Christmas Under Construction by Rylee Ridolfi – a Christmas themed book with really humourous twists

Christmas Under Construction by Rylee Ridolfi

Christmas is a dream for one of the McKenna sisters, as Molly puts the finishing touches to her Christmas village and the preparations for her wedding. This second book in the series features a dramatic period in the life of Megan, the sister who has always been known as the Winter Queen, the attractive woman who has found herself suddenly divorced and replaced. Mother of two young daughters who are complete opposites, she has struggled to find a way forward until she has been given the challenge of redecorating a lodge in the village. The problem really emerges when she discovers that she is to work with Stone Reynolds, who is a local man working on a local shabby property. Their working relationship is the subject of the book which takes a wry look at contemporary dating, post divorce problems and more with gentle humour in the ultimate festive setting. Although this is the second book in a series, it is perfectly possible to pick up the ongoing stories as the book is consistently and cleverly written. I found it an illuminating read and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

At the beginning of the book Megan is preparing to go on a blind date in order to appease her sisters and mother. Not that she expects much to come of it; she believes the difference between dating as a popular teenager and a divorced mother of two small girls is huge. This is especially true as a running joke throughout the book is that each date she is set up with is progressively less appealing. She meets Stone, who is apparently a construction worker who is willing to work on the lodge which is the final building in the Christmas village. Molly has firm views on the style she wants for the attraction, but Stone seems to have ideas of his own. As the days tick down to Christmas, she is also struggling to cope with her daughters Sophie, who is passionate about clothes and shoes, and Olivia who is far more concerned about the creatures that live in the nearby river. Her concentration on all things Christmas is further compromised by the visits of her ex husband Chase who continually reminds her of how she has spent most of her life as his partner in the perfect couple. His new partner Bree is of course younger, and as shallow as he is now beginning to appear to be as she realises that he is no longer her ideal man.

This is a book that concentrates on the lead up to Christmas and has a theme of dreams of the “perfect” celebration. However, this also takes a realistic view of what post divorce life can be like, especially with two demanding children. It is not the American dream, as it shows that money and status are not the answer to Megan’s problems. Stone is also a well developed character whose past is a problem to him, but who can develop a lovely relationship with not only Megan, but also her daughters. This is a festive romance with several humorous twists and near farce elements, as Megan especially is shown as a very real person who has the daily disasters which remove her from her perfect Winter Queen memories. I enjoyed the humour of this book, the characters who had a realistic view of life, and the way that Megan admits that there is a real need to accept that life has changed.   

This is the other blog post that got delayed due to my technical problems with wi fi. It is a good read, and at this time we need some escapism!

Blind Pool by Vicki Goldie – Melissa and Alasdair in a classic country house mystery with an extra layer

Blind Pool by Vicki Goldie

A country house mystery set in 1923 would be attractive; in this well plotted and written book the author skilfully adds in the Honourable Melissa and the blind war hero Major Alastair Charters.  A delightful read that distracted me from any other reads for the duration, this is a book that looks at a dysfunctional family in the oppressive context of a large house surrounded and cut off by flood water. Melissa and Alasdair have been invited to stay for a few days in a large house on the Somerset Levels by Davinia Gauntlet who has heard of their reputation. In the first novel Melissa and Alasdair had been involved in a mystery, but it is more than possible to read this book on its own as the characters are so well developed. Alasdair’s blindness is thoughtfully incorporated into the plot and texture of the novel, as his apparent limitation is turned into a strength as he needs the layout of rooms, descriptions of those around him and other aspects of what is going on spelt out clearly and thus informing the reader. Personal experience of a blind partner means that Vicki Goldie writes this novel with a warm sensitivity that adds fascinating level to this already well written mystery novel. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this clever novel. 

