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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Mrs Narwhal's Diary by S.J Norbury

 

Mrs Narwhal's Diary by S.J Norbury.

Published 16th May 2021 by Louise Walters Books.

From the cover of the book:

“It was Woman’s Hour who suggested I keep a diary. They said it was good for mental health, and I must say I did feel much less frazzled after writing everything down yesterday. The frustrations were all still there, but somehow smoothed out – as if by a really good steam iron.”

Mrs Narwhal is overwhelmed. Her husband, Hugh, is unkind and unhappy – working every hour at a job he hates to save the ancestral home he never wanted. Then there’s Hugh’s sister, Rose, who’s spurned her one true love, and ricochets from crisis to crisis; and not to mention two small boys to bring up safely in a house that could crumble around their ears at any moment…

When Hugh's pride receives a fatal blow, and he walks out, Mrs Narwhal is plunged into a crisis of both heart and home. With help from Rose she sets out to save the house her husband couldn't. But can she save her marriage? And does she really want Hugh back?

Funny, charming, and moving, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an irresistible story which will enchant and delight its readers.

*************************

Welcome to Narwhal Manor, the faded and crumbling home of the Narwhal family, now in the reluctant custodianship of Hugh Narwhal, his wife and their two small boys.

The story of the Narwhal family is told in diary form through the eyes of the wonderful Mrs Narwhal, stalwart bastion of this eccentric, down-at-heel, once grand lineage, as she battles vainly to carry on the semblance of family life amid the dilapidated surroundings. Being a diary, it is a little tricky to get your head around who's who and quite what is going on here at first, but it soon becomes clear that all is not quite right in the Narwhal household.

Laid low by the weight of a responsibility he never wanted, Hugh Narwhal is struggling to deal with this money pit of a house and spends most of his time withdrawn from his wife and sons, trying to earn an income from an upholstery business that only serves to remind him of how his fortunes have fallen since his days as a London furniture designer. 

Hugh's closed off behaviour does little to promote marital happiness. Mrs Narwhal is unsure what has gone wrong here and is at a loss for how to put things right between them - or even if she really wants to. However, she is not going to go down without a fight and she is the one holding things together for their boys and for Hugh's sister Rose, who has issues of her own as a result of their less than ideal upbringing.

When Hugh walks out, all pretence comes swiftly to an end, and it becomes time for Mrs Narwhal and the much maligned Rose to put their heads together and try to save the house that Hugh couldn't. Now is their time to shine!

Mrs Narwhal's Diary is a charming and mostly hilarious book, but is certainly has its share of poignant moments along the way. It's an intriguing portrait of a family in crisis, especially since this is the side of the upper-classes that we seldom read about - the picture of faded elegance that needs a fortune to maintain, even though the money is no longer there. There is something terribly sad about the burden of expectation and tradition laid at the feet of Hugh as the heir apparent to the Narwhal legacy, but I will admit I found him very hard to like, and I was never entirely sure whether I was supposed to feel sympathy for him, or be consumed with rage at the way he treats his wife and sister (rage it was!).

However, there are splendid characters galore in this book that more than make up for the shortcomings of Hugh. Mrs Narwhal herself, who rather interestingly seems to be without a first name in this book, as befits her assumed role as the dutiful wife of the head of the household, is wonderful. She is devoted to her adorable, but realistically exuberant, boys and the fragile Rose, and is just the gutsy kind of heroine that I love. Rose is also a cracking character, who absolutely shines out from these pages when she is given the chance to step out from the shadow of her chauvinistic brother and the unfair label as the emotionally unstable member of the family. I think my absolute favourite of the remaining gaggle of characters though is the formidable cleaning lady, Jo! 

This is a delightful debut novel, which kept me entertained throughout and incorporates some interesting themes about mental health and the fate of the grand stately homes that once littered our landscape, and it has a lovely uplifting end that will put a smile on your face and a spark of warmth in your heart.

Mrs Narwhal's Diary is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer, or via the links below:

Amazon UK     Book Depository     Waterstones     WH Smith     Foyles     Nook     Blackwells

Thank you to Louise Walters Books for sending me an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review, and to Emma Welton of Damp Pebbles Tours for inviting me to be part of this blog tour. I also purchased a paperback copy of this book.

About the author:


S J Norbury lives in Herefordshire with her family. Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is her first novel.






Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Glorious Guinness Girls by Emily Hourican

 

The Glorious Guinness Girls by Emily Hourican.

Published in paperback 13th May 2021 by Headline.

From the cover of the book:

The Top Ten Bestseller. Step inside the extraordinary world of the Bright Young Things...

The Glorious Guinness Girls are the toast of London and Dublin society. Darlings of the press, Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh lead charmed existences that are the envy of many.

But Fliss knows better. Sent to live with them as a child, she grows up as part of the family and only she knows of the complex lives beneath the glamorous surface.

Then, at a party one summer's evening, something happens which sends shockwaves through the entire household. 

In the aftermath, as the Guinness sisters move on, Fliss is forced to examine her place in their world and decide if where she finds herself is where she truly belongs.

Set amid the turmoil of the Irish Civil War and the brittle glamour of 1920s London, The Glorious Guinness Girls is inspired by one of the most fascinating family dynasties in the world - an unforgettable novel of reckless youth, family loyalty and destiny.

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The time between the First and Second World Wars is one of my absolute favourite periods of history, especially anything about the Roaring Twenties, and I absolutely love the kind of book that mixes fact and fiction in the way Emily Hourican does to perfection in The Glorious Guinness Girls.

Hourican tells her story from the point of view of the fictional Felicity (Fliss) Burke, who is sent to live with the Guinness family in their Dublin house Glenmaroon, to be a companion to the three Guinness daughters Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh. 

We begin in 1978, when Fliss is sent on an errand to the faded, crumbling Glenmaroon to retrieve some old documents which have been found in an attic, at the behest of the long grown Guinness girls who are desperate to prevent any chance of something accidentally coming into the possession of the media. As she sifts through the old papers, Fliss finds herself swept back in time, and the story then spins out from the moment she arrived here as a ten year old child, with the present occasionally breaking through her reminiscences.

In 1918, Fliss leaves a home where her mother is overwhelmed with grief at the loss of her husband in the First World War. She is used to being overlooked and held at arms length by all, except her beloved brother Hughie, and is is unsure of her new position in the Guinness household. But Fliss soon becomes used to living in a world of luxury and ease as the beloved friend of the three girls she finds herself being raised with; adept at gauging their capricious moods, calming troubled waters, and complying dutifully with the requests of the family. 

As the political landscape of Ireland changes beyond the walls of Glenmaroon, troubled times intrude upon the genteel calm of the Guinness family, culminating in an incident in connection with Fliss' brother that rocks them to the core. The time comes for the family to move on, travel the world, and leave the dangers of Ireland behind, but can Fliss do the same?

After a break, the Guinness family relocate to London and recall Fliss from her exile in the strangling atmosphere of her mother's rotting home, but something has changed in the interim. Fliss finds herself looking at the rarified lives of her childhood companions differently, and reassessing what lies in her own future.

The Glorious Guinness Girls is a fabulous, sweeping tale that takes us deep into the world of the upper-classes in the 1920s, whilst incorporating oodles of detail about the political and social changes on both sides of the Irish Sea. The Guinness girls live in an environment protected from the grime and poverty outside the walls of their splendid homes and gardens, but Hourican cleverly crosses the gulf between these very different worlds by telling her story through the eyes of Fliss, who will always be an outsider, despite being brought up with Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh. 

My favourite parts of this tale take place in the heady atmosphere of 1920's London, as the Guinness girls become enveloped in the frenzied atmosphere of a privileged set of young people desperate to push against the strictures of their staid parents, and the shadow of the lost generation who died on the battlefields of the Great War - the bright young people with aristocratic credentials, rubbing shoulders with famous figures from the worlds of entertainment, literature and fashion, that we associate so much with this period in time. The glitz and glamour, the decadence and debauchery of this set is laid out beautifully in these pages, but we get to see how fragile this atmosphere of forced jollity is too, and the emptiness that often lies underneath the veneer of elegance and fun - and as this endless party plays out against the reality of ordinary mortals, we know that social change is on the way that will bring all this dissipation to an end. 

I was struck by how successfully Hourican manages to show that however degenerate these bright you people may seem, there is a sadness behind the mask that many of these characters show to the world: the glimpses of hopelessness, frustration at a lack of purpose, and the weariness that comes with the effort to always having to put on a show was quite intriguing. Although it was hard to like the Guinness girls themselves, their desperate need to act in the way expected of them as the toast of society, make good matches, and become dutiful wives was compelling.

This is an engaging book, blending fact seamlessly into a fictional coming of age tale, with a little gentle romance, and a dollop of vice. It's sure to set you on a path of discovering more about many of the fascinating characters mentioned here alongside the Guinness girls too! 

The Glorious Guinness Girls is available to buy now in hardback, e-book, paperback and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Antonia Whitton at Headline for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Emily Hourican is a journalist and author. She has written features for the Sunday Independent for fifteen years, as well as Image magazine, Conde Nast Traveler and Woman and Home. She was also editor of The Dubliner Magazine.

Emily's first book, a memoir titled How To (Really) Be A Mother was published in 2013. She is also the author of novels The Privileged, White Villa, The Outsider and The Blamed. Her first novel about the Guinness sisters The Glorious Guinness Girls was published in 2020.

She lives in Dublin with her family.




Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Ladies' Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan

 

The Ladies' Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan.

Published 6th May in ebook and 13th May 2021 in paperback by Aria, Head of Zeus.

From the cover of the book:

When Elizabeth's husband dies, leaving her with crippling debt, the only person she can turn to is her friend, Jo. Soon Jo has called in her daughter, Lucy, to help save Elizabeth from bankruptcy. Leaving her old life behind, Lucy is determined to make the most of her fresh start.

As life slowly begins to return to normal, these three women, thrown together by circumstance, become fast friends. But then Jo's world is turned upside down when she receives some shocking news.

In search of solace, Jo and Elizabeth find themselves enjoying midnight dips in the freezing Irish Sea. Here they can laugh, cry and wash away all their fears. As well as conjure a fundraising plan for the local hospice that will bring the whole community together...

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Elizabeth is a woman released from a long, but unhappy, marriage after the death of her GP husband Eric. She is unsure what the future holds, but is looking forward to a life out from under Eric's domineering shadow - until that is she finds out he has left her with crippling gambling debts that look likely to leave her with nothing.

Shocked and upset, Elizabeth turns to her oldest friend Jo for advice. Fortunately, Jo has a plan: her daughter Lucy, a doctor, is also trying to piece her life back together in the wake of a divorce and coming back home to run the GP surgery might just be the new start she needs - even if Lucy's teenage son Niall is likely to be a bit reluctant to be dragged to the back of beyond on the west coast of Ireland. 

Things start to look up as Elizabeth and Lucy work together to get their lives back on track, with the indefatigable Jo in support. But then Jo's world is turned upside down with some shocking news of her own, and it looks like the time comes for her to need to support of her nearest and dearest.

Heartbreak lies ahead, but the three woman form a strong bond enjoying midnight dips in the freezing Irish sea, encouraged by Jo who has always been a keen sea swimmer. Although Elizabeth and Lucy are reluctant at first, they soon find themselves enjoying their nightly dips and the freedom to laugh, cry and clear their minds that comes with their midnight swims. They eventually hatch a plan between them that is designed to celebrate Jo's life in the best way imaginable, and raise some money for a good cause at the same time - by getting all the women in the village to join them in a sponsored midnight swim branded as a 'dip in the nip'.

The combined stories of these three women is a masterclass from Faith Hogan in exploring warm friendship, deep love, coping with loss, and new beginnings. But she also weaves some gold in the rest of the novel with Niall's story of finding acceptance and a place to belong, which was joyful, and a delightful thread about a character called Dan who is searching for the mother he never knew in this little corner of west Ireland.

As the stories of Elizabeth, Jo, Lucy, Niall and Dan collide, Hogan uses the theme of the bond between mother and child beautifully, but it also allows her to shine a light on the plight of those women who found themselves in the Irish mother and baby homes. It is shocking to read about the hundreds of women and children that died in these homes, and the babies that were taken from their mothers, in the days when to be an unmarried mother was considered to be shameful in the eyes of God and respectable people, but I really enjoyed the way Hogan examines this through her characters, bringing in some interesting threads about discrimination and hypocrisy along the way - and wraps everything up in a glorious, bittersweet ending.

