Posted in Random Things Tours

The Marmalade Diaries by Ben Aitken

I was so charmed by this wonderful book about writer Ben and his unusual experiences during the COVID lockdowns. Something I could truly understand as the lockdowns bonded me with my partner and his two girls at a speed and depth that couldn’t have happened at any other time. Ben is looking for a new place to live, when through a charity scheme he sees an apartment in a great part of town. There’s one catch. He will have a housemate. The charity places younger people in homes belonging to the elderly. The aim is to help the homeowner stay independent and in their own homes far longer than normally possible and in houses with way more room than they need. Winnie is 85 years old and a formidable woman with very set opinions about how things are done. Winnie doesn’t suffer fools and isn’t very gentle with her criticism. There’s a gulf between the pair in so many areas: their politics, their class and their ages. How can two people with so many differences live together harmoniously?

This is a book that can be read so quickly. It’s in a diary form so there’s always that temptation to read just one more entry. Ben’s previous work has been travel writing and he brings all of those skills to this book. Physically he’s in the same place, but he’s taking a voyage into this person, seeing her like no one else has and experiencing her in very different types of weather. Winnie is grieving her husband of 65 years. Henry died suddenly, in their marital bed upstairs, less than a year ago so she’s in a very emotionally vulnerable state. Of course Winnie doesn’t seem terribly vulnerable, unless you count ‘busyness’ as a response to grief. I think Winnie has always been a busy person, possibly through anxiety or perhaps a work ethic instilled by her upbringing, but this has been exacerbated by living alone. Her son Stewart and his family tried to move in for a few months over summer, but that didn’t work out and fairly quickly Ben can see why. Imagining that he would largely live upstairs and help when called upon, he’s surprised that as soon as they’re alone Winnie asks him what he’s cooking for tea? The apartment has a small kitchen, but it seems Winnie expects him to cook and eat with her downstairs. Not that these meals are appreciated, with Winnie dishing out critique that would seem harsh on Masterchef.

As soon as the dishes are cleared she lays the table for breakfast and lays it for two – something she says she still does without thinking. Ben gets into the habit of lighting the fire and then having breakfast, although there are rules to be observed here. Winnie makes her own marmalade, but only once a year when the Seville oranges are available, so she puts only the thinnest scraping of marmalade on the toast to make it last. Heaven forbid they run out and have to buy some. That wouldn’t be on at all. Eggs have a language all their own, with certain specimens warranting their own message written on the shell in pen and left in the fridge. One rather philosophically asks whether it is cooked or not? Another has been giving her nightmares because he’s ‘been harbouring it for yonks.’ It was her wry little comments on the newspaper that made me giggle. When she sees a picture of comedian Matt Lucas in the paper, she observes ‘well he won’t survive the pandemic’. She’s also remarkably cunning, willing to pull out the poor little old lady card when its to her advantage and let people think she didn’t hear or understand them. When she asks Ben to let the coal man through the side gate one day, there’s a misunderstanding about the delivery. Ben indicates they need it tipping into the bunker (an extra £10) but Winnie has only paid for it to be dropped at the edge of the property. Ben wonders if she’s forgotten or misunderstood, but the coal man says no, she does this every time. Once the coal is safely in the bunker and an extra invoice issued Winnie miraculously appears and denies all knowledge of the problem.

There’s some beautiful observation around the family, because Ben is in the perfect position to analyse their relationships as an outsider on the inside. Out of her three children, it is Arthur who seems to have her heart and most of her time. Arthur lives in a group home within walking distance for Winnie and even in a pandemic she’s not going to stop taking him the paper, the fruit from the garden or a daily yoghurt. Once a week she spends a good hour cleaning out his electric shaver, which always looks like he’s pruned the garden with it. Arthur had cerebral palsy and had a traumatic birth where Winnie’s pelvis was cut to get him out before he was deprived of any more oxygen. Maybe it’s his vulnerability due to his disability, or that shared traumatic experience right at the start of his life, but Winnie doesn’t seem complete until Arthur is there to look after. The other two children seem to have accepted this arrangement, but there is some underlying resentment, especially when it comes to Winnie forgetting theirs and their children’s birthdays. For Stewart and his family, their far more relaxed way of being clashed with Winnie’s distrust of anyone in bed past 9am, people who have their marmalade more than wafer thin and people who lounge for more than ten minutes without a schedule for their next task.

I guess Winnie is selfish in a lot of ways, she’s not self-aware and really finds it hard to prioritise other people’s way of doing things. Some of her habits would have driven me to distraction, particularly her ability to pick up new tasks just as it’s time to leave the house. Even after making a plan she could leave her housemate waiting for hours because the roses needed deadheading. My other half has a similar ability to be doing one thing, cooking tea for example, then pick up a second job that didn’t need prioritising, such as reprogramming the TV channels or syncing the car with his new phone, often leaving tea to burn to a cinder. So I felt Ben’s pain, but also understood the deep connection he started to form with this formidable woman. I feared what would happen when the arrangement came to an end and I found the ending so poignant. Ben’s feeling that he knows this person better than anyone, that her idiosyncrasies are just that and not a sign of something more sinister is beautiful considering where they started. A deep friendship and respect has formed, despite their difference in age and outlook. The pandemic and it’s lockdowns have bonded them in a way that couldn’t have happened at any other time. We fall in love with the Winnie he sees, without rose-tinted spectacles or sentimentality, and I think that’s the greatest compliment he could have given her.

Published by Icon Books 10th March 2022

Meet The Author

Ben Aitken was born under Thatcher, grew to 6ft then stopped, and is an Aquarius. He followed Bill Bryson around the UK for Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island (2015) then moved to Poland to understand why everyone was leaving. A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland (2019) is the fruit of that unusual migration. For The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders (2020), the author went on six package coach holidays – Scarborough, Llandudno, Lake Como et al – with people twice or thrice his age in order to see what they had to say for themselves and to narrow the generation gap a notch. The Marmalade Diaries (2022) is the story of an unlikely friendship during an unlikely time, and stems from the author’s decision to move in with an 85 year old widow ten days before a national lockdown.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave

‘In movies the monsters are always zombies, vampires, or some weird kind of mutant, but in this moment his eleven year old brain tells him he was wrong all this time. What he’s looking at now are monsters. Real monsters.’

I loved the central premise of this novel from Paul Cleave, the idea that there are pain tourists – people who gain satisfaction from soaking up the pain and misery of others. I’ve always used the term ‘emotional vampires’ to describe something similar and it has levels, from those who revel in reading lurid tabloid coverage of a celebrity break-up to something much more disturbing. We all know those people who have a tendency to insert themselves into other people’s life dramas and grief or who get a kick out of watching true crime or the accounts of serial killers, such as the page after page of obscene detail that filled the pages of tabloids following the discoveries at Cromwell Street, the home of Fred and Rose West. It seems lately as if everyone is watching serial killer documentaries and actors from Dominic West to David Tennant are queueing up to play them. I think here, by imagining the more disturbing lengths someone might go to in order to feel part of that crime or tragedy, the author really made me think about this trend.

The novel opens as a tense and violent crime is being committed. An eleven year old named James is watching his parents being threatened at gunpoint by three masked men who have broken into the family home in the night. As the intruders try to obtain the whereabouts of a safe from his parents, using whatever means to make them talk, James is trying to set up an escape plan for his sister Hazel. As both James and his mother’s lives were threatened, my heart was racing wondering why his parents don’t tell the gunmen! James’s quick thinking saves his sister, in a heart-stopping escape she gets to a neighbouring house, but it earns him a bullet to the head after watching both his parents killed. The terrible tragedy is compounded by the fact James’s family did not have a safe. However, one had been recently fitted a few doors away where a diamond dealer had just moved in with his family.

