Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Review: The Last Summer (#1 The Wild Isle) by Karen Swan

I love Karen Swan and was really excited to read her new historical novel. It's a departure from her usual women's fiction/Christmas novels but just as fabulous!

Set in 1930, teenager Effie Gillies lives on the remote island of St Kilda, one of a dwindling population of only 36 people. It is a harsh life, with no amenities and a constant battle against the elements. Due to her elder brother's death and her father's growing frailty, Effie has become the family's main wage earner. She dresses like one of the men, hunts for their food and is one of the best climbers on the island. However, a daring stunt to win a race down the cliff-face against one of the island boys inadvertently impresses two important visitors to the island: the Earl of Dumfries and his twenty-three-year-old son Sholto. The Earl is obsessed with collecting rare bird's eggs and hires Effie to show him and Sholto the island, much to the annoyance of the other villagers. Having much in common (apart from from their class) Effie and Sholto soon become friends but will their friendship survive the islanders' evacuation to the mainland, where it soon becomes clear Sholto lives in a whole other world?

The Last Summer is a poignant story of first love. Effie and Sholto come from very different backgrounds but share a love of outdoor life and nature, particularly birds. When the islanders vote to be evacuated to mainland Scotland, it is a huge culture shock for Effie, who is used to the freedoms of island life and being treated like a man. She wears a too-big skirt held up by a bent nail, walks around barefoot and has never seen her reflection in a mirror. Now she is forced to conform and hide who she really is.

Running alongside Effie and Sholto's fledgling romance is a tale of murder and intrigue. While Effie manages to win over new friends and colleagues with her artless charm, she also makes dangerous enemies. What really happened on that last day on the island and will it come back to haunt her?

Meticulously researched, The Last Summer is one of those books that makes you believe you are actually there, from the wilds of St Kilda to a stately home in Scotland - Downton Abbey fans will love that part! The characters are brilliant and I particularly loved Effie. The only snag for me was that the book ended very abruptly, on a major cliff-hanger! Aargh! 

However, The Last Summer is a five-star read and I have no hesitation in recommending it to Karen Swan's fans and anyone who loves historical fiction with a strong sense of place.

Thank you to Karen Swan and Pan for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Review: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

I chose this book  because I was intrigued by the cover and the blurb - who wouldn't want to read a book about women turning into dragons?!!

Alex's mother (Bertha) has been ill so her Aunt Marla has been looking after both her and the home - Alex's father considers housework and childcare a woman's responsibility. Marla is a strong independent woman who flew planes and now works as a mechanic, Bertha had the potential to be a world class mathematician but gave it all up to be a wife and mother. When Bertha returns from hospital and gradually regains her strength, she clashes with Marla over the way Alex is being brought up and suggests Marla marries and has a child of her own - which she does. But strong women can only be kept down for so long. A short time later, hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprout wings, scales and talons, leaving a trail of fiery destruction in their path - and several charred husbands. You'd think this would be headline news but instead the world prefers to pretend that it never happened...

When Women Were Dragons is a coming-of-age story set in the 1950s/60s in an alternative reality. We follow Alex as she grows to adulthood, being put down at school so that the male pupils can shine, told to forget about studying for a degree - such a waste for someone destined to become a wife and mother - and forbidden to see her dearest friend Sonja again because their relationship is 'inappropriate'.

When Women Were Dragons is brilliantly written and an extremely clever idea - I'd love to see it filmed! I loved the characters of Marla and Beatrice, both chaffing at being told what they love is wrong (but going ahead and doing it anyway!) and I felt the frustrations of Alex as she is denied every opportunity just because she's a woman. I particularly enjoyed the author's notes on her inspiration for the story. The only problem I had was with the pace. The story took a while to get past all the references to the 'Mass Dragoning' (which we didn't actually see) and into new territory, but I adored the ending.

Recommended for anyone looking to read something a little bit different!


Thank you to Kelly Barnhill and Hot Key Books (Bonnier Books) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Review: The Birdcage by Eve Chase

Eve Chase has been one of my favourite authors since I read and adored Black Rabbit Hall, so I was thrilled to receive an early copy of The Birdcage - and look at that beautiful cover!

