Posted in Publisher Proof

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell has slowly become one of those writers whose books I buy without even reading the synopsis or any reviews. They are always intriguing, well paced and full of interesting characters who may not be who they seem. This book was no exception and I read it over a weekend – TBR be damned – just for sheer enjoyment. I felt so lucky to get a proof that I read it immediately! Crime writer Sophie is moving into a tiny cottage in the country, into the grounds of exclusive private school Maypole House. It has been a hasty decision to move with Shaun to his new place of work, because they haven’t been together very long. They knew they had something special, but since Shaun had already accepted the job and Sophie could write anywhere, they jumped in with both feet. Their cottage is situated on the edge of the woods. Exactly one year ago teenage couple Tallulah and Zach went missing from a mansion situated in the woods. They had gone to the pub for dinner, but were invited to a party at the house, by a girl called Scarlett Jacques who had been a student at Maypole, but now studied art at Tallulah’s college. They left at 3am to get a taxi, but never arrived home. Zach’s mum, Meg, thinks they’ve run away together to escape life. However, Tallulah’s Mum knows that’s not the truth, she knows something bad has happened, because they left their baby son Noah behind and she knows they would never do that.

Just a week or so before Sophie arrived, Kim had organised a vigil for Tallulah and Zach, to keep them in the public consciousness and to remember her daughter. Sophie had seen a picture in the paper, when she was browsing. She can’t seem to find her rhythm to write yet and this year old mystery seems to keep drifting into her mind. She didn’t expect to become so involved, but when a sign saying ‘Dig Here’ turns up on her garden fence with an arrow pointing downwards she finds a trowel and starts digging, bracing herself for what she might find. She is relieved to find a small jewellery box, and inside is a modest diamond ring. She notes down the jeweller and pays the shop a visit on the high street. Luckily, it’s a small local jeweller and he keeps track of every purchase in old fashioned ledgers. The buyer was Zach. So was Tallulah the intended recipient? Did she say no? Sophie knows she must take the information to someone and realises that Kim works in the pub. Within days the case is re-opened and once again the the spotlight is on Scarlett Jacques family home – Dark Place.

The character I connected with most was Tallulah. The structure of the novel is split into before the disappearance and then a year later when Sophie starts to look into the case. In the before sections, I could sense Tallulah feeling overwhelmed. She’s adjusted to becoming a mum so young and her love for Noah can be felt through the pages. There are times when she just wants to be her and Noah, getting home from college and picking him up for a cuddle she feels complete and calm. It’s everything else that unsettles her and there are times when her entire life feels mapped out for her. A life she doesn’t want. She’s in a perfect frame of mind to be enticed by an unusual new friendship with Scarlett from the bus. Scarlett is fascinating, older, rich and with a bohemian lifestyle. She has a charm or allure about her that’s hard to quantify and she clearly enjoys having an adoring entourage. So, what does she want with Tallulah? I’ve been where Tallulah is, feeling trapped by circumstances you can’t change, or even by your own mistakes. It leaves you open to taking drastic action and I wondered if that had happened.

Tallulah’s mother, Kim, is a strong woman who desperately wants to keep her daughter’s disappearance in the public eye. She has weathered the storm of her daughter’s pregnancy and her up and down relationship. The two are incredibly close and I enjoyed those moments when mother and daughter are sharing a moment. Kim knows her daughter so well that she has guessed parts of what happened in the lead up to the disappearance, which is more than I managed. I was hopelessly wrong, looking in the wrong place completely for answers. The author throws in red herrings, suspicious clues and people. I found teaching assistant Liam particularly creepy. The mystery is unravelled slowly as the before storyline hinges on one dreadful night and it’s aftermath. The after sequences are based on how quickly Kim and Sophie can find those involved using social media and follow the clues. The tension was really ramped up here and I was sucked into reading it so quickly, watching the pages reduce and wondering when the answers would come. Then, just when I thought I’d worked it out, the author went in another direction entirely. When I finished and put it down, my other half said ‘oh hello, you’re back in the room’ because I was utterly absorbed and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. It was a dark tale of what can happen when people have no moral compass or conscience, and was riveting to the last page.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Diamonds at the Lost and Found by Sarah Aspinall.

This memoir sounded so intriguing and had such a great write up from other authors who I love, so I was very keen to read it. This is the story of a woman who didn’t live life by society’s rules. Even with a child in tow, she lived life on a knife edge in the hope of fulfilling the childhood belief she was destined for greater things than the poverty she was born into in 1930s Liverpool. My mum’s side of our family are from Liverpool and this was my grandmother’s era so I had a real sense of the sort of poverty the author’s mother might have experienced. As one of five in an Irish Catholic family with a father who was a miner, it can’t have been an easy life. I had thought my Great-Aunt Connie must have lived an interesting life having become pregnant as a teenager, yet managing to keep her daughter and bring her up as single mum. It would have been brave of my great-grandfather and ‘Mother’ (as she was known) to accept the stigma from neighbours and their church community. Connie had earrings that looked like mint imperials and was incredibly glamorous, always ready with a laugh or a joke and always had an admiring gentleman in tow, right up into her seventies. I thought she was fabulous. However, this author’s mother was in another league altogether and I loved hearing these incredible and mysterious escapades.

The best word I can think of to describe Sarah Aspinall’s mother Audrey is incorrigible. Our opening chapter takes us to a Hong Kong hotel bar in 1965 when Sally (now Sarah) is eight years old. The opening conversation between mother and daughter really sets the tone for the type of woman Audrey is. A piano player is softly running through his repertoire of Frank Sinatra tunes. Sally knows them all, she’s heard them in every piano bar she’s been to, but something about this song makes her ask her mother:

‘Why is she a tramp? I ask.

‘ She wants to be free to do her own thing’ she says, ‘you know’, then she croons about having the wind in our hair and being without a care’.