This is an incredibly emotional story and although you know pretty early on that there is going to be a hefty dollop of sadness to come, this is actually a very uplifting tale that will warm the cockles of your heart, and have you craving the wild beauty of the west coast of Ireland. If you are looking for a book to make your heart full and your eyes brim over with tears, then The Ladies' Midnight Swimming Club is it.

The Ladies' Midnight Swimming Club is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Vicky Joss at Head of Zeus for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Faith Hogan lives in the west of Ireland with her husband, four children and two very fussy cats. 

She has an Hons Degree in English Literature and Psychology, has worked s a fashion model and in the intellectual disability and mental health sector.




Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Bone Code (Temperance Brennan Book 20) by Kathy Reichs

 

The Bone Code (Temperance Brennan Book 20) by Kathy Reichs.

Published 29th April 2021 by Simon and Schuster.

From the cover of the book:

A  storm has hit South Carolina, dredging up crimes of the past. 

En route to Isle of Palms, a barrier island off the South Carolina coast, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan receives a call from the Charleston coroner. 

During the storm, a medical waste container has washed up on the beach. Inside are two decomposed bodies wrapped in plastic sheeting and bound with electrical wire. Chillingly, Tempe recognises many details as identical to those of an unsolved case she handled in Quebec fifteen years earlier. 

With a growing sense of foreboding, she flies to Montreal to gather evidence and convince her boss Pierre LaManch to reopen the cold case. She also seeks the advice—and comfort—of her longtime beau Andrew Ryan. 

Meanwhile, a storm of a different type gathers force in South Carolina. The citizens of Charleston are struck by capnocytophaga, a bacterium that, at its worst, can eat human flesh. Thousands panic and test themselves for a rare genetic mutation that may have rendered them vulnerable.

Shockingly, Tempe eventually deduces not only that the victims in both grisly murder cases are related, but that the murders and the disease outbreak also have a common cause . . .

**************************************

You always know you're in for an enjoyable time when you dig into one of Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan novels, and this latest one, The Bone Code, delivers on every front.

This time around, our story begins with Tempe on the verge of battening down the hatches as a storm approaches the Carolina coast, when she receives a visit from an old woman asking for help with a curious historical case of a missing twin.

However, it is not until after the storm that the action really gets going. Just as Tempe is assessing the damage in the aftermath of the wild weather, she receives a call asking her to consult on a case of two bodies found within a medical waste container that has been washed up on the shore - bodies that have been wrapped in plastic and tied with electrical flex. It's a call that makes Tempe very uneasy, but it is not until she gets to work on the badly decomposed bodies that her worst fears are confirmed - this case bears a striking resemblance to a cold case she and her partner Andrew Ryan worked on fifteen years ago... in Montreal.

And then we're off, in true Reichs' style, with a new investigation on US soil and a re-opened cold case in Canada, as Tempe finds herself flying back and forth between countries, tracking down the clues that link these murders. Add in, Tempe's hectic workload of intriguing cases; romantic interludes with Ryan; a sideline investigation taken on by her best friend to find out what happened to the missing twin;  and a dangerous flesh-eating bacterial breakout in Charleston that bears the marks of foul-play; and there is a lot to keep you glued to the page.

This is a wonderful ensemble piece with Tempe at the hub of the action, and lots of great characters, some old and some new (including the adorable Birdie), making a contribution in solving the mysterious goings on. As all the painstakingly gathered pieces of the puzzle fall into place, including the scientific clues that mark this series of books out as being so fascinating, you arrive at some terrifying conclusions, and a heart in the mouth climax that has you teetering on the edge of your seat.

And it's interesting to note that the events in this book take place in a post Covid-19 landscape, which adds a real chill to the proceedings once you understand where Reichs has been leading you all along. It's brilliant... terrifying, but brilliant.

The Bone Code is available to buy now in hardcover, e-book and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending me a hardback copy of this book in return for an honest review, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.




About the author:

Kathy Reichs’s first novel Déjà Dead was a number one bestseller and won the 1997 Ellis Award for Best First Novel. The Bone Code is Kathy’s twentieth entry in her series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. Kathy was also a producer of the hit Fox TV series, Bones, which is based on her work and her novels.
Dr. Reichs is one of very few forensic anthropologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. She served on the Board of Directors and as Vice President of both the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and as a member of the National Police Services Advisory Council in Canada.




Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Wolves Of Leninsky Prospekt (Moscow Wolves Book One) by Sarah Armstrong

 

The Wolves Of Leninsky Prospekt (Moscow Wolves Book One) by Sarah Armstrong.

Published 7th February 2019 by Sandstone Press.

From the cover of the book:

You'd know if you were a spy... Wouldn't you?

Escaping failure as an undergraduate and a daughter, not to mention bleak 1970s England, Martha marries Kit - who is gay. Having a wife could keep him safe in Moscow in his diplomatic post. As Martha tries to understand her new life and makes the wrong friends, she walks straight into an underground world of counter-espionage.

Out of her depth, Martha no longer knows who can be trusted.

Shortlisted for the Bookmark Book Festival's Book of the Year Award 2020.


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1972: Martha is in trouble... again. At least in the eyes of the Cambridge University dons and her staid upper middle class parents. Sent down from Cambridge for daring to protest about women's rights, she finds herself back in the strangling atmosphere of her parental home, destined to never escape the dutiful life they have planned out for her.

But Martha has a plan. Her brother's friend Kit is off to Moscow to perform dodgy deeds under the guise of a respectable diplomat, and Martha is very keen to escape her current predicament and go along for the ride. Fortunately, Kit sees the advantages in having a wife at his side, especially since it will distract from the fact that he is gay, so a hastily arranged marriage ensues.

Martha cannot wait to experience the romantic Moscow she has read about, but things are not quite as she expected when she eventually finds herself living in a tiny apartment on Leninsky Prospekt, having replaced the disapproving eye of her parents for the strictures placed on Embassy wives and the constant surveillance of the security services. Despite having no idea how to behave in this strange world of subterfuge and endless mind-games, or who it is safe to become friends with, Martha finds herself falling in love with Moscow's secret, wild places, and inspired by a book of short stories that fate has brought into her possession, she maps them out during her lonely days in the city. She is desperate to make this enigmatic city her home, but how much of herself is she willing to sacrifice in the process?

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt is an incredible combination of coming of age story and espionage thriller, with a deep vein of allegorical folklore. This makes it something of a cut above the when it comes to the wonderful way Sarah Armstrong creates the immersive Cold War atmosphere that envelopes you throughout this book. 

Martha's independent nature proves her to be completely unsuited to the life of a diplomat's wife. Not for her the life of the dutiful little woman, living only to protect the reputation of her family, and support the career of her husband - especially when she discovers the reality of the closed off existence the Moscow wives are expected to lead. She wants so much more. I really admired this about her, but is seems obvious from the start that this is going to lead her into dangerous waters. It is this side of her character that makes her the perfect target to be tempted by those on the other side - and they know exactly how to strike at the heart of her disaffection.

Armstrong plays with some really interesting themes in the telling of this tale. We are in the heart of well-trodden Cold War country, with watchful eyes everywhere, where it is impossible to know who to trust, and yet she comes at this from an entirely new perspective - that of the women who have found themselves living in this world. I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of class, sex, women's rights, and entitlement through the eyes of Martha, and the way folklore, heavy with hidden symbolism, is used to drive the story to its inevitable conclusion. The way Armstrong spins the notion of the 'wolf' throughout the threads of the tale is simply beautiful. Who is the wolf? Good question, to which there are no easy answers, and so many shades of meaning. 

This is, on first sight, a simple tale of a woman who falls in love with a city, and through this developing relationship discovers the truth about herself, but there is so much more to take from this story, and its layers are like the secret meanings within the lines of the folktales that are sprinkled throughout the text - gradually becoming darker and more twisted as events play out. I adored it and urge you to discover for yourself what lies at the frozen heart of the wolves of Leninsky Prospekt - I guarantee you will enjoy finding out their secrets for yourself.

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer. Book two in the Moscow Wolves series, The Starlings of Bucharest is also now available, and is every bit as good as this one. See my review of Book Two HERE.

About the author:

Sarah Armstrong is the author of three novels, most recently The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. She is also the author of A Summer of Spying, a short non fiction work about her experience of jury service during the Covid-19 pandemic, authority, truth, and the surveillance we are all exposed to.


