Review: Before I Saw You by Emily Houghton

Title: Before I Saw You

Author: Emily Houghton

Published: 4th February 2021, Bantam Press

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Bantam Press/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

Before I Saw You is a winsome contemporary novel from debut author Emily Houghton

Badly burned in a fire and deeply traumatised, Alice Gunnersley, can’t even bear to look at herself, and has refused to speak since she woke. Moved into a rehabilitation ward, she insists the curtain around her bed remain closed at all times, but that wont stop Alfie Mack from getting to know the girl in the bed next door. Alfie has been in St Francis’s Hospital for months, recuperating after his leg was amputated due to a car accident. He rarely stops talking, determined to keep both his own, and his fellow ward mates spirits high, and he’s sure if he asks enough questions, Alice will eventually answer.

Told from the alternating points of view of Alice and Alfie, this is very much a character driven story primarily taking place in the one location. It’s focus is on the connection that slowly forms between the two protagonists, both of whom have experienced life changing events but are very different personalities, and therefore have very different approaches to coping. Alice, a workaholic with no family to speak of and only one close friend who has relocated to Australia, used to being alone, has withdrawn further into herself. Alfie, a passionate teacher with loving parents and a large group of friends tries to remain positive by using humour and focusing on the needs of others, despite his private grief and pain.

As their first tentative conversation progresses to a late night sharing of secrets, It’s no surprise that deeper feelings develops between them. That neither know what the other looks like adds a layer of interest to the attraction, particularly since they are both physically scarred, and worried about the reaction of others to their injuries.

I thought Houghton was sensitive to the trauma her protagonists have, and continue to experience. She doesn’t minimise their darker emotions, but neither does she dwell in them, at least until the last 20% or so where the story gets quite bogged down in the self pity of both characters – honest perhaps, but dull reading particularly when whatever sense of anticipation you may have is poorly rewarded if you are expecting a traditional romantic HEA ending.

Though I thought there was a misstep or two with regards to the plot, Houghton’s skilful portrayal of character and emotions in particular meant I found Before I Saw You to be a moving and engaging read.

+++++++

Available from Penguin UK

Or from your preferred retailer via HiveUK I Book Depository I Booko I Indiebound

Review: Adult Virgins Anonymous by Amber Crewe

Title: Adult Virgins Anonymous

Author: Amber Crewe

Published: 21st January 2021, Coronet

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Hodder & StaughtonUK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

In looking for a light read for the month of January, Adult Virgins Anonymous by Amber Crewe garnered my attention because of its eye catching title and unusual premise. Billed as a romantic comedy, Kate and Freddie, both in their late twenties, meet at a support group for adult virgins.

This wasn’t quite the light hearted romp I was expecting though. When the book opens, Kate is on the verge of a depressive episode. Her career has stalled, her friends seem to have moved on and left her behind, and she has no choice other than to move back in with her parents. Meanwhile Freddie, who has a clinical history of anxiety and OCD, is tired of feeling misunderstood and alone. Both are virgins not through choice per se, but because of a lack of opportunity, and both feel it is a burden that contributes to their single status.

Cue the fortuitous discovery of a support group, where they learn they aren’t the only adult virgins in London. Hosted by a person who identifies as nonbinary, the group includes a diverse range of members who for varying reasons are also virgins. They are an appealing bunch, and Crewe takes care to flesh these characters out, even though they play a reasonably minor role in the story as individuals. The group though is the stage that allows for thoughtful discussion about the nature of desire, sex, sexuality, love, insecurity, loneliness and personal happiness.

Inevitably Kate and Freddie decide that having sex with each other is a good idea, an opportunity to get ‘it’ over with, with no strings, but predictably the pair catch feelings for each other they are too afraid to admit to. It’s a cute take on the friends to lovers trope though the repetitive cycle of angst before they confess does get a little tiring.

Crewe’s characterisation is impressive, and I thought she wrote sensitively in regards to the various issues explored in the novel, including on the subjects of adult virginity, OCD and self esteem. What I thought was uneven with regards to the story was the balance between the comic and serious elements, and the pacing.

While Adult Virgins Anonymous wasn’t quite the romantic comedy I was anticipating I thought it offered some unique detail, and enjoyed reading it.

