Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf + #FreeBook

Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf
Published in the UK by Hogarth Press in October 1922.

J for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge and a Classics Club Challenge read

I have now completed my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge and not a moment too soon! Here's my full list:
A Sky So Close To Us by Shahla Ujayli
Black Holes by Ochi
Camouflage: The Hidden Lives of Autistic Women by Sarah Bargiela and Sophie Standing
Demian by Hermann Hesse
Escaping Psychiatry: Beginnings by Olga Nunez Miret
Farm Land: Sentience by Gemma Lawrence
Gumshoe Blues by Paul D Brazill
How To Create A Vegan World by Tobias Leenaert
Incident At Diamond Springs by Kendall Hanson
Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf
Killer In The Band by Lauren Carr
Love In No Man's Land by Duo Ji Zhuo Ga
Mamachari Matchmaker by S J Pajonas
Now Let's Dance by Karine Lambert
Once Upon A Time In The West ... Country by Tony Hawks
Pocket Poets: Rupert Brooke
Queen Of The Flaming Diamond by Leroy Yerxa
Razia by Abda Khan
Spiral Of Silence by Elvira Sanchez-Blake
The History Of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave
UK2 by Terry Tyler
Vizilsan: Blue Rabbit's Crystal by Marko Markovic
White Walls And Straitjackets by David Owain Hughes
XYZ by Anna Katharine Green
Yekl by Abraham Cahan
Zophiel by Maria Gowen Brooks

How I got this book:
Downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jacob's Room is Virginia Woolf's first truly experimental novel. It is a portrait of a young man, who is both representative and victim of the social values which led Edwardian society into war. Jacob's life is traced from the time he is a small boy playing on the beach, through his years in Cambridge, then in artistic London, and finally making a trip to Greece, but this is no orthodox Bildungsroman. Jacob is presented in glimpses, in fragments, as Woolf breaks down traditional ways of representing character and experience.

The novel's composition coincided with the consolidation of Woolf's interest in feminism, and she criticizes the privileged thoughtless smugness of patriarchy, `the other side', `the men in clubs and Cabinets'. Her stylistic innovations are conscious attempts to realize and develop women's writing and the novel dramatizes her interest in the ways both language and social environments shape differently the lives of men and women.

I knew that Jacob's Room was considered to be 'experimental fiction' before I started reading it so I was prepared for some unusual elements. As it turns out, I didn't find it too experimental at all and thought that Woolf's structure actually felt up to date. I guess the style has been pretty influential over the past century! Jacob's Room is composed of detailed glimpses into the life of the eponymous Jacob from his Scarborough childhood as the middle son of a widowed mother, until ... until the end of the book. I won't describe the ending too closely because I really benefited from not knowing in advance! Prior to that, we see Jacob almost entirely through other people's eyes and words. Woolf switches between incredibly vivid portrayals of scenes such as Cornish sea cliffs or the sun over Athens, and fragments of conversations which presumably happen around Jacob, sometimes with his participation and sometimes without.

Jacob's Room was great reading for me even though I spent most of the book not quite sure what the point of the story would be. I loved Woolf's contradictions. For example, the main character is Jacob yet he is effectively absent much of the time leaving his story to be told by a supporting cast of predominately women (other than his Cambridge days which feel glaringly male). Woolf uses seemingly insignificant female chatter to make frequent - and often snarky - observations about gender roles and polite society in general at this time. Of course she is still snooty towards anyone she considers lower class, but over several novels now, I have got used to this in her writing.

Jacob's Room, I think, will always be more of a niche read than a widely popular classic and I am relieved I didn't have to closely study its issues and themes for school or college. I did enjoy this book though. Perhaps it would have only warranted a 3-4 star rating overall, but the gut-punch perspective shift at the end earns it a solid 5 stars from me.

Etsy Find!
by Literary Emporium in
Frome, England

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Monday, 30 December 2019

The Vegan Travel Handbook by Lonely Planet

The Vegan Travel Handbook by Lonely Planet
Published in the UK by Lonely Planet Food on the 1st December 2019.

I will link up this review with December 2019 Foodies Read at Based On A True Story.
One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads and included in my Vegan Bookshop

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whether you've been vegan for years or are travelling as one for the first time, The Vegan Travel Handbook will help you discover, plan and book a huge range of vegan-friendly adventures around the globe.

