by Antti Tuomainen
The Rabbit Factor is the first novel in the Rabbit Factor series by award-winning Finnish author, Antti Tuomainen. It is translated from Finnish by David Hackston. Within a few days in late September 2020, Henri Koskinen has lost his actuarial job, his brother, Juhani, and inherited an Adventure Park on the outskirts of Helsinki. Worse still, when he takes a quick look, he discovers that YouMeFun, despite being a relatively successful business, has a mountain of unpaid bills and a massive loan to repay.
Henri was never really close to Juhani, who had more in common with their chaotic parents. "Juhani was fun and flexible. Humorous and quick-witted. Spontaneous and amiable" while Henri "had only one deep-held wish. I wanted everything to be sensible"
"He used to joke, saying I would die of stiffness. I told him I was very much alive and not at all stiff, I just wanted things to occur in a good, logical order and that I based all my actions on rational thinking" but now Henri wishes he knew more about his brother, and what Juhani could possibly have done with so much money.
Even before he has met all the staff and had a decent look at the books, a reptilian organised-crime type and his heavy turn up to demand payment of his brother's two-hundred-thousand-euro debt, with interest. Not that Henri has the money to pay but, as an actuary, what he really objects to the exorbitant interest rate: ten per cent over just two and a half weeks? Henri narrowly escapes losing a finger, but he knows that won't be their last visit.
Sure enough, a few days later, as he's trying, after hours, to repair the broken ear on a giant rabbit statue, a nasty fellow with a knife (or two) turns up to deliver him an unambiguous message. Another narrow escape that sees Henri taking action he could never have envisaged when he was working for the insurance company, and he really has to figure out something to get them off his back.
What is really puzzling is how Knife Man knew Henri was there alone, and how he got into the park. Juhani gave the staff free rein with running the place: could one of them be in cahoots with the crooks? They are an unusual bunch, and Henri knows his directness can be off-putting: "'I can be frank with you, yes?' 'I believe it's for the best,' I say. 'Some people say it can be rude, but I think the benefits far outweigh the possible drawbacks. I'm not sure of the exact ratio, but in my experience I can say that the probability of causing offence can't be higher than ten percent. That gives being frank around a ninety-percent chance of success. Those are exceptionally good odds.'"
Needing to pay the loan, the bills and trying to keep the adventure park running, Henri comes up with a bold plan and presents his criminal creditors with an audacious proposal, the sort only an actuary could convince the big man will be viable. His radical idea includes starting a bank and offering park patrons pay-day loans, but can it really work?
As if he doesn't have enough on his plate, the reptilian guy tries to blackmail him, someone might be sabotaging park structures, and he finds himself falling for the park's manager. Laura Helanto is an artist whose murals are transforming the park and have Henri inexplicably fascinated. The mathematician in him tries to analyse why, without success. Oh, and a Helsinki Police DI is looking for Knife Man…
As well as the artist, his team consists of Kristian (a maintenance man who was promised the position of General Manager), Minttu K (an alcoholic marketing and sales manager), Esa (a head of security who wants to be a US marine), Samppa (an earringed, tattooed children's entertainer), Johanna (a fitness-freak café manager) and Venla (a ticket-seller who has yet to turn up for work).
There's plenty of humour in this novel, some of it quite black, and a delicious irony when Henri uses the exact same touchy-feely language that drove him from his last job to handle Kristian's promotion demands. Henri will remind some readers of Don Tillman: with his reliance on maths and logic, his imaginative problem solving and good intentions. More of this protagonist, in The Moose Paradox, will be most welcome. Recommended! This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Orenda Books
by Alexander McCall Smith
"'Mma, I see you.' It was the oldest and simplest of African greetings. I see you. It implied so much more than it said, though, because it meant that Mma Ramotswe saw not only the person standing before her, but all that lay behind her – who she was, where she came from, how she felt."
A Song Of Comfortable Chairs is the twenty-third book in the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by popular Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith. It opens with Precious Ramotswe considering aspects of her colleague Grace Makutsi's behaviour that seem to signal ambition. Precious wonders if she's about to face a coup, but Mr JLB Matekoni wisely diagnoses the sort of insecurity characteristic of someone with poverty in their past.
Grace's husband Phuti Radiphuti's Double Comfort Furniture Store has a serious competitor, Twenty-First Century Chairs, whose aggressive advertising campaign is fronted by her seemingly indefatigable nemesis, Violet Sepotho. Mma Ramotswe checks out their stock and returns with important intelligence. Eventually she has a clever idea that will hopefully save the business and dispel Phuti's despondency.
That idea means that Orphan Farm matron, Mma Potokwani gets to star in an ad campaign and the photo shoot attracts not only staff of the Detective Agency and the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, but also a large support crew from the Orphan Farm.
After a hard life with plenty of bad luck, Mma Potokwani's newest employee, Patience finally has a chance at happiness in Gabarone with a Water Affairs man from Malawi, but her teenaged son's jealousy and poor behaviour poses a threat to that. Mma Ramotswe comes up with a radical plan that might teach the boy to appreciate what he has.
After his first- ever visit to the dentist, Charlie is dismayed to learn what will be needed to keep his teeth from falling out. As usual, he has numerous unsatisfactory interactions with Mma Makutsi, but somehow ends up becoming a mentor to a troubled young boy.
Throughout it all, the ladies (and their men) muse on many topics: unheeded parental wisdom, the benefits of occasional consumption of unhealthy food, the proliferation of extra features on any saleable item, the demise of dining tables and plates, and the curse of phased redundancy and planned obsolescence. Tea and fruit cake often accompany these musings.
As always, McCall Smith gives the reader some minor mysteries that don't tax the brain too much, laced with plenty of gentle philosophy, astute observations and wise words such as "If we do not forgive, then we end up carrying a big burden on our shoulders" and "We should love one another, she thought, not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because it was far easier than hating one another. People who hated often had to work quite hard at keeping their hatred warm." Anything by this author is a guaranteed feel-good read.
by Holly Throsby
"We didn't know then that it wouldn't be long now. That the calendar was just running backwards from the day when there would be answers. At that time, all there was were questions, which drifted around Goodwood like despair…"
Goodwood is the first novel by Australian songwriter, musician and novelist, Holly Throsby. In little rural NSW town of Goodwood nothing much happens. Until, in August of 1992, two residents go missing, a week apart. Eighteen-year-old Rosie White is absent from her room on a Sunday morning. While the town puzzles over that, their favourite butcher, Bart McDonald fails to return from his regular Sunday fish on the lake.
The town soon learns that his boat has been found on the lake without any sign of Bart, and when the lake is dragged, no body is found. They've always believed that theirs is a safe town, but now: "Goodwood had never been visited by such collective worry, and we were not familiar with the burden of the unknown."
Seventeen-year-old Jean and her best friend George observe and discuss what they see. Their teenaged thoughts and emotions are complicated by this disquiet that settles on the town, although Jean is also distracted by the arrival in town of Evie, the most beautiful girl she has ever seen.
The uncertainty has a negative effect on the town: people are sad and anxious; many rally together and support one another; with others, tension rises and tempers flare; the uglier side of some relationships is exposed.
Readers should not expect an action-packed page-turner. Rather, the pace befits the small-town setting, and while there are mysteries to be solved, and the reader will be kept guessing as each piece of relevant information is revealed, this is more a study of an Australian country town than a crime thriller.
Some elements of this novel (small town where everyone knows everyone, the observations of the young female narrator and her best friend, the mysteriously missing residents) are reminiscent of Joanna Cannon's The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, a favourable comparison.
Throsby's depiction of the Australian small town is faultless: her setting so well rendered that readers familiar with the area may well have a certain town fixed in their minds. But it could be any NSW small town with its attractive and its less desirable qualities, and that includes the residents.
While some are necessarily a little stereotypical and therefore one-dimensional (the gossipy grocer, the outraged-at-anything-new old couple, the busybody neighbour, the obligatory sleazebag) and others are quite quirky, the townspeople are, of course, what makes this novel. And if they are all are believably flawed, many are also kind and generous and wise and some have unexpected depth. It soon becomes apparent why they love their town.
Throsby certainly has a way with words: "A woman who had long ago lost her mooring and sunk like a ship into her peculiar home. A person who had become more like a rumour than a human being." The cute little map in the front is appreciated. This tale is clever and captivating and heart-warming and there's plenty of (sometimes very black) humour. An outstanding debut.
by Sophie H?Naff
The Awkward Squad is the first book in the Awkward Squad/Anne Capestan series by French author, Sophie Hénaff. It is translated from French by Sam Gordon. After a six-month suspension for being a little too trigger-happy, Commissaire Anne Capestan faces the top brass of the Ile-de-France Police force hoping not to have lost her job. She hasn't. Instead, she is to head a new squad and will report directly to her former mentor, now Chief at 36, quai des Orfèvres, Buron.
Relieving all the other squads of some of the force's least conventional members, the undesirable ones: the drunkards, the thugs, the depressives, the layabouts and everyone in between – the people hamstringing the force but who can't be fired – are all to be absorbed into one squad and forgotten about in some corner.
Capestan's squad is meant to comprise forty of these, but she'll be surprised if twenty actually show up; turns out only half that do. Their directive is to deal with all the unsolved open cases and not satisfactorily resolved closed cases that are dragging down the statistics of other squads.
By definition, those relegated to this squad of misfits will be quirky. First to turn up are: Commandant Louis-Baptiste Lebreton, a nit-picker from internal affairs who brought a discrimination complaint against his boss; Lt José Torrez aka Malchance, whose jinx has him losing partners in the worst possible way; Capitaine Eva Rosière, a flamboyant crime novelist writing a TV series; and Lt Évrard, a compulsive gambler.
Joining them a bit later are: the appropriately named Capitaine Merlot, an alcoholic deskbound grandpa; Capitaine Orsini, whose campaign against corruption includes alerting journalists to his finds; Brigadier Lewitz, a petrolhead with a history of demolishing cars; and Lt Dax, ex-Cyber-Crime, now with boxer's brain.
They find themselves tucked away on the attic floor of an apartment building at number 3, rue des Innocents, sparsely outfitted with worn out furnishings and equipment, and allocated three knackered vehicles. They don't hesitate to improve their lot, bringing or buying comforts to make their job more bearable.
What is perhaps surprising is that these unwanted police officers, when freed from irritating regulations and demanding superiors, when allowed to play to their strengths, are unexpectedly capable, and ready, even eager, to team up to get their teeth into some unsolved cases. "I've been a cast-off for years. Beforehand it was just me, but now there's a whole team of us. As far as I'm concerned, that's progress."
Not all of them see themselves as on the shelf, cretinous officers in the naughty corner, however. One tells her "I consider my role to be more of a supporting one, commissaire."
Having resorted her secret weapon (Orsini and his journalist pals) to get a result in their parc Morceau drug dealer case, Capestan begins to wonder if her mentor has set the whole thing up to suit his own purposes. He is known for manipulation: does he have an agenda? It won't deter her from investigating two further cases, whether or not they get any cooperation from #36.
The concept of shoving all the misfits together somewhere out of the way so they can't do any more damage will strike a chord with readers of Mick Herron's Slough House series, although the Awkward Squad's leader is quite the polar opposite of Jackson Lamb. But like his staff, Anne's squad are glad to see some action.
Hénaff's plot is clever enough to keep the reader guessing and the pages turning. Her characters are fun and more than one-dimensional, taking very little time to endear themselves to the reader. Luckily there are two further books in the series, although English-speakers will be hoping that #3 is translated soon. Very entertaining!
by Lionel Shriver
4.5★s Abominations is a collection of thirty-five essays about a wide range of topics by prize-winning best-selling American author, Lionel Shriver. She applies her insight, her talent for argument and her succinct prose to subjects like her teenage diary, a dying friend, cancel culture, writers blocked, the fashionable argot and privilege, semantics in arguments about gender, the laziness of buzzwords, patriotism, nationalism and loyalty to one's birth or adopted country, Brexit, immigration, and paying tax.
She offers a sermon rejecting religious faith, a letter to her younger self about what makes one happy, a tribute to her older brother, and she outlines the inspiration for her novel, Big Brother. She describes being an American ex-pat in Belfast, and film festival humiliation at Cannes.
She comments on playing tennis: "It's fabulous to be able to thwack anything that hard, over and over, and not get arrested"; on fitness junkies, libertarians and the 2016 US election, Ikea's real genius ("sooner or later, it falls apart"), an oppressively gendered world, the drive to politically decontaminate public memorials, and what happiness is (not a position, a trajectory).
On cycling in London: "I've biked dozens of American states and all over Western Europe, and nowhere have I encountered a cycling culture so cutthroat, vicious, reckless, hostile, and violently competitive as London's". On diversity quotas: "unfair, antimeritocratic, and culturally destructive".
She gives the reader a very tongue-in-cheek list of her activities during pandemic lockdown, an opinion on the cost of health care in an ageing population, and an account of friendship, ongoing, fractured and mended. She muses on end of life and where one might draw the line with acceptable debility.
She bemoans the deteriorating standards of prose and speech, explaining her tendency to mark up casual conversation with a red pencil, and theorises on civil unrest during lockdown, BLM zealotry and the economy.
