Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Unravelling by Polly Crosby

When Tartelin Brown accepts a job with the reclusive Marianne Stourbridge, she finds herself on a wild island with a mysterious history. Tartelin is tasked with hunting butterflies for Marianne’s research. But she quickly uncovers something far more intriguing than the curious creatures that inhabit the landscape. Because the island and Marianne share a remarkable history, and what happened all those years ago has left its scars, and some terrible secrets. As Tartelin pieces together Marianne’s connection to the island, she must confront her own reasons for being there. Can the two women finally face up to the painful memories that bind them so tightly to the past?

I found the last chapter of this new novel incredibly moving and I was smiling through tears as I closed the book.

Polly Crosby you ruined me for other books, for at least a couple of days!

Marianne’s memories of the island take us back to the years between WW1 and WW2, when she lived in the same family home with her mother and father. The Stourbridges were the guardians of the island, through her mother’s side of the family. However, it was Marianne’s father who had taken control of the island and it’s resources. Her family were rich, relying on herrings and pearls to keep their fortunes buoyant and providing work for the islanders. Under Mr Stourbridge’s control the businesses were losing money so he needed to diversify, and settled on silk-making as a way out of difficulty. Mulberry trees and silkworms arrived on the island and Marianne was researching to find out how to produce the best silk thread, but didn’t know that her father had hired a silk girl to come and start things. Nan came to live in their house and although the girls built a friendship, Marianne missed time with her father which was now being sacrificed for Nan and the silk worms. I had so many thoughts and questions in my head by this point. How had the family’s fortunes changed so drastically? How sad it must be for Marianne’s mother to watch her family businesses taken from her and mismanaged simply because she was a woman. Who was Nan and why was she dominating so much of Mr Stourbridge’s time? The author drip feeds these memories into the present day story, answering some questions but leaving others so I was always waiting for the next memory to know what happened next. There was a growing tension in the house that led me to believe an explosion was coming, something that would change Marianne”s life forever. Each section shed light on something in the present day, but I wanted the whole story of why Marianne was so alone in her old age, when did her family leave the island but most of all why was the island requisitioned?

I loved the sense of the uncanny that the author created; a feeling that life on the island was like real life, but not quite. There are strange, unfinished or half destroyed buildings, eroded cliffs and houses that have been literally swallowed up by the sea. Tartelin’s island has a feel of dilapidated grandeur in it’s buildings. They must have once been extravagant and beautiful, like the pavilion where Tartelin meets the peacock, but slowly being broken down and reclaimed by the sea. This is a strong theme throughout the novel, the idea that nature will always find a way, like a flower growing from a tiny crack in the pavement. I found Marianne a fascinating character with the manner of someone very intelligent and far too busy to be bothered with trifles. Her exterior as this grumpy old woman probably brushes most people off, but Tartelin is more persistent than most. Watching these two women slowly learning to trust and understand one another was a joy. Marianne’s story, as it is revealed, moved me beyond words. Even though there’s a fantastical, dream-like quality to her recollections the emotions ring true and are devastating to witness. However, I also felt an incredible sense of joy over the ending too. This novel is evocative and bittersweet, full of rich detail and interesting women. I have no hesitation in recommending all of Polly Crosby’s writing, but this is extraordinary and will stay with me forever.

Published by HQ on 6th Jan 2022

Meet The Author

Polly Crosby grew up on the Suffolk coast, and now lives with her husband and son in the heart of Norfolk. Her debut novel, The Illustrated Child (The Book of Hidden Wonders in the US and Australia) is out now. Polly’s second novel, The Unravelling will be published in January ‘22.

In 2018, Polly won Curtis Brown Creative’s Yesterday Scholarship, which enabled her to finish her novel. Later the same year, The Illustrated Child was awarded runner-up in the Bridport Prize’s Peggy Chapman Andrews Award for a First Novel. Polly received the Annabel Abbs Creative Writing Scholarship at the University of East Anglia, and is currently working on her third novel.

Twitter: @WriterPolly

Instagram: @polly_crosby

Website: pollycrosby.com

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Cut Out by Michèle Roberts.

This is an interesting book, focused on the later years of Henri Matisse and those who cared for him. This was the period where Matisse was creating his famous ‘cut out’ works, works that are linked inextricably to the body that’s failing the artist and the structure of this novel. I visited Tate Modern for the Matisse exhibition a few years ago, and because I’ve studied disability theory and life writing I could see that these cut out pieces were a metaphor for a body that was failing, piece by piece. By taking a whole piece of paper, cutting out these shapes, and rearranging them to make a piece of art, I felt the artist was trying to communicate what it is like to have all the pieces, but no longer in the order that makes up a whole. When we become sick or disabled our body doesn’t work as a cohesive whole any more. The pieces are different, rearranged and not necessarily working together harmoniously anymore. In my writing therapy groups, often for people with disabilities, I encouraged journal work that experimented with structure. I wanted to encourage writing that was the embodiment of the writer’s illness or disability. The writing produced is often fragmentary, moving between long lyrical sentences and short, snappy statements. In my own work there are gaps where I don’t have the language to express how my multiple sclerosis feels or how my emotions process the change from day to day. Often fragmentary paragraphs don’t seem related at all – representing the nerve damage that occurs in this disease, preventing the signals that keep a body coherent and working in harmony with itself. As a group we talk to our illness, we give it a name and a body of its own, then chat to it and record what comes back.