Cleverly, Cleave then splits the narrative in two directions, in an almost ‘sliding doors’ type story. James’s life continues into the future with his family intact or James comes out of a nine year coma, convinced he’s been living a life way beyond the four walls of his hospital room. For the cops who worked the case, a lot has happened in the last nine years since they failed to solve the murder of Hazel and James’s parents. Theo Tate left the force and is now a private investigator after a terrible tragedy touched his own family. Rebecca Kent is still a police officer, but is marked by tragedy in a more physical way, every reaction from strangers reminds her she now has a scar running down her face. The pair come together to revisit the case, when Kent is informed that James has woken up. Now, despite her relentless hunt for a serial killer nicknamed Copy Joe, Kent is tasked with reopening the cold case. Feeling hopeful that James may remember some new detail to add to existing evidence she also wonders if he could become a target for the killers, who are still at large? James can’t speak, but can communicate with pen and paper. The investigators are shocked by the detail packed into James’s story as he starts to write more. His ‘ComaWorld’ diary seems to flow out of him with very little thought or res. Nine notebooks, one per year, document a life unlived by anyone but James. Familiar names and events start to become apparent to his sister, such as his accuracy on each day’s weather or the book she was reading to him slipping into the narrative. What nobody expected him to reveal is that Kent has more than one serial killer on her hands.

This was such an original and complex thriller. As you might expect, considering I’m a writing therapist, the ‘Coma World’ stories were fascinating to me. The aspects of real life that Hazel notices are brilliant plot devices, but also play with the idea that the unconscious mind is still very much alive and picking up on what’s going on around it. From a therapy angle, James’s narrative could be seen as the mind’s way of healing itself while his body is asleep. One therapy technique I’ve seen involves the client writing a different narrative ending to something that’s happened. It helps the client discuss how a different ending might feel – would they feel more closure about the event for example? By exploring this, we can then discover and discuss why the real ending caused so many problems. The way James writes, in longhand and over a period of days fascinated me too. Is he scared if he doesn’t write it down it will be lost to the truth? The complex level of detail is incredible, as if he’s still seeing it running like a movie in his mind’s eye. I wondered how he kept it so rigidly to one year per book, suggesting there was a lot of detail he chose not to record. What we choose to edit out of a narrative is sometimes as important as what we leave in. When it becomes clear he’s been aware of other patients in the room, we can see how his mind is weaving their names and other facts into his narrative – he’s heard all their conversations too.

Tate and Kent were great characters to guide us through these complex interwoven cases. Kent is driven, but slightly less idealistic than Tate. She’s made peace with the fact that some cases don’t get solved in a way he hasn’t. It’s clear why she’s stayed inside the police force and he’s preferred to forge his own path. He’s an incredible investigator but perhaps not so good at office politics and coping with an imperfect system. Kent is desperately trying to solve the case of Copy Joe, a serial killer who copies the methods of previous serial killers, like the Christchurch Carver. Whoever he copies, he likes to leave the crime scene exactly the same way, almost like an homage to the murderers, showing his admiration. Are they looking for a fan of the ‘True Crime’ genre? Someone who perhaps started with the odd book, the podcasts, and the documentaries until he’s had to experience the same thrill. It’s an uncomfortable concept and made me question our enjoyment of such narratives, especially when true crime documentaries are constantly in the daily top ten on Netflix or other streaming service. When it comes to curiosity, how far is too far? When does an interest become an urge, an action. Tate’s private life was so devastatingly sad and I was moved by his visit with his wife. He loves her still and they sit and talk like any other married couple, the difference being, that as soon as Tate walks out of the room she will forget everything all over again. He chooses to bear a terrible loss alone. This showed another, devastating, side of brain injury -a patient who is physically capable, but with a brain that erases every interaction leaving a blank slate. She is happy in the moment, but that present moment is all she has.

From the explosive opening, which really gets the adrenaline flowing the tension ebbs and flows depending on the narrative or case we’re following that chapter. Towards the end, as all these cases come together in one terrible night, the heart really started pounding again. I did get a bit confused between locations and who was where towards the end. So I had to keep going back, desperately trying not to miss a moment as the twists and turns came thick and fast. I found it was Tate and Kent I was rooting for, not just that they would solve their cases, but that they would survive! I found the way James was constantly moved around in these final chapters a bit concerning. My experience in occupational health and care needs had me asking all sorts of questions. If James couldn’t walk how was he managing in these different spaces, using various different surfaces to sleep on from beds to couches? I kept wondering how he was getting to the loo – I’m laughing at myself as I write this, because honestly the way my brain works! This says so much about my inner life. I just kept thinking ‘how has he been discharged from hospital without an occupational therapy assessment and a multi-disciplinary meeting?’ Of course these facts are like the days James edits out of his narrative, not very interesting or helpful to the plot. The details of a character’s loo habits tend to dissipate the tension and excitement. This was an incredibly fast read, giving you some idea of the pace and that addictive pull you want in a thriller. Each character is cleverly written to draw you in, but you’re always left on edge and unsure. The multiple endings are brilliant, I just thought it was solved and I could breathe, then the author pulled the rug out from under me. Yet I loved that we get to have multiple endings, as James’s doctor suggests they write a book together, framing the narrative in yet another way.

Meet The Author


Paul is an award-winning author who often divides his time between his home city of Christchurch, New Zealand, where his novels are set, and Europe, where none of his novels are set. His books have been translated into over twenty languages. He’s won the won the Ngaio Marsh Award three times, the Saint-Maur Crime Novel of the Year Award, and Foreword Reviews Thriller of the Year, and has bee shortlisted for the Ned Kelly, Edgar and Barry Awards. He’s thrown his Frisbee in over forty countries, plays tennis badly, golf even worse, and has two cats – which is often two too many. The Pain Tourist is his (lucky) thirteenth novel

Posted in Random Things Tours

Suicide Thursday by Will Carver

I’m usually well ahead of time when it comes to my blog tour reviews, sometimes by a month, but this one ……. AAaaarrrghhh! I can’t put into words why I can’t put into words what I thought about this novel. If you’ve read the book you’ll understand. I don’t think there’s a literary convention Will Carver hasn’t wanted to subvert. It’s been difficult to write reviews for Will Carver’s books in the past, but I’ve never been down to the wire like this before. I’ve been trying to scribble down my thoughts only hours before the review is due. So, I’m sorry if this doesn’t always make sense, or if it doesn’t do justice to Carver’s inventiveness and originality, but it’s the best I can do. This writer is simply too clever for me!

Eli Hagin can’t finish anything.

He hates his job, but can’t seem to quit. He doesn’t want to be with his girlfriend, but doesn’t know how end things with her, either. Eli wants to write a novel, but he’s never taken a story beyond the first chapter.

Eli also has trouble separating reality from fiction.

When his best friend kills himself, Eli is motivated, for the first time in his life, to finally end something himself, just as Mike did…

Except sessions with his therapist suggest that Eli’s most recent ‘first chapters’ are not as fictitious as he had intended … and a series of text messages that Mike received before his death point to something much, much darker…

Mike can do something Eli can’t. Eli can’t commit to a narrative, leaving behind him reams of first chapters. He can’t commit to Jackie either, even though they’ve been together for the length of time it would take most people to live together or get engaged. Mike wanted to kill himself and he’s followed it through. Eli finds him sitting there, on his newly polished living room floor, with his hands embedded in the lacerations on his thighs. Even in his numbed and shocked state, there is jealousy that Mike has finished what he started.

