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Book Review: Mischling by Affinity Konar

What often marks us out as different in the eyes of others can result in our being subjected to the worst forms of cruelty and abuse. Mischling depicts this to devastating effect but Affinity Konar doesn’t allow that to overwhelm her novel, instead showing us the resilience and resources drawn on by its victims, and focussing on the survivors.

It’s 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.

As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele’s Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.

That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks – a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin – travel through Poland’s devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.

It is the story of twelve-year-old twins Pearl and Stasha, who upon arrival at Auschwitz are separated from their Mama and grandfather Zayde and taken to Josef Mengele’s so-called Zoo, the subjects of horrific experimentation. Mischling is heartrending and devastating, an effect only heightened by the dream-like quality given it by Affinity Konar’s beautiful prose, imagery and description more reminiscent of fairytales, the use of music, grandfather’s toasts, and the tricks and childhood games that help the twins through many ordeals in the notorious camp, including separation, and later search for each other and longed-for reunion. (One such game devised by Zayde called The Classification of Living Things could work as an alternative title for Mischling.)

Mischling finds beauty in the ugliest of places and hope and friendship where people are under extreme duress. Even if you are reluctant to read yet another Holocaust novel, I’ll let Stasha explain why Mischling deserves your attention. Here she is remembering a poppy her Mama once drew: “Sometimes, when things are too unbearable, the poppy threatens to multiply itself… I hope I never have cause to see a whole field of poppies like that.”

Mischling by Affinity Konar is published by Atlantic Books and is out now as an ebook and will be available as an audiobook and in hardback from 2 February. It is available from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can find out more about the author on her Author Website, Facebook page or on Twitter.

My thanks to Lovereading and the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Book Review: Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie #BURNEDANDBROKEN Blog Tour

Mark Hardie’s debut crime novel Burned and Broken marks the promising start to a new contemporary crime series covering issues with a good dose of realism in its seaside setting of Southend.

The charred body of an enigmatic policeman – currently the subject of an internal investigation – is found in the burnt-out shell of his car on the Southend sea front.

Meanwhile, a vulnerable young woman, fresh out of the care system, is trying to discover the truth behind the sudden death of her best friend.

As DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine Russell from the Essex Police Major Investigation Team are brought in to solve the mystery of their colleague’s death, dark, dangerous secrets begin to surface. Can they solve both cases, before it’s too late?

There’s an immediacy to Mark Hardie’s writing which quickly pulled me in and before I knew it, I was immersed. His world isn’t the Southend I know from day trips out of London with ice cream and amusements on the front: the treats in Burned and Broken are far less innocuous and the amusements are hidden away behind painted facades, while the seafront feels an altogether bleaker and more lonely place to be for the residents of the town. That’s because Burned and Broken focuses on the world in which the police live and work: it’s a world where alongside the routine work and investigation, regulations, checks and procedures, personal worries and concerns, there is neglect and abuse, broken relationships and homes, and damaged people, complaints and attacks, corruption and dysfunction, drugs and death, mental health issues and neglect, and violence easily triggered. There’s an intricate balance of sorts and when the cracks begin to show as the cases are investigated, I wondered if ultimately it would topple, and what would be the fallout. Read more

It’s all about the Squirrels #SquirrelAppreciationDay

When you have an incredible little grey squirrel in your life, naturally every day is Squirrel Appreciation Day but today is the official one and so Squizzey told me to mark it, I’m sharing some of our squirrel pictures.

For just over two years now, I’ve been spending time watching and photographing the grey squirrels in the woods behind our garden. They’ve been some of my favourite moments. It’s been fun to watch their acrobatics through the trees and them bouncing around the garden like Pepé Le Pew, marking out new paths; to see them chase each other up fence and down trellis, and scamper around the lawn; to see tails whip back and forth warning of feline hunters in the undergrowth, and hear them barking their annoyance at those stalking them when there were nuts to be eaten and buried for later. They’re feisty little creatures who’ve seen off the pheasants, magpies, jays and rooks from their nut stash. I’ve watched their coats change with the seasons and seen the females become heavy with first kittens and then the milk to feed them. They never fail to put a smile on my face and take me out of my working day for the length of my tea break, and I always go back to my desk a happier and calmer person for spending time with them.

It dropped below freezing here last night, so we’ve put some extra peanuts and seed out for the birds and squirrels that come into our garden. And we’ve already spent some time this morning watching some squirrel acrobatics and tag along the fence and trellis to win control of the bird table. And our indoor squirrels won’t be going without, either. There are some nutty treats in store for them, too. So everyone knows they’re appreciated.

Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day!

