Category Archives: Books

Review: ‘The Deaths of December’ by Susi Holliday

When an advent calendar is sent to a police station, no one takes any notice until a young DC opens it and discovers a murder behind each day. Instead of munching mince pies and winding down for the Christmas season, DC Greene and DS Carmine and their team find themselves looking for a murderer, who appears to be killing at random. With four more doors left on the calendar, there are four people who could be saved – if the police find the killer in time. 

I am a self-confessed Scrooge and therefore a murder mystery set during “the most wonderful time of the year” made a great deal of sense to me. I almost empathised with the criminal! Actually, I did empathise with the killer but not because of their loathing of Christmas but because of  their motive. I think Susi Holliday has managed to create a complex character in her murderer which is really refreshing. I often find the ‘bad guy’ a little two dimension in novels so it was great to read about a murderer with some depth.

I felt like Carmine and Greene (she what she did there?) were characters I knew even though this was their first outing. Holliday creates characters that confound the usual stereotypes. 

The premise of ‘The Deaths of December’ is really original and I found the way it unfolded an interesting technique. 

This is a well written festive tale with plenty of punch and a killer last line. 

Vic x

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Review: ‘The Break’ by Marian Keyes

It’s been many years since I last read a Marian Keyes book and now I can’t stop asking myself why I left it so long. I bought ‘The Break‘ after going to see Marian Keyes in Newcastle. I found her funny and engaging and her explanation of the premise of ‘The Break‘ had me intrigued.

Amy’s husband Hugh wants to take a break. Not the romantic, coupley kind but a break from their marriage. Hugh wants six months away from Amy, their family and their commitment to one another in order to ‘find himself’ and promises that, after those six months are up, he’ll come back and they’ll be together again. OK, so he’s not saying he wants to break up but his departure leaves Amy reeling. Will Hugh come back? And if he does, will he still be the man she married? And will she still be the woman he left behind?

Marian Keyes writes prose the way she talks – she intertwines serious subjects with humour and humanity. ‘The Break‘ doesn’t just dissect a marriage; it also questions what it’s like to parent in the 21st Century, what it means to be a modern working woman, how to navigate the minefield of female friendships as well as exploring a larger social issue of abortion laws in Ireland.

Marian Keyes manages to do what the second series of TV show ‘Doctor Foster’ failed to do: make the characters sympathetic. Even when they’re doing things that you might disagree with, you cannot help but be on their side. In several interviews I’ve heard, Marian Keyes has said she hopes to show that these characters – and the situations they find themselves in (whether through choice or by chance) – are nuanced and I think she does that admirably.

The cast of characters is large and varied and I can’t help but think that many of the family scenes are influenced in part by Keyes’s own extended family. I loved Locmof (read the book and you’ll understand) and Amy was fantastically real to me. I also adored the delicate Sofie and the sage Kiara.

Although there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in ‘The Break‘, they are tempered with sadness and anger. It may be a bit of a cliche but I genuinely laughed and cried while reading this novel and I think the reason for that is not just Keyes’s accessible writing style but because she creates characters that are as real as the people we share lives with.

The Break‘ is an absolute triumph of a book and I can’t help but hope we see these lovely, warm, realistic characters again.

Vic x

Just going to leave this here…

**Whiteout Blog Tour** Review

I’m delighted to be reviewing ‘Whiteout‘, the fifth book in the ‘Dark Iceland‘ series by Ragnar Jónasson, as part of his blog tour. 

Two days before Christmas, a young woman is found dead beneath the cliffs of a deserted village. Questions swirl as to whether the woman took her own life or if it was taken from her. As the snow continues to fall unabated, Ari Thór Arason discovers that the victim’s sister and mother also died in exactly the same place over two decades ago. More secrets are revealed and the death toll continues to rise as the Siglufjordur detectives battle to stop a killer before anyone else is harmed. 

Whiteout‘ is the first book by Ragnar Jónasson that I have read and I really enjoyed it. Although I found it a little slow to start, once it got going the tension didn’t let up until the very end! I must also add that Quentin Bates has done a marvellous job with the translation of this compelling story.