Eli, Mike and Jackie are a trio. Eli and Mike are friends. Jackie and Eli are in a relationship that Eli doesn’t want, or does he? There are times when he could end it, but doesn’t. It is their anniversary two days after Mike dies. Two days after Jackie slept with Mike. Eli knows, but seems ambivalent. I found myself laughing at their ludicrous anniversary dinner, where Eli’s scrabbling on the floor for some dropped cutlery and Jackie semi- manipulates this into a proposal. Eli has turned indecision into an art. He has a job, but doesn’t enjoy it. He wants to leave, but just can’t make the first step. Eli feels a lot of the same emotions as his friend Mike. The ennui, the despair and the sense of being lost. Yet Mike had the guts to do something about it.

I was fascinated with the chapters headed ‘Fake Therapist’. In fact Eli has a session on Suicide Thursday and as he points out, just because it’s such an important day for Mike, it doesn’t mean he can miss therapy. Immediately, I wondered how he would know it’s the day that Mike is going to commit suicide. It seems to me that there’s a problem with the fake therapist? The problem being ….. there’s no therapist.

Eli then has to speak first (of course he does, no one else is there). He still regurgitates the same information he always does, almost as if each session is with someone new. There is no accumulation of knowledge or shorthand that comes from working with a therapist for a while. In fact each session is like one of his first chapters – the same stuff just expressed differently. I was interested in his knowledge of therapy, such as the comment on eye contact and his inhibitions. Has he had therapy in the past? Is that where he was confronted by things he didn’t want to talk about? The comment about any corporeal therapist directing the session, wanting to talk about Mum when he isn’t ready, is a bit of a giveaway. It seems therapy is great, as long as he can control it.

‘I pull the chair from beneath my desk in the first-chapter library and move it to a position where it can face the couch – my £2000 black, leather, archetypal therapist’s couch. It’s on a slight angle, a classic psychoanalyst’s trick to avoid eye contact, allowing me to overcome any inhibitions I may have. I place the Dictaphone on the seat, lie back and wait for the first question.’

I can’t tell you anymore of the story, not only would it ruin the reading experience, but I don’t really know where to begin. I can’t place it in a genre. I can’t really explain my reaction to it. The story unfolds in such an unorthodox way I’m scared of revealing something that I’ve dismissed as unimportant, but that opens up the whole story for someone else. I think it’s one of those books, where the meaning is dependent upon the reader. There were revelations that really made me rethink Eli, such as those text messages he sent to Mike before his suicide. It then changes everything you’ve read before. I would call this an ‘active’ reading experience. My brain, my emotions and often my ability to sleep were constantly engaged. As for trigger warnings, I can’t imagine that anyone who’s affected by suicide would pick up a book with this title. I didn’t find the subject matter triggering, despite personal experiences, but I was slightly disturbed that I wasn’t more triggered by Mike’s despair and eventual suicide. It think it’s because I was so engaged thinking ‘WTF?’ I was so busy thinking, I didn’t respond emotionally. If you like your books to be original, creative, mind-bending and tricksy, then this is the one for you. I didn’t respond to it at first. In fact it took a bit of work, but I can promise I’ll still be thinking about it weeks from now.

Published by Orenda Books 24th November 2022

Meet The Author


Will Carver is the international bestselling author of the January David series and the critically acclaimed, mind-blowingly original Detective Pace series that includes Good Samaritans (2018), Nothing Important Happened Today (2019) and Hinton Hollow Death Trip (2020), all of which were ebook bestsellers and selected as books of the year in the mainstream international press. Nothing Important Happened Today was longlisted for the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award 2020 and Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Hinton Hollow Death Trip was longlisted for Guardian Not the Booker Prize, and was followed by three standalone literary thrillers, The Beresford, Psychopaths Anonymous (both optioned for TV) and The Daves Next Door. He lives in Reading with his family.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Good Taste by Caroline Scott.

In-between a couple of intense crime reads I was so ready for the comforting nostalgia of Caroline Scott’s new novel. Don’t let my description fool you though. Caroline has a wonderful way of keeping her writing light and soft, but the merest peek under that surface reveals themes that delve so much deeper into society and the historical period of our heroine Stella. Set in the fascinating time period between the two World Wars, England is struggling through a depression and Stella has had something of a life change. It’s 1932 and Stella is facing the first Christmas without her mother. With memories of her mother’s frailty last Christmas and the fear of that obvious empty chair, Stella has moved back from London to a small cottage in the West Riding of Yorkshire in order to be near her father. Money is tight, since her first book The Marvellous Mrs Raffald hasn’t done as well as she’d hoped. Celandine Cottage is rather shabby and Stella is surviving on the money she’s paid by a women’s magazine for writing a weekly article with five new recipes. When she’s summoned to London by her publisher, she’s half expecting her novel to be pulped and although she wants to write a biography of 18th Century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, she’s rather gloomy about her prospects. She’s shocked when he tasks her with a new project – a history of English food. He wants a book that will inspire English housewives and remind English men of a nostalgic past. Although as Stella starts to think about her research, she realises that a lot of food people consider to be quintessentially English, is actually from elsewhere. So she sends out a letter:

Sir,

Would any housewife in your region be kind enough to share a traditional recipe with which she may be acquainted? Is there a favourite pie made by your grandmother? A cake that you fondly recall from childhood? A dish that’s particular to your village? Perhaps a great-aunt left you a hand-written book of her recipes?

This knowledge and these flavours have been passed down to us through the generations. But an urgent effort is required to collect and catalogue these dishes. If you are able to assist with this task, you would be doing a great service.

Please correspond with the address below. I will gratefully acknowledge all contributions,

Stella Douglas

However, as she sets off on her planned route to meet food makers and the nation’s housewives her car breaks down. A dashing young man called Freddie comes to her rescue and her plans move in a different direction, perhaps toward something more imaginative.

I enjoyed Stella, mainly because she is very much the modern woman, living alone and paying her own way at a time when women’s lives changed enormously. During WW1 women were encouraged to work, because they were needed to fulfil job roles that men had left behind as they went to fight in the trenches. Women became more used to living alone, making their own way and working outside of the home so when the war ended and men returned, there was tension. Some men wanted their wives back in the home so they could be breadwinners of their family. However, so many men were lost and injured, so the changes did stand and the following generations of women were keen to shape their own destiny. Stella was enormously likeable and intelligent, very measured in her approach to the task and able to see immediately that it was much more complicated than expected. As she listed those foods seen as English she could see the influence of foreign imports in them, as well as in her spice rack. Even the humble potato conjured up images of the Crusader, Tudor explorers and Dutch horticulturist’s sailing off to the Far East for specimen plants. She spots the massive gap between the perception of Englishness and the reality. In her imagination, cricket teas and church spires clash with a colourful collection of influences, speaking more than a dozen languages. Which history does she want to write and which is her publisher expecting?

I was rooting for Stella from the start, especially when her plans started to go awry, and I found her reminiscences of her mother so touching. Caroline taps into that nostalgic aspect of food and the way foods from our childhood hold a particular place in our hearts, with just a whiff or taste bringing up strong emotions of where we were or who we were with. One sniff of a newly opened tin of Quality Street sends me rocketing back to the late 1970s and my Aunty Joan who would buy us one each year along with a goodie bag of colouring pens with colouring and puzzle books. Bread toasted under a gas grill with salted butter takes me to my grandma’s kitchen as she brushed my hair and put a bow in it. The beautifully hand-written notebooks that belonged to her mother are like a time machine for Stella, all the more emotive now her mother is gone after a battle with cancer. They cause tears to well up, but also allow Stella to smile at her precious memories of surreptitiously sharing the first slice of a roasted lamb joint. This is the first time she has been able to think of her mother with joy as well as sadness.