This small conversation opens a window onto a life that is far from conventional and often, shocking, like what transpires next. Audrey calmly identifies a lone man at the bar to her little apprentice who lets her Mum know she’s going to the bar for a Coke. Sally then wedges herself onto a bar stool next to the man and calmly asks him if he will ‘look after’ her Mummy when she goes to bed. When she’s pointed out, Audrey pretends to be bemused, but in a heartbeat turns herself into a fascinating femme fatale. She apologises for her bothersome daughter and says she must get her settled in bed. The man is hooked – could they possibly have a nightcap? Back in their room, Sally watches her mother refresh her smokey eye make-up and step into a mist of perfume, then she departs. Sally knows she won’t be back till morning, so settles to read herself a book, wondering what scent she will wear when she is older. Books are Sally’s only education and she is fascinated with love, currently studying the love story in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

I didn’t want to ask my mother, as she didn’t like to talk about things in books, but […] why didn’t one of those men who my mother met ever love her, when she was so beautiful and could sing and dance and tell funny stories and make the room light up? It must have been a run of terrible luck.

The author is brilliant at occupying the mind of a child, who is by turns naïve and innocent, but also knowing and wise beyond her years. Often she can see when an ‘opportunity’ is going sour before her mother. She is definitely a willing accomplice, but is that down to her mother’s training or simply a family trait? The pair flee from one country (and prospect) to another, via luxury travel and the best hotels if lucky, or on a wing and a prayer if not. It is glamorous, exciting and full of adventure, as Sally mostly presents it. However, it must have been destabilising and possibly even scary at times, especially in her youngest years. For me there was something touching about this little girl, taking herself to bed in a strange hotel while her mother works on their chosen ‘mark’ down in the bar. Sally treads a very careful line; this is no misery memoir, as she makes clear in the afterword. She writes truthfully, but stops short of outright criticism of her mother. Nevertheless, I sensed loneliness in a little girl who only has adults to converse with and is reading books she manages to find left in hotels, some of which are way beyond her years and understanding. This is how she gets an education of sorts. Although the book really does celebrate the glamorous and irrepressible Audrey, there is a hint of anger and resentment too.

Even back in Southport, Audrey isn’t the settling down, cosy type of woman at first. She’s something of a local celebrity. What she doesn’t seem to recognise is the void opening up in her daughter – that need to know who you are and where you’re from – coming from the lack of knowledge around her father and his death. She doesn’t remember him, but has enough skill at reading people to know that just under the surface of her mother’s party personality, is a deep sadness and even perhaps, depression that surfaces from time to time. This keen sense of perception is what drives Sally forward, into completing the jigsaw puzzle that is her mother’s life, for herself and for the reader. I was deeply engaged at this point, eager to understand both of these incredible women. When, finally, Audrey does find some contentment in life and Sarah has the settled family she has always craved, the anger and resentment does start to surface. Audrey appears none the worse for her escapades, but Sarah has paid a heavy price including her lack of education and structure. Now she rebels against rules that are being imposed for the first time. Yet, this is such a generous book. Although she tells the story honestly, Aspinall never judges and shows incredible compassion towards her mother. Yes, this is a very unorthodox mother and daughter relationship, but she didn’t want her memoir to be a grenade lobbed backwards, detonating the past. She allows Audrey to shine out of the pages as the beautiful, dazzling and vivacious woman she was. Meanwhile she shows herself at peace with the past and her mother, by becoming a smart, capable woman with a beguiling set of storytelling skills.

Meet The Author

Sarah Aspinall is a producer and documentary maker. She has four children and lives with her partner in London and on the South coast.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Songs in Ursa Major by Emma Brodie.

Today I’m spotlighting a wonderful book from author Emma Brodie, the perfect antidote to the Glastonbury blues. This is one of a few proofs I’ve received recently that are based in the world of music. It had me thinking about the best gigs I’ve gone to and how much I’ve missed seeing live music. My last gig before lockdown was Manic Street Preachers in Manchester. I hadn’t seen them since the nineties so it was like revisiting my teenage years and they were just as incredible. However, the gig I remember most as one of those ‘where were you when…’ moments was in 1994 at Alexandra Palace. The main act was my favourite nineties band, Blur and just around the same time as the big Blur V Oasis battle. Just as exciting, the support act was Pulp, only months before they released Common People and became huge. This really was a zeitgeist moment in Britpop and I was there.

The Blurb

THE SUMMER OF 1969

From the moment Jane Quinn steps barefoot onto the main stage at Island Folk festival, her golden hair glinting, her voice soaring into the summer dusk, a star is born – and so is a passionate love story.

Jane’s band hits the road with none other than Jesse Reid, the musician whose bright blue eyes are setting hearts alight everywhere. And as the summer streaks by in a haze of crowds, wild nights and magenta sunsets, Jane is pulled into the orbit of Jesse’s star.
 
But Jesse’s rise could mean Jane’s fall. And when she discovers a dark secret beneath his music, she picks up her guitar and writes her heartache into the album that could make or break her: Songs in Ursa Major.

Set against the heady haze of the 70s and alive with music, sex and sun-soaked hedonism, SONGS IN URSA MAJOR is an unforgettable debut and the soundtrack to a love story like no other.

I would like to thank Zaffre and Bonnier Books for my proof copy and I look forward to telling you all about it.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Mrs Narwhal’s Diary by S.J. Norbury.

“It was Woman’s Hour who suggested I keep a diary. They said it was good for mental health, and I must say I did feel much less frazzled after writing everything down yesterday. The frustrations were all still there, but somehow smoothed out – as if by a really good steam iron.”

Mrs Narwhal is overwhelmed. Her husband, Hugh, is unkind and unhappy – working every hour at a job he hates to save the ancestral home he never wanted. Then there’s Hugh’s sister, Rose, who’s spurned her one true love, and ricochets from crisis to crisis; and not to mention two small boys to bring up safely in a house that could crumble around their ears at any moment…

When Hugh’s pride receives a fatal blow, and he walks out, Mrs Narwhal is plunged into a crisis of both heart and home. With help from Rose she sets out to save the house her husband couldn’t. But can she save her marriage? And does she really want Hugh back?