+++++++

Available from Hodder & Staughton

Or from your preferred retailer via HiveUK I Book Depository I Booko

Review: The Lost Boys by Faye Kellerman

 

 

Title: The Lost Boys {Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus #26}

Author: Faye Kellerman

Published: 17th January 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy William Morrow

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My Thoughts:

I thought I’d missed no more than a handful of the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series but this is Kellerman’s 26th book featuring the couple and I’ve only read just over half, the last of which was book #22, Murder 101. Thankfully however this seems to matter little, aided in part because Kellerman ages her characters in real time.

In The Lost Boys, Decker and his partner Tyler are called in when a man disappears while on a field trip with a group from a local care home. In searching the woods nearby, a body is found in a shallow grave, but this man has lain there for at least a decade.

With his customary doggedness, Decker attacks both investigations. The missing man is his initial priority, with growing concerns that he has been targeted by because of his parent’s wealth. When blood is found at the home of a nurse that may be connected, Decker fears the worst, but despite his best efforts the case soon stalls. Unexpectedly Kellerman employs a cliffhanger of sorts in this instance, though the missing man is eventually located, the circumstance spawns another mystery.

In the second investigation, the remains prove to belong to one of three young college men who disappeared while on a camping trip. The damage to his skeleton suggests that he had been shot, and Decker wonders if he is looking for the bodies of his two companions, or if the two men may have killed the third and gone on the run. Investigating a ten year old cold case is a difficult task, but thorough police work results in an important break. In general I liked how this case played out, however one flaw I had difficulty overlooking was an emphasis on a shovel being out of place on a camping trip. Perhaps Faye has never been camping because I wouldn’t consider it at all strange that campers have a shovel, a digging implement is essential when there are no bathrooms.

While Decker is busy with police work, Rina is offering moral support to their foster son, Gabe whose biological mother has suddenly returned to the States with Gabe’s half siblings. It’s clear Terry is in trouble and Gabe is torn when she asks for his help, but it seems inevitable he will be drawn into the mess she has got herself into.

With this, and the unanswered questions of the first investigation, Kellerman has laid the foundation the next book in the series, though I think it’s clear that it’s end is creeping closer. Peter is seventy or thereabouts and is making plans for his retirement from the force, but there are hints, I think, that Tyler could take up the mantle.

Kellerman offers up two well paced, and involving mysteries in The Lost Boys, but as a fan it’s the opportunity to catch up with Peter, Rina and their family that I enjoy the most.

++++++

Available from William Morrow Books

Or from your preferred retailer via Indiebound I Book Depository I Booko

Review: We Thought We Knew You by M. William Phelps

 


Title: We Thought We Knew You: A Terrifying True Story of Secrets, Betrayal, Deception, and Murder

Author: M. William Phelps

Published: 29th December 2020, Kensington Books

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Kensington/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

*WARNING : contains mild spoilers*

I’m not sure what drew me to request We Thought We Knew You to read, other than it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight true crime focusing on a single case, and the author, M. William Phelps, has been recommended to me previously. Until I read the synopsis, I had never heard of this particular case and knew nothing of the details, or the outcome.

In July of 2015 Mary Yoder, a beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and successful chiropractor in the state of New York, was rushed to hospital after experiencing the sudden onset of severe stomach pains, nausea and breathing difficulties. Despite all attempts to treat her symptoms, Mary’s condition continued to deteriorate, and less than twenty-four hours after falling ill, she was dead. Stunned, her family requested an autopsy be performed, and were shocked to soon learn not only was Mary poisoned by a deadly toxin, Colchicine, but there is suspicion it was deliberately administered.

Drawing on personal interviews, legal documents, and public records, award winning investigative journalist, author, and media presenter William M. Phelps presents a coherent and concise exploration of the life of Mary Yoder, the investigation into her death, and the subsequent trial that saw a young woman, the on-and-off-again girlfriend of Mary’s son and office manager of the family Chiropractor practice, convicted of manslaughter.

I found this to a very readable account of a tragic crime. I appreciate that Phelps does his best to ensure that Mary, by all accounts a warm, vivacious, intelligent and caring lady, is not merely a victim, but a person whose life was as important as her manner of death. He provides adequate context to the crime, exploring the backgrounds of, and relationships between, those intimately involved. The process of the police investigation is clearly laid out, giving insight into how the police gathered evidence and narrowed in on their suspect. The court cases are related in summary, so as not to get bogged down in jargon and detail.