‘As Stella read, the shadows in the room lightened, the gramophone played again distantly and order seemed to return to the world

Another aspect of Caroline’s writing I love is the extensive research that lies underneath a relatively gentle tale. I felt immediately immersed in the 1930’s, with even little asides about fashion like Stella’s felt cloche with a frivolous ostrich feather and her Liberty & Co coat, placing her firmly in time. As Stella reminisces about her time in Paris with her friend Michael, we’re there as she wanders through cellar clubs and tastes cocktails in Montparnasse, it sounds like there’s a hint of romance in her memory of dancing barefoot with him on a warm pavement. Something about their relationship is alluring and it’s as if she’s only just started to really see her friend and his incredibly blue eyes. Her surprise when she finds out he’s in a new relationship is obvious and this isn’t just any woman he’s involved with, it’s Cynthia Palmer, a beautiful model and artist. Where will Stella fit in?

The historical detail of English food is fascinating and it was interesting to hear ideas from the early 20th Century that we still talk about today in terms of sustainability and frugality. When it comes to meat there’s ‘nose to tail’ eating, making sure every part of the animal is used – they clearly had a better stomach for offal than we do today. There’s the concept of eating locally and growing your own food. There were also criticisms that are obviously age old, such as feeling young people have forgotten how to cook from scratch and are becoming dependent on gadgets and what we now call time saving hacks. She seems to sense another trend that I thought was current; the concern that we almost fetishise food with our devotion to baking and other cooking shows, while at home we’re cooking from scratch less and less. When it comes to what and how we eat, and even what we call our mealtimes, there are definitely divides between town and country, between the wealthy and the poor, and variations between North and South. I loved the eccentricity of some of the characters she meets and neighbour Dilys was a favourite of mine. Having a mum who flirted with vegetarianism and haunted the health food shop, Dilys’s devotion to pulses and lentils stirred up a childhood food memory of my own – a terrible shepherd’s pie with no shepherds just acres of lentils, called Red Dragon Pie. The only red thing about it were the acres of ketchup we used to give it some flavour. I loved her bohemian air and she seemed startlingly modern compared to Stella who’s a little more ‘proper’. The roguish Freddie was also rather fun and very charming of course. Caroline has a wonderful way of balancing all this. She tantalises us with period detail and charming characters, throws in some humour, while also showing us the grittier underbelly of life in a depression and those moments of grief for her mother that Stella experiences, which are so beautifully rendered. Caroline makes this look incredibly easy when in reality it’s such a complex juggling act, one that she pulls off beautifully.

Meet The Author

Caroline completed a PhD in History at the University of Durham. She developed a particular interest in the impact of the First World War on thelandscape of Belgium and France, and in the experience of women during the conflict – fascinations that she was able to pursue while she spent several years working as a researcher for a Belgian company. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, but now lives in SouthWest France. Her book The Photographer of the Lost was a BBC Book Club pick.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Ahead of the Shadows by A.B. Kyazze

When a photographer witnesses war crimes, will she have to abandon her calling to save herself?

As Lena and Kojo work in conflicts across East and Central Africa, there is immense psychological pressure, and it’s not certain if their relationship will survive.

Eighteen years later, Bene walks the gritty back streets of Paris for one night in a music festival. He is on his way to meet his father in Kenya, a man he’s never met.

Ahead of the Shadows is about the intense relationships that come from work in war zones, the transmission of trauma from one generation to the next, and how one unconventional boy might be able to break the cycle.

It’s such a pleasure to close the blog tour for this small but powerful book about the dangers and struggles of working in conflict zones. I had a period in my teens where I wanted to be a journalist and was in awe of Kate Adie and Feargal Keane. My life didn’t go that way, but I remember reading Feargal Keane’s memoir and a long piece by Italian correspondent Janine di Giovanni that really impressed upon me the life long effects of being and working surrounded by danger. There are the effects of what they’ve seen such as PTSD and a terrible restlessness left over from living such an adrenaline fuelled existence. Many can’t overcome that restlessness and choose to live a peripatetic existence, endlessly wandering from one crisis to the next, using drink to avoid the worst of their memories. It destroys people and their relationships. So, when I saw the blurb for this novel I was interested to read it.

I think the author really captured how adrenalin fuelled these jobs can be as we follow Lena into the Democratic Republic of Congo. With her group she settles into their temporary accommodation for the night, only to be woken by the sound of a dozen phone alarms going off raised voices and activity. With very quick thinking she pushes a piece of furniture across her door and sits against it, eventually falling asleep on the floor. It shows the reader how alert Lena is to the possibility of violence at a moment’s notice. With no clear sides in the country’s conflict, as well as soldiers for hire, child soldiers and rape regularly used as a weapon, Lena doesn’t know from which side danger might come. There’s no clear wrong or right and danger could come from local bandits, not just men engaged in conflict. The next day, with most of her party having left in the night, Lena rings her lover Kojo for advice on what to do. He advises her to walk to the border and cross to Kigali in Rwanda where he can send someone to meet her. As she walks alone towards to border my heart was in my throat. The author creates so much tension and our own knowledge of corruption and violence in these regions adds to our fears for Lena. It seems to take forever for her to cross the no man’s land between the two countries and she seems so defenceless. Hours later in Kojo arms, she is awake as he sleeps, aware that she feels so much safer with him present, but she still has adrenaline coursing through her body.

When writing about such dramatic events and heightened emotions in one timeline of the book can leave the present day sections feeling flat by comparison. However, as we go to Paris with Bene who is on his way to meet his father for the first time in Kenya, the author doesn’t try to compete. She lets Bene’s world seem almost dreamlike in comparison, at least on the surface. As he wanders in Paris he meets a beautiful young woman called Fatima who takes him on a tour of her city. These sections are like a dream sequence within the harsh realities of Africa from almost two decades before. There’s a sense of going with the flow as Bene goes out with Fatima into the evening. This stop has been a hiatus in his journey out to Kenya to meet his father for the first time. He should be carefree, but here and there we get traces of anxiety. When she takes him to a party at her ex-boyfriend’s place he doesn’t look forward to being with strangers, especially if they’re fakes. Most are out on the apartment balcony, watching a singer in the square below. It’s not his type of party. He goes to find Fatima as he wants to leave and steps onto the heaving balcony and wonders at how easy it would be to throw oneself over the railings and what it would take to turn that urge into a reality? I wondered where these dark thoughts and anxieties came from in such a young man. As if he’s only just running one step ahead of the shadows.

Lena’s time in Sudan is a tough read, but an important one. There was a period of time when family and friends were fed up of hearing me ask why news programs and governments had forgotten what was happening in Sudan. I remember George Clooney funding a satellite to view areas where rumours abounded about the mysterious ‘Janjaweed’. The UN seemed reluctant to use the word genocide but it was happening. The author captures the fear these masked murderers on horseback generated in the villages. They were thought to be mercenaries, appearing with no warning, except for the sound of pounding hooves. They left no time for people to flee and showed no mercy. Men were killed, young boys rounded up and recruited or killed, young girls and women gang raped. Then the survivors rounded up and placed in camps. Lena travels there as an NGO worker, trusted to bring back her clear observations for Kojo’s project.

