Historical Fiction, Non-fiction, Review copies

Mini-reviews: Strings Attached and Bellman & Black

strings attached

Strings Attached – Joanne Lipman & Melanie Kupchynsky – 6/10

“Mr K had achieved the impossible: he had made us better than we had any right to be.”

A memoir after a fashion – Joanne and Melanie learnt violin from Melanie’s father, the fabled Mr. K. Famous as an incredibly tough but motivational teacher in their New Jersey school district. The writers alternate chapters, and it’s also partly a family memoir for Melanie, writing about her invalid mother and missing sister.

Coming from a half-musical, half-education background, I found a lot of the material about Mr K’s enthusiasm and teaching styles and musical tuition really interesting. I was less interested in the stories of growing up and school awkwardness and actually the storyline of Melanie’s missing sister (a heartbreaking story and I know why it was included, but it felt like an incongruous addition).

bellman and black

Bellman & Black – Diane Setterfield – 7/10

Another e-book that spent a year unreviewed. See a theme here? Also I should start with a note – I am not a fan of supernatural storylines. And I did really enjoy another of Setterfield’s novels, The Thirteenth Tale, though there was a strong homage tone there.

William Bellman kills a rook with a catapult at the age of 11, and for years it seems to bring him good luck. Slowly his wonderful life is eroded and he spends more and more of his time at funerals, where he always sees a ghostly stranger. The stranger has a business proposition for him…

This reminded me very much of another book, and I cannot think which one it is (I think it’s a Philippa Gregory one?), in which the women are very conscious of the circle of fortune – sometimes a family is at the top, and sometimes at the bottom.

Really well written, though like Life After Life, could have done with some of the chapters having been cut down. I wasn’t a fan of the supernatural aspect and in fact found the non-resolution of it quite frustrating. But, it didn’t bother me as much as it might have.

Current Affairs, Review copies

Old mini-reviews

Some of my reviews have been outstanding since 2012, to the point where I can’t remember very much about the books any more. So it’s time to jot down some thoughts and move on.

Also – 3 of these were NetGalley copies i.e. on the Kindle – which is how they got forgotten about for so long (and the other one I had in paperback but lent it to a friend and haven’t got it back… though I don’t really want it back). So the moral of the story is here, my friends, out of sight, out of the review chain.

little night

Little Night – Luanne Rice – 5/10

I don’t remember very much about this one at all except that it centred on domestic violence. Now that I’ve read the internet a bit to remind myself, it was more complex than that. It’s a web of family dysfunction – very pronounced characters struggling to play nicely together. It’s very New York, but apart from that nothing really stands out. Next.

last apache girl

The Last Apache Girl – Jim Fergus – 5/10

An amateur photographer signs onto the “Great Apache Expedition”, one of dozens of men hoping to free the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher kidnapped by a violent band of Apaches. A wild Apache girl is being held as counter-argument, and Ned slowly builds a relationship with her, but their relationship is doomed from the start.

Somewhat like Dances with Wolves. I don’t remember struggling to get through it, but if you’re going to read something like this, I’d stick with Dances with Wolves.

house of serenades

The House of Serenades – Lina Simoni – 6/10

Historical romance/social study set in 1910 Genoa. Romeo & Juliet after a fashion – rich girl meets poor boy, falls in love, daddy says no. Has some interesting things to say about treatment of women in that age – particularly women who we would expect to be financially independent. Don’t remember a lot about it but I did zoom through it pretty quickly – that’s always a good sign.

world without you

The World Without You – Joshua Henkin – 8/10

I actually remember really enjoying this one – it’s sentimental and tear-jerking, but in a good way. It’s the story of the family left behind when a US journalist dies in Middle Eastern conflict; how his wife struggles to interact appropriately with his grieving parents – she wants to be part of this family and give them access to their grandson, but also wants to move on. The parents are struggling in marriage and in grief. The three siblings are each fighting their own demons – including one who has embraced Orthodox Judaism and feels excluded from her family as a result. Would definitely recommend (but keep the Kleenex handy).

Comfort Reading

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns – Margaret Dilloway – 7/10

“Difficult and obstinate. Thriving under a set of specific and limited conditions. That pretty much describes me. Maybe that’s why I like these roses so much.”

care and handling

Gal has struggled all her life with a kidney failure, going to dialysis several times a week, hoping upon hope that she’ll get a transplant soon. While she waits, she teaches biology very strictly at the local Catholic high school, and cultivates roses. As an amateur breeder, she tries to create a unique new strain of the Hulthemia rose. When her niece Riley turns up unannounced, she turns Gal’s well-ordered life inside out… and breathes fresh life in.

Gal is a bit of an odd fish – but to me, a fairly understandable one. She sees everything very much in black and white, is ambitious and scientific and colours very much within the lines. She’s so keen to be considered a legitimate rose competitor, to be validated, while she copes with the devastating reality of her kidney issues. Dilloway includes in Gal the depression of a chronic illness sufferer, the logistical difficulties of dialysis and rose-tending, and the elation, jealousy and heartbreak of watching other patients on the same transplant list.

Like all these types of books (Looking for Me, SisterlandMeet Me At the Cupcake CafeLove Anthony), the writing is easy and munchable without impediment, but equally not unappetising. Extra characters are as developed as necessary (i.e. often, not very), and certain conflicts and romances are easily foretold. The drama of the kidney failure is in a sense secondary to the main suspense of the Riley-Gal relationship. 

Riley, the unexpected teenager, is the unsung heroine of this story. It would have been easy to cast the teenager as the disruption, the troublemaker, but Riley is actually a cleverly constructed character, full of surprises and gentle actions rather than trouble. She’s honest but sullen, open and secretive in turns.

Not difficult to read at all – but quite good fun.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Penguin, 397 paperback pages
Order The Care and Handling of Roses with Thornsfrom Amazon*
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The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes – Marcus Sakey – 7/10

(at least 18 months since I read this. Might be a little vague)

“‘Y cuidate lo que dices,’ Daniel replied over his shoulder, then did a double take. Huh. I know Spanish. Cool.”


Daniel wakes upon on an “apocalyptic beach, water frothing beneath a shivering sky, wind a steady howl over the shoals”, naked and with no memory of how he got there, why he’s there, or even who he is. In an attempt to resolve the mystery, he gets in the car and heads as far west as he can, piecing his life back together before it gets ripped apart again.

This sort of “forgotten identity” novel is pretty unusual and the whole plot construct was impressive. He gets back West and then ends up in a cat and mouse-with-no-memory game, no idea who he can trust, what is true, what is an illusion, what is a mis-memory. It gets very confusing as lots of people play multiple characters or there are only glimpses of them and Daniel isn’t sure who they are.

As a result, the characters don’t have to be particularly magnetic; Daniel is a dark sort of person who is driven to anger and violence by extreme circumstances. Bad guys are bad guys, the wife is a bit strange but in the end her motivations are straightforward enough. I particularly liked the older woman, Sophie, the guiding aunt figure – she’s a useful plot device and a nice person into the mix.

The emptiness of the Hollywood life is laid out pretty starkly here – less humorously than in The Lawgiver. Daniel and Laney’s relationship is sweetly captured in emails and notes – actually a funnier way to give credence to an unlikely romance. I did not see the enormous twist at the end coming at all – I couldn’t figure out what was going on for ages and then it suddenly hits you. Not sure that’s where I wanted it to end up, but it’s all slick and throws the rest of the book into the right angle to make sense of.

Interesting, unusual, massive twist at the end.

Additional information:

Copy sent by We Love This Book so long ago for review that I missed every deadline imaginable.
Publisher: Bantam Press, 388 paperback pages 
Order The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayesfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Lean In – Sheryl Sandberg – 7/10

“Then, as the years ticked by, I started seeing female friends and colleagues drop out of the workforce. Some left by choice. Others left out of frustration, pushed out the door by companies that did not allow flexibility and welcomed home by partners who weren’t doing their share of the housework and child rearing. Others remained but scaled back their ambitions to meet outsized demands. I watched as the promise my generation had for female leadership dwindled. By the time I had been at Google for a few years, I realised that the problem wasn’t going away. So even though the through still scared me, I decided it was time to stop putting head down and to start speaking out.”


Fraught topic, this one. In the interests of disclosing my personal biases: I work in what used to be, and still is at senior levels, a male-dominated professional services industry. 14% of the partners at my firm are women. I haven’t encountered much sexism at work although I’ve encountered the odd isolated incident. I’m pretty introverted and “head down and work hard” is my Plan A for anything. I’m not sure I want to lead anything (I’d much rather be y in “behind every successful x is a y”) but I’m not willing to rule it out. Oh, and I’m closely related to a bona fide glass-ceiling smasher.

Sandberg examines any number of areas where she feels that Women (I capitalise to indicate my scepticism about this kind of generalisation) are sabotaging their futures through various innate or culturally-trained personality aspects. My favourite chapter was “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” – stop turning down fantastic opportunities or actively backing away from opportunities because they might conflict with your future priorities.

The writing is at an appropriate register – approachable without being overly simplified. I can’t find any references to a ghost writer and it feels quite personally open. Sandberg digs out plenty of anecdotes (which, in my humble opinion, make any kind of non-fiction psychology/management book much more readable), a decent proportion of which would have caused me great embarrassment to have on the printed page! There is also plenty of common sense in here, some of which surprised me, some of which struck me as blindingly obvious. So lots of decent “life in business” tips for people from pretty much any background.

Somehow though, even though I read it straight through on a Friday afternoon, this is lacking something. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m not sure I have the Will To Lead of the front cover, or whether I found this, like corporate life today, fails to acknowledge that some exceptionally talented people may not want to make it to the top for prominence and recognition, but rather to leverage their talent in some other form of reward. Sandberg is so busy saying “you can do it” that there is no room for anything else. There is a deeper lesson here though, which gets lost in the bullish “you can do it” – which is the perhaps more-commonly heard “do your best”.

This is refreshingly honest, an important book to be out there, and full of helpful thoughts, but somehow not as life-changing as I thought it would be. (I thought the same of Quiet).

Additional information:

Copy bought for me by The Book Accumulator on an expensive family trip to Waterstones Piccadilly.
Publisher: WH Allen, 173 paperback pages 
Order Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Leadfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Historical Fiction

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls – Anton DiSclafani – 7/10

“But then, I knew nothing about the place except that it was where my parents were sending me so they wouldn’t have to see me.”


Thea has brought disgrace on her Florida old-money Great Depression family and is sent away for the summer to a riding camp. When it becomes clear that her stay is not just for the summer but that her parents want her permanently out of their sight, she tries to make herself more welcome in her new world, trading favours and gossip for social elevation…

Thea is an intriguing character. In some senses she is wise beyond her years, acting more adult than many of the adults around her, but still very much a teenage girl with that brutal mix of sharpness. Her odd relationship with her twin – maybe it only seems odd to me because I’m not a twin. The liaison with a far-distant cousin, who at the same time is like a brother to her, predictable and yet tragic. Her parents, considering that she spends very little time with them in the book, are also sharply captured – on the cusp of modernising while buried in their orange grove dollars. 

DiSclafani (what a great surname!) captures the fading South well; the drip-drip-drip of family money down the Depression drain while girls are packed off to finishing school. The importance attributed to decorum and the age of family money is thrown into relief against the lacking morals displayed by several characters and the spicy ambition of the girls to succeed.

In a sense I found it disappointing that the plot continues to return to Thea’s sexual adventurousness – as if there was no other aspect of her that could cause conflict (when there were plenty of other aspects). But I often find that frustrating in a novel. The inevitable decay of the old money system was much more interesting, as was the evolution of Thea’s relationship with her parents.

A much darker, more American boarding school tale than those of Enid Blyton on which I grew up. Just as addictively readable.

Additional information:

Copy sent by the publisher, Tinder Press, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Tinder Press, 389 hardback pages 
Order The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girlsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting
Comfort Reading, Fluff

House Rules – Jodi Picoult – 7/10

“Motherhood is a Sisyphean task. You finish sewing one seam shut, and another rips open. I have come to believe that this life I’m wearing will never really fit.”

house rules

Jacob has Asperger’s. His little brother Theo doesn’t. Their mother Emma is struggling to keep the three of them on the same track. When Jacob’s fascination with sleuthing makes him the prime suspect in a murder case, it all could go horribly wrong…

So the vehicle is a standard Picoult 5 door hatchback… family drama against legal proceedings, secrets being kept within the family that would really make everything a lot easier if they were out in the open. Feel free to say it’s easy-to-read writing, but it’s so moreish.

As with all of Picoult’s books, there is a particular personality/mental health aspect being explored here. I’m not in a position to say that the representation of Asperger’s, including what life is like with a son or brother who has Asperger’s, is authentic, but it is thoroughly and sympathetically conveyed. Different aspects are explored – the triggers (sensory overload, changes to routines), the outcomes (tantrums, violence, getting more difficult to manage as the person gets older), and the often-forgotten positives (helpful, sweet, funny, devoted, lives by the rules, including “look out for your brother, he’s the only one you’ve got”). 

And, as with all of Picoult’s books, there is at the heart of the book a dilemma about family life. In others of hers which I’ve enjoyed, there has been forgiveness, trying to help someone through depression, using one child to save another. Here it is Emma’s two faces – doling out advice, including parenting advice, for an agony aunt column, while feeling like she can’t manage at home any more. She can’t control her son physically. A more general question: where are all the adults with Asperger’s? In this, the father has a dash of it himself and ran away from the confronting reality of his son.

Younger brother Theo is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered to date in a Picoult novel. Resentful that his plans always get shelved because of some drama with Jacob, hormonally pubescent, feeling abandoned by his unknown father, he’s several shades darker than most side characters. I would have liked to see a few more chapters from his perspective. Our template lawyer Oliver is young, inexperienced, heart in the right place – a typical Picoult litigator. Emotional angst with the client – again standard. But sweet and funny. And critically – sympathetic to the Asperger’s angle. Somewhat like the lawyer in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (one of my favourite books).

Of course, almost in the background, there’s a murder investigation. I worked out how the “murder” had been committed, and also how the assault fitted into the picture quite early on, but the suspense became about whether Jacob would totally incriminate himself, the damage to Theo, and the ongoing economic difficulties of the Hunt family.

Another perfectly satisfactory cocktail of drama from the Picoult production line.

Additional information:

Copy borrowed from Mini-Me
Publisher: Hodder, 640 paperback pages 
Order House Rulesfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting