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Friday, July 30, 2021

No Number Nine by F.J. Campbell

 

No Number Nine by F.J. Campbell.

Published 28th march 2018 by Troubador Publishing.

From the cover of the book:

A novel with a strong female lead character who's flawed but who readers will take to their hearts. A story about grief, family conflicts and first love, with a dramatic background of sport and the Olympics.

What do you do when your amazing, beautiful, beloved sister dies? Hide in your room for two years. Sleep with a very, very wrong man. Leave home and start a new life, lying to everyone you meet including your kind employer, your curious friends and the man you love?

Pip Mitchell's an expert at making seriously bad decisions. But when her past, present and future collide at the Sydney Olympic Games, she's going to have to decide whose side she's on - or she'll lose everyone she loves.

No Number Nine is a coming-of-age story about an 18-year-old girl who has put her life on hold for two years after the death of her sister. Pip leaves her home in England and tries to move forward with her life, taking a job in Germany as an au pair to the von Feldsteins, a family which is full of surprises - and not good ones.

Set in Munich, the story follows Pip for a year as she crashes from one embarrassing, awkward mistake to the next. Finally, as she starts to emerge from her fog of grief, she travels with the von Feldsteins to Sydney where, amid the drama of the 2000 Olympic Games, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Can Pip protect herself and the people she loves? Does she have the courage to tell the truth, even if it destroys her?

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

Eighteen-year-old Pip Mitchell sets off to Munich to become an au pair to two small German boys, Max and Ferdi - and to try to get her life in order. Still struggling with the loss of her beloved older sister Holly, who died in a freak sporting accident two years ago while playing hockey for Great Britain, the time has come for her to emerge from her cocoon of grief and look to the future.

She finds the von Feldsteins to be full of surprises - not least the presence of two additional older, and very attractive sons Leo and Billy, and the mysterious absence of Mrs von Feldstein - but despite a string of embarrassing blunders, she soon makes herself indispensable to the family, filling the empty space left in the lives of the younger boys by their absent mother, and making friends with the father and older sons. She begins to feel at home in Germany as the fog of her grief starts to lift.

But Pip has secrets that beg to be uncovered. She has opted not to tell the von Feldstein's about her promising sporting past, the loss of her sister, or her unfortunate relationship with the wrong man - a relationship she has been hoping to rekindle by heading to Sydney for a reunion with him once she has saved up enough money.

As the time passes, it becomes ever more difficult to keep her skeletons hidden, especially when she finds herself falling for one of the older von Feldstein sons, despite some of their less welcoming relations, because this is a family obsessed by sport and Leo and Max both play elite hockey for Germany. The Sydney Olympic Games is looming, and with it the inevitable collision between her past, present and future. Does she have the courage to finally come clean and build a future based on truth and real understanding?

No Number Nine is a gripping story that combines a coming of age tale, with a compelling domestic drama, and a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the world of elite sport.

Pip is the central character here and we see everything through her eyes. She is a young woman full of realistic flaws and contradictions, very well written by Campbell, that make her a very sympathetic character. She has been through a lot in her young life and it's no wonder that the way she has coped with her pain is to retreat into herself and look for solace in the wrong place, with the wrong man. Pip has become stuck in a pattern of behaviour that she does not have the maturity or experience to break out of, and her default position of hiding within herself and ignoring the inevitable builds delicious tension into this story as we know the fall out from her half-truths will be explosive.

I don't want to go into too much about what happens here, because Campbell lays everything out so beautifully, it would be a shame to spoil it, but this not not your usual light hearted, young woman torn between lovers tale. Campbell covers a lot of deep and emotional themes in the coming of age and domestic drama parts of this novel - coping with loss; difficult family relationships; childhood trauma; abuse of power; and women's rights are all explored in different aspects of Pip's dealings with both her own and the von Feldstein families. There were times when I felt quite angry about the things we learn in these pages, and there are also many moments that are profoundly sad.

But what really drives this novel along is the pace and excitement drawn from the elite sport component of the story. The thrills and spills, the cutthroat competitiveness, the drive and ambition all come across so clearly, leading us onwards to the showdown at the Sydney Olympics when all the nicely contrived elements crash together in one almighty climax.

I thoroughly enjoyed every part of this story, but I think my absolute favourite thing about it is the way Pip seems so fierce in her beliefs about the freedom of women to make their own choices and be treated fairly, but it is not until she can admit to the truth about how she has been manipulated and taken advantage of herself that she truly finds the courage to become the person she was meant to be. 

This the perfect read to give your emotions a work out and get yourself in the zone for the Tokyo Olympics, so give yourself a treat and get a copy of No Number Nine now!

No Number Nine is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Literally PR 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:

F.J. Campbell was born in Lytham and moved around a lot when she was younger, from the North to Kent and then the West Country. After school she was an au [air in Pris and that was the only job she was ever sacked from. FJ went to Manchester University and afterwards lived in London for nine years, Munich for 11 years, Zurich for two years and has now settled in St Albans - no more moving. She is married with two children and still plays hockey in exactly the same way she always has - badly and for fun.

FJ started writing in 2014 and has written three novels: No Number Nine, The Islanders and Enjoy the Silence (the latter both YA novels).




Mr Todd's Reckoning (Audio Book) by Iain Maitland

 

Mr Todd's Reckoning (Audio Book) by Iain Maitland.

Narrated by Michael Simkins.

Released 1st August 2021 by Isis Audio.

From the cover:

Behind the normal door of a normal house, in a normal street, two men are slowly driving each other insane. One of them is a psychopath. 

The father: Mr Todd is at his wits' end. He's been robbed of his job as a tax inspector and is now stuck at home...with him. Frustrated. Lonely. Angry. Really angry. 

The son: Adrian has no job, no friends. He is at home all day, obsessively chopping vegetables and tap-tap-tapping on his computer. And he's getting worse, disappearing for hours at a time, sneaking off to who-knows-where. 

The unholy spirit: In the safety of suburbia, one man has developed a taste for killing. And he'll kill again.

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

Meet Mr Todd, trapped in his bungalow in a heatwave with his jobless, obsessive-compulsive son Adrian - both of them seemingly driving each other to distraction.

The story unfolds through the eyes of Mr Todd, as he muses on the events of the past that have brought him to this dead-end existence, cutting back and forth between his attempts to rationalise his feelings of resentment and rage, by going over them again and again in his private journal, and the events that play out during the heatwave.

At the beginning it seems to be the story of a frustrated and lonely man, who I would probably describe as a 'disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' type - boorish and old fashioned, but otherwise a normal man living a normal life. It appears Mr Todd has been left in sole charge of a son with no prospects and potentially dangerous behaviour traits through no fault of his own, and it is up to him to make sure he does not stray from the straight and narrow.

However, as Mr Todd senior regales us with the account of how the world has done him wrong, and goes into minute detail about the many crosses he has to bear, it slowly begins to dawn on you that things might not be quite as they appear.

I can't go into too much about what happens in the story without giving the game away, which I really do not want to do as the journey towards the truth played out in a delicious and addictive slow-burn that kept me spellbound. However, I can tell you that this tale goes to some unexpectedly dark and disturbing places, and delves into 'birth of a monster' country in a way that will chill you to the bone. The structure of the story is masterful, with all the little jigsaw pieces you need to put together the full, horrifying picture being dropped ever so gradually - sometimes in the form of little asides that you do not realise the full importance of until much later down the line - and all the cleverly conceived threads tie together beautifully at the end with a macabrely fitting ending.

