Book Review – Killing Time in Cambridge by Philip Cumberland

“AI is likely to be either the best or worst thing to happen to humanity”­­––Stephen Hawking

This month I interviewed local author (to me) Philip Cumberland (see here), who is also one of the coordinators and founding members of a local U3A Writing Group, Whittlesey Wordsmiths. As well as a contributing author of several anthologies written by the group, Philip has also recently published his debut novel, Killing Time in Cambridge, and this is my review.

The story opens with an axe wielding knight of old, dressed in full body armour, clanking down the corridor of a software company, who then hacks down the office door of the managing director, demanding to know who the ‘master’ is. The poor MD then has a heart attack, the knight disappears, and a short time later the building is besieged by medieval catapults. At this juncture, we are introduced to the main protagonist of the story, Detective Chief Inspector Cyril Lane, better known to everyone as Arnold, a self-effacing individual who likes his food and has a keen, pragmatic approach to his work. It’s Arnold’s job, and that of his colleagues, to figure out what is going on. However, as the story unravels and the plot thickens, it quickly becomes apparent that time travel plays a huge role in this quirky tale, which also includes several eccentric secondary characters including the quick-witted Sylvia, who provides some fine moments of comic relief, not to mention Marvin, the mind reading AI (Artificial Intelligence).

Set in the present day (with glimpses through time) in the beautiful historic city of Cambridge and the surrounding fens (including Ely, Hunstanton, Heacham, and Ramsey) Killing Time in Cambridge is a good old whodunnit (think Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders, and Inspector George Gently) featuring a mix of light-hearted whimsey and dark humour and, rather unexpectedly, time travel and AI.

Killing Time in Cambridge is available at Parker’s newsagents, on Amazon, from Niche Comics and Books Huntingdon, Waterstones and whittleseywordsmiths.com.

Book Review – The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton By Edith Wharton Published by Wordsworth Editions

“One can remain alive … if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity interested in big things and happy in small ways” ––Edith Wharton

The nights are drawing in, there’s a nip in the air and with Halloween just around the corner, it feels like the perfect time to curl up with a mug of hot chocolate and a good ghost story or two. So, this month I’m reviewing The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton; a collection of well-paced, atmospheric, spooky short stories.

Wharton (1862–1937), Pulitzer Prize winner for her novel The Age of Innocence, claimed she didn’t believe in ghosts whilst paradoxically admitting she was frightened of them. Her interest in the paranormal began during her childhood and continued into her adult life with writers like M. R. James and Walter de la Mare some of her favourite authors in the field.  The writing style of this beautifully written compilation is comparable to Henry James including the speech and dialect that is very much of its time, which some readers may find a little dated but I feel only adds to the intrigue and suspense of each brilliantly crafted story. With fifteen separate stories in total, set in or around the period they were penned, the reader is also given a window into the social history of the time, which, although not that long ago, almost feels other worldly itself. Be warned though, if you’re looking for horror stories, or out-and-out tales of terror, this is not the book for you. 

Wharton’s style of writing is both subtle and sublime, weaving a sense of foreboding, menace, and mystery into her stories rather than outright revelation, cleverly building a sense of dread before leaving the reader hauntingly intrigued. And, with fifteen tales to choose from, The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton is the perfect ghostly companion for those whose reading time is limited.

Book Review—Why I Write by George Orwell Published by Penguin; 1st edition (2 Sept. 2004)

“Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes” –George Orwell

This month’s book review may interest all the writers and would be writers out there. Written by Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, Why I Write is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Pocket-sized works of, largely, non-fiction inspired by pioneers, radicals, and visionaries, including subject matters such as philosophy, science, politics, and war.

Orwell, born in 1903, is most famous for his fictional works including the political satire Animal Farm, published in 1945, and the dystopian nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, first published in 1949, is a sci-fi story centred around a country known as Oceania (in 1984), controlled by an overbearing, paranoid government insistent on manipulating every aspect of its citizens’ lives. A place where information is suppressed, history re-written, and propaganda reigns supreme. It is also, one could argue, as a work of fiction written over 70 years ago, a story that feels eerily remarkably current.