Book Review: Rupture by Ragnar Jónasson #Rupture Blog Tour

Iceland is on my must-see list of places to visit and as every reader knows, when you can’t afford to physically go somewhere, the next best way to travel is by book. Which is why I jumped at the chance to read my first Dark Iceland novel. Rupture is actually the fourth book in Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series but you’ll be able to read this as a stand-alone quite happily. However, you probably won’t be able to leave it there if you realise, as I do, that you’ve found a new nordic noir series in Ragnar Jónasson’s books.

1955. Two young couples move to the uninhabited, isolated fjord of Hedinsfjörður. Their stay ends abruptly when one of the women meets her death in mysterious circumstances. The case is never solved. Fifty years later an old photograph comes to light, and it becomes clear that the couples may not have been alone on the fjord after all…

In nearby Siglufjörður, young policeman Ari Thór tries to piece together what really happened that fateful night, in a town where no one wants to know, where secrets are a way of life. He’s assisted by Ísrún, a news reporter in Reykjavik, who is investigating an increasingly chilling case of her own. Things take a sinister turn when a child goes missing in broad daylight. With a stalker on the loose, and the town of Siglufjörður in quarantine, the past might just come back to haunt them.

I love books like Rupture which have a myriad of story strands in them; as well as trying to solve the individual crimes, I get to try and figure out where any connections are before the author weaves them all together. In Rupture, I had my work cut out, not least because there’s one cold case, a virus outbreak, and a number of seemingly unrelated crimes in the capital city. I admit that I also had to flip back to check who some of the characters were, and their relationship to each other a couple of times because of how quickly they were introduced one after the other. And then about halfway in, something clicked and I flew through the rest of the book, eager to see how it all worked out.

Though initially the cast list felt large for the size of novel Rupture is, it does also mean that there’s a good mix of different characters from all walks of life, giving a sense of what Icelandic society is like. You get a feel for the rhythm of the characters’ lives and can imagine them continuing on with those after you close the pages on them. And I’ve always liked the idea of characters doing that, whether or not anyone’s there to read them. I enjoyed how differently policeman Ari Thór in the north-east and reporter Ísrún in Reykjavik work, and yet manage to work at solving a case together. They’re both interesting characters and it was good to get an idea of not only their working lives but their home and family situations too. It made them easier to engage with and root for in their investigations. Read more

Book Review: Deep Down Dead by Steph Broadribb #DeepDownDead Blog Tour

You’re going to want to clear some reading time before you open the covers of Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead because once you crack it – and the whole can of worms inside – open, you are not going to want to put it down until you know that bounty hunter Lori Anderson has her man. And a hot bath, a cold drink, and a whole lot of downtime – although I’m not convinced Lori knows what that is. But even if she doesn’t, you’ll no doubt need all of those once you finish reading Deep Down Dead.

Lori Anderson is as tough as they come, managing to keep her career as a fearless Florida bounty hunter separate from her role as single mother to nine-year-old Dakota, who suffers from leukaemia. But when the hospital bills start to rack up, she has no choice but to take her daughter along on a job that will make her a fast buck. And that’s when things start to go wrong.

The fugitive she’s assigned to haul back to court is none other than JT, Lori’s former mentor – the man who taught her everything she knows … the man who also knows the secrets of her murky past. Not only is JT fighting a child exploitation racket operating out of one of Florida’s biggest theme parks, Winter Wonderland, a place where ‘bad things never happen’, but he’s also mixed up with the powerful Miami Mob. With two fearsome foes on their tails, just three days to get JT back to Florida, and her daughter to protect, Lori has her work cut out for her. When they’re ambushed at a gas station, the stakes go from high to stratospheric, and things become personal.

I really like how Steph Broadribb weaves in the backstory of Lori’s past while setting up the story that unravels in Deep Down Dead. I got a real sense of where Lori had come from, what she’d left behind in that past life and what she’s still carrying with her. You see how JT came into her life, how much he changed it and her, and get a real sense that there is unfinished business between them.

Left without a sitter, this single mum is forced into taking her daughter on the job with her. Lori’s frequent use of the terms Momma, sweetie and sweetheart irritated me while reading but you can forgive these in light of the situation and mounting pressures. Taking your kid to work rarely works out that well for either parent or child but here it is, unsurprisingly, an unmitigated disaster, ramping up the time-sensitive sense of danger that accompanies the child exploitation case in which Lori quickly finds herself embroiled. Read more

Book Review: Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land

Ali Land’s debut novel Good Me, Bad Me has as its narrator a distinctive female voice, one that grabbed this reader from the very beginning as she tells her story of escape and survival. This is a perspective which is fast becoming a trend going by my recent reads: victim lit or, perhaps more appropriately, survivor lit. I have a feeling that this is one book that’ll spark debate and it is ripe for wide-ranging, and heated, book group discussions. If you have the stomach for its subject matter.

‘NEW NAME .
NEW FAMILY.
SHINY.
NEW.
ME.’

Annie’s mother is a serial killer.

The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police.

But out of sight is not out of mind.

As her mother’s trial looms, the secrets of her past won’t let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name – Milly.

A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be.

But Milly’s mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water.

Good me, bad me.

She is, after all, her mother’s daughter…

Where Good Me, Bad Me works best for me is where Annie/Milly tells us about what it was like living with her mother and the new life she has with her foster family while she waits to testify at the upcoming trial. Her voice demands that we listen to her and it’s fascinating to hear about her coping mechanisms while adjusting to a new home, a new (albeit temporary) family, a new school at which she’s bullied, the tentative moves she takes towards making friends, preparing for and having sessions with her foster father/counsellor and giving testimony during the trial. It’s interesting to see which battles she picks to fight and when she decides to bide her time and save her strength. Her reasoning of her current situation and past and the mental manoeuvres she undertakes to function and keep her mother’s voice at bay were interesting and, of course, you’re never entirely sure how much to trust her or her version of people or events. Read more

Book Review: Sirens by Joseph Knox

Sirens is a new voice in urban noir and a book that’s set in Manchester rather than London, for a welcome change. I suspect even if you know Manchester well, and I don’t at all, it won’t be the Manchester that features in this debut novel from Joseph Knox. At least, I hope it isn’t. For while there are bars and a penthouse apartment in Sirens, the majority of its action and characters all exist in the shadows, the dark underbelly of partying and clubbing.

It starts with the girl. How it ends is up to DC Aidan Waits.

Isabelle Rossiter has run away again.

When Aidan Waits, a troubled junior detective, is summoned to her father’s penthouse home – he finds a manipulative man, with powerful friends.

But retracing Isabelle’s steps through a dark, nocturnal world, Waits finds something else. An intelligent seventeen-year-old girl who’s scared to death of something. As he investigates her story, and the unsolved disappearance of a young woman just like her, he realizes Isabelle was right to run away.

Soon Waits is cut loose by his superiors, stalked by an unseen killer and dangerously attracted to the wrong woman. He’s out of his depth and out of time.

How can he save the girl, when he can’t even save himself?

When Sirens opens, Aidan Waits is back on the force but working the graveyard shift: taken back into the fold but kept at a distance, and still not trusted by his colleagues. And the fact that he’s not your typical hero, but someone who is not only flawed but more ambiguous that that, is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading this book so much. You’re never quite sure where you are with him: is he working for the police, or the drug lord whose inner circle he’s trying to be admitted to, or the politician who asks him for a favour, or himself, or trying to cater to all those interests in his own way? How will he keep juggling those competing demands without getting himself into even hotter water than he’s already in: disgraced and an outcast, he doesn’t seem to have many friends left in the force, and a boss who’s losing patience with him.Which side of the law is he, and will he stay there? Add into the mix his attempts to do right by one young girl and his obvious attraction to another, and he’d have his hands full sober. But this guy isn’t, and he’s dabbling (rather heavily) in a heady cocktail of drink and drugs. Read more

Book Review: The Dry by Jane Harper #TheDry Blog Tour

A small farming town in south-eastern Australia suffering from one of its worst recorded droughts, its townspeople desperate to survive and still feeding off speculation and suspicion; what looks like a double murder-suicide stirring up memories of another tragic event some twenty years previously; and a returning police detective, former best friend to the dead man, all combine to make up Jane Harper’s riveting debut novel, The Dry, out later this week.

I just can’t understand how someone like him could do something like that.

Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, it hasn’t rained in small country town Kiewarra for two years. Tensions in the community become unbearable when three members of the Hadler family are brutally murdered. Everyone thinks Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty.

Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.

Sometimes when you read a novel’s prologue, it makes little sense until you reach the end of the book; elsewhere, it feels superfluous or a cheat, a way to pitch you into the story before retreating to more prosaic backstory in the first few chapters. None of these is the case with the memorable prologue for The Dry: it quickly sets the scene and situation in a few hard-hitting and effective lines, and behaves more like a heads-up to the reader. Pay attention, it says, you’re going to need to keep up because I’m not going to repeat myself or waste words or time and you’ll need your wits about you for this one. In the space of a page, you feel the heat of the drought, the farmers’ desperation, the sense that here is a town and its people brought to the brink, evidenced by the grim aftermath of an apparent double murder-suicide.   Read more

Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

If you’ve always enjoyed the darker side of fairytales, be they Grimm’s original tales or Angela Carter’s delicious interpretations, Claire Fuller’s more modern take on one might be the book for you. Our Endless Numbered Days opens in the stifling summer of the 1976 heatwave, in London, but very soon veers off into the cool dark forest of our nightmares.

1976: Peggy Hillcoat is eight. She spends her summer camping with her father, playing her beloved record of The Railway Children and listening to her mother’s grand piano, but her pretty life is about to change.

Her survivalist father, who has been stockpiling provisions for the end which is surely coming soon, takes her from London to a cabin in a remote European forest. There he tells Peggy the rest of the world has disappeared.

Her life is reduced to a piano which makes music but no sound, a forest where all that grows is a means of survival. And a tiny wooden hut that is Everything.

I was first drawn to this book by its eye-catching hardback cover with the chalk outline of the forest hut (see below) but the paperback cover is just as arresting and the reason why I now own both. The paperback cover is reminiscent of fairytale woods we’ve seen, including those more recent incarnations in films such as Into the Woods and Maleficent and the rather more adult-themed TV fantasy drama Game of Thrones where Northern Ireland’s Dark Hedges became the King’s Road.

I felt an immediate connection or sympathy with the main character, Peggy, partly because I was a couple of years older than her in that summer of heatwave. For once, it was good to read a book where the main character was close to me in age. I don’t think it’s necessary for your enjoyment of the book but it added an extra dimension to mine, especially with the nostalgia of some aspects of Peggy’s pre-abduction childhood, like the food and music. (Just to be clear, my father never went camping more than once (after finding a snake under his sleeping bag the one time he did) and certainly never with me, and while he may have stockpiled a great many things, mostly paper, notebooks, video cassettes and books, he wasn’t a survivalist.)

Claire Fuller’s writing is graceful and assured. She manages to keep a light touch even where the book is at its darkest; it’s an aspect of her writing that I really admire. She does it so well that when I realised the full extent of Our Endless Numbered Days, it shocked me to the core. And it’s a rare book and its writer who are able to do that these days. She paces her story well, too, keeping the tension taut, while allowing space for the forest world to unfurl around the characters, giving them some freedom to roam and explore their new home. The description of the forest is very evocative and it’s difficult not to hear the animal sounds, want to rub the earth from between your fingers and ease out the splinters from the wood, in order to distract from the gnawing phantom hunger pangs you’ll feel in empathy with Peggy.  Read more

Book Review: The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn

The publication date for Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel, The Echo of Twilight, is fast approaching early next month but, given the season, now seems the perfect time to offer someone a copy of her previous novel, The Snow Globe. Give The Snow Globe a gentle shake and you’ll find a father falling off his pedestal, a mother forced to reassess her life, both past and future, and a daughter on the cusp of her adult life with romance and independence beckoning, becoming more aware of the real world outside her sheltered childhood home and the houseful of secrets that same haven contains.

Inside the glass orb was a miniature garden and a house. If she stared long enough, she could almost see the people inside. But whether they were trapped there, or kept safe, in that miniscule snowbound world, she couldn’t have said… 

Christmas 1926 holds bright promise for nineteen-year-old Daisy Forbes, with celebrations under way at Eden Hall, her family’s country estate in Surrey, England. But when Daisy, the youngest of three daughters, discovers that her adored father, Howard, has been leading a double life, her illusions of perfection are shattered. Worse, his current mistress, introduced as a family friend, is joining them for the holidays. As Daisy wrestles with the truth, she blossoms in her own right, receiving a marriage proposal from one man, a declaration of love from another, and her first kiss from a third. Meanwhile, her mother, Mabel, manages these social complications with outward calm, while privately reviewing her life and contemplating significant changes. And among those below stairs, Nancy, the housekeeper, and Mrs. Jessops, the cook, find that their long-held secrets are slowly beginning to surface…

As the seasons unfold in the new year, and Daisy moves to London, desires, fortunes, and loyalties will shift during this tumultuous time after the Great War. The Forbes family and those who serve them will follow their hearts down unexpected paths that always return to where they began…Eden Hall.

Set in an English country house in the 1920s, The Snow Globe is, as always with Judith Kinghorn’s novels, a pleasure to read: her beautiful writing coaxes you through a story filled with period detail, lush description and a whole cast of fully-formed characters. Just as you do with Robert Altman’s inclusive camerawork in Gosford Park, you’ll soon feel caught up in daily life at Eden Hall, thanks to Judith’s intimate writing style, drawing you into the book’s world and the heads of her characters. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you’re more at home above or below stairs.

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