Get essential advice and expert tips on everything from where to go when and the best vegan restaurants, accommodation and cities, to how to stay healthy on the road and order food with confidence. We also reveal unmissable vegan tours, festivals and food trucks.

From cooking classes in India to wildlife watching tours in New Zealand, Lonely Planet shows you how to explore the world on a plant-based diet.

Explore the wilds of Patagonia, Argentina
Go trekking and wildlife watching in Ethiopia
Meditate in the mountains in Taiwan
Melt any stresses away in a Japanese onsen
Wild camp by a pristine lake in Scandinavia
Go wine tasting in Piedmont, northern Italy
Eat your way around Delhi, Agra and Jaipur
Dance and dine the night away in Seville
Monitor jaguars in the Amazon Rainforest
Savour local produce at a New Zealand farmers' market
Spot the 'Big Five' in safari in South Africa
Explore the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia
Shake up a rum cocktail in the Cayman Islands
Road-trip your way up the east coast of Australia
Embark on a DIY doughnut tour of the USA's west coast

I was excited to be offered the opportunity to review this first edition of Lonely Planet's new Vegan Travel Handbook and am glad to say that it didn't disappoint. The successful Lonely Planet formula of gorgeous photographs combined with local information and insider tips works well with a vegan angle. I'm now eager to travel to countries that I might never have considered before and am confident of at least starting off on the right foot when I get there! Suggested countries are grouped by vacation style so Adventure, for example, gives us Argentina, Ethiopia, Taiwan and Vietnam suggestions while Culture leads us to Eastern Europe, India, Israel and my current location of Spain. (I can confirm that southern Spain at least is proving to have plenty of vegan eating options, even in smaller towns!)

Within each suggested country's entry we are given ideas for accommodation, eateries and entertainment. I loved the little language sections which explain how to say 'I am vegan' in each local language and list the words for taboo foods. This is a nice touch and I imagine will prove helpful to travellers. The novelty of The Vegan Travel Handbook does show in some of the suggested activity and accommodation choices. Several can be 'veganised on request' which, admittedly, is great but implies that these businesses aren't vegan in themselves. Strict vegans may also disapprove of mentions of horse riding excursions and aquarium visits. With the blossoming of veganism globally I imagine future editions of this book will be able to pick and choose from a much wider variety of completely vegan businesses.

The Vegan Travel Handbook, I think, provides a great overview of global destination options for vegans who want to get a bit off the beaten track, but not feel completely isolated for the duration of their vacation. It's reassuring to know ahead of time where pockets of vegan-friendly culture can be found in Berlin or Stockholm or Rio De Janeiro. With so many countries included, individual entries are understandably brief, but were easily enough to whet my appetite for many vacations to come. If you're planning your 2020 vegan holidays, I think this book will be a valuable and inspirational resource.

Etsy Find!
by The Sunshine Bindery in
Crewkerne, England

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Sunday, 29 December 2019

The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss

The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss
First published in the UK by Simon and Schuster in November 2004.

How I got this book:
Bought a paperback copy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Extraordinary and Death-Defying Tour of Edwardian Low Life and High Society, accompanied by our host Lucifer Box Esq - artist, dandy, rake ... and lethal secret agent.

Lucifer Box is the darling of the Edwardian belle monde - society's most fashionable portrait painter is a wit, a dandy, a rake, the guest all hostesses (and not a few hosts) must have.

But few know that Lucifer Box is also His Majesty's most accomplished and daring secret agent. Beneath London's façade of Imperial grandeur and divine aesthetes seethes an underworld of crazed anarchists, murder, and despicable vice, and Box is at home in both.

And so of course when Britain's most prominent scientists begin turning up dead, there is only one man his country can turn to.

Lucifer Box ruthlessly deduces and seduces his way from his elegant townhouse at Number 9 Downing Street (all his father left him), to private stews of London and the seediest, most colourful back alleys of Italy, in search of the mighty secret society that may hold the fate of the world in its claw-like hands - the Vesuvius Club.

This review was first blogged on Stephanie Jane in May 2014.