Considered one of England’s most accomplished authors and social commentators, this collection includes four of Orwell’s essays. However, the title is deceiving, with only the first, brief essay dedicated to writing. The other three examine Orwell’s views on society, politics, and the economy during WW2, which I found equally fascinating. “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me” he wrote in one.

At only 100 pages long, Why I Write is short enough to read in one sitting and littered with humorous nuggets of writing advice. I’ll leave you with one of my favourites which, if you’re a writer, you’ll completely understand. If not, and it’s a profession you’re thinking of taking up, all I can say is, be warned!  

“Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Book Review – Mine by @kellyflorentia published by @bloodhoundbook

“I remained too much inside my head and ended up losing my mind” ––Edgar Allan Poe

This is Kelly Florentia’s fourth novel (read my fab interview with her here) and first psychological thriller. It is also a first for me by this author, and as a huge fan of the genre, I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint. Easy to read, intense, and full of twists and turns, ‘Mine’ will keep you gripped from start to finish.

The story opens with a prologue; the voice of the narrator, anonymous, says, “I know what you did and you have to pay. All I’ve got to do is figure out a way to get rid of you. For good”.

Chapter one then introduces us to Lucy Harper, the main protagonist; endearing, suspicious, and at times quite gullible. Reeling from her recent divorce to ex-husband, Andrew, who left her for her long-time school friend, Jasmine, Lucy relies a little too heavily on alcohol to get by, which often clouds her judgement and makes her recall unreliable. She wakes from an evening out unable to remember how she got home, and worse still, who the man in her bed is. He seems pleasant enough, and as he replays their boozy night back to her, Lucy slowly but surely remembers who he is; Teddy Fallon, the new gardener of her best friend Alison, who, with the help of her mother, Karen, set the pair up on a blind date. Teddy is keen to meet again, Lucy less so. However, when Lucy receives an anonymous text message, including a photo, accusing her of something she’s sure she didn’t do, her life begins to spiral, setting off a chain of events that sees her shunned by her friends and suspicious of everyone around her. The texts keep coming with the emphasis on blackmail, and the only person Lucy can confide in, the only person who seems to believe her, is mild-mannered Teddy, but even that’s questionable at times.

Full of believable, well rounded characters, ‘Mine’ is a gripping, fast-paced debut thriller that will see you turning the pages long into the night. I did figure out the final reveal, however, guessing the ending didn’t make reading this fab novel any less thrilling. On the contrary, it is full of so many intriguing revelations and surprises, I often found myself doubting my hunches as much as poor Lucy did.

Book Review – Foyles Philavery by Christopher Foyle Published by Chambers; Reprint edition (27 July 2007)

“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and look at it, until it begins to shine” –Emily Dickinson

This month, I thought I’d choose something a little different to review. A book that has been in my possession for a number of years and is the perfect companion for all writers and budding writers alike. Scrabble players too, would love this. Anyone, in fact, that like me, has a fascination with words.

Foyle’s Philavery (pronounced fil-a-vuh-ri), a word invented to describe the book, is, according to the introduction, “an idiosyncratic collection of uncommon and pleasing words”. Written by Christopher Foyle; businessman, philanthropist and writer, who took over the running Foyles, the eponymous family bookshop in 1999, first began making a note of unusual words in 1990. This was around the time of the first Gulf War when US commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, described information he deemed of no value as, ‘bovine scatology’. Not familiar with the latter word, I quickly thumbed the relevant page for its meaning, which immediately saw me laughing out loud. Simply put, bovine scatology is another, more sophisticated way of saying, stupid crap!

Some of my favourite words include, samizdat, which (in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe) means “the clandestine copying and distribution of writings banned by the government”. Then there’s scriptorium, which is “a room set apart for writing”. And finally, kakistocracy, which, feeling particularly relevant at this present time, stands for, “a system of government in which the rulers are the least competent, least qualified or most unprincipled citizens”.

This treasury of unusual, quirky and obscure words is a pure delight. It’s not the kind of book you’ll read in one sitting, but rather one you’ll be drawn to time and again. A must have for all word lovers.

