Friday 12 November 2021

The Fell by Sarah Moss

It's November 2020, and England is in lockdown (again). Nobody should be out and about unless on absolutely vital business or their permitted daily walk. For Kate and her son Mark things are worse as they are stuck in fourteen day quarantine after coming into contact with Covid. It could be a quiet peaceful time. An opportunity to catch up on all those things you've intended to do - start a sourdough, knit a sweater, write a novel about the pandemic - but Kate has had enough of being cooped up indoors. Even the garden is beginning to feel too constricted. And no one will notice if she slips away up onto the moor for a while, she thinks. But Kate's quick walk goes dreadfully wrong when she slips and injures herself.
At home, Mark grows increasingly worried by his mother's absence, and calling in mountain rescue seems, if possible, to make matters worse by acknowledging the severity of the situation. And meanwhile next door, Alice is trying to accustom herself to living alone since her husband died, feeling cut off from her family (zoom is no way to have dinner together!) but enjoying the luxury of a bed to herself.

Rather oddly I spent a lot of the first lockdown watching 'pandemic' films in which scientists race against time to save humanity, or reading the sort of book in which a small band of survivors struggle bravely on in a post-apocalyptic world, but The Fell is a different sort of 'pandemic' story - one that's more realistic, which tells of something much closer to home, of the feelings of fear, frustration and loneliness that many of us felt. 

Against this familiar backdrop of second (or was it third?) lockdown, the author weaves a story of a woman too restless to stay confined for a moment longer, her son taking life and his mother's presence for granted until the unthinkable happens, their elderly neighbour, lonely and cut off from family, and a man who gives his time freely to help those in trouble. The dullness of lockdown soon changes to tense drama when Kate slips and cannot make her own way home. Will she be found? Will she be 'found out' for breaking quarantine? Are fines applicable if you're lost on a hillside? 

Maybe not everyone is ready for a reminder of the dark days of last autumn when it felt like lockdown would become an ever-present part of our lives but I felt that I could relate to so many of the feelings experienced by the characters, and it was good to hear them voiced by others.

Tuesday 9 November 2021

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson


Virginia, perhaps the whole of the south-eastern US, has been overwhelmed by a series of dreadful storms, made worse by blackouts. Da'Naisha Love and her grandmother are trying to weather it out as best they can, till the day armed white supremacists come driving their Charlotteville road, terrorising the neighbourhood. Along with friends and neighbours, Da'Naisha and her grandmother flee to the hills surrounding the city, specifically to the hilltop plantation house once home to Thomas Jefferson, now a tourist attraction. There, living on snacks from the gift shop, making a rough and ready home among the antiquated rooms, they settle down to hopefully wait out the violence rampaging in the city below.

But the tranquil-seeming house holds memories of a troubled past, for alongside the Jefferson family lived slaves to run the house and cultivate the plantation, and among them was Sally Hemings, mistress of Thomas Jefferson and mother to several of his children, from one of whom Da'Naisha and her grandmother are descended.

Set in a near-future of worsening climate and racial tension, the story begins as a flight by Da.Naisha and her neighbours to somewhere, anywhere, that might offer safety but becomes a determination to make a stand and claim what is rightfully theirs - both the heritage erased by white men, and their position as equals in society. It seems unthinkable to me that, firstly, white supremacists think they are the legitimate inhabitants of the US, and, secondly, any man would think it appropriate to have an affair with a woman he 'owned' and who could not refuse his advances - so it was a book that made me angry in several ways, but the taking over of Monticello, the reclaiming of its luxurious rooms echoes the feelings of many that history should reflect the stories of everyone, not just the ruling class.

A compelling read, mixing present day fears with historical insights. I'd heard before of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings but this left me wanting to know more about it and the family dynamics of the Jefferson household, and Jefferson's attitude to the wider issue of slavery.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

The Family by Naomi Krupitsky

Sofia and Antonia have been friends since childhood. Born to Italian-American families living next door to each other in Brooklyn their lives have been intertwined since birth. But there's more than proximity that binds them together. Both their fathers belong to the American Mafia, which envelops them in a wider family, while putting a distance between them and other children in the neighbourhood and at school.As a result the two girls become closer. Even so, from an early age there are marked differences between them - one happy to accept the role laid out for her, as wife, mother and home-maker; the other always wanting more, from eavesdropping the men's conversation as a child to wanting to earn her own place among them as an adult - but despite their differences, friendship holds Sofia and Antonia close, the way the Family does, even when the Family itself drives a wedge between them, after the 'disappearance' of one of their fathers.

This astounding debut is a story of friends, family and Family; a big warm novel exploring the ups and downs of female friendships against the backdrop of the totally male world of American mafia. I recently read an article on Crime Reads that 'family' with a small 'f'' was at the heart of the great Mafia stories like the Godfather and the Sopranos - that that sense of belonging and desire to protect family lifted them above other gangster movies /tv series and gave them something that everyone could relate to. The same is true here. Family lies at the heart of Sofia and Antonia's world - in fact, it's all encompassing; children are protected from knowledge of what their fathers parents actually do for a livelihood, and later boys are found a place within the business, girls expected to marry into the family. But this is a Mafia story with a difference - one told mainly from the perspective of the women who sit waiting and worrying when their husbands are later home than expected, or turn up with injuries and blood on their hands, but know that they won't receive honest answers if they ask where, why or who.

Spanning twenty or so years, from the 1920s to late '40s, it follows Sofia and Antonia from childhood as they grow into women, marry and have children of their own, and to an era when the Family's prohibition and war-time profitability is on the decline, and new money-making schemes are needed. I loved it for its characters, its scale, its writing style which drew me in and held me. I rather hope this isn't the end of the Family's story. 