Her controversial essay on fiction and identity politics, on authenticity, is particularly well thought-out with many valid points. And her essay on quoteless dialogue in literature will resonate with most readers and many in the publishing trade: "I've yet to hear any reader despair, 'This would have been a great book, if it weren't for all those pesky quotation marks!'"
Her thought-provoking opinions pull no punches, and while many will disagree with what she says, this is a worthwhile read, even if some of the topics are of little interest to some, thus tempting skimming. Diverse, provocative, interesting. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Harper Collins UK.
by Alice Ryan
"She was used to being wild Molly, exasperating Molly, cheeky Molly, but still after all these years she hadn't found the words to be sad Molly. She would have felt more comfortable calling her family to say she'd been arrested than that she was lonely."
There's Been A Little Incident is the first novel by Irish author Alice Ryan. When Molly Black's Uncle John gathers the family together, some think it's a bit premature. Molly has disappeared before, often requiring a dramatic extraction, and maybe she just wants to escape for a while. If so, who could blame her?
Crammed into John's suburban Dublin house, in person or by Zoom, are Molly's four uncles, her four aunts (not necessarily spouses of said uncles), her granny (mother of five of those present) and four cousins. John reports that B., Molly's best friend since they were four, was left a note that "didn't say where she was going, just that she loved us, but she had to run".
When John stresses the urgency to find her, several remind him of earlier false alarms, but he is insistent, and assigns them tasks. While Molly has always been impulsive, B. is inclined to believe that his decision to move in with his new boyfriend has precipitated this. And he'd be right: fatherless since she was nine, motherless at nineteen, without B. as her constant companion, she feels there's no one to whom she now belongs.
As the family searches for clues to her destination, some at first believing the whole exercise to be unnecessary, irritating and inconvenient, they begin to recall what Molly has been in their lives. "Molly had a special connection to each of us" For John, "it seemed like Molly was the daughter he'd never had" and "Molly Black was like electricity – sometimes she lit up the world. Sometimes she electrocuted you."
They remember how Molly had tried to talk to each of them over the last few weeks, but they didn't spare her the time, so now they feel a little guilty about that. They also remember just how much Annabelle, of whom Molly reminds them so much, did for them when she was still alive.
Thinking back, they realise that, actually, they have always needed Molly just as much as she has needed them. Even if some of them think she is more a contagious mess than a lovable rogue to be humoured, they agree that Molly has to be found.
The Black family aren't the only ones who want to know where Molly is: the Guards want to ask her what she might have seen when she was near where a young nurse, now missing, was last seen alive.
So when they get word, they put together an extraction team "of nothing but liabilities. The line-up was an irate aunt with a broken ankle, a vacuous vlogger who Bobby had actively avoided for twenty years, a heavily sedated uncle on the verge of a pro-terrorism diatribe, a nervous wreck who could only grasp concepts which existed as functions in Excel, and at the last minute –and the absolute pièce de résistance –they'd had to replace Mike, the one reliable member of the team, with a long-term alcoholic."
Ryan's cast of characters is a crazy family, made up of "new-aged hippies, religious nuts, alcoholics, former shoe salesmen, delinquent youths and Sudoku enthusiasts" who manage to endear themselves to the reader. Are they "nosy, judgemental and eccentric but ultimately great"? or "suffocating, overbearing people who pigeon-holed you"? Either way, quite a few of them are dealing with grief. And doing it the best way they can.
Ryan gives them wise words and insightful observations: "People who give out that much good energy, who are breezy and jovial and try their best to be happy and positive all the time, have a far greater capacity for getting hurt than those who put up a defence." She often has a marvellous turn of phrase: "Mike called them the Botox Bettys. But Liam said they were more like the Schadenfreude Sheilas". Funny, heart-warming and uplifting, this is a brilliant debut novel. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Head of Zeus Apollo
by Ian McEwan
Lessons is the eighteenth novel by Booker prize-winning British author, Ian McEwan. At the age of eleven, after living for five years with his parents in Libya, Roland Baines is sent to Berners Hall, a boarding school in rural Suffolk, to get the education his parents missed out on. His father had always wanted to play the piano: Roland is signed up for lessons with Miss Miriam Cornell.
When Roland is thirty-seven, his wife abandons him and their baby son, claiming in a note that, while she loves him, motherhood would sink her, and she's been living the "wrong life". Now a published poet, Roland has to seek social service assistance as sole carer for seven-month-old Lawrence.
As he copes with sole parenthood and the threat of a radiation cloud from Chernobyl, he is also under suspicion for murder from DI Douglas Browne, who is sceptical of the note and postcards Alissa has sent.
Plagued by sleeplessness, Roland's mind goes back to his childhood: army accommodation in Tripoli, boarding school, lessons with Miss Cornell, and the highly inappropriate affair into which she grooms a pre-teen boy. While the prospect of an older, attractive, single and erotically-inclined lover might be a dream come true for a randy sixteen-year-old schoolboy, even bedazzled, Roland understands it could be the destruction of his future.
In eventually rejecting her, he also abandons his formal education, spends a rather dissolute decade travelling, then begins to educate himself. By his mid-forties, he is coaching tennis, writing reviews and playing tearoom piano. "How easy it was to drift through an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events."
Some of McEwan's descriptive prose is exquisite: "He knew that her mind was elsewhere and that he bored her with his insignificance – another inky boy in a boarding school. His fingers were pressing down on the tuneless keys. He could see the bad place on the page before he reached it, it was happening before it happened, the mistake was coming towards him, arms outstretched like a mother, ready to scoop him up, always the same mistake coming to collect him without the promise of a kiss. And so it happened. His thumb had its own life. Together, they listened to the bad notes fade into the hissing silence."
But, at times, he seems to go off on tangents from his main plot, and although patience with these apparent digressions does offer the reader a fuller backstory, his lofty prose and cerebral subject matter can be enough to make the ordinary reader feel uneducated, even dumb. His protagonist is not all that likeable, making it hard for the reader to care a whole lot about his fate until, in the final pages, he develops into a more appealing character.
With references to national, European and world events, McEwan certainly establishes the era and setting, but his protagonist's opinions on, and reactions to, politics and current affairs do begin to bore, and readers will be tempted to skim. A too-detailed description of a mediocre life that is much wordier than it needs to be. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and the publisher.
by Peter Papathanasiou
4.5★s The Invisible is the second novel in the DS Manolis Investigations series by Greek-born Australian author, Peter Papathanasiou. Forced to take leave due to PTSD, George Manolis heads to the tiny northern Greek village of Glikonero: an opportunity to reconnect with his father's homeland, to catch up with his friend, Stavros, to fulfil his promise to deliver his father's heirloom set of komboloi to his old acquaintance, Lefteris, and maybe to track down his long-lost Aunt Polly.
But Stavros tells him Lefty is missing. Lefty is an invisible: completely undocumented, and the Greek police aren't concerned, Lefty is merely absent. Constable Yiannis remarks "how do you find someone who doesn't want to exist, let alone be found?" Manolis remembers Lefty as charismatic rascal, a shady but loveable hustler, but Stavros is convinced he did not leave of his own accord. Manolis agrees to try to find him.
Working as a labourer fixing up Lefty's cottage is not only a great cover, it is also therapeutic, and allows Manolis chat to villagers and explore the nearby woods, lake and island. He tries to subtly enquire about Lefty, and learns that, despite his popularity with the elderly villagers who relied on him, not everyone felt that way. Glikonero is a village of feuds and long-held grudges. And in the village of Eleftheria, he was considered a conman and thief.
Manolis soon decides that a myriad of possibilities could account for Lefty's absence: he might have gone to Lesbos, as he told neighbours; he may, on his frequent walks through the woods, have fallen in a deep cave or mineshaft, stepped on an unexploded mine, or been attacked by a bear, wolf or another predator; he may be the victim of foul play in the course of selling black market goods or smuggling across the border in Albania or North Macedonia; he may have been abducted while hitchhiking between towns; he might have drowned in the lake, been a victim of a poisonous viper on the island, shot by a hunter… the list goes on.
Lefty's cottage yields nothing at a cursory glance, but a more thorough search turns up some enigmatic clues including a euro-stuffed toolbox, some forged passports and a duffle bag of weapons. But nothing points to where he has gone. Before Manolis gives up looking, he has encounters with several quirky villagers, a group of Romani, and some illegal immigrants as well as snakes, bears, and scorpions; just which of these is more dangerous might be debatable.
Papathanasiou's setting feels highly authentic, and his fondness of the region and her people is apparent with every line of his descriptive prose; his characters and their dialogue are credible; and some scenes, like the negotiation with the Eleftheria villagers over the stolen cash, and the snake-bite scenario, are blackly funny.
As well as the mystery of Lefty's disappearance, the story touches on graft and corruption rife in official circles, sworn virgins, the mass removal of children following the civil war, the treatment of mentally and physically disabled children and, of course, the difficulty associated with locating an invisible. This is atmospheric crime fiction with an excellent twist in the final pages. This unbiased review is from a copy provided by MacLeHose Press
by Andrew Sean Greer
Less is the first novel in the Less series by award-winning best-selling American author, Andrew Sean Greer. Quickly approaching fifty, Arthur Less is dismayed to be invited to the wedding of a former lover. Attending is out of the question: Arthur Less devises a "cats cradle of junkets" that will ensure he is out of the country and very busy while Freddy Pelu marries Tom Dennis in Sonoma, CA.
First on his itinerary is New York City, interviewing an author of a sci-fi series with a cult following. This is preceded by a lunch with his agent, the outcome of which is a shock: his new novel will need a rewrite if it is to attract a publisher.
From there, Mexico City (an interview about his famous lover, poet Robert Brownburn), Turin (nominated for a book award), Berlin (teaching a five-week course), a short, unplanned stop-over in Paris (catch up with a friend), Morocco (to celebrate the birthday of a friend of a friend, and his own), India (a writing retreat, to fix his novel?), and Japan (to review some restaurant meals).
But at each destination, and often, during his travels, Arthur is overwhelmed by reminiscences, reveries, flashbacks, courtesy of those he meets, old friends and new acquaintances, and of little incidents that occur. Much as he would rather not, he recalls not just past lovers, but those he truly loved (and perhaps still does?), and fails to scrub Freddy from his mind and heart.
It's on his fiftieth birthday that he is blessed with an epiphany about his apparently unwanted novel, and it's a delightful irony that it just about describes what Greer has written: "What if it isn't a poignant, wistful novel at all? What if it isn't the story of a sad middle-aged man on a tour of his hometown, remembering the past and fearing the future; a peripateticism of humiliation and regret; the erosion of a single male soul? What if it isn't even sad?"
Greer's protagonist might remind some readers of those that David Nicholls creates: inept, accident-prone, awkward, subject to "those writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him", whose "brain sits before its cash register again, charging him for old shames as if he has not paid before".
And towards the end, his friend/rival tells him "You are the most absurd person I've ever met. You've bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you've misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you've won. And you don't even realize it."
The story is related by an unnamed narrator whose identity gradually becomes clear. Greer's plot, characters and prose are entertaining and enjoyable, and it's no surprise that this novel was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Fans will be pleased to know they can look forward to a sequel, Less Is Lost.
by Kelly J Ford
Real Bad Things is the second novel by award-winning American author, Kelly J. Ford. Recently jobless, homeless and romantically detached, a string of text messages from her ever-hostile mother is really all the impetus Jane Mooney needs to quit Boston and return to her Arkansas hometown, Maud. "They found him." "I TOLD YOU THEY WOULD." "Time to come home." "Time to pay for what YOU DONE."
Twenty-five years earlier, inexplicably breaking the solemn vow made with her younger brother, her best friend and her lover, Jane confessed to murdering her abusive stepfather, Warren Ingram, as soon as he was reported missing. Jane was arrested, but without a body, or evidence of a crime, the case couldn't proceed. Jane left town as soon as she was released.
Now, she's back to face the music but, new among the lazy, incompetent members of the Maud Police Department, Detective Benjamin Hampton isn't ready to arrest her just yet. He's asking awkward questions, and Jane feels the need to check that the other three are sticking to the agreed story. But, for over two decades, Jane has believed a version of what happened that, it turns out, is not quite correct.
Georgia Lee Lane is unhappily married with twin teenaged sons, manages the Maud Pharmacy, and has been a city councillor for fifteen years. But her opponent in the upcoming election has plenty of money to splash around, and she is already polling badly enough without her name being associated with Lezzie Borden, the nickname Jane acquired after her confession. But that's exactly what the "Let's Talk About Maud" Facebook group, run by a couple of auto body guys, is doing.
In order to survive, Georgia Lee has cast the events of twenty-five years earlier from her mind, but "Some days it felt like trouble hung around her like a coat she couldn't cast off, weighing her down, no matter how good or kind or helpful she tried to be. It made her sweat. Restricted every forward motion so much that past deeds and present resentments swelled inside her."
The story is told through alternating narratives from the perspectives of Jane and Georgia Lee, along with flashbacks to the time of the murder. Ford constructs her plot so skilfully that the astute reader who believes they have figured out exactly what happened to Warren Ingram still has a surprise or two in store, and even those who pick up on a few hints throughout the story are unlikely to predict the final, jaw-dropping, reveal.
Ford deftly conveys the Arkansas Bible-belt small-town mindset where "Who cared about crime when you had two women doing something people thought they ought not do?" Maud is painted as a place that revels in gossip and speculation spouted in print, screen and social media, where a strip of compromising photo-booth shots of two seventeen-year-old girls is deemed more important than competing confessions of murder.
While it is easy to empathise with some of the players, none of her characters is necessarily all that likeable: all have very human flaws, and while many are simply trying to get by as best they can, quite a few are downright despicable. Certain scenes in the later chapters are blackly funny, and Ford has a talent for descriptive prose: "words like justice and I told you so spitting out of her mouth like knives". A brilliant slow-burn thriller! This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer
by Kate Atkinson
"The war was history, and history didn't interest Freda, she'd had no part in it. She was vibrant with the present and hungry for the future."
Shrines Of Gaiety is the fifth stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling British author, Kate Atkinson. It's in the late spring of 1926 that the notorious Nellie Coker is released from Holloway prison, having served six months for a liquor licencing offence. Clearly, her paid policeman, DI Arthur Maddox, has fallen down on the job. Probably intentionally, Nellie thinks, and planning to take over her business as his own.
Her five nightclubs have been operating under the management of her adult children, but her stint in jail has diminished her. Nellie has her finger firmly on the pulse, though: she realises that Maddox isn't the only threat she faces, and she won't go down without a fight.
Gwendolen Kelling has come from York to look for two fourteen-year-old runaway girls. Freda Murgatroyd, half-sister of Gwendolen's friend, Cissy has dragged her best friend Florence Ingram to London, promising a singing and dancing career on the stage. The reality isn't as sparkly as they had hoped, but Freda is determined. She may not be entirely street-smart, but she's far from the naiveté Florence evinces.
Having lost two brothers in the war, a father to illness, and then cared for her demanding, dying mother, Gwendolen quits her job at the library and seeks out DCI John Frobisher at Bow Street Police Station, assured that he is the man to help her find the girls. Frobisher is, indeed, concerned about the number of girls going missing in London over the last few months, believing that Nellie Coker's clubs are swallowing them up.
Frobisher is on secondment from Scotland Yard, at Bow Street to root out the corruption that is rife. He is convinced that Maddox is the main actor, but the man remains frustratingly absent from duty, and Frobisher is unsure which of the men at Bow Street can be trusted: who knows if they are in league with Maddox? The ones that aren't lazy or stupid, that is.
Frobisher quickly decides that there is clearly more to this librarian than meets the eye, and Miss Kelling's timely arrival somehow has him sending a civilian undercover into Nellie's citadel club, The Amethyst. She might spot her runaways there; she might just see something else useful…
Once again, Atkinson has written a brilliant story with a wholly believable plot that twists and surprises. In a tale that includes murder, blackmail, theft, corruption, and a prostitution racket, there is also plenty of dark humour, some delicious irony, a few farcical near-misses, and dialogue with many amusing mental asides. Loyalty, trust and a perceived lack thereof, also feature.
As well as main characters of surprising depth, Atkinson gives the reader a marvellously entertaining support cast: a war veteran who rescues damsels in distress, a somewhat precocious, perceptive pre-teen who fends well for herself, an aspiring novelist inclined to melodrama, a dissolute gossip columnist, and a jewel thief bent on revenge.
She gives them insightful observations: "Men talked in order to convey information or to ruminate on cricket scores and campaign statistics. Women, on the other hand, talked in an effort to understand the foibles of human behaviour. If men were to 'gossip', the world might be a better place. There would certainly be fewer wars"
Her extensive research into the era is apparent on every page, and as always, she is expert at setting a scene rich in detail with succinct descriptive prose: "The Cokers all had very eloquent eyebrows. They could conduct entire conversations with them, without saying a word" and "Sometimes he thought he could feel the weight of history in London pressing down on the top of his head" and "Much as he disliked being chained to his desk – Frobisher bound, his liver pecked at by bureaucracy – this pointless trailing around was time-wasting" are examples. Superlative historical fiction. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK Transworld
by Robert Pobi
4.5★s Do No Harm is the third book in the Lucas Page series by Canadian author, Robert Pobi. Only brilliant astrophysicist and numbers genius, Lucas Page could come home from a charity dinner convinced that thirty doctors have been murdered undetected by any law enforcement body. By the next morning, his grad student Bobby Nadeel has analysed the cases and produces the figures to prove it, but FBI Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, Brett Kehoe isn't wholly persuaded that this string of accidents, suicides and seemingly natural deaths are really murders.
When their friend, Dr Dove Knox has apparently suicided after the same dinner, Lucas's wife, Erin asks him to look into her colleague's death. Much to the irritation of the NYPD and the ME's officers, Lucas immediately reads the scene as murder. By the time Dr Arna Solomon is shot in what is meant to look like a mugging in the car park opposite Weill Cornell, the FBI is convinced.
As first responder to several of the cases for which the FBI is requesting files, NYPD Detective Johnny Russo has quickly worked out that something is going on, and demands to be involved. The irritating alcoholic does seem to have some valid points, and seems able to withstand his rudeness like water off a duck's back, so Lucas reluctantly lets him stay.
Thorough investigation and analysis lead them to conclude that the murders look random and, indeed, the victims seem to have nothing in common except that they are doctors; of the few cases where a perpetrator is identified, nothing seems to link these unlikeliest of killers to their victims. Their motivation to commit murder is a complete mystery.
Any inclination Lucas might have to leave the investigation to the FBI, though, is quashed when Erin is targeted by a gunman and three of their children narrowly escape incineration. The FBI goes into deep analysis of every scrap of data they can find, and gradually, Lucas forms a theory.
Despite the red herrings and distractions, the most astute reader may figure out what is going on early in the piece but discovering the who, the why and the how is guaranteed to keep the pages turning right up to the final jaw-dropping reveal. And whenever the tension builds up, Russo throws in his two cents worth, or there's another vehicle mishap…
Special Agent Alice Whitaker, somewhat recovered from the injuries sustained in their last encounter, ends up needing her shiny black Navigator SUV replaced FOUR times as she drives Lucas around, courtesy a wild mercy run to hospital, a body falling from a great height, a motorcyclist through the rear screen, and a second body falling from a great height. And then a Ferrari SF90 Whitaker is driving is comprehensively destroyed in an exciting high-speed car chase.
This third instalment is cleverly plotted and Pobi includes plenty of action scenes, some of them quite grisly, characters from previous books engaging in entertaining dialogue, some chillingly nasty killers and a high body count. Disbelief may need to be suspended for some aspects, but the best advice is to hang on and enjoy the ride. Gripping, intriguing, and often blackly funny, this is another excellent crime thriller. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton.
by Alexander McCall Smith
"Being married to Isabel had many positive features, but it also involved a form of moral self-scrutiny that could be challenging. But Jamie would not have it otherwise. She was the woman he adored, and if he was being influenced by her – which he was – then there was nobody else by whom he would rather be swayed."
The Sweet Remnants Of Summer is the fourteenth book in the Isabel Dalhousie series by Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith. Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher, wife and mother of two boys, often finds herself in discussion with Jamie over cooking and eating delicious-sounding meals. They might debate Tolstoy's oft-quoted line about happy families, decide that pious people make us uncomfortable, declare that only the insecure are nasty, and wonder should the private life of an author/composer/poet/actor affect our reading & enjoyment of their work?
In this instalment of our favourite philosopher's life: Cat, Isabel's flighty niece, returns to Edinburgh without Leo and, via the business she plans to open with her new boyfriend, demonstrates just how morally casual she is. But might this not turn out quite how Isabel expects?
His teacher informs Isabel that Charlie has been biting at school, but it later turns out he's not the only one doing the biting. A curly question from Charlie also alert Isabel and Jamie to the need to agree on the concept of God for their young sons' upbringing.
As she does in every instalment, Isabel counts herself fortunate to be married to Jamie and, as he does in every instalment, Jamie begs Isabel to be careful in her unavoidable meddling. She concedes: "'Oh, I get it spectacularly wrong,' she admitted. 'Sometimes. In fact, rather often.'" Jamie describes to Isabel a situation involving a corrupt conductor showing favouritism towards his less talented lover, and confesses that, ironically, he feels the need to interfere.
Isabel is asked by the convener of a gallery advisory board that she has just joined if she will intervene in her family's rift, but the situation related to her, (a politically intolerant son, his prejudiced [maybe] boyfriend, and an overbearing father), on later consideration and discussion with Jamie, could describe a number of possibilities, so some subtle probing is needed. Jamie reflects that "Family pathology was usually deep-seated and recalcitrant; a well-meaning outsider would be able to do little to shift it from its ancient moorings."
Their housekeeper, Grace offers to consult her network of contacts in service for information, but advice from an unconventional source has her reconsidering. Isabel's thoughts regularly veer off on tangents and this fourteenth instalment also sees her contemplating the need for co-operation and peace in the world, euphemism, and the marital short-hand used by couples who know each other well to avoid touchy subjects, all while in mid-conversation.
As always, McCall Smith includes plenty of gentle philosophy and an abundance of wisdom: "Sometimes, Isabel felt, the most honest thing to do was to confess that one was not entirely sure; and that uncertainty, even vagueness, was a perfectly defensible position." Isabel's reflections often bring a smile to the face, and her banter with Jamie and Charlie provide some laugh-out-loud moments Another delightfully entertaining dose of Alexander McCall Smith.
by Alan Parks
The April Dead is the fourth book in the Harry McCoy series by British author, Alan Parks. It's mid-April 1974 and bombs are going off in Glasgow: the first looks like an inept bombmaker has met a nasty fate; the motive for the second, in the Cathedral, is more puzzling, but Special Branch rule out Irish paramilitary.
Harry's not quite sure how he ends up agreeing to do a favour for a retired US Naval Captain but, in the process, Andrew Stewart makes the acquaintance of newly-released-from-prison gangland crime boss, Srevie Cooper, whose recent interest in boxing strikes a chord with the American.
Andrew Stewart describes his son, Donny, now AWOL from the US Naval Base near Dunoon, and the target of this concerned father's search, as a timid young man, but McCoy soon learns that young Stewart might be getting his hands dirty with some local colour.
Over the nine days that follow, there is an attempted murder in a posh restaurant, a brutal bashing murder of a local crime figure, more bombs explode, the death toll rises, and two individuals lose limbs. It eventually becomes clear that a charismatic ex-Highlander Colonel with a private army working under a rather bizarre manifesto may be involved. Meanwhile, Stevie Cooper suspects his lieutenant may have ambitions beyond his station, something that cannot end well.
In the course of investigations, McCoy finds himself an unwilling spectator at a boxing match, mentoring Wattie in his first in-charge case, unwittingly delivering an IRA threat, catching up with show people sharing his youthful history, and checking out a hippy commune, all while plagued by a newly-diagnosed peptic ulcer, for which he tries (and fails) to curb his smoking and drinking. It's quite apparent by now that McCoy may not be the straightest cop on the force, but he does have standards and his heart is in the right place. As this series progresses, the background on the characters and their history. provided by earlier books make it more difficult for subsequent volumes to stand alone: readers new to the series may find this one confusing as there is virtually no recap. Again, the prolific use of expletives may offend some readers, but there's a bit of black humour in the banter. Portraying Glasgow at its grittiest, this is excellent Scottish Noir.
by Peter Swanson
Nine Lives is the eighth novel by award-winning American author, Peter Swanson. Nine individuals of diverse background, race and social standing receive an envelope that contains only a list of nine names, including their own. Puzzlement is the general response; some show or mention the list to others; some dismiss it, set it aside, discard it; one uses it as inspiration for writing a song; another ignores the chill it gives her sixth sense; for some it later becomes the basis of a relationship.
With her list, Special Agent Jessica Winslow does what comes naturally to any FBI agent: she handles it carefully, treats it like evidence, an action that is vindicated when, the following day, she learns that someone on the list has been murdered. She immediately sets to work trying to find those on the list, with limited success. One name triggers a vague childhood recollection, and Jessica develops a theory that she shares with her supervisor. But two more murders in quick succession, by different means, see her going into hiding to avoid that fate.
The story has an intriguing premise that Swanson develops with skill and flair. There are several references made to Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" that offer a clue; there are red herrings and twists and surprises that keep the pages turning and the reader guessing. Even those astute readers who settle on a perpetrator early will be compelled to read on for the how and the why. Unputdownable crime fiction. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Faber & Faber.
by Beth Miller
"He'd long been a complete blank, his behaviour inexplicable, his motives unknown. To find out, after all this time, what he was really thinking might be unbearable."
The Woman Who Came Back To Life is the fifth novel by British author, Beth Miller. A phone call in the middle of a private French wood turns the ordered life that Pearl Flowers had been leading upside down. Her older brother Greg rings with the news that the father from whom she and her brothers have been estranged for some thirty years, is dying.
No one, not her brother, not her ever-protective husband Denny, is more surprised than Pearl that she feels an urgent need to be there. Too late for last words with her father, she and Denny reluctantly hang around for the hastily-arranged funeral of Francis Nichols, partly because this is a requirement for the mysterious legacy he has left Pearl.
After the expected bequests of property and cash are dealt with, the solicitor tries to hand over a bag of notebooks to Pearl amid vociferous objections from Jeanie and Andrea Nichols, her father's second wife and step-daughter. It seems Francis has written private journals for the previous thirty-seven years, and several of the family want to have first sight of what could be sensitive material.
"'They cover the period from 1981 to 2018. I believe the final entry was made only a few weeks before his death.' A chill ran down my spine. My dad's life, laid out, for the entire period that I didn't know him."