I believe all of this is what Matisse was representing within a cut out piece and I’m sure that Michèle Roberts is doing something equally clever in the structure of this novel, that can seem a bit bewildering at first. Sentences are very free form, there are fragments from different unnamed characters, there is speech without punctuation and time differences that are not obvious straight away. Might this lack of structure alienate some readers? Quite possibly, but I don’t think Roberts is thinking about clarity, she’s making a work of art. The best thing to do is just go with it and let the writing flow over you, until the meaning becomes clearer. Sometimes, when we visit a gallery, we need time to engage with some pieces. We simply have to stop and look for a while with no expectations. In the same way, I did find myself having to go back and reread sections of this book, so it isn’t a quick read, and it won’t be for everyone.

In his final years, Matisse is living at the Hotel Regina in Nice, where he has a studio and is making his famous cut outs with the assistance of Lydia (Delectorskaya ). Eventually he cannot get out of bed and needs nursing care, for day to day living. One is named Monique and one voice of the novel is Clémence, a friend of another of his nurses. There’s also Clémence’s friend Camille, who is pregnant to another artist. In a later time we meet Denis, a man in his sixties who was adopted when he was a baby by friends of Clémence. Denis is attracted to a man called Maurice who he allows to sublet his flat while he’s away in Paris trying to uncover the secrets of his birth. All of these character’s stories come in ‘cut outs’ and the reader has to make sense of it. What we do get is an incredible sense of place, from Roberts’s long, lyrical and descriptive passages. We move from character’s memories, back in time to the actual events. The past explains the present day in parts, but not in others. While I didn’t feel I was fully engaged with the story, I did love the sensual descriptions of art and food, and my senses were fully engaged with these parts, The ending, when it came, was sudden and rather abrupt. It felt jarring after such a slow, meandering narrative. However it was a book that left me thinking and that’s never a bad thing.

Published by Sandstone Press 12th August 2021.

Meet The Author

Michèle Roberts is the author of fourteen critically acclaimed novels, including Daughters of the House, which won the WHSmith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and, most recently Ignorance, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2013 and the Impac Award. Her memoir Paper Houses was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.

Posted in Domestic Thriller, Publisher Proof

The Second Woman by Louise Mey.

I was truly gripped and unsettled by this domestic thriller, and it’s themes of control and coercion. The author truly understands this type of relationship and the psychological trauma that slowly trickles down to the rest of the family. Sandrine is our main character, a discreet, gentle and loving woman who doesn’t want much. She just wants a loving husband, someone who wants to go to bed with her every night and wake up with her every morning. She wants someone who shows his affection and holds her hand in front of others. She’s so concentrated in looking for this, that when Mr Langois appears on the horizon, he is going to be her ‘one’. Mr Langois does offer her some of what she wants. She now has a beautiful place to live and is close to his son, which does show an element of trust. Yet, she can’t forget that this is a house where a woman went missing. His first wife was there and then she disappeared. In fact, she is presumed dead, and Sandrine, who is discreet, loving and oh so grateful, slips into the void left behind. She has been doing her best to bring back a smile to the grieving husband and little Mathias. However, he will never really be her son, and Mr Langois is not really her man. In the back of her mind, she feels the woman who was there before, the one who made this house a home and belonged here in this family, Then suddenly the woman who’s been haunting Sandrine reappears. Alive. Sandrine’s world crumbles and falls apart.

This book is both compelling to read, but also intelligent and profoundly disturbing. Whereas the first half is largely setting the scene, the second part becomes more and more chilling. We are treated to all the twists and turns related to the disappearance of the first wife while she infiltrates Sandrine’s life; what follows is so insidious and feels evil. It’s very well written, with a brilliant depiction of Sandrine’s personality change, from a woman who only wanted to have her own man to love and feel loved back, to an obsessive. The obsession is borne of her low self-esteem and could lead her from jealousy into being a full-blown monster. The story is written with waves of the worst tension, and this never lets up, especially once Mr Langois’ first wife returns and begins manipulating. The author manages to scare us without a need for physical violence, something which doesn’t surprise me as I am a survivor of coercive control. By the time I’d found the strength to leave, I didn’t really know who I was anymore. It took so long to try and put myself back together. This book has that strange quality of being fascinating yet repulsive at the same tune. I sort of felt the way I do when watching nature documentaries. It’s incredible to watch the ability of the beautiful creature at the top of the food chain, but also dreadful to watch the pain and fear of the animal being hunted. It’s horrible, but you can’t turn away. This is such an immersive read, you’ll look up from the page and wonder where you are.

Published 2nd September 2021 by Pushkin Vertigo

LOUISE MEY is a Paris-based author of contemporary noir novels dealing with themes of domestic and sexual violence, and harassment, often with a feminist slant. The Second Woman is her fourth novel, and the first to be translated into English. LOUISE ROGERS LALAURIE is a writer and translator from French, including Frederic Dard’s The King of Fools and The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths by Olivier Barde-Cabucon, both published by Pushkin Vertigo. Her work has been shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature and the Crime Writers Association International Dagger.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Book Of Magic by Alice Hoffman

This has been one of my most anticipated novels for this year, then it’s publication date was changed to January 2022 and I was going to have to wait a bit longer. I finally snagged a copy on NetGalley last week, and its no surprise that I started to read it straightaway. Was it worth the wait?

