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.

 

 

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Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Light Between Us by Katie Khan

THE LIGHT BETWEEN US HB.inddIsaac and Thea were once close, but they’ve grown apart.

Thea works tirelessly, convinced she can prove everyone around her wrong – convinced she can prove that time travel is possible. But when one of her attempts goes wrong, she finds herself picking up the phone and calling her old friend.

Isaac is in New York – it’s the middle of the night, but when he sees who’s calling him, he cannot ignore his phone. At Thea’s request, he travels home, determined to help her in her hour of need.

But neither of them are prepared for what they will discover when he gets there.

The Light Between Us is a relatively slender tale with a big premise – think Quantum Leap meets Sliding Doors and you’re on the right track.

University friends Isaac and Thea have grown apart, in no small part thanks to Thea’s single minded pursuit of her ground-breaking theory that will prove time travel is possible. But when Thea’s experiments get her kicked from her PHD and potentially leaves her friend Rosy stuck somewhere in time and space, it’s Isaac that Thea turns to for help. What follows next is a contemporary love story with a unique twist that encompasses time travel, quantum theory, parallel universes and long-held personal regrets, making for a page-turning emotional rollercoaster.

With it’s weighty premise, it would be easy for The Light Between Us to feel heavy but Katie Khan’s writing keeps the romance plot light and bouncy, whilst giving us enough accessible science theory to keep the time-travel elements on the right side of plausible. As a result, the plot whips along from the first page and carries the reader right through to the end without blinding them with the science.

Thea and Isaac make for empathetic and engaging leads. Practical and single-minded, Thea is far from being the perfect ‘heroine’, but there’s an appeal to her self-belief and determination, as well as a softer side that reveals itself in her conversations with her friends. Isaac is gentle and funny, but with enough spark to stop him becoming Thea’s doormat. Their romance, filled with missed opportunities and regrets for what might have been, is sure to tug at the heartstrings – especially once Khan reveals the twist that might scupper things for the pair.

If I had one criticism it is that I think the book ended a little too quickly. If, like me, you like everything tied up with a neat bow at the end of a book, then you might be left a tad frustrated here. There’s a number of plot strands that I felt would have benefited from greater development in the book, and some elements of the ending felt unresolved to me. Without giving spoilers, it’s difficult to go into details but I guess I’m trying to say that I very much enjoyed the journey I went on with this book but didn’t fully appreciate the destination.

That aside however, The Light Between Us remains an emotionally charged novel filled with moments that make you appreciate the preciousness of love and friendships, and the tiny decisions we make that can impact on how life plays out. Wearing its science lightly, it has that page-turning quality and emotional engagement that will appeal to readers of David Nicholl’s ‘One Day’ and Laura Barnett’s ‘The Versions of Us’, as well as anyone seeking to get lost in an enjoyable, relaxing and emotionally engaging read!

The Light Between Us by Katie Khan is published by Transworld and is available now from all good booksellers, 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, and to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this tour.

thumbnail_Final The Light Between Us BT Poster

 

 

 

 

Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!! The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie

The Pagoda Tree CoverTamil Nadu, southern India, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples in the ancient city of Tanjore. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become a devadasi, a dancer in the temple. On the day of her initiation, a stranger arrives in town. Walter Sutcliffe, a black-frocked clergyman, strives to offer moral guidance to British troops stationed in Tanjore, but is beset by his own demons.

When the British tear apart her princely kingdom, Maya heads to the steamy port of Madras, where Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman, is entranced from the moment he first sees her. As East and West collide, Walter Sutcliffe unknowingly plays the decisive card in Maya’s destiny…

Taking us deep into the heart of a country struggling under brutal occupation, The Pagoda Tree is a vivid and evocative novel and I am delighted to welcome author Claire Scobie to The Shelf today to tell us more about it.

Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Claire! The Pagoda Tree is your first novel. Could you tell us a little about the book?

Lovely to be asked, thank you. The Pagoda Tree is largely told through the eyes of a temple dancing girl, or devadasi, named Maya who lives in the ancient city of Tanjore in southern India. It opens in 1765 when India is on the cusp of change. After tragedy strikes, Maya flees her ancestral home and heads to the steamy port city of Madras (now Chennai). At its heart, the novel explores the uneasy meeting of East and West, and explores epic themes of love, war, destiny and exile.

The novel is set in southern India and has a very evocative atmosphere. What led you to choose that particular location and how did the setting inform your writing?

I became fascinated in the figure of the temple dancer after travelling to southern India. In the Brihadishvara or ‘Big Temple’ in Tanjore, I saw the names and addresses of 400 dancing girls who were brought there for its inauguration in 1010. It amazed me that the temple has rituals that have remained constant for over a millennia and I loved this sense of the past co-existing with the present.

