A Halloween Treat – Safe House by Jo Jakeman, Book Review

20191030_121401Charlie Miller is a woman on the run from her past. She’s just been released from prison for perverting the course of justice, but is also having to come to terms with her own guilt and the abuse she suffered at the hands of ex-boyfriend and serial killer Lee. With few ties to her old life and hankering after a new start, she flees to Cornwall, intending to keep her head down and try and acclimatise to her new freedom and self-awareness. But her new start is haunted by her past mistakes and it quickly becomes apparent that Charlie is being hunted by multiple people. Can she really just start anew?

I grew up obsessively watching Columbo films at weekends. I used to play a game where I would switch on the film 20 minutes in so that I missed the murder and then see how many seconds it took me to go “They did it”. As an adult, obviously this is hardly a challenge – it’s whoever Columbo insists on sharing the screen with in every scene – but as a kid I loved playing detective and that feeling has never really gone away. I love trying to solve the puzzle.

But thrillers are brain popcorn for me. I read them as a palate cleanser; a mini puzzle where I try and figure out the twists and turns as soon as possible. Usually the foreshadowing is pretty obvious but not with Safe House and I loved it for that. This genuinely kept me second guessing myself until the last page, and even when I did just about figure it out (about a chapter before the reveal, but I was never 100% certain) Jakeman still managed to throw a twist at me that I REALLY didn’t see coming. (It’s fairly minor, but I appreciated the surprise).

Charlie is an identifiable character who made catastrophic mistakes. She was a victim herself, but is having to find the balance of accepting her own vulnerabilities, complicity and abuse ensuring a complex and well-rounded heroine. I enjoyed that as she re-built her new run down home she began to recover herself and a semblance of a life, but more than that I loved the empathy and kindness she showed to the people around her who she initially had no intention of engaging with. Her relationship with the elderly man next door was one of the highlights for me.

There was the odd scene, particularly towards the end, which felt like it was written with cinematic rendering in mind (It strongly reminded me of Julia Robert’s ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ which is no bad thing!) and I stumbled with the prologue which is driven by a character who is nowhere near as likeable as Charlie but he’s quickly relegated to the background.

But these are quibbles; this is a well-drawn, subtle, character-driven story with edge of the seat tension and jeopardy. The thriller elements; the paranoia of the prey and the twisted view point of the hunter, are ratcheted up so expertly and in such clever increments that the you can feel the tightening claustrophobia make your heart race.

A really top-notch thriller, and one that I’d definitely recommend.

I received a preview copy of Safe House in exchange for an honest review, but it’s out today (31st October) and the Publisher has confirmed that it is going to be available on Amazon Kindle for 99p throughout November – definitely one to add to your TBR pile.

A Taste of Scottish Folklore in a Fantasy Realm – Book Review

The Stone of Destiny by Caroline Logan

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The Stone of Destiny by Caroline Logan

Ailsa is a 19 year old Hermit. Living a life of self-imposed isolation in a beach cave 5 years after her mother died, Ailsa has come to terms with her loneliness and convinced herself that she’s happy. Then she saves two selkies from ravagers and her life is flip turned upside down leading her to discover more about her own history.

In a world where Fae run rampant and the imprisonment of the evil faerie queen Nicnevan is perilous at best, Ailsa finds herself thrown into a quest to secure the throne for the royal family and protect her new friends from the powers that want to destroy them.

Logan has created a wonderful fantasy world, heavily influenced by Scottish Culture – kilts, bagpipes and thick Scottish accents abound, the Selkies themselves are named after Scottish Islands which don’t exist in this realm – and an engagingly grumpy heroine whose heavily foreshadowed destiny is much greater than she’s initially willing to accept.

There are a couple of minor problems, such as a relatively confusing backstory timeline that seems to give different time stamps every time it’s brought up and Harris, the younger of the two selkies that Ailsa rescues. His arrogance is more irritating that endearing, however there are enough hints that Harris’ main problem is immaturity that I’m hopeful he will grow out of his less likeable character traits and vindicate Ailsa’s faith in him.

