Posted in Random Things Tours

Bitter Flowers by Gunnar Staalesen

PI Varg Veum has returned to duty following a stint in rehab, but his new composure and resolution are soon threatened when a challenging assignment arrives on his desk. He is offered a job by his physical therapist Lisbeth, with whom he has built a friendship during treatment. She has a friend who needs a house sitter and she drives Varg out there to look around, only to find a man dead, floating in the elite swimming pool. As Varg leaps in to check for signs of life, Lisbeth goes missing. Most chillingly, Varg Veum is asked to investigate the ‘Camilla Case’: an eight-year-old cold case involving the disappearance of a little girl, who was never found. As the threads of these apparently unrelated crimes come together, against the backdrop of a series of shocking environmental crimes, Varg Veum faces the most challenging, traumatic investigation of his career.

This is one of those slow burn thrillers and we find Veum at a pivotal moment in his life, just out of rehab and fighting a reliance on Aquavit. Whilst not fully back to his investigative peak, Lisbeth’s idea of a simple house sitting would have suited him perfectly, with no pressure. The circumstances he then finds himself in are really not going to help his recovery, it’s enough to find himself embroiled in a murder investigation, but even worse, could he actually be a suspect? Instinct takes over though and Varg can’t help looking into the victim’s life, once he is identified as Tor Aslaksen. He is also very concerned about the disappearance of Lisbeth, as he battled to save the dead man’s life. Needless to say he faces some very awkward questions from Inspector Hamre about how he ended up there, alone in a strange house with a dead man. His digging reveals a connection to a case from some years before, that of a missing child. As if that wasn’t enough, when he looks into the victim’s employer, his company is under suspicion for environmental crimes, namely the alleged improper disposal of toxic waste. There are noisy protestors demonstrating on site and within the conflict there are two brothers, who were childhood friends of Aslaksen and stand on opposing sides of the demonstration. These strands seem so disparate, but the author cleverly threads them back to the murder victim with so much care, taking his time to unwind the truth. Yet, he also keeps a steady tension and occasionally surprises the reader as Varg’s curiosity takes him into dangerous and threatening places. is enough to heighten Veum’s interest. Nobody’s fool and uncompromisingly persistent, Veum is intrigued enough to take a closer look, thereby uncovering a connection to the unsolved disappearance of a seven-year-old girl nearly a decade earlier in the dead of night. Casting his net wider and following the threads back to their fruition, Veum tries to make sense of the past and it’s significance on current events, specifically the murder of Tor Aslaksen and all that follows.

Gunnar Staalesen

I gradually started to bond with Varg, possibly due to the first person narrative; we’re with him all the way because we make discoveries at exactly the same time he does. His narrative can be abrupt at times, but always questioning and challenging those around him. As we experience his inner voice, unedited and raw, we can feel his struggles and the way his personal demons affect his life and his investigations. Yes, he has weaknesses, but his intelligence and determination are undimmed. I felt that, despite these struggles, I was safe with him as a narrator. I was firmly on his side throughout and didn’t doubt his innocence once. I didn’t work out the reasons for the murder, nor the tragic events which followed, but I did feel a constant sense of foreboding even from the first chapter. The author has a good grasp of human nature and how trauma affects people in very different ways. The psychology of addiction was also well observed and I enjoyed seeing Varg’s progress as he tries to recover while investigating a complex and emotional case. His developing relationship with Karen and friendship with Siv are handled with care and a gentleness I didn’t expect.

The case itself is emotive, allowing the reader to learn about Varg’s fragility, as he faces the horror of a child missing for eight years. By taking us back into Varg’s past, we can really see progression in his character; how did he get from there to his current stint in rehab? His previous career in child welfare has left him cynical, but he isn’t completely jaded yet. Everything he has experienced makes him more humane with an automatic reflex to fight for the underdog. I loved his underlying thirst for social justice too, something that could remain hidden from others, behind that calm and focused exterior. Staalesen provides the reader with a steady drip feed of Varg’s discoveries and this pace helps us understand the key characters better, especially where he becomes a nuisance by popping up to question certain people time and again. Even threats and constant police pressure can’t stop him from interfering and he is dogged in his determination to discover the truth. This is not a high octane thriller, but it’s more thorough and compelling because of that. Varg is not one of those showy, ‘on the edge’ investigators either, but the gradual opening up of his character allows us to trust him and truly know him. This felt like to me like a real PI might have worked back in the 1980’s, investing the time and noting the small details that crack a case. We never get the sense, as with other, flashier, P.I. characters, that he is more important than the case. There’s only a hint of fast action and real danger, but it has more impact and authenticity because of that restraint. This is complex, intelligent and authentic storytelling with a hero I enjoyed getting to know.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Quiet People by Paul Cleave

Whenever I go to literature festival or author events through my local bookshop, people always ask where the writer gets their ideas from. In the case of crime writers we really want to know, because we’re thinking: is this what real life crime is like? Are there people who commit these terrible (and usually highly creative) crimes? How does the writer know this much about the crimes they depict? We want to know if they have ever been tempted to commit a crime and if anybody could commit the perfect crime, surely it’s people who’ve been writing and researching it for years? They know the pitfalls and have the forensic know-how to get away with it. So,could a crime writer commit the perfect crime? This is the corner that Cam and Lisa Murdoch find themselves in, when their son Zach goes missing one night. As a crime writing duo the two are well known, but live a quiet family life with their son in Christchurch, NZ. In a meltdown the night before, Zach has told his father he wants to run away and in an exasperated moment Cam tells him to go ahead. Could he really have climbed out of the window and gone? Cam and Lisa don’t think so, then when a footprint is found outside his bedroom window their fears are confirmed – this must be an abduction. Yet everyone knows, in child disappearances, the first suspects are always the parents. But will they be the last?

This is my first Paul Cleave novel, and I was drawn in by the premise. We read the story through the narration of Cam and one of the investigating officers DI Rebecca Kent. The chapters are short and alternate between the two perspectives, creating an interesting narrative where one moment I was on the Murdoch’s side and the next moment I could understand the police’s outlook. The first half of the book was really slow, with a drip feed of information. The second half was like a car with no brakes, careering towards an inevitable explosion. I thought DI Kent was a decent, honest officer, with great instincts and a lot of compassion for the Murdochs. I loved being inside her professional mindset, seeing how she kept a polite demeanour with suspects, while questioning or even disbelieving everything they’re telling her. The author shows how every action can have multiple interpretations. Early on in the book, when Zach is playing on a bouncy castle, Cam’s attention wanders for a moment and he can’t see his son anywhere. Frantically looking for him, he goes onto the bouncy castle looking for him, accidentally knocking a girl over in his hurry. He then grabs hold of another boy and tries to show him a picture of Zach on his phone, an actions that’s completely misinterpreted by the boy’s father. Is Cam just an anxious, frantic parent who isn’t thinking clearly or is he a deliberate abuser of children? It depends on who you are in the scenario. Kent keeps an open mind – suspect everyone, expect anything and don’t take one person’s word. She’s always calculating in her head, checking and balancing actions and behaviour.

Cam is an interesting character who goes through an enormous amount of change in the novel. We see how his son’s disappearance slowly alters his personality and he’s hard to root for. It’s as if he’s woken up inside one of his own books, fully experiencing what he might put one of his characters through. He depends on Lisa, his writing mate and wife, but are they going to be made stronger by this tragedy or does it have the power to tear them apart? They certainly have different temperaments, with Lisa being the calmer one, but I was fascinated to see how she would respond when Cam tells her about Zach’s threat to leave and his answer. The author creates such a tense atmosphere building both inside and outside their home. He depicts the frenzied attention around the case of a missing child, that reminded me of the public’s interest in the Madeleine McCann or the Shannon Matthew’s cases. It was horrible to see how the general public congregated outside the family’s homes, shouting for justice and piling pressure on the family and police alike. This chaos was so well depicted in the novel and ended up spawning one of the most explosive and memorable scenes.