I then visited the region several times for research. I retraced the steps that my fictional character Maya would have walked along Tanjore’s West Main Road, dodging rickshaws and cows. I drank chai with a modern-day prince in the palace harem where Muddupalani, one of the city’s most famous eighteenth-century courtesans, wrote her bold sexy poetry. (In my novel, Palani, as I call her, is a mentor to my protagonist Maya.)

I coined the phrase ’history with my feet’. I wanted to create a rich experience for my reader – one based on historical truth but with characters who live and breathe, and are deeply informed by the place they are from.

The events of The Pagoda Tree begin in 1765 and encompass a period of massive change in India. Why did you choose this particular period for Maya’s story? And how did you begin to research such a tumultuous period in Indian history?

It took a while to settle on the exact dates of the novel, but I wanted to set it pre-Raj (pre-1800) because there was still the possibility of exchange between cultures – a possibility that wouldn’t be there in the later Victorian era.

In the mid-eighteenth century the future was not yet written. There was no certainty that the British would succeed as the dominant power in India. In the south, in particular, there was a lot of intermingling between Europeans and Indians. These cross-cultural relations and conflicts provided great tension for my story.

There are also accounts of British men having sexual liaisons and love marriages with Indian women, some of whom were dancing girls. Yet these have rarely been explored in fiction. It seemed to be an untold story – not only of the figure of the temple dancer but also of the relationships at this pivotal moment of history. By the early 1800s, British power was established and the ‘us vs them’ polarity of the Raj became entrenched.

To research it, I spent time in the British Library which houses the India Office Records and I trawled through archives in southern India.

In Chennai, I found a rare eighteenth-century Tamil text (translated, thankfully!) which helped me re-create the world of this nascent trading port. It clearly shows how just as the English copied the Indian elite, building garden houses in the city, the Indian merchants imitated their colonial patrons, developing a taste for Western music and morning horse rides with English ladies. For a few short years it was a sort of mutual appreciation society and it’s into this world that my character Maya enters when she arrives in the port city.

Your novel centres about a young dancer, Maya, and her relationships with clergyman Walter Sutcliffe and young Englishman Thomas Pearce. Did the novel start out as Maya’s story or did it develop from the events of the period that you describe? All three characters are so vividly imagined that I’m interested to know who arrived in your head first!  

Great question. The first character who arrived was Walter. I was in south India celebrating Pongal, Tamil new year. In a palm-leafed feasting tent, I suddenly got this real feeling of Walter Sutcliffe, a bit fusty, sitting in itchy breeches, uncomfortable as monsoon rain poured down.

For a while, Maya was illusive. I think I didn’t trust myself to write the novel from her point of view. Plus, I had to watch that the English male characters didn’t take over the novel (funny that!). It was like the more I got out of my own way, as the writer, the more Maya inhabited the story and it became hers. Sounds a bit weird, I know, but writing fiction is a bit weird…

Maya’s training as a devadasi, a dancer for the temple, is a glimpse into a fascinating and forgotten world. Why did you decide to give her this role and how did you go about researching what was involved?

I always knew she’d be a devadasi so, interestingly, the role came first. While similar to the geishas of Japan in that they entertained men, temple dancers are unique to the religious and cultural life of southern India. As I discovered this thousand-year tradition taught these women to be both sensual and holy. At their height they were powerful independent women whose sexuality was identified with the power of the goddess Shakti.

To be a patron of one of these artists was like being the lover of a big star, like being the lover of Audrey Hepburn or Madonna. When the Europeans started going to India, they too were seduced by their beauty. But they were also perplexed at how these women had both an erotic and a religious role in society. It’s this tension between the European and Indian views, and between the sensual and the sacred, that I found fascinating – and that Maya grapples with as she comes of age. I liked the ambiguity. It gave her character depth and complexity.

You’ve also written a travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, and you co-wrote a memoir, A Baboon in the Bedroom, with your mum Patricia. How did writing a novel differ from writing these previous books?

My first non-fiction book, Last Seen in Lhasa, uses many fictional techniques – a creating character, plot, revelation – and it seemed an obvious (although scary) next step to write fiction. I was also ready for a new challenge. Fiction has taught me so much more about craft. It’s like going from playing one or two instruments to having to conduct an entire orchestra. There’s so much more you have to think about including plot and point-of-view. At first, I wanted to cling on to what I knew but then the writing process became surprisingly liberating. Now I do both fiction and non-fiction.

The Pagoda Tree was crowd-funded via Unbound for publication in the UK. I think crowd-funding is a fantastic way of bringing new voices into the publishing world but I’d be interested to know how you as an author found the experience of crowd-funding your novel? The book was published by Penguin in your native Australia so did you find the crowd-funded route particularly different to traditional publishing?

Crowd-funding the novel is very different to the traditional publishing route. What’s fantastic about the Unbound model is that books that may never be published get a chance. The model itself also has a distinguished past. Once known as ‘subscription publishing’, books by Milton, Samuel Johnson and Voltaire were all published like this. (Except Voltaire travelled around England in a carriage to persuade his supporters and we just have to jump online to get ours.)

