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Book Review: The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Writing under the very Brontë-esque pen name of Bella Ellis, Rowan Coleman has come up with a delicious premise for a new series featuring the Brontë sisters before they became published authors. The Vanished Bride is their first outing as detectors.

Yorkshire, 1845. A young woman has gone missing from her home, Chester Grange, leaving no trace, save a large pool of blood in her bedroom and a slew of dark rumours about her marriage. A few miles away across the moors, the daughters of a humble parson, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are horrified, yet intrigued.

The path to the truth is not an easy one, especially in a society which believes a woman’s place to be in the home, not wandering the countryside looking for clues. But nothing will stop the sisters from discovering what happened to the vanished bride, even as they find their own lives are in great peril…

I’m always a little wary when someone reimagines or writes a mashup of a classic novel but when they’re done well, as in the case of Jo Baker’s Longbourn or Alison Case’s Nelly Dean, they can add a new dimension to the world and characters of the original, as well as being enjoyable in their own right. Happily, given how deftly she achieves both these things in the first of her Brontë Mysteries series, I can now add Bella Ellis’s The Vanished Bride to this list.

Bella Ellis writes the landscape so well and breathes life into the parsonage at Haworth that I had little difficulty in accepting her version of the sisters at work and leisure, and from there, it wasn’t too much of a leap to follow them into these new roles as detectors. I had fun spotting landmarks from their real and imagined geography and personal items I either remember reading about or having seen at the museum in Haworth. I also liked how some scenes in The Vanished Bride suggest where the inspiration for key scenes in the sisters’ own books might have come from.

I think The Vanished Bride works so well because its author doesn’t skimp on any of the elements that go to make up the story, so one doesn’t suffer at the expense of another or ever feel flimsy. Both the central mystery and the depiction of the sisters and the world they inhabit are equally satisfying and strong strands that each hold their own throughout. Read more

Book Review: The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare

Horatio Clare writes with great candour and generosity in The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal, offering a fierce flicker of hope to others in this illuminating contemplation of his own depression.

As November stubs out the glow of autumn and the days tighten into shorter hours, winter’s occupation begins. Preparing for winter has its own rhythms, as old as our exchanges with the land. Of all the seasons, it draws us together. But winter can be tough. 

It is a time of introspection, of looking inwards. Seasonal sadness; winter blues; depression – such feelings are widespread in the darker months. But by looking outwards, by being in and observing nature, we can appreciate its rhythms. Mountains make sense in any weather. The voices of a wood always speak consolation. A brush of frost; subtle colours; days as bright as a magpie’s cackle. We can learn to see and celebrate winter in all its shadows and lights.

When Clare’s early September birthday prompts thoughts of winter, a season he’s struggled through in recent years, he recalls how: “Last winter I thought I would go mad with depression. I was mad, but aware-mad, at least.

Clare tries to find and harness winter’s beauty and light to help him function better and be more present for his family. His journal is an attempt to avoid being pulled under again, by bleak weather and drab washed-out colours; loss of daylight and warmth; layers that muffle sound and feeling and by the withdrawal or hibernation of living creatures.

He might not stave off his depression but where he was “aware-mad” last winter, I’d say he’s “aware-depressed” here. In noting down and describing what he sees, he conducts a remarkable reappraisal of what some consider to be a dead season, discovering the colour and beauty of winter, and finding life in muted, often lonely isolation.

Clare’s ferocious love for his family and the natural world comes through in this lyrical and moving record of his debilitating battle with depression. Its pages whisper hope and come with a promise that, no matter how weak or subdued, the light is still there in winter. Horatio Clare reveals the truth in this through being an admirably honest and tenacious torchbearer here, and by opening himself up to others, he encapsulates The Light in the Dark.

The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal by Horatio Clare is published by Elliot & Thompson. It is available as an ebook, in hardback and in paperback from 3 October. You can find it at Amazon UK or instead buy it from Hive where every purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop. For more on the author and his writing, check out his Author Website or find him on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher and LoveReading for providing me with a review copy. This review first appeared on LoveReading’s website here.

Book Review: Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke

Heaven, My Home, the second book in Attica Locke’s Highway 59 series, uses a child’s disappearance to devastating effect in order to explore displacement, reconciliation and just what home means to people.

Nine-year-old Levi King knew he should have left for home sooner; instead he found himself all alone, adrift on the vastness of Caddo Lake. A sudden noise – and all goes dark.

Ranger Darren Matthews’ career and reputation lie in the hands of his mother, who’s never exactly had his best interests at heart, and she’s not above a little blackmail to press her advantage.