Kojo has trusted Lena to see exactly what’s happening, she has experience of travelling through conflict regions and knows how to find the truth. Even he is taken aback by her phone call, when she tells him that no other place they’ve travelled to holds the amount of fear expressed by survivors. She tells him there’s something more going on here, that even the workers are scared and the people to scared to speak. They’re petrified. Kojo has never known Lena use hyperbole, so when she suggests people are being rounded up, Kojo suggests they talk in person. The longer Lena spends in Darfur the more she thinks about her friend Stefan, another photographer, the one who killed himself. Kojo notices when they’re reunited, a mental distance, and a physical one too – as if she’s constantly on alert and ready to flee. It takes a catalyst to set, what has only been a feeling up till now, into reality. Something to force her into taking flight. The author brings all these strands together beautifully, a full eighteen years since Lena and Kojo were in Sudan. Will Kojo come to understand her urge to flee and find safety all those years ago? Will he forgive her for keeping secrets? This is a beautiful book about the horrors humanity is capable of and what it means to bear witness to these atrocities. It is about being broken down with no joy in life and a sense of despair that can kill and how those responses to trauma can pass to the next generation. However, it’s also about those things that happen to bring us back to ourselves. The things that help us to see the future again with a sense of joy and hope.

Meet The Author

A.B. Kyazze is a British-American writer and photographer. She spent two decades writing and taking photographs around the world in conflicts and natural disasters – in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, Sudan, where Ahead of the Shadows takes place, and other parts of Africa, Asia and the Balkans. Her photographs and non-fiction work have been published in travel magazines, The Huffington Post, The Washington Times, The International Review of the Red Cross, and by Oxfam, Save the Children, and the British Red Cross.Into the Mouth of the Lion, A.B. Kyazze’s debut novel, was published in May 2021. She has also published the Humanity in the Landscape photography book series, and a number of short stories, articles and book reviews. Today, she lives in southeast London with her young family. There she writes, mentors other writers, runs a freelance editing business, and facilitates creative writing workshops in schools and libraries. She serves as a Trustee for the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, a creative writing charity. For more information go to http://www.abkyazze.com

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

Books of the Month! September 2022.

What an excellent reading month it’s been and a good mix of independent publishers as well as the majors. As part of the Squad Pod Collective, this month we’ve been reading Sandstone Press novels as part of our Sandtember feature. Next month will be Orentober – a celebration of Orenda Books, two of which feature here. I’ve been a lot busier and had so much more clarity this month, possibly something to do with us moving into the cooler months of autumn which are my favourite of the year, possibly due to it being Halloween, my birthday, Bonfire Night and the run up to Christmas. Plus Strictly is back on the telly. Here we have mainly thrillers and crime fiction, but very different from each other. I think some of this month’s books may easily reach my Books of the Year list in December. Hope you all have a great October!

This is an October review, but I read it as soon as it was delivered to my Kindle. I loved her first in the series so I was eager to see what Āróra was up to now. I won’t tell you too much, just a quick outline of what to expect from this excellent thriller. When entrepreneur Flosi arrives home for dinner one night, he discovers that his house has been ransacked, and his wife Gudrun missing. A letter on the kitchen table confirms that she has been kidnapped. If Flosi doesn’t agree to pay an enormous ransom, Gudrun will be killed. Forbidden from contacting the police, he gets in touch with Áróra, who specialises in finding hidden assets, and she, alongside her detective friend Daniel, try to get to the bottom of the case without anyone catching on.

Meanwhile, Áróra and Daniel continue the puzzling, devastating search for Áróra’s sister Ísafold, who disappeared without trace. As fog descends, in a cold and rainy Icelandic autumn, the investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, and confusing. Chilling, twisty and unbearably tense, Red as Blood is the second instalment in the riveting, addictive An Áróra Investigation series, and everything is at stake…

Out 13th October from Orenda Books

I thoroughly enjoyed this twisty thriller from an author I read automatically these days, knowing I’m going to get a quality thriller. Here we’re brought into the arty, bohemian world of the Churcher and Lally families and their adjoining houses on the edge of the heath. Frank Churcher and his friend Lal have been friends since the 1970s when they shared drugs, alcohol, women and ideas. Frank has called everyone together to celebrate the 50th Anniversary edition of his book The Golden Bones. This could be one reunion that tears the family apart…

Nell has come home at her family’s insistence to celebrate an anniversary. Fifty years ago, her father wrote The Golden Bones. Part picture book, part treasure hunt, Sir Frank Churcher created a fairy story about Elinore, a murdered woman whose skeleton was scattered all over England. Clues and puzzles in the pages of The Golden Bones led readers to seven sites where jewels were buried – gold and precious stones, each a different part of a skeleton. One by one, the tiny golden bones were dug up until only Elinore’s pelvis remained hidden.
The book was a sensation. A community of treasure hunters called the Bonehunters formed, in frenzied competition, obsessed to a dangerous degree. People sold their homes to travel to England and search for Elinore. Marriages broke down as the quest consumed people. A man died. The book made Frank a rich man. Stalked by fans who could not tell fantasy from reality, his daughter, Nell, became a recluse. But now the Churchers must be reunited. The book is being reissued along with a new treasure hunt and a documentary crew are charting everything that follows. Nell is appalled, and terrified. During the filming, Frank is set to reveal the whereabouts of the missing golden bone, but as one of his grandchildren climbs the tree for the treasure all hell is going to break loose. This was an addictive thriller, with complicated family dynamics and a brilliant final chapter.

Orenda Books must get so fed up with me banging on about the genius of Doug Johnstone and his wonderful creations; the Skelf women. Set in Edinburgh, Grandmother Dorothy, daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah live in the shadow of death every day. Jenny and Dorothy live literally above a morgue, as the family’s funeral business is run from the ground floor. They also run a private investigation business from their kitchen table. But now their own grief interwines with that of their clients, as they are left reeling by shocking past events. As usual there’s a shocking opening, with a fist-fight by an open grave. This leads Dorothy to investigate the possibility of a faked death, while a young woman’s obsession with Hannah threatens her relationship with Indy and puts them both in mortal danger. An elderly man claims he’s being abused by the ghost of his late wife, while ghosts of another kind come back to haunt Jenny from the grave … pushing her to breaking point.

As the Skelfs struggle with increasingly unnerving cases and chilling danger lurks close to home, it becomes clear that grief, in all its forms, can be deadly… you can look for my full review of this in my Sept 2022 archive, but it really is a cracker.

This was one of those blog tours I was asked to do and I went in blind. I knew nothing about the author or the book, but straight away I was intrigued. You are invited to cast your eye over the comfortable north London home of a family of high ideals, radical politics and compassionate feelings. Julia, Paul and their two daughters, Olivia and Sophie, look to a better society, one they can effect through ORGAN:EYES, the campaigning group they fundraise for and march with, supporting various good causes. But is it all too good to be true? When the surface has been scratched and Paul’s identity comes under the scrutiny of the press, a journey into the heart of the family begins. Who are these characters really? Are any of them the ‘real’ them at all? Every Trick in the Book is a genre-deconstructing novel that explodes the police procedural and undercover-cop story with nouveau romanish glee. Hood overturns the stone of our surveillance society to show what really lies beneath. Be prepared to never take anything at face value again.

Now I’d been waiting all year for this one. It’s been up there with Jessie Burtons House of Fortune as the ones I’ve most been looking forward to this year. I wasn’t disappointed. Kate Atkinson has written a crime novel that lays bare a decade in flux, a London that’s drowning in decadence and a generation determined to leave loss and grief behind them.

