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Book Review: The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings

Devastating and deliciously dark, The Cliff House is less wish-fulfilment and more of a clever and disturbing reminder that things are rarely (if ever) how they appear on the surface.

Some friendships are made to be broken

Cornwall, summer of 1986.

The Davenports, with their fast cars and glamorous clothes, living the dream in a breathtaking house overlooking the sea.

If only… thinks sixteen-year-old Tamsyn, her binoculars trained on the perfect family in their perfect home. If only her life was as perfect as theirs. If only Edie Davenport would be her friend. If only she lived at The Cliff House…

What starts as a heady summer of escape and friendship on the North Cornwall coast soon takes a decidedly darker turn, one as black as the swimming pool around which much of the action takes place, in this novel of contrasts.

Tamsyn and Edie’s families illustrate the conflicting interests: locals looking for work and affordable housing in a place that daily reminds them of what they’ve lost; and holiday home owners longing for escape in an enviable property out of reach to most people, especially locals, while bringing seasonal work and spending power.

The Cliff House is the story of a place as much as the two families it brings together and Amanda Jennings makes its presence felt by breathing life into the house and the stretch of coast it sits on.

She also cleverly shows the light and dark of each character and place, and how changeable these are. As I learned more about each character, my perception of them changed and sympathies continually realigned while reading, which kept me on edge throughout.

As moody and intense as its teen protagonists and Cornish coastline, The Cliff House is a clever and twisted tale of the devastation caused when obsession, envy and grief run wild one summer, and which Amanda Jennings brings to a chilling yet fitting conclusion. Highly recommended.

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings is published by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins. It is available in as an audiobook and an ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. To find out more about Amanda Jennings and her books, check out her Author Website or find her on Facebook, on Instagram or on Twitter

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

Book Review: The Lido by Libby Page #LoveTheLido

Libby Page’s debut novel The Lido has been on my book radar from the moment I first heard about it on Twitter. My own local lido reopened in 2015 (after lottery funding enabled its restoration) and a novel set around one under threat sounded interesting. That it also had at its heart an age-gap relationship between two women made it all the more appealing to me, as I’m lucky enough to have some great intergenerational friendships. Here’s what it’s about:

Meet Rosemary, 86, and Kate, 26: dreamers, campaigners, outdoor swimmers…

Rosemary has lived in Brixton all her life, but everything she knows is changing. Only the local lido, where she swims every day, remains a constant reminder of the past and her beloved husband George.

Kate has just moved and feels adrift in a city that is too big for her. She’s on the bottom rung of her career as a local journalist, and is determined to make something of it.

So when the lido is threatened with closure, Kate knows this story could be her chance to shine. But for Rosemary, it could be the end of everything. Together they are determined to make a stand, and to prove that the pool is more than just a place to swim – it is the heart of the community.

There’s a lot to love about The Lido, and its two main characters are key to this. I think most people will identify with Kate’s feelings of loneliness and anxiety in a big city, whether or not they’ve experienced it for themselves, and how she perceives other people’s lives either through social media or thanks to family dynamics closer to home. Or they’ll feel for the character of recently-widowed Rosemary, her love of the lido closely linked to that of her husband, the water giving her a freedom and grace she no longer feels on land, and the ways in which she touches the lives of those around her. She made me hope that everyone has at least one Rosemary in their lives. I know I do, and I’m grateful for them. They know who they are.

It didn’t take me long before I was willing both of these women on to succeed in their personal battles, as well as the more publicly-fought fight to save the lido. Around these two, Libby Page sketches in a community of people: some are more successfully done than others. I didn’t quite get a handle on Phil the paper’s editor, Jay the photographer or Geoff the lido manager but this wasn’t a major issue. They’re secondary characters and others such as Ahmed, Frank and Jermaine and their dog Sprout, Hope and especially George more than make up for it. In fact, George made a surprising impact on me for someone who died before the book opens. He comes back to life on the page, as Rosemary relives their relationship. Read more

Book Review: I Still Dream by James Smythe

James Smythe’s latest novel I Still Dream is the compelling story of a reclusive Internet coding prodigy, her missing father, corporate ambition, love, loss and creation which begins steeped in hormones and nostalgia but becomes scarily prescient.

1997. 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first it’s intended to be a sounding-board for her teenage frustrations, a surrogate best friend; but as she grows older, Organon grows with her.

As the world becomes a very different place, technology changes the way we live, love and die; massive corporations develop rival intelligences to Laura’s, ones without safety barriers or morals; and Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, she knows, its power could be abused. But what if Organon is the only thing that can stop humanity from hurting itself irreparably? 

If you’re reading this, James Smythe’s latest novel will almost certainly strike a chord with you. He takes the reader on a trip which starts in nostalgia, or the bedroom of a troubled teen and the heady early days of the Internet, and travels forwards through our present-day lives, with all our reliance on social media and our devices, and on into a possible future, and life with AI. It’s a novel which is both timely in light of very recent events and one that’s alarmingly prescient. It might make you re-evaluate your online life and how secure you think you and your information are along the way but it’s also very much a story about a daughter missing her father and the connections we make in life.

Full of humanity and vulnerability, I Still Dream looks at our need to communicate and share our lives with others, despite our hopes, dreams, fears and secrets exposing us once shared. I thought I Still Dream was a deeply moving look at intelligence, both real and artificial, and creativity, and how while we might hope and aspire to use them for altruistic purposes, they’ll also attract the attention of more commercial forces wanting to harnass and ultimately exploit them.

It is also a moving story about the impact someone’s absence from our life can have on us, what makes us human and whether or not something we create can ever be a replacement for that. I Still Dream is very much a novel of and for our times. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it without hesitation.

I Still Dream by James Smythe is published by The Borough Press, a Harper Collins imprint. It is published as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback on 5th April 2018. You can pre-order it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. For more info on James Smythe and his books, check out his Author Website or follow him on Twitter.

My thanks to the publisher and Lovereading UK for providing me with a review copy. This review will also appear on the Lovereading UK website here.  

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

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

Book Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

In her latest novel, Rachel Joyce’s writing is pitch perfect and every bit as healing as the tracks that Frank selects as prescribed listening for his customers in The Music Shop.

1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann.

Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind …

If you’ve ever played sad songs to make yourself feel better when you’re blue, if you’ve ever heard a song on the radio that makes you realise you’re not alone in how you feel, if a piece of music brings back memories of a person, a place or a time in your life or you’ve ever made up a mix tape for yourself or someone you cared for, if you can’t help starting to sway, dance or even sing along when the first chords of a track start, then you need to read The Music Shop.

Rachel Joyce creates a real community around Frank and his titular music shop, with his customers and assistant Kit, the other shopkeepers in the parade and residents of Unity Street. She shows how it comes together but also how it’s under pressure to change: record reps want Frank to start selling CDs like the Woolworths in the High Street and unscrupulous property developers are circling.

Rachel Joyce’s writing may seem gentle, deceptively so, but there’s real drama here too; her true range reflected in the music Frank chooses, and how she orchestrates the cast of characters. (I couldn’t help but assign each one their own musical instrument as I was reading.) Rachel Joyce’s words heal every bit as much as Frank’s musical prescriptions. The Music Shop is an incredibly moving novel about the power and importance of music in our lives, helping us to connect with our feelings and soothing our various ills and woes. It’s also a rather beautiful love story in which music brings two damaged people closer together.

You’ll want to listen to this book’s soundtrack while you read it, and you’ll wish that Frank, his racks of vinyl, listening booths and customers, everything which makes up The Music Shop were as real now as you once wished the fancy dress shop in Mr Benn was when you were a child. Brava, Rachel Joyce, you’ve scored something truly beautiful and life-affirming in The Music Shop.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce is out today and is published by Doubleday, a Transworld imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. For updates on Rachel Joyce, her books and events, visit her publisher’s Author Page

My thanks to Alison Barrow at Transworld and Lovereading for providing me with a copy for review. (A shorter version of this review was originally posted on the Lovereading UK site.) 

Book Review: Soot by Andrew Martin

Set in York at the end of the eighteenth century, Soot features an unlikely amateur sleuth in Fletcher Rigge. Plucked from the debtor’s prison by a questionable benefactor from the wrong part of town, he’s given a month to investigate the murder of Captain Harvey’s father, one of York’s silhouette artists. The suspects are his last sitters, with only their duplicate shades to identify them.

York, 1799.

In August, an artist is found murdered in his home – stabbed with a pair of scissors. Matthew Harvey’s death is much discussed in the city. The scissors are among the tools of his trade – for Harvey is a renowned cutter and painter of shades, or silhouettes, the latest fashion in portraiture. It soon becomes clear that the murderer must be one of the artist’s last sitters, and the people depicted in the final six shades made by him become the key suspects. But who are they? And where are they to be found?

Later, in November, a clever but impoverished young gentleman called Fletcher Rigge languishes in the debtor’s prison, until a letter arrives containing a bizarre proposition from the son of the murdered man. Rigge is to be released for one month, but in that time, he must find the killer. If he fails, he will be incarcerated again, possibly for life.

And so, with everything at stake, and equipped only with copies of the distinctive silhouettes, Fletcher Rigge begins his search across the snow-covered city, and enters a world of shadows…

The art of the silhouette maker appears to capture the essence of each character and it’s illuminating how much Fletcher Rigge is able to take from these deceptively simple shades of people. They represent the impression we leave behind and it’s for Rigge to fill in the detail, as he attempts to identify each sitter inside a month. In this, Rigge is the happy beneficiary of coincidence while pursuing his investigations but I can forgive him that in a York of this period. He also shows scant regard for his own safety or wellbeing. Maybe he thinks he has little left to lose, despite being drawn into a dangerous game where a murderer is still at large. Will Rigge prove to be a willing pawn or more skilled and capable of outwitting practised confidence artists and other undesirables than we expect? And why does he seem set on undoing all the good work he and others are doing on his behalf?

Soot held my attention from its first page when Mr Erskine, a lawyer, sends the York magistrate a bundle of documents concerning the violent death of Matthew Harvey. I tumbled headlong into the (rather aptly) shadowy world of this city at the close of the eighteenth century. Reading this collection of letters, diary entries and witness statements (complete with the lawyer’s annotations), the lawyer in me loved trying to piece together this whodunit/whydunit from all the material provided. Read more

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