Peppered with the laugh-out-loud, slightly anti-establishment humour and characterised by the easy prose that will be familiar to those who have read...morePeppered with the laugh-out-loud, slightly anti-establishment humour and characterised by the easy prose that will be familiar to those who have read Ben Hatch's memoirs of travels with his wife and children, this novel is not as different from those books as might be expected. As I noted in my reviews of "Road to Rouen" and "Are We Nearly There Yet?", those books also have at their heart important themes of family relationships, love and loss, lurking beneath observational humour and banter.
"The P45 Diaries" (a much better title, incidentally, than that of the earlier edition of this book, "The Lawnmower Celebrity") starts out in Adrian-Mole or Mr Pooter tradition as the diary of Jay, an 18 year old middle-class son of an important BBC TV executive. It's soon clear that this is not going to be pure comedy when it's revealed that his lovely mum has recently died relatively young of cancer. Despite her careful preparation of the rest of the family for coping with out her, e.g. lessons in how to use the microwave, neither Jay, his dad, or his siblings are coping well.
Being an 18 year old with no clear idea of where he's heading is hard enough without a crisis of that kind, and the reader slowly realises that Jay is going into meltdown, risking serious rifts with his family and friends, and jeopardising his dad's high-powered career that pays for Jay's own failure to hold down even the most menial job. As Jay's irritating habits and irresponsible behaviour get beyond a joke, wearing down the reader as well as the characters in the novel, it becomes clear that his apparently selfish attitude to his future is really an expression of the unresolved grief that affects not only him but all the family.(Being closer in age to his father myself, I often felt more sympathy for father than for son.)
There are some incredibly moving moments, such as when the three siblings ceremoniously take a saved lock of their mother's hair out of its hiding place and allow themselves each one nostalgic, Proustian sniff - with an extra one for the youngest because he's about to be packed off to boarding school in hope of curing the many tics that he's developed since his mother's death. The remembered details of his mother's terminal illness are also very well done and rang true for me, having experienced something similar with my own relatives.
Knowing that the author's father in real life was the late BBC TV executive David Hatch, I did wonder at the wisdom of giving Jay's fictional father more or less the same career, but I was happy to live with that for the sake of one of the running jokes throughout the book: Jay's rebellious hobby of pinching his dad's contact book and making prank phone calls to celebrities - not malicious ones, which I'd find unfunny and cruel, but just silly ones with the sole of aim of extending his list of famous people who have told him to f*** off. Not sure whether the named celebrities would agree though! It made me wonder whether the author had ever done this himself in real life, or at least wanted to!
I turned the pages of the last few chapters with increasing speed, wondering how this could possibly not end in utter disaster and tragedy. I don't want to spoil the plot, but the final resolution was for me in equal measure touching, logical and satisfying.
I was interested to see that this is the first book that the author has published himself. I'd have read it earlier if it had been available as an e-book before, though I must admit its previous branding had created completely different expectations. I'd have expected the hero of "The Lawnmower Celebrity" to be a middle-aged, pullover-wearing lawnmower pusher - or maybe someone with a ride-on lawnmower reflecting his wealth. (The author's very funny foreword for the book's new incarnation makes it clear that he was also uncomfortable with the old one's presentation.) The new title makes the theme and format much clearer, and the cover illustration of french fries suggesting a certain fast-food restaurant associated with young people makes much more sense, so creating more appropriate expectations in the reader.
An intriguing book that addresses many big issues (love, sex, death, power, the nature and reliability of human memory, history, culture, human potent...moreAn intriguing book that addresses many big issues (love, sex, death, power, the nature and reliability of human memory, history, culture, human potential, the constraints of 21st century society, and more) within an unusual structure of mini-chapters punctuated by audio and video clips.
The contrasting settings of busy, businesslike Manhattan and the ghost town of a nearby decaying seaside resort are only the backdrop to huge flights of fancy into the minds of the characters, explored by the newly psychic hero Jaymi. As he delves into their memories, sights and sounds from all over the world - real and imagined - spill forth, from war-torn Vietnam to idyllic classical gardens, beneath the oceans and into outer space. All of these experiences are described with a larger-than-life intensity that put me strangely in mind of Coleridge's Kublai Khan - and occasionally its drug-induced origins too!
It's not an easy or comfortable read, particularly when closely examining mental and physical cruelty and violence between some of the characters. I read with a constant sense of foreboding. However even the most shocking passages are underpinned by the compassion, pity and tenderness of the narrator for all but the most brutal characters. There's also some very welcome, very British understated humour to offset some of the horror. The brevity of the "mini-chapters" was well-judged - I felt I needed to come up for air after some of the short episodes, and to assimilate the latest action before moving on.
