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Book Review: Force of Nature by Jane Harper #ForceofNature

Her debut The Dry, which I reviewed here, was one of my standout books from last year as well as being a Sunday Times Bestseller, so I was very keen to read Jane Harper’s follow-up, Force of Nature, which is out today. Aaron Falk’s first case had taken him back to his childhood home and forced him to revisit a traumatic event from his past alongside the main case he stays in town to help investigate. I was interested to see where Jane Harper would take him next, and what the case would be: whether it would be as personal as his first. A missing hiker on a corporate retreat may not sound personal but it’s exactly that.

FIVE WENT OUT. FOUR CAME BACK…

Is Alice here? Did she make it? Is she safe? In the chaos, in the night, it was impossible to say which of the four had asked after Alice’s welfare. Later, when everything got worse, each would insist it had been them.

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side. The hike through the rugged landscape is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advertises.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a particularly keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case – and Alice knew secrets. About the company she worked for and the people she worked with.

Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, the women tell Falk a tale of suspicion, violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers may run far deeper than anyone knew.

Force of Nature opens about six months after the events in The Dry took place. Despite that leaving him scarred, Federal Agent Aaron Falk is back at work in the federal investigation unit in Melbourne with his partner of three months, Carmen Cooper. The timing of Alice’s disappearance, together with a message Falk receives, compels them to visit the place where she disappeared: bushland that’s already been the scene of grisly events which captured the public’s imagination and could do without any further notoriety.

The story switches between Falk and Cooper’s questioning of Alice’s colleagues also on the retreat (against the background of the ongoing search for her) and the women’s retreat as it happened. This might frustrate readers who dislike flipping back and forth between two timelines but short chapters help ease the transitions, making them less noticeable. The structure’s ideal for any reader like me who wants to try and work out what happened, preferably before the detectives Falk and Cooper do.The reader has more information than the detectives investigating, not that this helps a great deal. Harper throws in enough false trails to keep you guessing throughout, the dynamic between the five women is in a state of flux despite some of their best efforts, and the witnesses appear sufficiently cagey or evasive to be unreliable. Who or what are they protecting with their witness accounts, and more importantly by what they withhold. Read more

Book Review: On the Bright Side by Hendrik Groen

What better way to kick off 2018 than by spending some time with my favourite Dutch pensioner and rebel Hendrik Groen? I am so happy to see him pen a sequel to his first Secret Diary which I reviewed here. I’ve missed him and his friends and wondered how they were getting on in their care home in North Amsterdam.

85-year-old Hendrik Groen is fed up to his false teeth with coffee mornings and bingo. He dreams of escaping the confines of his care home and practicing hairpin turns on his mobility scooter. Inspired by his fellow members of the recently formed Old-But-Not-Dead Club, he vows to put down his Custard Cream and commit to a spot of octogenarian anarchy.

But the care home’s Director will not stand for drunken bar crawls, illicit fireworks and geriatric romance on her watch. The Old-But-Not-Dead Club must stick together if they’re not to go gently into that good night. Things turn more serious, however, when rumours surface that the home is set for demolition. It’s up to Hendrik and the gang to stop it – or drop dead trying . . .

He may be the wrong side of 85, but Hendrik Groen has no intention of slowing up – or going down without a fight.

As you can tell from the blurb, Hendrik is still rebelling against the system and trying to live his best life despite the draconian rules set out by his care home and the more understandable limitations due to his age, health and the local weather. Not that he lets any of those stop him very much and it’s good to see him still challenging penny-pinching bureaucracy and evasive jobsworths while venturing outdoors as often as he and his motorised scooter have enough charge to do so. The Old-But-Not-Dead Club is still going strong and setting itself new challenges, even if it’s inevitably missing a couple of its inaugural members.

