Archive for Sandy Shawcross

Oh Dear Silvia by Dawn French

Oh dear Silvia, the new book by Dawn French is a fantastic page turner that I just couldn’t put down! What a read.

Silvia is in hospital in a coma and there she stays throughout the majority of the novel. Much of the story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of Silvia’s bedside visitors. Through all the exchanges that take place within the hospital room Suite 5 we are drip fed titbits of information that provide us with a picture of who Silvia actually is – or to be more precise, who she actually was prior to ending up in a coma. What a clever way to tell a story… Dawn French is a genius, but then again I have always known this and through seeing her on TV and recent interviews talking about her new book, I decided to buy the kindle ebook in the first place. If you buy a copy of this book on my recommendation, I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed! Go for it!

Oh Dear Silvia

I thought becoming acquainted with the characters in this way was actually making me more hungry for all the details as Silvia’s life gradually took shape in front of me. I found myself demanding to know how she ended up in hospital and as the pieces of the jigsaw begin to fit together you find yourself making assumptions accusing the characters as each one of them visit Silvia at her bedside. The phrase “You did it!” happened frequently. It’s delicious! You’re eavesdropping during an intimate family setting and you feel somehow it’s all wrong. Naughty but nice!

The cast of characters where great with lots of humour thrown into the shaping of Silvia’s south east asian cleaner and her intensive care nurse Winifred. I became so used to reading the Winifred pages that it wasn’t long before my forced pronunciations soon took a more natural flow – I feel I’m almost an expert in pigeon Jamaican/English.

On the subject of Winifred, as with the other characters, you discover some background that makes you warm to her even more particularly concerning the matter of her bullied son. The way this was handled was a masterpiece and I felt there was a real triumph for the much harangued school bullied over the bullies and the system that allows it to go on happening. Well said, Dawn! Having lost my mother recently whilst on an intensive care ward and all of us being looked after and being treated with so much care and respect I felt the character of Winnie was a tribute to those wonderful nursing staff.

Other characters included Silvia’s ex-husband Ed, her girlfriend Cat, her sister Jo, her daughter Cassie and her grand-daughter.

There are moments in the book that made me flinch somewhat and I won’t go into the details for fear of spoiling the storyline for new readers and by contrast there were moments when I laughed so much. There were tears too but overall you should have a thoroughly enjoyable experience reading Oh Dear Silvia! I’m a fan now and intend to seek out others such as A Tiny Bit of Marvellous and Dear Fatty  by our nation’s beloved Ms French.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

The first in a trilogy, this fantastic historical novel set at around the beginning of the twentieth century is indeed a book of gigantic proportions and an epic page turner into the bargain! The story takes place around the lives of five families during some major twentieth century events such as Womens’ Suffrage, World War 1 and the Russian Revolution. It starts within a mining town called Aberowen with the central character of Billy Williams. He is 13 years old and starting work in the mine for the first time, just like his father and his father’s father before him.

Fall of Giants

What I really loved about the earlier chapters of the book were all the details about mining. What was involved, how unsafe the mines as places of work were, how unfair they were as places of work with little attention paid by the owners to health and safety and how brave those individuals were having to rely on this kind of work for to maintain a livelihood. The first sign of workers standing up for themselves and they would find themselves without a job and without a home. There had to be a solidarity amongst workers to be able to push forward with workers’ rights. My grandfather was a coal miner in South Shields and though I never met him I was transfixed to the details of the horrors of mining explained in such vivid prose. I felt I was actually there at times struggling for clean air amongst all the coal dust.

Fall of Giants moved around from the cloying atmosphere of the mine shafts to the local landowner’s (and collier owner) country house through Billy William’s sister who works below stairs. Here we see how the other half live and comparisons are made between those hardworking poor families of the colliery town and those privileged few in the big house. Three years later on, the Fitzherberts of the big house host an interesting party where the guests include the King of England George V, advisor to the President of the USA Woodrow Wilson and german nobility. All this takes place on the cusp of World War 1, the Great War.

In the main this is a story that shows the changes that life can throw at you and how ordinary working people are kept within their stations by the aristocracy and while life can be so terrible at times hope can be found and change is possible – in the book, change can make things better or worse. But overall if people didn’t make a stand, things would always stay the same and who wants to live in this kind of life – an imprisonment of sorts?

This is an epic novel and the first of the trilogy. I have waited for years for the second instalment Winter of the World to appear on the shelves and at last it has arrived!

