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Book Review: Last Letter from Istanbul by Lucy Foley

After spending time in 1950s Tangier with Tangerine (see previous review), I decided to head further east and go back another thirty years to explore 1920s Istanbul with Lucy’s Foley’s third novel, Last Letter from Istanbul.

1921. Each day Nur gazes across the waters of the Bosphorus to her childhood home, a grand white house, nestled on the opposite bank. Memories float on the breeze the fragrance of the fig trees, the saffron sunsets of languid summer evenings. But now those days are dead.

The house has been transformed into an army hospital, it is a prize of war in the hands of the British. And as Nur weaves through the streets carrying the embroideries that have become her livelihood, Constantinople swarms with Allied soldiers a reminder of how far she and her city have fallen.

The most precious thing in Nur’s new life is the orphan in her care a boy with a terrible secret. When he falls dangerously ill Nur’s world becomes entwined with the enemy’s. She must return to where she grew up, and plead for help from Medical Officer George Monroe.

As the lines between enemy and friend become fainter, a new danger emerges something even more threatening than the lingering shadow of war.

Set during the occupation of Istanbul by allied forces after the First World War, Last Letter from Istanbul tells its story from alternating viewpoints. Those of Nur, a local evicted from her family home and now living with her mother and grandmother in a far less desirable district; the young boy who has been taken in by Nur; George, the army doctor, whose hospital occupies Nur’s former home; and two unnamed characters in the Traveller and the Prisoner. It becomes clear who they are as the novel progresses.

It takes a while for these strands to come together, but once they do, the story envelops you. It’s as if one of Nur’s embroidered shawls wraps around you, bundling you into the story alongside her. Lucy Foley brings the sights, smells and sounds of Istanbul to life in her writing and evokes an impression of what it was like to be there at this moment in the city’s history; a period I didn’t know much about before reading. Read more

Book Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan

International Friendship Day seems a good time to post this review of Christine Mangan’s Tangerine set in 1950s Morocco about two college friends, one British and the other American, whose paths cross again after a year of no contact.

The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the horrific accident at Bennington, the two friends – once inseparable roommates – haven’t spoken in over a year. But Lucy is standing there, trying to make things right.

Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy, always fearless and independent, helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country.

But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice – she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.

I don’t know whether it was Joyce Carol Oates’ cover quote which first put it in mind but Tangerine always feels as if it gives more than a nod to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Their roles may differ but I couldn’t stop rhyming (Alice) Shipley with (Tom) Ripley while reading and then there’s the scene where Lucy tries on Alice’s clothes, resembling one where Tom dons Dickie Greenleaf’s. That said, this tale of toxic friendship is worth a read in its own right.

I enjoyed reading Tangerine for its Moroccan setting at a time when the country is on the verge of independence. You can sense change and uncertainty coming and Lucy seems a harbinger of this, not least for Alice whose brittle coping mechanisms are about to be tested.

It’s the relationship between Alice and Lucy which is pivotal to this book and all the more interesting once the backstory comes through and you find out what happened a year ago at Bennington and why it was of such importance and arguably life-changing for both women, albeit in different ways. Read more

Book Review: The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd #TheInnocentWife

When a debut novel wins a prize pre-publication, it sets my expectations high. Happily, Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife doesn’t disappoint and justifies all the attention. Here’s what it’s about:

Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl in Florida’s Red River County. Now he’s the subject of a true-crime documentary that’s whipping up a frenzy online to uncover the truth and free a man who has been wrongly convicted.

A thousand miles away in England, Samantha is obsessed with Dennis’s case. She exchanges letters with him, and is quickly won over by his apparent charm and kindness to her. Soon she has left her old life behind to marry him and campaign for his release.

But when the campaign is successful and Dennis is freed, Sam begins to discover new details that suggest he may not be quite so innocent after all.

But how do you confront your husband when you don’t want to know the truth?

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of person writes to, let alone marries, a convicted murderer, then Amy Lloyd offers up a credible contender in Samantha. It’s easy to trace and accept how this clearly not stupid, grown woman is drawn in by Dennis and his campaign.

Sam comes with her own issues, sometimes being too weak and reactive, or jealous and needy, and her own skeletons (though they’re only figurative compared to Dennis’ real ones). And in giving her these, Amy Lloyd ensures we see her as a real person and possibly not as wholly innocent as the title suggests.

