Saturday, 12 August 2017

History of wolves by Emily Fridlund - an observant debut

What's today's freebie? History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Where from? Another from the mighty Goodreads


This uncorrected bound proof copy for review was a lucky giveaway gain for me from the blessed Goodreads where my profile grows. My review is posted on there and is copied below. A bleak book, but thoroughly engrossing and recommended.


History of WolvesHistory of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a Goodreads win.
This is as remarkable a debut novel as any I have read for a number of years. It is quite beautiful, darkly mysterious and heartbreaking on many levels. Fridlund skilfully maps the Minnesota landscape with the human condition - bleak and dark in the winters of life, but warming and engaging at others.
This is a book of observation. Told entirely in the first person it is a story of a young girl's coming of age as recalled by her older self. Linda (also known as Maddie) develops a companionship with neighbours of her family in an old series of shacks near a lake. She becomes the babysitter for their 4 year old son and establishes bonds she is unable to forge with her own family.
This is a book about observation more than anything else. Events are related in a relatively factual manner, devoid of feeling. It is a story of disassociation - Linda doesn't fit in with anyone: school friends, family, neighbours. Even the core companionships with her neighbour, Patra, are lacking in closeness. Only young Paul seems to trigger any sort of emotion with Linda, maybe because he too is slightly odd and distant but is willing to learn and share with her.
Linda does blend well with the earth and land though and all non-human life. Trees, the lake, her dogs, insects and other pests are accepted, tolerated or even liked by Linda. She gets high; she even finds an enjoyment in chopping wood. She seems to understand anything which has no great thought of its own.
Although Linda lacks empathy she does seem to have an understanding of the human condition and an almost primeval instinct for life and self-preservation.
The second half of the book jumps in time to after the events of the first part of the book, recalling the circumstances they lead to but also jumping into the times leading up to them. The narrative moves from early childhood to the time of the main part of the story to adulthood and possibly ending in the present. It requires concentration and some effort of imagination - some things appear deliberately left to the reader to fill in the gaps.
The story, seen entirely through the eyes of a remarkably observant but unemotional narrator held me fascinated and broke my heart. The characters are not cruel; they have no hate or conscious cruelty, but each person's inability to understand the feelings of others can be a bleak read. The ending, unfortunately, needs some work. I have no problem with an open ending or things left unexplained, but I do get annoyed with them being confusing. This isn't as big a matter as it might be though. Whereas Maddie/Linda misses the bigger picture by concentrating on the detail, I enjoyed seeing the bigger picture where so many sub-plots are left unresolved. The style and language is mesmerising.


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Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Ship Trilogy by D Krauss - an epic journey that deserves wider audience

What did I get? The Ship Trilogy by D Krauss, comprising "The Ship to look for God", "The Ship Looking for God" and "The Ship Finding God".

How did I get them? The first was from a giveaway at, you've guessed it, Goodreads. The second and third were sent by the author after I posted a review at Goodreads. See? It pays off to post!


My review of The Ship to Look for God and The Ship Looking for God  are worth reading to see how my reviews progress with this strange series - the final review from Goodreads is below. They aren't good reviews, I'll admit that, as the trilogy is hard to talk about without giving too much away. They do deserve a wider audience though.


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The Ship Finding GodThe Ship Finding God by D. Krauss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to the author for sending this book after I reviewed the first 2 books in the series.

This book concludes the trilogy after "The Ship To Look For God" and "The Ship Looking For God". The trilogy is an odyssey in which our hero, Otto Boteman, dies and embarks upon a journey through times, spaces, dimensions and mind boggling circumstances in search of an answer.