This was a compulsive page turner, especially once you reach the half way point. The short, snappy chapters help with this, there’s always that temptation of just one more. There were also brilliant cliff hangers, places where it felt the book was about to end, but didn’t, and then took things in another direction entirely. I loathed the journalist Lockwood who starts out with a vendetta against the Murdochs for apparently stealing a book idea from him. Could he be taking the ultimate revenge? Could the Murdochs really be the villains after all? The truth, when it is finally laid bare, is a massive shock for the reader. I couldn’t have suspected and even DI Kent is completely taken by surprise. This is the sort of case that would never leave the investigating officer and I felt that so much about her would change from this point. I loved the way that Cleave showed the influence of the press and social media on cases that catch the public imagination. No one is innocent until proven guilty any more. Worryingly, it felt like there was no privacy either with devices like mobiles, spy cameras and our addiction to social media placing so much of our private sphere into the world. It also makes things more difficult for Cam and Lisa, who have been recorded at festivals and on TV for a number of years. It’s so easy to watch them and to discredit the couple with a well chosen statement taken totally out of context. It’s also scary to see the influence and tragic consequences that the media circus can have. Although, I did laugh at the pyramid of nuns and priests that turn up in the mob, it’s the image from the book that will stay with me. This was a fascinating thriller, with a complex investigation at it’s centre. Prepare for a twisty tale, full of red herrings and tiny clues, where you’ll struggle to trust anyone.

Meet The Author


Paul Cleave is currently dividing his time between his home city of Christchurch, New Zealand, where all of his novels are set, and Europe, where none of his novels are set. His eight novels have so far been translated into over a dozen languages and nearly 20 territories. He has won the Saint-Maur book festival’s crime novel of the year in France, has been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly award, the Edgar Award, the Barry Award, and has won the Ngaio Marsh award for NZ crime fiction three times.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Cold as Hell by Lilja Sigurdardóttir.

‘Now I regret everything. I regret making Ísafold’s favourite Barbie doll do the splits and breaking it. I regret sneaking into her make-up and ruining her new eye-liner by experimenting with it. I regret the times I called her short-arse once I had grown taller than her. I regret losing the scarf that was a gift from her first boyfriend. I regret the time we had a row, and I called her a whore. I regret not calling her. I regret not getting the first flight to Iceland the last time she needed help.’

I’ve found myself reading more Scandi and Scottish Noir of late and Icelandic Noir has many of the same traits that draw me to the genres; intelligent and independent female protagonists, an unflinching look at death and loss, and the unapologetic darkness at the heart of the tale. I’ve had the pleasure of reading Lilja Sigurdardóttir before and this novel grabbed my attention very early on with it’s reluctant protagonist, quirky characters, and an almost lunar landscape lit up by twenty four hour daylight. Āróra is being pestered by her mother. She hasn’t heard from Āróra’s sister Īsafold for over two weeks now and she’s very worried. She wants Āróra to fly out to Iceland and find out what’s going on from Īsafold’s partner Björn and their family who are still based there. Āróra lives in the north east of England and rarely goes back to Iceland, despite being born there. She mainly travels there when Īsafold needs rescuing from Björn. The whole family have known for some time that she is suffering domestic violence, but despite several attempts to help and convince her to leave, Īsafold always returns to Björn. Āróra has given up trying to help her sister; you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Even now she is reluctant to drop everything and intervene, but her mother is insistent and two weeks is a long time to be silent.

I enjoyed spending time in Āróra’s company and her narration is our main view of the story, although there are short chapters from the perspective of other characters that either add to our knowledge of Īsafold’s life, or contain a clue or twist in the tale. The two sisters have never had an easy relationship and Āróra sees herself as very different from her sister. She describes Īsafold as tiny, almost elfin, with long brown hair and a beauty that she feels is far removed from her own looks. Āróra feels almost giant-like in comparison to her sister, she has a strong body and is statuesque with lighter hair. There’s a sense of inferiority here, as Āróra weighs up her own looks, even if she is thought of as attractive by others she doesn’t see it herself. Other characters however, do describe her as beautiful like her sister and while she’s definitely taller and of a stronger build, many have known she is Īsafold’s sister as soon as they’ve seen her, including the neighbours at Īsafold’s building. In fact, she hasn’t been in Iceland long before attracting a man called Hákon at her hotel. As Āróra starts to question Īsafold’s neighbours about her disappearance she is disturbed to be told that Īsafold has flown to be with her family in the U.K; she never arrived, but did she even leave? Some neighbours have their own reasons for remaining hidden or cagey about Īsafold’s business, but one thing rings true in all their statements. Īsafold was in danger every day she chose to stay with Björn. Grimur in particular gave Īsafold a safe space to come when Björn had attacked her and he would patch her up while trying to talk her into leaving. It never worked.

The author cleverly sets us on edge with certain characters in subtle ways, such as a throwaway line that makes you stop and think or a behaviour that seems suspicious, like a literary double-take. This was a particular favourite:

‘He zipped his jacket up to the neck and walked away. There were only ten minutes before the bus was due. He had finished the walk around the city centre he had decided to take after the film was over. But seeing Björn with a new woman had wrecked any pleasure he might have had from his walk, and now he just wanted to go home and shave all over.’

He seems genuinely upset by Björn’s new girlfriend, who he stumbles on in a nearby restaurant. Everything written in this passage has a sense of real concern and introduces us to someone who must have cared for his friend a great deal. The end line though, is a stroke of genius, and tells us there is something very unusual or possibly disturbed about this character. Olga who lives opposite, hasn’t really noticed much, but she’s trying not to arouse suspicion as she has an asylum seeker living with her who might be denied leave to remain any day. She and Omar are like mother and son. He looks after her with more care than her own family and she trusts him. However, when he is told he can’t remain in Iceland there’s a sudden rage she’s never seen before. When she finds out he used the passport of a murdered man to enter the country she isn’t sure what to think. Olga has never felt scared of Omar but she does start to wonder what he might be capable of. At first my money was on Björn being the killer, then Grimur, and every time there was a new revelation I found myself questioning what I knew and shifting allegiance. In this way the author keeps the reader on their toes. I loved that the book was intelligent and didn’t give up information too easily.

The sense of place was well developed and had an almost alien quality to it that is so strange and adds atmosphere. First of all the reader is wrong footed with twenty four hour daylight, because it is Sumarsólstöður. This is the peak mid-summer solstice, in a whole summer of the midnight sun. Research seems to show that Icelanders actually benefit from this period, because they are outside longer each day. However, I felt the author used it very effectively to add to an eerily strange sense of place. We see Āróra’s Uncle Daniel, compulsively weeding round the edges of his driveway in the early hours of the morning when he can’t sleep. He’s trying to be quiet because he doesn’t want to wake the neighbours, and I felt a sense of loneliness in him being the only person awake. Yet there would also be something special about it, as if the sun had risen to create an extra day just for you. Along with other countries close to the Arctic Circle, there’s a magical aspect to this place where water shoots out of the ground and lava fields look like a barren moonscape. The author also sets the events of the book within recent history. Āróra is a financial investigator and happens upon some interesting accounting irregularities when researching one character. The banking crisis looms over this subplot where she has to decide whether to follow her investigative hunch or let it go and concentrate on her sister.