Funny, charming, and moving, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an irresistible story which will enchant and delight its readers.

I always romp really quickly through books that are in diary format. Then regret I didn’t take my time. I think it’s because they’re in short chronological chunks so the brain keeps thinking – ‘just one more can’t hurt’. It’s also something to do with the solitary narrator letting us inside their head and view their world from that perspective. We’re not confused by other perspectives and we can trust that this is their truth. We get to know them deeply, and I certainly loved getting to know Mrs Narwhal. Yes, I was initially attracted by the unlikely and eccentric sounding name. These are the faded upper classes, living in their crumbling mansions, and going about their business while the house falls down around their ears. People like this make up some of my favourite bookish characters. I think it comes from a childhood of reading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe Series. This novel had all the character, charm, and humour of those books along with a dollop of romance and a very big heart.

The eccentric Narwhal family were once very wealthy, but their fortunes have diminished over the centuries. However, the traditions, expectations and responsibilities of the family remain. Hugh, current head of the Narwhal family, is at a complete loss as to how they can change their fortunes. He remembers a childhood of coming home and seeing a dark outline where a picture used to be, but that was when they still had things worth selling. He wants to respect the past, but previous Narwhals have committed terrible sins against the house: sixties wallpaper; a prop holding the ceiling up in the hall; a laundry basket for a bedside table; plumbing pipes sprawling across wood panels. One poor and exasperated ancestor simply tore half the house down to cut costs! Hugh Narwhal lives in this relative chaos, with his wife (our narrator) and their two young sons Billy and Peter. Hugh’s sister Rose, a walking tumult of emotions, drifts through from time to time. There’s Ian, who seems to be a faithful retainer from better times, and still hangs around the place guarding Narwhal treasures and the house’s long history. There’s also a rather formidable cleaner, who’s schedule can’t be changed or diverted for anyone.

The narrator lets us into the day to day chaos of living in an historic building where nothing works, but nor can it be thrown away. There’s a treehouse and bell – integral to a Narwhal bell ringing ceremony, but becoming too dangerous to hold its participants, a lake full of weeds, and various experiments at gardening. Every Narwhal has taken on the mantle with their own ideas and improvements, but no overall vision. The result is rather like a patchwork quilt coming apart at the seams. Hugh was working for a furniture makers in London, when he became head of the family. He promptly moved back to the family home on the Welsh Borders, with the idea of creating his own furniture and upholstery business in a workshop in the grounds. It takes a lot of upholstery to pay the bills, but Hugh feels the responsibility of his inheritance. He doesn’t know what to do with the place, but he doesn’t want anyone else to do it either. Every day the responsibility and his own pride begin to depress him. Mrs Narwhal knows their relationship is suffering, but can’t seem to reach him.

I really enjoyed the narrator, but as I started to write this blog I realised I couldn’t remember her first name. This is how invisible she has become. She’s always there, just a part of the furniture. She is a fixer, but has spent so long going from one disaster to another, she’s forgotten about the bigger picture. When she meets with Rose’s ex-husband we start to see a bit of a support group forming. The pair address each other with a warmth that only two outsiders within a family can. She’s actually very capable, witty, and intelligent but feels like Hugh has stopped seeing her that way. It was so sad, when she dashes to London on a ‘Rose rescue’ mission, that she sees a young couple in a bar and thinks they look familiar. As she’s sat wracking her brain to work out who they look like, she realises that this was her and Hugh before they inherited the hall. Young, vibrant and so interested in each other. She has been worried about whether Hugh loves her anymore, when the truth is he’s just stopped seeing her. More worryingly, as her mind becomes clearer, she starts asking herself the right questions. ‘Do I still love Hugh and is this enough for me?’ This is when change starts to happen.

Change does come to the family, but by different methods for everyone involved and with varying results. It comes about from each character knowing who they are in an authentic way and being honest about what they want. The results are by turns startling (the new tree house for example), creative and exactly right for this family to move forwards. For example, instead of constantly worrying about the mysterious, but stubborn, Ian and his constant disapproval of change. Someone needed to become head of the house and simply tell him what was going to happen. Ultimately, this is how every generation of Narwhal copes – by stating they are now head of the Narwhals and this is what’s going to happen. It takes a formidable character to bring about change in such an institution, although I did retain a small hope that they would reinstate the polar bears either side of the staircase – one holding drinks and one holding canapés. This was a charming, funny, story that touched on some serious issues, but ever so lightly. The ending was uplifting and I loved being in Mrs Narwhal’s company.

Meet The Author

S J Norbury lives in Herefordshire with her family. Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is her first novel.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Distant Dead by Lesley Thomson.

A woman lies dead in a bombed-out house. A tragic casualty of the Blitz? Or something more sinister? Sixty years later, the detective’s daughter unearths the truth… From the number 1 bestselling author of The Detective’s Daughter.

LONDON, 1940

Several neighbours heard the scream of the woman in the bombed-out house. One told the detective she thought the lady had seen a mouse. Another said it wasn’t his business what went on behind closed doors. None of them imagined that a trusting young woman was being strangled by her lover.

TEWKESBURY, 2020

Beneath the vast stone arches of Tewkesbury Abbey, a man lies bleeding, close to death. He is the creator of a true-crime podcast which now will never air. He was investigating the murder of a 1940s police pathologist – had he come closer to the truth than he realised?

