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The Way of all Flesh  - Ambrose Parry

Will Raven is about to start his apprenticeship with the renowned Dr Simpson. Before that though he makes one more visit to his friend, local prostitute, Evie. He finds her dead, her body contorted. More girls are found and Will, together with Dr Simpson’s maid Sarah, are determined to find out who has been killing women across Edinburgh.

 

The book starts out slowly, paving the way for the latter half of the story where the story picks up pace at speed. The first half seems to set the stall, introducing the characters and setting the scence, before the main story arch settles in. I soon found myself drawn into the story, eager to be drawn back to the dark and foggy streets of Edinburgh in 1847. I loved the atmosphere of the book. It was easy to imagine the comfortable drawing rooms of the wealthy and the stark contrast of the freezing attic rooms of the poor visited by Raven and Simpson.

 

There are a variety of characters who all add to the story. Doctors Keith and Duncan are polar opposites in character but add a balance to the story. There are Jarvis and Mrs Lyndsay who, though background characters, help to show the contrast between those above stairs and those below. This is even more apparent when Mrs Simpson and Mina, Dr Simpson’s sister-in-law are on the page. Mrs Simpson does not appear much on the page but the relationship between her and the doctor is hinted at as one of love and from her side at least, bemused indulgence. It would be good to see her character develop in further stories. Mina is driven by the need to find a husband, the relative ease of being born on the right side of the staircase showing it was fraught with stresses and dangers of a different kind.

 

Will Raven is driven, eager to make more of himself, to bring himself up from his beginnings. He has a darker side, one he is all too aware of, and an event in his past still haunts him.

 

Dr Simpson is a kindly fellow, good humoured, sincere and motivated more by the need to do good than by money, unusual for the time.

 

Sarah is struggling to accept that being a woman means she has less opportunity than men. She would give anything to be able to study, to commit her time to learning instead of serving tea and running errands for rich women. She battles internally against the societal norms in that women should be in service or in the mill if working class, or married or a governess otherwise and is determined that Will treat her with respect and as his equal.

 

There are some medical procedures mentioned in the novel that may make the squeamish wince and make some of us sigh in pity for the women of history. Anaesthetic was just being introduced at the time of the novel’s setting and it was interesting to read about procedures of the time, whilst also making the reader thankful that medicine has advanced so much.

 

As for the murderer I knew who it was before the reveal though that did not spoil my enjoyment. I particularly enjoyed the denouement and the final chapter of the story was a fitting and entertaining end to the novel.

 

The Way of All Flesh is the first in a new series. An atmospheric, entertaining tale. I look forward to reading more stories featuring Raven, Simpson and Sarah in the future.

The Flatshare - Beth O'Leary

Tiffy needs to move out of her ex-boyfriend’s flat quickly. When she comes across Leon’s advert she’s quick to snap up the chance to flat share. The only trouble is, there’s only one bedroom. Leon will be there during the day, Tiffy can have evenings and weekends. What can possibly go wrong?

 

I practically inhaled this book, I only stopped when real life or sleep got in the way. Luckily I picked it up when I was looking for a light, funny read. Light and funny this is but it is also moving, romantic, cosy and warm.

 

There is a whole cast full of delightful characters. Tiffy is funny, kind and unique, considerate of her friends, even knew ones like Ritchie, Leon’s brother, whom she tries to help almost immediately. She slowly comes to view her previous relationship with Justin, her loathsome ex-boyfriend, in a new light, becoming aware of just how toxic it was. Her friends are wonderful. The acerbic Gerty and quiet Mo are great counter-points to Tiffy’s potentially eccentric ways. Rachel, her work friend, is a lot more mad cap, and encourages Tiffy to be more adventurous.

 

Then there’s Leon, who seems to have an aversion to speech marks as all of his chapters feature an absence of them. This works though, as the style helps to underline the differing voices of Tiffy, more impulsive and exuberant, with Leon, who is quieter and more introverted. Leon is struggling with his brother’s incarceration, his floundering relationship with his girlfriend Kate and his burgeoning feelings for Tiffy. He puts others first, spending his weekends off searching for the lost love of one of his patients.

 

It was lovely to read the relationship between the two develop through post it notes and other messages dotted around the flat. The story grew and blossomed as both sides told their tale from their own viewpoint, alternating between Tiffy and Leon.

