Reading Maze For Book Reviews

Reading for the Young & Old

Intrigue and drama at the seaside

Often authors become famous for inventing a strong character which they flesh out over many years and many novels with an entire and believable personality. The world these fictional heroes and heroines inhabit becomes as real to fans as any other universe they engage with on a daily basis – which is one reason why instalment-based genres such as the Harry Potter series become such smash hits and addictive reading with millions of worldwide fans.

On a slightly smaller scale, successful British author Peter James has carved out such a loyal, devoted niche following for his series of thrillers and murder mysteries written around his protagonist Roy Grace, of which there are a dozen or so published and well-sold books. So it comes as something of a surprise to see the author has recently dared to step outside the confines of Grace’s world and leave him behind altogether; his new novel is a stand alone work featuring new characters, called Perfect People.

But it is the Roy Strong series that attracts most attention, and it is easy to see why. Each novel uses the seaside town of Brighton and its surroundings as the stage where the characters and plots are set.

This perhaps adds a realistic, believable air to the author’s stories, which often start with the domestic mundane, allowing readers to identify and get to know the cast, before plunging them into a spiralling script of drama and intrigue.  For example, the novel ‘Dead Tomorrow’ starts with the female protagonist reading the local newspaper looking for flats to rent in Brighton … and ends with her daughter’s life in peril as she fights for her life on a kidney dialysis machine.

There is a gruesome twist as dead bodies with missing internal organs that are washed up on the Brighton beach are linked with sinister Eastern European drug and organ trafficking crime syndicates.  Through his detective hero Strong, Peter James explores the lengths a devoted mother will go to in order to rescue her daughter’s life, even if it means breaking the law and dashing her morals against the rocks on Brighton beach.

Don’t judge this book by it’s cover

If a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover, then how should it be weighed up? Most people would say by the subject matter and how it is dealt with, and in the case of a fiction work, how the prose is put together. A cheap cover shouldn’t necessarily indicate a dull interior or sloppy writing, in fact in some cases the cover can belie the fine work it contains.

A case in point is the female-friendly fiction of Joanna Trollope whose books are critically acclaimed and sell very well, yet usually to be found lurking in the bargain bin of a dingy supermarket or high street discount book retailer at a very cheap price.

Her novel ‘The Best of Friends’ is a good example of the ‘assumed to be trashy’ pulp fiction judging purely by the dismal non-descript photo and design of the cover.

But on closer inspection this novel is beautifully written and the plot stretches the reader’s imagination and thoughts as it is in no way predictable or mundane.

A pair of middle-aged, middle-class couple experience marital difficulties and the fallout of that and the effect on their teenage offspring provides the plot for this thoughtful novel about love, faith and commitment set against the daily struggles of life and long periods of time.

Trollope weaves an intriguing tale of events, fleshing out her characters with believable, confused emotions echoing the tumultuous happenings in their marriages. Her writing is always fresh and elegantly done, with flowing grammar, top notch punctuation and flowing imagery.

Accused of being far too smugly middle-class, which is (as it is true) unable to be refuted, at least the author makes a great job of understanding, deciphering and penning her tales of middle-class woes.

This book is an engrossing light novel to read on a plane, on holiday or in the bath which will not disappoint with its quality and integrity.

Better than just beach reading

The late spring and early summer months usually herald a rash of fiction, mainly in paperback format, aimed at the lucrative holiday reading market – particularly for women who tend to buy more fiction than men. Supermarkets and book retailers offer some great deals on such fiction too; it is often a good time to snap up some bargains to stash away in your suitcase for a lazy day by the pool or in the garden.

One author who has successfully captured this sector is Joanna Trollope, a well-known and widely published novel writer. Her work is not specifically aimed at women, but it is fair to say most of her characters are females and the topics she deals with are likely to be resonant with women readers than men.

A good example of this is the simply-entitled ‘Friday Nights’ which tells the story of a group of women, of vastly different backgrounds, circumstances and characters, who form a casual but eventually close friendship via a Friday night social evening.

After five years of meetings and getting to really know each other, their cosy circle is subtly but surely broken up by the arrival of what you could describe as an ‘alpha male’ on the scene, whom causes friction between the women and sets certain thoughts, feelings and actions in motion.

By using the device of the six different female protagonists, Trollope explores such eternal themes as love, attraction, jealousy and heart-break, but also the more unusual topic of the struggle for work-life balance for modern working women, both with and without families. This theme is explored in some depth and the author’s style is not a lecturing one, but a carefully crafted tale which encompasses all view points and allows for, ultimately, personal choice and freedom of decisions.

This may be available to purchase as a cheap paperback but it is beautifully composed, and it does not attempt to pull any cheap shots with its thought-provoking style and content.

Deciphering the UK Building Regulations

In the UK, building regulations are amended and updated amazingly frequently, and this can be a minefield for builders and construction workers, whether amateur or professional.

Often lengthy and confusing, the extensive rules for what can and can’t be done in the UK are difficult to read, interpret and remember. So any sort of builder considering any type of building, whether it’s an extension to an existing property, a renovation of an old one or the installation of a garden home office, needs a reliable guide to the building regulations.