She teaches undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing with the Open University.

Sarah lives in Colchester with her husband and four children.



Monday, May 3, 2021

The Starlings Of Bucharest (Moscow Wolves Book Two) by Sarah Armstrong

 

The Starlings Of Bucharest (Moscow Wolves Book Two) by Sarah Armstrong.

Published 22nd April 2021 by Sandstone.

From the cover of the book:

The threats people hold over us are most often imagined. We even create them for ourselves.

Ted moves to London to get away from the working-class community he was born into.

Hoping to train as a journalist, he moves to London and slides into debt. Things look up when he is given the opportunity to go to Romania to interview an art film director and then attend a Moscow film festival. 

But others are watching him. And listening.

'A thrilling read, brilliantly evocative of the insidiousness, paranoia and mistrust of the Soviet period. [...] a page-turner packed with excellently drawn characters and backdrops that leap off the page.' --Charlotte Philby

'The prose is beguiling - deceptively clean and simple - Alice Munro meets John le Carre [...] one of the finest books I have read this year. Haunting and resonant, I can't wait for the next book in the Moscow Wolves series.' --Fiona Erskine

'An enviable talent for location and detail.' --John Lawton

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1975: Ted is desperate to escape his working class roots, and the expectation that he will follow his father into the fishing industry in Harwich. Encouraged by praise for his writing skills, from one of his teachers during his formative years, Ted decides to have a stab at the life of a London journalist. London life is not quite what Ted had in mind though, and despite only rising to the dizzy heights of a seedy bedsit, he has got himself into debt, and has been driven to borrow money from his mother's holiday fund which he feels terrible about.

However, things are looking up, because Ted has managed to miraculously grab himself a job as a film reviewer for a small magazine, and has every intention of making a success of the role, despite his lack of experience. When he is offered the chance to head to Bucharest to interview a famous Romanian film director, Ted grabs the opportunity with both hands, but he soon discovers that things are far from easy for a Western journalist in an Eastern Bloc country at the height of the Cold War. Everyone is watched closely behind the Iron Curtain and treated with suspicion, but somehow Ted's naivety and the fact that he hails from the decadent West gets him noticed by the security services, which makes his first big break something of a disaster.

Although Ted's boss is not particularly happy with him when he returns to England, Ted is soon off again to report on a film festival even further into the lion's (or is it wolves?) den in the heart of Moscow. Since he has already become a person of interest in the eyes of the security sentinels, his movements are watched very closely by both sides as soon as he lands in the USSR. Ted is now, quite literally, in Cold War spy country and his life is about to get very complicated indeed...

The Starlings of Bucharest is the second novel in the Moscow Wolves series, and although different in feel to the first book, The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, it is every bit as wonderfully immersive. There is a lot more dark humour this time around (the security reports are a delight!) and we have a complex set up influenced by the goings on in both Romania and Russia to spice things up. 

Sarah Armstrong has as wonderful way of dropping you right into the tense Cold War atmosphere of the 1970s, but she comes at her subject in a way I have not experienced before, and I like it! Her protagonists are not the usual characters you expect to see in an espionage yarn. In this case, Ted is completely unprepared for the reality of Moscow life with its threats, be they real or imagined, and he makes terrible blunders while trying to negotiate these strange surroundings, but he is also struck by the opportunities that exist for people with a working class background who want to prove themselves in the Communist world. This makes him ideal prey for those with an ideological agenda, especially the KGB - and it helps that he has a few money problems at the same time. Ted is heading for danger... but no spoilers from me!

I love the way Armstrong explores the side of Cold War politics that we seldom see in spy thrillers: the exploration of class and sex in the world of political change is particularly intriguing. But more than anything it is the way she approaches her subject as a whole. Yes, we have the violence associated with any story that focuses on a political system that is based on fear and oppression, but this happens in the wings in her books. Instead she chooses to show us the more insidious, velvet glove side of the business, rather than the blunt instrument to the head - the subtle manipulation of the vulnerable and disaffected, the gentle persuasion, the way temptation can be used to direct someone and sway them to your cause. This is glorious, intelligent writing about games within games, that keeps you interested in a way that pure violence never can.

There is so much to admire in this book, just as in the first Moscow Wolves novel. Much of this can be read as a standalone story, with characters cropping up from the first book, but you do really need to have read book one to understand quite what is playing out on the Moscow stage, and where the ending takes you. Everything is beautifully set up for the next novel, and I cannot wait to read it.

The Starlings of Bucharest is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer. You can also find my review of book one, The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt HERE.

Thank you to Sandstone for sending me a paperback copy of this book in return for an honest review and for inviting e to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Sarah Armstrong is the author of three novels, most recently The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. She is also the author of A Summer of Spying, a short non fiction work about her experience of jury service during the Covid-19 pandemic, authority, truth, and the surveillance we are all exposed to.

She teaches undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing with the Open University.

Sarah lives in Colchester with her husband and four children.




Sunday, May 2, 2021

Whatever You Are Is Beautiful by Richard Blandford

 

Whatever You Are Is Beautiful by Richard Blandford.

Published 24th April 2021 by Lightning Books.

From the cover of the book:

A mysterious illness, called HEROS, is sweeping America. It changes those afflicted, stage by stage, into super-powered costumed crimefighters. 

Charlie was once one of Britain’s favourite TV personalities, known for sneering at the weirder members of society in his cutting-edge documentaries. But now, after a battle with cocaine addiction, he wants to go straight and show his caring side. A programme about this bizarre new disease may be a chance to get his career back on track.

As he films and interviews a number of people with HEROS, or Rosies, as they call themselves, Charlie gets close to many of them, perhaps too close, and starts to question his role as a neutral observer. This may well be a career-changing experience, but not in the way he imagined.

Whatever You Are is Beautiful is a dark comedy, which celebrates difference and explores the immense human capacity for intolerance. It is both cautionary and joyful in equal measure.

***********************

Whatever You Are Is Beautiful imagines a world in which a mysterious illness called HEROS (Heterogenous Enhanced Replacement Organ Syndrome) is sweeping America, turning sufferers into an odd assortment of costumed would-be crime fighters - among other things.

Charlie, a former TV personality who indulged his sneering side with documentaries that took advantage of and laughed at the subjects of the programmes, is looking for a way to get back to the big time after his spectacular fall from grace into cocaine addiction. His idea is to show a more caring side by investigating the lives of those who are suffering from HEROS, and their families, in one of the small town hotspots of this strange disease.

HEROS has four distinct stages, and the symptoms associated with it get increasingly bizarre as the condition progresses. Initially, sufferers find that they wake up one morning with an organ or limb having been replaced with one which has weird new properties - the old human one having been discarded in a pool of blood in the process. There are stories of new larynxes that make unusual sounds, spines replaced with wings, hands that pass through objects, novel dental arrangements, and even sexual organs that do things they were never intended to - if you can imagine it, there is a story about it. The stages then sometimes progress to a point where the sufferer becomes convinced they are some kind of caped crusader, operating on a different plain of existence to those around them - often with tragic consequences.

As Charlie begins interviewing the Rosies, as they call themselves, he starts to understand many things about the disease, the wider world, and even himself, and undergoes an interesting transformation of his own, into the caring person he was intending to simply emulate on screen.

This is a quirky book, full of intriguing characters, lots of dark humour and more than a few poignant moments. The story may seem comically absurd, but through it Richard Blandford examines some very interesting themes - prejudice, discrimination and intolerance to people who are viewed as different are obvious ones, and at times, I was horrified at the scenes playing out, but there are also some lovely moments of joy, kindness, camaraderie and self-discovery. Much of this book reminded me of the TV series Misfits, in the way it combines humour with a close look at the people who find themselves with these new abilities, the way they come to terms with them, and the expectations placed upon them- and also those that take advantage of them. I guarantee this one will make you chuckle and give you lots to think about.

Whatever You Are is Beautiful is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer or via the links below:

Kobo     Amazon UK     Amazon US     Google Books

Thank you to Lightning Books for provoding me with an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review, and to Emma Welton of Damp Pebbles Tours for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Richard Blandford is the author of the novels Hound Dog and Flying Saucer Rock and Roll, and the short story collections The Shuffle and Erotic Nightmares.

He has also studied and taught art history. He has written for the art journals Frieze and Elephant and is the author of the visual history London in the Company of Painters.

He lives in Worthing.