I first read The Vesuvius Club seven years ago and it is still my favourite steampunk novel. Our hero, Lucifer Box, is wonderfully decadent and louche, his adventures as bizarre as the improbable names of his supporting cast. Allegedly set in early twentieth century London and Naples, I know other readers have criticised the writing for historical inaccuracies, but I think they've missed the point. The Vesuvius Club isn't a extensively researched historical novel, it's a fun, dark, fantasy sci-fi spy thriller or, as Mr Gatiss claims, A Bit Of Fluff. If you're into lightly depraved escapism, this is the book for you!

Etsy Find!
by Yos Finds in

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Saturday, 28 December 2019

XYZ by Anna Katharine Green + #FreeBook

XYZ by Anna Katharine Green
Published in America by G P Putnam's Sons in 1883.

X for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge

How I got this book:
Downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anna Katharine Green (November 11, 1846 - April 11, 1935) was an American poet and novelist. She was one of the first writers of detective fiction in America and distinguished herself by writing well plotted, legally accurate stories. Green has been called "the mother of the detective novel." Green is credited with shaping detective fiction into its classic form, and developing the series detective. In addition to creating elderly spinster and young female sleuths, Green's innovative plot devices included dead bodies in libraries, newspaper clippings as "clews," the coroner's inquest, and expert witnesses. Green was in some ways a progressive woman for her time - succeeding in a genre dominated by male writers - but she did not approve of many of her feminist contemporaries, and she was opposed to women's suffrage.

In this short story, an unnamed detective is sent to a small town, Brandon, in Massachusetts where he hopes to uncover the ringleaders of a counterfeiting scam. Instead, in following his suspicions, he finds himself in the midst of a very different crime altogether.

I'd never heard of Anna Katharine Green prior to stumbling upon this X book for my Alphabet Soup challenge. I certainly had no idea of her legacy as a detective fiction author and, having now read XYZ, I wonder why she isn't as famous as Agatha Christie. Indeed, it's all too possible that Christie was inspired and influenced by Green's writing. Perhaps we need a similar book to Monster, She Wrote, but detailing early female crime fiction authors. Is anyone currently writing this book?

XYZ is an ingenious and cleverly plotted story. It's first person narrator never identifies himself other than to say that he is a detective, so he has a compelling level of mystery surrounding him especially as we learn very little about him as a person. We read his innermost thoughts concerning the investigation as it unfolds, but this isn't a man given to recounting past anecdotes or diverting from his focus. In fact, none of the characters are portrayed in any great depth. Green manages to put across their essential attributes through brief sketches which suits the feel of the story. XYZ is only about fifty pages long so spending more time on description would slow its pace right down. As it is, I felt I knew enough to envisage the people and locations while remaining gripped by the mystery. I very much enjoyed reading XYZ and would happily pick out more Anna Katharine Green books in the future.

Etsy Find!
by Masks And Tiaras in
Crewe, England

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Friday, 27 December 2019

Dragon's Burn by Brooke Warren + #Giveaway + Excerpt

Dragon's Burn (Legion's Fallen Motorcycle Club Book 1) by Brooke Warren
Published on the 27th December 2019.

Add Dragon's Burn to your Goodreads

High school is over which means summer vacation has officially begun. I just spent the last four years busting my butt making sure I secured a one way ticket out of hicksville and the suffocating small-town life.

To celebrate my impending freedom I attend an end of year party with the same people I can’t wait to escape from. Except this party is different from the rest, there’s someone new.

What starts as a summer fling quickly turns into more. My carefully guarded heart is split wide open. Meeting him sends my life on a detour and threatens to destroy all my future life plans.

He’s not supposed to happen, he’s not part of my plan. He spins my world out of control, like a drug addiction I can’t seem to kick.

Can he escape his obligations with Legion’s Fallen MC or will our love destroy everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve?