The immediacy of the story is more keenly felt because it is written in the present tense - always more demanding on the reader, I find, and even more so in this case because although most is in the first person, there are also many second-person narratives, where Jaymi is reading the minds of other characters and addressing them: "You move closer..." That the author is able to keep the reader not only engaged but tantalised by this difficult mode of storytelling indicates the power of his prose.
Though it's very much a modern book, with the constraints of modern life as one of its themes, there are touches of the classic about it too, reminding this reader of Johnson's Rasselas (at risk of sounding pretentious and also doubting my own memory, as it's about 30 years since I read that book!) Jaymi is really in many ways an innocent abroad, though he thinks he is so knowing. He may be able to read people's minds in details, but some of the simplest conclusions pass him by.
As I turned the pages, I found myself puzzling how on earth this intense tale would end. Without spoiling the plot, I can say I found the conclusion surprising, redemptive and satisfying.
My Kindle wasn't able to cope with the audio and video files, and the prose was compelling enough to make me want to skip those and get on with the story, but it was an interesting idea to include them - more evidence of the author's prodigious creativity. So, here we have not so much an imagination thief, but, to the reader, an imagination expander. Great stuff - thank you, Rohan Quine.(less)
A very satisfying read that I was reluctant to put down from the first page, this story follows a disenchanted young woman's redemption from her life...moreA very satisfying read that I was reluctant to put down from the first page, this story follows a disenchanted young woman's redemption from her life of quiet desperation via a series of surprising events and sources, which I won't list here for fear of spoiling the plot. Sufficient to say her journey leads to a fulfilling ending that may even have you yearning to run a marathon by the end of it, as the heroine does - or to reach for whatever personal challenge will make you feel more alive.
I knew before reading this book that the author is a Buddhist priest and psychotherapist, and as in another book I've read by her ("Thaw"), Robyn's calm wisdom gained from both of these attributes shines through the telling of this story of ordinary, everyday people seeking to find a sense of belonging, love and meaning in the modern world.
I love the cover design, by the way, which will gain extra meaning once you've finished reading the book.
Highly recommended. I'll be working my way through the rest of her books now!(less)
In the true spirit of the writers' collective whose name it bears, this book brings together many differe...moreLIKE A WRITERS' CONFERENCE IN PAPERBACK FORM!
In the true spirit of the writers' collective whose name it bears, this book brings together many different voices (and not just the five authors currently in the Triskele group) to share the benefits of their experience with indie authors everywhere. It picks off in turn every aspect of the production and publication of an indie book for examination, offering a wealth of advice gained at first hand. It was good to see quite a few pages devoted to ways of improving the writer's craft - something too often overlooked in books of this kind, when it is of course the most important part of the whole process of producing a professional quality, self-published book in any genre.
All of this it does with good humour and wit, with the individual writers' characters, passions and different areas of expertise shining through their various chapters. As I was reading, I felt as if I was witnessing a writers' conference unfold on the page before me, a series of single-speaker presentations interspersed with some two-handers or panel discussions. Like any good writers' conference, it reassured me that I'm doing a lot right already, reminded me of some things I knew but had forgotten, and left me buzzing with lots of new ideas too.
"The Triskele Trail" includes copious references to authoritative websites, books and blogs, effectively delivering substantially more than the word count of the book itself.Usually I prefer to have reference books in print form, but this book is so stuffed with useful hotlinks that reading it as an e-book makes more sense, as it will be easier to jump straight to the links. I understand there are plans to bring out a print edition in due course (and with that beautiful cover, it would look good on any writer's reference bookshelf).
Where you read it in print or as an e-book, the addition of an index at the end would be a good idea, as I'm sure there are lots of bits that readers will want to refer back to once they've read it, and though the chapter headings are done well, an index would be handy too.
Excellent value for money, and well worth the investment of the time it takes to read it, too.(less)
The cover illustration sets the right tone for this lighthearted, spoof thriller - an entertaining romp with echoes of James Bond, George Smiley et al...moreThe cover illustration sets the right tone for this lighthearted, spoof thriller - an entertaining romp with echoes of James Bond, George Smiley et al, in the oh-so-dated world of 1980s computing. This setting had extra resonance for me, as one of my first jobs was in a small computer software company in the 1980s, and, dare I confess, I married one its salesmen?! And aren't they real companies that he's talking about? Not just Microsoft (obv) but also Sphinx and Zylog?
