Monday, 24 April 2017

Book Review - Madam Tulip by David Ahern

Out-of-work actress Derry O'Donnell is young, talented, a teeny bit psychic ... and broke. Spurred on by an ultimatum from her awesomely high-achieving mother, and with a little help from her theatrical friends, Derry embarks on a part-time career as Madam Tulip, fortune-teller to the rich and famous. But at her first fortune-telling gig - a celebrity charity weekend in a castle - a famous rap artist will die.

As Derry is drawn deeper into a seedy world of celebrities, supermodels and millionaires, she finds herself playing the most dangerous role of her acting life. Trapped in a maze of intrigue, money and drugs, Derry's attempts at amateur detective could soon destroy her friends, her ex-lover, her father and herself.

Madame Tulip is the first in a series of Tulip adventures in which Derry O'Donnell, celebrity fortune-teller and reluctant detective, plays the most exciting and perilous roles of her acting life, drinks borage tea, and fails to understand her parents.

Although I read a lot of crime fiction and thrillers it's been a while since I've read a cosy mystery. However, having enjoyed the genre in the past I was delighted when David Ahern contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reading Madam Tulip.
As the first book in what will be a series of Madam Tulip books (there is already a second book, Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts, with a third book on the way) the story builds slowly as first we are introduced to the characters and their relationships to one another, setting the scene for the crime that Derry inadvertently becomes involved in. As the lead character it is vital that Derry O'Donnell has enough depth to be an engaging protagonist who can carry a series. Thankfully she is exactly that. She is intelligent, resourceful and self deprecating, and by cleverly giving her an alter ego (the eponymous Madam Tulip) the author has provided her not only with a reason for becoming involved with a situation where a crime occurs but also with an alternative method for interacting with the other characters. The use of her second sight makes for an interesting twist and I was pleased to note, not overdone. It provides her - and us - with clues but they are never straightforward and still require solving using the more traditional cosy mystery methods of solving crimes - snooping and luck. The secondary characters are also well written, I particularly enjoyed the relationship Derry has with her parents - and they have with each other; it's probably best described as somewhat dysfunctional yet written with a light touch that makes any disagreements more comedic than bitter. The crime that kick starts Derry's amateur sleuthing isn't particularly unusual, a rap singer dies at the first charity fundraiser Madam Tulip has been engaged to attend. After being privy to certain conversations Derry quickly realises his death isn't an accident. Nevertheless it builds into a well constructed mystery with some real tension alongside the humour.
I really enjoyed Madam Tulip, it was a pleasure to remind myself of how much fun lighter crime fiction can be. I'm looking forward to finding out what mystery she finds herself involved with next!
Many thanks to the author for my copy of Madam Tulip, received in return for my honest review.

Madam Tulip is published by Malin Press and can be purchased here.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Book Review - How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

'I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.'

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he's been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life.

Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover - working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he'd never witnessed them first-hand. He can try and tame the past that is fast catching up with him. The only thing Tom mustn't do is fall in love.

How to Stop Time is a wild and bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself, about the certainty of change and about the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live.

'I have been in love only once in my life. I suppose that makes me a romantic, in a sense. The idea that you have one true love, that no one else will compare after they have gone. It’s a sweet idea , but the reality is terror itself. To be faced with all those lonely years after. To exist when the point of you has gone.'
The Humans by Matt Haig is the first book I reviewed on Hair Past a Freckle and pretty much the reason why this blog exists. It remains my most recommended book and the one that means the most to me. It was the book I needed when I most needed books.
Four years on and How To Stop Time is Haig's first adult fiction book since The Humans. He's not been quiet in the meantime having written a young adult novel, Echo Boy, a self-help memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, and two books for children, A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas. Having read them all (as well as his previous novels The Radleys, The Last Family in England, Shadow Forest and The Runaway Troll.) I know a little of what to expect from his books. I don't know if there's an author writing today who is better than Haig at making it seem as if his book is written with you in mind. He has a deep understanding of the human condition and writes with such honesty and clarity that his books become more than just stories, they are beacons of hope in what are troubled times.
How To Stop Time continues this theme, again Haig's principal character - in this case Tom Hazard - needs to learn what it means to live. Tom doesn't have any problem staying alive, in fact he's over 400 years old, but forced to move every few years before people become suspicious by his much slower ageing rate ('The speed of ageing among those with anageria fluctuates a little, but generally it is a 1: 15 ratio') and the knowledge that his condition means he is dangerous to become close to has led to a lonely existence. Despite leading what many would consider an extraordinary life, born in 1581, he has spent time with Shakespeare, had a drink with F. Scott Fitzgerald, sailed to the South Sea Islands and watched as mayflies (humans who age naturally, Tom and others like him are albas - short for albatrosses, once thought to live to a great age) have invented bicycles, cars, the telephone, television and the internet, he craves an ordinary life.  Now working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive he finds himself drawn to Camille, the French teacher but he knows he should heed the warning from Hendrich, leader of The Albatross Society and facilitator of his new lives every few years - in return for certain 'favours'...
‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,’ he said. ‘There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love . No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.’
Living in London means Tom is surrounded by memories from his long past. How to Stop Time isn't written chronologically, something in Tom's present will remind him of past events and we're transported there. Haig writes so vividly that these scenes are always far more than distant memories. His evocation of the sights, smells and sounds bring Tom's past to life;
'It was an area, essentially, of freedom. And the first thing I discovered about freedom was that it smelled of shit. Of course, compared to now, everywhere in or out of London smelled of shit. But Bankside, in particular, was the shittiest . That was because of the tanneries dotted about the place . There were five tanneries all in close proximity, just after you crossed the bridge. And the reason they stank, I would later learn, was because tanners steeped the leather in faeces.
As I walked on, the smell fused into others. The animal fat and bones from the makers of glue and soap. And the stale sweat of the crowd. It was a whole new world of stench.'
 By having a plot with a meandering timeline we are reminded that history isn't just something that happened long ago, we are history too. Tom may use social media now but he recognises how we are linked to the past, how the conflicts, superstitions and oppressive regimes from previous centuries are lessons we never really learn from. He has seen people repeat the same mistakes over and over, the contemporary setting providing a sharp reminder that we still haven't learnt and still allow our differences to divide us.
How to Stop Time is a beautiful book, it's not a word I would use often to describe a novel but it's completely charming. From the simple wish to prepare breakfast for a loved one ('Toast. Blackcurrant jam. Pink grapefruit juice. Maybe some watermelon. Sliced. On a plate.')  to the description of 19th century New York ('But I looked at the New York skyline and felt like the world was dreaming bigger. Clearing its throat. Getting some confidence.'), to the heartbreaking despair of loss ('I did not know how to be me, my strange and unusual self, without her. I had tried it, of course. I had existed whole years without her, but that was all it had been.') I fell in love with it within the first few pages, it's a book that celebrates the things we all need to make us feel human - music, art, food, love. Haig's writing of what happens inside heads though gives How to Stop Time its heart. He writes with his soul which gives the book a touching honesty and although it may be a fantastical story of a 400 year old man, it's actually telling a universal truth, that life needs to be lived. For all the hurt, the losses along the way, we can't allow fear of grief to prevent us from experiencing the joys of living, to allow ourselves to hope and to love and be loved.
Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy, received through Netgalley in return for this review.

