Thursday, 8 April 2021

Review: Cunning Women by Elizabeth Lee

I was attracted to this book because of the beautiful cover. I also love reading historical novels and fantasy, and had assumed this story would be something like Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman (it's not; it's more folk horror than fantasy) but I still enjoyed the story!

Sarah's family live as outcasts in the ruins of an old village, abandoned since the plague. Her mother is suspected of being a witch, her brother as being a child of the devil - ironic, because it is Sarah who bears the mark signifying she has inherited her mother's skill. But Sarah doesn't want to be a witch. She has fallen in love with a boy from the village and dreams of being a famer's wife. Yet how can there ever be a future for them, with the arrival of a new magistrate determined to root out 'evil'?

Cunning Women is a much darker story than I usually like to read and in some places it is quite grim. The early 1600s was not a fun place to live if you were a woman without a man to protect you, and misogyny was rife.  Sarah and her family live in complete poverty and, despite all attempts to earn a living in a honest way, suffer unfair setbacks at every turn. The themes of prejudice and persecution are very topical today; apparently we haven't learnt a thing in five hundred years.

I was concerned that Cunning Women might be yet another Pendle Witches retelling/re-imagining but it isn't. The historical details are meticulous and the setting atmospheric. I loved the idea of an abandoned plague village, 'haunted' by its former inhabitants, and Sarah's struggle with her identity - who she is versus who she wants to be. The story is very fast-paced and I found it hard to put down. My only complaint is that I'd have liked it to have been longer! Although we find out what happens to the protagonists, there were many threads left loose and several characters that I'd have liked to have seen come to a sticky end! (I was probably hoping for a 'Carrie' moment!)

Recommended to anyone who loves historical stories about real-life 'witches' and the persecutions they faced in 17th century Britain.

Cunning Women will be published in the UK on 22nd April 2021

Thank you to Elizabeth Lee and Windmill Books (Cornerstone/Random House) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.

Monday, 1 March 2021

Review: Win by Harlan Coben

I adore Harlan Coben's fast-paced, cleverly plotted thrillers, so I was excited to see that his new book would feature one of my favourite characters - Windsor Horne Lockwood III from the Myron Bolitar novels.

Over twenty years ago, Win's cousin Patricia was kidnapped from the family home during a robbery and kept in an isolated log cabin for months. She finally escaped, but so did her kidnappers and the items stolen were never seen again - until now. An elderly recluse has been found murdered in his penthouse apartment - alongside a priceless Vermeer painting and a suitcase with Win's initials. How is the man linked to Patricia's kidnapping and is it connected to another cold case involving domestic terrorism? The two cases have baffled the FBI for decades but Win has two things they do not - a personal connection to the case, a large fortune and his own unique brand of justice.

Harlan Coben writes twisty thrillers that often centre on ordinary families. You know, 'What would you do if this happened to you?' I had thought that a story about Win, who is super-rich with a dubious moral code, would be something different. As it turns out, Win does have a family - albeit a very dysfunctional one! - and it was fun meeting them all. I especially loved hearing about his grandmother, a true matriarch of the family.  

In this story (for once) not everything goes the way Win wants, which is entertaining, particularly when one of his misdemeanours comes back to bite him. Not everyone appreciates his 'help' either, and I did enjoy the scene where Sadie has to patiently explain the reason why he really shouldn't get involved with her legal cases: her clients require a different kind of justice to the sort Win likes to dish out.

I've always enjoyed Harlan's standalones but Win was such an enjoyable read I hope it is the start of a new series. One of my favourite reads this year, Harlan's fans definitely won't be disappointed. It should also appeal to fans of twisty thrillers and authors such as Lee Child (Jack Reacher).

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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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.