No Further Questions – Gillian McAllister

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The police say she’s guilty.

She insists she’s innocent.

She’s your sister.

You loved her.

You trusted her.

But they say she killed your child.

Who do you believe?

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Gillian McAllister writes great stories.  No Further Questions is her third novel and I loved it.  Gillian McAllister doesn’t mess about. I was hooked immediately.

The story centres round a court case but it’s also about a family and how everyone is affected by a terrible tragedy. The first voice is Martha’s whose baby daughter died. She’s in Court and it’s the first day of the trial. The defence says cot death; the prosecution says murder. They can’t both be right but her sister Becky, who was minding baby Layla at the time, has been charged with murder.

The story is told through witness testimony and flashbacks and observations of the lawyers, the judge, family members and of course the two sisters, Martha and Becky. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so conflicted. I was pulled in all directions. I would go from, “there’s no way Becky murdered her niece” to “oh, I didn’t realise that, maybe she is hiding something” then something would be said that turned everything on its head again. As the story unfolded doubts crept in (on a regular basis) as to what really happened.

There are no good or bad characters. Nothing is quite black or white. They all have their flaws and their good qualities. I liked them and cared about what happened to them.

Although the story centres round a tragedy, I really enjoyed it. It’s quite an emotional roller-coaster but the writing is good, the characters are interesting and believable and I felt involved all the way through.

A book I found difficult to put down; I’d definitely recommend it.

[My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for providing a digital review copy].

You can find my earlier reviews of Everything but the Truth HERE and Anything You Do Say HERE.

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THE BEST LAID PLANS …… or, time to return to pencil and paper?

Why is it when you make plans to get up to date with admin (and blogging), technology lets you down – again!

I know I’m easily distracted but I really did intend to catch up with drafting book reviews and post a couple (I’ve read three really good books in the past month).  I had some rough notes jotted down in a Word document ready for me to transform into a few paragraphs that made sense.

Went upstairs on Friday evening, switched on the PC ….. nothing.  The computer tried to start then spluttered and died.  Tried a few things ….. still nothing.  Of course my notes are not on a shared platform, just on the PC.  Typical.

Looked out an old (ancient) laptop.  I’m pretty sure it was still working when I stopped using it but it was old and slow.  Plugged it in …… nothing.  I could hear it trying to start but again, it just died.  There wasn’t even a flicker on the screen.

I have an android tablet and a smartphone but I find it incredibly difficult to type meaningful paragraphs without making mistakes.  The keyboard part of the screen is so tiny and it’s not so easy to cut and paste and swap things around.

Late last night I found another old device and I’ve managed to get it working for now so I’m kind of using this post as a typing practice. I’m so not used to this keyboard.  Small Notebook keyboards are not great to type on (but better than a tablet!)

Oh well.  Time to get on with drafting my reviews.  Perhaps I should go back to pencil and paper.

 

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I can see clearly now …..

Well…. in one eye at least!

This isn’t a book review but I suppose it has a connection to reading.  I just have to share my joy.  I can see again!

In the second half of last year I noticed that I was losing focus when I was reading.  I usually get through books very quickly but these disappearing words were slowing me down.  I already knew from a previous eye examination that there were signs of early cataract in both eyes but they were so small as to make little or no difference to my sight.

I was pretty sure that this was no longer the case so I booked an eye test which showed that the cataract was the cause of my problem and was prescribed new glasses.  Unfortunately the new glasses didn’t help so in February my optician wrote a referral to the hospital.  I live in the UK and the eye test and hospital referral are covered by the NHS (in my case NHS Scotland) but I expected it might be a while before I would get an appointment.

However I got a letter giving me a pre-assessment appointment in April and the next day I got a letter confirming I would be offered cataract surgery within 12 weeks.  Lo and behold I got the appointment letter last Saturday and I had the surgery on Friday – just two months after my initial hospital visit.