This volume moves Otto on to his goal and there are far fewer new faces in this book. The tone is different as the answer nears and the steady introduction of famous names from history makes way for angels and other beings. It's difficult to talk more openly for fear of spoiling the plot and the answer to the supreme question and I'm going to hope that this ambiguity encourages readers to read my reviews of the first 2 books and seek them out for themselves. This trilogy is not published by a major name, in fact it seems to have been self-published. In my view, Otto's journey deserves wider attention. Goodreads is full of testifying memoirs and books in praise of God, Christ and other deities. These books are different - they ask questions. Of course it leads to a spiritual conclusion and yes, JC has a cameo. But it also has an open ending that makes one think and leaves space for you to find your own interpretation. It's a positive message, I concluded, that steers away from hate and damnation and points towards being good.

I have typed this review some time after reading the book. I wasn't as pleased with the ending as I wanted to be as I, like most readers, expect and prefer a distinct conclusion. Maybe that's unfair with a subject matter like this and having re-read main parts again there are different interpretations that can be made by different readers. I'm not a very religious person but do appreciate spirituality and the loving parts of faith.

And after everything Otto has been through, he still seems oddly surprised at each new acquaintance!


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Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Index of Dreams by Vicky Matthews - a macabre tale of obession

Today's freebie - The Index of Dreams (paperback) by Vicky Matthews

Thanks to? Goodreads, as usual.


Yet another giveaway from Goodreads and another fine debut novel. My quick review below is taken from the Goodreads site.


The Index of DreamsThe Index of Dreams by Vicky Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won this through Goodreads.

A fine debut novel that deserves a wider audience. Sabina (Beanie) is one of life's drifters - temping job after temping job with no plan and not much promise for the future. Her only meaning in life is an obsession with a film she hasn't seen (it's banned)- The Index of Dreams - and it's creator Ossian Brohmer. A chance encounter brings Beanie and the film closer together and Life takes on meaning and excitement. Beanie moves to the seaside and becomes acquainted with Brohmer as the story takes on deeper themes of control and obsession.
Everyone seeks some meaning in life and some people don't find that in day to day things that surround them - they reach for art or celebrity, anything that can hold focus. This is Beanie and the story of her search for meaning and whether she has the strength to control or be controlled.

Thoroughly recommended.


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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Carrying Albert home by Homer Hickam. Wonderfully bizarre.

Today's reviewed freebie? "Carrying Albert home : the Somewhat True Story of a Man, his Wife and her Alligator" by Homer Hickam

Where from? Another one from Goodreads



Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her AlligatorCarrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of A Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator by Homer Hickam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thanks to Goodreads for this giveaway.

Sometimes a couple's love isn't based wholly on love as we think of it. It's sometimes based on respect, a deep feeling that doesn't always manifest itself but is there nonetheless. This book is of such a couple - a hidden love.

This dreamy novel is based on stories told by the author's mother that are somewhat embellished by the author. Albert is the alligator, a gift to Elsie from a former lover and a reminder of her days in Florida when life stretched before her. That life was meant to be with Buddy Epsen (the real person - Google him) but when Buddy moved to New York Elsie found herself back in West Virginia and married to her high school sweetheart, the miner Homer Hickam. Albert was Buddy's gift, a memento of Florida.

Elsie remains unfulfilled with life in West Virginia, raising an alligator in a bath. When Homer tires of his housemate he gives Elsie an ultimatum - Albert or him. Elsie considers in some depth, and decides to take Albert back home to his native home of Florida. Homer gets a sabbatical period from his employer and accompanies them both on a bizarre road trip across America during the Depression era.

On route the trio meet other real characters such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and even appear in a Tarzan film.

Akin the "100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson, this is a hazy novel with some real dream sequences. It's a warm, funny, uplifting book that is a love story without romance. Quite bizarre, in fact utterly mad at times, it's a wonderful summer read.

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Monday, 19 June 2017

Today's freebie? A boxed set of 7 David Walliams novels

Thanks to? Not sure, but thanks!


I think I've mentioned before that my first degree specialised in childrens' literature. My love of reading started early and hasn't stopped. My reading choices haven't changed, they have just widened and I don't see why boundaries of reading material need to be dictated by age.
Having children that love books also made it easy to get into new writers and each sprog has introduced me to new authors. They're getting older now though and so I'm the first in the house to have read all 7 of the books in this set.