Book Review – My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell Published by @4thEstateBooks #MyDark Vanessa #BookReview

“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse” –Edmund Burke

Disturbing, compelling, and haunting are just a few words I’d use to describe My Dark Vanessa, which as the title suggests is a dark tale, concerning abuse. Set in and around Maine in the US, and recounted across two timelines, this is the story of 15-year-old Vanessa Wye’s love affair with her 42-year-old high school English teacher, Jacob Strane. At least, that’s how Vanessa prefers to remember it. What it really is, of course, is the complex story of a young girl who was targeted and groomed by an older man.

The opening chapter begins in 2017. Vanessa is in her early 30s and disillusioned with life and masks her disappointment by smoking too much pot and drinking too much alcohol. She discovers, via social media, that a former pupil from a private school she once attended has publicly accused her former English teacher of abuse, making Vanessa reconsider what she believes was the great love affair of her life. “When Strane and I met [she says], I was fifteen and he was forty-two. A near perfect thirty years between us. That’s how I described the difference back then––perfect.”

As the story unravels, we flit back and forth in time between Vanessa as she is now and Vanessa as she was before; a young, impressionable, lonely schoolgirl with a burgeoning crush on her charismatic teacher. Sadly though, Vanessa struggles to accept she was abused, convinced her relationship with Strane was “different”. However, the author uses Vanessa’s heightened sense of uniqueness to show the reader what it feels like to be groomed. How Strane uses Vanessa’s vulnerability to his advantage by telling her she’s “special” and how, like him, she is a “dark romantic”.

Brilliantly written, tragically sad, and emotively dark. My Dark Vanessa makes for an uneasy, troubling, but insightful and compulsive read.

Book Review – Little Disasters by @SVaughanAuthor published by @simonschusterUK

“Being a mother is learning about strengths you didn’t know you had… and dealing with fears you didn’t know existed” –Linda Wooten

Having read and loved Sarah Vaughan’s 3rd novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, which is currently being filmed as a Netflix series with an all-star cast including Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery and Rupert Friend, I couldn’t wait to read this, the author’s 4th novel.

I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.

The author’s skilful and emotive storytelling immediately drew me in, reminding me of my own early days as a mother. How exhausting and overwhelming it can sometimes feel – “The cry builds. At first it is pitiful… Tentative, tremulous, just testing how it will be received… cranks up a gear as she draws the baby close… her eyes well[ing] with self-pity and frustration and an exhaustion so entrenched she is sometimes knocked off balance”.

The two main protagonists of this taut thriller are Jess, a mother of three, including her infant daughter Betsey, and her best friend Liz, also a mum and senior registrar of paediatrics at their local London hospital. From the outside looking in, Jess gives the impression of being the perfect stay at home mum. However, when she arrives at the hospital A&E department with Betsey, who appears to have suffered some sort of head trauma, Liz is both concerned and confused by her friend’s behaviour. Jess, who doesn’t seem particularly worried about her baby girl, is aloof, detached, which Liz knows is completely out of character for Jess. Liz wants to help her friend but when she questions Jess about what happened and Jess refuses to open up, Liz starts to fear the worst. She knows she has a duty of care towards Betsey, but she also knows that her next decision could have a huge impact on both on Jess and her family, and their friendship.  

Little Disasters is a tense, thought-provoking thriller that cleverly and considerately explores the complexities of early motherhood and post-natal anxiety. However, it is also a story about friendship. About the public facade we often hide behind, and how, wrapped up in our own lives and our perception of others, a cry for help can go unnoticed… sometimes with devastating consequences.

Little Disasters is on sale in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda, and all independent bookstores.

 
It’s also available here at Waterstones and here at WH Smiths.

And click below to get your copy at Amazon.



Book Review – Love Letters of Great Women by Ursula Doyle published by @MacmillanUSA

“I used to look at all these daft girls, marrying the first fellow they thought they could live with. And I suppose I was waiting for the fellow I couldn’t live without” –Nora Doyle 1917-2007

Well folks, Valentine’s Day, universally recognised as a celebration of romance and love, is just around the corner. So, with that in mind, my book choice this month makes for the perfect read, not to mention a great gift idea.

