So lockdown life has me reading a lot more than ever. I thought I had one or two books to review and then I sat down to write a couple of reviews and realised that I have literally been escaping from all the troubles of 2020, inside the cover’s of a book.
Real books of the paper kind, audible books of the “listen as fast as you can” kind and e-books. I have to say I am not a natural e-book reader and I take forever to get through them… but genuine books and audible books I tend to get into and fly. Here are my reads from Penguin Random House that I have been winding my way through over the last few months of lockdown.
The Family Holiday
As we are heading into the holidays, this is the most perfect read. It has all the good and hearty feels, a comfortable book that would be equally good to read on a beach chair or cosy up in bed, whatever the weather. This is the story of the Chamberlain family, three kids all grown with their own families and their own troubles, and Charlie their dad. Charlie’s late wife Daphne was one of those perfect moms that held everything together: who visited when, kept up to date with the kids and grandkids, and all sorts of little family details. Charlie isn’t just missing Daphne, he is missing it all… so he books a ten day holiday in the countryside and invites everyone along under the banner of his eightieth birthday. This could go either way, really.
Laura, Charlie’s eldest daughter has just split up with the love of her life and is feeling somewhat stranded with her teenage son. She has been happily parenting for sixteen years and didn’t see the split coming. She is trying to find herself again. Nick is a widower, and is single handedly raising three small feisty children, his stunning wife was lost in a fatal car crash the year before, and his heart may never recover. And finally, Scott, their youngest whose intention it was to make loads of money has been swept off his feet in love by an American instagram influencer, and finds himself suddenly step-dad to two teenage daughters. This holiday in the beautiful Cotswolds could go either way, it could split the family of flawed characters or it could bring everyone together, despite all their issues. I loved this read, the characters were real and flawed and one can’t help liking them and wanting things to go well for them. The book reads like a fly on the wall and you get to see the family figure things out over the holiday. It could have been disastrous, but it wasn’t… fantastic holiday read, I highly recommend it. (If you love Katie Fforde, then you are going to love Elizabeth Noble… just saying!!!)
The Gates of Athens
I love historical fiction and I love how Conn Iggulden has created saga after saga and series after series of historical fiction. This book is set in Athens in the time of the Persian wars. Athens and Persia are at war and the political infighting in Athens could end all that the Athenians are so proud of. The book begins with the Battle of Marathon, the Persian King has thousand upon thousand slave soldiers at hand. Persian King Darius stands against Xanthippus, the definition of an Athenian through and through… as the warring days continue, so the political infighting in Athens continues. Turns out there are a number of noble thinkers who would like Xanthippus out of town, and they plot to get rid of him… but the Persians continue to put pressure on the Athenians… and all Xanthippus can do is watch as his beloved city finds itself under renewed threat, when the Persians cross at Hellespont.
I love how Iggulden brings history to life, I love how you get to see the heroes in their natural habitats, the complicated relationships with each other, with their families, their wives and their servants. Not only that, the whole time we are meeting and holding out hope for our very fallible heroes… the Athenians continue to be at war with the Spartans… and then they have to call on their rivals Sparta for help. The whole Athens vs. Sparta dilemma could be another entire book… and yet it is only a sub-story in the play out between the Greeks and the Persians. I listened to the audible version of this book and if you love Ancient History, then this is a great read.
To Tell You the Truth
If you are looking for a riveting suspense filled read, then this is it… really it. Totally unputdownable… A whole lot of extenuating circumstances, a whole lot of little coincidences and the author has her readers turning and turning the pages. This is the story of Lucy and her husband, Dan… the apparently perfect couple. She is a crime writer and he is a wannabe writer – turned house husband, providing all the support and encouragement required to keep his wife writing bestseller after bestseller. Already you can see, while he is supporting and spending, she is working and keeping the the cash flowing. That dynamic creates tension from the start but is the “wannabe writer” that ultimately creates havoc in their lives.
There is of course, a deep dark mystery. When Lucy was nine years old she headed into the woods on mid-summmer night’s eve… her little brother insisted on going with her, or threatening to scream the house down and wake every one up. Of course he went with her, and of course under the cover of magic of the evening, he never returned. Lucy has done everything to escape her past, but for some reason Dan keeps trying to return to it… there are creepy woods, underground bunkers, extremely odd neighbours, characters from the very distant past that keep appearing out of the woodwork and dozens of red herrings. If you like something a little bit unusual, if you enjoy a certain fear factor… then this is an excellent read. I really enjoyed it, couldn’t read it fast enough. Compelling, but light… another fantastic holiday read.
The Midwife Murders
If you are looking for a fast weekend read, with a little suspense and a lot of crime, then you can always rely on James Patterson. He is a prolific author majoring in crime and mystery and suspense… for all ages. In this adult novel, Senior Midwife Lucy Ryuan, who is charmingly human, works in a Manhattan hospital. The work is exhausting and relentless and this single mom relies on her downstairs neighbour to help her raise her son. She is busy round the clock and trying to make ends meet and keep her tyrannous bosses happy… all the while caring for moms when they need it most. When a kidnapping occurs in the hospital, Lucy is horrified, when a second one occurs, she has her suspicions… things do get a little crazy for her and she does end up working with the police, just a little bit… The point is, if you are looking for a quick holiday crime read… then James Patterson won’t fail you and neither will Lucy Ryuan. This is not a classic or even a keeper, just a great story about Lucy, who is a very likeable character, who finds herself in the middle of a on infant kidnapping drama and works hard to get herself out of the drama as fast as she can.
Before I opened this book, I had a feeling that it would be a good read. When the main character is a mathematics professor what can go wrong? I dived in only to discover a somewhat tricky read… but oh so interesting. Not a quick read, I had to linger a bit and I’ll tell you why in a second. The story is about Grant McAllister, a math professor turned author, who devised the perfect formula for a detective novel: you need a victim, a perpetrator and a detective. He proceeds to write a collection of seven perfect mysteries, and then returns to his mathematical world and leaves the mystery book to settle for a number of years.
Decades later, an ambitious editor decides to re-publish the stories and so, Julia Hart enters the story. We read through the stories with her, and this is why I had to linger… each murder mystery has a somewhat Victorian feel to it, in that it is all frightfully proper and English on the surface, but somewhat dark and macabre as you dig deeper… the further into the stories you go, so the crimes became darker and darker, hence I had to pause a little between it. Meanwhile, while reading through the stories Julia finds some inconsistencies. This is an old-time detective story with a twist… you do need to have your wits about you while reading… because the book keeps returning back to the scene… it is a good read, not a quick read. If you like to spend a little time ruminating over a book, then you will love it.
Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy
Agent Sonja is an interesting read about a woman who is a housewife in rural England during the Cold War — entirely above suspicion — but also a Russian spy. The book follows her fascinating life, from her beginnings in Germany, through to her travels East, and finally to England, but all the while attempts to answer two questions: how did she become who she was, and how did she navigate the tensions of her split character: mother and spy?
The book is a dense read, and details Sonja’s life well, both describing her experiences and her inward feelings well. There is an interesting movement throughout the book in the sense that one begins to feel more and more distant from her inner thoughts and feelings — either unintentional or brutally deliberate, describing her increasing struggle to choose the right path.
One gets the sense that this book is the story of someone trying to be authentic to who they really are — all the while being quite uncertain as to which identity more closely fits — mother or spy. The overall tone is realistic and almost regretful; though it’s hard to tell, as it celebrates the boldness of Sonja’s choices while wishing that perhaps she’d gone another way. If you love a true-life cold-war spy story, with a strong female lead then this is for you, this is no quick read, it is dense… and packed with detail.
When I saw that this book was more than 600 pages long I immediately downloaded the audible version. When I realised that it was the second in a series, then I downloaded the first one as well. That being said, the only thing that travels between the two books is the names of the characters and the story within a story… (except it is a novel within a novel), format. So you can start with either bookMy kids are massive Anthony Horowitz fans, and have inhaled every single one of his books… several times, I decided to fully commit and give The Magpie Murder Series a try.
Back to the books, these are murder mysteries written so as to belong in the golden age of crime writing. Alan Conway is a crime writer, he writes the novel within the novel, murder mysteries that are set in the English Countryside, think Midsomer Murders, with a touch of Agatha Christie. His detective, Atticus Pünd, is solving a murder mystery. Meanwhile, Susan Ryeland is Alan Conway’s editor and the chief player in the main story… she realises as she reads further and further into Alan Conway’s novel that there is more to this story than meets the eye.
In book two in the series, Susan Ryeland has moved away to Crete, where she now runs, somewhat raggedly, a hotel with her fiancé. She is pulled back to England when real circumstances parallel rather too closely to the characters in another of Alan Conway’s mysteries… and again it is Inspector Pünd to the rescue, surely the secrets to solving this new case are lurking between the pages of his novel. If you are looking for a good detective story, that will last your entire holiday… then this series is the way to go. It looks like two books in the series… but since each book is actually two books in one, it is actually four books… so reading value for money right there.
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These books were given to us for review purposes by Penguin Random House South Africa. (I have bought the audible books myself). This is not a sponsored post and opinions expressed are entirely our own.