Book Reviews

Sandra Rawlings works as a Development Officer for Lincs Inspire Libraries and also sits on a BBC Radio 2 Book Club Panel that is made up of Reading Agency representatives and library staff from across the UK.

An avid reader, Sandra also enjoys inspiring others to discover new books, authors and genres. Here she has reviewed some of the books available from RB Digital - an online service where library members can borrow e-Books and e-Audiobooks for free.

Available as an e-audiobook 

Blurb:
Ten year old Zac has never met his dad, who allegedly did a runner before he was born.  But when his mum lets slip that he’s the only man she’s ever loved, Zac turns detective and, roping in his best friend, hatches a plan to find his father and give his mum the happy-ever-after she deserves.  What he doesn’t realise, though, is that sometimes people have good reasons for disappearing.
 

 
My review:

I was excited to see a book set in Grimsby and interested to see what I recognised and what I didn’t.
 
The book was a really straightforward and enjoyable read, featuring down to earth characters it was easy to connect with, and very human stories of a boy coping with bullying and wanting to find his dad and a single mother struggling to do the best for her son and also deal with her own issues.
 
It was both funny and moving, and ultimately uplifting and positive.  I really enjoyed it and liked the characters.   If you have been wondering:  Why are so many books depressing?  - here is an antidote.
 
(PS – I read this in printed form – can’t comment on the accents on the audiobook!)

Available as an e-book and an e-audiobook

Blurb:
It’s been ten long months since Anna Fox last left her home – too terrified to step outside.  Anna’s lifeline is her window, where she sits day after day, watching her neighbours.  When the Russells move in, Anna is instantly drawn to them – a picture perfect family.  Then one evening, a frenzied scream rips across the silence, and Anna witnesses something no one was supposed to see.  But even if she uncovers the truth about what really happened, will anyone believe her?  And can she even trust herself?
 
My review:

This book was gripping and intriguing.  It made me feel so uneasy that I had to stop reading it as night drew in - a testament to the disturbing mood and tension the author creates.
 At the start the main character, Anna, seems like an unpleasant creep, as she spies on her neighbours, but once it is revealed that she is ill, unable to leave the house because of agoraphobia and coping very badly with trauma by overmedicating and prodigious drinking, my feelings changed to sympathy and worry.  I had such a clear picture of the large, dark house and Anna there alone except for the tenant of the basement flat.  For Anna, however, this environment is safety – it is the world outside that she fears.  I was interested in the details of agoraphobia and the insight into her practice as a child psychologist.
The characters are well drawn and Detective Little was a favourite of mine.  Anna is obviously an unreliable witness.  Was she hallucinating or is what she knows putting her in danger?  There was a good twist and an exciting ending.
 

Available as an e-book

Blurb:

For fifteen years the weaver Silas Marner has plied his loom near the village of Raveloe, alone and in exile, cut off from faith and human love, while amassing a hoard of golden guineas.
The novel combines humour, rich symbolism and pointed social criticism to create an unsentimental portrait of rural English life.

My review:

Silas Marner was a book I studied at school and at sixteen I was not impressed, but it has really grown on me over the years and I think about it often.  As classics go, it’s short and straightforward to read.  TV and film versions include one starring Ben Kingsley and an adaptation called A simple twist of fate from Steve Martin.
There is a wonderful cast of characters – Silas himself, the villagers of Raveloe and the squire’s family.  There is villainy and betrayal, but there is also humour, warmth and kindness.  
The rural Warwickshire setting is beautifully described and there are some scenes that stand out in my mind - the vividly detailed preparations for the squire’s New Year’s Eve party and the atmospheric cold and foggy night when so many pivotal actions, decisions and events take place.  George Eliot seems to have been a great believer in the consequences that follow from right and wrong choices and the power of community to support and heal.

Available as an e-book

Blurb:

England, the 1520s.  Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir.  Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant.  Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor.