Ash by James Herbert

When asked what, throughout my 35 odd years of avid book reading, is my favourite book, my answer is always ‘the book I am currently reading’. Ash by James Herbert is my latest read and I enjoyed every page! If you want action served with your chills, this is the book to get!

The ‘Ash’ of the title is a complex absinthe drinking parapsychologist occult investigator called David Ash who for an occupation involves himself in the paranormal. A character in the book states “ghosts, they can’t harm you” – but how far from the truth this turns out to be.

If you are a James Herbert fan you may be familiar with the character of David Ash who has turned up in earlier titles such as “The Ghosts of Sleath”.

In Ash, following an inexplicable death the parapsychologist is commissioned to attend Comraich, a haunted Scottish castle with a secret agenda. He has to determine the degree of the problem and to attempt to eradicate or at the very least provide solutions as to the exorcizing of the paranormal activity that seems to exist.

Comraich Castle is a secret hiding place for people generally in the public profile who the rest of the world believes are dead but who live in secret here, for a big fee. These people live in palatial surroundings whilst below ground, within the dungeons exist those poor souls defined as criminally insane. Why are they here?

Ash by James HerbertThere is a bold array of characters in the book such as the bald assassin Cedric Twigg, the demure psychologist who Ash falls in love with, the guilt ridden ex priest now security guard at Comraich, the incestuous twins Petra and Peter, the demon love child of Hitler, the mutant “Boy”, former presidents and military genocide dictators and so on.

Ash realises before long that everyone is in danger and that an evil demon has been awakened in the Castle that in fact the castle itself and the grounds surrounding it, are in fact deadly. The first manifestation was the death of one of the guests. His body was arranged in the style of a crucifix and seemingly and impossibly stuck to a wall. The second manifestation of evil at the castle was the flies at dinner time and the third was in the form of the hunting pack of Scottish wildcats. Whatever is likely to happen next? You will be on the edge of your seat, flicking those pages ten to the dozen!

Ash by James Herbert is an exceptional read! Treat yourself!

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Make way for one of the greatest stories of all time, the epic tale of David Copperfield. This is a novel of massive proportions that I love to dig out every year (just about Christmas time) and a novel with a massive unofficial title – “The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery”.

What is so great about this book are the characters, like Macawber, Uriah Heap, Peggotty and Steerforth and, oh, there are so many more, and the ups and downs of life. Charles Dickens has you laughing one minute and crying the next! If David Copperfield were a game of Snakes and Ladders, you would need a few extra ladders!

David Copperfield by Charles DickensThe story begins in a Norfolk farmhouse with the birth of David six months after his father’s death. Several years later his mother remarries a firm disciplinarian type of character who following a skirmish with David sends him away to a boarding school, Salem House. Here David meets Steerforth, a future friend and the cruel, insidious headmaster, Mr Creakle.

This is not a happy tale so far for the young lad and things get worse before they get better. It’s not all fun and games at the boarding school but nothing prepares him for the event of his mother’s and her newborn baby’s death. He returns home for the funeral and is immediately and heartlessly sent off to slave away in a workhouse owned by David’s miserable stepfather.

Whilst at the workhouse David becomes acquainted with the brilliant legendary Dickens character of delightful Macawber who becomes his landlord. Being the kind and giving person that he is, he becomes a guardian to David and takes him under his wing… until fate has other ideas in mind for the orphan when Macawber is imprisoned for debt. David has enough at this point and left to fend for himself, decides to run away to Dover to live with his mad Aunt Betsey Trotwood. And so the fantastic story unfolds as David matures into a gentleman and looks for love and a happy ending.

Some say the story of David Copperfield is autobiographical as we learn more and more of the book’s creator. But one thing we can say is that along with Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, our christmasses would never have been the same without those memorable characters of Ebeneezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Fagin and of course David Copperfield. I’m sure the nineteenth century author would have been chuffed to pieces had he known how his books and the colourful characters within them continue to delight and entertain us way into the 21st century! My advice to anyone and everyone is, read them all!

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Enter the life and world of the Lamberts, a Midwestern fairly average American family doing their absolute best to survive the 20th century. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is about a family who are dysfunctional as a unit but as individuals on the surface appear to be making the most of what an economically booming America throws at them.

The Corrections by Jonathan FranzenThis is an excellent read and one that I don’t think I will ever recover from! Famously, this is the book chosen for the Oprah Winfrey book club and withdrawn following some disagreeable comments from the author. I’m sure this didn’t do anything to harm book sales however, at least I hope not for it would be a great loss to the good book readers of the world!