But crowd-funding is very time consuming and it’s not for everyone. It was totally out of my comfort zone asking family, friends and strangers for money, and requires persistence, self-belief and shameless self-promotion. However, it’s also hugely affirming when you do get supported. You know you have a community out there who believe in you/your work and that’s pretty amazing.

Were there any books that particularly inspired your writing of The Pagoda Tree? And could you recommend something that readers who enjoy The Pagoda Tree should go and check out?

There wasn’t a particular novel or author that inspired The Pagoda Tree, but authors who inspire my writing include, Isabel Allende, Naguib Mahfouz, Tracy Chevalier, Salman Rushdie and Sarah Waters.

Now that The Pagoda Tree is out in the world, what is next for your writing? Is another novel on the cards? Or perhaps something completely different?

I’m close to finishing my next novel, historical (and eighteenth-century) but not India. I tend to be coy about my fiction until it’s done. I’ll be sure to let your readers know, though!

Thank you to Claire for answering all of my questions and giving us some insight into the fascinating world that lies behind The Pagoda Tree.

For those of us not jetting off on holidays this summer, The Pagoda Tree is perfect for armchair travel – richly textured and vividly imagines, it bursts with the sights and sounds of India and is a great read for fans of evocative historical fiction. The blog tour continues until 01 August so please do check out some of the other stops along the way!

The Pagoda Tree Blog Tour Poster

The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie is published by Unbound and is available now from all good retailers including Unbound, Hive and Waterstones. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a review copy in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to be part of this blog tour. 

Author Q&A · Blog Tours

BLOG TOUR Q&A!! The Afterlife of Walter Augustus by Hannah Lynn

Afterlife of Walter Augustus Blog Tour Poster

Walter Augustus is dead. His current state of existence has become a monotony of sweet tea and lonely strolls and after decades stuck in the Interim — a posthumous waiting room for those still remembered on Earth — he is ready to move on. Only when he is forgotten by every living person will he be able to pass over and join his family in the next stage of the afterlife. At last the end is tantalizingly close, but bad luck and a few rash decisions may see him trapped in the Interim for all eternity. 

Letty Ferguson is not dead. Letty Ferguson is a middle-aged shoe saleswoman who leads a pleasant and wholly unextraordinary life, barring the secret fortune she seems unable to tell her husband about. However, when she takes possession of an unassuming poetry anthology, life takes on a rather more extraordinary dimension.

I am delighted to welcome author Hannah Lynn to The Shelf today to talk about her unique and charming novel, The Afterlife of Walter Augustus.

Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Hannah! Could you tell us a little about your latest novel, The Afterlife of Walter Augustus?

The Afterlife of Walter Augustus is a humorous novel about a man waiting to move on to the next stage of the afterlife so that he can rejoin his family. His time is about to arrive, but just before it does things go rather awry.

The novel has a very unique premise. How did you come up with the idea of a posthumous waiting room in the afterlife?!

I can actually remember exactly when the idea came to me as I was in a really bad mood at the time! We had people staying — that isn’t the reason I was in a bad mood by the way —  and one of our guests was watching a TV programme about a psychic. The woman was holding a group “chat” with all the spirits that wanted to communicate with people on Earth. That got me thinking about the afterlife, and how there was enough space for everyone. I was still mulling over the concept when the idea of Walter being trapped until he was forgotten sprung into mind.

The book features Walter, who has been stuck in the Interim since the eighteenth century, and Letty, a middle aged shoe saleswoman who is leading an apparently ordinary life in the present day. How did these two very different characters develop? And who turned up first in your head?!

They both started in very different forms. Walter was always from the eighteenth century, but in early drafts he was a doctor. Letty stayed as a twenty-something barmaid for the first three drafts of the novel with a useless boyfriends, although she still had Mr Missy as her cat, so I guess he is the character that was formed first!

The novel chimes very well with the current trend for ‘up-lit’ and Walter’s story, although it starts with his death, is full of heart and humour. Did you intend to write an up-lifting novel, or did the story take on that tone as you wrote it?

It definitely took that tone as I wrote it and I think each version became more so. It was definitely not a conscious effort to create that tone to the novel, but I am so glad with how it turned out.

Your first novel, Amendments, is speculative fiction. What led you to change direction for your second book? Did you find the writing process particularly different for each book?

I feel like I was much stricter with Walter. Amendments was my first novel and I allowed myself to indulge more. With Walter I was extremely ruthless when it came to editing.

Were there any books that particularly inspired your writing of The Afterlife of Walter Augustus? And could you recommend something that readers who enjoys the novel should go and check out?

One of my favourite novels is Neverwhere. I am in awe of how Neil Gaiman could make a world that is clearly fantasy, but stood beside our real world effortlessly and I think that is the same type of feeling I tried to replicate with Walter.