This is the fourth and final book in Hoffman’s Practical Magic series and it really does come full circle. We have three generations of Owen’s sisters in this tale: Franny and Jet, Gillian and Sally, and finally Sally’s daughters Kylie and Antonia. In fact this really does take us full circle, rather like the symbol of the Ourobos, a snake swallowing its own tail which is, rather aptly, the symbol of dark magic. So, here we have those Owenses who have dabbled as practitioners of the dark arts, such as Franny and Jet’s brother Vincent. Could one of the younger members of the family be heading down that dark route and what would call them there?

Regular readers will know that the curse of the Owens family is lodged in the love part of their lives. This was a curse placed by Maria Owens who knew the truth of how women might become undone by men. The various family members have found their own ways of circumventing the worst of the curse, after Jet lost her true love as a teenager. Gillian is married, but she doesn’t live with Ben or wear a wedding ring. Sally has lived with a man but lost him very young and the heartache has closed her to that part of life. Now all she cares for are books. Antonia is married to her work as a doctor, but is having a baby with her gay best friend. However, for their youngest, Kylie, love has been part of her life for a long time. She is inseparable from her best friend Gideon but they have never spoken of their love for each other. Till now. Two losses happen to Kylie at once. The death watch beetle is clacking in the walls of the house on Magnolia Street where Sally, Kylie and both elderly aunts reside still. They have barely said their goodbyes, when Kylie’s Gideon is in a terrible accident and is so badly injured he is in a coma.

Kylie takes matters into her own hands and is drawn to a hidden Grimoire in the Owens Library. A Grimoire is a witches personal journal and book of magic. Kylie believes this book has the answer to ending the Owen’s curse, but the final pages are stuck together and she can’t enact the spell. Kylie returns to where the Owens story starts, in the original Essex county in England. Here she hopes to find the secret to opening the last pages of the book, but there are two warnings attached to her quest. She mustn’t trust the wrong person and if she is the one to overturn the curse, she must be prepared to lose everything. However, when Kylie is in danger, it will take Franny, Sally and her uncle Vincent to join the quest. Which one of them is the key to end the curse? And what price will they need to pay?

I struggled with the first few chapters of the book, but that might have more to do with me trying to read it Christmas week, when having a prolonged time to sit and read is impossible. Once I could spend some time with the story I really started to enjoy it. I welcomed the cross generational aspect to the story, and those reminders of everything that had gone before. From Levi Willard’s teenage love for Jet, Vincent’s years in NYC as a musician and all the way back to Maria Owens and her difficulties accepting the love of Samuel several centuries earlier. There are seeds of hope, as new life comes into the family, as Antonia’s love for Ariel takes her by surprise and new familiars seek out their human counterparts. Sally has always been interesting to me and her continued tightrope walk between the magic that is her birth right and her need to stay under the radar and keep her girl’s safe. The women are always treading a line between the future they are born with, shown on the right palm and the future they choose, shown on the left. I loved how her story ended, it felt satisfying and even full of hope, given the heartache that went before.

What stood out loud and clear was, that despite being cursed in love, the love the women have for each other is a blessing. In particular, Franny and Jet’s love for Sally and Gillian. Brought to the crooked house as small orphans, the aunts loved their nieces as their own and taught them everything they needed to be safe and understand the magic they were born with. Any trouble or danger brought both aunts running to help and protect them, even into their old age and especially in this story. This love stands out stronger than any other in all four books and never dies. Everything I love about Hoffman is there, her wonderful descriptions of nature and the women’s links to the natural world. Her descriptions of spells and their effects are fantastical and so vivid, especially the menacing red rain poisoning a whole community. I love that the books celebrate strong women, who support each other and their right to be individuals. This is a fitting end to a series that begins chronologically with persecution, betrayal and death. It ends with a sense of the Owens family being part of a community, playing a bigger part in the world and learning how to utilise their magic in harmony with the world.

Published by Scribner U.K. 6th Jan 2022.

Meet The Author.

Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Return by Anita Frank.

This beautiful story has just made it under the wire as I was compiling my Top 21 Books for 2021 and it truly deserves it’s place next to the others on the list. I was gripped by the story of Jack, who makes a very different promise to his new bride Gwen on the eve of WW2. Most soldiers are promising to see them again, to return, but Jack is quite clear. If he should survive the war, he won’t be back this way again. Gwen prays he keeps to his promise, but as they celebrate VE Day she does keep looking over her shoulder. What if he reneges on his promise? War has changed Jack and he is no longer the man who made that bargain. He wants to return and claim Gwen as his bride again, but little does he know that this could set in motion a chain of events that will leave he and Gwen fighting for what they love most.