1926, and in a country still recovering from the Great War, London has become the focus for a delirious new nightlife. In the clubs of Soho, peers of the realm rub shoulders with starlets, foreign dignitaries with gangsters, and girls sell dances for a shilling a time. At the heart of this glittering world is notorious Nellie Coker, ruthless but also ambitious to advance her six children, including the enigmatic eldest, Niven whose character has been forged in the crucible of the Somme. But success breeds enemies, and Nellie’s empire faces threats from without and within. For beneath the dazzle of Soho’s gaiety, there is a dark underbelly, a world in which it is all too easy to become lost.With her unique Dickensian flair, Kate Atkinson brings together a glittering cast of characters in a truly mesmeric novel that captures the uncertainty and mutability of life; of a world in which nothing is quite as it seems. I loved the historical background to this fascinating story and my only complaint was that I wanted to spend more time with some of her characters. See my September archive for the full review, but I was dazzled and drawn deeply into Atkinson’s world.

Tuva Moodyson is another character I’m always banging on about on Twitter. I think she’s an incredible woman and I love the representation of her disability too. Here Tuva is back at work after the shooting of her girlfriend, police officer Noora. Noora survived but now exists in a persistent vegetative state, in bed and cared for round the clock by her mother. In the circumstances, Noora’s parents understood that Tuva needed to go back to work. Dean takes us straight into the action, as Tuva finds an armoured hunting dog wounded by the side of the road. In the course of taking the dog to the vet, Tuva leans of a farm further down the road where a group of survivalists live. It’s not long before she hears that a girl’s gone missing from Rose Farm, and while the police will be investigating, Tuva wants to find her story. There are two businesses on the farm, a café and spa, so Tuva visits to get to know a couple of the residents up there. Andreas, who patrols the compound with his dogs, shows Tuva the security system and training they have in place for their members, including underground bunkers if necessary. Are these people simply ‘preppers’, getting ready for the end of the world, or is something more sinister going on? Who is the mysterious Abraham? What was missing girl Elsa Nyberg to do with the preppers and is she still alive? As usual, Tuva throws herself in and soon her own life is in danger.

This was an interesting and addictive book from Lucy Banks and I loved it. The public think Ava is a monster. Ava doesn’t think she’s to blame. She’s spent twenty five years in prison and now it’s time to start a new life. With a changed identity, her name is now Robin, she has a roof over her head and she hopes for the quiet life she’s always wanted. However, her idea of quiet is an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland, just her and the seabirds. This reminds her of the places they lived when she was small, when her father was working for a bird protection charity. He would teach her to catch and tag the puffins. There’s no hope for a quiet life, as probation officer Margot pops in unexpectedly pushing her to apply for jobs because ‘the state can’t keep you forever’. There’s Bill next door, who likes a chat and flirt over the garden hedge, not to mention his daughter Amber who really isn’t sure of their new neighbour. Finally there’s her unwanted visitor; the strange person in black who lurks and watches; the person who sent the poison pen letter; the person who throws a brick through the window. We see everything through Robin’s mind and a slow unease starts to creep in here and there. Is she the murderer she’s been painted as or is she misunderstood? I went from feeling sorry for Robin, to being terrified of her. Absolutely brilliant!

So that’s this month. I’m having a week’s break from blog tours to read Robert Galbraith’s The Ink Black Heart, which has been staring at me from the TBR shelf for past fortnight. Here are some of next month’s reads.

Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone

As all subscribers and Twitter followers must know by now, I am a huge fan of The Skelf series. I’m a Skelfaholic and I’m in a strange cycle of waiting for the next book to be published, devouring it overnight, then longing for the next one again. It’s even worse this time because I have it on good authority that this could be the penultimate book in the series. So one more book and no more Skelfing! I’m going to be like a weasel with a sore head when I have to go cold turkey. It has been wonderful to be back in Edinburgh with this family of three: part private investigators, part undertakers and all round incredible women. For those who haven’t met them yet, the Skelfs are three generations of women. Grandmother Dorothy is in her seventies, but is still active in both the investigative and the funeral parts of the business. In her spare time she still drums like a badass and has a lover almost twenty years her junior. Daughter Jenny is back home, living above the business and struggling with memories of psychopath ex- husband Craig. She’s drowning her pain with alcohol and sex.

Jenny’s daughter Hannah is now a PhD student, working in the astrophysics department, but still finding time to help out in the family business. She’s now married to girlfriend Indy, is feeling settled and might be slowly moving past what happened to her father. Each novel begins with a memorable opening scene and here we kick off with a fist fight at a funeral. The women are also brought diverse and unusual cases, both for funerals and their PI work. A gentleman approaches Dorothy after his wife’s funeral, to ask if they can help him deal with a nighttime visitor. He believes his wife’s spirit is punishing him and he has the bruises to prove it. Hannah is approached by Laura at university, the young woman claims to know her, but Hannah has absolutely no recollection of her. When Laura starts to turn up wherever Hannah goes, she starts to suspect mental health problems, but nothing dangerous. She stops being harmless the closer she gets to the family, especially when Hannah drops into the funeral parlour and finds Laura talking to Indy. Laura wants them to do her mother’s funeral, but Hannah thinks it’s unwise. How can she let this fragile girl down gently?

Aside from their cases Johnstone also picks up those storylines that weave throughout the novels. In the main we are drawn back to Craig, Jenny’s ex-husband and Hannah’s father, who is still haunting the family. Jenny is the most visibly affected by her interactions with Craig’s family, most notably his sister, who seems to have inherited his ability to manipulate and turn to violence to get what she wants. Will Craig ever leave them alone and will Jenny be able to tread the line between her own pain as his ex and Hannah’s pain as his daughter. Both tend to overlook the grief that Dorothy still feels at the loss of her own husband Jim, complicated now by her relationship with police detective Thomas. Indy’s grief is also overlooked a lot, especially since she’s just gone through disinterring her parents in order to give them the cremation in line with their faith. Hannah and Jenny bring the drama and it’s Jenny I was particularly worried about. She’s getting messy, day drinking and embarking on a highly controversial sexual relationship with the wrong person. She never wakes up feeling better, but in the moment she has to drown out the constant pictures in her head. It’s clearly PTSD and she’s in danger of drawing others into her drama, especially Archie who works for the funeral business. Can she rein her behaviour, when professional help seems doomed to failure at this point?

Aside from these incredible women, and the lovely Indy of course, the things I most love about these books is Doug Johnstone’s love for Edinburgh and the way he weaves incredible ideas, philosophy and physics into his novels. I’ve not been to Edinburgh since I was in my twenties, but the way he describes the city makes me want to go back. He doesn’t sugar coat the city either, there’s good and bad here, but as a whole these books are a poem to a place that’s in his soul. Dorothy muses on her home town a lot in this novel and considering she was born in America, this place is her heart’s homeland. She ponders on the people this city produces, including her husband and child, the history, and the architecture almost as if she’s taking stock. She concludes that she’s a person who always looks forward to where life’s going, but grief and loss are like the waves and there’s no telling when it will wash ashore again. Jenny tends to frequent the less salubrious areas of the city. She’s stuck. Her past has quite literally washed ashore and the problem with losing someone is you’re not the only one grieving and everyone grieves differently. She’s not mourning Craig as he truly was. She’s grieving the loss of all that hope; the hope they both had for the future on their wedding day and when Hannah was born. Similarly Craig’s mum and sister aren’t missing the Craig who committed all those terrible crimes. Violet misses the little boy she had and the life she wanted for him and his sister just misses her baby brother.

I loved the elements of Japanese spirituality and having read Messina’s novel The Phonebox at the Edge of the World, I loved the concept of the wind phone. I’ve always thought that a good way of letting go of the past, especially when you’re struggling emotionally, is to make a physical gesture or step in the direction you want to go. That might mean taking off a wedding ring when you’re getting divorced, or moving house to somewhere that isn’t filled with old memories. I found talking to my late husband in my head a bit strange and it only made me miss him more. So I wrote to him in my journal instead. To have a phonebox dedicated to speaking with those who have died seems a very effective way of keeping them in the present with you, but in a controlled and deliberate way. I was reminded of the Samuel Beckett quote:

“Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little.”