Although this certainly isn't a novel for feminists easily offended by sexism (or indeed for easily offended Russian spies or CIA agents), I found it all great fun, in the tradition of Carry On films, whose purposely caricature-like characters and wafer-thin plots are contrived primarily as vehicles for jokes.
Having had a spate of reading serious, grim novels over the last few weeks, this was a breath of fresh air and I lapped it up.
I also thought it was a creative, memorable and interesting way of drawing attention to the cause for which he's raising money and awareness - the very real and serious condition of haemachromatosis. Well done, James Minter.(less)
I don't usually read fantasy, and most of the sci-fi I have read is the classic kind (Jules Verne, H G Wells, Ray Bradbury), but when I was offered a...moreI don't usually read fantasy, and most of the sci-fi I have read is the classic kind (Jules Verne, H G Wells, Ray Bradbury), but when I was offered a free copy in return for an honest review, the title intrigued me - why the strange spelling of the Buryd? - especially when it would make the book title harder to search for online!
The bleakly haunting cover is a good indication of the nature of this story, set on a blighted, post-apocalyptic planet. A natural disaster affecting the planet's orbit has disrupted its climate, which then ricochets between unbearably hot weather and freezing cold. To survive, its people must shelter during the heat in dark tunnels and shady buildings; during the chill they must migrate in search of warmth. This was a sobering and thought-provoking premise in the light of modern controversy about global warming.
Following the disaster, the planet's people form tribes who work together to survive. One brutal group dominates the rest, throwing into the anarchic Lyndbury penitentiary compound anyone who offends them. This punishment is deemed a fate worse than death, and the "Buryd" of the title is a contraction of Lyndbury.
The opening of the story, with a grandfather relating to his grandson how this situation came about, is a sensitive and effective overture to the novel's themes of loyalty and friendship in adversity. The tale's heroine is Georgianna, a young medic, who is doing all in her power to improve the lives of the downtrodden tribes, including the unfortunate "Buryd" inmates of Lyndbury. Although the setting is as grim as Orwell's "1984",the survival of Georgianna's compassion and her and her friends' humanitarian instincts also make it an uplifting story.
This is the first book in the proposed "Out of Orbit" series and its ending sets up a powerful link to the second instalment, which I look forward to reading.
Why not 5*? Sometimes the flow of the story was interrupted or slowed by slightly laborious writing, primarily when describing people's physical movements. Simple actions such as getting up from sitting down, or reaching out to touch someone, were described in excessive detail, to the point where the narrative almost felt like instructions to a puppeteer. I found this distracting. I also found the use of "ordinary" names (first names and surnames) alongside completely made-up alien names puzzling - why they weren't all either normal names or all alien names. A small, pernicketty point, but that sort of niggle is spell-breaking for this fussy reader who doesn't cope well with unusual names at the best of times.
But overall this is a very good debut novel, creating a convincing fantasy world, from a writer who I am sure will be well-received among fans of modern fantasy and sci-fi. Recommended.(less)
I came to this book having enjoyed Joanne Phillips' first two novels - intelligent, entertaining tales in the women's fiction category - so I was inte...moreI came to this book having enjoyed Joanne Phillips' first two novels - intelligent, entertaining tales in the women's fiction category - so I was interested to see whether she could also pull off a shift into a different genre: the "cozy mystery" as people seem to call it these days (I SO want to spell "cosy" with an s!)
I discovered a slick transition, retaining many of the characteristics of her previous books - assured writing, strong sense of place, evocative description, clearly defined and likeable characters - while adding the eponymous cosy mystery to solve (ie death without grisly details - I don't read violence or gore! - and a happy ending.)
I particularly like the way she celebrates elderly people in this book (echoes of her book "The Family Trap"). She turns expectations/prejudices upside down from the first page, with an elderly lady proving far more adventurous than her younger (29) friend. There were far fewer laugh-out-loud moments than in her other novels, but still a great sense of fun and of the ridiculous. I guess this is the right balance for a book that features murder.
I'm a big fan of M C Beaton,Dorothy L Sayers, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I have also read quite a bit of Agatha Christie, who together set the highest standards in this genre, so for me at least Joanne Phillips had a hard act to follow. But by the end of this story, I had the same sense of urgency to read the next one, just as I do with Beaton et al. The highest compliment a proposed series can hope to achieve!
What I particularly liked about it is that there is much more to the story than a mystery to solve. The mystery is underpinned by important and thoughtful considerations of the nature of love, loss, grief and old age - much more so than, say M C Beaton. This serious undercurrent adds depth to the book, likely to make the reader think about it for long after they've solved the mystery and read the final page.
