Review: The Brewer’s Tale by Karen Brooks

 

Title: The Brewer’s Tale

Author: Karen Brooks

Published: Harlequin MIRA October 2014

Status: Read from October 19 to 21, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley}

My Thoughts:

When Anneke Sheldrake’s father is lost at sea she is horrified to learn that she and her younger siblings have been left with nothing. Desperate to keep what remains of her family together, she strikes a bold bargain with her father’s employer and, armed with her late mother’s family recipes, daringly chooses to go into business as a brewer of ale. Despite being ostracised by most of her family and friends, and repeatedly harassed and intimidated by the local Abbot and his cronies whose monopoly of the ale trade is threatened, Anneke’s brew steadily wins favour amongst the community. Just as success seems within her reach, Anneke is targeted in a malicious attack that razes nearly everything she holds dear. Forced to flee for her life, Anneke is nevertheless determined to begin again and finds an unlikely ally in a London brothel owner. With courage and hard work, Anneke, taking the name Anna de Winter, slowly rebuilds her life and business, until the horrors of her past once again threaten to destroy her.

A saga of betrayal, love, tragedy, courage and triumph, The Brewer’s Tale is an ambitious historical drama by author, Karen Brooks.

Anneke is strong protagonist, with spirit and convictions uncommon for her time. Despite harrowing personal tragedy she finds the strength to rise above it and carry on, refusing to be cowed by her persecutors. Her courage, loyalty and determination are admirable qualities and ensure the reader is firmly on her side, willing her to triumph.
Anneke’s loyal cast including her sweet sister, Betje, the brash Alyson, and the dashing hero, Lord Leander Rainford, are eminently appealing. The villains, including Anneke’s spiteful cousin, a raft of spiritually corrupt monks, and her inescapable enemy are infuriating and often terrifying.

Though set in medieval England, the story begins in ‘The year of Our Lord 1405 in the sixth year of the reign of Henry IV’, I didn’t get a true sense of the period. It seemed not that much different from Georgian or Victorian times, though to be fair it mattered little as the details were consistent and the setting well grounded. I was surprised at how interested I was in the history of the brewery industry, and I finally discovered the difference between beer and ale. (I don’t drink either so had never thought about it before)

The writing is articulate and the first person perspective works well. The pacing was reasonable but I did feel the story, at well over 500 pages, was too long overall. I was tempted to skim at times, particularly as the plot was, though well thought out, generally predictable, with the second half of the story essentially mirroring the events of the first.

Nevertheless, The Brewer’s Tale was a satisfying read and I’d recommend it to readers who enjoy the drama and romance of sweeping historical fiction driven by a strong heroine.

 

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About: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

 

Title: A Sudden Light

Author: Garth Stein

Published: Simon & Schuster October 2014

When a boy tries to save his parents’ marriage, he uncovers a legacy of family secrets in a coming-of-age ghost story by the author of the internationally bestselling phenomenon, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

In the summer of 1990, fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell gets his first glimpse of Riddell House. Built from the spoils of a massive timber fortune, the legendary family mansion is constructed of giant, whole trees, and is set on a huge estate overlooking Puget Sound. Trevor’s bankrupt parents have begun a trial separation, and his father, Jones Riddell, has brought Trevor to Riddell House with a goal: to join forces with his sister, Serena, dispatch Grandpa Samuel—who is flickering in and out of dementia—to a graduated living facility, sell off the house and property for development into “tract housing for millionaires,” divide up the profits, and live happily ever after.

But Trevor soon discovers there’s someone else living in Riddell House: a ghost with an agenda of his own. For while the land holds tremendous value, it is also burdened by the final wishes of the family patriarch, Elijah, who mandated it be allowed to return to untamed forestland as a penance for the millions of trees harvested over the decades by the Riddell Timber company. The ghost will not rest until Elijah’s wish is fulfilled, and Trevor’s willingness to face the past holds the key to his family’s future.

