Friday, 19 November 2021

Review: A Winter Memory by Lulu Taylor

Lulu Taylor writes fabulous family dramas, set over dual timelines. In this story we follow Tigs's story onward from 1968 and Helen's on from 2001, and discover how they are both connected to the beautiful Ballintyre House in Scotland.

Helen is married to Hamish, the younger of the Ballintyre brothers. They met as students and Helen fell in love, not just with Hamish but with the romantic Ballintyre family and their beautiful house on the edge of a loch. But marriage to Hamish has not proved happy.

Now, years later and with a family, Helen and Hamish have been forced to move back to live at Ballintyre with his older brother, Charlie. Helen is surprised to find that Sylla, Charlie’s wife, has disappeared and no one seems to know where she is. Surely someone should be looking for her . . .

A Winter Memory is a coming-of-age story, about how to move on when first love doesn't go the way you'd hoped. It is incredibly sad in places, and there is a sense of impending doom, but it was inspiring to see how the female characters adapted and found the inner strength to keep going. Sylla is a wonderful character and I found the mystery of her disappearance enthralling, reading the book very quickly to find out what happened to her and her daughter! I also loved Helen and Tigs (obviously!), although I think my favourite part was the country house party to celebrate Hogmanay at the start of the novel.

The only thing stopping A Winter Memory from being a five-star read for me is that I was hoping for a little more romance, which isn't really hinted at until the end.

Recommended for fans of dual timelines, family secrets, big old houses, and scenic Scottish settings!

Thank you to Lulu Taylor and Pan Macmillan for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Review: Call of the Penguins by Hazel Prior

Call of the Penguins is the sequel to Away with the Penguins (one of my all-time favourite books), so when I was offered an early copy I think I may have screamed with excitement! You don't need to have read Away with the Penguins to enjoy this story, but you will get more out of it if you do.

In Call of the Penguins we meet 87-year old Veronica and her much put upon housekeeper Eileen, who are living in Veronica's huge Scottish house along with 9-year-old Daisy, who is recovering from having chemotherapy. To help keep Daisy positive, Veronica has been telling her about her previous adventures in the Antarctica (Away with the Penguins), where she met orphan penguin chick Pip.

When national treasure and documentary filmmaker Sir Robert Saddlebow invites Veronica to co-host a TV programme on seabirds, she is thrilled - even though it means travelling across the world to Australia and the Falkland Islands. However, as Veronica and Daisy set off on their adventure, Veronica's grandson Patrick is heading in the opposite direction, arriving from the Antarctic after falling out with his 'penguinologist' girlfriend Terry. Wondering if irresponsibility is in his genes, Patrick decides to find out more about his father, who abandoned him when he was a baby.

Call of the Penguins is a warm-hearted, witty, thoroughly uplifting story about family, finding your true 'family', and friends who become like family - with all the associated arguments and misunderstandings that go with that! In Veronica's case, her 'family' also includes penguins and she is very passionate about their environment and survival. A reoccurring theme is climate change and the effects of single-use plastic on wildlife. Veronica is a fabulous character, even when (particularly when?) she is being interfering, bossy and/or annoying. I love her!

Thoroughly recommended, particularly if you loved Away with the Penguins and books such as Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. One of my favourite reads this year.

Thank you to Hazel Prior and Transworld/Penguin Random House for my copy of this book, which I received via the publisher and reviewed voluntarily. 

Related Post:

Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior

Monday, 8 November 2021

Review: The Duke's Counterfeit Wife by Louise Allen

I love the escapism of historical romance and Louise Allen is one of my favourite authors. The Duke's Counterfeit Wife is a fabulous fast-paced story about a lowly lady's companion and a duke, thrown together after being kidnapped by pirates. 

Sarah Parrish was left almost destitute by the collapse of her father's shipping business, caused by the crooked behaviour of his assistant. Now she has to earn her living as a lady's companion. Travelling around the coast by ship to her next employment, rather than taking a stage coach, she is effectively 'kidnapped by pirates' when the crew turn rogue and begin murdering the other passengers. She is only saved because Nicholas, the Duke of Severton, tells the captain Sarah is his wife and they could earn a large ransom in exchange for their lives. But has Sarah's life been saved only at the cost of her reputation?

Sarah and Nicholas race around the country trying to solve the mystery of what the ship was carrying in its cargo hold that made it a target for the 'pirates'. Sarah is convinced it is connected to the collapse of her father's business and forces Nicholas to let her tag along on his investigation.

I've read most of Louise's historical romances and this is one of her best. Her books are always meticulously researched, the pace does not let up, and the main characters become friends in a very realistic way before becoming lovers. I adored the way Sarah and Nicholas, along with her maid and his valet, become a tight-knit team, working together to solve the mystery regardless of rank. Sarah stands up to Nicholas, despite their social differences (and much to his surprise!) and there is at least one occasion where she saves him!

Fabulous escapism and a solid five-star read. Recommended for all fans of Louise Allen and historical romance.

Thank you to Louise Allen and Mills & Boon for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Review: A Scandinavian Christmas

A Scandinavian Christmas is a slim anthology of sixteen short stories written by a range of authors both classic and modern. It includes three very famous tales from Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), as well three from the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940). 