We go back and forth in time throughout the book, but begins with Jack fleeing his home city on the night train, shielded by a friend who’s working on this nightly service down south from Newcastle. Jack is like many other young men in Newcastle, he’s a riveter in the shipyards and lives in a terrace house with his Mum and sister Jenny. One moment life is trundling along as normal, then the next a terrible twist of fate leads to a violent act of revenge. Stowing away on the night train, Jack plans to hop off somewhere far away where he can find work. So, as if from nowhere, he appears round the bend of a country lane to find a young woman who has fallen from her horse, but has her foot trapped in the stirrup. He hurries to help Gwen as her skittish horse takes off in the direction of the village. He takes her home to her family farm, where she helps her Dad with the dairy cattle and any other jobs that need doing. Lucky for Jack he’s arrived at a busy time on the farm, so while he stays for a home cooked meal to thank him for his service, Gwen’s dad Jim asked if he would like to stay and work. Jack accepts and as Gwen shows him his bed in the tack room, he thinks he may have fallen on his feet for the summer. What he doesn’t know is that Gwen is about to put him in a very difficult position. As he investigates a noise in the stack yard at night, he finds Gwen trying (and failing miserably) to quietly retrieve a ladder. She can’t pass her father’s door because the floor boards squeak. Reluctantly, he helps her climb up into her room, knowing that she must be meeting someone secretly and is surprised by how that bothers him.

I grew to like Jack, who is a young man of principles, only resorting to violence when someone he loves is hurt. He has an inbuilt moral compass, especially in his dealings with women and is very critical of anyone who doesn’t meet those standards of behaviour. He knows that in circumstances where young men lead women on and make false promises, it is the woman’s life and reputation that is ruined while the man just carries onto the next victim. He is a gentleman in his behaviour, even if he isn’t in position. I loved how he doesn’t have that family structure at home, but finds it with Jim and Gwen, and even housekeeper eventually. I didn’t always understand Gwen, although she is very young at the start of the novel and thanks to Jim’s overprotective nature, she’s quite naive. Something I did understand was her loyalty to the land and farm, it’s a way of life that’s in her blood and she isn’t afraid of hard work. She takes a very active part in the farm, from early morning milking, to driving tractors and locking the livestock up late at night. I thought the differences between gender and class were very pronounced in the novel. The women were far from passive in this rural community, with Gwen and Norah as great examples. It was interesting to see how the women from the hall were very separate from this industriousness – something that works against Gwen when it comes to being a mother.

The author creates a beautiful link between Gwen’s wholesomeness and the countryside – she’s miles away from the girls Jack has encountered in the city. She’s a young girl between places in society, she’s not in the lower classes but she’s not good enough for the landed gentry to consort with. At least not in public anyway. In the wartime sections of the book she’s well contrasted with land girl Norah, who has a cynical and knowing way about her. If they go the pub or an event, she soon disappears into a crowd of enthusiastic young men and seems completely at home flirting and telling stories that make them roar with laughter. Gwen is quieter, worried about how the farm will keep going with just her and Norah, wanting desperately to hold on to her father’s legacy. Besides, she knows the lies young men tell and the damage they can do. In those wartime sections, I felt the land and the countryside around it contrasted with the imagined battlefield far from here and the changes that farming had to come. Land was commandeered by the Ministry of Agriculture and fallow fields ploughed up for crops to feed the country. It was the beginning of the end for that quiet time when two ponies pulled the plough and two workers would weed the crop using a hoe. These passages of man working quietly within the countryside soon gives way to more modern farming methods which feel at odds with nature, rather than being harmonious. The author’s descriptions of animal and bird life are like a hymn to the old ways. I understood Jack’s need to return to this life, to feel at peace within it and allow the noise of battle, lodged in his head, to die down. However, I couldn’t see how he could stay either. I wondered constantly when the past would catch up with him and whether Gwen’s secrets could possibly remain hidden. This was a different slant on WW2, full of beautiful pastoral scenes and a relationship I was wishing would turn to love. A simply gorgeous read.

Meet the Author

Born in Shropshire, Anita studied English and American History at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Berkshire with her husband and three children.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Ladies of the Secret Circus by Constance Sayers.

The opening of this book, where Lara enchants her own wedding dress so it’s more to her liking, showed promise for the rest of the novel. Her marriage to Todd is the next morning, but as she’s waiting for her groom some bad news arrives. His best man is local law enforcement officer Ben and he tells her that Todd can’t be found. His car is found abandoned at a bend in the road where thirty years earlier another young man disappeared without a trace. Pete was in a band with Lara’s father, who has always been affected by the loss of his friend. Surely there’s a connection? Lara’s search for answers leads them to a journal written by her great-grandmother and the tale of a secret circus, where they perform using real magic. In Belle Èpoque Paris we follow the story of Cecile Cabot, Lara’s great grandmother, the subject of one in a series of three paintings by artist Émile Giroux. Cecile’s life is bound to the circus as is her sister Esme’s, but why are they cursed in this way and is it a price that the women in the family are still paying to this day?

From Lara’s wedding day onwards, the first section of the book set in idyllic Kerrigan Falls didn’t quite have the spark of that first scene. I worried that the book might be a bit saccharine sweet for my taste. It was typical small town America, but with barely any crime or unpleasantness. Residents seemed to get along easily and everyone cared about the town’s history, it’s beautiful period buildings and stunning setting. Lara bought the local radio station, her love of music coming from her famous musician father. I didn’t quite believe how lovely the place and it’s people were and I suspected there was a darker underbelly. This was hinted at in the the disappearances of these young men, but also the strange happenings in Lara’s life that started when she was a young girl and saw an unusual looking man and woman in their field who disappeared into thin air. Schooled by mum Audrey to keep her powers under wraps, Lara is sad about how her premonitions affect people. When she hears a vaguely familiar song, lurking underneath a track on one of her dad’s albums, she plays it on her guitar. The refrain is like a nagging tooth ache, but when her father hears it he goes white. It was one of Pete’s songs and they never recorded it.

