#bookreview

‘The Art of Falling’ by Danielle McLaughlin #BookReview #FridayReads

Nessa McCormack’s marriage is coming back together again after her husband’s affair. She is excited to be in charge of a retrospective art exhibit for one of Ireland’s most beloved and enigmatic artists, the late sculptor Robert Locke. But the arrival of two outsiders imperils both her personal and professional worlds: a chance encounter with an old friend threatens to expose a betrayal Nessa thought she had long put behind her, and at work, an odd woman comes forward claiming to be the true creator of Robert Locke’s most famous work, The Chalk Sculpture.

As Nessa finds the past intruding on the present, she must decide whether she can continue to live a lie – or whether she’s ready to face the consequences once everything is out in the open. In this gripping debut, Danielle McLaughlin reveals profound truths about love, power, and the secrets that rule us.

This is quite a slow-paced novel, almost gentle in its composition, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an absorbing read. It really is.

Nessa is a well-drawn main character, and it’s a relief to read about a middle-aged woman who has a lot of the faults and worries and insecurities that most of us do. She’s at a point in her life when things should be going smoothly – her career is established, her marriage has survived an affair, her daughter is growing up, she lives in a beautiful house – but it doesn’t take much for it all too start falling apart.

The little details of ordinary life really add something to the narrative. It makes it all feel so real, so authentic. And Nessa isn’t some sugar-coated super woman. She has her faults, can be childish and petty, selfish and shallow. But aren’t we all, sometimes?

It’s skillfully written, every word well-chosen. It’s one of those books that forces you to slow down, to read carefully, to enjoy every page.

My only gripe was that I did feel that Nessa let her husband off the hook rather too lightly, and I did feel we could have known a bit more about him, and his motivations.

But this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

‘Mirrorland’ by Carole Johnstone #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

One twin ran. The other vanished. Neither escaped…

DON’T TRUST ANYONE
Cat’s twin sister El has disappeared. But there’s one thing Cat is sure of: her sister isn’t dead. She would have felt it. She would have known.

DON’T TRUST YOUR MEMORIES
To find her sister, Cat must return to their dark, crumbling childhood home and confront the horrors that wait there. Because it’s all coming back to Cat now: all the things she has buried, all the secrets she’s been running from.

DON’T TRUST THIS STORY…
The closer Cat comes to the truth, the closer to danger she is. Some things are better left in the past…

The most dangerous stories are the ones we tell ourselves…
No. 36 Westeryk Road: an imposing flat-stone house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. A place of curving shadows and crumbling grandeur. But it’s what lies under the house that is extraordinary – Mirrorland. A vivid make-believe world that twin sisters Cat and El created as children. A place of escape, but from what?

Now in her thirties, Cat has turned her back on her past. But when she receives news that one sunny morning, El left harbour in her sailboat and never came back, she is forced to return to Westeryk Road; to re-enter a forgotten world of lies, betrayal and danger.

Because El had a plan. She’s left behind a treasure hunt that will unearth long-buried secrets. And to discover the truth, Cat must first confront the reality of her childhood – a childhood that wasn’t nearly as idyllic as she remembers…

I’m going to use a cliche because it’s true – I couldn’t put this book down. Every page was a pleasure to read.

The narrative takes you from past to present, as Cat returns to her childhood home to try and make sense of her twin sister’s disappearance. But there are so many reasons she left and coming home brings all those things back to the surface. Switching like this can often be clunky and awkward, but here it works so well and the flashbacks, the details of the twins’ strange childhood, are beautifully done, so evocative and detailed.

As the past is slowly revealed, the tension really grows, and the reader is pulled along by the narrative, as almost every page seems to reveal another piece of the puzzle. It’s expertly done, absolutely gripping.

A very impressive debut. Very much looking forward to her next book.

‘Ash Tuesday’ by Ariadne Blayde #RBRT #FridayReads

I read ‘Ash Tuesday’ for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.

In New Orleans, the dead talk and the living listen. 

Giving ghost tours on the decaying streets of the French Quarter isn’t exactly a high-profile career, but the guides at Spirits of Yore Haunted Tours are too strange and troubled to do anything else. They call themselves Quarter Rats, a group of outcasts and dreamers and goths who gather in hole-in-the-wall bars to bicker, spin yarns, and search for belonging in the wee hours of the night after the tourists have staggered home. 

Through the ghost stories they tell, their own haunted lives come into focus. Like the city they call home, these tour guides are messy with contradiction: they suffer joyfully, live morbidly, and sin to find salvation. 

Weaving together real New Orleans folklore with the lives of eleven unforgettably vibrant characters, Ash Tuesday is a love letter to America’s last true bohemia and the people, both dead and living, who keep its heart beating. With her debut, Blayde has carved out a deep and uber-readable interpretation of what it means to live, love, and grieve in New Orleans.

“There’s something about New Orleans. Maybe you can trace it to Latin America or the Caribbean or maybe not, maybe you can’t define it at all. The divine? The diabolical? I don’t know what to call it. But there’s magic, here.” 

New Orleans has a rich and bloody history, so it’s hardly surprising that its streets and buildings should be full of ghosts. And the author of ‘Ash Tuesday’ has found a wonderful way of telling those stories, along with the stories of an eclectic cast of characters, the ghost tour guides of Spirits of Yore.

It is Mardi Gras, and the city is full of tourists. We follow each of the guides as they give their tours, and then stay with them, learning about their lives, their struggles, their hopes, loves, dreams and pasts. And watching over it all is Kat, whose story is saved for the bittersweet ending.

This is one of the most beautifully crafted books I’ve read, every page, every paragraph a pleasure to read. I didn’t know much about New Orleans, but now I feel as though I know it well, and can see it so clearly from the author’s evocative descriptions – descriptions that never interfere with the narrative but provide a clear sense of time and place, conveying the atmosphere of chilly, eerie nights and bright carnival parades with equal skill.

The characters are brought to life with love and honesty. I adored Veda, and lovely Max, and wished so much for the other guides to understand Angela a bit more. The interactions between them all felt so real.

This is a book that will appeal not just to those who enjoy a good ghost story (although there are plenty of those), or those who are interested in history or in New Orleans. Because this is a novel that is fundamentally about people, their faults and their flaws, their mistakes and their victories, their love (and sometimes their hatred) for each other, and the ways in which we can let the past, and the people in the past, break us, or we can find our own ways forward, with people who love us for who we are.

A wonderful book.

‘The Assistant’ by S.K. Tremayne #BookReview #FridayReads

She watches you constantly.
Newly divorced Jo is delighted to move into her best friend’s spare room almost rent-free. The high-tech luxury Camden flat is managed by a meticulous Home Assistant, called Electra, that takes care of the heating, the lights – and sometimes Jo even turns to her for company.
 
She knows all your secrets.
Until, late one night, Electra says one sentence that rips Jo’s fragile world in two: ‘I know what you did.’ And Jo is horrified. Because in her past she did do something terrible. Something unforgivable.
 
Now she wants to destroy you.
Only two other people in the whole world know Jo’s secret. And they would never tell anyone. Would they? As a fierce winter brings London to a standstill, Jo begins to understand that the Assistant on the shelf doesn’t just want to control Jo; it wants to destroy her.

This is such an excellent premise for a novel. How reliant we have all become on technology, when most of us don’t really understand it or what we’re signing up for. The idea that all those Alexas could turn on us has so much potential.

This has all the elements necessary for a real page-turner. And there are parts of it that work really well. The terror that Jo begins to feel builds and builds and there is real tension. Her frustration and her helplessness in the face of what the Electra’s are able to do to her work, her reputation, her family, her life comes across clearly.

However, there is too much here that just doesn’t feel realistic. Jo isn’t easy to like, and it’s hard to understand why everyone else is so enamoured of her (to the extent that one friend lets her live rent free in their flat, and her newly ex-husband drops his wife and new baby to help her out). The way she treats her mum is awful. And I was quite disappointed in the ending.

So lots of promise that didn’t quite hit the mark for me, but worth a read.

‘The Chalet’ by Catherine Cooper #BookReview #TuesdayBookBlog

French Alps, 1998

Two young men ski into a blizzard… but only one returns.

20 years later

Four people connected to the missing man find themselves in that same resort. Each has a secret. Two may have blood on their hands. One is a killer-in-waiting.

Someone knows what really happened that day.

And somebody will pay.

This is a solid mystery/thriller from an author who can obviously write well.

The author clearly knows the Alps well, and the sense of place and time is excellent. It’s really easy to picture the chalet and the slopes. It’s a great idea for the setting for a novel of this type.

There is suspense, and there are twists and turns that work really well, and the writing itself is good.

However, while there is always a place for horrible characters in a novel, I just couldn’t like anyone in this story, even the one character that I was supposed to like and to root for. The back story felt rather contrived and cliched unfortunately, and there were too many coincidences to make the set up feasible.

So, all-in-all, a bit of a miss.

‘The Liar’s Dictionary’ by Eley Williams #Fridayreads #BookReview

Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary is riddled with fictitious entries known as mountweazels penned by Peter Winceworth, a man wishing to make his lasting mark back in 1899. It’s up to young intern Mallory to uncover these mountweazels before the dictionary can be digitised for modern readers.

Lost in Winceworth’s imagination – a world full of meaningless words – will Mallory finally discover the secret to living a meaningful life?

There was a great deal that I really liked about this book. It is really funny and clever in places, and I loved Mallory, the main character.

I rather liked the idea of the job she had – to find fictitious words in Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Words that, as we find out through flashbacks, have been placed there by lexicographer Peter Winceworth (never was a name more apt) in 1899 – a man frustrated by his work, his workmates and the world, and who wishes to make a mark on that world.

The rogue words are really good fun, and the novel is charming, unusual, witty and clever. However, sometimes the definitions go a little too far and do bog the narrative down a bit.

That said, this is an entertaining and engaging novel.

‘Dark Corners’ by Darren O’Sullivan #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

You thought you’d escaped your past

It’s been twenty years since Neve’s best friend Chloe went missing. Neve has never recovered and promised herself she’d never go back to that place.

But secrets can come back to haunt you

When Neve receives news that her first boyfriend Jamie has gone missing, she’s forced to return. Jamie has vanished without a trace in a disappearance that echoes the events of all those years ago. Somebody is watching and will stop at nothing until the truth about what took place that night is revealed …

Neve left the mining village where she grew up after her best friend Chloe disappeared. Now, after the breakup of her relationship, and struggling to run a business with her friend, she returns to help in the search for another friend, and her first love, Jamie.

The story switches between the present day, and the events of twenty-one years ago. This is done very well, and there is no confusion. The plot is quite complex and there are lots of twists and turns to keep mystery fans happy, and the atmosphere is quite spooky. The writing is very good in places, particularly in the evocative descriptions of the abandoned mine, the headframe watching over everything.

But I did find it hard to really connect to the characters, which made it difficult to really feel the tension. and there were quite a few errors in the text, including a lot of unintentional switches from past to present tense in the earlier chapters.

I also found the ending a bit of a disappointment.

So, not for me, unfortunately, but the book does have a lot of really great reviews, so the author is worth checking out if you’re a fan of the mystery genre.

‘A Room Made of Leaves’ by Kate Grenville #TuesdayBookBlog #Bookreview

It is 1788. When twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth marries the arrogant and hot-headed soldier John Macarthur, she soon realises she has made a terrible mistake. Forced to travel with him to New South Wales, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours. All her life she has learned to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express.

Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.

There’s no question that this is a beautifully written novel from a very talented author. Some of the description is absolutely wonderful and there’s such a clear sense of time and place.

The opening chapters, describing Elizabeth’s childhood, worked the best for me, and the Elizabeth in these chapters felt very real and fully drawn.

Once the narrative moves to Australia, the novel didn’t work quite so well for me. I did feel that Elizabeth was a little too good to be true and that the portrayal of her husband was a bit superficial. I would have liked a bit more detail about the dynamics of their relationship, and also some more detail about the daily hardships of life in the new settlement. This aspect, in particular, was very glossed over. It must have been absolutely brutal, but it doesn’t really feel that way.

I think too, that, while there certainly is acknowledgement of the cruelty to the indigenous people of the area, this could have been more fully detailed. And is it really believable that Elizabeth would have been so enlightened, that she would have recognized that the immigrants from England were stealing land and food and lives from others?

That said, the book did leave me wanting to know more about the real Elizabth Macarthur, and it was, on the whole, a book that I’m glad to have read.

‘Here Is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan #bookreview #fridayreads

For three years, Ana has been consumed by an affair with Connor, a client at her law firm. Their love has been consigned to hotel rooms and dark corners of pubs, their relationship kept hidden from the world. So the morning that Ana’s company receives a call to say that Connor is dead, her secret grief has nowhere to go. Desperate for an outlet, Ana seeks out the shadowy figure who has always stood just beyond her reach – Connor’s wife Rebecca…

This story begins at the end of an affair – brought short by the sudden death of Connor. It follows Ana’s memories of the affair alongside the way she copes (or doesn’t) with the situation.

The story is told in verse form, which makes every word, every line, every scene compacted into what is really important. Rather than making things feel underdeveloped, the author’s skill means that you learn so much about each character, each situation, in a few well-chosen words and situations.

Ana isn’t very nice. She’s selfish, and self-absorbed. But she’s also deeply unhappy, and the narrative doesn’t try to excuse her, or her behaviour, it simply shows us what she is like, what she does, and how that affects those around her.

The narrative is packed full of emotion – love, hate, jealousy, guilt, but it never feels overdone, just realistic, considering the characters and the situation.

It’s a fairly short read, but no less a whole story – I read it in a couple of days which is unusual for me at the moment as I have so much else to do! So that’s a testament to how much I enjoyed it.

‘The Bird in the Bamboo Cage’ by Hazel Gaynor #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

China, 1941. With Japan’s declaration of war on the Allies, Elspeth Kent’s future changes forever. When soldiers take control of the missionary school where she teaches, comfortable security is replaced by rationing, uncertainty and fear.

Ten-year-old Nancy Plummer has always felt safe at Chefoo School. Now the enemy, separated indefinitely from anxious parents, the children must turn to their teachers – to Miss Kent and her new Girl Guide patrol especially – for help. But worse is to come when the pupils and teachers are sent to a distant internment camp. Unimaginable hardship, impossible choices and danger lie ahead.

Inspired by true events, this is the unforgettable story of the life-changing bonds formed between a young girl and her teacher, in a remote corner of a terrible war.

I’ve read quite a few of Hazel Gaynor’s books and have loved every one of them. She has a really lovely way of writing about ordinary people in extraordinary situations, showing how those people find such strength of character in order to cope. The relationships between her characters are always a highlight too.

This novel is no exception. Elspeth and Nancy are authentic and likeable narrators, showing clearly their fear and bewilderment as their lives change so dramatically. What works particularly well is their belief that this can’t possibly be happening, that someone will come and hp them. It really made me, as a reader, think about what how I would react in those circumstances.

I did find, however, the storyline around the Girl Guides a little overdone. I can appreciate that it was something to hold onto, for the girls and their teachers, and something they used to give life in the camp a sense of normality, but it did take over the narrative in places.

Otherwise, another great novel by Hazel Gaynor, and definitely recommended.