I am a terrible sucker for a pretty cover and this one is gorgeous. The book would make a beautiful stocking filler for someone who loves classic short stories that lean towards literary fiction but it won't suit everyone. Despite the cover, these tales are not all-out 'sleigh bells and mistletoe' festive tales, but unusual, poignant and sometimes downright sad stories that just happen to be set at Christmas.

My favourites were the three Hans Christian Andersen stories - beautifully written but incredibly sad. I also enjoyed The Forest Witch (about a girl trying to outwit a witch), The Christmas Rose (about a beautiful garden that only appears at Christmas) and Christmas Eve by Vigdis Hjorth (a clever but poignant story about an alcoholic trying to get through Christmas dinner with their family).

Thank you to Vintage/Random House for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Sunday, 24 October 2021

Review: Midnight in Everwood by M.A. Kuzniar

This book has one of the most beautiful covers I've ever seen. When I found out it was a 'retelling' of the classic story, The Nutcracker, I really wanted to read it. However, it wasn't quite the romantic magical fairy tale I was hoping for.

Midnight in Everwood is set in Nottingham in 1906. Marietta Stelle dreams of becoming a professional ballerina but, as her parents are well-to-do, she is expected to have an arranged marriage to a man of equal status. Her new neighbour, the creepy Dr Drosselmeier, has impressed her family with his gifts of 'magical' clockwork toys; now he's built a stunning set for Marietta's last ballet performance on Christmas Eve. As the grandfather clock strikes midnight, Marietta hides from Dr Drosselmeier inside, only to find herself in a winter wonderland...

This is one of those 'perfectly good book but totally wrong reader' scenarios. From the cover, I was expecting a romantic fairy tale retelling of The Nutcracker, in the same way that Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver was a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. However, while Midnight in Everwood does have elements of The Nutcracker, it is not a retelling but more 'inspired by'. There are also elements of other well-known stories such as The Red Shoes, Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

The first third of the story is about Marietta's life in Nottingham, showing how privileged she is (I loved the descriptions of her fabulous gowns!) but how she is also trapped by that privilege. Her life has been planned out for her by her parents and will be continued by her husband. As much as she rebels against this with her ballet lessons (considered shocking for an upper-class Edwardian girl) she is quite na├»ve. When she arrives in Everwood her first thought is to relish her freedom, ignoring the fact that she might be walking into a pretty trap. Marietta has many hard lessons to learn about family, friendship, love and sacrifice before she can earn her own happy ending.

Midnight in Everwood would suit anyone who loves ballet and historical novels about women fighting for their right to lead the independent life they want. It's not quite the magical fantasy the cover suggests, despite the luscious descriptions of the sweets in Everwood. I would have preferred more fairy tale magic, more romance, and an ending more in keeping with the original ballet, but the story is still worth a solid four stars.

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

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Review: The Whistling by Rebecca Netley

I adore Victorian ghost stories, particularly gothic ones, so The Whistling ticked all the boxes for me!

Elspeth Swansome goes to work as a nanny on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea. Her charge, Mary, hasn't said a word since the unexpected death of her twin brother William, and the last nanny packed up and left in a hurry. No one will speak of what happened to William, just as no one can explain the sound of singing in empty corridors, strange dolls appearing in abandoned rooms, and the faint whistling that comes in the night...

If you're looking for a truly chilling autumn read, this is the story for you! Set in 1860, it is a gorgeously gothic Victorian ghost story, with proper spooky bits (not the kind that are all in someone's mind). Reminiscent of the recent Netflix series, The Haunting of Bly Manor (based on Henry James' short stories), The Whistling is a modern spin on the classic Victorian ghost story.

The book is big on atmosphere; the eeriness of the remote Scottish island, the creepy old house, sinister servants (shades of Mrs Danvers!) There are plenty of mysteries to solve. What happened to the former nanny? Why does no one speak about William? Why did Mary stop speaking? And then there are the ghosts...

One of my favourite books this year, The Whistling is perfect Halloween reading! 

Just remember to leave on the lights...

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

Friday, 1 October 2021

Review: The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings by Dan Jones

The cover and blurb attracted me to this book; originally I didn't click that it was written by historian Dan Jones. Based on a medieval manuscript, this is a quirky short story that would make a good stocking filler for anyone who likes a ghost story that is a little bit unusual!

One winter, in the reign of King Richard II (ie: the late 1300s), a tailor is riding home when he is knocked off his horse by a huge raven, which then turns into a hideous dog. The dog tells the tailor he must go to the priest and ask for absolution, or there will be terrible consequences...

This is a short story, so it is hard to say more without giving away the plot. It is well-written, deliciously chilling, but very strange - probably because it is based on an original story written in the 1400s by an unknown monk. According to Amazon the book is 196 pages long, but be aware that the original Latin version is included,  along with a foreword by the author. There are also notes at the end, about the history of Byland Abbey. I particularly enjoyed reading them! 

So this book would be best suited for someone like me, who loves history, ghost stories, and anything strange and quirky! A perfect short read for Halloween, the hardback would made a good Christmas stocking filler too.