My review:

From the very first scene, as the boy lies helpless on the cobbles, watching his father’s boot and waiting for the blow that could kill him, I knew this was a very special, very different type of historical fiction.  Vivid, gripping, with characters so swiftly drawn but so fully formed that they are alive for you straight away.  Ten pages in and I was already identifying with young Tom and I was gleeful, because this was going to be good.
Whether I should be so sympathetic to Cromwell, a man with a razor sharp mind and a dispassionate ruthlessness, I don’t know.  As you get to know him and his extended family, it is hard not to worry about what will happen to them in the vicious and treacherous times they live in.  Being used to thinking about Henry and his divorce from the perspective of Sir Thomas More and A man for all seasons, this alternative viewpoint was intriguing.
It is a long book, over 600 pages, but I was so immersed in the Tudor world, in all the plots and human drama, that it seemed to be over too soon.  It was a long wait for the next instalment.

Available as an e-book


Arthur Dent starts the day trying to save his house from destruction to make way for a by-pass. A few hours later the Earth has been destroyed to make way for an inter-galactic by-pass and the day keeps on getting stranger. By the end of the book we have encountered among other things a fish that proves God exists and therefore doesn’t, a manically depressed robot and a scientist who designed Norway. There is also the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything which may explain why the best laid schemes of mice and men do not go according to plan. As a light read on deep subjects this couldn’t be better.

Available as an e-book

Blurb:
Elizabeth Gaskell’s compassionate, richly dramatic novel features one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction, Margaret Hale.  It shows how, forced to move from the country to an industrial northern town, she develops a passionate sense of social justice, and a turbulent relationship with mill-owner John Thornton.  North and South depicts a young woman discovering herself, in a nuanced portrayal of what divides people, and what brings them together.
 

Review:
The soft, rustic south confronts the harsh, industrial north as embodied by sympathetic vicar’s daughter Margaret Hale and stern mill-owner John Thornton.
Mrs Gaskell was the wife of a Manchester clergyman in the mid-1800s and was passionate about exposing the hardship suffered by the working classes and exploring solutions.  This is a different slice of life to the stories of Jane Austen.  It has marriage proposals and romance, but it also has starving strikers, a riot and sub-plot about a mutineer on the run from the Royal Navy.  The union organiser Nicholas Higgins and his daughter Bessy have major roles.
There are lighter scenes too.  Characters I particularly enjoy are John Thornton’s dour mother and his grumpy, dissatisfied sister (beautifully played by Sinead Cusack and Jo Joyner in the 2004 BBC adaptation).  However, as much as I love this story, if you are looking for a sunny read right now, I should warn you that this book has its share of tragic moments.

Available as an e-book

Blurbs:
Northern lights
When Lyra’s friend Roger disappears, she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, determine to find him.  The ensuing quest leads them into the bleak splendour of the North, where armoured bears rule the ice and witch-queens fly through the frozen skies.
 
The subtle knife
Will has just killed a man.  He’s on the run.  His escape will take him far beyond his own world, to the eerie disquiet of a deserted city, and to a girl, Lyra.  Her fate is strangely linked to his own, and together they must find the most powerful weapon in all the worlds.
 
The amber spyglass
For all those who are dying to learn the fate of Will and Lyra, hoping for the return of Iorek Byrnison, longing to know the truth about Dust, and waiting to face the ultimate clash of opposing powers, this book has the answers.

Review:

I knew Philip Pullman as a master storyteller from such wonderful children’s books as Clockwork and I was a rat! – imaginative, humorous or frightening.  His dark materials is a trilogy of books for young adults, but its widespread appeal has been demonstrated by both film and TV adaptations.
From the start I was drawn in by bold, resourceful Lyra and her daemon Pan, by the Oxford but not Oxford-as-we-know-it setting and by the compelling intrigue, that begins in the first scene as the Master pours the powder into Lord Asriel’s wine.  In the second book we meet Will, caring and responsible, in our own world.  Again we are taken straight into a mystery as he finds a safe haven for his mother then goes home to search every inch of their house, before being interrupted by two intruders.  In the third book the strands are drawn together and Will and Lyra prepare for battle.
The scope of these stories is amazing – the huge cast of wonderful characters, the adventures, the magical beings from daemons through witches to armoured bears and angels, the finely created multiple worlds. The books are exciting, suspenseful, funny and moving.   The writing is deceptively simple yet catches you up and moves you quickly along.   On the way feelings, motives, freedom of knowledge, morality and the structures of religion - big philosophical issues -  are brought to life and explored.  With us all the way are Lyra and Will, brave and extraordinary but so human and engaging, characters that will stay with you for a long time. 