How to Stop Time will be published in the UK by Canongate on 6th July 2017. You can follow Matt Haig on Twitter as @MattHaig1 and Canongate as @canongatebooks.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Book Review - Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty

Fresh from events in Yemen and Cyprus, vigilante justice-seeker Claymore Straker returns to South Africa, seeking absolution for the sins of his past. Over four days, he testifies to Desmond Tutu’s newly established Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recounting the shattering events that led to his dishonourable discharge and exile, fifteen years earlier. 

It was 1980. The height of the Cold War. Clay is a young paratrooper in the South African Army, fighting in Angola against the Communist insurgency that threatens to topple the White Apartheid regime. On a patrol deep inside Angola, Clay, and his best friend, Eben Barstow, find themselves enmeshed in a tangled conspiracy that threatens everything they have been taught to believe about war, and the sacrifices that they, and their brothers in arms, are expected to make. Witness and unwitting accomplice to an act of shocking brutality, Clay changes allegiance and finds himself labelled a deserter and accused of high treason, setting him on a journey into the dark, twisted heart of institutionalised hatred, from which no one will emerge unscathed. 

Back in 2015 I was sent a copy of The Abrupt Physics of Dying, an eco thriller by a debut author, the CWA John Creasy Award nominee Paul E. Hardisty. It should have been the sort of book that left me cold, big action thrillers are not my thing. Instead I fell in love, both with Claymore Straker and Hardisty's writing. This love was confirmed in the follow up last year, The Evolution of Fear and I've been eagerly waiting this latest instalment since then.
Reconciliation for the Dead sees Straker returning to his South African homeland. After the events in Yemen and Cyprus he has decided it's time to confront his past and has agreed to testify before Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although ostensibly set shortly after Cyprus, the book is actually more of a prequel, with the action set in Angola as we meet the young Claymore Straker and learn of the terrible events that lead not only to his dishonourable discharge from the army but also to the psychologically damaged man we know from the first two books. This is the book that takes us not only into Clay's dark past but also to South Africa's shameful history when their army fought Communism in neighbouring Angola in order to protect their own Apartheid regime. 
As always Hardisty has written an uncompromising and brutal action thriller. He doesn't sanitize war, it's ugly and vicious, there are multiple deaths, a vicious rape and always the stench not only of blood and sweat but also of corruption. 
What Hardisty also achieves though is superlative characterisation, he never sacrifices top quality character development for the complex, exciting plot. Claymore has always been a deeply engaging lead character, a tenacious justice-seeker who is prepared to take any steps both to survive and to expose the truth and yet still a man deeply tormented by the things he has seen and done. This is where we finally learn why he is so troubled, the court transcripts from his testimony a reminder that the older Straker is still desperate to atone for his past. The young Straker is forced to re-evaluate  everything he knows and ultimately loses some of himself as he becomes torn between his country and the search for the truth. The secondary cast isn't forgotten either, both his allies and those who seek to harm him are vividly realised. We are finally properly introduced to Eben, the friend we first met as a horrifically injured veteran in the first book is brought to life here making his eventual fate all the more tragic. Rania appears only briefly this time, instead he meets two new female characters, Zulaika and Vivian, both strong and brave women who play pivotal roles in the story. His enemies are truly evil, as always Hardisty's research means the plot is firmly influenced by real life events and the horrific research into chemical and biological warfare makes for chilling reading. As Straker gradually reveals the truth about his past he is questioned by the various commissioners and even in these brief transcripts Hardisty has ensured that each panel member has a clear and distinct voice, we know who is sympathetic to him and who is suspicious of the role he played.
Reconciliation for the Dead is perhaps the highlight of a superb trilogy, it's a powerful and honest look at war, inhumanity, brutality and the need for forgiveness. It's a complex and engaging thriller that never forgets that the lead character is a human being who is deeply affected by the events that shape his life and lead to him taking the lives of others. My love affair continues and I look forward to Straker's next outing knowing I'm in for another another superb book at the hands of an author who is truly on top of his game.
Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy, received in return for my honest review.