Featuring an interesting cast of characters that, in my mind, could have easily come out of an Agatha Christie story, ‘Whiteout‘ makes everyone a suspect. This device ensures that the reader ends up pretty much accusing everyone at some point! 

Through the development of the narrative Ragnar Jónasson manages to set up several mini-mysteries within the overarching question of what happened to the young woman. This is a very clever technique which ensures the reader is frequently satisfied throughout the novel. 

Jónasson uses beautiful descriptions of the setting to drop the reader right into Iceland at Christmas. The weather throughout this novel adds an extra level of peril to everything the characters do: whether it’s driving or chasing someone on foot, the driving snow and black ice make almost every action potentially fatal. The descriptions make the action so vivid that I could see it happening in my head. 

Although ‘Whiteout‘ is the fifth book in the ‘Dark Iceland‘ series by Ragnar Jónasson, I found that this book worked perfectly as a standalone. You definitely do not need to have read the others to follow this plot – it’s a self-contained mystery.

Whiteout‘ is the perfect novel to read from cover to cover while you’re snuggled under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter night. 

Vic x

*Descent to Hell Blog Tour* Review

 

Today I’m delighted to be part of the blog tour for Nic Parker’s debut novel, ‘Descent to Hell‘. 

When Charlie Ward’s beloved niece is kidnapped by a demon he has to find the secret gateway into the one place every human hopes never to visit: Hell! Armed with only courage and determination, Charlie has to survive in the most forbidding place while attempting to overcome challenges no mortal should ever have to face.

I found this story totally original and engaging.  Although there are elements of horror present in this novel, Nic Parker has constructed something wholly unique. There’s everything from a mystery to romance as well as a very strong sense of humour. She manages to balance peril and fun with aplomb.

Parker develops her characters throughout the story, giving them each a strong arc. Charlie Ward is a likeable guy who literally goes to Hell and back in order to save his niece. His tenacity and strength of character makes the reader root for him. The fact that Charlie is also the police’s main suspect adds another dimension to this story. I also really enjoyed Parker’s portrayal of Lucifer. She really flips the stereotype on its head, again adding originality to a compelling story. 

For me, though, Max was the star of this story. She’s got attitude and kicks butt – both metaphorically and physically! Max may come off as a cold-hearted citizen of the underworld but Nic Parker manages to portray her with depth as the story goes on. Max’s dry humour is one of the best things about ‘Descent to Hell‘. 

Although it does have traits of horror, ‘Descent to Hell‘ could also be described as gothic noir. In some ways, this is also a detective story with a police hunt going on in our world while Charlie undertakes his rather unusual journey. There are twists and cliffhangers galore during ‘Descent to Hell‘ and I could really see this being adapted for the screen. 

Vic x

*Rocco and the Nightingale Blog Tour* Guest Post and Review.

Rocco

In July, I was lucky enough to be invited to a party hosted by DHH Literary Agency and The Dome Press at Goldsboro Books in London. While I was there, I met all manner of wonderful people, including agents, publishers, writers and bloggers. One of those people was Adrian Magson. 

Adrian writes regularly for Writing Magazine, offering tips to writers on a range of problems they’re likely to encounter. You can also find Adrian on Twitter, his website and his blog

Prior to writing the Lucas Rocco series, Adrian wrote twenty-one books based around investigative reporter Riley Gavin and ex-Military Policeman Frank Palmer so his thoughts on how to keep a series fresh should prove insightful.

Thanks to Adrian for taking the time to share his expertise. 

Keeping a series fresh
By Adrian Magson

It was once suggested to me by a publisher that a series has a maximum of eight books before it begins to get stale. I can’t remember his exact words – I was too busy wondering if there wasn’t a hidden message in there for me, as I was on book four on my first series for him and about to begin number five. I think I nodded sagely and wiped my sweaty palms on the underneath of the tablecloth, and began to think of a new series, just in case.