But these are quibbles, and there are many many joys in this tale. The themes of family, both blood and found, which run through this are wonderful; there are themes of mental health and trauma; bullying and superstition and things not always being what they seem – be that monsters or people’s intentions. Groundwork is laid for what promises to be an epic multi-part tale. There are intriguing hints that Nicnevan may not be entirely bad, but rather wronged and misunderstood and perhaps even empathetic – I’m thinking Angelina Jolie’s Maleficient.

The initial characterisation and scene setting is sedate and then about half way through the story picks up a headspinning pace and revelations come thick and fast. Certainly enough is laid out to keep you excited for the next instalment and see what’s next for Ailsa. A real joy of a new Fantasy series. (AND IT HAS A MAP…and I LOVE MAPS!)

Thanks to Cranachan Books for letting me review this as part of their Blog Tour, and thanks to Caroline Logan for writing it!

Hey June – June Book Round Up

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Stardust by Neil Gaiman  ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

For years after reading American Gods I, slightly shamefully, claimed that I wasn’t a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing. I thought that my love of Good Omens must come from Pratchett’s involvement, but in the last 6 months I have (thankfully) been completely disabused of that notion and now I have discovered two new favourite FAVOURITE books: The Ocean at the End of the Lane which I reviewed previously, and Stardust.
Set in the human town of Wall and the contrasting multi-coloured world of Faerie, this is a more intelligent, thoughtful and hypnotic take on the two-world trope made famous by the Wizard of Oz – where you identify with the muted world but you desperately want to stay in the brighter dreamlike land beyond the confines of the story.
Our hero, Tristran Thorn, is a child of two worlds (unbeknown to him), who’s first experience of love sets him on a quest for a fallen star. Along the way, he encounters goblins, unicorns, witches and sentient forests based on Tori Amos, but more importantly he grows into the man he should be and comes to rectify youthful mistakes while maintaining his almost naive optimism.
This is a grown-up fairy tale full of hope and growth and magic, where the very prose makes you feel like you are coated in Stardust. I loved every word.

The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Arika of House Cobane has spent her life identifying as a ‘First Brother’ of Kongo and training to be an elite Record Keeper, perhaps even a senator, for her region. She lives in a society built out of the ashes of old earth following a World War that left most of the planet uninhabitable, and the remains of humanity scraping their survival out of the 20190701_201020.jpgcharred earth. With the survival of the species on the line, the three surviving tribes: The Kongo, Clayskins and English have each accepted responsibility for one facet of continuing life and each race must pull its weight for everyone to survive. Or so Arika believes. In reality the new structure is built as much on oppression and racism as the old world structure was, but obedience is guaranteed through the mirage of equality.

As a child Arika had her streak of rebellion and fight brutally stripped from her ‘for the greater good’, but it simmers beneath and the Record Keeper charts her reawakening as she is forced to confront the truth which she has been sheltered from, including her own privilege and oppression of her own people. It is a challenging, powerful and empowering read, as it becomes clear that the more things change, the more they are kept the same, until we confront our power structures and stand up and enforce change, all while set in a future dystopia that is frighteningly like our current world.

Hope for the Best (the Chronicles of St Mary’s) by Jodi Taylor ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The latest book in one of my favourite book series’, the Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor continues the story of a group of chaotic, beautiful tea loving historians who investigate events in contemporary time (time travel to you and me). Hope for the Best is the 10th book in the series, and continues to follow the adventures of Max, Leon, Matthew and Dr Bairstow among others. 20190611_193927
I love these books, they’re funny, engaging and usually reasonably light (except for book 8 which I’m STILL traumatised by, but begrudgingly accept) and speed through different time periods and adventure sequences. I’m a sucker for time travel stories but I’m ready to be done with Ronan and increasingly the Time Police, who I’ve never quite warmed too after the sudden alternative world flip (and don’t mention their behaviour over Matthew). I am always happy to reread these over and over and over again.

