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Book Review: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings #BeginAsStrangers #BlogTour

Harriet Cummings’ debut novel We All Begin As Strangers is inspired by real events that took place in her home town the year she was born. In providing her own take on the mysterious intruder ‘The Fox’, she weaves a contemporary tale of the loneliness, suspicion, gossip and misunderstandings rife even in the smallest community.

It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote. What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.

When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible. But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…

We All Begin As Strangers is split into four parts, each one told by a different Heathcote resident, starting with Deloris, the only female narrator, followed by Jim and Brian, and ending with Stan. This works well as long as you don’t get too attached to one narrator and their story, and is a boon if you don’t find another so easy. The change in narrator helps to give a real sense of movement around the streets and houses affected while also switching up the perspective. You get that character’s internalised thoughts together with how they behave towards the other residents, and how they’re viewed by the other resident-narrators. This helps shift your own view of Heathcote and its inhabitants as you get to know them better.

We’re not seeing these people at their best: they’re in crisis, responding to the unsettling threat of a home intrusion and the shocking disappearance of Anna which suggests the Fox is altogether a more sinister and dangerous creature. But often when people are under stress is precisely when it’s most revealing. Some people will find themselves or discover strengths they didn’t know they had while others will succumb to fear and allow their inner sheep mentality to take over. In We All Begin As Strangers, there are those helpers we should either always be or look for when something bad happens. But there are also suspicions no longer whispered but openly voiced and once chattering gossip takes the more threatening form of a braying mob looking for a scapegoat when the Fox proves elusive. It’s a fascinating look at how we behave towards others when under pressure or we feel threatened and seems a timely novel in that respect. Read more

Author Q&A and Book Review: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg #AllGrownUp #BlogTour

I’m excited to welcome New York Times best-selling author Jami Attenberg today as part of the blog tour for her latest novel, All Grown Up. Here’s who and what it’s all about:

Andrea is a single, childless 39-year-old woman who tries to navigate family, sexuality, friendships and a career she never wanted, but battles with thoughts and desires that few people would want to face up to. Told in gut-wrenchingly honest language that shimmers with rage and intimacy, All Grown Up poses such questions as:
– What if I don’t want to hold your baby?
– Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?
– What can I demand of my mother now that I am an adult?
– Is therapy pointless?
– At what point does drinking a lot become a drinking problem?
– Why does everyone keep asking me why I am not married? 

“I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”

Andrea walks and talks off the page right from the very beginning of the book. She’s such a ferociously real character that I still imagine her stalking around her NYC haunts. How did you come to her as your protagonist, and then go about putting together her background and choosing the stories she would tell the reader?
I tend to write short stories when I finish a novel in order to cleanse the palate between books. I wrote a story cycle from the perspective of an unnamed, single, childfree woman watching her friend achieve traditional milestones in life, i.e. get married, have a baby, etc. It was interesting to explore it but I didn’t want to write a book about it. After 150 pages of two other book projects I finally decided to go back to the book after giving it another stab. I figured out I didn’t have to write a single girl in the city book, that there was a way to break it and reinvent it. Part of that comes with the structure of the book, it being told in time-shifting short vignettes, as opposed to a linear narrative. As to how I put together her background, I have lived in New York City for eighteen years, so the landscape was all there for me. And then I just began to invent.

One of the aspects of reading All Grown Up I enjoyed was getting into the head of someone who lives a different life to my own. Andrea’s observations of the people and life around her were often acerbic, but at other times, really resonated with me: two examples that spring to mind are when Andrea talks about getting a gift for her friend who’s having a baby, and in particular, the way in which we lose some friends in life and how we’re unable to do anything to prevent that happening. What are you hoping your readers take away from reading All Grown Up?
Oh I think each reader is going to take away from it whatever they want to take away from it, or perhaps are capable of taking away from it. I can’t control that. I was trying to present a version of a modern woman and human being and all her flaws and strengths and also all the challenges and pressures she faces in society. I’ve been told it’s educating for some, and I’ve been told it’s validating for others. The book is going to do different things for different kinds of people. I certainly hope people enjoy the book too, though. It was meant to move quickly and be entertaining and consuming. Read more

Book Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti #SamuelHawley

Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley reminds me of adventure books I read as a child, but is the modern-day, grown-up version of them. It’s exactly the kind of book I search for on bookshop shelves. Which probably explains why I loved it.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter Loo to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death.

Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past – a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come.

Yes, the sniggering British kid in me stumbled over Loo’s name initially, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. She’s such a fiercely independent tomboy of an individual that the unusual moniker actually suits her. Besides, I didn’t want her to catch me giggling and use her rock-in-a-sock on me. (You’ll understand why, when you read the book.)