This is the first time I’ve read Lesley Thomson and her Detective’s Daughter series, of which this is the eighth novel. At first it felt a little like coming into the room in the middle of a conversation, but once the second timeline began I’d been drawn into the atmosphere of an interesting story, full of character and historical detail. In the now section of the novel, Stella is settling in Tewkesbury and trying to finally come to terms with the death of her father in a place where she isn’t reminded of him at every turn. It was a tough choice to completely uproot herself, leaving behind her business Clean Slate and a long term relationship with Jack. She has moved with journalist Lucie, who also loved her father, and the women are dealing with their grief in their own ways. Stella has started visiting The Death Cafe, run by pathologist Felicity Branscombe. It’s a space to meet others struggling with grief and they discuss their experiences of death. While on one of her cleaning jobs – at Tewkesbury Abbey – she meets a man called Roddy Marsh and they pass the time of day as he asks her questions about how she keeps a place like this clean. However, she then meets him again at her second visit to the Death Cafe group. Is this a coincidence, or did Roddy want to meet Stella? Straight after the group meeting, Stella returns to the Abbey only to find poor Roddy, dying from a stab wound in his back. He has something important to say to her, but sadly Stella can’t catch his words.

In our past storyline we are taken to the London Blitz and the murder of young mother Maple Greenham. For some reason, my connection to Maple was instant and I really enjoyed her part in the story. We meet her as she is getting ready for a night out and we sense her parent’s trepidation that she’s stepping out with a man who doesn’t pick her up or even walk her home. They’ve never met him at all. After an evening of dancing, her beau produces a key for a friend’s house and they have a tryst. I loved the small details Thomson evokes in these glimpses of the past. Here, Maple has a moment of irritation as she notices a snag in the toe of her silk stocking and mentally tots up how much time she’s had to spend working to afford them. This told me that the man she’s with wouldn’t understand that sort of concern, because he’s from a different class to her. Maple’s scream is dismissed by those who do hear it. No one imagined it was the sound of this young woman being strangled by her lover. DI George Cotton is the investigating officer and finds incontrovertible evidence of her killer’s identity, but finds his case and his career shelved. This is a man too important to the war effort to be hauled up on a murder charge. Put simply, it’s decided his life and the potential lives his work will save, are more important than Maple. The link between cases is a podcast, titled The Distant Dead, featuring murder cases where the real culprits were never caught. The presenter of this true crime series was Roddy Marsh and he was featuring the death of a 1940s police pathologist. Is there someone in the present day who wants these truths to stay buried?

Now, the Clean Slate staff alongside Stella, Lucie and Jack decide to investigate past and present murder cases. This is not without it’s dangers and leads us to an interesting cast of characters, none of which are exactly what we expect. Stella realises again, that it seems impossible for her to leave her father’s world behind. There’s even a connection to the SIO on Roddy’s murder, a WPC who worked with Stella’s dad. I enjoyed tracing the links between past and present cases and watching how Stella works – no matter that she doesn’t want to fall into her father’s work and habits, she does seem to have a talent for it. I loved the historical detail from the 1940 case too. This was an atmospheric tale, full of the twists and turns a modern reader expects. However, there’s also a feel of a much earlier mystery novel, possibly a 1930s/40s cozy murder mystery. It has elements like the eccentric characters, gatherings in tea rooms and unusual methods of murder. Some aspects are spooky, such as the cathedral or the dark and narrow country lanes. Others, such as the dialogue, are almost comical. There’s also Stanley the dog’s antics too of course. It is an enjoyable read, slightly slow in some parts, but with a great sense of place and characterisation.

Meet The Author.

Lesley Thomson is the author of the Detective’s Daughter series of West London-set mysteries featuring private investigators Stella, a cleaner, and Jack, a tube driver. The first novel, The Detective’s Daughter, became an ebook phenomenon in 2013, staying at number 1 in the digital charts for 3 months. Since then, the series has gone on to sell 800,000 copies worldwide. Lesley is an active member of the UK crimewriting community, and appeared at several crime festivals in 2019, including CrimeFest, Harrogate, Morecambe & Vice and Capital Crime. She lives in Lewes with her partner and her dog

Follow Lesley:

Facebook: @LesleyThomsonNovelist

Twitter: @LesleyjmThomson

Website: lesleythomson.co.uk

Buy links:

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3eCVO6O

iBooks: https://apple.co/3y3A8Zf

Kobo: https://bit.ly/3hmq47F

Google Play: https://bit.ly/3uMuAjS

Waterstones: https://bit.ly/3y7IRtC

Bookshop.org: https://bit.ly/3y3O6dN

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Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Perfect Lie by Jo Spain

This thriller kept me guessing and a couple of times, even had me going back to previous chapters so I could be sure of what I’d read! Our heroine is Erin Kennedy, an Irish girl working in publishing in NYC and living with her husband of three years out on Long Island. She narrates her story across two timelines: one is the present and Erin is on trial for murdering her husband, and the other is a year earlier around the third anniversary of her marriage to Danny, a detective from Long Island. Our second narrator is a younger woman called Ally, a PhD student and proctor at Harvard University. My confusion arose from how these characters related to each other and the author is clearly a master of telling her readers just enough to keep us reading, but not enough to ruin the later revelations, twists and turns – and there are plenty of them!

The Erin from a year before is a very different person and early on in a shock scene, Erin and Danny are starting their day at their sea front apartment when his partner turns up at the door. Ben has two uniformed cops with him and when Erin answers the door he is not his usual self. He apologises but tells her they are there to arrest Danny. Erin thinks this is some elaborate joke, but her confusion gives way to horror as she realises Ben is serious. However, instead of being confused, Danny looks guilty and scared as hell. Before Erin’s eyes Danny runs to their fourth floor balcony, apologises to her, and throws himself from the edge. Ben doesn’t let her see, and she stands a little distance away, watching with disbelief as a small crowd gathers and paramedics work on her husband. Although Ben spares her the final image of Danny, broken on the sidewalk, she already knows he’s head. Through shock, and that awful first numb state of grief, she forgets to ask why Ben turned up that morning to arrest his own partner, why they take away papers and his laptop, and exactly what Danny is supposed to have done.

Those questions do come later though, especially when Erin has that realisation, that she isn’t being afforded the same support she’s seen other police widows receive from the precinct and the other wives. It’s almost as if she’s been cut off and they’re embarrassed by her, most notably not turning up for the funeral. It doesn’t take long for her to realise she’s going to need a lawyer. The police’s attitude tells her that Danny must have been suspected of corruption, and she needs someone who knows the system. Firstly they need to find out whether she’s still entitled to a widow’s pension, but next she wants them to do some digging into exactly what Danny was being investigated for. Her journey has her asking so many questions and she starts to wonder whether she knew her husband at all. With a small trusted group of friends and her sister Tanya, she starts to piece together the truth.

By now you’ve probably noticed the glaring big question mark in this story; if Danny committed suicide, how is Erin on trial for murdering her husband? I’m not going to ruin the story for you all so I’m not going to reveal any more. This question, and many others do get answered eventually. The author’s timing, in choosing what to conceal, what to reveal and when, is absolute perfection.

It takes a while for Ally and Erin’s stories to intersect, so after every one of Ally’s chapters I was racking my brains to work out where they fit. Ally is writing her PhD on crime novels and as proctor she is charged with taking care of one student hall of residence on the campus. It’s an unusual role that seems to cover mentoring, mothering, but also showing students how to have a good time. In fact, Ally’s hall parties have become so renowned that girls from other blocks want to get in on the guest list – so many that they’ve had to place a restriction on the amount of invites they can have per girl. We meet her as she tries to support a girl called Lauren, an undergraduate, who has been the victim of a crime. Luckily, Ally knows someone who may be able to help, and she offers to bring her boyfriend in to help with results neither of them expect.

I did struggle to understand Erin at times and her decision making. Of course she’s in shock and shouldn’t be making decisions anyway, but there were times when I was screaming at her not to do something. There was an element of her drifting along, rather than making well thought out decisions. Her grief is complicated by the manner of Danny’s death, but also because she’s angry he made this choice to lie to her, leave her behind and leave her haunted by that final image of him disappearing over their balcony. I think her confusion over where to be and who to spend time with was well done. To be with his family is difficult because their grief is different and not complicated by betrayal. She is shunned by the other detective’s wives so seeing them makes her angry. She feels abandoned in a country that isn’t her own, and she gathers a disparate group of new friends who offer support. There’s Bud, the owner of their local bar, her new firecracker of a lawyer, Karla, Danny’s psychotherapist and a man called Cal who knew Danny. These people seem to keep her afloat, but I didn’t trust anyone and treated all of them with suspicion. In feeling angry and betrayed with the one man she thought she knew, and his police colleagues, is she in danger of trusting all the wrong people? I found her story entertaining, compelling and the author paced it well. This would be a great read by the pool this summer and you’ll probably find yourself reading it in a couple of sittings, because like me, you’ll want to know exactly what’s going on. This book is a rollicking good thriller, that I’m sure you’re going to enjoy this summer.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Ladies Midnight Swimming Club by Faith Hogan.

It might be a surprise to her many fans, but I’ve never read a Faith Hogan novel before. I can’t think why, because I absolutely loved this literary mix of the deeply emotional, yet uplifting and funny book set in a small seaside village in Ireland. It focuses on a lifelong friendship between two older women – Jo and Elizabeth. Jo lives in a small cottage overlooking the bay and has one daughter, Lucy. Lucy is a doctor whose having a long break over the summer from working long hours in a busy hospital. She’s still struggling with the aftermath of a divorce and a husband who has a new wife and relocated to the much sunnier and glamorous sounding Australia. Elizabeth is still grieving her husband, the village GP, but is still keeping his secrets. All three women meet in the bay at midnight for a dip in the freezing cold Atlantic. Finally, there’s Dan, a young writer taking a break from script-writing and hoping inspiration hits in the quaint Irish village of Ballycove.

This book hinges on the strength of its characters and I was destined to love Elizabeth. Up until now she seemed to hold herself apart from the village, apart from the abiding friendship she shares with Jo, who knew her before she became the doctor’s wife. Remote from other villagers in her large house with adjoining doctor’s surgery she is in the strange position of knowing some of the most personal aspects of her neighbour’s lives, yet not a single one knows her story. Many might have thought she was destined for the big house and the status it brings, but nothing could be further from the truth. Elizabeth finds her house cold and never truly feels at home there, preferring instead the cosiness of Jo’s small cottage. As the novel progresses she creates a corner for herself with the comfiest chair and the evidence of her hobbies laying round about her. It’s the most comfortable she’s ever been in her beautiful house, that’s never really been a home. She has just lost her husband and is going through all the upheaval that brings, but there were secrets about her marriage that nobody knows. The young doctor’s proposal for Elizabeth’s hand had conditions attached, more than she could ever have realised at the time. It was the only way out of a terrible situation she found herself in – pregnant and afraid she made the bargain, then paid a terrible price for the rest of her life. What we experience with her is an awakening and so many new experiences start to open up, signified powerfully by the midnight skinny dipping she’s enticed into by her friend Jo. She emerges ready to take on the problems she finds herself in, not least the gambling debts racked up by her late husband and the ailing practice he left behind. Firstly hiring Jo’s daughter Lucy as an interim GP for the summer, making plans to sell the house and helping visiting author Dan in his quest to find out more about the local home for unwed mothers. There is more heartache to come, but will Elizabeth have the strength to face it?