Hannah seems to be the person who’s most accepting of her losses. She always seems older than she is and with Indy alongside her she has all the support she needs. There’s so much wisdom in these two young women, honed from a combination of Indy’s spirituality, years of working with grieving families and Hannah’s physics knowledge, especially where it tries to explain the universe. The supermassive black holes that are thought to be at heart of every galaxy are mysterious. We know that they have a huge power that acts like a magnet, drawing in items from across the universe into the void. Each of the Skelf women have their own grief to bear, a black hole at the centre of their heart. Each must find their own way to remember a little, to prevent becoming overwhelmed by their memories. To prevent that black hole from drawing in every part of them. Only by reconciling this, can they live in the present moment and make plans for their altered future, a future I can’t wait to read about.

Meet the Author

Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, described as ‘A novel [that] underlines just how accomplished Johnstone has become’ by the Daily Mail. He has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year three times, and the Capital Crime Best Independent Voice one; The Big Chill was longlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. 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.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Girl in the Photo by Heidi Amsinck

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Scandi and Nordic Noir whether it’s on television or in book form. I was also drawn in by the beautiful covers of these books, in fact I’d like a pair to frame and put on the wall. Sometimes books don’t live up to their covers, but I throughly enjoyed the first book following the investigative reporter known only as Jensen. My Name is Jensen set up the main characters beautifully so it was good to be back in the company of both Jensen and her ex-lover, DI Henrik Jungerson. In this second novel both our main characters are in a state of transition. Jensen is no longer working for newspaper Dagbladet and is working freelance, in a style that becomes a mix of private investigator and reporter. She has the help of a young man called Gustav, the nephew of her editor at the newspaper. Jensen knows he has been in trouble at his school, but not the extent of his problems. As they try and get used to each other’s style of working, Jensen is also adjusting to a new apartment with a difficult landlord. The first crime seems to be a burglary gone wrong, with an elderly woman brutally murdered and an incredibly expensive diamond necklace missing. Henrik is the officer on the case, but Jensen is hired by the woman’s rather unpleasant daughter to find the necklace. More murders follow, but what Henrik notices at each crime scene is a photo of the same young girl. They’re not obvious, just placed somewhere in the room, but Henrik doesn’t like coincidences and wants to connect the investigations. His superiors are unconvinced, especially as Henrik’s issues at home and with drink are starting to get out of control. Working the same case means he will cross paths with the one woman in Copenhagen he wants to avoid, Jensen.

This was an interesting case, told by Jensen and Henrik in turn, from their own perspective and with their individual ideas on what the victims have in common. They are remarkably alike in the way they think and are drawn together both by the threads of the case and what feels like a gravitational force. Nobody thinks like Jensen, except for Henrik. She knows he is only a step behind her. Nobody on the force thinks like Henrik and he almost craves her presence, not necessarily in an emotional way, more than that he wants someone to keep up with him and to bounce ideas off. Jensen has the freedom of being freelance, to work when she wants and makes choices on how she investigates that a police officer couldn’t. Breaking into a client’s summer cabin is risky, but it gets her further forward in the case. Henrik couldn’t do this, because he’s hemmed in by police rules and regulations. Yet there are perks to being an officer, such as the ability to look at official records, that Jensen wishes she had. He can also command respect and get families to cooperate in a way she can’t and this can really hamper her investigation. Despite these differences, no one else has worked out the significance of the photograph, in fact he’s pretty much been told that this is a simple case and he should stop complicating matters. Yet he can’t leave it alone. He knows it’s the key. Really they’re a perfect team, pushing each other on and keeping up with each other intellectually.

I enjoyed Jensen’s working relationship with Gustav. She soon realises he’s a bit of a maverick and that he’s been expelled from school for something much more significant than Margarethe is letting on. The mystery itself is an interesting one, not as clear cut as it first appears and with some deeply unpleasant characters too. The pacing is excellent too. Each character coming at the mystery from their own starting point and working towards each other. The author adds to the information we have in every chapter, just enough to keep the reader engaged, but tantalised and eager to read the next section. As for their personal relationship I found it hard to empathise with Henrik’s perspective. He seems to see her as a temptation that he’s unable to shake off; once in her orbit, he’s inexorably pulled towards her. If he piles all the guilt onto Jensen and avoids seeing her, he avoids facing the fact that he made a choice to cheat on his wife. Then, when he realises that Jensen’s landlord is interested in her, he becomes the jealous spurned lover. As if he didn’t choose to stay with his wife. The author manages to convey these complicated psychological aspects of her characters, so even though we might not agree with their perspective, we can understand their emotions. I was left feeling that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to these two characters and I’m interested to see where we go next.

Meet The Author

Heidi Amsinck is a writer and journalist who was born in Copenhagen and now lives in London. She was London Correspondent for the
Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. She has written many stories
of BBC Radio 4, all read by Tim McInnerny. She was previously shortlisted for the VS Pritchett Memorial Prize. My Name is Jensen, her first thriller, was published to critical acclaim in 2021 and has also been translated into Danish and German.

Posted in Orenda, Random Things Tours

Night Shadows by Eva Björg, Aegisdóttir

The small community of Akranes is devastated when a young man dies in a mysterious house fire, and when Detective Elma and her colleagues from West Iceland CID discover the fire was arson, they become embroiled in an increasingly perplexing case involving multiple suspects. What’s more, the dead man’s final online search raises fears that they could be investigating not one murder, but two. A few months before the fire, a young Dutch woman takes a job as an au pair in Iceland, desperate to make a new life for herself after the death of her father. But the seemingly perfect family who employs her turns out to have problems of its own and she soon discovers she is running out of people to turn to. As the police begin to home in on the truth, Elma, already struggling to come to terms with a life-changing event, finds herself in mortal danger as it becomes clear that someone has secrets they’ll do anything to hide…

I devoured this crime novel in a day while ill in bed. I could barely look up from the book to talk to anyone, because I was so deeply embedded in the cold, bleak Icelandic landscape and the twists and turns of this fascinating story. Having read the previous novels in the Forbidden Iceland series, I was immediately at home with detective Elma and her partner Saever. The investigation starts with a fire in a neighbourhood of Akranes, a small town near Reykjavik. The neighbours hear the smoke alarm and come running to the house to check no one is home. The family are said to be away, but as the fire is put out a body is found in one of the bedrooms and turns out to be the teenage son, Marinó. Elma can’t understand why he is still on the bed, as if asleep. If the neighbours were woken by the fire why wasn’t this boy and why is his the room where the fire started? Soon they get their answers – he is full of sleeping tablets. It seems a party was held at the house that weekend, with a few of the neighbourhood’s teenagers attended. Elma needs to know what went on that night, who was there and where was Marinó when they left. The case becomes complicated when it becomes clear a young woman is missing. Lise was working as an au pair for one of the families living near the fire and was seen at the party. Lise was looking after the daughters of couple Laufey and Unnar, but had decided to leave and had packed everything before the party. She was ready to return to Holland the following morning. Laufey remembers seeing her bags packed that evening and when they were gone the next morning she assumed she’d left for an early flight. But Lise never reached Holland.

