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Monday, September 30, 2019

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Read September 2019. Published in paperback 24th September 2019 by Zaffre.

Lancashire, 1612: Fleetwood Shuttleworth is the seventeen-year-old bride of the master of Gawthorpe Hall.

Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time, yet she has no living child, and her husband Richard is evermore anxious for an heir. Can Fleetwood hold onto this child and become the wife and mother she yearns to be?

By chance, Fleetwood comes across a young woman called Alice Gray, who has become lost in the woods around Gawthorpe. Alice intrigues her and when she discovers that she is a midwife, Fleetwood is sure she will be the one to help her give birth to a healthy child.

But times in Lancashire are difficult for the local midwives and wise women. Accusations of witchcraft are sweeping the north-west and Alice has come under suspicion of being a witch too.

Fleetwood must risk everything to try to save her friend, the one woman who can help her, from a wrongful death. Time is running out and both their lives are at stake...


The Familiars is based upon the history of the famous large-scale Pendle witch trials of 1612.
Stacey Halls brilliantly weaves fact and fiction together here to make a compelling and magical tale about the suspicion that surrounded skilled women at the turn of the 17th century - bolstered by the ambitions of men who were keen to curry favour with the witchcraft obsessed James I.

I loved that the characters in the book were based upon real people, for the most part. Fleetwood and Richard did indeed live at Gawthrope at the time. The names of the accused witches and magistrates are likewise fact, and Alice Gray was among those accused. This serves to really bring the story alive.

Yes, this story is based upon fact. Local wise women did find themselves wrongfully accused of evil intent, but witches were an accepted part of the local landscape for centuries. People were comfortable with living near them, for the most part, and were happy to use their services.

Suspicion and accusations seem to have come about when there were scores to be settled - or an in the case here, due to the dubious ambitions of others - whether this was trying to catch the eye of the King, or in-fighting between families who saw themselves as the rightful local "witches".

Interestingly, it has been estimated that the witch trials between the early 15th and 18th centuries resulted in fewer than about 500 deaths, so executions for witchcraft were not a frequent occurrence.  The Pendle with trials where as many as twelve were accused of being witches at one time, were therefore, highly unusual, so something else must have been in play here. I can see why Stacey Halls was inspired to use the Pendle witches as the basis for her novel.

Lancashire was certainly an unruly and wild place at this time. Many local people were still secretly following their catholic faith, which would have made them prime targets, and it seems that there was rivalry between the families accused, but we will never know for sure why things happened they way they did here.

One of the most intriguing threads running through The Familiars is that we never really know how much truth lies behind the labelling of these women as witches. There is an unmistakable whisper of magic in this story that I could not ignore. The title in itself makes us question the relationships between some of the characters and their animal companions - even Fleetwood and her mastiff, Puck - and what of the mysterious red fox, keeping a watchful eye on Fleetwood? This serves to raise the story way above your usual historical fiction tale and give it a complexity that is both rich and deep.

The Familiars is a fabulous debut novel and I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in its pages. It is out now in paperback, from your favourite book retailer.  I cannot wait to read Stacey Halls' next novel, The Foundling, when is comes out in February 2020.

Thank you to Stacey Halls, Zaffre Books and Tracey Fenton for providing me with a copy of this book, in return for an honest review.

From the book cover:


'The new Hilary Mantel' Cosmopolitan 
Please consider for Books of the Year / Christmas Gifting
The Familiars
by Stacey Halls
Published by Zaffre, 24th September 2019, Paperback £8.99
To save her child, she will trust a stranger. To protect a secret, she must risk her life...
Lancashire 1612
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

When she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife, Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.

When Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?

As the two women's lives become inextricably bound together, the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake. 

Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

About the author:

Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist magazine, and has also worked as a journalist for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine. TV rights have been sold to The Bureau production company.

Themes include women and power, social history of witches. Stacey has done huge amounts of research and can speak eloquently on Gawthorpe Manor and her real life heroine Fleetwood.

Stacey Halls is available for interview, to write features and speak at events.

The Familiars is her first novel and her second, The Foundling, is coming Feb 2020. Say hello @Stacey_Halls on Twitter and @StaceyHallsAuthor on Instagram.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Re-read September 2019. First published in 1985. Vintage edition published 2010.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.
Her only function is to breed - to supply babies for the families of the elite, where the wives are not able, as laid down in the Bible story of Rachel and Leah.
Babies are a commodity in Gilead, now so few are able to reproduce, and Offred's existence relies on her ability to fulfill her function.

Offred must not deviate from the strict rules of conduct laid down for her, or she will be hanged at the Wall, or sent to the colonies to die slowly of radiation sickness - like dissenters. Prying eyes are all around her and she must be careful who she trusts.

