Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Review: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

I'm not a huge fan of books set during wartime (they are a little bit too real-life for me) but two words on the cover of this book caught my eye: Paris and library. How could I resist?

Odile is obsessed by books, so working at the American Library in Paris is a dream come true. Her family are against the idea but she's seen first-hand how important it is for a woman to have her own money and be independent. The library and its thriving community of students, writers, and fellow book-lovers is the perfect haven - until war looms, pitting friends and colleagues against each other. Suddenly the punishment for being caught with the 'wrong' book is severe.

The main part of the story is told from Odile's viewpoint: from 1939, when she applies for a job at the library, to the end of the war in 1945. The second timeline is a coming-of-age story about American teenager Lily, who is struggling following the death of her mother and the arrival of a young step-mother. The only person who seems to truly understand is the reclusive Frenchwoman who lives next door.

This story completely swept me away. The American Library is a fascinating setting. It is a real place and many of the characters mentioned are real people, who acted heroically keeping the library open and delivering books to their Jewish subscribers. Odile is an engaging character who wants to do the right thing but has led a sheltered life. She is unprepared for the way living in Occupied Paris will change the lives of her family and friends, causing some to crack under the pressure. Will she also betray those she loves? In 1980s America, Odile tries to pass on all she has learnt about family and friendships to teenage Lily, so she won't make the same mistakes.

The best part of this story is the library and the characters who work there. It would make a terrific film. I loved the way Odile references titles and quotes from her favourite books to help her cope, and the way she automatically categorises each book or subject according to the Dewey Decimal System. The point of the dual timeline is to help explain Odile's character and the choices she made forty years previously. It does mean the book seems overlong at times and I wasn't entirely convinced by the ending.

However, the historical detail is amazing and I found myself thinking a lot about the story after I had finished it. Recommended for anyone who loves historical fiction, this was a five-star read for me.

Thank you to Janet Skeslien Charles and Two Roads (John Murray Press) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Review: Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

As per most of the books I read, I was attracted to this one because of the gorgeous cover and intriguing title. I also love reading historical fiction, particularly stories set in Georgian times.

London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline 'Caro' Corsham finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Her last words are "He knows". The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly-paid prostitute, but Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself.

Before I started reading Daughters of Night, I discovered that the author had written a 'companion' book called Blood and Sugar, about the slave trade, so I read that first. The two books are not part of a series, but they feature some of the same characters. Blood and Sugar features Caro's husband, Captain Harry Corsham as the main character. In this story, it is Caro who takes centre stage.

Daughters of Night works on two levels: s an incredibly detailed look at the double-standards of the Georgian aristocracy - basically, do what you like provided you don't get caught - and also a deliciously twisty murder mystery. I thought I had worked everything out but the identity of the murderer took me completely by surprise. Another theme is the lack of power that women had in those days. Their wealth and property became their husbands as soon as they married. This is brought home to Caro when her brother cuts off her funding after she fails to do as she's told. She even begins to wonder if prostitutes, despite the obvious drawbacks to their lives, are far more free than she will ever be.

I can thoroughly recommended both books to anyone who enjoys a cracking good mystery, and for fans of authors such as Andrew Taylor and Antonia Hodgson.

Thank you to Laura Shepherd-Robinson and Mantle (Pan Macmillan) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Review: The Night Hawks (Dr Ruth Galloway Mystery #13) by Elly Griffiths

I love Elly Griffiths's books, particularly her Ruth Galloway series, so I was thrilled to receive an early copy of The Night Hawks. It is a wonderful gothicky murder-mystery, with a nod to The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it's my favourite so far.

Ruth has returned to Norfolk after being offered the role of Head of the Archaeology Department at the university. She is suffering from slight imposter syndrome, not helped by a particular member of staff undermining her at every turn, but she is still DCI Nelson's expert of choice whenever a body is found. In this case, a young man has been found washed up on the beach at Blakeney Point by a group of metal detectorists called The Night Hawks. At first DCI Nelson believes the man drowned accidentally, but then more murders are discovered at the nearby Black Dog Farm - named for the legendary Black Shuck, a harbinger of death... 

The Night Hawks is a fabulous traditional murder mystery, with humour and emotional conflict dished up alongside a fiendishly clever plot. Elly Griffiths takes care to write believable characters you can thoroughly engage with and care about. Ruth has finally landed her dream job, only to be undermined by an irritating mansplainer at every turn. She and DCI Nelson are still involved in their will/they won't they relationship, and fans will be delighted that Cathbad makes an appearance. I loved the gothic edge - a spooky old farm and a legendary ghostly dog. There's even buried 'treasure' - and bodies! I gave up trying to work out who the murderer was and just thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Although this book is number 13 in the series, you don't need to have read the others. Elly explains everyone's backstory deftly and succinctly before getting on with business. The Night Hawks is one of my favourite reads this year. Why isn't it a TV series yet?!!

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

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Saturday, 9 January 2021

Review: The Dressmaker of Paris by Georgia Kaufmann

I was attracted to this book by the absolutely gorgeous cover (a pair of scissors representing the Eiffel Tower). I also love historical novels.

Rosa Kusstatscher has built a global fashion empire upon her ability to find the perfect outfit for any occasion. But tonight, as she prepares for the most important meeting of her life, her usual certainty eludes her. As she struggles to select her dress and choose the right shade of lipstick, Rosa begins to tell her incredible story. The story of a poor country girl from a village high in the mountains of Italy. Of Nazi occupation and fleeing in the night. Of hope and heartbreak in Switzerland; glamour and love in Paris. Of ambition and devastation in Rio de Janeiro; success and self-discovery in New York. A life spent running - but she will run no longer.

The Dressmaker of Paris wasn't quite what I was expecting! I had thought it would be more a glamorous read, like one of those old 80s novels by Judith Krantz or Barbara Taylor Bradford. Instead it is grittier, even a bit dark in places, more like a family saga - so not really for me. The format is a story within a story, meaning we never get right into Rosa's head but witness her life at a distance. However, it is well-written and well-researched, and perfect for anyone who loves 20th century historical fiction, covering the 1930s to the 1990s. A solid four-star read.

Thank you to Georgia Kaufmann and Hodder & Stoughton for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Monday, 28 December 2020

My Top 10 Reads of 2020

According to Goodreads, I've read 114 books this year, the most since I began doing their annual challenges back in 2016. I'm sure this is due to the pandemic! One look at that list and I can immediately see that I've been reading more romance and less crime - although I still have a soft spot for mysteries and cosy crime. (I've never understood why it is called 'cosy' crime!)

It was so hard to pick just ten and impossible to arrange them into any kind of order, so they're listed by publication date. 

Will you find your next read amongst them?

The Queen of Nothing (Folk of the Air #3) by Holly Black

When Jude's human mother left her high-ranking faerie husband for a human blacksmith, her husband tracked her down, murdered her, and took Jude and her  twin sister Taryn back to the faerie world. Since then, Taryn has spent her life keeping her head down and trying to fit in, whereas Jude has spent hers fighting back and trying to gain power. In this story, the last in the series, we find out if all Jude's sacrifices have been worth it.

Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior

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'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, she decides to 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 pays the research centre a visit before agreeing to part with any cash. Much to the horror of the scientists. (via NetGalley)

Family for Beginners by Sarah Morgan

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... (via NetGalley)

Beach Read by Emily Henry

Beach Read
 is the story of two authors suffering from writers' block. January writes romance but no longer believes in happy endings; Gus writes literary fiction but has found himself in a rut. They end up in neighbouring beach houses over the summer, each with a deadline fast approaching. A flippant joke that maybe they should write their books in each other's genres spirals into reality. January takes Gus to the places she uses as settings for her stories, including a country and western bar for a line-dancing adventure, and Gus takes January on one of his research trips - to the burnt-out campus of a cult... (via NetGalley)

The Hidden Beach by Karen Swan

Bel Everhurst is working in Sweden as a nanny for the glamorous Mogert family: Max and Hanna, and their children Linus, Ellinor and Tilde. Out of the blue, Bel receives a phone call meant for Hanna, explaining that her husband has woken up. Bel is confused (She's just seen Max on his bicycle!) but when she passes on the message, Hanna collapses in shock. Hanna's first husband (Linus's father) fell into a coma seven years ago after a terrible accident. Now he's awake - and he wants his family back. (via NetGalley)

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell

Teenager Saffyre Maddox has been self-harming since a childhood trauma. Unable to confide in her therapist, Roan Fours, she becomes obsessed with him instead. She follows him around, learning where he lives and all about his life with his family, and he doesn't suspect a thing. She's become 'invisible'. Owen Pick lives in the house opposite Roan but feels as though no one ever really 'sees' him. He's drifting through life, feeling more out of step with the world every day, until he wakes up to find his face is splashed all over the newspapers and wishes he really 
was invisible. (via NetGalley)

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Four friends meet up once a month to discuss old murder cases to see if they can solve them. Except the four friends live in a retirement village and one day they find themselves with a real murder to investigate. They run rings around the police, who keep underestimating them, because each one of these friends has a particular skill, or a job they used to do in the past, that helps them work as a team to solve the murders. (via NetGalley)

The Postscript Murders (Harbinder Kaur #2) by Elly Griffiths

Peggy Smith was a 'murder consultant'. She advised crime writers on their plots and invented original ways for them to kill off their characters. When she died at the age of 90 in a retirement home, Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur doesn't believe there is anything suspicious about it. Until Peggy's carer is held up at gunpoint - for a book! (via NetGalley)

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? (via NetGalley)

Read the full review here.

Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale

Every night on the long journey to Paris from their troubled homeland, Levon's grandmother reads to her family from 
The Nocturne - a book of fairy stories and heroic adventures of their people who chose to live by starlight, generations ago. With every story she tells, the desire to live as their ancestors did grows. And that is when the magic begins… (via NetGalley)

Have you read any of these? Which were your favourites?

You can see more of the books I've enjoyed reading this year over on Instagram and Goodreads.

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Friday, 27 November 2020

Review: When a Rogue Meets His Match (Greycourt #2) by Elizabeth Hoyt

Elizabeth Hoyt is one of my favourite writers. I love her escapist Georgian romances. I was so excited to receive an early copy of her latest book and I wasn't disappointed. When a Rogue Meets His Match is one of her best.

Gideon Hawthorne is the Duke of Windermere's personal fixer. After clawing his way up from the gutter, there is nothing Gideon wouldn't do to achieve his dream of joining the ranks of the aristocracy. He has the house, he has the money, all he needs now is an aristocratic wife to introduce him to Society so he can start wheeling and dealing. When the Duke offers Gideon his niece, Messalina Greycourt, as a wife (along with her enormous fortune), Gideon can hardly say no - especially since he's been obsessed with Messalina for years. There is, however, one tiny snag. The Duke has one last task for him to carry out. A task that he won't reveal until Gideon and Messalina are wed. So, just how far will Gideon go to receive Messalina's hand in marriage?

The story is one of my favourite tropes, enemies to lovers. Although as the story is told from both Messalina's and Gideon's point of view, we know he's not really a villain! Despite his harsh childhood, Gideon is rather sweet (think: the Beast from Beauty and the Beast) and I fell in love with him immediately. Messalina makes a splendid heroine - she doesn't stand for any of his nonsense. The tension comes from knowing exactly what task the Duke wants Gideon to perform and wondering if Gideon will really go through with it - or how he'll get out of it!

When a Rogue Meets His Match is the second in the Greycourt series (you don't need to have read the first one to enjoy it). About halfway through, future 'own-story' characters begin appearing. I particularly loved the relationship between the laid-back Elspeth and the way she teased Messalina's cake-loving sister, Lucretia. I can't wait for their stories!

I loved When a Rogue Meets His Match and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading historical romance. I know Elizabeth's fans will adore the story, particularly if they've previously enjoyed Scandalous Desires (Maiden Lane #3). It should also appeal to fans of those authors who write slightly grittier historical romances, such as Courtney Milan.

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

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Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Review: Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale

We're people, and people look after each other...

I loved Robert Dinsdale's The Toymakers (it's one of my all-time favourite books) so I couldn't wait to get my hands on Paris by Starlight - and that cover is gorgeous!

