Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom

alone time

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and when I do it has to be on a topic that I’m particularly interested in.  One of those topics is travel, and so I was delighted to be offered the chance to review Alone Time by New York Times journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom.

Alone Time documents Rosenbloom’s experiences of travelling alone in four cities through four seasons – Paris in Spring, Istanbul in Summer, Florence in Autumn, and her own city of New York in Winter.  Throughout she explores not only the practicalities of travelling alone, but also the psychology behind it, and the book is filled with wonderful statistics, quotes, and anecdotes highlighting the benefits of taking some time for ourselves, whether that be in our own home and city or whilst venturing further afield.  One of the key messages in Alone Time is the benefit of being able to really enjoy the moment; to take a step back and savour an experience – be it a meal, a piece of art etc. – something that we don’t always have the opportunity to do with others, given our sense of not wanting to keep others waiting, and the very distraction of having company.

Alone Time is written in a wonderfully engaging manner, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Rosenbloom’s experiences of travelling through these four cities.  I thought that it was structured wonderfully – with a section dedicated to each city / season, but also focussing on a different element of travel.  Whilst Rosenbloom talks about food in Paris, or art of Florence, many of these experiences are applicable to anywhere one chooses to travel, and I thought that this very neatly avoided any possibility of repetition throughout (there are only so many times that you can read about a person’s experience of dining alone, for example).

Throughout Alone Time, Rosenbloom highlights the benefits of having a little time for ourselves, but whilst this concept is not a new one, it is still something that can make people feel a little uncomfortable, and may be seen as something to be endured rather than enjoyed:

For years, the conventional wisdom was that if you spent a good deal of time alone, something was likely wrong with you.

As with many things, a person’s expectations of how they might be perceived when, for example, dining alone are much worse than the reality, and the court of public opinion is unlikely to care all that much whether a person is on their own or not.  And Rosenbloom is keen to point out that the desire to be on one’s own does not make us reclusive, or anti-social.  Alone time is important for everyone – even the most sociable of individuals.  It is our time alone that allows us to unwind, and to think:

Alone we can power down.  We’re “off stage” as the sociologist Erving Goffman put it, where we can doff the mask we wear in public and be ourselves.

Alone Time isn’t a travel guide a la Lonely Planet, it does have a small section with useful advice for those travelling alone (including safety) – but this is as much a homage to taking some time away from everyone and everything as it is about travel, as highlighted in the fourth section in which Rosenbloom explores her own city of New York, but taking the time to reconnect with the city, not just rushing from A to B as we may do when we’re familiar with a place.

I highly recommend Alone Time and I think that it will have a wide appeal for those interested in travel but also those interested in the psychology of spending time alone, as well as anyone who just wants to be able to savour the precious few moments that we have to ourselves more thoroughly.

Alone Time is published by Bantam Press and is available now in hard back and digital formats.  Many thanks to Hayley Barnes for sending a copy for me to read and review.

Advertisements

The Cutting Edge by Jeffery Deaver

the cutting edge

I love Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series – I’ve read them all, short stories included.  I absolutely love his ability to come up with such fiendishly clever puzzles for Rhyme, Sachs, and the team to solve, and the layer upon layer of twists that keeps the reader guessing to the end.

The happiest time of their lives will be their last.

William and Anna went to collect her engagement ring.

1.5 carat, almost flawless.

But the Promisor had other ideas for their future…

Their murder – and that of the diamond cutter they were visiting – is only the first of a series of macabre attacks.  Someone is targeting couples just as they start their lives together.  Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs, newly married themselves, are on the hunt.

But the killer is hunting down any witnesses who can help them.  He has promised one thing: to destroy.  Rhyme and Sachs will have to use all their own skills and determination to break his vow.

If you’ve not read any of the Lincoln Rhyme novels (listed below), they can be read as standalones, although you’ll miss a lot of the wonderful background shared by these characters – Rhyme’s history and how he has become a consultant to law enforcement agencies, his relationship with Sachs (newly married in this instalment) as well as the rest of the team – Rookie, Thom, Lon, Fred.  There are also references to their previous triumphs, so you might find small spoilers for previous novels, even if you don’t know recognise them as such at the time.