But Offred remembers the days before the Republic of Gilead, when women had freedom  and were allowed to feel desire - when she had a husband and child of her own. How can Offred bear to live the life she must now endure to ensure her own survival? Is there still hope? Can she ever escape Gilead?


There can be few people in the western world who are not aware of this book. It has become a modern classic, since its publication in 1985, and remains Margaret Atwood's best known work for a reason.

When I first read this book, many years ago, I found it to be pretty stark and I was frustrated that you are still unsure of Offred's fate when you get to the end of the book. But, with the publication of the new sequel, The Testaments, it was about time for me to re-read and I am very glad that I have.

Coming back to this book as a woman of fifty-two, as a wife and mother, and at this present time in history is somewhat of a revelation. There is a lot to think about in this book, with the main focus being the way women's rights can be stripped away. However, there is also a lot about how the loss of intimacy, the oppression of desire, can affect the human psyche.

Atwood herself has made it clear that she was using the past as inspiration for The Handmaid's Tale, rather than predicting a dystopian future, but this book is so pertinent for modern times that you can't help but feel the relevance of the story today. Just look across the water to the USA for example, where women's rights are being stripped away by the male lawmakers in the Southern states, under the pretext of abiding with religious strictures about the sanctity of life. This is not about religion, this is about ignorance and power - the subjection of women. How Gilead can you get? How can you fail to be chilled by this?

It is not my intention to go into a long and rambling treatise here about how brilliant The Handmaid's Tale is, but rather to point out that its message has such relevance today that it should be required reading for anyone concerned about how times are changing.

It worries me greatly when I see comments, especially from other women, that they have been unable to read this book, have found it boring, or will not read it because of the hype surrounding it.
Unreadable? Not for me, certainly, I raced through the pages and Atwood is a fantastic writer.
Boring? The stripping away of the rights of women and subjecting them to forced reproduction? Living under the strict guidelines of martial law? Hardly!
Full of Hype? This is always a difficult one, and probably the reason I can sympathise with the most - not all hyped books are good. However, although this is a much lauded book, in my mind, the brilliant reviews and the longevity of its popularity are all justified in this case.

This book is eye-opening and its message clear. The danger signals are already here and we need to be especially careful that the freedoms earned by the hard-fought battles of the feminist movement are not eroded in the name of "protection". Such changes are insidious and may lead to dark times ahead....

Nolite te bastarde carborundorum

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Man In The Dark (Hellcorp Book Two) by Jonathan Whitelaw

Read September 2019. Published 26th September 2019 by Urbane Publications.

After The Devil's previous, and unsuccessful, attempt to get a well-earned holiday, it seems that Him (or is it Her?) Upstairs has a new mission for him to undertake before any chance of a rest. Back into an unwieldy human body our hero goes!

This time, his eternal badness has to solve the case of the kidnapping of Medina Cade, and he has a new partner tagging along in the form of Detective Sergeant Laurie - and DS Laurie is not brooking any shenanigans. 

Unfortunately, The Devil may have complicated matters himself by accidentally setting in motion an apocalypse, engineered by those old Roman tricksters Brutus and Cassius who are keen to take get him out of the way- and so upsetting the Natural Order of things. The situation is about to get mighty bad for the poor old humans and this is far from conducive to solving a kidnapping!

Can our cosmic bad guy and his new side-kick find out what happened to Medina Cade and scupper the plans of the evil Roman duo before the World is destroyed? 


Having thoroughly enjoyed Hellcorp, I was really looking forward to getting stuck into the story of The Devil's next obstacle in the way of his well-earned break. Folks, I have not been disappointed.

Although The Man in the Dark is exactly the same length as Hellcorp, it seems like a lot more happens in these pages than the first time around - I suppose this is because an apocalypse is a pretty big deal, especially when the terrible events put in motion are happening worldwide. In any case, the story is more deliciously involved that that in Hellcorp and takes place on a wider stage.

The Devil has a new partner in the form of DS Laurie and she is quite a tough cookie, which as it turns out is just as well, because their adventure is a mighty dangerous one (apocalypse and all...see above!). I loved that Laurie was not willing to accept any of The Devil's nonsense and she made an good partner for him through their trials and tribulations. 

The are plenty of farcical and darkly comic situations throughout The Man in the Dark, which will make you chuckle like those in Hellcorp, but there is also a fair sprinkling of some pretty gory horror in this installment too - apocalypses can be pretty horrific after all, especially when they are being engineered by a pair of despicable old Roman traitors, like Brutus and Cassius. It also turns out that Him/Her Upstairs is going to have to pull His/Her weight in this story too, before everything can be sorted out.

No spoliers, guys, but this is an absolute thrill ride of a book and  I loved every minute of it. Having now read two of Jonathan Whitelaw's books, I can confirm that the Neil Gaiman echoes can definitely be found in his writing - the Heaven vs Hell element in The Man in the Dark certainly reminded me a bit of Good Omens. I am also a big fan of a less obvious book title that you have to read the book to understand, and completely approve of this one. 

If you loved Hellcorp, you will adore the Man in the Dark. Get reading now and take my word for it that you are going to be aching to read the next book in the Hellcorp series as soon as it is published. Mr Whitelaw, how long will we have to wait? I need to know what happens!

The Man in the Dark is available now from your favourite bookseller.

Thank you to Jonathan Whitelaw, Urbane Publications and The Love Books Group for providing me with a copy of The Man in the Dark in return for an honest review.

From the book cover:

The Devil's back - and he's STILL not had a holiday.

There's another mystery to solve - a woman kidnapped by terrorists and the world trying to find her. While he hates doing God's bidding, The Devil can't resist trying to put one over on Him. But nothing is EVER that simple.

While the Devil helps the London cops crack the case, there's trouble in the Underworld. And two of humanity's greatest backstabbers - Brutus and Cassius - are sharpening their knives with an eye on stealing his crown.

It's a race against time to find the girl, be the bad guy and maybe stop the apocalypse.

About the author:

Jonathan Whitelaw is an author, journalist and broadcaster. After working on the frontline of Scottish politics, he moved into journalism. Subjects he has covered have varied from breaking news, the arts, culture and sport to fashion, music and even radioactive waste with everything in between. He's also a regular reviewer and talking head on shows for the BBC and STV. ‘The Man in the Dark’ is his third novel following his debut, ‘Morbid Relations’ and 'Hellcorp'.

See more about Jonathan Whitelaw here:

Author's website
Author's Twitter page
Author's Facebook page

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Hellcorp by Jonathan Whitelaw

Read September 2019, Published 5th July 2018 by Urbane Publications.

Life is hard when you’re The Devil. It’s all work, work, work. How is poor old Satan supposed to get a break?

The Devil is in desperate need of a holiday and he thinks he has the perfect plan to get some time off. He has decided to go legitimate and set up an earthly centre of operations in Edinburgh, using the catchy name Hellcorp.

Hellcorp will provide humankind with the ideal corporate-based opportunity to achieve their wildest hopes and dreams, without The Devil himself having to be around 24/7 - all for the bargain price of their souls! And he has managed to get The Vatican to pay for it too. Ingenious!

The only fly in the ointment is that Him upstairs requires Old Nick to perform a service for Him, before he is allowed some time off. The Devil must solve the murder of an elderly Glaswegian - except the man has only just died and the act that led to his death took place 40 years ago.

This is going to be a tough one to pull off, but our cosmic bad guy is nothing if not resourceful, and he really wants that holiday.


Hellcorp is a darkly comic crime tale that will keep you entertained from cover to cover.

The Devil finds himself at a bit of a loss as he tries to get the hang of controlling his less than ideal human body, while trying to investigate the death of an elderly man - with the assistance of a somewhat love-lorne female doctor, by the name of Gideon (pun intended), who has been selected as the ideal partner by Him Upstairs to aid The Devil in his adventure.

The Devil would most certainly disagree with His assessment, but beggars can't be choosers and Gideon definitely proves useful for all those pesky injuries a human body can accrue in a city like Glasgow - especially when the occupant of this particular human body doesn't know when to apply the adage "discretion is the better part of valour".

As it turns out, Gideon is much more involved in this story than she realises, and her past is about to come back and hit her most unexpectedly in the mush - much to the surprise of both her and Satan.

It is hard to talk much about this story without giving away spoliers, but surfice to say that this story proves to be a completely comic caper of two seemingly unsuitable investigators who constantly rub each other up the wrong way, through the streets of Glasgow - and a very interesting look into the habits of both The Devil and Him Upstairs!

This book is pitched at fans of Christopher Fowler and Ben Aranovitch, but I have sadly not read any of their books (yet!), so cannot confirm the similarities. However, I am a firm fan of Neil Gaiman and can definitely say that if you like his brand of humour then Jonathan Whitelaw will certainly be for you too.

I thoroughly enjoyed Hellcorp, and am looking forward hugely to the next installment of The Devil's adventures in The Man In The Dark, which is publishing very soon!

The Penny Black (Ben Bracken Book Three) by Rob Parker

Read September 2019. Published 31st August 2019 by Endeavour Media.

Ben Bracken is a man with a past and a price on his head.
He has been branded a traitor and is on the run from the Ministry of Defence, the National Crime Agency, and even the shadowy elements of the British Government itself. He is not a friend to the criminal underworld either! Yes, this is certainly a man with a past!

