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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.

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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

Book Review: The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville

Anne Melville’s The Daughter of Hardie is the second book in The Hardie Family series and follows on from The House of Hardie which I reviewed on the blog last month. It focuses on Gordon and Lucy’s children and, as the title suggests, their daughter, Grace.

Grace Hardie has grown up in a sweeping estate on the outskirts of Oxford. But her life has been a far cry from a fairytale. Ailing and asthmatic as a child, she never really found her place – not with her brothers, not with any friends – always on the outside.

And when tragedy strikes twice in the same day, Grace’s world, and her place in it, is turned upside down. Ungainly and lonely at sixteen, could the bloom of first love be the guiding light she needs? Or is the history of The House of Hardie bound to repeat itself?

As class once again threatens to tear the family apart, so too does the Great War: sweeping away this budding romance before it’s had a chance to begin. Through heartbreak and betrayal, longing and loss, Grace Hardie must adapt to this changing world and struggle to find her own way.

First up, I feel the need to say something about the cover. I know this is a reissue of a previously published series but I don’t think the covers do it justice; while they indicate that the books are historical fiction, they don’t give any sense of the dynamic characters and places within. (I would have liked to have seen the family home, complete with the tower Grace loves so much and possibly even some family members, feature on this one, and the family wine merchants, with either a running shop boy or someone loading wine crates, on the first one.) Now, back to the book.

The Daughter of Hardie provoked a surprising range of emotions in me: I railed at Gordon and felt for Lucy, his children and the employee he placed so much reliance on to manage the family wine business; I reflected upon how the Hardie children were shaped by the differing expectations put on them due to their sex (and class), two particular events in childhood that resonated (with some more than others) well into their adult lives, and later again as the war changed the demands upon and the direction of those lives.

I was happy to see Midge feature, and couldn’t help but feel that Grace is a little harsh in her judgement of her towards the end of the book. She’s a character who I admired as much as Grace did, and I thought she deserved to celebrate her long-overdue day of recognition and have a little more understanding of her (later) life choices after long years of frustration, loss and sacrifice. I didn’t see it as the betrayal that Grace did, which I put down to her youth and limited experiences. Read more

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is the story of two families, neighbours in upstate New York, and how life can change in an instant but may take a generation before things begin to heal.

Gillam, upstate New York: a town of ordinary, big-lawned suburban houses. The Gleesons have recently moved there and soon welcome the Stanhopes as their new neighbours.

Lonely Lena Gleeson wants a friend but Anne Stanhope – cold, elegant, unstable – wants to be left alone.

It’s left to their children – Lena’s youngest, Kate, and Anne’s only child, Peter – to find their way to one another. To form a friendship whose resilience and love will be almost broken by the fault line dividing both families, and by the terrible tragedy that will engulf them all.

Although some characters in Mary Beth Keane’s novel are either cops or work together with the NYPD, we don’t see much of them at work, beyond the opening scenes. Instead, we see them as their family sees them; we see them at ease, at home. Yet their sense of duty and of wanting to do a good job that comes from being on the force filters through into their home lives and is a recurring theme throughout the novel.

The book jumps forward in time in places and there are shifts in perspective between a number of characters but Keane handles most of these changes smoothly. The benefit of these head changes was being able to see the same event from different angles, and consider a person’s behaviour not only as they perceived it but also how others viewed it.

No one character in Ask Again, Yes is ever wholly good or bad, always right or wrong, and as Keane moves between them, she’s able to show this only too well. I had a better feel for the families and their changing dynamic for her doing so, and while I didn’t always agree with what they were doing or how they were behaving, I could go some way towards better understanding their actions and choices. Read more

Book Review: The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

JP Delaney’s novel The Perfect Wife is an unnerving, skewed story of grief, our obsession with perfection and that with work, AI and our digital footprints, relationship double standards, and conflicting child-rearing approaches.

Abbie wakes in a hospital bed with no memory of how she got there. The man by her side explains that he’s her husband. He’s a titan of the tech world, the founder of one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative startups. He tells Abbie she’s a gifted artist, a doting mother to their young son, and the perfect wife. 

Five years ago, she suffered a terrible accident. Her return from the abyss is a miracle of science, a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that has taken him half a decade to achieve. 

But as Abbie pieces together memories of her marriage, she begins questioning her husband’s motives – and his version of events. Can she trust him when he says he wants them to be together for ever? And what really happened to her, half a decade ago?

JP Delaney takes us to Silicon Valley in his latest novel and where better to explore the line between what’s human and what machines are capable of, where machine learning can help improve our understanding of ourselves and where it falls short. It’s the perfect technology sandbox for a writer who is adept at exposing what lies behind the perfect facades we think we see, and for delving into the darkest corners of our minds and behaviour.

JP Delaney shows us how quickly lines (and boundaries) can blur and where difficulties in not only navigating, but also in regulating the use of AI and controlling our social media footprint may lie. He highlights how blinkered grief, work and obsession can make us, how dangerous they can be when they run (almost) unchecked. He also pits two parents against each other, each with a differing view on how to raise their autistic child and some scenes dealing with controversial teaching methods made for especially uncomfortable reading, which I’ve no doubt was intended. Read more

Book Review: The Ice Maiden by Sara Sheridan

Sara Sheridan’s The Ice Maiden is a remarkable tale: we gain fresh perspective into what it was like to be a seafarer’s wife, a woman on board ship, and a part of pioneering Polar expeditions.

1842. Stranded on Deception Island in the South Atlantic, her whaling captain husband lost at sea, Karina is destitute and desperate. Disguised as a cabin boy, she stows away on a British ship. But Karina is about to get a nasty surprise.

As she grows closer to ship’s surgeon Joseph Hooker, Karina and the rest of the crew find themselves pushed to the limits both physically and emotionally as conditions worsen onboard.

Engulfed in the chillingly hostile Antarctic landscape, something extraordinary happens – and Karina’s story becomes intertwined with some of the 20th century’s bravest Polar explorers …

The Ice Maiden is told in three distinct parts: one land-based, the next at sea, and the last of which is ice bound.

We first meet Karina on Deception Island. And although the name refers to it looking deceptively like an island, when in fact it’s a ring around a flooded caldera, could there be a more sinister-sounding place than Deception Island? It doesn’t bode well.

This ominous start and her life on Deception Island help explain why she takes the drastic next step in finding a way off the island. Her route out of there particularly fraught at a time when sailors were superstitious about women being on board ship, believing they brought bad luck, but of course this wasn’t the only way in which a woman’s presence could unsettle the men.

Life at sea is exceptionally hard and Sara Sheridan does an excellent job of bringing this working ship to life, with all the knocks, noise, smells and challenges of living in cramped quarters while being at the mercy of the elements. I was relieved when Karina finds some small measure of happiness and protection here, even though I sensed it would not last the voyage. Read more

Book Review: Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson’s novel, Stanley and Elsie, covers five years in the lives of the painter, Sir Stanley Spencer, and the young woman who was hired as his housekeeper, while he was painting the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

The First World War is over, and in a quiet Hampshire village, artist Stanley Spencer is working on the commission of a lifetime, painting an entire chapel in memory of a life lost in the war to end all wars. Combining his own traumatic experiences with moments of everyday redemption, the chapel will become his masterpiece.

When Elsie Munday arrives to take up position as housemaid to the Spencer family, her life quickly becomes entwined with the charming and irascible Stanley, his artist wife Hilda and their tiny daughter Shirin.

As the years pass, Elsie does her best to keep the family together even when love, obsession and temptation seem set to tear them apart…

I have to admit that I didn’t know very much about Sir Stanley Spencer before reading Nicola Upson’s novel which made me reliant on her to bring him alive on the page and draw me in. She certainly achieved this, taking me right into the heart of this household and summoning up all the characters, so that I felt as if they were moving around me while I was reading.

Nicola Upson’s reimagining of this period in Stanley and Elsie’s lives is seen through Elsie’s eyes. We arrive with her for her first day in service, which is also her first time away from home. We join the household when she does and this provides a fresh perspective on the three members of the family, their life together and family dynamic, and how it is organised – or wasn’t, until she arrived.

This also allows Nicola Upson to give more prominence to the women’s stories, those of Hilda, Patricia Preece and Dorothy Hepworth, all artists in their own right but more often footnotes to Sir Stanley’s more public success story. Now we get to see the private man and working artist behind the public image, seen through the women’s eyes. It would be particularly unusual for Elsie’s story to be told, and that’s a shame because she’s quite a character. She knows her own mind, finds happiness and joy in simple pleasures, and provides a good counterbalance to the bohemian storms of discontent that rage around her.

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