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Book Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

I’ve had three of Fredrik Backman’s books waiting patiently on my bookshelves for a while now. Not one of those was Beartown but when one of the book groups I’m in chose it as this month’s read, Beartown became my first Backman.

In a large Swedish forest Beartown hides a dark secret . . .

Cut-off from everywhere else it experiences the kind of isolation that tears people apart. And each year more and more of the town is swallowed by the forest.

Then the town is offered a bright new future. But it is all put in jeopardy by a single, brutal act. It divides the town into those who think it should be hushed up and forgotten, and those who’ll risk the future to see justice done.

Who will speak up? Could you stand by and stay silent? Or would you risk everything for justice? Which side would you be on?

You don’t need to follow or even like sports, let alone ice hockey, to enjoy Beartown. Its people will draw you into their stories long before before the sport is caught up in the blades of a moral face-off. But if, like me, you are a sports fan, you’ll find yourself whispering, “Oh yes, this!” and nodding along to paragraphs.

Backman nails all the complexities of sport, whether you love it or hate it, play it, coach it or support it, or simply live in a town where it dominates life. He taps into that all too human feeling of wanting to belong, of sharing in something good, of coming together with others and not feeling so alone, together with the darker side, such as the culture surrounding it, rough physicality, the violence, and its pack mentality.

Fredrik Backman writes people very well; he populates his novel with a myriad of characters and each and every one of them rings true. (For those of you worried about there being a large cast of characters, I wouldn’t be here – they’re fairly easily distinguishable.)

I enjoyed seeing how types repeated from one generation to the next but also how these differed in their responses. Because while Beartown may be a novel about a sports team and the culture surrounding it, this is fundamentally a novel about its people: their passions, their successes, their failings and those even more devastating momentary lapses, and their reaction to key moments in their lives. Read more

Book Review: Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

In her second novel Elizabeth is Missing author Emma Healey casts her forensic eye on a family dynamic put under strain.

How do you rescue someone who has already been found?

Jen’s fifteen-year-old daughter goes missing for four agonizing days. When Lana is found, unharmed, in the middle of the desolate countryside, everyone thinks the worst is over. But Lana refuses to tell anyone what happened, and the police think the case is closed. The once-happy, loving family returns to London, where things start to fall apart. Lana begins acting strangely: refusing to go to school, and sleeping with the light on.

With her daughter increasingly becoming a stranger, Jen is sure the answer lies in those four missing days. But will Lana ever reveal what happened?

Whistle in the Dark looks at a family reunited after a traumatic separation. They’re no longer able to function as they once did, perhaps understandably so, and especially for as long as the mystery of what happened in those missing days goes unresolved.

Getting to the bottom of things is a twisty, often tortuous task but something which Jen takes upon herself. While her husband Hugh favours an altogether more relaxed approach, Jen is dogged and extreme in some of the lengths to which she’ll go. These include stalking Lana on Instagram, overanalysing comments made, and even following her in real life.

I grudgingly admired her for her terrier-like attitude and refusal to give up trying to unearth what happened, while questioning Jen’s behaviour throughout the book, which is often desperate, sometimes verging on paranoid. She becomes obsessed, seemingly self-absorbed, and turns inward, analysing herself and her relationships with others along the way. To the extent where I wondered if it wasn’t Jen who was slowly losing her mind, and she who had more issues than her daughter.

Read more

Book Review: The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas

If you’re looking for something a little different, something quirky, say, or even geeky, with a superhero for our times, where there’s quiet courage and genuine pathos, a tragic backstory, the hope of a hesitant heart, romance, kindness and humour, then you need to read The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas.

Sam Holloway has survived the worst that life can throw at you. But he’s not really living. His meticulous routines keep everything nice and safe – with just one exception…

Three nights a week, Sam dons his superhero costume and patrols the streets. It makes him feel invincible – but his unlikely heroics are getting him into some sticky, and increasingly dangerous, situations.

Then a girl comes into his life, and his ordered world is thrown into chaos … and now Sam needs to decide whether he can be brave enough to finally take off the mask.

The beautiful cover should tip you off that this book is something special. Open it and you tumble headlong into the world of Sam Holloway’s alter ego. (I had way too much fun reading some of these Phantasm sections in my best film trailer voice. It is unavoidable. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

It’s clear from Sam’s impeccable taste in chocolate bars that he’s one of the good guys, despite life treating him cruelly. But you sense that, whether he’s in disguise, doing good deeds, or quietly living his ordered existence at home or in the office, he’s not dealing with past trauma and it’s holding him back. His friends are there for him when he wants to go to the pub or play board games but something seismic needs to happen to effect change. Enter Sarah, potential romantic interest and human catalyst.

The Unlikely Heroics runs the whole gamut of emotions. You laugh, you cry, you get mad, you get goosebumps; you wince, you sigh, you gasp with pain, you cringe with embarrassment; you feel like hugging or punching someone, and you just plain feel for Sam. It’s this emotional range together with its humour which makes The Unlikely Heroics work so well and has you rooting for Sam to open up, hopefully find happiness, and enjoy closure. Especially when this requires the book’s dark horse to step in and help.

The Unlikely Heroics is an engaging and affecting novel, showing the power of the imagination to shield us, the bravery there is in opening your heart and letting someone else in. Grab yourself some cherry Coke and a Toffee Crisp, suit up and geek out with The Unlikely Heroics. Because this superhero needs YOU.

The Unlikely Heroics of Sam Holloway by Rhys Thomas is published by Wildfire Books, an imprint of Headline. It is available as an audiobook and an ebook and in paperback from 9th August. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and WorderyThis is the third novel from Rhys Thomas. His previous two were The Suicide Club and On The Third Day. You can follow Rhys on Twitter

My thanks to the author and his publisher for sending me an early review copy.

Book Review: Star of the North by D.B. John

Since Mum found out this was on my TBR pile, she’s asked me whether I’ve read it every time I’ve seen her. Why? Because the author’s parents live in our village and he is, therefore, “practically a local.” I’m grateful she did though because Star of the North is a superb and incredibly timely thriller, coming out as it did a month before the recent summit between the US and North Korea.

A young American woman disappears without trace from a South Korean island.

The CIA recruits her twin sister to uncover the truth.

Now, she must go undercover in the world’s most deadly state. 

Only by infiltrating the dark heart of the terrifying regime will she be able to save her sister…and herself.

The disappearance in 1998 provides the spark for this novel but the action properly gets going twelve years later in 2010. John cleverly tells his story, while shedding light on this unfathomable regime and the mysterious country over which it presides, by focusing on three main characters: Jenna, a university professor and the missing woman’s sister; Cho, rising through the ranks in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang; and Mrs Moon, a resourceful farm worker scratching a living in Hyesan, in the northern province of Ryanggang.

I enjoyed the way in which Star of the North‘s narrative switches between these three. John leaves it just long enough between each changeover, that I never felt as if I was losing the thread of anyone’s story. This helped me come to know each character, care about them and their fate, to the point where I still wonder how they are and what they’re doing even after having finished the book. Read more

Book Review: Last Letter from Istanbul by Lucy Foley

After spending time in 1950s Tangier with Tangerine (see previous review), I decided to head further east and go back another thirty years to explore 1920s Istanbul with Lucy’s Foley’s third novel, Last Letter from Istanbul.

1921. Each day Nur gazes across the waters of the Bosphorus to her childhood home, a grand white house, nestled on the opposite bank. Memories float on the breeze the fragrance of the fig trees, the saffron sunsets of languid summer evenings. But now those days are dead.

The house has been transformed into an army hospital, it is a prize of war in the hands of the British. And as Nur weaves through the streets carrying the embroideries that have become her livelihood, Constantinople swarms with Allied soldiers a reminder of how far she and her city have fallen.

The most precious thing in Nur’s new life is the orphan in her care a boy with a terrible secret. When he falls dangerously ill Nur’s world becomes entwined with the enemy’s. She must return to where she grew up, and plead for help from Medical Officer George Monroe.

As the lines between enemy and friend become fainter, a new danger emerges something even more threatening than the lingering shadow of war.

