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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

An Eye For An Eye (Detective Kate Young Book One) by Carol Wyer

 

An Eye For An Eye (Detective Kate Young Book One) by Carol Wyer.

Published 1st February 2021 by Thomas and Mercer.

From the cover of the book:

A killer running rings around the police. A detective spiralling out of control.

DI Kate Young is on leave. She’s the Force’s best detective, but her bosses know she’s under pressure, on medication and overcoming trauma. So after her bad judgement call leads to a narrowly averted public disaster, they’re sure all she needs is a rest.

But when Staffordshire Police summon her back to work on a murder case, it’s a harder, more suspicious Kate Young who returns. With a new ruthlessness, she sets about tracking down a clinical, calculating serial killer who is torturing victims and leaving clues to taunt the police. Spurred on by her reporter husband, Young begins to suspect that the murderer might be closer than she ever imagined.

As she works to uncover the truth, Young unravels a network of secrets and lies, with even those closest to her having something to hide. But with her own competence—and her grip on reality—called into question, can she unmask the killer before they strike again?

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

I love it when you start reading a book and know straightaway that you are going to have to find yourself a comfortable spot, away from interruptions, and read the whole thing cover to cover in one sitting - this, dear reader, is one of those books!

Meet DI Kate Young, coping with the aftermath of a traumatic incident with a gunman in a first class train carriage that saw many innocent commuters lose their lives, and that has left Kate with PTSD that refuses to release her from its vice-like grip. Kate is barely surviving her enforced leave of absence on a diet of pills and alcohol, only being kept afloat by the presence of her reporter husband Chris - her confidence in her own abilities, and her superiors, lost in a haze.

When Kate is unexpectedly called back to work on a mysterious murder case, with a much depleted staff of two detectives, she is highly suspicious of the motives of her boss Superintendent Dickson - the man who previously ordered her to take leave - and of her own abilities to perform as she did before trauma came knocking at her door. It soon becomes clear that Kate and her team are on the hunt for a sadistic serial killer with a very unusual MO, and as the clues begin to point towards secrets, lies and coverups that come very close to home, she has to tread very carefully - all the while fighting the flashbacks that threaten to consume her, and operating under the close scrutiny of those who would love to see her fail. Can Kate get to the bottom of this case, and answer some burning questions of her own, before it is too late?

This is such a well crafted police procedural that beautifully weaves the insidious threads of conspiracy into Kate's personal and professional lives. At the heart of the tale we have a compelling murder mystery with the search for a serial killer, allowing Wyer to incorporate some deliciously gory scenes and intriguing symbolism into this story, but it is the way all this feeds into Kate's own troubles that really makes this book for me. As the pieces of the mystery come together, the hints and clues point not only to the solution to the case in hand, but collide with Kate's own search for answers to the riddles that haunt her about that terrible night on the train and its aftermath.

The pace of this story is pitch perfect, gaining momentum until you find yourself racing through the pages, uncovering reveal after glorious reveal, towards a cracking climax that very nearly ties up all the loose ends - leaving a single thread, with a menacing twist in it, that tugs you onwards to the next instalment of this series.

This is one of the best crime stories I have read in a long time, with a well conceived plot; engaging, but realistically flawed, characters; and just the right balance of gore and emotional content to send chills down the spine and pluck at the heart strings. I went straight into reading book two, A Cut for a Cut, after finishing this book, loathe to leave Kate and her team behind - so keep your eyes peeled (pardon the pun) for my review!

An Eye for an Eye is available to buy now in paperback, ebook and audio formats, from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Carol Wyer for sending me a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

About the author:

Winner of The People’s Book Prize Award, Carol Wyer is a bestselling author and stand-up comedian who writes feel-good comedies and gripping crime fiction. A move to the ‘dark side’ in 2017 saw the introduction of popular DI Robyn Carter in Little Girl Lost, the #2 bestselling book on Amazon, #9 bestselling audiobook on Audible and Top 150 USA Today bestseller. A second series, featuring DI Natalie Ward, quickly followed and to date her crime novels have sold over 750,000 copies and been translated for various overseas markets, including Norwegian, Italian, Turkish, Hungarian Slovak, Czech and Polish. Carol has been interviewed on numerous radio shows discussing ‘Irritable Male Syndrome’ and ‘Ageing Disgracefully’, and on BBC Breakfast television. She has written for Woman’s Weekly, Take A Break, Choice, Yours, Woman’s Own and HuffPost. She currently lives on a windy hill in rural Staffordshire with her husband, Mr Grumpy…who is very, very grumpy.

Monday, June 28, 2021

The Watchman (Ben Bracken Book 5) by Rob Parker

 

The Watchman (Ben Bracken Book 5) by Rob Parker.

Published 24th June 2021 by Lume Books.

From the cover of the book:

One last mission for an old friend. What could go wrong?

It’s sold as an in-and-out jaunt to The Big Apple, to pick up a harmless envelope. But when Ben Bracken is offered the assignment, he’s a little hesitant. He’s a family man now, with a duty to stay alive for his loved ones.

But, with the request coming from fellow former military man and trusted friend William Grosvenor, not to mention the eye-watering payout, one last job can’t hurt, can it?

So begins his American road trip, one that takes him from the city that never sleeps to the misty swamps of Florida. All in pursuit of one highly coveted envelope. Because it turns out, this job isn’t the walk in Central Park it was promised to be.

As he’s pursued by New York’s most dangerous mobsters, factions of federal law enforcement, and American Intelligence, Ben’s hunch is that their joint quarry must hold something of international significance.

He’s not wrong. The contents that’s slipping through these influential fingers contains evidence of the world’s biggest cover-up. Evidence that will rewrite history books and incriminate one of the most powerful men on the planet.

It’s probably best it winds up in the right hands.

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

As a huge fan of the Ben Bracken series I knew I was going to be in for a treat with book number five, The Watchman, and I was not wrong ladies and gentlemen!

If you have followed this series, you will know that Bracken has been through more than a few adventures in the past, but he has now settled into the life of a family man, albeit with an adventure here and there on the side as part of his role as an advisor for the NCA (National Crime Agency).

This time around, Parker has something quite different in store for Bracken: as he is asked by his old friend William Grosvenor, Minister without Portfolio, to do something off the books for the first time in quite a while - a seemingly quick and easy errand to hop over the Pond to New York and pick up an envelope containing some rather sensitive information, that it would be better remained secret. One last job? An all expenses paid visit to the Big Apple? Why not?

Within minutes of Bracken getting settled into his swanky apartment in New York, he heads to his prearranged meet with CIA operative Luca Jones to collect the envelope, and the bullets start to fly. The pursuit is on, and Bracken and Jones, as possessors of this little envelope, are apparently the prey. What's worse is that there is more than one party after the information contained in the envelope, and they are more than willing to kill to possess it. What exactly is this information, and why do a number of security services, and a bunch of burley mobsters, want to get their mitts on it?

What follows is an explosive road trip full of bloodshed and double dealing, that takes Bracken and Jones, now joined by an unusually ruffled Grosvenor, from New York to Florida and beyond, as they try to keep the envelope and the information it contains out of the wrong hands - information that would rewrite history and implicate some very powerful men in the process. But that's not all, because scenes from a murky undercover past of some of the players in this games-within-games production intrude with enough regularity to give you a hint that something pretty momentous lies at the heart of the mysterious contents of the envelope in question.