Most importantly and very moving, is the depiction of the relationship between two sisters. The sibling rivalries, the roles of eldest and youngest, and that push and pull between loving and resenting each other. Āróra has always felt second best to her sister, particularly in terms of their appearance. There are times when she feels obligated to check on Īsafold, rather than wanting to do it for herself. Āróra hates having the role of the sister who ‘rescues’ because she’s aware of how a drama triangle works. Īsafold is continuously putting herself in the role of victim and even though she’s been given nothing but positive encouragement and support from Āróra she can soon flip the switch and say she’s being pushed and persecuted into leaving. I actually wondered whether this behaviour had lead to her death? Had someone become so tired of helping, only to hear her being beaten again the following week, that they’d snapped? Yet Āróra reminisces about the last time Īsafold called her and she chose not to come. Would that have been the turning point? What if she’d said the right thing this time and her sister chose to return to England, safe and sound. In fearing her loss, Āróra stops seeing a problem and starts seeing her sister. The barrier between them melts away as she lists her regrets and acknowledges she hasn’t been the perfect sister either. But is it too late? This was a fascinating tale, from a clever author whose words can manipulate us into racing through the thrilling twists and turns, then stop us in our tracks with a moving tribute from one sister to another.

Published by Orenda Books and out now.

Meet The Author.


Icelandic crime-writer Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in the town of Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, Lilja has written four crime novels, with Snare, the first in a series and Lilja’s English debut shortlisting for the CWA International Dagger and hitting bestseller lists worldwide. Trap soon followed suit, with the third in the trilogy Cage winning the Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year, and was a Guardian Book of the Year. Lilja’s standalone Betrayal, was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award for Best Nordic Crime Novel. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. Lilja is also an award-winning screenwriter in her native Iceland. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner.

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! August 2021.

This month’s reading has been less frenetic than the last two months. There are a couple of reasons for this: I consciously wanted to take on less blog tours; I was expecting to have a procedure on my spine this week. Then crashing into this came my father’s illness flaring up and I’m still supporting my husband who has been struggling with PTSD. There’s always a lot going on in life, but this was just too much. I couldn’t think clearly, so reading anything that I hadn’t chosen was a chore. So aside from books I’d already read and had scheduled, I decided to spend the rest of the month reading exactly what I wanted. I’ve enjoyed just browsing the (overstuffed) shelves and picking something out purely because it suited mood. After a literature degree and half way through an MA, I’ve learned to read things I’m not enjoying or find challenging, but this month life was challenging enough. I didn’t have my procedure in the end, but I know it will happen soon. Things have settled but I am continuing to choose blog tours carefully and instead get through my proofs and the NetGalley checklist for the next couple of months. These were my favourite reads for August.

Cecily was a fascinating read about a woman I didn’t know well, but who turned out to be an ancestor of mine. Her grandmother was Katherine Swynford who was the mistress then the wife of John of Gaunt, Earl of Lancaster. She lived in Lincolnshire at Kettlethorpe Hall which is about seven miles from me. She’s now buried at Lincoln Cathedral with her eldest daughter Joan, who happens to be Cecily’s mother and my great-great-great (x infinity) grandmother too. It was fascinating to meet this strong, principled woman who has much more political sway than I imagined. Beginning with her front row seat at the execution of Joan of Arc, we see Cecily’s resolve in her determination to witness the event, to not look away. We then delve into the court of Henry VI and see the beginnings of the cousin’s war, with Cecily firmly on the white rose side of Yorkshire. She gives birth to two kings of England, lived to see her granddaughter marry Henry VII combining the houses of York and Lancaster, and was great-grandmother to Henry VIII. There is so much more to her story, this is just background, so if you love strong heroines and the intrigues of the Royal court this is the one for you.

I’m sure regular readers are totally fed up of me banging on about how wonderful the Skelfs are, but I’m never going to stop. There are more feisty women here, in fact a whole family of them. Dorothy is the grandmother and she runs the family funeral business from her home in Edinburgh. Daughter Jenny also lives above the business, but she concentrates on the private investigation business. Granddaughter Hannah lives with her girlfriend Indy, and is just starting her PhD in the astrophysics department. The book starts with a curious find, when the Skelf’s dog fetches a human foot in the park! This sets Dorothy on a mission to find out where it came from and what had been chewing it. Hannah is investigating for her supervisor, because he’s had a reply to one of his messages sent into outer space. Aliens have never contacted us before – the Great Silence of the title – so why now and who could it be really? Finally, Jenny is investigating an elderly lady who appears to have an a Italian gigolo. Yet, her ex- husband Craig still looms large. Could he have escaped prison and gone into hiding somewhere close to home? Doug Johnstone is a magician who holds the threads of these stories and combines them in perfect harmony. His women are real and quirky – pensioner Dorothy teaches drumming, goes to clubs, has a younger lover and thinks nothing of stepping into danger when necessary. I love the calm, quiet Indy too. Gritty, feminist, philosophical and a great crime novel.

Tammy Cohen was a new author for me, so I was pleased to have the time to try her novel The Wedding Party. Lucy and Jade are getting married in Kefalonia, and thanks to her eye for detail everything is going to be perfect. It’s close family and friends only, so the only wild card should be her sister Jess who has never really played by anyone else’s rules. There are a couple of last minute hitches – Jess pulls a double whammy by wearing a psychedelic dress instead of the dusky pink they agreed for the matron of honour and brings a random stranger she met the day before. Jase’s mum could have caused another row by turning up in a white dress – ‘it’s called bone darling’. Lucy manages to overlook these setbacks, she’s more worried about the costs that have really added up alarmingly. Wedding planner Nina is asking for the next instalment, but she’s got her own problems involving money lenders. In-between the wedding weekend chapters, there are transcripts of police interviews so we know there’s an incident to come. The writer sets each character up so we can see their secrets, but which ones will be exposed? We also get to know a character through their therapy journal, with a terrible upbringing and so much trauma to process, what chaos will she bring to the wedding? More to the point, who is she? Also, who is the old lady they see washing her breasts in the airport toilets and why is she hanging around them in worryingly immodest swimwear? This is a great thriller, and is appallingly addictive. I read it in four hours straight one Sunday. It also left a lasting impression with regards to not judging others and being kind. This was like opening a big bar of chocolate in my house; dangerous, delicious and you know everyone will love it.

This is an incredible story of one girl’s fight to be who she is and make her own decisions about her life. Awais Khan has written a compelling story around the issue of honour killings in Pakistan. There are thought to be around 1000 of these killings every year in the country, and these are just the ones that the authorities get to know about. In an interview with EasternEye.com Khan said he’d chosen fiction to tell this story instead of non-fiction or journalism, because it has room for imagination, but also creativity and it’s his creation of this wonderful character Abida, that brings to life the real horror of how women can be treated in Pakistan. Through falling in love with her spirit and determination, we feel connected and emotional about what she goes through. Some scenes are tough to read, but they need to be. I will hold up my hand and say I didn’t fully understand the moral code that allows a man to feel honour at killing one of their own. However, in such a deeply patriarchal society a woman loses her honour through immodesty – dressing in a Western way, staying out late, meeting with a man, sexual activity before marriage, refusing an arranged marriage. A man’s honour is based on his masculinity and that means being the head of his house, but by ignoring an immodest woman in the family their honour is lost. What’s most moving though, is Abida’s father Jamil and his quest to find his daughter. That one man is willing to stand up for his daughter, rather than obey an outdated code of masculinity, means so much. Their relationship is like an oasis within what she goes through. Hard hitting, but ultimately very uplifting.