This is a story about a family that doesn’t seem to function as a unit any more (if in fact it ever did). The chief characters are Alfred and Enid Lambert, the mother and father. Alfred was always something of a tyrannical figure – a railway engineer prior to his retirement – over the family but in the present is found succumbing to the debilitating Parkinson’s disease. It is over to Enid, his wife, to take control of household affairs and to deal with and overcome the changes happening in the house. And do it alone she appears to do. A tall order.

The ‘children’, in the present day, grown up, have lives and careers miles away from their family home in St Judes. As a result of the conflicts of a changing world and the old fashioned values bestowed upon them by their parents, each of the siblings felt compelled to get away as far as they could. They each have thriving careers as banker, chef and internet teacher until the apple cart is rocked and each of their lives begin to head for disaster.

Gary, the oldest of the Lambert offspring is married with kids and is an investment banker. He is being manipulated by his wife and drinks too much tending toward depression. Some misplaced investments send his world into meltdown.

Chip, the middle child, is a teacher of computers and technology but falls for a pupil and is suspended from his job forcing him to gain employment elsewhere working for the Lithuanian crime lord on his money making investment site Lithuania.com. With great rewards comes threats, violence and nightmare.

The youngest of the children is Denise who is a talented chef in a trendy restaurant. All is going well until she becomes involved with her boss and his wife – at the same time!

The book is called The Corrections because there’s a lot that’s gone wrong with their lives with misguided and misinformed life decisions being made.

That’s the bare bones of the novel but there’s much more. Enid their mother decides she would love to have her family with her spending a good old fashioned family Christmas at home in St Jude. Kicking and screaming, the children descend and as you would expect, it gets messy, but as Denise would tell you, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs!

This is a fabulous book. I think I picked up the book in the first place because of the Norman Rockwell style artwork of a young family sitting down to family Christmas dinner on the book cover. I’m so glad that I did! If you like The Corrections, you might fancy a go at “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen too. Another excellent book! One of my all-time top ten!

Perfect People by Peter James

This is not an Inspector Roy Grace book but don’t hold it against it!

If you’re in the mood for a bit of escapism with some patches of reality combined with a fast paced thriller, you could do worse than to pick up a copy of “Perfect People” by Peter James. I’m new to his books and find they’re a lively read with great vividly described characters. Having devoured Perfect People I am now trying for size one of his Roy Grace novels “Looking Good Dead”. I have become a convert to this style of book and hungrily reading all about this sinister world packed with murder and psychopaths.

Perfect People - Peter James

In Perfect People you immediately find yourself along with the couple John and Naomi Klaesson aboard a boat off the coast of America. It soon becomes apparent that the couple are here not on holiday but with the intention in mind to design a baby along with the geneticist Dr Leo Dettore. The couple, finding that they were both carriers of the disease genes that were responsible for the terrible illness and death of their first born son have decided they need a son without the risk of dying an horrific death.

The genetics programme they are about to commence takes place offshore because it is considered immoral and not to mention illegal. The treatment is extremely expensive and they have borrowed considerable amounts of money from their friends and family.

The book takes a sinister turn when the couple meet with the geneticist to discuss the character trait they would like designed for their baby. A huge list is produced and the couple are shocked having to consider all the traits they would prefer of their child though they would just rather their child was healthy.

This was a book that took Peter James nearly 10 years to write and since starting to write it the fantasy of using genetics to create a specific make up of child has become a reality today. This raises questions like will genetic profiling lead to a Utopian society or will it be the downfall of the human race?

You can sympathise with the characters of Naomi and John, totally understanding their need to produce another child without the risks. But playing god with childbirth is something that comes with a number of risks which include threats of murder by religious cults.

Throughout Naomi’s pregnancy you fear for her life as it becomes obvious the religious group want to put an end to her life as they have done previously with other genetic profiling recipients. The suspense keeps coming even after childbirth. Watch out for the paranoia taking over as Peter James skilfully plays with your nerves. You’ll be hanging onto every word!

Ultimately and undeniably, this was an amazing read with a shocking ending, of which I will not spoil! Go read it folks! I can highly recommend it to you!

Looking Good Dead by Peter James

An adrenalin fuelled, rapid page turner Roy Grace police drama from the one of the best, Peter James, Looking Good Dead starts as it means to go on. Company owner Tom Bryce, like many of us, finds himself sat on a train to work distracted by a loud character sat opposite him, yelling at high volume into his mobile phone. At his stop, the larger than life character gets off leaving behind a CD. Tom Bryce considers running after him but doesn’t bother deciding he will hand it in to railway Lost Property (to serve the man right for annoying him with his loud phone conversation).