An unlikely possibility of rescue arrives in the form of a case down Highway 59, in a small lakeside town. In deep country where the rule of law only goes so far, Darren has to battle centuries-old prejudices as he races to save not only Levi King, but himself.

There’s a real sense of urgency to Heaven, My Home which doesn’t only stem from the length of time that a young boy’s been missing from his home. The countdown to Trump’s inauguration is running, bringing with it the potential for new priorities being set for Texas Ranger Darren Matthews’ department. Darren and his Ranger friends have registered this shift and already seen an upsurge in a more blatant form of racially-motivated crimes. They also sense that they might be running out of time to pursue certain lines of inquiry, particularly those involving the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas (ABT).

Darren’s lieutenant sees an opportunity to do something about that in this sequel to Bluebird, Bluebird, which I reviewed here. When the feds want a Ranger from the ABT task force involved, he volunteers Darren, sending him into a racially-charged war of attrition between an established and lawful black community living alongside Native Texan Indians on the shores of Caddo Lake and the more recent, and predominantly white, trailer park encroaching upon it.

Upon his arrival on the scene, Locke’s Texas Ranger is exposed to animosity from people who show scant regard for his badge in their dealings with him. I couldn’t help but feel that in trying to escape his mother’s blackmail and the pressure from not yet having been cleared of his involvement in a case back home, he’d jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. Read more

Book Review: The Mermaid’s Call by Katherine Stansfield

Katherine Stansfield’s Cornish Mysteries series moves to the unforgiving North Cornwall coast where Shilly and Anna are to investigate whether The Mermaid’s Call lured a man to his death.

Cornwall, 1845. Shilly has always felt a connection to happenings that are not of this world, a talent that has proved invaluable when investigating dark deeds with master of disguise, Anna Drake. The women opened a detective agency with help from their newest member and investor, Mathilda, but six long months have passed without a single case to solve and tensions are growing.  

It is almost a relief when a man is found dead along the Morwenstow coast and the agency is sought out to investigate. There are suspicions that wreckers plague the coast, luring ships to their ruin with false lights – though nothing has ever been proved. Yet with the local talk of sirens calling victims to the sea to meet their end, could something other-worldly be responsible for the man’s death?

A slightly more compact hardback for this third book in the Cornish Mysteries series but the cover is every bit as eye-catching and beautiful as those of its predecessors: Falling Creatures and The Magpie Tree.

When the book opens, we find Shilly and Anna on the coast in Boscastle, renting rooms above a butcher’s shop. They’re joined by Mathilda, who also appeared in The Magpie Tree, as they wait for a new case. It comes to their rooms in the shape of a drowned man:

He was soaked. Not just his clothes but his skin, too… the water seemed to pour from him… His broad face was coarse with stubble. This made him seem grey… He surely had come to us from the bottom of the sea.

Reading this whole scene where the captain describes the dream that brought him so abruptly home from sea, and which ends with Shilly describing someone: “As if she was the sea herself” was so powerful that I became fully immersed in the story and barely surfaced again until I’d finished The Mermaid’s Call.

Shilly and Anna’s investigations take them further up the coast from Boscastle to Bude and Morwenstow and Katherine Stansfield uses her poetic powers to fully realise this part of Cornwall within the pages of The Mermaid’s Call. I was dragged through the cloying mud in the lanes and fields, overwhelmed by the creeping stench in the churchyard, felt the pull of the clamouring sea beyond the cliffs and sensed myself being buffeted across the windswept fields towards them. Read more

Let’s play Spot the Difference with my 2019 #20BooksOfSummer Challenge

This was my first year taking part in the #20BooksOfSummer challenge run by Cathy over at 746 Books and it proved to be an interesting exercise for me. Not least because while I succeeded in reading more than 20 books (managing 29 in total over the 3-month period), I only stuck to half of my original selection which you can find here. The books I actually read are in the photo above (minus ebooks and a library book), with the ten books in the column on the left those initially chosen for the Challenge.

How did the books on the right replace the originals on my list and become part of my revised #20BooksOfSummer? Easy. They probably should have been there all along. I’d wanted to read and had agreed to review some, such as Something to Live For, Inland, The Light in the Dark & The Day We Meet Again; I was interviewing Laura Kemp at the Penarth Literary Festival in June, and prepped by reading The Year of Surprising Acts of Kindness & Bring Me Sunshine; I hadn’t included all the book group choices for the summer, which added The Doll Factory, The Immortalists & The Lost Letters of William Woolf to the list; and I also wanted to read a friend’s book, Widow’s Welcome, before its launch in August.

The additional books read were 7 ebooks, one proof copy and a library book: The Winker by Andrew Martin; The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby; Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill; Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas; The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney; Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane; The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville. The proof I read was Looker by Laura Sims and the sole library book was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Thanks, I think in part, because I was on the road for 3 weeks over the summer, which made returns tricky.

I wasn’t very good at posting reviews as I read and instead concentrated on posting those I’d agreed to do to tie in with release dates or for blog tours. If I do this challenge again next year, that’s an area I could improve upon. As is reading posts by others taking part in the challenge. Read more

Book Review: Widow’s Welcome by D.K. Fields

Widow’s Welcome is the first book in the Tales of Fenest trilogy, set in a world where elections turn on the stories Realms tell, determining which one rules and when power passes to another.

Dead bodies aren’t unusual in the alleyways of Fenest, capital of the Union of Realms. Especially not in an election year, when the streets swell with crowds from near and far. Muggings, brawls gone bad, debts collected – Detective Cora Gorderheim has seen it all. Until she finds a Wayward man with his mouth sewn shut.

His body has been arranged precisely by the killer and left conspicuously, waiting to be found. Cora fears this is not only a murder, but a message.

As she digs into the dead man’s past, she finds herself drawn into the most dangerous event in the Union: the election. In a world where stories win votes, someone has gone to a lot of trouble to silence this man. Who has stopped his story being told?

For a book set in a world where power emanates from stories, it seems only fitting that there are stories within stories in Widow’s Welcome. Here we’re told the election stories from two of the six Realms, the Casker and the Lowlander, with two more to come in each of the subsequent books. They’re very different stories but telling in what each one reveals about the Realm it represents and how the wider world within which those Realms reside, functions. I enjoyed seeing layer upon layer slowly uncovered as I progressed further into the world of the book, and am keen to learn more as the series continues.

I don’t completely understand how the Swaying Audience works just yet, and am hoping this is something that becomes clearer with the next two books. I kept flicking back to the index at the beginning to try and get a better handle on them and what the gods represent. In some cases, it’s clear enough, but in others, it’s less obvious or they cover multiple things, not all of which share an obvious or immediate connection.

The election stories are framed by a murder-mystery and this helped to lodge the book in more familiar territory for me, while the Realms and their relationships to one another remained more of a mystery. That’s not to say that the case isn’t an unusual one but we do at least have a police force in the Union of Realms and a detective to investigate it. She’s a young detective called Cora Gorderheim and her family backstory is riddled with secrets and one likely to be teased out over the course of the trilogy.

It might sound confusing to have so many stories to contend with but each election story is long enough to be immersive while you’re reading it but not so long that you forget or lose the thread of where Cora’s investigation takes her. In fact, every time I heard Cora’s distinctive voice, it worked like a tuning fork, bringing me back to Fenest after each Realm’s story had been told, and focusing me once again on the case she’s working. Read more

Book Review: The Day We Meet Again by Miranda Dickinson

Miranda Dickinson’s latest book The Day We Meet Again is out today. A tale of friendship, finding yourself and being brave, it lives up to all my eager anticipation for this new novel from her.

Their love story started with goodbye…

Phoebe and Sam meet by chance at St Pancras station. Heading in opposite directions, both seeking their own adventures, meeting the love of their lives wasn’t part of the plan. So they make a promise: to meet again in the same place in twelve months’ time if they still want to be together.

But is life ever as simple as that?

I’ve always found railway stations interesting places to linger in, an integral part of any journey I go on. And here, Miranda Dickinson taps into the magic that sometimes swirls through a railway station with its propensity for bringing strangers together. London’s St Pancras, the station in The Day We Meet Again, will play an important role in Sam and Phoebe’s stories and even take on a new significance for them as time goes on.

I enjoyed seeing where and how Sam and Phoebe meet and, as they get to know each other, I could certainly feel the pull of their mutual attraction. I was also hugely relieved when they continued on with their planned journeys because I felt these were important. They each needed to find themselves, come to terms with their past or work out what they wanted, or didn’t want from life, before committing to anything new, while also testing how they felt about each other over the course of the coming year.

The alternating chapters worked really well in keeping the story moving along, and showing the same event from their two (often different or confused) perspectives. Miranda also showed to good effect how miscommunication can still be rife, even with every modern tool we have available to us, and that these are still often but poor substitutes for face-to-face contact.

One of the aspects I particularly like about any Miranda Dickinson novel is the community she creates around the central couple, and in The Day We Meet Again, we have several different ones in the friendship groups, new and old, for both characters. I could gauge a lot about the main characters from how their friends treated them and looked out for them, and vice versa.    Read more

Book Review: The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts

The Flower Girls is anything but the sweet story of childhood innocence its title might suggest, as Alice Clark-Platt’s novel deals with the disturbing and highly emotive subject of child abduction and murder where the perpetrators were children themselves.

THREE CHILDREN WENT OUT TO PLAY. ONLY TWO CAME BACK. 

The Flower Girls. Laurel and Primrose. 

One convicted of murder, the other given a new identity.

Now, nineteen years later, another child has gone missing.

And the Flower Girls are about to hit the headlines all over again…

The Flower Girls is what the media dubbed sisters Laurel (10) and Primrose (6) after they went on trial for the murder of a child who went missing. Laurel ended up going to prison where she still is to this day, while Primrose was given a new identity. One that is now in danger of being exposed 19 years later when Hazel (fka Primrose) is away for New Year with her partner and his daughter and a little girl goes missing from the hotel where they’re all staying.

It’s clever of Alice Clark-Platt to not only place Hazel in the vicinity of this latest missing girl but in the exact same hotel as the child was staying with her parents, as it helps to provide a heightened sense of what Hazel’s life must have been like since she was given her new identity.

When guests are confined to the hotel, it brings home the claustrophobia and fear of detection Hazel has felt for the past 19 years, living under the dally threat of being found and exposed by those who either don’t believe she deserved to be given a second chance and/or who are looking for a scoop.

The danger of being exposed could also prove damaging to older sister Laurel’s upcoming case review before the parole board, and help re-ignite the campaign against her release.

By framing The Flower Girls’ story within the present-day missing child case, Alice Clark-Platt shows the raw emotions of everyone involved in the immediate aftermath of a child’s disappearance, how the situation evolves with every passing minute she remains unaccounted for, together with the longer term impact on those involved in such a polarising case. But she’s also able to look at how a sensational case that hit the headlines still resonates, and is raked over again with each new case that’s reported. Read more

Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Christy Lefteri’s own experiences of working as a volunteer with refugees in Athens inspired and inform her moving and thought-provoking novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.

Christy Lefteri centres her novel around one couple to relate this story of the Syrian refugee experience; there are friends of theirs and others we meet along the way, but this is essentially Nuri and Afra’s tale to tell. Which is, ultimately, what makes The Beekeeper of Aleppo so powerful and affecting.

By paring down the statistics, which sadly became the alarmist’s source for scare tactics about refugees to some in this country, Lefteri strips back the numbers to reveal two of the human beings behind them. And, in doing so, she offers us a more immediate and relatable story, reminding us that refugees are people, human beings just as you and I are.

Nuri and Afra are fairly ordinary, people who would have been quite content to live their entire lives in Aleppo. Their life together, their contentment with it, together with their love for each other, their family and friends, and their homeland comes through in the scenes of life before the unrest. By giving us a flavour of this, Christy Lefteri quickly made me warm towards them and like them as a couple.

When she showed me what they had to endure as the conflict encroached more and more upon their daily lives, ultimately forcing them into making the difficult decision to leave their home, my understanding of their situation, and sympathy towards them, was already in place. I was invested in them as characters.

Read more

Book Review: The Winker by Andrew Martin

Set in the heatwave summer of 1976 and moving between London’s Soho, Oxford, Paris and the South of France, Andrew Martin’s latest novel The Winker is a world away from his previous one, end of the 18th century York-set Soot, reviewed here.

London, 1976. In Belgravia in the heat of summer, Lee Jones, a faded and embittered rock star, is checking out a group of women through the heavy cigarette smoke in a crowded pub. He makes eye contact with one, and winks. After allowing glances to linger for a while longer, he finally moves towards her. In that moment, his programme of terror – years in the making – has begun.

Charles Underhill, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris, has good reason to be interested in the activities of the so-called Winking Killer. With a past to hide and his future precarious, Charles is determined to discover the Winker’s identity.

Andrew Martin breathes life into a small section of Paris, taking us strolling through the stylish and sensory arrondissement where Charles lives, as he shuttles between the confines of his life in exile from his apartment to the park, the paper kiosk, the cafe, and back again.

He creates the world of The Winker with fine period detail and close attention to the dire fashions of the day, helping to set the cocky main character of Lee Jones at his ease among the swirling smoke and clamouring bars of seventies Soho, confident that he can control this home environment and almost courting being apprehended.

I particularly enjoyed Lee’s interviews with the journalist and thought these provided an insight into his character that I would have been sorry to miss out on. They show a side to Lee that I think we all have to a greater or lesser extent – the need to play the lead role (or be the lead singer) in your own life story (or band) – but which, in Lee’s case, he considers to be worthy of nothing short of a celebrity turn.

When he picked up his guitar, I willed him to focus on the new songs he was writing, instead of embarking upon his campaign of terror, but figured that he would have been doing that already, had his songwriting been any good and if it hadn’t seemed to find inspiration in his new calling. Read more

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