As the couple arrive on a train they are aware that the weather is not encouraging, and the rather grim driver mutters his concern about the bridge holding in the face of flooding. When they finally arrive Davinia is relieved to see them, as she has some concerns about the recent death of her grandmother. She does reassure Alasdair that his guide dog Sheba is welcome, and they have also brought Thomas as a sort of valet and helper. At dinner that evening they become acquainted with the residents and guests of the house, including Colonel William Gauntlet whose Indian service has led to a lot of the decoration, and his somewhat diffident wife Majorie. Their son Charles is present with his wife Serena, and the even more challenging Major Roderick. When the argumentative aunt Petunia is added in, the already challenging environment of a formal meal becomes the scene of much verbal jousting, even when the jovial American Sheridan tries to lighten the atmosphere. When a murder is discovered the following morning, Melissa and Alasdair are unwitting witnesses and soon realise that a flooded moat and surrounding area has effectively cut them off from help. The only person who gets through is a district nurse, who soon has her hands full. As investigations proceed, the claustrophobia of a house where an odd collection of guests and residents are trapped mean that Alasdair and Melissa must proceed with caution.

This is a clever book which manages to combine many elements of a Golden Age mystery with some well developed characters and some emerging favourites in Melissa, Alasdair, Thomas and even Sheba. This is not a straightforward murder mystery, and it depends on the convolutions of family relationships and financial pressures in the setting of a house which is beginning to go out of practical use. I found it a textured, vivid and most engaging read, and I cannot wait for more mysteries from this talented author.   

Lady in Red by Tessa Buckley – an exceptional children’s book in a contemporary setting

Lady in Red by Tessa Buckley

This is a marvelous children’s book in the Eye Spy series  which manages to pack in an exciting story of a snake, a painting and a special house. Narrated by Alex, and starring his twin sister Donna, this book incidentally deals with divorced and or absent parents as they tackle a villain who has dominated the local area via the media as well as commercial power. Not that it ever preaches or sets out behaviour which is dangerously challenging; there is adventure and tension for the young characters throughout, as well as making friends even if they are very different. It deals with issues such as half siblings and housing difficulties, but it does not drag on or wallow in difficulties. I rarely read and review young people’s books since I finished teaching children, but I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review this lively book. 

The book begins with Alex admitting that he is frightened of snakes. This is inconvenient as it is the end of summer term, and a boy called Jake has brought in his pet snake Queenie for the class to see. Donna is entranced, and gains an invitation to visit Jake where he is living with a family in half of a historic house. Acacia Villa once belonged to a famous Victorian painter, Gabriel Pascoe, who was relatively well known. His most well known picture was “The Lady in Red”, which has gone missing. The other half of the house, no. 3, is uninhabited, which of course is an attraction for children who have formed a detective agency. Meanwhile a family celebration for the twins’ remarried mother distracts interest and means there is a meeting with someone involved with the deserted no. 3. As the children investigate the missing painting and a threat to their new friends, excitement and danger beckon. 

This is a well written book with vivid characters, some tense moments and some genuine gentle humour. As with many adventure novels for younger people, the parents are absent when most of the action takes place. The plot is exciting and is well dealt with in terms of understanding for the targeted audience, without violence or unduly disturbing elements. This is a successful and well written book, and I recommend it to those who enjoy a contemporary adventure with relatable characters.

This post has been delayed for a few days because of technical difficulties – no internet! This is a wonderful children’s book which deserves a wide audience; it quite reminded me of happy hours spent reading children’s book sunder the guise of checking them for my children!

Cows Can’t Jump by Philip Bowne – Billy makes many discoveries in a gentle growing up comedy

Cows Can’t Jump by Philip Bowne

Billy is desperate. He has made a mess of his GCSEs, his relationship with his parents is difficult, and he cannot find a job. Well, apart from being a gravedigger, which is a more exacting job than might be supposed. Billy is a young man who thinks deeply about things, and in this funny and fascinating book Billy’s voice narrates a story of first love, family idiosyncrasies, and an unusual progress through Europe. This is a very readable book of Billy’s reactions to those around him, ranging from his gravedigger colleagues to the strange and amazing people he encounters on his journey to find Eva. This is a fascinating story of contemporary issues as seen through the eyes of a teenager who is given real insight and the noticing of details. Frequently funny, flowing beautifully and occasionally poignant, this is the book of a Britain affected by the Brexit vote and Europe in all its variety and challenges. Not for the nervous, Billy learns about drinking, people who have wild ideas and family members who develop their own obsessions. It is a book about learning of life from the older people he encounters, but also the varieties of consideration that people can show for others. I was impressed and pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this brilliant book. 

