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Book Review: Hame by Annalena McAfee

Hame is a book I happened upon thanks to the publisher Vintage tweeting about it on St Andrew’s Day last year. The Scottish island setting and a literary trail in search of a mysterious poet really appealed to me and it seems only fitting to post my review of it on St Andrew’s Day, one year on. Here’s what it’s about:

Hame, n. Scottish form of ‘home’: a valued place regarded as a refuge or place of origin

In the wake of the breakdown of her relationship, Mhairi McPhail dismantles her life in New York and moves with her 9-year-old daughter, Agnes, to the remote Scottish island of Fascaray. Mhairi has been commissioned to write a biography of the late Bard of Fascaray, Grigor McWatt, a cantankerous poet with an international reputation.

But who was Grigor McWatt? Details of his past – his tough childhood and his war years as a commando – are elusive, and there is evidence of a mysterious love affair which Mhairi is determined to investigate. As she struggles to adapt to her new life, and put her own troubled past behind her, Mhairi begins to unearth the astonishing secret history of the poet regarded by many as the custodian of Fascaray’s – and Scotland’s – soul.

I read this as an ebook but got hold of a copy of the hardback when it came out and wish I’d read it in hardback or even waited for the paperback to come out, for the simple reason that I prefer the amount of white space those two formats often provide around the text. Something which is important here, when the book contains so many of Grigor McWatt’s poems, as it helps to form a useful and marked break between the biographer Mhairi’s work and the poet’s own memoirs.

Including the poems contributed to my enjoyment of the book. It was fun to try and read them aloud, and then work out what they were saying before checking the source or inspiration behind it. I didn’t read many of the longer poems in their entirety, though, and have to confess that I skipped most later sections once the novelty had worn off.

Mhairi McPhail embarks on some literary detective work, and another aspect of Hame which I relished was in trying to put the pieces together and solve the enigma that is Grigor McWatt before his biographer did. Read more

Book Review: The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

The Winters is a modern reworking of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and while it draws heavily on its source material, Lisa Gabriele also manages to pull off a stylish new twist in her take on the haunting psychological suspense.

After a whirlwind romance, a young woman returns to the opulent, secluded mansion of her new fiancé Max Winter – a wealthy senator and recent widower – and a life of luxury she’s never known. But all is not as it appears at the Asherley estate. The house is steeped in the memory of Max’s beautiful first wife Rebekah, who haunts the young woman’s imagination and feeds her uncertainties, while his very alive teenage daughter Dani makes her life a living hell.

As the soon-to-be second Mrs. Winter grows more in love with Max, and more afraid of Dani, she is drawn deeper into the family’s dark secrets – the kind of secrets that could kill her, too.

The Winters works surprisingly well, whether or not you’re familiar with Daphne du Maurier’s original. There are enough familiar elements for readers to recognise, while the changes and additions make sense and give the story a refresh, making the case for this update.

I liked the location change as it helps Lisa Gabriele not only give a nod to her inspiration but make the story her own. She moves the action from Monte Carlo and Cornwall to the US equivalent of their European counterparts in the Cayman Islands and the Hamptons on the southern tip of New York’s Long Island. This, in turn, feeds into the types of characters we encounter, their social circles and backgrounds.

What further updates the story is that Mrs Danvers’ character, a housekeeper in the original, here becomes future stepdaughter, Dani. This change worked really well for me, as both narrator and reader simultaneously question how much of Dani’s behaviour is attributable to the loss of her mother, the sudden appearance of her replacement or simply that she’s currently fifteen and very good at it.  Read more

Book Review: One More Chance by Lucy Ayrton

Lucy Ayrton’s One More Chance is one of four books helping to launch Little, Brown imprint Dialogue Books this year. It’s an imprint dedicated to introducing wider diversity and more inclusivity by giving a voice to those often overlooked by mainstream publishing. And here, that voice belongs to a young mother in Holloway prison.

Dani hasn’t had an easy life. She’s made some bad choices and now she’s paying the ultimate price; prison.

With her young daughter Bethany, growing up in foster care, Dani is determined to be free and reunited with her. There’s only one problem; Dani can’t stay out of trouble.

Dani’s new cellmate Martha is quiet and unassuming. There’s something about her that doesn’t add up. When Martha offers Dani one last chance at freedom, she doesn’t hesitate.

Everything she wants is on the outside, but Dani is stuck on the inside. Is it possible to break out when everyone is trying to keep you in . . .

I struggled initially with Dani as the main protagonist, feeling frustrated by her attitude and constant truculence, while finding myself distracted by other characters, in particular queen bee Chris and the altogether more mysterious Martha.

However, as Dani’s backstory is drip fed to us, it helped me begin to understand her, how she ends up where she does and why she behaves in this way. And by the end of the book, I grudgingly admired her and even felt ever so slightly hopeful for the future. So all credit to Lucy Ayrton’s writing for effecting this transition in Dani and my reaction to her.

There are some more mystical elements to the story which I chose to go along with partly because I figured Dani sees them as something to pass the time but which also feed on her personal circumstances and desperation to see her little girl. It’s up to you how you view them and how much weight you attach.

Where Lucy Ayrton very nearly lost me was in the scene at a park where a key absence goes unexplained, and I did tire of people staring at each other and how loaded with meaning each of those stares were.

Prison life is by its very nature going to be repetitive but I think Lucy Ayrton otherwise does a pretty good job of counteracting that here. It’s helped along by a subtle and intriguing subplot playing out in the background, as well as the following nice touches:  Read more

Book Review: Baxter’s Requiem by Matthew Crow

Baxter’s Requiem piqued my interest with its cross-generational friendship and an elderly hero unwilling to give up on life just yet. I’m quite partial to both of these in fiction as much as in real life.

Mr Baxter is ninety-four years old when he falls down his staircase and grudgingly finds himself resident at Melrose Gardens Retirement Home.

Baxter is many things – raconteur, retired music teacher, rabble-rouser, bon viveur – but ‘good patient’ he is not. He had every intention of living his twilight years with wine, music and revelry; not tea, telly and Tramadol. Indeed, Melrose Gardens is his worst nightmare – until he meets Gregory.

At only nineteen years of age, Greg has suffered a loss so heavy that he is in danger of giving up on life before he even gets going. Determined to save the boy, Baxter decides to enlist his help on a mission to pay tribute to his long-lost love.

I have to admit that it took me a little while to warm to Baxter, simply because while he is chafing away at being in the home, he is loud and rambunctious. I liked him a whole lot better, as I learned more of his backstory, which I found incredibly touching. I admired his attitude towards life and that he wanted to use what was left of his to help others. He is a remarkable character.

Greg is much easier to empathise with from the outset. He’s starting a new job, has a difficult home life with little hope of support or even sympathy there, and no friends to speak of since having left school. He’s withdrawn from the world but despite this, he’s funny, observant, resourceful, and clearly not stupid.

Among the supporting characters, special mentions go to Winnifred who is a wild and wonderful woman, especially on her mobility scooter; the home receptionist Ramila who chivvies Greg into a friendship before he realises it; and Susanne, the manager of the home, who has a bark worse than her bite but still sees her charges and staff as people first. She’s surprisingly good at reading people and allowing them the space or time they need. Even Teddy, Greg’s dad, has a late rally and leaves room for hope that there’s a more positive future in store for father and son. Read more

Book Review: The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon #TheIncendiaries #blogtour

R. O. Kwon’s stunning debut The Incendiaries is a compact and tightly-written campus novel of obsessive love and religious extremism. And I’m excited to tell you about it as part of the blog tour with it being out in the UK today.

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group–a secretive extremist cult–founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

At the beginning of The Incendiaries, Will Kendall not only tells us that there’s a bombing but also who he considers responsible for it. And just as scenes of crime officers will collect forensic evidence and try to piece together what happened, when, and who might be responsible for the bombing, here Will attempts to reconstruct his and Phoebe Lin’s story to help him understand why they splinter from each other.

Will’s task makes the text fragmentary at times, and understandably so, especially when telling the story from Phoebe Lin or John Leal’s perspective: memories recalled resemble the shards of debris recovered from a blast site. It’s often difficult to work out their significance at the time and some may never be recovered.

The Incendiaries is a fascinating take on the unreliable narrator with the novel appearing to be told from three different perspectives. Initially unclear and helpfully blurred over by the absence of speech marks, two perspectives are related to us in reported speech. Some scenes are imagined, rather than reported faithfully from testimony or witness statement, and variations occur when people recount their own history. Phoebe is reluctant to reveal hers except to select friends or in Jejah (the group) confession; it’s unclear whether John Leal’s is real, based on some truth but embellished or a total construct. Read more

Book Review: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

The Way of All Flesh is Ambrose Parry’s first novel in what is hoped will become a series. And it’s off to a very promising start here, making the most of being set against the backdrop of such an exciting time for medicine in a city known for its medical pioneers.

Edinburgh, 1847. City of Medicine, Money, Murder.

In the city’s Old Town a number of young women have been found dead, all having suffered similarly gruesome ends. Across the city in the New Town, medical student Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the brilliant and renowned Dr Simpson.

Simpson’s patients range from the richest to the poorest of this divided city. His house is like no other, full of visiting luminaries and daring experiments in the new medical frontier of anaesthesia. It is here that Raven meets housemaid Sarah Fisher, who recognises trouble when she sees it and takes an immediate dislike to him. She has all of Raven’s intelligence but none of his privileges, in particular his medical education.

With each having their own motive to look deeper into the city’s spate of suspicious deaths, Raven and Sarah find themselves propelled headlong into the darkest shadows of Edinburgh’s underworld, where they will have to overcome their differences if they are to make it out alive.

The Way of All Flesh features real-life medical pioneers, most notably James Young Simpson, in whose house its two main characters and amateur detectives live and work. And, while the latter may be fictional, they both feel as if they could have existed. Their pairing gives the investigation access to wider society than either would have alone and the book’s all the richer for that.

Will Raven is Simpson’s latest medical apprentice and Sarah Fisher his housemaid, who assists at some of the clinics run out of Simpson’s house. They’re both looking to better themselves but, as Sarah is all too aware, it’s easier for Raven to do so than it is for her. Not only does her position in the household seem precarious but she would suffer more from its loss thanks to her sex and status. Read more

Book Review: A Boy in the Water by Tom Gregory

Tom Gregory’s channel swim memoir A Boy in the Water couldn’t be more timely, published as it is the day after Lewis Pugh successfully completed The Long Swim by swimming the length of the English Channel from Cornwall to Dover.

Eltham, South London. 1984: the hot fug of the swimming pool and the slow splashing of a boy learning to swim but not yet wanting to take his foot off the bottom.

Fast-forward four years. Photographers and family wait on the shingle beach as a boy in a bright orange hat and grease-smeared goggles swims the last few metres from France to England.

He has been in the water for twelve agonizing hours, encouraged at each stroke by his coach, John Bullet, who has become a second father.

It’s impressive enough to discover that Tom Gregory goes from being unable to swim a width of the pool without stopping for a rest to swimming the English Channel within four years. What makes his story all the more incredible is that he was only eleven years old when he did so.

It couldn’t happen today, not least because on 26th November 2000 the Channel Swimming Association ruled that no one under the age of 16 could attempt a solo Channel swim. But there are a host of other reasons and regulations why Tom Gregory’s transformation from reluctant Wednesday evening swim club participant to member of an elite group of swimmers would be less likely these days.

Here, kids pile into a rusty minibus to go away on swimming weekends in Dover and weeks up in the Lake District with their unorthodox swimming coach, sleep in communal tents I remember from school camps and eat stodge as we did, all while going through punishing cold water training. It is the story of another time. Read more

Book Review: The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F. John

Despite its title, Rebecca John’s The Haunting of Henry Twist isn’t a ghost story in the traditional sense but it does have an ethereal feel to it, and is likely to haunt you long after finishing it.

London, 1926: Henry Twist’s heavily pregnant wife leaves home to meet a friend. On the way, she is hit by a bus and killed, though miraculously the baby survives. Henry is left with nothing but his new daughter – a single father in a world without single fathers. He hurries the baby home, terrified that she’ll be taken from him. Racked with guilt and fear, he stays away from prying eyes, walking her through the streets at night, under cover of darkness.

But one evening, a strange man steps out of the shadows and addresses Henry by name. The man says that he has lost his memory, but that his name is Jack. Henry is both afraid of and drawn to Jack, and the more time they spend together, the more Henry sees that this man has echoes of his dead wife. His mannerisms, some things he says … And so Henry wonders, has his wife returned to him? Has he conjured Jack himself from thin air? Or is he in the grip of a sophisticated con man? Who really sent him?

Ruby Twist’s story is told in flashback after the first chapter in The Haunting of Henry Twist but she still stamps her presence on the whole book, as Henry grapples with her sudden death and his subsequent grief. Ruby’s friends feel her loss keenly too and it’s moving to discover what it is they miss about her.

Ruby’s ghost doesn’t waft about their home, unwilling to move on. But hints of her resurface in Jack, which is considerably more disconcerting. Despite his physicality, Jack’s a hard character to pin down: he often feels more will-o’-the-wisp than human and you question whether his role is sinister or benign.

Significant scenes take place under cover of night, such as Henry’s nocturnal rambles with his baby to avoid detection and Monty’s garden parties, which Henry and his friends attend, but that are held for the benefit of the Bright Young Things, who flicker and flare up like 1920s versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s cohort of muddling mechanics, mischievous Puck, and Titania and Oberon’s fairy attendants.

To balance out this otherworldliness, Rebecca John gives us Ruby’s Welsh roots; upstairs neighbours who bring some comfort and sense of normality when Henry’s first starting out as a single parent; the simple rhythm and routine of daily life with a baby, and that larger one of the city continuing around them. Read more

Author Q&A & #Giveaway: Summer in San Remo by Evonne Wareham

Photo © 2018, Sian Trenberth Photography
Photo © 2018, Sian Trenberth Photography

I’m welcoming author Evonne Wareham to the Nut Press today to talk about her most recent release, Summer in San Remo, which I reviewed here. You can also win a signed copy below.

What three words would you use to describe Summer in San Remo?

Sunny, flirty, enigmatic.

Summer in San Remo is a departure from your previous books which were romantic suspense. Is this breezier read a new direction for you or a chance to let your lighter side out to play?

Both. Writing romantic suspense is my first love, but when my publisher suggested having a go at something lighter – a fun read for the summer – I couldn’t resist the challenge. I enjoyed it and I hope that comes through in the book – and now I want to do it again.

I don’t intend to stop writing romantic suspense – much darker reads – but I will be doing the summer sunshine books too. They will have a touch of mayhem and mystery to them, as well as the romance, to make them just that little bit edgy, and because I can’t manage to stay away from crime completely.

There is some sizzling chemistry in Summer in San Remo. Any tips for writing those scenes?

The big thing about writing love scenes for me is that they need to arise naturally out of the story and the interaction between the characters. There has to be an emotional connection and the pace has to feel right.

I have to say that writing Cassie and Jake was enormous fun. I don’t know if it is because it is a second time around story – they were teenage sweethearts – but the sparks were there from the moment that Jake walked into Cassie’s office. Uninvited, of course, as she had no intention of getting involved with him again, or even breathing the same air, if she could avoid it. A lot of the time I had difficulty keeping up with them.

I’m working on a sequel now, in which they are supporting characters, and I’m glad to say they are still striking sparks.

Are we going to recognise anyone from previous books in Summer in San Remo?

No – because this book is separate from my previous romantic suspense novels. As I have now decided to make it a series, loosely based around Jake’s detective agency, characters from Summer in San Remo will appear in future stories, but there will be a new central romance, with a new hero and heroine for each one – and future heroes and heroines will appear in each other’s books, along the way. The hero of what I hope will be book two – if my publishers like it – has a small part in Summer in San Remo. You might not guess who it is, because I didn’t, until I came to start writing the second book. Read more

Book Review: Summer in San Remo by Evonne Wareham

You can tell from the gorgeous cover with its mediterranean colours that Evonne Wareham’s Summer in San Remo is an altogether breezier caper then her previous romantic suspense novels.

Anything could happen when you spend summer in San Remo …

Running her busy concierge service usually keeps Cassie Travers fully occupied. But when a new client offers her the strangest commission she’s ever handled she suddenly finds herself on the cusp of an Italian adventure, with a man she thought she would never see again. Jake McQuire has returned from the States to his family-run detective agency.

When old flame Cassie appears in need of help with her mysterious client, who better than Jake to step in? Events take the pair across Europe to a luxurious villa on the Italian Riviera. There, Cassie finds that the mystery she pursues pales into insignificance, when compared to another discovery made along the way…

I liked spirited Cassie from the moment I met her, envied her her Bath office space and concierge agency, if not her money worries and ready meals, and thought it said a lot about her that her best friend Benita worked for her. Jake took longer to warm to, if only because he seems so sure of himself and clearly needs taking down a peg or two. Oh, but Evonne Wareham has just the woman for the job.

The pages crackle with sexual tension from the opening seconds of Cassie and Jake’s first reunion since they were teenagers and it’s pretty evident that Evonne Wareham enjoyed giving her wicked sense of humour an outing in Summer in San Remo. As I was reading, I could imagine her getting a playful kick out of her characters being put in awkward situation after awkward situation, and watching them positively squirm. I swear I even heard the occasional evil cackle while turning the pages.

Summer in San Remo is a rollicking good read, filled with the sizzling heat of characters with undeniable chemistry, as well as that sultry summer heat of the Mediterranean, once the mischief switches from Bath via London to San Remo and environs. I enjoyed this roguish escapade and hope there are more to come.

Summer in San Remo by Evonne Wareham is published by Choc Lit. Originally released in ebook format last summer, it’s now also available as an audiobook and in paperback. You can buy it at Amazon UK or through Hive which helps support your local independent bookshop. You can find out more about Evonne Wareham and her books through her Author Website or by liking her Facebook page or following her on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley and to the author for my own signed copy of her book. I bought a paperback for the giveaway. 

*SIGNED GIVEAWAY*

Check out our Q&A post for a chance to win a signed paperback of Summer in San Remo.

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