January books

12. Motherland – Maria Hummel
Story: This is the story of a German family in the final stages of World War 2. Leisl married Frank only months after his first wife died in childbirth, leaving him with three sons. They have only a month together before Frank, a surgeon is drafted into the army and sent away. Leisl is left behind to mother the three boys (rebellious Hans, dreamy Ani and baby Jurgen) and keep the family together as Germany crumbles.
Things I liked: The writing of this one was lovely, the way it described Leisl’s struggles and her relationships with her sons, her husband, and even the ghost of the ex-wife. I loved the way that Leisl really became the boys’ mother and cared for them so deeply. I also liked the focus on female friendship and solidarity during the difficult times, as nearly all German men were drafted into the army and sent away.
Things I didn’t like: Nothing specifically. It wasn’t a thrilling page-turner, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Thoughts: I tend to enjoy historical fiction and memoirs set during the period of the second World War, and this was based on the true history of the author’s family so it was kind of both. It was interesting to read about the experiences of an ordinary German family during the war and the way their thoughts barely touched on the Jewish experience going on at that point in time. The author said at the end that she started writing with the questions what did they know and when did they know it? in mind, but that as she wrote and researched and thought she realised that it was a very difficult question to answer, and that the answer didn’t really inform any of the character’s actions. Instead she began writing her story with the question of love in mind- who did these people love, what did they do for that love?- and she created a touching story of family and friend and romantic love.

11. Swimming Sweet Arrow- Maureen Gibbon
Story- Evangeline is living in a dead end town, with nothing much going on in her life but her boyfriend Del and her best friend June, and the various jobs she takes on to earn a living.
Things I liked: I liked the rawness and realness of this book. There was a lot of extremely explicit sex scenes and talk about sex, and although it was honestly a bit much sometimes it also gave Vangie a certain vulnerability and openness as a narrator that made her relatable.
Things I didn’t like: That everyone called Evangeline ‘Vangie’! It’s a horrible name, and considering all the discussion and description of sex I just kept thinking ‘vagina’ every time I looked at it!
This book was also vaguely depressing. I hate the idea that there are young girls who live like that, without any particular hopes or dreams for the future and without feeling as though they have strong agency in their own lives. Yet I know that there are so many girls who do live like that and for whom this book would just reflect their reality. There’s no simple answer to giving people chances and opportunities to change their lives, or for doing anything about it if people don’t want to change. In the end Vangie DID find her strength, which I did like, but there was a lot leading up to that and I wasn’t left feeling buoyed up with optimism about her future.
I also didn’t like the cover, which is a stupid objection, but whatever. It had a girl doing a backflip in to water and all you could see when you looked at it was her crotch- probably not inappropriate given the heavily sexual nature of the book, but it didn’t really look like much. Actually, I didn’t like the title either…why did I even pick this up to read it?
Thoughts: I’ve obviously written more about what I didn’t like than what I did like, but overall I DID like this book. It was real and harsh, but also showed some beautiful moments of tenderness between Vangie and her friend and boyfriend and the way their relationships changed and developed as life circumstances changed.

10. All I Can Handle: I’m No Mother Theresa – Kim Stagliano
Story: A memoir by a woman who is mother to three daughters severely affected by autism.
Things I liked: The humour in this book was good; Kim’s life cannot be easy but she put a pretty funny spin on the mess and chaos of raising autistic children. I enjoyed reading about the strength of the family, and the strength of Kim’s marriage- autism has been a challenge for them but doesn’t ever seem to have come close to beating them.
Things I didn’t like: Kim believes that autism is both treatable and curable- she’s very into the supplement/ diet/ allergy/ immune system ways of treating it, and believes absolutely in vaccine injury and vaccine as an autism trigger. It’s not that I didn’t like that exactly, because it’s always interesting to read about someone else’s differing viewpoints and see where we overlap, but it’s not quite where I’m at with the issue.
Thoughts: I enjoyed this book. It’s not a chronological autobiography and it’s as much about being an ‘autism mom’ as it is about the diagnosis and treatment of her daughters. I could definitely relate to parts of it, and I really enjoyed Kim’s voice and the stories of her family. I actually went and looked up her blog and was happy to see that the family are all still together and seem to be doing well.
I think in the end Kim and I are dealing with completely opposite ends of the autism spectrum and are approaching dealing with it from different directions. I will never believe that Nicholai’s autism is anything other than hardwired into his brain. At the same time, I don’t disbelieve Kim’s feelings about what has triggered/ affected her daughters. The more I see and read about the vast differences in symptoms and abilities and co-diagnoses in people with what is now called ‘autism spectrum disorder’ the more I wonder if what we’re dealing with is just variation on a theme. I think there’s a reasonable chance that we will eventually discover a whole range of specific issues and causes that lead to autistic behaviour, and I do think that for some children it is going to be that they are particularly vulnerable to environmental influences. I don’t really know, it’s interesting but I don’t keep up with the latest scientific research going on and it’s very hard to find anything unbiased.