I’m not sure at which point Phelps became convinced of the accused’s guilt, whether it was before or during his investigation into the case but there is a lack of objectivity here that bothered me somewhat. It’s not that I disagree with his conclusions, the evidence presented, presuming it’s accuracy, leaves me in no doubt that Kaitlyn Conley intended to cause the death of Mary Yoder, and frame Adam Yoder, Mary’s son and Katie’s ex-boyfriend, for her murder in what I conclude was a twisted plan of revenge for rejecting her, but that the bias is inescapably pervasive from the first. I would have preferred that Phelps had been able to gain an interview with someone from the defence, though he states all such requests were refused. While he does discuss the rebuttals given by Conley’s supporters, there is an uncomfortable imbalance in what he is able to present.

We Thought We Knew You is a sad tale of a toxic relationship, obsession, betrayal, and murder. Mary Yoder died horribly, a victim of intentional poisoning, yet simply a pawn in a quest for revenge by a remorseless killer. As of this month (December 2020), Conley has launched an appeal against her conviction.

++++++

Available from Kensington Books

Or from your preferred retailer via Book Depository I Indiebound I Booko I Amazon

Review: Sunshine by Samantha C. Ross

Title: Sunshine: The Diary of a Lapdancer

Author: Samantha C. Ross

Published: 1st December 2020, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Spanning a period of about a year, Samantha C. Ross invites the reader to share her experiences as she gyrates, stumbles, and skips her way between ‘Gentleman’s’ clubs in several Australian states (with a quick, scary jaunt to Japan), in Sunshine: The Diary of a Lapdancer.

Sunshine’s journal entries are candid, funny, provocative, unapologetic, and engaging. At times it’s quite an outrageous tale of excess as Samantha AKA Sunshine tends to embrace the party lifestyle indulging in a lot of drinking, and the occasional recreational drug, but it’s also an intimate portrait of a woman, and her friends, in search of adventure, happiness and true love.

As long as it is their choice to do so, I personally don’t have any issue with someone who decides to strip for a living. While the profession is often perceived as either glamorous and easy, or tawdry and dangerous, the truth, it seems, is somewhere in the middle. Sure the money can be great, Sunshine regularly earns double, or even triple, an average weeks wage in less time, but it’s harder work and takes more skill than I imagined. It’s also a profession that seems to take a heavy toll on personal relationships.

I found the behind-the-scenes look at the profession to be interesting, from the various laws that govern the behaviour of both the women and their patrons, to the (high school-ish) hierarchy and unspoken rules that govern the change rooms and floor. In many ways a strip club is a workplace like any other, with it’s share of WorkSafe regulations, awful bosses and entitled customers, though few offices permit drinking champagne and spirits on the clock.

Providing unique insight into a lifestyle few will experience, Sunshine is an entertaining read, and may go some way to altering your perspective on the women who choose the profession.

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops by Shaun Bythell

Title: Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops

Author: Shaun Bythell

Published: 5th November 2020, Profile Books

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops is a short book, not quite 150 pages long, from Scotland’s best known bookseller Shaun Bythell, author of the popular titles The Diary of a Bookseller and Confessions of a Bookseller.

Bythell opines there are seven kinds of customers that frequent his second hand bookstore, each of which he labels with a Latin genus, and then breaks down into species. He is careful to admit these are none too generous stereotypes, generalisations that contain a core of truth but lack nuance.

His tongue in cheek taxonomy includes the Genus: Peritus Species: Homo Odiosus capable of lengthy lectures on subjects he (often wrongly) believes he is an expert in, and which tend to offend; the Genus: Homo qui desidet Species: Homo Qui Opera Erotica Legit (Erotica Browser) who seem to be intent on an innocuous book which is later revealed to have been ‘recovered’; and Genus: Viator non tacitus which includes Species that whistle, sniff, hum, fart, and tutter.

Bythell’s acerbic sense of humour borders on the supercilious at times, but I think anyone who has worked in retail will relate somewhat. Booklovers will hope that they fit in none of these seven categories and instead are of the rare ‘Bonus’ Genus: Cliens perfectus (Perfect Customer).

A quick easy read, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops would be a nice holiday gift for fans of Bythell, or bookstores.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$14.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia I Amazon

Review: Stuff You Should Know by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant

Title: Stuff You Should Know: An Incomplete Compendium of Mostly Interesting Things

Author: Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant with Nils Parker

Published: 24th November 2020, Hachette Australia

Status: Read December 2020 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

Like most inveterate readers, from childhood I read whatever I could lay my hands on. Not just fiction, I also read the back of cereal boxes, entire encyclopaedia volumes, trivia pursuit game cards, brochures, and my grandparents stash of Reader’s Digest magazines, among other things. This habit exposed me to a rather random selection of nonfiction topics, some of which piqued my interest more than others, and occasionally sent me ‘down a rabbit hole’, an indulgence that was considerably more difficult in the decades before the Internet (yes, I’m old). All of this preamble goes some way to explain my interest in Stuff You Should Know.

