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. 

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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

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! The Old You by Louise Voss

The Old YouLynn Naismith gave up the job she loved when she married Ed, the love of her life, but it was worth the happy years they enjoyed together. Now, ten years on, Ed has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and things start to happen; things more sinister than lost keys and missing words. As some memories are forgotten, others, long buried, begin to surface…and Lynn’s perfect world begins to crumble. But is it Ed’s mind playing tricks, or hers…?

Head into any bookstore, or the book aisle of any supermarket, and chances are that you’ll see myriad psychological thrillers gracing the tables and shelves. The pacy plots, shocking twists and heart-pounding tension have made the genre increasingly popular with readers – which in turn has made it increasingly popular with publishers, eager to give those readers more of what they want. How then, to stand out in an increasingly saturated market, where a good twist comes as standard and unreliable narrators are ten a penny? Enter Louise Voss with The Old You – a true domestic noir with a unique take on the genre, more twists that a bag of pretzels and a subtlety of style that’s unusual for the genre.

The key to the novel is Ed’s diagnosis with a Pick’s Disease, a rare form of early onset dementia. A cruel illness, it’s easy to sympathise with Louise as she watches her beloved husband – a man she has sacrificed her career and her friendships for – rapidly deteriorate, going from a loving, confident and intellectual husband to a confused, angry shell of his former self. But then, things start to happen. Strange noises at night, Ed’s voice on the radio taking part in a debate he couldn’t possibly have the capacity to engage in – all small things but things that make Lynn question and that lead her back to the sinister events that bought her and Ed together all those years ago.

To say any more about the plot would be to spoil the novel, which lays out a number of shocking revelations, dramatic twists and unexpected turns for the reader, providing a delicious series of dramas and pulling you breathlessly through until the end. Page-turner is an adage thrown at many a thriller but it really is applicable here – there’s a compulsion to the plot that propels the reader forwards and I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers found this to be a one-sitting read.

I also found there to be a subtlety to The Old You that was refreshing. At first, the book seems to proceed down fairly linear lines but then Voss throws in doubt when it transpires Lynn has secrets of her own. Add in more doubt with a mysterious death and the cloudiness that Ed’s diagnosis brings to his memories and his behaviour, and you’re dealing with a book that’s just packed to the rafters with slow reveals and tantalising glimpses of the dark revelations that follow.

That isn’t to say the book is perfect by any means. Personally I felt Ed came across as a little selfish and domineering from the off and I had to work quite hard to understand why Lynn would sacrifice so much for him and trust him so implicitly, even with the sections of backstory that Louise Voss includes. Lynn and Ed are both very complex characters – and this largely works in the book’s favour – but there were definitely points where they both wobbled into unlikability and, for me, this made it hard for me to connect with them at some points.

I also found one of the revelations at the end to be stretching the bounds of plausibility just a tad, which was a great shame in a book that, for the most part, succeeded in keeping its twists and turns on the believable side of jaw-dropping. I hasten to add that these are extremely minor niggles however  and they didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of The Old You or the engagement I had with it’s myriad deceptions and revelations.

Original and compelling, The Old You is one the book equivalent of a matryoshka doll – you open up one element of the plot and out another one pops, gradually descending layer by layer and twist by twist until you reach its dark and shocking heart. It’s a real rollercoaster of a book, filled with deception and doubt, that will have you turning the pages and staying up well past your bedtime – all of which makes it a great addition to any domestic or psychological thriller fan’s bookshelf!

The Old You by Louise Voss is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Amazon 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. 

FINAL Old You blog poster 2018 copy

Reviews

REVIEW! The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

35103171One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee houses, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on…and a courtesan of great accomplishment. The meeting will steer both their lives on a dangerous new course.  

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?

Does anyone else ever get that thing where you deliberately don’t read a book because you know it’s going to be amazing and then you’ll never get an opportunity to experience it for the very first time again? Sort of like a ‘saving it for best’ book that you’re waiting for the right moment to be spellbound by? And then you put off reading it for a few months and then you’re not reading it just in case it doesn’t live up to all the expectation and hype you’ve created in your head? Yeah, book nerds are crazy….

Anyhoo, this is exactly what happened with The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which I have finally finished reading. I’d had it on the shelves since early February when I spent a delightful evening at the wonderful Booka Bookshop listening to Imogen herself introduce the novel and the glittering period of English history in which it is set. I was all intent on reading it straight away but weeks turned into months and then the fear that maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be quite as good as I expected crept in. Mr Hancock and his mystical mermaid languished unread on the shelf for months – and would have stayed there for even longer if it hadn’t been for in Simon Savidge’s Big Book Weekender (thanks Simon!) giving me that push banish my fears, pick it up and dive straight in.

And the verdict? I was being completely and utterly daft because THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!

Seriously, why did I wait so long to read this?!?! It was an utter joy from start to finish, packed with a rich, evocative sense of time and place, a spell-binding cast of larger than life characters and a mesmerising use of language. An utter romp from the first page to the last that, despite a sedate pace and a plot that’s inclined to meander, led to me tearing through the 484 pages in a matter of days (and it would have been even faster if pesky real-life work hadn’t gotten in the way).

For me, the setting is the real triumph here. I was immersed in the world of Georgian London, particularly the opulent yet secretive world of the nunneries – the high end brothels that catered to the rich and famous of Georgian society; where the courtesans were skilled in both social graces and the art of pleasing the clientele. The unexpected arrival of his ‘mermaid’ plunges the gentle, considerate merchant Jonah Hancock straight into this glittering world of pleasure and debauchery – and straight into the path of Angelica Neal, my second favourite thing about this book.

Angelica is an absolute delight. Accomplished in every sense of the word, she’s smart, sassy and a devilish delight. Her sharp wit, sense of fun and sheer unbridled vivacity instantly earned her a place at my imaginary ‘fictional characters dinner party’ (I can see her cackling in a corner with Elizabeth Bennet, much to the despair of other guests). Yes, she’s petty and petulant and spoilt but she’s just so much fun. And I loved the way she developed as a character throughout the course of the book whilst retaining all the traits that made her so fascinating to begin with.

And the language – oh, the language. This is a novel told in such a rich, layered way. It’s the literary equivalent of really good chocolate fudge cake – dark and delicious, but without ever becoming sickly. I enjoyed every sentence and the quality of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s research seeps through on every page, from the cadence of the characters’ spoken words to the evocative descriptions of London’s bustling street.

So the setting is amazing, the characters are vivid, the language is mesmerising; what about the plot? Well, it’s perfectly solid. Now if that sounds like damning with faint praise it really isn’t meant to be – it’s just that I’m not sure this is a book that’s reliant on plot to provide its core reading experience. The plot, such as it is, is the perfect backdrop to allow these characters and this world to tell their story but the joy, for me anyway, lay in the way the story was being told. It’s a novel of characterisation – so anyone coming to The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock expecting magical mermaids and upstairs/downstairs high-jinks would probably end up slightly disappointed. In this way, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock very much reminded me of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, another book with an apparently mythical creature at its heart that absolutely captivated me, but also focused on small interactions, subtle developments of character and an evocative sense of time and place to tell its intricately woven tale.

So if you’re looking for a book where something happens to move the story forwards on every page, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock might not be for you. But if you want a richly textured historical novel that will suck you into the heart of Georgian London with its atmospheric writing, sharp intelligence and warm humour, then The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock will keep you spellbound in its grasp.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower is published by Harvill Secker and is available in hardback now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Amazon

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! What You Want to See by Kristen Lepionka

What You Want to SeeShaken by the outcome of her last big case, PI Roxane Weary is keeping a low profile. When she takes on a new client who suspects his fiancee is cheating on him, Roxane is happy to have landed what seems to be a straightforward surveillance job.

For Roxane however, there’s no such thing as the quiet life: her on-off girlfriend is playing games, her ex-boyfriend seems to be moving on just a little too fast and then Marin Strasser, the woman she’s meant to be tailing, turns up dead.

The police are convinced her client is the one who pulled the trigger, but certain – and scared – that things aren’t so straightforward, Roxane starts to follow a paper trail that gets more dangerous the farther it goes…

There are those glorious moments as a reader when you pick up a book and you just know that you’re going to be friends. I got this immediately when introduced to Kristen Lepionka’s world-weary private investigator Roxane Weary, bemoaning the gradual gentrification of her neighbourhood on page one of Lepionka’s latest novel, What You Want to See:

“Urban renewal was in the air of Bryden Road. The dilapidated house across the street from my apartment had been condemned, foreclosed, and eventually purchased by a fighty grad-student couple who appeared to be using the renovation process as experimental marriage counselling. The my upstairs neighbors moved out and were replaced by a twentyish hipster with a name I could never remember and dreams of starting a farming collective in the building’s narrow backyard. I knew this because she had long, loud phone conversations about it all day long.”

First person isn’t my favourite narrative style but being inside Roxane’s head is just a joy. She’s so full of snark – a mixture of funny, self-deprecating and downright ballsy that I really appreciated. And despite the somewhat cliche world-weary, hard-drinking element – combined, of course, with a remarkable set of poor decision-making skills, that are inherent in many a classic PI protagonist, Roxanne feels sharp, edgy and up to the minute. In short, she feels like a real person and her character whose humanity comes across on the page; and this definitely elevates What You Want to See from amidst the sea of thrillers currently gracing bookstore tables.

The plot is sufficiently intriguing too of course. From what seems to be a run-of-the-mill surveillance job, the pace quickly ratchets up to include a murder, a drive-by shooting, a second dead body and the involvement of organised crime. So there’s plenty going on to keep Roxane busy – and that’s before you throw in her personal life which includes an ex-boyfriend who just happens to be working the official side of the investigation and an ex-girlfriend who won’t quit with sending mysterious text messages.

Not having read the first book in the series, The Last Place You Look, I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to pick up the threads of Roxane’s somewhat complex life and tangled web of relationships in this second book and can attest that What You Want to See reads absolutely fine as a standalone novel. The events of The Last Place You Look are alluded to in the novel but Lepionka does a great job of introducing key characters and summarising the previous book’s events without spoiling the plot for anyone who wants to go back and read Roxane’s previous outing.

Released just in time for holiday season, What You Want to See would make a great sun-lounger read. The fast pace, whip-sharp dialogue and rollercoaster twists and turns make it the perfect book to devour in one or two sittings whilst sipping a glass of something chilled in the sunshine. And even if you’re not heading for sunnier shores this summer, with an intriguing mystery, a sassy lead, a layered cast of support characters, and clever, confident writing that never loses its sense of humour; What You Want to See is an addition to the genre that definitely deserves a slice of any crime fiction fan’s time.

What You Want to See by Kristen Lepionka is published by Faber & Faber and is available now in paperback and ebook 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. 

WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE_Blog tour graphic_Kristen Lepionka

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Keeper by Johana Gustawsson

KEEPER COVER AW 2.inddWhitechapel, 1888: London is bowed under Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.

London, 2015: actress Julianne Bell is abducted in a case similar to the terrible Tower Hamlets murders of some ten years earlier, and harking back to the Ripper killings of a century before.

Falkenberg, Sweden, 2015: a woman’s body is found mutilated in a forest, her wounds identical to those of the Tower Hamlets victims. With the man arrested for the Tower Hamlets crimes already locked up, do the new killings mean he has a dangerous accomplice, or is a copy-cat serial killer on the loose? 

Dual timelines are tricky to pull off in any novel but especially in crime fiction. Too much detail and the narrative loses it’s tension, too little and the plot gets lost in the haze. Despite adding an international cast and fair bit of country hopping into the mix however, Johana Gustawsson handles the various strands of Keeper’s complex plot like a pro, ratcheting up the tension with every turn of the page and delivering a multi-layered mystery that combines nordic noir with psychological compulsion.

Keeper is the second in Gustawsson’s Roy and Castells series and sees the return of Canadian profiler Emily Roy, now working for as a Behavioural Investigative Advisor for the Metropolitan Police and French true-crime writer Alexis Castells, whose personal connection to the Tower Hamlets killings could jeopardise their new investigation. The two ladies make engaging leads, with Roy’s icy genius contrasting nicely to Alexis’ more emotional, instinct based approach.

With chapters told from a number of different viewpoints and a large cast, it would be easy for characters to become redundant but Gustawsson manages to make each person feel distinct – from the suave and capable DCS Jack Pearce to the Alexis’ scene-stealing mother Mado. Aliénor Lindbergh, an intern on the Swedish side of the investigation with Asperger Syndrome, was a favourite for me. I have limited knowledge of the disorder but the author credits the president of the Étoile d’Asperger association with assisting in crafting the character and Aliénor certainly comes across as a well-rounded individual, with determined attention to detail and a frank ‘say what you see’ attitude to communication, making a valuable addition to the investigative team. I very much hope she returns in future books.

The mystery itself is also incredibly detailed, with plot strands weaving through from 1888 to 2015 and moving between London and Sweden throughout. There are, admittedly, times when the rip-roaring pace left me losing one of the threads, necessitating a quick flick back a page or two to pick up on the key piece of information I’d sped past  – but these were few and far between which is a real achievement for a book that features a celebrity abduction, two identical murders in two different countries, a series of high profile historic crimes and a killer whose origins may all link back to Jack the Ripper. Make no mistake, there’s a lot going on in this novel but, for the most part, Gustawsson pulls it off.

As you’d probably expect from a novel that mixes Nordic noir with Jack the Ripper, the book isn’t for the faint-hearted. From descriptions of the gory mutilations on a victim’s body to the claustrophobic atmosphere of poverty-stricken Victorian Whitechapel, Gustawsson doesn’t shy away from the gritty detail. So if you like your crime cosy, this one probably isn’t going to be for you. That said, Keeper never feels gratuitous in its violence – if it’s depicted on the page it’s there for a reason.

And the ending? Well, we’re spoiler free here at The Shelf but it doesn’t disappoint providing a number of satisfying twists and turns before revealing the truth behind the whole affair with its plausibility still intact.

And having not read Gustawsson’s first Roy and Castell’s thriller, Block 46 (something I intend to remedy in the very near future), I can also attest that the book loses absolutely nothing when read as a standalone – although you’ll probably want to pick up the first books as soon as you finish this one!

Dark and disturbing but beautifully crafted, with mesmerising twists and turns and astute attention to detail, Keeper is a fast-paced read that will leave crime thriller fans breathless and gives noir fans a fantastic new voice from which to anticipate more.

Keeper by Johana Gustawsson (translated by Maxim Jakubowski) is published by Orenda Books and is available now as a paperback and ebook from all good bookseller 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 organising and inviting me to take part in this tour. 

Keeper Blog Tour

 

 

 

Reviews

REVIEW: Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce

Mrs BirdSometimes a book comes along at just the right moment in life. This was the case with Dear Mrs Bird, a spirited wartime romp that I read back in cold, wet November when my spirits needed A Jolly Good Talking To (as Mrs Bird herself would advise).

Set in 1940s London and with the Luftwaffe making nightly raids overhead, Emmeline (Emmy) Lake dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent. So when she seeks a job advertised at an impressive newspaper, she promptly quits her existing job and applies. Only it turns out the job isn’t for the newspaper at all but as secretary to the fearsome Henrietta Bird, acting editoress and redoubtable agony aunt at failing women’s magazine Woman’s Friend.

Mrs Bird’s requirements are very clear: letters containing any form of Unpleasantness must go straight in the bin. And Mrs Bird’s list of Unpleasantness is very long indeed. As Emmy finds herself dismissing letters from love-lorn, grief-stricken and morally confused readers in favour of those asking for a good rationing recipe or help with unsightly ankles, she decides the only thing to do is to write back to the conflicted readers herself.

Make no mistake, this book is a romp through and through. To start with, I even wondered if it was a pastiche because there’s just so much sugar in Emmy – she’s the epitome of the Blitz spirit and, as a result, her narrative voice is very Famous Five jolly hockey sticks and lashings of ginger beer. Stick with it though because, behind all the mustn’t grumble stiff-upper lip is an irresistibly funny and very moving novel about friendship, growing pains and the importance of being kind.

I loved Emmy as a character – she’s spirited and funny and a little bit daft. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast from Emmy’s sarcastic boss to her sensible best friend Bunty – and not forgetting the formidable Mrs Bird herself of course, who never speaks when she can shout and never shouts when she can bellow.

Underneath all the high-jinks though, there’s a real sense of daily life in wartime London, both from Emmy’s own experiences and the letters of the readers she responds to. As the book progresses, Emmy begins to realise that you can’t always rely on Keeping Your Chin Up and Carrying On Regardless. There’s some particularly evocative descriptions of the blitz that, for me, are only rivaled by those I read in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. And there’s definitely sections of the book that made me cry just as much as other parts made me laugh out loud – the deft lightness of touch that allows the story to work on so many levels is a real compliment to the author, especially as this is a debut.

Overall though, this is a heart-warming and spirited read that would be perfect for anyone who enjoyed Eva Rice’s The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Yes, at times it’s so quirky that it verges on the twee but some books you read for pure pleasure and this is most definitely one of them. Heart-warming and irresistible, this is a warm hug of a book that’s perfect for cheering dull spirits and brightening a wet, cold afternoon.

Dear Mrs Bird by A. J. Pearce is published by Picador Books on 05 April 2018 in hardback and ebook. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley for providing an advanced eproof in return for an honest and unbiased review.