9. The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker
Story: This is the story of Julia, an ordinary Californian eleven year old living through the extraordinary. One Saturday she, along with the rest of the world, woke up to discover that the earth’s rotation is slowing. The changes brought about by ‘the slowing’ alter the fabric of the earth, along with Julia herself and all the relationships surrounding her.
Things I like: This was an oddly paced book and the writing had a dreamy kind of feel about it that drew me in. I really loved the premise of it – hardcore sci-fi fans might think the science behind it a little too vague, but it worked for me. I loved the way details of the worldwide catastrophe were mixed through with the very small, ordinary details of Julia’s life so that both seemed important.
Things I didn’t like: Julia, maybe? She was just a peculiarly colourless character for the central story pivot.
Thoughts: This book was fascinating. I’ve always had a thing for dystopian YA fiction and this one was quite different to most as it detailed the slow disintegration of the earth/society rather than beginning after the apocalypse. I would have loved to know more of what happened. This is one I would recommend.

8. Maeve’s Times – Maeve Binchy
Story- Not a story, but a collection of articles and columns that author Maeve Binchy wrote for the Irish Times from the 1960s to the 2000s.
Things I liked: I love Maeve Binchy’s novels, so I was interested to see what her columns were like. I’m so glad I read this one, because it was wonderfully engaging. Her style is just like listening to a friend talk. Her columns varied- there were thoughts and opinions on the royal weddings, politics, relationships, travel, friendships and writing, and since they covered about forty years it was a really interesting view of society.
Things I didn’t like: Not much, honestly. There were a few columns that were written about celebrities or Irish politics that I didn’t have the background knowledge to fully understand, but I’d hardly say that I didn’t like them, just that I didn’t really get as much out of those particular ones.
Thoughts: I liked it a lot. I think anyone who like Maeve Binchy’s fiction would appreciate her non fiction just as much.

7. The Silence of Ghosts – Jonathan Aycliffe
Story: Dominic Lancaster loses a leg in WW2 and is invalided home. To avoid the Blitz in London he travels to the family’s second home in the Lake District, taking with him his ten year old sister Octavia. There they will be safe from the bombing while Dominic learns to deal with his new disability.
But at Hallinghag House, things are not as they seem. The deaf Octavia can hear things, music and whispers and people talking to her. There are children that are there one minute and gone the next, and no one is sure of their purpose. All that is certain, is that something beyond Dominic and Octavia exists in Hallinhag House…
Things I liked: Some of it was really spooky. I liked the character of Rose (district nurse and love interest for Dominic) and the way their relationship developed. I also liked that it wasn’t as gruesome as the previous book from this author that I read a week or so ago (Naomi’s Room).
Things I didn’t like: The ending seemed somewhat rushed and didn’t really make a lot of sense to me. I didn’t like what happened to Octavia, because she was my favourite character.
Thoughts: A good, spooky haunted house story and a quick read. It built the tension nicely, although I wasn’t really impressed with the ending. Once again I wonder if scary stories are really for me though!

6. The Killer Next Door – Alex Marwood.
Story: In a grimy old house in London, six people rent rooms. All have their own secrets, all have their reasons for being there. But for one of them that secret is deadly, and as a heatwave builds outside so does the tension in the house, as all the inhabitants come closer to exposure.
Things I liked: The way the author managed to write so many characters and make them all have personalities and motivations. The book’s focus moved between the characters, but it was always easy to remember the details about each one and link their personal stories to the overall narrative.
Things I didn’t like: The way the killer was revealed. It just seemed to come out of nowhere at that point- it didn’t really impact the story in a negative way, it just surprised me.
Thoughts: I liked this one a lot. Well-paced, well-constructed and interesting. Creepy killer and avoided clichéd drama and overdone suspense about nothing.