Lucy is another character dealing with the aftermath of huge life changes, after the collapse of her marriage. She’s taking a break from work and hoping to reconnect with her son Niall. He finds it hard to accept the quieter pace of life in Ballcraig and hates that he’s left friends behind. He has a heartbreaking conversation with his mum where he discloses that he’d rather go live with his Dad in Australia. He’s imagining his father’s cool apartment overlooking the Sydney harbour and the excitement that living back in a city might bring. Lucy knows her ex- husband will say yes, not because he has a burning need to spend time with his son, but because it will score points. It takes a strong woman to put aside her misgivings and make that phone call, but she does. However, as Niall forms a relationship with Dan after visiting his cottage out on the cliff, then meets the piano seller’s daughter will the magic of this little village rub off on him? Lucy also starts to find friendship, firstly with Elizabeth and also with her mother who encourages her to join the midnight swimming club. She also starts to confide in Dan who is a great listener, but since both of them are only visiting the coast, is this a friendship that can flourish.

Lastly Jo, who is one of those characters who seem to sustain everyone else. She’s the friend with the cosy home that people want to visit, the starter of social gatherings, and the great listener with a cup of tea never far away. As always with good listeners and people used to caring for others, she isn’t always good at sharing her own worries and problems. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends, the evening long ago, where she started an altercation with Elizabeth’s husband over how he was treating her friend is long remembered and talked about. Without seeming to do much she is the lynchpin of this group and is thought well of by her fellow villagers. When it’s clear she does need help, the support comes from all around her. I really enjoyed her acceptance of life with all its heartbreak and absurdities, as well as the way she values her female friends.

These characters are so well drawn I feel that they might exist somewhere. The setting is beautifully romantic, even if the sea is absolutely freezing! Dan’s quest is well handled too, with an honesty about the awful cruelty that did happen within mother and baby homes in Ireland, the true extent of which still hits the headlines today. The author uses her older characters to describe what it is like when a country is so ruled by any religion, and how in small villages the word of the parish priest or Mother Superior was law. I enjoyed the humour though too, often just in the way the characters talk to each other but also in little ‘in-jokes’ with the reader such as Dan imagining the swimming club as one of those films like Calendar Girls. I can imagine this as a film, but until then I have quite a back catalogue to dive into. Thanks to this novel, Faith Hogan has a new fan.

Meet The Author

Faith Hogan is an Irish award-winning and bestselling author of five contemporary fiction novels. Her books have featured as Book Club Favorites, Net Galley Hot Reads and Summer Must Reads. She writes grown up women’s fiction which is unashamedly uplifting, feel good and inspiring. She lives in the west of Ireland with her husband, four children and a very busy Labrador named Penny. She’s a writer, reader, enthusiastic dog walker and reluctant jogger – except of course when it is raining!

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Starlings of Bucharest by Sarah Armstrong.

This is the second in the Moscow Wolves series of novels, following on from The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt. I’ve been told by other readers that here we meet some of it’s characters, but from a different perspective. Our hero is Edward Walker, known as Ted. He’s trying to make his way as a journalist in London, after leaving the working class fishing area he grew up in for something different. His career hasn’t taken off as he would have liked and he’s drifting into debt. So when he gets the chance to work for a film magazine, with an assignment to travel to Romania and interview a famous film director he jumps at the opportunity. However, this is the 1970s and Romania is in the grip of Communism. A visiting Westerner is very likely to be treated with suspicion and his plans to travel on to the Moscow film festival could be equally eventful. This sets the scene for an intelligent and different thriller.

For the first few chapters of the book I felt thoroughly confused by what was going on, but I started to realise that Ted is equally confused. He has a driver/ guide and each day he expects to meet with his interviewee, but it doesn’t seem to happen. There was a random comical moment where his guide asked if he could have Ted’s trousers when he left. The author creates an atmospheric picture of this complex destination and all it’s contradictions. Ted notes that people are picking lime blossom in the park and observes that they’re so hungry they’re eating from the trees. His guide corrects him, they’re picking lime blossom to make tea. The author conveys the lovely, well maintained public spaces. Yet, there is also a drabness to everything. The food is bad, the clothes are dull and shops seem empty. Ted observes: ‘It was just a place of waiting and brown paint’. Then there are the restrictions and the guide who’s really a minder, ready to challenge every wrong or damaging assumption made.There were moments where I was just an unsure as Ted about what was really going on. The first time was very early on in Bucharest, when his guide diverts him to a lakeside where a group of men are fishing. All at the same time, Ted observes how beautiful it is but also how isolated, just the sort of place you might take someone to kill them. I really felt like I was in Cold War Europe. Equally, the sections in London felt like the 1970s, slightly worn and decaying, with seedy bedsits, a sense of desperation and simmering violence.

I was interested in the incredible detail the security services go into when looking for recruits. It’s a master class in psychological manipulation. They consider everything about the subject – his clothing, his food and drink choices, his likes and dislikes. They watch behaviour. Who do they trust? Who is important to them? They look in their waste bins and listen to their phone calls. What they’re looking for is a weakness. A way in. Whatever it takes to turn them. Then they bring in the bait – if he has a weakness for women, then a beautiful woman to tempt him from the straight and narrow. I’m a trained therapist and I could learn a thing or two from the listening skills employed here. They’re looking for chinks in the armour. Something they can exploit. For Ted that could be a case of never feeling heard or valued. His concern about wanting to get on. It could even be his naivety, decency and willingness to help. So, Ted is noticed by security services and when he returns to Moscow for the film festival he is watched carefully.

What was most interesting to me, was how Soviet agents used class difference as leverage. We’re used to public schoolboy spies, recruited at Oxbridge and I think this difference was used really well. Ted notices that there are opportunities for people from working class backgrounds in Moscow, perhaps more than in England. This is the chink in Ted’s armour and leaves him open to exploitation in a regime where security services have an ideology to push. There were sections that plodded a bit, but that’s maybe because Ted is a very steady, plodding sort of character. He wants to break into Fleet Street as a journalist but I doubt that he has the sheer brass neck and ambition it takes to get there. He seems like a man who will always end up where he is by accident rather than design. As one character observes ‘any idiot can be a useful one’. The author kept me guessing all the way through. We are learning as Ted is learning, and he does a lot of growing up too. Aside from the George Smiley series, the historical era of the 1970s Cold War hasn’t often been depicted in spy fiction, so I felt I was reading something new in the genre. All in all the stage is set for an interesting book three in this intelligent and unusual series.