Currently available in the UK on Kindle, and in hardback from January 2022

Thursday 21 October 2021

The Lighthouse Witches by C J Cooke

On the island of Lon Haven off the Scottish coast stands an old, decommissioned lighthouse. This was in its turn built on the remains of an ancient broch underneath which lay a cave where, during the 1600s, women accused of witchcraft were imprisoned awaiting trial and execution. It's a place the locals fear, and keep well clear of, but now (1998) it's been bought, and the new owner has employed an artist to help turn the forbidding tower into a writer's studio. 

Liv Stay doesn't believe in witches or ghosts, but there's certainly something spooky about the lighthouse she's been commissioned to paint. She's barely settled into the adjacent cottage before strange things start to occur, and within months her and two of her daughters have disappeared, like so many islanders before them. The surviving daughter, Luna, has spent her life moving between foster homes, keeping well away from Lon Haven, trying to forget what happened there, but over 20 years later she's drawn back to the island when one of her sisters is found at last - but not having aged at all. 

I'm always on the look out for good supernatural stories, and I thought from what I'd heard online that this would be one, but overall I feel it disappointed.

It starts excellently. The author builds up the atmosphere of strange goings-on, of sightings of a small unknown child, of possible tell-tale signs of witchcraft activity gradually and carefully - enough to keep the reader intrigued; not so much that it seems completely over the top. The island's inhabitants tell of dreadful things happening in the past - the disappearance of children and their replacement by changelings - and hint that it still happens. It's enthralling; very dark and gothic, mixing terror and superstition.

But then - half, maybe three-quarters, of the way though I realised what the plot twist was, and from then I just wanted the characters to hurry up, see what was obvious to me, and solve the mystery. A bit like guessing the murderer in a whodunnit, it took the edge of the latter part of the book. 

Friday 15 October 2021

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow

"There's no such thing as witches. But there will be."

Once upon a time there were witches to be found in every town and village, but after systematic pursuing of anyone suspected of witchcraft everyone assumed that it was a thing of the past, not to be found in the modern world of 1893. But unknown to most, it lingered on in nursery rhymes and songs sung to children, and when the Eastwood sisters decide to pursue witchcraft as a means of gaining women's independence they find many people coming forward with knowledge of the old ways and eager to support them. Obviously they have opponents - most noticeable and dangerous being the new mayoral candidate Gideon Hill, a man who, despite his opposition to witchcraft, seems to command even shadows to do his bidding. The sisters must put aside their differences and work together as maiden, mother and crone to survive.

I totally adored The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E Harrow's debut novel, and was hoping to find the same enchantment with The Once and Future Witches, but while I found it an enjoyable read it somehow didn't have the same magic. I suspect this is something extremely personal and quantifiable so don't let me put you off. The story is an intriguing one, set against a backdrop of a subtly-altered late 19th century when women were campaigning to be given the vote. In part it's about the freedom of women (and even men) to act and love as they choose; in part it's about the return of witchcraft to further those aims. 

Thursday 7 October 2021

Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve

 translated by Adriana Hunter 

As the first world war is drawing to a close, Toussaint Caillet finds himself heading home from the Val-de-Grace military hospital where he's been undergoing facial reconstruction for wounds received two years before. At home wait his wife Jeanne and Leonie, the daughter he barely knows. Their reunion should, they feel, be a time of utter joy, but both feel separated and changed by the years they've spent apart. Short, but moving, the story follows them, particularly Jeanne, as they attempt to build a new life when their future has been snatched away.

It seems to me, though it could just reflect my reading, that there are more books written about soldiers coming home from war, than there are about the necessary adjustment that has to be made by the women to whom they return. Winter Flowers places the emphasis on the wife, Jeanne, as she attempts to re-connect with the almost-stranger who has returned from war. While her daughter Leonie struggles to find a resemblance between the photograph of the handsome father in soldiers' uniform and this newcomer with his masked face, Jeanne can't seem to recognise him at an emotional level. His injuries have turned him into an uncommunicative, morose man; his mask, which is supposed to protect the world from the sight of him, also becoming a way to hide from the world.

Throughout the war both Toussaint and Jeanne have kept secrets  - to spare the other from the horrors of the battlefield, or to hide the shortages of food and fuel that Paris is suffering from. These are comparatively small harmless deceits but they add to the gulf the two of them must now bridge. Slowly, gently, the story follows them as they reassess the missing years, and find a way to go forwards.

Monday 4 October 2021

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

This book has been sitting for far too long (years!!) on my TBR pile. One of so many that I've acquired (I think I won it in a competition) and never read. In this case, I think what slightly (and rather oddly) put me off was that everyone I knew said how good it was, and I didn't want to be let down, and them to be proved wrong.

Well, I didn't have worried. It is brilliant!

  Anna and her husband, both academics,  are spending summer on a remote Hebridean island belonging to her husband's family. Other than their family, and some visitors who arrive later, the place is deserted, and the idea is that the isolation will be good for them, allow them to get on with research and book-writing but while Giles disappears much of the day observing puffins, Anna has to juggle the demands of childcare - a toddler who still doesn't sleep through the night, and a seven year old pre-occupied with worries about global warming or natural and man-made disasters - with her writing about the perceptions of childhood, and how to best bring up children in the eighteenth century.