Set during the occupation of Istanbul by allied forces after the First World War, Last Letter from Istanbul tells its story from alternating viewpoints. Those of Nur, a local evicted from her family home and now living with her mother and grandmother in a far less desirable district; the young boy who has been taken in by Nur; George, the army doctor, whose hospital occupies Nur’s former home; and two unnamed characters in the Traveller and the Prisoner. It becomes clear who they are as the novel progresses.

It takes a while for these strands to come together, but once they do, the story envelops you. It’s as if one of Nur’s embroidered shawls wraps around you, bundling you into the story alongside her. Lucy Foley brings the sights, smells and sounds of Istanbul to life in her writing and evokes an impression of what it was like to be there at this moment in the city’s history; a period I didn’t know much about before reading. Read more

Book Review: Tangerine by Christine Mangan

International Friendship Day seems a good time to post this review of Christine Mangan’s Tangerine set in 1950s Morocco about two college friends, one British and the other American, whose paths cross again after a year of no contact.

The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the horrific accident at Bennington, the two friends – once inseparable roommates – haven’t spoken in over a year. But Lucy is standing there, trying to make things right.

Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy, always fearless and independent, helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country.

But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice – she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.

I don’t know whether it was Joyce Carol Oates’ cover quote which first put it in mind but Tangerine always feels as if it gives more than a nod to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Their roles may differ but I couldn’t stop rhyming (Alice) Shipley with (Tom) Ripley while reading and then there’s the scene where Lucy tries on Alice’s clothes, resembling one where Tom dons Dickie Greenleaf’s. That said, this tale of toxic friendship is worth a read in its own right.

I enjoyed reading Tangerine for its Moroccan setting at a time when the country is on the verge of independence. You can sense change and uncertainty coming and Lucy seems a harbinger of this, not least for Alice whose brittle coping mechanisms are about to be tested.

It’s the relationship between Alice and Lucy which is pivotal to this book and all the more interesting once the backstory comes through and you find out what happened a year ago at Bennington and why it was of such importance and arguably life-changing for both women, albeit in different ways. Read more

Book Review: The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd #TheInnocentWife

When a debut novel wins a prize pre-publication, it sets my expectations high. Happily, Amy Lloyd’s The Innocent Wife doesn’t disappoint and justifies all the attention. Here’s what it’s about:

Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and imprisoned for the brutal murder of a young girl in Florida’s Red River County. Now he’s the subject of a true-crime documentary that’s whipping up a frenzy online to uncover the truth and free a man who has been wrongly convicted.

A thousand miles away in England, Samantha is obsessed with Dennis’s case. She exchanges letters with him, and is quickly won over by his apparent charm and kindness to her. Soon she has left her old life behind to marry him and campaign for his release.

But when the campaign is successful and Dennis is freed, Sam begins to discover new details that suggest he may not be quite so innocent after all.

But how do you confront your husband when you don’t want to know the truth?

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of person writes to, let alone marries, a convicted murderer, then Amy Lloyd offers up a credible contender in Samantha. It’s easy to trace and accept how this clearly not stupid, grown woman is drawn in by Dennis and his campaign.

Sam comes with her own issues, sometimes being too weak and reactive, or jealous and needy, and her own skeletons (though they’re only figurative compared to Dennis’ real ones). And in giving her these, Amy Lloyd ensures we see her as a real person and possibly not as wholly innocent as the title suggests.

Things start innocently enough though, when Sam’s introduced to the world of true-crime documentaries by her then boyfriend and they watch one about Dennis. It’s what follows, through Sam’s need to know more about his case and how this escalates, which makes The Innocent Wife such compulsive reading. Read more

Book Review: Believe Me by JP Delaney

If you’re looking for a book that’ll take you on an absolute trip and mess with your head, then this is it. Believe Me is the latest psychological thriller from the bestselling author of The Girl Before which I reviewed here. Here’s what Believe Me is about:

Claire Wright likes to play other people.

A British drama student, in New York without a green card, Claire takes the only job she can get: working for a firm of divorce lawyers, posing as an easy pick-up in hotel bars to entrap straying husbands.

When one of her targets becomes the subject of a murder investigation, the police ask Claire to use her acting skills to help lure their suspect into a confession. But right from the start, she has doubts about the part she’s being asked to play. Is Patrick Fogler really a killer . . . Or the only decent husband she’s ever met? And is there more to this set-up than she’s being told?

And that’s when Claire realises she’s playing the deadliest role of her life . . 

It’s Claire’s story to tell but several things combine to make her an unreliable narrator. Claire’s desperate to be an actor and is in New York taking classes, sometimes being asked to go out onto the streets for some acting exercises. Which made me question how much of everything else she does is real and how much is role-playing.

She’s had to leave the UK behind her, for reasons which rankle but also influenced how much I trust her version of events, while also making me wonder how mentally robust she is for the biggest role of her life. I have to confess that the lawyer in me worried her way through the honey trap scenes but they’re crucial. They show us the lengths to which Claire will go to stay in New York, how good an actress she is but also how draining these performances are for her. Read more

Book Review: No Good Brother by Tyler Keevil

Tyler Keevil was first published by the Welsh publisher, Parthian, which is how I discovered him. Having enjoyed all his previous books, including The Drive published by Myriad rather than Parthian, I was keen to read his latest novel. No Good Brother is the picaresque tale of two brothers partly set in and around Vancouver, another reason for wanting to read this one.

Tim Harding has spent the fishing season in Canada working as a deckhand, making an honest living. When his hot-headed younger brother tracks him down at the shipyards in Vancouver, Tim senses trouble. Jake is a drifter, a dreamer, an ex-con, and now he needs help in repaying a debt to the notorious Delaney gang.

So begins an epic, unpredictable odyssey across land and sea as the brothers journey down to the Delaney’s ranch in the U.S., chased by customs officials, freak storms and the gnawing feeling that their luck is about to run out. But while they may be able to outrun the law, there’s no escaping the ghosts of their tragic family past and neither is prepared for who and what awaits them at the other end.

No Good Brother gets off to a leisurely start as we see the boat Tim crews on winding down after the herring season. You get a real sense of how important this boat is to the family business which operates it and how the crew works together like a family, whether they’re related by blood or not. Tim’s made himself invaluable as a crew member and is being coaxed into becoming a more permanent part of the actual family at the heart of it.

Which is when his younger brother, Jake, turns up and things take a detour out to sea and across the border… It’s easy to see Jake as the No Good Brother of the title but once Tim has (admittedly reluctantly) agreed to help his brother and they get underway, he often seems the more incorrigible of the two and the one that’s driving the action forward, making it harder to turn back and attempt any form of reparation or escape the almost certain punishment or worse that awaits them. They are despite their differences, both as bad as each other which is perhaps what’s meant by No Good Brother.  Read more

Book Review: The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Anna Mazzola captivated me with her tense and atmospheric, early Victorian London crime debut The Unseeing and I was keen to see where she went next. The period is once again Victorian for her second novel but, crucially, The Story Keeper* is set twenty years later for reasons which become apparent towards the end of the book. And for this book we escape London for the Hebrides together with her disillusioned young folklorist.

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories.

Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds.

Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before.

The novel opens with an extract from a folk tale which runs throughout the novel, and follows that up with Audrey coming across to Skye on the boat. It’s a great way to start because it gives us a taste of the folklore she’ll be collecting, and ensures we see Audrey as an outsider. It also gives us a real sense of the journey she’s undertaken to get there, how badly she must have wanted to leave London behind, how hard that crossing was (important for those of us who’ve only ever known the road bridge), while introducing us to one of the young girls who plays a part in the sinister story about to unfold.

Thanks to Anna Mazzola’s excellent writing, I quickly became immersed in the book’s world, which isn’t always a comfortable place to be. The Story Keeper features gothic elements that exude menace and an impending sense of doom: birds circle and swoop; the draughty old house where Audrey is to stay has seen better days and comes complete with strange noises, a less than welcoming employer, and plenty of mysterious corners and passageways. Islanders are wary of strangers, understandably so given recent history and what’s happening on the island, and are reluctant and superstitious of telling the old stories.

Audrey has to distinguish what’s story from truth before she runs out of time or loses her mind in the attempt and because she wants to right a past wrong from the life she left behind. But it’s difficult to know who to trust here: no matter how charming, reticent or intimidating they outwardly appear, everyone seems an unwilling and unreliable narrator. Read more

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