Billy’s philosophy of finishing school before A levels appears on the first page “I don’t think anyone ever knows what they want to do. People pretend”. In the first hint that this book will tackle even religious belief, Billy explains that he gets his first job digging graves via his mother’s assiduous church attendance. Teased like many in their first job, Billy meets three men who he calls “the Russian Dolls” and remembers their humour. His parents are stunned when his grandfather announces he is going to remarry a much younger woman, and his father takes up boxing. Billy’s job search takes him to be an assistant at a summer school, where he meets children with problems. He also meets Eva, and it is the attempt to keep his relationship going with the Swiss ecowarrior that propels much of the novel. His progress meets with highs and lows, extraordinary meetings and some dangerous encounters. One of my favourite scenes is when a smoke alarm causes trouble for Billy’s father, and his reaction to the noisy item.

This is an impressive book though there are no mysteries, crime or even complex plot. It is the story of people, in all their humour, variety and desperation. Billy is an ordinary person in circumstances that sometimes spiral out of control, and there is one group of people that he encounters that show the deeperation faced by many thousands of people to this day. The writing is lively and vivid as Billy gives a running commentary on his thoughts and concerns, his problems with money, language and transport, his worries for various people. There are running jokes such as the meaning of someone’s name, his mother’s groups, his father’s obsessive behaviour. I recommend this book for its contrasts, its challenges, and its picture of a young person trying to cope with the twenty first century  

Mango Bay by Serena Fairfax – a young woman’s life in a Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s

Mango Bay by Serena Fairfax

A book which brings to life a family, a time and romance in a very different place and time. When Audrey meets Nat in London, 1956, she has no idea that falling in love will take her to live in Bombay in the Bene Israel Jewish community, a small group which is connected by marriage and more than fiercely protects their interests. This is a sort of family saga, with some fascinating characters living in Mango Bay, a large villa, and those who they mix on a daily basis. It has much to say about such things as arranged marriages, the difference of cultures and the efforts to keep people from marrying out of a community. It explores family relationships and the difference a young woman from another country, place and faith can make. Dramatic events happen throughout this book, but it is also fascinating for the characters that populate it. As intrigues, surprises and plans are made and upset, this is a book that sets an exotic scene, full of the colours, smells, sounds and more that Audrey comes to experience in this vivid and complex book. This is a read full of intense life and colour, personalities and people that is absorbing. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book. 

When Nat finally asks Audrey to dance after some time of observing her, she only gradually comes to understand what her situation will be if she becomes attached to him. She is training to become a professional musician, and learns that he is a barrister from India. When they decide to marry she must inform her traditional Scottish parents, who have many concerns. When Nat returns home, there is a pause when she is left in a poor flat without any certainty of his feelings for her. Eventually she travels to Bombay, when Nat has finally broken to his family that he does not want a marriage arranged for him, and that he would rather like his wife to come over from London. His father is outraged at his ambitious social plans being upset, but Audrey disarms him and begins to establish what is really going on in the villa. Khan Sahib is the patriarch of the clan, who bought the villa and now lives there with his second wife Rachel, her mother the venerable Babai, Khan Sahib’s eldest son Vidor and his wife Leah, and the Pearl, a disassified daughter. Their social connections are complex and close, as the survival of the community necessitates many interlinking relationships. There are, however, many reasons why everything does not go to plan.

This is a book of great depth as people, places and practices must all be delicately balanced. Money and assets are discussed, as well as the strong minded Esther’s plans. I found it an intense read which was difficult to put down, as I was keen to discover what was going to happen to the various characters that I was interested in. The writing is beautifully balanced between the characters, the setting and the plot, and the little mysteries of each character are well handled. Altogether this is an enjoyable book with memorable characters, cleverly revealing an alternative lifestyle in the 1960s , a well written testimony to a remarkable community. 

The Cornish Village School – Christmas Wishes by Kitty Wilson. A community with wonderful characters in the lead up to the festive period.

The Cornish Village School - Christmas Wishes (Cornish Village School  series Book 4) eBook: Wilson, Kitty: Kindle Store

The Cornish Village School – Christmas Wishes by Kitty Wilson

A lovely story based around a school in a village in Cornwall in the build up to Christmas, this book also has some wonderful characters to add to those who have appeared in previous books in this genuinely positive novel. Not that the other books need to be read before this one can be enjoyed; this novel features Alice, a teaching assistant and Dan, the Vicar, who have only been mentioned in passing in previous stories.  Alice is committed to the local village church, but knows that the attractive, single Vicar is a definite additional attraction. Dan is undoubtedly attracted to Alice, but has significant issues from his past to cope with before he can commit to a relationship. Another new character is Annie, Dan’s grandmother, who has a wicked sense of humour and good intentions when it comes to fostering her grandson’s well being. The local school where Alice works also provides a welcome element of humour when a nativity play is in the offing, a standard provider of comic comments and behaviour from young children. Marion, chair of the PTA is also challenged in new ways, and contributes to the lively dynamic of this most enjoyable book. This is a novel which amuses, distracts and continues a wonderful series of books. 

Dan and Alice have known each other for two years when she receives a call from him one evening asking her to come and rescue him and Ethel, one of his parishioners. When she races around to do so, what she discovers affords her and Dan a great deal of laughter. Their relationship is mutually on the edge, both feeling the attraction but frightened to take action. The focus then transfers to the school, as Alice reflects on the true nature of the teachers, and in time the beginnings of a squabble in the staffroom. Dan meanwhile hears troubling news from his grandmother, which makes him think about their relationship. When Alice subsequently gets into difficulties, speculation increases about her relationship with Dan. She discovers one of his big worries regarding the church, and resolves to do something about it. Meanwhile a situation develops which will test Alice’s sympathies, just as she struggles to come to terms with her self image. Several plans are made throughout the novel which are not always successful, and some people get hurt in the process. 

This is a lovely book which brings to life some of the things that happen in small villages, even in contemporary times. It deals in an interesting and accurate way with what life can be in a church community, and the situations which can emerge with lively good humour. I really enjoyed reading this book, which presents a contemporary clergyman as more than a cliche and as a real person. Alice also copes well with everything that is thrown at her, in set piece meetings with various people throughout the novel, in an actual fight and the challenges set by groups of people, especially children. This is a positive story which also manages to deal with difficult moments and some of the problems of life. I recommend this book for the story, the characters and the humour, as an enjoyable and clever novel.    

I was so pleased to get my hands a copy of this book, having read the previous three books in the series. Until recently it has only been available as an ebook, which I don’t read, so I was really pleased to hear from the author, via twitter, that it was coming out in paperback. In the circumstances I had to wait for the opportunity to actually get a copy, and I am so pleased that I did. I believe the final book in the series goes paperback in the next few months, so that is something to look forward to after Christmas.

All Your Little Lies by Marianne Holmes – a contemporary thriller of one person coping with layers of feeling

All Your Little Lies by Marianne Holmes 

Annie is a quiet, self contained person with secrets that even she doesn’t understand. She lives alone in a little house, has a particular attachment to her boss, Paul, and has one friend, Lauren. She has an evening when she makes a few misjudgements and everything changes for the worse. It is the evening when Chloe Hills disappears, and the search for the girl intrigues and entices, leading Annie into an excited involvement. This is a book of missing elements, of an interwoven story, of a woman who struggles with people. Other novels recently have depicted those who have a strict routine, a lonely life, but this book adds the hint of an old secret. I found it an intense read, the character of Annie which shifts and moves, full of the details of her observations of other people which continually run through the narrative. This is an absorbing book which engages the reader into the point of view of Annie, as she is continually trying to second guess what other people are thinking of her, suspecting her of, and what will happen as a result. Her sense of what she may be guilty of during the evening that Chloe disappears fills the book, and her loneliness and desperation makes this a disturbing read. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel. 

The novel begins with Annie using Paul’s keys to effect and entry to his flat. Not that she knows why she is doing it; she does not want to take anything, wreck his home or take revenge, despite his treatment of her earlier which emerges over the next few pages of the novel. She meets her friend Lauren who she is desperate to see, especially as she has few other friends . Typically Lauren can spare only a few minutes, and it is with a renewed sense of loneliness that Annie travels home. It is then that she sees a picture which immediately triggers a reaction. A twelve year old girl is missing, and Annie has the feeling that she is somehow involved. Almost inadvertently Annie turns up for a search party for the girl, meeting other people on a new basis. She struggles to say things which are appropriate, and fears she has upset  a few people, those who she desperately wants to become friendly with as an antidote to her extreme loneliness.  

This intense and significant book is a stunning read; full of the small details that build up to an in depth picture of a woman in a challenging situation. Annie is a memorable and somewhat disturbing character who has many layers to a character beyond shyness. This is a book which piles up the pressure and the tension as a thriller with real human insight. The understanding of the character is immense and powerful as it shapes the novel that we appreciate from her point of view. It is not written in her voice, but describes her so closely that it almost feels like it is telling the story. The slight distance allows another story to be inserted, completely different from what is going on in the main narrative. This is a powerful book which I recommend to anyone who is interested in how a personality can find deep trouble in a situation through many strands of confusion and more.  

The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni- nature and life intersect over an exceptional animal

The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni

Getting back to nature sounds like a good idea in this abstract, but in this novel Katie’s new appreciation for nature is complicated and costly. She discovers a fox, a very special one, and it transforms her view of what is truly important to her. She starts from a bad place, and her discoveries are not straightforward, but it makes her reassess everything. This is a lyrically written book of descriptions of an exceptional animal which breaks into the consciousness of one woman, but which reveals much about other people. This is a book of contemporary life in the city, with the disappointments of work and even married life, and the sharp contrast with life in Devon and life alone. The author identifies this as “Ecofiction” (or ecolit), a story with a strong environmental theme at its heart, and this book is a sophisticated story of one woman and her refusal to allow a rare creature to suffer despite the contemporary world. Katie is a relatable character, while those around her reveal more than would normally be expected.   I found this a fascinating and enjoyable book, with a delicate portrait of an animal on the edge of the human world. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

The book begins with Katie and her husband Ben. Once she was busy, content and ambitious in a job which she felt fulfilled in, even if the combination with her husband’s heavy workload means that they do not see much of each other. That was before. Now Katie does not work, and has become aimless, distant from Ben who is working hard. It is only when Ben discovers a cottage in Exmoor, an area that Katie remembers from her childhood, that she begins to find her sense of purpose. She discovers a white fox and her two cubs, and realises that something so precious is outside her experience, goes beyond the privations of life on her own. However, such delicacy is something impermanent, and the balance of Katie’s life follows an interesting path as she strives to keep connections. The contrast between solitude and people jars her, and she senses the danger to creatures that should not really exist. She is suspicious, she fears discovery, yet she cannot avoid or cease to revel in a small family that only she understands.

The nature of the life Katie lives with Ben is a balance of changing ideas, with things that bring them together and force them apart. Secrets and suspicions between them echo the sense of betrayal that pervades Katies fears for her life in a house that she is trying to restore, trying to make special. This is a vividly written book with passages which set out the delicate, fateful existence of wild creatures. Katie is a character with real depth, as she struggles with her empty city life, and notices the tiny details of a house suddenly abandoned. This is a skilfully constructed novel of unconventional love and discoveries of nature and life, of the motives of people and how they react to them. It succeeds because it is a careful build up of tiny details into a big picture which fits with an unexpected plot. I really enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys the interface between nature and people’s lives.  

The Deptford Girls by Patricia A McBride – the stories of a young woman during the London Blitz

The Deptford Girls by Paricia A McBride

Lily Baker is a young woman in the midst of a unique situation – the bombing of London during the Second World War. Amid a constantly changing scenery as formerly solid buildings are no longer there, this incident packed novel shows the effect of uncertainty, fear and danger have on Lily and those around her. This is the fourth book in a series featuring Lily Baxter, but I read it as a standalone and found its pace and action meant that I followed it well. Lily is in touch with women and men on the Home Front whether they are young and making discoveries about life, or older women struggling with children and other responsibilities. There are incidents which are unique to wartime, as the fighting comes near in various ways, through coping with the limitations on accommodation, to problems that would exist even in peacetime.  As Lily and her friends deal with racism, the problems of evacuees and mysterious businessmen, this is a book that maintains a fast pace of challenges for the women that Lily comes into contact with, while she has her own romantic issues. The amount of research that went into the incidents that make up the plots is amazing, as each challenge flows into another revelation or reflection. I found it a fascinating fictional account, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

As the book opens the author uses the opportunity of introducing two new workers at the depot to introduce not only characters together, but to tour the depot itself, with hints as to the nature of the work Lily and some of her friends are engaged in as part of her military service. Her friend Bronwyn is her companion in having been bombed out twice, losing everything they possessed and having to find clothes in the rest centres. They often sleep in the tube, which is not just an adventure but an uncomfortable and crowded place which does not lead to a good night’s sleep. Lily does ARP work, which leads her to understanding the risk faced by the nights filled with raids, as well as helping her to cope with some of the situations with which she is confronted. A friend joins the WVS, and helps provide food for those enduring raids and other challenges. Bronwyn drives ambulances, and has her own experiences of death and injury.  An unexpected pregnancy means an exploration of the difficulties faced by young women at the time by institutions and social services. 

This book is a fictional overview of so many of the incidents and anecdotes of the Second World War that it is quite breathtaking. Lily is a sensitive and intelligent protagonist whose involvement in the situations described is always of significance, even if she is not the person at the centre of the crisis. This is a vivid and vibrant book of fascinating people, resolutions to situations, and a sure understanding of the setting of a bomb damaged London.I enjoyed reading of Lily’s adventures in this book, and would definitely be interested in reading others.   

The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane – a contemporary thriller with a literary basis

The Peacock Room by Anna Sayburn Lane

Literature can be a dangerous thing, at least in the life of English literature lecturer Helen Oddfellow in this, her second literary appearance. In this exciting and tense novel with much to say about the exploitation of young women, William Blake’s poetry and illustrations provide the inspiration for much of the action. Not that this is a dry book of literary history; this is a contemporary thriller which goes further than “woman in peril” and maintains a fierce pace. The settings, in a university, in the streets where Blake lived, in well known museums and libraries, tries to evoke not only the contemporary danger to various people, but also give a glimpse of the artist and his contemporaries. This is a fast moving book full of incident and interest, informative about Blake and others, and condemning how certain men have a negative concept of women. I found the writing vivid and engaging, and Helen a very human protagonist who has doubts and feels emotions as well as trying to solve mysteries. The way this story builds up, but with plenty of incidents en route, is so well constructed as to be difficult to put down. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book.

The Prologue sets an important theme of the book; a man preparing by practicing with a gun, his thoughts depicted as determined and aggressive. Helen is shown in the first chapter as waking alone, contacted by a friend Nick, and suggesting that they meet in Crispin’s flat, an older man who welcomes visitors. As he reveals disturbing drawings, Nick mentions Rintrah, one of Blake’s subjects who is a disturbing influence. He points out that one of the most knowledgeable people of the subject is Professor Pentrarch Greenwood, a person Helen has to encounter as she has to take over his tutor group for a while. Not that she is keen on this assignment, as her knowledge of Blake is limited. She calls on a Blake expert, Barbara, to recommend books and things she must quickly absorb in order to teach effectively. Helen soon discovers that it is not so much the volume of knowledge that she possesses about Blake which is important, as much as her relationship with the five students in the group, who seem to be curiously vulnerable or brashly self confident. The various characters in the novel interact and discover more about what is truly going on in a series of events which tests everyone. 

This is a novel which, like its predecessor “Unlawful Things”, combines literary investigation with tense action and drama. I enjoy the setting of the various events in this novel, even though some of the situations are disturbing. The characters are memorable in their reality and their emotions as well as their sudden bursts of understanding. Helen is an excellent main protagonist as she struggles with her own guilt, sadness and regret, but she is also inspired, brave and clever and dealing with the extraordinary situation she finds herself in throughout this novel. It is difficult to review a thriller without giving too much away , but I recommend this book as an extremely well written novel with many layers of interest.

I really enjoyed this book, and learnt a lot about William Blake and his contemporaries, just as I learnt a lot about Christopher Marlowe from this author’s first book. It is certainly a great way to learnt literary history!