Quick Reads are designed for adults who have lost or never acquired the habit of reading for pleasure. They are short and easy to read – ideal for people who are trying to improve their reading. They are also great for those who find they don’t have enough time or attention span to manage to finish a standard length book.

The fiction books are not abridged versions of longer novels. They are specially written, often by best-selling authors. As time is short they usually take you straight into the action and proceed at a fast pace.  

Take the beginning of Clouded vision by Linwood Barclay for example:

A woman regains consciousness in a car, on a frozen lake
 -  and then the ice begins to crack…

The non-fiction books may be abridged versions of best-selling books, often biographies. These two new great new Quick Reads are both available as e-books:

 Milly Johnson received the 2020 Outstanding Achievement
Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association for her
extraordinary contribution to the field of romantic fiction.

 

Adam Kay’s This is going to hurt has
been a phenomenal success and the full
length paperback is currently in
the top 20 bestseller list.

 

Available as an e-book

Blurb:
The secret is a book and, within its pages, a love story that could change the world.

1956. A celebrated Russian author is writing a book, Doctor Zhivago, which could spark dissent in the Soviet Union. The Soviets, afraid of its subversive power, ban it. The CIA plans to use it to tip the Cold War in its favour.  Their agents are not the usual spies, however. No one looks twice at the women in the typing pool. No one knows that two of them are trading secrets. But where there is love there is pain. And where there is deception, formidable danger...
 
My review:
This is a fascinating look at a variety of scenarios from the 1950s, very effectively and credibly portrayed. I enjoyed the way the chapters are divided into East and West and within that by different viewpoints: for example the Typists, the Muse, the Swallow, and these names change as their roles or status change. In the Soviet Union we see life as a writer and as a prisoner. On the American side we see office life at ‘the Agency’ in Washington and work as a CIA agent.
I was moved and horrified by the story of Boris Pasternak and his lover. I empathised with the American women and the way they were limited by the times they lived in. It’s shocking and upsetting in places, but there’s also humour in the way they weigh it all up and wait for their chance.

The writing is excellent and the time and places beautifully created. For reading groups, it raises Issues that will make for good discussions.  And isn’t it a lovely idea – that a book can help undermine a terrifying, oppressive regime?
 

Available as an e-audiobook

Blurb:
When Alice Hale leaves a career to become a writer and follows her husband to the New York suburbs, she is unaccustomed to filling her days alone in a big, empty house. But when she finds a vintage cookbook buried in the basement, she becomes captivated by its previous owner: 1950s housewife Nellie Murdoch. As Alice cooks her way through the past, she realizes that within the pages Nellie left clues about her life. Soon Alice learns that while a Baked Alaska may seem harmless, Nellie’s secrets may have been anything but. When Alice uncovers a more sinister, even dangerous, side to Nellie’s marriage, and has become increasingly dissatisfied with her own relationship, she begins to take control of her life and protect herself with a few secrets of her own.
 
My review:
I really enjoyed this book. The quotes at the head of each chapter about the correct ways for wives to comport themselves were quite horrifying and I can’t be sure they are real.
There are two time lines in the story and this works well. We get to know Nellie and Richard from the 1950s and watch the progress of that unhappy marriage. At the same time we learn about Alice and Nate in the modern day and the secrets working on their relationship. They are linked by the house, which Alice and Nate move into. At first the house seems to resist Alice, until she finds Nellie’s recipe book and letters.
I did guess some of the plot in good time, but what was interesting for me was watching the way the two women develop. Nellie becomes more independent as she realises the mistake she has made and that she will have to find her own way out of it, within the constraints of the society of the time. Meanwhile the house and the 1950s seem to take Alice over, transforming the woman who had been horrified to find herself stranded out in the suburbs into a person her best friend cannot recognise.
Nobody really comes well out of this story, though you might feel some get what they deserve. It’s food for thought and for discussion. It left me wondering what comes next.
 

Book Reviews from National Shelf Service

CILIP’s #NationalShelfService

CILIP’s “National Shelf Service” is a new daily YouTube broadcast featuring book recommendations from professional librarians.

Focusing on helping children and families discover new, diverse reading experiences, the broadcast runs Monday to Friday at 11am each day.

National Shelf Service