I’ve waited a little while to read this one, through lack of time and too many blog tours. It was a wonderful surprise with its depth of characterisation and psychological insight. Connie and Stella are strangers. They live thousands of miles apart, but two traumatic events bring the two of them together and they begin to talk. When they come together, it’s in a way nobody would expect. Connie lives in Dubai with her husband and children, struggling to get used to being an ex-pat, not working, and the social injustice she sees. Stella is sole carer for her mother, a smothering narcissist who is now struggling with dementia. As Stella recovers from her trauma she finds it hard to talk about it, but feels like she’s talking to Connie in her head, so it’s easier. I really enjoyed this exploration of identity and how we construct our ‘self’. The characters tell the story and I felt completely drawn into their world. I thought the author really explained what happens when there’s a gap between who we are and who we present to the world. Very different to her debut novel, but showed the author’s range and skill. Will linger long after you’ve read the final page.

This was another novel I’d been wanting to read for a long time and in one of my favourite genres – Scandi Noir. This is the first in the author’s Island Murders trilogy, which is already a hit in the author’s native Sweden. We follow detective Hannah Duncker as she returns to her home town, a place where she’s renowned for being the murderer Lars Duncker’s daughter. Needless to say not everyone is happy to have her back in town. Her first case brings another blast from the past when she realises that the victim is the son of her best school friend Rebecka. It’s well known that Rebecka’s ex-husband Axel was violent towards her, so they need to talk to him, but he seems antagonised by the police and Hannah in particular. Could he have killed his own son? Told in dual timelines, we follow Hannah and the investigation as well as the 24 hours before Joel’s death, told entirely from his perspective. The reason I originally started to read and watch Scandi Noir, was because it depicted how violent crime affected the families and friends involved. Instead of an action-packed macho thriller, this book used a more feminine gaze, choosing to show the devastation caused emotionally instead. From Joel’s nuclear family and slowly tracking outwards to friends, teachers, neighbours we see all the victims of a murder. As each narrative came closer to revealing the answers, the tension started to build. I thought the story dealt with a very timely issue and all aspects of the case felt well resolved. However, when it came to Hanna’s own story, there were enough loose ends left to explore in more detail over the next couple of books. I would recommend this to all crime lovers, but particularly those who enjoy an intelligent, complex and emotional crime novel that focuses on the victims rather than fetishising the killer.

A Look Ahead to September

So, with less to read for blog tours I will be concentrating on proofs and NetGalley this coming month. Here are some of the books I’m hoping to read next month, some of which have a slightly autumnal feel and look forward to Halloween.

Happy Reading ❤️📚

Posted in Random Things Tours

No Honour by Awais Khan.

Last year I was profoundly affected by the ITV series Honour. It was a dramatisation of the murder of a young Kurdish woman, carried out by the male members of her family and ordered by her father. Bahnaz Mahmod reported her fears to the police on five separate occasions, pleading with them to help her as she believed her family would kill her. Instead of fully investigating, she was dismissed as hysterical and over over-reacting. So instead of having their protection, she was raped and murdered by distant cousins who fled back to Iraq straight afterwards. Their reasoning was that she had besmirched the honour of her family, after divorcing her arranged husband and falling in love with another man. Real life police officer DI Caroline Goode was assigned the case and this was the story of her dogged determination to hunt down those responsible. I found myself moved, but also disturbed by the case. Days later I was still thinking about it, desperately trying to understand why her actions were so offensive to her family, but the men’s actions of raping and killing their own family member were not. I simply couldn’t get into the mindset of these men, and while on one hand I could see the point of view that it is simply murder, I wanted to understand more about what made Bahnaz Mahmod’s actions condemn her to death, and how such a dishonourable act on the men’s part could be seen to restore the family honour.

So, when I had the chance to read Khan’s book I started to read more about honour killing and it’s place in the culture of Pakistan. Pakistan is a collective, patriarchal society and family groups are policed by the male members of a family, a village or area. A woman’s honour is dependent on their modesty and a man’s honour is dependent on his masculinity. So, if a young woman refuses an arranged marriage or commits adultery she has behaved immodestly and has lost her honour. Her male family members are responsible for her and if they do nothing, their masculinity is in question and their honour is lost. So, by killing the immodest woman in their midst, they are seen to assert their masculinity and regain their honour. I was very shocked to read that at least a fifth of the world’s honour killings are carried out in Pakistan, bringing their figure to just over 1000 per year. However, this is often a rural practice and has widespread support in Pakistan, so killings are not always reported and the figures may well underrepresent the problem. Awais Khan takes these figures and ideas, and weaves the tale of a bright and ambitious sixteen year old village girl, with incredible insight and compassion.

The opening scene is a brutal look at the reality of rural village ‘justice’. A young woman is dragged to the river after giving birth to an illegitimate child. The pir, who is a village elder, lists the girl’s crimes against her family and demands that the villagers carry out her punishment. I was shocked at the punishment, especially that it extends to her baby who is drowned in a bucket of milk. Make no mistake, this is hard hitting and it needs to be, for readers to understand the reality of what is still happening in Pakistan and around the world. In the wake of this horror, is a feisty young woman called Abida and despite the horrific example in front of her, she’s headstrong and believes it would never happen to her. She can already see the unfairness of the society she’s been born into – a patriarchal system where her entire life is mapped out before her and she doesn’t have any agency. She will have a husband chosen for her, he will then decide where they live, how they live and the children they’ll have. The problem is Abida has already fallen in love. Her father Jamil has already worked this out and is desperately worried for his daughter. He’s noticed she sneaks out after everyone has retired for the night, he hasn’t followed her, but does listen for her return. He knows it’s likely she’s meeting a boy and he hopes that he’s wrong, but he has a terrible feeling the worst has already happened. What will he do if the pir comes for his daughter?

I don’t want to ruin the plot, so will keep details to a minimum, but although Abida escapes her home village she doesn’t have the happy ending she expects. In an interview with Eastern Eye, Khan explains that he chose fiction to shed light on the subject of honour killing, because it ‘allows for more creative freedom, and for more heightened emotions.’ This was true for me as I fell in love with Abida’s spirit and the hope she has for her life. Amazingly, that hope follows her to Lahore and through her whole experience. She keeps thinking that beyond the situation she’s in, she will survive. The relationship between Abida and her father was so familiar to me from my own Dad. Whatever I’ve gone through in life he’s been there and I have no doubt that he’d search for me in the way Jamil does. It’s the only pure love in the whole novel, unchanged by circumstance and completely unconditional. I found it very moving and for me he’s the most honourable man in the story. He’s decided that his own moral code is dependent on how he treats his children, rather than being dependent on the opinion of the men in his village. Although this doesn’t mean Abida will be safe. In his publicity for the book, Khan has mentioned the social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. After appearing on Pakistan Idol, she created many video clips addressing controversial topics and women’s rights. In 2016, she was drugged and strangled by her brother Wazeem Aseem who felt she was disrespecting her family. If someone as high profile as Qandeel could be killed this way, what chance does a girl have if she’s from a conservative village, mired in poverty with income and status dependent on maintaining the honour system?

I found the book shocking and I think it will probably stay with me for a while. I’m considering looking for charities to support that help women in these dreadful situations. Khan’s writing pulls no punches, but it’s also incredibly compassionate. I loved some of the more complex female characters such as the servant Salma who has kept Abida locked up, but then helps Jamil. Rana Hameed’s first wife Nigaar is fascinating, she’s broken down physically and mentally, but desperate for a new wife with the will to destroy him, even if she has to die in the process. The complicity of women is needed to keep the status quo, whether they turn a blind eye through fear or because they’ve been beaten into thinking this is the norm and it won’t ever change. I’m glad I read this, to raise my awareness and help me grasp the cultural and historical background in Pakistan. It might also inspire people to be aware of this crime globally, because it isn’t restricted to Pakistan. I hope many more people read Abida’s story and that Khan achieves his aim of showing people ‘love is never a crime’. If he achieves that the whole world will be a better place.