 

I loved this from the opening pages to the last post it note. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about it. A funny, warm, encompassing read. I look forward to reading more from Beth O’Leary in the future. Highly recommended.

Star Crossed - Minnie Darke

When Justine Carmichael runs into old friend Nick Jordan, she is reminded of her feelings for him from many years ago. When she realises that Nick relies on the astrology column from the magazine she work’s for, Justine thinks that slightly altering Nick’s star sign could be the way to make him realise she’s the one for him. It seemed like a fool-proof plan. Nothing could go wrong, could it?

 

I’ll start by saying I’m not that au fait with astrology. I’m a Capricorn. I know this is symbolised by a goat. The only thing I know is that goats like to climb things and eat a lot. I like climbing into bed and eating my own body weight in chocolate so I guess there are similarities. As for any supposed traits of Capricorn I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. And rising signs are a mystery to me.

 

So why did I read a book that has star signs dotted throughout it? Because it sounded fun. And it was. The book is filled with a variety of characters, from curmudgeonly Len to the charming, and slightly egotistical Daniel. Then there’s Brown Houdini-Malarkey who reminded me of Slinky Malinky, every time I read about him. Nick is a quiet character, keen to pursue his acting career but torn between his dreams and his girlfriend Laura, who is keen for Nick to give up on the flight of fancy that is acting. His reliance on the horoscopes is perhaps incongruous with his somewhat pragmatic and laid back character.

 

There are lots of references to astrology, star signs and rising signs. If I’m honest I didn’t really get all the references. I’ve no idea if  Leo with Gemini rising is supposed to be scruffy, or impulsive or have any particular traits. I just let those parts of the story wash over me. It did strike me as slightly unlikely that every character apart from Justine was so into their star signs and knew all about them.

 

Justine has a penchant for vintage clothing and an obsession with correcting grammatical errors. Even if that means stealthy spelling corrections and writing on shop windows correcting errant commas. That part of her I can relate to, though I’ve not gone as far as scrawling editorial notes on menus. Her actions are impulsive, and what starts as one slightly altered horoscope soon becomes almost a habit. There were aspects of this that were slightly unsavoury, her actions could have been considered selfish. Especially when she discovers Nick has a girlfriend. Things never go to plan and she digs herself a little deeper into the hole she made for herself when she changed the first reading for Aquarius.

 

I really enjoyed the cusp stories. Little vignettes that ran throughout the tale, we saw how Justine’s meddling had an effect on more than just Nick. There were romances, affairs, broken hearts and escapes, the actions of one person having a domino effect on many more.

Ultimately, the story shows that even if things are written in the stars, instinct, luck and happenstance, as well as intention and drive, all have an effect on our lives.

A fun, enjoyable read.

Leonard and Hungry Paul - Ronan Hession

Leonard’s mother has just died and for the first time in his life he finds himself alone. Luckily for him, he has the friendship of Hungry Paul and his family. Their evenings are spent playing one of the many board games kept in the kitchen pantry and picking the right biscuit from the biscuit tin.

 

If you are looking for a delightful way to spend a few hours, then pick up a copy of Leonard and Hungry Paul and get lost in the pages. From the opening line “Leonard was raised alone by his mother with cheerfully concealed difficultly, his father having died tragically during childbirth”, the story works its magic on the reader, charming them as the pages turn.

 

There are so many lines in this novel that make you stop and think. If I were one of those readers happy to underline and highlight their books, then my copy of Leonard and Hungry Paul would be multicoloured.

 

Leonard writes content for children’s encyclopaedias, published under other authors names. He longs to write a truly informative and fun book and when he meets Shelley, the fire marshal in his office, the inspiration to write it is unleashed. He also discovers that life can go on and that the unsettled feeling he has lived with was grief by any other name.

 

Hungry Paul, who’s moniker remains a mystery, is happy to live in the moment, but not in a reckless way. He goes through life with barely a concern. He is happy with his job as stand in postal worker, lives with his parents and is happiest when sat quietly. His default position is quiet. He soon finds that this tendency towards silence and calm is the key to opening opportunities and eventually the key to independence. Helen and Peter are Hungry Paul’s parents. Kind, caring people, still clearly in love, they are caught up in the arrangements for their daughter, Grace’s wedding, distracting Helen from worrying about a much talked about retirement trip, or rather leaving Hungry Paul to go on said trip. You’ll also find out that the reason for the sunfish on the cover is revealed in the novel, and that it is a touching tribute to one of the characters.

 

There aren’t really any big scenes or pivotal moments in Leonard and Hungry Paul, but then real life isn’t like that. It’s made up mainly of quiet moments, with flashes of excitement and fuss.

 

A quiet, gentle tale about friendship and self-discovery. A wonderful novel that’s a balm to the soul.

 

Highly recommended.

The Wedding Guest - Jonathan Kellerman

A saints and sinners themed wedding at a former strip club. What could possibly go wrong? Well the body of a young woman found by one of the bridesmaids throws a spanner in the works. Detective Milo Sturgis gets the feeling this will be a weird one and so calls in the help of his friend Alex Delaware. Soon Milo and Alex are on the hunt for a vicious killer.

 

When you get to the 34th book in a series there is always the chance that the writing will become staid or the characters boring. There is the possibility of predictability. It may be the case that all those issues are present in The Wedding Guest but this reader managed to overlook them to the point of not really registering them.

 

It says much about the characters, and the author, that a series is still a best seller some 34 years after the first book was published. Books are many things to many people, and to me they are escapism. There is something wonderfully welcoming about a book where the characters and writing style are so familiar. Reading the first few pages it really does feel like old friends are greeting you warmly after a lengthy absence.

 

I was thinking before I started this novel that there was little character development given the age of the series. That said, there was a little more insight into Milo, albeit briefly, which helps round him out and an even briefer look at the relationship between Alex and Robin.

 

I find it easy to envisage Robin, Milo and the other detectives, Mo, Alicia and Sean. I can even imagine Blanche the dog and what can only be described as possibly hideous glass and unnaturally coloured leather sofas in living rooms depicted along the way. I can’t imagine Alex Delaware. It may have happened in the earlier books but I can’t recall any description of Alex, bar his clothing. For me, he looks like Jonathan Kellerman as that is the only image I can conjure.

 

Jonathan Kellerman is adept at creating characters who annoy and who therefore, the reader can sort of understand are bumped off. Here the families of the bride and groom are either annoying, creepy or too good to be true. Or so it would seem.

 

It is always a pleasure to be back with Alex, Milo, Robin and co and The Wedding Guest was no different. The storyline was engaging. A vicious killer is on the loose and Alex and Milo have to track him or her down before they strike again. There are false leads to follow and blind alleys to go down before the truth is revealed. It is of course always difficult to discuss the actual story without giving too much away. It is safe to say though that the storyline is well paced, with just the right balance so that disbelief doesn’t have to be completely be completely suspended.

 

It is also a little surprising that this series hasn’t been adapted for TV. I could easily see the characters being transported to a small screen. The cast of characters is varied enough to enliven a series, either TV or written, and the setting of LA lends itself to a wide variety of locations, and more importantly, a variety of people, each with their own unique secrets to hide and motives for murder.

 

A welcome return of one of my favourite literary detectives. Now I just have to wait a year for the next murder to occur.

The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

New Year’s Eve. Nine friends gather for their regular trip away to celebrate the end of the old and the beginning of the new. Emma, the newest girl of the group, is nervous as she has planned this year’s getaway to a remote Scottish lodge. There are undercurrents of tension hidden behind the bonhomie. And then the snow settles and the group are cut off from the outside world. And only 8 of them will leave the lodge alive when the thaw comes.

 

Disparate group of friends. Check. Remote location. Check. Weird guests wandering the grounds. Check. Tensions running high, history resurfacing and the weather colluding to trap everyone. Check. Now we are set for a closed room mystery out in the vast Scottish Highlands.

 

Despite the setting, or perhaps because of it, The Hunting Party has a close, bordering on claustrophobic feel to it. The location is bleak, rural, no neighbours for miles around. My ideal home if I’m honest. There’s a sense of unease from the outset. The short days and long nights of winter meant I imagined a perpetual darkness or twilight to the proceedings.

