Discussion Time · Random Bookish Things

DISCUSSION TIME! The ‘Value’ of Blogging

There’s been quite a bit of collective ire on social media this week after a independent publisher (who shall remain nameless!) called into question the ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ of book bloggers, especially in relation to blog tours and whether they result in better sales and exposure for the book/author/publisher in question.

Many people felt that it was implied in the publisher’s comments that book blogs and blog tours don’t offer good ‘value’ for authors and publishers. As you can probably predict, many bloggers and tour organisers felt that this belittled their role in the book world and took the publisher in question to task over their comments. Other publishers and authors also raced to the defence of bloggers with positive examples of how the work of bloggers had helped promote their titles.

As someone who writes a relatively small blog – and could therefore be accused of having limited ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ as a blogger – I thought the furore raised some interesting questions about the role of blogging. This post is, I suppose, my reflections on this and an attempt to counter some common misconceptions about the life of a book blogger as I see it.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, I can categorically say that there are far easier ways to get free books than by becoming a blogger!

Bloggers have to work for their freebies. If we’re lucky enough to receive a requested book or be invited onto a tour, we have to read said book, actively engage with what we’ve read (often by making notes as we read), and then compose and edit a (hopefully) entertaining and informative post about it. If this is for a blog tour, we’ll have to do this for a specific date. If not, having the post ready for around a book’s publication date is considered polite so a loose deadline remains in place. And the work isn’t over yet folks! Once a post is live, a blogger will probably want to promote it on social media channels, and ensure their review is also up on Goodreads, Amazon, Netgalley etc. And they may well be engaging with and promoting other posts from the same blog tour, or for the same author/book. They may also choose to re-post when the book subsequently comes out in paperback or if it wins an award.

And, for the most part, they will be doing this whilst holding down a day job, getting the kids to school, doing the laundry and all the other sundry activities that make up everyday life. In short, this is all being done on a blogger’s free time.

So whilst there may be the odd ‘blagger’ out there who thinks a book blog is a great way to bag a ton of hot pre-release titles, I think they’d soon find there’s a bit more to it than that.

I mean, the above is just what you do once you have established yourself as a blogger. Setting up and starting out is a whole different type of work. It can take months – or even years – to establish your blog, develop your online presence, and make connections with authors, publishers and tour organisers. Very few publishers or tour organisers worth their salt will take on an untested blogger – they want to see you have a track record of regular posts and can provide a certain quality and consistency of content before they add you to their tour or mailing lists, especially for popular or high-profile titles.

Which brings us onto this idea of ‘value’. What can your blogger do for you?

Simply put, I think it’s hard to qualify a blog’s ‘reach’ and ‘influence’, especially over the course of what may be just a one or two week blog tour. ‘Reach’ and ‘influence’ are subjective and I suppose that, from my point of view, an author or publisher has to recognise that a blog post or blog tour may not necessarily equate to hordes of readers racing to their nearest bookshop waving armfuls of cash. But does any advertising campaign really do that?

Personally I feel that what we as bloggers offer is less immediately measurable but equally important – genuine enthusiasm for your book, a wish to shout about it to our online (and real life) communities, and an opportunity to increase presence. A presence that, crucially, sticks around long after the tour is over and continues bubbling away as we write more posts and gain more followers.

When I look at my stats page for The Shelf, I’m often surprised (and extremely pleased!) by how many people are still reading posts that I wrote months ago. As I was writing up this post, I had a hit on my review of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions – a post that I wrote back on 08 January 2018. If that reader goes and buys Laura’s book as a result of my post (and I sincerely hope they do – it’s a brilliant book), it could be argued that I had an influence on them. However that influence could not have been measured at the time of the post going live – or even in the immediate weeks afterwards.

I suppose ultimately what I’m trying to get at is the idea of assessing a blog’s ‘value’ is, to my mind, looking at it all wrong. Blogs and bloggers are, for the most part, lovers of books who wish to communicate that love to the world. The infectious enthusiasm that we have for sharing books may not be immediately measurable in terms of pounds and pence. But in terms of helping to build a buzz or develop a profile – less quantifiable goals but increasingly important to publisher and authors in our digital age – blogs and their associated social media presences are vital ways of getting the word out. And I’m sure there are blog tour organisers and publishers out there who can provide evidence of when this has then translated into sales.

By necessity, this post is a very brief overview of some very complex debates. I haven’t, for example, really touched on the role of blog tour organisers because I feel there are others working in that role who can outline that far better than I can – the wonderful Anne Cater, for example, put up a fantastic Twitter thread that persuasively (and passionately) argued in favour of bloggers, blog tours and tour organisers. Nor have I looked at the need for publisher support and promotion in relation to blog posts and tours, or the fact that many bloggers are avid readers and purchasers of books before they even start writing about them.  And I’ve stayed well clear of the thorny issue of  receiving ‘free’ books and ‘professional integrity’ which is a whole different ball game and one that has been ably discussed by Drew over at The Tattooed Book Geek here.