I found it sad that these powerful women were having to hide their real selves to be accepted, especially when it came to love. Audrey’s marriage to Lara’s dad was blighted by Peter’s disappearance and now Todd was gone too. I really enjoyed Lara’s relationship with Ben, who was Todd’s friend and is just as invested in knowing what happened as Lara is. They’ve grown close trying to solve the mystery, but their relationship is full of unspoken feelings and guilt. When Audrey gifts Lara with a painting of her great-grandmother, to put up in her new home, the framer recognises it as a lost painting of Giroux. They then travel to Paris to meet an expert on the painter and have it’s provenance confirmed. It’s here that the story really took off for me, because the sense of place is wonderful and there’s a real momentum in their search for answers. The circus is the perfect antidote to the sweetness of Kerrigan Falls. I won’t ruin your discovery of this world, but it is truly fascinating, macabre, beautiful, magical and horrifying all at the same time. I was hooked by the scene the author was describing and fascinated by Lara’s family history. The small details, such as the circus only appearing to those with a personal invitation which bled if it was torn, were quite disturbing. The magic practiced there had parallels with Lara’s skills – simple tabby cats turned into ferocious big cats. There were surprises I hadn’t expected and Cecile’s final diaries are the vital first hand account of the circus’s history, as well as her own love story. I was immersed in this magical tale and didn’t really want it to end.

Published on 9th November 2021 by Redhook.

Meet The Author.

Constance Sayers is the author of A Witch in Time. A finalist for Alternating Current‘s 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, her short stories have appeared in Souvenir and Amazing Graces: Yet Another Collection of Fiction by Washington Area Women as well as The Sky is a Free Country. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She received an MA in English from George Mason University. She lives outside of Washington D.C. Like her character in The Ladies of the Secret Circus, for many years, she was the host of a radio show from midnight to six.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

This was my first full on pandemic book. Others have mentioned or touched upon the changes of the last eighteen months, but this was full immersion!

I’ve been disappointed with the last two of Jodi Picoult’s books. They were still well written, but for some reason I felt detached from everyone in A Spark of Light – maybe because in the U.K. abortion isn’t such a contentious issue? The Book of Two Ways felt almost so full of detail that I was reading a textbook and losing interest in the story itself. This was a glorious return of form that I truly loved. Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono. Then, everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours flying around in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it affects breathing, because it causes pneumonia and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth?

. She meets Abuela’s granddaughter Beatrice who appears to have secrets and an inner pain that brings out a maternal instinct Diana didn’t know she had. Tour guide and Beatrice’s father, Gabriel, is the perfect person to be stranded with. He knows every corner of the island and has no work, so he can show Diana some of the sights she would never have seen ordinarily. The islands sound miraculous and here Picoult really does create an incredible sense of place. The seals lazily basking on the jetty, the sea turtles and their nests buried in sand, lush vegetation and lizards lying around intertwined. I could see and taste the salt air. I loved the islanders too – their openness to Diana, the bartering market set up when the island quarantined itself from the world. Everything is vivid and almost hyper-real. Then came the twist!! Oh my goodness I did not expect that at all. This was brilliantly done and shocked me. Yet it was all too plausible.

Diana has one link to the world beyond the Galapagos and that’s the occasional email from Finn. In it we see the reality of the COVID-19 epidemic in New York City. They have so many people being admitted and not enough people recovering and moving through rehabilitation. What do you do when the resources simply run out? Finn is exhausted, has permanent bruises on his cheeks, because they have to keep their masks so tight and is struggling mentally. He describes to her the patients lost, ones he can’t forget, because there are too many to remember them all. This was tough reading and I’ll be honest, I learned things about the virus I’d never heard before such as vascular compromise, bowel necrosis and neurological deficit. There were points where I felt a bit breathless and panicky. As someone who had to shelter from the virus, it made me think twice about going out in a couple of places. Anyone who thinks it’s just a ‘bit of flu’ should be locked in a room with the audio book playing on repeat! Please don’t let this put you off though. It’s beautifully written and the insight it gives into how hard things have been for those in the medical profession is priceless. We owe it to them to read such well-researched and thoughtful accounts of the pandemic. The Galapagos sections are like paradise in comparison and this was the space where I could take a long deep breath.

This book is Picoult at her best, in that it has an interesting storyline, and characters as well as an issue she could really get her teeth into. As the book started I was prepared for it to be set within the art world and I was already curious to see her relationship with Kito – the Japanese art collector – because they seemed to be on a similar wavelength. I thought we might end up embroiled in a legal battle over ownership or whether the painting was a forgery. Then everything she’d built at the beginning became subsumed by the pandemic and it became a totally different story. The structure effectively echoes how our lives have been interrupted and changed forever. There are people who went into the pandemic with a job that no longer exists. People have lost friends, family members and partners. The pandemic has changed people, they are looking at how they live and making changes. We moved into the country, and I’m sure others have done similar, focusing on enjoying life and working to live instead of living to work. There are people like me, who were disabled, but felt like part of society still. Gradually, over the last 18 months, I have become a recluse and I’ve felt more and more separated from people. Especially those people who say the vulnerable should be kept inside, so that ‘normal people’ can have their lives back. I’ve felt like an inconvenience, and like we’re holding the rest of the country to ransom. I’m hoping these feelings change with time, but who knows? I could understand Diana’s decision at the end of the novel, it might have seemed illogical but I got it. When you’ve been through something momentous you change, and part of that is re-evaluating life and choosing what makes you happy. It’s trying to recapture hope. I don’t want things to ‘go back to the normal’; I want this pandemic to mean something and I want things to get better. Diana takes that decision for herself and I found that both brave and uplifting.

Meet The Author


Jodi Picoult is the author of twenty five internationally bestselling novels, including MY SISTER’S KEEPER, HOUSE RULES and SMALL GREAT THINGS, and has also co-written two YA books with her daughter Samantha van Leer, BETWEEN THE LINES and OFF THE PAGE. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. 

Her most recent adult novel, A SPARK OF LIGHT first published in the UK on 30th October 2018, and was a #1 Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. 

Follow Jodi Picoult on Twitter @JodiPicoult and find out more at http://www.jodipicoult.co.uk or on Facebook/JodiPicoultUK.

Posted in Publisher Proof

Volta by Nikki Dudley

When Briony Campbell confesses to killing her boyfriend, a straightforward crime of passion soon turns into a baffling mystery. Haunted by demons from his past, lawyer S.J. Robin is assigned to the case. But as confusion – and the body count – rises, he’s forced to question who is guilty and who is innocent. Can he see justice served and hold on to the woman he loves?

I’ve been slightly daunted by writing the review for this thriller, because I’m desperate not to give anything away. Volta really is a fast paced read, with a plot full of twists and turns and an engaging central character. Even more unusual, is the distinct thread of romance throughout. From the moment Briony wakes up covered in blood, I was drawn into the story. There’s an almost cinematic quality to the writing, because we’re totally in the moment as Briony wakes up and as her senses take in the terrifying situation she’s in so do ours. It’s a moment of of stillness that’s rare in the book. Then we pan out and see our other character’s reaction to the crime. Briony makes an statement to lawyer S. J. Robin that seems clear cut, but he soon realises the case is not that simple and as it becomes ever more entangled, it even brings his own demons to the surface.

The novel has three narrators: S.J, Briony and Mari. Mari is both Briony’s therapist and possible love interest to S.J, in a complicated coincidence. From the first time we see them together, it’s clear that S.J and Mari have history. Even more complexity comes in, when we realise that the investigator, Aris, is Mari’s brother – and they are a really convincing pair of siblings. It’s a small interrelated group of characters, and it creates a slightly claustrophobic feel. S.J relates his tale in the first person, and for some reason that makes me think he’s giving a true version of events. It’s an unconscious bias that I think comes from being a counsellor and ‘prizing’ the client’s account, never showing judgement or disbelief. However, I do love it when a novel’s narrator proves to be untrustworthy and as the story unfolded I started to feel a little unsettled by some aspects of the story – specifically S.J and Briony’s narratives. They each had an experience of trauma in their respective childhoods; from this it is easy to draw parallels between them. However, when a narrative’s in the third person we can see others interacting with our character, having inner thoughts about them and possibly being aware of their back story. A first-person narrative has no corroboration and though the difference in narrative perspective seems subtle it does have a large impact. S.J is intriguing. We learn very early in the novel, that he’s dealing with past trauma and his positioning as a victim also elicits sympathy from the reader – that is until doubts start to creep in. We learn that his psychological trauma could be permanent or at least difficult to heal, and this could create a further bond between him and Briony that is possibly unhelpful, both personally and in the investigation. I was left questioning what exactly had happened in Briony and S.J’s pasts? Did what happened with Briony relate to those circumstances? Can the victim have justice if S.J wins justice for Briony – are they the same thing? In between is the push and pull of S.J and Mari, whose attraction gave the book more of a light-hearted feel

Although the novel moves along at an incredible pace, I could identify certain threads or themes running throughout, always at the back of my mind like a constant nagging voice. I seemed to be thinking constantly, even when I wasn’t reading the book! Make no mistake these are complicated characters, with psychological damage that’s affecting their everyday lives and their work. Their relationships are difficult, or even broken. The author’s grasp of the consequences of trauma are nicely nuanced and I felt safe in the hands of a writer who understood psychological trauma well. In fact the reader works as a fourth character, bringing their own bias and assumptions to their assessment of Briony. The word ‘Volta’ is defined as a literary device, used in poetry. It’s a rhetorical shift, or a dramatic change in mood, emotion and tone. That’s how this book feels as a reading experience, I found myself shifting constantly in my assessment of Briony based on how one of the other characters viewed her or when a twist in the narrative turned everything on it’s head. This would be a great book club choice, because I imagine every reader has a different perspective. This is a strong, intense and clever thriller with characters to match.