You can read Awais Khan’s interview with Eastern Eye at:

https://www.easterneye.biz/hope-in-the-face-of-honour-killings/

Meet The Author

Awais Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan. ‘In the Company of Strangers’ is his first novel published by Simon & Schuster and Isis Audio. His second novel ‘No Honour’ is published by Orenda Books and Isis Audio. He is a graduate of The University of Western Ontario and Durham University. He studied Creative Writing at Faber Academy. His work has appeared in The Aleph Review, The Missing Slate, MODE, Daily Times and The News International. He has appeared for Interviews on BBC World Service, Dubai Eye, Voice of America, Cambridge Radio, Samaa TV, City42, Maverix Media and PTV Home. He is represented by Annette Crossland (A for Authors Agency Ltd, London).

In his free time, he likes to read all types of fiction, especially historical fiction and psychological thrillers. He is hard at work on his forthcoming novels.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Great Silence by Doug Johnstone.

Why is it always so difficult to write blog posts for books that I absolutely love?? I have already created two new hashtags for this third novel in the Skelf family series. The first was #bookbereavement, because when I finished it I wanted to turn straight back to the first page and start again. The second was #Skelfaholic and I am a fully paid up member. It is agreed that if this series ends (please no!) then we Skelfaholics will be holding a wake by drinking whiskey in a funeral home, followed by star-gazing at the observatory. It’s hard to put across how much I love the Skelf women, their cases, and the way they manage to conduct their funeral business with such dignity, and their investigation business with more balls than most men. I read this book almost as soon as I received it, and I’ve been sitting on it excitedly ever since, desperately trying not to say anything until the blog tour. Now I can happily say Doug Johnstone has done it again. This is a fantastic read.

For those who are new to the series, the Skelf women are three generations living under the same roof: Dorothy the grandmother, Jenny the mother, and Hannah the granddaughter. They ‘live above the shop’; their businesses being a strange mix of funeral directors and private investigators. Oh and Dorothy is a music teacher too, so there are often teenagers wandering in and out and playing the drums. In fact there are often waifs and strays under the Skelf’s roof. Hannah’s girlfriend Indy was one of their waifs, brought into the fold when her parents died and the Skelfs organised their funeral. She now looks after the funeral business with the same calm and dignity she brings to Hannah’s life. Einstein the dog arrived when a police chase ended with a van crashing nose first into one of their graves, during the funeral. The dog was in the van and with his owner now dead, he became part of the Skelf household and a companion of Schroedinger, the cat. Jenny mainly works on the private investigation side, but has a lot of her time taken up by her ex and Hannah’s father, Craig. He escaped prison and is possibly closer than they think. Finally, there’s Hannah, starting her PhD with the astrophysics department and pondering the question of why other life in the universe has never tried to contact us – the ‘Great Silence’ of the title.

As usual the book begins with a strange event. Dorothy takes Einstein for a walk in the park and he fetches a human foot, even more strange is that it appears to be embalmed. This embroils Dorothy in a very unusual case that could be deadly. Jenny is dealing with the aftermath of her ex-husband’s actions in the last book, she’s still healing emotionally and potentially regretting the end of her relationship with painter, Liam. She misses him, and wonders if perhaps they could rekindle something. Then the other daughter of her ex-husband disappears. Jenny wonders if her life will ever be free of this man, as she joins forces with the other woman in Craig’s life to find her daughter. Finally, Hannah is facing massive changes in her academic and personal life. In a sense she’s being pulled between past and future. Her graduation becomes a double celebration when Indy proposes, but then she’s pulled into the past when their flat is broken into and someone makes it clear they still want to be part of her life. Her academic supervisor José asks her if she’ll look into one of the central questions of astrophysics, if there is extraterrestrial life, why haven’t they replied to our messages? He has had a reply, but doesn’t know where it’s come from. Is it really from another life form or is someone playing game with him?

There’s so much packed into this novel, but Doug Johnstone never loses a thread. Each storyline is given equal time and care. As I was reading the novel and writing this review, my partner saw my search history on my iPad and looked confused. I had tabs open for SETI (an institute set up to search for possible extraterrestrial life), the embalming process, numbers of big cats kept in domestic homes in the U.K, and Hindu funeral rites. Yes, the author does go to all these different places in the novel, not to mention the Italian gigolo and elderly lady, and they all interweave harmoniously. I love the unexpected situations they find themselves in, such as Indy and Hannah taking a walk in the park and encountering a black panther. I also love how these women throw off expectations and be themselves. Dorothy is an elderly lady, but she goes to clubs when one of her students is playing a gig, and has a healthy sex life with her long time friend and police contact, Thomas. She’s investigating the ‘foot’ incident, which becomes more urgent once another foot turns up, this timbelonging to someone different. She’s also investigating the panther incident and visits experts keeping wildcats at their homes. In between she’s supporting Abi, now living with the Skelfs, who gets a huge shock when a man claiming to be her birth father shows up.

Jenny has to face her ex- husband and there is a sense that this might be their final showdown. They had originally thought he’d be far away in another country, but with huge estates covering thousands of acres in Scotland, it’s not inconceivable that he’s been hiding close by all along. The strength of both Hannah and Jenny in facing him again, is amazing. They’re scared – so much so that Hannah and Indy move back in to the family home – but know that the only way to stop this man ruling their lives is to find him and have him locked away again. I felt for Jenny, who had just turned a corner emotionally and was considering her life moving forward, and whether she wanted to remain alone. She’s also investigating on behalf of a brother and sister who are concerned their elderly mother is being misled by an Italian playboy. As usual Jenny is professional with her investigation, but uneasy about her clients and their motives. Meanwhile, behind all these fireworks, the kind and loyal Indy is having a crisis about her grandparents. They are traditional, but to Hannah’s surprise they want to fly over from India for their wedding. They don’t mind their granddaughter marrying a woman it seems, but they do have a huge request relating to the death of Indy’s parents. Leading to some very hard choices for Indy, who I’m especially fond of.

Doug Johnstone is so many things at once: a gritty crime writer; a poet; a philosopher; a lover of the city where he bases this series; and an incredible writer of women. Johnstone writes real women, women who are intelligent, ballsy and true to themselves which is why I love them so much. One philosophical idea that stood out to me was ‘sonder’. It’s a word I’ve become aware of because it’s the title of my work in progress – where there are people in a difficult situation desperately trying to understand each other. Sonder is the sense I often get in a very busy train station when I look around at all the people and realise that every one of them has a complex and unique life just like mine. It’s the name of a cafe that Hannah visits near the university campus and as she sits there after her graduation, with Indy, Jenny and Dorothy she realises something. These three women come into people’s lives at a terrible moment, but have the ability to treat each person’s grief as if it was the most important thing to them. It reminded me of bringing a client into my counselling room, creating a safe space where, for an hour, the most important thing in the room is this person and whatever they bring to talk about. I think this is possibly why I feel such a strong kinship with these women. Jenny will take a drink with a homeless person and pass the time of day and Dorothy will connect with a young person fifty years her junior and make them feel welcome. I hope a little of the Skelfs rubs off on all of us. If you’ve never read the series, then do yourself a favour and buy all three. You won’t regret it. There was something about this book that felt like a finale, but I’m hoping against hope there’s more to come from these characters who I love. I’ll miss them, till next time.

Published by Orenda Books, 19th June 2021

Meet The Author.

Doug Johnstone is the author of eleven novels, most recently The Big Chill, the second in the Skelfs series, which has just been optioned for TV. In 2020, A Dark Matter, the first in the series, was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year and the Capital Crime Amazon Publishing Independent Voice Book of the Year award. In 2019, his thriller Breakers was also shortlisted for the prize. Several of his books have been bestsellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh. –This text refers to the paperback edition.