The plot of The Cutting Edge is, of course, complex, and even when you figure something out, you then find that you’ve barely even scratched the surface of the case.  Their pursuit of the killer is a little slow to start in this novel – the clues are confusing, and the Promisor’s purpose and motive aren’t immediately obvious, and so it takes a little while for the investigation to really get underway.  But once it does get going, the pace doesn’t let up until the very end.

As much as I love the series, there was one downside for me in this particular instalment, and that was the lack of evidence boards summarising their findings.  All the previous novels have included these, and whilst it doesn’t help me to work out what’s going on in the slightest, I really like feeling like I’m part of the investigative team, and seeing all the clues together, wondering which piece of forensic evidence doesn’t quite fit with the rest, and what will reveal their next clue in tracking down the perpetrator.  I really hope that these are included in the next Lincoln Rhyme novel.

The Cutting Edge is available now in hardback and digital formats, published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


The novels in the Lincoln Rhyme series:

  1. The Bone Collector (1997)
  2. The Coffin Dancer (1998)
  3. The Empty Chair (2000)
  4. The Stone Monkey (2002)
  5. The Vanished Man (2003)
  6. The Twelfth Card (2005)
  7. The Cold Moon (2006)
  8. The Broken Window (2008)
  9. The Burning Wire (2010)
  10. The Kill Room (2013)
  11. The Skin Collector (2014)
  12. The Steel Kiss (2016)
  13. The Burial Hour (2017)
  14. The Cutting Edge (2018)

The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

the lost letters of william woolf

I was intrigued by The Lost Letters of William Woolf as soon as I heard about Helen Cullen’s debut novel, and I was delighted to be offered a copy for review by the publisher, Michael Joseph.

I think that the concept behind this novel is an absolutely brilliant one.  The idea of the Dead Letters Depot isn’t entirely fictional – there is a department of Royal Mail dedicated to helping mail reach its ultimate destination, or at least returning it to the sender – but Cullen breathes new life into the idea, and I much prefer this fictional version to whatever the reality may be.  Those working in the Dead Letters Depot will do their utmost to help mail reach the intended recipient, often using couriers or delivering items by hand in instances of particularly valuable packages where their investigation is successful.

Missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names – they are all the culprits of missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers.

William Woolf has worked in the Dead Letters Depot for eleven years – a role he finds extremely satisfying, even if his wife, Clare, doesn’t entirely approve.  The puzzle of identifying where a letter or parcel was headed, the thrill of being able to deliver lost mail, and the joy of seeing important missives reach their intended recipient is extremely rewarding.  But this is one of many things that William and Clare no longer see eye to eye on.  Once the happiest of couples, they have drifted apart, without really knowing how or why, and the lack of communication between them exacerbates their problems.

Feeling despondent and worrying incessantly about how things will turn out for him and Clare – will they stay together, does she want something more than he can offer – William discovers the first letter to “My Great Love”, a letter signed “Winter” and written to a soulmate that she hasn’t yet met.  And William becomes infatuated with Winter, despite having never met her, and knowing only as much as she shares in her letters.  But at the same time, he feels guilty – the very idea of there being someone other than Clare almost more than he can handle.  But he pursues Winter, trying to identify her, whilst things with Clare come to a head.   It helps that Winter seems to understand him, and her musings touch upon his own situation more than coincidence should allow:

It must be even worse to feel lonely inside a couple than when you’re alone.

I found William and Clare to be an interesting couple, although they are completely at odds with each other.  Clare’s childhood was an unhappy one, and she has taken its lessons to heart, wanting to ensure that she doesn’t end up in a similar situation.  She is driven, and William’s lack of ambition doesn’t sit well with her – she doesn’t understand why he is content in his job which she seems to see as being beneath him.  William, on the other hand, doesn’t see why she has given up on her dreams or why she lets the past haunt her in the way it does, and it’s possible to see how the distance between them has developed, although these situations are never straightforward.  I thought it was quite a neat illustration of head vs. heart, in that Clare chose a sensible path, even if it wasn’t what she really wanted to do, whilst William is content in his role, as financially unrewarding as it is.