The novel starts as a sharply observed portrayal of a sleep-deprived mother in fear of losing her academic self under the weight of motherhood. In Anna's first person narrative, Moss carefully treads the tightrope between love and despair, dark humour and hysterical tears; the struggle to get through each day, longing for peace and quiet to pursue her own interests, alternating with exhaustion when the children eventually sleep.

And then, when the bones of a child are found buried in the garden, there's a mystery added, and research into Giles' family history helps Anna find a way out of her situation. Plus the visitors to the holiday cottage on the island give Anna a change to see motherhood from the outsiders point of view, and perhaps gain some perspective on her own life.

It's so, so good; a book which kept me enthralled, though maybe it's best not read while you've got sleepless children of your own.


Friday 24 September 2021

Just Like You by Nick Hornby

 There's a theory that what you're looking for in a partner is someone just like you - someone who shares your interests, your outlook on life, your politics. But Lucy's tried that already - and it didn't work out.

Now, over the butcher's shop counter she's met Joseph. She likes him. He likes her. That's about as far as their similarities go. Lucy's an English teacher in her forties with two children, a white 'Remain' voter.  Joseph's twenty years younger, black, still undecided on so many things from career to which way to vote over Brexit. Can their mutual attraction be enough to base a relationship on?

I rather liked this book. It's the quiet gentle love story of a very unlikely couple. Insightful and funny it depicts a middle-aged woman and young man drawn to each other despite their differences. This isn't a case of Anna Karenina falling head over heels for dashing young  Alexei Vronsky, or vice versa. Neither Lucy nor Joseph appear to be whisked away in a flood of passion - in fact one thing they do have in common is a gentle, cautious approach to their affair. Lucy's attitude is one of sensible middle-age, Joseph's of uncommitted youth, but somehow they fit together.

Something I particularly liked was that, although obviously not intended to be deep political analysis, it captured the confusion over Brexit well, giving an insight into why so many voted for an idea that others thought was idiotic.  

On the whole it's light and fun, not a great love story or tragedy, but just as enjoyable in its way.

I haven't read any Nick Hornby for a while, though I have a well-stacked shelf of his novels. This I feel might send me back to rediscover them.

Thursday 9 September 2021

The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy

Studying English Literature at a British university, Sara feels adrift - cut off from her family back in India, disoriented by the familiar, yet unfamiliar, language around her, even the strangeness of English seasons. She finds comfort and familiarity in the students' pottery studio, exploring an art she first encountered many year before as a child.

Elango the local potter is a man straggling two worlds - the huge terracotta pots he makes have drawn interest from art galleries and buyers beyond his small town, but he prefers to remain in his backwater and create practical, 'everyday' pots of use to everyone. One day he finds (or is found by) a lost dog, which, opening his heart to companionship and affection, seems to lead on to other developments. After long being in love with a local Muslim girl, he begins to think that she reciprocates his feelings, despite the impossibility of their relationship. And at the same time another passion takes hold. Sparked by a dream in which he sees a horse breathing fire under the sea, he begins to create a huge terracotta statue - what will happen to it when finished he doesn't know, but something is driving him on, and he cannot rest before it's completed. Daring to dream of something different isn't easy though, and there are always people waiting to destroy those dreams.

This is a beautifully written and crafted novel about the burning desire to create beauty from a very basic substance - mud - and the perils of daring to love or live in a different manner to those around you.

The story moves from England to India, back and forward between Sara's teenage years and her 'present day' almost ten years later, always showing how difficult it is for an outsider who doesn't wish to conform. It's threaded through with themes about the unpredictability of love, of coming of age and self-discovery, and the demands that art puts upon its creators, and I think everyone will have their own 'focus' to the story. For me though the emphasis lies on the 'daring to be different', to brave society's or parental expectations and follow one's heart - whether this is shown through Elango and Zohra's forbidden love, or Sara's fellow student following a career that wasn't planned out for her..

The Earth Spinner is the first fiction title from new imprint Mountain Leopard Press, which specialises in literary fiction and nonfiction from around the world. Anuradha Roy's previous novels have been listed for prestigious literary prizes and translated into over fifteen laguages.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Five Minds by Guy Morpuss

In a dystopian future, innovative ways have been found to cope with Earth's still growing population. Natural lives are limited to 80 years, but if you want to live for longer there are options - one of which is to become part of a 'commune' sharing one body between five minds, each of which 'lives' for only an allotted period of each day. Alex, Ben, Kate, Mike and Sierra have already spent 25 years in what was Mike's body - not always amicably but near enough - and it's become time to think about their next body, and earning the credits to obtain an upgrade. That's where the Death Parks come in; here games of chance or skill can help you accumulate more time or lose it all. They expect, playing to each others strengths, to do well, but when Kate accepts a dubious challenge things start to go very wrong, and one of the commune disappears. It's soon clear that someone is trying to kill them off - but how and why? And most important 'who'?

Set in a dystopian future Five Minds is a thriller with a difference. It's a fast-paced addictive read with five personalities in one body, trying to work out who is intent on killing them, set against the backdrop of the Death Park where, in games ranging from the purely physical to more intellectual games of out-psyching one's opponent, time and lives are gambled away - and that's without the threat of gangsters and the illegal games they operate. Unputdownable is often used about thrillers, but this one definitely is!

 The world-building is well thought-through, and explained enough to give it credibility without over-shadowing the story with explanations, the plotting is ingenious, the characterisation great. I loved it. If you love sci-fi or speculative fiction read this book before everyone else does.
There are echoes of various sci-fi films like Andrew Niccol's In Time (with Justin Timberlake) - where time is won or lost - or James Mangold's psychological thriller Identity, starring John Cusack, but ultimately Five Minds is new and original, and like nothing I've read before. This is an astounding debut, and I look forward to whatever Guy Morpuss comes up with next.