Meet The Author


Nikki is a novelist and poet who grew up in London. She attended state school in Camden and spent her time hiding in the library. She is managing editor of streetcake magazine, which publishes innovative writing. She also runs the streetcake writing prize and MumWrite, a development programme for mums. Her novel, ‘Ellipsis’ was published by Sparkling Books in 2010. Additionally, she has been published in magazines and online. Her chapbook ‘exits/origins’ and collection ‘Hope Alt Delete’ are published by The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. She won the Virginia Prize for fiction 2020 and her novel, Volta, was published by Aurora Metro Books in 2021. Her pamphlet, ‘I’d Better Let You Go’ was published by Beir Bua Press in 2021.

Nikki loves mysteries, thrillers and things that make her think. Some of her favourite books are Catch-22, the Raymond Chandler books, How to Life Safely in a Science Fictional Universe and anything by Yoko Ogawa. 

Her other interests include watching many genres of films and attending events such as poetry readings, sport, and gigs. You can start conversations with her by discussing your favourite type of cake, your favourite Avenger or telling her a fun fact. She loves travelling and trying local cuisines.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

My Name is Jensen by Heidi Amsinck

This was a great opener in a new Scandi noir series, that left me looking forward to getting to know these characters a lot better. Jensen is a journalist living in Copenhagen after spending several years in London as the British correspondent for a Danish newspaper. She still hasn’t quite found her feet in the city, and knows that she’s very lucky to still have a job considering the cuts at work. Her editor Margrethe has faith in her ability to sniff out a story and one morning, while cycling to work.Jensen stumbles across the body of a young man with a large placard saying guilty on his chest. His eyes are covered with new fallen snow and it’s clear that he has several stab wounds to the abdomen. He’s also homeless, Jensen calls her ex-lover Detective Henrik Jungerson to report the murder, even though she’s been trying to avoid him since her return. Jensen doesn’t want to exploit such a sad death for newspaper headlines. Nor will she sensationalise it, However as more bodies are found it’s clear a serial killer is on the loose. Why would someone choose the homeless as their victims? Jensen has to investigate further.

I really enjoyed Jensen’s character. She’s rather mysterious and I think the author was clever to drop clues and hints about her in this first book of the series. It left me wanting to discover more and delve into her past, not least her relationship with Henrik. It certainly isn’t over. She’s determined and dogged once the story has piqued her journalistic interest and it’s probably true to use the word ‘obsessed’ when describing how she investigates. She feels very real because of the way she’s written – it’s like slowly getting to know a new acquaintance rather than having a fully formed person. She’s also a bit prickly and is very used to navigating a rather male dominated workplace. Her tension with Henrik leaps off the page and I’m very interested to see where their relationship goes next, as well as unearthing a bit more about their past.

“clues and hints about her in this first book of the series. It left me wanting to discover more and delve into her past, not least her relationship with Henrik. It certainly isn’t over. She’s determined and dogged once the story has piqued her journalistic interest and it’s probably true to use the word ‘obsessed’ when describing how she investigates. She feels very real because of the way she’s written – it’s like slowly getting to know a new acquaintance rather than having a fully formed person. She’s also a bit prickly and is very used to navigating a rather male dominated workplace. Her tension with Henrik leaps off the page and I’m very interested to see where their relationship goes next, as well as unearthing a bit more about their past.

The fact that Jensen focuses on finding out about the killer’s victim rather than the killer suggests a lot of empathy and a keen sense of social justice underneath the spikiness. She leaves Henrik to look for the killer and he’s soon connecting it to a previous suspicious death. They are a good team in this way, each with their own methods, but sharing information along the way. I think the book touches on a lot of current problems in our society, particularly how the world’s economic structure is creating horrendous poverty. Issues such as mental health, drug abuse and of course, homelessness are featured in the book and I thought the author wrote about this with understanding borne out of real life experience and conviction. The story was fast paced and very compulsive reading. There are twists and turns along the way in the investigation and moments where Jensen feels inundated with information, but none of it is making any sense. The tension builds towards the conclusion and these are the really addictive parts that I found myself reading in the car, the hospital waiting room and till 2am while on holiday! This was a fantastic opener to, what is now, a much anticipated series and I have to mention that gorgeous cover. It’s so beautiful I want to put in a frame and hang it on the wall.

Published by Muswell Press 31st August 2021.

Heidi Amsinck, a writer and journalist born in Copenhagen, spent many years covering Britain for the Danish press, including a spell as London Correspondent for the broadsheet daily Jyllands-Posten. She has written numerous short stories for radio, including the three-story sets Danish Noir, Copenhagen Confidential and Copenhagen Curios, all produced by Sweet Talk for BBC Radio 4. A graduate of the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London, Heidi lives in London. She was previously shortlisted for the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize. Last Train to Helsingør is her first published collection of stories. Her crime novel My Name is Jensen, set in Copenhagen, will be published in August 2021

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

The Watchers by A.M.Shine

Wow! I’ve just finished this novel and what an ending. I feel slightly shell-shocked and a bit disturbed by this incredible horror novel that’s very hard to describe, and difficult to tell you about without spoilers. I’m going to try, so bear with me. I’ve been a fan of classic ghost stories for most of my reading life. I blame the more Gothic aspects of the Brontë’s for this obsession; the tall, ghoul who rends Jane Eyre’s bridal veil in two and the pale, ghostly, child’s hand that reaches though the glass and grabs Lockwood’s shaking hand in Wuthering Heights. From that grew a love of the gothic and monstrous, honed at university and now stated by wonderful ghost stories like these. I don’t call it horror, though I suppose it is, because I don’t like blood and gore. I love the creeping sense of dread, the strange apparition that appears behind you in the mirror, the fleeting glimpse of something not human or the sound of a child laughing or singing in a house where there are none. It even extends to my own writing, because when I wrote a story about hag stones for my uni writing workshop, my tutor messaged me to say she’d found it deeply unsettling.

