Thursday, 27 February 2020

Review: Family for Beginners by Sarah Morgan

I discovered Sarah Morgan after reading her recent Christmas book, A Wedding in December, which I absolutely loved, so I was thrilled to receive an early copy of her latest, Family for Beginners.

Family for Beginners is a clever romcom spin on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Flora was raised by an aunt who never really wanted her. As a result, she has always longed for a traditional family of her own. When Flora falls in love with widowed Jack, who has two daughters, it seems as if all her dreams are about to come true. But Jack's eldest, the teenage Izzy, makes it clear their family is doing just fine without Flora - and she'd quite like to keep it that way! And the more Flora learns about Jack's late wife, the saintly Becca, she begins to realise it will be impossible to compete...

Despite the themes of grief, loss and abandonment, Family for Beginners is a lovely, uplifting, heart-warming story about relationships between family and friends. The main viewpoints are Flora and Izzy, and we get a terrific insight into two women who, ordinarily, could have been good friends. There is humour, when Izzy's various schemes to trip up Flora backfire spectacularly, as well as sweet and sexy romance. The gorgeous holiday home, overlooking the water in the Lake District, is virtually a character in itself. 

Sarah Morgan is a genius at creating flawed, realistic characters we can all relate to. As much as I loved Flora, I think poor Isabel was my favourite as she struggled to deal with the guilt she felt after her mother's death. The characters are so real, so perfect, so cleverly drawn, I think Family for Beginners is Sarah Morgan's best book yet. One of my favourite reads this year!

Thank you to Sarah Morgan and HQ for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Friday, 21 February 2020

Review: The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is famous for his edge-of-your-seat thrillers, usually in a domestic setting, where old secrets threaten to tear a family apart. This story is slightly different. I think it is now my favourite of all his books but please don't make me choose!

Hester Crimstein is a seventy-year-old defence attorney who is also famous for her own television show (something like Judge Judy). Her grandson, Matthew, is worried about a girl who has gone missing at school - a girl that nobody likes and whom everyone picks on. Hester asks Wilde (a family friend who is also a private investigator) to look into the case for her. Wilde is a very interesting character: a man who was found living 'feral' in the woods as a child. Although incredibly smart, he's not been able to adjust to 'normal' life and still lives in a self-contained 'pod' in the forest. As he investigates the girl's disappearance, another teenager goes missing - and a human finger is posted to the parents...

My favourite character was the ass-kicking Hester but I did love Wilde and his intriguing backstory, and was rooting for him to have his own happy ending. Harlan Coben is a master at writing fast-paced thrillers so I was chomping down on my nails for a large chunk of the book, and his twists are always second-to-none. I read a lot of crime fiction, so it's a big deal for me when I can't guess the ending. I shall definitely be re-reading to see how he fooled me. Utterly brilliant and thoroughly recommended for all Harlan's fans, and readers of authors such as Linwood Barclay and Lee Child.

Thank you to Harlan Coben and Cornerstone (Century) for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Review: A Conspiracy of Bones (Temperance Brennan #19) by Kathy Reichs

Kathy Reichs is one of my favourite authors. I've read all of her Temperance Brennan books, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an early copy of the latest one in the series, A Conspiracy of Bones.

As the title suggests, this story is all about conspiracy theories! Temperance's old boss and mentor has recently died and she doesn't get on with his replacement, Margot. After a very public falling-out, Tempe finds herself sidelined but can't resist doing an investigation of her own when she disagrees with the findings of Margot's latest case - a faceless corpse found in the woods. Tempe is convinced that the victim was a believer in conspiracy theories, but who is he really? And which was the theory that got him killed? 

Tempe has recently recovered from an aneurysm and is suffering from blackouts and migraines, which adds to the eerie tension - including a super-spooky bit where she may or may not have been abducted. Tempe is helped by former detective Erskine 'Skinny' Slidell, now working as a private investigator, "a combination of bluster and paunch and bad polyester". I loved his sarcastic comebacks when Tempe tries to tell him how to do his job.

The only thing that stopped this book getting a five-star rating was that sometimes I found it hard to get my head around all the different conspiracy theories. There were a lot of explanations when I'd rather Tempe had been out there chasing down bad guys. I did enjoy the author's notes at the end of the novel, explaining how she had been inspired to write this story.

Tempe fans will love A Conspiracy of Bones but if you've not read the series before, you'll find it makes more sense if you've read some of the author's earlier books. If you are familiar with this series, make sure you read the novella First Bones from her anthology The Bone Collection or, like me, you'll spend the first few chapters wondering when and how her boss died! 

Thank you to Kathy Reichs and Simon and Schuster UK for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Two Nights by Kathy Reichs (this one is a standalone story)

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Review: Feathertide by Beth Cartwright

I was attracted to this book because of the beautiful cover - fantasy novels always have the best covers!

Feathertide is the story of Marea, who is born in a brothel and not allowed to leave - her mother worries that she will be made of fun of or stolen away. Marea, you see, is covered in golden feathers like a bird, although she cannot fly. When Marea reaches her seventeenth birthday she goes in search of her mysterious father in the City of Murmurs, a strange, half-flooded city of canals and little bridges (Venice?), where she meets a prophetess and a mermaid, and learns of the strange bird men who live on floating islands and only appear with the mist...