Covering a multitude of famous women, including queens, writers, artists and politicians from 1399 up to WWI, this beautiful volume begins with a brief history of each letter writer, reminding us of not just the era they lived in but also the social restrictions they often encountered and how “affairs of the heart could irrevocably alter the course of woman’s life in a way they did not a man’s”. Take, for instance, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letter to her beloved, whom she was planning to elope with against her father’s wishes, “I tremble for what we are doing. Are you sure you will love me forever? Shall we never repent? I fear, and I hope”. Her fear is obvious and her anxiety palpable, almost jumping off the page. However, like so many other heart-felt letters in this lovely collection, there are also examples of passionate longing and desire, while others still reveal true heartbreak and despair. Particularly Queen Victoria’s letter to the King of the Belgians shortly after the death of her beloved Albert, “My life as a happy one is ended! The world is gone for me!” Yet, the common thread throughout this book reveals women of great emotional strength whose belief in love is unwavering.

My verdict…

This beautiful hardback edition of Love Letters of Great Women is the companion to Love Letters of Great Men and a must read for hopeless romantics and history lovers alike. A delightful compendium that also serves as a timely reminder (especially in this digital age of quick-fire texting and emailing, no longer given to letter writing by hand) of just how beautiful the written word is. And how, in the wonderful words of writer Phyllis Grissim-Theroux, “to send a letter is a good way to go somewhere, without moving anything but your heart”.

Book Review – The Lion Tamer Who Lost by @LouiseWriter published by @OrendaBooks

‘Be careful what you wish for, you’ll probably get it.’ –Proverb

My first book review this year is the wonderful, The Lion Tamer Who Lost, by the lovely Louise Beech. Written in the third person, this is an inspiring, albeit tragic love story set in the searing heat of Zimbabwe alongside the grey skies of Hull (England). Two distinct but contrasting landscapes. Both beautiful in their own way, but both harbingers of secrets, including some, as the story unfolds, better left unsaid. However, such secrets serve as a reminder of the yin and yang of life, and of what the harshness and tenderness of being human teaches us.

The two main protagonists are Andrew and Ben. Andrew is a writer, an occupation the author uses to tell a story within a story (mise en abyme), with each chapter beginning with an excerpt from Andrew’s book, which I found both clever and intriguing. Andrew, we learn, made a childhood wish, which he keeps in a silver box. However, when his wish eventually comes true, it isn’t in the way he’d hoped. Ben, on the other hand, is a student. Noticeably younger and less mature than Andrew, he nurtures a childhood dream to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. But when Ben’s dream comes true, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined.

The Lion Tamer Who Lost is a sensitively written, thought provoking, emotive love story with a twist. Both the major and minor characters are well drawn and believable and, like most of us, are all wonderfully flawed and beautifully human, including Ben’s Dad, whom I really didn’t warm to at first, but later changed my mind. Although complex at times, ultimately, this is a simple story of love and loss, of courage and despair and a timely reminder of both the fragility and strength of life. A book I highly recommend.

You can find The Lion Tamer Who Lost here on Amazon

Book Review –The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by @charliemackesy published by @EburyPublishing

“Sometimes,” said the horse.

“Sometimes what?” asked the boy

“Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.”

Well folks, we’re well into December. The final month of what can only be described as an interesting year! However, before we say goodbye and good riddance to 2020 let’s not forget, for those of us that celebrate it, Christmas is fast approaching. Therefore, this month, unlike previous years when I’ve read and reviewed some very lovely Christmas themed stories, I thought I’d take a look at something different. Something simple yet poignant, and something that, if you’re looking for gift ideas for the book lovers in your life––whatever the age of the recipient––might just be the perfect solution because, unlike most books, this one is both ageless and timeless.

As the title suggests, this beautifully illustrated hardback is a tale about a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse, with the author and artist being one and the same. For younger readers it’s easy to follow the journey of these four very different friends, sometimes across great mountainous landscapes or beneath vast star-studded skies. While at other times they venture into the darkness, or attempt to navigate the clouds, and at others still, the focus is on the simple joy of eating cake. For older readers, however, I see this more as a collection of unassuming, yet inspiring quotes. Especially during moments of uncertainty and self-doubt, particularly during these troubled and ambiguous times, reminding us that, no matter how dire or dark things might seem, when observed through the eyes of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, we know there is always love, hope, and friendship.

Five Big Stars from me!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Merry Christmas everyone, and remember, “Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses”.