The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings will be published in the UK on 14th October 2021

Thank you to Dan Jones and Head of Zeus for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Review: The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

I was attracted to this book by the absolutely beautiful cover, and then I remembered that I had read and enjoyed the author's previous book, The Nesting. While The Nesting was definitely a ghost story, The Lighthouse Witches is a mash-up of several difference genres: gothic mystery, psychological thriller, there is even a dash of science fiction. Although I started the story with an idea of where I thought it was going (apparently I've watched too many 70's folk horror movies), the twist at the end is astounding - and extremely clever.

The Lighthouse Witches takes place over several timelines. In the 1600s, Patrick watches helplessly as those he loves are accused of witchcraft - the penalty is death; in the 1990s, Liv escapes her problems by fleeing to a remote Scottish island, Lon Haven, where the inhabitants are a superstitious lot, obsessed with witches and curses; and in the present day, Luna travels back to Lon Haven hoping to discover the truth about what happened to her family, twenty-two years previously.

Although I found the constant switching between timelines confusing at first (despite the helpfully labelled chapters and changes of font - yes, I know, I'm an idiot) I was soon gripped by the story and read the book in two days flat. The sinister islanders, the atmospheric setting, the general creepiness of the story, all make for a fabulous autumn read. I loved it!

Thank you to C.J. Cooke and HarperCollins for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Related Review:

The Nesting by C.J. Cooke

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Review: The Last Graduate (The Scholomance #2) by Naomi Novik

I am a huge fan of Naomi Novik's YA fantasy novels, especially Spinning Silver and Uprooted. Her Scholomance series is a little bit different, set at a dark school for magic. Unlike Hogwarts, this school seems to actively want to kill off its students!

The Last Graduate is the second book in the Scholomance series. It's like a cross between those witch/wizard school stories, like Harry Potter and The Worst Witch, with a hefty dose of The Hunger Games thrown in, and is both brutal and a little bit gruesome at times. Sure, the students at this school are here to learn magic, but they are also here to survive at any cost, which encourages an every-student-for-themselves mentality.

El and her friends are now seniors with the prospect of graduation looming ahead of them. You'd think they'd be delighted to leave the school far behind, except the graduation ceremony is the most deadly of all, with every mal (monster) waiting to devour them as soon as they enter the graduation hall. The practise runs are getting deadlier and deadlier, El can see no way for the students to survive unless they do something really radical... Like, work together?

This series is completely thrilling, edge-of-your-seat stuff, with El battling monsters and spells hurtling at her from every direction. The finale is amazing but (be warned) ends on a humongous cliff-hanger. The amount of work Naomi has put into creating this world, with no detail overlooked, is awe-inspiring. It reminded me a little of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. With that book the backstories were dropped into footnotes, and I did sometimes feel that all the detail (fabulous as it was) slowed down The Last Graduate just when I wanted to race ahead.

I loved the attitude of El (Student most like to say: 'Get lost, I can rescue myself'), who has spent most of her life being viewed with suspicion (thanks to her great-great grandmother's prophecy predicting she's going to cause death and destruction wherever she goes), and is unused to taking a hero's role. Orion, who has spent most of his life training to be a hero, is adorably confused. And El's familiar, Precious the mouse, is sooo cute! 

One of my favourite reads this year! I can't wait for the next one!

Thank you to Naomi Novik and Del Ray/Cornerstone/Random House for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Friday, 17 September 2021

Review: Horseman by Christina Henry

I love the way Christina Henry takes well-known classic tales and puts her own spin on them, turning them into something new and fresh. Horseman is a 'sequel' to Irving Washington's classic story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, taking place about twenty years later.

Everyone in Sleepy Hollow knows of the legendary Horseman, but no one really believes in him until fourteen year old Ben stumbles upon the headless body of a child in the woods. Could the Horseman be real after all? Or does something even more sinister stalk the woods?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my favourite stories, so I loved the way some of the original text was sprinkled through the book, acting like a touchstone. Ben's grandparents are the famous Brom and Katrina, now wealthy farmers, which causes friction in the village due to jealousy and Brom's habit of ensuring he is always at the centre of things. While Ben is desperate to grow up to be just like Brom, the main theme of the story is about being true to yourself, accepting who you really are and not being afraid to be different. Horseman is also a story about the importance of friendship and family.

Like the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow, you might think you know the legend of the Horseman but there are still plenty of surprises here! There's more than one monster for a start! The creepy setting and evil lurking in the woods also reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. Like Christina's previous book, The Ghost Tree, I am not sure if the story is supposed to be a  Young Adult, but it does read like one. There are some gruesome bits (headless bodies!) but it's not too scary. I wasn't so keen on the 'ten years later' segment at the end of the book, which I found rather sad, but I did enjoy the final twist. 

Horseman is a deliciously chilling read for autumn. A historical horror story dripping with sinister atmosphere, Christina's fans will love it - along with anyone who adored the original story. A perfect Halloween treat!

Horseman will be published in the UK on 28th September 2021

Thank you to Christina Henry and  Titan Books for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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