I do hope however that this post has provided some food for thought. I can only speak for myself but I don’t run The Shelf as anything other than a passion project. I aim to be professional but, ultimately, The Shelf isn’t my business – it’s my downtime. If I have ‘influence’ and can get the word out there about books I love then that’s great but I didn’t start doing this to be influential. I’m doing it because I love books and I love writing about books and having conversations about books and authors that I love with like-minded bookish folk like you.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts so please do drop me a comment down below or come say hi over on Twitter. And, until next time…

Happy Reading! x

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Random Bookish Things · Reading Digest · Reading Horizons · Reviews

What I Read On My Holidays

Given that I’m currently drowning in a sea of MA reading, and laid low with a nasty bout of Fresher’s Flu (which is an absolute joy at the age of 32 I can tell you), my holiday seems but a distant memory. A mere month ago however and I was enjoying a wonderful, book-filled week on the Welsh coast with the long-suffering husband. I normally do a short post about what I’m intending to read on my hols before I go but, as September was quite busy on The Shelf with blog tours, I thought it might be nice to do a wrap-up and some mini-reviews of what I actually read instead.

36203369I kicked off the week with a book about the Spanish Flu. Holiday reading! Yes, I know it might not seem like the most relaxing of topics but Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney had come highly recommended by a bookseller in my local Waterstones and is exactly the sort of narrative social history that I enjoy hoovering up every once in a while. Although slightly terrifying (it is amazing how much we still don’t understand about the flu virus and how incredibly vulnerable to new strains of flu we remain), Pale Rider was also a fascinating examination of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of a terrible threat. That such an incredibly destructive epidemic has become so little-known about in the modern world is something that Spinney attempts to unpick, as well as evaluating why certain countries and communities fared better than others during the outbreak. Whilst I’m sure anyone well versed on the Spanish Flu epidemic would probably struggle to find anything new here, for a lay reader like myself it was a fascinating introduction and a timely reminder of human vulnerability.

39712864Seeking something a little more light-hearted than viral epidemics, I then turned to my book club’s October choice, Heartburn by Nora Ephron. This darkly acerbic tale of a pregnant woman who discovers her beloved husband is in love with a woman who has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb” had me laughing out loud and regularly reading passages aloud to my (considerably less amused) husband. If I’m being completely honest, there is nothing essentially new in Ephron’s ‘comic’ tale of a marriage breakdown and the resulting mid-life crisis it brings about in her heroine. What sets the book apart however is Ephron’s strong voice, which grabs you on page one and doesn’t let up until it leaves you – red-cheeked and sides sore from laughing – on the final page. As a commentary on marriage and relationships, I have issues with Ephron’s conclusions but, as a short, sharp stab of wit and amusement, I think it’s a little slice of delight that would be perfect for fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette.

35720337Returning to more sombre territory (my aching sides needed a chance to recover), and inspired by the desolate beauty of the surrounding Welsh landscape, I finally picked up Jon McGregor’s Costa award winning novel Reservoir 13. Unfolding over the course of thirteen years, the novel examines the impact of a tragedy on a small village community, starting with a teenage girl going missing in the hills just before New Year. McGregor writes beautifully about the small, everyday rhythms of country life, alternating between the natural cycle of the years and the unfolding dramas of the village and its citizens. A lyrical, elegiac read, this was definitely a case of right place, right time, right book for me – sitting looking out on the sparse beauty of the Cambrian Mountains, I felt utterly absorbed in McGregor’s slow-moving but vividly painted world. Definitely a novel that rewards considered reading and will leave you reflecting long after you turn the final page.

40236461Throughout the holiday I was listening to The World of Lore: Wicked Mortals, written and read by Aaron Mahnke. If you’re into folklore, legends and superstition, Lore is a bi-weekly podcast that covers the strange and unexplained. Like a good fireside tale told on a dark night, it has an ability to send a shiver down your spine whilst keeping you listening. Wicked Mortals is the second in the World of Lore series; a compilation of some of the best tales from the podcast, this time focusing on some of the chilling individuals who have achieved enough notoriety to become part of folklore. Whilst I didn’t enjoy the tales in this as much as I did in the first volume (Monstrous Creatures), the production values remained high with some beautiful background music and Mahnke’s steady, eerily calm narrative perfectly capturing the chill in his sinister stories.