If it seems on the face of it that not much has changed, that’s only partly true. Everything I loved about the first instalment of Hendrik Groen’s diaries – his irreverent side swipes against those running the country and his care home, his feelings about his fellow inmates and commentary on what’s going on in the Netherlands and the wider world outside – are all still very much in evidence here. But there’s a more reflective and more emotional Hendrik Groen within these pages than appeared in The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4. In that, it felt as if he were only just opening up again to friendships with the Club members and a more romantic relationship with one in particular. Here, even though he hasn’t been writing the diary for a year when the book opens, he’s had two years worth of the Club meeting, a death of someone close to deal with and now in On the Bright Side, he’s facing fresh challenges which let us see a deeper, more vulnerable side to the outwardly gruff Groen. And this book is all the richer for that. Read more

Book Review & Giveaway: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

When a secret from the past resurfaces, Florence’s friends help her unlock the mystery in this gentle, moving novel about ageing, kindness, memory, identity… and the ripples our lives make.

There are three things you should know about Elsie.
The first thing is that she’s my best friend.
The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.
And the third thing… might take a little bit more explaining.
84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?

Joanna Cannon’s Three Things about Elsie takes a compassionate look at growing old and how it’s often hard enough to be seen as another human being, let alone understood or even believed. To some, Florence is little more than an uncooperative old lady who shouts too much. But she’s really battling to stay alert and independent and keep what little freedom she has left in her sheltered accommodation, in order to prevent being sent to a nursing home. She turns to friends old and new, as she tries to remember a traumatic past event and finally right a wrong, if she can.

Three Things About Elsie is a wonderful tribute to the importance of friendship and the impact small human kindnesses can have on the recipient, even if they go unremarked by most others. Cannon uses the perspective of Handy Simon and Miss Ambrose to great effect, gently nudging us away from judging people too quickly and offering a more nuanced understanding, allowing for those times when people have lost their way in trying to find their sense of purpose.

This gentle, soothing story is best enjoyed with a pot of tea and one, two, maybe even three slices of battenberg. Then try and find time for Florence’s long seconds and look for Elsie’s Three Things in yourself and others.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of Harper Collins, and is out as an ebook and audiobook and in hardback today. You can buy it from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Wordery and Waterstones. For more about Joanna and her books, check out her Author Website or find her on Twitter.

This review was originally written for Lovereading UK and appears on their website. My thanks to the publisher and Lovereading UK for the review copy provided.

I have one hardback of Three Things About Elsie and one paperback of Joanna Cannon’s first novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep to give away (UK only). Tell me Three Things about yourself in the comments below and the squirrels will pick a winner on Sunday. 

Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires Everywhere is out today in the UK and I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour to celebrate its publication. Here’s what the blurb says about it:

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town – and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at an unexpected and devastating cost.

While putting people in little boxes, even large boxes with impeccable interior design, setting them strict rules and city ordinances to live by, which control everything from bin collection to the external colour scheme of their homes, may seem like a good idea in theory, it’s no guarantee that they’ll play their part and always stick to the script. All the best intentions can go awry once you add people, with all their competing egos and beliefs, polarising politics, differing dynamics and underlying tensions, to the mix.

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two families whose lives become entwined and will never be the same again. It hones in on the roles we play within a family and the wider community, how those dynamics are set up, and how little it takes to upset them. Little Fires Everywhere is so well written that I read it in two heady sittings, reluctant to put it down. This story of one seemingly content and compliant community stirred up by the arrival of two outsiders reads like a literary psychological thriller and I was quickly drawn into the lives of the respectable Richardson family, the more nomadic newly-arrived Warrens, and their friends and neighbours. Celeste Ng moves seamlessly around the carefully-planned streets of Shaker Heights, taking me right to the heart of this community almost before I realised how far in I was. Read more

In Search of Short Stories

(Some of) my collection of short story collections
(Some of) my collection of short story collections

November is traditionally the month of NaNoWriMo for many writers (good luck to all of you taking part!) but for me, this year it’s all about the short story. I’m in the second week of a five-week Short Fiction Masterclass and, around doing this, I’m spending time reading stories from those collections I own. Having gathered some of them together (not pictured are collections by Margaret Atwood or William Trevor), I realise this reading spree is going to take me on past the five, now four remaining weeks of the course!

I’ve just added The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico (not pictured) thanks to her shortlisting for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award 2017. But I want to hear from you and know what you’d recommend I read. Do you have a favourite short story or short story collection? Is it one of those pictured* above? Let me know what it is by leaving a comment below.

*If you have trouble reading some of the titles, click on the picture for a slightly clearer image.

Book Review: Death in the Stars by Frances Brody #DeathintheStars #BlogTour

I’m happy to say that tenacious amateur sleuth Kate Shackleton is back for her eighth outing. (I wrote about my first encounter with Kate in Whitby here.) This time she’s in for some starry encounters, as she scores an unusual invitation to view the 1927 eclipse and is drawn into investigating some dramatic deaths.

Yorkshire, 1927. Eclipse fever grips the nation, and when beloved theatre star Selina Fellini approaches trusted sleuth Kate Shackleton to accompany her to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel, Kate suspects an ulterior motive.

During the eclipse, Selina’s friend and co-star Billy Moffatt disappears and is later found dead in the chapel grounds. Kate can’t help but dig deeper and soon learns that two other members of the theatre troupe died in similarly mysterious circumstances in the past year. With the help of Jim Sykes and Mrs Sugden, Kate sets about investigating the deaths – and whether there is a murderer in the company.

When Selina’s elusive husband Jarrod, injured in the war and subject to violent mood swings, comes back on the scene, Kate begins to imagine something far deadlier at play, and wonders just who will be next to pay the ultimate price for fame . . .

Frances Brody captures all the excitement of the 1927 eclipse well and weaves it seamlessly into her story. It’s fascinating to see where the Astronomer Royal chooses to view it from in the path of totality and how the author uses that setting so well, bringing in minor as well as the main characters to help us see the relevance to them as well as those who attend the ticketed event. I got a real sense of occasion, the planning which went into it, and its importance to the chosen school. I also enjoyed how breezily Kate manages to arrange a flight up there and back.

Death in the Stars clips along at a fair old pace and I read it quickly. I enjoyed the look both in front of and behind the curtain at variety shows during the late 1920s and how the rise in radio and movies was threatening their continued existence. Change is in the air and there is a way of life slowly dying out here too, alongside the more sudden deaths of troupe members. I also appreciated how Frances Brody touches on post-traumatic stress from people’s wartime efforts or their being closely involved in a shocking incident and the physical and mental legacy of their experiences. She shows the reader both the supposed glamour of life on the stage and showbiz parties as well as the more routine life backstage and in between performances, once the lights come up, the audience goes home, the costumes and make-up removed.  Read more

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke #BluebirdBluebird #BlogTour

Today I’m thrilled to be able to share an extract from Attica Locke’s latest novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, a powerful thriller about the explosive intersection of love, race, and justice and the first in a timely new series about the cost of justice in the American South. This is taken from Chapter One: 

The tiny brass bell on the cafe’s door rang softly as Geneva let herself in.

Two of her regulars looked up from their seats at the counter: Huxley, a local retiree, and Tim, a long-haul trucker who stayed on a Houston–Chicago route week in and week out. “Sheriff’s here,” Huxley said as Geneva passed behind him. At the end of the counter, she opened the gate that led to her “main office,” the space between the kitchen and her customers. “Rolled in ’bout thirty minutes after you left,” he said, both he and Tim craning their necks to gauge her reaction.

“Must have made ninety miles an hour the whole way,” Tim said.

Geneva kept her lips pressed together, swallowing a pill of rage.

She lifted an apron from a hook by the door that led to the kitchen. It was an old one, yellow, with two faded roses for pockets.

“It was a whole day with the other one—ain’t that what you said?” Tim was halfway through a ham sandwich and talking with his mouth full. He swallowed and washed it down with a swig of Coke. “Van Horn took his sweet time then.”

“Sheriff?” Wendy said from her perch at the other end of the counter. She was sitting in front of a collection of mason jars, each filled with the very best of her garden. Plump red peppers, chopped green tomatoes threaded with cabbage and onion, whole stalks of okra soaked in vinegar. Geneva lifted each jar one by one, holding it up to the light and double-checking the seal.

“I got some other stuff outside,” Wendy said as Geneva pulled a marker from the pocket of her apron and started writing a price on the lid of each jar.

“You can leave the chow chow and the pickled okra,” Geneva said, “but I got to draw the line on all that other junk you trying to sell.” She nodded out the front window to Wendy’s car. Wendy and Geneva were the same age, though Wendy had a tendency to adjust her age from year to year depending on her audience or mood. She was a short woman, with mannish shoulders and an affected disregard for her appearance. Her hair was gray and pomaded into a tight bun. At least it had been tight last she combed it, which could have been anywhere from three to seven days ago. She was wearing the bottom half of a yellow pantsuit, a faded Houston Rockets T-shirt, and men’s brogues on her feet.

“Geneva, people like to buy old shit off the highway. Makes them feel good about how well they living now. They call it antiques.”

“I call it rust,” Geneva said. “And the answer is no.” Read more

The Snow Globe Blog Tour #TheSnowGlobe

I’m happy to be part of the blog tour for one of my favourite historical fiction writers today to celebrate the UK ebook release of Judith Kinghorn’s 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.

As Christmas 1926 approaches, the Forbes family are preparing to host a celebration at Eden Hall. Eighteen-year-old Daisy is preoccupied by a sense of change in the air. Overnight, her relationship with Stephen Jessop, the housekeeper’s son, has shifted and every encounter seems fraught with tension. Before the festivities are over, Daisy has received a declaration of love, a proposal and a kiss – from three different men. Unable to bear the confusion she flees to London and stays with her elder sister.

By the following summer, Daisy has bowed to the persistence of the man who proposed to her the previous year. When the family reunite for a party at Eden Hall and Stephen is once more in her life, it is clear to Daisy she is committing to the wrong person. Yet she also believes that family secrets mean she has no choice but to follow her head instead of her heart. Will love conquer all, or is Daisy’s fate already written?

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.
Read more

Guest Post: A Sense of Place by Alex Christofi #LetUsBeTrue

I’m very happy to welcome Alex Christofi today as part of the blog tour for his latest novel, Let Us Be True. Set in post-war Paris, it follows the stories of Ralf and Elsa, who meet there but come from elsewhere, and is a fascinating take on love and loss, home, belonging, and identity, especially that which we choose to conceal and how we present to others.

Alex very kindly agreed to write about his thoughts on the importance of place to understanding who we are and why where we are matters more than some of us might think. 

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that

Keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next. 1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place. Read more

Writing Elba: Guest post by Emylia Hall #TheThousandLightsHotel

Author Emylia Hall is my guest today as part of The Thousand Lights Hotel blog tour. As we’re both huge fans of Tim Winton, it’s little surprise that place is as important to her in books as it is to me. Which is why I’m thrilled to host Emylia’s post on writing place and the island of Elba, the setting for her latest novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel

All four of my novels have begun with place. I settle on somewhere first – a place bright in my memory, or a longed for destination – and then I ask, who might live here? What’s their story? The setting is what draws me in; everything else follows. This isn’t something I’ve contrived; it’s just the way it happens.

I’ve always been captivated by location. They say that it’s the people who make a place, and maybe that’s true, but relationships are fluid; people can swap cities, move countries, and exist outside of earth-bound constraints. We can gather all our favourite people together in one room, but places must stay put – we can only ever be in one at a time, and to me there’s something melancholic and kind of beautiful about that. This human limitation is why I sometimes feel wistful bordering on sad that I’m here, not there; why, when I’m washing up in my kitchen in Bristol, I’m thinking of a French mountain town, or a Californian beach, or an Italian island, and feeling such longing. I can’t be everywhere, any more than I can stop time. So… I write about place. I travel from my desk. I take what I believe is the Genius Loci, the spirit of somewhere, and I put it on the page. Because as long as I’m writing, or thinking about writing, I’m cheating time and space: I’m both here and there.

Alta & Marina
Alta & Marina

When I started working on The Thousand Lights Hotel I poured all my memories of the island, from trips in 2003 and 2012, into my writing. I lived again among Elba’s verdant hills and rocky coves and gilded beaches. Once more I took in the extravagant bougainvillea, the terracotta pots exploding with hibiscus, the plump and spiky prickly pears. I followed the swooping descent and ascent of the island buses, the rattle of scooters, the languid drifting of a sailing boat. I tasted the bittersweet tang of Aperol, the creamy depths of Torta della nonna, the garlic-rich prawns. I felt sand between my toes, coconut sun-cream on my skin, a midge bite on my ankle. It’s a place I love, and I loved making a novel from it, sitting in my writing hut, writing with clarity. Read more

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