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops By Jen Campbell ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Does what it says on the tin, a collection from Bookshop owners all over the world which gathers together some of the more questionable conversations had with customers or overheard between friends and families. Everyone has moments of ditziness and comes out with something absurd but when they are gathered together in one book it is eye-wateringly funny. I tore through this in about two hours and was wheezing by the end, but it could easily be used as a Dip in and out read.

Green Valley by Louis Greenberg ⭐⭐⭐⭐

After finally reaching it on my TBR pile, I tore through Green Valley in the 24 hours. A very special example of Techno-Terror, a Sci-fi/Horror blend about a future city split between two extremes: A technology drenched walled-in city, Green Valley, where people have chosen to live in a virtual world utopia and their reality is a mystery; and the rest of the country where a total Technology ban exists in order.

After children riddled with nano tech are found dead, the murder investigation leads to Green Valley where Lucie Sterling’s niece, who she only met once before the wall went up, has also gone missing. Louis Greenburg manages to explore humanity’s relationship with technology without ever being preachy – and with a bloody terrifying ram thrown into the mix. It is creepy and intriguing and raises questions about why humanity is so driven to seek out extremes. 20190618_130519

Thanks to @Titanbooks for the review copy. And the nightmares!

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Winner of the International Man Booker Prize 2019: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi is a dense, sprawling, epic, which covers the lives of multiple generations of families, in particular 3 families, in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, in just under 250 pages.

It is poetic, and sometimes difficult to navigate, but completely hypnotic and engaging. It covers the trauma and joy of being a woman in a country undergoing massive cultural shifts, and beautifully illustrates generational differences in culture and expectation.

Confessions of a Bad Mother – The Teenage Years by Stephanie Calman ⭐⭐⭐⭐

A book which will speak to the heart of any parent; Confessions beautifully encapsulates the bittersweet frustration of your children growing up and simultaneously pulling away from you, the dichotomy of pride in their achievements and their ability to overtake you and pain as they make it clear they no longer need you. The book covers a mother’s journey from her children being 7 (yes, some teenage attitudes start this young) to leaving home. Well written and well observed, it’s a good warning for what I’ve got ahead of me! (my eldest has turned 7 and is already displaying some of these tendencies).

Girl in a cage by Jane Yolen ⭐⭐⭐

Girl in a Cage follows the story of 11 year old Marjorie Bruce, Robert the Bruce’s20190617_084756 daughter and future mother of the Stewart dynasty, as she is captured and held hostage by Edward Longshanks during the Scottish wars for Independence. Simultaenously describing the first two weeks of her capture alongside the 8 months leading up to it, where her father took up the crown, resulting in his family having to flee across Scotland as fugitives, this is a story aimed at 8 to 11 year olds.

Over the last couple of years @Cranachanbooks has established a reputation for bringing a human perspective to historical lessons, and rendering them identifiable and interesting to younger readers, and so it is with Girl in a Cage by Jane Yolen Robert Harris (he of Talisman fame). It’s a winning formula, and one that really brings history to life.

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry ⭐⭐⭐

A post-apocalyptic retelling of Red Riding Hood with a dash of The Walking Dead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road thrown in, albeit with a little more optimism and a prosthetic equipped, mixed-race feminist heroine who suffers no fools. This was an interesting and compelling re-imagining but, for me, there were a few too many elements chucked in the mix without adequate explanation.

I get that Red is just a ‘normal’ citizen and not a ‘chosen one’ who is looking for answers, but when there are genetically created monsters (aliens?), AND an apocalyptic croatoan type sickness creating havoc around the globe at the same time but with no clear or confirmed link then I need a few answers even if she doesn’t. This, combined with a time jump ending, made it feel like Henry had an interesting idea but got bored towards the end and couldn’t find a way to link it all. That being said, Red was a great grumpy heroine and I’ll definitely check out more of Henry’s re-tellings. Thanks to @titanbooks for this preview copy.

Love Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbes ⭐⭐⭐

20190617_084557My Book subscription book this month was something which I would never have picked up, but it was ok. A tame, humourous look at life among the London Literrati in the 80s. Funny and sweet in places, and with some great references and famous playwrights popping up and behaving ‘just like us’ but with more eccentricity. It was a little plodding, just like looking at someone else’s holiday snaps.

