Wednesday 30 November 2016

Excerpt: Hell is Empty by Conrad Williams

TITLE: Hell is Empty
AUTHOR: Conrad Williams
PUBLISHER: Titan Books

PUBLICATION DATE: November 25, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

Private Investigator Joel Sorrell is exhausted and drinking hard, sustained only by a hopeful yet baffling note from his estranged daughter, Sarah. An SOS from an old flame whose child has been kidnapped gives him welcomed distraction, but the investigation raises more questions than answers. Then comes the news that his greatest enemy has escaped from prison with a score to settle. With Joel's life and the remnants of his family at stake, any chance of peace depends on the silencing of his nemesis once and for all. But an unexpected obstacle stands in his way...

Exclusive Excerpt from Hell Is Empty

I used to own a book of Irish jokes when I was a kid. You know, the kind of casually racist collection you’d be hard pressed to find on the shelves these days. And a good thing too. This one joke, though, has been preying on my mind.

Have you heard the one about (Paddy/Mick/Seamus) who fell down a ight of stairs while carrying a crate of Guinness but didn’t spill a drop? He kept his mouth shut.

I thought of that joke while I lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness for six months, tubes in, tubes out, stapled, stitched and – in all probability – superglued. I thought how much like Declan/Ardal/Liam I was, only I had spilled plenty, and it wasn’t Guinness but ‘claret’. And it wasn’t a crate but a body full. Two bodies full if you count the transfusions.

How did I survive?

I almost died, and I would not have been conscious to appreciate it. I was put into a medical coma. I suffered kidney failure and underwent dialysis. I lost weight. When I revived I was scared to check my body in case there were any limbs missing. All I could think about was the way Ronnie Lake’s blade slid into my thigh like a rat through a shitter.

Eventually, one night, when all the lights were out and my sheets were on for a change, and not soaked through with fear sweat, I took my fingers exploring. Everything present and incorrect, as usual. Plus added bandages and splints and scar tissue. I was building up quite a collection of scar tissue. It twisted and turned under my fingers like cooled molten plastic. It was me but it was not me.

Doctor, please, tell me how I made it.

I was visited often while I was in hospital. Romy, mainly, but Lorraine Tokuzo came to say hi too, as did Henry Herschell, sort-of friend, martial arts expert, flashy dresser, doorman (which was a bit of a surprise), and even Mawker popped his head around the door on occasion, to ask me how I was doing, and to tell me how easy policing was these days with me out of action. He ducked out before I could pin him down with questions. Everyone was doing that lately. Avoiding, evading, ignoring. Why was that? Did someone else die that night? Someone that I cared about?

Nurse, I was bleeding to death... did she save me? Did my daughter—

Strength returned, incrementally. I gritted my teeth through months of physio. Apparently Lake’s knife had sliced through any amount of nerves and ligaments as well as my femoral artery. Walking, I looked like newborn Bambi hobbling across hot coals while pissed. But things kind of improved. Physically, that is. I was taken off dialysis. I gained a little weight back. I found the strength in me to smile when someone displayed a kindness.

I was allowed home in December. The first thing I did was register with the supermarket and do some online grocery shopping. Here’s the list I compiled:

It turned up within a couple of hours. I signed for it and the delivery guy went off with a distasteful look on his face. It’s not as if I ordered a packet of butt plugs, I thought, and then realised I’d answered the door wearing only a T-shirt and my woolly bobble hat.

That first drink stole away any embarrassment, and scoured my innards clean of all the overcooked vegetables and claggy desserts that I’d forced down over half a year of horizontal life. I was home. I had another drink to celebrate.

Sunday 27 November 2016

Reviewed: The Reading Group by Della Parker

TITLE: The Reading Group: December
AUTHOR: Della Parker

PUBLICATION DATE: December 1, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

Meet the Reading Group: six women in the seaside village of Little Sanderton come together every month to share their love of reading. No topic is off-limits: books, family, love and loss . . . and don't forget the glass of red!

Grace knows that the holiday season is going to be different this year. No turkey, no tinsel, no gorgeously wrapped gifts under the tree . . . how on earth is she going to break it to her little boys that Christmas is effectively cancelled? And can she bear to tell anyone her embarrassing secret? Enter the Reading Group: Grace's life might have turned upside down but there's no problem they can't solve.