Posted in Publisher Proof, Random Things Tours

Girls Who Lie (Forbidden Iceland Vol 2) by Eva Björg Aegisdottir

I was meant to be reading this for the recent Random Things Tour, but have been taking a break for family stuff and my health. However, I did read Vol 1 of this series last year so found it very difficult to see the next novel on my TBR and not dive in. So here are my thoughts, a little late, but surely it’s always good to hear someone praise your work? No matter how late they are.

The author opens the novel on a freezing cold day and a bleak volcanic crime scene, immersing us straight into both the story and the landscape. Two boys, wandering on the local lava fields have found a body in a small cave. They frightened themselves at first into thinking they’d found a black imp, the body was so dark. However, our heroine and police investigator Elma, believes it may be the body of Marianna, a single mum who disappeared from town seven months previously. Thought to have committed suicide, Marianna left a short and cryptic note on the kitchen table for her daughter Hekla, then was never seen again. Now, it’s clear that this is a murder, and as Elma reviews the files from the previous year, when this started as a missing person investigation, she finds the work less than satisfactory. She can see so many unanswered questions to follow up. Hekla is now in foster care, with a couple who have fostered her many times, before when Marianna was struggling or disappeared. Now Elma’s team will have to wade into the previous investigation, social services files and the difficult life of a children whose parent simply struggled to cope.

I loved the complex psychology behind this story of teenage pregnancy, family expectations and how to be a parent. Added to that is othe challenge of preventing emotional pain passing to another generation. Our investigation is interspersed with a narrative of a young teenage girl who tells us about her life as the mother of an unwanted child. Her identity is not revealed and we don’t know this girl’s connection to the main plot, but her narrative is sad and traumatic to read both for her and her baby daughter. Meanwhile Elma is beginning to understand the difficult and disconnected relationships that surrounded Marianna and her daughter. Hekla was first placed with foster parents at the age of three when Marianna left her home alone while she went on a drug binge. Hekla’s foster parents were a wealthy, stable couple who made no attempt to hide how much they would have loved to take Hekla on permanently, but Child Protection Services had a policy of trying to keep children with their birth families as much as possible. Elma can see the theory behind this, but starts to wonder whether it’s a policy that actually fails children in practice. So, Hekla leads a life of moving back and forth between Marianna, who was harsh and belittled her daughter, and a foster mother who wanted to be more than her support family. If Hekla had been given the choice, she would have chosen to stay with her support family, but instead was pulled between them, both literally and emotionally. She describes how she feels:

It’s strange to be six years old and feel as if you’re a black stain on a white sheet. As if the world is in headlong flight and all you can do is grab hold and try not to fall off.’

Trying to act as gently as possible, Elma must speak to both Hekla and her support family about inconsistencies in their stories. She doesn’t want to cause more distress, but Hekla is a girl of secrets and perhaps lies too. There are parts of this story that might be upsetting for someone who has been through the care system or had a dysfunctional parent. Marianna is barely able to cope with her own life, never mind being a parent. I love that we are party to Elma’s thought processes around the case, and on her private life. As she reflects at the end of each day, the author hints strongly at unresolved trauma in Elma’s own past. There’s also the dilemma in her private life, where the loss of her partner to suicide has affected her more than she lets on. She’s not ready to have real, deep feelings for someone, preferring no strings encounters. Yet she does have feelings for someone, and if she doesn’t act on them, will it be too late? The proximity of her family, and the support she receives from them, is both helpful and irritating by turns. This is her home town, so she knows all the allegiances and quirks of the community, something which can have its own problems when investigating such an emotive crime.

The first half is slower and more thoughtful, giving the reader time to soak up the atmosphere and Hekla’s experiences. In the second part, the pace quickens and the past also catches up as our mystery narrator is revealed – a reveal that had me reassessing everything I’d thought before. In a world where every thriller boasts twists and turns galore, this one packed a punch, was truly clever and had played with my misconceptions of who it might be. Another thing that really hit home for me, as the stepmum to two teenage daughters, was just how damaging the constant wrangling between co-parents becomes. I thought the character of Hekla was pitched perfectly, with a deep understanding of being a teenage girl. She showed that need to belong, to be accepted, whilst also feeling complete isolation – that nobody in the world understood her or had felt what was going in on her head. This is an age where being singled out as different is painful, it takes time to work out that your originality is your super power. This was a tense and compelling read, with undercurrents of deep melancholy that seemed to come from Elma and the forbidding landscape. This was a psychologically astute murder mystery, with deep empathy and a strong sense of place. I would recommend it highly.

Meet The Author

Born in Akranes in 1988, Eva moved to Trondheim, Norway to study MSc in Globalisation when she was 25. After moving back home having completed her MSc, she knew it was time to start working on her novel. Eva has wanted to write books since she was 15 years old, having won a short story contest in Iceland. Eva worked as a stewardess to make ends meet while she wrote her first novel, The Creak on the Stairs. The book went on to win the Blackbird Award, was shortlisted (twice) for the Capital Crime Readers’ Awards, and became a number one bestseller in Iceland. Eva lives with her husband and three children in Reykjavík, and she’s currently working on the third book in the Forbidden Iceland series.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Beresford by Will Carver.

This was my first introduction to the work of Will Carver. My fellow bloggers and Squad Pod members kept telling me about how great his writing is, but I’d not taken the plunge till now. I started the book last night and finished at lunchtime today, because I was hooked from the end of the first chapter.

Abe Schwartz lives in a one-bed furnished flat. An apartment building called The Beresford. The bell rings and he’s the one opening the front door to a stranger. Before that, he’s dragging a dead body into his room, mopping up blood and asking himself, What the hell just happened?

Maybe I’m a bit weird, but a cracking beginning like that really is so darkly delicious I can’t help but read on. I was then blown away by the originality and inventiveness of the writer and the explosion of historic and popular culture references the book created in my mind.

The Beresford is an old forbidding looking building in the city. In my imagination this first conjured up the Gothic towers of the Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and was killed back in 1981. Inside The Beresford are a number of apartments, bigger and better appointed than you would expect for the money. They even have large roll top baths. The perfect size to dismember and dissolve a body. The building is presided over by a lovely old lady called Mrs May, who starts every day the same way. By brewing a coffee while the taps run, then enjoying a bath with bubbles, followed by eggs with her cold coffee. She has a routine, and is found at the same time every day pruning the roses in the front garden. As any fan of the film The Ladykiller’s knows, you should never underestimate sweet looking, little old ladies. Of course she has time to pray each day, but to whom and for what? In fact when I first encountered Mrs May praying, I hoped there would never be a film version of the book. She knows everything that happens at the Beresford because the same thing happens over again – some people leave and some people just disappear. Occasionally they stay. For a price.

The atmosphere is strangely claustrophobic and reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby. I loved the tone of our narrator, who is quite matter of fact, and cleverly combines both horror and humour. I also loved the sense of history the author creates about this quirky building. These stories and urban myths reminded me of a documentary I’d watched about the Chelsea Hotel, again in New York, showing how each generation of residents impacted on it’s history: from the original collective of 1920’s writers; 1960’s musicians and artists like Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen; from the death of Dylan Thomas in the 1950’s to Sid Vicious killing Nancy nearly thirty years later. It’s legends are almost bigger than the hotel itself and it’s often claimed as the most haunted hotel in NYC. It’s somehow bigger than just a building, it’s almost an instant portal to the past. The Beresford is described in a similar way is as if it could only belong on old news reels or sepia photographs. Yet there it is, still standing on the sidewalk in the 21st Century. The myths about The Beresford give the place a sense of longevity – it was there before you and sure as hell will be there after you. Sid Vicious told the Associated Press that the Chelsea Hotel “…is a vortex – an artistic tornado of death and destruction and love and broken dreams”. I think second floor Beresford resident Sythe, artistic impressionist and sometime pyromaniac, would probably say the same thing.