I'm not sure whether Feathertide is supposed to be a YA novel but I think it would appeal more to younger readers. Although clever and imaginative, it is a slow-burn story that I enjoyed more once I'd got past the halfway mark and Marea began to make friends in her new home. Feathertide has a touch of romance and a sprinkle of fairytale magic, and is a coming-of-age story - covering the pain of first love and of learning to accept who you are. 

Thank you to Beth Cartwright and Del Ray (Ebury) for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Review: Away with the Penguins* by Hazel Prior

I downloaded this book because (1) a friend recommended it to me, (2) of the very clever title, and (3) the absolutely gorgeous cover. I am so glad I did. This book will definitely be one of my favourite reads this year. Think Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - but with penguins!

Veronica McCreedy is very wealthy, lives in a huge mansion in Scotland, is never seen without her ruby red lipstick and has a collection of very expensive handbags. She spends her days collecting litter from the beach ('People who litter the countryside should be shot'), watching wildlife programmes on TV, and bossing her much put upon assistant around. She's also 85 years old.

Realising that she has no family or friends to leave her fortune to, she tracks down her long-lost grandson. The meeting is such a disaster (for both of them!) she thinks she should just leave her money to the penguins. Or rather, the scientists who are studying them at a remote and poorly-funded research station in the Antarctica. And because Veronica is a sensible (stubborn, bloody-minded) kind of person, she decides to pay the research centre a visit before agreeing to part with any cash. Much to the horror of the scientists...

The story is told from the point of view of Veronica and her grandson Patrick, interspersed with short blog posts written by one of the scientists. Both Veronica and Patrick are brilliant characters with very strong, very different voices. Veronica, for example, turns up at the research station with all the correct gear, whereas Patrick just jumps on a plane and arrives in the Antarctic completely unprepared. The story is very funny, completely realistic and also poignant - especially during flashbacks to the 1940s, when Veronica was an unmarried mother. There is a serious message about climate change, lots and lots of penguins, and a cute little rescued chick called Pip. The only bit I wasn't keen on was the epilogue, because it tied up all the loose ends and I would have loved a sequel!

As you might have guessed, I absolutely loved Away with the Penguins. It deserves to be a huge bestseller because it is completely brilliant and utterly original. If you only buy one book this year, buy this one. I guarantee you will love it too!

*Published as How the Penguins Saved Veronica in the USA

Thank you to Hazel Prior and Bantam Press for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Review: The Lantern Men (Dr Ruth Galloway Mysteries #12) by Elly Griffiths

Elly Griffiths is one of  my favourite crime writers and I was thrilled to receive an early copy of The Lantern Men - the latest in the author's popular Ruth Galloway series. You don't need to read these books in order but it is helpful if you do, because the same characters reappear.

In this story Ruth has moved away from her cottage on the Saltmarsh and is no longer Norfolk police's resident forensic archaeologist. Instead, she is living in Cambridge with her new partner. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson has learnt that charismatic murderer Ivor March has finally been found guilty of murdering two women. Before Harry can close the case, he needs Ivor to admit to two other murders and tell him where the bodies are buried, but Ivor says he will only confess if Ruth agrees to take charge of the dig...

Elly Griffiths writes exactly the kind of murder mysteries I love to read: fully rounded characters I really care about, combined with a fiendishly tricky mystery to solve. I thought I'd sussed out the murder's identity this time but no, I was wrong again! My favourite characters are Harry (he's such a dinosaur) and Cathbad the druid. I think I enjoy this series because the stories have a touch of warmth to them, missing in many crime novels. I also love the subtle humour! In this book, as a spooky bonus, the sinister legend of the Lantern Men has been woven into the story. The quirky forensic details are great too. I don't think I will ever look at nettles in the same way again!

The Lantern Men would suit fans of classic/traditional-style murder mysteries and authors who mix archaeology and crime, such as Kate Ellis. Although Elly has done a great job in explaining who-is-who and what-is-what in a very subtle way for new readers, to receive the most enjoyment I'd recommend at least starting with the first book in the series (The Crossing Places) before diving into this one.

Thank you to Elly Griffiths and Quercus for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Monday, 20 January 2020

Review: Black River (Tuva Moodyson #3) by Will Dean

I love this Swedish mystery series, which is a kind of cross between Twin Peaks and Midsomer Murders, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an early copy of Black River.

Journalist Tuva Moodyson thought she'd seen the back of rural and decidedly creepy Gavrik, where she used to be a reporter on the local newspaper. But as her best friend has gone missing, and no one seems to be taking the disappearance seriously, Tuva returns to investigate. She has plenty of suspects to choose from (the inhabitants are decidedly...eccentric, to say the least) but someone seems determined to sabotage her efforts. Then a second girl vanishes...

