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Monday, August 30, 2021

The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman

 

The Silence of Scheherazade by Defne Suman.

Translated by Betsy Göksel.

Published 19th August 2021 by Head of Zeus/Apollo.

From the cover of the book:

At the heart of the Ottoman Empire, in the ancient city of Smyrna, a devastating moment determines the fates of four families.

On an orange-tinted evening in September 1905, Scheherazade is born to an opium-dazed mother in the ancient city of Smyrna. At the very same moment, a dashing Indian spy arrives in the harbour with a secret mission from the British Empire. He sails in to golden-hued spires and minarets, scents of fig and sycamore, and the cries of street hawkers selling their wares. When he leaves, seventeen years later, it will be to the heavy smell of kerosene and smoke as the city, and its people, are engulfed in flames.

But let us not rush, for much will happen between then and now. Birth, death, romance and grief are all to come as these peaceful, cosmopolitan streets are used as bargaining chips in the wake of the First World War.

Told through the intertwining fates of a Levantine, a Greek, a Turkish and an Armenian family, this unforgettable novel reveals a city, and a culture, now lost to time.

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The Silence of Scheherazade is the complex and lyrical tale of four families living in the ancient city of Smyrna (now the modern city of Izmir), during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire. The story begins with a young woman smoking opium in a tower to allay the pains of childbirth, at the same time as a debonair Indian spy arrives by sea - his mission to spy for the British Empire. They don't yet know it, but their lives are inextricably linked. 

The story then plays out across the seventeen years that follow, taking in the triumphs and tragedies of a Levantine, a Greek, a Turkish and an Armenian family: four families settled in this ancient, cosmopolitan and vibrant city whose fates intertwine until a terrible night of brutal violence elicits a blazing inferno that shatters their lives - and then beyond, through the story of Scheherazade herself.

This is a meandering tale that moves back and forth in time, encompassing oodles of detailed history and exploring the differences between the families as it delivers a rich and evocative look at how their culture and experience define both who they are and what they become. You can almost feel yourself walking among the different quarters of the city, drinking in the sounds, smells, and myriad languages that come with a place that has a history stretching back hundreds of years - a bustling and prosperous city, at the heart of an ancient empire. But beneath the surface, there are long held allegiances that are about to lead to conflict between neighbours, as an empire with its roots in the 13th century becomes the focus of attention from more than one nation intent on staking a claim to this land in the wake of WWI. 

It's fair to say that this is a book that you do have to digest slowly, because the language is elaborate, swinging between intricate descriptions of people, place and many layered history - kudos to the translator Betsy Göksel here, because this cannot have been an easy task. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and you have to concentrate hard to keep a handle on who's who, principally when their lives touch and you find yourself looking at the same people from different points of view: it would have been very helpful to have a cast list at the front of the book, because I did find myself getting a bit lost at times. 

However, I really enjoyed the way Defne Suman compares and contrasts the behaviour and customs of the different families, which not only serves to show what life is like in Smyrna, but also connects the strong female characters that anchor this tale in an intriguing way. It is the women of this story that we are really interested in - particularly Edith and Scheherazade - but you will have to read it for yourself to find out why. I would also suggest doing a little research into the history of Smyrna, as it is a book that assumes you have some idea of the political and ideological conflict that spans the course of the story, which I did not - this really helped me to understand what was happening, and took me down more than one fascinating rabbit hole.

For a story that has so much of the feeling of a fable about it, the title The Silence of Scheherazade is nothing short of brilliant. The way Suman weaves very human tales of birth, death, grief and romance rife with themes of silence, secrets, and storytelling is truly lovely, and is worthy of the famous narrator of the 1001 tales herself. This a challenging read that you have to invest time and attention in to reap the rewards, but it is certainly worth making the effort to discover its (Turkish?) delights, especially if you know very little about the history of this part of the world.

The Silence of Scheherazade is available to buy now in hardback, 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:

Defne Suman was born in Istanbul and grew up on Prinkipo Island. She gained a Masters in sociology from the Bosphorus University and then worked as a teacher in Thailand and Laos, where she studied Far Eastern philosophy and mystic disciplines. She later continued her studies in Oregon, USA and now lives in Athens with her husband. 

The Silence of Scheherazade was first published in Turkey and Greece in 2016 and is her English language debut.




Friday, August 27, 2021

In My Mother's Footsteps by Mona Hajjar-Halaby

 

In My Mother's Footsteps by Mona Hajjar-Halaby.

Published 5th August 2021 by Thread Books.

From the cover:

‘Refugees are like seeds that scatter in the wind, and land in different soils that become their reluctant homes’ my mother once told me. As a small child, I looked up at my mother and clutched her hand. The puffiness of her palm reminded me of a loaf of warm pita bread, and when she laced her fingers into mine like a pretzel, I felt safe. I would have walked with her to the ends of the earth.'

When Mona moved from California to Ramallah to teach conflict resolution in a school for a year, she kept a journal. Within its pages, she wrote her impressions of her homeland, a place she had only experienced through her mother’s memories.

As she settled into her teaching role, getting to know her students and the challenges they faced living in a militarized, occupied town, Mona also embarked on a personal pilgrimage to find her mother’s home in Jerusalem.

Mona had dreamed of being guided by her mother down the old souqs, and the leafy streets of her neighbourhood, listening to the muezzin’s call for prayer and the medley of church bells. But after fifty-nine years of exile, it was Mona’s mother who held her daughter’s hand as they visited Jerusalem together, walking the narrow cobblestone alleys of the Old City. Their roles were reversed. Mona had become her Mama’s legs and her memory – and the one to tell her story going forward.

In My Mother’s Footsteps is a moving and heart-rending journey of a daughter discovering her roots and recovering her mother’s beloved past. It’s also an intimate and tender account of daily life for Palestinians as never seen before.

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

I think that most people who follow the news must be very aware of the difficult conditions that the Palestinian people live under. It's not easy to know where to start reading about such a complex and emotive issue, but if you are looking for a way to gain some insight into the current situation in Palestine then this memoir, In My Mother's Footsteps, might be a very good place for you to begin. In this book, Mona Hajjar-Halaby, American citizen and daughter of Palestinian refugees, follows two main themes: the first is through her own experiences of working as a teacher in Ramallah and Jerusalem, which shows us much about how Palestinians live under Israeli occupation; and the second is to explore the recollections and stories of her own mother about her life in Palestine before she was forced to flee her homeland during the war of 1948 - and there is plenty of heartbreak to be derived from both sides of the story.

Even though I already had a good idea of what to expect from this book, I still found myself shocked about the reality of life for the Palestinian people. I defy you not to be horrified about the injustice that they experience every day of their lives, and yet there is something so wonderfully compelling about their resilience, their quiet stoicism, their hospitality and their enduring love for their homeland, despite the attempts to subvert their history. In these pages, Mona writes so eloquently about these people and her connection with them, that you cannot fail to be profoundly moved by her words.

For me, it is the parts of the story where she is quite literally walking in the footsteps of her mother that are the most touching, and also the most viscerally powerful. Here, as she visits the significant places from her mother's Palestinian past, we cannot fail to be aware of the true face of war, the plight of refugees, how propaganda can skew reality, and how a fiction can be spun to represent 'alternative facts'. It is in these moments, through the magic of her mother's stories, that Mona really comes to understand her own identity and accept that she is truly Palestinian above all other things - despite what it says in her passport. This part of the story culminates in Mona's mother returning to Jerusalem for an incredibly poignant visit with her daughter, and her mother's bittersweet joy as she visits the places from her past brought tears to my eyes.

There is a lot to take in within this memoir in terms of emotion and historical fact, and I found the best way to appreciate the power of the story was by a combination of written word (via the ebook) and listening to the audio version, narrated with feeling by Lameece Issaq, which allowed me to go over some of the parts again while fully immersing myself in both Mona and her mother's words - and the introduction of the audio book narrated by Mona herself really gets you closer to everything that follows.

I find myself with a lot to reflect on after reading this book. I am grateful to Mona for acknowledging that she and her family come from a position of privilege which many refugees do not enjoy, but I am still struck by the awareness that even though this allowed them freedoms not available to many displaced people their heartbreak remains just as valid. 

In a book that is so much about the past, it is easy to think that this is a book about playing the blame game, and in many ways this is true, but Mona's side of the story is very much about the present which balances out the book well and begs the question about what comes next for Palestine. From having heard Mona speak about this memoir, I am aware that she does not consider herself an activist or expert in foreign affairs and as such is unqualified to speculate on how peace can be achieved in Palestine, but I would have liked to have seen a conclusion to the book in which she expresses her personal view on what the future might hold for her spiritual homeland - and perhaps, an acknowledgement that much of the lack of political will to find any real solution has been fostered by her own adopted country. Instead, I was left wondering about how Mona sees the situation playing out, and quite what we can do as bystanders to support the Palestinian people in a meaningful way. However, I will add that if you are interested in the answers to these questions too, then it is worth checking out her fascinating interview with Thread Books to mark the publication of this book, which you can find here. It is really worthwhile listening to what she has to say, and I think you will find her outlook very positive - I know I did.

This is definitely one of those timely books that really should be widely read, and it shines with the love of family and the power of stories passed down generation to generation - these are the things that stand the test of time, enduring through adversity, and it is in these words that Mona has found her own identity and sense of belonging.

In My Mother's Footsteps is available to buy now in paperback, ebook and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Thread Books for granting me access to the ebook and audio editions of this work in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of the readalong.

About the author:

Mona Hajjar Halaby is a Palestinian-American educator, writer and social historian. In order to preserve Palestinian culture and heritage, she has created "British Mandate Jerusalemites Photo Library" on FaceBook, and "The Palestine Ethnographic Society." She collaborated on an interactive documentary "Jerusalem We Are Here," which takes participants on a walking tour of a neighbourhood in Jerusalem past and present, and presents a map that documents the houses in the neighbourhood with their documents, photos, and stories. Hajjar-Halaby has written a parenting book, a book on her classroom practice and has a new book coming out in May entitled, "In My Mother's Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home."

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

 

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper.

Published in paperback 2nd September 2021 by Apollo/Head of Zeus.

From the cover of the book:

Sold by her mother. 
Enslaved in Pompeii's brothel. 
Determined to survive. Her name is Amara. 
Welcome to the Wolf Den...

Amara was once a beloved daughter, until her father's death plunged her family into penury. Now she is a slave in Pompeii's infamous brothel, owned by a man she despises. Sharp, clever and resourceful, Amara is forced to hide her talents. For now her only value lies in the desire she can stir in others.

But Amara's spirit is far from broken. By day, she walks the streets with the Wolf Den's other women, finding comfort in the laughter and dreams they share. For the streets of Pompeii are alive with opportunity. Out here, even the lowest slave can secure a reversal in fortune. Amara has learnt that everything in this city has its price. But how much is her freedom going to cost her?

Set in Pompeii's lupanar, The Wolf Den is the first in a trilogy of novels reimagining the lives of women who have long been overlooked.

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

Meet Amara, once the much loved daughter of a Greek doctor, she was sold into slavery after his death, when her mother was unable to save them from their slide into poverty. She now finds herself a slave in a brothel in Pompeii, owned by a cruel master she despises. Gone are her dreams of studying medicine, instead she spends her days and nights as a plaything for any man who has the price to buy himself some female company, along with the other unfortunate she-wolves, finding comfort in their friendship and the shared burden of the life they have been forced to lead.

But Amara is no fool. She knows there are ways to win your freedom in Pompeii, and if she can find herself a patron willing to pay for her exclusive attentions she might just be able to save herself from a bleak future. But how much is she willing to sacrifice to achieve her freedom?

Everything about this wonderful novel was right up my historical fiction loving, Pompeiian street! Elodie Harper, inspired by the graffiti still visible on the walls of Pompeii today, takes us right into the heart of this Roman city with a delicious feeling of time and place - and fills its streets with a compelling array of characters from all walks of life. You can almost feel yourself strolling through the cobbled alleys, browsing the goods at the forum, gossiping at the baths, and marvelling at the combat skills of the gladiators in the arena.

The story revolves around Amara and the other women of the brothel, ruled with a rod of iron by their master Felix, who has his fingers in many pies including moneylending - and it is the fortunes of these women that captivates you from the very first page. Harper does not shy away from the unflinching truth of the life of a slave in a Roman city, and it is through the occupants of the wolf-den that we feel the heartbreak the most: the hopelessness they feel, the brutality inflicted upon them, and the contempt shown to them by the so-called respectable citizens (although they are still keen to use their services), and yet we also experience their strong sense of sisterhood and spirit, despite the petty rivalries that arise among them. 

I really enjoyed the way the characters of the she-wolves develop over the course of the story, as we come to understand their survival strategies, and experience their triumphs and tragedies. It is Amara who changes the most, gradually losing more of herself in her determination to keep body and soul together, as she learns how to play Felix at his own dangerous game. As the story gets progressively more complex, burgeoning into a tale with layer upon layer of secrecy, intrigue and countermoves against a backdrop that brings in all levels of Pompeiian culture and society (and a very famous name from Roman history), it becomes impossible to tear your eyes away from the page until you reach the shattering climax.

This really is an enthralling story, beautifully written, plotted and researched. It brings in so much about the Roman way of life, particularly their unpalatable views of the worth of an individual, and the role of women - giving voice to those who have long been overlooked. It made me sob my heart out and seethe with rage at the things our incredible she-wolves have to endure, but the experience is one I would not have forgone for a second. I cannot wait for the next instalment, The House with the Golden Door, coming May 2022.

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

Thank you to Head of Zeus for sending e a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

About the author:

Elodie Harper is a journalist and prize-winning writer. Her story Wild Swimming won the 2016 Bazaar of Bad Dreams short story competition, which was judged by Stephen King. She is currently a reporter and presenter at ITV News, and before that worked as a producer for Channel 4 News. Her job as a journalist has seen her join one of the most secretive wings of the Church of Scientology and cover the far right hip hop scene in Berlin, as well as crime reporting in Norfolk where her first two novels were set – The Binding Song and The Death Knock. Elodie studied Latin poetry both in the original and in translation as part of her English Literature degree at Oxford, instilling a lifelong interest in the ancient world. The Wolf Den is the first in a trilogy of novels about the lives of women in ancient Pompeii.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Deception - A Love Of Lies (Audio Book) by T.J. Blake

 

Deception (Audio Book) by T.J. Blake.

Released 20th November 2020.

Narrated by Christopher Pizzey.

From the cover:

The five star psychological thriller that won't let you look at passing dog walkers the same.

Through the stark and leafless trees, I see her.

I remember the first day I saw her; an instant attraction. I think she’s beautiful. She has such pensive blue eyes; they remind me of a blue sky right before the sun descends. Every time I see her I want to talk to her, I want to get to know her, and I want to be her friend.

She usually completes the lower woodland walk in six minutes and 42 seconds; she misses the deeper woodlands and goes home, I believe.

I walk down the road at the same speed as her. She reaches the crossroads at the bottom of the road, looks both ways, and then jogs across into the garden of a house. I stop walking and concentrate on which house is hers.

I can’t stare too long but I am intrigued already, I will come back.

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

Deception is told entirely through the first person narrative of creepy loner Billy, who spends his days, and sometimes nights, wandering through the local woods with his dog Ella, spying out the signs that tell him all about the other woodland visitors - of both the animal and human varieties. At first he seems quite harmless, but it is not long before his true colours begin to show. Billy develops an obsession with a young woman who also visits the woods to walk her dog, going as far as to follow her around and take photographs of her that he displays on his living room wall as some kind of disturbing shrine.

As the story goes on, we come to learn something of the lonely, maladjusted life he lives all alone in his bungalow, following the death of his wife, as he drinks himself into a stupor while ruminating on their time together. His creepy antics aside, it seems that there may be some hope for him to redeem himself as he begins a relationship with Eve, the young woman he has been stalking, but as their romance develops, things start to go seriously awry. It seems that deception is tied up in both their stories, and the truth, when it comes, is truly bizarre.

I have to say this this is one seriously creepy story, narrated in unsettling detail by Christopher Pizzey as he clearly has a lot of fun ramping up all the harrowing vibes as Billy. Billy's behaviour is deeply troubling and at times it is very difficult to listen as he describes himself watching from the shadows and expressing his innermost thoughts. At first, you find yourself worrying for the safety of Eve, but soon realise that she is just as damaged as Billy - if not more so - and the tale warps unexpectedly into a twisted parody of a love story that has them locked together in a claustrophobic relationship from which they seem powerless to escape. However, I cannot go into more detail for risk of spoiling the eerie surprises!

There were lots of things I enjoyed about this one, especially the way the the story flips how you feel about the characters completely, but I did find it a bit slow at times, screwing every last ounce out the tense atmosphere to the point where it was almost unbearable - and I think you really do need to suspend your disbelief perhaps a bit much to come to terms with how the tricky situation Billy gets himself into ultimately resolves itself. The themes are nicely layered though, bringing in obsession, guilt, childhood trauma, and the legacy of violent relationships, and intriguingly you do find yourself unexpectedly rooting for Billy, despite his quirks, as you begin to understand what has shaped him into the man he has become - and his relationship with his dog Ella is very touching, showing that he is capable of more.

If you are looking for something a bit off-beat to set your spine tingling, enjoy the kind of psychological thriller that draws you in, messes with your head and gives you a visceral chill, and you don't mind a story that strays a little into the absurd, then there is certainly a lot here to pique your sinister interest - not one to listen to a night and alone though!

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

Thank you to Kelly Lacey of Love Books Tours for providing me with an audio version of this book n return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Living in Surrey, UK, T. J. Blake by day is a Content Marketer. By night, he could be any one of his uniquely disturbing characters.

Blake is responsible for the psychological thriller, Deception - A Love of Lies. Now he is working on his new paranormal, psychological thriller, Familiar, which will be published in 2020.

Blake on his writing process - "When I go over my plans and writing, I always critique as a harsh and predictive reader. I don't want a reader to guess what is going to happen before it happens; it ruins the fun."

To keep up to date with T. J. Blake, follow him on his blog at http://tjblakeauthor.com/, Twitter @TJBlake93 and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TJBlakeauthor.




Friday, August 20, 2021

Nobody's Perfect by Stephanie Butland

 

Nobody's Perfect by Stephanie Butland.

Published 19th August 2021 by Zaffre.

From the cover of the book:

A story of a mother's love and overcoming the past, perfect for fans of Jojo Moyes and Jodi Picoult. Asking, does your past really define your future?

When her daughter was born with cystic fibrosis, Kate Micklethwaite vowed that Daisy would never be defined by her health issues. Kate is determined that her perfect little girl will be known for her love of butterflies, croissants and bouncing on trampolines, not for her condition.

Kate does all she can to be the perfect mother - whatever that means - and yet, somehow, has started seeing herself the way others see her: single parent, source of small-town scandal, drop-out, former mistress. Half a family.

When Daisy starts school, Kate meets her new teacher, the kind and charming Mr Spencer Swanson. Now, with more time on her hands Kate can finally start thinking about her own future. With her Open University dissertation deadline looming, Kate needs to decide what she wants next. But as she and Spencer get to know each other, Kate notices that people are whispering behind her back once more . . .

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This is the story of young single mother Kate, who is trying valiantly to keep all those plates spinning. Her life revolves around her daughter Daisy, who has cystic fibrosis, and she barely has time to think about herself and the dreams she used to have - although she sometimes catches herself reflecting on what might have been. One thing Kate is sure about is that Daisy will never be defined by her condition, instead she will do everything in her power to ensure she is known as the perfect little, butterfly-loving girl that she knows her to be.

When Daisy starts primary school, Kate suddenly feels a little at sea. Instead of the freedom to concentrate on her own needs for a change, she is struggling with finishing her Open University degree studies and to decide what comes next - it doesn't help that she finds Daisy's new teacher, Spencer Swanson, mighty attractive and she is unsure what to do with these feelings. Wary that her reputation as a home breaker among the village gossips proceeds her, they don't get off to the best start, but soon a budding romance develops between them - a relationship that only provides more fodder for the tongue-waggers at the school gate. Does Kate's past have to define her future happiness?

Nobody's Perfect is a complicated romance story, full of emotional themes that explore truth, reputation, and how the way others see us affects how we see ourselves - and along the way Stephanie Butland brings in threads touching on motherhood, acceptance, and the perception of disabilities.

I must admit that I did find Kate quite a tricky character, and found myself speculating quite how much this was intentional, or whether it was simply my impression of her. She is emotionally immature, which is not surprising given her history despite the weight of her responsibilities, and the way she is torn between the life she has now and that she once thought could be hers is very well drawn, but there is a streak of self-righteousness in her that I found very annoying. At times, I wanted to shake her for her lack of self-awareness, especially since it takes her a long time to realise that indeed nobody is perfect, including herself.

However, Butland gives some great insight into some very relatable situations in these pages, that really make the story engaging. The way she describes the state of constant fear that comes with living with a child suffering a condition like cystic fibrosis is beautifully done, and the delicious look as the pecking order, cliqueiness and grapevine of the mothers outside the school gates has something that all of us who have had children will find horribly familiar - and there are some little gems for anyone knows how gossip spreads in a staffroom. There are also some lovely characters, especially the glorious Wendy and Jilly!

I suspect this may be one that divides the crowd depending on which stage of your life you find yourself at, and this is probably why I found the more mature characters more sympathetic than those of more tender years. I leave you to decide for yourselves. In any case there is a lot to enjoy and many aspects of the nature of relationships to ponder, which would make this a fine choice for a book group.

Nobody's Perfect is available to buy now in paperback, ebook and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to Zaffre for providing me with a Netgalley copy of this book in return for an honest review and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers Tours for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Stephanie Butland is the author of beloved bookshop tale 'Lost For Words', 'The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae', and many others.

Stephanie lives in Northumberland, close to the place where she grew up. She writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden, and loves being close to the sea. She's thriving after cancer.




Thursday, August 19, 2021

End of Summer (Seasons Quartet Book 2) by Anders De La Motte

 

End of Summer by Anders De La Motte.

Published 19th August 2021 by Zaffre.

From the cover of the book:

You can always go home. But you can never go back . . .

Summer 1983: Four-year-old Billy chases a rabbit in the fields behind his house. But when his mother goes to call him in, Billy has disappeared. Never to be seen again.

Today: Veronica is a bereavement counsellor. She's never fully come to terms with her mother's suicide after her brother Billy's disappearance. When a young man walks into her group, he looks familiar and talks about the trauma of his friend's disappearance in 1983. Could Billy still be alive after all this time?

Needing to know the truth, Veronica goes home - to the place where her life started to fall apart.

But is she really prepared for the answers that wait for her there?

The new compelling standalone from international bestselling and award-winning writer Anders de la Motte, author of the first 'Seasons Quartet' novel, Rites of Spring.

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Anders de la Motte's first Seasons Quartet novel, Rites of Spring, is the best Scandi thriller I have read in ages (review here), so this second standalone in the series, End of Summer, has been in my sights for months. 

As in the first book, the story is made up of two interconnected timelines. The first is set in the Summer of 1983, when four-year-old Billy Nilsson goes missing from his farm in the small rural town of Reftinge, and follows both the course of the police investigation into his disappearance, and the impact his assumed abduction has on his family and neighbours. Although the guilty party is never identified many believe that local man Tommy Rooth is the man with blood on his hands, taking Billy as as act of retribution against Billy's Uncle Harrald. The Nilssen family are destroyed by the events of that night and Billy's mother ends up taking her own life, leaving behind a grieving husband, a son Mattias, and a daughter Vera.

The second timeline is set twenty years later and is the driving force behind the book, as it follows Billy's sister Vera, now living in Stockholm under the name of Veronica Lindh, where she works as a bereavement counsellor. Vera has never recovered from the events that followed the disappearance of her younger brother and her mother's suicide, instead she has found solace in allowing anger to fuel her rebellious nature and a yearning to leave the countryside behind. Her path has been a rocky one, and the fallout from a recent disastrous love affair has raised the head of many of the demons that haunt her still.

Her attempts to get her life back on track are knocked sideways by the appearance of a new face at one of her counselling sessions. A young man calling himself Isak Sjöllin tells the group that he needs help coming to terms with the abduction of his best friend many years ago, speaking in a way that hints the missing friend may have been Billy. Something about this man is familiar to Vera, and his story brings the past rushing back with a force that sets her reeling. But it's not until she sees a photofit speculating what Billy may look like now that she begins to question what she thought she knew about the past. Engaging the help of Mattias, who is now a police investigator, she starts to look into the case of her missing brother, trying to find out all she can about Isak at the same time, and she is soon convinced that something is a bit off about what she has been told. Could Isak in fact be Billy back from the dead, and why is someone following her? The only way to get some answers is to head back to Reftinge to do some digging - and the locals, led by Uncle Harald, are unlikely to be happy about it.

End of Summer is every bit as gripping as Rites of Spring. Yet again, Anders de la Motte has crafted an intelligent and complex tale that drags you in from the first page, misdirects you at every turn, and keeps you on the edge of your seat until the corker of an ending. This is a twisty tale full of delicious secrets and lies, and de la Motte builds an intense atmosphere ripe with menacing undertones, which elicit feelings of real jeopardy throughout - especially when set against my very favourite of backdrops, a small town where everyone knows your business... or at least think they do... and there is never any smoke with a whole blazing inferno!

There are some really lovely strains to this story, which wind through the claustrophobic tension with a subtlety that is very impressive for a translated work - kudos to the translator Neil Smith for pulling this off so well. Themes of doomed love, guilt, suspicion, intimidation, escape and revenge are ever present, reflected in the stories of many of the characters here, and de la Motte explores the convoluted dynamics of small communities and dysfunctional families beautifully. 

This is seriously breath-taking thriller writing, as engaging as it is claustrophobic in the way only a Scandi yarn can be. I could not put it down, racing through the pages in the same way as I did with the first book in the Seasons Quartet. All praise to Zaffre for introducing the UK to such an accomplished in-translation author. I cannot wait for the next instalment!

End of Summer is available now in ebook, paperback and audio formats, from your favourite book retailer.

Many thanks to Kelly Rose Smith at Zaffre Books for sending me a proof of this book in return for an honest review. I also bought a paperback copy.

About the author:

Anders de la Motte is the bestselling author of the 'Seasons Quartet'; the first three books of which - End of Summer, Deeds of Autumn and Dead of Winter - have all been number one bestsellers in Sweden and have been shortlisted for the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers' Award for Best Crime Novel of the Year. Anders, a former police officer, has already won a Swedish Academy Crime Award for his debut, Game, in 2010 and his second standalone, The Silenced, in 2015.

To date, the first three books in the 'Seasons Quartet' have published over half a million copies, with the fourth, Rites of Spring, publishing in Sweden in 2020. Set in southern Sweden, all four books can be read as standalones.

Life On Other Planets by Matt Cook (Extract)

 

Life On Other Planets by Matt Cook.

Published 10th June 2021 by Lendal Press.

From the cover of the book:

When I was fourteen, my family had a nervous breakdown…

It is 1997. To himself, Benjamin Carter is a thing drifted somehow out of its orbit. With the news that Great Aunt Pearl is dead, his summer is looking like yet another non-starter. There’s his summons to the clearance of her ramshackle house. His dad’s awkward pep talks. A toxic cocktail of over-zealous aunts and uncles. And then there’s the Church of the Holy Heavens―the space cult that’s been wooing Pearl for all she’s worth.

It was supposed to be simple: grieve, junk, funeral, home. But from the sidelines, Ben can see the cracks starting to show. When the search for a will goes off-beam, the Carters find themselves under siege by the property they all crave. Alone in the house together, the Carters’ lives lock into something unrecognisable and their pursuit of Aunt Pearl’s not-quite-worldly goods entirely consumes them. As Ben comes face-to-face with death, a new person emerges: curious, uninhibited, free-falling. 

In Life on Other Planets, Matt Cook has created a startling portrait of a young man caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it. Comedies of English manners have rarely been darker.

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

As part of the blog tour for this intriguing book, it is my pleasure to be able to bring you an extract from the opening preview chapter!

Life on Other Planets: Preview
The man and the boy unfold their legs like grasshoppers, shuffle towards the front door, carrying their supplies. Imagine that there they stand, each waiting for the other to reach out. There are no lights on, and this is wrong. Imagine that the moment lasts for a long while and that this wait disturbs something inside the boy, trips a wire, brings every sense imploding in upon some central point, rushing, binding into consciousness, awake at last. And now imagine that this consciousness is not somebody else but you, you are the boy and the dream is over. You are cold and you are here at a dead woman’s house, your skin prickling and dancing with something like a life of its own. You turn to your father. ‘Well? Open it,’ you say, feeling hardly any guilt for behaving like such a brat. Your bones feel frail. It is freezing.

The man who is your father, but who in this light could be anybody, nods and reaches into his pocket for the key, slides it in, pushes at the door. It sticks. Something is massed behind it, heavy and crunchy, like snow. You squeeze your fingers through the gap. It’s post. Hundreds of envelopes of all shapes and sizes, strange, ornate markings just visible. You poke then kick at them until the door begins to move.

In you go. The house is full of a thick sickly gloom, just enough moonlight to pick your way through. You grope behind the door for the hockey stick you hope is still there, in the umbrella stand. Is it? Yes, it is. You lift it up.  
‘Hello?’ your father shouts. There is no reply.
‘Where is everybody?’
‘I don’t know. There’s nobody here.’ He looks at the hockey stick in your hand. ‘There’s nothing here,’ says your father. ‘Settle down.’ 
You realise in the darkness that this old face staring back at you is very possibly what you will look like thirty years from now. You wonder if this is the kind of house you will live in. You shudder. 
You follow your father inside, knowing he is enjoying the experience even less than you, and that all his bland courage, including the shapeless tune he is humming, is for show. Just like you, he is tiptoeing along a brink. The moonlight shows you outlines of things in the corridor, the bizarre eclectic hoard of a recluse. What you can just about see appears heaped up. As your nose warms up, odours compete: old booze, corroding metal and mouldy fabrics. Soap. Plastics. You adjust your grip on the hockey stick, a twist and a heft. The man who is your father is wrong. There is definitely something here. It may not be alive, or necessarily visible, but you can feel it absorbing, hear it adjusting itself behind the unseeable curtain. It has been raining and somewhere there is a drip. A cupboard door hangs open. You peer in. It is a cupboard of jams. At least, you hope they are jams. Spiders retreat from you, pretending not to be there, or perhaps they simply aren’t. Your eyes are definitely not behaving normally. One is fluttering uncontrollably. The smell of old flowers now intrudes. Mice. A rottenness in the air. 
‘Smells rotten,’ you say loudly to the man who you hope is your father, but who is far away inside the kitchen and whose reply is too faint to make out. You spot what looks like her handwriting on one of the heaps. God, this place is rank. Your footsteps are making a nauseating wet crinkling noise and you cannot quite tell whether it’s the carpet or your shoes or a combination of the two. You take a few steps and can see the wall of pictures now. This place is horrifying, truly terrifying. How did anyone live here? 
It is now that the hairy face comes at you from the darkness, white whiskers splayed, teeth bared, and you scream but, wow, here comes the hockey stick. It lands well several times before you see that it is just a stuffed badger, now eyeless and jawless, a window of clean white bone apparent underneath, a light dusting of him all over your shoes. You realise you are panting. Your father is holding your arm. This is ridiculous, you both agree, though what exactly, which aspect, is hard to say. This is not a house; it is a dead person’s fever dream brought to life then allowed to go cold. You press the heel of your hand into your temple and hold it there. Something is throbbing inside you. Your eyes are still not to be trusted. 
Someone turns on the light.

*****


Life on Other Planets is available to buy now in paperback format from your favourite book retailer. 

Thank you to Isabelle Kenyon at Kenyon Author Services for sending me a pdf copy of this book, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Courtesy of Duncan Elliott
Matt Cook was born in 1979 in Chelmsford, Essex. He studied Psychology at the University of Manchester before becoming a freelance writer. He was a runner-up at Writing on the Wall’s Pulp Idol in 2016, and his fiction and non-fiction has been featured in The Stockholm Review, Oblong Magazine, Number Eleven, Spelk, Boneshaker, Tusk, Small Doggies and Imbroglio. In 2020, he was shortlisted for The Cambridge Short Story Prize. Life on Other Planets is his first novel. 

He lives in Liverpool with his family.





Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Six by G.S. Locke

 

Six by G.S. Locke.

Published 19th August 2021 by Orion.

From the cover of the book:

Successful criminal defence lawyer, Jon Shaw, comes face to face with, Danny Hallam, the man he tried to murder twenty-five years ago...

Then: While drug running for a local crime lord, Danny decides to call in a large debt from a young female drug addict, Micki Ashton. During a chaotic night on a riverbank, in which punches are thrown, Shaw steps in to protect the defenceless woman, but things turn deadly when Danny produces a knife and Micki is stabbed. Appalled by his friend's actions, Shaw deliberately pushes Danny into the river. Danny survives and, arrested and charged for murder, spends the next quarter of a century in prison.

Now: Meanwhile, the gang disintegrates, each haunted by the death of a young woman. Throughout his sentence, Danny refuses to name those involved. But someone knows and believes they should all pay. As, one by one, the former friends are picked off only Danny and Shaw remain. With the race on to identify a determined and forensically aware killer, Shaw throws in his lot with a detective who has her own cross to bear and her own reasons for abandoning routine police procedure.

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

Just a little taster of this one so far, in a sneak peek 'first impressions' post, because I have only read the first few chapters. 

So what do I think so far folks? Well, Jon Shaw is a lawyer that has clearly been trying to escape from his past misdeeds, burying himself in his work and trying to right the balance of his universe by helping out those in need with pro-bono work. But when a face from his past turns up, he is forced to confront exactly what went on in their joint past... Could someone be trying to punish them for their wrong doings?

This has all the promise of a gritty noir story that throws up a lot of threads about sins of the past, the weight of guilt and deliciously gory revenge. The words flow off the page and I can tell already that I will be polishing off the rest of the book in a single glorious sitting! Cannot wait to pick this one up again folks!

Keep your eyes peeled for my full review very soon!

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

Thank you to Orion for sending me an ecopy of this book in return for an honest review and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

G.S. Locke is the pseudonym of E.V. Seymour. Neon was her first foray into serial killers hence the name change, and Six is her follow-up crime novel. She is a plotter rather than a 'pantser' when creating storylines, and by day, works as a freelance editor so she tries to take the advice she dishes out.

Her passions are family, film, playing classical piano, which she's done since the age of five, and she is a demon house-mover due to a nomadic and restless personality. She strongly dislikes cold tea and adores chilled white wine.


She's Mine by A.A. Chaudhuri

 

She's Mine by A.A. Chaudhuri.

Published in ebook 18th August 2021 and paperback 26th August 2021 by Hera Books/Canelo.

From the cover of the book:

Twenty years ago, Christine Donovan took a call she should have ignored while shopping. In those few seconds while her back was turned, her toddler, Heidi, was kidnapped. She’s never been seen again.

Despite having two other children with husband Greg, Christine remains guilt-stricken that her neglect caused her child to be stolen, while haunted by a secret that consumes her.

Just as she takes measures to finally heal, a note is posted through her door, with the words she has always longed to hear: Heidi isn’t dead.

Christine might finally get the answers she craves - but what she doesn’t know is that finding her daughter will uncover dark secrets close to home.

In seeking the truth, Christine might destroy everything that she loves … so how far is she willing to go to find Heidi?

With a truly jaw-dropping end twist, She’s Mine is a dark, scandalous, and gripping read from a major new talent in psychological thriller writing.

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

Twenty years ago, Christine Donovan was distracted by a telephone call from her lover while out shopping - a lapse in judgement that had catastrophic consequences when her two-year-old daughter Heidi was abducted from the store. Heidi was never seen again.

It was a horrific event that destroyed the apparently picture perfect life of Christine and her husband Greg, and despite the fact that they went on to have two more children together, their marriage never really recovered. Christine is plagued with guilt about that day, slowly being eaten up inside by the truth about what she was doing when Heidi went missing, and she has been unable to forge a bond with her other children, Daniel and Ella, scared to let them close to her unless something happened to them too. There now exists a huge gulf between Christine and the rest of her family, which there seems no way to bridge, even though she has tried to find a way back through years of therapy.

Just when Christine thinks she might be making some headway with a new therapist, her life is torn to tatters once more by a note pushed through her door suggesting that Heidi might still be alive. Can it be true? How many of her secrets is she willing to reveal in order to get to the truth, and what is she willing to sacrifice to get Heidi back?

This book is crime author A.A. Chaudhuri's first foray into the psychological thriller genre. I am a big fan of Chaudhuri's Kramer and Carver crime books, which revolve heavily around the notion of what motivates someone to do the unthinkable, and She's Mine is the perfect vehicle for her explore what makes people tick in more depth. This is the kind of thriller that gets into the real nitty-gritty of human frailty and the darkness that can lie under the surface - and there is a lot to pick apart here!

This is a story rich in luscious threads of secrets, lies, guilt, desire, jealousy and revenge, and Chaudhuri works them to the max, misdirecting you throughout before revealing the shocking truth in a jaw-dropping twist and twist again ending. I really enjoyed that although this book is about a child abduction, it bursts the trope at the seams by being more about the events leading up to the fateful day and how the consequences of the event ripple through time, rather than just being a kidnapping story, which allows Chaudhuri to run riot with her characters.

I think it is worth saying that this is a book that comes across as a little wordy at the beginning, the characters are all generally unlikeable, and it serves to be a bit disconcerting when it unexpectedly burgeons into multiple points of view, but it's not long before you realise that this is exactly how the story needs to play out to make it work. Once the groundwork has been laid by Christine, each character adds their own angle to the story, moving between Then and Now and building layer upon layer, until the full picture becomes clear - the pace also ups as the chapters become shorter and more punchy, which intensifies the suspense nicely.

For a debut psychological thriller this is pretty darned accomplished and it sits well among the best this genre has to offer. If you enjoy a tale rich in character led twists, turns and trauma, then I highly recommend giving She's Mine a place among your late summer reads!

She's Mine is available to buy now from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to A.A. Chaudhuri and Canelo/Hera Books for sending me an ebook copy of this book in return for an honest review, and to Danielle Price of the Reading Closet for inviting me to be part of this tour.

About the author:

A. A. Chaudhuri is a former City lawyer. After gaining a degree in History at University College London, she later trained as a solicitor and worked for several major London law firms before leaving law to pursue her passion for writing. She is the author of The Scribe and The Abduction, books 1 and 2 of her Kramer & Carver legal thriller series featuring the feisty Maddy Kramer, also published in audio. Her first psychological thriller with Hera Books, She's Mine, will be published in 18th August 2021. Represented by Annette Crossland of A for Authors Literary Agency, she lives in Surrey with her family, and loves films, all things Italian and a good margarita!

#1 Amazon Australia Amateur Sleuth Mysteries (Aug '19); #1 Amazon Canada Women Sleuth Mysteries; (Aug '19) top 10 Amazon UK Legal crime thrillers (Aug '19); #1 Amazon Australia Legal Thrillers (November '19)




Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Did You Miss Me? by Sophia Money-Coutts

 

Did You Miss Me? by Sophia Money-Coutts.

Published 19th August 2021 by HQ.

From the cover of the book:

You never forget the one that got away, do you?

Nell Mason is extremely happy with her life – or at least, that’s what she tells herself. She’s lucky to have a high-powered job as a lawyer, even if it does come with an eccentric set of billionaire divorce clients. And she’s absolutely fine living with her sweet, if slightly dull, boyfriend Gus in their London flat where they have very sensible sex once (OK, sometimes twice) a week. She’s definitely not stuck in a rut.

But when Nell bumps into childhood friend and first love Arthur Drummond who broke her heart fifteen years ago, she’s more than a little shaken. The seemingly perfect life she’s worked so hard for starts to feel, well, less perfect. 

Maybe Nell’s been kidding herself all these years. Can she ever get over her first love?

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

Nell is convinced everything is fine with her life. She is on track to become partner at her London law firm, if she can keep up with the pace of work and stomach sharing an office with her boorish boss, and is very happy with her boyfriend of eleven years, Gus - even sort of going along with his insistence that marriage is nothing more than a ploy to get couples to spend their hard earned cash on meaningless pomp and ceremony. OK, so her life may not be full of thrills, but she is comfortable with the routine and direction of things, isn't she?

When Nell takes a trip back up to her home town in Northumberland to attend the funeral of Lord Drummond she ends up bumping into his son Art, her first love and the man that broke her heart at his twenty-first birthday party, who is back from New York. It's a meeting that has her musing about what might have been had things worked out differently, but it's not until she is called upon to return north to play nursemaid to her incapacitated father, after her mother drops the bombshell that she is leaving him for pastures new, that she really has a chance to reflect on where life has taken her - especially since Art is still on the scene clearing up his father's messy estate. Is she happy to settle for a busy London life with the safe and secure, if slightly boring, Gus, or does her heart still lie in the north with her first love? And is it time to admit to herself that she really, really wants that big white wedding?

I am a huge Sophia Money-Coutts fan, having loved every one of her books - and this, her fourth book, still has me well and truly hitched to the Money-Coutts rom-com train!

There are so many lovely elements to this book, which give it intriguing depth. This time around, Money-Coutts proceeds to weave in delicious threads about love; marriage; divorce; long-term relationships; family dynamics; friendship: being true to yourself; and having the courage to take a risk; all tied up in a left-of-centre coming of age tale, with her trade-mark injection of a bit of posh totty. Nell herself comes to make decisions that she could never have imagined taking at the start of this story, as she realises that in escaping the pain of her past she has lost sight of her hopes and dreams, but she is not the only one who finds the courage to take the plunge and aim for happiness, and this leads to some very heart-warming outcomes. Incidentally, I loved that there are characters here to appeal to a wider age range, with some acute insight into the staleness that can creep into long-term relationships, and the impact of the breakdown of lengthy marriages; and Money-Coutts takes a very interesting side-swipe at the tendency of high-profile divorce lawyers to lose sight of what's important in pursuit of their reputations as winners too.

For me, this is the perfect summer read, full of sass, sex, sniggers and sentiment. It kept me entertained all the way through, made me fall in love with Nell and Art, laugh out loud with its Bridget Jones-esque humour, get hot under the collar with its steamy interludes, and cry tears of joy as all the threads tied up in one glorious uplifting bow. I loved it!

Did You Miss Me? is available to buy now in hardcover, ebook and audio formats from your favourite book retailer.

Thank you to HQ for providing me with a Netgalley copy of this book in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Sophia Money-Coutts is a journalist and author who spent five years studying the British aristocracy while working as Features Director at Tatler. Prior to that she worked as a writer and an editor for the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail in London, and The National in Abu Dhabi. She writes a column for The Sunday Telegraph called Modern Manners and often appears on radio and television channels talking about important topics such as Prince Harry’s wedding and the etiquette of the threesome. Did You Miss Me? is her fourth novel.

Friday, August 13, 2021

The House of Whispers by Anna Kent

 

The House of Whispers by Anna Kent.

Published 5th August by HQ.

From the cover of the book:

Some secrets aren’t meant to be kept…

When Grace returns to Abi’s life, years after they fell out at university, Abi can’t help but feel uneasy. Years ago, Grace’s friendship was all-consuming and exhausting.

Now happily married, Abi’s built a new life for herself and put those days behind her. And yet as Grace slips back into her life with all the lethal charm she had before, Abi finds herself falling back under her spell…

Abi’s husband, Rohan, can’t help but be concerned as his wife’s behaviour changes. As their happy home threatens to fall apart, he realises that there’s something deeply unnerving about Grace. Just what influence does this woman have over his wife, and why has she come back now?

A chilling story of guilt and obsession from Anna Kent.

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

Abi is an artist, living happily in the London house she and her loving husband Rohan are renovating to create a stylish family home for themselves and the children they (and Rohan's mother) hope will come in time.

Everything seems perfect in the life of this successful couple, but it's not long before we see cracks appearing. Rohan is off to work in New York on secondment and Abi does not want to leave the safety and security of their home to accompany him, especially since she is under pressure to produce new work for her upcoming exhibition. Things are tense between them and the added stress of the 'baby issue' is taking its toll, with the constant prying of Rohan's overbearing mother into whether or not Abi is pregnant making things worse. There is also something a bit off about their new home that it's hard to put your finger on.

When Abi is contacted by her old friend Grace, who is returning to the UK from Australia after many years, she is unsure whether to tell Rohan or not as she has never shared with him what went on between them. Their friendship was an unhealthy one that did not end well, but they were very close at one time and since Rohan is going to be away perhaps it would be a good thing for Grace to come and stay with her until she gets herself settled? She doesn't want to be on her own in the house and surely any issues they once had will be a thing of the past since they are now grown-ups?

With Rohan off in New York and Grace newly installed in the yet-to-be renovated spare bedroom, it's not long before things start to go seriously awry. Abi is consumed by her painting, suddenly struck with inspiration for a series of disturbing portraits based on the history her toxic relationship with Grace. Grace has not changed at all and her controlling presence is throwing up all sorts of bad memories for Abi that are having a very negative effect on her mental health. As Abi loses herself in her work she becomes confused about what is happening in her home, and her grip on reality begins to slip. Maybe letting Grace back into her life was not such a good idea?

The House of Whispers is a twisty psychological thriller that is stuffed to the gills with chilling themes. As events in this household unfold, the action is interspersed with extracts from an interview with Abi's husband Rohan, which indicate that something very bad has happened to his wife in his absence, so it's clear from the beginning that there is going to be trouble in paradise! What starts out as a picture of domestic delight soon starts to make you feel unsettled. Something about this house and its effect on Abi is troubling, which lends a delicious supernatural undercurrent to the whole piece, but it's not until the completely clueless Rohan is out of the picture and Grace appears on the scene that things start to get pretty disturbing in very short order. 

I really enjoyed the way Anna Kent misdirects the reader from the outset here, pulling you along with sinister themes of toxic friendships, guilt, obsession and controlling behaviour, all the while dropping little hints about the true nature of the story that hit with force when all the pieces come together at the end and the full impact of Abi's relationship with Grace is revealed. I did not see that end coming! Very clever!

This is one of those books that pulls you in and compels you to read on through every gritty twist and turn. I promise you will be thinking about this one for quite some while after you turn the final page...

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

Thank you to HQ and Midas PR 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:


Anna Kent has worked as a journalist, magazine editor and book editor as well as enjoying a stint as a radio producer. She’s written for numerous publications at home and abroad, including the Daily Telegraph, where she was a contributor for six years. Brought up in the South East, she loves to travel while maintaining a base in Gloucestershire. She’s married with two children.


Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan

The Fair Botanists by Sara Sheridan.

Published 5th August 2021 by Hodder and Stoughton.

From the cover of the book:

Could one rare plant hold the key to a thousand riches?

It's the summer of 1822 and Edinburgh is abuzz with rumours of King George IV's impending visit. In botanical circles, however, a different kind of excitement has gripped the city. In the newly-installed Botanic Garden, the Agave Americana plant looks set to flower - an event that only occurs once every few decades.

When newly widowed Elizabeth arrives in Edinburgh to live with her late husband's aunt Clementina, she's determined to put her unhappy past in London behind her. As she settles into her new home, she becomes fascinated by the beautiful Botanic Garden which borders the grand house and offers her services as an artist to record the rare plant's impending bloom. In this pursuit, she meets Belle Brodie, a vivacious young woman with a passion for botany and the lucrative, dark art of perfume creation.

Belle is determined to keep both her real identity and the reason for her interest the Garden secret from her new friend. But as Elizabeth and Belle are about to discover, secrets don't last long in this Enlightenment city . . .

And when they are revealed, they can carry the greatest of consequences.

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

Edinburgh, 1822: In a bustling city of enlightenment, rife with expansive building schemes fuelled by the success of the grand Georgian new town, rumours abound of an imminent visit to the city by King George IV and his court to see what has been happening in the northern reaches of his realm, and to partake in a few jolly revels with the locals - but this is not the only thing making hearts beat faster than usual. In the newly established site of the Botanic Garden something momentous is about to happen for all interested in the delights of botany. The Agave Americana is about to sing its swan song by coming into flower - something that only happens once every few decades. 

Newly arrived in Edinburgh, widow Elizabeth Rocheid has come to reside with her late husband's great-aunt Clementina for a fresh start. Her first view of the city streets is a miraculous one as her arrival is held up by a procession of mature trees being carried to the new Botanic Garden on the back of horse-drawn carts, and it inspires a fascination with the horticultural venture that borders the grounds of her new home. Elizabeth offers her services to the Garden as an artist, ready to record the impending blooms of the rare plant, and she soon becomes on good terms with the head gardener William McNab and his family.

Elizabeth also finds friendship with another young woman passionately interested in the rare blooms of the Agave Americana, Belle Brodie,  who hopes to leave her life behind as a high-class courtesan by making her fortune from exotic perfumes with entrancing properties - the flowers from this rare beast might be just the thing she needs to make her finest elixir. She is going to have to be canny about getting what she wants, as there are more than a few interested parties hoping for seeds from the rare plant for their own ends - fortunately Belle is well versed in keeping her secrets close and playing a game or two. But, can she keep her true profession and her plans under wraps from her new friend Elizabeth?

The Fair Botanists is a wonderfully engaging and immersive story that weaves fact and fiction together to pull you into a vividly described setting of an era of great excitement, innovation and advancement. Do a bit of research into the time of the Edinburgh Enlightenment and you will be presented with a string of names associated with the dawning of the ideas and accomplishments - and they will be almost entirely male. However, Sara Sheridan throws new light on this fascinating time by presenting us with a host of fabulous women waving the banner for the fair sex, and they all desire independence in their own way. Although the story centres on two very different women who form a close and unlikely bond in Elizabeth and Belle, each helping the other to achieve their potential, all the women Sheridan writes about in these pages are fierce and beautifully drawn, carrying a story that contrasts their determination with the acts of folly exhibited by most of their male counterparts. These are the glorious players set to frolic on a stage that mixes a deliciously complex array of threads tying the goings on in the Botanic Garden to those in the city at large, and there is plenty to keep you occupied.

There is so much to delight in this book, with descriptions of sights, sounds and smells that take you right to the heart of the Georgian city; great characters; perfectly paced, threads of intrigue and romance, that sometimes border of the burlesque; and a vein of subtle humour that keeps the whole piece light-hearted, despite the steel core of a stirring feminist tale.

This is a novel that is an absolute joy to read and one which will entertain anyone who loves a good historical fiction yarn with strong female characters. I cannot believe I have not read any of Sara Sheridan's books before - an omission which I am going to put right by exploring her whole back catalogue in short order - because this is an absolute corker!

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

Thank you to Hodder and Stoughton for sending me a hardcover edition of this book in return for an honest review, and for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

About the author:

Sara Sheridan is an Edinburgh-based writer of over 20 books including cosy crime noir mysteries set in 1950s Britain and historical novels based on the real-life stories of late Georgian and early Victorian explorers. She has also written non-fiction, as well as books for children.

Sara has been named one of the Saltire Society's 365 most influential Scottish women, past and present.