This is a medium-burn contemporary reverse harem romance. The build of harem is slow and will be complete by end of series. Anticipated 3-4 books in series. ***This book is intended for those 18+ due to adult content and language.***

I sneak up on her, catching the feminine scent of her perfume mixed with a hint of berries, and lean close to her ear. “Looking for me?”
She squeaks and whips around to face me. “Holy shit, you scared me.”
Her hand goes to her chest and she takes a few deep breaths. I take a sip of my drink, which is disgusting at this point, but I need to keep my mouth occupied—drown out the need to taste her.
“You seemed interested in what I was doing.”
“I was not,” she scoffs, taking a step back. The move presses her against the staircase.
I follow her, like a string is attached to both of us, pulling us together. The string is thin, something I could break easily to sever this connection, but I don’t. Instead, I take it one step further and rest my forearm near her head and bend down, putting myself at eye level.
“So, then you weren’t watching that other girl grind against me, rubbing her hand over my dick, while imagining it was you instead?”
Her pupils enlarge, eating up the mesmerizing color of her irises. Whether she did it consciously or not, I track the movement of her tongue flicking out to wet her lips. It’d be so easy for me to take that pretty mouth, give her a taste of what her body is craving, even though she’s fighting it. For a brief second, I see the thought cross her face as she wonders if I’m going to kiss her. And in that second, I almost do. I glance up in time to see her friend make her way up the stairs.
I look back at Poppy, who crosses her arms under her breasts, which pushes them higher. I do my best not to stare at them but fail, I can’t help it. They’re practically in my face, taunting me with their perfection. What color are her nipples? How hard could I get them if I sucked on them?
She clears her throat and gives me a pointed look. Oh well. No point in saying sorry, because I’m not.
“I wasn’t staring at you,” she says with husky breathiness.
No point in calling her out on it. Indecision is written all over her face. She’s trying hard to convince herself her own lie is real. It heightens my curiosity, which is the exact opposite of what I want to happen. I lick my lips, not meaning to, but she’s fucking sexy, and seriously, that wrinkle between her eyes only adds to it.
“Fine.” I move back a step, creating a hole between us that looked better filled. “You weren’t staring at me like you wanted to fuck me.”

She glances down at the spot I was just inhabiting almost like she wishes I didn’t leave it either, but when she lifts her head back up, I’m met with a fixed determination. “Your narcissism knows no bounds, that’s for sure.”

Meet the Author 

Brooke Warren is a new Indie author who lives in Florida with her husband and three dogs. When she is not writing, you can find her reading, playing online video games (World of Warcraft and Fallout are her favs), or getting lost for hours on You Tube and Netflix. Her love for books and over active imagination has inspired her to share the stories stuck in her head.

Thank you so much to all the readers and supporters. Without you, none of this would be possible.

Author links:

And now it's time for the Giveaway!

The prize is a $10 Amazon gift card.
Open internationally until the 2nd January.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


Etsy Find!
by Kris Batchelder ART in
Colorado, USA

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Thursday, 26 December 2019

Zophiel by Maria Gowen Brooks + #FreeBook

Zophiel by Maria Gowen Brooks
Published in America by Richardson and Lord in 1825.

Z for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge

How I got this book:
Downloaded the free ebook from Project Gutenberg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wishing to make a continued effort, in an art which, though almost in secret, has been adored and assiduously cultivated from earliest infancy, it was my intention to have chosen some incident from Pagan history, as the foundation of my contemplated poem. But, looking over the Jewish annals, I was induced to select for my purpose, one of their well-known stories which besides its extreme beauty, seemed to Open an extensive field for the imagination which might therein avail itself not only of important and elevated truths but pleasing and popular superstitions.

As you can probably tell from the start of Brooks' flowery introduction quoted above, Zophiel is very much a book of its time! I chose it based purely on its title beginning with a Z and its page count being low because, at the time, I had three weeks left in the year and five letters still to tick off my Alphabet Soup challenge. Brooks herself was an interesting woman, married to a much older man who had been her guardian before she came of age and, through selling her poetry, the breadwinner of this partnership. I'd love to read a biography of her, if one does exist, however I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to find more of her poetry. It's very much of the Get On With It school of writing!

Zophiel, eventually, became a poem in seven cantos of which this book is the first. I did like the story and Brooks does have a vivid turn of phrase when evoking scenes or characters. A retelling of an ancient epic, here a young woman, Egla, is persuaded by her parents to marry a man she doesn't particularly care for. However on her wedding night another man, the eponymous Zophiel, attempts to seduce her instead - with disastrous results. Unfortunately Brooks takes many, many verses to get to the action (for want of a better word!) and frequently diverts into footnotes describing relevant history, recounting moments from her sojourn in Cuba, or explaining literary allusions. I found it difficult enough to understand the poem without constantly being led astray. If you love Regency-era poetry or are in desperate need of a Z book, then Zophiel might be worth a download. Personally though, while I'm pleased that I struggled through the main poem and I did prefer a couple of her other short works tacked on the end, I can't say I'm now converted to a Brooks fan.