 

The story is narrated by five main characters, Emma, Heather, Katie, Miranda and Doug, and flits between the arrival of the party and the day the body is found. Heather and Doug, the only real staff at the lodge, both have their own secrets to keep and their own reasons for wanting to work in such a remote and lonely place. They give the reader the viewpoint from outside the group, a more independent narrative, that highlights cracks appearing that those inside the group don’t immediately see. Emm, Kate and Miranda each show a different side to the group. Emma, so desperate to fit in, aware of the shared history that will forever make her feel like an outsider. Miranda is the planet around which the others orbit. She is a complex character, prone to selfishness and used to getting her own way. Katie is the quieter one. The only single person in the group she becomes increasingly aware of the almost toxic relationship she has with Miranda, her supposed best friend.

 

None of the group of friends are that likable. They all have secrets to hide or barely concealed animosity, despite, or perhaps because of, the history between them.

 

The victim is not revealed until well into the story, though it is easy to surmise who the unlucky friend is. The clues are dotted so that the group members can be excluded from the list of potential victims, and indeed of potential murderer. I had guessed who the culprit and victim were before the reveal, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

This is very much a story of secrets, of toxic relationships and dangerous connections. Murder is the result, rather than the cause.

 

An interesting, entertaining read from Lucy Foley.

Unto Us a Son Is Given (Commissario Brunetti #28) - Donna Leon

Commissario Guido Brunetti’s father in law, il Conte Falier, has asked Brunetti to check into rumours surrounding his friend Gonzalo. It would appear that Gonzalo, a wealthy older man, wants to adopt a much younger man as his son. Under Italian inheritance law, this man would then become the heir to the majority of Gonzalo’s wealth. Brunetti meets with Gonzalo and not long after the older man dies. When Gonzalo’s friend Berta arrives in Venice for his memorial she is murdered. It falls to Brunetti to discover why.

Here Donna Leon has taken a unique legal issue and turned it into the catalyst for her story. How entertaining can a book that revolves around the inheritance laws of Italy be? Very is the answer.

 

This book, in fact this series, is a crime novel where the crime is secondary. It is, of course, the driving force of the story, but one which becomes almost incidental. Here the murder doesn’t occur until nearly two-thirds the way through the book but the story is no less entertaining because of it. In fact the reader, or this one at least, almost forgets there is supposed to be a crime taking place.

 

The Brunetti series is much more than a crime series. It’s characters make it. As the series progresses the reader watches Brunetti’s children grow up, see his friendships develop and follow him as he falls even more in love with his wife.  He is an atypical fictional detective. He loves his wife, has a happy home. He’s not a seasoned drinker, except of course for the odd glass of grappa or wine with dinner. He is passionate about his job, aware of the foibles and limitations of his profession and frustrated by both the political machinations of his country and of the visitors to his city.

 

I have said before that the characters are the real stars of this series. They are, in my opinion, the driving force behind the books. The reader returns time and again because of the relationships between Brunetti and the people who intersect his life. Signorina Elettra is the planet around which everyone else in the Questura orbits. Brunetti is shaken to find she is going on annual leave and from the day she departs the building works on units of time measured in her return to work.

 

Patta, Brunetti’s boss and thorn in his side, is seen in a slightly different light. He seeks Brunetti’s help on a personal matter that shows him to care for someone other than himself. And shows that he’s not as blind to the extra curricular skills of Signorina Elettra as he had led them all to believe.

 

Brunetti is not one prone to chasing suspects across a city or being struck by the sudden realisation of all the clues falling into place, the red herrings left behind. There are no red herrings, there are no deep insights or strokes of luck that reveal who the perpetrator was. If he went running after a suspect he’d be more likely to end up in the Grand Canal.

 

Donna Leon does not shy away from using her books to comment on environmental matters or as a commentary on the political corruption and occasional ineptitude of her adopted country. The police are often thwarted in their abilities to do their jobs by political red tape. The public are wary of helping, a fear borne over many years of assisting a government department. This latest book offers a fascinating insight into an area of Italian law that I knew nothing about and how people will try to circumvent such laws. There are other facets of Italian society shown, from the expected actions of children towards their elders, the consideration of friends and family and how business operates on a day to day basis.

 

The stories of the series feel real. The people feel real, the location easily summoned in the mind’s eye. As in real life there are times when things don’t wrap up neatly. Real life doesn’t always deliver a happy ending, or rightful condemnation and so on occasion in this series there is no rightful punishment, just quietly festering resentment that life doesn’t always comply with one’s wishes. Even when the right person is caught, and punishment is promised just off the page, the reader is still left with a disquiet, a sadness that humans have quietly been destroying themselves and others for centuries and will go on doing so.