Anyway, true or not – and there are authors who have proved both sides of this argument – keeping a series fresh depends on coming up with new surprises and situations for the reader. Easily done if you have a ton of ideas to call on which will stretch and test the main characters each time, but mostly you have to work at it.

For me, quite apart from new situations, it’s the characters who play a leading part. In Rocco and the Nightingale, the fifth in the Lucas Rocco series, there is a cast of regulars, some fundamental to the storylines, others more or less supporting figures. Developing the main characters’ journeys is important, but having the same names and faces is not enough; introducing new secondary players, whether baddies or goodies, does a lot to bring colour to and lift a story. In this respect, the baddies can become as strong as I like because they won’t always last beyond the end of the story unless I intend bringing them back in a later one.

That can be very useful because there are times when calling someone back – as I did in this book with Caspar, a former undercover cop in a previous book – had a specific and useful function to perform which Rocco could not. I also knew how Caspar would ‘fit’ the current story without looking as if he’d been parachuted in as a convenience.

In Rocco and the Nightingale there are two main baddies who were a lot of fun to write: Nightingale, a professional assassin, and a spotter, who sets up the kills – one of them intended to be Rocco. The main story focus is, of course, on Rocco, but bringing in the occasional scene seen from Nightingale’s perspective allows me to introduce information Rocco isn’t aware of, and I can play with these new characters in a way that wouldn’t be possible with the regular cast without making them act out of character.

And this is where a degree of freshness can come in; where you can make the baddies just that little bit wild (or even a lot wild), and hopefully readers will look forward to their scenes, because in the end they want to see them brought down… or maybe get away and live to fight another day. (And no, that’s not a spoiler).

AM

Review: ‘Rocco & the Nightingale’ by Adrian Magson. 

Rocco & the Nightingale‘ is the fifth book in the Lucas Rocco series, and I will certainly be seeking out the others. A cross between Poirot and Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano, ‘Rocco & the Nightingale‘ contains evocative descriptions which set the tone of the novel perfectly. 

It’s 1964 and, in Picardie, a minor criminal is found stabbed to death on a country lane. It looks like a case for Inspector Rocco but he’s tasked with protecting a Gabonese minister who’s fled to France following a coup. Add into the mix the fact that a gangster with an axe to grind has put a bounty on Rocco’s head and you’ve got yourself ‘Rocco & the Nightingale‘. 

When I began reading this novel, it felt like a beautiful meander in the French countryside on a sunny day. However, what Magson excels at is juxtaposing beautiful scenery with brutal acts, switching the pace of the story within a single line.

I could see the action unfolding in my mind’s eye. Magson manages to evoke setting very well and the imagery his descriptions provoke ensured that I imagined all of the action happening through a sepia haze. Magson’s prose is pitched at the perfect level to complement this story. 

Although ‘Rocco & the Nightingale‘ is the fifth book in the Inspector Rocco series, this novel can be read as a standalone. 

Having recently read ‘Yellow Room‘ by Shelan Rodger, another novel published by The Dome Press, I have to say that this independent publisher is building an excellent reputation for publishing quality fiction. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene’ by E.V. Harte

Dolly Greene, professional Tarot reader and resident of Tinderbox Lane, finds herself disturbed by what appears to be a psychic vision, during a reading for the mysterious Nikki on a stiflingly hot summer’s day. The vision, of what appears to be Nikki’s face covered in bruises and blood, throws Dolly off balance and her usual patter is interrupted.

Following a bizarre phone call a few days later, the body of a woman is washed up by Chiswick Bridge. The body is battered and bruised, leading Dolly to suspect that Nikki has been dealt a very bad hand indeed. However, Dolly must ask herself how she can be sure and how far she’s willing to go to follow her intuition.