Etsy Find!
by Holy Spirit Art in
Thessaloniki, Greece

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Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Published in the UK by Bradbury And Evans in 1854.

One of my Classics Club reads

How I got this book:
Bought an ebook edition via Amazon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hard Times – For These Times (commonly known as Hard Times) is the tenth novel by Charles Dickens, first published in 1854. The book tells the tragic story of Louisa Gradgrind and her father. When Louisa, trapped in a loveless marriage, falls prey to an idle seducer, the crisis forces her father to reconsider his cherished system. Yet even as the development of the story reflects Dickens's growing pessimism about human nature and society, Hard Times marks his return to the theme which had made his early works so popular: the amusements of the people.

Coketown is dominated by the figure of Mr Thomas Gradgrind, school owner and model of Utilitarian success. Feeding both his pupils and his family with facts, he bans fancy and wonder from young minds. As a consequence his young daughter Louisa marries the loveless businessman and “bully of humility” Mr Bounderby, and his son Tom rebels to become embroiled in gambling and robbery. And, as their fortunes cross with those of free-spirited circus girl Sissy Jupe and victimized weaver Stephen Blackpool, Gradgrind is eventually forced to recognize the value of the human heart in an age of materialism and machinery. 

I've initiated two Christmas reading traditions over the past few years. One is to immerse myself in Deborah Garner's latest Moonglow Cafe Christmas novella. The other is to blog my review of a Charles Dickens novel on Christmas Day, necessitating reading one each December. I never read proper Dickens when I was growing up, instead we had a few children's abbreviated versions of his most famous stories. I've noticed though that many of his characters and storylines are referenced in other novels leaving me somewhat at a disadvantage by not always understanding or even recognising them. Hence the annual Dickens project. I admit I am easily intimidated by the sheer length of his books which is why I only attempt one a year and am gradually working up from A Christmas Carol to David Copperfield. This December I chose Hard Times which actually turned out to be very apt considering I started reading it on Election Day!

My overriding memory of Hard Times, unfortunately, will probably be boredom. I really did want much more storyline and a lot less small talk dialogue, especially from the characters whose words were entirely written phonetically. This was seriously overdone! I understood Dickens wanted to put across an idea of their speech, but I found it frequently almost unintelligible! That said, overall, the characterisations were my favourite part of Hard Times, particularly those of the older people. Thomas Gradgrind's insistence on Facts! Joseph Bounderby with his terrible childhood,  demure Mrs Sparsit and overlooked Mrs Gradgrind. Dickens' illustrating the social injustices endured by Coketown's workers must have a brave move at the time, especially as I imagine more of his contemporary readers would have been Owners and their families rather than Hands. It's both a look at England of 160 years ago and a glimpse into the far-too-near future! I'm glad to have now read Hard Times, but I probably won't ever read it again.

Etsy Find!
by Literary Lodge in
Manchester, England

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Tuesday, 24 December 2019

The Abbot's Ghost by Louisa May Alcott + #FreeBook

The Abbot's Ghost by Louisa May Alcott
First published under the pen name A M Barnard in 1867.

How I got this book:
Downloaded via Project Gutenberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maurice Traherne is wrongly accused of fraud and gambling and must play a careful hand if he is to win his love, Octavia, from the grasp of other, less honorable men and retain the trust of those who had faith in him. Traherne is temporarily crippled saving the life of his well-born friend, Jasper. Thus, Jasper is assured of inheriting his father's estate, but it is expected that Traherne will inherit great wealth as gratitude for saving the heir. But--surprise!--on the death of Jasper's father all are shocked to learn that Traherne has been disinherited: the will has been changed at the last minute and only the suffering Traherne knows why but won't tell and then he falls in love with Jasper's sister, the fair Octavia. However, Octavia is forbidden to marry, as Traherne is penniless.

I wanted to find a short ghost story, preferably a free one, for a traditional Christmas Eve blog post so was delighted when Project Gutenberg showed me The Abbot's Ghost by Louisa May Alcott - it's a ghost story and a Christmas story in one, plus at one point the characters are telling each other ghost stories on Christmas Eve. I don't think I could have found a more apt tale to feature than this! It's a gothic story of a country house gathering where a young woman is persuaded to abandon her love for her disabled cousin in favour of a more socially acceptable match. Over the course of Christmas week, guilty secrets are uncovered and the eponymous ghost puts in an unwelcome appearance.

Admittedly, The Abbot's Ghost isn't the best example of Alcott's talent as a writer although I found it a pleasant enough diversion for a couple of hours. Perhaps this is why it was originally published under a pseudonym? The storyline is surprisingly compelling and the characters become more distinct as the tale progresses. I kept muddling people up early on which made everything more confusing than it needed to be! There's lots of repressed emotion and characters trying to coolly pretend they're not madly in love with unsuitable partners. Throw in eerily screeching peacocks and easily frightened servants, improbable peril and a heartbreaking death scene, and you've got an entertaining seasonal read!

Etsy Find!
by The Huge Manatee in
Ballarat, Australia

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Monday, 23 December 2019

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published in the UK by HarperCollins on the 15th April 2019.

One of my 2019 New Release Challenge reads

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

British-born Punjabi sisters Rajni, Jezmeen and Shirina have never been close but when their mother died, she had only one request: that they take a pilgrimage across India to carry out her final rites. While an extended family holiday is the last thing they want, each sister has her own reasons to run away from her life.

Rajni is the archetypal know-it-all eldest but her son dropped a devastating bombshell before she left and for the first time she doesn’t know what the future holds.

Middle sister Jezmeen was always a loudmouth, translating her need for attention into life as a struggling actress. But her career is on the skids after an incident went viral and now she’s desperate to find her voice again.

Shirina has always been the golden child, who confounded expectations by having an arranged marriage and moving to the other side of the world. But her perfect life isn’t what it seems and time is running out to make the right choice.

As the miles rack up on their jaunt across India, the secrets of the past and present are sure to spill out…

I had such a good time reading The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, The three sisters are very different, yet believably so, and I could appreciate their somewhat fraught relationships. This is a novel about building friendships which seems very apt in today's angry world! Having recently read Soulla Christodoulou's story, Unlocked, also set in India, I was interested to see how the Shergill sisters view of this country was coloured by their personal experiences while travelling. Being effectively women alone for the duration of their journey allows readers to see deep misogyny running rife through society. Rajni's experience particularly shows that this hasn't changed in recent decades and Shirina discovers that other women can be just as abusive as men.

The only aspect I struggled to believe was the device of the whole India trip being prompted by the sisters' mother writing a letter to them during her last night alive. It's a long letter and, being reminded of my own mother's last weeks with cancer, I just couldn't see how she had the energy. That aside though, I loved Jaswal's engaging prose style and would happily pick up more of her books in the future. I think The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters would appeal to fans of writers like Amanda Prowse, and to readers who appreciate a good family drama.

Etsy Find!
by Claudines Art in
Worthing, England

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Saturday, 21 December 2019

Yekl by Abraham Cahan + #FreeBook

Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto by Abraham Cahan
Published by D Appleton and Company in America in 1896.

Y for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge and a Classics Club read

How I got this book:
Downloaded a free copy via Project Gutenberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The operatives of the cloak-shop in which Jake was employed had been idle all the morning. It was after twelve o'clock and the "boss" had not yet returned from Broadway, whither he had betaken himself two or three hours before in quest of work. The little sweltering assemblage—for it was an oppressive day in midsummer—beguiled their suspense variously. A rabbinical-looking man of thirty, who sat with the back of his chair tilted against his sewing machine, was intent upon an English newspaper.

Yekl is one of a selection of obscurely titled Project Gutenberg books I downloaded last week in an attempt to complete my 2019 Alphabet Soup challenge before I run out of year! It was first published in 1896, but I didn't feel as if the writing style dated from more than 120 years ago and the actions and attitudes of the characters are reflective of the present day. Yekl's themes of immigration and integration are very timely.

The novel follows Eastern European Jew Yekl, who has renamed himself Jake, through several months of his life in New York City. He arrived in America a couple of years previously and has already acclimatised himself to some extent. Jake is very much the young metropolitan man - cutting a dash at dances and entertaining a number of girlfriends - but he has a wife and child back in Europe desperately waiting for him to send their tickets to follow him. I loved Cahan's portrayals of Jake and of Gitl, his wife, even though I didn't actually like either of the people themselves. Jake is immature, selfish and, ultimately, weak. He treats Gitl appallingly allowing her no time to get used to American life but instead sneering at her backwards dress and behaviour. Gitl is, understandably, completely bewildered by her new environment. Even though the couple have rooms in the midst of a Jewish community, it comprises Jews from various nations and traditions so even their Yiddish differs from person to person. Cahan makes a brave effort to illustrate these pronunciations through differing phonetic spellings for each person. The idea comes across well, but I found the device detracted from my comprehension, especially in the early chapters. This annoyed me until Gitl arrives in New York and I realised that my earlier language difficulties were nothing compared to her experience!

Yekl is not a particularly long book, but I felt it gave an accurately detailed impression of New York life for Jews at the turn of the last century. Cahan expertly captures personality through speech so his characters spring to life and don't descend into caricature. I would recommend this novel for its immigration theme and also for its depiction of women's expectations in 1890s America. It was interesting for me to remember that Yekl isn't historical fiction, but was written at the time it is set so Cahan's ideas aren't filtered through a twenty-first century lens.

Etsy Find!
by Chromatone in

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Thursday, 19 December 2019

Death in Room Five by George Bellairs

Death in Room Five (The Inspector Littlejohn Mysteries Book 23) by George Bellairs
First published in the UK in 1955. Republished by Agora Books on the 13th November 2019.

One of my Classics Club reads and my 1950s book for my 2019-20 Decade Challenge

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The British bulldog does not let go until the murderer is brought to justice. But this is not Scotland Yard, Inspector. This is France…

This trip to the French Riviera isn’t what anyone signed up for: while Littlejohn loses his vacation, another man loses his life. When Alderman Dawson, the victim of a deathly stabbing, calls Littlejohn to his deathbed, the inspector is left with no choice but to investigate. With twelve suspects in play and motives dating back to WWII, this might be one of his toughest cases yet. More bodies are turning up and the French police are unwilling to investigate… could this be the case that even Littlejohn can’t solve?

About Inspector Littlejohn 
Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is a shrewd yet courteous sleuth who splits his time between quaint English villages, the scenic Isle of Man and French Provinces. With a sharp tongue and a dry sense of humour, Littlejohn approaches his work with poise and confidence, shifting through red-herrings and solving even the most perplexing of cases.

After reading book 20 (A Knife For Harry Dodd) and book 13 (The Case Of The Demented Spiv) of George Bellairs' Inspector Littlejohn crime mystery series, I've now jumped to book 23! This is not deliberately intended to irritate people who resolutely read series in the correct order, it's just how the review copies are appearing on NetGalley! In this novel, Inspector Littlejohn has travelled to the beautiful French Riviera for a holiday, but soons finds himself abandoning his remarkably patient wife to her own devices as he throws himself into solving a complicated murder mystery.

George Bellairs travelled frequently in France himself and his love of the country and its culture is much in evidence throughout this story. He is also very much aware of the standard Little Englander mistrust of anything 'forrin' which is brilliantly well depicted in the behaviours of Alderman Dawson's holiday party. This group of a dozen people travelled from their Bolchester homes to their Cannes villa for a taste of French life, but they insist on only English food being served and only go en masse on strictly organised excursions. I'd like to say that this is a quaint portrait of 1950s attitudes, but sadly such isolationism is still all too common today. Of course, when one of the Bolchester party, Alderman Dawson, is stabbed and dies this just serves to reinforce the negativity - even when evidence suggests that the murderer might not actually be French after all.

The storyline is entertaining and, for me, sufficiently complicated that I was kept gripped for several hours. I didn't quite accept the denouement as plausible, but appreciated the hoops Bellairs had everyone jump through in order to get there. I loved the seedily glamorous Cannes locations too, especially the way they are contrasted with a brief glimpse of small town Bolchester. What absolutely made this book for me was Bellairs' characterisations. I am now getting used to Inspector Littlejohn being a bit of a nondescript plodder because it gives chances to everyone around him to ruthlessly scenesteal. In Death In Room Five Mrs Beaumont is a glorious creation - think of a fervently teetotal Hyacinth Bucket! I also liked weaselly Marriott and the permanently pissed coach driver. (There should be a drunk driving trigger warning for this novel.)