The catch is that they are written in a shorthand that Francis taught Pearl. She returns to France in possession of her father's legacy to her, not at all sure she wants to read the words of a man who ignored or rejected her attempts at communication after he abandoned her mother and his children. "I stopped writing to Dad then, and eventually, after some rough years of grieving the father I'd loved, I more or less stopped thinking about him, too."
Those journals sitting in her study are unsettling enough; contact with the family she left behind after a traumatic event is unnerving; the trespasser apparently living in the woods around their secluded little refuge from the world adds to her unease; harassment from her step-sister Andrea about the diaries increases her stress levels; and then there's a phone call from a young woman…
One of her dying mother's last requests is that Caroline Haskett attends the funeral and take her measure of the family. The other is that she contact Pearl, something Carrie has no real desire to do. She has managed well for thirty-five years without, and is quite busy enough being the single mother of baby Emmie. But she has made a promise.
The story is carried by three separate narratives: Pearl and Carrie relate in the present day while entries from the journals Francis kept describe past events, giving an alternative, if not always reliable, perspective. The novel's back-cover blurb is a little misleading, giving the impression that Pearl is more dysfunctional or obsessive than she really is. Some aspects of the story may be predictable, but there are also surprises in the journey to a rather satisfying ending.
Miller's protagonists are much more than one-dimensional and reward the reader's time investment with their emotional development. Pearl's younger brother Benjamin provides some much-needed light relief with his comments and insults during the tenser moments (eg Jeanie's nasty outburst over the diaries): "Pointing at the page, Benjy said, 'Doesn't this line say, "wow my second wife is such a cow"?'", while Francis is responsible for quite a few, but not all, eyes-welling-up-lump-in-the-throat moments. Funny, moving and uplifting. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Bookouture
by J D Robb
Naked In Death is the first book in the popular In Death series by American author, J.D. Robb. New York Police Lieutenant Eve Dallas is assigned to investigate the cold-blooded murder of a Licensed Companion (prostitute), but because the victim's grandfather is a powerful right-wing US Senator, it's to be done very much under the radar.
Sharon DeBlass was shot by a Smith & Wesson .38 which, by 2058, is already thirty-five years obsolete, so Eve is looking at gun collectors, of which an attractive but enigmatic Irish-born billionaire, Roarke is one. And Roarke doesn't have an alibi. But he's not the only one with access to such a weapon: among others is the woman's grandfather, Senator Gerard DeBlass and some members of the Police Force.
Disturbing is the indication that this only the first of more planned killings, and when the second occurs, another Licensed Companion, Roarke still doesn't have a cast-iron alibi, although Eve is now wishing he did. Her gut tells her he's not involved; the rest of her is busy trying to fight her attraction to him. Lots of leaking of confidential information is happening, so Eve isn't sure quite whom she can trust.
By the time a third LC is murdered, though, it's clear that Roarke is no longer a suspect: he has just about the best alibi possible. He also has a very good reason (or two) for wanting to help Eve discover just who this serial killer is, and he has resources and skills that allow her to bypass any leaks to the perpetrator.
Robb gives the reader one protagonist who is smart and gutsy, but damaged by childhood trauma; the other is intelligent, successful and arrogant with it, but capable of compassion and loyalty. There's plenty more to learn about each, and the secondary characters, who include an accidentally heroic cat.
The story starts with enough intrigue to start the pages turning and the plot has a few red herrings and a twist or two to keep the reader guessing. Those astute enough to pick the perpetrator might still be in for a surprise before the final resolution.
It's an interesting exercise to read, almost thirty years after it was written, a novel set, at time of writing, over sixty years into the future: how could Robb have known, as she wrote, that the series might still be read decades later? She could hope…
So obviously there wasn't an Urban Revolt in 2016, the French government wasn't overthrown by a Social Reform Army in 2018, and it really doesn't look like the gun ban will be happening in 2022 or 2023. Some of the technology featured has already been surpassed, some we are on the cusp of in 2022. Setting all that aside, excellent crime/romance from an author highly skilled at both. Glory In Death eagerly anticipated.
by Alexander McCall Smith
Love I the Time of Bertie is the fifteenth book in the popular 44 Scotland Street series by Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith, and in it, the lives of the residents of 44 Scotland Street and those of their friends are, once again, updated for the continuing enjoyment of series fans.
Bertie Pollock is dismayed to find the awful Olive and her acolyte Pansy in the Drummond Place Gardens, issuing edicts on games and marriage threats. But worse is on the way for Bertie: His mother, Irene decides it will broaden his horizons to come and live with her in Aberdeen for three months, an idea that horrifies most who know him. Poor Bertie!!
Meanwhile, Angus Lordie expresses his appreciation of the bespoke Lobb brogues he inherited from his father, while Domenica comments on Belgian indoor shoes and the fashion for knee-ripped jeans and low-slung trousers that expose underwear. She bemoans how independent privately-funded scholars suffer the condescension of academics, and Angus muses on the alter-ego endowed on him by the bureaucracy.
Matthew and Elspeth remark on their good fortune at having James: efficient au-pair, talented cook (a fact that prompts a discussion about food so good you want to lick the plate, socially unacceptable private habits and food waste) and part-time barista at Big Lou's.
Is romance blossoming in Big Lou's café? The aptly named but surprisingly couth Fat Bob is a professional strongman who raises the tax-deductibility of bacon rolls for his occupation. His history prompts discussion about acts of kindness and concern for others.
The ever-arrogant Bruce Anderson overestimates his skill at cryptic crosswords, and is offered a role in a morally questionable real estate scheme by a former schoolmate. When by chance he learns who the buyer is, he faces a moral dilemma. It all becomes moot when nature interferes in a very dramatic way.
Bertie valiantly argues his case for staying in Edinburgh to Stuart and Nicola, but it seems that Irene is still calling the shots, even from Aberdeen. Wishing that his sibling might go instead, Bertie remarks, not for the first time, on the resemblance of his baby brother Ulysses to the psychotherapist Irene forced him to see, Dr Fairbairn. Nicola Pollock ponders the obligation to tolerate those we dislike, perhaps intensely, and compares Irene Pollock to Agrippina, mother of Nero.
Ultimately, it falls to Bertie's best friend, Ranald Braveheart MacPherson, to rescue Bertie, and that involves theft from a safe, a train journey, defenestration and close contact with ewes.
As always, many topics are mulled over or discussed: expert knowledge vs pretentiousness; the Dunbar Number of close friends; social climbers; guilt over the amount of water needed to produce coffee. Domenica MacDonald cultivates a friendship with Tarquin, one of the downstairs student neighbours, and they have some stimulating conversations.
Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna continues to offer aphorisms, some more enigmatic than others: "Two snails do not argue about whose shell is the more attractive." Angus compares conceptual art to the emperor's new clothes, there is a marriage proposal, Highland Games are organised for the Drummond Street Gardens and, as always, Angus bestows a poem on the gathered company.
The concept of a serial novel is an interesting one, as the author is locked into what he has written earlier, unable to edit. Thus one of Bruce's associates might be Greg or Gregor, but McCall Smith's work is always a joy to read. This one has a generous helping of laugh-out-loud moments and a hilarious twist; fans will hope for many more instalments of this delightful series.
by Haig- Matt
A Mouse Called Miika is a middle-grade children's book in the Christmas series by British author, Matt Haig. Miika, the 101st son of (very tired) Ulla and (deceased) Munch, departed the tree hole where he was born without a name. After discovering how hard it was to survive in The World Outside, he was overjoyed to inhabit the cabin deep in the woods of Finland where Joel and Nikolas eked out a living. He was equally happy to join the quest Nikolas made to the Far North, and very satisfied to be living near Elfhelm in a tiny cottage with the Truth Pixie, where Loka the elf occasionally gives him cheese.
But Nikolas is busy with Elf Council business, and he really wants a friend, so he's glad to have found another mouse, Bridget the Brave. But Bridget criticises his mouse-ness, and challenges him to be brave: she doesn't want a coward for a friend. This leads to a foolish act in which he is drimwicked at the point of death, something of which the elder elves highly disapprove. His resulting powers, when revealed during an attack by the Snow Owl, see Bridget cosying up to him with a plan she labels "an adventure". Miika goes along with it, against his better judgement, and the result is almost catastrophic.
Haig's characters display plenty of flaws and weaknesses, and he uses the nasty Bridget to demonstrate emotional blackmail and gaslighting. Several of his characters, including the Truth Pixie, have wise words and good advice for Miika so that he learns what courage really is, and how he can choose to be true to himself. She tells him: "it is better to be disliked for being who you are than to be liked for who you are not. Being who you are not is exhausting." Haig's highly original tale is enhanced with charming illustrations by Chris Mould. Once again, delightful.
by Jennifer E Smith
The Unsinkable Greta James is a novel by best-selling American author, Jennifer E. Smith. It is literally the last place Greta James wants to be: on a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska. Her mother had planned the week-long cruise as a celebration of forty years of marriage. But three months earlier, an aneurysm had put Helen James into an early grave. Now here she is with her father and two other couples of his vintage: Helen and Conrad's best friends over the last several decades, having the vacation Helen can't.
Losing her mother plunged Greta into such deep grief that she had a meltdown on stage during her last live show, a week after Helen died. A meltdown that went viral. Despite pressure from the label, her manager and her publicist, Greta has withdrawn from public life since then. She knows if her career as an indie singer/songwriter/guitarist is to survive, she needs to come back controlled and confident, with a new song. A song that's not coming…
On top of all that, she's broken up with her boyfriend and just learned the man who's been her fallback most of her life has gotten engaged.
So she's on a ship full of mostly oldies who haven't a clue about her, which is OK. The two other couples provide a buffer between her and Conrad, necessary because, although she's here to keep an eye on him (at her brother's insistence), they haven't seen eye to eye since she entered her teens. Her mother may have been her greatest fan, but her father still thinks she should, at age thirty-six, have quit travelling, got a real job, and settled into a steady relationship, like her brother.
While she can relax in relative anonymity, an enthusiastic young teen of south Asian descent is thrilled to meet her idol, and Greta recalls her own teenaged obsession with making music. And among the activities to which she does accompany Conrad and his friends, a talk by Ben Wilder, a history professor at Columbia with a best-selling novel: an enigmatic figure who piques Greta's interest. Somehow they connect, and see unexpected parallels in their lives.
It's when she's agreed to spend a whole day excursion with her father, meticulously pre-arranged by her mother, that things with Conrad come to a head. Can they salvage something from their decades-long estrangement?
In this novel, Smith offers a well-rounded protagonist and an appealing support cast, most of whom endear themselves to the reader despite, or perhaps because of, their very human flaws and foibles. Her portrayal of the various relationships is convincing and certain turns of the plot are likely to have the eyes filling with tears and a lump forming in the throat, although there is also plenty of humour, especially in the witty dialogue.
Smith's depiction of the cruise, the activities and excursions, and life aboard a cruise ship perfectly captures the atmosphere and she so skilfully sets the scene of Greta's performances, readers will wish they could be there. A tale that examines family dynamics and throws in a little romance, this one is funny, moving, heart-warming and uplifting. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Quercus Books
by Haig- Matt
A Boy Called Christmas is a Middle-grade children's book by British author, Matt Haig. Eleven-year-old Nikolas lives with his father, Joel, a poor, hard-working woodcutter, in a one-room hut in remote Finland. When King Frederik offers a twelve-thousand-ruble reward for proof of the existence of the fabled elf village, Elfhelm, Joel and six men from the nearby village decide the trek to the Far North will be worth it.
Nikolas is left in the care of his nasty aunt, Carlotta, and that soon goes awry, so Nikolas decides to follow Joel. His mouse Miika, having also been ejected from the hut by the cruel aunt, tags along. It's no easy journey, trekking through the snow with hardly any food and no shelter. But when they are attacked by an angry reindeer, things improve. Until they don't, and Nikolas, Miika and Blitzen (the reindeer) almost freeze to death.
It's elf magic that brings them back, but the people of Elfhelm are no longer their usual font of goodwill and joy. An elf boy has been kidnapped by a band of men, so humans are no longer welcome. In fact, Nikolas end up imprisoned with a murderous troll and a pixie who never lies but likes to explode heads. And Nikolas has only even had good intentions….
The excitement follows with a magical escape marred by an axe and arrows, a faithful reindeer, and then a discovery about Joel that dismays Nikolas deeply. A daring rescue and some fast talking later sees Nikolas looked up to for more than his height in Elfhelm.
From there the story explains how Nikolas becomes Father Christmas, and sometimes Santa Claus, and there are lots of little incidents that give background to various Christmas traditions. While the recent movie of the same title is based on this book and follows it reasonably well, Blitzen's pranks don't make it to the screen, and Nikolas's nemesis turns into a screechy female elf for added screen drama. Haig packs in lots of wisdom and feel-good thoughts: "Perhaps a wish was just a hope with better aim." Haig's highly original tale is enhanced with charming illustrations by Chris Mould. Utterly delightful!!
by Ali Lowe
The Trivia Night is the first novel by Australian author, Ali Lowe. A fancy-dress trivia night primary school fundraiser; a table of eight parents of year one pupils; marital tiffs; flirtatious partners; a rumour about a swinging couple; inhibitions loosened by way too much alcohol; deep, dark secrets; a tightly-held grudge and an iPhone camera. What could possibly go wrong? And when it does, who will be caught up in the aftermath?
