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Book Review: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings #BeginAsStrangers #BlogTour

Harriet Cummings’ debut novel We All Begin As Strangers is inspired by real events that took place in her home town the year she was born. In providing her own take on the mysterious intruder ‘The Fox’, she weaves a contemporary tale of the loneliness, suspicion, gossip and misunderstandings rife even in the smallest community.

It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote. What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.

When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible. But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…

We All Begin As Strangers is split into four parts, each one told by a different Heathcote resident, starting with Deloris, the only female narrator, followed by Jim and Brian, and ending with Stan. This works well as long as you don’t get too attached to one narrator and their story, and is a boon if you don’t find another so easy. The change in narrator helps to give a real sense of movement around the streets and houses affected while also switching up the perspective. You get that character’s internalised thoughts together with how they behave towards the other residents, and how they’re viewed by the other resident-narrators. This helps shift your own view of Heathcote and its inhabitants as you get to know them better.

We’re not seeing these people at their best: they’re in crisis, responding to the unsettling threat of a home intrusion and the shocking disappearance of Anna which suggests the Fox is altogether a more sinister and dangerous creature. But often when people are under stress is precisely when it’s most revealing. Some people will find themselves or discover strengths they didn’t know they had while others will succumb to fear and allow their inner sheep mentality to take over. In We All Begin As Strangers, there are those helpers we should either always be or look for when something bad happens. But there are also suspicions no longer whispered but openly voiced and once chattering gossip takes the more threatening form of a braying mob looking for a scapegoat when the Fox proves elusive. It’s a fascinating look at how we behave towards others when under pressure or we feel threatened and seems a timely novel in that respect. Read more

Author Q&A and Book Review: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg #AllGrownUp #BlogTour

I’m excited to welcome New York Times best-selling author Jami Attenberg today as part of the blog tour for her latest novel, All Grown Up. Here’s who and what it’s all about:

Andrea is a single, childless 39-year-old woman who tries to navigate family, sexuality, friendships and a career she never wanted, but battles with thoughts and desires that few people would want to face up to. Told in gut-wrenchingly honest language that shimmers with rage and intimacy, All Grown Up poses such questions as:
– What if I don’t want to hold your baby?
– Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?
– What can I demand of my mother now that I am an adult?
– Is therapy pointless?
– At what point does drinking a lot become a drinking problem?
– Why does everyone keep asking me why I am not married? 

“I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”

Andrea walks and talks off the page right from the very beginning of the book. She’s such a ferociously real character that I still imagine her stalking around her NYC haunts. How did you come to her as your protagonist, and then go about putting together her background and choosing the stories she would tell the reader?
I tend to write short stories when I finish a novel in order to cleanse the palate between books. I wrote a story cycle from the perspective of an unnamed, single, childfree woman watching her friend achieve traditional milestones in life, i.e. get married, have a baby, etc. It was interesting to explore it but I didn’t want to write a book about it. After 150 pages of two other book projects I finally decided to go back to the book after giving it another stab. I figured out I didn’t have to write a single girl in the city book, that there was a way to break it and reinvent it. Part of that comes with the structure of the book, it being told in time-shifting short vignettes, as opposed to a linear narrative. As to how I put together her background, I have lived in New York City for eighteen years, so the landscape was all there for me. And then I just began to invent.

One of the aspects of reading All Grown Up I enjoyed was getting into the head of someone who lives a different life to my own. Andrea’s observations of the people and life around her were often acerbic, but at other times, really resonated with me: two examples that spring to mind are when Andrea talks about getting a gift for her friend who’s having a baby, and in particular, the way in which we lose some friends in life and how we’re unable to do anything to prevent that happening. What are you hoping your readers take away from reading All Grown Up?
Oh I think each reader is going to take away from it whatever they want to take away from it, or perhaps are capable of taking away from it. I can’t control that. I was trying to present a version of a modern woman and human being and all her flaws and strengths and also all the challenges and pressures she faces in society. I’ve been told it’s educating for some, and I’ve been told it’s validating for others. The book is going to do different things for different kinds of people. I certainly hope people enjoy the book too, though. It was meant to move quickly and be entertaining and consuming. Read more

Book Review: Summary Justice by John Fairfax #SummaryJustice #BlogTour

The lawyer in me was attracted to the title and striking cover of Summary Justice, which led me to expect this to be about a legal battle against all the odds, even though unfamiliar with the author’s name. (Which as it turns out is a pen name.) Once I read the following blurb, I knew I had to read it.