A Sudden Light is a rich, atmospheric work that is at once a multigenerational family saga, a historical novel, a ghost story, and the story of a contemporary family’s struggle to connect with each other. A tribute to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, it reflects Garth Stein’s outsized capacity for empathy and keen understanding of human motivation, and his rare ability to see the unseen: the universal threads that connect us all.

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Review: Half the World in Winter by Maggie Joel

 

Title: Half the World in Winter

Author: Maggie Joel

Published: Allen & Unwin October 2014

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Status: Read from October 13 to 16, 2014 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

A story of tragedy, grief, and redemption, Half The World in Winter centers around Lucas Jarmyn and his family who are mourning the grisly death of nine year old Sofia. As the household struggles with the loss of their beloved daughter and sister they turn away from each other, and their home, in which Lucas forbids a fire to be set, grows ever colder.
Hundreds of miles away a train accident claims the life of a young girl. Her grief stricken father, Thomas Brinkley, demands justice from the head of the railway, Lucas Jarmyn, and when it is not immediately forthcoming, seeks revenge on the man and his family.

Half the World in Winter is an exploration of the dynamics of a family in mourning, and the impact of death and grief in a period where tragedy was common. The Jarmyn family are not only struck by the death of Sofia, they lose a nephew to the Boer War, a cook to a chicken bone, a discarded maid to vice, and are burdened by the deaths of those souls killed on the railway.

“Inside 19 Cadogan Mews time had ceased. It no longer existed, it had no meaning. A silence had fallen that no one felt willing to break. Footsteps were muffled, and commands, if they were given at all, were given in muted whispers in the hallways and corridors. doors were kept closed and before entering hands hesitated on doorknobs and deep breaths were taken. An excuse not to enter at all was often found.”

Set in England during the 1880’s, the period detail is rich and meticulous, from the minutiae of the Jarmyn’s household to the physical and social context of Victorian England. I was surprisingly interested by the workings of the Victorian railway system, and intrigued by the elaborate rituals of mourning – for middle class Britons there were strict rules to be followed after a death, determining, for example, the type and colour of fabric worn, to the depth of the border on notepaper.

“Half an inch for the first three months of mourning certainly. After that the border decreases to one-third of an inch. At six months it decreases to a quarter of an inch, then in increments of a tenth of an inch over the succeeding six months depending on the nature of the loss and one’s relationship with the deceased”

I did struggle with the sombre and often bleak timbre of the narrative and the measured pace of the novel quickened only marginally near the end. The writing however is stylish and descriptive, and the portrayal of the period is vivid.

Half The World in Winter is a genteel historical drama,  but it was a little too slow and solemn for me to really enjoy

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Review: The Cure For Dreaming by Cat Winters

 

Title: The Cure for Dreaming

Author: Cat Winters

Published: Amulet Books October 2014

Status: Read from October 16 to 17, 2014 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publisher/netgalley)

My Thoughts:

“Your future is to become a respectable housewife and mother. Women belong in the home, and inside some man’s home you’ll stay.”

Set in the year 1900, seventeen year old Olivia Mead is a bright girl dreaming of one day going to university, but in Portland, Oregon ‘respectable’ women are still expected to desire little more than becoming wives and mothers. Olivia supports the voices of the suffragettes clamouring for the right to vote, to wear bloomers when they ride their bicycles, to choose education and independence but her father, a dentist, is appalled by his daughter’s rebellious attitude and hires a young traveling hypnotist, the renowned ‘Henri Reverie’ performing in town to ‘cure’ Olivia of her ‘unfeminine’ dreams.

The Cure for Dreaming is an unusual tale combining a specific historical issue and era with a twist of the paranormal. Aimed at young adults, the plot and characters are fairly simplistic, yet it is a thought provoking read, sprinkled with an appealing mix of romance, horror, magic and mystery.

Henri modifies Olivia’s father command for his daughter to accept society’s demands of women somewhat by telling Olivia she will wake and the see the world as it truly is. Her new perspective is frightening and far from supporting her father’s world view it shows faded and caged women, men with red eyes and sharp teeth and simply makes Olivia’s belief in female emancipation even stronger. With help from a contrite Henri, Olivia eventually reclaims her voice and her dreams.

The setting is vivid and atmospheric and supported by the inclusion of half a dozen photographs from the period. For much of Winters’ young adult audience the history about the rights of women is sure to be an eye opener.

A quirky and quick read, I think The Cure For Dreaming would be a wonderful choice for any mother/daughter book club in particular.

 

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Review: Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James

 

Title: Cooper Bartholomew is Dead

Author: Rebecca James

Published: Allen & Unwin October 2014

Status: Read from October 13 to 14, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

When Cooper Bartholomew’s broken body is found at the base of a cliff his death is declared a suicide but Libby, Cooper’s girlfriend, refuses to believe him capable of it. Desperate to understand what led him to the edge, Libby retraces Cooper’s last hours, eventually unraveling a tale of betrayal, jealousy, and shocking secrets.

The story unfolds from the alternating perspectives of Cooper, Libby, Sebastian and Claire, and shifts between ‘then’, detailing the events that led up to Cooper’s death, and ‘now’, exposing its aftermath.

Though well paced, the novel lacked much of the tension I had been expecting, this is more of a psychological drama than a thriller. I found the plot fairly predictable and while the circumstances surrounding Cooper’s death, when finally revealed, are emotionally powerful, they didn’t come as a surprise to me. However, I found the narrative very compelling, due in no small part to my investment in the characters.

All four protagonists felt genuine in ways to me that other characters in the New Adult genre have rarely done, I believed in their emotion, motivation and actions. The characters have distinct voices, which is important given the structure of the narrative, and are complex individuals. The relationship dynamics are also convincingly drawn.

An engaging read about friendship, first love, loss and lies, I really enjoyed Cooper Bartholomew is Dead. This is Rebecca James’ third novel following on from Beautiful Malice and Sweet Damage.

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About: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

 

Title: Nora Webster

Author: Colm Tóibín

Published: Picador: Pan Macmillan Au October 2014

Read an Extract

Status: Read from October 11 to 12, 2014 — I own a copy  {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

I am somewhat embarrassed to be declaring this a DNF. Despite the appeal of the premise and some appreciation for Toibin’s style I found I was wholly uninterested in Nora’s grief and finally admitted defeat at the halfway point. However I did request this book for review and Nora Webster is receiving rave reviews from critics, who seem to think it will likely be nominated for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, so I wanted to share it with you.

It is the late 1960s in Ireland. Nora Webster is living in a small town, looking after her four children, trying to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. She is fiercely intelligent, at times difficult and impatient, at times kind, but she is trapped by her circumstances, and waiting for any chance which will lift her beyond them. Slowly, through the gift of music and the power of friendship, she finds a glimmer of hope and a way of starting again. As the dynamic of the family changes, she seems both fiercely self-possessed but also a figure of great moral ambiguity, making her one of the most memorable heroines in contemporary fiction. The portrait that is painted in the years that follow is harrowing, piercingly insightful, always tender and deeply true.

 

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Review: Bite Harder by Anonymous-9

 

Title: Bite Harder

Author: Anonymous-9

Published: Blasted Heath September 2014

Status: Read from September 27 to 28, 2014 — I own a copy

My Thoughts:

Bite Harder caught my attention on Just A Guy Who Likes To Read, I left a comment and a few days later the author contacted me requesting a review and I decided to give it a shot based on the premise, and Josh’s praise.

Dean Drayhart is a paraplegic amputee, having been severely injured when a hit and run driver ploughed into he and his family on a crosswalk. Drayhart’s young daughter didn’t survive, nor did his marriage, and with little left to lose, Drayhart, along with Sid, his helper monkey/assassin, and Cinda, a prostitute with a heart of gold, embarked on a vigilante spree across L.A., in Hard Bite executing hit and run drivers who thought they had gotten away with their crimes. Bite Harder is the sequel, though it works well enough as a stand alone.

It opens with Dean arrested for the murder of his last target, Ambrose Malalinda, the youngest son of a local drug-dealing crime family who mowed down a father of four. The Malalinda family have already twice attempted to exact their own revenge on Dean by first attacking the police transport during his transfer, which resulted in the death of Ambrose’s older brother Mateo, and then arranging Dean be stabbed to death in his cell. With both attempts thwarted the apoplectic Malalinda matriarch, Orella, takes matters into her own hands and arranges to hijack Dean during a manufactured medical emergency but things quickly go wrong and Dean, reunited with Cinda and looking for Sid, is on the run.

Fast paced and action packed with plenty of humour, bordering on the slapstick at times, Bite Harder is an entertaining read. The characterisation is good, Dean is a well developed protagonist, though the author is fairly reliant on stereotypes for most of the supporting cast. The writing is solid, using both a first and third point of view, but personally I would prefer character’s don’t address the reader directly, as Dean does on occasion.

A quick, aggressive and darkly funny read, I enjoyed Bite Harder, and I’m glad I gave it a shot.

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Review: Love Me or Leave Me by Claudia Carroll

 

Title: Love Me or Leave Me

Author: Claudia Carroll

Published: Avon: Harper Collins UK October 2014

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Status: Read from October 09 to 10, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the The Light Brigade/publisher}

My Thoughts:

“A divorce hotel. Where you check in married and check out single….This would be a place where two unhappy souls could quickly tie up loose ends and where something that had long been a source of acute pain to both, could gently be eased out if its misery. At least that was the general idea.”

Claudia Carroll’s 11th book, Love Me or Leave Me, is a lively romantic comedy about love, betrayal, divorce and new beginnings. Chloe Townsend is certain she has the professional experience, and personal empathy as a jilted bride, to make Dublin’s newest luxury niche hotel catering to amicably divorcing couples a success and she is determined to ensure its opening weekend will prove it. But true love, and its dissolution, never runs smooth, and with her boss hovering over her shoulder, and her ex-fiance making an appearance, the honeymoon period might be over before its even begun.

The narrative unfolds from the perspectives of Chloe, and three of the guests, Dawn, Jo and Lucy, who slowly reveal why they believe their short marriages have reached crisis point. Dawn, young and heartbroken, can’t forgive her husband, Kirk, who is embroiled in an affair; Jo, a control freak struggling with infertility, regards Dave, an often out of work actor, as irresponsible; and supermodel Lucy believes her marriage to Andrew has disintegrated due to his grown children’s sabotage. Of course none of the women are entirely blameless, and almost uniformly the men are reluctant partners in the divorce.

“There is his story, her story and then somewhere in the middle lies the truth.”

As the weekend develops, the couples are forced to confront each other and deal with their mistakes and misunderstandings. Carroll presents their issues sensitively but also with plenty of humour. There is a frisson of suspense built up as reconciliation seems possible for some of the couples, and plenty of drama, from screaming arguments to medical emergencies.

With well drawn characters, and plenty of humour and heart, Love Me or Leave Me is an engaging and entertaining novel where everyone gets their happy ever after.

 

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Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

 

Title: Dear Committee Members

Author: Julie Schumacher

Published: The Friday Project: Harper Collins UK October 2014

Status: Read from October 07 to 09, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Netgalley}

My Thoughts:

Presented wholly in epistolary form, Dear Committee Members is a short, witty novel exposing the weary cynicism of an aging college English and Creative Writing professor under siege from budget cuts, rampant bureaucracy, renovations, online forms and desperate students.