Not that you need to have read the books to be familiar with the stories of course. Billionaire Boy, The Boy in the Dress, Gangsta Granny and Mr Stink have all been made into film adaptations with Ratburger to follow this Christmas. If you've seen any of those then you'll be familiar with the style - David Walliams' books are very stupid, very British and very, very funny.

Like many famous books, the heroes of these books are mostly outsiders who are shunned by other children for something that is harmless and beyond their control. Each book focuses on a brave child overcoming the odds to beat the baddies and each book overcomes prejudice. The boy in the dress becomes the footballing hero despite enjoying female fashions; billionaire boy eventually has friends because of who he is, not what he's worth; Ben's granny shows that old ladies aren't boring; Chloe is bullied and is the loneliest girl in the world until she meets Mr Stink, who has his own story of prejudice to tell.

Walliams is the heir to the Roald Dahl throne. There is very little to tell between styles and themes (the description above could apply to any of Dahl's books too) and even the illustrations continue the similarity - Quentin Blake and Tony Ross providing the illustrations to these books, you can't get more heavyweight illustrators than that. Dahl's canon was always too short in my mind, so to have someone take that mantle and continue running pleases me.

Where Walliams differs just slightly is his willingness to put true sadness and tragedy into some of the stories, and when I say tragedy I mean true heartbreaking tragedy. While the baddies never win, the hero's victory sometimes comes at a price. There is an astonishing depth to each book and often I need to flick back through to remind myself of the breadth of storyline that has been covered in about 2 hours worth of reading.

Walliams is a man of many talents. Whilst his sketch comedy did start to wear thin with me he soon scotched any negative vibes by raising ridiculous amounts of money for charity by completing astonishing feats, then he becomes a genuinely supportive and amusing judge on BGT and still churns out these books.I hope he churns out many more, and my library and bookshop can continue wondering who I'm getting them for when I'm still reading them in 20 years time.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Saint Etienne at RNCM - I took it all in

Today's freebie? Tickets to see Saint Etienne at the Royal Northern College of Music

Thanks to? Northern Soul


Another first for the Best Things in Life Blog. I've done albums, DVDs, smellies, days out, food, crockery, footballs and all manner of stuff. This is my first gig review, and what a wonderful gig I'm kicking off with.

Saint Etienne are a cameo of my student days. If those days were a film you'd hear 'Who do you think you are?' in the background at a Friday Night Bop in the Students' Union or tracks from the 'Tiger Bay' album thumping from a housemate's bedroom. They never quite made it to the forefront of my taste in those early to mid-nineties days when I headed more towards the rockier, guitar sound of indie pop. I don't mind, it's lovely to be able to find a whole back catalogue of a band in later life and think "I remember this", "this reminds me of so-and-so" or "wow, this is brilliant!"

Saint Etienne formed in 1990 and early tracks had a 'baggy' drum pattern of that time on songs such as 'Nothing can stop us'. Where other bands headed in a guitar direction Saint Etienne stayed with the dancier beats and are essentially a pop group, but a proper and cool pop group that retained the integrity and popularity of the indie scene.

This was my first time seeing Saint Etienne and my first time back at RNCM since my student days too, it's a wonderfully relaxed venue. I'm sure it won't be my last of either. The band treated us to a masterclass of pop music and musicianship that was a joy. They obviously have a group of loyal fans and they give those fans so much respect and love back - this was one of the most intimate gigs I've ever been to and more like a party than a gig.

Let's get one of the main things out of the way and answer the question I have been asked most since I went to see them. Is Sarah Cracknell still, you know...? The answer is yes, she is still stunningly beautiful. And funny, charming, talented, caring, empathic and pretty much perfect.


Having listened to their latest album 'Home Counties' twice during the day I was looking forward to hearing a few songs from this sublime piece of observational pop and I wasn't disappointed. My favourite track from the album ('Whyteleaf,') featured, as did 'Magpie Eyes' 'and, during the encore, the brilliantly worded 'Train drivers in eyeliner' - an anthem in theme that makes you want to shout "Yes!! Yes we do need more train drivers in eyeliner!"

Amongst the pop and observances of modern life we see Saint Etienne's caring side. This is a band that states clearly where their beliefs and allegiances lie from their Tweets during the recent election to the backdrop of "for the many not the few" that appeared throughout the night. This is a group that cares, that invites fans to dance on stage at the end of the gig and that appeals to such a diverse audience - many of Manchester's most fabulous were out on Sunday and it was magical.

Older fans weren't disappointed - 'You're in a bad way', 'Sylvie', 'Like a motorway' and, to close, 'He's on the phone' were received with joy, flamboyant dancing in the aisles and sing alongs. It's clear why Saint Etienne have such a loyal following and have continued unabated throughout their career - these aren't comeback albums and tours, these are a continuation. I'm already looking forward to the next album and tour.


(video taken from this YouTube channel)

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins, by someone who hasn't read her other book

Today's freebie reviewed - Into the water by Paula Hawkins

Thanks to? - Penguin


Wonderful to have a hardback book drop on the doormat and at £20 not one I'd have forked out for. As my Goodreads review says, I have never read the "Girl on the Train" - a 20 million selling worldwide bestseller. That makes my review look at the book purely on its own merits, I bet there aren't many of those around.

You can own this copy by scrolling down and entering my competition. It's not a review copy, it's a proper £20 off the shelf copy. Good luck.


Into the WaterInto the Water by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The next sentence is probably the most important in this review.

I have never read "The girl on the train" nor have I seen the film. The next book an author writes after a 20 million bestseller is going to draw lots of comparisons but not this one. The dust jacket biography mentions that this is Hawkins' second stand-alone thriller and it's important to note that this is standalone - as far as I am aware there are no continuities with any characters.

Nel Abbot dies just before the start of the book, drowned at a location known as the Drowning Pool. The pool has claimed several victims over the centuries, all women ("troublesome women" as one character describes them). Nel was obsessed with these women and the water and was researching for a book on them - research that seems to have got too close to uncovering secrets.

Nel's estranged sister, Jules, travels to Northumberland to look after Nel's troubled teenage daughter. It's a return to the scene of her childhood and many uncomfortable memories.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the many characters in the vicinity. Most, but not all, are in the first person. Even those chapters written in the third person still divulge inner thoughts and feelings of the character an it's these half remembered, half told thoughts that reveal a very twisted mystery. It's a mystery that goes back several decades and covers each death.

The plot thickens and stirs. Many twists are revealed throughout the book and a whole history of a small area gradually reveals itself. The chapters are short and intense, jumping from character to character and sometimes going over the same scene from several viewpoints - it's a style that is mastered and for me keeps a perfect pace. I was happy to move the plot on as a personality is gradually revealed over the course of the book, some are quite plain until the very end.

A criticism is the number of characters - there are a number to keep up with. Several are similar - quite and loyal wives who take some reading to discern which wife is which. A bit sexist of me? This is a very patriarchal book - the men control the women throughout the plots and not always through explicit aggressive dominance. This harkens back to the earliest vignette of a witch trial and the first girl to drown in the pool, men subjugating women. Despite the number of characters I did find enough depth to keep me in the story, a story that kept me guessing and gasping until the very end.

It's inevitable that there will be calls for this to be made into a film like Hawkins' first book. I don't think it's suited to that. I see this as a series that gradually reveals itself over its course. I hope they keep it in Northumberland too - any sighting of Craster is a good one.

So there you go - a standalone review of a standalone thriller. No comparison to the Girl on the Train at all, I hope that helps.

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Listed On Loquax   Into the Water hardback giveaway- worth £20!