Although I would have described ‘The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene‘ as cosy crime initially, I have to admit that E.V. Harte doesn’t shy away from violence or bad language but that, for me, made the book more believable. It’s set in modern-day London and I think a modern crime novel must have an element of unsavouryness about it! However, the swearing and violence is tempered with lovely, lively characters who leap off the page and into your heart. Dolly, her daughter Pippa and Raff, the policeman are all extremely lovable in their own ways.

The characterisation in this novel is perfect; E.V. Harte manages to pitch each individual character at exactly the right level to evoke a certain emotion in the reader. Whether it’s the bumbling Professor West or the intimidating Ade, E.V. Harte has a real gift at creating convincing characters.

In addition to the crime element of this novel, there is a vein of humour and the potential for romance running through the story. I absolutely loved it. ‘The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene‘ is perfect for fans of M.C. Beaton’s ‘Agatha Raisin novels.

The Prime of Ms Dolly Greene‘ is the first in a new series for Daisy Waugh, writing under the pseudonym E.V. Harte. I’m already dying for the next instalment (which is due out next year).

Vic x

*Yellow Room Blog Tour* Getting to Know Shelan Rodger.

I’m delighted to be the final stop in Shelan Rodger’s book tour for her wonderful book Yellow Room‘.

Today, we get the opportunity to get to know the author of this extraordinary novel. I’d like to thank her for taking the time to share her thoughts with us – and for writing this thought-provoking story. 

Tell us about ‘Yellow Room‘, Shelan. What inspired the novel?
The notion of personal identity intrigues me – the extent to which our sense of who we are is bound up with the culture and place we grow up in, the way we use a job or a cause or a relationship to create meaning and definition, the extent to which a single event can shape the person we turn into.

In Yellow Room, Chala’s sense of self is moulded by something that happened when she was only four – and the drama takes place when the goalposts of her reality begin to change. Although we think of twists so readily as the realm of fiction, we all face twists at times in our lives. We meet someone out of the blue and fall in love, we lose a loved one suddenly, we have a life-changing accident or illness, a buried secret breaks out into the open… These ‘twists’ can be exciting or they can be appalling, but they always cause some kind of evolution in our being – and this is the kind of thing I wanted to explore in the novel.

And secrets! Sometimes I think of life as a bank of sedimentary rock: layer upon layer of new experience compressed into a formation that looks solid from the outside yet crumbles quite easily; and secrets are like layers of sand within this rock, covering and compressing what lies below. I believe we all live with secrets of one kind or another, even if these are about truths we have repressed from ourselves… and perhaps that is why secrets hold such a peculiar fascination. In Yellow Room, the secret sands of different lives interact in ways that not even the characters involved can always see.

Where do you get your ideas from?
I don’t know how the light-bulb ever actually comes on – for me it tends to manifest in the form of an idea, which then turns into a character – but I am certainly aware of the earth it has grown in: the rather nomadic, multi-cultural mish-mash of my own life!

I was born in Nigeria, grew up in aboriginal Australia, then England, and have spent most of my adult life between Argentina, Kenya and Spain. I’m sure this has created a kind of questioning within my make-up that explains the fascination I talked about just now with personal identity and what this really means.

I think there is also a strong sense of place in my novels and that is certainly grounded in personal experience. Twin Truths, my first novel, is set in Argentina in the nineties, where I lived for nine years. Yellow Room is set in Kenya, where I was living on a flower farm in Naivasha, one of the hot spots that was hit by the post-election violence ten years ago which killed over a thousand people and turned half a million overnight into refugees within their own country. Chala’s personal drama takes place against the backdrop of these real events, and Kenya plays an active role in the story of who she becomes.

Do you have a favourite story / character / scene you’ve written?
Mmm… a difficult question to answer. Writing a novel is a bit like having a relationship; you get to know and live with the main characters inside your head.

My relationship with Chala was conflicting at times; sometimes I just wanted to shake her, but mostly I love her honesty with herself. The twin sisters of my first novel, Twin Truths, are still close to my heart. As for scenes, I love writing scenes that I know are pivotal – those intensely emotional and significant moments that can make or break a novel.