Twenty years after their last visit, half-sisters Lauren, Kat and Flora are summoned to Rock Point: the beautiful and windswept Cornish cliff house where they sat for their father's most famous painting, Girls and Birdcage. The last time they were all together, in 1999 for the Eclipse, something terrible happened. Now they're back, no one mentions it - which Lauren finds unsettling and confusing, because there's a bit of a gap in her memory...

The Birdcage is a dual timeline story, switching between 1999 and 2019, and told from each daughter's viewpoint.  'Dysfunctional' hardly covers the Finch family. Famous artist Charlie Finch, now in his 60s, has slept with practically every woman he's ever painted. He has three daughters by three different women. Beautiful Flora; cool, clever Kat; and shy Lauren. While Flora and Kat were born six months apart and have had regular contact, Lauren is a new addition to the family and her sisters resent her.

In 2019, Flora, once the most confident of the sisters, is unhappily married with a young son. Kat eschews relationships for work but her business is in trouble; Lauren has withdrawn further into herself but is determined to find out what happened on the day of the Eclipse. Will spending time at Rock Point finally bring them together as a proper family? Hmm...

The Birdcage will appeal to anyone who loves stories about big old houses, family secrets, old mysteries and larger-than-life characters. (I loved Charlie, even though he was a terrible parent. Kat's imitation: "Don't ever smoke girls. Disgusting habit. Right, where are my Camels?") There's a domineering grandmother, a prospective step-mother everyone loves to hate, mysterious men looming out of the mist, lovable Labradors and a parrot called Bertha, who loves to repeat overheard phrases. Beautifully written, with a heart-warming ending that brought a tear to my eye, The Birdcage is utterly fabulous and one of my favourite reads this year.


Thank you to Eve Chase and Michael Joseph for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Sunday, 17 April 2022

Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Emily Henry is one of my favourite authors. She has a real gift for creating wonderful, relatable characters and fabulously funny stories. Book Lovers is her best novel yet.

Nora is a literary agent often compared to a shark. Charlie is an editor with a publishing house and is Nora's Nemesis after he turned down one of Nora's authors who went on to become a bestseller. The bestselling book in question was a feel-good story set in a small town called Sunshine Falls. For a treat, Nora's sister suggests they take a holiday there but it soon becomes apparent that the Sunshine Falls in real life is not remotely like the one in the book. To make matters worse, everywhere Nora goes she bumps into Charlie. What on earth is HE doing in Sunshine Falls? And is Nora's sister being entirely honest about the reason that they're here too...?

In Book Lovers, Emily Henry takes the popular 'Small Town Romance' trope and pays affectionate homage to it. If you've ever watched one of those Hallmark/Netflix movies where the heroine, a confirmed city girl, ends up in a rural town where she meets a handsome farmer/vet/carpenter, you will have fun spotting the references and enjoying the in-jokes. Book Lovers also has an enemies-to-lovers trope (which I love), so there is lots of fabulously funny dialogue between the lead characters. I adored Nora, who is such a refreshing heroine, much misunderstood by everyone, including her own sister, but I LOVED Charlie, who is a complete sweetheart.

Book Lovers is clever, romantic and brilliantly funny. It would suit fans of modern romantic comedy and authors such as Mhairi McFarlane and Beth O'Leary. One of my favourite reads this year. I absolutely loved it!

Thank you to Emily Henry and Viking (Penguin) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Review: A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon

I chose this book because I adore Joanna Cannon's style of writing and her brilliant, true-to-life characters never disappoint!

A Tidy Ending is about Linda, who lives an ordinary life on an ordinary estate, spending her days clearing up after her messy husband Terry and working in a charity shop. When brochures and catalogues addressed to the previous occupant begin to drop through the letter box,  Linda wonders if she's 'settled' for this dull, boring life of cooking and cleaning, married to the first man who asked her. If her mother had been more supportive, instead of constantly running her down, could Linda have followed her dream to be a hairdresser? Could she have become someone completely different, more glamorous, like the mysterious Rebecca, who lived in the house before her? 

A Tidy Ending puts the lives of 'ordinary' people under a microscope and reproduces their quirky foibles mercilessly. We all know people like this, with their supposedly perfect lives, completely wrapped up in themselves to the detriment of others, keeping secrets, the events that happened in their past still affecting their decisions in the present.

Running alongside the story of Linda and her dissatisfaction with her uneventful life is a murder mystery that has her neighbours completely agog. A succession of women have been killed close to where she lives and the police already suspect Linda's mild-mannered husband. But Linda has more important things to think about!