Meet The Author

Sarah Armstrong is the author of four novels, most recently The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt and The Starlings of Bucharest. She is also the author of A Summer of Spying, a short non fiction work about her experience of jury service during the Covid-19 pandemic, authority, truth, and the surveillance we are all exposed to. Sarah teaches undergraduate and postgraduate creative writing with the Open University. She lives in Essex with her husband and four children.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Summer Job by Lizzy Dent.

I defy anyone to not fall in love with Elizabeth ‘Birdy’ Finch. She’s the fantastic literary creation I was rooting for so hard in this great novel from Lizzy Dent. Having had a tough upbringing in Plymouth, Birdy is pretty much alone in life, except for loyal friend Heather. She and Heather have been friends for life, understanding each other’s difficult family situations and providing undying support for each other. However, Heather’s family were financially better off than Birdy’s, so despite being without the emotional support and presence of her family, Heather has been able to rely on a financial cushion to train as a sommelier or wine expert, working in hospitality. Birdy hasn’t had the same education, so tends to drift from job to job without ever finding a passion of her own. Now, Heather is going to Italy with her current boyfriend and Birdy feels lost. With no sofas left to surf, Birdy may have to do the unthinkable and return to Plymouth, when an idea strikes her. Before the Italy opportunity, Heather had the chance of a summer job at a hotel near Loch Dorne in Scotland. For some reason, she’d been keen to go, then changed her mind. She gives Birdy tickets to the British Wine Awards at the Ritz and Birdy goes with her on/off boyfriend Tim. It’s there, where an idea takes shape. While wearing Heather’s name badge, Birdy runs into Irene – the manager of the Loch Dorne hotel. They get along and Birdy starts to wonder – could she do Heather’s job for the summer? It would take a lot of studying, but maybe she could pull it off and surely anything’s better than going back to Plymouth?

I loved the hotel and the surrounding Scottish scenery. The author describes the area with love and with such detail I could truly imagine it. The way Birdy connects with the place really surprises her. Having always lived in a city, Birdy has never really experienced being in nature and at first turns up in all the wrong clothes. Her first hike, which she undertakes in Converse trainers is a bit of a disaster as she sprains her ankle. Scotland’s beauty has a slow, but remarkable, effect on her mental health, seeming to soothe her anxiety and allow her to ‘be’. For someone with such a busy brain it’s amazing to see how she grows to love walking and travelling to Skye, both on her own at times. Birdy has never really been confident enough to do things on her own, but now she starts to try it, either hiking or going to the coast for fish and chips. It seems to give her the space and quiet she needs to sort things out in her own mind. She even tries foraging, horse riding and fishing! There’s a stillness about her when she’s outdoors that she’s never had before and perhaps a growing sense of belonging to this place.

Of course, her plan doesn’t go without incident and she’s permanently exhausted from studying the wine list in her room. Yet there is a new found confidence about her. She loves being part of this small team who work like a family. Nobody is without their weaknesses but they help each other along and they’re united in their concern about the executive chef Russell and his modern ideas. The pub has been redecorated and the menu changed from the ‘neeps, tatties and whiskey’ destination it was previously. The staff seem so pleased to have Heather there and she quickly makes friends. I could imagine how these people could become a little family for Birdy – if she hadn’t been deceiving them of course. There are just so many hurdles for her to jump, not to mention the little tiny spark of something she can feel with the chef James. Will she succeed and will this spark grow into something more real than Birdy’s used to?

Lizzy Dent is clearly astute when it comes to how a difficult start in life, can affect someone into adulthood. If the people who bring you into the world don’t love and value you it’s very hard to understand how anyone else might. Children whose parents neglect or emotionally abuse them, don’t wonder what’s wrong with their parents, they wonder what’s wrong with themselves. This is Birdy all over. She knows her family aren’t great, but yet she still can’t see the good in herself. Those moments Birdy has, when she’s walking in her new hiking boots or eating fish and chips on the harbour, are moments when she’s discovering her genuine self for the first time. As you read, you will be rooting for those seeds to grow. This book is absolutely joyous. So, if you’re going on holiday this summer, make sure you have this little gem packed in your hand luggage. You won’t regret it.

Meet The Author

Lizzy Dent (mis)spent her early twenties working in Scotland in hospitality, in a hotel not unlike the one in this novel. She somehow ended up in a glamorous job travelling the world creating content for various TV companies, including MTV, Channel 4, Cartoon Network, the BBC and ITV. But she always knew that writing was the thing she wanted to do, if only she could find the confidence. After publishing three young adult novels, she decided to write a novel that reflected the real women she knew, who don’t always know where they’re going in life, but who always have fun doing it. The Summer Job is that novel.

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

Last year I read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s incredible novel Mexican Gothic and I absolutely loved it. So when I was offered the chance to read one of her earlier novels, being reissued in a beautiful hard back copy this week, I was really excited to tell you all about it as part of the blog blast.

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis: the haphazard manifestations of her powers have long made her the subject of gossip – malicious neighbours even call her the Witch of Oldhouse.

But Nina’s life is about to change, for there is a new arrival in town: Hector Auvray, the renowned entertainer, who has used his own telekinetic talent to perform for admiring audiences around the world. Nina is dazzled by Hector, for he sees her not as a witch, but ripe with magical potential. Under his tutelage, Nina’s talent blossoms – as does her love for the great man.

But great romances are for fairy-tales, and Hector is hiding a secret bitter truth from Nina – and himself – that threatens their courtship.

