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Posts tagged ‘plot’

The First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom

first phone call

When the residents of a small town on Lake Michigan start receiving phone calls from the afterlife, they all become the subject of widespread attention. Is it the greatest miracle ever or a massive hoax? Sully Harding, a grief-stricken single father, is determined to find out. This is a story about the power of belief – and a page-turner that will touch your soul.

I really enjoyed reading this. Whether or not the characters in this book are really receiving phone calls from heaven (and you will have to read the book to find out, as I’m not giving it away here!), the subject matter still makes the reader probe and analyse their own beliefs and possibilities. This book explores the subjects of philosophy, religion, morality, friendship, grief, family and more. A real study in humanity.

When the phone calls start coming through, the sensation you get, like someone has poured cold water down your spine, is a true testament to Albom’s writing ability. He hits the nail on the head each time he describes the various reactions and emotions of the characters who receive phone calls from their late loved ones. He doesn’t just stick to the “how miraculous and amazing is this” angle for everyone involved – he portrays varying emotions in each of his characters and backs them up effectively with interesting back stories and paints a realistic picture of each person’s life.

Each character was easily believable and likeable, however, I do feel that because of the large number of characters in the book, it was difficult to really feel like I got to know them well. I feel like the story could have worked as well with fewer characters with more development and insight into each of their lives. However, I don’t feel like anything is taken away from the book as it is. I just love getting to know characters really well in a book, and I felt like sometimes there wasn’t enough time to go into each person’s story enough for them to really feel familiar to me by the end of the book.

Mitch Albom manages to maintain a good rhythm within the narrative and I didn’t feel bored or as though I wanted to walk away from the story. By about half way through, I was desperate for answers. This can surely only be proof that Albom has achieved what he set out to do with this wonderful story. While the book is set in a small fictional town in America, it is accessible enough for an English foreigner like myself to feel at home within the pages. Each character, family, community within the story is easy to relate to – they are not too far removed to stir some kind of emotion within me.

While I have read books that are likely to stick in my mind longer than this one, I would urge anyone to read it. I really enjoyed it, and ultimately, that’s what all authors should aim for when writing great reads such as this one.

The White Shepherd by Annie Dalton and Maria Dalton

I would like to thank the publisher Severn House for the review copy of this book.

 

My copy - on my very battered kindle!

My copy – on my very battered kindle!

When I first heard about this upcoming book, I was incredibly excited about getting my hands on it. I am a lifelong fan of Annie; she is the one writer who made me so passionate about literature and publishing that I actually became a publishing professional myself (currently working for an academic publisher in a job I love.) Throughout my childhood I was in love with Annie’s Angels Unlimited Series – they stuck with me for a long time, and for this reason I really wanted to read this. As a child I read her children’s novels, and now as an adult I have read her adult novel and it’s really made me feel like I have grown up alongside her literature. And the best part of all? She’s just as good an adult fiction writer as children’s fiction writer. What’s even better? Her daughter Maria, with whom she wrote the book, is just as talented.

Now, I want to stress that I genuinely, genuinely loved and enjoyed the book. There is no bias here whatsoever. I’ve often talked to publishing professionals and authors about the need for honest reviews. Gushing about a book just because somebody has sent you a review copy is all well and fine if you’re in it just for the free copies – but that’s not my style! As anyone can see from my book review blog, if there’s something I don’t like about a book, or indeed a whole book I don’t enjoy, I will come right out and say it. As the author Matt Haig stated in a recent book event, there is not enough criticism in book review blogging right now. People are trying to please authors, rather than being honest about the quality of the work. And I agree 100%.

First in the brand-new Anna Hopkins dog walking mystery series: an intriguing new departure for award-winning YA writer Annie Dalton. It is Anna Hopkins’ daily walk through Oxford’s picturesque. Port Meadow is rudely interrupted one autumn morning when her white German Shepherd, Bonnie, unearths a blood soaked body in the undergrowth. For Anna it’s a double shock: she’d met the victim previously. Naomi Evans was a professional researcher who had told Anna she was working on a book about a famous Welsh poet, and who offered to help Anna trace Bonnie’s original owner. From her conversations with Naomi, Anna is convinced that she was not the random victim of a psychopathic serial killer, as the police believe. She was targeted because of what she knew. With the official investigation heading in the wrong direction entirely, Anna teams up with fellow dog walkers Isadora Salzman and Tansy Lavelle to discover the truth.