Arrived at the hospital for 9 am and was out before 11 am.  There was a moment when I almost didn’t go through with it.  Just before my turn the surgeon called my name and took me into a room to speak to me.  He just wanted to confirm that I understood that because of an issue with my corneas (that I was unaware of) I was at greater risk of permanent damage to the cornea during the cataract surgery and I could lose the sight in that eye. I was shocked to say the least.  I am pretty sure I would have remembered if someone had told me that at the pre-assessment!  It certainly wasn’t something I wanted to hear just before going into surgery.  Anyway he went off to deal with his next patient on the list and I had a serious think and when he came back said I had decided to go ahead.

The actual procedure didn’t take long.  I don’t think it was any longer than 15 minutes and possibly less – and it was painless.  More importantly, it had gone to plan.  A clear plastic shield was taped over my eye, I was taken round to another area and given a cup of coffee and biscuits.  A nurse spoke to me about aftercare, gave me two bottles of eye drops with instructions on how often to use them and I was free to go.  I was glad that part was over.

By the time I got downstairs, even with the eye shield, I already felt things were brighter and clearer but I was to keep the shield on until the next morning then start using the drops.

The effect the next morning was amazing. It was as if everything was in high definition and so much brighter.  I could read the number plates of the cars in the car park, the wooded areas around my house now have depth.  I hadn’t realised how much better my eyesight could be.  I was ecstatic.  I couldn’t quite believe it.  I kept looking out of the window.  I couldn’t stop smiling. Remember this was just 24 hours after the surgery.  At the back of my mind I know there could still be complications over the next few weeks but today, Sunday, things are wonderful.  I’m still smiling.

The National Health Service gets a lot a criticism but I am just so grateful to NHS Scotland and the Golden Jubilee National Hospital.  I understand in the USA basic cataract surgery can cost $3000 – $3500 (although hopefully medical insurance pays for some of this).  Paying privately in the UK is not cheap either.  In Scotland however we get this free at the point of delivery.  Thank you NHS Scotland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Days of Wonder – Keith Stuart

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Description:

Tom, single father to Hannah, is the manager of a tiny local theatre. On the same day each year, he and its colourful cast of part-time actors have staged a fantastical production just for his little girl, a moment of magic to make her childhood unforgettable.

But there is another reason behind these annual shows: the very first production followed Hannah’s diagnosis with a heart condition that both of them know will end her life early. And now, with Hannah a funny, tough girl of fifteen on the brink of adulthood, that time is coming.

With the theatre under threat of closure, Hannah and Tom have more than one fight on their hands to stop the stories ending. But maybe, just maybe, one final day of magic might just save them both.

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What a wonderful book!  I did wonder if Days of Wonder would be as good as Keith Stuart’s first novel,  A Boy Made of Blocks (one of my favourite books) but it is just as enjoyable.  You can read my review of A Boy Made of Blocks HERE.

It’s a story about Tom, a single father and manager of a small provincial theatre and Hannah his 15 year old daughter who was diagnosed with a serious heart condition at the age of 5. Tom and Hannah tell their story in alternating chapters supported by a wonderful cast of characters – mainly members of the local drama group who are like Tom and Hannah’s extended family having always been there for Tom and his daughter. It’s Tom and these friends who make the magic happen for Hannah.

Hannah knows her health is failing and her life could be cut short at any moment. Not only is Tom worrying about his daughter, his theatre is threatened with closure. While Tom is constantly worrying about Hannah she just wants to be like a normal teenager and do the things young people do. She also wants her dad to find a girlfriend so he will have someone when Hannah is no longer around. Her efforts to set her dad up with someone are very funny.

It didn’t take long for me to become hooked. Keith Stuart has a great writing style, easy to read and yet there is so much in it. I felt as if I knew the characters and I would have loved to have been part of the group.

It’s a story of fathers and daughters, friendship, love, family, community. The words that come to mind are: funny, tragic, joyous, glorious, triumphant, magical, heart warming and more. It brings out lots of emotions.

You might think that given the nature of Hannah’s medical condition and her prognosis it could all turn out rather depressing. It’s anything but. It’s wonderful. (And it’s a book I will definitely read again!) 

