Thursday, 16 November 2017

Ours is the Winter by Laurie Ellingham: Review

The blurb....

Journeying across the Arctic, their pasts are about to catch up with them.

Erica, Molly and Noah are embarking on the challenge of a lifetime, driving Siberian huskies across the frozen wilderness of the Arctic. Cut off from the world and their loved ones and thrown together under gruelling conditions, it isn't long before the cracks start to show.

Erica has it all. A loving husband, a successful career and the most adorable baby daughter. But Erica has been living a double life, and as she nears her fortieth birthday her lies threaten to come crashing down.

Molly was on her way to stardom. But when her brother died, so did her dreams of becoming an Olympic champion. Consumed by rage and grief, she has shut out everyone around her, but now she's about to learn that comfort can come from the most unexpected places.

Noah has a darkness inside him and is hounded by nightmares from his past. Tortured, trapped and struggling to save his fractured relationship, he knows this journey is not going to help, but try telling his girlfriend that.

As their lives and lies become ever more entwined, it becomes clear that in the frozen wilds there is nowhere to hide.

The review...

Are you ready for the challenge of a lifetime? Drive your own team of elite Siberian huskies 260km across the frozen wilderness of the Arctic in an experience you'll never forget!

Three people come together as part of a larger group to undertake this Arctic challenge. Molly, fizzing with barely suppressed anger and grief after the untimely death of her beloved brother, her Olympic aspirations having died along with him. Erica, hoping to use the trip as an opportunity to rebuild her relationship with her young half-sister - while also concealing some awkward truths about her own life. And Noah, deeply traumatised after a terrible event, resorting to desperate measures just to function from day to day.

As the challenge progresses, along with testing their own limits these three people find unimagined connections between them and face up to difficult realities as relationships form and fracture, and secrets emerge.

I loved the fascinating, unusual setting, and Laurie Ellingham does a great job of building up the atmosphere. It was easy to picture the frozen landscape, and the exhausting, exhilarating, challenging experience of sledding was vividly drawn. I could almost feel the biting cold and see and hear (and smell!) the dogs. I loved the dogs!

The human (and canine) characters all emerge clearly... I liked all the characters, apart from the ones you're not meant to (looking at you, Rachel). I could relate to Erica's conflicts between home and work, having experienced similar, though not when my child was so young. And as a runner myself, albeit very far from Olympic standard, I enjoyed that strand of the story too. (Minor niggle: the "last few laps" of an 800m race? Usually there's only two!)

A special mention for the cover, which is just gorgeous and represents the story nicely.

This is the first book I have read by Laurie Ellingham. It was initially something of a slow burner for me (ironic given the setting!) but once I got into the story I enjoyed it very much and will definitely keep an eye out for this author. A recommended read which almost made me want to sign up for a similar Arctic challenge! Maybe one day...

The author...

Laurie Ellingham lives on the Suffolk/Essex border with her two children, husband, and cockerpoo Rodney. She has a First Class honours degree in Psychology and a background in Public Relations, but her main love is writing and disappearing into the fictional world of her characters, preferably with a large coffee and a Twix (or two) to hand.

Follow Laurie Ellingham on:

Monday, 13 November 2017

BLOG TOUR! The Best Little Christmas Shop by Maxine Morrey: Review

The blurb...

Come home for Christmas to the Best Little Christmas Shop – the snowiest, cosiest place you can be!

Home for the holidays…  

Icing gingerbread men, arranging handmade toys and making up countless Christmas wreaths in her family’s cosy little Christmas shop isn’t usually globe-trotter Lexi’s idea of fun. But it’s all that’s keeping her mind off romance. And, with a broken engagement under her belt, she’s planning to stay well clear of that for the foreseeable future…until gorgeous single dad Cal Martin walks through the door!  

Christmas takes on a whole new meaning as Lexi begins to see it through Cal’s adorable five-year-old son’s eyes. But, finding herself getting dangerously close to the mistletoe with Cal, Lexi knows she needs to back off. She’s sworn off love, and little George needs a stability she can’t provide. One day she’ll decide whether to settle down again – just not yet.  

But the best little Christmas shop in this sleepy, snow-covered village has another surprise in store…  

The review...

The whole settling down thing wasn’t for me. I’d tried once before and it had ended painfully, not to mention publicly. What made me think this time would be any different? It wasn’t meant for me. It was meant for people like Giselle and Xander, Mum and Dad, and Dan and Claire. But the universe had other ideas for me apparently. Stick to what you’re best at, Lexi, it said. PS: this isn’t it.

An engineer for a top Formula One team, Lexi’s much more at home fixing a car in her overalls than glitzing it up with the rich and famous. It’s her dream job, though, and she even has a glamorous fiancĂ© to match.

Now she’s back home with her large and affectionate family, minus both job and fiancĂ©, and working temporarily in the family business - the best little Christmas shop of the title. It’s not just a Christmas shop though - the quirky village gift shop, called The Four Seasons, sells merchandise themed around the seasons of the year, changing along with them. It’s a lovely idea and certainly sounds like it would be hard to resist popping in for a browse around. 

When handsome single dad Cal and his adorable five-year-old son, George, walk into the shop one day, Lexi’s life is about to take an unexpected turn, via a spot of impromptu teddy-bear surgery and some narrowly averted swearing. There’s more than a spark between them, but is Lexi really the right person to provide the love and stability this little family needs?

I’m not personally a fan of Formula One - the noise puts me off for a start, it always sounds to me like a load of demented wasps on the attack - but I know plenty of people who love it so it obviously does have a broad appeal. Anyway you certainly don’t need to like or even know anything about Formula One to enjoy the story as it doesn’t really play a big role.

The supporting characters are fun - Lexi’s noisy, loving family, her best friend Xander and his wife Giselle, and of course little George.

Cal really was the perfect man: handsome, caring and evidently besotted with Lexi. Call me cynical but I don’t think you get too many of them to the dozen in real life! There are no big surprises about the eventual outcome but then you wouldn’t want there to be...

I think the number one word I would use to describe this book is “cosy”. It’s warm, comforting and best suited to curling up with beside a roaring fire. Preferably while it’s snowing outside.

Order on Amazon here.

The author...

Maxine Morrey has wanted to be a writer for as long as she can remember and wrote her first (very short) book for school when she was ten. Coming in first, she won a handful of book tokens - perfect for a bookworm!  As years went by, she continued to write, but 'normal' work often got in the way. She has written articles on a variety of subjects, aswell as a book on Brighton for a Local History publisher. However, novels are what she loves writing the most. After self publishing her first novel when a contract fell through, thanks to the recession, she continued to look for opportunities.  In August 2015, she won Harper Collins/Carina UK's 'Write Christmas' competition with her romantic comedy, 'Winter's Fairytale'.  Maxine lives on the south coast of England, and when not wrangling with words loves to read sew and listen to podcasts. As she also likes cake she can also be found either walking or doing something vaguely physical at the gym

Twitter @scribbler_maxi
Instagram @scribbler_maxi
Pinterest  Scribbler Maxi

The giveaway... (UK only)

Win -
Signed copy of The Christmas Project
The Best Little Christmas Shop notebook
Box of mini gingerbread men
Chocolate teddy bear

Enter here!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Silent Lies by Kathryn Croft: Review

Five years rebuilding your life.... Five words will destroy it again.

Silent Lies opens with Mia and her baby daughter, Freya, attending the funeral of Zach - Mia’s husband and Freya’s father. It’s clear from the outset that Zach has done something terrible - something bad enough that strangers apparently feel justified in verbally abusing his wife in the street - the nature of which is as yet unspecified.

Five years later, Mia has gone a long way towards rebuilding her life - she has qualified as a counsellor and is running her own business, and has a new partner, Will. But when a new client, Alison, blurts out something shocking regarding Mia’s own past - and then immediately retracts it - Mia’s life is flung once more into turmoil.

The story is narrated in turn by Mia in the present - struggling to uncover the truth about her husband - and five years earlier by Josie, a young university student with a horrific, traumatic past and indeed present. The two are connected by Zach and by Alison, a strange, clearly very troubled young woman whose motives are mysterious. Who can Mia trust?

This is the first book I have read by Kathryn Croft, and I found it a real page-turner - or whatever the Kindle equivalent is. As the cleverly constructed plot unfolded, I found myself developing all sorts of outlandish theories about what was going on - always a sign of a really engaging read! And a couple of them even paid off... kind of. (That’s all I’m saying.)

Josie’s narrative was particularly compelling in a just-can’t-look-away kind of way and I found her a likeable and sympathetic character.

There are plenty of twists and turns here and the denouement is genuinely unpredictable - I doubt anyone could guess it all in advance, even if you have a vague inkling about some aspects. The last chapter is quite satisfying.

A very enjoyable read and I will definitely look out for Kathryn’s other books.

Kathryn Croft is the author of six successful psychological thrillers, of which Silent Lies is the most recent. She lives in Guildford, Surrey with her husband, their little boy and two crazy cats.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Perfect Victim by Corrie Jackson: Review

Husband, friend, colleague.... killer?

This is the second book featuring London Herald journalist Sophie Kent - I haven’t read the first, Breaking Dead, but you don’t need to in order to enjoy the second, though I probably missed out on a bit of continuity as far as the protagonist, Sophie, is concerned.

In the impressively accomplished The Perfect Victim, Sophie is grieving the untimely death of her beloved younger brother Tommy - a troubled young man, homeless, drug addicted - and struggling to uncover what really happened to him. Meanwhile, the drowned body of a lawyer is discovered and Sophie’s good friend and colleague, Charlie Swift, is implicated in her murder. Sophie can’t believe he could be capable of such a thing, but as  Charlie disappears and evidence begins to stack up that he is not the man she had thought him to be, danger comes frighteningly close to home. 

Then there’s Charlie’s social-media-savvy second wife Emily, who seems at times more intent on promoting her blog than finding her husband. But is Emily, too, all she seems?

Her investigations lead Sophie into the murky depths of Charlie’s past and the inner workings of a sinister religious cult. (Love a sinister religious cult.)

Deftly plotted and unpredictable, and at times very dark, this was one of those books which I really didn’t want to stop reading and could easily have finished in a day, were it not for pesky real-life responsibilities like going to work. Sophie is an engaging and satisfyingly complex heroine who definitely has some issues and doesn’t always make sensible choices, but also has tenacity and a toughness that belies her fragile exterior. Her brother Tommy’s addiction and mental health issues were, I thought, sensitively handled and realistically depicted by the author, and this was refreshing to see.

Corrie Jackson has created complex characters with a dark heart to their stories. Some way in, I did get a vague inkling of where things might be going with Charlie’s storyline - but it was very vague and the resolution was genuinely surprising.

All in all a brilliant read which certainly encourages me to seek out the previous Sophie Kent novel, and I will look out eagerly for more in this series in the future.

Corrie Jackson has been a journalist for fifteen years. During that time she has worked at Harper’s Bazaar, the Daily Mail, Grazia and Glamour. Corrie now lives in Greenwich, Connecticut with her husband and two children.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Her Last Secret by Barbara Copperthwaite: Review

A lifetime can flash by in a moment. A moment can last a lifetime.

Her Last Secret opens on Christmas morning in an affluent residential area of London. Shockingly, gunshots have been heard from number fifteen Burgh Road, the home of Benjamin and Dominique Thomas and their two daughters, Ruby and Amber. Clearly, something terrible has happened, but what - and who could be capable of it? As police officers cautiously approach the house, the narrative moves back eight days to follow the Thomas family in the period leading up to the events.

The father of the family, Benjamin, is arrogant and status-oriented, focused on impressing others with the success and material trappings (the Rolex, the Mercedes...) of an alpha male. He's not yet living the lifestyle to which he feels entitled, though  - after all, he only has one Mercedes. But Benjamin's bombastic exterior hides some deep insecurities - and a ticking time bomb of a secret which could bring it all crashing down.

Meanwhile his under pressure wife Dominique, feeling increasingly isolated from her husband and despised by her elder daughter, fears the resurgence of a frightening problem from her past. Dominique is often referred to as a doormat, letting her husband get away with far too much. But what would it take for her to finally snap?

Troubled fifteen-year-old Ruby has more going on in her life than her parents have any idea of. They predictably disapprove of her council-estate-dwelling boyfriend Harry, but have no notion of the true scale of Ruby's problems and in quite how dark a direction her thoughts are heading.

Then there's eight-year-old Amber, known as Mouse due to her quiet nature and tendency to hide in corners reading. (Like a mouse - only without the reading.) The most obviously innocent, lovable and vulnerable member of the family, it's Mouse we fear for most, even as she escapes into her own fantasy world where everyone is finally happy.

On the fringes of this not-so-happy family are Ruby's boyfriend Harry, Dominique's oldest friend Fiona, Benjamin's business partner Jazmine, and a frankly idiotic young woman named Kendra.

Interspersed with this narrative are snippets of the police cautiously approaching and entering the house. It's an effective technique which builds a sense of mounting tension for the reader about what they are going to find. As the officers move further through the house, the nature and scale of the disaster is gradually revealed... Or is it?

Her Last Secret (as a Sherlock fan, the title recalls His Last Vow - whether intentionally or not, I'm not sure) is a very gripping and enjoyable read. There are a few awkward turns of phrase ("her fellow peers") but generally the writing flows naturally. The characterisation is very well done and I particularly enjoyed, if that's the right word, the strand of the plot following Ruby and Harry. The tension becomes almost unbearable at times, and as the story reaches its culmination there are some genuinely emotional, even heartbreaking moments.

This is the first book I have read by Barbara Copperthwaite and on the strength of this I will certainly seek out her others. Recommended.

Review also published on NetGalley. Many thanks to the publishers for the opportunity to read and review.

Barbara  Copperthwaite is the author of four psychological crime novels, of which Her Last Secret is the most recent. She has worked as a journalist on national newspapers and magazines.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Trans Mission by Alex Bertie: Review

Apparently Alex Bertie is well-known via YouTube - I'm fairly old, so this doesn't mean a great deal to me, and I hadn't watched any of his videos prior to reading Trans Mission (good title). Although I hadn't heard of Alex before, the book - largely a lively personal account of his life so far - sounded intriguing and I was happy to be given the opportunity to read and review.

Alex is still a very young man - 22, I think - but he has no shortage of experience to write about, as Alex is transgender, having been designated female at birth. The book recounts his journey through realising he was trans, coming out and undergoing hormone therapy and surgery as well as the effect on his relationships with family, friends and partners. (His Nan's reaction, in the form of a letter, is truly beautiful.) He also discusses some general issues about gender identity and issues for trans people, particularly those who are FTM (female to male).

Although there is much more awareness nowadays that some people are transgender, Alex's voice, as a transgender man, is one that is not all that commonly heard, and this is an important book in that respect.

Alex tells his story candidly and comes across as likeable and engaging. He acknowledges that his experiences are his own and not all transgender people will have the same experiences, but nevertheless I think many people (trans and otherwise) will relate to aspects of his story. The bullying he faced at school is heartbreaking to read.

I suspect "trans issues" are more high profile now than they have ever been and many people on all sides have some strong views. Alex is not afraid to engage with difficult and thorny issues and his opinions always come across as rational and considered. (He's often quite funny, as well.) It's clear that his high profile as a trans person, through his YouTube channel, is something of a mixed blessing as it makes it much harder for him to fly under the radar on occasions when he might want to do that.

 The section written by his Mum, Michelle, describing how things were from her perspective, is fascinating and invaluable, highlighting the mixed emotions of a parent faced with a situation few parents would expect.

Ultimately this is an interesting and enlightening read from a young man who seems intelligent, insightful and very resilient. I might even go and watch some of his YouTube videos...

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Foster Child by Jenny Blackhurst: Review

Is Ellie a monster... or a victim?

Imogen and her husband Dan have just moved back to her childhood home, a place of which she does not have fond memories, her family life having been not exactly idyllic. Imogen has secured a new job facilitating mental health support for children in schools, after her previous job in the private sector came to a disastrous end (the details of which are only gradually revealed).

Eleven-year-old Ellie, who attends the local school, is in foster care after her whole family died in a house fire. Ellie is an understandably deeply troubled young girl, but is she also something rather more sinister? Alarming things do rather seem to happen when she’s around…

This was a very intriguing and addictive read which effectively creates a growing sense of unease. I’m not really a fan of the “creepy child” trope beloved of certain Hollywood films, but while some of the people around her certainly see Ellie that way (the references to Stephen King’s Carrie are no coincidence), there’s enough doubt to keep things interesting. Should we be afraid of Ellie… or afraid for her? Who, if anyone, is really on her side?

It’s also an effective portrayal of a certain kind of mob mentality and the willingness of some people to point the finger at anyone who appears strange and different – even when that person is a vulnerable, very young girl. For this reason some parts of the book make painful reading, though there is enough nuance here that we can also, mostly, see things from all sides.

The plot is very cleverly constructed and effectively keeps the reader on the back foot, unsure of what is really going on.

The story was not necessarily what I expected – the “supernatural” element does add an unusual dimension, and this might not be for everyone. However I enjoyed it very much, right up to the end which unfortunately did not really work for me and while I can understand why the author chose to do it in this way, I’d prefer it if she hadn’t as it's a type of ending I dislike. Can’t say more without spoilers! While the “twist” was cleverly done, I did also feel there were a couple of unanswered questions. For these reasons I give the book four stars rather than five.

Overall though an excellent read with characters who really do get under your skin.

Jenny Blackhurst has written three novels: How I Lost You, Before I Let You In, and The Foster Child. She lives in Shropshire.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Anything You Do Say by Gillian McAllister: Review

Two roads diverge....

Thirty-year-old Joanna is somewhat disorganised, even shambolic, inclined to avoid rather than confront difficulties; not really sure what she wants to do with her life; never quite feeling like a Proper Person. Still, her life seems good - happily married to the socially-conscious Reuben, with good friends and a steady job, even if she's never quite measured up to the promise of her schooldays (or the expectations of her parents).

Then something happens while she's walking home from a night out. A split second, a terrible misjudgement which spells disaster - but it's what Joanna does in the immediate aftermath which will determine the path of her life from that moment on. To reveal - or to conceal? Own up and face the consequences - or flee and hide? Both possible paths, with their repercussions for both Joanna and those around her, are dissected in alternate chapters.

It's an original and challenging method of telling a story - two stories, even - and it is so well written and cleverly done that it works really well. I never felt confused about which version of "reality" I was reading. The differences and also similarities between the two timelines are fascinating to observe, not only for Joanna and her husband, friends, colleagues, brother - but also for the victim, who is simultaneously at the centre of everything yet still somehow outside, and his family.

Through the parallel timelines, we witness on the one hand a frightening and confusing journey through the legal system; and on the other, a depiction of the corrosive effects of persistent guilt, silence and concealment. Most of all this is a sensitive and nuanced character portrait and analysis of personal consequences.

There's also a very real sense of "this could happen to any of us", and I imagine most readers will at some point ask themselves the question: what might I do in a moment of sheer panic? And what might be the consequences of that?

Anything You Do Say is an enthralling and thought-provoking read which is destined to be very successful.

This review was previously posted on NetGalley. Thanks to the publishers for the opportunity to read and review

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Doll House by Phoebe Morgan: Review

Sisters Corinne and Ashley enjoyed an idyllic childhood, symbolised by the dolls' house lovingly built for them by their father - a beautifully furnished, perfect replica of their family home.

In the present day Corinne, now an adult, is under a lot of stress - she's still grieving the recent loss of her beloved father, eminent architect Richard Hawes, and she and partner Dominic are struggling to conceive, undergoing gruelling fertility treatment. Things get worse, though, when Corinne begins finding fragments from her childhood dolls' house - a little door, a piece of fabric - in inexplicable places. It seems like someone is taunting her, but who and why? And what is her mother not telling her?

Meanwhile, elder sister Ashley's life is also taking a strange turn. Husband James is never there (he's always at work - or is he?). Her daughter and son are acting out of character, and something isn't right with baby Holly either.

There's clearly an unseen hand at play, but who does it belong to? In true psychological thriller tradition, there are various candidates both likely and unlikely.

Interspersed with Corinne and Ashley's stories are flashbacks from the point of view of an unnamed child narrator with an apparent connection to their family, albeit very much on the outside....

Although I'd heard good things about this book, I was slightly sceptical, as the cover looked a bit sensationalist. And let's face it, not everything that calls itself "A gripping psychological thriller with a killer twist!" (i.e. just about everything nowadays) really is. However, I was pleasantly surprised as The Doll House is genuinely well written, well plotted, tense and unpredictable. Phoebe Morgan does a great job of building a sense of menace and foreboding, culminating in scenes of almost unbearable tension.

It's an impressive debut, and I look forward to reading more from Phoebe Morgan.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Other Woman by Laura Wilson: Review

Sophie Hamilton and her husband Leo have a fairly marvellous life - house in the country, flat in town for City worker Leo, fancy cars, a yacht (!), three lovely-ish kids, Labrador (of course), "kitchen sups" with friends. (Once I started seeing Sophie as Samantha Cameron, I couldn't quite shake it. I think it was the kitchen sups.)
Every Christmas Sophie sends one of those round-robin letters to all her friends and acquaintances, notifying them about all her family's marvellous achievements over the past year. It's a bit of a shock when someone starts returning these to sender, scrawled over first with "Smug Bitch", then with allegations that Leo is having an affair and about to leave her. Sophie's pretty sure she isn't smug (though actually, she is) but she's not so sure about the affair, and when she thinks she's found concrete evidence, something happens which causes her life to quickly and dramatically unravel...

The tone of this felt different to me from Laura Wilson's other books. There's not a great deal of mystery here as the plot mainly concerns Sophie's attempts to cover up what has happened - which rapidly becomes a black comedy of errors as she makes a series of fairly terrible decisions and misjudgements and pretty much everything that can go wrong, does. She remarks herself at one point that things are becoming farcical, and they are. You have to keep reading, just to see how much worse things can possibly get (quite a lot) and find out where on earth it's all going to end up.

It's hard to relate all that much to Sophie - she *is* smug and self-absorbed, at least to begin with, and she *does* take her extremely privileged life for granted (at one point thinking to herself in bewilderment, "I'm Sophie. I'm supposed to have a nice life.") Having experienced an insecure childhood, she often seems more concerned with the potential loss of her lifestyle and social standing than anything else and is prepared to go to quite some lengths to protect it. 

There are a few twists in the tale, but not a huge amount of mystery (I guessed the identity of the "other woman" seconds before it was revealed - and I'm still pondering this aspect of the novel).

Laura Wilson is an excellent writer who always delivers a great read and this is no exception, darkly comic, cleverly constructed and a very engaging read - even if I didn't really like any of the characters! Ultimately, I was left unsure quite what to make of it all.... But that's OK.

Monday, 18 September 2017

A Pearl for my Mistress by Annabel Fielding: Review

England, 1933. Hester Blake, a young woman from a Northern town, hopes her new job as a lady's maid will open up new worlds for her; what she certainly never expects is to fall in love with her mistress, young Lady Lucy Fitzmartin.... and for that love to be reciprocated. Things start to turn sour, however, as Lucy finds herself drawn to a dangerous political ideology which begins to lead her down some dark paths. 

This was less of a love story than I'd anticipated. I had perhaps expected more of a focus on "forbidden love" and the barriers encountered by a lesbian relationship - and one with a large class divide, too - in that era. In fact there is little of this, though Hester and Lucy's relationship is necessarily kept a secret - only one other person knows of it. While the initial romance between the two women is sweetly developed, Lucy's growing involvement in alarming political machinations and intrigue forms a large part of the story. I did not anticipate this aspect but very much enjoyed reading it. 

Annabel Fielding has clearly done her research into the period, and I liked the fact that on several occasions I found myself heading off to Google to find out more about the likes of Lady Malcolm's Servants' Ball, or Valerie Arkell-Smith. There is a wealth of fascinating detail which generates a clear picture of the era, from the Northumberland home of the Fitzmartin family to London clubs and parties... and certain social and political attitudes which still carry an alarming ring of familiarity.

 Lucy becomes increasingly corrupted and unlikeable as the story progresses, and it begins to seem that despite some doubts and fears, ultimately she will stop at nothing. Lucy seemed to me primarily to be striving for agency, to never again feel the helplessness she once did, and to prove herself. I really did wonder where it was all going to end for her, and the less educated but far more clear-sighted Hester. Is there any redemption for Lucy? 

Recommended - historical fiction is not a genre I read a lot of, but I enjoyed this very much.

Available on Amazon

Friday, 15 September 2017

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson: Review

I've long loved Josephine Tey's novels and in more recent years I've also loved Nicola Upson's "Josephine Tey" series in which a fictionalised version of the writer is the main character.

It's an interesting and I feel somewhat audacious premise, given that the stories concern not just the investigation of crimes but also Josephine's personal and romantic life. Of course the real life Josephine wasn't Josephine at all; Josephine Tey was a pen name for Inverness-born Elizabeth Mackintosh. Nicola Upson's character however is clearly Josephine, not Elizabeth, and hence already a step removed from the real person, although she shares many biographical details, including her former career as a physical training instructor and her success as a playwright.

The latest instalment, set in 1937, finds Josephine staying in her lover Marta's new house in Cambridge while Marta is away in America. Josephine's dear friend, Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose, is investigating an apparently linked series of unpleasant murders with a Cambridge connection; meanwhile, a serial rapist is terrorising the women of Cambridge.

This was a really excellent read, tightly plotted and with a genuinely surprising resolution which I certainly did not predict. There's an intriguing literary connection, too, via the acclaimed ghost story writer, scholar and former provost of King's College, Cambridge, M. R. James. He doesn't appear directly, having died in 1936, but nevertheless has a role to play.

As ever this is beautifully and intelligently written and evokes a genuine sense of place and time, both socially and politically. The shadow of the First World War still lingers, the second is not yet a reality, although there is a subtle sense of tensions growing in Europe; but the Duke and Duchess of Windsor can still be photographed taking tea with Hitler. (I looked up the picture in question; it's quite something.)

The rape storyline is sensitively handled and there is no glossing over either the lasting damage done or the attitude of many - the police included - who regard it as not, in itself, really that significant a crime.

There were a couple of phrases which jarred slightly: I'm not sure if people in the 1930s (even Marta) would have used the term "for fuck's sake". But maybe they would; I'm no expert on the matter. 

The title had me puzzled for a while. But ultimately it makes perfect sense. And I do love the covers of these books.

Highly recommended.

Polite request: I'd love to read a future novel set in Josephine's native Inverness!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Doctor Who: Myths and Legends by Richard Dinnick - Review

There've been several Doctor Who books in this mould lately - Time Lord Fairy Tales, The Twelve Doctors of Christmas - all beautifully presented and illustrated hardback books which look just gorgeous on the shelf and are equally enjoyable to read. I imagine the physical copy of Myths and Legends will be the same - hence it does lose something in the ebook format, but the stories themselves are equally fun to read.

There are fourteen stories here, subtitled "Epic Tales from Alien Worlds" and written by Richard Dinnick. While they clearly take place within the Doctor Who universe (there's an introduction by Chancellor Drakirid, Historian to the Bureau of Ancient Records on Gallifrey), the Doctor himself pops up only occasionally in different incarnations and is never named as such. There are plenty of familiar friends and enemies, though - including the Doctor's best frenemy in various guises! - and well known figures from Gallifreyan history.

The stories vary in length and tone, and the book is easy to dip in and out of.

Rather like the previous Time Lord Fairy Tales, a number of stories are clearly based on familiar tales - often this is obvious from the titles (e.g. Jorus and the Voganauts, The Vardon Horse). Quite a few also fit neatly into Time Lord history and fill in some gaps in interesting ways - the last one, Pandoric's Box, being particularly notable in this regard, with one particular much-missed face making an appearance.

All in all, despite the main man (soon to be woman!) being mainly absent, this was a fun read, and yes, I will probably buy the hardback....

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: Review

This is the first in an occasional series in which I revisit the books of my childhood. (Because yay, nostalgia!) I was notorious within my family for always having my nose in a book (nobody thought this was a good thing) but Harriet the Spy was a bit different from the usual because it was American and most of the books I read were British, that being what I mainly had access to. (The other notable American one I remember was Freaky Friday.)

Anyway I loved Harriet the Spy and probably read it four or five times. Naturally it inspired me to copy Harriet's example and follow people around with a notebook. Equally naturally, this didn't go down too well with the adults around me, and my spying career proved short lived.

Harriet's adventures first hit the shelves in 1964, but it was about 12 years after that before I first discovered her in my local library. (I spent a lot of time in that library. I can still visualise it quite clearly in my mind.) I remember a chunky hardback with an orange cover - though I'm not certain it was this one. It could have been.

 The recent Collins Modern Classics edition has a very un-Harriet looking Harriet:

Preparing to write this review, I realised I really didn't know much if anything about writer Louise Fitzhugh, and did a bit of research. I was fascinated to read on Wikipedia that

"It was very popular among young girls, particularly unfeminine or non-conforming girls who lacked representation in fiction; Fitzhugh, like many of Harriet's fans, was a lesbian."

and saddened to learn that Fitzhugh died, of a brain aneurysm, at the age of only 46.

Exploring further turned up several examples of women describing how much the book meant to them and even analysing the lesbian subtext.

Given all of this I was even more excited to read this book again and find out what impression it made on me now, as an adult after all these years. 

The first thing I noticed was how little I actually remembered about the plot, despite all those re-readings. It was the character of Harriet that stuck in my mind rather than anything that actually happened, and I think that is because eleven-year old Harriet M. Welsch is just such a memorable character. Aspiring to be both a writer and a spy, Harriet spends her time observing those around her and writing down her findings - and opinions about them - in a notebook. Her parents are loving but busy; Harriet spends time with her nurse, "Ole Golly" who dispenses many pearls of wisdom, and her friends Janie and Sport. Janie plans to be a scientist and blow up the world (insert topical joke of your choice here). Sport - a boy - plans to be a famous ball player but has to spend a lot of his time cooking and cleaning for his single dad. 

Harriet's life hits crisis when her beloved Ole Golly leaves to get married, and around the same time her notebook, which contains many unflattering observations about people, falls into the hands of her classmates. Understandably affronted about the contents, the whole class - including Janie and Sport - turns against Harriet. Between her unacknowledged grief for Ole Golly and the pain of being ostracised by her peers, suddenly it's not easy being Harriet.

Harriet is a very unconventional and eccentric character - particularly given the time when this was written. She is not most people's idea of a model child. She's wilful, outspoken, uncompromising and has quite a temper. She has mean thoughts about people, and writes them down. Apparently the book has on occasion attracted controversy due to the flawed characters and supposed bad example (brilliantly, one school board complained that it encouraged children to "lie, spy, back-talk and curse").

What about that lesbian subtext though? I'm not sure I would necessarily have thought of it without knowing that the author was a lesbian. I think it's less about sexuality and more about being a bit different, a bit of an outsider, and not necessarily conforming to the prescribed gender roles. Harriet herself, but also her friends Janie and Sport, don't fall neatly into their supposed categories. Janie is far more interested in science than frocks and dancing classes. Sport reads cookbooks and takes on a caring role in his household.

As for Harriet, nothing about her is conventionally feminine, including her preferred choice of clothing. In fact, I think it's fair to say that Harriet rarely thinks about being a girl at all, and it certainly never occurs to her for a single second that her gender should limit her options in any way at all. And she has an innate, unshakeable self belief that carries her through even when life is difficult. All of this makes her hugely important to many young readers.

Ultimately I think this is largely about growing up and realising that, as Ole Golly tells Harriet, "sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you should always tell the truth" - advice which will resonate with many LGBT readers.

Harriet the Spy is still a great read, and despite being now 53 years old has barely dated in many ways. I wonder what Harriet M. Welsch is like now, at 64? I imagine her as a writer and academic, still as outspoken and eccentric as ever, if not more so. Maybe a bit kinder after all those years of adulthood. Still observing people, though possibly not sneaking into their dumb waiters. I hope she still has that huge sense of self belief. I can't imagine her ever losing it.