I really enjoy the way Parker likes to mix things up in a series that, while mostly comprising gritty, Northern Noir crime yarns, also has the occasional injection of delectable Bond-like plotlines. This instalment definitely follows a more cinematic, international conspiracy thriller theme, harking back more to Bracken's previous trials and tribulations from book two, Morte Point, than to his other adventures, but it also brings in an intriguing twist that is very unusual for both Bracken and Parker, as it is set in America - and what a backdrop it is. This story takes us from swanky highrise apartments and hotel rooms, overlooking New York tourist vistas; to grubby small town, Eastern Seaboard motels populated with tough biker gangs; to the crocodile infested swamps of Florida; all the way to a location ingrained in the American psyche, which I will not reveal here.

This is just as non-stop, pacy as I have come to expect from Parker - once the action starts, it's buckle up and enjoy the ride stuff, with some clever little twists, great characters, an inspired take on an event that has enthralled conspiracy theorists for years, and a first class surprise at the end that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Bravo, Mr Parker!

It seems likely that this may be the last adventure for Ben Bracken, which makes me a little sad, but there is so much in these pages that confirms my belief that Rob Parker has blossomed as an author, and has a very long career ahead of him in this writing game. This is a very grown up international conspiracy thriller, sure to please lovers of the genre, and can easily be read as a standalone if you are so inclined - but honestly, this is a series that has many delights, and it is always so much better when you can pick up every nuance and casually dropped reference to what has gone before, so why wouldn't you go all out and read them all? I highly recommend each and every one.

The Watchman is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer in ebook and paperback formats.

Thank you to Rob Parker and Lume Books for sending me a paperback copy of this book in return for a honest review, and to Kelly Lacey of Love Books Tours for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Rob Parker is a married father of three, who lives in a village near Manchester, UK. Author of the Ben Bracken series A Wanted Man, Morte Point, The Penny Black and Till Morning is Nigh, The Watchman, and the standalone post-Brexit country-noir Crook's Hollow, he enjoys a rural life on an old pig farm (now minus pigs), writing horrible things between school runs. He writes full time, as well as organising and attending various author events across the UK, while boxing regularly for charity. Passionate about inspiring a love of the written word in young people, Rob spends a lot of time in schools across the North West, encouraging literacy, story-telling, creative-writing and how good old fashioned hard work tends to help good things happen.



Friday, June 25, 2021

Animal by Lisa Taddeo

 

Animal by Lisa Taddeo.

Published 24th June 2021 by Bloomsbury Circus.

From the cover of the book:

I drove myself out of New York City where a man shot himself in front of me. He was a gluttonous man and when his blood came out it looked like the blood of a pig.

That's a cruel thing to think, I know. He did it in a restaurant where I was having dinner with another man, another married man.

Do you see how this is going? But I wasn't always that way.

I am depraved. I hope you like me.



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


We first meet our anti-heroine Joan as she is leaving New York after an incident during which her married lover Vic commits suicide in a restaurant, in front of her and the man she really wants to be with - another married lover. Her hopes of happiness with her new lover dashed after this explosion of violence, she sets off on a road trip across country to California, in search of a young woman called Alice, who she has developed an obsession with, although neither of them have ever met.  

When Joan reaches California, she rents an house in a blistering hot LA canyon, populated with an odd collection of misfits and a whole bunch of wily coyotes, finds a job, and sets about manufacturing a meeting with the mysterious Alice. As events play out, and we learn the connection between these two women, the story jumps around in a staccato fashion, bringing in episodes from Joan's past that allow us to piece together the brazen life she has lived and understand the trauma that has shaped her into the person she is.

This is a book filled with numerous wild, disturbing and sexy episodes from Joan's life. which paint her as a home breaking, self-absorbed she-devil from page one, and indeed she describes herself as 'depraved' from almost our first meeting. However, over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Joan is very much a different kind of animal from the one she believes herself to be and the answers to her behaviour lie in the significant trauma she experienced in her childhood, which we only understand the full truth about near the very end of the story when all the pieces fall into place - and which intriguingly Joan herself seems oblivious to the validity of until she meets Alice.

There is a lot to take from this book, all wrapped up in a thriller with a compelling central character, who thinks of herself as the monster in this story, deserving of all the heartache and abusive situations she puts herself in. The story evokes such a mesmerising feeling of nostalgia, at times reminding me so much of the writing of Eve Babitz, but what makes it so interesting is the way Taddeo sets Joan against such a variety of different backdrops through the flashbacks she recounts, drawing out the many different aspects of her personality, her innermost feelings, her strengths and her vulnerabilities - and I was really stuck with the clever way she explores the notions of physical and emotional 'rape'. My goodness, it runs the whole gamut of the emotional spectrum, and is filled with a poignancy and yearning in its reflections on motherhood that cut straight to the quick. 

I think this is a book that is likely to divide the crowd, and there is much in these pages that readers will find upsetting about both Joan's behaviour, and her experiences. It actually left me feeling rather sad and angry about the fate of a woman so driven to extremes by the legacy of the selfish, insidious, and violent acts of men - a woman who ultimately just wants to be heard. But make of her, and her inner animal, what you will...

Animal is available to buy now in hardcover, ebook and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Georgine Moore from Midas PR for sending me a proof of this book in return for an honest review.

About the author:

Lisa Taddeo spent eight years and thousands of hours tracking the women whose stories comprise Three Women, moving to the towns they lived in to better understand their lives. She has contributed to New York Magazine, Esquire, Elle, Glamour and many other publications. She has won two Pushcart Prizes for her short stories, one of which, ‘Suburban Weekend’, was also selected as a favourite piece of 2017 by Granta. She lives with her husband and daughter in New England.

 

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The Mad Women's Ball by Victoria Mas

 

The Mad Women's Ball by Victoria Mas.

Translated by Frank Wynne.

Published 17th June 2021 by Doubleday.

From the cover of the book:

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical, outcasts from society. But the truth is much more complicated - for these women are often simply inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. 

Once a year a grand ball is held at the hospital. For the Parisian elite, the Mad Women's Ball is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

Geneviève is a senior nurse. After the childhood death of her sister, she has shunned religion and placed her faith in Doctor Charcot and his new science. But everything begins to change when she meets Eugénie, the 19-year-old daughter of a bourgeois family. Because Eugénie has a secret, and she needs Geneviève's help. 

Their fates will collide on the night of the Mad Women's Ball...

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

The Mad Women's Ball is, perhaps quite fittingly, a book that you will have you questioning your own sanity when you realise that it is based around a real ball that was held annually inside the walls of the Parisian Salpêtrière asylum - made famous by the work of the French neurologist Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot, often called the founder of modern neurology, is best known for his work on hypnosis and hysteria, and the experiments he carried out on the unfortunate female inmates of the Salpêtrière, including his extraordinary, but by modern standards distasteful, public lectures during which members of the public could see him perform his 'treatments' on his female patients.

Victoria Mas carries us right into the heart of the Salpêtrière in this compelling novel by introducing us to some of the inmates and staff of the asylum as they are preparing for the spectacle of the annual ball, during which the Parisian elite are invited to mingle with the 'mad women'. Our female patients span a wide range of ages, and there is a fair sprinkling of outcasts and unwanted women among those suffering from trauma and real mental illness - each of them with their own tragic story to tell. But most intriguingly, Mas shows us that the staff within these walls also have issues of their own, such as the complex senior nurse Geneviève, who follows the religion of Charcot's treatments, having long ago lost her religious faith with the death of her younger sister.

When nineteen-year-old Eugénie arrives on Geneviève's ward, having been consigned to the asylum by her cruel father after misguidedly confessing her secret gift to her grandmother, events take an interesting turn. Eugénie's gift allows her to see Geneviève's secret pain that she has kept hidden for so long, and she is persuaded to help Eugénie gain her freedom. This year, the ball will become a fateful night for more than just the inmates of the Salpêtrière.

There is such a wonderful Gothic feel to this novel and Mas weaves a thrilling tale incorporating the separate stories of several intriguing female characters together to give us a glimpse of life both within and outside of the walls of the Salpêtrière. Not only do we see what life is like for women of different social classes in Paris and her environs, but we also learn a lot about the variety of reasons the female inmates have found themselves within the walls of the asylum and most interestingly, how they feel about being there - although many of the patients long to be free of their incarceration, there are also those that have found refuge here from a harsh world dominated by the whims of men, and for the most part they look forward to the annual ball with unabashed joy. 

There are many scenes that are difficult to read within these pages, with distressing episodes around how the patients are treated, and the complete absence of respect for them as individuals, but there is nothing described here that is out of place in a book intended to create an authentic feel of the period, however upsetting they may be to our modern sensibilities. 

For a book of just a shade over 200 pages, in addition to a hard look at the history of neurological treatments, Mas also touches on some rich and deeply thought-provoking themes around women's rights, the abuse of power, family, female friendship, unresolved grief, religion, and spiritualism, that really give substance to the book as a whole. I also have to add that the translator Frank Wynne has done a great job here to produce an in translation piece that retains so much mysticism and emotion, whilst maintaining pace among the more gritty moments. Highly recommended!

The Mad Women's Ball is available to buy now in hard cover, ebook and audio formats.

Thank you to Tabitha Pelly from Doubleday for sending me a proof of this book in return for an honest review,

About the author:

Victoria Mas is thirty-two. The Mad Women's Ball, her first novel, has won several prizes in France (including the Prix Stanislas and Prix Renaudot des Lycéens) and been hailed as the bestselling debut of the season. She has worked in film in the United States, where she lived for eight years. She graduated from the Sorbonne University in Contemporary Literature.


Foregone by Russell Banks

 

Foregone by Russell Banks.

Published 22nd June 2021 by No Exit Press.

From the cover of the book:

At the centre of Foregone is famed Canadian American leftist documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife, one of sixty thousand draft evaders and deserters who fled to Canada to avoid serving in Vietnam. Fife, now in his late seventies, is dying of cancer in Montreal and has agreed to a final interview in which he is determined to bare all his secrets at last, to demythologize his mythologized life. The interview is filmed by his acolyte and ex-star student, Malcolm MacLeod, in the presence of Fife's wife and alongside Malcolm's producer, cinematographer, and sound technician, all of whom have long admired Fife but who must now absorb the meaning of his astonishing, dark confession.

Imaginatively structured around Fife's secret memories and alternating between the experiences of the characters who are filming his confession, the novel challenges our assumptions and understanding about a significant lost chapter in American history and the nature of memory itself. Russell Banks gives us a daring and resonant work about the scope of one man's mysterious life, revealed through the fragments of his recovered past.

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

Foregone is a stonker of a novel that centres around the life of Leonard Fife, a cutting edge Canadian-American documentary film maker, famous for fleeing to Canada to dodge the draft for the Vietnam War.

Fife is now in his seventies and suffering from terminal cancer - something that has made him reflect on the life he has led. When Fife is asked by a former mentee of his Malcolm MacLeod, now a film maker in his own right, to take part in a filmed interview to answer questions about his life's work, he reluctantly agrees, with the proviso that his wife must be present throughout. But when the filming begins, the words that pour from Fife are quite unexpected, and rather than follow the line of questioning MacLeod has laid out, he has an agenda all of his own - to tell the truth about his past.

What follows is a compelling account of Fife's life and the secrets he has held close for so long; interspersed with the interview in the present, as his devotees hang on his every word, and his wife is filled with incredulity at his, sometimes surreal, claims. To Fife's mind, he needs this chance to lay the truth bare to the one woman he truly loves, as a confessional and act of atonement for the sins of his past, while everyone else is convinced that his memories have finally failed him.

This book is beautifully written, and although I have not read any of Banks' previous work, it is easy to see why his books have twice been Pulitzer Prize finalists. Although I found it hard to like Fife given his confessions, laced as they are with episodes of his life where his chosen course of action was to fabricate his own reality and run away from his responsibilities, Banks' words are an absolute tonic to read, gliding silkily across the page and into your head - the mark of a true craftsman.

Banks examines a fascinating period of American history in this novel, bringing a real sense of time and place around those living under the shadow of the political turmoil of a country involved in a conflict that even now defines so many lives - the Vietnam War. Through Fife, we run a whole gamut of opinions and experiences, told in a style that echoes the writings of his literary heroes, such as Jack Kerouac, and there is an unmistakeable 'On the Road' feel throughout the piece. But what makes this such a delight is the plain and simple fact that Fife is such an unreliable narrator - how much of this tale is really true given his state of mind, his physical condition, and the feeling that he is inherently someone who has trouble facing up to the truth? Is this actually a observance of last rites to cleanse the soul, or is Fife finally treating his audience to a narration of the Great American Novel he has held within him for so long? I am still not sure, but there is no doubt that this is a modern classic in the making, and it was an absolute joy to read.

Foregone is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer in paperback, ebook and audio formats.

Thank you to Hollie McDevitt from Oldcastle Books 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:

Russell Banks, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize with his novels Cloudsplitter and Continental Drift, is one of America's most prestigious fiction writers, a past president of the International Parliament of Writers, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty languages and has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Common Wealth Award for Literature. He lives in upstate New York and Miami, Florida.





Monday, June 21, 2021

In The Mirror, A Peacock Danced by Justine Bothwick

 

In The Mirror A Peacock Danced by Justine Bothwick.

Published 24th June 2021 by Agora Books.

From the cover of the book:

Agra, 1938: Eighteen-year-old Florence Hunt has grown up riding horses past the Taj Mahal and chasing peacocks through her backyard under the critical gaze of her father. Increasingly enamoured with his work on the booming railway, Florence yearns to know more, but finds herself brushed away, encouraged only to perform the more ladylike hobbies of singing and entertaining guests. So when a dazzling young engineer walks into her life, she finds herself not only gripped by secret lessons in physics but swept entirely off her feet.

Portsmouth, 1953: Fifteen years later, Florence finds herself pregnant and alone in post-war England – a far cry from her sun-drenched existence in India. Struggling to cope with the bleakness of everyday life in a male-dominated world, Florence is desperate to find the woman she used to be. But when someone from her past reaches out, Florence might just have a chance to start over. 