This month I did something which I never do. I refused to finish a book (and believe me I’ve read some dross) I do wonder however if it was just me as it has got incredible reviews elsewhere, so if you’re a horror fan don’t take my word for it, but my DNF was Growing Things by Paul Tremblay. An anthology of horror tales, I managed just 3 so can’t speak to the overarching themes. The stories themselves all started promisingly and with intriguing concepts, and then I’d lose what was going on. I didn’t find them creepy (as my husband suggested), just confusing, and given the promise each one held I just found it disappointing.

 

Pick of the Month: Stardust by Neil Gaiman20190627_214651

Dud of the Month: DNF Growing Things by Paul Tremblay

The Life of a Reader in the Outer Hebrides

IMG_0039It’s been a while since I’ve posted, in large part because it’s been a busy month and completing a thought has been an achievement, let alone managing to write with anything resembling creativity or coherence. But, as always, reading has provided me with a respite.

Living in the Hebrides, reading is a no brainer for me. It’s often like living on a full time book retreat, even with the franticness of everyday life; the work life balance allows an extraordinary amount of time to read in comfort. Hygge existed here long before they starting charging extortionate fees for books telling you to buy blankets and more books.

For those of you that don’t know, the Outer Hebrides is a group of islands off the North West coast of Scotland with a population of around 27,000. It’s a windswept stunning place that on a nice day could stand in for the Caribbean and on gloomy days could reasonably host an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFull of winding roads leading to hidden nooks and crannies, it’s an area that, despite living here my whole life, I’m still finding places where I’ve never been before and which surprise me.

But growing up here was, and still is, difficult in a very unique way. It’s a close-knit place where everyone knows your business, or if they don’t they assume they do and judge accordingly. It’s a restrained stoic community, which a lot of national media likes to hype as being a Sabbath obsessed oddity and is a completely unfair and unbalanced portrayal. At times it can be unbearably claustrophobic, particularly if you stand out in any way. However the people are fiercely loyal and protective of their communities. Being a historically sea-faring community, it is possible to find someone with Lewis, Harris, Uist or Barra connections in every corner of the world, and if you find them you’ve found an ally. It can be a difficult community to break your way into (the term “incomers” is used often enough to be an ongoing bone of contention) but once you do, you have a home for life, and a family of 27,000 along with it.

thumbnail_20181126_123615So it was, that growing up as an introvert in this environment I dived into books very early on and unearthed new worlds to explore. I found solace through a difficult teen period in the school library which was a much better option than the town streets given the temperamental Scottish weather. Wherever I went I had my nose in a book and a spare book in my bag. Through bullying and bad break ups, leaving home and growing up, reading has not only been my constant but has often shaped my direction of travel and who I’ve become.

As I grew up there were no grand bookshops on the islands, but charity shop finds fuelled my tastes and the library, tucked away in a souped-up porta cabin for years before finally getting a dedicated building, supported my growth. Briefly a book order service was available at a local shop where I had a regular account, and I poured over Scholastic book catalogues from the school. (I still do whenever the children, very occasionally, bring them home).

We still don’t have a dedicated bookshop, one of the newsagents has a small section, but it’s by no means extensive, or particularly affordable. Our library is excellent but is under constant threat of having its legs cut out from beneath it. And I wonder how the children who are currently suffering bullying cope with it? Where do they find theirGrounds 1.1.14 refuge from the constant bombardment of modern life, where missiles can come at you from all directions and at all times of day or night?

Finding books in the islands became my quest as a child, one which gave me a purpose, a distraction and a world education and one which I still follow with fervour as an adult. More than once being able to escape into a book has saved me. But that passion was shaped by an environment that encouraged me to read while hunkering down through storms and lying on the machair in the sunshine.  Despite the hardships and the constant pressures, it is a privileged and idyllic life and I feel exceptionally lucky. But dear God, someone open a bookshop!