38355634I finished off by settling into Claire Fuller’s latest novel Bitter Orange, a sinister tale centred on a dilapidated mansion in the English countryside and the events that take place there one hot summer in 1969. Prim narrator Frances is immediately captivated by handsome architect Peter and his wild, vivacious girlfriend Cara. Over the course of the summer they become friends, whiling away their days exploring the lost grandeur of Lyntons. As the three become closer however, secrets and lies abound and the novel gradually unpicks the fault lines in our relationships and the stories we tell about our lives. The pace of Bitter Orange was sedate – nothing much actually happens for a great deal of the novel – but the tension is gradually coiled like a spring page by page and, when it does snap, the payback is ever the greater for it. Not a novel of grand gestures or dramatic moments, Fuller’s writing instead focuses on the small, seemingly insignificant moments that hold the key to our interactions – a gesture, a word unsaid, an over the shoulder glance that could mean one thing, could mean another. It’s a style that won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s masterfully done here, as Fuller takes a thread and gradually pulls at it until the whole intricate web she has woven comes tumbling down around her characters. A measured, sinister read with shades of Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier. If we can also take a moment to appreciate that cover which is absolutely stunning.

So there you go, five mini-reviews for the price of one blog post – I do spoil you all sometimes! Please do let me know if you’ve read any of these books – or are intending to read them – as I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can drop me a line in the comments, or say hi over on Twitter @amyinstaffs. I’ll be back soon with more book chat but, until next time….

Happy Reading! x

 

 

Random Bookish Things · Reading Horizons

A Little Update

It feels like I’ve been away from the blog for an absolute age, although in reality my last post was only just over a week ago. However, as I was on holiday the week before that, I’d prepped and scheduled my three previous blog posts in advance so, for me, it’s been about a month since I’ve done any serious writing for The Shelf. So hello again and I hope you’ve all been good while I’ve been away.

And since then so much has happened! Books have been read, new books have been purchased and, crucially, I’ve started an MA in English Literature. Yes, I’ve jacked in the day job (the full-time one anyway; part-time employment still being required to keep bread on the table) and thrown myself back into student life to improve my mind via extensive reading. Mr Darcy would surely approve.

And extensive reading it most certainly is! I may be remembering my undergraduate years through rose-tinted spectacles and with 14 years distance but I’m sure I had far more free time to spend in the pub last time around. I certainly developed a mean enough game of pool to suggest that I spent a great deal of time there. Now I’m up to my eyeballs in reading – novels, plays, critical essays, secondary reading, supplementary reading. It’s both incredibly exciting (which book nerd doesn’t want an excuse to read all day) and mildly terrifying (I’m sure I read slower than I used to. Either that or time has sped up since I was 18).

My course started last week and, consequently, I’ve been going at a million miles an hour since then find a rhythm to study, getting used to not being part of the 9-5 whilst still having the workload of 9-5, and marvelling at how incredibly young all the undergraduates look (seriously, they’re about 12…). Which has left me without a proper post this week, hence you’re stuck with my mad rabblings instead.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying apologies for not having a holiday reading post to share with you today. I did read some excellent books whilst I was away and a review post will be forthcoming shortly to share my thoughts on them with you. I’ve also got some great blog tours lined up for November, as well as a spooky recommendations post in the works for Halloween. And, if anyone is interested, I’ll talk a little more about what books I’m studying this semester as well.

With the autumn colours starting to show and the nights drawing in, it’s the perfect time to be curling up with a book (or a play, or a critical essay!) so do let me know what you’ve all been reading and, until next time…

Happy Reading! x

 

 

 

Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR!! Street Cat Blues by Alison O’Leary

Street Cat Blues Cover

Aubrey, a large tabby rescue cat, has finally found a home with Molly and Jeremy Goodman and life is looking good. However, all is about to change when a serial killer begins to target elderly victims in the neighbourhood.

Aubrey wasn’t particularly upset by the death of some of the previous victims, including Miss Jenkins whom Aubrey recalls as a vinegar-lipped bitch of an old woman who liked throwing stones at cats, but Mr Telling was different. Mr Telling was a mate …

If you’ve followed The Shelf for a while you’ll know that I do like a good mystery novel and anyone who’s had a brief glance at my bio will also see that I am the proud and doting owner of a pesky cat. So when the opportunity to feature a debut novel that combines both crime and cats (specifically a large tabby cat called Aubrey) came along, I jumped at the chance!

I’m therefore delighted to welcome Alison O’Leary, author of Street Cat Blues, to The Shelf today with a guest post about the circumstances that led to her to writing such a unique novel and how she got into the writing life…

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“I studied Law and thoroughly enjoyed it but knew at a fairly early stage that I didn’t want to go into practice. What I really wanted to do, from a very young age, was write. But, of course, as with so many of us, life got in the way and what with fairy godmothers and rich parents being not so much thin on the ground as non-existent, I needed to earn a living. So I became a college lecturer and discovered that I loved teaching. However, in the background, quietly, secretly, I was always writing. I have loved crime fiction from an early age, starting with the blessed Agatha, so it was pretty much inevitable that was the direction that I was going to take.

I told very few people on the basis that if they didn’t know what I was doing then obviously they wouldn’t know if I failed. This was just as well really because I did fail. Quite hard and for quite a long time.

My first book attracted the attention of  quite a big agent and, honestly, I thought I’d cracked it. Hollow. Laugh. After keeping it for what seemed like forever, she finally turned it down. It hurt. Lots. Undaunted I started another book and, again, it was picked up by a big agency. Again, they ultimately turned it down. It was at this point that I almost gave up. But it was worth one last shout and so I began Street Cat Blues.