This book is different from either Mexican Gothic or Gods of Jade and Shadow. This is a romance, brim full of melodrama and heartache. Yet there are also those wonderful threads that seem to exist through her work: feminism, awakening sexual desire, an eye for women’s self-expression through clothing, and a sprinkle of the paranormal. I didn’t know where the book was set at first, because the city name Loisail and personal names have a French feel to them, but certain word usage such as fall for autumn made me think of North America. The manners and etiquette seem almost British regency in date (this could give Bridgeton a real run for its money on the small screen), but the far off place Iblevard sounds like South America. This is our world, just not as we know it.

I absolutely adored Nina from the start, because I’ve felt like the slightly awkward girl who doesn’t fit. Next to her cousin’s wife Valerie she seems a bit of an ugly duckling, but she’s chaperoning Nina through the Loisail season in hope of finding her a suitable husband. Valerie is the stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed, perfectly coiffed, graceful beauty and her marriage to Gaetens was a great match, because he was a steady, slightly older man with financially stability. His finances have kept her family afloat. Whereas Nina has none of the superficial qualities of Valerie. Her hair is raven black and there’s more of a handsomeness to her than prettiness. Worse still, she is awkward, often saying the wrong thing, but she’s physically clumsy too and there’s more to Nina’s clumsiness than meets the eye.

From a young age Nina has been able to move objects with the power of her mind. Sometimes it’s involuntary, such as when her emotions are roused in anger or sadness. Nina doesn’t know much about telekinesis, it has simply always been with her and back at the family home in the country she is known as the Witch of Oldhouse. Here in Loisail though, nobody knows about her strange ability and if she is dressed well, schooled in how to behave and tries her hardest to be ‘normal’ maybe she could make a good marriage. Nina is inexperienced and naive, but trusts Valerie implicitly. Her cousin Gaetens has always had her best interests at heart so she happily puts her future in Valerie’s hands, but there’s a bitterness and envy in Valerie that runs very deep. She knows that her husband dotes on his cousin and he wouldn’t force her to marry anyone she didn’t consent to, but she thinks that Nina is spoiled. Valerie had to make a decision, to marry a man she didn’t love to get better conditions for her family. She had to grow up, put thoughts of love and romance aside, and take the best decision rationally as if marriage is a business. If she had to do this, why shouldn’t Nina be expected to grow up and accept someone chosen for her?

Then Hector Auvray comes into the picture, gentlemanly, handsome and, because he’s a performer, just a whiff of scandal about him. He’s definitely not the sensible choice, but controlling her emotions has never been one of Nina’s strengths. I loved that the pair shared this talent, Hector as the mentor and Nina as the ingenue, just starting out. When he calls on Nina at home, they can easily spend hours talking about telekinesis and practicing control. Nina visits his show which is quite glitzy, and he has an incredible finale of dancing mirrors. For me, there wasn’t quite enough magic. It’s as if magic realism was something she was toying with, then in later novels she really had the confidence to go for those paranormal elements. I knew this was a reissue, but those who don’t could be disappointed there isn’t more made of Nina’s skills. It’s almost as if she learned to control it rather than celebrate it. I’d have loved the author to write sections where they perform together, because I know how incredible they would have been.

There was something very Jane Austen about this society, it’s manners and it’s dilemmas for women. I thought of the disappointment a lot of readers feel when Lizzie Bennett’s friend Charlotte Lucas accepts the proposal of the ludicrous vicar Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie has rejected him and by doing so, placed her family in financial uncertainty, but Charlotte is more pragmatic. She knows he’s ridiculous, but she also knows he has a living, the patronage of a fine Lady, and a large enough house to lose him in. This is the decision that Valerie has made, but is very angry about. Her anger is at her family, but is also directed inward. She doesn’t like to face the truth; that she was the one who made this choice.

“She wanted to cry and could not. She wanted to weep for that proud girl who had broken her own heart and tossed it to the dogs, and she wanted to weep for the woman who had been left behind with a gaping hole in her soul. But if she could do it again, she knew she’d still retrace her steps. She was not Antonina Beaulieu, who offered herself like a sacrificial lamb, who gave everything of herself to the world for the world to devour. She was Valérie Véries. She hated herself sometimes for it, but she was Valérie Véries, a Beautiful One, not some weakling nor a halfwit”.

I also got hints of The Great Gatsby, every time I saw a character allude to an elite group of ‘Beautiful Ones’ the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful’ kept floating through my head. I felt it in this passage when Hector talks of the love he had when he was younger, the girl he asked to wait for him. He thinks he’s still in love with this woman, but he’s really still in love with his idea of this girl and what they could have had.

“He was chained to her, to this brilliant ideal of a perfect love. Because he had always known that if he could have (her) in his arms again, all would be well. It would be as though the decade that separated them had never happened and they would return to the happy days of their youth when everything was possible. It was as if he could unwind the clock with her aid. And once this happened, there would be nothing but joy.”

The first part of the novel is quite slow and as Hector and Nina meet and form their friendship, but I enjoyed getting to know them. I felt as if I was watching them fall in love very slowly, but it’s as if only the reader knows it. Then comes a terrible betrayal, and Nina loses that innocence of youth, but grows so much as a person. She starts to have pride in who she is, because she has space to be herself. When she returns to Loisail the following season she is a different woman, confident enough to make her own choices. There’s a new found confidence and experience in her character as she steps out into city. She’s refusing to be the ugly duckling of this story and has blossomed, but from the inside. There’s a feminist soul in Nina and I loved seeing that awakening. She’s also more comfortable with her ‘talent’ even if it isn’t on display very much. Before long a very suitable young man starts to court her; it would be a great match, but not love. As Hector Auvray drifts back to the city again, and wishes to resume their friendship, what effect on Nina will he have? I enjoyed this novel because it’s unashamedly romantic, and magical. It’s a coming of age story, showing this young woman’s awakening conscience as well as her desire. Nina Beaulieu learns to live life on her own terms and makes her own choices, especially where her heart is concerned.

Meet the Author

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Untamed Shore, and many other books. She has also edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters).