Saturday, 24 October 2020

Review: Together by Christmas by Karen Swan

I love Karen Swan's books, particularly the way each one is set in a different part of the world, and I couldn't wait to read Together by Christmas.

In this story Lee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer, living with her four-year-old son Jasper in Amsterdam. She now makes her living doing high-profile photo shoots for glossy magazines and her work is in high demand. On the surface her life is perfect but her PTSD means she is ultra-protective of Jasper and refuses to have any relationship longer than a one-night stand. One morning she finds a desperate message scrawled in a book left outside her house - but who left it and what does it mean, and is her past about to catch up with her?

I loved this book and could not put it down. It had several hard-hitting storylines (unusual for this genre of book) yet still had all the traditional Christmassy touches: meeting Santa Claus, decorating a Christmas tree, and ice-skating - and the characters are brilliantly drawn and totally relatable. I loved the way Lee was trying so hard to keep everything together for her son while being pushed to her limit, learning that everyone makes mistakes and deserves that second chance - even herself. I adored Sam, who is so completely out of his depth yet equally determined to win Lee round. The Christmassy bits were great, especially Lee's first meeting with Sinterklaas - I think that was one of my favourite parts of the book! The setting of Amsterdam was brilliantly realised and it was fun learning about another country's festive customs.

As much as I loved this book, it might not be suitable for everyone. If you're looking for a light-hearted, cosy Christmas romance, all snowflakes and sleigh bells, this isn't the book for you. There are some quite dark subjects covered (with a sensitive touch) and it is a very emotional read. I felt quite wrung out by the end - in a good way! But it is also a terrific story about relationships (romantic, family and friends), making mistakes and learning to forgive.

I absolutely loved Together by Christmas and have no hesitation in recommending it. It's one of my favourite reads this year!


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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Friday, 23 October 2020

Review: Serpentine (His Dark Materials #3.6) by Philip Pullman

I loved Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series but I have not read any of the connected short stories. Serpentine comes after Lyra's Oxford but before the new Book of Dust series. Philip explains in his notes at the back of Serpentine that the story was intended as a one-off - he handwrote the original version several years ago to be auctioned for charity. It does, therefore, read like a deleted scene or an epilogue, rather than a short story.

A few years after the events of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon return to a town they first visited in Northern Lights and meet up with an old friend. As this is a short story, to tell you any more would involve spoilers!

Fans of His Dark Materials will love the book. It's a snapshot into an older Lyra's life where she learns something about herself and her relationship with Pantalaimon. The book is beautiful to look at and the illustrations are gorgeous. It would make a perfect stocking filler. However, it is very short (80 pages, including the illustrations and a note from the author) and takes less than 20 minutes to read.

Best suited for the fan who wants to read everything about Lyra and her world.


Thank you to Philip Pullman and Penguin for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Review: One More for Christmas by Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan is definitely my go-to author when it comes to Christmas books. Her stories about romance and family relationships are so real and true-to-life, and always come served up with a good dollop of all things Christmassy!

One More for Christmas is about Gayle, a successful business-woman famous for her self-help books, which are all about taking control of your life and not relying on anyone else. Unfortunately, she's not so successful in her private life and has not seen her grown-up daughters for five years. After an accident lands her in hospital and her daughters are notified as her next-of-kin, Gayle realises she needs to make amends. Samantha and Ella have an uneasy relationship with their mother - particularly Ella, who hasn't even told Gayle that she married five years ago and is now a stay-at-home mum to Tabitha. It doesn't help that Gayle thinks Christmas is a waste of money - Samantha and Ella weren't even allowed to have a Christmas tree as children. Now Gayle wants to make up for lost time and join them on a Christmas trip to Scotland...

I utterly adored One More for Christmas. I really felt for Gayle, who has finally realised what a hash she has made in the way she tried to bring up her children to be tough and self-reliant. She was so desperate that they didn't make the mistakes she did, she's unwittingly made a whole bunch of new ones. It was so sweet watching her try to make amends, and to be a grandmother to Tabitha - building snowmen and making gingerbread - not realising that she's alienating her daughters further because they never got to do that with her.

I particularly loved that the story is told from several points of view: Gayle, Samantha, Ella and Brodie - the owner of the big old house in Scotland where they are taking their holiday. Brodie has problems of his own and the purpose of the trip is for Samantha to help him market his home as a luxury holiday destination. This story has more romance than Sarah's last book, and the affectionate nod to contemporary romances set in the Highlands (Laid by the Laird is a running joke) made me giggle.

