Sunday, 30 September 2018

Review: A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan

I was attracted to this book because of the absolutely gorgeous cover and the title. I love, love, love stories about spooky old houses as well as traditional-style murder mysteries. I should probably have paid a bit more attention to the blurb because, while there is both a deliciously haunted house and a clever murder mystery, the story is set in 1917 and is also about spies, secret plans and traitors - which is not normally my thing at all. However, I absolutely loved it!

Donovan (the sole survivor of his regiment) and Kate (employed by the War Office to crack codes) are dispatched by 'C' to a house party at Blackwater Abbey on a remote island just off the Devon coast. Lady Highmount has invited her friends and two psychics to her house for a seance. She is hoping to make contact with her sons who are missing in action, believed dead. Her husband, Lord Highmount, is a man of working class origins who has made his fortune manufacturing weapons. Someone is selling plans of these to the Germans, and it's up to Donovan and Kate to find out who.

While there are plenty of (real) ghosts at Blackthorn Abbey, I think this book would suit readers of murder mysteries best. There are some truly chilling moments (the seance!), but perhaps not enough jump shocks for fans of ghost stories. There are, however, plenty of twists for vintage crime fans and a good puzzle to get their teeth into!

I adored the characters and their sparky dialogue. The action is shared equally between Donovan and Kate; she's a thoroughly modern heroine and not just there to make the hero look good. I really hope this is the first book in a new series, because I would love to read more!

Brilliant stuff! Thoroughly recommended!  

Thank you to W.C. Ryan and Bonnier Zaffre for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

YA fantasy, particularly with fairy tale and folklore references, is my new favourite genre. So that, combined with the beautiful cover, is what drew me to this book.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood is set in the village of Dubossary, on the border of Moldova and the Ukraine, in 1903. It combines traditional folk tales and real-life history (the Russian pograms). The author's note at the back of the book explains which scenes really happened, and how she drew on her own family history for inspiration. The story is about two Jewish sisters, Liba and Laya, who live in a village where Jews and non-Jews live quite happily alongside each other, until a band of handsome men arrive in town to sell the most wonderful fruit at the market - and spread dissent. Suddenly everything bad that happens (deaths and disappearances) is blamed upon the Jews. It's hard to explain more, without going into spoiler territory, so I'll go with what it says on the blurb: 'Faced with a magical heritage they never knew existed, the sisters realise the old fairy tales are true . . . and could save them all.'

While I did enjoy the story (for me, it's a solid four stars) it is aimed firmly at the YA market, so at times I found it a bit teenage-y. Most of the drama deals with the two girls' discovery of who they really are and the pains of first love. The growing tension in the village, and the mystery of who was responsible for the deaths and disappearances, kept me gripped and I read the book very quickly. I found the historical parts fascinating. I liked the characters and thought the way the author alternated the viewpoint of each sister - Liba spoke in prose, Laya's voice was more like poetry - was clever.

However, the amount of Yiddish and Hebrew words at the start of the book made it hard to get into at first (there is a glossary at the back), and while I like stories that reference classic fairy tales and folk tales, I did feel The Sisters of the Winter Wood borrowed a bit too heavily from Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, particularly towards the end. Meaning that if you've read that, you'll have no trouble working out the plot. (The author, in her notes, admits this is deliberate.)

So, while older folk like me might find The Sisters of the Winter Wood lacks crossover appeal, the target audience will love it and probably give it an extra star. 

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

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Review: The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

The Turn of Midnight is the second book in Minette Walters's new historical series. It is set in the 14th century, when the Black Death hit England with devastating consequences. I was desperate to get my hands on this book because I loved the first one in the series, The Last Hours, and I would recommend reading that one first to fully understand and appreciate the characters and their motivation. 

At the end of 1348, the people of Develish have only survived the plague that devastated the rest of country by forcibly isolating themselves. When it seems the pestilence might have finally run its course, former serf Thaddeus Thurkell ventures outside the walls with a band of teenage boys to scout the surrounding villages for food and news of fellow survivors. But to enable Develish to continue to prosper and thrive in this new world, a deception will be necessary. Can Thaddeus pull it off? Because the penalty for his failure will be death ...

The strength of these stories is in the characters. It is impossible not to root for their success and be completely gripped by their adventures. I particularly love Lady Anne, who uses her intelligence and cool logic to outsmart her enemies (usually men who underestimate her!), and former serf Thaddeus, who is determined to rise above his lowly status and is, in fact, far smarter than those who are supposedly his 'betters'. I also loved the way Thaddeus's band of surly teenagers have grown into mature soldiers.

I know very little about this time period and felt the author really brought it alive for me. I do hope someone turns it into TV series! My favourite scenes were when Thaddeus and his men finally see the sea, and their confrontation with one of the villains from the first book. The only negative was that I felt the scene set in Blandeforde went on for a bit too long - I was eager for Thaddeus to get onto his next adventure!

Thoroughly recommended, particularly for anyone who loves gripping, character-led historical fiction.

I was lucky enough to receive an early copy of The Turn of Midnight, which will be published in the UK on the 4th of October 2018.

Thank you to Minette Walters and Allen and Unwin for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Related Review:

The Last Hours (Book 1) by Minette Walters

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Review: The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

Kate Morton is one of my favourite authors and The Forgotten Garden is one of my all-time favourite books, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an early copy of The Clockmaker's Daughter. I really enjoyed the story but wavered between giving it four stars or five stars. However, it was the ending that made me finally settle on four. It's hard to explain, without giving away spoilers, but I was hoping for a kind of Spielberg/Disney fantasy ending (with all the characters' talk of time and space). But as this is a historical and NOT a fantasy, I obviously didn't get one!

The story is in the main part is about a Victorian woman called Birdie, who overcomes her Oliver Twist style background (thieving and picking pockets) and falls in love with an upcoming artist named Edward Radcliffe, before tragedy strikes at a house party in 1862. A woman is murdered, Edward leaves England never to return, and the priceless Radcliffe diamond is lost forever. In the present day Elodie, who works in an archive, finds Edward's satchel and sketchbook, with drawings of a house she thought only existed in a children's fairy story, and is determined to solve the mystery.

I had thought The Clockmaker's Daughter would switch between Birdie and Elodie's viewpoints, like an Eve Chase or Lulu Taylor novel, but instead it told the story of everyone who had lived in Edward's Elizabethan manor house (Birchwood Manor) up until the present day. The only connection between each of these characters is the house and the fact that they have all lost someone - either through a tragic death or removal by distance. It reminded me of The Suffolk Trilogy by Norah Lofts. And this was another reason the rating dropped to a four: I'd rather have read about Birdie, who was a fabulous creation, and Elodie, who kind of disappeared beneath the weight of all these other characters - some of whom I didn't feel added anything to the story. Having said that, I did love how we discovered the ways all the characters were ultimately connected - Elodie's Great-Uncle Tip, for example.

I always love stories about old houses and I loved the mystery of what happened that night in 1862; to Edward and Birdie, the necklace and the painting. I loved the stories of Pale Joe and Ada - she was my favourite character! I think it could have done with being shorter (it's almost 600 pages) and have less characters. Having said that, I was completely gripped and read it very quickly! I really enjoyed the way the stories wrapped around each other and I'm happy to give it a solid four stars. If you're not hung up on ghosts deserving their happy ending along with everyone else, you might want to give it five!

The Clockmaker's Daughter is out in the UK on the 20th of September 2018.

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

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Review: The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse

I've enjoyed Kate Mosse's books in the past, but the thing that made me pick this one up was the word 'gothic' on the cover. I do love gothic novels!

The Taxidermist's Daughter is a historical murder mystery, set in the tiny village of Fishbourne (West Sussex) in 1912. It is a tradition that on the Eve of St Mark's the ghosts of those destined to die in the coming year will be seen walking into the church at midnight. The villagers have gathered in the churchyard to wait and watch, despite the pouring rain. At the appointed time the doors open - and hundreds of tiny birds fly out. It is obviously a message - but for whom? - and while watching from the shadows a woman is murdered...

Connie Gifford lives with her father in the dilapidated Blackthorn House. Huge chunks of her memory are missing after a childhood accident. Once famous for his taxidermy museum, Crowley Gifford is now more interested in drinking himself into oblivion while Connie does most of the work. What secret is Gifford drinking to forget - and is it the same one Connie can't remember?

I loved this story! It is so atmospheric - downright creepy at times - with the sinister house, the constant rain, the encroaching flood waters, the increasing body count and the very creative murderer! It is a bit gory at times though. At the beginning of each chapter is an 'extract' from a history of taxidermy, there are detailed descriptions of Connie's work, and that's before we get to the murders! So, not one for the faint-hearted but definitely recommended!