This is exactly the kind of novel that is made to be consumed in audio format. The narration by Michael Simkins is absolutely first-class - convincingly conveying the claustrophobic atmosphere, the never-ending oppressive heat, and the warped relationships in this suburban bungalow so well that the pent up rage, frustration and paranoia are almost unbearable. I think I should add that this serves to make this one of the most unsettling audio books I have ever had the pleasure of listening to - one to relax with at bedtime this is certainly not!

I thoroughly enjoyed being frozen to the core by Iain Maitland's little gem of a psychopath tale, even if I did need a lie down in a well lit room afterwards (no dark spaces being craved after that ending!). If you like your thrills to be of the delectably unpredictable and profoundly unnerving kind, then this will definitely be one for you.

Mr Todd's Reckoning is available to buy now in audio, paperback and ebook formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Isis Audio for sending me an audio copy of this book in return for an honest review and to Danielle Price at The Reading Closet for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Iain Maitland is the author of Sweet William and Mr Todd’s Reckoning, both published by Contraband, an imprint of Saraband. Mr Todd’s Reckoning has been optioned for TV by AbbottVision. His next book, The Scribbler, the first in the Gayther & Carrie detective series, is published by Contraband in May 2020.





Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Beresford by Will Carver

The Beresford by Will Carver.

Published 22nd July 2021 by Orenda Books.

From the cover of the book:

Just outside the city – any city, every city – is a grand, spacious but affordable apartment building called The Beresford.

There’s a routine at The Beresford.

For Mrs May, every day’s the same: a cup of cold, black coffee in the morning, pruning roses, checking on her tenants, wine, prayer and an afternoon nap. She never leaves the building.

Abe Schwartz also lives at The Beresford. His housemate, Sythe, no longer does. Because Abe just killed him.

In exactly sixty seconds, Blair Conroy will ring the doorbell to her new home and Abe will answer the door. They will become friends. Perhaps lovers.

And, when the time comes for one of them to die, as is always the case at The Beresford, there will be sixty seconds to move the body before the next unknowing soul arrives at the door.

Because nothing changes at The Beresford, until the doorbell rings…

Eerie, dark, superbly twisted and majestically plotted, The Beresford is the stunning standalone thriller from one of crime fiction’s most exciting names.

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

Welcome to The Beresford, with its now faded grand facade, where you can find yourself a low-rent apartment and no one asks too many questions - very handy if you are escaping from something, as so many of her residents seem to be doing. There is a Beresford just outside every city, and the occupant turnover is high, for reasons we are about to discover. 

Our cast of characters is led by one Mrs May, owner and live in landlady, who has a very particular routine and never leaves the building - except to prune her roses. The residents are a motley crew, and change rather frequently, but we are really only concerned with the lower floor apartments, where Mrs May is all seeing, and our focus at the beginning is on the quiet and unobtrusive Abe Schwartz - an all round nice guy, except for the fact that he has somehow just killed his neighbour Sythe.

Death stalks these corridors and when the time comes for a resident to die, there will only be sixty seconds for the murderer to hide the body before opening the door to a Beresford newcomer. In Abe's case, he has just welcomed young Blair Conroy to The Beresford. She is ready to settle into the vacant apartment, and she and Abe are destined to become friends, maybe lovers, but the odds on long term happiness are slim. The routine at The Beresford never alters, until the doorbell rings and a new contestant enters the game.

The Beresford is a creep-fest of a standalone from Will Carver that has him channelling Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk and Ira Levin into a darkly humorous thriller with delicious themes straight out of some of the old school horror classics.

It takes some time to get your head around exactly what is happening here, but when you do the concept will have you settling in to read the whole book in one joyful sitting. I can't give away too much without spoiling the nicely crafted surprises, but this incorporates everything Carver does best - lots of luscious atmosphere and ramped up tension; flawed characters who both appeal and appal; blood-filled macabre scenes that hold nothing back, so you can almost feel yourself stabbing, sawing and dismembering alongside the guilty; and some sharp insight into how easily humans can become monsters.

There are some lovely elements holding this tale together. I particularly enjoyed the chilling fatalistic and circular nature of what happens inside the Beresford, and by extension, the Beresford's the world over, which Carver uses to deftly explore the notions of freedom, escape, desire and ambition, and his disturbing musings on the nature of Hell are more than enough to keep you awake at night.

If you are a fan of the authors I have namedropped above then you will find plenty here to entertain, particularly if you enjoyed the feel of Ira Levin's seminal Rosemary's Baby, because Carver's Beresford pays such an homage to Levin's Bramford - and if you haven't read them yet, then I really recommend a glorious odyssey of discovery that I am sure Carver would sanction. 

The Beresford is a lot of fun, with plenty of thrills and spills of the American Horror Story kind, a treasure trove of deeper themes to examine if you care to look, and a corker of an ending too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Thank you to Orenda Books for sending me an ecopy of this book n 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:

Will Carver is the bestselling author of the January Series – Girl 4 (2011), The Two (2012), The Killer Inside (2013), Dead Set (2013) – and the critically acclaimed Detective Pace series, which includes Good Samaritans (2018), Nothing Important Happened Today (2019) and Hinton Hollow Death Trip (2020), all of which were selected as books of the year in mainstream international press. The books in this series have also been longlisted/shortlisted for the Amazon Readers Independent Voice Award, Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award, Not The Booker Prize and the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award. 

Will spent his early years living in Germany, but returned at age eleven. He studied theatre and television at King Alfred’s Winchester, where he set up a successful theatre company. He currently runs his own fitness and nutrition business and lives in Reading with his children.





Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Lying With Lions by Annabel Fielding

 

Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding.

Published 15th June 2021 by KDP.

From the cover of the book:

Edwardian England: Agnes Ashford knows that her duty is threefold: she needs to work on cataloguing the archive of the titled Bryant family, she needs to keep the wounds of her past tightly under wraps, and she needs to be quietly grateful to her employers for taking her up in her hour of need. 

However, a dark secret she uncovers due to her work thrusts her into the Bryants’ brilliant orbit - and into the clutch of their ambitions.

They are prepared to take the new century head-on and fight for their preeminent position and political survival tooth and nail - and not just to the first blood. 

With a mix of loyalty, competence, and well-judged silence Agnes rises to the position of a right-hand woman to the family matriarch - the cunning and glamorous Lady Helen. But Lady Helen's plans to hold on to power through her son are as bold as they are cynical, and one day Agnes is going to face an impossible choice...

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

This is the story of self-taught archivist Agnes Ashford, who has somehow blagged her way into being employed to catalogue the history of the lofty Bryant family. She spends her days sifting through papers and an odd collection of items gathered by the family throughout history, in the catacomb of tunnels that lies under Hartfell House. She is strangely positioned somewhere between the staff below stairs and the family in the splendid rooms above, which keeps her at a distance from those around her, but at least her task keeps her busy and her mind off her own unfortunate past.

When Agnes discovers evidence of shady happenings around the time of the death of the Bryants' eldest child, and confronts Lady Helen Bryant with what she has found, she finds herself being taken into the confidence of Lady Helen, and her position gradually shifts to one of companion and trusted secretary to the woman she has admired from afar. 