If you're looking for a feel-good, funny, romantic, ultra-Christmassy book to read over the holidays then this is definitely the book for you! I know Sarah's fans will love it (think: The Christmas Sisters and Sleigh Bells in the Snow) and it would also suit readers of feel-good romantic comedy such as those written by Trisha Ashley. I'm certainly saving it to read again!  


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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Monday, 19 October 2020

Halloween Reads 2020

After the year that's been 2020, you're probably not looking for any more scares! I know that I've been reading more romance and less crime fiction lately, purely because I need the escapism. But I've gathered together some of my favourite 'spooky' reads this year and listed them below. As per previous posts, they're not all strictly ghost or horror stories. One of my favourites, Magic Lessons, is historical fiction blended with magic realism. And Home Before Dark is one of those 'haunted or not' stories, where you're left to make up your own mind. 

Whatever you love to read, I'm sure there is something here for everyone!

Happy Halloween!


Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

A prequel to Practical Magic and Rules of Magic, this tells the story of the Owens family matriarch, Maria Owens. Starting in 1664, when baby Maria is found abandoned in a snowy field and bearing the mark of a bloodline witch, it follows her adventures as she flees England via a Caribbean island to New York, before heading to a little town called Salem. And we all know what happened in Salem - or do we?

Genre: Historical Fiction/Magic Realism

Full review here:


Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

When Maggie Holt was five years old her family moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling old Victorian mansion that already had a sinister reputation. They lasted all of three weeks before fleeing in the middle of the night, vowing never to return. No one would have known or cared - except Maggie's father wrote about their ghostly experiences. Now, nearly thirty years later, Maggie has the idea to move back into Baneberry Hall to renovate and sell it. She's not at all worried about the ghosts but because ghosts don't exist - do they?

Genre: Mystery/Psychological Suspense/Ghost Story

Full review here.


The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

In 1634 the Saardam is on a voyage from Batavia to Amsterdam. Among the passengers is Samuel Pipps (a 17th century Sherlock Holmes), who is being transported to his execution accompanied by his loyal bodyboard, Arent. As soon as the ship sets sail, things start going wrong. The ghost of a dead leper stalks the decks, strange symbols appear on the sails and carved into the ship's timbers, and livestock is mysteriously slaughtered. Could there be a demon living amongst the ship's passengers and crew? With Samuel imprisoned below deck, all lives depend on Arent solving the mystery...

Genre: Historical Mystery/hint of Supernatural

Full review here:


The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry

It's 1985 and fifteen-year-old Lauren's life hasn't been the same since her father was found brutally murdered. Strangely, no one wants to talk about his death or how it happened. Lauren's best friend Miranda has become more interested in clothes, make-up and boys, and no longer wants to hang out with Lauren at the old ghost tree. But when the remains of two teenage girls are found and Lauren has a vision of a monster dragging them through the woods, she knows that she will have to be the one to do something no matter what anyone else believes.

Genre: YA/Supernatural/Horror

Full review here:


The Haunted Shore by Neil Spring

Although Lizzy grew up in an old Martello tower right on the beach, she has always felt uneasy about the place. After losing her job, she is forced to return to look after her invalid father. Unknown to Lizzy, her father's health (both mental and physical) has deteriorated significantly and her brother has hired the sinister and belligerent Hazel as a housekeeper/carer. If that wasn't enough, almost as soon as Lizzy moves back into the tower she begins hearing strange noises and glimpses ghostly figures on the beach. Is she imagining things or is the stress finally getting to her?

Genre: Psychological Thriller/Ghost Story

Full review here.


The Nesting by C.J. Cooke

Lexi has conned her way into a job as a nanny even though she has no experience of working with children. Her new employer, Tom Faraday, is an architect working on a new-build in a rural part of Norway. This is the second house he has built on the site. The first one collapsed under mysterious circumstances. He is determined to finish this new house as a tribute to his late wife, Aurelia, who drowned in the fjord. Meanwhile, Lexi and his eldest daughter start seeing the ghostly figure of a woman, dripping with water...

Genre: Psychological Suspense/folk horror/ghost story

Full review here.


Related Posts:

Halloween Reads 2017

Five Reads That Chilled Me


Note:

All these books were read this year, obtained via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily. If you'd like to know more about the other books I've read, or what I'm currently reading, you can find out more on my Goodreads profile.

Photo of pumpkins copyright: Fotolia 

Friday, 16 October 2020

Review: Pulpit Rock (DI Ben Kitto #4) by Kate Rhodes

I've been a fan of this detective series set on the Isles of Scilly since the first book, Hell Bay, and was thrilled to receive an early copy of Pulpit Rock. I love that cover! 

It's the height of the tourist season and a serial killer is stalking lone women on St Mary's. DI Ben Kitto has no choice but to force a lockdown to prevent anyone from leaving the island. Everyone is a suspect, islander and tourist alike, as Ben and his team search for a killer who dresses their chosen victims as brides.

I love this series because of the great characters (particularly Ben and his wayward dog, Shadow) and the atmospheric setting of the Scilly Isles. I enjoyed the snippets of history and the superstitions relating to the jewellery the sailors bought their wives. The story is fast-paced with a real sense of time running out as another woman is attacked and then a third disappears. I got to the halfway point and was so gripped I could not put the book down until I'd finished it. Cleverly plotted so that everyone seems to have a motive, I was convinced I knew who the killer was - but was completely wrong! I can hardly wait for the next book in the series!

Recommended to anyone who loves traditional murder mysteries and authors such as Elly Griffiths and Kate Ellis.

 

Thank you to Kate Rhodes and Simon & Schuster (UK) for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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Thursday, 8 October 2020

Review: The Burial Circle (DI Wesley Peterson #24)

Kate Ellis is one of my favourite authors. I've read all her books but have a particular fondness for her detective series about DI Wesley Peterson.

The title of this story is The Burial Circle and I had got it into my head that this was something to do with an ancient stone circle. It actually refers to a 19th century basic insurance scheme covering the cost of funerals!

The Burial Circle has a slightly gothic vibe, which I loved, and is a perfect autumn/winter read. Central to the story is an old mill, where a suspected murderer once hid, and the house alongside it where a psychic weekend is being held. I really felt for the poor psychic, who felt bombarded on all sides from the restless spirts. This being a murder mystery, someone is soon murdered and everyone is a suspect. On top of this investigation, the body of a hitchhiker is found buried on farmland several years after she went missing. Can Wesley connect the two cases?

I love Kate Ellis's books because the mysteries are so twisty it is practically impossible to guess how they are going to end! They are so cleverly and perfectly plotted, it is incredible how she ties all the loose ends so neatly. The story's setting in a village where a series of unexplained deaths once took place, along with the spooky old mill, is very atmospheric. I especially love that her books always have a past mystery running through them, echoing the one in the present. 

This was a five-star read for me. Recommended for all readers of traditional murder mysteries, particularly fans of authors such as Elly Griffiths and Kate Rhodes.

Thank you to Kate Ellis and Piatkus for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.


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Monday, 5 October 2020

Review: The Haunted Shore by Neil Spring

I've enjoyed Neil Spring's supernatural thrillers since I read The Ghost Hunters. I love his blending of the paranormal with psychological chiller. In The Haunted Shore, parts of the story have been inspired by the rumours and WW2 legends centred on a remote stretch of coast in Suffolk called Shingle Street.

Although Lizzy grew up in an old Martello tower right on the beach, she has always felt uneasy about the place. After losing her job in London (and owing a huge amount of money to her dodgy ex-boss), she is forced to return to her childhood home. She agrees to look after her invalid father while her elder brother takes on a new job. Unknown to Lizzy, her father's health (both mental and physical) has deteriorated significantly and her brother has hired the sinister and belligerent Hazel as a housekeeper/carer. If that wasn't enough, almost as soon as Lizzy moves back into the tower she begins hearing strange noises and glimpses ghostly figures on the beach. Is she imagining it or is the stress finally beginning to get to her?

Well, this frightened me half-to-death! The end, in particular, was super-scary - no sleeping without the lights on for me! I loved the unusual setting and the way Neil wove the real-life history of the area into the story. His descriptions of the tower and the beach were incredibly atmospheric, and Lizzy was an engaging heroine. I loved the way she was able to conquer her own personal demons too.

An excellent read for Halloween, particularly if you like chilling psychological suspense mixed in with your ghosts!


Thank you to Neil Spring and Quercus for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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The Lost Village (The Ghost Hunters #2) by Neil Spring

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Review: The Nesting by C.J. Cooke

The cover of The Nesting is absolutely gorgeous and the premise, a modern gothic, was right up my street. I was thrilled to receive an early copy.

The story is about Lexi, who is in desperate straits after both a failed relationship and a failed suicide attempt. She's soon homeless and out of a job too! When she sees an opportunity, she cons her way into a job as a nanny even though she has no experience of working with children. Her new employer, Tom Faraday, is an architect working on a new-build in a rural part of Norway. This is the second house he has built on the site. The first one collapsed under mysterious circumstances but he is determined to finish this new house as a tribute to his late wife, Aurelia, who drowned in the fjord.