I’ll admit that I didn’t really like Clare all that much, but I felt a great deal of sympathy for William.  He’s far from perfect, but he comes across as being extremely likeable.  This was a novel where I wasn’t sure how it would end – it could have gone in multiple directions, and it wasn’t clear which way it would go until the very last pages.  I thought that the ending was fantastic, however, and I was pleased that William’s tale came to end as it did.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf is an engaging read – the short chapters will make you want to read “just one more”, and it’s so beautifully written.  The reader sees the situation predominantly from William’s perspective, although Clare gets her share of chapters giving invaluable insight into both sides of the story.  The reader also gets to know Winter through her letters, knowing as much as William does, although it’s hard to engage with someone who we know so little about.  This rather unconventional triangle results in a brilliant story, and I loved the exploration of a marriage on the brink, the will they / won’t they reconnect explored through this original tale.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf be published on 12 July by Michael Joseph.  Many thanks to the publisher for the early review copy.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

a skinful of shadows

I make no apologies for being a fan of Frances Hardinge, despite being outside the target age range of her novels by a considerable margin.  I loved the Lie Tree, and I loved A Skinful of Shadows¸ too, and I really do think that her novels can be read by old and young alike.

When a creature dies, its spirit can go looking for somewhere to hide.

Some people have space inside them, perfect for hiding.

Makepeace, a courageous girl with a mysterious past, defends herself nightly from the ghosts which try to possess her. Then a dreadful event causes her to drop her guard for a moment.

And now there’s a ghost inside her.

The spirit is wild, brutish and strong, but it may be her only defence in a time of dark suspicion and fear. As the English Civil War erupts, Makepeace must decide which is worse: possession – or death.

A Skinful of Shadows features Makepeace, the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic family called the Fellmottes.  Whilst illegitimate children may often be hidden away, out of sight and mind, the Fellmottes take Makepeace in as a maid, as she has inherited their talent (or curse, depending on your perspective) for being able to house ghosts inside her.  With her half-brother, James, Makepeace notices that there is something unusual about some members of the family, and it doesn’t take long for her to discover their secrets.

I won’t go into the plot any more than this, as it would be so easy to give away too much, but I absolutely loved the idea behind the story and the way that Hardinge uses this throughout the novel.  I thought that this was a very neat twist on the classic ghost story, bringing something fresh to the genre.  I didn’t find it particularly scary (it is aimed at younger readers, after all) but it is definitely creepy in places and it is dark enough without being bleak.  I would have loved this story as a child, and I do as an adult, too.

Makepeace is a fascinating character.  She is young, brave, and intelligent, and very easy to cheer on, even though I didn’t always agree with her actions.  I came to the conclusion that she is just a nicer person than I am!  Despite her age, she shows a lot of courage and determination throughout and she will stand up for what she believes in.  She does get a little help along the way from a number of allies (some of them quite surprising!) and I loved that the story went in a different direction to what I was expecting.

A Skinful of Shadows is set at the outset of the English Civil War, and this initially forms a backdrop to the story before Makepeace becomes increasingly caught up in the conflict.  The reasons for the war are touched upon lightly, and I liked that Hardinge did not present one side or the other as being “right” – both sides are represented in the novel, giving a rounded view of the conflict.

Combining historical fiction with fantasy and the supernatural, A Skinful of Shadows is a wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable novel for readers of all ages, and I highly recommend it.

A Skinful of Shadows was published in 2017 by Macmillan and is available in paperback now.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Smoking Kills by Antoine Laurain

smoking kills

I’m a big fan of Antoine Laurain’s novels, having previously read The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook, both of which I found to charming and uplifting novels, and I was excited to receive a copy of his latest novel to be translated, Smoking Kills.

With the smoking ban in 2007, Fabrice Valentine finds himself no longer able to smoke in the office or in public places, and, as a smoker since the age of 17, begins to feel vilified by the non-smokers around him.  Discovering that a friend has recently stopped smoking after visiting a hypnotist, Fabrice, with more than a little encouragement from his wife, also decides to give it a go.  And initially it works – he no longer feels any urge to smoke.