Bracken is now trying to keep a low profile in the quiet Norfolk Broads village of Horning, until he can get the where-with-all to leave the country for good. The villagers have been welcoming, especially the kindly elderly couple who have treated him almost as their own son. Bracken is overwhelmed with gratitude at the kindness they have shown him. There are still good people in this world, after all.

However, it isn't long before Bracken realises that there is something afoot in Horning, that threatens to destroy the peace of the village and harm the villagers that have been so good to him. His sense of duty will not allow him to ignore what is happening here, and he soon finds himself uncomfortably in the spotlight, as some sort of local hero.

But good deeds never go unpunished, and Bracken's involvement is about to ruffle the feathers of not only the local criminal element, but some dangerous characters from his past too. The village is about to become a war zone, and the time is drawing near for some old scores to be settled.


Buckle up people and get ready for a ride! I can honestly say that this was a book I could not put down, until I had reached the hugely exciting climax and I guarantee you will be doing the same.

This is my first of Rob Parker's Ben Bracken series, although it is book three, but had no problem reading this as a stand-alone thriller. Having said that, the tantalising details about Bracken's previous adventures, which crop up throughout the story, have persuaded me that  books one and two - A Wanted Man and Morte Point - will be at the top of my reading pile soon. The back-story awaits!

I can't remember the last time I read a thriller with an ex-military, ex-government fixer, on his downers, type character that I enjoyed as much as The Penny Black. I really liked that this book entwines a gangland criminal/National Crime Agency theme with police corruption, and the shadowy world of secret government agencies - this makes for a heady mix of violence and intrigue that keeps you racing through the pages. Most of the chapters are short, sharp and punchy too, which build the tension nicely, and keep you on the edge of your seat.

Rob Parker also cleverly manages to bring the criminal underbelly of the grimy city to an idyllic Norfolk Broads village, while making it completely believable. It highlights the insidious problem of inner-city crime spilling out into the countryside, where it takes advantage of the unsuspecting population - though I would hope not usually to the extent of that in this instance!

Bracken himself is an interesting mix of skilled, hardened operative, with a strong sense of what is right, that makes him a hugely engaging protagonist - a soft inner core does still exist, and Bracken cannot stand by and see innocent people be preyed upon by the bad guys, even if it makes his own position very tricky. He has travelled to bottom of the pit of despair, and has now discovered that there are things still worth living for. He can almost see the chance of a safe and happy future within his grasp. He has found hope, and we are right there beside him, egging him on.

A thrilling story and a fine protagonist. What more do you need?

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading The Penny Black. If you are looking for a fast-paced, gripping crime read, with a hint of the Spooks about it, and a leading man you can get behind, then The Penny Black will see you right - and it is very handy should you ever require the services of a Millwall Brick!

Available now from your favourite book retailer!

Thank you to Rob Parker and Endeavour Media for kindly providing me with a copy of The Penny Black, in return for an honest review.

Goodreads link here: The Penny Black by Rob Parker

From the cover of the book:

I’m dead, for all intents and purposes. Nobody knows I’m alive…

Ben Bracken is on the run for his life. Keeping a low profile from the agencies seeking to silence him, he finds refuge in the quiet town of Horning. Working in a boat yard and lodging with an older couple, Eric and Dot, Ben uses this time to plan. He needs to escape, and realising his only chance will reveal his whereabouts to some unsavoury characters, he plans every detail. Little does he know, even that won’t be enough…

Just before he walks away, murder strikes the quiet town. Ben cannot leave until he is sure that he has not brought any further trouble to the townsfolk. Will he be able to exact revenge? One thing is certain, there is a lot more going on in the town of Horning than meets the eye…

The Penny Black is action packed from beginning to end, keeping you guessing right the way through.

About the author:

Rob Parker is the author of international bestseller A Wanted Man and Morte Point. He currently writes full time, while also making time to encourge new young readers and authors through readings and workshops at local schools and bookstores.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Degrees Of Guilt (paperback release) by H.S. Chandler

Read May 2019. Paperback released 5th September 2019.
E-book previously released 16th May 2019.

Maria is trapped in an appalling marriage, with a man who controls her every move, and almost her every thought. Little by little, her life has shrunk to an existence which is confined to her home and garden - her beautiful home and garden that her husband insists she should be grateful for. To outside eyes, her husband, Edward is a well respected campaigner for animal and environmental rights. Only Maria knows the truth behind Edward's public persona.

Then one day....a fateful call to the police..."I've killed my husband".

Maria now finds herself on trial for the attempted murder of her monster of a husband. How can she make a jury believe that the violence inflicted upon Edward was justified?