Death In Room Five is a satisfying murder mystery with a good sense of style and place. I did fear that transplanting Inspector Littlejohn to France would be Bellairs' way of compensating for a lack of story ideas after writing so many books (he actually wrote over 50 Littlejohn novels in the end!) so was pleased to find a strong narrative, lots of good local detail, and plenty of of entertaining humour.

Etsy Find!
by Au Bonheur Des Dames in
La Rochelle, France

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Books by George Bellairs / Crime fiction / Books from England

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas

The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas
First published in Norwegian as Beaten om kvelden in Norway in 1968. English language translation by Elizabeth Rokkan published by Archipelago Press on the 10th December 2019.

One of my Classics Club Challenge reads, my 1960s read for my 2019-20 Decade Challenge and a 2019 New Release Challenge read

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An intensely graceful novel recounting scenes of the Norwegian countryside from one of Norway's most beloved 20th-century writers.

Tarjei Vesaas's final work before his death, this episodic novel drifts between dream-like abstraction and vivid description of seemingly ordinary yet heightened scenes of the Norwegian countryside. The many overlapping, semi-autobiographical vignettes of The Hills Reply relate a deep appreciation for the complexity of the human condition, nature, and relationships.

Although described as a novel in the synopsis, The Hills Reply felt to me more like a short story collection or, rather, a collection of disconnected scenes because several of these sixteen vignettes don't have much in the way of a narrative thread. I absolutely loved three of the stories: As It Stands In The Memory, The Drifter And The Mirrors, and Washed Cheeks. Each has gorgeously poetic prose, vivid scenery and a narrative in which I could completely empathise with the characters. The three are very different in idea and tone, but I felt that each spoke to me on a deeply emotional level. I ended up with my three star rating because of their strengths. In fact it is fortunate that one was the first story and another comes earlier in the collection because otherwise The Hills Reply could easily, unfortunately, have been a DNF.

I understand that The Hills Reply was Vesaas' last complete book and I did wonder if the esteem in which he was held clouded some editorial judgements! I was disappointed that alongside the previously mentioned glimpses of amazing writing there was plenty that I simply found impenetrable. Streams of words which gave me no clue to what Vesaas wanted to say or what his scenes were supposed to depict. It was like suddenly being faced with an untranslated story (or six) although I am confident I wasn't trying to read Norwegian! A hit and miss collection that sadly for me was heavier on the misses.

Etsy Find!
by Yelena Shabrova Art in
Oregon, USA

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Books by Tarjei Vesaas / Short stories / Books from Norway

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Queen Of The Flaming Diamond by Leroy Yerxa + #FreeBook

Queen Of The Flaming Diamond by Leroy Yerxa
Published in Amazing Stories in America in January 1943.

Q for my 2019 Alphabet Soup Challenge

How I got this book:
Downloaded a free copy via Project Gutenberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He succeeded in dragging his charge up the three low steps that led toward the coat room. A silvery crash of music drowned out Puffy's voice with the suddenness of striking lightning. He dropped his arm from Drake's waist and pivoted, surprise on his broad face. Something weird and lovely about the sound turned them both toward the stage. His chin dropped in delight. This wasn't Lardner's usual nightly feature.

With only a few weeks remaining in 2019, I had thought about abandoning my Alphabet Soup challenge with five letters still unread (J, Q, X, Y and Z). However, leaving such things unfinished rankles with me, probably far more than it should do, so I've been scouring Project Gutenberg for suitable books. Queen Of The Flaming Diamond's lurid cover art caught my eye.

This 64-page story is a curious blend of crime caper and shapeshifting fantasy. It reads like a pulp novel which makes sense as that's exactly what it is, so there's no great depth to any of the character portrayals or logical explanation to the bizarre events that unfold. That doesn't really matter though and it's probably for the best that the narrative races over its many gaping plotholes! For all my literary complaints, Queen Of The Flaming Diamond is good fun. I happily read in on a cold, rainy afternoon and was transported to a Bugsy Malone-style world of mobsters, nightclubs, diamond thieves and shapeshifting foxes. As you do! If you fancy an entertaining escapist read, this story will do the trick.

Etsy Find!
by Villa Sorgenfrei in
Berlin, Germany

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Books by Leroy Yerxa / Short stories / Books from America