Reconciliation for the Dead will be published by Orenda Books on 30th May 2017. You can follow Orenda on Twitter as @OrendaBooks and Paul E. Hardisty as @Hardisty_Paul .


Saturday, 1 April 2017

Book Review - The Idea of You by Amanda Prowse

With her fortieth birthday approaching, Lucy Carpenter thinks she finally has it all: a wonderful new husband, Jonah, a successful career and the chance of a precious baby of her own. Life couldn’t be more perfect.
But becoming parents proves much harder to achieve than Lucy and Jonah imagined, and when Jonah’s teenage daughter Camille comes to stay with them, she becomes a constant reminder of what Lucy doesn’t have. Jonah’s love and support are unquestioning, but Lucy’s struggles with work and her own failing dreams begin to take their toll. With Camille’s presence straining the bonds of Lucy’s marriage even further, Lucy suddenly feels herself close to losing everything…
This heart-wrenchingly poignant family drama from bestselling author Amanda Prowse asks the question: in today’s hectic world, what does it mean to be a mother?

The Idea of You is a departure from the usual books I read but I know Amanda Prowse has a devoted readership and the subject of this book is something I can identify with. I have three daughters now but have also had three miscarriages and having read some early reviews of The Idea of You knew that pregnancy loss was a main theme of the book so decided it was time to try something different.
Many people who read this book will also have first hand knowledge of pregnancy loss and so it's important to point out that the subject is sensitively handled. However, it's also (quite rightly) covered honestly, this isn't a book that deals in euphemisms when it comes to miscarriages. I believe this is entirely correct, despite being so common there still seems to be a stigma surrounding miscarriage so although this is a work of fiction I applaud the author for her open approach to the subject.
Although Lucy and Jonah's struggles to have a baby form the main thrust of the story, relationships are also an emotive theme. At first the couple seem to have an almost prefect marriage but various pressures soon end up putting their relationship under strain. I have to admit that at times I struggled to warm to the characters in the book. I had conflicting feelings about Lucy,she often seemed very naive for a successful business woman  and I found her inability to discuss her problems openly to be frustrating at times. This is addressed as the book progresses and I became more sympathetic towards her later in the story. Jonah, I felt in some ways was almost a peripheral character and after a promising beginning I found him somewhat self obsessed although again I did feel sympathy for him as the book progressed. I actually found the relationship between Lucy and her stepdaughter, Camille to be the most interesting part of the book and really enjoyed the ups and downs between the two as they struggle to understand one another. Their relationship actually felt more believable to me than Lucy and Jonah's marriage which seemed to be either too idealised or near to falling apart. 
The Idea of You is a warm and empathetic book that handles universal subjects with sensitivity and an honest clarity. I'm probably not quite a convert to family dramas but am very glad to have read it and can understand why so many people love Amanda Prowse's books.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

The Idea of You is published by Lake Union Publishing.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book Review - Lie to Me by Jess Ryder

We’re going to tell our story and then it will all stop and Mummy will be safe. You want Mummy to be safe, don’t you?

Three minutes. That’s all it takes for Meredith’s entire world to fall apart when she watches the videotape of her four-year-old self with Becca, the mother she’s never known.

Meredith can’t believe what her eyes have seen. Yet what if her memory has locked away the painful reality of her childhood? Can there be any truth in the strange and dangerous story her mother forced her to tell on camera? 

The search for answers leads Meredith to Darkwater Pool, the scene of the murder of a young woman, Cara, over 30 years ago. What could possibly be the link between her mother and the victim?

To find the truth Meredith must search through a past that is not her own. The problem is, she’s not the only one looking.

A dark, compulsive psychological thriller that will keep you up all night. Perfect for fans of Paula Hawkins and Louise Jensen.

What happens when you discover your memories of your childhood might be a lie, and worse you could be linked to a murder? When Meredith finds a decades old video tape of herself as a four year year old she doesn't expect that just a few minutes later her life will be turned upside down. Driven to find out more she embarks on a search that will not only change what she knows about herself, it will also threaten her life.
The book is predominantly told from Meredith's point of view, it is mostly through her investigation that we gradually learn the truth of what happened years ago. However, some chapters are also seen through either the eyes of the murder victim, Cara or the man acquitted of killing her, Christopher Jay. I always enjoy books with multiple narrators, particularly when, as here, they feature different time settings. Meredith's story is told in the present, Cara's in the past, with Jay serving as the link between the two. Each chapter has a clear narrative voice with good, defined characterisation. Meredith is a likeable protagonist on the whole although perhaps although she sometimes felt a little immature albeit for reasons that become clear later. Cara is a genuine, slightly naive young woman and there's an underlying poignancy to her words, knowing her eventual fate. Other characters are less easy to warm to, although the author still manages to elicit some sympathy for even the most unpleasant of them.
The mystery itself unfolds with a few twists but I wasn't altogether surprised by the resolution. The story eventually builds to one tense scene that is the gripping moment I was waiting for, although I'd have perhaps liked a few more sections that set my heart racing. However, I mostly found Lie to Me an enjoyable and well structured thriller with a absorbing mystery and a satisfying conclusion. An excellent debut then and I look forward to reading more from Jess Ryder in the future.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

Lie to Me will be published in the UK on 19th April 2017 by Bookouture.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Book Review - The Escape by C.L. Taylor

Look after your daughter's things. And your daughter

When a stranger asks Jo Blackmore for a lift she says yes, then swiftly wishes she hadn't.

The stranger knows Jo's name, she knows her husband Max and she's got a glove belonging to Jo's two year old daughter Elise.

What begins with a subtle threat swiftly turns into a nightmare as the police, social services and even Jo's own husband turn against her.

No one believes that Elise is in danger. But Jo knows there's only one way to keep her child safe RUN.