All this means in this case is that this proves that Annie is genuinely a great writer in a number of genres. The story is carried along at a good pace and I didn’t find myself getting bored or side-tracked at any point, which personally I feel is essential in a murder mystery novel. There is a fantastic twist at the end and nothing is too obvious or easy to predict.

Also crucial to a good novel for me are believable characters. Annie’s characters are three-dimensional, believable, and they each develop and grow throughout the novel in ways that a lot of characters in other books don’t. The main protagonist Anna is a troubled and introverted young woman, haunted by the tragic events in her past. She suffers from social anxiety as a result, and is all but a recluse. Ironically, it is the occurrence of another tragic event that brings her out of her shell and results in a new-found social life, when it was a tragedy which originally robbed her of it. It proves that she has become much stronger emotionally as she has gotten older. But it also says a lot about the people she surrounds herself with – more of Annie’s and Maria’s colourful and skilfully crafted characters.

Jake, the American ex-soldier who was the previous owner of Anna’s White Shepherd dog Bonnie, is one of the characters most able to help Anna find and remember herself and who she was before the events of her past which scarred her mentally and physically. The interplay between Anna and Jake shows how skilled Annie Dalton is at crafting a complicated but effective relationship on the page. Anna finds herself becoming more animated and enthusiastic about life when she is around Jake:

“‘Catte Street?’ he said, glancing back at the sign. ‘That’s not named after actual cats?’
‘No, it really is!’ she said, catching his enthusiasm, ‘because I happen to know that at one point they changed the name from Kattestreete to Mousecatchers’ Lane!’”

An additional character who is also essential in helping Anna keep sane is her grandfather. She nurtures and looks after him to such a touching degree that it’s obvious that this is a part of a subconscious need on Anna’s part to protect those she still has around her. Anna may shy from social situations and find communicating with people difficult, but she hasn’t lost love or the warmth of who she once was. Her deep affection for the immensely lovable Bonnie, her White Shepherd dog who plays an integral role in the book, also reflects this. Bonnie becomes her rock and Annie pulls off the writer’s ultimate goal perfectly – making the reader fall in love with a central character. Along with these there are of course Anna’s new-found friends Isadora and Tansy, so utterly different to her but who compliment her perfectly.

I find that a lot of murder mystery novels, especially those that try too hard to be flat-out bleak and grim in order to achieve a certain pathetic fallacy, are often lacking in richness and depth. This wasn’t so with The White Shepherd. Annie has a beautiful way with words and paints Anna’s world and her home life as a place of total beauty. Annie’s love of nature shines through the book and makes the reader want to step into that world – even if it’s a world often tinged with sadness and pain. Her writing stimulates the senses, as though you’re almost in the book itself.

 

“At the top of a steep hill, the breathtaking view of the valley below stopped them in their tracks. Sandstone cottages were dotted about here and there. In one of the gardens a man was tending a bonfire. Anna could hear the snap of burning wood mixed with the cawing of rooks above their heads. They hadn’t seen a single car since they’d started walking.”

The beauty of passages such as these make for an effective and brutal contrast when the menace and foreboding of a murder mystery is introduced alongside it. It serves to make the unpleasant and grim parts of the novel all the more satisfying, entertaining and gripping.

The novel has a very strong plot, rich in detail and very cleverly done. It is difficult to know what has happened – it truly is a murder mystery.

In all, this is a richly woven tale full of everything that a reader could want – intrigue, mystery, love, sadness, happiness, lovable and believable characters, a strong plot, an unpredictable twist, and most of all, very talented writing. I adored this book, and I urge you read it.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book. Such a quick, heart-warming read. It’s one of those books that makes you sad that it’s ended. I glided through the book like a hot knife through butter: it was so easy to read and so entertaining, I devoured it in a couple of days.

At first sight, Ove is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He thinks himself surrounded by idiots – joggers, neighbours who can’t reverse a trailer properly and shop assistants who talk in code.

But isn’t it rare, these days, to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed? Such unswerving conviction about what the world should be, and a lifelong dedication to making it just so?