We see most of the events in this novel through Mina, a young woman living in urban Ireland, who lives alone and has lost her mother. Now without family – except one sister who appears to phone once a month or so, just to feel disappointed – she is largely a loner. Her loves are sketching, red wines and her friend Peter who is a buyer and seller of various things and often pays Mina cash to travel and deliver his client’s purchases. On this occasions she’s to take a golden parrot to a remote part of Galway, but the day trip becomes something she lives to regret. Having broken down on the edge of a forest, Mina realises that the likelihood of anyone passing by and helping are probably minimal. So, with the parrot in tow, she sets off walking in the hope of finding a remote farmhouse with a phone that works. Her phone has died in the same second she pulled up in the car. Once in the forest Mina realises her mistake, it seems bigger than from outside and she’s concerned that the light might start to fade before she can get to the other side. She feels unnerved, although she can’t say why, then she hears a scream that isn’t human, but isn’t like any animal she’s ever heard either. As the shadows gather she is beginning to panic, when suddenly she sees a woman beckoning her and urging her to hurry. She’s standing by a concrete bunker and although that seems odd, Mina decides it’s better than staying out here to be found by whatever made that terrible noise. As they hurry inside and the door slams behind them, the screams grow in intensity and volume, almost as if they were right on her heels. As her eyes adjust to the light she finds herself in a room with a bright overhead light. One wall is made entirely of glass, but Mina can’t see beyond it and into the forest because it is now pitch dark. Yet she has the creeping sensation of being watched through the glass, almost like she is the parrot in a glass cage. A younger man and woman are huddled together in one space, so there are now four people in this room, captive and watched by many eyes. Their keepers are the Watchers, dreadful creatures that live in burrows by day, but come out at night to hunt and to watch these captive humans. If caught out after dark, the door will be locked, and you will be the Watcher’s unlucky prey. Who are these creatures and why do they keep watching?

I was absolutely entranced by this incredibly disturbing tale and loved the way the author created this unbelievable world inside the everyday. In the opening section Mina’s world is relatively normal, she goes about her day like any one of us. She has an irritatingly perfect sister, she gets lonely, she sometimes drinks too much wine. We can identify with these imperfections and relate to her. So when this ordinary woman, finds herself caught up in the extraordinary, we believe it because we already believe in her. These woods are like countless others, we’ve probably walked into similar situations ourselves and got lost. Yet, the author carefully leave tiny details, that are probably pricking up our ears and instinctively alerting us that something is wrong. The remoteness of the place, the way her phone suddenly stops working, the single strange cry she hears as if something is on lookout, alerting others to her presence. All of these are universal literary signifiers for ‘something’s not right here’. The author never describes the Watchers visually, again there are signs they leave behind and other sensory clues: the burrows in the ground, claw marks around the window, the revolting smell, their cries. Just as Mina is standing in the light, unable to see them lurking in the dark, so are we. Even when you think we’re going to ‘see’ them, we never fully do. The clues set our imagination on overdrive, we build the monsters in our heads which makes them so much scarier as they feed into our personal fears and phobias.

The characters and their dynamics are fascinating too. With the younger man and woman quite subservient to their ‘leader’ Madeleine, the lady who beckons Mina in out of the dark, there’s an almost parent and child dynamic already established. The room, entitled the ‘coop’, gives us the impression of hens let out to feed and water, but locked in at night for fear of predators. However, with that image of protection comes a question; hens are kept safe by farmers or owners who want them to produce eggs, so what are our four inhabitants meant to produce and who owns the coop? In helping Mina though, Madeleine hasn’t found another subservient child to lead. Mina is more independent and intelligent than that. She’s also a watcher herself, used to being alone and observing others, she sketches people secretly when in public places. The coop is no exception, she gets the urge to capture different expressions and moods in her fellow prisoners, particularly drawn to the planes and contours of Madeleine’s face. Mina doesn’t want to contest Madeleine’s authority, but she will contribute ideas and challenge those she thinks are wrong. I wondered if this would upset the existing dynamic, start a power struggle inside, and raise the tension even further. I was fascinated by how these others had ended up here and what would happen when they start to run out of food or something else that pushes them outdoors. Is there any way of escaping? This author has created a brilliantly layered horror, with an ending that was truly unexpected and even more terrifying. I have just explained the story to my next door neighbour and she’s already closed the curtains tonight! This was incredible and even better is the fact that it’s my first A.M. Shine novel so I have others to enjoy in the Christmas break. This novel is claustrophobic, unnerving and truly hard to put down.

Published by Head of Zeus – Aries. 14th October 2021

Meet The Author

A.M. Shine is an author of literary horror from the west of Ireland. He completed an MA in history before turning to writing, influenced by Gothic tales such as those by Edgar Allen Poe. His novels are grounded in their landscape, steeped in Irish folklore and language, and always influenced by history, horror and superstition.