already mentioned. Marisol comes from Florida, her humble family is originally from Puerto Rico, her mother died when she was quite young, and she is very fond of her father, brothers (including a twin brother), and despite her scientific studies and knowledge can’t help but remember her grandmother’s teachings and religious beliefs, which make her worry about the guides’ refusal to go further into the forest, that they deem “tierra maldita” (“accursed land”). David, on the other hand, is from a very well-off family, but his parents have never been particularly close or even interested in him and his life, and he took refuge in his books and his studies. He never seemed to connect with anybody and has no true friends. He also suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, and although he has learned to manage those quite well, in most cases, it is not easy in his current circumstances. They make for a very odd couple, but, as you will probably image, they learn much about each other and about themselves in the process. Ben… We don’t get to know so much about him, as he is introduced later in the story, but he comes from a reasonably happy family, although he prefers to do his own thing and feels his parents try to over-control him; and he is independent to a fault, having learned how to live in the rainforest and become a true survivalist. The story also reminded me of a Young Adult or a New Adult story, because of its focus on characters (especially David) who are emotionally younger than their years, with the advantage that in this case, their ages (they are in their late twenties) make the whole novel more realistic, as we aren’t confronted with 17 years old who have the skills and knowledge that many experienced adults would be envious of, a common trope in some of these novels.

The story is told in the third person, although the point of view alternates between the different characters. In my opinion, David’s point of view dominates the story overall, but the author is excellent at introducing the experiences of the other characters as well, and although there is a fair amount of telling (because the characters —and us, of course— need to learn details about the project, the place, the plants, and the environment to make sense of what is happening), we often get to see and experience the full richness of the rainforest, the wonder and marvel of the sounds, the colours, the shapes, the feelings, the smells, and also the fear of being at the mercy of nature and not fully knowing what is coming next. The combination of the scientific knowledge titbits (that I found fascinating despite knowing very little about plants and even less about the rainforest), the fight for survival, and the strength and resilience of the characters, with the occasional touch of humour, reminded me of The Martian, and although the setting is completely different, I think there are some commonalities there. There are scenes of great tension interspersed with more contemplative moments, and the narrative eaves and flows, but although sometimes it might seem as if the characters are banging their heads against a wall (tree?) or spinning their wheels, I was hooked by the narrative and gripped by the story from very early on, and sad when it came to an end.

I highlighted much of the text and have found it too difficult to choose a few examples from the selection to share. There are witty dialogues, moving confessions, wonderful descriptions, scientific explanations, and awe-inspiring and scary passages as well. As usual, I’d advise prospective readers to check a sample of the novel, to see if the style of writing suits their taste.

I loved the ending, and although perhaps I would have liked to know more, it felt satisfying and right. I’ve mentioned the author’s acknowledgments, and I enjoyed reading about the process and what inspired her to write this book.

I recommend this book, that I had a great time with, to readers who enjoy adventure stories set in the wild, particularly those with an emphasis on ecology, biology, and the rainforest, happy to read about science and learn new things, and who also enjoy novels whose characters grow and learn from their experiences. There are beautifully descriptive passages that don’t overwhelm the story; there are plenty of adventures and scary moments for those who like to be gripped by a narrative; and also much to make us think. At the beginning of the novel, the author warns about the presence of episodes describing anxiety and panic attacks, and it is a fair warning, as the descriptions are very realistic and might cause upset to sufferers.  There are also very mild scenes of M&M intimacy (I’d hesitate to call it erotica, and there is little explicit in them), but as I know what is somewhat subjective, I thought I’d mention it. There is no interpersonal violence in the book, but I’ve mentioned some scary scenes, and there are other kinds of violence and injuries present as well (that probably would be covered by the author’s warning about strong themes).

Desc 1

Dr. Julia Morrow and her graduate students, David and Marisol, embark on a research trip to explore a remote section of the Amazon rainforest. When their trails seem to change direction at will and they find themselves lost and without communication, the trio worry they may be in for more than just the latest scientific discovery. Banding together, they’re left deciding which is more important – finding out how to escape the unexpected horrors lurking within the rainforest or getting back home in one piece. The deeper they travel into the jungle, the more they realize that some places are meant to remain untouched.

Content Warning: This book contains strong depictions of panic and anxiety.

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Rosie’s #BookReview Team #RBRT Noir #Thriller BLACK IRISH BLUES by @andrewcotto #TuesdayBookBlog

Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com

#RBRT Review Team

Olga has been reading Black Irish Blues by Andrew Cotto

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This is my first experience reading this author’s work, although when I checked his biography I realised that he had not only been writing for quite a while, but this is not the first novel he publishes with Caesar Stiles as the main character, although the first one was published in 2012, and it’s only available in paperback. It makes perfect sense when we read the story, as there are references to what has happened before, but it is not necessary to have read the previous novel to enjoy this one.

The description of the book provides a good overview of the plot, especially as I want to avoid any spoilers. I’ve been thinking long and hard about the genre of this short novel, and although it might sound like an impossible combination (and I suspect the author wouldn’t agree), if there was something like a “noir-cozy” or a “hard-boiled-cozy” this would be it. Let me explain what I  mean, because I know the two concepts seem impossible to reconcile. What I mean by cozy is that the novel has not only a pretty peculiar protagonist (who left his home in quite traumatic circumstances and has been wandering the roads of America ever-since), but many of the other characters that make an appearance are also unique (a fantastically charming “good” baddie, an intriguing father, a bodyguard with plenty of style, a driver-cum-guide with plenty of hidden talents, a rich businessman with an alternative view of life…); there is also a strong focus on a small town and its inhabitants, peculiarities, and power structures and games; and a lot of attention is paid to Caesar’s cooking, with lengthy descriptions of some of his favourite dishes and how to cook them. Cozy mysteries tend to combine the actual mystery with some sort of side attraction or plot-line (cooking and baking are quite popular, but there might also be magic, paranormal elements, acting, song contests or a multitude of other subjects). The crimes investigated in that genre can be serious (murders are quite common), but the investigation itself is not discussed in too much detail; it is hardly on the level of a police procedural novel, and the level of violence tends to be either very minor, bizarre or cartoonish rather than realistic, or not discussed in detail. This novel, like many American novels, depicts a small-town that is far from the white-picket fence oasis urban dwellers imagine. It has a dark side, and there are plenty of non-cozy subjects that make an appearance (prostitution, corruption, prejudice, hints of racism, organised crime, bullying and child abuse…), but although I can’t go into detail, let’s say that the nature of the mystery/crime and the ending of the novel are a bit surprising considering some of the  less-than-savoury themes discussed. 

The style is definitely noir/hard-boiled, with dialogue that is stylised, hard-hitting, witty, and eminently quotable; there is gloomy foreshadowing, there is threatened and actual violence inflicted (although rather than gore and over the top ,it felt fairly restrained in its description, perhaps because the story is narrated in the first person by Caesar and, as he reminds us a few times, he’s got used to enduring violence due to his previous experiences and can take a beating), I’ve already mentioned some of the topics typical of the genre, and as the story is set in the early 90s, we have plenty of characters misbehaving (smoking, drinking alcohol, flaunting their money and being conspicuously materialistic)  but not much swearing; we have an old Sicilian curse; a character from the wrong side of the tracks with criminal connections who has lost most of his family by the time we meet him. There are plenty of rich descriptions that bring to life the place and the characters, and the book —which is rather short (a bit long for a novella, but pretty short for a novel)— covers lot of ground in very few pages. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered, surprises of all kinds that keep popping up, and friends and enemies are not always easy to tell apart.

I liked the central character and plenty of the other characters that make an appearance, although some we don’t get to know very well, and there are a few truly despicable ones. The fact that Caesar tells the story and is quite a contemplative person, who has a lot of stories in his past and plenty of memories to reflect upon helps us connect easily with him and with the characters he likes, even if some of them are ambiguous and not what they seem to be. He is trying his hardest to make things right and to put an end to the family’s curse; he is eager to reconnect with his past, to leave a worthy legacy and to help others; and although he is not whiter than white (in fact, we learn that he’s done some pretty questionable things), he does have a sense of what is right and wrong and of morality that most readers will probably feel comfortable with.

As mentioned, the writing style is quite descriptive, and the descriptions not always help directly advance the story. However, they contribute to create a picture of the places and the people we are reading about, and they also fit the narrative style of the protagonist, who is often told he should write his story, and who notes that he used to write lengthy descriptions of the places he visited and of the people he met  in his letters to his mother all throughout the many years he was away. There are scenes of action; there are contemplative moments; there are cooking interludes; and there are memories and flashbacks interspersed in the  novel, so the pace is not relentless and the storyline does not rush at breakneck speed, but it flows well, and it packs a lot of information and story into very few pages.

Without giving too many clues, I can affirm that I really enjoyed the ending, and it worked well for me. It is evident when we read the novel that the main character has a past, and recent events in his life have had a lot of impact in his current situation, but there is enough information provided for those of us who like to fill in the blanks in order to give us a good sense of the psychology and the complexity of the main character, and to make us wonder what will happen next, while at the same time offering us a full and complex story with a satisfying resolution. In sum, this is a short novel that manages to combine many genres, with a strong and likeable protagonist and some pretty memorable secondary characters, a vividly depicted setting, dark subjects aplenty, a noir writing style without extreme gore or swear words but full of unforgettable quotes, and enough cooking reference to delight gourmets, especially meat-eaters (not my case, unfortunately). A very interesting author with a unique writing style, and one I’ll make sure to keep my eyes on in the future.

Book description

Black Irish Blues is the return-to-origin story of Caesar Stiles, an erstwhile runaway who returns to his hometown with plans to buy the town’s only tavern and end his family’s Sicilian curse.

Caesar’s attempt for redemption is complicated by the spectral presence of his estranged father, reparation seekers related to his corrupt older brother, a charming crime boss and his enigmatic crew, and – most significantly – a stranger named Dinny Tuite whose disappearance under dubious circumstances immerses Caesar in a mystery that leads into the criminal underbelly of industrial New Jersey, the flawed myth of the American Dream, and his hometown’s shameful secrets.

Black Irish Blues is a poetic, gritty noir full of dynamic characters, a page-turning plot, and the further development of a unique American character.

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