Lottie has found herself a member of the jury called to pass judgement on Maria. Lottie is lacking in confidence since the birth of her child, and feel herself confined to the role of wife and mother. She feels unqualified to make the decision that will affect another human being's freedom.
Excited at the prospect of a break from motherhood, Lottie finds herself drawn to another member of the jury and becomes entangled in a situation that proves to be far more complicated that she imagined.

Who are the guilty and who are the innocent? 


This book is brilliant! It is so easy to call a thriller un-put-downable these days, but believe me when I say that this one is a genuine page turner. I actually could not put this down until I had reached the climax and found out the truth - which hits you exactly like Edward was hit with the chair leg!

The plot pays out as the court case progresses, until the truth unfolds right at the end of the book. The tension during the trial is palpable and builds beautifully. You can almost feel yourself sitting in the court room, listening to the judge, barristers and witnesses.

There are a couple of superb twists, that you will genuinely not see coming. You may even find yourself using a juicy swearword out loud when you find out what actually happened - I know I did (fortunately within the privacy of my own kitchen!).

There has been quite a lot in the press recently about coercive abuse within a relationship, so this debut is particularly well timed. Some of the moments described here are quite difficult to read, but I think it is important to be aware that this type of abuse is real.

Degrees of Guilt is a first-class thriller and a cracking read!

Published by Trapeze on 5th September 2019, Paperback original, £7.99

From the cover of the book:

'Timely, anger-inducing and very powerful - it's excellent' Harriet Tyce, author of Blood Orange

When you read this book, you will think you know every twist in the tale:

Maria is on trial for attempted murder.
She has confessed to the crime and admits that she wanted her husband dead.
Lottie is on the jury, trying to decide Maria’s fate.
She embarks on an illicit affair with a stranger, and her husband can never find out.
You will think you know who is guilty and who is innocent.
You will be wrong....

A former barrister, HS Chandler is a pseudonym for bestselling crime author Helen Fields, who practised for thirteen years in both family and criminal law. Having extensively prosecuted and defended, she is an avid believer in the right to a fair trial, and in the invaluable role that juries play in the British legal system. Helen was born in Hampshire and now lives in the US.


Monday, September 9, 2019

The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Re-read September 2019. Originally published July 1890.

Dorian Gray is a beautiful, fashionable young man, with a tragic history, who becomes the muse for artist Basil Hallwood. More than a little enamoured of the beautiful innocence Dorian portrays with his unspolit looks, Basil is inspired to paint his finest work yet - a portrait of Dorian, which will record his exquisite form for posterity.

Whilst sitting for Basil, Dorian is introduced to the deplorable Sir Henry Wooton, who sets about introducing Dorian to the seedy side of life, despite Basil's pleas to refrain from spoiling his innocence.

As the portrait is completed, a strange kind of magic is created by the presence of Basil, Dorian and Lord Henry. They are discussing aesthetics and the inevitability that time wreaks destruction on youth and beauty. Dorian is suddenly struck by the notion that age will claim him too and destroy the perfection that Basil has captured so well in his portrait. At this moment, Dorian wishes he would never age and always remain as he looks now, and a bargain is unknowingly, struck with the Devil, which will cost him his immortal soul.

As Lord Henry inducts Dorian into the lifestyle of depravity and vice, his features remain unmarked by the cost of living such an existence, but Dorian soon begins to notice in change in the hitherto pristine painting.

Can Dorian's soul be redeemed?


The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's most famous work and was considered to be most shocking and have a corrupting influence, but he always insisted the there is “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray” and he is absolutely right.

Dorian begins the novel as a beautiful, but tragic character. His mother was disowned by her wealthy father, on marrying a humble soldier, and Dorian found himself an orphan at a very young age. Although he was then recognised by his grandfather, he served to be a constant reminder of the circumstances of his birth and he received nothing but coldness and neglect from him. Dorian knows nothing of love and tenderness and it is not surprising that his head is turned when he is shown attention - first by Basil and then, disastrously, by Sir Henry.

Basil makes Dorian aware of his beauty, but it is Sir Henry that makes him think about his own mortality. Basil appears boring and sedate in Dorian's eyes, while Sir Henry is bold, dashing and slightly dangerous. Basil is enamoured of Dorian - although perhaps this is simply as an ideal, a muse, rather than earthly love - but it is Dorian who becomes enamoured of the kind of lifestyle Sir Henry shows him...and therein lies his downfall.

This is certainly a moral tale. Its lesson is to teach us that to wish for an existence that defies nature, and decency, is to invite ruination. Dorian immerses himself in a depraved manner of living, seemingly without consequence. He soon outstrips Lord Henry in the depths he will go to to ensure maximum pleasure and he has the funds, and looks, to get anything he wants.

The young, naive Dorian we meet at the beginning of the novel, transforms completely into a monster, without guilt or conscience, but his outward appearance remains uncannily unchanged. His faultless appearance may fool many, but the companions of his dark deeds soon begin to shun him and suffer the consequences of the degenerate acts he has tempted them into. Rumours abound about the truth behind the beautiful face. Dorian's evil knows no bounds and he cannot escape unscathed for ever. Even Dorian eventually regrets the course his life has taken and longs to begin again.

Wilde's own comments about the legacy of his most famous work are extremely interesting and give as a fascinating insight to his own thoughts on the book - “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”

I have to admit that it is Lord Henry who comes across as the most Oscar Wilde like in his behaviours and speech, based upon his reputation. How much he really considered himself to be the Basil Hallwood of the piece is up for debate, although the homosexual overtones of Basil's love for Dorian are there for all to see. It seems rather telling though that Wilde would like to have been Dorian Gray - able to act as he pleased without consequence - especially considering Wilde's own tragic end.

I thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting The Picture of Dorian Gray as it has been many years since I first read this. The prose is wonderful - especially the descriptions of the sumptuous and decadent pursuits Dorian immerses himself in. It is completely absorbing.

The message of the original tale is impossible to ignore and it actually makes me sad to see the many adaptations of this tale where Dorian is portrayed as defending his portrait to the bitter end against the violence of others keen to destroy him. These versions continue to abound, but in portraying Dorian this way, you lose the essential message Oscar Wilde intended. It is important that Dorian regrets the life he has led as the end, or what is the point of the story?

If you have never read this marvellous book, which has spawned so many tales of debauched characters with a "picture in the attic", then I can only suggest that you consider doing so - it will open your eyes to the original intent of Oscar Wilde in penning this infamous novel. This remains a morality tale at heart, not a suggestion of how to live your life!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz

Read September 2019. Published 1st August 2019 by Corsair/Little Brown Book Group UK.

1967: Svetlana Alliluyeva, the only daughter of Joseph Stalin, shocks the World by defecting to the USA, in the midst of the Cold War - leaving behind her 21 year old son and 16 year old daughter.

American lawyer, Peter Horvath has been sent by the CIA to accompany her, as she arrives in New York to a media frenzy. The people of her adopted country are hungry to hear her story, but she is convinced that she just wants to live as an ordinary American, not a celebrity.

Svetlana is a complicated character and soon becomes disillusioned with the life she has chosen. She reaches out to Peter Horvath and as their relationship develops, something blossoms between them - even though he is married.

The Red Daughter recreates the struggles of this extraordinary, troubled woman's search for a new life and a place to belong.


This book is fascinating. Although this is a fictionalised account of the life of Stalin's daughter, John Burnham Swartz manages to weave the historical facts of her life into a compelling tale.

 This is greatly enhanced by the fact that the author's own father was the lawyer who actually accompanied Svetlana to the USA, in real life. This allowed John Burnham Schwartz access to a great deal of research information - not to mention the stories of his father, who had a life-long friendship with her, although they did not have a romantic relationship.

I have to admit that I did not know that Stalin even had a daughter before hearing of this book, so I was particularly keen to read it and have found it incredibly interesting. How could I have not know about her? Admittedly, I was born in 1967, so would have been too young to remember the momentous occasion of her defection, but she did not die until 2011 and I cannot remember anything in the press about her then. Strange.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to be the daughter of a character such as Joseph Stalin, but this book goes someway towards understanding what her private life must have been like.
How could you ever distance yourself from your father's bloody legacy, and the general population's thirst for macabre details about your family?
I think the simple answer to this is that you cannot. Svetlana had a reputation as a complicated, headstrong and difficult woman, but I think all these go with the territory of being the daughter of someone so horribly infamous, whose shadow inevitably eclipsed her own identity.

The book takes the form of two narratives - that of Svetlana herself and of her lawyer, Peter - which give you a pretty good idea about Svetlana's life, and what motivated her to make the decisions she did - some of these horribly destructive ones.
Svetlana's narrative particularly rings true and allows you to develop a lot of sympathy for this poor woman, who never really fitted in. You follow her as she makes and then later regrets the decisions she has made, but you understand fully why she behaves the way she does. This is a woman desperate to find what is missing from her life, but she is never able to fulfill this wish. It is actually quite a tragic tale about a woman who could not escape the legacy of her family.

I found The Red Daughter completely fascinating, although there are some jumps forward in time that are a bit disorienting, particularly during her later years. However, this did  not really detract from my enjoyment of the book. Highly recommended, particularly if you are fond of reading about the fallout from the Cold War years.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Don't Think A Single Thought by Diana Cambridge

Read August/September 2019, Published 26th September 2019 by Louise Waters Books.