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Deep Cover by Leigh Russell

Review by The Mole

The body of a sex worker is found in woodland where she may have fallen and died accidentally but all may not be as it seems. When the team get together to start to look at the evidence Ian Peterson is missing and no-one will say where he's gone although Geraldine's boss clearly has an idea. It becomes apparent that the sex worker's death is suspicious and the hunt is on but the criminal has been very careful. When a second - seemingly unrelated - victim is discovered there is difficulty in finding if, and how, these two cases are linked, and, of course, finding the person or persons responsible.

The reader learns that Ian has gone under cover with the drug squad in London as his face is not known in the London area. Under very close support Ian tries to get in the confidences of the leaders of the drug gang but quickly throws his script away to execute his own agenda - he didn't put his life on the line for the drug squad!

For me the Ian Peterson side of the story (and the two stories could almost be two separate books) just didn't work well BUT was cleverly executed by Russell none the less. It felt too rushed, too sweet and not enough time elapsed in the plot.

BUT, on the other side - the Geraldine Steel side of the story is probably (in my opinion) Russell's best story yet and it's not like there's been a bad one.

Really enjoyed this for the Geraldine Steel side at least and would recommend to any crime story fans. 

Publisher - No Exit Press
Genre - Adult fiction, crime

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin

Matilda Windsor was locked away as a teenager, condemned to a life in a psychiatric institution without any proper diagnosis. Over the decades she's made her own little world at the home, imagining it as a grand house or hotel, and explaining away the nurses as 'staff'; maids to serve tea, or butlers to keep undesirables out.

But it's now the early 1990s, and with the introduction of 'care in the community' all is set to change. A new social worker, Janice, is determined that Matilda deserves a chance to experience life 'outside', and, whatever others think, is prepared to bend the rules to make that happen.

Henry, Matilda's much younger brother has been waiting most of his life for his glamorous sister to return to the family home. This waiting has put his life on hold. The family home is too big for him alone, but he daren't move just in case his sister returns one day. 

From these three points of view, Anne Goodwin weaves a story of heartbreak and mischances, in the course of which Matilda and Henry cross paths so many times without actually knowing. Would one casual meeting have changed things? 

Matilda's tale is a sad but seemingly all too frequent one - that young girls who couldn't quite explain their pregnancy, and produce a young man to make everything right by marrying them, were hustled away to the confines of a psychiatric institution, and then somehow just forgotten.  Henry, too, is a victim of sorts. He can't commit to a relationship, or move on with his life, because of that overwhelming feeling that one day his sister will return and things will be just as they always were.

Among this tragedy, Janice appears as a comedy character. She dresses in a colourful, flamboyant way  which makes Matilda think of a circus girl. She squabbles and jostles for importance with her fellow social workers, trying to get her plans accepted even when they're not for the best. She may be well-meaning but she's definitely inexperienced and I was left feeling Matilda deserved someone more capable on her side.

Friday 13 August 2021

Lean, Fall, Stand by Jon McGregor

Robert 'Doc' Wright has years, almost a lifetime, of experience in Antarctic field work, spending months there at a time. Then one day things go horribly wrong. What should have been an easy, fun excursion, merely to take photographs, turns nasty when an unexpected storm blows up, cutting visibility and communications, and disaster strikes. One of the men dies, and Doc suffers a stroke. He is the only one who can say for certain what went wrong, but he's now in a position where he can't put even the simplest ideas into words.

This latest novel from Jon McGregor takes the reader from a situation where men are fighting for survival in Antarctic wastes to a different kind of fight for the return of normality and the ability to express oneself. 

The story is split into three parts, relating to the three words that make up the title; the incident in Antarctica, Anna's trip to South America to visit Robert in hospital and organise his return to Britain, and the beginning of Robert's recovery. I hadn't quite understood the nature of the story from the blurb, and found it a rather difficult read for personal reasons; family members have suffered strokes and some of it is a little close to home. Having said that I found this a perceptive insight into how the stroke victim themselves must find the strange new world they find themselves trapped in. 

Something that I would have liked to see explored further was the relationships between Doc and his wife, Anna. There's a hint that their marriage, while seeming fine on the surface, is not as solid as it might be, and that their relationship depended on them leading very separate lives. Now, not only are they forced together, but Anna has to abandon her work to become a carer (not really part of the story here but I felt the automatic assumption that his wife would drop everything to help was worth more consideration. Would Robert have done it if their roles were reversed? Would medical staff/social services etc even have expected it if their roles were reversed?) These thoughts are really by-the-by though. I'm not always a fan of McGregor's work but this is an intimate and moving account of  a man reduced to an almost child-like dependence and inability to express himself, and his slow recovery from that state. One of his best.


Tuesday 3 August 2021

Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey

Thora and Santi accidentally meet in Cologne, and feel something that immediately draws them to each other. It might not be the first time they've met, and it certainly isn't the last. Over numerous lives they meet again. Sometimes they're roughly the same age, sometimes one is old enough to be the other's parent or teacher. Each time they're drawn back to the same places in and around Cologne, particularly the old clocktower. Gradually they become aware of the things that repeat from one life to the next. What they need, with increasing urgency, is to find out what it all means, and why this is happening.

It's an ingenious concept - a sort of mash-up between Groundhog Day and Star Trek - and although readable enough in some way or other it didn't really grab me. The telling is a little slow at first, as we get to see Thora and Santi meet up in life after life, but despite this repetition, and seeing them in different situations and different relationships to each other, I never really felt I knew them - and therefore didn't really care how their story worked out.

Wednesday 23 June 2021

This Fragile Earth by Susannah Wise

In a not-too-distant future, Signy, Matthew and their six year old son, Jed, live in London, in a world that's become increasingly dependent on technology. Drones have replaced bees, and policemen. Robots replaced waitresses and doctors. 
Then one day that technology starts to fail. At first it's small things - something wrong with their phones, or a drone behaving strangely - but soon it feels like the world is crumbling around them. Power and water are cut, and people are worried, confused, angry. As things go from bad to worse, Signy and Matthew decide to leave London, and head for the village where her parents live. Surely in the countryside things will be better? The first hurdle is to get there - without electricity there's no way to recharge the car and traffic is jamming the roads - but Signy is determined that come what may she will get Jed to safety- if such a thing can still be found.

In some ways the premise and plot here are familiar; civilisation is falling apart, and the only way to survive is to leave the city and head to the country where life is 'simpler'. Along the way there are obstacles to overcome, fellow travelers who you may or may not trust, and armed troops who may help - or not. It's different maybe (though there are slight shades of Josh Malerman's Bird Box) in that the main character is a woman, desperately trying to protect her child. Despite all the vaguely familiar tropes it is definitely gripping stuff, with plenty of tension, and a strong but relatable female main character. You'll definitely find yourself  siding with Signy against all that gets thrown at her. 
Just occasionally I wondered about the accuracy of incidents - how quickly the freezer defrosts, or how many miles Signy and Jed could travel in a day - and I wasn't quite convinced by the ending - things felt a little too easily explained away - but none of this really detracted from the book as a whole.  

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Still Life by Sarah Winman

In 1944 as the Allies advance north through Italy, a young British soldier Ulysses Temper meets Evelyn Skinner, a 60-something art historian helping to identify and salvage paintings hidden from, or damaged by, the war. Whether it's down to fate or the magic of Italy who can say, but the two form an immediate connection, and a night talking with Evelyn about art, Florence, and love, shapes Ulysses' life.

Returning to London after the war, Ulysses finds it grim, drab, and lacking, though he's not sure how or why. Fate, or Italy, steps in again, and changes the lives of Ulysses and his friends in ways they couldn't have imagined.

Still Life is one of those rare books that are an absolute joy to read. The story moves from war-torn Italy, through the next three decades as Ulysses and his 'family' create a new life in Italy, which is almost washed away by the temperamental force of the river Arno, and then loops back to Evelyn's time in Italy as a young woman when she met EM Forster, and a cast of immediately recognisable characters, in a pensione run by a Cockney landlady. Through it all runs the belief than here in Florence it's possible to live life as it should be lived, filled with passion and love. Here, against a backdrop of art and Medieval streets, food and wine, which nourish body and soul, there's a feeling of standing on the threshold of something momentous. 

I just loved everything about this. It left me with a warm fuzzy feeling, like being wrapped in a warm blanket, or bathing in a big 'tub of love', which is Elizabeth von Arnim's description of Italy rather than Forster's, but which seems totally appropriate. 

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Threadneedle by Cari Thomas


Anna has always been told by her aunt that magic is a dangerous, sinful thing, that it was responsible for the death of her parents, and that it should never be used. Anna's now a teenager and although she shows little ability for magic, when she turns seventeen the little magic she does possess will be 'bound' to prevent its use. 

Then Selene, an old friend of both Anna's aunt and mother, arrives in London, accompanied by her daughter Effie, and a curious young man, a friend of the family, named Attis. Where Anna's aunt is severe and strict, Selene is charismatic and full of life - and more to the point she believes magic should be used to enjoy life to the full. She, Effie and Attis open Anna's eyes to a different side of the magical world (and perhaps the world in general), one full of fun. At school Effie and Attis discover other witches mixing unrecognised among the students, and set up a coven, drawing Anna into their disruptive plans.

At first it's all fun, but the coven's actions take a dark, destructive turn and Anna begins to wonder if her aunt was maybe right all along - that magic is a curse and shouldn't be practised at all. 

Threadneedle is the first book in great new urban fantasy series. Although aimed perhaps mainly at YA readers, with its share of teenage rebellion, and the school culture of 'Queen Bee' cliques, the style and its thread of dark, twisted family secrets to engage older readers. It's easy to sympthise with Anna and her desire for a more fun-filled life (whether than involves magic or not) but at the same time there's a distinct feeling that Effie and Attis will just lure her into trouble. And as events unfold, it's clear that neither her aunt nor Selene are quite as Anna sees them. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 


Monday 17 May 2021

The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano by Donna Freitas

 Rose and Luke are happily married - or so Rose thought. From the start of their relationship, they've both agreed that they didn't want, and wouldn't have children. But now Luke has changed his mind. Should Rose change hers too to make Luke (and his parents) happy? 

I'm a bit of a sucker for this style of book, one which explores the what-ifs of life. Maybe we've all wondered what would have happened if we'd done things differently? Take one decision and life unfolds in a certain way. Take another and things are completely changed. But, to be honest, I didn't find the alternate 'lives' presented here to be different enough to be really compelling, and I didn't like the 'happy families' ending.

The starting premise is that one day Rose and Luke argue over whether or not they'll have a child. And in different time-lines, the fall out from the argument is different - sometimes Luke leaves, sometimes Rose does, sometimes their relationship carries on - but the slightly disappointing aspect was that whatever happens somehow having a child to love and care for (even if not her own) is seen as necessary for a happy-ever-after scenario for Rose. 

Generally I didn't find Rose to be a character I could sympathise with. She made sure from the outset that Luke was aware of her decision to never have children, yet it hardly takes any persuading from him for her to consider changing her mind. Also, when there's surely no need to choose between career and having children these days, Rose's main objections didn't make sense - it was as if the author didn't want to follow the thought path that not everyone likes children or wants them. I'd have enjoyed it more if in at least one version Rose had thrown Luke out, and led an exciting, fulfilling, childless life.

Thursday 13 May 2021

Things To Do Before The End Of The World by Emily Barr

Thawing of the permafrost has unleashed The Creep, a massive cloud of carbon dioxide and other toxins, and there seems to be no way to avert disaster, not just for the human race but for all life on Earth. With nine months or so left, what would you do if you knew the end of the world was coming? For seventeen year old Olivia, it's step out of her shell and become the confident person she's always wanted to be, the person she can only become when acting on stage. She's always been the shy one, the one who doesn't have many friends or go to parties with the rest of the class, but now she wants to change - if only she knew how. Above all, she wants to pluck up the courage to speak to Zoe, the girl she likes.

Then through a quirk of fate, an unknown cousin, Natasha, gets in contact, and, saying she too was once unbearably shy, takes charge of Olivia's life, setting her a series of challenges, and promising that she'll soon be that outgoing, self-assured person she wants to be. At first these are small steps, just slightly out of Olivia's comfort zone, but when Natasha shows up out of the blue on Olivia's doorstep she doesn't seem quite the supportive friend she claimed to be. More like someone who wants to cause trouble, and drag her cousin on wilder and wilder adventures. 

 In this end-of-the-world thriller, shy girl Olivia is taken under the wing of bold, brash cousin Natasha, but while Olivia accepts her cousin at face value (particularly at first), the reader knows better and that Natasha cannot be relied on. While some of me was willing Olivia on, a huge part was thinking 'DO NOT trust Natasha!'.  
It's this which made me want to hurry to the end, to rapidly turn the pages (or the e-book equivalent), to find out if Olivia saw through Natasha's fake friendliness and uncovered her plans before something went horribly wrong. And in the course of uncovering those plans, a lot of family secrets come tumbling out of the closet!

Oddly, it's the fate of Olivia and Natasha that matters more than the greater fate of the world, so if you're looking for a sci-fi armageddon story, of  scientists battling against the odds to save everyone, this isn't it. It's a story of self-discovery, of learning to step out of one's shell and embrace the world, and as importantly to not accept others at their face value. 

Monday 10 May 2021

Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane


Anne Marie and Cal got married young; she was just nineteen, he a few years older. A year later, he walked out one morning, leaving Anne Marie to an aimless life of bar work, shared apartments and one night stands.

Two years later, he shows up out of the blue, trying to put things right, but he brings trouble with him, and the couple are soon on the run, taking the Highway Blue in search of love and belonging.

Highway Blue is a short novel (less than 200 pages), but a compelling, memorable one. 

Despite the violence that sets Anne Marie and Cal on the run, the book isn't plot-driven as such - this isn't the sort of road trip that involves fast car chases or the encountering of odd people or unusual places. Instead, as they travel south by car and hitch-hiking back to the town where Anne Marie was born, she journeys back though her life, not nostalgically but in an attempt to understand herself and the position she finds herself in now. 

It's beautifully written, told by Anne Marie in the first person, with a haunting, yearning quality. With her, the reader dips back into her childhood and her realtionship with her mother, experiences her all consuming but brief love for Cal, and shares her hunger for something better than she's known so far. 

Tuesday 4 May 2021

The Witch's Heart by Genevieve Gornichec


There was a time, and a life, before, but Angrboda can't remember it. For her, the story starts when Odin attempts to kill her for not revealing visions of the future to him. Three times he has her burned, then tears out her heart. But still Angrboda survives.  Wanting to have nothing further to do with the gods of Asgard she retreats to the far-distant Iron Wood to heal and start over. She's soon followed though by Loki, the trickster, bringing back her heart but winning it through love. Together they raise three strange children; a daughter, Hel, born with withered legs, and two sons - Fenrir, a wolf, and Jormungand a small wriggling worm who rapidly grows into an enormous serpent. Despite their oddness, all three are greatly loved by their parents, but as Angrboda recovers her powers of prophecy she realises that her children have an important part to play in the end of the world - and that there's nothing she can do to avert it.  

I loved this book - a spell-binding, feminist re-imagining of Norse myths in which a minor character - a woman dismissed to the margins of the old tales now takes centre stage. Angrboda is the sort of woman rejected by society, often labelled 'witch', whose knowledge is both in demand and feared, and at the same time a mother, full of love for her unique children, her often-absent husband, Loki, and her one close friend, the huntress Goddess Skadi. It's love in general, and that maternal love specifically which makes her courageous enough to take on destiny. 

Within their close-knit, isolated home, the children are just seen as unusual; being different doesn't make them unlovable or 'less' than others. It's only when outsiders disrupt this environment that Angrboda's children see themselves as monsters.

The story reads like a fairytale or myth, but turns our usual understanding of the Norse gods and Ragnarok, the ending of their days, on its head. This isn't about superheroes saving the world as in the Marvel comics and films, or even the old traditional myths, but of the power of a mother's love that can sometimes change fate, if only a little.

It's an absolutely stunning fantasy debut, and I look forward to reading more by Genevieve Gornichec.

Friday 23 April 2021

The Cottingley Cuckoo by A J Elwood


 Charlotte Favell, one of the elderly residents at Sunnyside Care Home, has taken a strange interest in Rose, the new member of staff. With an interest in literature and fairy tales, Rose is lured by the old lady's talk of the infamous Cottingley fairies hoax, and the hints that she has letters which prove the existence of the fairies beyond all doubt. More experienced staff at the home warn Rose that Charlotte has played similar tricks before, causing trouble for her carers, but Rose's curiosity is insatiable, even though she feels she's being dragged into a dark web of, perhaps, supernatural events.

I accidentally came across The Cottingley Cuckoo on Twitter, and it probably isn't quite like my usual read but I really enjoyed it. There's a slightly slow start to the story but like Charlotte herself it gradually works its spell and hooks the reader.

 It's a difficult novel to pin down by genre - it has the suspense and twists of a psychological thriller, a tinge of supernatural horror, a subtle lack of clarity over whether Rose is being manipulated, or just an unreliable narrator. There's a clever interweaving of Rose's present day story as she falls under Charlotte's spell, and the old letters, purporting to be written by a Cottingley resident  who actually saw the fairies himself, and could attest to their disruptive and occasionally malevolent ways. At times it seems like everything is merely Rose's imagination, and that Charlotte is just the troublesome old lady the other carers she her as; at times it seems like fairies could be real, and Rose is caught up in something sinister. 

And, although there are hints and common sense alone should raise a warning flag in the reader, the ending still comes as a shock.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Jonathan Pinnock 'Bad Day In Minsk' interview

You may recently have spotted my review of Bad Day In Minsk, the fourth in Jonathan Pinnock's Mathematical Mysteries series starring (if that's the appropriate word) the rather hapless PR executive-turned-sleuth Tom Winscombe. It's a series I really enjoy for its mix of  action adventure, comic mishaps, and quirky characters, so I'm delighted to have been able to persuade Jonathan to join me today to answer some pressing questions ...

Firstly, I've read (and loved) all the Mathematical Mysteries series but for anyone who hasn't could you please give a little introduction to Tom Winscombe and his adventures so far ... 

 A chance encounter on a train leads disillusioned junior PR executive Tom Winscombe into a rabbit hole where he is joined by on/off girlfriend Dorothy Chan in pursuit of the secret behind the deaths of the Vavasor twins, mathematicians Archimedes and Pythagoras, ten years earlier. He is still blundering around that rabbit hole four books on, although it seems to have expanded into a full-blown warren the size of the London underground. On the way, he has faced certain death at the hands of various people, including renegade financiers, psychopathic monks and more than one faction of the Belarusian mafia. Somehow he is still alive, a sadder but not necessarily wiser man.

Obviously Tom's latest escapade takes place in Minsk, but it's not a place you've visited. How did you go about research? Lots of time on Google maps? Contacting the local tourist board? 

Google Maps certainly played a large role in my research, along with maps of the Minsk underground and images of the stations. The Minsk Metropole hotel is, however, a complete invention. Outside of Minsk, Google Maps was helpful in finding a route from the airport to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and the camp where one of the mafia gangs hangs out is actually based on images of an abandoned children’s summer camp in the Ukraine. The cottage where Tom subsequently hides out is inspired by a YouTube video I saw ages ago made by one of the many lunatics who explore the Exclusion Zone for fun. That episode in the book very nearly didn’t happen, in fact, because in an early draft of the story he ended up in the abandoned fairground, but the trouble is, that one’s quite a tourist attraction these days and in the end I decided that I wanted him to be somewhere where there weren't many other people.

I had only the vaguest idea of Minsk's location - somewhere between Poland and Russia - so DID end up on Google maps, and thought it looked an interesting place for a weekend, though Tom doesn't really get to see the city. Are you planning to put it on your destination wishlist once restrictions are lifted?

Yes, I do quite fancy going to Minsk now, if only to see how horribly wrong I’ve got everything! However, Belarus isn’t in a good state at the moment. The regime is getting ever more repressive and there are occasional outbreaks of unrest, so I might leave it for a year or two.

The Belarusian mafia families, perhaps like all mafia families or indeed all of us, are interested in ways of making money, specifically in their case by trying to use mathematical formulas and chaos theory to profit on the world's stock markets. Is this a 'real' thing? If I were clever enough and rich enough in the first place could I do it, or is it just a writer's fantasy? 

Hmmm. Good question. Certainly the algorithms behind automatic trading are horrendously complex, and if you had enough capital you might be able to start things swinging about in a fairly chaotic manner. Mind you, the amount of capital required would be vast, and you’d need to be able to predict how the other players in the market (including the regulators) would react, so it’s edging towards “writer’s fantasy” territory. Then again, I might be saying that to put everyone off the scent while my secret fund gets down to business...

There were a couple of things that seemed to mark a change in direction from the previous stories - one being Tom left to muddle his way through on his own more than usual. I was a little disappointed to see less of Dorothy. Was she always intended to sit this one out, or did the plot just develop that way? 

Interesting question. This is going to sound a bit weird, but stick with me here. One of the continual problems that the modern writer has is how to dispose of the hero’s mobile phone. You’ll notice that Tom is pretty good at either smashing his phone up, having it taken away from him or ending up somewhere with no signal. From a purely technical point of view, Dorothy’s presence has a similar effect on the plot, in that she is WAY better at problem solving than Tom. So if we want life to get as challenging as possible for Tom, we need to sideline Dorothy at least for some of the story. So in The Truth About Archie and Pye, she doesn’t arrive until page 100. In A Question of Trust, she doesn’t actually appear properly until page 220. She is there for most of the time in The Riddle of the Fractal Monks, but even then she is missing for quite a while during the sequence with the alpacas. So it’s not unprecedented for Dorothy to be absent for much of Bad Day in Minsk, although - without wishing to give too much away - their rift is a little bit more significant this time. I feel quite bad for spoiling a lovely relationship like this, but that’s what writers do, I’m afraid.