One big difference from the other authors I've listed is that there's less of a precise Poirot-style "the reason I've called you all together here today is..." reveal than in Christie et al. There's a more gentler rise and fall of mystery and resolution than with Lord Peter Wimsey, where I find myself turning the pages faster and faster as I sense the solution coming up. This is because the heroine in the detective role solves the mystery almost in spite of herself, rather than by natural Sherlock-Holmesian sleuthing powers. You don't end the book thinking, "My goodness, what must it be like to have as sharp a brain as Flora Lively?" So it's a different kind of experience than to a classic solve-the-mystery type of book - but still a very satisfying read.
Having said that, I think it's a great idea to have a heroine who is not a ready-made detective in the Miss Marple mould, but still unsure of herself, finding her way after losing both her parents, and with a troubled past. She's a character who looks set to develop, and it will be interesting to see how she evolves.
Finally, I love the idea of a detective-style heroine who has a psychology degree but runs a removal company - though I must admit I did wonder about Shakers' financial viability, given the amount of time its staff spend drinking coffee and going on outings rather than doing serious removals! What a great set-up for future adventures - I can think of all kinds of interesting scenarios for her next jaunt, which I very much hope will be available soon!(less)
Having very much enjoyed the first installment of the Merencourt saga, I looked forward to reading this second part, and I enjoyed this book even more...moreHaving very much enjoyed the first installment of the Merencourt saga, I looked forward to reading this second part, and I enjoyed this book even more. Well written and pacy, the story follows Minette and her descendants, with the spotlight on her eldest daughter Claire.
Set mostly in the British Raj, with episodes in France, South Africa and the UK, this compelling true story is, like the first volume, beset with inter-familial jealousy and sibling rivalry. Strong women constrained by the social mores of their time face difficult choices, such as whether to marry (or stay married)for money, for convenience or to escape from an unhappy childhood home. Little wonder that they meet so much heartache. It was interesting (and alarming) to see how certain family traits passed down the genetic line of Merencourts, rather than successive generations learning from the mistakes of their forebears.
The author develops the characters deftly and convincingly from childhood to old age, as the story moves swiftly through the years. Adding another layer of interest and intrigue is the setting of British colonial life. Although some of the trappings of this lifestyle may seem superficially appealing, often glamourised in fiction or film, this book spells out the emotional and physical hardships that went hand-in-hand with such luxury - long separations of parents and children, arduous sea voyages between home and adoptive country, a frustrating lack of intercontinental communication (er, that would be by letter - sea-mail, of course). Amidst lush scenery, we feel the intolerable, unhealthy heat that has Europeans heading for cooler hills in the hottest part of the year; the stench of the brackish Bombay harbour waters dilute the impact of the city's exotic gardens and beautiful buildings; the "orphans" heartlessly abandoned for no reason other than illegitimacy or mixed race make us question the values of this supposedly civilised society. Each time I closed the book, I was thankful to be returning to my 21st century English village community.
If this book were a novel, the author might have been tempted to create more happy endings, but I was conscious all through that this was a real story, albeit presented as fiction, with real outcomes - no playing happy families here. I think its truthfulness made it a more powerful story that will stay with me for longer than a novel with a neat resolution.
Many of Claire's actions, and the behaviour of some of her family members, seem incredibly harsh and selfish to the modern reader, but while this makes it hard to like the characters, I found myself admiring their fortitude and survival instincts in the face of adversity and occasional tragedy.
I'll be very interested to see how the story continues in the promised third volume of the Merencourt saga, and whether subsequent generations are able to escape the shadows of their forebears' difficult lives.(less)
Marvellous account by the Scottish lady who dreamed of setting up a museum celebrating Highland culture, funding it initially from her own modest priv...moreMarvellous account by the Scottish lady who dreamed of setting up a museum celebrating Highland culture, funding it initially from her own modest private income, against resistance from Highlanders who were at first embarrassed to draw attention to their humbler beginnings. Now an award-winning museum that is a must-see for any family visiting the Scottish Highlands, and my family's favourite museum of all time (and we've visited a lot of museums!) A wonderful character and an inspiring example to curators everywhere. I just wish she was still alive so that I could meet her.(less)
I was attracted to read this book by my underlying interest in the fact that 27 seems to be the age that so many promising young singers and artists c...moreI was attracted to read this book by my underlying interest in the fact that 27 seems to be the age that so many promising young singers and artists crash and burn. I'd therefore half-expected that this might be the story of high-profile, high-achievers - the rock-star types notorious for early deaths - but its characters are ordinary people hitting this significant age.
Some of the characters I liked very much, others I just wanted to slap - which is indicative of how well they are drawn, to create such a strong reaction in this reader. Often their actual friendship seemed a bit thin to me - they seemed to be working against each other, more than as friends - but maybe that is the author's intentional comment on friendships made at university: dissimilar people tend to befriend each other simply because they are all in the same place at the same time, rather than because they have very much in common. It's quite an artificial way to build relationships, really.The novel handles some taboos subject bravely and touchingly, and I really liked the fact that some of the characters emerged from such adversity with great dignity.
I thought some of the tragedies were handled very sensitively, the enormity of one of them in particular (no plot spoiler here!) being unfolded very poignantly - and the outcome will certainly have made this pretty immature bunch of characters grow up more quickly, as, sadly, is often the way.
Two things that I wasn't so keen on. Firstly, the ending was rather abrupt - in fact, I was surprised to realise that I'd reached the end (I was reading it on Kindle, so didn't have the thickness of the book to give me a clue that this was the final page).
Secondly, I was slightly horrified to realise what an uncultured lot these characters were, spending their down-time, when not on Facebook, watching telly and in the pub. None of them ever reads a book, for example, or, with one exception, does anything vaguely intelligent outside of work, and that's the one who spends six years of travelling and working abroad. But rather than returning enriched and with a more mature world-view than the others, all she seems to have gained is a hippie-chick wardrobe, a stomach bug and an overdraft. That didn't ring true for me.
This is a sobering read, but a well-written, competent novel, perhaps with more appeal to readers in their 20s and 30s than to an older reader like me (soon to reach 27 for the second time!) I particularly liked its traditional structure: third person, past tense, in confident, competent prose. Many modern young authors would have been tempted to let each of the six main characters tell their own story, and to narrate it in the present tense, but that would have been far too exhausting, never mind technically difficult to pull off.
Well done, R J Heald. I'll be interested to see what you come up with next.(less)
Receiving free review copies of books often takes me out of my reading comfort zone, and this book was a prime example. I'm hardly its usual target, b...moreReceiving free review copies of books often takes me out of my reading comfort zone, and this book was a prime example. I'm hardly its usual target, being grown-up and female, and I've never read a line of Harry Potter. As the cover didn't particularly appeal to me, I'm embarrassed to say this book sat on my to-read pile for a while before I opened the first page. But once I'd made a start, I was gripped, very much more than I'd expected to be, and I was eager to find out how the likable hero Art's adventure would unfold.
This is a neatly plotted novel aimed at teens, particularly boys, but I think girls would enjoy it too, if they're not too squeamish. If they're interested in myth and magic, and what child isn't these days, thanks to J K Rowling?
Presented in bite-size, tiny chapters, often just two or three pages long, this is a super book to lure teens away from online games. There are plenty of ingredients to get them turning the pages and reading avidly in spite of themselves: cliffhanger endings; action-packed adventures; gruesome, grisly moments; all couched in a slangy playground style seasoned with the occasional token swearword for street cred. This could be just the right kind of book to bring out the latent bookworm in reluctant teenage readers.
I liked the blend of classic teenage new kid in town tale with the ancient legends of the court of King Arthur. The central character, Art, unaware that he's the son of Merlin transported to the 21st century, must deal with issues of peer pressure in the playground, and very much more, before travelling back in time to a besieged Camelot.
I must admit my knowledge of Arthurian legend is hazy: when someone mentions Merlin, I picture the cheery blue-robed gent from Disney's "Sword in the Stone" film, rather than anyone with potential to slay the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I therefore can't vouch for the accuracy of the Arthurian theme in this book, but it certainly spins a good yarn of the battle between good and evil, finishing neatly and happily in the modern world, resolving the problems with which it began. This full-circle ending is very satisfying.
The story was strong enough to withstand the odd editing hiccup along the way, such as a mother being referred to unaccountably as both the American style "mom" and English style "mum" on the same page, and I personally found the abundant use of .... in the middle of sentences ... a bit irritating, giving the .... impression of someone speaking with .... either a stutter or ...narcolepsy. But I don't think those details would deter the average teenager racing through the story. I didn't enjoy the graphic horror scenes of cats and people being eaten alive, but then you can't really expect the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to be exactly cudddly.
I can see this book working well as a series, with young readers anxious to snap up another as soon as they finish each book. I hope the authors will return with more action stories about the likable young Art and his sweet sidekick Megan. As it says on the cover, "Move over, Harry, there's a new wizard in town".(less)