Review: “The Half-Drowned King” by Linnea Hartsuyker

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Hardcover: 448 pages

Publisher: Harper Collins

Release Date: 1st August 2017

5 STARS

SET IN NORWAY (9th Century)

 

Linnea Hartsuyker’s epic debut perfectly captures Viking Norway in a way that is exciting, uncompromising and elegantly written.  This is a book of heroes and whilst it draws on the Icelandic Sagas retelling of the making of kings, it’s refreshing to find a historical narrative that focuses as much on the female experience as the male without reducing the woman to the role of voiceless lover or pawn. In Svanhild Eysteinsson, Hartsuyker has created a complex and intelligent heroine that seeks to make her own way in a world dominated by men. This novel doesn’t shy away from the gory violent culture of the Vikings but also paints a picture of a society that values cunning and honour in addition to bravery and strength.

The Blurb: Centuries ago, in a blood-soaked land ruled by legendary gods and warring men, a prophecy foretold of a high king who would come to reign over all of the north. . . .

Ragnvald Eysteinsson, the son and grandson of kings, grew up believing that he would one day take his dead father’s place as chief of his family’s lands. But, sailing home from a raiding trip to Ireland, the young warrior is betrayed and left for dead by men in the pay of his greedy stepfather, Olaf. Rescued by a fisherman, Ragnvald is determined to have revenge for his stepfather’s betrayal, claim his birthright and the woman he loves, and rescue his beloved sister Svanhild. Opportunity may lie with Harald of Vestfold, the strong young Norse warrior rumored to be the prophesied king. Ragnvald pledges his sword to King Harald, a choice that will hold enormous consequence in the years to come.

While Ragnvald’s duty is to fight—and even die—for his honor, Svanhild must make an advantageous marriage, though her adventurous spirit yearns to see the world. Her stepfather, Olaf, has arranged a husband for her—a hard old man she neither loves nor desires. When the chance to escape Olaf’s cruelty comes at the hands of her brother’s arch rival, the shrewd young woman is forced to make a heartbreaking choice: family or freedom.

Set in a mystical and violent world defined by honor, loyalty, deceit, passion, and courage, The Half-Drowned King is an electrifying adventure that breathtakingly illuminates the Viking world and the birth of Scandinavia.

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I was really excited to read this novel after seeing its gorgeous golden cover winking at me from the new release shelves at my local Barnes and Noble. I’d just come off the back of binging the last of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles and fancied giving this a go whilst my head was still in a marauding and pillaging kind of space. But would it live up to King Cornwell? Well yes. Yes it would.

What I particularly loved about this book are the wonderfully complex characters. Hartsuyker takes the time to develop them and casts a critical eye over each and every one. All have their flaws, are weak at times and selfish but she takes care to ensure that your loyalties as a reader are always torn. There are no stereotypical warrior thugs here, you understand what drives these characters and how they strive to achieve their ambitions in often difficult circumstances.

Hartsuyker is in total control of her research and the setting throughout the novel. You feel like you are getting a guided tour of Viking life, but without the annoying educational voiceover explaining what everything means. She is a master of ‘show don’t tell’ and the descriptions throughout are often surprising and very evocative which ensures that whilst this is not the first Viking historical novel, you never feel like you’ve read it somewhere else before.

Many comparisons have been made between The Half-Drowned King and Game of Thrones and Outlander, but I feel that this does it a disservice. Yes it has the feel of an epic saga, but this one is rooted in a tangible setting and quite frankly kicks Outlander out of the park in terms of quality of writing (and I love Outlander…). That said, if you enjoy those series you will love this – and the best part is it’s but the first in a planned trilogy… The Sea Queen is released 14th August 2018 and I for one can’t wait.

www.linneahartsuyker.com

@linneaharts

 

 

Review: “Fools And Mortals” by Bernard Cornwell

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Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Harper

Release Date: 9th January 2018

3 STARS

SET IN LONDON (1597)

 

 

The King of the historical fiction genre has returned with a stand-alone novel re-telling the first staging of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I practically ran to the bookstore to buy it. How could I resist? I’m a massive Cornwell fan, he’s one of the few authors where I will actively go out and buy the hardback rather than wait for the paperback and this looked like it ticked all my boxes – Cornwell’s usual eye for detail with setting and description, theatre and adventure all rolled up together.

The Blurb: In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

It hurts me to say this but… I didn’t love this book. I liked it. It was an enjoyable read but no fires were lit and I’m not sure I will remember anything about the characters in three months time.

Lord, what fools these mortals be…

This is Cornwell’s first foray into Elizabethan England and rather than his usual confident ease with the periods he explores, he’s succumbed to the author’s trap of trying to explain and describe every detail for a modern audience. It surprised me that he did this as it’s not a feature of this other novels – he never explains what Saxon terms are in The Saxon Chronicles and it feels a little heavy handed here, like he doesn’t trust us to be able to work out from context what things are.

His use of language and dialogue remains excellent though. Cornwell really goes to town with the rich bawdy insults that Shakespeare was famous for. In fact, these hilarious turns of phrase are probably the most entertaining part of the book. The characters never feel stilted in their dialogue and it flows well with plenty of witty to and fro. The problem is that you never really get past this to characters that you really care about.

Richard Shakespeare is William’s younger more annoying brother. This wouldn’t be an issue except that he narrates the entire story. It’s an interesting angle to present Shakespeare (the older) as a violent, difficult man but much of it is tainted by the petulant, bitter observations of the younger Shakespeare, although this does definitely improve as the narrative unfolds – the main action of the book takes off half way through and everything is on the up from there on out.

Overall, this is a good romp through a new era for Cornwell but doesn’t really hold a torch to his longer series. You won’t come away loving the characters or feeling particularly invested, which is a shame.

If you want classic Cornwell you’re better off sticking with The Saxon Chronicles or the Sharpe series.

Review: “Notes On My Family” by Emily Critchley

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Paperback: 263 pages

Publisher: Everything With Words

Release Date: 20th November 2017

5 STARS

 

“Notes On My Family” is a wonderful, funny, heart breaking YA novel published at the end of last year by the very talented Emily Critchley. Portraying an autistic narrator has a very specific set of challenges for an author, not only do you need to tread the line between being candid and being sensitive, but you also need to avoid the massive pot hole of ‘basically Curious Incident’.

The Blurb: Enter the world of Louise Coulson through her notes on her family, school and friends. Lou is thirteen years old, a perceptive and observant outsider, somewhere on the autism spectrum. She takes notes as if she were holding a film camera silently fixed on a world that tends to ignore her. Meet her dad who is in a relationship with a sixth former, Sarah her moody sister, Mikey her gay brother, her mum who has a ‘brief psychotic episode’, her nan who goes to séances, her friend Faith who has six ‘parents’ (all gay) and Lou’s family (and dog) in her alternative universe. Told in the present tense so that you feel that you are right there and sprinkled with Lou’s inimitable asides.

Lou is taking notes as everything happens, interweaving comments and dialogue to create a narrative that’s fast, subtle and convincing.

This novel tackles a wide range of issues that are relevant to the target readers – younger teens. The fact that Lou is autistic is never explicitly stated, nor does it need to be. Her autism is not the issue at hand for the majority of the book and its portrayal never gets in the way of you understanding the delightfully funny and caring person that Lou is. What it does give us is a hilariously upfront and unsweetened view of Lou’s world and the chaos that often seems like it’ll engulf her.

There is nothing like fresh pyjamas to cheer one up and to help one face the world.

There are moments that are truly awful – the incident in the girls’ changing room for one, and Critchley does a fabulous job of pulling every one of your heart strings, but ultimately the story is an uplifting one. The characters are wonderfully drawn, flaws and all, but it is Lou that you just want to scoop up and protect (although she’d hate that, so probably just a fist bump instead…)

This is exactly the sort of book young readers should be accessing. It has a strong sense of embracing difference, without ever being worthy or patronising and it never ‘tries to be cool’ – the death knell of adult written teen dialogue…

Overall, this is a compassionate and witty look at family life through the eyes of a very unique and observant narrator. Definitely one for your kids’ bookshelves.

As a side note, Emily is also a wonderful photographer… check out her Instagram – emily.critchley

@EmilyMCritchley

www.emilycritchley.com

Review: “The Snowman” by Jo Nesbø

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Paperback: 576 pages

Publisher: Vintage

Release Date: 5th October 2017 (film tie in re-release)

5 STARS

SET IN OSLO AND BERGEN, NORWAY

 

It seems impossible to turn around in a book store or on Twitter without coming face to face with another Nordic Noir crime thriller. The genre seems to have taken on a rather sinister, life of its own. Since Stieg Larsson burst onto the wider literary scene and the BBC started showing “The Killing” and everyone lost their minds about Scandi woolly jumpers, there has been a veritable deluge of work from Scandinavia and Iceland evoking harsh landscapes, dark deeds and terrible weather, normally with a heavy dose of alcoholism thrown in for good measure.

Jo Nesbo used to be footballer. A very good one apparently, he played in the Norwegian national league. I don’t hold this against him, but he makes a better author.

“The Snowman,” whilst being the first Harry Hole novel I’ve read, is actually the seventh in the series. I don’t usually skip about in a series if I can help it – I don’t like spoilers – but this was a Christmas present from my mother-in-law (which made the detailed sex scene at the start rather excruciating to read…) and I’d seen plenty of Jo Nesbo being reviewed on one of my favourite blogs – Crime By The Book so I couldn’t wait to get started. It also seemed vitally important to read this before the new Michael Fassbender movie version came out and inevitably ruined all the characterisation in my head…

Harry Hole is our obligatory lone wolf hero. A man haunted by lost love and the ever present bottle. When a woman goes missing and there is nothing left behind to guide him but the remains of a sinister snowman in the garden, we are drawn into a dark world of affairs, paternity, revenge and a sadistic killer who seems intent on terrifying children everywhere by commandeering one of the most wonderful things about snow and turning it into a modern day boogeyman.

Whilst much of this novel indulges the familiar tropes of Nordic Noir writing, it doesn’t ever feel hackneyed. I even sat there and congratulated myself on ‘correctly’ guessing the murderer (not once, but twice… what a fool!) only to be flipped around and pointed in the other direction again. Nesbo is a master craftsman when it comes to weaving a gripping plot. The settings might be gloomy and the characters flawed and closed off, but this only adds to the atmosphere.

This is a brilliant piece of crime writing – pacey, dark and full of twists and turns. An absolute must for anyone who is a fan of thrillers, dime bars and hard liquor.

www.jonesbo.com

 

 

Blog Tour: “Disturbing Works Vol.1” by Jon Richter

 

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Kindle: 144 pages

Release Date: 12th August 2017

5 STARS

 

Thanks to Jon Richter and Jenny of Neverland Blog Tours for the review copy.

 

Jon Richter’s fabulous collection of unsettling and engrossing short stories sits squarely somewhere between Roald Dahl’s “Tales of the Unexpected” and Charlie Brooker’s “Black Mirror”. Neatly crafted and without exception skin crawlingly compulsive to read they whip through epic fantasy to sci-fi to horror without any chance to draw breath, and yet you never feel that you’ve been cheated on detail or that the characters and settings are anything other than deeply drawn.

The Blurb: The first volume of my Disturbing Works is a collection of twelve twisted tales perfect for people who like their stories dark, despicable, and deeply unsettling.  Containing fantasy, sci-fi, dark humour and a lot of deliciously nasty horror, it should have something for every reader that has a sinister side and nerves of steel…

I have a love hate relationship with short stories – particularly anthologies. Too often they are patchy in quality, or a series of interesting ideas that are never quite brought to fruition. It’s not the case with these.

Richter’s use of language is wonderful, verging on poetic at times, which just makes the cruel juxtaposition with the content all the more dark and delicious. Bizarre and gruesome at every turn, Richter is able to immerse us in a wide variety of places – including Japan, North London and Outer Space…(!) seamlessly. Right from the opening with “Vengeance” you realise what you’re in for – Richter pulls no punches. This is full of well crafted cliffhangers that don’t feel contrived but leave you wanting more and clever structures and humour that stop the stories from ever falling into repetition. I really want him to develop “Something Waits” into a full blown feudal fantasy novel!

Many of the stories deal with suitably dark themes – possession, the dark side of relationships, fear of the unknown, rage, violence and revenge, but often the most engaging stories focus on the characters and their choices. To shoot or not. To act or not. To open that door or not. And it’s the fall out of these choices that Richter delights in  – this man loves to torture his characters! If you love Netflix’s “Black Mirror” there is plenty for you here. In several stories we see the collision between modern technology and the darkness it could bring into our lives in the near future… terrifying.

This collection really does have something for everyone. There are diverse characters and settings, a range of exciting genres and each is just long enough to keep you happy on your tube commute.

You can buy “Disturbing Works Vol.1” now on Amazon for the ridiculously bargainous price of 99p.

 

@richterwrites

www.jon-richter.com

 

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Jon Richter lives in London and spends most of his time hiding in the guise of his sinister alter ego, an accountant called Dave.  When he isn’t counting beans, he is a self-confessed nerd who loves books, films and video games – basically any way to tell a good story.  Jon writes whenever he can and hopes to bring you more disturbing stories in the very near future.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: “The Silent Companions” by Laura Purcell

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Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Raven Books

Release Date: 5th October 2017

5 STARS

SET IN ENGLAND (fictional Fayford)

 

So I’ve made a sneaky side step from the magical to the mysterious with this chilling Gothic tale that perfectly blends Henry James’s “The Turn Of The Screw” with Susan Hill’s “The Woman In Black”. If you like to give yourself the heebie-jeebies then this is the tale for you. Just make sure you keep the lights on…

The Blurb: Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge.

With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself.

I should admit here that I am terrible with scary. I have a wildly overactive imagination. Quelle surprise. So why on earth would I pick this up? The Twitter storm surrounding its release went some way to explain it… and then, to be honest… I was completely suckered by the beautiful, beautiful cover. How bad could it be? I thought. You’ve sat through The Woman In Black in the West End at least five times you complete wuss! Get a grip! Look at that gorgeous frontage – nothing bad could be contained within such a delightful facade… (Note to self: you’ve read Dorian Grey you complete chump – have you learnt nothing about the evil within) Yeah well I managed to spook myself out admirably. In fact, I had to send my husband upstairs to switch on all the lights before I went to bed, which is quite honestly pathetic and embarrassing for a grown woman. And yet I still LOVED it.

Laura Purcell’s novel taps into many of the Gothic genre’s requisite themes – the unreliable narrator, female power and hysteria, a suitably decrepit country pile on a lonely, muddy moor… but it always feels fresh and engrossing. Focusing on terror rather than horror, the book is a slow burner (the irony of this will be apparent when you read it…) in the first few chapters but my God does she pick up the pace. It was almost impossible to put down.