The idea for the book was probably fermenting for a long time and, although I sometimes put it down and wrote other things, Street Cat Blues was the one I kept returning to.  Having worked with young people for many years I’d seen at firsthand how very vulnerable some of them are, often in spite of appearances, and what a rough hand some of them are dealt. As an older and wiser colleague once said to me when I was complaining about a particularly recalcitrant student, ‘He’s like it for a reason’. When I looked at his file, it was true. He had more reason than most.

When the book was finally finished I began to submit it to various agencies and publishers. It was rejected. Let’s just say more than once. Then, last Christmas I decided to send it out one more time. Well, I did say it was Christmas … within a week I’d had an offer of publication.

Street Cat Blues is a crime novel with a difference. It is set in suburban Britain and has a cast of cats, such as the street-wise Vincent and the loveable but dim Moses, but it is set very firmly in the human world and deals with human concerns. The main themes of Street Cat Blues are love, loss and loyalty. I would probably describe it as cosy crime with a noir bite.

The main protagonist, Aubrey, is a large tabby cat. After spending several months banged up in a rescue centre he’s finally picked by Molly and Jeremy Goodman and life is looking good. However, all that changes when a serial killer begins to target elderly victims in the neighbourhood. Aubrey wasn’t particularly upset by the death of some of the victims, including Miss Jenkins whom Aubrey recalls as a vinegar-lipped bitch of an old woman who enjoyed throwing stones at cats. But now it was Mr Telling, and Mr Telling was a mate …”

Street Cat Blues by Alison O’Leary is published by Crooked Cat Books and is available now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Amazon and Book Depository. My thanks go to the publisher and author for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased feature. And a big thank you to Alison for kindly writing a guest post. Thanks also go to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising this blog tour and inviting me to take part. Please do check out the rest of the tour stops for reviews and more!

Street Cat Blues Poster

Reviews

REVIEW! Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

Last Time I LiedHave you ever played two truths and a lie?

It was Emma’s first summer away from home. She made friends. She played games. And she learned how to lie.

Then three of her new friends went into the woods and never returned. . .

Now, years later, Emma has been asked to go back to the newly re-opened Camp Nightingale. She thinks she’s laying old ghosts to rest but really she’s returning to the scene of a crime.

Because Emma’s innocence might be the biggest lie of all. . .

I am an absolute sucker for a Mean Girls style female friendship in books so when I saw that Riley Sager’s summer camp set second novel, The Last Time I Lied; in which a trio of girls vanishes in mysterious circumstances following a summer of secrets and lies, was available on The Pigeonhole, I signed up straight away!

As someone who DNF’d Sager’s debut, Final Girls, I did have my reservations about Last Time I Lied. Final Girls, which has been a phenomenal bestseller both in Sager’s native USA and over here in the UK, had a fantastic premise but personally I found the characters – and the main character in particular – to be irritating and cliche and this prevented me from really engaging with the plot.

Fortunately Last Time I Lied’s protagonist Emma is more nuanced. Psychologically damaged from the experience of losing her friends, Emma has found moderate artistic fame and a sense of normality in her adult life when we meet her at the start of the book. Following the opening of her first gallery show however, Emma is artistically blocked and struggling to find direction when an old acquaintance from Camp Nightingale invites her to return as a teacher at the newly re-opened camp. Seeing an opportunity to lay old ghosts to rest and atone for past mistakes, Emma agrees but gets more than she bargained for when old secrets start to emerge.

Emma is easy to like as a main character, both in the present day and also in the flashbacks to her thirteen year old self, stuck in a cabin with the sparky but spiky camp queen bee Vivian and her fellow fifteen year old ‘mean girls’, Natalie and Allison. The relationship between teenage Emma; ignored by her parents, desperate to fit in and in awe of Vivian’s apparently effortless cool, and adult Emma, with her hallucinations and her defensive edge, is key to the book and Sager has a lot of fun playing with the reliability of Emma’s narration and whether she’s telling the truth, even to herself.

The other key to the book is the relationship between Emma and Vivian, leader of the missing girls, object of hero worship to teen Emma, and a haunting presence in Emma’s adult life. Sager does a great job of portraying the intricate balance between devotion and spite involved in teen girl friendships and plays with both the comparisons and the contrasts between the two girls to really deepen the mystery and heighten the tension.

The plot itself has plenty of twists and turns and does a great job of keeping the reader guessing as to the truth behind Vivian, Allison & Natalie’s disappearance, as well as the real reasons behind Emma’s present-day misfortunes. There’s some neat misdirection and double-bluffing throughout, plus a real surprise in store at the end when the final, shocking twist is revealed! Page-turning stuff and I absolutely flew through it on The Pigeonhole, eager for each stave to land.