There’s so much I love about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: there’s the father-daughter relationship that’s central to the story, which changes from being self-sufficient when they’re on the road to still protective but prickly and no longer enough in Olympus. There’s the coastal setting of the town, with the inherent pressures and hardships of being reliant on the fishing industry amid mounting environmental concerns. There’s a life lived simply, with few possessions of value, all of which can be packed up at a moment’s notice. There’s that nomadic existence. There’s time spent outdoors, on bicycle and on foot, in a borrowed car, in woodland, on mudflats and cliffs, at the beach and out to sea. There are characters who don’t fit neatly into society’s expectations, but rage against them, flawed and full of life, and fight and passion. There’s realising what’s important in this life. There’s LOVE but there’s also loss. There’s friendship and family. There’s repulsion and attraction, tenderness and violence. There’s bullying and fighting, protesting and protecting. There are some mysteries for Loo (and the reader) to solve: her dead mother, and her very much alive, if singular, grandmother. There’s a young girl trying to figure out her present and what she wants for her future, while her father can’t shake off the past which is threatening to consume him and everything he loves. And there are twelve bullet wounds with a story behind each one. Read more

Author Interview: Louise Walters #ALifeBetweenUs

Last Thursday, I reviewed A Life Between Us. Today I’m delighted to welcome Louise Walters to the Nut Press to talk about her second novel.

Louise, I’m interested in where A Life Between Us began for you. 
I started with one character, Tina (called Nell initially), and I knew she was missing somebody important. Everything else followed on from that.

Do you think the story would have worked so well, had Tina and Meg been sisters but not twins?
Probably not; I think I ended up making them twins because of the overwhelming sense of loss Tina experiences. I think I needed the twin relationship to justify the way Tina behaves.

What is it about twins that fascinates? Is that relationship something you’ve been wanting to explore? And how did you go about researching and writing the bond between twins?
The twin thing was a later development. At first Tina talked to an imaginary friend, who became her dead sister, who became her dead twin sister. I didn’t research a great deal, to be honest. I just needed to get to know Tina, and understand the way she thinks and feels.

My dad is a twin, and I suppose I may have learned a few things over the years about twins! There is a strong bond between my dad and his twin brother. It seems unbreakable at times. But of course in A Life Between Us the bond is broken and poor Tina does not adjust.

How did you approach writing Meg, the dead twin? Was she a manifestation of a need within Tina or a ghost or a remnant because they were twins and had a close bond?
Meg was fun to write. I don’t know if she is “real” (ie, appears as a ghost to Tina) or if she is just a figment of Tina’s imagination – the result of Tina not coming to terms with Meg’s death in 1976. I have left it for the reader to decide if there is a “real” haunting going on here, or if it’s all in Tina’s head.

How did you decide when to set the novel, and how much leeway did you have in deciding which dates to use?
I knew I would be exploring Tina’s 1970s childhood, and as I got into the story I decided I needed to go further back to other characters’ childhoods too. It all became rather complicated for a while, and I had to disentangle lots of knots. Read more

Book Review: A Life Between Us by Louise Walters #ALifeBetweenUs

If, as I did, you really enjoyed Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, you’ll be happy to know that Louise Walters’ second book is out now. (And if you’ve yet to discover her, I’ll happily add to your TBR.) Here’s what the so very aptly-titled A Life Between Us is about:

Tina’s sister Meg died in a childhood accident, but for almost forty years Tina has secretly blamed herself for her twin’s death. During a visit to her Uncle Edward and his sister Lucia, who both harbour dark secrets of their own, Tina makes a discovery that forces her to question her memories of the day Meg died. 

As Tina finds the courage to face the past, she unravels the mysteries of her estranged parents, her beautiful Aunt Simone, the fading, compassionate Uncle Edward, and above all, the cold, bitter Aunt Lucia, whose spectral presence casts a long shadow over them all. 

Louise Walters’ novel shows to devastating effect how traumatic events in early childhood and adolescence can impact on someone: how with the right help, we might learn to cope, but without, they may colour the rest of our lives. While Tina can’t remember everything that happened on the day Meg died, it’s continued to haunt her, as has Meg, ever since. It’s also having such a damaging impact that her present state of mind and the future of her marriage are both in jeopardy.

If you believe in the bonds that tie us to loved ones, let alone the special connection which exists between twins, you’ll have little problem with the fact that Tina still talks to her dead twin, Meg. On a regular basis. It’s less a haunting than a continued need within Tina to have as a sounding board her sister, the only person who’s ever understood her properly. Meg was always the more confident and less fearless of the two, and it’s no wonder that Tina still looks to her sister for guidance and support beyond the grave. Tina’s husband tries but he’s distracted at work and his patience is wearing thin; more and more he simply urges her to seek professional help. And she finds precious little help elsewhere, though that may be changing thanks to the tentative beginnings of a new friendship.

In order to understand the adult, it helps to know the child that came before and Louise Walters cleverly helps us do so by including letters Tina writes to a pen pal, her cousin Elizabeth in America. It’s fascinating to read about events from young Tina’s perspective and see the truths only children can, while also wincing at how badly she misreads or misunderstands other situations. Read more

Book Review: Summary Justice by John Fairfax #SummaryJustice #BlogTour

The lawyer in me was attracted to the title and striking cover of Summary Justice, which led me to expect this to be about a legal battle against all the odds, even though unfamiliar with the author’s name. (Which as it turns out is a pen name.) Once I read the following blurb, I knew I had to read it.

The last time Tess de Vere saw William Benson she was a law student on work experience. He was a twenty-one year old, led from the dock of the Old Bailey to begin a life sentence for murder. He’d said he was innocent. She’d believed him.

Sixteen years later Tess overhears a couple of hacks mocking a newcomer to the London Bar, a no-hoper with a murder conviction, running his own show from an old fishmonger’s in Spitalfields. That night she walks back into Benson’s life. The price of his rehabilitation – and access to the Bar – is an admission of guilt to the killing of Paul Harbeton, whose family have vowed revenge. He’s an outcast. The government wants to shut him down and no solicitor will instruct him. But he’s subsidised by a mystery benefactor and a desperate woman has turned to him for help: Sarah Collingstone, mother of a child with special needs, accused of slaying her wealthy lover. It’s a hopeless case and the murder trial, Benson’s first, starts in four days. The evidence is overwhelming but like Benson long ago, she swears she’s innocent. Tess joins the defence team, determined to help Benson survive. But as Benson follows the twists and turns in the courtroom, Tess embarks upon a secret investigation of her own, determined to uncover the truth behind the death of Paul Harbeton on a lonely night in Soho.

You can’t get much more flawed as a criminal lawyer than if you’ve been convicted of murder, so even before you know much more about William Benson, you wonder why he did what he did, if he even did what he was convicted of, and why he’s now back in court but this time as counsel. He’s an intriguing character and one that we start to get to know throughout Summary Justice. I say start, because as this is the first book in an intended series, the reader won’t know everything by the end, even if the story threads are tidied up neatly enough to satisfy most readers while still leaving some unanswered questions to ponder until the next book in the series comes out.

It’s also interesting for two characters to have a past connection or shared history and meet years later, especially if there’s a shift in the dynamic as here. When William Benson and Tess de Vere first met, one was the defendant in a murder trial, the other a law student taken to court to observe law in practice. When they next meet, it’s after he’s studied law while serving some of his sentence, and is today not only out on licence but qualified as a barrister. Tess is also qualified, but as a solicitor rather than barrister, and she’s making a name for herself, currently in a respected London law firm. Although they’re both technically and professionally on the same side of the law now, it seems a part of William Benson will forever be classed, and treated, differently. Despite his apparent rehabilitation, some will always see the criminal in him, the murderer, and nothing beyond that.

If Summary Justice has such a memorable backstory, the present-day case also needs to be a good one so it’s not overshadowed, and it certainly is that. A single mother with a disabled son accused of murder in what appears to be an open and shut case. But nothing’s ever that straightforward and with only days to go before trial, Tess joins forces with Benson and his equally unusual clerk to delve deeper into it and come up with some answers, and a defence for their client. Read more

Book Review: The Method by Shannon Kirk #TheMethod #BlogTour

If you’re looking for a strong central character and are tired of female characters being portrayed as helpless, always waiting on a man to save or rescue them rather than doing the job themselves, then Shannon Kirk’s The Method might be the book for you.

You’re sixteen, you’re pregnant and you’ve been kidnapped.

If you’re anyone else you give in, but if you’re a manipulative prodigy you fight back in the only way you can. You use what you’ve been given against your captors.

You have only one chance to save your life and that of your unborn child. You’re calculating, methodical, and as your kidnappers are about to discover, they made a big mistake in abducting you.

What happens when the victim is just as dangerous as the captors?

It was the book’s blurb that first made me want to read The Method. The premise is as intriguing and different as its main protagonist. A pregnant teen doesn’t sound like your average victim, so while I had my suspicions about why she was targeted, I needed to know for certain what and who were behind her disappearance. And, as quickly becomes apparent, her kidnappers might have chosen the wrong girl. If they thought they were choosing a vulnerable and troubled teenager, they’re about to find out the extent to which appearances can be deceiving and just how fatal an error underestimating someone is.

For our narrator is anything but victim material: she’s already survived one traumatic event in her childhood. She has been raised to be one of life’s survivors. That, together with the pretty unusual skill-set she’s honed, means that this girl is about to turn her time in captivity into one big science project. And while some of her calculations are of their nature repetitive, as she finds a pattern to her days, there are also enough slight twists and upsets that this isn’t a huge problem. Besides, it’s interesting to try and work out if and how she’ll use each asset she identifies and labels throughout the book, and here Shannon Kirk will misdirect you, before reaching Show and Tell day.

Read more

Book Review: Cursed by Thomas Enger #Cursed #BlogTour

Cursed is the fourth book in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series but my first introduction to both the author and his investigative journalist protagonist and it works well as a stand-alone.

What secret would you kill to protect?

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests.

Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-­wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Norway’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-­wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history.

I have to confess that I initially chose to read this because, while the bulk of the action takes place in Norway, there was a Swedish connection. And I had a shiver of excitement reading the first page of the prologue to Cursed, which opens with a scene in Sweden and mentions the death of a character called Gunilla because when I was in Sweden I wrote a short story about a woman whose name is Gunilla and is sadly dead by the end. It felt as if my story was in some small way handing over the baton, or talking to Thomas Enger’s much better and far more polished novel. I got a kick out of that idea anyway but enough self-indulgence and back to what I made of Cursed.

I thoroughly enjoyed how the novel is told in dual narrative, Henning Juul taking one strand, and his ex-wife, Nora, also a journalist, the other. I liked seeing how they approached their work, bumped up against each other as they navigated life apart and after the death of their son, and tried to work out at which point the stories they were investigating might find some overlap. Henning and Nora are very different characters but interesting and strong enough in their own right to carry their part of the story when the other is off the page and it gives Cursed a very contemporary feel, having these two former partners still caring for each other and with a connection but also dealing with this next stage of their lives. Read more

Book Review: The Long Drop by Denise Mina

Denise Mina’s The Long Drop is a stunning standalone novel which uses as its inspiration the case of one of Scotland’s worst serial killers. I was lucky enough to read the first chapter almost a year ago. Happily, I not only managed to resist googling the real-life people and crimes but didn’t have to wait until today’s publication date to satisfy my whetted appetite when the publisher sent me an early proof copy.

William Watt wants answers about his family’s murder. Peter Manuel has them. But Peter Manuel is a liar.

William Watt is an ordinary businessman, a fool, a social climber.

Peter Manuel is a famous liar, a rapist, a criminal. He claims he can get hold of the gun used to murder Watt’s family.

One December night in 1957, Watt meets Manuel in a Glasgow bar to find out what he knows.

Denise Mina certainly knows how to hook her reader. Her scene-setting is wonderful: in only the fourth paragraph, she shows you what Glasgow had been like, what it will become (the Glasgow most readers who’ve been there will know today) but then spirals you back to how it is at the time of the action about to unfold. So cleverly done. And then she walks two of her characters through this Glasgow, building the atmosphere and tension, until they meet the third and the game can commence. This is how it felt to me. That people were manoeuvring; positioning themselves but you don’t know what the play will be, or who’s on which side, except that everyone may well be only out for themselves.

Some of Denise Mina’s character description appears almost casual, a throwaway phrase, but it’s oh so telling. Very quickly, she sets her scene, fleshes out three fascinating but disparate characters as William Watt is taken by his lawyer, Laurence Dowdall, to meet a man with information about the Burnside Affair (brutal crimes carried out on Watt’s family). A man who was only recently released from prison. A man even Laurence Dowdall, Glasgow’s top criminal lawyer, clearly is wary of and even fears. Peter Manuel. Read more

Happy St David’s Day! Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

I was at a St David’s Day lunch today with about 30 Welsh people, one Scot and an Englishman.

Nothing so unusual about that, I hear you say. It is St David’s Day, after all, Kath.

But I’m not currently at home in Wales.

I left there on Sunday, crossed the border, wound my way through a spa town, past ancient stones and into a forest of ponies before boarding a boat in the black of night, the wind whipping my hair and scarf about me like Medusa’s familiars, to cross the inky waters.

Yes, I’m on the Isle of Wight.

We used to live here once upon a time.

I left to go to university but Mum and Dad and my brother stayed on until I’d finally settled in one place long enough for them to follow me up to Wales.

Mum and Dad were given life membership of the Isle of Wight Welsh Society as a parting gift and used to make an annual pilgrimage for the lunch.

Now that Dad’s no longer with us, if I’m able to take the time off, I make the trip with her.

Which is why once a year my Scottish mother and I (and Squizzey, who loves a good road trip) leave Wales and journey to an island off the south coast of England to celebrate the patron saint of the Land of My Father.

Happy St David’s Day! Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!