And, related to that question, do you believe in planning every move of your hero and villains in advance, or just throwing Tom in at the deep end and seeing what happens?

I’m very much a pantser rather than a plotter. My approach to planning a book is to chuck a load of stuff up in the air, see where it lands and then try to work out how they connect. The amazing thing is how often things just pop up that afterwards seem completely planned. There was one thing that happened this time which I can’t mention for fear of spoilers that I’d done subconsciously and turned out to be hugely significant.

What's next for you (and Tom)? Are there more Mathematical Mysteries on the way, or something entirely new?

I’ve certainly got ideas for further Mathematical Mysteries, but I’m overdue for a chat with my publishers to see what they think! I’ve also had an idea for a proper airport blockbuster psychological thriller, although I doubt if that will ever see the light of day. It does have an excellent title though, which is always promising.


If this interview or my review of Bad Day in Minsk have intrigued you, more can be found out at

Jonathan has also asked me to mention his new podcast, It’s Lit But Is It Funny?, where he and his guests take a critical look at one of the most neglected genres in literature: the funny book. So far they’ve covered Lucky Jim, 1066 And All That, Heartburn, Cold Comfort Farm and Emotionally Weird. There’s more information, along with buttons to enable you to subscribe here [link:].

Monday 19 April 2021

The Damask Rose Blog Tour


Today we're delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Damask Rose, the second of Carol McGrath's new historical fiction series, The She Wolves.. It's the story of Eleanor of Castile, wife of  Edward I, an unusual queen with a 'modern' outlook, not content with domestic accomplishments, but  interested in creating beautiful gardens, in supervising her ever-growing property portfolio, and whenever possible accompanying her husband on campaign at home or on Crusade to the Holy Land.

Here's Carol herself to tell us more

Introducing Eleanor of Castile


I loved writing The Damask Rose, second novel in The She Wolf Series of books about medieval queens who were regarded as difficult by their contemporaries. This book’s heroine is Eleanor of Castile who gathered up a large property portfolio thus annoying Barons who when in debt sold manors and lands to her. She bought up their properties and debts cheaply. Many disliked this able thirteenth century business woman and queen. Her husband, however, adored her and when she died Edward I erected the famous Eleanor Crosses to commemorate her final funeral journey. Charing Cross derives its name from one of the Eleanor crosses. I off set Eleanor’s story with that of a medieval female gardener in The Damask Rose. See the blurb below.

Eleanor loved gardens and introduced many ideas and now popular flowers such as hollyhocks into English gardens from Castile. Stone Masons from Aragon constructed water features and statues in Eleanor’s castle gardens. Eleanor enjoyed beautiful objects and comforts in her many homes. She loved books and was a blue-stocking. It is said she was responsible for floor carpets as well as gorgeous hanging woven tapestries, ideas brought from Spain.


The Blurb for The Damask Rose

1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron's Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family - and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.

As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen - a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter - by her side. But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .


To Buy Link :



Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. Born in Northern Ireland, she fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, when exploring local castles, such as Carrickfergus, and nearby archaeological digs- and discovering some ancient bones herself. While completing a degree in History, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in record. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.

For more news, exclusive content and competitions, sign up to Carol’s newsletter at:
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You can read Mary's full review here at OurBookReviewsOnline

and check out the rest of the blog tour as detailed below

Saturday 17 April 2021

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

1266. Eleanor of Castile, adored wife of the Crown Prince of England, is still only a princess
 when she is held hostage in the brutal Baron's Rebellion, and her baby daughter dies. Scarred by privation, a bitter Eleanor swears revenge on those who would harm her family - and vows never to let herself be vulnerable again.

As she rises to become Queen, Eleanor keeps Olwen - a trusted herbalist, who tried to save her daughter - by her side. But it is dangerous to be friendless in a royal household, and as the court sets out on crusade, Olwen and Eleanor discover that the true battle for Europe may not be a matter of swords and lances, but one fanned by whispers and spies . . .

Carol McGrath's latest series The She-Wolves continues with the story of  Eleanor of Castille, wife of Prince Edward (later to become Edward I of England). Married when Eleanor was barely a teenager, their relationship grew into one of great love, though their early years together were marred by the death of children in infancy, and the time Eleanor spent as a hostage, held in impoverished circumstances with barely enough money for food, by Simon de Montfort during the Baron's Rebellion.

From these inauspicious beginnings, Carol McGrath shows us a woman growing in determination, power, and love for her husband. In many ways Eleanor seems a remarkably 'modern' woman, not content to stay home, rear children, and quietly embroider. Vowing never to suffer such the trauma of imprisonment and poverty again, she resolves that whenever feasible she will stay by Edward's side, accompanying him on campaigns against the rebels, then further afield on Crusade. At the same time she sets about accumulating lands and wealth to protect herself against future hardship.

Intertwined with Eleanor's story is that of (totally fictional) Olwen, her herbalist. The two come together to create gardens of herbs and flowers, of healing and relaxation, for  Eleanor's new manor houses and the castles Edward builds as part of his campaign against the Welsh.

Throughout there's a wealth of historical detail, sprinkled unobtrusively to not mar the progression of the story, but underpinning it, giving it a real feel for the world of Eleanor and Olwen.

Next week, I'll be taking part in the blog tour for The Damask Rose but meanwhile check out the other posts here -