The last time Tess de Vere saw William Benson she was a law student on work experience. He was a twenty-one year old, led from the dock of the Old Bailey to begin a life sentence for murder. He’d said he was innocent. She’d believed him.

Sixteen years later Tess overhears a couple of hacks mocking a newcomer to the London Bar, a no-hoper with a murder conviction, running his own show from an old fishmonger’s in Spitalfields. That night she walks back into Benson’s life. The price of his rehabilitation – and access to the Bar – is an admission of guilt to the killing of Paul Harbeton, whose family have vowed revenge. He’s an outcast. The government wants to shut him down and no solicitor will instruct him. But he’s subsidised by a mystery benefactor and a desperate woman has turned to him for help: Sarah Collingstone, mother of a child with special needs, accused of slaying her wealthy lover. It’s a hopeless case and the murder trial, Benson’s first, starts in four days. The evidence is overwhelming but like Benson long ago, she swears she’s innocent. Tess joins the defence team, determined to help Benson survive. But as Benson follows the twists and turns in the courtroom, Tess embarks upon a secret investigation of her own, determined to uncover the truth behind the death of Paul Harbeton on a lonely night in Soho.

You can’t get much more flawed as a criminal lawyer than if you’ve been convicted of murder, so even before you know much more about William Benson, you wonder why he did what he did, if he even did what he was convicted of, and why he’s now back in court but this time as counsel. He’s an intriguing character and one that we start to get to know throughout Summary Justice. I say start, because as this is the first book in an intended series, the reader won’t know everything by the end, even if the story threads are tidied up neatly enough to satisfy most readers while still leaving some unanswered questions to ponder until the next book in the series comes out.

It’s also interesting for two characters to have a past connection or shared history and meet years later, especially if there’s a shift in the dynamic as here. When William Benson and Tess de Vere first met, one was the defendant in a murder trial, the other a law student taken to court to observe law in practice. When they next meet, it’s after he’s studied law while serving some of his sentence, and is today not only out on licence but qualified as a barrister. Tess is also qualified, but as a solicitor rather than barrister, and she’s making a name for herself, currently in a respected London law firm. Although they’re both technically and professionally on the same side of the law now, it seems a part of William Benson will forever be classed, and treated, differently. Despite his apparent rehabilitation, some will always see the criminal in him, the murderer, and nothing beyond that.

If Summary Justice has such a memorable backstory, the present-day case also needs to be a good one so it’s not overshadowed, and it certainly is that. A single mother with a disabled son accused of murder in what appears to be an open and shut case. But nothing’s ever that straightforward and with only days to go before trial, Tess joins forces with Benson and his equally unusual clerk to delve deeper into it and come up with some answers, and a defence for their client. Read more

Book Review: The Method by Shannon Kirk #TheMethod #BlogTour

If you’re looking for a strong central character and are tired of female characters being portrayed as helpless, always waiting on a man to save or rescue them rather than doing the job themselves, then Shannon Kirk’s The Method might be the book for you.

You’re sixteen, you’re pregnant and you’ve been kidnapped.

If you’re anyone else you give in, but if you’re a manipulative prodigy you fight back in the only way you can. You use what you’ve been given against your captors.

You have only one chance to save your life and that of your unborn child. You’re calculating, methodical, and as your kidnappers are about to discover, they made a big mistake in abducting you.

What happens when the victim is just as dangerous as the captors?

It was the book’s blurb that first made me want to read The Method. The premise is as intriguing and different as its main protagonist. A pregnant teen doesn’t sound like your average victim, so while I had my suspicions about why she was targeted, I needed to know for certain what and who were behind her disappearance. And, as quickly becomes apparent, her kidnappers might have chosen the wrong girl. If they thought they were choosing a vulnerable and troubled teenager, they’re about to find out the extent to which appearances can be deceiving and just how fatal an error underestimating someone is.

For our narrator is anything but victim material: she’s already survived one traumatic event in her childhood. She has been raised to be one of life’s survivors. That, together with the pretty unusual skill-set she’s honed, means that this girl is about to turn her time in captivity into one big science project. And while some of her calculations are of their nature repetitive, as she finds a pattern to her days, there are also enough slight twists and upsets that this isn’t a huge problem. Besides, it’s interesting to try and work out if and how she’ll use each asset she identifies and labels throughout the book, and here Shannon Kirk will misdirect you, before reaching Show and Tell day.

Read more

Book Review: Cursed by Thomas Enger #Cursed #BlogTour

Cursed is the fourth book in Thomas Enger’s Henning Juul series but my first introduction to both the author and his investigative journalist protagonist and it works well as a stand-alone.

What secret would you kill to protect?

When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests.

Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-­wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Norway’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son.

With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-­wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history.

I have to confess that I initially chose to read this because, while the bulk of the action takes place in Norway, there was a Swedish connection. And I had a shiver of excitement reading the first page of the prologue to Cursed, which opens with a scene in Sweden and mentions the death of a character called Gunilla because when I was in Sweden I wrote a short story about a woman whose name is Gunilla and is sadly dead by the end. It felt as if my story was in some small way handing over the baton, or talking to Thomas Enger’s much better and far more polished novel. I got a kick out of that idea anyway but enough self-indulgence and back to what I made of Cursed.

I thoroughly enjoyed how the novel is told in dual narrative, Henning Juul taking one strand, and his ex-wife, Nora, also a journalist, the other. I liked seeing how they approached their work, bumped up against each other as they navigated life apart and after the death of their son, and tried to work out at which point the stories they were investigating might find some overlap. Henning and Nora are very different characters but interesting and strong enough in their own right to carry their part of the story when the other is off the page and it gives Cursed a very contemporary feel, having these two former partners still caring for each other and with a connection but also dealing with this next stage of their lives. Read more

Book Review: Ragdoll by Daniel Cole #RagdollBook #BlogTour

Daniel Cole’s debut novel, Ragdoll, intrigued me because it had not one but multiple victims, and I thought I’d enjoy seeing what the connections between them all were, that is, beyond the stitching that loosely connects the initial six. Here’s what the blurb says:

A body is discovered with the dismembered parts of six victims stitched together, nicknamed by the press as the ‘Ragdoll’. Assigned to the shocking case are Detective William ‘Wolf’ Fawkes, recently reinstated to the London Met, and his former partner Detective Emily Baxter.

The ‘Ragdoll Killer’ taunts the police by releasing a list of names to the media, and the dates on which he intends to murder them. With six people to save, can Fawkes and Baxter catch a killer when the world is watching their every move?

The prologue of Ragdoll opens with the end of what appears to be a wholly unconnected case to the one you’re expecting to read, that of the Ragdoll victims and their killer, so this was a disconcerting start. However, as quickly becomes apparent, the two cases are inextricably linked, thanks in great part to Detective Wolf’s involvement in both.

Wolf’s character is interesting: he’s about as flawed and damaged as a person can get, while still holding down a job, and stretches the ‘detective with issues’ idea to new limits. He’s recently reinstated and working with a team of detectives you’ll be familiar with from other detective novels or television series: the usual suspects are all here, but given his nickname, it’ll probably come as little surprise that William Fawkes is most comfortable when operating as a lone wolf. I couldn’t quite see how he had ever appealed to his TV journalist ex-wife or why his former partner on the force feels drawn to him. He’s volatile and obsessive when working a case which leaves very little over for anything, or anyone else. Of all the characters, though, it’s Wolf and Edmunds, the recent transfer across from Fraud, who held my interest the most. Perhaps because they are both terrier-like when on a case. I did like the Scot, Finlay, too but found Vanita fairly insubstantial and Baxter almost too much of a stereotype in any number of ways. Read more

#Sealskin Blog Tour – Interview with Author Su Bristow

I’m thrilled to welcome Su Bristow to the Nut Press today. Su was the first winner of the Exeter Novel Prize and the resulting novel, Sealskin, is out now from Orenda Books.

Su, I was lucky enough to be at that first prize-giving ceremony for the Exeter Novel Prize. Can you give me an idea of what happened after you won the award and how you went from prize-winning writer to published author, and the time it’s taken to make that transition?
Immediately afterwards? I went away in a daze, had dinner with some good friends, and spent two days working through the flood of facebook and twitter responses. It was amazing! And after that, I set to work to finish the book. The competition only required a synopsis and the first 10,000 words, and I’d done about 50,000 at that stage. By the time I’d got to the end, submitted it to Broo Doherty (the agent who judges the competition) and worked on her suggestions, another year had gone by. Then there were about six months of rejections, until Sealskin was accepted by Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books. She was busy establishing her business, and the first publication date she could manage was early 2017. So here we are, three years on!

What advice would you give to other writers considering entering writing competitions?
Tell yourself you might win, and be prepared! Ideally, you’d have the finished manuscript ready for submission. Beta-test it with readers who ‘get’ what your writing is about, and have good critical abilities. And listen to what they say! Build a good social media platform on facebook and twitter; that shows prospective agents or publishers that you’re willing to put in the necessary work to publicise your book.

Had you completed the manuscript for Sealskin when you entered it for the Exeter Novel Prize, or did you do so after you’d submitted your entry?
See above. I knew where it was going, but it took about three more months to complete.

From the extract I’ve read, your novel Sealskin centres around a myth which I find fascinating, that of the selkie, a creature who lives as a seal in the water and sheds its skin on dry land to take a human form. What interests you about the myth and what did you want to explore by writing about it in your novel?
Where to start? Stories that blur the boundaries between human and animal are told all over the world. We place ourselves outside nature, and yet we want to be part of it. The selkie stories come from the coast of Scotland and the islands around it, and I’m half Scottish so they have a special appeal for me. And this particular story… It’s beautiful and haunting, but there is ugliness at its heart. The legend says only ‘He took her home to be his wife’. She had no choice, and yet she lived with him and bore his children. So if that really happened, how could it possibly work? That’s where Sealskin began. Read more

Book Review: The Girl Before by JP Delaney #TheGirlBefore #TheBloggerBefore Blog Tour

I’m taking part in #TheBloggerBefore blog tour today to celebrate the publication of psychological thriller The Girl Before which came out on Thursday. #TheBloggerBefore me was Raven whose review you can read on her gorgeous blog everywhereandnowhere.

Enter the world of One Folgate Street and discover perfection . . . but can you pay the price?

Jane stumbles on the rental opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to live in a beautiful ultra-minimalist house designed by an enigmatic architect, on condition she abides by a long list of exacting rules. After moving in, she discovers that a previous tenant, Emma, met a mysterious death there – and starts to wonder if her own story will be a re-run of the girl before. As twist after twist catches the reader off guard, Emma’s past and Jane’s present become inexorably entwined in this tense, page-turning portrayal of psychological obsession.

The Girl Before opens on a situation (one past, the other happening in the present) most of us will have experienced: a letting agent is showing a woman (and in the past version, a woman and her partner) around flats within their budget in London. It’s a disheartening, and often demoralising, experience. And then, as letting agents often do, they save the best property to last: one within budget which is architect-designed and uses state-of-the-art technology to adapt and respond to the homeowner(s). Would they like to see it?

Naturally both women jump at the opportunity and while one sees it for the security it can offer her and the other admires its clean lines and beauty, both view it as a chance to wipe the slate clean and start anew. It feels as if it’s a house of second chances. But even if the rent is within their budgets, they first have to pass the rigorous vetting procedure and interview with the owner/architect before making One Folgate Street their home. And once installed in this admittedly beautiful but austere minimalism, they’ll have an extensive set of rules to adhere to, together with regular check ups to complete which affect the availability of some of the amenities. I’m pretty certain that even if I had passed the initial vetting process by some miracle, I would have fallen foul of only being allowed to have one stack of books kept in perfect alignment at all times! The opening question is one to ponder though: Read more

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

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