Now that Walter Augustus is out in the world, what is next for your writing? Is another novel on the cards already?

My next novel, Peas, Carrots and an Aston Martin is out in October, so it’s all go!

Thank you to Hannah for answering my questions and sharing her inspiration for Walter and Letty’s story.

The Afterlife of Walter Augustus is certainly a unique and original novel that is full of charm, humour and heart – making it an ideal read for unwinding on these long summer evenings. And, even better, it’s available for only 99p on Kindle for the duration of the blog tour – so snap up a copy at a bargain price until 31 July 2018!

Hannah is also running a fantastic giveaway during the tour where you could win an e-copy of Walter Augustus AND a shiny Kindle Paperwhite to read it on. The giveaway can be entered by following the link here.

Afterlife Blog Tour Poster UK

The Afterlife of Walter Augustus by Hannah Lynn is available now as an ebook via Amazon. My thanks go to Hannah for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased feature. Please note that the Kindle Paperwhite giveaway has been organised by the author and is not sponsored or administered by The Shelf of Unread Books. 

Random Bookish Things

My First Blogger Event! #OrionOnTour

I have been blogging about books and reading for nearly three years now. Despite this, I suffer from major impostor syndrome when it comes to the blog. As if one day, someone’s going to jump out from behind my mountainous TBR, shut down my Twitter, lock my WordPress account and say “You’re not really a book blogger, you’re just a reader with ideas above your station!”

Most of the time, my rational brain can shout down the impostor syndrome. After all, being a book blogger requires no more qualification than being a reader with a desire to share the book love with other like-minded folk – it isn’t like you have to pass exams to be allowed into the fold. But sometimes, the little Doubting Thomas in my brain does make it hard to put myself and the blog out there in the world. It was a good twelve months, for example, before I plucked up the courage to email a publicist asking for a proof, or to approach publishing types via social media. And I’ve never done any form of blog ‘networking’….until now!

Yes, nearly three years after deciding to begin this book blogging malarkey, I finally plucked up the courage to attend a blogger event thanks to the lovely folk over at Orion Books, who sent through an invite to their blogger and author event Orion On Tour. The aim of the event was to get publishing out of London and touring the country, taking books and authors out to meet us eager readers, booksellers and bloggers who aren’t blessed with easy access to the capital.

Pushing aside the whimpers of fear from my inner introvert, I said yes to the invite and, a week later, found myself standing in the upstairs room of one of Birmingham’s trendy bars mingling with other like-minded souls and being introduced to some of Orion’s current and upcoming titles.

IMG_E1256First up, and fitting nicely with the idea of moving out of London were the Hometown Tales series, which aims to celebrate regional diversity in publishing. The books, each of which are themed around a particular area of the UK, feature two writers – one established and one previously unpublished – writing about the places that they think of as home. I snagged copies of Hometown Tales Midlands; featuring Costa-shortlisted author Kerry Young and newcomer Carolyn Sanderson, and Hometown Tales Yorkshire, featuring memoirist Cathy Rentzenbrink and new voice Victoria Hennison. I really love the concept of these books and am looking forward to exploring both, as well as to seeking out more in the series, which currently includes tales centred around Birmingham, Glasgow, Highlands & Hebrides, Lancashire, South Cost and Wales.

The BellesI also picked up a copy of The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, a new fantasy title from Gollancz, which is set in a world where the people are born grey and damned and the  aforementioned Belle’s control the power of beauty. The novel follows Camellia Beauregard, a young woman seeking the become the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to tend to the royal family. Although not a huge reader of fantasy, I picked this up because of the unusual premise. It sounds as if it’s going to take a look at the concept of what it is to be beautiful – and I think there will be some political shenanigans and intricate court politics that Camellia will have to contend with too.

Double Life

A Double Life by Flynn Berry was the next title to catch my eye, primarily because it purports to be loosely based on the disappearance of Lord Lucan. The novel follows Claire, a young woman obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the disappearance of her privileged, aristocratic father. With elements of mystery and a dash of the thrilling, this sounded like a page-turning summer read.

My final pick of the evening was the Orion Fiction Highlights 2019, which has excerpts from upcoming Orion titles due for publication next year. I haven’t had the opportunity to read them all yet but Alex Michaelides’ thriller The Silent Patient, due in February, sound like it’s one to watch. This thriller focuses on Alicia, a woman whose apparently perfect life dissolves when she shoots her husband five times and then never speaks another word, and forensic psychotherapist Theo, who has been consumed with Alicia’s case for five years and is the only person able to unravel the mystery of why she did it.

Claire Empson’s Him was another thriller title that intrigued me, with it’s promise of a doomed love affair that has come back to haunt traumatised, mute Catherine. And on a totally different note, I also liked the sound of Laura Kemp’s Bring Me Sunshine, about a timid young woman whose new job requires her to front the morning show of Sunshine FM, a local radio station in Mumbles. It sounds a little bit like Libby Page’s The Lido, which was a charming and heart-warming novel that I’ve recently read and very much enjoyed.

I had a fabulous evening and met some great people, including the lovely Caroline (@thedivinewrite1) who blogs over at The Divine Write, and fellow Book Connector and psychological thriller author Sally Jenkins, who I hope to feature on a Q&A at some point in the future. Thank you to Sam Eades and to Orion Books for hosting such a friendly and welcoming event and giving me the opportunity to tick another thing off my ‘I Really AM A Book Blogger!’ checklist! I definitely won’t be so wary in the future of the dreaded ‘networking’ and very much hope you’ll be back doing more events near me soon!

 

Reviews

REVIEW! Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Social CreatureYou can’t fool them forever…

A Ripley story for the Instagram age set in contemporary New York; a world at once sophisticated and sordid, irresistible and irresponsible, unforgettable yet unattainable

Louise is struggling to survive in New York; juggling a series of poorly paid jobs, renting a shabby flat, being cat-called by her creepy neighbour, she dreams of being a writer. And then one day she meets Lavinia. Lavinia who has everything – looks, money, clothes, friends, an amazing apartment… 

Lavinia invites Louise into her charmed circle, takes her to the best parties, bars, the opera, shares her clothes, her coke, her Uber account. Louise knows that this can’t last for ever, but just how far is she prepared to go to have this life? Or rather, to have Lavinia’s life?

Some books are like Marmite – you either love them or you hate them. A quick glance over the Goodreads reviews, or the comments on The Pigeonhole, of Tara Isabella Burton’s debut novel Social Creature makes it apparent that it is indeed one of those books. Which isn’t too surprising given that the novel borrows heavily in terms of tone and theme from both The Great Gatsby and The Talented Mr Ripley – both of which could be considered Marmite books in and of themselves. What was surprising, to me at least, was that I absolutely loved Social Creature – which is in complete contrast to both Gatsby and Ripley which, alongside Marmite itself, are persona non grata in my household.

What really chimed for me in Social Creature, more so that in Fitzgerald’s jazz age classic and Highsmith’s modern thriller, were the characters. Blandly average twenty-something Louise is, at the start of the novel, juggling several jobs in order to pay for her horrid bedsit in a dodgy area of New York. Failing to make is as a writer, she spends her days wishing for a boyfriend, a decent job, and some inspiration. She’s an ‘every girl’ and it’s easy to empathise with her desire to get away from home and make her life in the city, no matter how awful a life that’s turning out to be.

When Louise meets effervescent young socialite Lavinia, it’s like two world’s colliding. Lavinia has it all – a swanky apartment in central Manhattan, outfits for every occasion, and so much money that she barely knows how to spend it. And Louise is sucked in. We, the readers, are sucked in. The glitz, the glamour, the parties, the money, the hundreds of selfies, the general adoration of the crowd. The ‘it-girl’ scene of early 2000’s New York is vividly described, from the sleazy parties in underground clubs to the boozy literary salons at galleries, Burton ensures that the reader is along for one wild ride as bland Louise is introduced into Lavinia’s intoxicating world. But the trouble with intoxication is that you stop thinking straight. And when Louise stops thinking straight, everything heads south very, very quickly.

Without wishing to give any spoilers, there’s a real sting in Louise and Lavinia’s toxic tale. If you’re familiar with Gatsby and Ripley, it probably won’t be too much of a shocker, but Social Creature manages an extremely clever twist on the well-worn formula that makes the book into a cautionary tale for the social media age. Because social media and online communications are everywhere in this novel – from the selfies that Lavinia and Louise post each night, to the constant messaging and the importance of Facebook ‘friends’, the book hinges on the artifice of our online personas – and the shaky foundations, secrets and lies that can be hidden behind those pretty posts. It’s a fresh angle on a well-worn tale and it really worked for me.

I do also adore a novel with an unreliable narrator and Louise is about as unreliable as they come. From the off we know that she is lying to Lavinia and it isn’t long before we come to realise that she’s lying to herself. So how long before she’s lying to the reader as well? Like the poisonous Barbara in Zoe Heller’s brilliant Notes on a Scandal, Louise is always able to justify her actions and it makes for delicious, if uncomfortable reading.

There is nothing truly original in Social Creature – the shades of Gatsby and Ripley linger throughout – but as a cautionary tale for the modern era, the book is sleek and well-crafted. Watching Louise and Lavinia entangle themselves in the ever-more complex webs that they weave is like watching a car crash in slow motion as these vapid, horrible people do increasingly awful and manipulative things to each other in an effort to preserve or improve their social standing. But, like an episode of Love Island, it’s difficult to tear yourself away – there’s a compulsion to watching the madness unfold, which is aided by short, snappy chapters that frequently finish with teasers or cliff-hangers.

Overall, I can see why some readers didn’t gel with Social Creature – all of the characters are truly horrid and the portrayal of the New York party scene is about as vulgar as you’d expect. But for me, the modern trappings added a unique contemporary shine to the well-worn tale, the characters felt unpleasantly real and I was unable to divert my attention from the mayhem unfolding on the page. I came out of it breathless, but Social Creature was an intoxicating ride.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton is published by Bloomsbury 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. 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! The Woolgrower’s Companion by Joy Rhoades

WoolgrowerCoverAustralia 1945. Until now Kate Dowd has led a sheltered life on Amiens, her family’s sprawling sheep station in northern New South Wales. But with her father succumbing to wounds he’s bourne since the Great War, the management of the farm is increasingly falling on Kate’s shoulders.

Kate is rising to the challenge when the arrival of two Italian POW labourers disrupts everything – especially when Kate finds herself drawn to the enigmatic Luca Canali.

Then she receives devastating news. The farm is near bankrupt and the bank is set to repossess. Given just eight weeks to pay the debt, Kate is now in a race to save everything she holds dear. 

One of the joys of being a reader lies in being catapulted to another time and place whilst staying in the comfort of your own armchair. In The Woolgrower’s Companion, the debut novel by Australian author Joy Rhoades, we’re taken both back in time to the end of the Second World War and across the globe to the dusty heat of Australian outback in an evocative and emotive tale of one woman’s discovery of herself amidst increasing adversity.

Kate Dowd is, to start with at least, a fairly typical young woman. With her new husband away training soldiers in support of the war effort, Kate is left to assist her recently widowed father on the family sheep station, Amiens. With most of the young men called up to fight, and labour in short supply, Kate’s father welcomes the assistance of two  Italian POWs, as well as the household help of a young Aboriginal woman from the local Domestic Training Home. But with income tight, and the long-reaching effects of the ongoing war, it isn’t long before the new arrivals start to cause tempers to flare in the small town. And when they do, Kate starts to realise that it will take all of her strength, and a courage she never knew she had , to save Amiens.

The novel is an intense tale of Kate’s personal growth as she transforms from a naive and privileged young farmer’s daughter to a strong and complex woman, aware of her own will and desires. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author was inspired by the life and experiences of her grandmother when creating Kate – there’s a real sense of Kate as an individual and her life at Amiens is vividly rendered, from the rugged beauty of the landscape to the strict social codes that she has to operate within.

The end result is incredibly evocative – the sights, sounds and colours fly off every page and reading the novel really is like armchair travel – I could almost feel the dusty heat on my face as I read!

And if armchair time-travel is more your thing, then The Woolgrower’s Companion delivers handsomely, with a detailed evocation of small town Australian life in the closing chapters of the Second World War. As a Brit who knows next to nothing about Australian history, I was unaware of the government programme that saw POWs put to work as labourers on Australian farms. And whilst I was aware of the many injustices faced by the Aboriginal people, I had little knowledge of the specifics, including the plight of the Stolen Generations, or the deep racial prejudices that many Aboriginal people experienced well into the twentieth century. It was quite an eye-opener and Joy doesn’t shy away from confronting the problematic elements of the era on the page – there are no rose-tinted spectacles here, and I personally felt that I learnt a great deal as a result.

This isn’t to suggest that the setting and the history are allowed to take over the story however. The background setting and sense of place in The Woolgrower’s Companion is vividly rendered, but the passionate tale of Kate’s fight to save her family home; and her struggle to protect the people that she loves, rightly takes centre stage. For anyone who enjoys a good saga, the sweeping narrative will carry you away with it’s heady mixture of love, friendship, family and adversity.

With a well-developed heroine and a real flavour of the time and place in which it is set, The Woolgrower’s Companion is an accomplished debut that will appeal to fans of Katherine Stockett’s The Help, or Paula McLain’s Circling The Sun. A perfect summer read to while away a sunny afternoon with, this a moving and accomplished debut that provides a window into a fascinating period of Australian history.

The Woolgrower’s Companion, by Joy Rhoades, is published by Vintage and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book, and to the author for inviting me to take part in this blog tour, in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

WoolgrowerBlogPoster

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Butterfly Ranch by R K Salters

ButterflyRanch“Everyone in San Antonio knew of Tristan Griffin, the wealthy author of the best-selling Prospero novels. He had bought much of the land in the surrounding hills a few years earlier. He lived there alone with a woman, about whom little was known.”

Peace in a southern Belizean village is disturbed by rumours of a possible death at Butterfly Ranch. First to the scene is Altamont Stanbury, a Kriol policeman addicted to detective fiction for want of real work. He is accompanied by his youngest daughter, a student nurse. She is able to purge Griffin of a pill overdose. But the mystery woman is missing. What has happened? And how will Griffin’s failed suicide come to affect all of the lives around him?