Stuff You Should Know: An Incomplete Compendium of Mostly Interesting Things originates from the popular podcast of the same name founded by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant in 2008. Admired for their enthusiasm and their sense of humour, the duo indulge their sense of curiosity delving into the weird, fascinating, delightful, or unexpected pieces of any given subject. The book contains new content, though there are often links to previous podcast episodes, so old fans and new readers alike should be satisfied.

It’s fair to say that not everyone will feel they need to know, or care, how Murphy Beds came to be, where the Scotland Yard Crime Museum is, or why Cyanide Pills are so popular among spies, but I found almost all of the random topics explored in Stuff You Should Know to be interesting (I couldn’t care less about Income Tax). Josh and Chuck explore a mix of history, psychology, cultural relevance and trivia germane to each specific subject, complemented with charts, graphs, illustrations and additional asides in a concise yet playful manner.

Whether you are a trivia buff, in need of new conversational topics, a game show hopeful (especially for The Price is Right), or just insatiably curious, Stuff You Should Know will both inform and entertain.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound

Review: Love In Lockdown by Chloe James

Title: Love in Lockdown

Author: Chloe James (a pseudonym for Fiona Woodifield)

Published: 23rd November 2020, Avon Books UK

Status: Read November 2020 courtesy AvonUK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

I selected Love In Lockdown by Chloe James on a whim, in part because I thought I’d probably be in the mood for a light romance by the end of Nonfiction November, and also because I was curious about how an author might integrate the lockdown into a novel.

Set in the UK, Love In Lockdown begins in March 2020, shortly after the British government mandates a stay at home order, where all but ‘essential’ workers are required to remain at home, except to participate in a limited period of socially distanced exercise, or purchase groceries in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic.

As the cheers and applause for the weekly ‘Clap for NHS’, honouring the sacrifices of the doctors and nurses dealing with the pandemic, die down, Jack hears the sobs of a woman on the balcony beneath him. Sophia, moved by the chorus, and emotional thinking about the risks coronavirus poses to her loved ones, is startled by a stranger’s inquiry about her well-being from the flat above her, but enjoys the ensuing chat. Told in chapters that alternate between the first person perspectives of Sophia and Jack, thus begins a slow, sweet development of a friendship leading to a romantic relationship, despite the two being unable to meet face to face.

Sophia, a teacher, is required to continue working, as is her roommate, a NHS midwife, while Jack, a bartender, is confined to his flat 24/7 due to a kidney condition which places him in a high risk category. Their evening chats, sharing snacks and drink via an improvised dumbwaiter, quickly become a regular highlight of their day, and their discussions prompt them to reach out to others in their immediate area who may be lonely, or in need of help.

The romance between Sophia and Jack is the driving element of the novel, but Love In Lockdown is also a story about family and community. James features the ways people find to connect despite the necessity of physical distance during the lockdown, shown by the regular FaceTime calls between Jack and his brother, Sophia’s sister’s Zoom wedding, and the use of WhatsApp to link the people in Sophia and Jack’s neighbourhood and set up an informal care network.

The author also explores the impact of the lockdown on diverse groups of people outside the immediate locale, like Sophia’s students and their parents, the autistic residents of a nearby boarding home, and members of Jack and Sophia’s extended family.

While the story isn’t without its flaws, Love In Lockdown is a light, escapist read that as the author hoped, reflects the positive spirit, courage, hope and love that also came out of the lockdown, despite its dire circumstances.

++++++

Available from Avon Books UK

Or from your local Amazon retailer

Review: 2020 Dictionary by Dominic Knight

Title: 2020 Dictionary: The definitive guide to the year the world turned to sh*t

Author: Dominic Knight

Published: 24th November 2020, Allen & Unwin

Read: November 2029 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Aaargh Executive summary of this book”

2020 has been an Unprecedented* year.

It started (in Australia) with Black Summer* , thanks in part to the effects of Climate Change* which our Prime Minister Morrison, Scott* vehemently denied from his penthouse suite in Hawaii*.

And then came Covid-19*.

After a brief flirtation with the idea of Herd Immunity*, Australia embraced the policy of Flattening the Curve*, except for those Covidiots* like Jones, Alan*, Evans, Pete*, Karen* and Anti-Maskers* who alternately denied the pandemic was happening at all, and/or spruiked any number of Conspiracy Theories* about its origin, spread and threat level.