Publication date (hardcover and kindle)  – 7 June 2018

[My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy]

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Letters to Iris – Elizabeth Noble

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Description:

Tess has a secret – one which is going to turn her life upside down in just nine months’ time. The only person she can confide in is her beloved grandmother. But Iris is slipping further away each day. Then chance brings a stranger into Tess’s life. Gigi’s heart goes out to Tess, knowing what it’s like to feel alone. She’s determined to show her that there’s a silver lining to every cloud. As their unlikely friendship blossoms, Tess feels inspired to open up. But something still holds her back – until she discovers Iris has a secret of her own. A suitcase of letters from another time, the missing pieces of a life she never shared. Could the letters hold the answers that Tess thought lost for ever? An uplifting, unforgettable story about keeping secrets, taking chances and finding happiness where you least expect it. 

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I enjoyed this book very much. I think the first thing that attracted me was the cover. According to the description it’s “a gloriously uplifting story about love in all its forms… “ This is definitely true!

Letters to Iris is about family relationships, friendship, secrets, old love, new love, the beginning and ending of love, rekindling of love, Loss, joy, hope.. Wonderful.

Tess is 35 and unexpectedly pregnant. When she eventually tells him, her boyfriend Sean doesn’t want her to have the baby. He has been offered a job in New York and wants Tess to go with him. They break up. Tess is very close to her 95 year old grandmother Iris who brought her up but now has dementia. She has a difficult relationship with her mother Donna.

Gigi is married to Richard and has three adult children and a baby granddaughter. She’s beginning to feel that she’s taken for granted and that she and her husband Richard are growing apart.

Iris is taken into hospital and subsequently moves into a nursing home. The dementia is getting worse and her capacity to understand is disappearing. Tess tries to tell her about the baby but knows her gran doesn’t really take in what she’s saying.

Tess and Gigi meet by chance at the nursing home when Gigi is visiting her father in law who also has dementia and despite everything become friends. Both have made huge changes in their lives – Tess broke up with Sean and moved into her mother’s house while her mother was overseas. Gigi separated from her husband Richard and moved into a flat on her own.

Gigi is a lovely character: caring and warm-hearted. She’s concerned about Tess and and as their friendship grows, Tess starts to open up a bit.

There is a bit of depth to the main characters. I felt as if I knew them. The other characters are interesting too – Gigi’s family, Tess’ friend Holly and her family and Donna. They also have their stories.

Secrets from the past are revealed when Tess is clearing out her gran’s house. Tess and her friend come across an old suitcase containing photos and letters to her grandmother. As Tess went through it she discovered things about her grandmother’s earlier life she had never known about. Tess had never met her grandfather Wilfred but Iris only talked about him and their small family – Donna and Tess – no other family. That was all quite emotional.

I thought the letters that Tess wrote each month to her unborn baby were lovely – a sort of progress report of the pregnancy and other thoughts.

The author skillfully brings all the various threads together to create a well-written, ultimately heart-warming, story.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for providing a digital review copy].

 

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The Valley at the Centre of the World – Malachy Tallack

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Description

‘The thing he felt ending was not just one person, or even one generation; it was older, and had, in truth, been ending for a long time . . . It was a chain of stories clinging to stories, of love clinging to love. It was an inheritance he did not know how to pass on.’

Shetland: a place of sheep and soil, of harsh weather, close ties and an age-old way of life. A place where David has lived all his life, like his father and grandfather before him, but where he abides only in the present moment. A place where Sandy, a newcomer but already a crofter, may have finally found a home. A place that Alice has fled to after the death of her husband.

But times do change – island inhabitants die, or move away, and David worries that no young families will take over the chain of stories and care that this valley has always needed, while others wonder if it was ever truly theirs to join. In the wind and sun and storms from the Atlantic, these islanders must decide: what is left of us when the day’s work is done, the children grown, and all our choices have been made?

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The Valley at the Centre of the World was on my wish list so I was delighted when the publisher approved me to download a preview copy.