Interspersed with the comings, and often darkly humorous, goings of the residents are sections entitled ‘What do you Want?’ We don’t know who the speaker is, although I will admit I imagined a few of these monologues in the voice of Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus from The Matrix. It’s as if we are having our world explained to us, but in a way that lifts the scales from our eyes. This is what’s really going on. These sections address beauty pageants, social media usage and even the way we buy our books. We like to think we ‘discover’ something in a bookshop, but we’re directed to it by placement, marketing, and demographic. Or perhaps by book bloggers? They know so much more about us than we think they do. Ever talked briefly about a subject at home then found an advert for the very same thing on your iPad? It’s listening. In a piece that I loved because it’s unsettling and so close to the truth, our narrator tells us:

You are being told what to watch, who to vote for, which team to support and which God to believe in. You want the truth? All of these things serve to obscure the greatest lie of all. The fruit and vegetables are placed at the front of the supermarket because the colours draw you in. Everything behind is bad for you. But you just see the colours. You buy into them. You believe them. It’s easy to do as you are told.

You are not where you think you are.

Finally, when lovely, peppy, young Christian Blair joins the residents she strikes up a friendship with Abe. Mrs May thought they might get along, just like Mrs May knows a lot of other things. There’s nothing she doesn’t know about the residents of her building. He takes her to the building’s side entrance where they get into the Art Deco lift to access other apartments and convention suites. The side where they live is just two floors with it’s own front entrance, but this is bigger, especially at the top, where apparently a couple fell to their death on the sidewalk. Abe calls this side the ‘bad side’. There’s a man who sees them and calls out. The couple break into a run for the old elevator and hope he doesn’t get there before the slow mechanism starts to move. They then burst out into the street laughing. Maybe one day the author will venture further into the other side of The Beresford? If so, I’ll be waiting – but I’ll probably stick to reading in the daylight hours.

Meet The Author


Will Carver is the bestselling author of the January Series – Girl 4 (2011), The Two (2012), The Killer Inside (2013), Dead Set (2013) – and the critically acclaimed Detective Pace series, which includes Good Samaritans (2018), Nothing Important Happened Today (2019) and Hinton Hollow Death Trip (2020), all of which were selected as books of the year in mainstream international press. The books in this series have also been longlisted/shortlisted for the Amazon Readers Independent Voice Award, Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award, Not The Booker Prize and the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award. Will spent his early years living in Germany, but returned at age eleven. He studied theatre and television at King Alfred’s Winchester, where he set up a successful theatre company. He currently runs his own fitness and nutrition business and lives in Reading with his children.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Everything Happens For a Reason by Katie Allen.

Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.

When a misguided well-wisher tells her that “everything happens for a reason”, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.

Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…

Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.

When I first talked to Karen Sullivan at Orenda about this incredible book – part of the Jubilant June publishing event – she told me I would cry but I would love it. She was right. I did cry. I cried buckets. I did love it too. This novel reminded me so much about my own loss. I cried for Rachel, I cried for the author, and I cried for anyone who has suffered this terrible loss. Mostly, and selfishly, I cried for myself. I do know the profound sense of loss Rachel goes through, because I lost three pregnancies, one with twins, when I was in my twenties. Of course these were miscarriages, not full term pregnancies, and as someone once tactfully told me ‘better to lose them earlier, than to actually have to give birth, or to have your baby die after a few days’ as if we were playing some sort of ‘Grief Top Trumps’. I was told many things in the months after each miscarriage: there was probably something wrong with the baby; we don’t always understand God’s plans; maybe it wasn’t meant to be. People don’t say these things because they’re malicious. They say these things because they don’t know what to say and silence seems unacceptable. The most useful thing anyone said was from the nurse who discharged me the first time. I was so traumatised by the past 24 hours I was staring ahead, not really seeing and not really listening. She touched my hand and said ‘it isn’t your fault, remember that’.

However, as it happened again and again, I did feel guilty and wracked my brain looking for things I might have done wrong. Rationally I knew it was not my fault, but I wasn’t always rational. Was this to do with my MS? Did I take a tablet I shouldn’t? Should I have helped in the charity shop sorting and labelling clothes, moving boxes? I wasn’t trying for a baby so was it the lack of vitamins? No folic acid? My body felt like such an inhospitable place. It was already attacking itself, now it was attacking my babies. Is it because I shouldn’t be a mum? Did I have a right to bring a baby into my already imperfect world, with my imperfect body? My brain switched off. My heart broke. I was told I had incomplete miscarriages, the baby dies but doesn’t ‘come away’. I then had to read and sign a clinical form that referred to my baby as the ‘products of conception’ and was headed ‘Consent for Termination’. My guilt clicked in again. What if they were wrong and I was killing my baby? To really complete the trauma I contracted an infection after my third miscarriage, and the doctor who had to examine and admit me to hospital actually slapped me on my bare leg because I wasn’t moving fast enough. I felt like my body wasn’t mine anymore. It broke my relationship. It took me on a long, painful journey of finding out that becoming a Mum was going to be more difficult for me because I had Hughes Syndrome, a clotting abnormality. It would be so difficult that I had to choose my own mental health over becoming a mother. I couldn’t make sense of what I’d done wrong to deserve this, on top of my other disabilities.

This is all our central character, Rachel, is trying to do. She wants to make sense of why her baby, Luke, died. She latches onto a platitude and weaves a story around it. If everything does happen for a reason, what could that reason be? Then she thinks of that fateful day when she stopped a stranger from jumping in front of a train, the same day she found out she was pregnant. What if he’d been meant to die? Then, because he was saved, someone else had to die in his place. It’s not clear if she truly believes this, or whether she has to think a greater purpose is at play, because if Luke’s death is without a reason she will fall into the abyss. So, we follow her search for the man she saved. Maybe if she sees him making the most of his second chance at life, she can accept her loss. There is, of course, sadness and grief on the journey, but there’s also humour and the hope that Rachel will work through the worst of her loss and find some peace and acceptance in this awful situation.

The writer is incredibly courageous to take her experiences and lend them to Rachel for the purposes of the novel. As we follow her ‘non-maternity leave’ she tells her story with such a frank, raw, and brutal honesty. This could be a difficult read for someone only just going through the same experience, but for me, I felt like someone had finally seen the pain I was carrying. I would no longer have to stand in the Post Office queue, watching people going about their business, with a terrible inner urge to scream ‘my baby died’. Rachel’s story is told through a series of emails addressed to the son she’s lost. In this private correspondence she can express her worst fears and nothing is left unsaid. There is also a sense for her, that she can send them somewhere; that somehow, Luke can see them. The authenticity of this stream of consciousness can only be achieved by letting us delve deeply into Rachel’s feelings and state of mind. It seems so authentic, because it is. Katie has delved into her very soul for this novel and welcomed us in. I can’t thank her enough. I admire her enormously. It inspires me to keep going, to keep writing my own story.

The fact that this is Rachel’s world means that everyone we meet, we can only see through her eyes. I really enjoyed some of these characters and they do bring balance to a tough story by creating some of the lighter, more humorous moments. Josephine, the daughter of a woman who helps Rachel in her search, has an offbeat humour that I really enjoyed. She really doesn’t have the ability to filter her thoughts before they come out of her mouth, and while that’s always funny, it can also be very insightful in a quirky way. The author has a unique ability to affect the reader’s emotions in one way and then switch them round again very quickly. Rachel’s family mean well when they help and hope she can ‘move on’ from her grief. Some don’t fully understand her quest and want the very best for her. I found myself understanding their confusion and agreeing with their wish that she heals emotionally. The next second I’d be furious, because something has been said that’s so glaringly insensitive. I’d want to turn the air blue with a few ‘F’ words.

I know I have rambled about my own experiences here and maybe I haven’t said enough about why you should read the book. However, I can honestly say this is the book about the loss of a baby, and the chance to be a mother, that is the most authentic I have ever read. I felt represented by this story and by this talented debut author. It’s unique structure, it’s rawness and ability to plumb the depths of despair, while still making you laugh and dare to hope, is simply extraordinary. It is beautifully written and captures our human need to make sense of something that is senseless. No one should be told how to grieve. Each person, and each individual loss is different. We humans find it difficult to accept that some life-experiences have no explanations or answers. When we can’t find meaning, we create it. So, we tell each other stories.

I’d like to say a big thank you to Karen at Orenda for putting this book in front of me months ago, then waiting patiently for my response. I’d also like to thank Anne Cater for letting me ramble like this on the blog tour.

Meet The Author

Everything Happens for a Reason is Katie’s first novel. She used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London. The events in Everything Happens for a Reason are fiction, but the premise is loosely autobiographical. Katie’s son, Finn, was stillborn in 2010, and her character’s experience of grief and being on maternity leave without a baby is based on her own. And yes, someone did say to her ‘Everything happens for a reason’.
Katie grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. When she’s not writing or walking children and dogs, Katie loves baking, playing the piano, reading news and wishing she had written other people’s brilliant novels.

Posted in Random Things Tours

One Last Time by Helga Flatland.

Translated by Rosie Hedger.

I was utterly bowled over by this beautiful examination of life, death and how ordinary lives can be the most extraordinary of all. Our narrator, Anne, unexpectedly finds herself contemplating the end of her life, and so much sooner than expected, when she faces a diagnosis of colon cancer. Her husband Gustav has been hovering between two states for a number of years after several strokes slowly incapacitated him. His permanent disabilities started with paralysis of one of his arms and ending with all limbs affected and personality changes that are the hardest to cope with. With a heavy heart Anne has allowed their GP and hospital team to make the decision that Gustav should be placed in a nursing home. There’s a sense in which Anne had felt immune from further tragedy, as if Gustav had paid the price for them all. Meanwhile, we also meet Anne’s two grown-up children, Magnus and Sigrid. Sigrid is our second narrator and through her story we can see Anne in a different light, as a mother. However, we also see Sigrid as a mother and it’s on these relationships the book focuses; those complex emotions and connections between mothers and daughters.

Anne’s life has been a difficult and hard-working one. There’s been the farm she kept with Gustav in an isolated region of Norway, her job as teacher, the role of carer for Gustav, and her role as mother. From the outside looking in she’s an amazingly strong woman for whom fate has dealt a very rough hand. From the inside she sees herself as almost subsumed by the needs of other people, particularly Gustav, but has done the best job she could in very difficult circumstances. However, from Sigrid’s perspective, she allowed herself to be subsumed by Gustav’s needs at the expense of her children. Sigrid feels that her father listened to her, they would play records together from his vinyl collection and he took time to understand her. She feels her mother is distant at best and at worst, neglectful and selfish. We also see Sigrid’s own mothering skills, dealing with her teenage daughter Mia and the sudden return of Mia’s biological father Jens. The author takes us back to Sigrid’s rebellious teenage years, her pregnancy at 19 and Jens’s abandonment of her just before the Mia’s birth.

The author cleverly shows us how mother and daughter can see the same incident very differently. In a conversation about teaching in Norwegian in schools, Sigrid suddenly bursts out with:

I was so cold, freezing all through primary school, do you know what it was like, sitting through a whole day in class with wet socks, ice cold, not daring to take them off for fear someone might see?’

Anne is a bit stunned, but relates back to everything that was on her plate at the time. She was looking after Gustav, constantly making sacrifices:

‘You’re hardly the true victim in all this, I told her in as measured a tone as I could muster. She said nothing, waited a few seconds before getting up and leaving. I woke that night and remembered at least one occasion when Sigrid had been at high school and I had urged her to wear her boots, she had flown into a rage with me, stormed out the door and into the icy rain in her trainers and denim jacket’.

This is how mother and daughter speak to each other, in cross words with even more crossed wires, and bogged down with specifics. The overarching truth neither wishes to acknowledge is that Sigrid’s memories of her father are in a nostalgic past before she was seven years old. He will never grow old. He took up so much of her mother’s time that both Magnus and Sigrid fended for themselves on occasion. I felt so sad for Sigrid that her family forgot her birthday once or twice. However I also felt sad for Anne, who was dealt a rough hand in life and now has another in death. The time she’s had for herself is minimal, and the retirement she expected with her loving husband has been stripped away. There’s a deep sense of loss in Anne, from the family life she expected, her marriage, loss of a lover and of a warm, loving relationship with her daughter. She thinks back to those times she had supported Sigrid which don’t get mentioned. After Jens left, Anne collected a 19 year old Sigrid and took her back home for some much needed TLC and to have help after the birth. Sigrid isn’t angry with her Dad, she can’t be because he’s sick, so her anger is saved for Anne who for several years chose Gustav’s needs above those of her children.

Then, in turn, Sigrid is at crossed purposes with her own daughter. Jens has returned after sixteen years and is now the object of Mia’s affections. Sigrid feels for her partner Aslak, who has been there for both of them, since Mia was a small baby. She thinks she’s been a great Mum to Mia, never shirking responsibility or neglecting them. However, there are times Mia has felt stifled and there’s a way in which Sigrid’s need to control everything feels like anxiety to others. The author manages to convey how these parenting choices feel to the daughter. There are times when intention and result just miss each other by a hair’s breadth and I found this incredibly moving. It made me think about how I view my own mother and where I’ve been harsh in my assessment of her, but others might view things with more empathy. I found it interesting in light of her accusations about Anne’s parenting, that Sigrid feels it is Mia at fault in their misunderstandings. Mia’s reply is a real piece of wisdom and could have come from a therapist:

‘Isn’t it interesting how everyone else is always letting you down Mum?’

Helga Flatland writes so beautifully, that I was in the events of the book immediately and then carried into the very heart of this one ordinary family. She is a master at creating tension between people, finding those spaces between a conversation’s intent and how it’s received by the other person. I was desperately hoping for some sort of understanding between mother and daughter, before it was too late. I felt Sigrid needed that reconciliation even more than Anne. I loved the atmospheric feel of the country with its crispness underfoot, constant dusting of snow and all the hearty foods Anne mentions from elk to mutton, slow cooked and filling the house with delicious meaty casserole smells. I also loved the way she conveyed the closeness of a couple who live together, the way you know how their skin smells or what they’re going to say before they say it. I was so moved by Anne’s predicament of a much loved partner leaving you by slow degrees and how she would simply lie on the mattress next to Gustav hoping to regain some of that comfort she would get from his body. Most of all, her depiction of illness and deterioration is the best I’ve ever read and I’ve read a lot. Small losses, like medication changing the way the way someone smells, are actually huge because it takes them from the familiar to a complete stranger. She explores how illness suddenly demotes you from being in control of the smallest things in your life, like what you will eat for dinner or whether people will stay in your house. Who decides whether you need to be looked after and how? The way your body doesn’t belong to you anymore, or even feel and look like yours. People who once saw us as sexual beings, might cease to see us that way. Our bodies become a no-man’s land that people will fight and negotiate over, but rarely ask what we think, feel or need. This made the book incredibly moving, honest and real. This small family story is exquisite and truly special. You simply must read it.

Meet The Author

Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize. She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards.


Her fifth novel, A Modern Family (her first English translation), was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller. The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies. One Last Time was published in Norway in 2020, where it topped the bestseller lists, and was shortlisted for the Norwegian Booksellers Award.