TITLE: The Reading Group: January
AUTHOR: Della Parker

PUBLICATION DATE: December 1, 2016

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Anne-Marie has always considered herself a bit of a matchmaker - never mind that she's only got one real success under her belt. And this year she's determined to up her game: Little Sanderton's singles could certainly benefit from her expertise!

But while Anne Marie thinks she knows what's best for everyone else, her own life couldn't be less of a fairytale romance. Between looking after her cranky father and running her own business, she doesn't have time for a relationship. Her friends in the Reading Group know better though: after all, love can be found in the most unexpected of places . . .

This January the Reading Group is tackling Jane Austen's Emma . . . but who's got time for fiction when romance is in the air?

TITLE: The Reading Group: Feburary
AUTHOR: Della Parker

PUBLICATION DATE: December 1, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

Kate has tried to be a good wife to her husband Anton. Ever since he got demoted at work - answering to a woman no less - Anton simply hasn't been the same. Kate wants to help, but as the months pass and Anton pulls away from her both emotionally and physically, Kate can't help but feel a bit abandoned.

Then Kate means Bob: the handsome, blue-eyed carpenter that Anton has hired to refurbish their kitchen. Kate instantly feels a powerful physical connection between them . . . but dare she risk her marriage for a man she barely knows?

This month the Reading Group is enjoying Lady Chatterley's Lover . . . and trying not to giggle too much at the naughty parts!

The Reading Group: December is the perfect introduction to the series. I loved how in just a few pages, the author had me engrossed in the story, caring for a few of the characters already and picking up on some hints of where things will go for some of them in later novellas. Though we only meet the other members of The Reading Group briefly, their friendship and solidarity is evident and although like most book clubs reading wasn’t massively on the agenda, Grace, Serena, Kate, Anne-Marie and Jojo felt like a really welcoming group of friends and this made me want to dive into the first three books straight away.

December is Grace’s story and in the lead-up to Christmas, herself, her husband Ben and their boys (triplets!) are going through a tough time. I was moved by this story. I loved the dynamics between the triplets – a realistic representation of the chaos kids can cause, the kind that is fun to hear about but not so fun to deal with yourself! I also loved how Grace’s worries led to meeting the Reading Group and how understanding and willing to help they were. This was a truly heart-warming read.

The Reading Group: January is Anne-Marie’s story. Anne-Marie is a matchmaker – not a hugely successful one, but she tries! Spurred on by the news of her best friend’s engagement to a guy she set her up with, she decides to set some more of her friends up with new men too.

I really enjoyed Anne-Marie’s story. I smiled at her very failed attempts to read January’s book, Emma, and at how persistent she was with the match-making even though it never worked out right. There was less of the Reading Group girls in this book but instead we see more of her other friends, Manda and Sophie .Della’s characters always seem to be really well characterised as I feel like I can picture them almost instantly which helps me connect with the novellas more. I couldn’t put January down and found myself falling for one of the characters within the pages – so it’s always a bit of a shame when the book ends – but I couldn’t wait to read the next book either.

The Reading Group: February tells Kate’s story. Kate’s marriage to Anton has gone sour and things quickly turn on their head when she meets her new builder – Bob the builder. Bob is a hunk and Kate feels an attraction straight away. The theme of the classic the girls are reading in February is sex and infidelity – and Kate hates the thoughts it’s putting in her head. By now I really wish I was a member of the Reading Group. I love catching up on their meeting each month, keeping up-to-date on the lives of all five of them and seeing how things have changed for them. I like how the book they’re reading has links to their own lives and the author really captures their friendship brilliantly and their dialogue and the way their monthly book club goes really sets up each novella perfectly.

So far Feburary is probably my favourite of the three books so far although I love them all. Each story is entertaining and uplifting, full of laughs and romance and characters who feel more like friends than strangers. I’m so looking forward to the other novellas in the series.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Reviewed: The Mine by Antti Tuomainen

TITLE: The Mine
AUTHOR: Antti Tuomainen
PUBLISHER: Orenda Books

PUBLICATION DATE: October 10, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

A hitman. A journalist. A family torn apart. Can he uncover the truth before it's too late?

In the dead of winter, investigative reporter Janne Vuori sets out to uncover the truth about a mining company, whose illegal activities have created an environmental disaster in a small town in Northern Finland. When the company's executives begin to die in a string of mysterious accidents, and Janne's personal life starts to unravel, past meets present in a catastrophic series of events that could cost him his life.

The Mine is an environmental thriller with a compelling theme at the heart of it – the desperation and depravity of keeping secrets in a world where secrets never stay hidden for good.

Janne is a journalist who at the beginning of the book receives an email imploring him to investigate corruption at a mine in Suomalahti, Finland. Following this email leads him to an environmental disaster and more so, a company whose executives are being murdered. The mystery in this book is engaging and the dark theme heightens the tension as Antti Tuomainen has the reader in the palm of his hand as lies and conspiracy slowly begin to unravel and the truth presents itself.

A big aspect of this book is how Janne’s journalism career is causing a divide between him and his wife, Pauliina – mother of his daughter Ella. At the beginning I had assumed this would just be a supporting story to add depth to the character of Janne but actually it was a much bigger part to the book than that and added another dimension to the story, which I enjoyed. Janne’s personal life is a mess, especially when his father is back on the scene.

This book was much more emotional than I had been anticipating. Though there is danger and corruption, there is also a layer of emotion as far as delving into the theme of family goes as The Mine has a very vivid and conflicted outlook on the makings of a family and the secrets they keep.

The author’s style of writing is quite simple with short sentences and snappy dialogue, but the prowess of the storytelling in his prose is extremely captivating. That the book is translated did not hinder the beauty of the writing as it is a great translation which keeps the flow and pacing of the book at an addictive level which made The Mine a book I did not want to put down.

Right from the start of the book I was drawn into the setting with the atmospheric description and the sharp details which allow you to picture the location or the scene with just a couple of words used to describe it. The author’s beautiful writing is one of the reasons I loved this book as much as I did because it played out like a movie in my mind and I could really buy into what was happening in the story because of that. The entire book had me gripped from start to finish and did not disappoint come the end.

Reviewed: The Christmas Guest by Daisy Bell

TITLE: The Christmas Guest
AUTHOR: Daisy Bell

PUBLICATION DATE: November 3, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

A puppy for Christmas. A friend for life. The story of a homeless puppy with a huge heart who healed a family . . .

When Teddy runs away from home a week before Christmas, he's far too excited to worry about what lies ahead. But all too soon Teddy realises just how cold and scary the world really is, and what was supposed to be the perfect adventure now seems like a terrible mistake.

Then Teddy is discovered on a snowy doorstep by the Woods family. With their kind hearts and cosy cottage, Claire, Ben and their daughter Emily are the family Teddy is desperate to have. But Emily is ill, her parents are stressed and, with Christmas around the corner, raising and training a well-meaning but unruly puppy is hardly a priority.

Teddy knows he and little Emily have a once-in-a-lifetime bond, and that he can be the best friend she needs in this dark time. If only he can prove to Ben and Claire how much happier he could make them all, Teddy might just find the family of his dreams this Christmas.

The Christmas Guest is one of several cute pet-related festive stories out this year but I love this trend – magical Christmas stories featuring adorable animals is always a winner in my eyes.

Teddy, or Mr Snuggles as he is unfortunately known as to start with, belongs to Veronica and Richard, but from the moment Veronica was first presented with the puppy and she threw him to the floor when he had an accident on her, he’s known she didn’t particularly love him. When the chance arises a week before Christmas, Teddy runs away and finds himself sleeping out in the snow beside the house which could become his new home, if they want him.

Teddy was just the cutest of narrators. I think I loved him from the moment he called snowflakes moonflakes – and from then on it was lovely watching him learn about life with his new family. For a dog he was full of character and with the story being told from his viewpoint, it only enhanced the uplifting qualities to the story as his character was a lovely, animated one who gets up to various adventures but always means well. He’s a kind-natured dog with a big heart and his new family are one that could use some of his joy.

Claire, Ben and their daughter Emily are, picked up on by Teddy straight away, weary-eyed and struggling with their own problems despite all the love that is evident there. We soon learn that Emily is sick and she is feeling quite low – until Teddy arrives. The story of this new family of four is a really tender one which tugs at your heartstrings and has you eager for some festive cheer and happiness for the characters as Christmas approaches.

There’s more to this story than simply the cute dog on the cover (though of course he is a delight) – through Emily and her family’s story, there are parts of this book that bring out a range of emotions and have you, or me at least, fighting back the tears. I love those books that break your heart a little bit and then mend it back together, and The Christmas Guest is the perfect example of one of those books – a real, heart-warming, Christmas treat of a novel.

I really enjoyed the author’s style of writing too – how the chapters were set out in the form of a countdown to Christmas, and how with each chapter it becomes more wintery and full of a feel-good festive nature. Despite tough times for the family meaning Christmas is a more stressful time than usual, the connection between Emily and Teddy is truly lovely to read and had me smiling on many occasion. Overall The Christmas Guest is a beautiful novel of the true meaning of Christmas with a star character in the form of a loveable dog – what’s not to love?

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Guest Post by Jacquelyn Benson: Shadows of Imagination - Making the unbelievable real in fiction

TITLE: The Smoke Hunter
AUTHOR: Jacquelyn Benson

PUBLICATION DATE: November 3, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

London, 1898. Archivist Eleanora Mallory discovers a map to a legendary city . But is it the key to unravelling an ancient mystery or a clever hoax?

Compelled to find out, Ellie journeys to Central America - with a merciless enemy hot on her heels.

In a race to uncover the map's secret first, Ellie is forced to partner with maverick archaeologist Adam Bates, a man she's not sure she can trust. Together, they venture into an uncharted wilderness alive with smoke and shadows, where an even greater danger awaits them.

For what lies there whispering to be unearthed has the power to bring the world to its knees.

Shadows of Imagination: Making the unbelievable real in fiction

”... It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

All of my favorite books involve impossible things.

Whether it’s ghosts or psychic powers, myths-made-real or alternate worlds separated from our own by a veil a mist, the fantastic can add something profound to a great story. When handled properly, there’s a sublime sort of magic that takes place. The world gets a little bigger, a little wilder and more infused with possibility than it was before.

Of course, there are plenty of examples of stories with fantastic elements that fall far short of that mark. Some of them may even display all the essentials of good storytelling: tight plotting, authentic characterization, and a deft maintenance of tension. So what gives?

Making the impossible seem possible – instead of just presenting it to readers who then, if you’re lucky, generously opt to go along for the ride – means creating a very specific sort of marriage between the unreal and the real.

That marriage is based on facts. To blur the line between fantasy and reality means playing the part of some kind of crazy crochet artist. You have to knit a structure of believable things – true things – around the impossible nugget you’re trying to get your reader to swallow.

There’s all sorts of material you might use to accomplish this, based on the nature of your story, but I find these elements are pretty consistent:

• Make the science as genuine as possible. Sure, that can seem nonsensical when we’re talking about vampires or ghost ships, but try your damnedest. Research the characteristics of human blood, or the latest science behind pausing the aging process. Dig up dirt on mass hallucinations or the effects of scurvy. Sometimes it’s only a short step from the very facts that tell you that your fantasy elements are total crap to scenarios that might just make them seem within the realm of possibility.

• Stick to your history. Almost any aspect of the fantastic has a pedigree. Humans have been telling each other wild tales for a very long time, which means that whether you’re toying with dragons or magic mirrors, there’s an existing context you can draw upon. The longer things have been around, the more we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. And of course, you’ll want any related historical facts you drawn upon to be accurate as well, whether it’s a reference to the Napoleonic wars or Queen Victoria’s experiments with cannabis as a cure for insomnia.

• Keep things emotionally real. The more outlandish your premise, the more vital is it that your characters react to it – and to your story in general – in a way that feels authentic and believable. That includes expressions of skepticism and resistance to seemingly impossible ideas. Don’t fall into the trap of having them just ‘go along with it’. Convince them, however painstakingly, and you’ll be that much closer to convincing your reader as well.

• My novel, The Smoke Hunter, revolves around the mythical city of El Dorado, something readers today would be understandably inclined to dismiss as downright silly. After all, who these days believes there’s a city of gold hidden somewhere in the jungles of South or Central America?

So in tackling El Dorado, I dove into colonial records and Mayan and Aztec mythology and archaeology, looking for truths I could connect to the legend—and I found them. I dug up loads of genuine (and, as it happens, totally fascinating) facts that I was able to weave around the unreal portions of my story, making the whole business that much harder to simply dismiss. I convinced my skeptical hero and heroine to believe in it. Heck, by the end of the process, I found myself wondering if I hadn’t inadvertently hit on something not all that far from the truth. After all, there were plenty of ruins that hadn’t yet been pinned down on maps in the years when Cortez and Sir Walter Raleigh were burning their way through the jungle in search of gold. And as the recent ‘White City’ discovery in Honduras makes clear, the Mayans and the Aztecs weren’t the only civilizations in pre-Colombian Central America.

Coleridge’s words in the quote at the start of this piece are often misapplied. The “willing suspension of disbelief” is taken to mean that readers are naturally inclined to put their common sense to the side when indulging in fiction, instinctively siding with the author on the reality of spectral hounds or sexy werewolves. (Though admittedly, I might be more willing to kick my common sense to the curb if the supernatural entity in question is a total stud.)

The point being, what Coleridge is saying here isn’t that suspension of disbelief is this naturally occurring phenomenon we get to take advantage of as creators of fiction. He calls it an endeavor, something that has to be procured. ‘Poetic faith’ isn’t something that just happens: it’s something we earn by approaching the supernatural in our work in such a way that we give it both ‘human interest’ and ‘a semblance of truth’.

So whether you’re tackling a sentient virus or the anthropomorphic personifications of a few high concepts, don’t take the credulity of your readers for granted. Weave those elements into a world that is as authentic as possible, and if you’re lucky, you might just broaden some horizons.

Jacquelyn Benson’s debut novel, The Smoke Hunter, is the tale of archivist Eleanora Mallory’s wild journey through 19th century Central America as she races to uncover the secret of a mysterious map that may be the key to unraveling an ancient mystery. Find out more at

Monday 7 November 2016

Reviewed: The Exiled by Kati Hiekkapelto

TITLE: The Exiled
AUTHOR: Kati Hiekkapelto
PUBLISHER: Orenda Books

PUBLICATION DATE: October 10, 2016

Amazon - Goodreads

Murder. Corruption. Dark secrets. A titanic wave of refugees. Can Anna solve a terrifying case that's become personal?

Anna Fekete returns to the Balkan village of her birth for a relaxing summer holiday. But when her purse is stolen and the thief is found dead on the banks of the river, Anna is pulled into a murder case. Her investigation leads straight to her own family, to closely guarded secrets concealing a horrendous travesty of justice that threatens them all. As layer after layer of corruption, deceit and guilt are revealed, Anna is caught up in the refugee crisis spreading like wildfire across Europe. How long will it take before everything explodes?

The Exiled is the third book in Kati Hiekkapelto’s Anna Fekete crime series following The Hummingbird and The Defenceless. I read the first two back-to-back last year and found them taut and fairly pacy reads with relevant and interesting contemporary themes. The Exiled is set at a slower pace but it is still the highly compelling kind of read that I love from this author. The premise to this book was one that lingered on my mind every time I put the book down and had me on tenterhooks, looking forward to diving back into the mystery.

With this book, the setting is in the Balkans, rather than Finland, but the author again creates a detailed and vivid image in my mind of the location. Anna Fekete is on holiday visiting her mother in the Balkans when her handbag is stolen. Shortly afterwards it is found, with a few of its contents missing, but the person who stole Anna’s bag is found dead at the scene. This is only the start of a complex and engrossing series of mysteries and secrets that had me guessing throughout. The initial mystery of the handbag thief leads her to considering her own origin and the complexities and secrets within her own family and their past.

Each layer of this book was intriguing and fascinating and the overall feel of The Exiled was suspenseful and unsettling. I enjoyed the book the more I got into it as the slower pace, though great at building tension, took a bit of getting used to. Yet at the same time it made the mystery more satisfying and the concept of the book a more engaging one. My favourite aspect of the book was probably its insight into the European refugee crisis – a theme which I found was made all the more interesting for its current relevance in the real world. The author insightfully explores the story of gypsies, immigrants and refugees with all the judgments they are faced with and their representation within society. Whilst this was fascinating, the lies and corruption surrounding the refugees pushed the theme even further and had me very engrossed in the story.

The Exiled combined all the aspects I love about a crime novel. The prose is atmospheric and evocatively described by the author, delivering to the reader a colourful sense of place which allows you to place and picture the action in the book perfectly. The mystery is multi-layered and never lets up – the twists kept on coming and any guesses kept on being proved wrong. The characterisation was great, not just for Anna Fekete whose investigative mindset I am liking more and more with each book but for each of the characters in this book, secondary or otherwise, the author crafts them and builds them up well, making them recognisable and believable. Overall I found The Exiled to be a worthy third book in the series with a strong sense of mystery that was both captivating and unpredictable.

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