Soaring from the shimmering heights of the big top to the depths of heartbreak, can Florence find the happiness, independence, and passion she once had in order to start living again?

Set against the lush backdrop of early 20th-century India, In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced – the debut novel from Justine Bothwick – is the moving story of one woman’s journey back to herself.

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

Agra, 1938: We meet Florence Hunt on the day of her eighteenth birthday in pre-war India, where she has grown up under the firm hand of her widowed father, who is absorbed with his work on the railway. Her childhood has not been unhappy, but she feels the loss of her mother, left as she has been in the care of a father who not only refuses to consider her wishes, but also demands she confine herself solely to ladylike pursuits, despite her desire to be an engineer. She longs to to be free to govern her own destiny.

The story then moves with a jolt to Portsmouth in 1953, where Florence is now a once-divorced mother of a mixed-race son, living under very different circumstances in the home of her maternal aunt, married to a man who cares little for what she wants out of life, and always struggling with a grey and cold environment very different from that of her childhood. What happened to that spirited young girl of eighteen, who we met at the beginning of the tale?

Justine Bothwick then proceeds to spin out a story that moves back and forth between the dramatic events of pre- and post-war Agra, and the reality of a young mother in Portsmouth of the 1950s, weaving a tale that gradually unfolds the life of a woman who has experienced love, heartbreak and suffering at the hands of a male dominated world - and has lost herself along the way. But when a face from the past turns up on her doorstep, it gives her the chance to regain something of the life she has lost, and an opportunity to chase the dreams she thought would never be fulfilled.

These pages are filled with lush period detail about life in pre-independence India, at a time of considerable political turmoil, and the stark period in post-war England when social change is bubbling under the surface. Bothwick covers considerable ground in the telling of Florence's story against both these richly described backdrops, drawing on themes of women's rights, class and racism, and ties the whole piece together by injecting a storyline that revolves around freedom by exploring life in the circus, and using peacocks as an intriguing motif throughout.

Florence was such an interesting and complex character; her youthful spirit beaten down by life filled with romantic disappointment and frustrated ambition, and even though my heart broke as she fell prey to the dark deeds of others and her own inner frailties, the way she grabbed the chance to follow her dreams after pulling herself from her pit of despair was delightful - especially the way she was inspired by the love and kindness of others who had to fight for the kind of lives they wanted to live.

This is such a moving and heart warming tale about family, inner strength and the role of women, that proved to be a very enjoyable, quirky mix of historical drama and glamorous flight of fancy. I don't think I have ever read anything quite like this before, which makes it something of an impressive debut indeed. I can't wait to see what comes next from Justine Bothwick.

In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced is available to order from your favourite book retailer now in e-book format, and will be available in paperback and audio formats from 22nd July 2021.

Thank you to Peyton Stableford at Agora Books for sending me a proof of this book in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Justine Bothwick grew up in Kent and Hampshire, studied in London and has also lived in Bristol, Bath and Godalming. In 2005 she moved to Italy. She teaches English in an international school In Rome but returns often to see her family in Winchester (global pandemics allowing).

She is married to a Roman architect, and together they have a flat in the city with a small balcony on which she grows her ever expanding collection of plants and watches the local birdlife.

Justine is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School’s Creative Writing MA programme. She has short stories published in The Lonely Crowd, Fictive Dream, Confingo Magazine, and Virtual Zine, and forthcoming with Nightjar Press. Her work was highly commended in the Bath Short Story Award 2020. Her debut novel – In the Mirror, a Peacock Danced – will be published with Agora Books in June 2021.





Friday, June 18, 2021

Grown Ups by Marie Aubert

 

Grown Ups by Marie Aubert.

Translated by Rosie Hedger.

Published 3rd June 2021 by Pushkin Press.

From the cover of the book:

Ida is a forty-year-old architect, single and starting to panic. She's navigating Tinder and contemplating freezing her eggs, but forces these worries to the back of her mind as she sets off to the family cabin for her mother's sixty-fifth birthday.

But family ties old and new begin to wear thin, out in the idyllic Norwegian countryside. Ida is fighting with her sister Marthe, flirting with Marthe's husband and winning the favour of Marthe's stepdaughter. 

Some supposedly wonderful news from her sister sets tensions simmering even further, building to an almighty clash between Ida and her sister, her mother, her whole family.

Exhilarating, funny and unexpectedly devastating, Grown Ups asks what kind of adult you are without a family of your own.

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

Grown Ups is told from the point of view of forty-year-old architect Ida, who we meet just as she is off to the lakeside family cabin in Norway to celebrate her mother's sixty-fifth birthday.

Right from the word go, we are aware of the deep feelings of panic that have taken over Ida's every waking moment, as she dwells on her life as a single, childless, career woman painfully aware of the ticking of her body clock, and her plans to freeze some of her eggs as soon as this little family trip is over. Not surprisingly, she feels rather uncomfortable at the thought of sharing the next few days with her younger sister Marthe, her partner Kristoffer and his daughter Olea, especially since they have been trying for a baby of their own.

Almost as soon as Ida is through the door of the cabin our perception that this is going to be far from a cosy little family reunion is confirmed. You can almost cut the atmosphere with a knife when Marthe shares some unexpected news with her sister that brings all the old tension and rivalry to the surface - and seems to elicit the worst in them all. 

Jealous of what Marthe has apparently come by so easily, Ida can't help herself from taking pot-shots at every opportunity, doing her best to come between her sister and her partner, and her sister and Olea, in order to prove that she is far more deserving of such domestic bliss, and Marthe responds to every jibe with petulant ripostes of her own. Matters only seem to get worse when their mother and her partner Stein turn up to complete the family party, and as the fur begins to fly, the edginess builds to a massive bust-up that has consequences for everyone in the firing line.

This is such a potent little gem of a novel that paints a sharply observed picture of the perfect dysfunctional family, with a twist of Norwegian intensity, impressively translated by Rosie Hedger. Almost everyone here feels the weight of expectation placed upon them by family, friends and notions of how they should be living grown up lives, and Aubert weaves the resulting tension beautifully into a tightly constructed framework shaped around the age old rivalry between siblings. I think anyone with brothers or sisters reading this book will recognise much of the pattern of events at the heart of this story, but my goodness, the savagery between Ida and Marthe is way off the scale of normal sibling dynamics.

The beauty of this novel lies in the way Aubert sprinkles observations of grown up behaviour throughout, with some wonderfully emotive reflections on pivotal coming of age moments, and how she provides insight into exactly how the relationships between her characters have been allowed to deteriorate to the point of, potentially, no return. Ida's flashbacks into the past reveal a childhood filled with unresolved issues around her parents' divorce, that have influenced not only the relationships between the two daughters and their mother, but also their relationships with men in general. Ida in particular seems doomed to swing constantly between desperate neediness and distant coolness with unavailable men, while Marthe is used to being pandered to in her whims and expects everyone to go along with her demands. There is no doubt that this is a family desperately in need of some therapy, as a group and individually - except perhaps for the intriguing Stein, who sees all and treats us to the occasional sage comment on the proceedings.

For a short novel, at just over 150 pages, Grown Ups has the delicious atmosphere of a dramatic stage production that packs a powerful punch, and it takes you through a whole gamut of emotions all the way to the unsettling knife edge of an ending. It's outstanding! 

Grown Ups is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Tara McEvoy at Pushkin Press for sending me a proof of this book in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Marie Aubert made her debut in 2016 with the short story collection Can I Come Home With You, which sold more than 10,000 copies in Norway. Grown Ups is her first novel, and won the Young People's Critics' Prize (Norway's equivalent to the Goncourt des lyceens) and was nominated for the Booksellers' Prize. Rights have already been sold in ten other countries.





Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy

 

The Fort (City of Victory Book 1) by Adrian Goldsworthy.

Published 10th June 2021 by Head of Zeus.

From the cover of the book:

AD 105: DACIA

The Dacian kingdom and Rome are at peace, but no one thinks that it will last. Sent to command an isolated fort beyond the Danube, centurion Flavius Ferox can sense that war is coming, but also knows that enemies may be closer to home.

Many of the Brigantes under his command are former rebels and convicts, as likely to kill him as obey an order. And then there is Hadrian, the emperor's cousin, and a man with plans of his own...

Gritty, gripping and profoundly authentic, The Fort is the first book in a brand new trilogy set in the Roman empire from bestselling historian Adrian Goldsworthy.

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

Welcome to the Dacia in the year AD 105, somewhere around the region of what we know today as Romania and Moldova, where an uneasy peace lies between the people of the Dacian Kingdom and the Roman Empire, following the Dacian War between 101 and 102 AD. Although ostensibly under Roman Rule, after Emperor Trajan's defeat of King Decebalus, unrest is on the rise, driven by rebellion in the hearts of the native population, and it seems war may be on the horizon once more.

Our story begins with Centurion Flavious Ferox arriving at the isolated fort of Piroboridava on the Danube to take command in these unsettled times. His job is made all the more difficult by the fact that his enemies not only lie outside the fort's walls, but inside as well, because the Brigantes under his control - made up former rebels and convicts - are just as likely to want him dead too, rather than accept him as their commander. If this wasn't problem enough Hadrian, the Emperor Trajan's cousin, is also on his way to Dacia to set in motion ambitious plans of his own, and Ferox is going to be right at the centre of trouble when the conflict starts.

This is a gripping story that takes you right into the midst of the height of the Roman Empire. There is quite a lot going on here and it did take me a while to get my head around quite what was going on and who was who at first (a cast of characters would have been very helpful here), especially since the story runs back and forth between events in Rome, the fort under Ferox, and the frenzied plotting of the Dacians, as the preparations for war get underway. However, before long, I found myself completely immersed in a story full of conflict; bloodshed; detailed descriptions of the locations, landscape, and buildings; and the art and technology of warfare, at this time. But, for me, it is the story of the people that is the most interesting and the way Goldsworthy uses his background as a historian to give a real insight into the nature of Empire; the rigid social structure, and the multitude of nationalities and cultures that make up the big picture.

Not only does Goldsworthy give us the more familiar picture of life within Rome itself, with its snobbery and constant power plays between Emperor and Senate, it is the part of the story in the outposts that really matters in this book - the make up of the armies that fight side by side; the people they live amongst; and the shifting nature of allegiances. Ferox's situation, and indeed his own background, show that the Roman army was composed of all sorts of men, drawn from across the empire, and sometimes made up of units whose link to Rome was not only tenuous, but more a matter of a choice between conscription or death. It's not just a question of rank and file soldiers; but also of nationality; religion; tribal affiliation; and their comrades in arms, who might sometimes also be female; and it's not therefore, surprising that this story is full of tension and divided loyalties both within the fort and outside.

I was so impressed by the way Goldsworthy manages to really bring history alive in this thrilling tale, full of compelling characters, and although he does admit to tinkering a little with the facts in one of the best Historical Note appendices I think I might ever have read, I learned a huge amount about this era and what life looked like in this corner of the Roman Empire.  I thoroughly enjoyed this first part of the new City of Victory series and cannot wait for the next instalment to meet up with some of these fabulous characters once more.

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

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

About the author:

Adrian Goldsworthy has a doctorate from Oxford University. His first book, The Roman Army At War was recognised by John Keegan as an exceptionally impressive work, original in treatment and impressive in style. 

He has gone on to write several other books, including The Fall Of The West, Caesar, In The Name Of Rome, Cannae and Roman Warfare, which have sold more than a quarter of a million copies and been translated into more than a dozen languages. A full-time author, he regularly contributes to TV documentaries on Roman themes.





Monday, June 14, 2021

Diamonds At the Lost And Found by Sarah Aspinall

 

Diamonds At the Lost And Found by Sarah Aspinall.

Published in paperback 10th June 2021 by 4th Estate.

From the cover of the book:

My Mother attracted unusual people and events to her, and she made things happen….

Sarah Aspinall grew up in the glittering wake of her irrepressible mother Audrey. Born into poverty in 1930s Liverpool, Audrey had always known that she was destined for better things and was determined to shape that destiny for herself. From the fading seaside glamour of Southport, to New York and Hollywood, to post-war London and the stately homes of the English aristocracy, Audrey stylishly kicked down every door she encountered, on a ceaseless quest for excitement – and for love.

Once Sarah was born, she became Audrey’s companion on her adventures, travelling the world, scraping together an education for herself from the books found in hotels or given to her by strangers, and living on Audrey’s charm as they veered from luxury to poverty – an accessory to her mother’s desperate search for ‘the one’.

As Sarah grew older, she realised that theirs was a life hung about with mysteries. Why, for instance, had they spent ages living in a godforsaken motel in the Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina? Who was the charming Sabet Sabescue, and what was his hold over Audrey during several months in Cairo? And what on earth happened to the heirlooms that an ancient heiress, Miss Gillette, gave Sarah when they visited her in Palm Springs?

And why, when they returned to Southport was Audrey ostracised by the society she so longed to be part of?

Diamonds at the Lost and Found tells the story of how Sarah eventually pulled free of her mother’s gravitational pull to carve out a destiny of her own. It is a beguiling testament to dreams, defying convention and exasperated love.

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

Diamonds at the Lost and Found is a fascinating love letter of a memoir from Sarah Aspinall to her remarkable mother Audrey, which I found myself consuming on one delicious bite - even though it left me with many contradictory feelings.

This is a book which tells Audrey's tale in an unusual way, befitting the story of a woman who was unconventional in every sense of the word, as it comprises a string of anecdotes and scraps of stories pieced together to give us a picture of the charismatic Audrey, a woman almost constantly on the search for glamour, excitement and true love - a woman not afraid to use her daughter as an accessory, nor to break the bounds of the rules imposed by polite society, in the pursuit of her dreams.

For the most part, this includes instances of Aspinall meeting a curious collection of murky and famous characters, many of whom were clearly Audrey's lovers, in exotic locations around the world, but because Aspinall tells it through the eyes of her childhood self, it lends an intriguing air of mystery and innocence to what might otherwise come across as a rather sordid existence. These episodes are also broken up with the details of Audrey's early life and times, which picture her as a force to be reckoned with, and a woman I think it would have been rather exciting to meet at her vivacious best.

It is not until Audrey finally manages to capture a man who not only fits the bill as husband material but also falls for her charms, back home in Southport, that the nature of the tale changes to one of the kind of domesticity that neither Audrey nor her daughter really know how to adjust to. Although, incredibly, Audrey and her new husband settle into a happy, if somewhat unconventional, marriage, it's clear that Aspinall herself struggled and rebellion was they only way she could cope with the change in their lives - leading to a turbulent period in her own life, before she too could find a way to move on from her past. 

There is much in this book that made me sad and uncomfortable, despite marvelling at the antics, escapades and sheer guts of Audrey, a woman well ahead of her time. It's clear from Aspinall's account that her childhood was one filled with incredible experiences, but it was also overwhelmed with loneliness, bemusement and yearning for a settled home life. Although Audrey had many talents, she was not a woman cut out for motherhood, and I found many of her lessons about how to be a woman, and her disregard for the importance of education, very troubling - especially considering the inevitable way her teenage daughter spiralled out of control when she was suddenly expected to adjust to Audrey's new domestic idyll.

It is interesting to me that Aspinall says this is a book took her a long time to write. As we grow older, our own attitudes to what has gone before, and our level of understanding about what our own parents went through changes over time. I find it hard to advocate her words that her own experience offers anything approaching a way to raise a child, but have been struck by the way she has found a way to make peace with her unconventional upbringing, the mystery that still surrounds much of Audrey's life, and her own behaviours that she acknowledges are traits she has inherited from her mother, highlighting the ways in which her mother's unorthodox lessons have shaped her into the independent and resilient person she is today rather than focus on the negatives. I suspect that Aspinall has not always felt so philosophical about her relationship with her mother, but the love and esteem she feels for the complicated woman that gave her life really shines out from these pages, and makes this memoir something special.

Diamonds at the Lost and Found is available to buy now in hardcover, paperback, e-book and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Hannah Bright at Midas Public Relations for sending me a hardback copy of this book in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Sarah Aspinall is an award-winning producer and documentary maker.

She has four children and lives with her partner in London and on the South coast.







Sunday, June 13, 2021

Mrs England by Stacey Halls

 

Mrs England by Stacey Halls.

Published 10th June 2021 by Manilla Press.

From the cover of the book:

A gripping feminist mystery where a nanny must travel to a grand house filled with secrets. For there's no such thing as the perfect family...

'Something's not right here.'
I was aware of Mr Booth's eyes on me, and he seemed to hold his breath. 'What do you mean?'
'In the house. With the family.'


West Yorkshire, 1904. When newly graduated nurse Ruby May takes a position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs. But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear there's something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs England.

Distant and withdrawn, Lilian shows little interest in her children or charming husband, and is far from the 'angel of the house' Ruby was expecting. As the warm, vivacious Charles welcomes Ruby into the family, a series of strange events forces her to question everything she thought she knew. Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby must face her demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there's no such thing as the perfect family - and she should know.

Simmering with slow-burning menace, Mrs England is a portrait of an Edwardian marriage, weaving an enthralling story of men and women, power and control, courage, truth and the very darkest deception. Set against the atmospheric West Yorkshire landscape, Stacey Halls' third novel proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our times

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

Mrs England takes us into the world of the children's nanny in 1904, but not just any nanny, because Ruby May is a highly esteemed Norland nanny - the kind employed by the finest families in the land.

When Ruby is employed by a wealthy mill-owning family in the north of England to look after their four children, she is expecting a fine house and the kind of traditional family she has become familiar with, but what she finds at Hardcastle House has her bemused. While Mr England is charming and welcoming, fitting the bill as the perfect father, Mrs England seems distant and withdrawn, with little interest in her own children. There is something not quite right about what goes on behind closed doors in this house, and Ruby is inclined to think that the odd behaviour of Mrs England is the cause of the uncomfortable atmosphere, but stuck as she is in a position somewhere between that of a servant and family member, she does not really have anyone to talk to about her worries. However, it turns out that she is the perfect person to see what is actually happening here, and the traumatic childhood that she has done her best to hide may be the very thing that gives her the power to make a difference.

As she does so well, Stacey Halls beautifully recreates another historical setting in which complex female characters are at the mercy of a world ruled by men, this time in Edwardian Yorkshire, and there is a lot of fascinating social history about the changing times that she weaves subtly into the story. It is a delicious slow-burner of a tale that explores power, control, mental health and family secrets, with a pervasive feeling of insidious menace that nips at the corners of your mind, and I thoroughly enjoyed the way the truth about all the characters unfurls ever so slowly as events play out. The way Halls uses letters as an important story device is really interesting here, and the relationships that develop between Ruby and many of the characters as she finds her feet and makes peace with her past is delightful.

While I can't really go into the plot in any depth without giving the game away, suffice to say this is one that will keep you guessing all the way through as Halls leads you down the garden path until knocking you for six with a glorious climax full of female rage on the windswept moors. It's definitely my favourite Stacey Halls' book yet!

Mrs England is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer in hardcover, e-book and audio formats.

Thank you to Manilla Press for providing me with an e-copy of this book, via Netgalley, and to Tracy Penton of Compulsive Readers Tours for inviting be to be part of this blog tour. I have also purchased a special edition hardcover edition of this book.

About the author:

Stacey Halls was born in Lancashire and worked as a journalist before her debut The Familiars was published in 2019. The Familiars was the bestselling debut hardback novel of that year, won a Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the British Book Awards’ Debut Book of the Year. The Foundling, her second novel, was also a Sunday Times top ten bestseller. Mrs England is her third novel.




Thursday, June 10, 2021

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

 

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami.

Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd.

Published 10th June by Picador.

From the cover of the book:

From the bestselling author of Breasts and Eggs and international literary sensation Mieko Kawakami, comes a sharp and illuminating novel about a fourteen-year-old boy subjected to relentless bullying.

In Heaven, a fourteen-year old boy is tormented for having a lazy eye. Instead of resisting, he chooses to suffer in silence. The only person who understands what he is going through is a female classmate, Kojima, who experiences similar treatment at the hands of her bullies. Providing each other with immeasurable consolation at a time in their lives when they need it most, the two young friends grow closer than ever. But what, ultimately, is the nature of a friendship when your shared bond is terror?

Unflinching yet tender, sharply observed, intimate and multi-layered, this simple yet profound novel stands as yet another dazzling testament to Mieko Kawakami’s uncontainable talent. There can be little doubt that it has cemented her reputation as one of the most important young authors at work today.

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

I am more than a little partial to translated Japanese fiction, being fascinated with the way Japan is a country of such contradictions, so this book from rising star Mieko Kawakami was one I was really looking forward to reading - and it did not disappoint.

Kawakami writes this story from the point of view of a fourteen year old, Japanese middle school boy, whose name we never learn as he is always referred to as 'Eyes', the nickname given to him by the bullies that make his life hell at school because of his lazy eye. The punishment he receives from his tormentors is violent in the extreme, but rather than resist them he chooses to submit to their reign of terror and suffer in silence. Only one person seems to understand what he is going through - a girl in his class called Kojima, who is also subjected to terrible bullying because of her shabby appearance and poor hygiene.

When 'Eyes' finds a mysterious note in his desk one morning, which simply says "We should be friends", he thinks it might be a ploy by the bullies to draw him into some cruel game, but as more notes follow in a similar friendly vein, he eventually discovers that they are actually from Kojima. The two lonely students take to meeting each other for secret assignations, including a day trip in the summer holidays during which Kojima explains about her concept of heaven, and they form a bond which helps them cope with their pitiable situations, sharing their innermost thoughts, dreams, histories and philosophies about life - until something happens that breaks their friendship and leads to a shocking confrontation with the bullies.

Heaven is a brutal book, and although quite short at only 176 pages, it packs in a lot of powerful themes. It is a story of two characters drawn together by circumstance, who seem to have a lot in common with each other - each being subjected to the most terrible bullying at school - but as the story progresses, you come to realise that they are actually very different, and the rift in their friendship is inevitable. 

'Eyes' seems tied to his destiny by a medical condition over which he has no control, and endures his treatment, but longs for a day when he no longer stands out. But for me, it is Kojima who is the far more intriguing character, and at times I would have preferred to be in her head rather than in the more simple mind of her male friend - although he is written rather well. As Kojima gets to know 'Eyes', we learn a lot about her rather unhealthy view of the world and why she is the way she is - we also learn that in many ways she views the bullying as defining her 'signs', and almost welcomes the experience as a way of affirming her existence, and the reality of things she has lost. She is misguided, but deliciously complex at the same time, and a much stronger character than her friend - something she only comes to realise some way into their friendship. The kind of connection and understanding she craves, and the help she so clearly needs, is not to be found between the two of them, which I found very sad.
"Heaven is a painting of two lovers eating cake in a room with a red carpet and a table. It's so beautiful. And what's really cool is they can stretch their necks however they want. So wherever they go, whatever they do, nothing ever comes between them. Isn't that the best?"

One of the most interesting, if stomach churning, things about this book is the chilling narrative justifying the actions of the bullies from one of them himself. It's so cold and evocative of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess that I found it quite terrifying. No spoilers, but I defy you not to be seriously unsettled by his words - they amount to a horrifying indictment of adolescent violence.

This is a compelling read, with a vague undercurrent of Twelve Reasons Why by Jay Asher. It will set you thinking a lot about the motivation of bullies, and the way they act out in an attempt to deal with their own teenage insecurities, including the role that their victims play - not to mention the way a lack of good pastoral care at school, and the emotional absence of parents, can lead to misery for vulnerable students. It's raw and disturbing, but it is also a fine example of modern Japanese fiction.

Heaven is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Alice Dewing from Picador for sending me a paperback proof of this boo in return for a honest review.

About the author:

Mieko Kawakami is the author of the internationally best-selling novel, Breasts and Eggs, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and one of TIME’s Best 10 Books of 2020. Born in Osaka, Kawakami made her literary debut as a poet in 2006, and published her first novella, My Ego, My Teeth, and the World, in 2007.


The Serpent King (The Whale Road Chronicles Book 4) by Tim Hodkinson

 

The Serpent King (The Whale Road Chronicles Book 4) by Tim Hodkinson.

Published 10th June 2021 by Aries/Head of Zeus.

From the cover of the book:

The fight for vengeance has no victors...

AD 936

The great warrior, Einar Unnsson, wants revenge. His mother's assassin has stolen her severed head and Einar is hungry for his blood. Only one thing holds him back. He is a newly sworn in Wolf Coat, and must accompany them on their latest quest.

The Wolf Coats are a band of fearsome bloodthirsty warriors, who roam the seas, killing any enemies who get in their way. Now they're determined to destroy their biggest enemy, King Eirik, as he attempts to take the throne of Norway.

Yet, for Einar, the urge to return to Iceland is growing every day. Only there, in his homeland, can he avenge his mother and salve his grief. But what Einar doesn't know is that this is where an old enemy lurks, and his thirst for vengeance equals Einar's...

Read Tim Hodkinson's newest epic Viking adventure.

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

I think it's fair to say that this is a book that drops you straight in at the deep end, especially if you have not read the three books in The Whale Road Chronicles that come before, like myself, as it begins with a bloody night raid by the Wolf Coats. 

Who are the Wolf Coats I hear you ask? Well, this is something I also asked myself, since I had no prior knowledge of the characters that make up this tight little band of warriors, but it wasn't long before I had a pretty good idea who they were - and was sure that I would want them on my side in a fight. Led by the tough Ulrich, the Wolf Coats are an intriguing collection of tough-as-you-like warriors, hailing from a selection of Norse homelands, but they also include the Moor, Surt, all the way from Al-Andalus (Spain to you and me) and a Norse-Irish princess, Affreca, who is very handy with a bow.

At the start of this adventure, Einar Unsson, newly sworn in as a Wolf Coat, is on a quest for revenge against those involved in his mother's death, which brings him up against his own father, and Princess Affreca finds herself offered both a throne and an arranged marriage, neither of which she is keen to accept - and of course, the rest of the gang are along for the blood-thirsty ride, tied together by a combination of fierce loyalty and firm friendship that gets you right in the feels.

And what a ride it is, dear readers! Tim Hodkinson weaves a bit of glorious Norse saga magic in these pages with a twisty plot of murderous machinations on all sides around Einar and Affreca, which takes you on a journey around the North Sea all the way to Iceland, and back again. Throughout, there is an authentically gritty feel for the brutality of the times, the clash of cultures, and the never ending game of thrones at play, with allegiances shifting as the various kings and jarls rise and fall. There are more savage battles than you can poke a rune stick at, all described in full colour by Hodkinson, which makes them beautifully cinematic; a cracking climax that takes place in Iceland as all hell breaks loose around the combatants; and a delicious ending that hooks you into the next adventure, which I cannot wait to read.

Being book four of the series did make me feel that I was playing catch-up at the start, but the Wolf Coat members and their destinies are so compelling that I was soon pulled right into the sweeping tale by the force of their personalities, the relationships between them and the trials they faced. There are enough details about what has come before to make the story flow well, and I did not feel at a loss at all, so you can read this as a standalone if you are so inclined.

This is a hugely entertaining read, beautifully written, with great characters and full of period detail that will appeal to the fans of well-crafted historical fiction - if you love writers like Bernard Cornwell this will definitely be your bag too. I cannot believe that Tim Hodkinson has gone under my radar for so long, because this book was completely my cup of tea, and I loved it so much that I will be going back to read the first three books very soon!

The Serpent King is available to buy from your favourite book retailer in e-book now (in paperback from 2nd September 2021), or via the links below:

Amazon UK     Kobo     Google Books     Apple Books

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

About the author:

Tim Hodkinson was born in 1971 in Northern Ireland. He studied Medieval English and Old Norse Literature at University with a subsidiary in Medieval European History. He has been writing all his life and has a strong interest in the historical, the mystical and the mysterious. After spending several happy years living in New Hampshire, USA, he has now returned to life in Northern Ireland with his wife Trudy and three lovely daughters in a village called Moira.

Tim is currently working on a series of Viking novels for Aries Fiction, an imprint of Head of Zeus.




Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Sixteen Horses by Greg Buchanan

 

Sixteen Horses by Greg Buchanan.

Published 29th April 2021 by Mantle.

From the cover of the book:

Near the dying English seaside town of Ilmarsh, local police detective Alec Nichols discovers sixteen horses’ heads on a farm, each buried with a single eye facing the low winter sun. After forensic veterinarian Cooper Allen travels to the scene, the investigators soon uncover evidence of a chain of crimes in the community – disappearances, arson and mutilations – all culminating in the reveal of something deadly lurking in the ground itself.

In the dark days that follow, the town slips into panic and paranoia. Everything is not as it seems. Anyone could be a suspect. And as Cooper finds herself unable to leave town, Alec is stalked by an unseen threat. The two investigators race to uncover the truth behind these frightening and insidious mysteries – no matter the cost.

Sixteen Horses is the debut literary thriller from an extraordinary talent, Greg Buchanan. A story of enduring guilt, trauma and punishment, set in a small seaside community the rest of the world has left behind . . .

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

Just outside the decaying seaside town of Ilmarsh, the day after Bonfire Night, the heads of sixteen horses are found buried on a farm - the only indication that they are there is the bizarre sight of a single eye of each horse head positioned to look as if they are peering through the earth in the direction of the low winter sun, accompanied by a pile of severed horse tails.

Police detective Alec Nichols has no idea what to make of this almost ritualistic crime scene, but after forensic veterinary Cooper Allen joins the investigation, together they discover a string of gruesome crimes in this maladjusted community that point to some seriously disturbed goings on... and something far more deadly in the ground than equine remains. 

This is a book that takes you to unsettling places, and Greg Buchanan holds nothing back in his descriptions of dark deeds, depravity, desperation and disturbed relationships. From the word go, Buchanan uses the obvious decline of this town and its surrounding area, the greyness and chill of the weather, and the awkward social interactions of his characters to enhance the feeling that there are some very bad things going on at the heart of this community, and the feeling does not let up once throughout the torturous and terrifying plot.

This is a very intelligent novel that crosses the line somewhere between literary fiction and noir police procedural in rather daring and unusual way. The writing style is disconnected, with short, punchy chapters and interrupted passages that jump between characters (some of whom we are unsure about the identity of) and time frames, before and after the discovery of the horses' heads, which keeps you disoriented and on your toes at all times - sometimes verging into the country of fever dream like vignettes, as events spiral out of control. Often you feel you have no idea what is going on at all, as you progress through the numbered days of the investigation and the story veers around in totally unexpected ways, until the conclusion brings everything into horrifying focus with a clarity that is completely shocking.

It's fair to say that this is a book with a hefty dose of distressing content, especially in the form of animal cruelty, disturbed childhoods, abuse and violence, and I did have to put it to one side on more than one occasion before continuing, but something drew me back each time to compulsively follow the story to the bitter end, and a big part of the attraction is the way Buchanan's characters are all flawed in one way or another - each of them carrying substantial emotional baggage, laced with guilt and shame, and a fatalistic desire that they should be punished for their past sins.

This is definitely a challenging read, but there is gold to be had here among the squalid realms of  human frailty and basest of behaviours, and there is a reason why this book has taken the literary world by storm. I promise you will be haunted by this book for quite some time after you close the covers, but the experience will be worth it.

Sixteen Horses is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Greg Buchanan for sending me a copy of this book, in return for an honest review.

About the author:

Greg Buchanan was born in 1989 and lives in the Scottish Borders. He studied English at the University of Cambridge and completed a PhD at King’s College London in identification and ethics. He is a graduate of UEA’s Creative Writing MA. Sixteen Horses is his first novel.

A TV adaptation of Sixteen Horses is being produced by Gaumont Television (Narcos, Tin Star) after a bidding war for the rights. The novel has sold in over seventeen international territories.


Monday, June 7, 2021

Summer In The City by Fiona Collins

 

Summer In The City by Fiona Collins.

Published in e-book 27th May 2021 and in paperback 8th July 2021 by Transworld.

From the cover of the book:

Prue is not someone you would notice willingly. She likes to keep herself to herself and fade into the background. If it were not for the birthmark on her left cheek, she might actually succeed at becoming invisible.

She spends all of her time with her blind father, Vince. Together, they sit in silence and ignore the vibrant city just on their doorstep. Life is as good as what's on TV. That is, until something forces them both to go outside and see what they have been missing. For Vince, that means discovering how to see the world without his sight. For Prue, that means finding the courage to finally love and be loved in return.

A story about family, friendship and facing your fears head on, this is a heart-warming story that will stay with you long after you have finished the last page.

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Prue likes to fade into the background, although her attempts to be invisible are somewhat hindered by the prominent strawberry birthmark on her left cheek, that unfortunately brings more than a little unwanted attention. She and her blind father Vince, both seem to do little else but keep themselves to themselves these days - battered by the past, they have taken to sitting in silence in their flat, ignoring the bustling world outside their splendid Edwardian windows, and reflecting on their own private thoughts.

Until the day Prue is forced out of her rut by the suicide of a young woman waiting on the same crowded Tube platform as her. Although Prue didn't actually see the young woman fall, she is compelled to find out why someone with her her life ahead of her would take her own life, and she takes up the offer of a free counselling session to help those traumatised by the tragic event - a session that makes her think about the way she has allowed her own and her father's lives to shrink as they have.

Spurred on by an idea from the counsellor, Prue and Vince decide to venture outside on day trips around London. With Prue acting as Vince's eyes, they both begin to realise that they have been missing so much, and in doing so learn to open up to not only the world around them, with the chances it offers, but also to each other.

Summer in the City is the most wonderful of books about love, family, friendship, how the weight of secrets can divide people, and how facing your fears can transform your life. The relationship between Prue and Vince is so beautifully written by Fiona Collins, and I both laughed and cried so many times as they learned how to open up to each other over the course of this book, sharing their observations, their fears, their secrets, and their hopes and dreams. 

However, this is not just a heart warming emotional journey, although Collins does this so well, because at the centre of this tale there are a wealth of dark themes that she begs us to examine too. An obvious one is the way Prue has had to deal with discrimination because of her appearance and how this has shaped her view on life, and what she feels she deserves from it. But we are also treated to the heart breaking gut punches dished out by threads dealing with abandonment, loss in it's many forms, toxic relationships, misplaced guilt and shame, which skilfully tie everything together and give substance to the piece.

It is a rare and lovely thing to come across a book that mixes light and shade as well as Collins does in this story, all the while drawing the reader towards a perfect, uplifting ending of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope for the future, which left me sobbing (in a good way) - an ending which shows both Prue and Vince have been affected by blindness in different ways, but that their love for each other can teach them how to see the light. I adored the whole book from start to finish, and will be thinking about these characters for a very long time to come.

Summer In The City is available to buy now in e-book, and in paperback from 8th July, from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Izzie Ghaffari-Parker at Transworld Books for sending me a paperback proof 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:


Fiona Collins grew up in an Essex village and after stints in Hong Kong and London returned to the Essex countryside where she lives with her husband and three children. She has a degree in Film and Literature and has had many former careers including TV presenting in Hong Kong, traffic and weather presenter for BBC local radio and film/TV extra.