We all of us like to categorise our books. Mystery, Thriller, Romance, Science-Fiction, Historical. It makes our reading lives simpler and helps us to filter the myriad of titles that call for our attention from bookshop and library shelves. But every so often it’s nice to read something that defies easy categorisation; that blurs the lines of genre and pushes the boundaries of expectation. Which brings me to Butterfly Ranch, the debut novel of author R K Salters and the subject of my blog tour post today.

I came to Butterfly Ranch expecting a mystery novel. Lured in by a blurb that hints at a missing person, an apparent suicide attempt under suspicious circumstances and a detective investigating a writer of detective stories, the book seemed to tick all the boxes for a classic mystery novel. Even better, it was set in Belize – a country about which I know little and a chance to do some armchair travelling. So far, so Death in Paradise am I right?

So wrong.

Butterfly Ranch completely surpassed my expectations. Yes, there’s a mystery at the heart of this novel but to categorise it as a ‘mystery novel’ would be to miss so much because it’s also a drama, a romance, an exploration of sibling relationships, a thriller and a meditation on mental illness, loss and grief. Most of all however, it’s a beautifully written literary debut. Lush and vivid, the writing drew me in from the very first page with its evocative description of the Belizean forest and the strange, claustrophobic, fever-dream world of disturbed author Tristan Griffin and his troubled partner Hedda.

Tristan and Hedda are revealed to us through pen-portraits by the people who come to know them – the detective Altamont Stanbury, his daughter Philomena, and Hedda’s sister, Grethe. Stanbury, an avid reader of detective fiction, is thrilled by the chance to be of assistance to a well known crime novelist. Grethe, estranged from her sister for many years, is seeking answers to the mystery of Hedda’s life – and, possibly, her death. Philomena meanwhile, struggles to balance her perception of her father and the somewhat disappointing reality, whilst tending to an emotionally damaged and possibly dangerous man. Complex and varied, the novel revolves around this disparate group of characters, thrown together through tragic circumstance. It’s a classic trope of a mystery, but played for very different effect here.

At a little over 200 pages, Butterfly Ranch is a slender novel, but it packs a lot in and comes with an emotional punch. Touching on issues of self-harm, suicide, loss, responsibility, expectation, family and childbirth, there are times when it could risk feeling too dense. But somehow, the flowing prose manages to wear the complex plot lightly, revealing itself gradually until the whole picture is formed – like one of those time-lapse videos of an artwork in progress. It gives the novel a page-turning quality not always found in literary-fiction, yet retains a stately prose that is masterfully controlled.

By turns challenging and entertaining, Butterfly Ranch is a literary mystery complete with a tautness of plot and character, deftly woven together with taut, controlled prose.  It’s an astonishingly accomplished debut and, whilst the claustrophobic, subdued atmosphere and gentle pacing won’t be for everyone, patient readers will find much to enjoy here. Think about it for too long and you’ll tie yourself up in knots but if you let Butterfly Ranch tell its intricately constructed story at its own pace, you’ll be well rewarded.

Butterfly Ranch by R K Salters is published by Matador and is available now from all good retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon. My thanks go to the author for providing a review copy in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to be part of this blog tour. 

Author R K Salters (@Descend_Orpheus) is running a Twitter competition throughout the duration of the blog tour to win one of five signed copies of Butterfly Ranch. More details can be found here, and please go check out the other tour stops until 01 July 2018!

 

 

 

 

Blog Tours · Reviews · Uncategorized

BLOG TOUR!! Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

BIG_SISTER_AW.inddPI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take the case seriously.

Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark intent is hidden by the anonymity of the internet. And then things get personal…

One of the nicest things about being a book blogger is discovering new voices. But all the focus on the new can sometimes drown out established masters and I do feel that sometimes we overlook the ‘new to me’ books and authors that are out there and awaiting discovery.

I say this because Gunnar Staalesen most definitely isn’t a ‘new’ author – he has written over twenty titles, been published in 24 countries and there have been twelve film adaptations of his novels in his native Norway. By any standards he’s incredibly popular and successful but, despite reading a lot of crime fiction, not a name I would have recognised before being invited onto the blog tour for his latest Varg Veum novel, Big Sister.

So on realising this was the twentieth book in the Varg Veum series I did feel a little behind the times and was worried there would just be too much backstory from the series to allow me to engage with the book. Those fears proved groundless however as Big Sister easily reads as a standalone and, whilst some of Varg’s earlier cases are referenced in passing, there are no spoilers (quite the achievement!) and the glimpses of them that we get serve only to encourage the reader to go back and read about some of Varg’s earlier cases.

Varg himself is also very easy to get to know as a character. A PI of the old-school, his world-weary attitude and sarcastic humour chime with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Unlike Marlowe however, Veum’s background is in social work; an interesting history that I felt added a compassionate edge to his character, something that isn’t always seen in PI fiction. He does however have the PI’s classic unflappability. Whether it’s having his unknown half-sister walk into his office with a case, having a series of doors slammed in his face during the course of a single afternoon, or being physically threatened by a biker gang, Varg’s stoicism and personal morality see him in a dogged pursuit of his goal.

And that goal takes Varg to some very dark places. From a seemingly simple missing person’s case, the narrative of Big Sister reaches back into the past and to a single, horrifying act, the repercussions of which now threaten a new generation. It’s a masterful use of the butterfly effect, with Staalesen pulling each character into the orbit of this one resonating event without ever tipping the balance of plausibility. Not a novel that relies on set-pieces, the tone is muted, filled with claustrophobic menace and slow-build suspense. I didn’t find it a page-turner in the traditional sense but there’s definitely a compulsion there – a slow inter-weaving of Staalesen’s various strands that pulled me into the narrative until the final, heart-stopping conclusion.

Chandler-esque PI novels aren’t always my cup of tea – I often find the detectives too sardonic and the plots too convoluted – but Big Sister was an enjoyable read, in as much as a dark Nordic crime thriller ever can be! An accomplished and confident novel that has been ably translated by Don Bartlett, Big Sister combines a suspenseful, finely-tuned narrative with a social conscience and a empathetic, strong-willed protagonist. The end result is a sharp and intelligent thriller that will delight noir fans and no doubt introduce many new readers to the name Gunnar Staalesen.

Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen, translated by Don Bartlett, is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including HiveAmazon and Waterstones. 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 organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. The tour continues until 30 June so please do check out the other stops along the way! 

Big Sister blog poster 2018

 

Books of the Year · Reviews

REVIEW! The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

SevenDeaths‘Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’

It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed.

But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. 

The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…

This last week, my reading life can best be described as sluggish, listless and lethargic . And I am entirely blaming Stuart Turton for that. His magnificent debut, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has left me with one heck of a book hangover. I’d pegged Seven Deaths as a possible 2018 favourite in my New Year, New Books Tag back in January, so my expectations for the book were high but it exceeded every single one and then some!

As you can probably tell from the blurb, the premise is somewhere between a Agatha Christie country house mystery and Quantum Leap, with a dash of Groundhog Day for good measure. Its a high concept idea and; with all the body-hopping, time-looping shenanigans, it would be really easy for the book to lose its way and become mired in plot holes and confusion. So it is massively to Stuart Turton’s credit that Seven Deaths, whilst complex, never feels confusing. Instead the plot is gripping, with plenty of twists and turns to keep both Aiden – and the reader – on their toes.

The 1920s country house setting is fabulously realised, With a house full of waspish bright young things, a family falling apart at the seems, and a kitchen full of gossiping servants, the novel is a real tribute to  the golden age of crime fiction – there’s even a butler who might have done it! As a huge fan of classic crime, I loved these nods to the genre and was, initially somewhat concerned about the way that the more science-fiction elements of the story might be incorporated. The body-swapping, time-bending elements were brilliantly interwoven however, adding an extra layer of mystery and intrigue that takes the classic country house mystery to the next level.

Because you see, body-hopping protagonist Aiden is not the only person out of place at Blackheath. Two other people are trapped within the house’s walls and competing to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle – the mysterious Anna, and the psychopathic, knife-wielding Footman. Their inclusion, and the fact that they’re competitors as opposed to allies, really ratchets up the tension as Aiden must deal with the capabilities and limitations of each of his hosts, establish the relationships and movements of the Blackheath household, gather clues to protect the endangered Evelyn and avoid being murdered by one of his rivals – all whilst remembering who he’s meant to be and why he’s even trapped in Blackheath in the first place. You really have to feel for Aiden – he has a rough ride over the novel’s 512 pages and it’s to Turton’s credit again that he manages to imbue all of his characters, including Adrian’s varied hosts, with a real sense of individuality, intention and motivation.

You might be getting the sense by now that there’s a lot going on here and it’s true – the blurb barely does justice to the ingenuity of Turton’s plotting, which manages to be intricate without ever feeling mind-boggling. It would have been so easy to fall back on a deus ex machina, or to use the complexity of the narrative to skim over the finer details of the resolution, but Turton is never that lazy. Instead the denouement is emotionally engaging, utterly thrilling and a test of the reader’s little grey cells!

Brilliantly conceived and utterly original, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has headed straight into my ‘Best Books of 2018’ list. Crime fans will love the whodunit elements, sci fi aficionados can really get their teeth into all the quirks, and literature lovers will find a startling debut from a talented new voice. Unique in concept and flawless in execution, Seven Deaths is a must read for anyone who enjoys exercising their brain and being left breathless when they’ve turned the final page.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is published by Raven Books and is available now in hardback and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon