#bookreview

‘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.

‘Space Hopper’ by Helen Fisher #BookReview

If you could go back in time to find answers to the past, would you?
 
For Faye, the answer is yes. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to find out what really happened when she lost her mother as a child. She is happy with her life – she has a loving husband, two young daughters and supportive friends, even a job that she enjoys. But questions about the past keep haunting her, until one day she finally gets the chance she’s been waiting for.
 
But how far is she willing to go to find answers?
 
Space Hopper is an original and poignant story about mothers, memories and moments that shape life.

When she is just eight years old, Faye loses her mother. Taken in by kind neighbours, she forges a happy life, albeit one that has a sadness at its heart.

She has a good job, a lovely, supportive husband, two daughters, lots of friends, but nothing quite fills that hole.

When she finds an old space hopper box in the loft, it paves the way for her to return to her past, and to be with her mum, but as is usually the case with time travel, interfering with the past isn’t always a wise thing to do, and the consequences can be much more far reaching than you expect.

I did enjoy this. For a debut novel it’s very well-written, confident, well-paced, and absorbing in places, and the details of Faye’s past were so well done, really authentic.

That said, there were a few places where things dragged a little, and some of the time travel aspects didn’t really work for me. And I’m not sure I completely believed in the ending.

But certainly a good read, and I’d definitely read more by this author.

Inge’s War by Svenja O’Donnell #FridayReads #BookReview

What does it mean to be on the wrong side of history?

Svenja O’Donnell’s beautiful, aloof grandmother Inge never spoke about the past. All her family knew was that she had grown up in a city that no longer exists on any map: Königsberg in East Prussia, a footnote in history, a place that almost no one has heard of today. But when Svenja impulsively visits this windswept Baltic city, something unlocks in Inge and, finally, she begins to tell her story.

It begins in the secret jazz bars of Hitler’s Berlin. It is a story of passionate first love, betrayal, terror, flight, starvation and violence. As Svenja teases out the threads of her grandmother’s life, retracing her steps all over Europe, she realises that there is suffering here on a scale that she had never dreamt of. And finally, she uncovers a desperately tragic secret that her grandmother has been keeping for sixty years.

Inge’s War listens to the voices that are often missing from our historical narrative – those of women caught up on the wrong side of history. It is a book about memory and heritage that interrogates the legacy passed down by those who survive. It also poses the questions: who do we allow to tell their story? What do we mean by family? And what will we do in order to survive?

I recently watched The Final Account – over the course of more than a decade, the documentary film-maker Luke Holland collected interviews with surviving witnesses and participants of Hitler’s Third Reich. These were people who were there. Soldiers in the army, members of the SS, women who worked in the offices of the concentration camps. Those who lived nearby. It is a programme that was hard to watch. One man in particular was still proud of what he’d done. One woman, who worked in an office in a camp, said it was nothing to do with her. She said the treatment of the Jewish people horrified her. Then she laughed as she recalled hiding her boyfriend – a guard at the camp – when the allies came. There were those, of course, who were horribly ashamed, who took their share of the responsibility. 

A few years ago we visited Munich – a wonderful place, wonderful people, friendly, welcoming, beautiful. On our final day there we visited Dachau, and suddenly things weren’t so wonderful. What got to me most was that the camp was there for all to see. Everyone. No one could have not known. 

Of course we all hope that we would stand up to fascists. That we wouldn’t turn a blind eye, or worse, be involved. But documentaries like The Final Account, and the proof of places like Dachau niggle away – would we really be any different? Would we be brave enough to say no? 

Inge’s War, for me, is another story that poses this question. 

The writer’s grandmother, Inge, grew up in East Prussia, an area that was, in a lot of ways, removed from what was happening in the rest of Germany. On the whole, people just carried on with their lives, at least at first. Inge’s parents disapproved of Hitler, but they kept their heads down, not really believing that anything bad would happen. So removed were they, that they allowed Inge to move to Berlin in 1940, at the age of fifteen.

Here, Inge met Wolfgang, a young man who had avoided being called up. When he finally had to go to war, Inge discovered she was pregnant. He promised to stand by her, but his father forbade it, and feeling betrayed, Inge returned home.

The story then follows Inge and her parents, as the war does find them, and they too have to flee. What happens to Inge from them on makes for a dark tale, and the author comes to understand her stern, guarded, taciturn grandmother.

It’s unusual to read about German refugees, the terror they felt, caught between the Nazis and the Russians at the end of the war. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for them, for women like Inge, who were collateral damage in all of this. And when you read about atrocities like the Nemmesdorf massacre, the only thing you can feel is horror and disgust. But when you think about what happened to Jewish people, the Romani people, LGBT people, the disabled, and all the other groups targeted by the Nazis, it’s hard to feel as much sympathy for people fleeing who voted for Hitler, who may have watched their Jewish neighbours being taken away. Who turned a blind eye at the trains full of human beings. And the author recognises this, feels this conflict herself. But she asks the questions too of what would we, the readers, have done? Can we honestly say we would have intervened, spoken up, acted? 

The research here is, of course, impeccable, and the writing so accomplished. Accessible without dumbing down, thoughtful, respectful, and, unsurprisingly given the author’s relationship to Inge, completely genuine and authentic. This is, without doubt, an important book. 

Whole-heartedly recommended (as is The Final Account).

‘Daughters of Night’ by Laura Shepherd-Robinson  #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

From the pleasure palaces and gin-shops of Covent Garden to the elegant townhouses of Mayfair, Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night follows Caroline Corsham as she seeks justice for a murdered woman whom London society would rather forget . . .

London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline ‘Caro’ Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.  

But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous, than she can know . . .

This combines all the twists and turns of a really clever murder mystery with meticulous research, and a fabulously written main character – mystery, history and a female lead that you really care about.

Lady Caroline Corsham (Caro) discovers her friend, who she believes to be an Italian countess, dying in a bower in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Caro is shocked to discover that ‘Lucia’ is actually Lucy Loveless, a high-class prostitute. When the police don’t seem to care about Lucy’s murder, Caro, determined to get to the truth and to secure justice for Lucy, begins an investigation herself. Along with theiftaker Peregrine Child, she begins an investigation that brings to light some very dangerous goings-on in Georgian society – some of which are rather close to home.

This is a very long book – almost six hundred pages in paperback format. It does manage to hold your interest for the most part – but I did feel it could have been cut back a little. There were times when I just wanted to get on with the story. That said, the historical detail has been meticulously researched and the narrative is full to the brim with little details that immerse the reader in late eighteenth century London. 

Clever, exciting, beautifully written, just a little bit too long – but that won’t stop me reading more by this author.

‘The Hemlock Cure’ by Joanne Burn #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

It is 1665 and the women of Eyam keep many secrets.

Isabel Frith, the village midwife, walks a dangerous line with her herbs and remedies. There are men in the village who speak of witchcraft, and Isabel has a past to hide. So she tells nobody her fears about Wulfric, the pious, reclusive apothecary.

Mae, Wulfric’s youngest daughter, dreads her father’s rage if he discovers what she keeps from him. Like her feelings for Rafe, Isabel’s ward, or that she studies from Wulfric’s forbidden books at night.

But others have secrets too. Secrets darker than any of them could have imagined.

When Mae makes a horrifying discovery, Isabel is the only person she can turn to. But helping Mae will place them both in unspeakable peril.

And meanwhile another danger is on its way from London. One that threatens to engulf them all . . .

Based on the real history of an English village during the Great Plague, The Hemlock Cure is an utterly beguiling tale of fear and ambition, betrayal, self-sacrifice and the unbreakable bond between two women.

For an historical novel, The Hemlock Cure feels very topical!

Based on the true story of the Derbyshire village of Eyam during the great plague, this is an absolutely stunning novel, beautifully-written, atmospheric, and impeccably researched. 

After the death of her mother and sister, Mae lives with her father Wulfric, the village apothecary.  With her natural ability for healing, she hopes to become his apprentice, building on all she has learned from him, and from her mother’s close friend, Isabel, the village midwife. But Wulfric despises Isabel, and his feverish religious beliefs make him a very dangerous man.

When the plague comes from London, and people begin to die, the village makes the brave decision to isolate to protect others. This is something that really happened, and the author uses this historical event to weave a narrative that gives a real sense of the way that ordinary people, particularly women, were (and to an extent still are) constrained by circumstances.

Using Mae’s sister Leah as the narrator works really well. She can see what is happening, but feels powerless, in the same position as the reader. I really cared about Mae and Isabel (and the lovely Johan, Isabel’s husband). 

This is wonderful story-telling, drawing you in, making you believe in the characters and the world in which they live, one of those rare books you can get lost in. 

Definitely recommended. 

‘Scabby Queen’ by Kirsten Innes #TuesdayBookBlog #Bookreview

Three days before her fifty-first birthday Clio Campbell – one-hit wonder, political activist, lifelong love and one-night-stand – kills herself in her friend Ruth’s spare bedroom. And, as practical as she is, Ruth doesn’t know what to do.

As the news spreads around Clio’s collaborators and comrades, lovers and enemies, the story of her glamorous, chaotic life spreads with it – from the Scottish Highlands to the Genoa G8 protests, from an anarchist squat in Brixton to Top of the Pops. Sifting through half a century of memories and unanswered questions, everyone who thought they know her is forced to ask: who was Clio Campbell?

There’s no question that this is an extremely well-written book, and that that the author is incredibly talented. 

In Clio, Innes has created such a complex character, difficult to like, hard to understand, and someone who makes you question your own motivations and reasons for your friendships and for allowing certain people into your life.

Throughout her life Clio attracts people who admire her, to the point of adulation, and who put up with her sometimes terrible behaviour. Clio uses people, but she is also used by them, and we learn, as the novel progresses, why she is like she is, and we learn too what motivates her.

What’s really clever about this book is that we never hear from Clio herself, we are never in her point of view, we only know her through what others think about her, their experiences of her. They bring their own baggage to their relationships with her. 

I did find it quite difficult to get into the novel, and found the changes in point of view and timeline quite hard to follow at first. But I soon got into it and, once I became familiar with the characters and the different plotlines, the book genuinely became hard to put down.

A highly recommended read.

‘Fault Lines’ by Tsveti Nacheva #TuesdayBookBlog #RBRT #BookReview

I read ‘Fault Lines’ for Rosie’s book review team.

When the unthinkable happens…

When her best friend disappears from a party at a haunted house attraction, Laurie Arbo fears the worst. Ashley would not just up and leave. As days turn into weeks, it becomes clear that she is not coming back. But without a body, proving that a crime has been committed—let alone unmasking the culprit—is a tall order.

The truth should come first.

All eyes are on Ashley’s boyfriend, who is being cagey. But Laurie’s own partner, Nate, is keeping secrets too. On that fateful night, his clothes were covered in blood, which he swears wasn’t Ashley’s. Refusing to accept the man she loves might be a murderer, Laurie decides to believe him. Yet, unable to put the past behind them, they drift apart.

But what if it’s ugly?

Seven years later, while working on a TV documentary about a local family drama, she reconnects with Nate, and the pieces start falling together. As Laurie draws closer to learning what happened that night, she realizes the truth might be the one thing she doesn’t want to uncover.

I really enjoyed this novel. The characters are very well-written, the writing flows well, and there’s enough intrigue and twists and turns to keep you turning the page. 

Laurie’s best friend vanishes after a Halloween party out in the backwoods of Canada. Laurie, having gone to bed drunk, can’t remember the night clearly, but what she does remember is that her boyfriend Nate’s clothes were covered in blood – surely he can’t have anything to do with Ashley’s disappearance?

They split up, but years later, Laurie’s work takes her back to her past, and she’s finally forced to confront the truth.

As the story unfolds, our ideas about the characters and their motivations unfold too, and they reveal things about themselves that add to the intrigue of the story. That said, I did feel that Erin was a bit of a missed opportunity – I was expecting more from her and her potential didn’t feel realised.

Laurie, though, is a great character; it’s very easy to believe in her and the way she behaves and to sympathise with her. Her confusion and her emotions are so well portrayed. 

The settings work very well too, and there’s a very creepy and threatening feel to the narrative.

One of the strengths of the novel for me was the smaller storyline around Ashley’s mum and her frustration and fear around her daughter’s disappearance. She’s another really well-written and fully realised character.

There are a few issues with tense, however, with lots of switches from past to present that don’t really work, and some of the dialogue feels rather formal. 

But overall this is a very well-written and enjoyable novel.