A Tidy Ending is a story of under-estimating people at your peril, with shades of Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier, and written with deadpan humour. Linda becomes completely obsessed with tracking down the mysterious Rebecca, oblivious to the way her own 'ordinary' life is collapsing around her. Brilliantly written with several jaw-dropping twists, A Tidy Ending is thoroughly recommended!


Thank you to Joanna Cannon and The Borough Press (HarperCollins UK) for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

Review: The Stone Chamber (#25 DI Wesley Peterson) by Kate Ellis

I've loved Kate Ellis's Wesley Peterson series, right from the very first book (The Merchant's House). I think it is the mix of a classic murder mystery with a historical backstory that does it for me.  This one, the 25th in the series (25th!) is perhaps her best yet.


One summer evening, Robert and Greta Gerdner are shot dead at their home in the Devon countryside. DI Wesley Peterson suspects the execution-style murders might be linked to Robert's past police career, until Robert's name is found on a list of people who've been sent tickets anonymously for a tour of Darkhole Grange - a former asylum on Dartmoor. Others on this list have also died in mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, archaeologist Neil Watson finds the skeleton of a woman buried in a sealed chamber dating back to the fifteenth century at a nearby dig. Is there a connection between the ancient cell and the chilling history of Darkhole Grange?

As always, Kate Ellis has written a brilliantly twisty, cleverly plotted story that is impossible to put down. Multiple characters and multiple threads somehow manage to all connect at the end (I don't know how she does it!), with a reoccurring motif of incarceration. I particularly loved all the spooky houses!

Although this story is the 25th in the series, it is possible to read it as a stand alone. However, there are a lot characters, both regular and new, and it might be easier to at least read the first book to help understand who everyone is.

On of my favourite reads this year, The Stone Chamber would suit anyone who loves classic murder mysteries and authors such as Elly Griffiths.


Thank you to Kate Ellis and Piatkus (Little, Brown Book Group) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.


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Thursday, 31 March 2022

Wild and Wicked Things by Francesca May

Wild and Wicked Things takes place in the 1920s, when people partied hard to forget the traumas of the War, but it is set in an alternative reality, where magic is real and dangerous. Witches controlled the soldiers and the fighting, so now magic is banned. Even being caught with magic paraphernalia is likely to result in being executed. One exception is Crow Island, where real magic is sold to the tourists as the fake, harmless kind.

The story is told in the main part from Annie's point of view, as she arrives on Crow Island to close up her late father's house and finds herself completely out-of-her-depth amongst the fashionable Bright Young Things. Even though Annie is wary of her glamorous neighbours and their out-of-control parties, she is drawn to them in equal measure, particularly the owner of Cross House, Emmeline Delacroix. 

Emmeline was my favourite character; outwardly tough and hard, with an uncompromising attitude that wins her few friends on Crow Island, but who would do anything to help someone she loves, even put her own life at risk. The characters are a particular strength of this story. Along with Emmeline, there is Isobel, whose magic can affect the weather, and Nathan, a gentle soul whose power is to see into the darkness of others. And it was lovely to see Annie grow in confidence to become more than a match for Emmeline!

The story was a little bit slow to start and I would have loved more world-building - particularly backstory about Crow Island and the mysterious Council - but the characters were brilliant, the tension built up to a terrific finish, and there was even a sweet romance. A kind of mash-up between Gentleman Jack, The Great Gatsby and Practical Magic! Fabulous!


Thank you to Francesca May and Orbit for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily. 

  

Friday, 18 March 2022

The Tangleroot Palace and Other Stories by Marjorie M. Liu

I was attracted to this book by the beautiful cover and I love reading fantasy, particularly the re-imagining of fairy tales. The Tangleroot Palace is a compilation of six short stories and one novella written by bestselling, award-winning comic book author Marjorie M. Liu over the past twelve years. They have been previously published in other anthologies.

Marjorie M Liu is an extremely talented and clever author. She doesn't tie herself to one sub-genre of fantasy, so these stories are a mix of re-imagined fairy tales, fantasy romance, dark fantasy and horror. There are stories about vampires, witches, super-heroes, reluctant princesses and female warriors. My favourite was the novella-length titular story, about a princess rebelling against being a princess, particularly the arranged marriage she is expected to put herself through to save her country from a vicious warlord. I enjoyed it so much, I wish it had been full-length!  I also loved The Briar and the Rose (a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty with a dark twist), and Sympathy for the Bones, a macabre story of power and revenge between witches.