I have to confess.  I have an interest here.  I love visiting Shetland.  My grandmother was born and brought up in Dunrossness and although the family moved to mainland Scotland in the 1920s when she was in her teens, I still have relatives who live in Shetland.

I found the book an enjoyable and easy read about the inhabitants of  one remote valley in Shetland over the course of almost a year – the ones who were rooted there, the ones who arrived and left, the ones who arrived and stayed a while.  While it is not a fast, exciting read I liked the style and enjoyed reading about the various characters and their interactions.  For me there was a sort of familiarity with the people and place.  There is just the right amount of back story for each of the characters too.

It’s just a fact that there are some who can’t wait to leave Shetland and others who can’t imagine wanting to settle anywhere else.  My grandmother was one of those who went ‘hame’ to Shetland for her holidays most years until she was well into her 80s.

Some of the dialogue is written in Shetland dialect but there is a helpful glossary at the beginning of the book.  I loved the lines written in dialect.  It brought these characters to  life.  I could picture the scenes and the Shetland humour comes through too.  I didn’t find it difficult to understand but perhaps I had the advantage of growing up listening to my great grandfather, my grandmother and her eight sisters.  Don’t let the dialect parts put you off.  I think it makes the characters seem more real.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Canongate Books for providing me with a digital review copy].

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The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

 

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Forced to flee the scandal brewing in her hometown, Catherine Goggin finds herself pregnant and alone, in search of a new life at just sixteen. She knows she has no choice but to believe that the nun she entrusts her child to will find him a better life.

Cyril Avery is not a real Avery, or so his parents are constantly reminding him. Adopted as a baby, he’s never quite felt at home with the family that treats him more as a curious pet than a son. But it is all he has ever known.

And so begins one man’s desperate search to find his place in the world. Unspooling and unseeing, Cyril is a misguided, heart-breaking, heartbroken fool. Buffeted by the harsh winds of circumstance towards the one thing that might save him from himself, but when opportunity knocks, will he have the courage, finally, take it?

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I’m not sure where to start with my review of The Heart’s Invisible Furies to do this wonderful book justice. I loved it, right from the start, even before Cyril Avery officially appears (although he is the narrator in the story). It was a delight to read. There is a wonderful kind of rhythm to the writing. John Boyne’s characters are so vivid and real. I could see them. I could hear them speak. I felt as if I knew them.

It’s 1945, West Cork, Ireland. The book opens with a young girl, 16 year old Catherine Goggin, being denounced by the priest in front of the congregation at Sunday mass and cast out by Father Monroe and her family. Her crime? Being pregnant, unmarried and refusing to name the father. She’s told to go and never return and so leaves for Dublin where she manages to get a place to stay and a job and later gives birth to a baby boy.

Cyril is adopted by a rather eccentric couple who had no children of their own. They are not bad people but Cyril grows up, often being left to fend for himself and there isn’t much affection shown to him. Charles Avery would always make it clear that Cyril was adopted and not a real Avery.

He realises he is not like other boys. He has no interest in girls and even at the age of 7 he becomes secretly obsessed by his friend Julian who had no idea of Cyril’s infatuation.

I felt lots of different emotions – anger at the hypocrisy and small mindedness of the church and state, and sad at Cyril’s plight – he had quite an unconventional upbringing and he seemed lonely and in need of a friend. He just wanted to live his life but of course at the time it was a criminal offence to be homosexual. It’s horrific the way homosexuals were treated. But the story is also very funny and witty and a joy to read.

The book is divided into three parts and an epilogue: I Shame, II Exile and III Peace. It spans 70 years, moving from Dublin to Amsterdam where Cyril meets his future partner then later to New York where he has to face a terrible and unexpected tragedy. However during these 70 years Cyril and Catherine’s paths cross several times without either of them realising. It also took 70 years for Cyril to realise he is finally happy.

This has to be one of my favourite reads of the past year. It’s also a book I would be happy to read again and there aren’t too many of those.

 

 

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