Purcell’s narrative moves effortlessly between 1865 and 1635. She deploys a clever change of voice between these sections and it immerses you fully in each era. The characters are perfect foils for each other, quirky without ever being caricatures and you grow to really invest in them which of course makes the unfolding plot all the more unnerving.

This novel is perfect for winter nights and for fans of classic, claustrophobic Gothic fiction. The whole thing is cleverly put together, never lags and never feels contrived – which for this genre is really saying something. I can’t wait for Purcell’s next offering – “The Corset”.

@spookypurcell

http://www.laurapurcell.com

 

Review: “The Rules Of Magic” by Alice Hoffman

 

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Hardcover: 369 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Release Date: 10th October 2017

4 STARS

SET IN NEW YORK CITY AND MASSACHUSETTS

 

I’m struggling to remember the last time I read a book that didn’t have magic in it…. This hasn’t been an intentional decision – maybe it’s just the autumnal weather kicking in, but it has had the beneficial side effect of immersing me in literary depictions of otherworldliness and getting me to think about what I do, and definitely do not, like about how the extraordinary is dealt with by authors.

The Blurb: For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man.

Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.

From the start Susanna sets down rules for her children: No walking in the moonlight, no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic. And most importantly, never, ever, fall in love. But when her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse.

The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy.

Alice Hoffman’s writing is really lovely and I mean that in every sense of the word. There is a softness and lyricism to the way she describes scenes, a focus on the senses and how they mix with emotions for the characters. She’s able to deal with difficult situations for the characters in a way that touches you but doesn’t have the brutal edge that lots of authors seek in an attempt to make their writing ‘hard-hitting’ or ‘gritty’. Hoffman weaves her words around you like a spell and draws you in gently.

I wasn’t massively enamoured of the characters in the beginning and it took me a little while to settle into this novel. It is a prequel to Hoffman’s wildly successful “Practical Magic” and I must confess that whilst I’ve seen the 90s movie adaptation with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (and that took me until last month…) I have never read the original. Perhaps this was why I found the connections a little tricky – I wasn’t already invested in these characters. In the end didn’t even really notice being sucked in. I suddenly realised that I was half way through. And it was dark outside.

Hoffman deals with the supernatural elements superbly. There are plenty of magical shenanigans but it never seems to tip over into the absurd. The fact that the three siblings each go on a journey with their discoveries and that their relationships with magic are heavily influenced by their different approaches to life keeps it grounded and stops it becoming boring. There is no ‘magical fix’ for the obstacles they need to overcome and Hoffman grows the characters throughout the story really effectively as they realise this themselves.

Overall this is a really gorgeously descriptive novel that transports you to 1960s New York. There’s no need to have read “Practical Magic” to enjoy it and if you’re new to Hoffman’s writing this is a great place to start.

 

@ahoffmanwriter

www.alicehoffman.com

Great Reads In Great Places: Bamburgh and Alnwick, Northumberland

Northumberland is quickly becoming something of a UK literary powerhouse. No longer just home to Hogwarts stand in Alnwick Castle, it is producing some of the best historical and noir fiction I’ve read in a while. Newcastle has a thriving literary scene (if this is something you’d like to know more about, check out the fabulous blog Book and Brew) and despite being a small market town, Alnwick itself is home to the internationally renowned bookshop Barter Books. The rise of new publishing houses is fuelling this further and moving readers past the gritty, marvellous Northumberland set works of Ann Cleeves to new voices such as Matt Wesolowski, the author of one of my Great Read choices for this trip, “Six Stories”.

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Whilst I was home in the UK this summer, I wanted to make a road trip down the coast from Edinburgh to Alnwick. As a teenager I was obsessed with Bernard Cornwall’s “Sharpe” series – it was the first series I devoured with 12 hour reading sessions and coming late to it meant that I spent hours hunting for additional titles in WH Smith, there were so many to catch up on! Cornwell is still probably my favourite writer (I fangirled big time when we found ourselves in Chatham, Cape Cod as this is where he’s now based) and I’ve been religiously purchasing his latest series “The Saxon Chronicles,” which is set across Britain, including in Bamburgh, Northumberland, in the 9th Century. “The Last Kingdom” is my second Great Read choice, but really you should all just read the whole series. Right now.

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The drive between Edinburgh and Alnwick is absolutely beautiful. You take the A1 which hugs the coast for much of the trip and can watch the expanse of the North Sea unfold beneath the cliffs as you pass St. Abbs, Eyemouth (where the excellent “The Shadowy Horses” by Susanna Kearsley is set), Berwick-Upon-Tweed and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

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Bamburgh, or Bebbanburg as it is referred to as in Cornwell’s novels, is not much more than the castle that dominates the coastal headland. There are a selection of pretty stone cottaged streets and some places to grab a cup of tea and an ice cream but not much else. The castle itself is relatively large but suffers in comparison with its film star neighbour in Alnwick. There are tours available and the views from the battlements are wonderful. I actually prefer this castle to the more polished and glitzy Alnwick; it combines a formidable exterior with some impressive and sumptuous interiors. They also have lots of events that are focused on bringing the castle’s violent history to life so check out the website before you book your trip.

We stopped for a cheeky scone in the village, just across from the castle entrance, at a quirky cafe-cum-gift shop called Wyndenwell. The tea was lovely and there was a good selection of tasty homemade cakes and ice creams on offer – you could even pick up a bucket and spade on your way out. This makes sense when you see the wonderful St Aiden Beach. It is one of those stretches of sand that feels like it couldn’t ever be crowded, even in the height of summer. You can see how it would lend itself to some lonely, sparse fiction.

After being suitably refreshed we hopped back in the car to drive down the coast to Alnwick. For any Harry Potter fan the castle is an absolute must see. For those who don’t avidly follow the adventures of the boy wizard, it doubled as the set of Hogwarts for sections of the movie adaptations, and there are plenty of Potter related activities and events to keep magical fans of all ages entertained.

I primarily wanted to worship at the bookish equivalent of Mecca – Barter Books. This legendary secondhand bookshop is situated in an old railway station and it nods not infrequently to this history in its design and decor, right down to the toy train set that runs around suspended from the ceiling. Low lighting, plush cushions and endless stacks make this one of the most intriguing and comfortable places to book browse I’ve ever been to. It’s also home to the original (and much repeated) Keep Calm and Carry On posters. The bookshop has just about every topic conceivable rubbing up against each other. From antiquarian first editions to popular fiction to obscure books on engineering – this place has something for everyone. For those of you who are already thinking “BUT THE FOOD! WHERE IS THE FOOD?!” There is also a cafe attached which is a lovely place to curl up with your new purchase if you can’t be bothered to drag your by now heavily book laden carcass into town.

If you do fancy a walk into the centre of Alnwick, it’s a very pretty town. Lots of Britain In Bloom worthy trugs of flowers adorn the buildings and there is Embleton Bay nearby if you want to get plenty of value for money from your earlier purchased bucket and spade.

The Great Reads:

“Six Stories” by Matt Wesolowski

This clever, original, suspense filled mystery was a surprise in many ways. I first noticed it on Twitter – it was EVERYWHERE and people were obsessed. The narrative unfolds through a series of podcast transcripts that explore the disappearance of Tom Jefferies in 1997 and the events of the following 20 years. If you loved the podcast “Serial”, this is right up your street.

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It’s set in the fictional Northumberland moorland area of Scarclaw Fell, but its more than just the dark underbelly of the landscape that’s unearthed as the plot unfolds. The thing that’s so brilliant about this book is Wesolowski’s ability to have you second guessing throughout. The characters are brilliant and awful in equal measure as their weaknesses and relationships are unpicked by the ‘interviewing’ journalist Scott King and Wesolowski does a fantastic job of creating fully dimensional characters.

I really enjoyed the eerie atmosphere created and found that I whizzed through it in pretty much one sitting. This makes it both a very good book and me a very neglectful mother!

If you are a fan of crime fiction but want something that breaks the rather worn detective formula, then you’ll really like this.

@ConcreteKraken

http://orendabooks.co.uk/matt-wesolowski/

“The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is the absolute master of historical fiction. His novels are meticulously researched whether you are raiding with Vikings, marching through a Napoleonic battlefield or seeking the Holy Grail with King Arthur. I am baffled as to how a man can be a seeming expert in so many areas of history on so many continents. The other thing I adore about his work is how I never, ever pay attention to the fact that I am reading fiction. The writing flows in such a way that I never get jarred or thrown out of the world he is creating. The dialogue is consistently both historically nuanced and modern. The characters are fleshed out and completely believable and I am rambling again as my love for the Cornwell gets the better of me. Apologies.

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“The Last Kingdom” is the first in the ten book series dubbed “The Saxon Chronicles” and has recently been made into a passably entertaining BBC series. It follows the adventures of a young Anglo-Saxon turned Viking boy – Utred, as he seeks revenge for the seizing of his birthright by his uncle and finds his way in the warring kingdoms that make up what is yet to be called Britain.

Everything I said above about Cornwall’s writing holds here. You are rooting for Utred right from the start, even though he is arrogant, headstrong and blood thirsty. It’s all rather appealing actually! He is a proper hero, the sort that is true to himself and has the ability to back it up. Many swashes are buckled and maidens rescued (or ravaged, depending) as our intrepid warrior makes a name for himself. There are plenty of slimy, obsequious villains that you are clamouring for Utred to punish and none of the badly written sex that so often plagues the historical genre when there is any hint of male / female relations.

You should definitely read this novel if you want to escape and be immersed in another world or time and want plenty of adventure without the saccharine romance. In fact, while you’re at it you should just buy the whole set… And the Sharpe novels while you’re at it…

@BernardCornwell

http://www.bernardcornwell.net/books

 

Already read them?

Why not try these other titles set in Northumberland:

  • “Hidden Depths” – Ann Cleeves (or one of her many other titles!)
  • “The Shadowy Horses” – Susanna Kearsley
  • “The Confession of Stella Moon” – Shelley Day
  • “Holy Island” and “Cragside” – L.J. Ross

Great Reads In Great Places: Cape Cod

I don’t know about you, but three things spring to mind when I think of Cape Cod:

  1. Beaches. Some of the most gorgeous stretches of sand in New England can be found on this fish hook of land that curls out of Massachusetts into the Atlantic.
  2. Kennedys. Hyannis Port is synonymous with them. You can’t walk more than a block it seems without tripping over a house, memorial or postcard dedicated to America’s most golden of families.
  3. Lobsters. Now a pricey delicacy rather than food for prisoners, you can eat this delicious shellfish from morning ’til night. In fact if you leave without being covered in misfired lobster juice at some point, have you even been to Cape Cod?

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Old Harbour Life Saving Station

But it’s not really somewhere, for all its beauty, that I associate with literature. That gets left to its gritty neighbour – Boston, which is positively teeming with alcoholic, brooding detectives and abrasive former boxers either finding redemption or careering towards an ignominious end. My choice for this trip was a collection of short stories – “Cape Cod Noir” compiled and edited by David L. Ulin which promised to get beneath the tourist veneer of preppy, white, rolling in cash to something closer to the real Cape and the New Englanders that live there. Each story is linked to a different town which makes it perfect pick and choose travel literature.

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We decided to visit the Cape, as it is affectionately known, on Memorial Day weekend. Rookie error. Turns out, this is one of the busiest times of the year in Cape Cod and there is basically one road in and out. Route 6A is a gorgeous drive from the east of Boston down the length of the peninsula cutting through many of the small historic towns that make up the larger area which is Cape Cod (turns out that it’s not an actual place as such…) but it is also one MASSIVE bottle neck as all the local traffic feeds into it. You can safely double whatever drive time Google Maps gives you and add a bit for good measure.

Our bed and breakfast, The Belfry, was in Sandwich, on the north side of the Cape. The town itself is beautiful, a picture postcard New England town complete with white clapboard houses that look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Martha Stewart’s Living and it’s quiet – something that I’ve come to really appreciate since moving to NYC. The B and B is actually made up of three separate buildings, not just the converted church that contains the main dining room and reception, all beautifully maintained and decorated in a typical colonial style. This meant that we were able to be in a room that was a little out of the way (baby in tow and super thin wooden walls do not friends make) and we were grateful for the privacy that came with having our own porch and entrance and somewhere to park the stroller. Breakfast here is limited in choice but awesome and the owner/manager is very knowledgeable and helpful, offering us itineraries and ideas as well as great restaurant recommendations.

We discovered pretty quickly that there is not a huge amount to do in Sandwich itself – especially on a slightly grey weekend in May. If you want a bit of action and walkable restaurants and shops then you’re better off in Chatham or Hyannis. This place is all about the beach and the boardwalk, which is beautiful and cuts across a large patch of marshland by the coast. There are lots of steps up and over the dunes though, so this place is not really stroller or wheelchair friendly. Sandy Neck Beach and Town Neck Beach are two of the most popular in the area and it is easy to see why. These are long stretches of sandy beach that go down to a nice open shoreline that’s perfect for swimming. There’s also plenty of parking if you don’t fancy a long wander through largely residential streets (although this is great for house perving if you like New England architecture).

Beyond the beach you can really take it all in in under a day – there’s Dexter’s Grist Mill, a mid 17th century mill restored in the 1960s which is worth a look and then it’s a short stroll to the Glass Museum which Sandwich is famous for. If you want to stray about 1/2 mile outside of town it’s worth going to see the Hoxie House which gives you a good understanding of how life was lived in the 1630s on the Cape. If you manage to pack that in and have a few hours to spare before dinner then there are some gorgeous antique shops tucked away to help you while away the time.

Foodwise, we wanted seafood, seafood and more seafood. It seemed a capital crime to come to Cape Cod and not indulge. A great lunch spot is The Pilot House, there is plenty of outdoor seating and a great view of the modern harbour. The menu is extensive and reasonably priced – even the lobster roll, which comes in a choice of sizes and breads. Not only was it delicious, it was enormous, which let’s face it is something you don’t often get too say about lobster sandwiches.

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On our second day we decided to drive further out along the peninsula to Chatham. There was some debate amongst the party about going south – there is a great cycle / walk route from Falmouth to Woods Hole, The Shining Sea Bikeway, but as it was pretty wet and miserable, those of us who wanted to duck from shop to pretty shop won out.

If I were to do this trip again I think I would actually have our base in Chatham. It really reminds me of Padstow in Cornwall, England mixed with East Hampton NY – smart shops and restaurants with a nautical leaning and pretty frontages. There is certainly more to do here, especially on a wet day. There was a mad dash through the downpour to Chatham Lighthouse, very New England, and an attempt to salvage something of the view from the cliff top. I imagine this is far more impressive when there isn’t low lying cloud… In better weather there is plenty of opportunities to investigate the wildlife that the area is famous for. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is nearby and you can take a variety of trips out to do dolphin, shark and whale watching, which is something I’d definitely do if I came again.

Lighthouse

We grabbed lunch at The Impudent Oyster before hitting our nightmare drive back to NYC. The inside of this Chatham institution is homely and no fuss but the food is excellent. Much delicious chowder was consumed, the seafood stew was declared marvellous and they even did a decent beer battered fish and chips, something that us Brits struggle to find in the US to be honest. There are no baby changing facilities here though – it’s the car (if you can get a parking spot anywhere near the restaurant) or the loo floor. Luckily there are plenty of lovely friendly locals who will jump at the chance to hold your baby whilst you pack up all your stuff!

Bookshops:

There are plenty of bookshops all over the Cape but three that I think are well worth a trip are Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, The Brewster Book Store in Brewster and Where The Sidewalk Ends (what a great name!) in Chatham. All are independent, big tick, and can advise on locally set reads and authors.

The Great Read: “Cape Cod Noir” compiled by David L. Ulin

“Cape Cod Noir” is part of series of noir style compilations that centre on various towns and cities around the world (so if you like the concept you can pretty much pick up one for wherever you are headed on your holidays) and is published by Akashic Noir. I always like a short story selection to pick through. It’s digestible and if you don’t like an author’s style you aren’t married to it for a further 500 pages out of sheer stubbornness. I am a chronic book finisher, even if I hate it. As you might expect, the quality of the fiction is a little up and down – Cape Cod is a small area, I guess you’re fairly limited as an editor in what you can select from, but it certainly delivers on its promise to explore the dark and unseen underbelly of this glamorous part of the world.

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I particularly enjoyed “Variations on a Fifty Pound Bale” by Adam Mansbach – the structural concept of this story, exploring how urban legends can be built up, is fun and focuses on Martha’s Vineyard. “Bad Night in Hyannis Port” by Seth Greenland was a great example of the alienation of youth that is a running theme in this book. There’s a little of “Catcher In The Rye” in its disaffected frat boy narrator and ‘bad night’ doesn’t really tell the half of it! If death and narrators from beyond the grave a your thing, “When Death Shines Bright.” set in Sandwich, is a classic piece of dark noir.

Overall this is an enjoyable read, with a couple of real highlights. I love the concept of compiling short fiction set in a particular place and will definitely be revisiting the series for other cities.

Already read it? 

Why not try these other titles set in Cape Cod:

  • “Caleb’s Crossing” – Geraldine Brooks
  • “The Orphans of Race Point” – Party Francis
  • “The Sparrow Sister” – Ellen Herrick
  • “Love Antony” – Lisa Genova

 

Feel free to add any of your own Cape Cod recommendations in the comments below 🙂

Review: “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

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Hardcover: 304 pages

Publisher: Scribner

Release Date: 5th September 2017

5 STARS

SET IN MISSISSIPPI

 

What can I say – one of the best novels of the year so far. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is part Southern Gothic, part American road novel, part Steinbeck-esque story of people and place. It explores not only the family dynamic of Jojo, his grandparents and his drug addicted mother, but also their ties through the ages – to the dead and the living.

The Blurb: A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

The scope of this novel is vast and yet it feels intimate right from the opening pages. Through Jojo’s description of helping his grandfather kill and gut a goat we are very quickly drawn into the poor, rural, Southern setting and Jojo’s relationships with his sister, grandfather and mother. Ward’s descriptions and observations are visceral and unadorned with sentiment, yet we feel immense sympathy for the young man she presents. She at once paints a very personal picture of Jojo’s family life and also shows us the broader legacy of slavery and racism in the South.

Jojo’s mother, Leonie is a drug addict and hopelessly in love with the white father of her children. Rejected by his racist family, Leonie spirals deeper into addiction, haunted by the ghost of her brother who was killed by her lover’s cousin. Ward presents a character here who is pitiful and a terrible mother. She is incapable of acting in a way that is unselfish and frequently places her own desires above those of her children. What is so effective about Ward’s characterisation is that Leonie is not villified. She is just flawed and human and exposed to us with all her failings on display.

I was worried that Ward might try to cram in too much – this book was billed as drawing on The Odyssey after all – and not give us time to bond with the characters, especially Jojo, in her drive to link the characters to other points in time, but she does this superbly. The frequent jumps in time and narrator do nothing but enhance a rich tapestry of story. The magical realism elements are seamlessly interwoven with the main narrative and we accept without question the spectre of Richie and the tale he tells of Riv, Jojo’s Pop, and their imprisonment in Parchment which leads to the dramatic conclusion of the novel.

This is such a gorgeously written book – poetic but flowing, contemporary and timeless. I would urge everyone to read it.

 

@jesmimi

 

I received an ARC of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review.

 

 

Review: “The House Between Tides” by Sarah Maine

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Paperback: 400 pages

Publisher: Atria Books

Release Date: 24th March 2014

4 STARS

SET IN OUTER HEBRIDES, SCOTLAND AND LONDON

 

The relentless summer sun of the US East Coast has had me, perversely, hankering for grey skies and sparse landscapes, and as such I’ve been picking up a fair few novels set in Scotland recently. The gorgeous moody cover of Sarah Maine’s debut novel drew me in immediately, as did the back cover descriptions of a gothic and atmospheric novel with a good old dose of murder and mystery. It was just what I needed.

The Blurb: An atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.

Following the death of her last living relative, Hetty Deveraux leaves London and her strained relationship behind for Muirlan, her ancestral home in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. She intends to renovate the ruinous house into a hotel, but the shocking discovery of human remains brings her ambitious restoration plans to an abrupt halt before they even begin. Few physical clues are left to identify the body, but one thing is certain: this person did not die a natural death.

Hungry for answers, Hetty discovers that Muirlan was once the refuge of her distant relative Theo Blake, the acclaimed painter and naturalist who brought his new bride, Beatrice, there in 1910. Yet ancient gossip and a handful of leads reveal that their marriage was far from perfect; Beatrice eventually vanished from the island, never to return, and Theo withdrew from society, his paintings becoming increasingly dark and disturbing.

What happened between them has remained a mystery, but as Hetty listens to the locals and studies the masterful paintings produced by Theo during his short-lived marriage, she uncovers secrets that still reverberate through the small island community—and will lead her to the identity of the long-hidden body.

 

Beinn Mhor

Beinn Mhor – a featured location in the novel

© Copyright Peter Fairhurst and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The novel is a dual narrative and swaps between the points of view of several of the main characters, although the bulk of the story is told through the eyes of Beatrice, the lonely wife of the difficult and talented painter Theo Blake in 1910 and Hetty Deveraux, his distant relative who inherits Muirlan House in 2010.

I must admit that I found the beginning of the novel slow. Maine’s descriptions are beautiful – she really captures the wind bashed coast and wild romanticism of the environment surrounding Muirlan House and the island but I stopped and started with it several times, finding it difficult to connect with the characters at first. I’m glad I persevered though as this story draws you in slowly, just as the island does Beatrice, and before long I was hooked.

What becomes apparent very quickly is that the discovery of the bones under the house and the resulting ‘murder mystery’ quickly play second fiddle to a story that is essentially about belonging and what it means to belong to a place, to a community, to a history that is carried with us. It is strongly character driven rather than focused on an unravelling plot as such – although Maine does an excellent job of reminding us every so often that there is a mystery to solve.

Understand what you’re getting into, James had said. It goes deep.

The tensions between the landowners and tenants, outsiders and locals, are well drawn and you do sympathise with Hetty as she is pulled this way and that by the differing opinions and approaches of the people around her. The agents engaged by her partner Giles are absolutely insufferable and it is only her constant reluctance to stand up to them in any way that stops this getting a higher rating. I’m afraid I wish that Hetty had more of a backbone! You are constantly put in mind though of the destruction wreaked by ruling landowners and the impact the ‘sporting, shooting, fishing’ culture on the local economy and environment – a battle that rages today in terms of land distribution, ownership and use in the Highlands and Islands.

Overall I thought the novel was gorgeously described and totally plausible in its depiction of the relationships between characters – nothing saccharine or overwrought is ever indulged and whilst the denouement is not revelatory, it is pleasingly fitted together and provides a strong resolution.

Not as gothic as I thought it would be, but certainly a strongly atmospheric novel that really captures the Outer Hebrides in all their bleak beauty.

 

http://sarahmainebooks.com/

@SarahMaineBooks

Review: “The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

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Hardback: 304 pages

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Release Date: 25th May 2017

4 STARS

SET IN ESSEX, SUFFOLK, NORFOLK

 

A new perspective on one of Britain’s darkest periods of history. Before the Salem witch trials there was Matthew Hopkins – Britain’s self-appointed Witchfinder General. This chilling tale looks at what happened in the years between 1645 and 1647 when he held sway over East Anglia, through the eyes of his widowed sister Alice.

The Blurb: The number of women my brother Matthew killed, so far as I can reckon it, is one hundred and six…

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?
And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

Not much is known about Hopkins historically speaking, and even less about any family he had. This gives Underdown plenty of scope to create her characters and to bring a chilling humanity to Hopkins, a man responsible for the deaths of over 300 women – more than all previous witch hunters in the 160 years preceding.

I particularly enjoy historical fiction from a female perspective as so often their stories are overlooked. Sometimes it can create narrative problems for authors though – how do you keep a female character in the centre of action that would probably only have included men at the time? Underdown navigates this successfully in the main. She uses Hopkins’ early absences and the slow trickle of information about what he’s up to to great effect in building suspense. The reader realises the scale and horror as the protagonist does which serves to draw you in. We sympathise with Alice as she struggles to work against her brother, constantly being thwarted by societal convention and her brother’s cold and controlling actions. Underdown also does a good job of balancing a historical tone in her language without losing pace or sounding contrived. Alice comes across as relatable but of her time, which is great.

Without going into details (no spoilers here!) the ending was frustrating and the thing that stops this getting a higher rating from me. I understand why it unfolded as it did… I just found it unsatisfying and one of the moments where the above problem wasn’t dealt with as well as earlier in the book. There is also a supernatural element that’s intriguing but never really goes anywhere – I really wish the writer had pursued this more.

Overall an enjoyable read but not a favourite.

 

www.bethunderdown.co.uk

@bethunderdown