Some of the stories went over my head because they were not written in a genre I usually enjoy, but The Tangleroot Palace is one of those 'Quality Street' collections: there will be something here for everyone to enjoy! 

I particularly enjoyed the author's notes at the end of each story, citing her inspiration!

Stories included:

Sympathy for the Bones
The Briar and the Rose
The Light and the Fury
The Last Dignity of Man
Where the Heart Lives
After the Blood
Tangleroot Palace (novella)

Thank you to Marjorie M. Liu and Titan Books for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

The Match (Wilde #2) by Harlan Coben

I've been a fan of Harlan Coben's for a long time. When I got my hands this book, the second in his Wilde series, I think I may have screamed. Wilde is one of my favourite characters, second only to Win. The series has a lot about using ancestry websites, and I love researching my family tree, so that was an additional element I loved.

In the first book, The Boy from the Woods, we were introduced to  Wilde, who was found at the age of 6 (or thereabouts) living feral in the woods of the Ramapo Mountains. Now an adult, he knows nothing of his original family, or even if he had one. He's content to live in the woods, often alone. His only relationships are with the family of the first friend he made as a child.

In The Match, Wilde tries to locate his real family via a family history website - one of those that uses DNA samples to match relatives. When one of his contacts disappears under mysterious circumstances, Wilde feels obliged to investigate. The trail leads to a secret online group who expose online trolls. When people connected with this group begin to die, one by one, it becomes clear a killer is out for revenge - and the next person on their list could be Wilde.

I've read every one of Harlan's books and he just keeps getting better and better. The Match is a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat thriller that doesn't sacrifice character development for plot. You will care about these people! He's also a master of misdirection. While you're looking one way, smugly thinking you've solved the mystery, he hits you with the twist that was there all along if only you'd been smart enough to spot it! There is an Easter egg for fans, with the reappearance of a character from an earlier book (no spoilers!), as well as fan-favourite, Hester Crimstein (Myron Bolitar), who is a main character here and almost steals the show. Reoccurring themes are the morals of revenge and vigilantism, and how your real family is the one you choose. I do hope there are more books to come! 

The Match is one of my favourite reads this year. I absolutely loved it. Thoroughly recommended to anyone who loves Harlan's books, clever twisty thrillers, and to fans of authors such as Lee Child (Jack Reacher) and Linwood Barclay.


Thank you to Harlan Coben and Cornerstone/Random House for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Review: The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

I downloaded this story because I love historical fiction and the cover is beautiful!

Paris 1750. Madeleine is the daughter of a brothel owner, working as a maid after a client scarred her face. She is hired by the police to spy on the mysterious but talented Swiss clockmaker, Dr Reinhart, who has come to the notice of the King due to his intricate mechanical creations - birds and animals made of silver and jewels, that behave just like the real thing. Is Dr Reinhart a genius, ahead of his time, or is there something more sinister behind his work? Meanwhile, the children of Paris are going missing...

The Clockwork Girl is a beautifully written historical novel with a delicious touch of gothic. Told from three points of view. Madeleine, the maid, who is forced to spy to win her freedom; Veronique, Dr Reinhart's daughter, who wants to prove she could be a worthy apprentice to him; and Jeanne, the King's mistress, already aware she is losing her power. Three clever, intelligent women, craving independence and respect, held back by men and each teetering on the edge of disaster.

I've always found the history of automata (the precursor to robots) fascinating so it was fabulous to read a story with that as a background. Paris, in all its squalid 18th century detail, particularly the contrast between rich and poor, is brilliantly realised. The story is a little bit dark in places. To achieve his realistic results, Dr Reinhart buys and dissects the animals he is trying to recreate, which some readers might find upsetting. No spoilers, but the big twist didn't really work for me as I could see where the story was going, but The Clockwork Girl is refreshingly original and I enjoyed it very much. I can't wait to read Anna Mazzola's next book!

Recommended to anyone who loves their gothic historical mysteries a touch on the creepy side!


Thank you to Anna Mazzola and Orion for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.