Three main narrators carry the story: an alcoholic mother shares the series of events that precipitate the start of her journey to sobriety; a transcript of a closet lesbian's sessions with her therapist offers her perspective on the events that lead her to find her true self; and a grieving woman's emails to her far-away sister fill in the rest; the prologue and epilogue come from a fourth mother.
Australian author Ali Lowe's debut novel definitely has shades of a certain Liane Moriarty novel, but sports an original plot, an easily recognisable setting, credible characters, plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and an excellent final twist. A brilliant read from an author to watch. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Better Reading Preview and Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette Australia.
by Amanda Flower
Put Out To Pasture is the second book in the Farm To Tablet series by award-winning, best-selling American author, Amanda Flower. It's three months since Shiloh Bellamy returned to Cherry Glen, Michigan, and she's determined to save Bellamy Farm. Her dream is to make it a destination for organic produce and intends to add a café to showcase her baking skills.
Their first promotional activity is Fall Daze, a two-day food and fun festival at Bellamy Farm, attracting unexpectedly high numbers of visitors. Some drama is added when Shiloh's best friend Kristy has a loud argument with one of her Farmers' Market stall holders. Beekeeper Minnie Devani is later found at the foot of the scarecrow out in the field, strangled.
Circumstantial evidence implicates Kristy as a suspect, and Shiloh is not confident that the town's Police Chief, Randy Killian won't just settle for the easiest option rather than investigating further. Shiloh vows to clear her friend's name, even if it means talking to Minnie's best (only?) friend, Doreen Killian and her book club friends, who are unlikely to be friendly or welcoming, due to past accusations
But then US Marshal Lynn Chuff arrives, claiming a different name and history for Minnie than the one generally accepted in Cherry Glen. Could her criminal past have caught up with her?
Shiloh discovers she has a (gorgeous) new neighbour, also intending to farm organically, a man who has paid Minnie an exorbitant amount of money for the Market stall she had no right to sell. As Shiloh investigates further, she encounters several more townspeople with grudges against the abrasive Minnie.
This is a cosy mystery with plenty of red herrings to keep the reader guessing. Shiloh does seem to have rather a lot of free time to spend investigating when she also has a farm to save, and her defining the best friend of her fifteen-years-dead fiancé as "off limits" is puzzling. Doubtless fans of rural cosies will enjoy this one. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Poisoned Pen Press.
by Robert Dugoni
The Silent Sisters is the third book in the Charles Jenkins series by American author, Robert Dugoni. When the CIA becomes aware of a Kremlin program to expose the remaining two of the Seven Sisters, and the women go silent, they decide to send Charles Jenkins in to ascertain if the women need to be exfiltrated from Moscow, or have turned.
It's dangerous for Charlie: he's on a Kremlin kill list, and his wife isn't happy that he is going to risk his life yet again, but he managed to extract a woman from the notorious Lefortovo prison, so if the women will trust anyone, it will be him. The CIA upskills him in tech and devices and equips him with disguises and the necessary papers, and he enters Moscow very much under the radar.
But before he can even connect with either woman, his deeply-ingrained sense of human decency gets in the way of his common sense, a Mafiya son is shot dead, and Charlie is soon being sought by Police, a Mafiya Godmother and Russia's FSB. By the time he is ready to extract the seventh sister, they have a ruthless assassin on their trail.
When Arkhip Mishkin, a Senior Investigator with the Department of Criminal Investigations due for retirement is called to a shooting at a dive bar, he's not phased by the status of the victim, and determined to close his last case and maintain his perfect record, whatever it takes. There's not much else to interest him now he's a widower.
But then the CCTV footage of the shooting is wiped and Akhip, having seen the body, knows the Medical Examiner's report is a fabrication: the bystander did not kill Eldar Velikaya. When the bystander's prints turn up a surprise, he concludes something more complicated is going on. But Arkhip can't rest until he tracks down this Charles Jenkins to get the truth. If that means a train trip to Vladivostok, so be it.
As the prologue indicates, all does not go as planned and Charlie is subjected to quite a beating in the Irkutsk Meat Market. But he does have some very able people in his corner, and not just the CIA. Once they locate Charlie, they set up a neat sting that seems to satisfy all concerned, except a certain deputy director who has been gunning for Charlie from the start.
Dugoni manages to include a nail-biting chase through Moscow tunnels, numerous disguises, clever switches and a rather grisly revenge that will probably put some readers off eating sausages. Senior Investigator Arkhip Mishkin is an utter delight, and there's plenty of black humour in the action-packed final book of this brilliant spy trilogy. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer.
by Caroline Finnerty
A Mother's Secret is the sixth novel by Irish author, Caroline Finnerty. Out of the blue, mother of three Rowan Whelan contacts her friend (and sometime lover) from college days, James O'Herlihy, suggesting they meet up: she wants to chat about something. James is puzzled: they haven't seen each other since his wedding three years earlier. With her three-year-old daughter in the car, she collects him for a drive to the beach, but before she can reveal what she wants to talk about, they are involved in a serious traffic accident.
The reader's first guess about what Rowan intended to reveal is likely correct, but her further intentions are not apparent. It's the aftermath for the survivors that form the bulk of the story. Aiden Whelan already has to cope with his grief, worry for his injured daughter and the grief of his sons and their extended family.
Before she learns of her husband's accident, GP Helena O'Herlihy is dealing with fertility issues, potential marital breakdown and forced leave from work. Both Helena and Aiden are baffled as to why James and Rowan were together. Until James regains consciousness, when they are both in for a shock.
A devastating betrayal and an upsetting secret are eventually revealed. From there, characters who should know better make unethical choices, act in a disappointingly selfish manner and fail to consider the happiness and welfare of the one central to the dilemma they face. After much anguish, people come to their senses and remember to be kind, although the resolution is perhaps a little neater than is realistic.
In hindsight: "Helena had always thought that secrets were better off aired, but now she realised that some secrets were better off not being discovered. They could cause too much heartache and pain. Sometimes you were better off not knowing the truth. It was kinder that way." A moving and thought-provoking read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Boldwood Books
by Lj Ross
4.5★s Everyday Kindness is a collection of fifty-five short stories, different genres by different authors, edited by L. J. Ross. Some are very short, others a little longer, some have delicious twists, but all are quick reads, and all share a common element: kindness features in each one.
The characters include three squabbling daughters, police, a neighbour enthusiastic about Easter, a dedicated mother, an old man at a window, a good witch, a good Samaritan, a kind step-mother, a travel writer, a trainee teacher, an elderly neighbour, a schoolboy, a sandwich maker, a stray dog, a woman taught kindness by her young son, charitable drinkers, a prospective car buyer, a not-a-boy hero, a neighbour's surprise, a liar, a widower hoarder, the widow of a murdered man, a clever grandma, a blind runner, a boy with cerebral palsy, a refugee, a real estate agent, and an early dementia sufferer.
And the stories centre, variously, on a thoughtful bequest, magic, fun in fiction, an angel's blessing, beautiful satin shoes, seizing the day, a dream, contagious community kindness, a dog holiday, a friendly snowman, paying it forward, a broken gravestone, changing history, a life-changing piece of paper, a lost photo, weather magic, a supermarket ghost, a bird with a broken wing, a haunted stuffed sheep, a reminiscent recipe, a bunch of chrysanthemums, an old woods cottage and an ageing elk, birthday gifts, and a fishing trip for a thoughtful boy.
With the challenges and hardships and tragedies that the world has endured these last years, everyone needs a little kindness, and these little doses of kindness are just what the doctor ordered. One or two drops when needed is the perfect prescription for what ails us. This unbiased review is from a complimentary copy gratefully received from one of those authors, Graham Brack.
by Melissa Ferguson
Meet Me In The Margins is the fourth novel by American author, Melissa Ferguson. Savannah Cade works as an Assistant Acquisitions Editor for Pennington Publishing, known for non-fiction and literary fiction. But Savannah's real passion is the romance novel she's been writing since college, tentatively titled Pining For You.
Savannah is probably the least accomplished member of her overachieving family: it would be so good to succeed at something, especially beside her highly qualified younger sister. Living with Olivia, super-fit and studying for two PhDs, she (unfortunately) regularly encounters her ex-boyfriend and soon-to-be brother-in-law, Ferris, the awkwardness of which has mostly worn off.
Trying to meet a submission deadline for a romance editor she met at a conference, Savannah brings that manuscript to work to do some final edits, then has to quickly hide it away: CEO Patricia Pennington would NOT approve. When she later retrieves it, she finds someone has written comments and criticism in the margins. Savannah is miffed, but also intrigued: who at Pennington has critiqued her work?
Patricia Pennington's son, William has recently joined the team as VP and Publisher of their Pennington Pen division (Savannah's) and somehow, she has a number of somewhat embarrassing interactions with him. Her colleagues are worried about their jobs: William is there to save Pennington from going under, but out of hours Will and Savannah seem to connect.
When she later meets with Claire Donovan, chief editor of a romance publishing house, Savannah listens carefully to her criticism, which aligns with her mystery reviewer: she has to concede that perhaps those remarks are valid. Soon, she has returned the manuscript to its hiding place with a polite request attached for help. She's almost convinced that Will is her mystery editor, and not unhappy when the comments turn a little flirtatious, but then she spots another colleague near the space where she usually leaves the manuscript…
Even if the outcome is predictable from the start, this is still an enjoyable journey to a sweet ending. Ferguson gives the reader some appealing characters and witty dialogue. The Cade family's idea of loyalty is a little warped, and Savannah draws out the mystery of her editor longer than is perhaps realistic, but romance fans will appreciate the happy-ever-after ending. A fun rom-com. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Thomas Nelson Fiction.
by Beth Morrey
Em & Me is the second novel by best-selling British author, Beth Morrey. It is nothing like Delphine Jones had envisaged when she was a stellar student at Brownswood Academy: living in her father's basement flat, working for an awful boss in a low-paying, dead-end job, raising her pre-teen daughter as a single mother, sharing a tiny damp bedroom and bed. A better life for her and Emily looks a long way off.
Delphine dearly loves her daughter and her father, but so much is missing from her life: the music and French language she shared with her late mother; the love of language nurtured during childhood by her still-grieving father, much withdrawn from life since his wife's death, and the chance of a career centred on literature. And a man? Well, she doesn't have time for that!
And then an incident with a spiteful rival sees her losing her job: could things get any worse?
Life, though, and her sometimes-devious daughter, have other plans. They conspire to drop opportunities into her lap. Delphine is hesitant at first, but with encouragement and support from newcomers in her life, Delphine convinces herself to grab them with both hands.
It's not without hiccups but, over a period of months, Delphine finds a job she enjoys, with caring employers, a chance to reconnect with her mother's native language, the prospect of singing in a band, and possibility of completing the education she abandoned when she decided to keep her baby. And a man, but she still doesn't have time for that… does she?
As Delphine approaches each new chance at her dreams, her thoughts are also plunged deep into her past, gradually revealing to the reader just how her life changed from her happy and loving childhood to the dissatisfying fog she inhabits at twenty-eight. And as she emerges, so, eventually, does another significant person in her life.
This is a story that abounds with literary references, so those well-read or at least familiar with classics will find their enjoyment much enhanced. Morrey fills her novel with characters that capture the heart and stir up the emotions. She saddles them with realistic problems and challenges that will have the reader cheering them on to a satisfactory resolution. A story that demonstrates the vital importance, in a young person's life, of a good teacher, Beth Morrey's second novel is inspirational and uplifting. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Better Reading Preview and Harper Collins Australia.
by Zoe Sharp
The Last Time She Died is the first book in the Blake & Byron Thrillers series by British author, Zoë Sharp. The slim young woman who makes an appearance at the funeral of former British MP, Gideon Fitzroy, and is later discovered having entered his boxy Georgian pile, is a shock to the system for his heirs and this Derbyshire village: she claims to be his daughter, Blake Claremont.
Then a chubby, troubled fifteen-year-old, Blake ran away ten years earlier; no-one has seen her since; quite a few people were sure she was dead; so, is it really her? The local constable, a recent import from the London Met, PC Jane Hudson isn't convinced. Her one-time mentor, Detective Superintendent John Byron, who is currently taking an unofficial look at Gideon's death in relation to a sensitive but stalled enquiry into MPs, is unsure.
It's the talk of the village, and many are puzzled when Gideon's widow, Virginia Fitzroy seems to accept her claim, rescues her from Jane's interrogation, and welcomes her to Claremont manor. But even before Gideon's will is read, even before the young woman's identity is proven or otherwise, there are some apparent attempts on her life. The widow's brother, Roger Flint is assaulted, and cottage of the village's former sergeant is burned down. It seems that her arrival is a catalyst for drama.
Sharp's protagonists are appealing: smart, talented, but also flawed, and it will be interesting to watch them develop over the series. Their dialogue is snappy and often entertaining. The villagers and other support cast are believably portrayed, including the young constable who is a little too deferential to those with community standing.
Sharp gives the reader such a clever plot that even those astute readers who see past the red herrings, predict some of the twists and deduce the 'who' from the list of potential perpetrators, even those clever clogs, will still be sufficiently captivated to read on to the nail-biting climax for the 'how' and 'why' of it. The second instalment will be eagerly anticipated. Brilliant British crime fiction. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Bookouture.
by Nicci French
The Unheard is the twenty-third novel by British writing duo, Nicci French. While her separation from her partner of ten years was not acrimonious, when her three-year-old daughter, Poppy returns from an access visit to her father and his wife, Tess Moreau becomes concerned. Poppy has drawn a very disturbing picture while she was with Jason and Emily, then talks about killing, "He did kill. And kill and kill and kill", wets the bed, is unusually clingy and uses foul language. Jason dismisses her concerns as unimportant, but Tess feels something is definitely amiss.
More incidents of uncharacteristic behaviour: biting, swearing, nastiness and the mutilation of a toy; Tess becomes worried enough to mention her concerns to a friend, to Poppy's nursery school teacher, to a psychotherapist acquaintance, and certain others, but the consensus of advice is just to be observant and note anything unusual. From some things she says, Tess becomes convinced that Poppy has seen or heard something terrible, but what?
Her ex-partner, it soon becomes clear, is not above a bit of gaslighting to make Tess feel her own anxiety is to blame for Poppy's behaviour. The whole situation unmoors her enough to actually stalk Jason's family during Poppy's next visit. Her unease begins to affect the fledgling relationship she has with Aidan, and her close friendship with Gina.
When Tess learns of the death of a young woman in circumstances that mirror Poppy's picture, she takes her fears to the police, and begins to wonder if any one of the several men in regular contact with Poppy, in a caring or incidental role, could be involved. Could she and Poppy be in danger from him? Will anyone take Tess seriously?
Once again, these authors give the reader a tightly-plotted, gripping dose of crime fiction, cleverly constructed, with an excellent twist in the tension-filled build-up to the nail-biting climax. Their characters feel genuine and, while certain incidents have Tess second-guessing herself, the narrative voice is so strong that the reader does not doubt her reliability. Nicci French never disappoints. This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Simon & Schuster Australia.
by Christina Hunger
How Stella Learned To Talk is a non-fiction book by American speech therapist, Christine Hunger. The author provides a few anecdotes of her work with children, and describes her experience dog-sitting for a friend whose pets had been trained to ring a bell when they needed to go out.
When she and her fiancé, Jake discussed getting a dog, they initially rejected the idea of a puppy, but fell in love with a Catahoula/Blue Heeler puppy, which they named Stella. Christina saw parallels between the language development of toddlers and the behaviour of young dogs, and wondered what dogs might want to say if they, like humans, had access to the tools to express themselves.
Eighteen months, a lot of patience and persistence, and some recordable buttons later, and Stella uses nouns, verbs, names, adjectives, and question words to tell Christina what she wants to do, where she wants to go, when she is thinking about Christina, what they are doing, what she likes, when she is mad, when she is happy, when she needs alone time, when Christina and Jake are being good, to answer questions, to ask questions, to participate in short conversations, and to make her own unique phrases every day.
On the author's website, readers can see video of Stella using her device. The book contains teaching tips for those who want to teach their own dog to speak, as well as a list of resources, recommended reading, comprehensive notes and eight pages of colour plates. This is an utterly fascinating read.
by Lynne O'sullivan
Gloria in Extremis is the first novel by British author, Lynne O'Sullivan. Three months since her partner of ten years, Roy Chislett left her to be with younger, slimmer, prettier Tessa Tonkins in her cottage in Smeeth, and Gloria Grey is not coping. Everyone else may say good riddance, but she still misses Roy.
She's miserable enough to top herself, but is apparently no good at that either: when hanging herself from the banister results in a broken banister and crushed phone table, she tries drowning, but is too good a swimmer. Not wanting to endure the criticism of her mother, or worry her dear, frail, old Auntie Kit, she goes to her best friend Alison, who dispenses warmth, wine, sympathy and moral support.
Losing her job, though, will that be the final straw? Alison helps with a creative CV and much needed reality check: "Gloria, for God's sake! You're fifty years old, as you keep reminding me. Well, be proud of being fifty and all the experience that goes with it! OK, you've had a few knock-backs, but so bloody what? It's time to stop making excuses for yourself. Think positive for once."
Phil the lodger helps with the financial situation, but is clearly not interested in anything more personal. Finally, as Alison's companion in a late summer trip to Majorca, Gloria encounters Tony, retired school teacher and professional nature photographer. Their initial meeting is less than stellar, but by the time they have saved each other's lives, they are getting on very well. Except, he leaves without getting her number…. Oh well.
O'Sullivan gives Gloria a chatty narrative voice: she is self-deprecating, with essentially a heart of gold except perhaps, as she devises punishments to those who have inflicted real or imagined slights, recent and historical. It is easy to envisage some of her monologue being done as a stand-up routine by British comedienne Sarah Millican, very dry and deadpan, but hilariously funny. An entertaining and ultimately heart-warming read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Matador.
by Marissa Meyer
Gilded is the first book in an as yet untitled series by NYT best-selling American author, Marissa Meyer. Rumpelstiltskin. You remember, don't you? That Brothers Grimm story. The poor miller, the miller's daughter, the greedy king who imprisons her to spin gold from straw, the magical man who does the spinning, for a price, the gold locket, the ring, the promised firstborn, the to-be-guessed-at name. This is that story, but with tweaks, embellishments, twists and enhancements as only Marissa Meyer can do them. Thus a few pages become an enthralling five hundred.
Once upon a time, in the north of the Kingdom of Tulvask, in the village of Märchenfeld, just south of the menacing Aschen Woods, a daughter is born to a poor miller…. nup, that's not how this story starts, but it could. Now eighteen, Serilda Moller is that miller's daughter, born under the blessing (or curse) of Wyrdith, god of fortune and of stories (lies), her black irises etched with a golden wheel of fortune, Wyrdith's mark.
That god's other legacy is Serilda's story-telling, tales that just pop into her head, that sometimes seem touched by prophesy, but are seen by all except the village schoolchildren as dreadful lies. The villagers consider her cursed, the cause of every piece of bad luck they suffer.
The king who locks Serilda in a room to spin gold from straw is not your run-of-the-mill king: His Grim, Erlkönig the Alder King is the ruler of hellhounds and other fearsome magical creatures, ghosts, the undead and the dark ones; he leads the wild hunt that happens every full moon, when people lock their doors and hold onto their children.
Serilda is certain that the person who spins the straw to save her from the Erlking's wrath is not a ghost, but quite what he is, she can't guess. Mischievous, but not an imp, that's for sure: he looks just like a human boy her own age. Gild is the name he tells her to use, and she learns that the townspeople of the castle town of Adalheid fondly refer to him as the Vergoldergeist, The Gilded Ghost.
The more she gets to know him, the more she realises there's no malice in him, and that, captive in the castle, he is starved of human company, craving human touch. And having been avoided by the village boys (those unholy eyes), she's incredulous that he finds her attractive.
Soon, though, Serilda's concern about her own fate at the Erlking's mercy is eclipsed by her anger on behalf of his ghostly servants, denied eternal rest in Verloren due to their captivity in the castle, and the ordinary folk who succumb to his thrall, and an uncertain fate, on full-moon nights. And before long, a more personal aspect to her anger emerges.
Serilda wonders, too, about the fate of the royal family who owned Adalheid Castle before Erlking captured it, and for what purpose this magical king needs to amass all this spun gold.
What a marvellous retelling of this classic tale Meyer gives the reader: a cast of intriguing, appealing, quirky or downright nasty characters; her version of the plot is clever, imaginative and has enough mystery to keep the reader engrossed and the pages turning; there's humour and romance and a number of satisfying "aah" moments as it all unfolds; and sufficient unresolved issues to have readers eagerly anticipating the sequel. More of this, soon, please! This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Text Publishing.
by Sara Foster
The Hush is the seventh novel by British-born Australian author, Sara Foster. Seventeen-year-old Lainey Aitken fears she may be pregnant. Getting a test done has turned difficult with the government's new rules, but her imaginative best friend, Sereena Mandalia has a plan.
While Lainey has a very understanding mum, being pregnant is a problem: pregnant teens, and sometimes their families, are disappearing without a trace; and the number of stillbirths has risen dramatically, with no good explanation. So Lainey is worried. And having that pesky Liam Whittaker, who happens to be the son of the government Health Secretary, hanging around her doesn't help.
Overworked, exhausted and demoralised by the stillbirths she attends, midwife Emma Aitken is concerned for her daughter, especially when she is detained by police for taking part in a protest. But when her serious situation is revealed, she does not hesitate to back Lainey up with all she has in reserve, even if it means begging help from the mother who abandoned her.
The near-future that Foster describes does not stretch the imagination very far at all: compulsory wearing of government-issue smart watches that track and monitor; laws that restrict freedoms surreptitiously passed; a much-worsened climate crisis; corrupt, greedy politicians; all are realistically depicted.
Her characters are believable, the reader is quickly invested in their fate, and it is heartening to see these women support each other in their fight for basic human rights. The story is fast-paced, taking place over a mere eight days, leading up to a nail-biting climax.
Topical, relevant and entirely credible: this is the best dystopian fiction you will read this year, so gripping that once you pick this up, you won't want to put it down until the final page. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley, Better Reading Preview and Harper Collins Australia.
by Joanna Nell
The Tea Ladies Of St Jude's Hospital is the fourth novel by best-selling Australian author, Joanna Nell. Meet the staff of the Marjorie Marshall Memorial Cafeteria in the foyer of St Jude's Hospital, volunteers all: Hilary Halliday, in her mid-seventies, manageress for ten years; Joy, also in her seventies, nearing the end of her first months' probation; seventeen-year-old Chloe Foster-Pearson, their newest recruit, fulfilling a requirement for her Duke of Edinburgh gold medal.
Distracted by her currently chaotic personal life, Hilary has missed a few important emails from General Manager Dave Rawlinson concerning the hospital's renovations, so none of them has any idea of what's about to happen.
Virtually an institution in itself, the Marjorie Marshall has been serving refreshments to appreciative staff, patients and visitors at St Jude's for some fifty years and is currently raising funds for a sea-life mural for the Children's Ward. Their fare is basic: plain and simple; so when a branch of wholefood café chain, Platter opens in the foyer, with its black-T-shirted, blonde-ponytailed clones and its myriad of food and drink choices, Hilary immediately understands the threat it poses.
Despite Hilary's tendency to micro-manage and her previous rejection of suggestions for improvement, with the café's viability endangered, Joy and Chloe are wholeheartedly supportive of a makeover, contributing time and talent and furniture. But will it be enough? Because there's that email about Phase 2 of the renovations that Hilary has neglected to open…
Nell's depiction of the hospital foyer almost like a little village will resonate with hospital regulars: the passing parade of daily life here is presented from three different perspectives. As always, her characters have depth and appeal and the reader quickly invests in their fates, even the prickly ones.
She gives them insightful observations and wise words: "With the passing years, the list of things Joy could do was shrinking. Listening was the one thing that people became better at as they aged, she realised."
Young Chloe labours under the heavy weight of expectations: those of her family, and of everyone to whom she is introduced as the progeny of consultant surgeon parents, all assuming she wants to be a doctor. The only exception is her best friend since kindergarten, Sam, who understands and enthusiastically encourages her artistic aspirations. Working with these two older, perceptive women helps her distil what is important.
Joy, ever cheerful in dress and manner, serves up tea with sympathy and comfort so it's surprising to learn she has only recently dragged herself up out of a lengthy depression. But she's still working up the courage to carry out the simple task she needs to complete on her beloved husband Len's behalf.
For Hilary, her position as manageress has afforded her status with the well-off wives of her (soon-to-be-ex) husband's associates, but her recent change in fortunes is compounded when she is forced to live with her bossy, cranky older sister, Nancy. She is understandably afraid that her raison d'etre might be lost.
Once again, Nell has her finger on the pulse when it comes to seniors, touching on many issues that affect the elderly: loneliness, poverty, malnutrition, denial in grief, the need for a sense of purpose, and the fear of being irrelevant or invisible. She addresses these topics with sensitivity and humour, giving the reader laughter and lumps-in-the-throat in equal measure. The clever chapter headings are a bonus. A delightful read! This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Hachette Australia.
by Susan Wingate
Bobby's Diner is the first book in the Bobby's Diner series by American author, Susan Wingate. Still grieving from the sudden death of their husband, Bobby Carlisle, his widow Georgette and his ex-wife Vanessa are shocked by a certain item in his will: Bobby has left his diner to them both as joint owners. Ever since Georgie arrived on the scene fifteen years earlier and stole her husband, Vanessa and her daughter Roberta have hated her. How is this ever going to work?
Bobby's Diner is a successful business, almost an institution in the small town of Sunnydale, Arizona, and both women are determined it will continue to be. So they come to terms, and they work hard to keep it going. When developer Zach Pinzer turns up at the diner's kitchen door with a lucrative offer to buy, they quickly see him off. But Zach is persistent, and not averse to using other means to get his deal.
The story is quite a good one, although this copy would benefit from an edit: it demonstrates the pitfalls of "replace all" in word processing; and while the plot may be a little predictable, the journey to the climax, featuring a crooked local politician, a city hit man, bonding over target practice, a town full of loyal customers, a wife suffering under coercion, two murders, one near-fatal shooting, and a cat called Gangster, that journey is a moving and entertaining one and more of this cast is definitely welcome. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and The Wild Rose Press
by Liz Byrski
At The End Of The Day is the eleventh novel by Australian author, Liz Byrski. Former librarian Miriam Squires is returning home to Fremantle after visiting her sister in Oxford. Best-selling Melbourne author, Mathias Vander is rounding off his visit to his dying Belgian friend with a Perth stopover to see his daughter. Stuck for some hours in Doha, these usually reserved strangers strike up a conversation and discover an almost instant rapport.
Back in Perth, Mim is dismayed by her diminished energy and enthusiasm for her successful second-hand book store, Life Support, and by the rebuffing of her offer of help to her much younger friend, Jodie, who recovering from a car accident. It's a reality check on her ongoing physical disability, a legacy of polio that Mim contracted over sixty years earlier. Continued contact with Mathias brings her unexpected comfort.
Fresh from the break-up of an unsatisfactory relationship, artist/illustrator Carla Vander is happy to have the company of her beloved Papa, and delighted when he again raises the idea of selling the family home in the Dandenongs and moving to Perth, to be closer to her (and Mim?). Except for the author persona he adopts for book publicity events, Mathias is usually rather reclusive, so she is pleased to see how much at ease he is when Mim is around.
But both Mim and Mathias are burdened with relics from their pasts. When his oldest, closest friend in Belgium dies "the loss of the one person who knew his deepest secret and kept it all his life, has made him vulnerable. Without Luc's support, he fears exposure and rejection more than he has ever done. He is haunted by dread." Mathias wonders if the move to Western Australia "could be more than just a change of location; it could be the catalyst for a change within himself."
Meanwhile, Mim is overjoyed that her encouragement of younger sister, Alice to come to Australia has had a result. "For years she struggled to appear strong and competent; an example of how someone with a disability can overcome the hurdles if they really want to. But deep down she's felt that polio had left her flawed and unlovable, and she had longed to be loved." Could they finally broach the subject that had been avoided for so many decades?
What a marvellous cast Byrski gives the reader: her talent for creating believable characters, appealing for all their faults and foibles, is undeniable. She sets them realistic challenges, and the reader cannot help but cheer them on and hope for their happiness.
It is apparent on every page that Byrski's research is thorough and this thought-provoking and moving tale includes both topical and classic themes: panic attacks, post-polio syndrome, fear of becoming irrelevant as we age, loneliness, and lack of self-worth. A heart-warming and uplifting read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia
by Sophie Green
Thursdays At Orange Blossom House is the third novel by best-selling Australian author, Sophie Green. A retired cane farmer, a high school English teacher and a café owner: three women from different generations and backgrounds who might have little in common, yet stiffness or pain or anxiety find them, via friendly recommendation or encouragement, or simply dumb luck, at Orange Blossom House for yoga classes.
After three miscarriages, Dorothy is feeling diminished and defective. She and her husband live in Kuranda and run a busy café in Cairns, and Frederick is loving and undemanding, but now they need to decide if they want to involve medical technology in their efforts to procreate.
Patricia's three married siblings, all "extremely busy, you know", have blithely accepted her return from Sydney to become the default carer for their elderly parents: a physically well father not coping with his increasingly demented wife. She doesn't expect thanks: they are her parents and she loves them, but the responsibility is not made any easier by her siblings' expectations and criticism.
Grace Maud keeps an eye on her family's cane farm near Atherton, but is happy to take a step back to allow her only son, Tom, and his wife run it. She gracefully accepts both garden and house help in her little cottage in town. Yoga seems to help her flexibility and sleep, but will it help her handle the sense of hurt and betrayal she feels when Tom drops his bombshell?
At Orange Blossom House, Sandrine guides their beathing, their poses and their meditation with her lovely French accent and her steely discipline, promising, and delivering, physical, mental and spiritual release. Her uncanny perceptiveness seems to inspire her intuitive direction and support.
Over the eighteen months that follow, the women gradually become friends and learn to overcome their reticence to share problems. As they deal with Frederick's ambitious plans for the business, the young(er than Patricia) PE teacher whose purported interest in her surely can't be real, and a devastating tragedy on the cane farm, Sandrine often weighs in with insightful observations and words of wisdom.
Sophie Green's main characters, feisty, harried or timid, quickly feel like close friends whose stories you can't wait to get back to, so that picking up this novel gives the same comfort as a hug or a warm blanket on a cold day. By contrast, readers will probably want to shake some of the secondary characters for their selfishness and thoughtlessness.
Green divides her tale into seasons, prefacing each with a list of current songs, movies, TV series and world events that firmly establish the era (1993-5) and may well induce a sense of nostalgia in readers of a certain vintage. Her plot does have some predictable aspects, but there are enough surprises and topical issues to easily keep the reader's interest. Once again, Green gives the reader a wonderfully heart-warming read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Hachette Australia.
by Tricia Stringer
Birds of a Feather is the fourteenth novel by Australian author, Tricia Stringer. Eve, Julia and Lucy: they are probably the least likely trio to gather by intention, but life and circumstances have thrown them together in Wallaby Bay, and they need to make the best of it.
Evelyn Monk has hit seventy without depending on anyone, so she's most displeased that a (surely minor?) shoulder injury needs surgery and homecare thereafter. While her self-imposed exile has already cut down on many of her community activities, not being able to drive, to be independent, is unthinkable!
While research work is always dependent on funding, to lose her job at forty-five has Julia Paterson reassessing her priorities, and the best place to do that is back home in Wallaby Bay, where she can catch up with her brother on the family farm and stay with her godmother, Eve. A break from Glen Walker, the man she has kept at arm's length for three years, won't hurt either.
Registered nurse and mother of two, Lucy Ryan has had an extended break from nursing after a scare during the previous year. While her de-facto, Alec is often away doing FIFO work, the move to Wallaby Bay has allowed their children to better get to know his ageing parents. At her mother-in-law's suggestion, she warily agrees to provide in-home care for the rather cranky prawn-fishing matriarch of Wallaby Bay, Evelyn Monk.
While their first few encounters are a little prickly, Lucy and Eve soon come to an understanding and get on rather well. When Julia and Lucy meet, though, they seem to instantly rub each other the wrong way and barely do more than tolerate each other. Their grudging but necessary cooperation for Eve's sake gradually morphs into friendship, surprising them both.
Stringer's setting in a small town on the Spencer Gulf in South Australia is well-rendered, and no wonder, as she is very familiar with the area. Her depiction of the community, with its gossip and loyalties and petty jealousies, is convincing, as are the townspeople who inhabit it.
The challenges that Stringer throws her protagonists highlight various topical issues including feeling relevant after retirement and the unique problems faced by FIFO workers and their families. Her characters are appealing for all their faults and foibles, and it is heartening to watch them triumph over the adversities that life poses, and help each other doing it.
The story starts in June 2021, and it's certainly tricky to set a novel in the undefined landscape that is the aftermath of a pandemic: who could predict a Delta variant that throws states back into lockdown? Nonetheless, the pandemic aspects of the story are handled realistically without being overwhelming. A thought-provoking and heart-warming read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Harlequin Australia.
by Alexander McCall Smith
The Pavilion In The Clouds is a stand-alone novel by popular Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith. In 1938, when Bella Ferguson is eight, her parents employ a live-in governess, Miss Lavender White. Henry Ferguson owns a tea plantation in Ceylon, and rather than send Bella home to Scotland, he and Virginia decide to arrange tuition on their estate, Pitlochry.
Miss White is an excellent teacher and Bella enjoys her lessons. But it seemed that Virginia is somewhat intimidated by Miss White's intellect, and Bella picks up on this when her mother questions her about her governess.
Bella begins to suspect that Miss White is trying to get rid of her mother so she can marry her daddy, and her dolls, Li Po and Po Chü-i, named after Chinese poets and exhibiting their quite individual personalities, seem to agree, especially after a few strange incidents.
Bella's best friend Richard Macmillan, the ten-year-old son of another plantation owner, suggests a way to get Miss Lavender to go away. This would have the added advantage of Bella being able to go back home to Scotland for school, as Richard will soon do.
About those incidents, and certain things Bella has said, Virginia feels the need to consult her closest friend in the area, Heather Macmillan. Heather has seen it all before, and suggests quick action. Which is what happens. Later Bella is a bit sorry for what she has done, but she never expects to see Miss White again.
McCall Smith is such a skilled story-teller, and here, his main narrators are the slightly precocious Bella with her dolls and her diary and her very active imagination, and the perhaps over-sensitive Virginia. Suspicions are aroused by misinterpreted looks and words, a potentially fatal fall, unrefrigerated water and a cobra.
As always, there's plenty of gentle philosophy on a myriad of topics including colonisation, killing wild animals, the concept of home, intelligence and spinsterhood, a male-dominated society, that men and women think differently, competitiveness. And he includes a delightful twist (or two) in the final resolution.
About bible stories: "we had to believe in something, she told herself, because the truth sometimes seemed too thin to satisfy our yearnings."
"We are uninvited guests, just as we are uninvited guests in every corner of the globe, and yet we take it upon ourselves to dictate how things should be done. That was the massive, almost unbelievable, conceit upon which the whole colonial enterprise was built, and yet nobody seemed to see."
Insightful, sometimes poignant and often humorous, whether his setting is in present day London, Edinburgh, Botswana or pre-war Ceylon, McCall Smith's grasp of people and relationships is superb. Always a delight to read.
by Elizabeth Strout
Oh William! is the third novel in the Amgash series by best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning American author, Elizabeth Strout. Not long widowed and still very much grieving her second husband, David Abramson, Lucy Barton relates recent events in the life of her first husband, William Gerhardt.
Two life-changing things that occur in fairly short succession see her travelling with William to Maine to perhaps connect with a relative of whom William was, until recently, unaware. It's a journey of many revelations, both about newly-discovered family, those already departed, each other and themselves.
Lucy's narrative comes across as a little rambling, at first, but it soon becomes clear that all those casual asides, those frequently inserted anecdotes from earlier, are given to illustrate a certain point, a feeling, an opinion.
Musing on what she had with each husband, she tells the reader that even though "At times in our marriage I loathed him. I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable", William was her home, that she felt safe in his presence.
She does not talk much about David, noting what they had in common "It is hard to describe what it is like when one is raised in such isolation from the outside world. So we became each other's home. But we— both of us felt this way—we felt that we were perched like birds on a telephone wire in New York City" and concluding that "David was a tremendous comfort to me."
Strout gives her characters palpable emotions, wise words and insightful observations. When Lucy is unable to understand why William married her, a nothing, he tells her: "Lucy, I married you because you were filled with joy. You were just filled with joy. And when I finally realized what you came from—when we went to your house that day to meet your family and tell them we were getting married, Lucy, I almost died at what you came from. I had no idea that was what you came from. And I kept thinking, But how is she what she is? How could she come from this and have so much exuberance? …. There has never been anyone in the world like you. You steal people's hearts, Lucy."
Strout's writing, both in style and subject matter, is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry with shades of Anne Tyler. Strout writes about ordinary people leading what they believe are ordinary lives (although there are definitely some quirky ones doing strange things amongst them) and does it with exquisite yet succinct prose. Another powerful read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK Viking.
by Graeme MacRae Burnet
Case Study is the fourth novel by best-selling award-winning Scottish author, Graeme Macrae Burnet. Two years after her older sister suicides by throwing herself off a railway overpass in Camden, a young woman becomes convinced that notorious psychotherapist A. Collins Braithwaite is responsible for her death. Determined to prove his guilt, she poses as a patient, writing detailed notes of her sessions with him.
Over fifty years later, her cousin Martin "Grey" discovers the five notebooks and offers them to the author, who happens to be researching the psychotherapist with a view to writing a biography of this now-forgotten, disgraced character. At first sceptical, the author eventually decides to supplement his own material with the notebooks because, if nothing else, they tell an interesting story.
The young woman does not reveal her identity in her notebooks. For the purpose of her visits to Braithwaite, she adopts a persona she names Rebecca Smyth, creating for Rebecca an alternate life quite different from her own strictly controlled existence. Rebecca's life is so attractive, she begins to inhabit it, rather losing sight of her initial objective as she is swept up in Braithwaite's "therapy".
This unnamed protagonist is clearly unworldly, her scheme evidence of a naïve arrogance. She is immature with a childlike self-absorption, admitting about herself: "I have understood from an early age that I am an unpleasant and spiteful person. I am unable to see events in any terms other than their benefit or injuriousness to myself." Her thought processes often prove darkly funny.
With later visits, it's clear she is losing touch with reality, having conversations and arguments with Rebecca; at one stage she records an exchange with Braithwaite thus: "'I don't believe I've ever encountered anyone quite as hollow as you. I'm beginning to wonder if you really are who you say you are.' 'I often wonder the same thing,' Rebecca responded, rather deftly, I thought. (She is so much brighter than me; I sometimes wonder whether I shouldn't let her take over completely)"
The last notebook offers no clue as to the young woman's ultimate fate, but her "progress" during the first four sessions with this unconventional man don't suggest a promising future. Braithwaite, from the author's research, is variously described as a "cheerleader for suicide" (having written a book titled Kill Your Self) and a "dangerous charlatan" who, throughout his life, never faltered in his conviction of his own genius.
While readers generally don't skip over the prologue, many are tempted to ignore any post-script, but, as with previous Macrae Burnet novels, this is unwise as the Post Script forms an integral part of the whole. Once again, very cleverly written, Macrae Burnet's latest work is thought-provoking, funny and utterly brilliant. This unbiased review is from a copy provided by NetGalley and Text Publishing.
by Elly Griffiths
The Blood Card is the third book in the Stephens and Mephisto Mystery series by British author, Elly Griffiths. It's May, 1953 and the former Magic Men are busy with their lives; DI Edgar Stephens is investigating the death of gypsy fortune-teller, Madame Zabini (Doreen Barton) in Brighton; magician Max Mephisto is performing at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.
They're puzzled to be summoned to Whitehall by General Petre, even more so when he explains they are to look into the murder of their former CO, Colonel Peter Cartwright. Certain things about the murder scene have led Petre to call them in: a playing card left on the body; a newspaper cutting about an American mesmerist; and a 1939 Liverpool Empire playbill.
Petre stresses urgency: there is a threat to the imminent coronation of the new Queen. Max makes an international phone call which yields only a cryptic clue. Ed is sent to Albany, NY, arrives too late for his purpose, is almost the victim of a hit-and-run driver and has his motel room ransacked.
Back in Brighton, DS Emma Holmes is keeping a close eye on the Barton family when it transpires there may be a connection to Cartwright's murder. Soon enough, Max and Ed conclude that all is not as it seems with the now-elusive General Petre, and the connection between the two deaths strengthens.
Griffiths gives the reader characters that are real and flawed; some are vain and selfish; others distracted by misdirection and convinced by illusion. Her plot is clever and original and has a few twists that even the most astute reader may fail to anticipate. The atmosphere of post-war Britain is skilfully evoked with description, dialogue and the attitudes common at the time.
The immediate post-war era ensures the absence of mobile phones, internet, DNA and even many personal vehicles; thus the detective work relies on heavily on legwork, personal visits and intelligent deduction.
Before the puzzles are solved and the murderers apprehended, there are communists, mafiosi and anarchists to investigate, there is arson, assault and attempted kidnapping, a bomb has to be defused on live TV and a knife thrower saves a young magician. Ed's short stay in America is quite entertaining, and there are plenty of unresolved situations to draw the reader to the next book, The Vanishing Box. Excellent Historical crime fiction.
by Margaret Verble
When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky is the third novel by American Pulitzer Prize finalist, Margaret Verble. It's 1926 and Cherokee horse diver Two Feathers is performing at Glendale Park and Zoo near Nashville, Tennessee, regularly sending money home to her family at The Miller Brothers One Hundred and One Ranch in Oklahoma. She loves the animals of the zoo, especially the bison, and enjoys the company of three friends: Marty and Franny Montgomery, the Juggling Juggernauts, and Hank Crawford, the stable hand.
Two is used to propositions from male fans, but had her heart broken during the winter at home so she is wary of communications from a man who calls himself Strong-Red-Wolf, clearly a fake Indian name. Little Elk, on the other hand, is no fake, but she's mostly unaware of his presence. It takes him a while to understand why he has, once more, been drawn from the afterlife into the in-between: "To kill the murderous night-going witch. To save the woman and animals."
James Shackleford, owner of Glendale, consults with Two about establishing a box-turtle race as an attraction. Before this can get going, though, disaster strikes Two's act and she ends up on crutches after being rescued from an underground cave-in by Clive Lovett, the Zoo's general manager. Her enforced inactivity allows her to see certain things from a different perspective: the sick hippo, the romantic pursuit by the charming college anthropology graduate, and her performing future.
Verble populates her tale with a large cast, some of whom she allocates a vignette, while others receive much more than a potted history. And those characters are not exclusively human: buffalo, bear, monkey and hippopotamus also make a significant contribution.
Perhaps the most interesting are the zoo manager who, haunted by his wartime experience, becomes aware of spirits present in the park; Two Feathers, with her strong connection to the animals and her distrust of most whites; deep-thinking Hank whose genuine care for Two is unstinting; and Little Elk, whose naive perspective on a modern world occasionally provides humour.
Verble easily evokes the era with the customs of the day and the mindset of the community with regards the black population and the Indians, and the controversial Scopes trial and appeal. Her plot manages to include a scalping, theft from a tomb, electrocution, a spirit with a tobacco craving, several romances and, trigger warning, the death of three animals.
Verble states in her notes that many of the characters are based on the lives of real people, while certain activities and events have basis in fact. It is clear that her research on such topics as massacres omitted from teaching, and mass robbing of Indian graves, is thorough. Entertaining and thought-provoking historical fiction. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
by Robert Dugoni
4.5?s The Eighth Sister is the first book in the Charles Jenkins series by American author, Robert Dugoni. It might be forty years since Charles Jenkins left the CIA, but this sixty-four-year-old African American, now living on a Washington state farm, sticks to a fitness regimen. CJ Security, the successful business he named after his son, is currently having cash-flow problems, courtesy of a large account's tardiness; it's the only reason he agrees to leave his pregnant wife and nine-year-old son to go to Moscow at Carl Emerson's request.
The problem, Carl explains, is the murder of three of the Seven Sisters, women who have been, independent of any knowledge of each other, been passing information to the CIA for the past four decades. Charlie's Russian language skills and his client's branch in Moscow make him the ideal person to discover the identity of the eighth sister, the person who is apparently systematically, eliminating these women. Although a two-metre black man is hardly going to be inconspicuous amongst Muscovites!
Charlie is assured by his handler that as soon as he hints at having the names of the other sisters, the eighth sister will seek him out. But when she does, it's quickly clear they have both been fed lies. By whom, exactly, they're not sure, but they are now both targets of Russia's FSB, and end up together in a mad chase across Russia.
Charlie's attempts to return home involve a fist-fight in a bathroom, an underwater swim, a rendezvous with a Turkish fishing boat, clever disguises and false passports hurriedly acquired, buses, boats and planes and, at each turn, Charlie has cause to wonder whether he will ever see his second child born.
The pace is initially fairly sedate, but once the action begins, it doesn't let up until Charlie has followed a complicated route back to Seattle. There, dissatisfied with the outcome of his mission and the lack of resolution for the remaining sisters, he takes his concerns to a different government agency and, for his troubles, ends up in court on an espionage charge. Luckily, he has a close friend with legal expertise, but will that be enough? Excellent Dugoni spy drama.
by Lisa Unger
4.5?s "Once you ditch that phone, everything that you think tethers you to your life will fall away. Cash. A burner phone. A map�a real paper map!�marked where she should stop for gas, to spend the night. Places that took cash, that didn't have cameras. It's not forever, he told her. Think of it as a life reset."
Last Girl Ghosted is the nineteenth novel by award-winning best-selling American author, Lisa Unger. After three intensely romantic months with Adam Harper, Wren Greenwood is suddenly, inexplicably, ghosted. What was a hook-up from the Torch app soon developed into more; it felt like the real thing, and Wren just can't believe she got it so wrong. Her best friend Jax tells her to chalk it up to experience and move on, but Wren can't let it go.
Then PI Baily Kirk turns up on her doorstep, looking for Adam Harper or Raife Mannes or the man who goes by any number of other names. His client's daughter hooked-up with the man on Torch: now she and all her money have been missing for nine months. She's one of at least three similar stories, all of whom have had some trauma in their early lives, all of whom have connected with this apparently charismatic, Rilke-quoting ghost.
Wren too, has had trauma in her youth, but she's a survivor, a success: her popular advice column, Dear Birdie runs in the New York Chronicle, helping many; she owns a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights; she has friends and interests. But she wants to find Adam too. Do she and Bailey join forces? Does she actually believe the disturbing things that Bailey tells her about the man she had fallen in love with? And what happens if she finds him?
The story is told in a first-person narrative that is addressed to Adam, which sometimes makes for momentary confusion, but ultimately works well. While Wren is a protagonist with whom many readers can empathise, it's disappointing that Unger inserts her into that overdone trope of na�ve arrogance where she enters an almost-certainly dangerous situation alone, without any protection or means of summoning help, and without telling anyone what she is doing. Sure, it does later allow her to be kick-ass, but it's getting a little tired.
However, she does give the reader a gripping thriller, the bones of which are easily believable: the potential dangers of online dating are well-documented. There's plenty of enjoyable banter between friends, some good detective work, and a few action scenes in the lead-up to a nail-biting climax (or two). The support characters are an appealing bunch that Wren is lucky to have beside her. A guaranteed page-turner. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and HQ Fiction.
by Alexander McCall Smith
"'There is nothing wrong with this bus,' he said. 'Or there won't be, once we have fixed all the things that…' He floundered, before continuing, '… all the things that are wrong with it.' Then he added, hurriedly, 'Not that there are all that many things wrong, I think. Just some. Just three or four … or five. Small things, mostly, like brakes and so on.'"
The Joy and Light Bus Company is the twenty-second book in the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by popular Scottish author, Alexander McCall Smith. Having left a very capable Fanwell in charge of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, Mr JLB Matekoni attends a business course and returns pensive, eventually sharing that he intends to achieve his full potential. This apparently involves a partnership with an old school friend in a bus company.
What worries Precious Ramotswe most about the scheme is that the necessary bank loan will be taken against the garage and the premises of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Failure of such a risky business venture will impact on them all. (Self-appointed) senior co-managing director of the Agency, Mma Grace Makutsi can see the problem, but understands that "male menopausal behaviour was beyond rational argument". She promises to enlist Phuti Radiphuti's help in talking sense into Mr JLB Matekoni.
Precious seeks the wise counsel of her good friend Mma Potokwani at the Orphan Farm, reflecting that "Wise people had been replaced in the public estimation by that curious category of people – celebrities – who were, for the most part, shallow people not known for their wisdom." Her sound advice is gratefully accepted, even if it does include a recommendation for yoga.
While there, Precious is disturbed by what she learns about one of the newest orphans: there is a suggestion that a well-off family is engaging in a practice long out-lawed. Acting on impulse, she later manages get important information from very close to the source, and cleverly uses a certain woman's susceptibility to superstition to ensure things are set to rights.
A new client wants Agency to investigate the nurse looking after his elderly father when it emerges that his father has willed her his farm, alleging that the woman has exercised undue influence on the old man. When Precious and Mma Potokwani visit the farm, they tend towards a different conclusion but, heeding Clovis Anderson's best advice, they reserve judgement. A meeting with the daughters of the family reveals that things are not quite so straightforward.
No instalment in this series is complete without some mention of Mma Makutsi's nemesis: after witnessing a brazen act of shoplifting by the dreadful Violet Sepotho, attempts to force accountability on her backfire on Mma Potokwani and Precious.
As always, the ladies muse on many topics, including what is required to keep men happy, and Mma Makutsi coins an excellent term for those old-fashioned males who still indulge in sexual discrimination: Past Tense Men. If you want to know why slugs and beetles in her vegetable garden remind Precious of baboons in the corn, you need to read the book, but that's no hardship! As always, McCall Smith gives the reader some minor mysteries that don't tax the brain too much, laced with plenty of gentle philosophy, astute observations and wise words. This author never fails to delight.
by David Gardner
The Last Speaker of Skalwegian is the second novel by American author, David Gardner. It's only after he has been working on the Skalwegian language for three months, after he has applied for and received a hefty government research grant, that linguistics professor Lenny Thorsen realises that Charlie Fox, the last speaker of Skalwegian, might not be the real deal. And that's a problem.
After three years of teaching French at Ghurkin College in the small Massachusetts town of New Skalvik, where he is expected to issue As for football jocks despite non-attendance, Lenny jumps at the chance to document a dying language. Skalwegian was spoken on the tiny island of Skalvik, near Norway, until the population migrated to New Skalvik over two hundred years earlier, and learned English.
Documenting Skalwegian, as Lenny explained to Daniela Fox, the gorgeous co-anchor of News at Noon on local TV station WDRK, might just prevent the extinction of a language, should help with securing tenure, and he just loves the work. But if this counterfeiting of a language is revealed, his career and reputation are ruined.
When Charlie gives a (partial) explanation of why he is virtually creating a new language, Lenny faces a dilemma: the motive is pure, but the consequences of failure or discovery are unthinkable. Before the year is out, Lenny will be the target of four or five assassination attempts, there will be a murder, a kidnapping, and blackmail with regards the stipulations of a lucrative will. And Lenny will, mysteriously, acquire the apparently fearsome title of The Lobsterman.
Gardner's plot is sometimes a little convoluted and involves an element of slapstick and plenty of absurdity, especially with the character names, where there's a bit of nominative determinism going on. There are few ordinary people in this story: almost every character is quirky, weird, strange, odd, or eccentric.
Our linguist is caretaker of a revolving ex-restaurant which sporadically, and quite unpredictably, rotates, where he dines on a frozen cache of lobster tails, boysenberries and ginger and citrus tea, while avoiding cases of mediocre wine. He is easily distracted by words, his thoughts shooting off in tangents as he puzzles over their derivations. And plagued by a guilty secret from his past…
The supporting cast includes an ageing Godiva, a corrupt Police Chief, a money-grubbing college dean siphoning off funds for his personal gain, a local businessman with underworld connections, several hitmen named Bob, and a resourceful army vet. Readers in the mood for silliness, with occasional laugh-out-loud moments and some sweet romance will find this one entertaining. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Encircle Publications/Books Go Social.