An unlikely love affair blossoms between Agnes and the Lady of the house across the class divide, and between them they forge a partnership that creates the power to ensure Lady Helen's schemes come to fruition - the inheritance of Lady Helen's surviving son must be held in tact whatever the cost. Agnes is a woman with many talents who holds all the dark secrets of the Bryant family close, and she has gone to great lengths to ensure they remain under wraps, but eventually the loyalty she owes to Lady Helen is called into question to protect a pawn in her lover's schemes. How far will Agnes go to protect the innocent?

Lying with Lions is an engaging one volume family saga that has Annabel Fielding combining a series of intriguing factual scandals and historic moments in time into the life and times of a fictional wealthy Edwardian family. There are so many lovely elements here, cleverly woven together into a sweeping story that encompasses forbidden romance; dark secrets; Machiavellian manoeuvres of daring proportions on both family and political fronts; and the position of women in Edwardian society.

Fielding covers a lot of ground here, moving locations from a gorgeous Gothic backdrop of a stately home, and the sinister tunnels that lie underneath it; to splendid 'Grand Tour' locations in Europe and Egypt; to the turmoil of an Ireland torn apart by civil strife; to glamorous pre-war London; all the way to the horror of the trenches in the Great War - all vividly described and clearly based on solid historical research. 

Inevitably, the story does move fast as it cover as lot of years, focussing on pivotal events and moments of great emotional weight for various characters to move the story along, and there were times when I felt it would have been nice to linger a little longer here and there, particularly to build some slow-burn into the budding relationship between Agnes and Lady Helen which happens a little too fast to ring true. However, Fielding does give you a lot to think about in the telling, and I really enjoyed how the story turns full circle by linking the beginning and ending to fateful events in the tunnels under Hartfell House.

There is a delicious thread of subversion that underlies this novel, and little echoes of Thackeray's Vanity Fair set on an Edwardian stage that I found very entertaining. It's a well written tale, and the original mix of themes, locations, characters, and direction of the story, offers a very wide appeal to lovers of many aspects of the historical fiction genre too. This is promising stuff and I am very interested to see what Annabel Fielding writes next.

Lying with Lions is available to buy now in ebook and paperback formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Annabel Fielding for inviting me to take part in this blog tour. My copy was obtained via Netgalley.

About the author:

Annabel Fielding, having graduated from the University of Arts London with an MA in Public Relations, is a PR assistant by day and a novelist by night. Being a self-professed history geek, she dedicates her free time to obscure biographies, solo travel and tea. She also posts a mix of book reviews and travel photos on her blog at historygeekintown.com. She can also be followed on Twitter as @DearestAnnabel.

Monday, July 26, 2021

We Are Animals by Tim Ewins

 

We Are Animals by Tim Ewins.

Published in paperback 26th July 2021 by Eye and Lightning.

From the cover of the book:

A cow looks out to sea, dreaming of a life that involves grass.

Jan is also looking out to sea. He’s in Goa, dreaming of the thief who stole his heart (and his passport) forty-six years ago. Back then, fate kept bringing them together, but lately it seems to have given up.

Jan has not. In his long search he has travelled the world, tangling with murderers and pick-pockets and accidentally holding a whole Russian town at imaginary gunpoint. Now he thinks if he just waits and does nothing, fate may find it easier to reunite them – if only he can shake off an annoying teenager who won’t go away. But then, perhaps an annoying teenager is exactly what Jan needs to help him find his old flame?

Featuring a menagerie of creatures, each with its own story to tell, We Are Animals is a comic Homeric odyssey with shades of Jonas Jonasson’s Hundred-Year-Old Man. A quirky, heart-warming tale of lost love, unlikely friendships and the mysteries of fate, it moves and delights in equal measure.

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

This is an enchanting love story that starts with a cow looking out to sea on a beach in Goa. Sharing her beach are a number of beach bars, a few tourists (mostly of the young gap-year kind, referred to as 'vests'), and one sixty-four-year-old man called Jan (hereafter referred to as ManJan) who is waiting patiently for the love of his life to return to him - a woman who is co-incidentally also called Jan (hereafter called LadyJan), who he has not seen for thirty-eight years.

As ManJan waits, sipping reflectively at his glass of red wine, he is approached by one of the 'vests' called Shakey, who is intent on selling him a ticket for the upcoming silent disco. ManJan is not keen, but Shakey is persistent, and they somehow end up falling into conversation about why ManJan spends his days waiting on this particular beach, so very far from his roots in the small sea-side town of Fishton, England.

And so unfolds the tale of the epic romance between the two Jans, interspersed with events on the Goan beach and little asides about the animal life, as ManJan narrates the history of their relationship - starting with the episode in 1970 when LadyJan stole his passport in Sweden, after he and his fishermen friends Hylad (not his real name, but a monicker that seems to have stuck) and Michael accidentally miss Norway and end up in the wrong country.

What follows is a globetrotting caper spanning Europe, Russia and India, incorporating all sorts of absurd situations, and weird and wonderful characters, in which destiny dictates the two Jans will keep bumping into each other until their relationship blossoms. But, as we well know, the course of true love does not run smooth, and the hard knocks inflicted by tragedy eventually prove too much to bear. How will the lovers ever find their way back to each other, and is Shakey just a pesky 'vest' or actually the catalyst that will reunite them?

In We Are Animals Tim Ewins manages to pull together an almost surreal collection of vivid characters, of both human and animal form, to produce a quirky, humorous novel about love, friendship, connection and the vagaries of fate.

The story is set on an epic stage with a whole smorgasbord (very apt for a big chunk of this story) of intriguing locations, from the quiet tedium of Fishton, all the way to the exotic, bustling streets of India, via all sorts of fascinating places in between. Against these backdrops, a cast of players drawn from all walks of life, give us a glimpse into their worlds, delving into their feelings, hopes and dreams, whenever they touch the lives of ManJan and LadyJan. I particularly enjoyed the way Ewins explores some very deep themes by cleverly combining the human and animal elements, with the animal vignettes so beautifully mirroring the emotional essence of the human situations throughout - quite brilliant.

I think it's fair to say that you do need to buy into Ewins' brand of humour, enjoy a smattering of absurdity, and appreciate the off-beat format to get the best out of this book. There are chuckles galore, balanced out with moments of loss, grief and heart-ache that come with any book that looks closely at the human condition, and the threads of the story come together delightfully at the end. Imagine, if you will, a case of Danny Boyle does Matt Haig, with delicious flashes of Douglas Adams, and you might be approaching something of the way the laughs mingle so well with the poignant and uplifting moments to produce something profoundly touching and really rather lovely - for me, it is a winning combination!

We Are Animals is available to buy now in ebook and paperback formats from your favourite book retailer. From 23rd July to 8th August 2021, you can get 30% off your copy of We Are Animals using the code SQUADPOD when you purchase directly from the publishers HERE - with free P+P for UK purchases.

About the author:

Tim Ewins had an eight-year stand-up career alongside his accidental career in finance, before turning to writing fiction. He has previously written for DNA Mumbai, had two short stories highly commended and published in Michael Terence Short Story Anthologies, and had a very brief acting stint (he’s in the film Bronson, somewhere in the background).

He lives with his wife, son and dog in Bristol. We Are Animals is his first novel.

Find out more about Tim Ewins: Author Website    Twitter    Instagram






Friday, July 23, 2021

Cyprus Kiss (An Ash Carter Near East Crime Thriller) by Murray Bailey

 

Cyprus Kiss (An Ash Carter Near East Crime Thriller) by Murray bailey.

Published 7th June 2021 by Heritage Books.