Tuva is utterly brilliant. I love her! She's one of my favourite 'detectives'. The Swedish setting is incredibly atmospheric, although all those bugs and insects are a little too authentic, and the part where Tuva heads into the deep dark woods is just like a Grimm fairy tale. We meet some of the kooky characters from the previous books and a whole lot of new ones (hello, Snake Lady!). Every time I thought I was one step of Tuva, the clue would turn out to be a red herring. I hadn't a clue who the villain was, although I was rather hoping it might be - but no, I mustn't spoil it for you!

Black River puts a modern and slightly surreal spin on the traditional murder mystery. You don't need to read the other books in this series but you would get more from the story if you do. With the weird and wonderful characters, I can certainly see it appealing to fans of Midsomer Murders and Twin Peaks. Thoroughly recommended!

Thank you to Will Dean and Point Blank for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Review: The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

I downloaded this historical novel because of the beautiful cover. I also love gothic fiction!

It's 1939 and war has broken out. Hettie Cartwright works at a natural history museum in London. As the two senior male members of staff have enlisted, she has been given the job of overseeing the evacuation of the museum's collection of stuffed animals to the country - and she's thrilled at the responsibility. However, once the collection is installed at Lockwood Manor, Hettie realises she's taken on more than she'd bargained for. The staff, taking their cue from the irritable and sexist Lord Lockwood, refuse to take her seriously. Some exhibits go missing and others are deliberately damaged, but is there something else going on behind the scene? There are rumours of a curse and the late Lady Lockwood had seen the ghost of a woman in white before she died. Meanwhile, Hettie finds herself falling under the spell of Lord Lockwood's beautiful daughter - but is Lucy all she seems to be?

I do love a good gothic mystery and The Animals at Lockwood Manor ticked all the boxes for me. A spooky old house, mysterious owner, mad woman in the attic - the twist being that Hettie falls for the enigmatic lady of the manor rather than the lord. The writing is beautiful, the setting deliciously creepy and I loved the sweet romance. The story is slow burn but with plenty of chilling moments. I think my only disappointment was that I was expecting a different ending.

Recommend to fans of gothic mysteries and authors such as Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre) and Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger).

Thank you to Jane Healey and Mantle (Pan Macmillan) for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Review: The Slaughterman's Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits

I was attracted to this book because of the absolutely stunning cover but the story is darker than it suggests. The Slaughterman's Daughter is a historical adventure, set in the late 19th century in the Pale of Settlement (an area of Imperial Russia including Belarus and parts of Poland) where Jews were forced to live. The publishers have described the story as being a cross between Quentin Tarantino and Fiddler on the Roof, and that pretty much sums it up! If you're looking for a book that is a little bit different, this is the read for you.

In the isolated, godforsaken town of Motal husbands go missing on a regular basis (they've usually run off in search of a better life) but never wives and mothers. So when Fanny Keismann - devoted wife, mother of five, and celebrated cheese-maker - leaves her home in the middle of the night, the town is aghast. Rumours regarding her disappearance rapidly circulate, some of which even turn out to be true.

The Slaughterman's Daughter is basically Fanny's attempt to find her missing brother-in-law and persuade (force!) him to come home. As she sets off on her road trip, everything that could go wrong does, unwittingly involving all kinds of innocent (and not so innocent) people, until the highest powers become convinced the country is on the brink of revolution. It is a rollicking story that shows how the simplest actions and purest thoughts can quickly lead to disaster.

There is a serious message running through The Slaughterman's Daughter but there is also humour. I loved the titular character of Fanny, who hacks her way through the story in a very Tarantino way! (There is the occasional scene of mild gore.) The other characters are utterly believable and completely engaging; I even found myself sympathising with the the villains. There are multiple points of view and we learn every character's backstory. As fascinating as these tales-within-a-tale were, they did slow down the pace quite a lot. But if take-you-by-the-throat characters, seat-of-your-pants action, and oodles of authentic atmosphere are your thing, you will definitely love this. Personally, I'd love to see it made into a movie...

Thank you to Yaniv Iczkovits and MacLehose Press (Quercus) for  my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Review: Monster She Wrote by Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson

Monster, She Wrote is an informative guide to female horror writers, and perfect for someone like me, who loves gothic and ghostly fiction, and finding new authors to read. There are over 35 authors listed, starting with Margaret Cavendish (The Blazing World), known as 'Mad Madge' for her wild fashion and loud behaviour, and ending with modern authors such as Helen Oyeyemi, Susan Hill, Sarah Waters and Angela Carter.

Monster, She Wrote looks at how the original gothic fiction written by Ann Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho) evolved, via authors such as Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), through the Victorian trend for ghost stories and into the science fiction of the 20th century. I found it fascinating to read about my favourite authors (Shirley Jackson, Daphne du Maurier and Anne Rice) as well as authors I had heard of but not read: V.C. Andrews (Flowers in the Attic).

In addition to a potted biography for each author, there is a suggested reading list and mention of their contemporaries - if you fancy trying something similar but different. The genres covered are gothic fiction, horror, ghost stories, science-fiction, domestic thrillers, psychological suspense, fantasy, paranormal and supernatural, and re-tellings of fairy stories. This book is perfect for either dipping into or reading from cover to cover. I really enjoyed it, I can definitely recommend it - and I've found lots of new authors to try too!

Thank you to Lisa Kroger, Melanie R. Anderson and Quirk Books for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.