Fierce Fairytales – Nikita Gill

I’ve said it before – I’m a very lucky woman. I get to read books as part of my job and, sometimes, get offered free books by publishers (in exchange for reviews, obviously). Sometimes we are given lots of information – a detailed run-down of the plot, characters or the author – and sometimes just a short description. This book was briefly outlined as ‘feminist fairytales’ and, to be fair, I didn’t need to hear much more to make we want to read it.

9781409181590Firstly I should say that I wasn’t previously aware of the author, Nikita Gill.  She is, it appears, a big name on Instagram but I don’t really do Instagram (I run out of time frittering away hours on Twitter and Facebook – if I added another social media stream I think I’d never sleep!) so I went in blind and then was almost startled to find that the book was largely poetry.  It took me a little while to get used to it, to be honest – I quite enjoy poetry but this snuck up on me – but after a little while I began to appreciate what I was reading. Fairytales generally involve beautiful princesses, ancient castles, wicked step-mothers, fire-breathing dragons and valiant princes and evoke a feeling of a distant past: these poems and short tales are about far more modern lives. The evils these princesses have to face are body image, slut-shaming, gaslighting and patriarchy. This sounds like a big ask but these girls are being exhorted to forget being polite, pretty and pliable: we are reminded that girls can be determined, strong and downright bolshie and this is not a failure on their part. Girls can be friends with their dragons – they can be dragons – and sometimes step-mothers are driven into evil by their impossible lives. The boys aren’t forgotten either – girls are warned away from men who will try to break them and the boys themselves are encouraged to acknowledge their own feelings and not be afraid to own their weaknesses. The characters from our well-loved tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Peter Pan and Alice – all find new ways to resolve their stories: proof, if it were needed, that there can never just be one way of living.

The main message I took from these poems and stories is that girls (and boys) need to be given permission to be themselves. The ‘themselves’ they want to be – not one that society tries to force on them. I’m not sure I would suggest this book for younger children to read on their own – there is a fair amount of darkness here – but I would love to see it in the hands of mothers, giving them the incentive they need to let their girls and boys be as fierce and strong as they can. It would also be a good read for slightly older children (9+?) who have enjoyed books like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Jane

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Time is a Killer – Michel Bussi

There is a fine line between using stereotypes to denigrate or belittle people from particular countries or regions or to poke a little affectionate fun at them. Yorkshire people are among the most generous I have ever met but I still smile at the reaction of the average Yorkshireman when they realise it is raining and they need to pay 5p for a plastic carrier bag. Fiction, however, can throw up some great ‘types’ set in various regions: love stories set in Paris tend, in my experience, to be philosophical and tinged with sadness, crime novels set in Scandinavian countries are heavy on dark themes and blood-stained snow and books set in Australia will, at some point, feature extreme weather. This is not to suggest that these books are clichéd but they do play to their strengths (or rather the strengths of how people think of those regions). Michel Bussi’s crime thrillers have been set in a range of French settings (the Franco-Swiss border, Giverny, the tropical island of La Réunion) so I had high hopes for his latest – featuring the island of Corsica, a place associated (rightly or wrongly) with crime and the Mafia…

9781474606677Clotilde was 15 years old in 1989. Holidaying, as usual, in her father’s birthplace on the island of Corsica and staying at a campsite on land owned by her grandfather. She is a fairly typical girl of her age – moody, dressing all in black, writing all her thoughts and feelings down in the notebook which never leaves her side – but all normality disappears on the night when the family car goes over a cliff and Clotilde is the only survivor. In 2016, 27 years later, she returns to the island with her husband and her own fifteen-year-old daughter to try to remember the events of that summer. Her memories are sporadic, the notebook containing her thoughts and feelings was never given back to her after her stay in hospital, and the faces from the past she meets give her a variety of contrasting points of view. But then her world is turned upside down when she receives a letter which appears to be from her mother: the mother who perished all those years ago.  Her memory gradually resurfaces as she finds out more about the events of that fatal day, old enmities and romances are rekindled and Clotilde’s family are once again in terrible danger. The need for revenge is still active in Corsica.

I really enjoy Michel Bussi’s thrillers. They are atmospheric stories with very, very French settings and, so far, I’ve not yet spotted the real villain before Bussi is ready to reveal them.

Jane

Fear – Dirk Kurbjuweit

I think I’ve written before about my little problem with some psychological thrillers – namely that the ‘unreliable narrator’ is so often female, giving the impression possibly that women are less reliable than male characters. It is interesting that men, in these books, are often the victims it doesn’t sit well with me sometimes. Women as either victims or evil villains? It would be nice to see them as just, well, people… It is gratifying then to pick up a book featuring a couple which is largely focussed on the husband. In fact, the whole premise of Kurbjuweit’s novel is an exploration of how far a man will go to protect his family.

34844900Randolph Tiefenthaler, his wife Rebecca and their children seem to have a wonderful life. He is a successful architect and they have recently moved to a lovely Berlin flat. The marriage isn’t perfect, which seems more realistic than if it were, but Randolph’s main response is to sneak off alone to eat in a variety of high-class restaurants. This is a life which could plod along but which is turned upside down by the actions of their downstairs neighbour. Dieter Tiberius is an unemployed loner who become obsessed with Rebecca, sending her love letters and poems. When these overtures are ignored he becomes more dangerous – not with physical threats but with accusations of child abuse against both parents. This story is interspersed with that of Randolph’s early life – a childhood in Cold-War Germany with a father whose only interest seemed to be in protecting his family. By collecting guns.

We tend to associate this kind of gun-centred psychology with America but the Cold War background makes it totally believable – East Germany and the rest of the Communist Bloc is, after all, on their doorstep – but it still made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Randolph feels pretty much the same way – hating the time spent with his father at the shooting range, fearing that one day his father could turn one of his many weapons on his family – but, when Dieter Tiberius threatens his family, he begins to understand his own father’s fears. This book is an interesting twist on psychological thrillers – a little bit more literary, perhaps, and which made me think about issues of class and gun-ownership. The author has had a number of novels published in Germany but this is the first to be translated and released here – I shall watch with interest for any others which may follow.

Jane

How to Eat Better – James Wong

Next to books I guess I like food best. There are a lot of foodstuffs I’m not keen on – tripe isn’t going to happen and I don’t see the point of sweetcorn – but on the whole I enjoy my food. As a younger woman I seemed to be able to eat and drink as I pleased without making much difference to my weight or size but time (and probably hormones) have put paid to that. These days I try to eat more healthily (and sustainably), with lots of fruit and veg and take more exercise – let’s face it, I need to live as long as I can because authors just keep on writing books I need to read. So, when I was at an Orion publishing do earlier this year – meeting authors, eating canapes of possible healthiness and sipping the odd glass of mineral water* – I did grab quite eagerly at the new book by James Wong.

eat betterThis isn’t a book about faddy diets, self-denial or shaming anyone’s food choices. What it is about is making the healthiest choices on everyday ingredients, making little improvements and being better informed on the facts about health. Some of it I was aware of – we’ve been on brown rice and wholemeal pasta for quite a while now thanks to Weight-Watchers Pro-points – but other bits were new information. Who’d have guessed that there was so much nutritional difference between a Golden Delicious and a Braeburn apple? Or that I’d unconsciously always been drawn to the healthier variety? There are plenty of interesting looking recipes – so you know what to actually do with that ultra-healthy purple-fleshed sweet potato – and beverages are not neglected. While not encouraging too much indulgence at least Wong mentions some health benefits of some wines and beers (when used in moderation of course). Again I’m slightly smug that my favoured wines (Syrah, Merlot, Pinotage…) are on the better end of the scale.

The science behind Wong’s claims is clearly explained – the man is a Kew-trained botanist so knows what he’s talking about here – and I never felt like I was being preached to. If a food is healthiest frozen or microwaved then Wong lets us know. Processed foods are not the enemy and organic isn’t necessarily healthier (or affordable for many). This is a book which is practical and realistic in trying to improve health through diet – choosing smaller mushrooms and redder peppers isn’t going to make me live forever but it can help me be just a little bit healthier, with little effort, and may even save me a few pennies. Win win I think!

Jane

*Okay, I lied about the mineral water but I’m sure they were serving a nice, polyphenol-charged, Merlot…

Don’t Let Go – Michel Bussi (translated by Sam Taylor)

I’ve got pretty simple tastes in tv most of the time*. I can take or leave reality shows, talent shows or real-life medical stuff. I’ll watch some sport and soaps (but if I miss them I’m not that bothered) but will almost always enjoy stuff on science, history and gardening. And then there are the programmes I really enjoy and will happily watch over and over again – Big Bang Theory and really cheesy detective shows. Not intellectual police dramas – I’ve watched things like Wallender but I’d rather read the books – but pure escapist cheese. The kind of series where you have one eye on the plot and the other on the lovely countryside – Midsomer Murders (known as ‘Murder Most reassuring’ in our house) or Death in Paradise (or ‘Murder Most Tropical’, inevitably). Bliss. Obviously with books I like a bit more variety (and, in my head, I can have whatever landscape I like) but sometimes these two areas overlap a touch.

9781474601788Michel Bussi’s previous two books (in English translation) have been set in Paris (and the snow-capped Jura mountains) and Giverny but this one ranges further afield to the island of Réunion. Still part of France but also very exotic to those used to the mainland – and certainly not immune to the ravages of drugs, revenge and murder. This was certainly less pre-watershed friendly than Death in Paradise and the darker side of life on a tropical paradise (built on slavery and colonialism…) is brought vividly to life. A couple and their young daughter are, it seems, enjoying their stay on Réunion until the wife, Liane Bellion, disappears from their hotel room. At first it seems to be a classic ‘locked-room’ mystery but soon evidence seems to point to Liane’s husband Martial – he goes on the run with his young daughter: the actions, it would seem, of a guilty man.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple – Martial has a secret to hide but we gradually come to realise that murder is probably not in his repertoire. It is quite refreshing not to be working through the usual psychological thriller routine of an unreliable narrator – we see the story from the point of view of Martial, Liane and their daughter but also from that of two police officers involved in the case. These varied voices show us the truth about not only Liane’s disappearance and Martial’s past but also about life of the island – the relationships between the varied ethnic groups and the undercurrents of racism, poverty and violence which tourists rarely see.

If you enjoy crime fiction with a side order of exotic scenery, a convoluted plot and interesting characters then give this (and Bussi’s other books) a try. Any urge to drink rum while reading is your own problem…..

Jane

*I’m also, possibly, the last person left who watches about 95% of their tv in real time. If I’m not home to watch it I probably never will – I’ve too many books to read to be doing with catch-up….

Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch

The late (and very much lamented) Douglas Adams had this to say about deadlines: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. When said deadlines loomed it is alleged that his publisher would lock him into hotel rooms in an effort to get the book finished on time. I don’t know how true this is but it may be a tactic which Ben Aaronovitch’s publishers may want to consider since this, the sixth book in the Rivers of London series, has been promised for the best part of a year as far as I can see. In fact when we were told the publication date had been set for 3rd November there was an awful lot of scepticism. When I mentioned on Twitter that the date had been confirmed (and I had an e-proof from Netgalley to prove it) there was probably an equal amount of doubt and over-excited squeeing. The customers who have been in so far to actually collect their copies have generally shown a curious mixture of disbelief and elation. And I’m fairly certain that when they have read the latest outing of P.C. Peter Grant and his colleagues in that branch of the Met which investigates ‘weird b*llocks’ they will forgive Ben Aaronovitch for the delay.

9780575132559The Hanging Tree has everything that you would expect from the series. Peter Grant does lots of the leg work for his boss, Nightingale, while also trying to compile a proper Operations Manual for the Falcon department. He is given back-up by Guleed, a kick-ass female, hijab-wearing DC, and tolerated by the rest of the force. Mostly because he deals with stuff so they don’t have to. There is plot aplenty – involving rich teens getting mixed up with drugs, collapsing buildings, mysterious shell companies who own some eye-wateringly pricey London real estate and general peril – but I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say there are a lot of familiar characters (the personifications of the Rivers of London themselves are still my favourites) and villains. The Faceless Man shows up (or rather doesn’t) as does Lesley May, Peter’s ex-colleague turned baddie, and there are interesting new faces who, I hope, we will see again in future novels.

I enjoyed the wit and pace of this book – as always they are like a normal police procedural story with added magic, humour and weirdness – and I really like Peter Grant as a character. Little comment is made about his race (and as a whole race is only mentioned to describe white characters – an interesting twist on how these things usually happen) but we do see some of the difficulties he faces. Much is made of the way that London itself plays a major role in this series but I am particularly struck by the way that the books reflect the city’s generally accepting attitude to diversity.

Jane

How To Find Love in a Bookshop – Veronica Henry

The idea of using books as a therapeutic tool is not new. Bibliotherapy was first heard of in 1916 but I’m sure people have been turning to favourite stories, poems and songs for help in times of emotional stress for much longer than that. Whenever a customer asks me to recommend something I will tend to try to ask what they enjoy in a book (romance, adventure, terror, humour) in an effort to help match up reader and title – which is bibliotherapy of a very basic sort – and, of course, we are all aware of the calming effects of a colouring book. Because of this I have frequently been attracted by novels about booksellers and the way in which they interact with the lives of their customers – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend have all been favourites – and I think I always will be. And, of course, I find it quite hard to resist a story set in a world I feel I know so well.

love-in-a-bookshopVeronica Henry’s bookshop is based in the Cotswolds, in an idyllic little town filled with people living perfect lives. Or so it seems on the surface. Emilia returns to run Nightingale Books after the death of her beloved father but struggles financially. She has the option to sell the shop building to a local developer (who is obviously not a good man) but decides to battle on when she realises how much the shop means to the community. Along the way she finds out what her father himself meant to the people he met and what her own role is in the town. She learns a few lessons about how not to run a business and the value of listening to the best ideas of your employees. The love promised in the title is found in many forms – romantic love for people of various ages, parental affection, love for people, for places and for books. The story is just complicated enough without being too taxing and the ending satisfying. I must admit I already feel pretty much loved (by family, friends and Rob – who is contractually obliged) but it is always good to read a book which feels like a warm hug.

Jane