Things start innocently enough though, when Sam’s introduced to the world of true-crime documentaries by her then boyfriend and they watch one about Dennis. It’s what follows, through Sam’s need to know more about his case and how this escalates, which makes The Innocent Wife such compulsive reading. Read more

Book Review: Believe Me by JP Delaney

If you’re looking for a book that’ll take you on an absolute trip and mess with your head, then this is it. Believe Me is the latest psychological thriller from the bestselling author of The Girl Before which I reviewed here. Here’s what Believe Me is about:

Claire Wright likes to play other people.

A British drama student, in New York without a green card, Claire takes the only job she can get: working for a firm of divorce lawyers, posing as an easy pick-up in hotel bars to entrap straying husbands.

When one of her targets becomes the subject of a murder investigation, the police ask Claire to use her acting skills to help lure their suspect into a confession. But right from the start, she has doubts about the part she’s being asked to play. Is Patrick Fogler really a killer . . . Or the only decent husband she’s ever met? And is there more to this set-up than she’s being told?

And that’s when Claire realises she’s playing the deadliest role of her life . . 

It’s Claire’s story to tell but several things combine to make her an unreliable narrator. Claire’s desperate to be an actor and is in New York taking classes, sometimes being asked to go out onto the streets for some acting exercises. Which made me question how much of everything else she does is real and how much is role-playing.

She’s had to leave the UK behind her, for reasons which rankle but also influenced how much I trust her version of events, while also making me wonder how mentally robust she is for the biggest role of her life. I have to confess that the lawyer in me worried her way through the honey trap scenes but they’re crucial. They show us the lengths to which Claire will go to stay in New York, how good an actress she is but also how draining these performances are for her. Read more

Book Review: No Good Brother by Tyler Keevil

Tyler Keevil was first published by the Welsh publisher, Parthian, which is how I discovered him. Having enjoyed all his previous books, including The Drive published by Myriad rather than Parthian, I was keen to read his latest novel. No Good Brother is the picaresque tale of two brothers partly set in and around Vancouver, another reason for wanting to read this one.

Tim Harding has spent the fishing season in Canada working as a deckhand, making an honest living. When his hot-headed younger brother tracks him down at the shipyards in Vancouver, Tim senses trouble. Jake is a drifter, a dreamer, an ex-con, and now he needs help in repaying a debt to the notorious Delaney gang.

So begins an epic, unpredictable odyssey across land and sea as the brothers journey down to the Delaney’s ranch in the U.S., chased by customs officials, freak storms and the gnawing feeling that their luck is about to run out. But while they may be able to outrun the law, there’s no escaping the ghosts of their tragic family past and neither is prepared for who and what awaits them at the other end.

No Good Brother gets off to a leisurely start as we see the boat Tim crews on winding down after the herring season. You get a real sense of how important this boat is to the family business which operates it and how the crew works together like a family, whether they’re related by blood or not. Tim’s made himself invaluable as a crew member and is being coaxed into becoming a more permanent part of the actual family at the heart of it.

Which is when his younger brother, Jake, turns up and things take a detour out to sea and across the border… It’s easy to see Jake as the No Good Brother of the title but once Tim has (admittedly reluctantly) agreed to help his brother and they get underway, he often seems the more incorrigible of the two and the one that’s driving the action forward, making it harder to turn back and attempt any form of reparation or escape the almost certain punishment or worse that awaits them. They are despite their differences, both as bad as each other which is perhaps what’s meant by No Good Brother.  Read more

Book Review: The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Anna Mazzola captivated me with her tense and atmospheric, early Victorian London crime debut The Unseeing and I was keen to see where she went next. The period is once again Victorian for her second novel but, crucially, The Story Keeper* is set twenty years later for reasons which become apparent towards the end of the book. And for this book we escape London for the Hebrides together with her disillusioned young folklorist.

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories.

Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds.

Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before.

The novel opens with an extract from a folk tale which runs throughout the novel, and follows that up with Audrey coming across to Skye on the boat. It’s a great way to start because it gives us a taste of the folklore she’ll be collecting, and ensures we see Audrey as an outsider. It also gives us a real sense of the journey she’s undertaken to get there, how badly she must have wanted to leave London behind, how hard that crossing was (important for those of us who’ve only ever known the road bridge), while introducing us to one of the young girls who plays a part in the sinister story about to unfold.

Thanks to Anna Mazzola’s excellent writing, I quickly became immersed in the book’s world, which isn’t always a comfortable place to be. The Story Keeper features gothic elements that exude menace and an impending sense of doom: birds circle and swoop; the draughty old house where Audrey is to stay has seen better days and comes complete with strange noises, a less than welcoming employer, and plenty of mysterious corners and passageways. Islanders are wary of strangers, understandably so given recent history and what’s happening on the island, and are reluctant and superstitious of telling the old stories.

Audrey has to distinguish what’s story from truth before she runs out of time or loses her mind in the attempt and because she wants to right a past wrong from the life she left behind. But it’s difficult to know who to trust here: no matter how charming, reticent or intimidating they outwardly appear, everyone seems an unwilling and unreliable narrator. Read more

Book Review: Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaëlle Giordano

I was intrigued by the title of this but didn’t know anything else about it, despite the fact that it’s sold 2 million copies. And for the purposes of this review, I’m going to shorten its title to Your Second Life Begins but first here’s a little more about it:

At thirty-eight and a quarter years old, Camille has everything she needs to be happy, or so it seems: a good job, a loving husband, a wonderful son. Why then does she feel as if happiness has slipped through her fingers? All she wants is to find the path to joy.

When Claude, a French Sean Connery lookalike and routinologist, offers his unique advice to help get her there, she seizes the opportunity with both hands. Camille’s journey is full of surprising adventures, creative capers and deep meaning, as she sets out to transform her life and realize her dreams one step at a time.

Your Second Life Begins is more of a self-help fable than the novel I was expecting, which meant that I initially struggled with the writing style, and didn’t feel as if the characters were fleshed out enough. I also found Camille a little too whiny: she runs to Claude at every little setback. But then once he’s given her a nudge in the right direction, she overcomes all obstacles, fairly easily, with optimum outcomes.

Or so it seems. That might not be a fair assessment because she does put in time and effort on the assignments Claude sets her. It’s just that it feels glossed over thanks to how Your Second Life Begins is written. I’m also aware that Camille needs to progress through the tasks and challenges reasonably quickly to keep the reader engaged but the transformations that come about in Camille and her life still seem too good to be true. That’s the cynic in me, though… and I’ll get back to you once I’ve finished working through them myself!

Your Second Life Begins is a quick and easy, upbeat read: I read it in one short sitting. Raphaëlle Giordano has come up with some really interesting challenges for anyone who wonders if this is it, and if their life could be improved. She collects them together at the end of the book, too, which is a great reference tool if you want to try any of them out, and it means you don’t have to jot them down while reading but simply enjoy following Camille’s journey instead. And some of the ways in which Claude encourages Camille to get out of her comfort zone and make changes to her life are amusing and entertaining, even if you may have to find your own alternative and won’t be able to try them all at home.

So, yes, I had a couple of issues with this book but I’m grateful that it came along when it did. I took so much from it: Your Second Life Begins made me look at things differently (never a waste of time), think about where I am and what makes me happy. This offbeat adventure in happiness is an insightful read.

Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One by Raphaëlle Giordano is published by Bantam, an imprint of Transworld. It is available as an audiobook and an ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery.

Raphaëlle Giordano is a writer, artist and expert in personal development. She lives in Paris, France. Your Second Life Begins When You Realise You Only Have One is her first novel.

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy via NetGalley

Book Review: Bone Deep by Sandra Ireland

Bone Deep seeps right into you, imbuing the reader with an inescapable sense of growing unease as local legend is told, more recent secrets are revealed and women unravel.

What happens when you fall in love with the wrong person?

The consequences threaten to be far-reaching and potentially deadly. Bone Deep is a contemporary novel of sibling rivalry, love, betrayal and murder. It is a dual narrative, told in alternative chapters by Mac, a woman bent on keeping the secrets of the past from her only son, and the enigmatic Lucie, whose own past is something of a closed book. Their story is underpinned by the creaking presence of an abandoned water mill, and haunted by the local legend of two long-dead sisters, themselves rivals in love, and ready to point an accusing finger from the pages of history.

Sandra Ireland made me feel for Lucie: she’s in the wrong but also effectively in exile for it, a banished damsel-in-distress, in astonishing denial about her situation, which becomes apparent to the reader and Mac long before she acknowledges it. And yet Lucie’s slightly more fathomable behaviour still manages to throw Mac’s into sharp relief.

While Mac’s secrets are not overly surprising, its her actions that are shocking and made my blood run cold. That she doesn’t find them disturbing reveals the toll they’ve taken on her and it’s fascinating to watch this woman unravel before us on the page. Are her only son’s fears about to be confirmed, or is she simply becoming consumed by her work and finding it increasingly difficult to separate fantasy from reality? Or is something altogether more sinister happening here?

I was as desperate as Lucie that Mac kept writing the sisters’ legend. It adds another dimension, making you wonder if it’s holding up a mythical mirror to the modern storylines, dooming these characters to repeat history, or whether their stories will diverge.

Sandra Ireland’s descriptive writing immersed me in Bone Deep’s world until I felt the damp in Lucie’s cottage and the draughts in Mac’s study, could feel the rumble of the mill grinding to life and *almost* taste Arthur’s pastries. Recommended reading.

Bone Deep by Sandra Ireland is published by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Limited. It is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. You can find out more about Sandra Ireland and her books by visiting her Author Website, or you can follow her on Twitter.

My thanks to the publisher and Lovereading UK for sending me a proof copy for review. This review also appears on the Lovereading UK website here

Book Review: Days of Wonder by Keith Stuart #DaysofWonderBook

I’m late posting this review because our book group decided to gift the book to one of our members who’s getting married this month. And she reads this blog, so I didn’t want to post my review in case she went out and bought it before we’d had a chance to give her the signed copy we’d organised. That’s now done (at a rather wonderful open-air book group meeting earlier this week) which leaves me free to let you all know how much I loved Keith Stuart’s second novel, Days of Wonder, and why it’s one of my top reads of the year so far. Here’s what it’s about:

Tom, single father to Hannah, is the manager of a tiny local theatre. On the same day each year, he and its colourful cast of part-time actors have staged a fantastical production just for his little girl, a moment of magic to make her childhood unforgettable.

But there is another reason behind these annual shows: the very first production followed Hannah’s diagnosis with a heart condition that both of them know will end her life early. And now, with Hannah a funny, tough girl of fifteen on the brink of adulthood, that time is coming.

With the theatre under threat of closure, Hannah and Tom have more than one fight on their hands to stop the stories ending. But maybe, just maybe, one final day of magic might just save them both.

The magical title and gorgeous cover held out the promise of recapturing some of the wonder I felt while reading Pamela Brown’s Swish of the Curtain theatre stories in my teens. And, while a young girl with a terminal heart condition might not sound like the basis for an uplifting story, I knew that Keith Stuart could conjure one up having read his debut novel A Boy Made of Blocks.

Tom is doing his best to navigate his daughter’s teenage years of exams and relationships and a growing need for privacy and independence with the competing demands of managing his daughter’s condition which requires constant vigilance and keeping the struggling local theatre open. Hannah wants to be as normal a teenager as possible while health setbacks remind her she isn’t and that her future is uncertain and limited. They’re characters I came to know well and really felt for, as the story progressed. The heart of the book is the tender father-daughter relationship and it feels true here; there is humour and affection alongside the secrets they keep and disagreements they have. I enjoyed the dynamic between these two. Read more

Book Review: The Collector by Fiona Cummins

Sometimes all I need to nudge me into reading a book I’ve been meaning to get to… is to discover that there’s a sequel coming out! Which is how I finally came to read Fiona Cummins’ Rattle and its sequel The Collector in such quick succession.

Jakey escaped with his life and moved to a new town. His rescue was a miracle but his parents know that the Collector is still out there, watching, waiting . . .

Clara, the girl he left behind, dreams of being found. Her mother is falling apart but she will not give up hope.

The Collector has found an apprentice to take over his family’s legacyBut he can’t forget the one who got away and the detective who destroyed his dreams.

DS Etta Fitzroy must hunt him down before his obsession destroys them all.

Fiona Cummins relocates the action from London to the East Coast of England in The Collector. It follows Jakey and his family as they try a fresh start in a new home, although Jakey is unsettled and senses that the Collector is never far away. And he’d be right; the Collector’s licking his wounds but he’s also considering starting over. When DS Etta Fitzroy is drawn East too, with a new partner in tow, in order to follow up a lead in her missing person’s case, all the players are in position and the macabre games can recommence. And I mean macabre. This seemed altogether darker and more disturbing than Rattle, not least because we see how the Collector sets up his new lair.

Having come to know Etta, Jakey, Clara and even the Collector in Rattle, I was already invested in them as characters but Fiona Cummins ups the ante in The Collector. And, interestingly, it’s the youngsters who come to the fore in this sequel as they battle to get the grown ups to believe them, stay sane and, most importantly, stay alive. I liked that they weren’t being helpless victims but actively trying to fight the demons they knew or sensed were close and how they found the strength and will to do so. Read more

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