1960s New York: Emma Bowden lives the glamorous Manhattan lifestyle - swish apartment, with fabulous views; a loving, surgeon husband; and a successful writing career. Surely she has everything? What more could she want?

But Emma's background and upbringing have left their mark, and one summer, while Emma and her husband are on vacation in the Hamptons, a young child drowns in the sea and Emma may have been involved in some way. If only she could remember what really happened...

Old wounds are reopened, and Emma, who has been barely holding on to the facade of a normal life, starts to spiral out of control, as the voice in her head cannot be ignored.


Don't Think A Single Thought is, quite simply, outstanding and one of the best books I have read all year. There are only a handful of books I would describe using the word I am about to use and that word is classy! Yes, Diana Cambridge, your book is definitely classy!

This is so beautifully written, and I knew straightaway I was going to love it. The words flow off the page and it would be very easy to soak up its deliciousness in one glorious sitting - especially, since it runs to under 200 hundred pages - but I did not allow myself to do this. In fact, I managed to eke this book out over a week, taking flavoursome little bites each time I picked it up in order to prolong the reading pleasure. There is so much to enjoy and speculate on in these pages!

Emma Bowden is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators you will ever encounter. Her chaotic past, with a mother who could not cope, has left an indelible mark that cannot be washed away, no matter how much champagne she douses herself in.

Her adoption, at a young age, has done nothing to dispel her inner feelings of disquiet, indeed her adoptive parents' manner of upbringing has only increased Emma's belief that she is ultimately undeserving.

It is no wonder Emma does not know how to live a normal life. What even is normal? Her bouts of depression are hardly a surprise.

It is easy to think of Emma as a boozed up, pill-popping, bored Manhattan socialite, playing at being a writer, while being unable to appreciate the good fortune she has, but she has learned that it is necessary to play at life. It is easier to play a role than to delve into her own dark reality and her husband is complicit in this. He likes the image Emma can project of the ideal wife - the beautiful, chic, enchanting, writer wife than can aid him in his ambitions. I could not like his selfishness, arrogance and inability to understand his wife's real fragility - if only she would follow her therapist's advice, all would be well.....don't think a single thought....just go with the is all so easy.

Except, it is not easy. It takes a lot of effort for Emma to play the part required and it becomes increasingly difficult for her to keep the facade in place. Emma is deeply unwell and although she seems to recover from her bouts of depression, each new set back threatens to destroy her.

There is an intriguing question that runs through this novel, that cannot be ignored. Emma is such an unreliable narrator that we are never sure whether or not she is guilty of being directly involved in any of the tragic events that set her off in a downward spiral. There is always a whiff of suspicion about her actions and it is impossible to know the truth from her account, as she can never remember what actually happened. I could not rid myself of the feeling that there was more to each unfortunate death than there appeared to be on the surface, and her own past did nothing to dispel this impression. There was always a shade of American Psycho tied up with her Bell Jar thinking that fascinated me, but maybe I am reading too much into this. I leave you to draw your own conclusions!

And draw your own conclusions you should, by reading this stellar novel. This is destined to be a modern classic, so get in early.

Thank you so much to Louise Walters Books for providing me with an early copy of this wonderful book. I am eternally grateful for the reading pleasure this has given me! xx

Update September 2019: See my review for the cracking audio book version here

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Deadly Prospects (The Scottish Mysteries, Book One) by Clio Gray

Read August 2019. Published 2nd March 2017 by Urbane Publications.

1869: The few people that live in the remote area of Sutherland, in the Scottish Highlands, have scraped together an existence for years in this harsh environment, since the mines were closed. Farming is hard in these parts, but the people here have had little choice.

Now gold has been found and the subsequent Gold Rush has attracted the attention of the Pan-European Mining Company.

Solveig McCleery is keen that the Brora coal mines her father fought so hard to save, should be re-opened to bring prosperity back to the area and she has recruited the help of the Pan-European Mining Company's own agent, Brogar Finn, to help her.

However, as soon as work begins on the mines, one of the prospectors turns up dead, wrapped in a sack and surrounded with some curious artifacts bearing mysterious inscriptions. More bodies follow and each one seems to be conveying some sort of message, that Brogar's colleague, Sholto McKay, is working hard to decipher.

 Can the mines be re-opened to bring back prosperity to the people of Sutherland? Are the murders connected to some strange prophecy of doom? Can Brogar and Sholto solve the mystery in time to save Solveig's plans?


Clio Gray's Deadly Prospects is the first installment of The Scottish Mysteries and establishes the partnership of man of action Brogar Finn and his erudite assistant Sholto McKay.

This book offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of this remote part of the Scottish Highlands, which was badly affected by the disastrous closure of the Brora mines and the land clearance that followed, instigated by the Duchess of Sutherland's preference for the company of sheep over that of her tenants. Thousands of Scots were forced to emigrate from the Highlands to look for work elsewhere, when they were dispossessed of their land and heritage, and those times are still looked back on with bitterness by many. Those that remained lived a hard life indeed.

I like to think that there were some charismatic characters like Solveig around at the time to bring about the re-opening of the mines and there is no question that the people who remained behind after the clearances were certainly made of strong stuff.

I did find the first part of the book a little difficult to get into, and it took me a while to work out the significance of the Icelandic eruption right at the beginning, but once the story took off, I could not put this book down. The wild and wind-swept Highland landscape comes across so well, that you can almost feel yourself battling through the elements alongside the characters.

I loved the creepy thread that plays out throughout the story - who is the murderer? What do they want? - as the tension ramps up to the very exciting climax, which has a twist I certainly did not see coming.

Deadly Prospects is a thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery, which really opened my eyes to the events that happened during this time period in Sutherland.
I am really looking forward to reading Brogar and Sholto's next adventure, Burning Secrets, to see what else Clio Gray can teach me!


From the cover of the book:

Deadly Prospects is book one in the Scottish Mysteries series. 1869: Sutherland, Scotland. For years the people of this remote area of the Highlands have lived a hard life. Now a local Gold Rush has attracted the Pan-European Mining Company to the area, and Solveig McCleery is determined to re-open the Brora mines and give the population the riches they deserve. But when work starts on re-opening the mines, the body of a prospector is discovered, and odd inscriptions found on stones near the corpse. Before the meaning of these strange marks can be deciphered another body is discovered.
Are these attacks connected to the re-opening of the mines? Will Solveig's plan succeed in bringing peace and prosperity back to the area? Or has she put in motion something far more sinister?

Deadly Prospects is available now, from your favourite book retailer.

About Clio Gray
Clio was born in Yorkshire, spent her later childhood in Devon before returning to Yorkshire to go to university. For the last twenty five years she has lived in the Scottish Highlands where she intends to remain. She eschewed the usual route of marriage, mortgage, children, and instead spent her working life in libraries, filling her home with books and sharing that home with dogs. She began writing for personal amusement in the late nineties, then began entering short story competitions, getting short listed and then winning, which led directly to a publication deal with Headline. Her book, The Anatomist’s Dream, was nominated for the Man Booker 2015 and long listed for the Bailey’s Prize in 2016.

Monday, September 2, 2019

A Different Time by Michael K. Hill

Read August 2019. Published 2nd July 2019.

Twenty-two year-old comic book fan Keith is stuck in a bit of a rut - his job is far from exciting, he only has one friend and his prospects of getting a girlfriend seem non-existent.

One afternoon, when rummaging through boxes at a second hand market, he is overjoyed to find the final X-men comic he needs to complete the collection left to him by his father. He also finds an old camcorder video cassette, which gives off a strange energy, so he puts it in his pocket and heads home with his prize comic.

After admiring his now complete X-men collection, he is curious to see what's on the old video cassette, so he dusts off his old video player.

As soon as the tape begins to play, he finds that it is the video diary of a nineteen-year-old girl called Lindsey, and Keith immediately feels a connection to her. However, this is no ordinary video tape and amazingly, Lindsey can hear Keith's voice, although she cannot see him. They start up a conversation that feels completely natural to them both, and they are keen for more.

Keith and Lindsey know that they have found the only person they can truly love, at last. The problem is that the year is now 2019 and Lindsey recorded the tape in 1989......


This is such a sweet story about love and believing in yourself, that will tug at your heart strings. It has a couple of lovely little twists too.

I cannot say too much about it, because it would reveal spoliers, but A Different Time will take thorough a whole range of emotions - you will laugh and you will, most certainly, cry - but you will not be sorry that you have read it.

The 1989 element of the story is very nostalgic for those of us that remember those days so well, and it has a real 1980's movie feel about it, even though it takes place in two time periods. In fact, it would make a cracking movie.

I love stories about time, so this really struck a chord with me. It is a very quick read, but is certainly packs a punch.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Write Reads Tours for providing me with a copy of this book, for an honest review.
A Differrent Time is available now from your favourite book seller!

About the Author:

Beginning as a sketch comedy writer for American television, Michael K. Hill progressed to become an internationally published writer of fiction and non-fiction. His short story anthology, Anansi and Beyond, published in 2017, and his debut novel, A Different Time, is available now. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, kids, and 7 rescued animals.

See more about Michael here: