Saturday, 13 January 2018

Review: The Duchess Deal (Girl Meets Duke #1) by Tessa Dare

I'm a huge fan of Tessa Dare. I've read most of her books and was really excited to get my hands on this. One of her earlier novels, When a Scot Ties the Knot, is one of my all-time favourites and this story is written in a similar style, with non-stop funny banter between the characters. Having said that, after reading several historical novels back-to-back I did have trouble getting into it at first. The way the protagonists talk to each other is very 21st century and not remotely the way a 19th century duke and seamstress would speak to anyone of their era, let each other - they would probably never even meet. However, once I'd got over that, I absolutely loved The Duchess Deal.

When the Duke of Ashbury returns from the war horribly scarred ("Faulty rocket at Waterloo. You have precisely three seconds to move past it. One. Two...") his fiancée can't bear to look at him and calls off their engagement. In dire need of a wife and heir (so his estate doesn't fall into the hands of his 'toad of a cousin'), when seamstress Emma Gladstone explodes into his study demanding payment for the bridal gown his fiancée has cancelled, he asks her to marry him instead. 

"If it's a wife you want, surely you could find many women - many well-bred ladies - who would be willing to marry you."

"Yes, but then I'd have to find them. This saves me so much effort."

Emma is not a fool and, although it takes her a couple of days (she's not entirely sure he's serious), she soon accepts. She thinks she might even grow to love the Duke, and is hoping for a real marriage, but the Duke has a few rules...

There are two things about this novel that make it outstanding: the cracking dialogue and the brilliant characters - particularly the hero, Ash. I was about halfway through the story when the penny dropped. Ash is basically Deadpool - manically cracking irreverent jokes to hide his pain, both mental and physical. Ash had once been an extremely handsome man, now he considers himself to be a monster who frightens small children. It's not the only superhero reference. Ash's relationship with his butler is very Bruce Wayne and Alfred ('Batman'), the encounter with Trevor (the teenage boy who wants to be the sidekick of the 'Monster of Mayfair') reminded me of 'The Incredibles', and then there's that very steamy kiss in the pouring rain ... 'Spiderman'?

So, if you love historical romances written in a very traditional Jane Austen/Georgette Heyer style, you're going to hate this. But it you love witty, warm-hearted romantic comedy, with characters that leap off the page demanding your attention, you'll love it.

This was definitely a five-star read for me. 

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of The Duchess Deal, which will be published on 22nd February 2018.

Thank you to Tessa Dare, Mills & Boon and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Review: The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

I chose this book because of the beautiful cover, and because I was trying to find a winter-themed crime/mystery novel - apart from the early books of Kathy Reichs and Louise Penny, they seem to be a bit thin on the ground! I had expected The Child Finder to be a standard private detective/missing child story, but it is so much more than that. It's about the strength of the human spirit and determination to survive no matter how bleak the circumstances, and the tricks the mind will play to protect itself. There are also references to folk tales, such as The Snow Maiden

Naomi Cottle specialises in finding missing children; her own harrowing childhood means she can sometimes be more adapt than the police at finding them, even the cases that everyone else has given up on. Madison Culver disappeared three years ago on a trip to the remote, mountainous forests of Oregon, shortly before a blizzard. The authorities assume she died of exposure and have long since stopped looking for her remains, but Naomi knows that Madison could have survived - if someone else has found her.

I was completely gripped by this story and by 30% I got to the point where I couldn't put it down. Along with Naomi's search for Madison, we learn about how she has (mostly) overcome the demons of her own childhood, the mistake that haunts her, and her struggle to lower her defences enough to allow those she loves to get close. There are no real surprises in the plot, no big 'twist'; the strength is in the author's creation of flawed but fascinating characters the reader really cares about. I even found myself feeling sorry for the villain!

Child abduction and the effects of abuse make up the main plot of this detective story, but it is dealt with using a very light touch. This is not a gritty read but, as the author works in the field that she writes about, you know every word is completely authentic and from the heart.  Thoroughly recommended, particularly if you've enjoyed books such as Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell, and like reading stories that are just that little bit different.

Thank you to Rene Denfeld, W&N (Orion), and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Well, my mind was officially blown by this one! Groundhog Day crossed with Gosford Park crossed with Source Code, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is ostensibly a 'golden age' murder mystery in the style of  Agatha Christie - but the hero is not quite all he seems.

The story starts with Sebastian Bell standing in a forest in the rain, shouting the name 'Anna'. He has no memory of who he is or how he got there, but he knows someone is about to die and he has to save them. By the time he's found his way out of the forest we know he's a guest at a country house party/masquerade ball given by Lord and Lady Hardcastle, almost nineteen years to the day that their seven year old son Thomas was murdered. Oh, and he's not really Sebastian Bell at all but Aiden Bishop, forced to re-live this day over and over, inside the head of a different guest until he solves another murder due to happen before midnight tonight. Are these two deaths connected? Can he stop the second one from happening? And are there others like him, equally determined that he won't succeed?

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is an extremely clever, high-concept murder mystery. It's best read in big chunks to appreciate the author's skill and to avoid becoming too confused by the spider's web of a plot. Aiden spends a lot of time running around Blackheath House not knowing what is going on, which I liked - I love being dumped in the middle of the action and hate too much backstory. There are a lot of characters, who all have important roles to play, but there is a list of them at the front of the book to help you keep track. You'll need to concentrate because the twists come thick and fast, particularly towards the jaw-dropping end. I have to admit I gave up trying to work out who the murderer was and just enjoyed the ride!

Highly original, fiendishly clever and definitely recommended!

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which will be published on 8th February 2018.

Thank you to Stuart Turton, Raven Books (Bloomsbury Publishing), and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Review: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

I was attracted to this book because of the unusual cover, and I am so pleased I downloaded it because it's absolutely brilliant! One of the best books I've read!

The Chalk Man has a dual timeline, with chapters alternating between the 1980s and the present day. In the 1980s, teenager Eddie and his friends leave messages for each other in coloured chalk outside each other's houses. Simple messages, such as where to meet up and whether to hurry. But then the messages start appearing on their own, in white chalk, leading to the body of a murdered girl. In the present day, Eddie is surprised when one of his old friends turns up asking for help with a book he is writing, a book about the killer nicknamed 'The Chalk Man', and his theory that the real murderer was never caught. And then his friend disappears. And the chalk figures begin appearing again...

This book is simply outstanding. I was so gripped I read it in two days flat. The characters are so realistic, so believable, it feels as if they're in the same room, looking over your shoulder as you read. I loved Eddie's dry humour, the nod towards my favourite 80s horror movies, the fiendish little twists, the freshness of the plot, the poignancy of a doomed love affair... And that very final, very clever twist, the one that's easy to miss because you think it's all over, which took me completely by surprise - and that's pretty hard to do!

If you're a wimp like me there are a few passages you might find a bit gory - right from the start - so be warned. They were just about on the edge of my tolerance level, although they weren't gratuitous in any way.

So, thoroughly recommended - particularly to fans of Stephen King (The Body/Stand By Me), Stranger Things and 1980s nostalgiaI predict this will be one of the biggest sellers of 2018. It certainly deserves to be.

Thank you to C.J. Tudor, Michael Joseph, and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

'Are you a child at heart?' 

It's going to be really ironic if the first book I read in 2018 turns out to be my favourite for the entire year but The Toymakers is utterly, utterly brilliant and I absolutely loved it. 

The story starts in 1906 with Cathy Wray running away to London to avoid having to give her baby up for adoption. She finds work at a very unusual toy shop called The Emporium, run by Jekabs Godman (Papa Jack) and his two sons, Kaspar and Emil, who are not much older than her. Kasper is the charmer, flirting with all the shop-girls and effortlessly creating the most magical toys, whereas Emil is more serious and specialises in designing the toy soldiers the brothers use to play their 'Long War'.

I loved The Toymakers for its sheer inventive brilliance. Imagine the toy shop equivalent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like Doctor Who's TARDIS, The Emporium is bigger on the inside and the aisles are 'alive' with steam trains, toy soldiers, and patchwork animals. The shop opens with the first frost of winter and closes when the first snowdrop flowers on the terrace. The Godmans spend the rest of the year creating their wonderful toys and we get to know a bit more about their lives. I particularly loved the 'instant' trees, which grow into a real forest as soon as their roots touch the ground, and Sirius the patchwork dog. And I definitely fell more than a little bit in love with Kaspar.

The Toymakers deserves to become one of those Christmas classics, enjoyed year after year, although it's not strictly a children's book, more a fairy tale for adults. Along with the magic and romance there are darker, bleaker moments too. We learn of Papa Jack's past as a prisoner in Siberia; the First World War and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder are also touched upon. The only thing about the story I didn't like was that it ended in 1953; I'd have preferred the timeline to have been shorter.

I always find the books I love the most the hardest to write reviews for. I expect it's because I want you to love them as much as I do. So I'll just add that I thoroughly recommend The Toymakers, especially to those who are still a child at heart.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of The Toymakers, which will be published on 8th February 2018.

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale, Ebury, and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review: Mr Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

This one was an impulse-buy for me. The cover caught my eye, it is about one of my favourite books of all time, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and at the time it was only 99p.

Mr Dickens and His Carol is a fictional account of how Charles Dickens was inspired to write his most famous book - and managed to invent Christmas - and the Christmas book - at the same time!

It is a month before Christmas and Dickens' most recent book, Martin Chuzzlewit, is a huge flop. His publishers are threatening to take their advance back if he doesn't produce a new book by Christmas - and they have already helpfully arranged for him to do a public reading of it on Christmas Eve! Dickens is thrown into a panic and promptly goes down with writer's block. His family have got used to the money his success has brought and fail to take seriously his hints that perhaps they ought to economise. His teenage sweetheart wants a reconciliation, bookshops and theatres are plagiarising his work, sometimes before it's even published; he feels everyone wants a little piece of him - sometimes literally!

Mr Dickens and His Carol has obviously been written by someone with a deep affection for Charles Dickens and a thorough knowledge of his work. It was fun to spot the references to his books and characters, and even if it is a work of fiction there are enough true stories woven into the story to make it completely believable. And Victorian London is horribly authentic.

I absolutely adored this story and would love to see it dramatised for TV or film. It somehow manages to be both funny and poignant; writers will 'get' the in-jokes; and I loved the way Dickens' life began to mirror the book he was writing. The perfect Christmas book, in fact!

Friday, 29 December 2017

Review: A Duke in Shining Armor (Difficult Dukes #1) by Loretta Chase

I'm a huge fan of Loretta Chase, so any book of hers is an auto-buy for me. I particularly enjoyed this story of a runaway bride and the hapless best man dragged along for the ride: 'You're the first bride who's kidnapped me.'

Lady Olympia Hightower is twenty-six years old and has given up any hope of falling in love. So she is happy to marry the oafish Duke of Ashmont, knowing it will help her family financially. Unfortunately she gets cold feet on the day of the wedding and exits the ceremony via the window. She is caught by the groom's best friend Hugh, the Duke of Ripley, who gives chase. Unable to persuade her to return, he tries to do the honourable thing and offers to escort her anywhere she chooses, with the aim of keeping her safe from harm. Of course this is the exact moment when everything begins to go wrong, leading to a catalogue of disasters and pursuit by a furious bridegroom, who has completely misunderstood the situation.

The strength of this story is in the deliciously funny banter between the main characters. A road trip combined with a comedy of errors, the story didn't go in quite the way I thought it would, which is always good, and I do hope the wonderfully eccentric cast of characters, particularly Aunt Julia, Uncle Fred, Blackwood, and Jonesy, will appear in the subsequent books as they started to feel like friends.

If you enjoy this one, you might also like Lord Perfect, by the same author.