In the end, you will see, there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible…

“Irresistible” is definitely correct. Ove’s grumpiness is irresistibly funny. Everybody has met an Ove, or has an Ove, in their lives. If you’ve ever worked in retail like I have, you almost certainly have come across one of Ove’s contemporaries. But this book gives such a refreshing angle on the subject. Yes, he’s grumpy. Yes, he has a temper and gets aggressive. But why? What has made him this way? What exactly is it that he has against the world?

He knew very well that some people thought he was nothing but a grumpy old sod without any faith in people. But, to put it bluntly, that was because people had never given him reason to see it another way.

Because a time comes in all men’s lives when they decide what sort of men they’re going to be: the kind that lets other people walk all over them, or not.

This book will probably make you think again about anyone you’ve come across and thought, “What have I ever done to them to make them so grumpy?” A Man Called Ove asks the question: “What has the world done to them to make them so grumpy?” People are products of their environment and their pasts. Ove is an example of this. At the beginning of the book, I’d quite happily have given him a slap. At the end of the book, all I wanted to do was hug the ‘grumpy old sod’ and tell him everything is going to be OK.

The book is full of wonderful and funny characters – Jimmy, the overweight neighbour with a meaningful history intertwined with Ove’s, the family next door who take an unlikely shine to him; the young gay (or “bent”, as Ove so unashamedly describes him) teenager who Ove takes in and protects; the nasty and abusive young woman in high heels who terrorises Ove’s cat, and of course the cat itself, which Ove sees as a massive burden. The next-door neighbours Rune and Anita who are both his best friends and worst enemies, depending on what year it is. There is also of course Ove’s wife Sonja, and the way the narrative takes you on the journey of their marriage is unbelievably touching and sweet.

The book gives an indication as to why the people in Ove’s life overlook his moodiness, and gives us a glimpse of the loveable man underneath the frown. For example, his wife Sonja sees a different side to him:

But to Sonja, Ove was never dour and awkward and sharp-edged. To her, he was the slightly dishevelled pink flowers at their first dinner. He was his father’s slightly too tight-fighting brown suit across his broad, sad shoulders. He believed so strongly in things: justice and fair play and hard work and a world where right just had to be right. Not so one could get a medal or a diploma or a slap on the back for it, but just because that was how it was supposed to be. Not many men of his kind were made any more, Sonja had understood.

Ove is a moral character – he believes in right and wrong, in working hard, in following rules, and not expecting too much or acting above one’s station. There is no room for compromise in his eyes. And today’s society is a disgrace. People don’t want to work any more. People don’t know how to look after themselves any more. He’s had to fend for himself and learn most things from scratch to get by. How can people nowadays be so idle and so incapable of understanding black and white and right and wrong?

Ultimately, Ove is grumpy because of what is done to him. The world and its toughness and harshness shapes Ove into what he is. I won’t go into what happens to him in his life, as that would be a major spoiler. What I can tell you is that the story of his life is hilarious, sweet, tragic, heart-breaking, angering, touching. The story of his life, as so fantastically narrated by Fredrik Backman, justifies the grumpy-old-sodness that is Ove. And it makes the reader understand him and love him. Many of us have faced what Ove’s had to face at some point, but events have different effects on different people.

But everywhere, sooner or later, he was stopped by men in white shirts and strict, smug expressions on their faces. And one couldn’t fight them. Not only did they have the state on their side, they were the state. 

The book is light on plot but heavy in character development, and it’s a perfect balance here. Some books need a very strong plot line to work, but I don’t think A Man Called Ove suffers because of this at all. It is funny and really tugs at your heartstrings. Ove and his neighbours are some of my favourite characters that I’ve read to date. I would recommend this book to absolutely anyone.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Leave a comment in the box below!

Catching The Sun by Tony Parsons

I’ve heard a lot about Tony Parsons, and always meant to read one of his books. I spotted this while shopping recently and thought I’d give it a try!

Lovely cover image.

Lovely cover image.

One young family goes in search of their dreams.

The Finn family – Tom, Tess and twins Rory and Keeva – leave broken Britain in search of a better life. Their destination is Hat Nai Yang beach, stretched along the south coast of Phuket, Thailand: an island paradise where the children swim with elephants, the gibbons sing love songs in the rainforest, the sea is like turquiose glass and a young family is free to grow.

But paradise has a heart of darkness and disasters made by man and nature conspire to shatter the tropical idyll – and threaten to tear their family apart.

In a time of political tension and growing dissatisfaction with the state of Britain, it’s very easy for the reader to sympathise with Tom and his family for wishing to escape a country that they feel let down by and find “paradise” elsewhere. But that’s exactly the problem, and the main theme that runs throughout this book.

For while the detailed and effective writing technique of Tony Parsons offers a stark contrast between the apparent ‘broken’ Britain and the stunning landscape of Thailand, it also highlights the unwelcome truth: nowhere is perfect. Not even the beautiful island of Phuket. You leave a country with one set of problems behind, but you can never go anywhere without encountering another. It’s a case of choosing between the lesser of two evils, a choice that will eventually come to Tom and his family.

Tom is a likeable character: hard-working, honest, decent, and loving, his actions are driven by a desire to do the best for his family. His drive to do what’s right for them and protect them is apparent in everything he does:

somebody was howling with fear and rage and after a numb second, I realised that it was me.

But it was all right.

Because they were only fighting for all that stuff they had piled up in the back garden, while I was fighting for the woman and the two children upstairs.

Tess is a typical (and perhaps for this reason, a little unoriginal) loyal and head-strong woman who shows unwavering love, support and understanding towards everyone in her life. Again, likeable and relatable.  After a huge natural disaster threatens the lives of many people on the island, she spends her days on the beach giving out free bottles of water to passers-by, and continues to do this despite having to sit for hours in the boiling sun. Keeva, their daughter, is a sweet girl who understandably misses her friends and life back home, but soon settles in to her new life. Perhaps it is only Rory, Keeva’s twin brother, who really stands out as a character.

Rory is not instantly likeable, but I did feel drawn to him. He is complicated, and flawed. He cries often and easily, and is much weaker emotionally than his sister. He has an innate love and understanding for all animals, and is incredibly bright for his age. He is not a perfect character, but for this reason, he is far more interesting. Everything is very black and white for him; he is still at that stage in life where there are no moral grey areas.

‘That bad boy,’ he said. ‘He’s so bad. He’ll get punished for being so bad.’

Maybe he’s not really bad,’ Tess said. ‘Maybe he’s just trying to feed his family.’

They get it in the end,’ said Rory.

I think at first, the book works to portray the concept of moving from Britain to Thailand in much the same, simplistic, right-and-wrong manner. Britain is bad, grey, tainted. Britain has let the family down. Thailand is gorgeous and sunny, a land of freedom and hope and a simpler, more holistic way of life.

This was a great country,’ I said. ‘Look at it now. The crime, the grime. The lack of respect. The lack of fear. The wicked walk free and the innocent suffer. Defend your home, protect your family – the most natural things in the world – and they treat you like a villain.’

And I felt that for all the similarities that Farren saw between the British and the Thais, they had things that we did not. They were better at showing love to each other.

As we move further into the book, however, we begin to see how life on the island affects the residents and perhaps, more importantly, how the residents affect the island. Prostitution is rife in Phuket. Businessmen take advantage of young women in bars and night life is far from pure. Of course in this book you get your stock bad characters such as Farren, the man who persuades Tom to move out to Thailand and routinely exploits working and residential laws in order to line his own pockets. However, there are also characters like Jesse, a man who works for Farren but slowly realises the error of his ways and behaviour. He rescues a gibbon which has been captured and forced to perform in bars, often being mistreated and maimed. This begins to open his eyes to the evil and corruption that takes place on the island – which is every bit as evil as anything that they’ve encountered in Britain.

‘I keep thinking that some lightning bolt is going to strike us,’ Jesse said. ‘To punish us for the way we live here. For the lies we tell. For the rules we break. For the things we do.’

The book is rich in interesting characters, far more than I have time to sit to discuss in detail. Each play their own part in shaping the Finn family’s new lives and surroundings. However, it is ultimately down to the Finn family to evaluate their new home and how their lives were before, and find the right place in which they can live happily. I won’t give away how the book ends. That’s for you to find out yourselves.

I definitely enjoyed the book, it was well-written, engaging, and had some good themes. Worth a shot and a fun, thoughtful, emotional read. However, I must admit that, especially compared to what I’ve read recently, it was a little bit forgettable in terms of plot. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago and I struggled a little remembering the story whilst writing up this review (good job I take notes while reading!) I guess it just didn’t get me in the gut like some of the others.

It’s a good book, but not outstanding in my opinion. However, it may well be in yours!

Have you read the book? Please discuss with me in the comments below!

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