Following a stressful situation at the office, however, he decides light up, but experiences none of the pleasure that he usually associates with smoking.  That is until he accidentally causes a man’s death whilst acting in self-defence, and his next cigarette is the best one ever.  The euphoria he experiences doesn’t last for long, however, and Fabrice is left wondering how far he must go to enjoy his next cigarette…

As you might expect from the title, Smoking Kills is a rather different novel to what I’ve come to expect from this author (which is only based upon the two aforementioned novels) although it does still carry a trace of humour throughout and this novel falls into the niche of black comedy.  It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it does still carry the air of French whimsy, and I think that anyone who has enjoyed Laurain’s novels would enjoy this, as long as they don’t mind crossing over to the dark side for a while.

From the very first page, the reader knows where the novel is heading, and what the outcome will be for Fabrice.  At approximately 200 pages, it’s quite a short novel, and so it surprised me by taking quite a long time to build up to what I considered to be the momentous turning point in Fabrice’s life.  The background leading up to this point is by no means dull or uninteresting, and pace is kept reasonably high throughout – I was just expecting THAT incident to come earlier.

Fabrice is of course, an antihero, and whilst the reader can’t always approve of his acts – he is a murderer, after all – there are those among his victims who aren’t entirely innocent, and who are very difficult to feel any sympathy for.  And I loved the ingenuity with which Fabrice goes on to carry out the acts that allow him to, temporarily at least, enjoy smoking again.  Whilst many people might find a modus operandi and stick to it, Fabrice is happy to think outside the box, and to allow serendipity to play a part.  And yes, the yellow frog on the cover is relevant, believe it or not.

This is a darkly comic novel, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to those looking for something a little different whether they’re new to this author (and if you’ve not read The President’s Hat you really should) or already familiar with his work.

Smoking Kills will be published on 19 June by Gallic Press.  Many thanks to Jimena Gorraez-Connolly for providing an early copy to read and review.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

This Week in Books – 06-06-18

TWIB - logo

This Week in Books is a feature hosted by Lipsy at Lipsyy Lost and Found that allows bloggers to share:

  • What they’ve recently finished reading
  • What they are currently reading
  • What they are planning to read next

The last book I finished reading was For the Immortal, the final instalment in Emily Hauser’s Golden Apple Trilogy.  My review will be posted as part of the blog tour later this month.

fot the immortal

Thousands of years ago, in an ancient world where the gods control all and heroes fight to have their names remembered down the ages, two extraordinary women become entangled in one of the greatest heroic tales of all time… and must face how much they are willing to risk for immortality.

Desperate to save her dying brother, Admete persuades her father, the king of Tiryns, to let her join Hercules on one of his legendary twelve labours. Travelling to the renowned female warrior Amazons in search of a cure, Admete soon discovers that both Hercules and the fearsome Amazons are not as they first seemed.

The Amazons greet the arrival of the Greeks with mixed feelings – and none more so than Hippolyta, the revered queen of the tribe. For Hercules and his band of fighters pose a threat to her way of life – but also stir up painful memories that threaten to expose her deepest secret.

As battle lines are drawn between the Greeks and the Amazons, both women soon learn the inevitable truth – in war, sacrifices must be made; especially if they are to protect the ones they love most…


My current read is The Lost Letters of William Woolf, which I’ve only just started, but I’m already loving!

the lost letters of william woolf

Lost letters have only one hope for survival…

Inside the Dead Letters Depot in East London, William Woolf is one of thirty letter detectives who spend their days solving mysteries: missing postcodes, illegible handwriting, rain-smudged ink, lost address labels, torn packages, forgotten street names – they are all the culprits of missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers.

When William discovers letters addressed simply to ‘My Great Love’ his work takes on new meaning. Written by a woman to a soulmate she hasn’t met yet, the missives stir William in ways he didn’t know were possible. Soon he begins to wonder: Could William be her great love?

William must follow the clues in Winter’s letters to solve his most important mystery yet: the human heart.


My next read will probably be Alone Time by Stephanie Rosenbloom.  I say probably because I tried planning my reading list for the next few weeks at the weekend, and I’d deviated from said plan before the day was out.

alone time

Travelling with friends and family is usually thought of as a privilege. In theory, anyway. In practice, it’s more often about debating which sights to see, panicking over diminishing phone batteries and bickering over what to eat. Not much joy in that. But alone you can do as you please. You can wander markets, relish silence, go to a park. Go to Paris. Why not?

In Alone TimeNew York Times travel columnist Stephanie Rosenbloom travels alone in four seasons to four remarkable cities – Paris, Istanbul, Florence and New York – exploring the sensory experience of solitude. Along the way she illuminates the psychological arguments for alone time, revealing that whether you recognize it or not, it’s good to be alone now and then.

This is a book about the pleasures and benefits of savouring the moment, examining things closely, using all your senses to take in your surroundings, whether travelling to faraway places or walking the streets of your own city. Through on-the-ground observations and anecdotes, and drawing on the thinking of artists, writers and innovators who have cherished solitude, Alone Time lays bare the magic of going solo.

 


And that’s my week in books! What are you reading this week?  Let me know in the comments!

The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

the story keeper

I loved Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, and was thrilled to receive an early copy of The Story Keeper to read ahead of its publication in July.

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories.

Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds.

Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before.

Audrey is 24 when she leaves London, heading to the Isle of Skye without her father’s knowledge.  Her early childhood was a happy one, and her love of folklore was instilled in her by her mother who came from Scotland, and where Audrey and her family lived in her early years.  Audrey’s mother died when she was 10 in circumstances that Audrey isn’t fully aware of – one of the many puzzles to be revealed in this novel – and at 12 her father remarried a woman of 19.  Moving to London, her stepmother does her best to make Audrey marriageable, however unpalatable that is to Audrey herself.  That said, Dorothea isn’t quite the wicked stepmother that you might find in a novel that has so much to do with folklore and fairy tales, and whilst she is a minor character, she is also an important one.

I thought that Audrey was a great character, and one who is before her time in her desire to seek intellectual pursuits that weren’t always deemed suitable for young ladies at the time.  She’s a conflicted character and comes across as being socially inept and awkward around others.  This isn’t all that surprising however, when you consider that she has received conflicting instructions from those around her, with her mother telling her to be herself and to stay true to what she feels is right, whilst her father and stepmother try to mould her into something more palatable to London society.  Her loyalty to her mother wins out, however, as she finds the niceties of society extremely dull, and continues to pursue her own interests, much to her father’s chagrin.

There are multiple threads to The Story Keeper, all of which is told from Audrey’s perspective, so the reader only knows as much as she does.  There are hints at a situation in London that was part of her desire to move away.  Predictably, it has to do with a man, and as this part of the story becomes clear to the reader, I admired her determination to stand up for what’s right, and this attitude stands her in good stead for her experiences on the Isle of Skye.

On Skye, Audrey initially struggles to connect with the locals, despite her own Scottish heritage, she is deemed “too English” to understand their struggles, their lives, and their stories.  They open up to her when she discovers the body of a young girl washed up in the bay, however, and she soon learns that other girls have gone missing.  The authorities are not interested, however, and deem them runaways and girls of a dubious nature that aren’t worth the time or effort to investigate their fates.  The Story Keeper is a novel that perfectly captures the attitudes of the time, with many men – not all – being largely dismissive of women as fragile, unintelligent creatures who worry too much and have overactive imaginations.  The women, unsurprisingly, are rather contemptuous of this attitude.

I love folklore, myth and fairy tales, and I loved the way in which Mazzola brought these to life in The Story Keeper.  It’s easy to dismiss them as flights of fancy, but Mazzola captures the essence of the stories, and the way that they were used to make sense of the world at the time.  Audrey’s role is to capture and document these stories, as it’s so easy for such stories, traditionally told by word of mouth, to become lost, as the church seeks dominion and dismisses the old tales as worthless, dangerous stories to frighten children and to distract from their teachings.  Added to this is the eviction of tenants by the landowners, which forced many families to emigrate, taking their stories with them to new lands where they may or may not be handed down to their children who may be exposed to alternative tales and beliefs that contrast with their own.

I absolutely loved The Story Keeper, and I thought that it was a brilliantly researched novel with much more going on that I expected when I started reading it.  It reminded me a little of The Essex Serpent, with a dash of Hannah Kent’s The Good People thrown in, and I highly recommend it.

The Story Keeper will be published on 26 July by Tinder Press.  Many thanks to Becky Hunter for the opportunity to read and review this title ahead of its publication.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