From the cover of the book:

Help Me!

Those were the words on the back of a woman’s photograph. And she vanished six months ago.

It’s 1948 and military investigator Ash Carter has arrived in Cyprus.

A gang has been operating for two years, leaving a mark known to police as the kiss of death. Is this something to do with them? And why ask him for help?

After a murder, Carter begins to realise this is personal. In a race against time, Carter must work out the connection between the gang, the missing woman and the murder before it’s too late.

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

1948: Lieutenant Ash Carter, fresh from his first posting in Palestine as a Royal Military Police, Special Investigations Branch officer, is posted to Cyprus for a an unexpected layover, with his colleague Captain Wolfe. When Wolfe is sent undercover to the Lebanon to pave the way for their next posting, it is up to Carter to set up a makeshift office and hold the fort in Larnaca in the company of their civilian secretary Penny Cartwright, and not surprisingly the two begin a tentative relationship that promises to blossom into more.

As Carter tries to rub along as best he can, introducing himself among the various companies stationed in Cyprus and getting to know Penny better, he finds himself butting heads with some very unsavoury types who happen to be members of the local Royal Military Police unit - and he is unsurprised to find out from Penny that one of them raped her sister some months back, causing her to have a breakdown. Carter is determined to see the man face justice, but his superior Major Johnson seems reluctant to pursue the matter. Frustrated, Carter is suspicious of Major Johnson's motives, convinced that he has something to hide - a feeling that is confirmed when he receives a couple of strange messages purporting to be from Johnson's wife, asking him to find and help her, and he discovers that she has been missing for several months.

When the body of a man is found, killed execution style seemingly by a gang active on the island, Carter finally gets a chance to officially put his detective skills to the test. But it is not until Penny gets herself into a spot of bother, that he begins to realise that the threads of his separate investigations into the so called gang killings, Johnson's missing wife and Penny's predicament begin to crossover, revealing disturbing connections between the cases. With whispers of conspiracy, cover-ups and dark deeds, Carter is forced to question everything he has been told and he starts to wonder if he is really in Cyprus by accident or has been sent here for a purpose. It's time for Ash Carter to take matters into his own hands.

Welcome to the first in the new Near East crime series by Murray Bailey, which explores the life of Ash Carter before his 1950s Singapore adventures in the excellent Ash Carter series. Having consumed the last two Ash Carter Singapore books, Singapore Killer and Singapore Fire (click the titles for my reviews), I was really keen to get stuck into the new prequel series and I was not disappointed.

This is Ash Carter in his early days, still employed as an army investigator, and the mysteries he has to solve in Cyprus Kiss are every bit as gripping as the others I have read. Carter has a knack for getting embroiled in complicated situations, often by becoming involved with the wrong woman, but his tenacious character, personable nature and strong sense of right and wrong make him a very engaging protagonist. The pace of the story is pitch perfect, with compelling plotlines that come together nicely, with just the right number of surprises, and one of Bailey's agreeably confounding, trademark, twist in the tale endings.  

As is also Bailey's forte, he has combined an entertaining premise that mixes fact and fiction together in an absolute page turner, offering a real sense of time and place by underlying his story with an authentic period feel. It was fascinating to read about the Cyprus of this era, before both independence and the annexing of Northern Cyprus by the Turkish, as despite having visited the island a number of times myself it is now a very different place. I found the attitude of many of the British military in Cyprus at this time a bit of an eye-opener, and Bailey does not flinch from examining their callous racism in frank detail, which is quite disturbing at times. But the Carter I know and love remains above all such nastiness, making friends with the local population in a way that gains him many an advantage over his more boorish compatriots. There are also some very interesting oblique references to Carter's time in Palestine and the goings on in Israel, that hint at the post WWII turmoil happening in the Middle East.

As a prequel, this works on every level, preserving the essence what I know and love about the future Carter, while filling in on the events that have shaped him at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am really looking forward to learning more about the goings on in Israel as he heads there in the next Near East book.

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

Thank you to Murray Bailey 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:

Murray Bailey is well travelled, having worked in the US, South America and a number of European countries throughout his career as a management consultant. However he also managed to find the time to edited books, contribute to articles and act as a magazine editor for a year.

I Dare You was the first of his books to be published in 2016. It was followed by Map of the Dead, the first of the series based on his interest in Egyptology. His main series however is the Ash Carter thrillers, inspired by his father's experience in the Royal Military Police in Singapore in the early 1950s.

Murray lives on the south coast of England with his family and a dog called Teddy.

 


Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Day Of The Jackal (50th Anniversary) by Frederick Forsyth

 

The Day of the Jackal (50th Anniversary) by Frederick Forsyth.

50th Anniversary edition published 22nd July 2021 by Penguin UK.

From the cover of the book:

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION WITH A NEW INTRODUCTION BY LEE CHILD

One of the most celebrated thrillers ever written, The Day of the Jackal is the exhilarating story of the struggle to catch a killer before it's too late.

1963. An anonymous Englishman is hired by the Operations Chief of French terrorist organisation O.A.S. to murder the French president, General Charles de Gaulle. A failed attempt in the previous year means the target will be nearly impossible to reach.

Only one man could do the job: an assassin of legendary talent known only as The Jackal.

This remorseless and deadly killer must be stopped. But he is a man without a name, without an identity; a lethal spectre.

How can you stop an assassin nobody can identify? The task falls to the best detective in France - and the price of failure is unthinkable.

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

It's hard to believe that this classic thriller is now 50 years old! To mark this significant anniversary, a simple review will not do, so I thought it might be fun to muse a little about the enduring charm of the old school thriller epitomised by this absolute classic, as well as talking about the book itself.

If you have followed my reviews in the past, you will know that I sometimes talk about the way my reading preferences were shaped by the huge collection of wartime classics that my father had collected. Having worked my way through the usual childhood classics, it wasn't long before I began to cut my literary teeth on such delights as Reach for the Sky by Douglas Bader, The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk and the like, and consumed as much Nevil Shute as I could get get my mitts on (if you haven't read any of his epic books, you really should, especially A Town Like Alice). Ok, perhaps some scenes were a bit strong for a child of tender years, but I was fascinated by them, and they were great stories.

It wasn't until my mid teens that along with the wonderful selection of bonk busters from Jackie Collins and Shirley Conran, and the horrific delights of Stephen King and James Herbert, I discovered my passion for an old school thriller. 

What created this passion I hear you ask? Well, of course, it was the incredible Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth! I was way too young to have read it on publication in 1971, but by the mid 1980s Forsyth was firmly on my reading menu. I went on to read many more of Forsyth's books and have loved them all - The Odessa File is probably my favourite, but the bar was set very high indeed by this book. My head was turned, dear reader, and it has led to a love that has lasted a lifetime. Following it in its wake have been hundreds of old school thrillers, from different authors, but today we will stick to Forsyth.

I thoroughly enjoy a thriller jammed with cutting edge hi-tech gadgetry, satellite imagery and as much futuristic magic as possible, but the enduring appeal of the old school thriller where the characters have to rely on their wits alone cannot be denied. If we are talking cat and mouse games, tatty paper files, reel to reel surveillance tapes, clunky listening devices, grainy black and white photographs, and agents lurking on street corners then it's definitely for me. Whether you are rooting for the good guy or the bad guy, or even if you cannot tell the difference in the grand scheme of things, it matters not a jot, because what makes it compelling is the requirement for cracking, character led stories to hold the interest of the reader - as evidenced by this very book. 

Perhaps you think this is old fashioned? I think Lee Child, who has written the insightful introduction to this 50th anniversary edition extolling his love for the book would disagree - especially given the appeal of his 'off the grid' hero Jack Reacher.

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So, what about the book itself? It was a joy to revisit The Day of the Jackal - Forsyth's debut work of fiction, that he wrote in double quick time, and is considered by many to have broken the thriller mould.

France 1963: A highly skilled, and anonymous, professional assassin is hired to kill the president of France, Charles de Gaulle, by a group of former military types who feel he has betrayed them over his decision to grant independence to Algeria.

By accident, the plot is discovered by French Intelligence and the cat and mouse game begins to track him down and stop him from completing his mission, but how do you stop a highly capable killer without a name or identity?

This is a beautifully descriptive and intense book, with an incredible feel of time and place. It goes into great detail from both sides of the manhunt, with oodles of well researched information about intelligence protocols and the life and times of a professional assassin that really show off Forsyth's credentials as an investigative journalist.

Forsyth does not shy away challenging your sense of right and wrong as the story unfolds, and leaves you to decide who earns your allegiance here - for me, I always want the assassin to succeed, but Forsyth makes no judgement either way and he makes a good case for both sides of the argument. Of course, I am not about to tell you the outcome, but be assured that the journey towards the gripping climax is about as entertaining as it gets.

This is a thriller in every sense of the word, as fresh and engrossing as the first time I read it all those years ago. I urge you to take a chance on an oldie and experience the words of a master of the genre, no matter how old they now are - who knows you may develop a taste for and old school thriller too? I am happy to provide further recommendations if you do!

The Day of the Jackal 50th anniversary edition is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Penguin UK for sending me a copy of this book in return for a honest review.

About the author:

Former RAF pilot and investigative journalist, Frederick Forsyth defined the modern thriller when he wrote The Day of The Jackal, described by Lee Child as ‘the book that broke the mould’, with its lightning-paced storytelling, effortlessly cool reality and unique insider information. Since then he has written twelve novels which have been bestsellers around the world: The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil's Alternative, The Fourth Protocol, The Negotiator, The Deceiver, The Fist of God, Icon, Avenger, The Afghan, The Cobra and, most recently, The Kill List. He lives in Buckinghamshire, England.


The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach

 

The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach.

Published 22nd July 2021 by Headline Review.

From the cover of the book:

Pru's husband has walked out, leaving her alone to contemplate her future. She's missing not so much him, but the life they once had - picnicking on the beach with small children, laughing together, nestling up like spoons in the cutlery drawer as they sleep. Now there's just a dip on one side of the bed and no-one to fill it.

In a daze, Pru goes off to a friend's funeral. Usual old hymns, words of praise and a eulogy but...it doesn't sound like the friend Pru knew. And it isn't. She's gone to the wrong service. Everyone was very welcoming, it was - oddly - a laugh, and more excitement than she's had for ages. So she buys a little black dress in a charity shop and thinks, now I'm all set, why not go to another? I mean, people don't want to make a scene at a funeral, do they? No-one will challenge her - and what harm can it do?

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

Retired teacher Pru is suddenly all alone in her imposing 5-bedroom Muswell Hill house, after her husband Greg decides to take himself off to their cottage in Dorset for a new life without her. Facing seventy on her own, feeling abandoned and lonely, despising the smug couples and families that surround her, Pru is desperate for a man to come into her life and take charge.

Living in a daze, trying to cling to some semblance of normality, with pep talks from her longstanding friend Azra, Pru heads off to an old friend's funeral, but is bemused to find that she has attended the wrong service. However, everyone there is so kind and welcoming that she actually finds her self having an enjoyable day - the first one she has had in a very long time.

So, when Pru finds the perfect little black dress in a charity shop that makes her feel something like the wild, heady youth she once was, she decides to buy it and try her luck at a few more funerals - especially ones where the grieving widower sounds just the ticket to fill the gap left by her beloved Greg. What harm can it do?

The way this story plays out is absolute genius, especially in terms of the deliciously dark character development of our central player Pru. The woman we first meet is rather needy and pathetic, lamenting the loss of a husband she has placed on a pedestal, although as we gradually learn more about what when on between them and their children it becomes clear that their marriage was far from healthy. But it is the transformation of Pru into someone very different once she becomes the owner of the little black dress that makes this story so utterly delicious. The dress becomes a key to allow Pru to be free to be someone else, and unlock the reckless side of herself that has been hidden deep inside for the duration of her marriage to Greg. It takes her off in the direction of a farcical, funeral-centred caper that leads her to very unexpected people and places. 

This is really a story about deception in its many forms - the way others can deceive us, the way we deceive others in turn, and intriguingly, how we deceive ourselves. I am loath to say too much here, as the surprises laid out by our highly skilled literary doyenne Moggach are a joy to consume, but Pru's compelling narrative turns out to be quite a confessional, and the things she both admits to on her own part, and on the part of those she trusted, serve to turn the whole piece on its head by the time you reach the end of the tale. Pru has strayed rather far from the straight and narrow it seems, but she eventually finds herself in a place where she is able to leave her little black dress days behind her. Quite how much she has changed is left for the reader to decide though - has she turned over new leaf, or will she fall prey to her devilish side again in the future?

The Black Dress is my favourite Moggach yet - full of deep and humorous insight into the human condition, with razor sharp observations on marriage, friendship - and the weirdness of funerals!

The Black Dress is available to buy now in hardcover, ebook and audio formats.

Thank you to Headline for ending me a proof of this book in return for an honest review.

About the author:

Deborah Moggach, OBE, is a British novelist and an award-winning screenwriter. She has written twenty novels, including Tulip Fever, These Foolish Things (which became the bestselling novel and film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and The Carer. She lives in London.


One August Night by Victoria Hislop

 

One August Night by Victoria Hislop.

Published in paperback 22nd July 2021 by Headline. Originally published in hardback 29th October 2020.

From the cover of the book:

Beloved author Victoria Hislop returns to Crete in this long-anticipated sequel to her multi-million-copy Number One bestseller, The Island.

25th August 1957. The island of Spinalonga closes its leper colony. And a moment of violence has devastating consequences.

When time stops dead for Maria Petrakis and her sister, Anna, two families splinter apart and, for the people of Plaka, the closure of Spinalonga is forever coloured with tragedy.

In the aftermath, the question of how to resume life looms large. Stigma and scandal need to be confronted and somehow, for those impacted, a future built from the ruins of the past.

Number one bestselling author Victoria Hislop returns to the world and characters she created in The Island - the award-winning novel that remains one of the biggest selling reading group novels of the century. It is finally time to be reunited with Anna, Maria, Manolis and Andreas in the weeks leading up to the evacuation of the island... and beyond.

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One August Night is Victoria Hislop's long awaited companion novel to the best selling The Island (my review of The Island HERE).

Although described as a sequel, it actually fills in the gaps from the original book by exploring what happened between the characters Anna, her sister Maria, Anna's husband Andreas, and Andreas' cousin Manolis, in the days and months before the leper colony on Spinalonga was closed and after the fateful August night when an act of violence changed the course of their lives. In its pages, Hislop takes you right back to the heady days in beautiful Crete that saw Anna and Manolis fall in love and conduct a passionate affair that led to Anna's murder at the hands of her husband Andreas.

Inevitably, there are no huge revelations to be made in this story (bar one at the end of the book), as we already know what happened between the characters from the original novel, but what Hislop does so delightfully here is tell us in more detail about the relationship between the lovers themselves, confirming their affair as true love on both sides, and providing some understanding into the motives of them all. To complete the story, Hislop then goes on to give us an account of what happened to Manolis, and validating everything we already knew about the kind and forgiving heart of Maria as she forges a friendship with Andreas in his final desperate years incarcerated in a hell-hole prison.

It was such a delight to revisit the characters from the original novel, and also get a fascinating glimpse into bustling city life through the eyes of Manolis, as he tries to make a new life for himself in Pireas, which contrasts wonderfully with the quiet, sleepy village life in Crete - and Hislop does it all in her inimitable style, with delicious detail that lets you feel you are actually at the side on her characters as they walk through the streets where they live, work and play. Incidentally, we get a shocking glimpse at the conditions of prisoners being held in prison at the time, and the disturbing treatment of those who try to visit them too.

This gave me a very enjoyable afternoon's reading pleasure in the sunshine, reminding me just how much I loved The Island, and how much I miss spending time in the Greek islands. This really is a book you can only appreciate after you have read The Island, because it is based on detailed knowledge of events and relationships that you can only garner by immersing yourself in the original sweeping novel - and it's marvellous, so why wouldn't you? Grab yourself a slice of something nice and revisit old friends - but make sure you read The Island first!

One August Night is available now in hardback, paperback, ebook and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

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

About the author:

Inspired by a visit to Spinalonga, the abandoned Greek leprosy colony, Victoria Hislop wrote The Island in 2005. It became an international bestseller and a 26-part Greek TV series. She was named Newcomer of the Year at the British Book Awards and is now an ambassador for Lepra. The Island has sold over 1.2million copies in the UK and more than 5 million worldwide.

Her affection for the Mediterranean then took her to Spain, which inspired her second bestseller The Return, and she returned to Greece to tell the turbulent tale of Thessaloniki in The Thread, shortlisted for a British Book Award and confirming her reputation as an inspirational storyteller. It was followed by her much-admired Greece-set short story collection, The Last Dance and Other Stories. The Sunrise, a Sunday Times Number One bestseller about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, was published to widespread acclaim in 2014. Victoria’s most recent book, Cartes Postales from Greece was a Sunday Times Number One bestseller and one of the Top Ten biggest selling paperbacks of 2017. Her novels have sold 10 million copies worldwide.


Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Woman Of A Certain Rage by Georgie Hall

 

Woman of a Certain Rage by Georgie Hall.

Published 8th July by Head of Zeus.

From the cover of the book:

Eliza is angry. Very angry, and very, very hot.

Late for work and dodging traffic, she's still reeling from the latest row with husband Paddy. Twenty-something years ago, their eyes met over the class divide in oh-so-cool Britpop London, but while Paddy now seems content filling his downtime with canal boats and cricket, Eliza craves the freedom and excitement of her youth. Fifty sounds dangerously close to pensionable: her woke children want to cancel her, a male motorist has just called her a 'mad old bat' and to cap it all her hormones are on the run. Who knew menopause was puberty's evil older sister?

But then a moment of heroism draws an unexpected admirer, and Eliza sets out to discover whether the second half of life can be a glass half full after all. She might suffer mental fog and night sweats – and have temporarily mislaid her waist - but this is her renaissance.

Woman of a Certain Rage is a smart and funny novel for all women who won't be told it's too late to shake things up.

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Meet Eliza, valiantly keeping all those plates spinning on the family and work fronts, but now she has hit the age of fifty her body seems to have betrayed her and consigned her to the 'invisible women' gang at the same time - the menopause has hit with a vengeance, and almost every aspect of her life seems out of her control.

The hot flushes, loss of libido, wildly swinging moods and brain fog are playing havoc with Eliza's relationship with her husband of twenty-something years Paddy; her children almost entirely view her as irrelevant; and to top it all her beloved dog Arty - the only one who seemed adept at reading Eliza's feelings and offering gentle support when needed - has just died.

Reeling from yet another row with Paddy and thoroughly fed up with her life, the universe and everything, Eliza desperately yearns for the heady freedom of her youth, but then an unexpected encounter with a sheep and an Italian in a sports car sets off a course of events that might just allow her to find a way to deal with the chaos - and regain something of the Eliza she used to know at the same time.

What a fabulous, funny and totally relatable book! This a book for those of us that have entered the surreal 'invisible' zone, and it is a delight. As a woman firmly in the 'of a certain rage' time of life there was so much in this book that resonated with the me - the hot flushes, sudden rages, insomnia, bouts of anxiety, and a whole other raft of weird and un-wonderful symptoms that suddenly become part of your life, and the feeling of loss for the person you used to be, are all laid out beautifully by Georgie Hall in this book. And she does it with style: combining humour, honesty, and authentic down to earth emotional content, with a cast of beautifully drawn characters that you feel are so real that they could step right off the page.

Eliza is marvellous as the fierce warrior of the piece, waving the banner for women the world over, allowing Hall to shoot straight from the hip by telling it like it is, and the way she does this as part of such an engaging and heart-warming tale is an absolute triumph. She covers so many themes here alongside highlighting the reality of the menopause - dealing with grief; family dynamics; taking the time to really talk, listen and understand amid the non-stop merry-go-round of modern life; having the courage to take life by the horns; and deftly examining sexual politics, discrimination and equality too.

I completely loved this timely novel, suffering, sweating, laughing and crying alongside Eliza, with frequent bathroom breaks naturally. Ladies, we have finally been seen, and it is the wise and fearsome women we really are - with a message of hope that promises 'this too shall pass' (thankfully). A must read if you have also reached the 'woman of a certain rage' years.

Woman of a Certain Rage is available to buy now in hardcover, ebook and audio formats, from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Head of Zeus 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:

Georgie Hall is the alter-ego of best-selling author and woman of a certain (r)age, Fiona Walker. Stepping aside from her usual big-cast comedies to write as Georgie, she has her sharp-eyed wit firmly fixed on midlife, marriage, motherhood and menopause. Woman of a Certain Rage is for women everywhere who refuse to be told it’s too late to shake things up.




Monday, July 19, 2021

The Painting by Alison Booth

 

The Painting by Alison Booth.

Published 15th July 2021 by Red Door.

From the cover of the book:

When Anika Molnar flees her home country of Hungary not long before the break-up of the Soviet Union, she carries only a small suitcase – and a beautiful and much-loved painting of an auburn-haired woman in a cobalt blue dress from her family’s hidden collection.

Arriving in Australia, Anika moves in with her aunt in Sydney, and the painting hangs in pride of place in her bedroom. But one day it is stolen in what seems to be a carefully planned theft, and Anika’s carefree life takes a more ominous turn.

Sinister secrets from her family’s past and Hungary’s fraught history cast suspicion over the painting’s provenance, and she embarks on a gripping quest to uncover the truth.

Hungary’s war-torn past contrasts sharply with Australia’s bright new world of opportunity in this moving and compelling mystery.

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

When Anika Molnar fled her home country of Hungary for freedom beyond the Iron Curtain in Australia, she was looking forward to a life full of opportunity without the suspicion that clouds the existence of all living under the watchful eye of Soviet masters. So far, her new life has been just what she was hoping for, apart from the usual struggles of a newly arrived immigrant: living with her Aunt Tabilla in a quiet Sydney suburb, she is studying to be an architect, and working to view life in a more positive way, but she misses her family terribly and cannot imagine how she will ever see them again.

Other than a small suitcase, Anika brought with her very little in the way of possessions, apart from a small painting of an auburn-haired woman in a cobalt blue dress which once belonged to her Uncle Tomas, that she intended to give to her aunt as a reminder of her late husband. Since the painting only reminds Tabilla of all she has lost in Hungary following the death of Tomas, and her own traumatic flight after the Hungarian Revolution, she gifts the painting to Anika instead. Anika places the picture on her bedroom wall as a reminder of the things she too has lost.

One weekend, Anika decides to take the painting to an event at The Art Gallery of New South Wales hoping they will be able to tell her something about its history. Her grandmother always told her it was by a Hungarian artist and Tomas acquired it during WWII, but she knows nothing else about it, not even the name of the artist. When she discovers that this painting is actually by a famous French Impressionist her life is turned upside down, and she is left with many questions she has no answers to. How can she ever find out the truth when the only people she can ask are trapped thousands of miles away? 

When the painting is stolen from Anika's bedroom wall one afternoon, seemingly in a well planned operation, she struggles with the fact that she may never know the truth about not only this painting, but the others that hang away from prying eyes in her grandmother's apartment back home in Hungary. The only way to find her answers, and settle her worries about her family's past is to head back to Hungary and ask some uncomfortable questions to her loved ones - and with the fall of the Berlin Wall, her chance has finally come.

The Painting is a slow burning, and complex, genre busting combination of mystery, thriller and romance, which beautifully contrasts the idea of what it means to be free by comparing life in Australia with that under the weight of the oppressive regime in Hungary during the Cold War - and in doing so, takes us on a journey filled with raw and uncomfortable truths that have been kept as closely guarded family secrets for so long. 

While I am not about to delve into what Anika discovers about the painting, her family and herself in her quest to uncover the truth, I can tell you that this compelling and well-researched novel will take you to some dark places. Alison Booth writes movingly about the horrific events that took place in Hungary during WWII in those terrible days when Nazi occupation was replaced with an equally brutal new regime in the form of the Russian army, and the way this affected the lives of those forced to endure what followed. 

Interestingly, she does not do this with a blow by blow account of events, but rather through the gradual unveiling of the truth through the interactions of Anika with her family members, highlighting how their lives were shaped by events and exploring the disparity between their outlooks and behaviours. In many ways, the painting itself is not the central theme here, but rather a device to show the understanding that comes with openness, to acknowledge the pain of the past, and to to bring about redemption and forgiveness, which I found intriguing.

Inevitably, this is a story full of poignant echoes of grief and loss in many forms, but it is also thrums with the deep love of family, and examines the myriad ways in which we remember the past. It's evocative, emotional and engrossing, with an ending that ties up all the loose ends with a lovely message of hope. 

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

Thank you to Red Door for sending me a paperback proof of this book in return for an honest review and to Helen Richardson of Helen Richardson PR for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Alison Booth was born in Melbourne, brought up in Sydney and has worked in the UK and in Australia as a professor as well as a novelist. Alison’s work has been translated into French and has also been published by Reader’s Digest Select Editions in both Asia and Europe. 

Alison, who holds a PhD in Economics from the London School of Economics, is an active public speaker and has participated in many writers’ festivals and literary events.





Sunday, July 18, 2021

Coconut by Florence Olajide (Audio Book)

 

Coconut (Audio Book) by Florence Olajide.

Narrated by Adjoa Andom.

Released 13th July 2021 by Thread Books.

From the cover:

A generation of Nigerian children were born in Britain in the '50s and '60s, privately fostered by white families, then taken to Nigeria by their parents. Coconut is the story of one of those children.

1963, North London. Nan fosters one-year-old Florence Olajide and calls her "Ann". Florence adores her foster mother more than anything but Nan, and the children around her, all have white skin, and she can’t help but feel different. Then, four years later, after a weekend visit to her birth parents, Florence never returns to Nan. Two months after, sandwiched between her mother and father plus her three siblings, six-year-old Florence steps off a ship in Lagos to the fierce heat of the African sun.

Swapping the lovely, comfortable bed in her room at Nan’s for a mat on the floor of the living room in her new home, Florence finds herself struggling to adjust. She wants to embrace her cultural heritage but doesn’t speak Yoruba and knows nothing of the customs. Clashes with her grandmother, Mama, the matriarch of the family, result in frequent beatings. Torn between her early childhood experiences and the expectations of her African culture, she begins to question who she is. Nigerian, British, both?

Florence’s story is a tale of loss and loneliness, surviving poverty, maltreatment, and fighting to get an education. Most of all, it’s a moving, uplifting, and inspiring account of one woman’s self-determination to discover who she is and find her way to a place she can call home. Perfect for fans of Lemn Sissay’s My Name Is Why and Tara Westover’s Educated.

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Coconut is a story that begins in 1960s London. Like many people of colour from far flung places in the Commonwealth, Florence's parents leave their home in Nigeria to study and find work in London, and their children are born here as a result. Also in common with many of their compatriots, their need for childcare is fulfilled by privately fostering out their child to a white family, with occasional visits home to the cramped living conditions of their parents.

Despite the birth of younger siblings who remain with their parents, Florence continues in the care of her foster family for four years and comes to love them dearly, especially her kindly foster mother 'Nan' who calls Florence 'Ann' - a name she only learns later is not her real one. Surrounded by white faces, Florence gradually comes to understand that there is something different about her and often wonders why there are so few black faces around her.

After one weekend visit home to her parents and younger siblings, Florence is upset to learn that she will not be returning to stay with her lovely 'Nan'. Instead, frustrated at being unable to find jobs that recognise their skills and educational achievements, Florence's parents decide to return to live in Nigeria - a country she and her brothers and sisters have never visited.

At the age of six, Florence steps off a boat into the heat and chaos of Lagos - her new home. She struggles to understand almost every aspect of her new life, and although desperate to learn about her cultural heritage and amazed to behold the sea of black faces that live here, she does not even speak Yoruba and her British ways get her into endless trouble. The family matriarch Mama, her father's mother, holds sway in this tiny cramped apartment, and she is a great believer in the 'spare the rod, spoil the child' method of childrearing, subjecting Florence to regular beatings in her determination to imbue the Yoruba ways into her granddaughter - a traumatic pattern of behaviour that continues in the years to come.

As Florence grows, falls in love, marries and has children of her own, we are at her side as she fights to get an education and earn the freedom to aspire to something more that the expectation that she will become an obedient and tractable young woman formed for marriage and childbearing. Where do her roots lie and how much of her is British and how much Nigerian?

It's only when she and her husband make the hard decision to uproot their family and make a life in Britain, fighting to carve out a place for themselves in a country that is not always accepting of those who are different, that Florence comes to understand how she can combine elements of both her cultural identities and make peace with who she really is.

Coconut is an incredible memoir of a black woman struggling to find out where she belongs, and how the myriad jigsaw pieces of her cultural identity come together to form a coherent picture. What makes this so unusual is that Florence happily grew up thinking of herself as completely British until having to adjust the huge culture shock of being uprooted at the age of six to live in Nigeria, and being required to negotiate completely different societal norms and family customs, without the least idea of how to go about doing so, especially since she did not even have the benefit of speaking the same language. 

There was so much I did not know about the Yoruba way, from family relationships, the education system, and the wider culture, and Florence vividly describes them in all an engaging and informative way, sprinkling her narrative with anecdotes about many facets of her life in Nigeria, including some pivotal moments in the country's history. I found it all fascinating and deeply touching, despite the many examples of injustice, sexual discrimination and violence that recur, because amidst the tough moments Florence also conveys so much humour, and genuine affection for family, friends and many aspects of her new found life at the same time - even down to the simplest of pleasures.

When Florence's story moves on to the time she returns to settle in Britain with her family, we are on more familiar territory in terms of the struggles facing a black family fighting for the same opportunities offered freely to their white neighbours. Here Florence describes instances of being forced to live to sinkhole estates where crime is rife, and having to settle for low paid domestic work because education and skills count for less if your face does not fit. But our Florence is nothing if not determined, as we are well aware - I celebrated every triumph at her side as she overcame many obstacles and settled into life as a valued teacher in an inner city school, learned to adjust to life as a British mother, and then reaped the rewards of her labours to achieve her dreams, and help her own children become happy and well-adjusted.

The most heart-warming and uplifting thing about this memoir for me is the way Florence has become more comfortable with expressing the parts of herself that stem from both her British and Nigerian sides, learning that she does not have to diminish her Yoruba heritage to live and thrive in Britain. I love that she has been able to use her experience of living in both countries to help so many young people and their parents to fulfil their potential and live happy and full lives too.

Coconut is one of the most rewarding memoirs I have read, and listening to the audio book version, narrated splendidly by Adjoa Andom, has been a wonderful experience. Tracing Florence's highs and lows, her loves and losses, and the lessons she has learned as she has matured, has really allowed me to have an incredible insight into her life - and it has an inspiring message for anyone struggling with a sense of belonging, or wondering how to rationalise different sides of their own cultural identity.

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

Thank you to Myrto Kalavrezou at Thread Books for inviting me to listen to this audio book, via Netgalley, in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of the readalong for this wonderful memoir

About the author:

Born in London, Florence spent her early childhood in a white foster family. At the age of six, she moved with her birth family to Lagos, Nigeria where she grew up. Florence holds a BA (Hons) and MA degree in Education. She returned to the UK where she worked as a teacher, headteacher and later as one of Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools in England.

Florence now runs her own consultancy providing school improvement guidance and support to a range of educational establishments. When she isn’t working, she enjoys writing songs, reading romance novels and sewing.

She lives in Kent and is married with three adult children and two grandchildren.


Saturday, July 17, 2021

Kyiv (Spoils Of War) by by Graham Hurley

 

Kyiv (Spoils of War) by by Graham Hurley.

Published 8th July 2021 by Head of Zeus.

From the cover of the book:

A blockbuster thriller set against one of the most horrific scenes in the Second World War...

On Sunday 22nd June 1941 at 03.05, three-and-a-half million Axis troops burst into the Soviet Union along a 1,800-mile front to launch Operation Barbarossa. The southern thrust of the attack was aimed at the Caucuses and the oil fields beyond. Kyiv was the biggest city to stand in their way.

Within six weeks, the city was under siege. Surrounded by Panzers, bombed and shelled day and night, Soviet Commissar Nikita Krushchev was amongst the senior Soviet officials co-ordinating the defence. Amid his cadre of trusted personnel is British defector Bella Menzies, once with MI5, now with the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

With the fall of the city inevitable, the Soviets plan a bloody war of terror that will extort a higher toll on the city's inhabitants than the invaders. As the noose tightens, Bella finds herself trapped, hunted by both the Russians and the Germans.

As the local saying has it: life is dangerous – no one survives it.

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It's 22nd June 1941 and the Germans have launched Operation Barbarossa, the action that opens up the Eastern Front of World War II, in an attempt to occupy western Russia and exploit the rich farmland and oil fields of the Caucuses. Unable to hold back their former allies, Russian soldiers under the command of such future guiding lights as Stalin's sidekick Nikita Krushchev are unable to hold back the onslaught, and within six weeks Kiev is under siege.

Into the foray, former MI5 agent Bella Menzies, now a Russian defector working for the NKVD, finds herself ostensibly back on the same side as her former paymasters. Sent back into Russian territory, after a brief passionate sojourn with her lover, MI5 agent Tam Moncrieff, her mission is to accompany a cargo of mysterious crates headed for Kiev in the company of a Ukrainian called Ilya Glivenko known as 'The Pianist'. Although Bella has been ordered to Moscow, she decides to take a detour to Kiev with her new friend Glivenko instead, after becoming suspicious that her NKVD bosses intend her harm.

Bella finds herself caught up in the surreal world of a city under constant German bombardment. Forced to disguise herself as a local, there is no escape from the fact that the city will soon be under occupation, and her position as a double agent puts her in great danger. Kiev becomes a city of explosions, interrogation and dark deeds - and Bella finally finds out what was being transported in the mysterious crates that shared her journey back to Soviet lands.

Meanwhile, Tam Moncrieff has some adventures of his own back in Blighty. Sent to examine the contents of some sensitive files being held at the MI5 Central Registry in St Albans he discovers something of the background about his lover Bella, and becomes embroiled in at attempt to track down the identities of double agents within the British intelligence agencies. It seems it can be just as dangerous on home soil, as it can being sent to foreign climes...

Graham Hurley has conjured up one heck of a thriller in the pages of this wartime novel. Cleverly mixing fact and fiction, he runs two storylines throughout this book from the points of view of Bella and Tam, which are connected by the delicious espionage theme of double agents - and he also manages to shine the light on the terrible events that took place in Kiev, when Hitler decided to attack his former allies and provoked a return to the Russian scorched earth policy that was so effective against Napoleon Bonaparte.

There is lots to learn about what happened in Kiev in these pages, with Bella's side of the tale. Amid the well imagined scenes that have her and her new comrades trying to escape detection, there are vivid descriptions of bloody carnage and bombings that bring home the full horror of war. There are also many episodes that are very hard to read in terms of the treatment dolled out to the inhabitants of Kiev by the Nazi's, especially to our brave Bella, and of course, to anyone who happened to be Jewish. 

From Tam's side of the story we are treated to a full on spy yarn of the Le Carré kind, with very enjoyable flashes of John Buchan's The 39 Steps. It's all games within games, where the Old Boy Network holds enormous sway and can keep you above suspicion, and there are some very interesting characters that appear among our shady cast, which will be of great interest to anyone with knowledge of how events played out after the war - darling of the security services Kim Philby plays a central role here, and there is a lovely little cameo from his colleague Guy Burgess too (I recommend some Googling about The Cambridge Five if you don't know who these fellows are)!

Although this is part of the Spoils of War series, this thriller can be read as a standalone, but I really think it does help if you have some sort of handle on some of the events of this period of WWII, the years running up to it - and for full impact, the post war revelations about double agents within the British security services.

This is a cracking novel that kept me turning the pages well into the night. It is my first Graham Hurley, but will definitely not be my last - in fact, I already have a copy of Last Flight to Stalingrad lined up for my reading pleasure. Highly recommended if you love a hard-edged wartime thriller with a big slice of old-school espionage fun.

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

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

About the author:


Graham Hurley is the author of the acclaimed Faraday and Winter crime novels and an award-winning TV documentary maker. Two of the critically lauded series have been shortlisted for the Theakston's Old Peculier Award for Best Crime Novel. His thriller Finisterre, set in 1944, was shortlisted for the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.