5. Then You Were Gone – Lauren Strasnick
Story: One night Adrienne receives a voice message from her former best friend, who she hasn’t spoken to in two years. She doesn’t call back. Now Dakota is missing, leaving behind her a boyfriend, a note, and a lot of questions. Adrienne’s own life begins to unravel as she obsesses over Dakota and what happened to her, and what really happened to end their friendship.
Things I liked: Adrienne’s relationship with her mother’s live-in boyfriend. I liked that this was done so that they were friends, and Adrienne had an adult to talk to that was non-judgemental and drama-free. I also liked the character of Kate and the way she took care of Adrienne and supported her even when she didn’t really understand what her friend was going through (mostly because Adrienne didn’t explain to her, not because she couldn’t empathise).
Things I didn’t like: I just really didn’t get why Adrienne became SO obsessed with Dakota and what had happened to her. They hadn’t been friends in two years, which is a pretty long time when you’re a teenager- it didn’t really make sense to me the way Adrienne turned her whole life upside down (avoiding her friends, flunking out of lit class, skipping school and smoking etc) because of Dakota. I also didn’t like what eventually happened with Adrienne and the teacher- it’s wrong that he should have got away with it.
Thoughts: I liked the writing, I’d like to try something else by the author, but this story didn’t really grab me.

4. The Theory of Opposites – Allison Winn Scotch
Story: Willa thinks she’s got it all sorted out until she gets fired from her job and then her husband proposes a three month ‘break’. Suddenly she finds herself questioning the theory that her father wrote a book about and that she’s based her life on – does fate control our lives?
Things I liked: I liked the concept of ‘write your own map’ and of people taking control of their lives and trying to shape things, rather than just passively accepting the status quo. I liked that Willa let herself be challenged. I liked the character Raina, who for me seemed like the most solid personality coming out of the book.
Things I didn’t like: Willa! My god, she was so annoying. I realise that the whole book was based around her being kind of bland until she challenges fate and accepts that she controls her own destiny, but she was pretty pathetic. I also didn’t like her friend who got her on the challenges and stuff- she was bossy and mean and I don’t understand why she and Willa would have been friends at all.
Thoughts: It was an interesting concept and the storyline was well done, but I don’t think it’s ultimately that memorable.

3. The Museum of Intangible Things – Wendy Wunder
Story: Hannah and Zoe live in a dead-end, nowhere town and have been friends for years. They go to school, hang out, and try and teach Zoe’s little brother with autism about the ‘intangible things’ his brain finds it hard to process. Zoe’s always been the wild and crazy one, but now things are getting just a bit out of hand and so Hannah and Zoe take off on a road trip that will change everything.
Things I liked: Road trip! I loved the friendship between Zoe and Hannah, and Hannah’s genuine acceptance and care over Zoe’s mental illness. I loved Noah, and the idea of the ‘Museum of Intangible Things’ that Zoe was creating for him.
Things I didn’t like: The ending? Sort of didn’t like it- I mean it was good in terms of the story but it was sad and kind of bleak if you look at it in terms of the mental illness angle.
Thoughts: A good, solid friendship and coming of age story.

2. Naomi’s Room – Jonathan Aycliffe
Story: Charles and Laura Hillenbrand lead an idyllic academic life in Cambridge until their daughter Naomi is kidnapped on Christmas Eve. Once her murdered body is discovered odd things begin happening in their home, and Charles finds himself being increasingly drawn in to a terrifying supernatural mystery.
Things I liked: It was scary as hell! Flesh crawlingly creepy, and very well paced to maintain the tension. Spooky children, spooky photographs…I was really drawn in.
Things I didn’t like: The ending didn’t really satisfy. It had a really high gore factor and it was like it all just came to an end incredibly quickly.
Thoughts: I honestly don’t know if creepy/ horror books are my thing! I love reading them and feeling all creeped out, but despite being a grown up my imagination really does run away with me and I find it hard to get the scary stuff out of my mind.

1. Suddenly Royal – Nichole Chase
Story: Post-grad student Samantha is surprised to discover that she is in fact the last remaining member of one of the royal families of a country called Lilaria. Rather than finish her PhD and continue her work with birds, she’s suddenly wearing a lot of dresses and returning to ‘her’ country to take up her title. Of course there are a few complications- her father’s declining health, changing her whole life, and a little matter of the crown prince Alex.
Things I liked: It was a cute sort of romance, Sam and Alex were pretty believable characters and I liked the humour between them and the way the relationship built up.
Things I didn’t like: It lacked a bit of emotional punch- it was cute and fun to read but ultimately forgettable I think. The sex scenes too seemed somehow out of place- not that they were having sex but the way it was described!
Thoughts: More adult version of the Princess Diaries I guess, but it wasn’t as funny as that. It was interesting to read this story from a more adult perspective (person discovers they’re royal being done multiple times before) but I will always love Mia of the Princess Diaries more, as well as A Royal Pain by Ellen Conford.

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