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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

Book Review: If I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch

The title of Emily Koch’s debut novel, If I Die Before I Wake, snagged my interest and its tagline ‘How do you solve your own murder?’, only intrigued me further, so I read the blurb (below). Not only did I want to hear Alex’s story but I also needed to see how Emily Koch was going to make the telling of it work.

HOW DO YOU SOLVE YOUR OWN MURDER?

Everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen.

But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn’t really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger.

As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go.

If you’re willing to suspend disbelief as to how many of the conversations Alex needs to eavesdrop on in order to solve this case are conveniently carried out in his hospital room, I think you’ll enjoy reading this as much as I did. Given how incapacitated Alex is, this suspension of disbelief came surprisingly easily. Despite strenuous effort on his part, he fails to manage to communicate with either medical staff or his friends and family resulting in them being more frank in his presence than might otherwise have been the case or their talking over him as if he’s no longer there, and already as good as dead.

What carries this through for me is how much Emily Koch is able to put you in Alex’s bed, so to speak. I don’t think it would work nearly as well, if she didn’t spend as much time and description on Alex and the frustrating limitations he is up against. She not only puts you in his head but gives you an Alex-eye view of what it’s like to lie in that hospital bed, incapacitated, unable to communicate on the most basic of levels and frustrated by his inability to do so yet still mentally agile and with a mystery to solve.

I enjoyed this because it was sufficiently different thanks to Alex’s condition, the fact that he’s the one trying to solve the mystery, and the obstacles this places in his way of working out how he ended up in a hospital bed, and why. If I Die Before I Wake is a refreshingly different thriller and a surprisingly tense adrenalin ride of a novel considering it all takes place in a hospital room.

If I Die Before I Wake by Emily Koch is published by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It is available as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones or Wordery. You can find out more about Emily Koch and her writing on her Author Website or by following her on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

*GIVEAWAY* I have one hardback of If I Die Before I Wake to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner at the end of the week. 

Book Review: The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings

Devastating and deliciously dark, The Cliff House is less wish-fulfilment and more of a clever and disturbing reminder that things are rarely (if ever) how they appear on the surface.

Some friendships are made to be broken

Cornwall, summer of 1986.

The Davenports, with their fast cars and glamorous clothes, living the dream in a breathtaking house overlooking the sea.

If only… thinks sixteen-year-old Tamsyn, her binoculars trained on the perfect family in their perfect home. If only her life was as perfect as theirs. If only Edie Davenport would be her friend. If only she lived at The Cliff House…

What starts as a heady summer of escape and friendship on the North Cornwall coast soon takes a decidedly darker turn, one as black as the swimming pool around which much of the action takes place, in this novel of contrasts.

Tamsyn and Edie’s families illustrate the conflicting interests: locals looking for work and affordable housing in a place that daily reminds them of what they’ve lost; and holiday home owners longing for escape in an enviable property out of reach to most people, especially locals, while bringing seasonal work and spending power.

The Cliff House is the story of a place as much as the two families it brings together and Amanda Jennings makes its presence felt by breathing life into the house and the stretch of coast it sits on.

She also cleverly shows the light and dark of each character and place, and how changeable these are. As I learned more about each character, my perception of them changed and sympathies continually realigned while reading, which kept me on edge throughout.

As moody and intense as its teen protagonists and Cornish coastline, The Cliff House is a clever and twisted tale of the devastation caused when obsession, envy and grief run wild one summer, and which Amanda Jennings brings to a chilling yet fitting conclusion. Highly recommended.

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings is published by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins. It is available in 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. To find out more about Amanda Jennings and her books, check out her Author Website or find her on Facebook, on Instagram or on Twitter

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

Book Review: The Lido by Libby Page #LoveTheLido

Libby Page’s debut novel The Lido has been on my book radar from the moment I first heard about it on Twitter. My own local lido reopened in 2015 (after lottery funding enabled its restoration) and a novel set around one under threat sounded interesting. That it also had at its heart an age-gap relationship between two women made it all the more appealing to me, as I’m lucky enough to have some great intergenerational friendships. Here’s what it’s about:

Meet Rosemary, 86, and Kate, 26: dreamers, campaigners, outdoor swimmers…

Rosemary has lived in Brixton all her life, but everything she knows is changing. Only the local lido, where she swims every day, remains a constant reminder of the past and her beloved husband George.

Kate has just moved and feels adrift in a city that is too big for her. She’s on the bottom rung of her career as a local journalist, and is determined to make something of it.

So when the lido is threatened with closure, Kate knows this story could be her chance to shine. But for Rosemary, it could be the end of everything. Together they are determined to make a stand, and to prove that the pool is more than just a place to swim – it is the heart of the community.

There’s a lot to love about The Lido, and its two main characters are key to this. I think most people will identify with Kate’s feelings of loneliness and anxiety in a big city, whether or not they’ve experienced it for themselves, and how she perceives other people’s lives either through social media or thanks to family dynamics closer to home. Or they’ll feel for the character of recently-widowed Rosemary, her love of the lido closely linked to that of her husband, the water giving her a freedom and grace she no longer feels on land, and the ways in which she touches the lives of those around her. She made me hope that everyone has at least one Rosemary in their lives. I know I do, and I’m grateful for them. They know who they are.

It didn’t take me long before I was willing both of these women on to succeed in their personal battles, as well as the more publicly-fought fight to save the lido. Around these two, Libby Page sketches in a community of people: some are more successfully done than others. I didn’t quite get a handle on Phil the paper’s editor, Jay the photographer or Geoff the lido manager but this wasn’t a major issue. They’re secondary characters and others such as Ahmed, Frank and Jermaine and their dog Sprout, Hope and especially George more than make up for it. In fact, George made a surprising impact on me for someone who died before the book opens. He comes back to life on the page, as Rosemary relives their relationship. Read more

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