Darkly compulsive, Last Time I Lied has that all-important page-turning quality with its compulsive combination of compelling characters and gripping mystery. A definite stand out for me amidst 2018’s crowded thriller genre, the book had me gripped from beginning to end and is a great addition to any thriller fan’s TBR!

Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager, published by Ebury Press, is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. I was given the opportunity to read the book in a free slot on The Pigeonhole, the online book club, so my thanks go to them for the chance to read and write an honest review. 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Shrouded Path by Sarah Ward

36991831November, 1957. Six teenage girls walk in the churning Derbyshire mists, the first chills of winter in the air. Their voices carrying across the fields, they follow the old train tracks into the dark tunnel of the Cutting. Only five reappear on the other side.

October, 2017. Feverishly fixated on a childhood friend, Mina’s dying mother makes a plea: ‘Find Valerie’.

DC Connie Childs – off balance after her last big case – is partnered with a new arrival to Bampton, DC Peter Dahl. Following up on what seems like a routine death by natural causes, DC Childs’ old instincts kick in, pointing her right back to once cold evening in 1957. As Connie starts to broaden her enquiries, the investigation begins to move increasingly close to home. 

Waiting for the next book in a favourite series is always a nerve-wracking experience for me –  a mixture of heady anticipation and concern that there’s a slim chance this next one just won’t be quite as good as the last. Where Sarah Ward is concerned however, I never have any such worries – her DC Connie Child’s series has gone from strength to strength with each new title and, I’m pleased to report, her latest novel, The Shrouded Path, continues this tradition.

Picking up not long after the last novel (A Patient Fury) finished off, The Shrouded Path sees DC Connie Childs and her colleagues grappling with a series of possibly routine deaths amongst Bampton’s older population. The ‘victims’ – three apparently unconnected women who just happen to be of similar age – all had terminal or chronic illnesses. So is it just random chance that they have all passed away recently, or is something more sinister at work in Bampton’s quiet suburbs?

As always with Sarah’s novels, the tangled web of interconnections and red herrings is expertly weaved together into a pacy, cohesive narrative that will have you tearing through the pages and eagerly trying to fit the jigsaw of clues together. Sarah also does an expert job of handling dual timelines, cleverly linking the events of 1957 with the narrative of present day events in a way that never feels forced or coincidental but only serves to heighten the tension and develop the mystery.

Sarah’s regular characters are, by now, well-established but for long time readers of the series, it’s really nice to see subtle changes to old faces such as the deepening trust and friendship between Connie and her boss, Francis Sadler. New team member DC Peter Dahl is a nice addition as well, balancing out the team nicely following the departure of DS Palmer in A Patient Fury.

That said, one of the joys of Sarah’s books for new readers is that each can be read as a complete standalone – other than the continuing detective characters and the occasional, spoiler-free nod to previous novels, the central story in The Shrouded Path is complete and self-contained. As someone who enjoys a series with continuing characters but likes each book’s plot to be wrapped up, this is a huge bonus – I’m definitely one of those readers that doesn’t like waiting 12 months or more on a cliffhanger ending!

After the darker tone and subject matter of A Patient Fury, The Shrouded Path returns in a softer attitude but successfully does so without losing any of its impact. There’s no visceral descriptions of murder here but the series is far from being a ‘cosy’ and one of the things that I most admire about Sarah’s writing is the way she manages to convey an underlying sense of the sinister and macabre without ever resorting to gory detail. This is done through a fantastic sense of atmosphere and a feel for place, with some wonderful depictions of both the cool beauty and the chilling isolation that can be found in the Derbyshire landscape.

As you can probably already tell, I’ve really enjoyed all of Sarah’s DC Child’s novels (and you can find links to my previous features on her books at the end of this review) however I have to say that The Shrouded Path really is the best one yet. Perfect for fans of Val McDermid and PD James, the series is going from strength to strength with each addition. Fans of Sarah’s previous books will find her latest to have all the compulsion of previous novels with an increased intricacy of plot and confidence in character; whilst newcomers will get to discover a fantastic writer whose powers only seem to increase with each book! Compulsive and readable, with a powerful atmosphere and a hint of the macabre, The Shrouded Path is a fantastic addition to a series that is only increasing in strength.

The Shrouded Path by Sarah Ward, published by Faber & Faber, is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher and the author  for providing me with a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

You can find my reviews of Sarah’s previous DC Child’s novels, as well as a Q&A with Sarah, by clicking on the book titles below. And please do check out the rest of the blog tour stops, which continue until 18 September 2018!

In Bitter Chill
A Deadly Thaw
A Patient Fury

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Reviews

REVIEW! The Lido by Libby Page

The LidoMeet Rosemary, 86, and Kate, 26: dreamers, campaigners, outdoor swimmers.

Rosemary has lived in Brixton all her life, but everything she knows is changing. Only the local lido, where she swims every day, remains a constant reminder of the past and her beloved husband George.

Kate has just moved and feels adrift in a city that is too big for her. She’s on the bottom rung of her career as a local journalist, and is determined to make something of it.

So when the lido is threatened with closure, Kate knows this story could be her chance to shine. But for Rosemary, it could be the end of everything. Together they are determined to make a stand, and to prove that the pool is more than just a place to swim – it is the heart of the community.

The Lido is an uplifting novel about the importance of friendship, the value of community, and how ordinary people can protect the things they love.

I was recently laid low in bed for a couple of days with a nasty infection. Dosed up on antibiotics and feeling thoroughly sorry for myself, I was in need of a serious pick-me-up and, denied my usual outlets of after-work jogging and killing zombies on my PS4, turned to Libby Page’s debut The Lido, which has been marketed as ‘the feel-good debut of the year’ and had been lingering on my Kindle for a while.

The novel centres around a lido in Brixton, London. With member numbers falling, the local council puts the lido under threat of closure and a luxury property company start circling, eager to turn the place into a private gym. This brings together 26 year old local news reporter Kate; recently arrived in London and feeling adrift in big city life, and long-term lido member and Brixton resident Rosemary; recently widowed after a long and happy marriage. As the two women’s friendship develops, the community of Brixton Lido is bought back to life – but will it be enough to save the lido from the developers?

As you can probably tell, this is a heart-warming and very feel-good read – it really was the perfect book to curl up with when I was feeling poorly! The main drive of the plot is the unlikely friendship between Kate and Rosemary – two fantastically well-realised characters. I really identified with Kate, adrift in a new city and struggling with anxiety whilst pretending to her nearest and dearest that she was loving her adult life and everything was fine. Following her through the novel, as she begins to make connections and identify a community of her own, is a joyful journey – as is watching Rosemary come out of her shell and live life for herself following the death of her beloved George.

Brixton also really comes alive as a place and community. Whether it’s an accurate portrayal or not I couldn’t say, having never visited the place myself, but it feels like a living place in the pages of The Lido – filled with a diverse cast of characters that did feel representative of the melting pot of London life. Colours, sights and sounds leapt off the page and there was a real sense of the vibrancy of city life. Rosemary’s memories of her childhood growing up in Brixton were also a nice touch – providing a sense of the changing nature of the city and the community, for both good and ill.

As you can probably guess from the blurb, this book is full to brimming with sugar – it’s supposed to be a heart-warming read after all – which does occasionally threaten to lurch over into full on ‘cake with icing and sprinkles on top’ saccharine. The ending in particular is so sweet that it could be in a Richard Curtis movie – in fact, this whole novel is a prime candidate to be a Richard Curtis movie. But what’s the harm in a book that wants to make you feel better about the world? Happy endings seem to have gone out of vogue but, in our turbulent times, it was nice to read a novel where friendship, self-fulfilment, and community won the day over loneliness, anxiety, and corporate greed.

Ultimately, The Lido is a heart-warming and up-lifting tale of friendship, hope and new beginnings. Sure to get you out of the doldrums, this is a pick-me-up read with some fantastic characters and a brilliant sense of place. Perfect for fans of Joanna Cannon or Maria Semple, this is an easy, enjoyable read and is perfect for whiling away a summer afternoon with – or reading in bed when you’re feeling a bit low!

The Lido by Libby Page, and published by Orion, is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an ecopy in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Overkill by Vanda Symon

Overkill CoverWhen the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide. But all is not what it seems.

Sam Shephard, sole-charge police constable in Mataura, soon discovers the death was no suicide and has to face the realisation that there is a killer in town. To complicate the situation, the murdered woman was the wife of her former lover. When Sam finds herself on the list of suspects and suspended from duty, she must cast said her personal feelings and take matters into her own hands. To find the murderer…and clear her name. 

I’ve been reading a lot of crime and thriller writing recently, especially from the extremely well-curated list at Orenda Books – a publisher that I have an ever-increasing amount of regard for given their high production values, stunning covers and their talent for spotting overlooked novels and new voices. One of the things that I’ve most enjoyed in exploring the Orenda list however, is getting the opportunity to read crime fiction set outside of the UK and USA, and from authors that are well known in their native countries but being published for the first time over here.

This is the case with Overkill; the first in Dunedin based writer Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard series, which introduces us to feisty rural police constable Sam and the small rural community of Mataura in which she works. The book opens with a real bang as a young woman is accosted by a professional hitman in her own home and forced to fake her own suicide. It’s an intense and chilling prologue that really hits the reader in the gut and, for a few pages, I was worried the book might be a little on the dark side for my tastes. Fortunately though, once Sam takes over in chapter one, the brutality takes a back seat and the focus is very much on the investigation of the crime and why someone would commit such a dark and violent act in this small town.

Sam is a great female lead – she’s feisty without being cliche and has a sarcastic sense of humour that helps lighten the otherwise rather taut, atmospheric mood. She’s also human – dedicated to her job and protecting her community but capable of mistakes and aware of her own limitations. She reminded me in a lot of ways of Sarah Ward’s Connie Childs – definitely a good thing as I’m a huge fan of Sarah’s police procedurals. I also found Sam’s complicated feelings about the victim Gabriella, the wife of Sam’s ex-lover Lockie Knowes, to be an intriguing addition to her character and was really glad that, for once, this complicated romantic history wasn’t used in a cliched manner but instead to add drama and tension to the plot.

As for the plot itself, it’s full of small town dramas that gradually knit together to reveal larger cover-up that has dark implications for Sam, Mataura and possibly even for New Zealand itself. Moving at break-neck speed, Symon does an excellent job of pulling together the threads of a relatively complex plot whilst keeping the pace high and the pages turning in a manner similar to that of Jane Harper’s excellent Australian police procedural The Dry. Fans of Harper will definitely get a similar feel and flavour in Overkill, with its focus on a small community unbalanced by a tragic and violent event.

If I had one tiny criticism it would be the ending, which felt a little rushed in parts and had a couple of moments where I felt the otherwise capable Sam acted out of character for the sake of drama. Overall however that definitely didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book – as a police procedural, much of the pace and atmosphere comes from the solving of the crime, rather than in the explosive set-piece ending, and Symon does that brilliantly. I also liked the possibilities left open to Sam at the end of the book, and can definitely see this novel as being just the start for her as a character.

A controlled and pacy police procedural, Overkill is an accomplished debut with a fantastic heroine and a gripping, page-turning quality. A brilliant addition to Orenda’s already ‘jam-packed with awesome’ crime list, I’m hoping this won’t be the last we’ll see of Sam Shephard or Vanda Symon!

Overkill by Vanda Symon and published by Orenda Books, is available now as an ebook and is out in paperback from 06 September 2017 from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto the tour. The tour continues until 19 September 2018 so please check out the rest of the tour stops along the way!

Overkill Blog Tour Poster

Reviews

REVIEW! The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah

Mystery of Three QuartersReturning home after lunch one day, Hercule Poirot finds an angry woman waiting outside his front door. She demands to know why Poirot has sent her a letter accusing her of the murder of Barnabas Pandy, a man she has neither heard of nor ever met.

Poirot has also never heard of a Barnabas Pandy, and has accused nobody of murder. Shaken, he goes inside, only to find that he has a visitor waiting for him — a man who also claims also to have received a letter from Poirot that morning, accusing him of the murder of Barnabas Pandy.

Poirot wonders how many more letters of this sort have been sent in his name. Who sent them, and why? More importantly, who is Barnabas Pandy, is he dead, and, if so, was he murdered? And can Poirot find out the answers without putting more lives in danger?

Taking on the mantle of the most well known of the greatest golden age crime authors and resurrecting one of her most beloved characters is no small feat. But Sophie Hannah has, to date, managed it ably and her first two ‘New Hercule Poirot’ mysteries, The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket, have gone down a treat with readers – including myself! So I was delighted to be given an opportunity via Netgalley to read Hannah’s latest outing, The Mystery of Three Quarters, which sees everyone’s favourite Belgian detective confronted with a most peculiar mystery indeed.

With an opening that rivals the intrigue of ‘Murder is Announced’, Hercule Poirot is confronted by a four different people all of whom claim he has sent them a letter accusing them of the murder of Barnabas Pandy – a man who Poirot has never heard of and, it transpires, drowned in his bathtub at a ripe old age without the apparent intervention of anyone else. Why have these letters been sent in Poirot’s name? Was Barnabas Pandy really murdered? And what connects the people who have received the accusatory letter? It’s a puzzle that Christie herself would have been proud of and one that will take all of Poirot’s little grey cells to solve.

As with her previous two Poirot books, Hannah absolutely nails Christie’s tone but, in reacquainting us once again with her own ‘eyes’ on the famous detective – long-suffering Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool – rather than one of Christie’s own preferred sidekicks, she manages to pay homage rather than attempt a full resurrection. It’s a trick which allows the jaunty briskness of Christie to come across without ever crossing over into pastiche.

That said, all of the golden age tropes are present and correct – there’s a suitably grand country house, a private boy’s boarding school, an aged retainer, an eclectic array of apparently well-to-do suspects, and a typewriter with a dodgy letter ‘e’. There’s also a cake – specifically a church window cake (think Battenberg) made up of four little pink and yellow squares – that might just provide the answer to the whole thing. Throw in a handful of well-placed red-herrings and you’ve got a plot that rattles along nicely until the classic ‘everyone gathered in the drawing room’ denouement in which Poirot explains all.

Thoroughly enjoyable and with just the right level of homage to the genre, this is another excellent addition to the ‘New Poirot’ series and one that is sure to appeal to fans of the previous two books, as well as lovers of Christie’s originals. Hannah’s Poirot has a little glint of mischief in his eye at times but he still feels like Poirot – and his little grey cells are still firmly in working order. Perfect for curling up with as the nights draw in, The Mystery of Three Quarters is a fun and entertaining read, written with finesse and confidence.

The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah and published by HarperCollins, is published 23 August 2017 and available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an ecopy in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews

REVIEW! The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Mrs WestawayWhen Harriet Westaway receives an unexpected letter telling her she’s inherited a substantial bequest from her Cornish grandmother, it seems like the answer to her prayers. She owes money to a loan shark and the threats are getting increasingly aggressive: she needs to get her hands on some cash fast.

There’s just one problem – Hal’s real grandparents died more than twenty years ago. The letter has been sent to the wrong person. But Hal knows that the cold-reading techniques she’s honed as a seaside fortune teller could help her con her way to getting the money. If anyone has the skills to turn up at a stranger’s funeral and claim a bequest they’re not entitled to, it’s her.

Hal makes a choice that will change her life for ever. But once she embarks on her deception, there is no going back. She must keep going or risk losing everything, even her life…

Ruth Ware is one of those writers I’ve always wanted to like. Hailed as a modern day Agatha Christie, she writes the sort of twisty, plot driven crime novels that I ordinarily enjoy. But after a somewhat disappointing encounter with her first novel, In A Dark Dark Wood (I found the heroine supremely irritating and put it down about a third of the way in), I’ve not picked up another of her books; despite the many favourable reviews from fellow readers that indicate she’s a writer who has only developed her novelistic prowess since then.

When the opportunity to read her latest novel, The Death of Mrs Westaway, for free on The Pigeonhole arose however, I thought it was probably time to give Ms Ware another go. And I am very glad indeed that I did because The Death of Mrs Westaway provided an eerie and atmospheric dose of crime fiction that had shades of the gothic alongside a good dollop of golden age panache.

The premise, in which down on her luck protagonist Harriet ‘Hal’ Westaway decides to use her cold-reading skills to infiltrate a stranger’s funeral and claim an inheritance, is unique. Deceitful relatives on the hunt for the cash are usually the villains of the piece in crime novels so it was refreshing to read from the perspective of a ‘heroine’ who starts by committing an act of deceit. To Ware’s credit, she provides Hal with a background of misfortune that serves to engage the reader’s empathy, keeping you on Hal’s side even once you’re introduced to the victims of her deception – the other members of the eclectic Westaway family, returned to the fading grandeur of the family seat at Trepassen House and delighted to be united with their long-lost niece, Harriet.

When the will is read out and Harriet becomes sole heir to the Westaway estate however, the stakes in Hal’s game are raised irrevocably and, as Hal herself starts to uncover a possible connection between her real mother and Trepassen House, it becomes apparent that she might be in very real danger from someone who wants long-buried secrets to stay hidden.

The plot twists and turns nicely and kept me guessing about the true identity of the culprit, as well as Hal’s own complex connection to the Westaway family, until the closing chapters. I also really enjoyed the inclusion of tarot as a means of bringing an eerie supernatural element into the novel – it reminded me of Christie’s use of a ‘gypsy curse’ in Endless Night and was played for similar effect by Ware, whilst also giving the reader insight into this fascinating and ancient practice.

Trepassen House itself is also a fantastic character in the novel. Evoking all the faded glamour of a golden age country house, it provides an atmospheric backdrop for the family secrets and tangled web of lies that Hal has to uncover and unpick. Ware’s writing, especially her descriptions of place, are evocative and you get a real sense of Trepassen’s isolation and rain-soaked gloom.

If I’m being picky, the novel does have the occasional deus ex machina at work – there’s a convenient snow storm about three-quarters of the way through, for example – and there’s nothing especially original in the way Hal goes about discovering the Westaway family secrets.

Some of the character development is also a little lacking, For example, it really irritated me that Hal kept reminding herself about the mousey, timid persona she has chosen to play whilst at Trepassen, despite the fact that by that point in the books, she’d lapsed out of that role on numerous occasions without drawing comment from her ‘family’. And the Westaway family themselves, whilst numerous, aren’t always the most memorable of creatures. But can any Agatha Christie fan say that, beyond her mainstay detectives and their regular sidekicks, they recall the side characters in the majority of her novels?

Plot, coupled with an engaging lead, was always they key driver of a Christie novel the same is true of The Death of Mrs Westaway. I for one was drawn along by the narrative and eager to find out how the story ended, what secrets Trepassen House was holding within its walls and why fierce matriarch Mrs Westaway had chosen Hal to come and uncover them. If you forgive its minor flaws, The Death of Mrs Westaway is an atmospheric and pacy mystery that plays with the tropes of the golden age classics whilst updating them for the mobile phone era. It’s definitely converted me to Ruth Ware’s fiction and I’m looking forward to reading her much-lauded second book ‘The Woman in Cabin 10’ in the near future.

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware is published by Harvill Secker and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. I read the book for free on The Pigeonhole; the online book club in your pocket, so my thanks go to them for giving me the opportunity to read along and provide an honest and unbiased review.