 

This is book 28 in the series. If you’ve not read the other 27 then treat yourself. I envy anyone who has the whole back story to discover, a series of characters to fall in love with and many a Venetian calle to wander down.

 

I pick up every new Brunetti book with the sound of my soul singing at its return. It is with indescribable mixture of satisfaction and sadness that I turn the final page. Unto Us a Son is Given was no different. As always, a joy to read.

Last Ones Left Alive - Sarah Davis-Goff

All Orpen has ever known is the island of Slanbeg, her mother Muireann and Maeve. She has been trained to fight the skrake, devourer of humans, once human themselves. But Orpen has never seen a skrake and is eager to leave the island. Then Maeve is bitten and Orpen must try to get help. On the journey Orpen discovers more about the world outside Slanbeg and about herself in the process.

 

This is a very easy to read book. The chapters are short and so the reader soon finds themselves well entrenched in the novel. The language has a special cadence to it. The novel is set in Ireland and there are hints of a melodic Irish lilt to the tone. There is the unique voice of Orpen. She has only ever spoken to two people in her life, three if you count her dog. She is used to the inflections and mannerisms of her mother and Maeve. When she encounters people she often comments that it is hard to understand them. There is also the impression that they don’t always understand her, though she comes to realise it may be how she speaks that is also confusing.

 

Orpen has been taught that men are bad. So when she encounters Cillian her first instinct is to flee. But as she interacts with him, the only man she has ever met, and the only man to feature in the story, she discovers that he is an exception to the rule her mother and Maeve imparted on her. Just as she also discovers, not all woman have been trained to fight, or even taught to read.

 

Not everything is tied up nicely in the story. The reader doesn’t find out how the skrake came to be, how long ago it all started or if it has spread to other countries. But then Orpen doesn’t find these things out. She is left with as many questions as we are.

I did get a bit distracted trying to work out how long ago the skrake appeared and the world seemed to end. I spent my time wondering why all the bodies Orpen came across in cars and the houses weren’t reduced to bone, if this apocalypse had occurred decades ago and whether her mother and Maeve’s talk of oven’s lit by gas and water from taps was from memory. My mind did wander occasionally but I read on and I’m glad I did. The story has a fitting ending, given Orpen lives in a situation that seems to have no end in sight.

 

Orpen has always been hidden by the shadow of Maeve. It is only on this journey that she can step out and realise who she actually is. She discovers a resilience she didn’t know she possessed and that not everything she had been taught, or believed, was the whole truth. Whilst she may think that her childhood ended at 7 and that she knew everything, her true learning began when she set off with the wheelbarrow.

This was an interesting read, I’ll look out for more from Sarah Davis-Goff in the future.

The Lost Man - Jane Harper

There is something hauntingly claustrophobic about the outback, at least when Jane Harper portrays it.  The environment is as much of a character as the humans who inhabit it. Nothing for miles around but parched land and the odd cow. Here your nearest neighbour is 3 hours away. So there is something of a closed room mystery about The Lost Man, even though the death of Cameron Bright happens in the wide open air.

 

This is a slow-moving book, there are no big chases or overt threats, rather there is the threat of something under the surface as the reader is unsure who to trust or who has the most to hide.

 

There is, inevitably, something not quite right with the Bright family. The isolation has harboured secrets that have managed to remain buried, or at least unacknowledged, for years. It’s those secrets that threaten to come to the surface when Cameron’s body is found. The sense of unease continues throughout as more is revealed about the lead up to his death.

 

There are two back stories running throughout, one relating to the family as a whole and one which led to Nathan being ostracised from the community. I’ll admit I wasn’t that keen on the latter, it seemed a little forced, but it explained Nathan’s character as it was in the present day.

 

Despite his issues I liked Nathan, all of the good parts of him are mirrored in his son Xander. Bub, Nathan’s younger brother is under appreciated. At the farm there is Liz, the Bright brothers mother, Harry, the farm hand and two backbackers. There is also Cameron’s children and Ilse, his wife, who has her own history with Nathan that has affected him for many years. Whilst the story revolves around them, there is still the feeling that only parts of their characters are revealed.

 

Although there is a mystery to solve, this is at heart, more of a family drama, of the dynamics of growing up miles from the next house, of adapting to the harsh needs of the landscape and surviving.

 

An atmospheric, location driven read. I look forward to more from Jane Harper in the future.

When You Read This - Mary Adkins

Iris has died. Aged 33, she found she had lung cancer and was given only months to live. During her last few months she writes a blog about dying. Her final wishes are that her boss, PR executive Smith, publish the blog. First though Smith has to persuade Iris’ sister Jade.

 

I’ll admit at first I wasn’t sure what to make of the book. I found it strange and I wasn’t sure if I was actually enjoying it. It’s full of graphs and dots and Venn diagrams. The rest is written in the form of blog posts, emails, texts and letters to what appears to be a remote therapist. But it grew on me, and the form in which it was written made it easy to fly through the book.

 

There is a surreal quality to the book, lent in part by the modern-day epistolary nature. However, I think the writing style would still have given that surreal feeling if the book had been written in a more standard narrative style.

 

Iris almost blends into the background as the relationship between Jade and Smith develops. She is however, the star around which they orbit, drawn together by the loss of her. I enjoyed the latter half of the book more as we see the burgeoning relationship between Jade and Smith develop. There is also a lot of self-development as Jade and Smith look to themselves to see why their lives have turned out as they have.

 

There are some comedy moments. Carl for example, Smith’s intern, is probably one of the most egotistical and useless interns there has ever been. There are of course the inevitable sad moments, given this is a book revolving around grief and how it manifests. Iris’ blog posts are moving, the one that is the most effecting being the last blog post, right at the end of the book. There is also sadness from some of the comments to her blog posts, almost cruel in their nature, showing people still focussed on themselves when others are literally dying around them.

 

Whilst about grief in its many manifestations this is in essence a love story. It is about the love between siblings, of parental love in whatever form that takes, of romantic love and how some can only show love in toxic ways.

The Story Keeper - Anna Mazzola

Audrey Hart has left behind a troubling incident in London and travelled to the island of Skye. There she is to be employed by Miss Buchanan, charged with collecting the folk and fairy tales of the inhabitants of the island. She also hopes to find out more about the death of her mother, who had died years ago on Skye. But when Audrey discovers the body of a young girl and another disappears she wonders if there is some truth behind the fairy tales.

 

The setting of the novel is very atmospheric. I could imagine the solitude, the workers houses and the waves crashing on the shore. The impression given was one of darkness, or an island toiling under rain clouds, no doubt aided by mirrored weather in the real world.

 

Audrey is an interesting character. Tenacious, strong-willed and kind, she is rebelling against society in her own way. She finds strength she didn’t know she had without even realising it. Moving to Skye was a big thing for her, a step into the unknown. In a time when women were little more than property, Audrey is hardly aware that she is a trailblazer of sorts. Skye, despite the troubles it brings to her life, is also the key to her personal freedom. The other characters all have their secrets to reveal. Each one, from Audrey’s employer to children playing with a frog, add layers to the story, allowing a fully formed image of the island to emerge.

 

The fairy tales and folk tales aspect of the story were very interesting. They added layers to the story, giving it hints of the magical, the closing ranks of the locals and their belief in the mysterious making the story seem more claustrophobic and menacing. They also allowed those in power to reject complaints or crimes against the poor, disappearances put down to ignorance rather than real, concrete, human interference.

As with The Unseeing, The Story Keeper is as a much a social commentary as a mystery novel. The treatment of the lower classes and women frustrate and anger, much as they should. They show how far society has come but also how far is still to go.

I was soon drawn into the story of the missing girls and Audrey’s search for the truth.

 

An entertaining, atmospheric read, I look forward to reading more from Anna Mazzola in the future.

The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae - Stephanie Butland

Ailsa Rae has reached the age of 28 and never really lived. She was born with a cogenital heart defect, not expected to reach her teens. But now she has a new heart and has to learn live, and find out who she really is now her illness doesn’t define her.

 

Ailsa is a lovely character. She is struggling to find out who she is, having been defined so many years as the girl with the broken heart. Her health, and later her need for a transplant, have governed her life, meaning that decisions haven’t really been there to be made, or at least, any decision making has been taking out of her hands. And so when this power is returned to her she struggles to know what to do, to see what would be the right path for her, conscious that she doesn’t waste this second chance. She therefore turns to her blog followers to decide things for her. Some of the votes have a dramatic and unforseen impact on her life. It is lovely to see Ailsa develop as the story develops, gaining the confidence to believe in herself, that it is ok to make mistakes and that at some stage she has to take the plunge and make decisions for herself.

All of the other characters add something to the story, be it those who just appear on the page briefly or those like her mother, who have more of an impact on her life.

 

The story moves between present day and the past, where we learn more about Ailsa and her relationship with Lennox, her first love, who unfortunately didn’t survive long enough for a transplant. I liked the writing style, it felt comforting and friendly and yet not too frivolous. I found myself whizzing through the pages and I would have finished it in a day had not the urge to sleep overwhelmed me.

 

The book looks at many things in a fun, moving way. It exposes the need for donors and the life changing effect their selfless acts can have, from something as huge as a heart to something as small but vital as a cornea. It is a love story, with hints of Notting Hill to it. It is also a story about self realisation, about accepting ourselves but also realising we can change and grow, no matter what our age.

 

The warm writing and wonderful characterisation that ran through Lost for Words returns here in the lovely, moving, The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae. I’m eagerly looking forward to Stephanie Butland’s next novel.

Where the Light Gets In - Lucy Dillon

Lorna left Longhampton when she was thirteen and hasn’t returned since. Now she is thirty, and has suffered the loss of both of her parents. Inspired by Betty, a lady she visited in a hospice, she seizes the opportunity to run the art gallery in Longhampton. Accompanied by Rudy, the anxious dachshund she inherited from Betty, Lorna learns to believe in herself and that her world can change for the better when she lets the light in.

 

There was a lovely feel to this story, the reader soon becomes caught up in Lorna’s world. There is a balance of humour and sadness that runs throughout the tale, making it a rounded, flowing, well told story.

 

There are a host of wonderful characters in Where The Light Gets In. There is Lorna, still affected  by the loss of her parents, who died in quick succession. She has a close relationship with her sister Jess, the loss of their parents bringing them even closer together. Jess is a different character to Lorna, more controlled, down to earth, whose life revolves around her children and husband. Tiff, Lorna’s friend adds humour to the story. Joyce, the local artist helps Lorna in unforseen ways. As the friendship between the two develops Lorna learns more about her own hidden artistic side and she in turn helps Joyce find the joy in art again. As for Sam he helps Lorna exorcise demons from her past and opens her eyes to future opportunities.

 

I was a little perplexed at times with Lorna’s reactions to Sam, as I didn’t feel that the story always warranted or provided enough back story to make those reactions seem more genuine and legitimate, rather they occasionally made her appear a little overwrought, which seemed out of character. However, this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book.

 

There is a lot to love about this story, not just the warm characters. Love runs through the novel. There is the love of art, parental love, amicable love and romantic love. Lorna discovers things about herself that she would not have ever really known if she had not taken the leap of faith again and taken over the gallery. She learns that she can be an artist, though she may not find that in the more obvious forms of art, it just takes her friends to open her eyes.

 

This is a story about opening your mind and heart to new possibilities and old dreams. And that letting go of the past can mean letting the light in on the future. A lovely, warm-hearted novel, I’ll be on the look out for more from Lucy Dillon in the future.

A Winter Beneath the Stars - Thomas Hardy

Halley has been employed as a travel courier for the last two years, travelling to various countries, hand delivering items. This time she is off to Sweden, to deliver wedding rings. But when there is a mix up with her bag, Halley has to get them back. The only way to do so it would seem is to travel across the frozen countryside with a stranger and a pack of dogs. Oh and a herd of reindeer. That time will allow Halley to confront her past, and maybe find a new future.

 

I loved the setting of the novel. The fact that my surroundings of a warm house juxtaposed nicely with the scenes depicting the snowy tundra of the Arctic may have helped that. It was lovely to read about the sledging across the snow, and to see how Halley’s view on nature and the animals she relied on changed as the story progressed.

Jo Thomas really managed to set the scene, making the frozen wilds of Sweden appealing even to this warm-blooded seeker of the sun. I could easily imagine strapping on some snow shoes and jumping on a sled, setting off on a hunt for the Northern Lights.