Every night on their long journey to Paris from their troubled homeland, Levon’s grandmother has read to them from a very special book. Called The Nocturne, it is a book full of fairy stories and the heroic adventures of their people who generations before chose to live by starlight. With every story that Levon’s grandmother tells them in their new home, the desire to live as their ancestors did grows. And that is when the magic begins…

While Paris by Starlight is a fabulous fairy tale of refugees inadvertently recreating the magical flora and fauna of their home country (I imagined it looking like something out of Avatar), there is a grittier story hidden beneath it, of dispossessed people suffering cruelty and harassment as they try to find sanctuary. Some want to recreate their old world, others just want to blend in. They meet those who want to learn more about their ways and customs, and experience the magic they've brought with them - and those, less friendly, who want them to leave and will do anything to achieve that. 

Sound familiar?

Paris by Starlight is a very clever mix of magic realism and social commentary - which means it might not be for everyone. (It's quite dark in places.) Robert Dinsdale writes beautifully and has an incredible imagination. I loved his 'starlight' world and the sweet romance between Levon and Isabelle as they struggled against all odds. Engaging and very moving, Paris by Starlight is one of my favourite reads this year. Recommended, particularly  for fans of magic realism and authors such as Alice Hoffman. 

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale and Del Rey for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Review: The Ship of Death (The Anglian Detective Agency Series #4) by Vera Morris

I won this book in a competition run by the publisher. I was thrilled because I love reading murder mysteries and the author is new to me, so I might not otherwise have discovered it!

The Ship of Death is the fourth in the series about the Anglian Detective Agency and is set on the Suffolk Coast in the early 1970s. The team are currently investigating a spate of vandalism at a bird sanctuary. Running alongside this is the story of the Breen brothers of Rooks Wood Farm. Their mother has recently died and their father died several years earlier in mysterious circumstances. The older brother is wondering how he can cope with the dual responsibility of trying to keep the farm going while looking after his younger twin, who has a genetic condition causing learning difficulties. When one of the farm workers is found murdered, the Anglian Detective Agency is enlisted to help.

The Ship of Death is a twisty murder mystery with a very authentic setting. I loved the story about the twins, Daniel and Caleb - Daniel's struggles to keep the farm going at the expense of his personal life, and the misery he feels when his estranged uncle turns up and begins to come between him and his brother. It's unusual to read a book set in the 70s (which I am just about old enough to remember!); the sexist attitudes of a couple of characters made me wince, along with the way poor Caleb was treated. Laura was my favourite character, along with Bumper the dog, but I think I suffered from not reading the earlier books - I did get a little confused as to who-was-who in the earlier chapters.

Recommended for anyone who loves traditional detective stories, particularly fans of authors such as Lesley Cookman.

Thank you to Headline Accent for my copy of this book, which I won via a competition and reviewed voluntarily.

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Review: One by One by Ruth Ware

I'm a huge fan of Ruth Ware and was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of her latest, One by One. I was particularly pleased because the wintery setting makes it an absolutely perfect read for this time of year.

One by One is set in one of those exclusive skiing resorts in the Alps. The shareholders and directors of a hip new social media app called Snoop have gathered at a luxury chalet to discuss a prospective buyout. With the group already split, tensions are running high when a massive avalanche hits, isolating them from the outside world. No Internet, no phone signal, the power cuts out and the pipes begin to freeze, but it takes two deaths before they begin to realise that someone might be deliberately picking them off, one by one...

The story is told from two points of view: Liz, who is a minority shareholder in Snoop but feels hopelessly out of her depth, and Erin the housekeeper - who has a few secrets of her own. The story has a slow burn start to allow for a proper introduction to all the characters, but once the avalanche hits the tension really tightens. The last quarter of the book, involving a cat-and-mouse chase through the snow, is extremely exciting. I'm amazed I still have any fingernails left!

One by One (as you might have guessed) is a 'locked room' murder mystery with an affectionate nod to a couple of Agatha Christie's bestsellers. Fans of Ruth Ware's earlier books, particularly In a Dark, Dark Wood, will love it. Recommended, especially on a snowy winter's night...

Thank you to Ruth Ware and Vintage Books (Random House) for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

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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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