Looking Good DeadWhat follows is something unimaginable. Tom arrives home with the CD and decides to take a look at what is on it. He is shocked and horrified. The contents of the CD is that of a piece of film of a woman being killed in her flat. Though it is in fact a snuff movie Tom Bryce thinks the attractive girl in the CD bears more than a passing resemblance to Gwyneth Paltrow and, though disturbed by the imagery, decides the realistic footage must be acting. The next day he receives a terrifying warning from the film maker/killer.

As soon as you pick this book up you feel you can’t put it down. The characters are easily understand and as this is my first Roy Grace book I found this very well done by the author. From the creepy sadistic Albanian to the shipping forecast reciter oddball The Weatherman the bad guys do their job and send chills down your spine from the off.  The spiritualist visiting DS Roy Grace is a detective inspector in the Sussex CID with a team of interesting and very different police officers of varying abilities and character flaws. Branson was a particular favourite on his quest to bring his friend and DS Grace kicking and screaming into the modern day with fashion, music and dating advice. Grace, whose wife disappeared some time ago has just about resigned himself to never finding out what happened to her and is ready to fall in love again. In this book he decides to ask the Chief Mortician Cleo Morey out to find after hitting it off with her on their first date that just as in the case of his work, she isn’t all she seems either. Is anything straightforward in a Peter James novel?

The character Tom Bryce on the surface is a happily married man. He loves his wife Kellie despite her addiction to eBay and such like. She can’t help herself seeking out ‘bargains’ and the truth is that the funds are not as bottomless as she believes with Tom’s business suffering in the recession hit market.

What follows is some unimaginable horror as the snuff market continues to thrive undetected until Sussex CID get the break they need to put an end to it or dare I say, ‘snuff it out’.

This is an excellent read complete with total escapism and characters that you can follow in the other Roy Gace stories. What more could you ask for?

The Land Girls by Angela Huth

Get yourself settled into a comfy armchair with a pot of tea and biscuits close to hand and read all about the marvellous tales of The Land Girls by Angela Huth. The story begins in 1941 England with three girls headed towards a Dorset farm to take the place of the male farm workers who have recently been conscripted into the war effort. The girls, Prue, Agatha and Stella are not by any means familiar with the demands of farm work but are all the same answering the call to save England’s farms. The three characters are so different from one another and their backgrounds are so far removed from muck and manure that you can’t help but admire them and enjoy their ‘adventures’ (though I suppose the real Land Girls of World War 2 would never have described their farm experiences as jolly adventures! Far from it!)

The Land GirlsIt’s great getting to know the girls, Prue’s a street savvy hair stylist, swotty Aggie’s just graduated from Cambridge and Stella is madly in love with a handsome soldier. Just as so many did, when the war turned the country on its head, these girls attempt to throw themselves into unfamiliar territory…and in a lot of case, the results are hilarious!

Living on a farm is generally without its comforts but despite this, they muck in and help each other through the difficulties. I have since read a number of factual books on how our ancestors coped with the war such as “Wartime” by Juliet Gardiner and “Wartime Women” by Dorothy Sheridan and have found the subject completely fascinating. What a great story!

I was particularly interested in the farmer’s initial reactions to the girls and the considerable doubt in their minds that these girls would be up to the job. Everyone just gets on with the job in the hand and makes the best of the situation. The results speak for themselves as the girls eventually succeed in their efforts and gain the respect of those around them.

This was an entertaining tale of friendship, duty and country living. Off course, as with all wartime stories, there’s plenty of romance too. The impact of the war forced people to live for the moment because there might not be a tomorrow and this was demonstrated in the within the storyline of the farmers’ son Joe and his relationships with the girls.

I love nostalgic storylines, especially ever since reading The Land Girls by Angela Huth, other wartime tales. How heroic everyone was and how genuinely selfless everybody seemed to be. Everyone just mucked in together all joined together as one against the might of Adolf Hitler et al. Now that the wartime survivors – our grannies and granddads of that time – are largely long gone, it is from books like these that the memories of the war live on. I think we could all learn a thing or two by reading books such as this.

If you love the author and fancy trying something else out, I can recommend “Easy Silence” about the trials and tribulations of marriage and violinists.

Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale

Rachel Kelly a bipolar artist is working on a new collection of paintings in the confines of her pokey little loft studio within a Cornish seaside resort when without any warning whatsoever she has a heart attack and dies.

Notes of an Exhibition by Patrick Gale is about the life of the artist Rachel Kelly investigated (as is all too often the case with many an artist) when she becomes popular after her death. Not only are people in the public eye interested in her, so too are her family who gradually piece together the events of their mother’s life. All, including her patient and loving husband Anthony, have to pick up the pieces and to put them together to finally understand the depressed eccentric artist that was their mother and wife.

Notes From An ExhibitionThe story is presented before us in a seemingly random pattern of particular periods of time in Rachel’s life. With this in mind, what I especially enjoyed, being an artist myself, were the little segments that discussed the pieces of work painted in life by Rachel. These portions of writing would have been on the little cards found in an exhibition next to the paintings. This made me think of recent visits to an art gallery and the devouring of the information typed onto these little cards to help to understand a painting that much more. Those little cards in this book were equally as instructive. Not only did I crave this information in the book but would have devoured the actual Rachel Kelly pictures.

What I truly loved about this book was the continuing balance by Rachel Kelly of her artistic brilliance versus psychological condition. Creative dead ends are a fact of life for anyone involved in the producing and delivering of art – so the insights provided by the writer were genius in my opinion. Where does inspiration come from and how does it come about? We get a bit closer to understanding and respecting those principles. In Rachel’s case, she was on medication to even out her mood swings but became aware that her creativity was suppressed whilst on the pills. Naturally, and to the detriment of her family life, the artist stopped taking them in order to continue with her paintings having to face those familiar demons of her psychological condition.

Throughout the book, you get to know the characters around the central character who I think are brilliantly drawn from her husband Anthony who always put his wife’s life first and looked after her to her children including her youngest son Petroc. There is a daughter Morwenna who has effectively inherited her mother’s disposition and psychological difficulties and two other sons Garfield and Hedley.

This is about an artist’s family life as well as how a family suffer (and benefit) from having a mother who is bipolar. It’s a very clever story and one that I really enjoyed. Patrick Gale continues to write novels that stop you in your tracks. I can highly recommend having a read of ‘The Whole Day Through’ and ‘Ease’ by the author.

The Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert

Prepare yourself for an amazing richly atmospheric ghost story.

Writers like James Herbert and Stephen King are to blame for my overactive imagination! I have been reading Herbert ever since The Rats and The Fog hit the shelves. I can still remember the thrill of the read and how I, a mere teenager, first went upon my horror rollercoaster read as though it were yesterday! It’s good to know that there are others out there who hugely appreciate the talents of James Herbert – the king of the horror/ghost story!

The Secret Of Crickley HallThe Secret of Crickley Hall by James Herbert was fantastic! One of my favourite Herbert books! The story begins with the arrival of a family moving into the huge, forbidding but stately Crickley Hall in a place cheerfully known as the Devil’s Cleave. The family have moved as they have recently lost the young son – he tragically just disappeared. So, thinking it would be best for all, the father, the American Gabe, manages to convince everyone that moving into an old creepy mansion-like building would be just the ticket to help them move on from their tragedy.

The house is dark and as with all houses of a certain age, there are creepy sounds and puddles of water have a habit of appearing. Gabe being at work from day to day is oblivious to the paranoia that is as much a part of the house as the dust and the termites. Eve, the wife, becoming increasingly unsettled engages the services of a psychic or a paranormal investigator if you will (and who can blame her!). Throughout her grief for her son she and her daughter are hearing all sorts at night such as the sound of hasty bare footed running, the whipping sound of a headmaster’s cane etc. There is a very nasty scene where the daughter is actually whipped by a spectre who turns out to be the sadistic Cribben the ghost of the headmaster of what was previously an orphanage. As dark and atmospheric as Crickley Hall, it didn’t come anywhere near creeping me out as the character of Cribben did. Those children under his command feared him like he was the devil and he enjoyed the power that he had over them. You feel so helpless that you can’t help these innocent little children and save them from the unadulterated cruelty they have to endure in the place of the love they should be getting from their parents.

As the chills increase with nightly apparitions the story strips back the surface and takes you back to a time when Crickley Hall flooded. It was in fact during 1940 and the former orphanage was inundated with evacuees from Blitz fearing London. It turns out the children would have been much better off living in fear of the bombs in London with their mothers than in the hands of the sadistic headmaster and his sidekicks in bomb free rural Devon. Disaster ensues when the village is devastated by flood and Crickley Hall becomes terrifyingly flooded. Children used to hiding from Cribben within the wall panelling are unable to escape their self-imposed exiles and so tragically drown. We eventually discover that it is the spirits of these frightened children along with the sadistic headmaster who continue to this day to haunt the house.

If you like this book, some further reading by the same author that I highly recommend include The Magic Cottage and the Ghosts of Sleath by James Herbert.