The Sunday Times bestseller returns with her biggest and best book yet. The perfect read for fans of Paula Hawkins and Clare Mackintosh.

The idea of a stranger threatening your child would strike fear into any parent, The Escape has a menacing opening when Paula, the woman Jo Blackmore gives a lift to does just that. She says that she's lost something but Jo's husband Max may know where it is, then leaves with her terrifying words lingering behind her, The message to keep an eye on her daughter.
It quickly becomes apparent that Jo lives in constant fear of something happening to her daughter as she suffers from agoraphobia and anxiety, has to force herself to leave the house and isn't even able to take Elise to the park because of her fears. It transpires that she's had a panic attack in the past, believing she was being watched, and when Max says he's never heard of Paula, doubt creeps in. Is Elise really in danger? And if so who is she is danger from? As events spiral out of Jo's control and it seems that everybody is against her, Jo makes the decision to run away. After the ratcheting up of tension on the first part of the book, the story moves to Ireland and gradually we learn more about Jo, Max and the landlady, Mary who Jo and Elise end up staying with.
The story is mostly told from Jo's point of view, she is a character you feel immediate sympathy for although that is tempered occasionally with frustration at the choices she makes and although the storyline suggests her innocence the author has cleverly allowed some doubt to remain. Her husband, Max is far less likeable although there are moments where I did feel sympathetic to the plight of a man facing the loss of his child and the breakdown of his marriage. Paula is almost a peripheral character yet it is her threats that drive the action. Occasionally the story is told from the perspective of Jo's attacker and although these passages are short they add to the growing sense of terror. Having a secondary plot featuring the landlady Mary who lost her own daughter many years previously could have distracted from the story but actually it adds a welcome second layer that eventually explains the actions of a few characters and ends up becoming an important factor in the resolution of the story.
I quickly became immersed in The Escape, it's a gripping thriller that focuses on domesticity. As much as it's an exciting and tense story it's also a searing look at the breakdown of a marriage, at the lies people tell and the words that are left unspoken or should never be said. The story is ultimately about the fear of losing a child and the steps people will go to prevent that happening and it's that sense of dread that persists throughout The Escape and makes it so easy to relate to.
Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy received through Netgalley in return for my honest review.

The Escape is published in the UK by Avon Books

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Book Review - Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski

1997. Scarclaw Fell. The body of teenager Tom Jeffries is found at an outward bound centre. Verdict? Misadventure. But not everyone is convinced. And the truth of what happened in the beautiful but eerie fell is locked in the memories of the tight-knit group of friends who took that fateful trip, and the flimsy testimony of those living nearby. 2017. Enter elusive investigative journalist Scott King, whose podcast examinations of complicated cases have rivalled the success of Serial, with his concealed identity making him a cult internet figure. In a series of six interviews, King attempts to work out how the dynamics of a group of idle teenagers conspired with the sinister legends surrounding the fell to result in Jeffries’ mysterious death. And who’s to blame… As every interview unveils a new revelation, you’ll be forced to work out for yourself how Tom Jeffries died, and who is telling the truth. A chilling, unpredictable and startling thriller, Six Stories is also a classic murder mystery with a modern twist, and a devastating ending.

Six Stories has a unique premise although the basis for the murder mystery may seem familiar. A group of teenagers staying in a remote outward bound centre in a bleak and unforgiving landscape is the stuff of horror movies. Matt Wesolowski, in his debut novel, has taken this oft repeated plot though and given it a fresh and modern spin. What happened to Tom Jeffries is gradually revealed to the reader through a series of podcasts. If I had any sort of impulse control I may have tried reading one chapter, or podcast daily to emulate the experience of viewing a serialised podcast. I am not that person however, and read the entire book in less than two days! Each podcast is an interview conducted by investigative journalist, Scott King, with various people who were somehow involved in the events leading to the discovery of Tom Jeffries' body, a year after his disappearance. By only allowing us to hear from one point of view at a time we are reminded that there is not always one simple truth and as each person tells of their own memories and chooses what to reveal or conceal we are only drip-fed the whole story. For me there was a definite sense of detachment about Six Stories, although I could empathise with certain aspects - bullying is a constant theme in the books for instance. However, rather than this being a drawback I enjoyed the experience of not feeling so emotionally involved in the lives of the characters and instead being able to just experience the unfolding of the mystery with each revelation. Scarclaw Fell is simultaneously immediately familiar to anyone who has ever been on an outward bound school trip to an isolated location and ominously mysterious. Although mostly set outside there is a constant claustrophobic feeling, this is an environment that seems to want to consume the unwary and the stories of the Belkeld Beast and Nanna Wrack add a creeping sense of foreboding and terror to the proceedings.
I don't want to give anything away about the truth of what happened to Tom Jeffries suffice to say that despite having some of my suspicions proved correct I was still shocked by certain revelations. Six Stories may be about a murder but it is about the commonplace, the universal fears, worries and ordeals that teenagers on the brink of adulthood face. However, it also has an eerie, almost otherworldly sense to it. Despite being about a twenty year old case there is still a creeping feeling of danger and trepidation. To combine the ordinary and the almost mythological and to do so in such a unique style is a real testament to the skill and craft of the author. Six Stories is one of the most memorable books I've read in a long time and I think Matt Wesolowski will be a name to look out for.
Many thanks to Orenda Books for my advance copy in return for this review. Six Stories is available to buy now.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Book Review - The Girl Who Beat Isis by Farida Khalaf with Andrea C. Hoffman