I enjoyed reading Elma’s voice in the first novel of this series so it was nice to pick up where we left off. Motherhood is a thread throughout the novel and it was almost as if Elma was learning exactly what being a mum entailed. She is close with her own family, despite sister Dagny getting on her nerves she realises the importance of having them around her and being there for her nieces. Within the teenagers who were present at the weekend party there is a young mother, who is trying everything to keep her relationship with the father going and overlooking a lot too. Laufney is the mum we follow most and she is almost coping as a single mum, with husband Unnar usually out and doing one thing that really infuriates me – referring to ‘babysitting’ his own children. Their own first child is a teenager, living in his own pad in the garage but still enjoying the comforts of home. Laufney is so proud of her son Andri who is soon moving to Sweden to play football at a professional level. Their two daughters are much younger. Klara is ten years old, quiet and slightly reserved, but very talented at drawing. In fact Elma finds her drawing so striking that she notices it pinned on the fridge. With the family in the main house, a girl is drawn up against the window, looking inside. Saever ccomments its like something from a horror film and he’s eerily prescient. It’s Anna the youngest daughter of the family who is sitting on the loo in the middle of the night and notices movement outside. A girl with long hair and a bulky coat is staring into the house. Anna knows it is Lise and shes not scared of Lise who was kind to her, but Lise is dead and dead people don’t come back. She goes to Klara for comfort and she reassures her, she knows she’s seen Lise because a few weeks ago she’d been been in the garden. In one of the scariest scenes Ive read in a while, the girl notices Klara and strides directly over to the window, peering in with both hands resting on the glass. I was sorry that I just happened to be reading that scene at three a.m.

The crime itself and Elma’s personal life is about loyalty and how far we’d go to keep those we love safe and for mothers that’s such a strong instinct. Elma finds these deep instincts at the forefront of her mind throughout, both personally and professionally. One of the biggest question marks I had is over Laufey and Unnar’s marriage. He is very easy to dislike thanks to his habits of sleeping with other women, even those that should be totally off limits. Yet I found myself more horrified by some of the things he did and said around his wife and children. Klara seemed to be on a diet and I was sure this was a result of Unnar’s comments to Anna about Laufey’s weight and how she didn’t want to become fat like Mum. He also makes it clear that he finds her too serious and no fun anymore. These little chips at someone’s confidence are abusive and I didn’t like that the same attitudes were being taught to the girls. I was becoming more and more uncomfortable about him and felt he could be the murderer, then kept looking at the younger generation and kids like Isak who is disrespectful to his girlfriend. It showed how these attitudes are still cross-generational. Could the murderer be one of these youngsters? CCTV showing a slight figure in a down coat near Marinó’s home led me down that path.

I loved how the book addressed Elma’s relationships and how she investigates. Even knowing she has a partner who will back her to the hilt, doesn’t stop her running away with a lead every now and then. As soon as she’s had a hunch, she has to act on it, and that doesn’t usually involve telling someone where she’s going or waiting for back up. This can lead her into danger, something that’s terrifying for those who love her and needs to change. Especially now that life is going to be significantly different. I’m already looking forward to the next chapter for this intelligent and perceptive detective.

Meet the Author

Born in Akranes in 1988, Eva moved to Trondheim, Norway to study her 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 CWA Debut Dagger, the Blackbird Award, was shortlisted (twice) for the Capital Crime Readers’ Awards, and became a number one bestseller in Iceland. The critically acclaimed Girls Who Lie (book two in the Forbidden Iceland series) soon followed, with Night Shadows (book three) following suit in July 2022. Eva lives with her husband and three children in Reykjavík.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Hostage by Clare Mackintosh

This was an absolutely nail-biting thriller of a novel that never lets up and practically had me biting my own nails. In fact I’d been reading this, then binge watching Ozark with my other half and had to ask for a half hour of comedy before bed, because I couldn’t cope with any more tension! I probably should also be honest and say that planes make me horribly claustrophobic. I’m never scared of crashing. I just hate that I can’t get up and walk out of the door. So my own phobia probably added to the tension of the novel. Mina is a flight attendant and has the honour of working on the first ever direct flight from London to Sydney. Back home, husband Adam is holding the fort while he comes to terms with recent mistakes in his marriage. He is also finding it hard to develop a relationship with his adoptive daughter Sophie. After waiting a long time to adopt a child, they’ve had problems settling Sophie and also connecting with her in the way they expected. However, she does love her most recent babysitter, so Adam is quite relieved when Mina has booked this miracle worker to cover her hours on this historic flight. So, it’s a massive shock when her baby sitter takes them both hostage, citing her membership to a climate change group and explaining that Mina’s plane will now be in the hands of her fellow protestors. Simultaneously, Mina is left with a note and a choice; let one of the protestors onto the flight deck or her daughter’s life is in danger. Mina has already found Sophie’s ‘Epipen’ in the galley, so she knows they mean business. She has also been left in no doubt that one of their associates has been following Sophie and their young babysitter, leading Mina to believe it’s going to be easy for them to get to her. Their plan, if Mina cooperates, could be to fly the plane and all three hundred passengers into the Sydney Opera House. She is left with a terrible dilemma – one life, that of her precious daughter, or the lives of everyone on board.

The book alternates between Mina’s perspective and what’s happening at home for Adam and Sophie. In between are chapters from the perspective of one of the hijackers, each one named after a river. These are an interesting break from the tension, because they explain that person’s reasons for joining a radical climate change group, one that’s willing to consider acts of terrorism to bring their cause to the forefront of the news agenda. I didn’t feel a connection or empathy with these, or any of the main characters really. They’re flawed and therefore very human and believable. Mina’s husband Adam has been deceitful and their marriage is still in a state of repair over his behaviour. This isn’t about character though, this is all about the situation. The pressurised and locked cabin adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere the author has created and the passenger’s isolation from both their loved ones and the safety of their homes. This is all about the rollercoaster thrills of the hostage situation and perhaps the fear many of us have about the heightened terrorism threat and flying in general.

Although I guessed some of what happens, the story definitely entertains and keeps you on edge. In fact I could see a film version doing exactly the same thing. Some aspects were unexpected though, especially the situation Adam and Sophie find themselves in back in London. Due to unforeseen complications, they are in more danger than was planned and certainly more than Mina has expected. I really enjoyed this subplot, because it went somewhere I didn’t expect and I was definitely on tenterhooks wondering whether they would come out alive. It was also clever to have little snippets of information about the passengers and what had made them book this inaugural flight non-stop around the world. Whether they were here by intention or simple chance, none of them expected to become a fireball in the sky. This did induce some emotion in me, because it made the passengers more than a seat number. Sophie became the most interesting character for me as the book progressed. Her behaviour, when seen in detail, could point to her being neuro divergent and I thought this was portrayed well. She is extremely intelligent and I loved how that becomes more obvious as their predicament worsens. Oh and read all the way to the end. The twists don’t stop coming with the tense and very modern take on this common nightmare scenario.

Meet The Author

With over 2 million copies of her books sold worldwide, number one bestseller Clare Mackintosh is the multi-award-winning author of I Let You Go, which was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller and the fastest-selling title by a new crime writer in 2015. It also won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year in 2016. Both Clare’s second and third novels, I See You and Let Me Lie, were number one Sunday Times bestsellers. All three of her thrillers were selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club, and together have been translated into forty languages. After the End was published in 2019 and became an instant Sunday Times bestseller, and in 2021 Hostage flew straight into the top ten. Together, her books have spent more than sixty weeks in The Sunday Times bestseller lists. 

Clare is patron of the Silver Star Society, a charity based at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, which supports parents experiencing high-risk or difficult pregnancies. She lives in North Wales with her husband and their three children.

For more information visit Clare’s website http://www.claremackintosh.com or find her at http://www.facebook.com/ClareMackWrites or on Twitter @ClareMackint0sh #ILetYouGo #ISeeYou #LetMeLie #AftertheEnd #HostageBook