I also love endings – both as a reader and a writer. I think endings are hugely challenging for a writer: how to create a sense of emotional closure that is satisfying but not trite, how to keep the door open for the novel and the future of its characters to linger in the mind of the reader, in a way that is somehow thought-provoking without being manipulative. Yellow Room has two endings in a way: the last page for Chala, and the epilogue, which is told from the viewpoint of another character, and I really felt the last lines when I was writing these.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given and who it was from?
My father’s words: ‘Just get it out and suspend judgement until later.’ My father was a poet and a non-fiction writer and these were his words of advice when I was writing my first novel. I’ve never forgotten them. Let it out, get it out. And then, only then, let the jury in and edit and rewrite as much as you need to, but first just pour it all onto the page.

What can readers expect from ‘Yellow Room’?
If I have achieved what I aspired to, the book is compelling and thought-provoking. A drama that explores the power of secrets, the shifting sands of our sense of personal identity, the grey areas that flow between the boundaries of relationships. A poignant insight into the reality of poverty in Kenya and the events that took over a thousand lives ten years ago. Kenya has its own secrets, which are still unfolding today.

Have you got any advice for aspiring writers?
I think I would simply share my father’s words again. They had a profoundly liberating effect on me and I believe creativity is an act of liberation. The attempt to connect with the reader is at its heart, I believe, something deeply intuitive not learnt. Trust your intuition first, question it later.

What do you like and dislike about writing?
It doesn’t happen all the time of course, but what I love most are those special moments when you lose track of time and it becomes almost a form of meditation, with words seeming to flow through you rather than from you. There is something earthy and connected and grounding in that feeling. To be honest there is nothing I really dislike about writing because the different phases, for example editing, are all part of the process of creation. The thing I am most wary of, as you can see from some of my answers, is the monkey that sits in judgement on your shoulder if you let it, sneering and undermining your confidence!

Are you writing anything at the moment?
Yes, I am working on my third novel, which is another psychological twisty tale, also set in Kenya (but this time on a flying safari). It’s inspired by something that happened two weeks before my father died: he found a novel he’d forgotten he’d written, read it, changed the last line and gave it to me. I never saw him again. In the book, a box of writing by the father she never knew falls into the hands of a drama therapist called Elisa and takes her to Kenya, where a twist presents the one person from her past she never wanted to meet again.

What’s your favourite writing-related moment?
I was driving along a pot-holed road in Kenya to my parents’ house for lunch. The lake filled my view to the horizon as it always did; pelicans and flamingos dipped below me to the water’s edge. But that day the lake looked different. The news I’d just received made everything feel different. Someone – a person who was to become very important and dear to me – wanted to be my agent. Suddenly, the possibility of being what I wanted to be was real, stretching like the lake below me to the horizon. That is the moment I think I would single out, a moment full of hope and beauty, a moment – ironically – intimately connected with my own personal sense of identity.

Review: ‘Yellow Room’
by Shelan Rodger.

What I’m about to say may come as a surprise. ‘Yellow Room‘ is currently a hot contender for my book of 2017. 

Having lived the majority of her life in the shadow of a tragic childhood accident, Chala is shaken by the death of her stepfather who steadfastly supported her throughout. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, Chala decides to volunteer at an orphanage in Kenya. Despite providing Chala with the opportunity to re-evaluate her life, the country remains on the brink of violence and horror. 

Shelan Rodger has deftly created a truly compelling novel featuring complex yet empathetic characters. The author really understands the nuances and complexities of human behaviour and her insights are weaved skillfully into her characters, bringing them to life. 

Yellow Room’ contains everything I could possibly want from a novel: evocative descriptions, well-written characters and an exploration of how power shifts in both personal and political relationships.

Despite being a story that delves deeper than most, ‘Yellow Room‘ is incredibly readable. I honestly did not want to put this book down. Part of me wanted to stay with the characters in this book forever. 

From the opening page, I was hooked by ‘Yellow Room‘ and I suspect that the story will stay with me for a very long time. 

Vic x