 

There are a whole host of great characters that fill the pages of this book. Halley has her issues, reasons for running from her life, which become clearer as the story progresses. Her family,  who we get a glimpse of through Halley’s reflections, seem a close-knit and welcoming bunch. Bjorn is funny and taciturn in turn, gentle with his animals but hard on himself. It was lovely to watch the story unfold and lead towards an inevitable, but welcome outcome. Lars, the enthusiastic receptionist at the Tallfors hotel reminded me of Oaken, the sauna owner in Frozen. His exuberance and view that fate would lead love to him were endearing. Pru’s nan also lent a lovely comic bent to the story.

 

This is a charming tale of finding your way in the dark and working towards a new light. It is about realising you have to live rather than survive and that home can be in the most unexpected of places. A lovely, warm read, perfect for a cold winter evening.

The Devil's Claw - Lara Dearman

Jenny has moved back home to Guernsey after the death of her father and a traumatic experience in London. She works as a reporter for the local newspaper and whilst out on assignment comes across the body of a young girl. Her investigation into the girl’s death leads her to links to other deaths over the last 50 years. With DCI Michael Gilbert she discovers that a serial killer may have been hiding in plain sight on the island for over half a century.

 

I loved the setting of the novel. The island location helps to add a layer of claustrophobia, despite the beautiful landscape. It was the threat of being on a relatively small geographical area with a serial killer that made the story seem like that it was a closed room mystery.

 

There are a variety of characters, all of them adding to the story. Michael is tenacious, principled and still haunted by the loss of his daughter. He is driven by her death to find the truth about the drownings. He works well with Jenny who is also a determined character and not just because of her journalist background. The two have both lost loved ones to the sea and this shared trauma helps them to bond. The fact that Jenny isn’t bound by the same procedural restrictions as Michael also makes them a good team.

 

The unique political and historical background for the island was fascinating and added a richness to the story. I had guessed the identity of the killer before the reveal but it was still fun to read how Jenny and Michael come to the same conclusion. There were some parts of the story that seemed a little long, though I put this down to the fact that I had identified the culprit and was waiting for the characters to catch up, and the pace picked up as the story progressed to it’s conclusion.

 

An enjoyable introduction to Jenny and Michael. I’m looking forward to reading more from Lara Dearman in the future.

Too Close to Breathe - Olivia Kiernan

Detective Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan has just returned to work after a traumatic event in which she nearly lost her life. Her first case appears to be a suicide but Frankie is quick to spot a clue that shows the death was caused by someone else. Soon the gears are in motion to track down the killer. And then another body is found.

 

Don’t be misled if you start to read this novel and think you’ve arrived in the middle of the series. You haven’t. Frankie was involved in an incident and has just returned to work when the body of Dr Eleanor Costello is found. She is still dealing with the ramifications of that previous event as she comes to investigate an apparent suicide that is in fact murder. As the story progresses Frankie has to face that history to discover what is happening in the here and now.

 

Frankie is brittle, dedicated and takes no-nonsense. She is hard-working and expects that from her team of detectives. She doesn’t come across as that friendly, except with her boss Jack Clancy and fellow detective Baz. The relationship between these three, and Frankie and Baz in particular, brought light relief to what is otherwise a dark novel.  It is the theme of the novel that makes it so dark, BDSM and the desire to feel death without dying is central to the plot but is not used in a gratuitous way. The story travels from Dublin to the coast and becomes a little more personal for Frankie when events happen in her home town. The reader is given only a brief glimpse into her past, but the feeling is there that these are to sow the seeds for further revalations in later books.

 

Too Close to Breathe is a strong debut and opener to a new series. There are other characters that make up the team, each one with their own specialism that makes for interesting dynamics. I am hoping that future books develop the characters further (with Frankie hopefully being a bit nicer to her colleagues, particularly poor Helen). The reader can only create a small picture of Frankie Sheehan from this novel. She keeps her cards close to her chest. I get the impression almost that every reader of the book will have their own vision of who the characters are.

 

I had figured out who the culprit was which perhaps explains why I was shaking my head at Frankie as the denouement played out, wondering how she managed to get herself into such scrapes and telling her what she should not be doing. However this did not spoil my enjoyment of the story.

 

An entertaining, well written novel with an unusual plot, that moves at just the right pace. I look forward to reading more from Olivia Kiernan in the future.