The Girl Who Beat Isis is a factual retelling of Farida Khalaf's horrific story based on a series of interviews Andrea Hoffman conducted with her in a refugee camp in Iraq. It is one of the most difficult and upsetting books I have ever read. It is also one of the most important.
The book begins in 2014, Farida lives in a small village in northern Iraq with her parents and four brothers. As Kurdish Yazidis they maintain friendly and commercial relations with neighbouring Muslim Arabs but it's still an uneasy relationship, mostly due to a religious misunderstanding that has meant Yazidis are believed to be devil worshippers. However, life for Farida is good. Although her father has taught her how to use a Kalashnikov in case she ever needs to help defend her family, it seems that as she enters her final year of school, and with a gift for Mathematics, a bright future is assured. She hopes to train to become a Maths teacher but in 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh, or more usually in western countries, Isis) were just beginning their reign of terror. As Isis soldiers pour into Iraq from neighbouring Syria, Farida and her family are at first convinced the Iraqi army and then the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) will successfully push them back over the border. That swiftly proves to be a false hope and when Isis comes to Farida's village they are ruthlessly and terrifyingly efficient in gaining control. After refusing to convert to Islam, the men in the village are removed from the camp, the gunfire heard moments later an ominous suggestion as to their probable fate. Then all the older girls and young women - including Farida - are taken away from their families too. What follows is a horrific account of the abuse, both sexual and physical endured at the hands of Isis soldiers by young girls like Farida and her friend, Evin who is taken alongside her. They become sex slaves, sold alongside scores of other women and girls at brutal, dehumanising markets. Despite being bought and sold several times, being raped by her successive 'owners' and enduring vicious beatings, Farida continues to resist as best as she can, eventually managing to escape into the Syrian desert with a small group of other Yazidi girls.
The Girl Who Beat Isis is the book that makes the statistics become personal. Only recently human rights lawyer Amal Clooney spoke about the Yazidi genocide. Since 2014 over 5,000 Yazidis have been killed, 5,000-7,000 Yazidi women been abducted, and approximately 500,000 Yazidi civilians are now refugees. Farida's story is a graphic account of what these people are being subjected to, the violence and oppression are starkly described here. Her courage in resisting her captors and surviving despite the worst atrocities is remarkable. It reminds us that despite all the political discourse about refugees, at the heart of this war are ordinary people whose lives have been changed forever and who deserve our every assistance.
This will not be a book you enjoy, it will make you angry, it will make you cry, it will make you sick to your very core. And that is why you need to read it.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

The Girl Who Beat Isis is published in the UK by Square Peg, an imprint of Vintage Publishing.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Candy Wolf - a short story by Maggie, aged 9

Yesterday I posted a picture of the author's bio my 9 year old daughter, Maggie had written to accompany her short story. If any children's authors ever wonder if their 'about the author' is read by their young readers - here's your answer!

A few people said they'd love to read her story. So here it is - I've taken screenshots of her work to retain the font and formatting she chose. Obviously all rights remain with the author, Maggie Cole!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Book Review - Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar

The Life of Pi meets The Martian in dazzling literary debut spanning duplicitous love, political intrigue, a historical riddle and a cloud of spacedust over Venus.

'Spaceman of Bohemia is unforgettable: a work of breathtaking scope and heart, and a reflection of humanity that's raw and strange and profound and true’

Lisa McInerney, Baileys-Prize-winning author of The Glorious Heresies

Set in the near-distant future, Spaceman follows a Czech astronaut as he launches into space to investigate a mysterious dust cloud covering Venus, a suicide mission sponsored by a proud nation. Suddenly a world celebrity, Jakub's marriage starts to fail as the weeks go by, and his sanity comes into question. After his mission is derailed he must make a violent decision that will force him to come to terms with his family's dark political past.

An extraordinary vision of the endless human capacity to persist-and risk everything-in the name of love and home, by a startlingly talented young debut novelist.

I finished Spaceman of Bohemia a few days ago and I'm still struggling to find the right words to describe this extraordinary book. It's science fiction but it's also historical fiction, literary fiction and more simply, a story of a young man trying to come to terms with his past.
The young man in question is Jakub Procházka and the near future of spring 2018 he becomes the Czech Republic's first astronaut when his space shuttle, the JanHusl1 is launched from a state owned potato field. His mission is to capture particles from the mysterious Chopra cloud that has formed between the Earth and Venus, bathing 'Earth’s nights in purple zodiacal light, altering the sky we had known since the birth of man.' after a previously undiscovered comet entered the Milky Way. On the long solo mission Jakub has little else to do but think about his life, his relationship with his father, his grandparents and his wife, Lenka. It soon becomes clear that his relationship with his wife is under strain and the distance between them is more than just the miles. However, it transpires that Jakub isn't as isolated as he thought - he's sharing the JanHusl1 with a giant arachnid alien with thirty-four eyes and rather disturbingly, red human lips and the yellow teeth of a smoker. The spider-alien calls Jakub, 'Skinny human' and becomes the conduit to our finding out more about Jakub's life. This for me is actually the crux of the novel, while I enjoyed the science fiction it's the story behind it, the reasons for Jakub leaving Earth on a potentially fatal mission that makes the book so enjoyable. Kalfař has managed to sublimely blend the often absurd with a riveting social history. As the Velvet Revolution brings about the end of Communism, the teenage Jakub is forced to confront uncomfortable truths about his father's role in the regime. His simple rural life with his grandparents is evocatively told and a striking juxtaposition with his life in deep space. We gradually learn of the events that eventually lead him from a life where slaughtering the pig is a village highlight to conversing with a Nutella loving giant spider aboard the JanHusl1. He's also forced to examine his relationship with his wife and learns that his memories may not tell the whole story.  Ultimately the Spaceman of Bohemia is about the universal truths; love, forgiveness, betrayal, acceptance and understanding. It may be a book set in the future but by also looking back at the past we are reminded of humanity's perpetual ability to persist despite our repeated failings. I suspect some people may be put off by the strangeness of the plot. I can only urge you to put your misgivings aside. This is a book that manages to be both playful and profound, it exposes both the brutal Communist regime and the often ridiculous commodification of daily life, it is satire and it is sentimental. Jaroslav Kalfař's debut is unforgettable; weird, funny, sad, touching and a melting pot of themes that combine to create a truly unique work of fiction.
Many thanks to the author and publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

Spaceman of Bohemia will be published in the UK by Spectre Books on 9th March 2017

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Book Review- Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey

In the chilling new crime novel from award-winning author Jane Casey, Detective Maeve Kerrigan and the murder squad must navigate a web of lies to discover the truth…

A murder without a body
Eighteen-year-old Chloe Emery returns to her West London home one day to find the house covered in blood and Kate, her mother, gone. There may not be a body, but everything else points to murder.

A girl too scared to talk
Maeve Kerrigan is young, ambitious and determined to prove she’s up to her new role as detective sergeant. She suspects Chloe is holding something back, but best friend Bethany Norris won’t let Maeve get close. What exactly is Bethany protecting Chloe from?

A detective with everything to prove
As the team dig deeper into the residents of Valerian Road, no one is above suspicion. All Maeve needs is one person to talk, but that’s not going to happen. Because even in a case of murder, some secrets are too terrible to share.

Let the Dead Speak is actually the seventh Maeve Kerrigan book, and true to form the first I have read. Thankfully it mostly works well as a stand alone book but I did feel I would have benefitted from knowing more about the history of Maeve and her fellow officers, particularly Josh Derwent, so if possible I would recommend reading the books in order if you can. However, this is still a fantastically gripping novel and has persuaded me to read the rest of the series.
The mystery itself rests on the copious amount of blood discovered by Chloe Emery in her home. The police quickly determine that this much blood loss has to mean a murder, and yet there is no body. Chloe's mum, Kate is missing so is she the victim and how are the police going to investigate when it seems that everybody they speak to is holding something back? Let the Dead Speak is a terrific police procedural for anybody who enjoys a thriller with a compelling mystery. It combines a strong plot with complex and well-drawn characters - the investigators and those under suspicion. Although the story has an intriguing premise it is this sharp characterisation that for me really made the story. The intricacies of the various relationships in the book give it a real heart. Some of the characters are immensely unlikeable but nevertheless still interesting, and even those who are more sympathetic are still flawed and  multidimensional. Some of my suspicions were realised but part of the fun of reading a thriller is being proven right and there were still plenty of twists I was surprised by. I'm delighted to have been introduced to Maeve Kerrigan and knowing I now have six more books featuring her is an extra treat.
Many thanks to the publishers, Harper Collins UK for my advance copy received from Netgalley in return for this review.

Let the Dead Speak will be on sale in the UK from 9th March 2017.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Book Review - The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

'Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.'
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church.
But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods...
Atmospheric and enchanting, with an engrossing adventure at its core, The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for readers of Naomi Novik's Uprooted, Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, and Neil Gaiman.

The Bear and the Nightingale begins with an old lady sat by an oven, telling a fairy tale to four children. And that's what this book is, a fairy tale set in old Russia and the sort of book that begs to be read curled up by the fire with the wind howling outside. The four children are the offspring of Pyotr Vladimirovich, boyar of lands in the wilderness of the country. He is married to Marina, daughter of Ivan I and his mysterious wife said to be able to tame animals, dream the future, and summon rain. Pyotr and Marina's fifth child, Vasilisa (Vasya) is born during the screaming winds of November and her mother dies shortly afterwards. She grows to be, 'an ugly little girl:skinny as a reed-stem with long-fingered hands and enormous feet'.' but with 'eyes the colour of the forest during a summer thunderstorm,'. She is a wild, headstrong girl at a time when young women were supposed to become obedient wives or join the convent. Vasya, though sees house and forest spirits and learns to talk with horses. Life changes irrevocably for Vasya with the arrival of her stepmother and an impossibly handsome and ambitious young priest. Although Russia has converted to Christianity the old beliefs still persist and families leave offerings for their domovoi (house spirit) but Father Konstantin convinces them they are demons and stokes the fear of the villagers causing them to renounce their old ways and mistrust those who don't. As crops fail, death comes more often to a village that already struggles with its long, harsh winters. Evil is at large, Vasya knows it but what can she do when people believe she is a witch?
There is so much to love about The Bear and the Nightingale, old Russia with its realities of a life shaped by the seasons in a harsh environment is evocatively brought to life. Katherine Arden has a magical way with words, 
'But the wind remained. Harder and harder it blew, wordless, flinging clouds across the moon, and the wind smelled blessedly of snow.'
Vasya's family may live in a time and place very different from our own but their relationship to each other is still somehow deeply familiar. They tease, fight, love and worry and just their ordinary domestic lives, their unrelenting struggle to survive another year is a completely immersive story even before the fantasy element is added. It is the fantasy though that lies at the heart of this book, from the spirits Vasya communicates with - the domovoi, vodianoy, vazila and rusalka - to Morozko, the frost-demon, to something or someone even more terrifying, The Bear and The Nightingale is a rich folkloric fairy tale that wove its magic around me. I just wish then that the final part of the book didn't feel quite so rushed. I had been gently drawn in by the story, the pace of the first two thirds of the book feel quite slow and the darkness that threatens Vasya and her community is more hinted at than expressed. As the truth is revealed I was initially enthralled but then it just felt as if it petered out. Storylines were unfinished and the ending itself while intriguing didn't feel right. If a sequel is planned then it all makes much more sense but as a standalone book I felt that although not everything needs to be said, some of what was missed out meant for a less satisfying conclusion than ideally I'd have liked. However, despite these reservations and minor disappointment I did really enjoy the book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy and fancies a change from elves and dragons.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy, received through Netgalley in return for my review.

The Bear and the Nightingale is published in the UK by Del Rey, a Penguin UK imprint.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Book Review - Sealskin by Su Bristow

Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous … and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives – not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?

Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who can transform into people – Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. With exquisite grace, Exeter Novel Prize-winner Su Bristow transports us to a different world, subtly and beautifully exploring what it means to be an outsider, and our innate capacity for forgiveness and acceptance. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable.

I first read about Sealskin a few months ago and have been quietly stalking it ever since, I do love magical realism books and this one sounded exactly my cup of tea. The very first line of the book immediately drew me in,
"You can't trust moonlight."
Yet within a few pages I felt a little uneasy, Donald's actions made me feel very uncomfortable and while I have no issue with violence in books I wasn't expecting it here and it did make me question whether it was the book I expected. The answer is no, it probably isn't but what I took from the story was so much more profound and unforgettable. I'm glad I decided to read on because what follows is a masterclass in evocative storytelling. The characterisation, the scene setting, the plot, all combine into a truly wonderful story. Yes, there is that dreadful act at the start but it's worth remembering that traditional fairy tales were often violent and the myth that inspired Sealskin is no different and while inexcusable it was the moment that necessarily determines what follows.
Donald's actions that night shape not just his life but the lives of his entire community, and it's a community that although necessarily tight-knit - these are people living tough lives, dictated to by the land, weather and frequently cruel sea - has a darker side. Mhairi's introduction changes them all irrevocably, secrets are uncovered, truths told and lessons, sometimes reluctantly, learnt. What I loved was seeing all the characters grow, even those who initially seem unlikeable are touched in some way by a remarkable woman who may not have the power of human speech but is somehow still able to  to transform their lives.
If I lived alone I would have forgotten to eat, so immersed was I in this little village on the west coast of Scotland. It is so beautifully crafted, so richly described and, despite it's mythic inspiration actually a book that reveals an enduring truth about human frailties and strengths, about love, forgiveness, acceptance and loss. It will be a book I will be recommending for years to come, certain books come along that touch something inside of you, and Sealskin is one of those books.

Many thanks to Orenda for my review copy. And some more good news from Orenda, they now have an ebook store, check it out for exciting and original fiction from across the world!

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Book Review - The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell

Feodora and her mother live in the snowbound woods of Russia, in a house full of food and fireplaces. Ten minutes away, in a ruined chapel, lives a pack of wolves. Feodora's mother is a wolf wilder, and Feo is a wolf wilder in training. A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: it is a person who teaches tamed animals to fend for themselves, and to fight and to run, and to be wary of humans.

When the murderous hostility of the Russian Army threatens her very existence, Feo is left with no option but to go on the run. What follows is a story of revolution and adventure, about standing up for the things you love and fighting back. And, of course, wolves.

My 9yo daughter is now a fluent reader but we still enjoying sharing a good book together at bedtime and with her favourite animal being a wolf we were both looking forward to The Wolf Wilder. We weren't disappointed, this is a book that deserves to become a classic. It is exciting, beautifully descriptive, witty and never patronises its young audience. Feo is a wonderful protagonist, socially awkward, self deprecating yet honourable, brave and able to inspire revolution. The villain, General Rakov isn't a pantomime baddie, he is a sadistic and a genuinely chilling character. Katherine Rundell doesn't shy away from describing brutality nor death but never becomes gratuitous instead creating a tense, often dark but ultimately a very hopeful tale. The wolves themselves are of course the real heart of the story, they are neither the fairytale big bad wolves nor anthropomorphic pets. Although they have a strong relationship with Feo, and to a lesser extent with her friend, Ilya, the reader is left in no doubt that she is a part of their pack rather than their owner.
 Towards the end of the book Feo makes a stirring speech that in these troubled times feels more vital than ever, perhaps particularly so for children;
"But he's always been blind: he doesn't see the facts. The fact that there are more of us than there are of him. The fact that fire in your soul beats fire on the ground. The fact that love always beats fear."
I loved The Wolf Wilder but more importantly so did my daughter, in fact she has elevated it to the heady heights of her "best book ever!" I asked her what she particularly liked about it,
"I liked that the main character was a girl who was strong and brave, and even though she needed help from friends she wasn't weak. Her friends were amazed by what she could do. I don't want to read stories with girls always having to be the ones rescued but I don't want the boys being weak either. I like adventures where they work together. I also liked that the wolves were loyal but couldn't be controlled and were still wild. Also even though Rakov was really evil and did terrible things he inspired bravery in others. I think that's a really good message."

The Wolf Wilder is published in the UK by Bloomsbury

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Book Review - Holding by Graham Norton

The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn't always been this overweight; mother of­ two Brid Riordan hasn't always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn't always felt that her life was a total waste.

So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke - a former­ love of both Brid and Evelyn - the village's dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community's worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.

Darkly comic, touching and at times profoundly sad. Graham Norton employs his acerbic wit to breathe life into a host of loveable characters, and explore - with searing honesty - the complexities and contradictions that make us human. 

Graham Norton's masterful debut is an intelligently crafted story of love, secrets and loss.

First things first, yes this is the Graham Norton, host of Eurovision and his eponymous chat show and bringer of life to Father Noel Furlong. Now I'm not generally drawn to celebrity penned novels but the description of Holding sounded exactly the sort of book I enjoy and eschewing a book because its writer is a celebrity is as ridiculous as choosing it for that reason.
And I'm very glad I did! Holding isn't a game changer but it is a well written, observant and warm novel. It does feel a little anachronistic, despite being set in the present it isn't a gritty, modern thriller, it's more gently paced and brought to mind the sort of Sunday night crime dramas that families can sit down to together - Midsomer Murders Irish style perhaps...? However, it doesn't shy away from the darker side of life despite not being brutally realistic. The characters, perhaps unsurprisingly, are what drive the novel. PJ Collins, in particular is the heart of the story, an outsider but not in the exciting, dangerous sense. PJ is overweight, dissatisfied in his career and often socially awkward. However, he is also immensely likeable, a warm and empathetic character who serves as our eyes into this seemingly quiet community that actually hides dark secrets and regrets. A sense of dissatisfaction and disappointment runs through the book, this is a very human story, although a murder may have occurred it's really more about life and the decisions people make, rightly or wrongly. It is occasionally over descriptive and as I say isn't a game changer but it is a warm and enjoyable slice of small town life with a satisfying mystery that kept me guessing for the most part. An assured debut then and I hope Norton writes more, particularly if it means we have more Sergeant Collins.

Holding is published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton. Thank you for my copy received through NetGalley in return for my review.

Friday, 27 January 2017

Book Review - Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie

A vulnerable young woman, fresh out of the care system, is trying to discover the truth behind the sudden death of her best friend.

The charred body of a policeman - currently the subject of an internal investigation - is found in the burnt-out-shell of his car on the Southend seafront.

To DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine Russell of the Essex Police Major Investigation Team, the two events seem unconnected. But as they dig deeper into their colleague's murder, dark secrets begin to emerge.

Can Pearson and Russell solve both cases, before more lives are destroyed?

Burned and Broken isn't a glossy thriller with a maverick cop solving cases in his own rule breaking way. Indeed the policeman who best fits the description of a maverick is the murder victim, Sean Carragher. Instead the officers investigating the case, DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine (Cat) Russell have to grind out the truth, knowing the media, public and their superior officers are breathing down their necks demanding arrests. However, Carragher had been under investigation, suspected at the very least of financial irregularities. Can they solve his murder without casting bad light on the Force? Burned and Broken is a character led novel, the action often moves slowly which doesn't make for a heart racing thriller but does feel entirely believable. Pearson and Russell are both very ordinary, somewhat melancholy characters, likewise other characters throughout the book are complex, often seedy individuals with dark secrets and frequently unhappy lives. Although set in Southend I felt Burned and Broken has a Scandi noir feeling about it, although the murders are eventually solved not all the ends are neatly tied up and the actions of the protagonists aren't always entirely honourable. This is not a black and white novel and is all the better for it, the complexities and frustrations of modern policing are realistically observed and while the lack of a neat ending may be annoying for those who like a story to feel completed, I felt it was more believable finishing as it did. In all an accomplished and enjoyable debut from Mark Hardie.
Many thanks to the publishers for my ARC and for inviting me to take part in the Burned and Broken blog tour. Don't forget to check out the #BurnedandBroken hashtag on Twitter for more reviews and news about the book.

Burned and Broken is published by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown Books and is currently available in hardback and e-book format.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Book Review - Relativity by Antonia Hayes

Ethan is an exceptionally gifted young boy, obsessed with physics and astronomy.

His single mother Claire is fiercely protective of her brilliant, vulnerable son. But she can't shield him forever from learning the truth about what happened to him when he was a baby; why Mark had to leave them all those years ago.

Now age twelve, Ethan is increasingly curious about his past, especially his father's absence in his life. When he intercepts a letter to Claire from Mark, he opens a lifetime of feelings that, like gravity, will pull the three together again.

Relativity is a tender and triumphant story about unbreakable bonds, irreversible acts, and testing the limits of love and forgiveness.

Back in my school days I had to be given special permission to study all three sciences for my GCSEs (this was in the days when they were studied as Biology, Chemistry and  Physics and not grouped together as Science). However, Physics was my worst subject and to this day it remains a shock that I scraped a B! So I'm no Ethan and a quick flick through the chapter headings of Relativity gave me pause for thought - Time and Space were okay for this Whovian but Inertia? Entropy? Antimatter? Was this going to be a bit too science and not enough fiction?
The answer, I'm pleased to say is a categorical no! Relativity isn't actually a SF novel at all, it's actually a thoughtful and nuanced study of relationships, of how past events may shape the present but the truth can be twisted or hidden, and questions if forgiveness is possible. The story is told in the third person but different chapters focus on the three main characters, Ethan, Claire and Mark. Ethan is the heart of the book, he's immensely likeable, fiercely intelligent and yet still undeniably a child, and one who needs to learn the truth about his past before it engulfs him. Claire, his mother is a single parent, she is very protective of her son and at first it seems as though this is solely due to his intelligence marking him out as different from his peers and a target for bullies but as we slowly learn more about the truth of what happened to him as a baby we realise there is much more to the story. Mark, Ethan's father is a complex character who re-enters Ethan's life at a time when he is on the verge of adolescence and filled with questions about why he is like this, and what caused his dad to leave. As we slowly learn the shocking reasons for Mark's estrangement it would have been easy to portray his character as a monster but this is a much more complex novel and instead the book looks at how even the most heinous of acts aren't the whole story, guilt, fear, love and a desire to protect mean a more convoluted truth than the simple facts.
Antonia Hayes has written a powerful debut novel, I loved Relativity, it's a brave and honest look at complex issues, with a warmth that doesn't descend into sentimentality and doesn't shy away from discussing the violent and brutal but never feels gratuitous. Certain books stay with you long after you've finished reading them, Relativity will be one of those books for me.

Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy received in return for my review. Relativity is published in the UK by Corsair and is available in paperback now.