Over a year Professor Jason Fitger writes many letters, spurning the modern day convenience of email where possible, to complain about the lavish renovations occurring on the floor above him in the Economics department while the Humanties department slowly suffocates among the dust, to lobby whomever he can think of, enemy or no, to grant his favoured writing student a fiduciary break, and to recommend both past and present graduates, some of whom he has never met, for jobs they are wildly over qualified for.

Into each missive creeps increasingly brutally honest snippets of Jay’s frustrations with his stalled writing career and his disastrous love life, his contempt for university politics, and his dismay at the dwindling esteem for language and literature. Though painted as an opinionated, surly curmudgeon, it becomes obvious that Fitger is also a passionate and dedicated teacher whom wants the respect he feels his department and its denizens deserve.

Bitterly funny and surprisingly poignant, Dear Committee Members is a scathing commentary on the foibles of academic administration, and an eloquent argument for the rescue of Humanties studies.

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Review: The Night Garden by Lisa Van Allen

 

Title: The Night Garden

Author: Lisa Van Allen

Published: Ballantine: Random House October 2014

Read an Excerpt

Status: Read from October 06 to 07, 2014 — I own a copy   {Courtesy the publisher/Edelweiss}

My Thoughts:

“To visit the Pennywort farm was to be reminded of everything in the world that was beautiful and bountiful…luxurious and endlessly good.”

In upstate New York, Olivia Pennywort tends the family farm and the remarkable garden maze that she has created as a haven at its heart. It is said that the maze offers its visitors the answers to their most difficult questions, but it affords no such benefit to its caretaker who harbours a secret that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length. Over the years, Olivia has schooled herself to accept that there is no solution to her problem, but when Olivia’s childhood best friend and sweetheart, Sam Van Winkle, returns to town, her fiercest desires are rekindled and she is compelled to ask herself if the garden she has created is her protector, or her prison.

Van Allen’s prose is often lyrical, with vivid imagery of the garden and its surrounds. I could easily visualise the bordered up house, the stone walled garden of poisonous plants and the ramshackle cottage where Olivia’s father made his home, though I wish I had a better knowledge of horticulture to fully appreciate the individual design of the maze.

” As she approached the garden maze, she saw that it too had gone wild with the joy of the rains. The smell of flowers was so thick it crossed the line from pleasant into nearly repulsive. Inside, Olivia wound through the twists and turns, admiring how rambunctious and joyful her maze seemed, as if it were spring instead of late summer. Morning glories the size of dinner plates stayed open all day long, and thickened beds of coreopsis gave off a mustardly glow. There was a slight breeze that carried the faintest scent of autumn, and far beneath the sweetness, the mineral scent of winter.”

Though billed as magical realism, the magic wasn’t grounded in the way I would expect from the genre, and instead I feel the story had more in common with a modern reinterpretation of a fairytale like Sleeping Beauty. Olivia, beautiful and beloved by all, lives alone at a top of a tower, is essentially trapped in stasis, and is eventually rescued by her Prince Charming, who has to hack through wild overgrowth to save her.

The romance between Olivia and Sam, which began when they were childhood sweethearts, and is reignited on his return, is touching and soulful. I sympathised with their hopes and fears for their relationship, I believed in their yearning to be together and I could feel their frustration at not being able to have skin contact.

” And then he was threading his fingers into the mass, twisting and untwisting it in his hands. She didn’t even try to make conversation while he touched her; the sensation was too exquisite, too painful and pleasurable at the same time. He combed his fingers through her hair from top to bottom, and each time he caught a tangle it was like a little bite, a small and precise blast of desire like the spark from flint and steel.”

In terms of plot, however, the neighborly conflict seems forced and fizzles out, and though we are told the garden can offer help to those seeking answers, Van Allen never really shows this. The overall conclusion too is unrealized, almost as if Van Allen couldn’t figure out how to solve the conundrum herself, and so just hoped the reader would would accept vague assurances of ‘love conquers all’.

A tale of loss, grief, desire, love and hope, I enjoyed the story of The Night Garden.

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