The Nesting is a super-spooky, gothic suspense. The chills occur as soon as Lexi arrives in Norway, with both Lexi and one of the children seeing a ghostly figure dripping with water - Aurelia's body was fished out of the fjord.  Also running through the story are extracts from Aurelia's diary, which adds an element of mystery - did she kill herself or not?  And if so, who is to blame? (There are no shortage of suspects!) Adding an extra layer to the story are snippets of Norwegian folk tales.

The Nesting is an interesting blend of ghost story, gothic mystery and domestic suspense, which leaves the reader wondering if Lexi and Aurelia are imagining what they are seeing. (All is explained at the nail-biting finish!) The lush Norwegian landscape is incredibly atmospheric and makes an effective backdrop to the spooky events. It certainly frightened me! I thoroughly enjoyed The Nesting and have no hesitation in recommending it as the perfect chilling winter read. 


Thank you to C.J. Cooke and Harper Collins UK for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.  

Friday, 25 September 2020

Review: Magic Lessons (A Prequel to Practical Magic) by Alice Hoffman

I love Alice Hoffman's books. I discovered her after watching the film Practical Magic (starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and gradually worked my way through her backlist. Since Practical Magic was originally published she has written two prequels: The Rules of Magic (a story about the aunts from Practical Magic) and now Magic Lessons, which explains the origin of the family curse - that any man who ever loves an Owens woman will be broken in body and soul.

The story starts in 1664 when a baby girl is found abandoned in a snowy field close to the cottage of Hannah Owens, a herbalist and healer who has taught herself magic. When Hannah unwraps the baby's blanket she recognises an unusual birthmark shaped like a star - the mark of a bloodline witch. Is this why baby Maria has been abandoned? The story spans a 30 year period, following Maria as she finally meets her disreputable parents, is forced to flee England, becomes an indentured servant in Curacao, makes a living for herself in the fledgling city of New York, before ending up in Salem - and we all know what happened there...

If you do think you know what's going to happen, you're in for a surprise. Alice Hoffman ingeniously re-tells Maria's story as it appears in her earlier book but with some very clever twists. As Maria moves from place to place she makes a note in her grimoire of the plants that are grown locally and the uses they can be put to (both recipes and spells) and these notes are cleverly woven into the story. The amount of historical detail about England in the 17th century, life in the Caribbean and early New York is amazing. I wasn't sure I'd learn anything new about Salem but the author concentrates on the people who lived there and what motivated them to begin accusing their neighbours of witchcraft.

The writing is beautiful, with a dreamy fairy tale quality that pulled me right into the world the author has created. I loved the characters despite their flaws - it turns out that even a witch who can read every 'sign' is capable of walking straight into disaster! I especially loved Samuel and Cadin - both of whom had a lot to put up with! The story is also about women supporting women, mother-daughter relationships, women surviving in a man's world and life's harsh lessons.

Magic Lessons is the perfect story to read as the nights begin drawing in, for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a really good book, who loves historical novels or magic realism, or anything 'witchy'. Fans of Practical Magic will not be disappointed. One of my favourite reads this year.


Thank you to Alice Hoffman and Scribner/Simon & Schuster UK for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Review: Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

I love Riley Sager's books. He takes a classic horror trope, puts a modern spin on it and then twists it out of all recognition. Home Before Dark is a super-spooky read that mashes up The Amityville Horror and The Haunting of Hill House (the Netflix version), with a dash of The Enfield Haunting, and creates something new and sparkling.

When Maggie Holt was five years old her family moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling old Victorian mansion that already had a sinister reputation. They lasted all of three weeks before fleeing in the middle of the night, never to return. No one would have known or cared - except Maggie's father then decided to write a book about their ghostly experiences. Now, nearly thirty years later, both Baneberry Hall and Maggie are still notorious.

The story starts as Maggie's father dies and she inherits the house. She's a property developer so she has the idea to move into Baneberry Hall and renovate it to sell. She's not at all worried about the ghosts but because ghosts don't exist - do they?

This is such a fun (and spooky!) read. If you love ghost and haunted house stories, you will absolutely adore this. If' you've read lots of horror you'll recognise the nods to various books. I was on the edge of my seat throughout most of the story, which I read very quickly because I couldn't put it down. It was doubly unfortunate that after the scariest part I was supposed to be putting the light out and going to sleep - as if!

I loved the characters. I loved the setting and the historical background the author created. The clever little twists - the graveyard is one but I can't say any more before of spoilers. I can't say much because of spoilers, actually, so I'll just say that it's a five-star read and I particularly liked the way some of the threads were left loose at the end for you to make your own mind up about what really happened...


Thank you to Riley Sager and Hodder and Stoughton for my copy of this book, which I received via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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