Author Ray Tricker (MSc IEng FIET FCIM FIQA FIRSE) is a man who can help. Noticeable by his wealth of experience and qualifications as a building surveyor, he has turned this to advantage by putting together several books aimed at professionals in the construction industry.

A recent publication entitled ‘Building Regulations in Brief’ does exactly what it says on the tin — it is a concise distillation of all those confusing and long-winded  laws that govern a builder’s workday hours.

Not only does the author explain the ins and outs of the building regulations, he outlines ways in which to conform to them in a cost-effective way, thus potentially saving users quite a lot of money when undertaking their projects. In the current economic climate which has proved particularly severe for the construction industry, this aspect of this book should make it a best-seller.

As well as being a good reference guide to the rules, Tricker goes into a little bit of detail about the evolution of them all and why they exist. This makes the whole subject easier for the reader to understand, ingest and remember and is a useful addition to the normal guidebook style. He writes about how councils and local authorities view certain issues in order that the reader can appreciate and take into account the opposing viewpoint and the official stance they will be dealing with.

Building Regulations in Brief

A question of faith

Contemporary fiction often shies away from the ‘big’ subjects and deals mostly with the whimsical side of life, but one very well published and popular female author is not afraid to take the bull by the metaphorical horns and write a tale centred around religious belief in the modern Western world.

Jodi Picoult’s recent novel ‘Keeping Faith’ is her 12th successful novel and is set in New Hampshire. The story revolves around seven year old Faith and her mother Mariah, whose marriage to Faith’s father breaks down when he has an affair and leaves the family home.

This event triggers a series of unusual and remarkable events starting with Mariah noticing that Faith is talking to an imaginary friend. Beginning to worry that the stress of the family division has taken its toll on the young girl, Mariah takes her daughter to see some specialists…but the picture that emerges about this invisible friend gets more confusing as religious aspects creep into the scenario.

This is confusing to Mariah who has no beliefs herself nor has she raised her daughter with any religious schooling or indoctrination. Then a ‘miracle’ appears to occur as Faith seemingly raises her grandmother, Mariah’s mother, from the dead after she suffers a massive cardiac arrest.

This attracts national publicity and then as a consequence, the interest of assorted religious figures, groups and individual pilgrims desperate to benefit from the new young ‘prophet’s’ healing touch.

As Mariah tries to protect her daughter, she gets caught in a downward spiral of a national religious fervour and her belief in the truth of her daughter’s words and actions make her question her own beliefs and ethics.

Whilst in this turmoil with the press and several dozen fanatics camped on her driveway, her ex-husband decides she has become an unfit mother and attempts to sue for custody.

Picoult’s story telling progresses with sufficient pace to keep the reader intrigued and she uses the plot and its protagonists to analyse all aspects of faith, not shrinking from the controversial and doing so with a tremendous insight into people’s lives, thoughts and feelings.

A very different life in Nigeria

A world very far removed from a Western urbanised society cannot be further away than rural poverty in Nigeria. That is the troubled setting for the first novel of new author Christie Watson for her book ‘Tiny Sunbirds Far Away’. The novel has been released to critical acclaim already; indeed it won the Costa new author award in 2011.

Twelve year old Blessing and her older brother Ezekiel live a relatively pampered life in the well-to-do suburbs of Lagos. Ezekiel is often sick, however, and has many allergies which makes his mother overprotective.

Their father is a loud man, whom the children worship…but later in the story his bullying and violence towards his wife is revealed. After Blessing’s mother catches him with another woman, he leaves his family and they are forced to vacate the expensive flat and move back to the family home in the Warri delta.

The shock for the children is immense at first, catapulted suddenly from a comfortable flat into a remote farmhouse with no electricity, no running water and no bathrooms.  Blessing’s grandparents are also poor, having no regular income and have converted to Islam.

Most readers can certainly empathize with Blessing’s shock at this change in her lifestyle and the struggles the family all go through to fit into this new world with its new traditions and values.

The novel’s characters are all engaging and one quickly feels connected to Blessing as she comes of age, losing her rose-tinted view of her father and taking over the mothering role for her brother Ezekiel as her mother finds salvation in the arms of a white man employed by the hated Western Oil Company.

Environmental, social and political themes are explored from the small family’s point of view, and there are moments of humour and humility as well as trauma and tragedy. Blessing’s relationship with her grandmother grows as she teaches her the skills of a traditional midwife, and Blessing finds her direction and comes to love her life in the countryside.

A distinctly different debut

It’s rare for a new author to make the non-fiction bestsellers list with their debut release, but Elizabeth Haynes has achieved it; her dramatic novel called ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ is currently riding high in the charts.

A thrilling tale, Haynes has written the book in two time zones: one in the present and one as flashbacks. We follow the protagonist’s life in two distinct phases as she is consumed by an incredibly damaging romantic relationship, and then catch up with her years later as she tries to come to terms with the aftermath. The structure works very well and helps the reader build an empathy with the main character and understand her thoughts, actions and feelings.

Catherine is a typical young woman with a career, friends and a free-wheeling fun-filled lifestyle. She enjoys her nights out, dancing and drinking … and dating men.  But then she meets a man who seems perfect – Lee – and becomes embroiled in an intense emotional whirlwind which starts to spiral out of control.

In the sections of the novel which are set in the present, Catherine is struggling to cope with everyday life and her personality is radically different from her earlier pre-Lee years.  She is compelled to use the rigid routines in order to feel safe and the author shows a deep and genuine understanding of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in her descriptions of Catherine’s actions.

Haynes’ prose is a joy to engage with and this is an impressive debut; a gripping storyline which keeps the reader absorbed at every stage. Let’s hope she can continue with this top quality work.

Groupie by Jenny Fabian

First published in 1969 and listed by The Observer as one of ‘The 50 greatest music books ever’, this book by Jenny Fabian caused shockwaves throughout the literary community.

For a feeling of what life was like in the sixties underground rock culture, this book is hard to beat. Jenny Fabian takes you on a tour of the places to be seen, describing the sights, sounds and flavours of the era in delicious detail. She shows us the more shocking side to life in the late 60’s, with tales of orgies, lesbianism and drug abuse – each and every encounter described with an obvious lack of emotion or feeling. Her intimate role within the psychedelic scene gives her an excellent perspective from which to document the environment with detached authenticity.

Chronicling her adventures (as the fictional ‘Kate’) with various rock and pop stars of the day, Fabian leaves us guessing as to who her conquests actually were but it’s not difficult to work it out. Ben from the Satin is Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, Joe, the Relation bassist, is Ric Grech from Family, and Dave in Transfer Project was Andy Somer, (the Police’s Andy Summers).

Her naivety shows, a young girl of 19 lost amongst the excitement and anarchy of the era; at times it’s painful to read. Highlighting the fragility of human relationships, we get a real feeling that the 60s was nothing more than a chew-it up and spit-it-out culture, where the constantly changing trends left emotions out of the equation and significant others were replaced as soon as something better came along.

Since writing Groupie, Fabian has written articles for Harpers and Queen, Tatler, and Time Out, as well as a second novel, ‘A Chemical Romance’. Now married with two children, it’s rumoured that she is collaborating once more with Johnny Byrne on a third novel.

In the introduction to the 1997 reprint, Jonathon Green reveals that it gets 22 mentions in the Oxford English Dictionary, not bad for a girl written off as superficial and shallow!

Lace by Shirley Conran

Lace is a classic women’s novel. Written by Shirley Conran in 1982 it was made into a highly successful mini-series. The numbers don’t lie – over two million copies have been sold in the UK alone. It’s an intriguing tale of love, hate, deceit, and shame; you really won’t be able to put it down.

The plot centres around five main characters. Famous film star Lili is trying to trace her birth mother and knows that a mysterious benefactor sent money to her adoptive parents to pay for her upkeep – her mission is to find out who that was. The story jumps back to 1960, where we meet four schoolfriends, Pagan, Kate, Judy and Maxine. The girls are close and we follow them as they progress through school and blossom into beautiful young ladies. Each girl begins an illicit romance and eventually, one of the girls becomes pregnant. The baby is named Elizabeth Lace and put up for adoption – the mothers name listed as ‘Lucinda Lace’ – but who is the mysterious Lucinda Lace?

As the lives of the four girls’ progresses, each one of them maintaining a fabulously successful career, they receive news that the baby has died. The years of lies, resentment and shame cause them to fight and they each go their separate ways. Lili in the meantime is determined to find her mother, the woman who abandoned her and left her to suffer – she will stop at nothing until she uncovers the truth.

Eventually, the four women are summoned to New York, where Lili asks “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” It’s a spellbinding end to the novel, which will leave you gagging for more. Luckily Conran agreed and Lace 2 followed with the explosive revelation of the true identity of Lili’s parents.

For the perfect holiday novel, you can’t go wrong.

Reg Keeland

Presently enjoying well-deserved fame for his translations of Stieg Larsson’s thrilling and unique Millennium series of crime novels, Reg Keeland has a large number of other accomplishments to his name.

Born Steven T. Murray in Berkeley, California, he uses the pseudonym Reg Keeland for translations into UK English. Brilliantly translating from Swedish, Dutch, Norwegian and German, Keeland won the Golden Dagger Award in the UK in 2001 for his translation of Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell’s novel, Sidetracked.

Keeland received the UK’s Galaxy British Book Awards ‘Books Direct Crime Thriller of the Year’ in 2009, ITV3’s ‘International Author of the Year Award, UK’ in 2008, and the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize in South Africa in 2008 for his translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Amongst many other works, he has also notably translated the Swedish author Karin Alvtegen’s three psychological thrillers, Missing, Betrayal and Shame. His translation into English of Stieg Larsson’s much-anticipated second Millennium novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was published to critical acclaim in July 2009. His translation of the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, will be released in English in October 2009.

Keeland is also working on translating another Henning Mankell thriller, Son of the Wind, due to be published in English in 2012, amongst several other works by German and Swedish authors for release in 2009 and 2010.