First urged to observe Handwashing* and Social Distancing*, and use an Elbow Bump* to greet one another to reduce the spread, any hope of limiting the virus’s impact went out the window when some idiot (Australian Border Force*) let the Ruby Princess* dock in NSW. With talk of Lockdown*, the Panic-Buying* began, resulting in an incomprehensible drought of Toilet Paper*. While the pollies declared we were All In This Together*, they decided it was too dangerous for themselves to continue working, but insisted Essential Workers*, including doctors, nurses, teachers, bottle shop owners and Hairdressers*, did.

Shelter(ing) In Place*, Australians started a Podcast* or Baking* (until we ran out of flour), drank Delgona Coffee*, or indulged in a glass or five of Quarantini*, (but no Corona*), ate Lasagne* or Cake* that didn’t look like cake, watched Exotic, Joe* or TikTok* , all while Doomscrolling* on Twitter*. Some of us were condemned to the torture that is Homeschooling* while simultaneously being stuck in the hell that is WFH* (Working From Home) via Zoom*. Victoria, and Andrews, Daniel* aka Dictator Dan* bore the brunt of Australia’s second wave after the virus escaped from Hotel Quarantine*, and unsurprisingly the Contact Tracing App* was no use at all.

Meanwhile Arden, Jacinda* led the world in the pandemic response, Sweden* got it very wrong, and under the (absence of) leadership from Donald Trump*, the United States* became a Clusterf*ck*, beset by Murder Hornets*, and riots associated with the Black Lives Matter* movement.

The Eurovision Song Contest*, the 2020 Olympics* in Tokyo, and Rowling, J.K.*, were cancelled. We lost Boseman, Chadwick*, Bryant, Kobe* and Bader, Ruth Ginsburg*. Bezos, Jeff* got richer, so too (temporarily) did those on Jobseeker*. Parasite* won a swag of awards. Biden, Joe* became America’s new President-elect, which means Kushner, Jared* will be looking for another job soon.

In short, 2020 has largely been a Dumpster Fire*. Dominic Knight’s 2020 Dictionary will ensure you won’t forget a single detail, and will be a handy reference for the grandkids history school project a few decades from now.

Here’s hoping 2021* will be better!

All the words marked with * , and more, along with their definition can be found in the 2020 Dictionary

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Booktopia

Review: Unfollow Me by Charlotte Duckworth


Title: Unfollow Me

Author: Charlotte Duckworth

Published: 15th October 2020, Quercus UK

Status: Read October 2020 courtesy Quercus/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

“It’s what you want, after all, isn’t it? Without an audience, without people like me watching, then what are you?”

When popular mummy-vlogger, Violet Young deletes all of her social media accounts without any warning or explanation, her millions of fans are left to speculate as to the reasons why.

Unfolding primarily from the perspectives of two of Violet’s most ardent followers, Lily, and Yvonne, and Violet’s husband, Henry, Unfollow Me is a story of obsession, secrets, betrayal, deception and yearning.

Lily, a widowed single mother, is devastated by Violet’s sudden disappearance. She’s been an admirer of Violet, and the image of family perfection she projects, since the birth of her own son. Yvonne is a photographer in her 40’s, newly married and desperate to conceive, her interest in Violet has little to to do with her channel content though. Henry refuses to comment on his wife’s actions, fuelling gossip among her followers, and suspicion from Lily and Yvonne.

“Nothing about her was accidental. It was all meticulously constructed, her carefree façade, when in truth she was in control of everything the whole time.”

None of these characters however are quite who they present to be, hiding aspects of themselves from others, and even themselves. The women have a relationship to Violet marked by an uncomfortable mix of reverence, envy and resentment. Neither is Henry the perfect husband he is portrayed as in Violet’s vlog.

The plot is timely as Duckworth explores issues related to the social media influencer zeitgeist, among them the veracity of the carefully constructed facade presented by influencers; the entitled obsession and fickle nature of their fans; the perceived exploitation of minor children, the line between a public and private persona, and the culture of trolling.

“I just . . . I just lost all sense of what was appropriate.’”

I had some issues with the pacing, finding the latter half a little slow and a touch repetitive, which reduced the tension. There are some entertaining and unexpected twists, but not much in the way of excitement.

I thought Unfollow Me was an engaging read with a modern, interesting premise but not as gripping as I had hoped.

++++++

Available from Quercus UK

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I HiveUK

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