Wednesday 19 April 2017

The Escape by C.L. Taylor

Published by Avon Books on March 23, 2017

After having a very hit-and-miss experience reading thrillers over the past year I am thrilled to say I have just finished reading one that did not disappoint me one bit. One that exceeded all expectations, despite them being very high to begin with! The Escape was pure excellence from beginning to end. I have read C.L. Taylor’s other books, The Accident, The Lie and The Missing, and they are all great, but The Escape is in a different league altogether. As soon as I had started the opening chapter one morning, I was sure this was going to be a book to keep me up reading all night, but it was once I got to end of the first chapter that I realised that I couldn’t wait until that night to carry on reading. I read the book from start to finish that morning and then spent the rest of the day and night thinking about everything I had just read and just how much I had loved reading it.

The Escape introduces us to Jo Blackmore. Jo is mum to the adorable Elise and married to investigative journalist Max, but all is not well. Jo suffers from anxiety and agoraphobia. She has panic attacks and struggles going to the shops or park or anywhere further than her usual routine, though her husband appears quite unsympathetic about her symptoms. When Jo is asked for a lift from a stranger, who is going to the same street Jo lives on, she reluctantly agrees – but she begins to regret it once Paula starts rooting around her car and making subtle threats. This is just the beginning. C.L. Taylor puts Jo through a hell of a lot, every chapter there’s something else and despite Jo’s bravery, and how much I sympathised with her, I kind of loved it when the author made things more and more traumatic for her. Sorry, Jo!

I found Jo a really interesting character. Her mental health makes her unreliable in a sense but I found her to be brave and strong in the face of adversity. There are times when she makes rash decisions and things which might not always make sense to the reader, but this is a woman who has panic attacks in Tesco. When she believes that she might lose her beautiful daughter, I could obviously understand how her anxiety became even more overwhelming than it already was.

I loved the author’s storytelling. Every chapter is filled with tension and a sense of urgency, and every end to a chapter had me dying for the next one, and then there’d be a switch in the narrator so I would be eager to read the next chapter after that too. This is not a book to be read slowly, despite how much I would have liked to savour it for longer! It’s thrilling, compelling and highly addictive. There are of course twists and turns along the way but I loved the shock-factor, as reading this was different to reading many other thrillers as every chapter was engaging rather than me just waiting for the huge twist that I will supposedly never see coming. There were several things I didn’t see coming in The Escape but that was down to some brilliant plotting and how I was so gripped by every chapter I could barely take my eyes away from the page for a second – so definitely no time to work out what twists were to come.

In many ways this book really digs to the root of parental love and how much mothers and fathers are willing to risk for their children. To Jo, Elise is the most important part of her world. She really wishes she could give her a better life, without anxiety holding her back, but still she fights and fights to make things better for her daughter, who quite frankly was just the sweetest character. The bond between the two of them was so heartening and as the reader that relationship had me eager for their safety and happiness. Through Jo’s mum and step-dad, we see how the bond between parents and their children go both ways. I could feel just how much Jo cared for her step-dad and her deep sadness and guilt at not being able to spend more time with him when he has little time left to live. There were many more moments in this book where I could see how powerful the love between parents and their children goes, and this made me understand more some of the decisions the characters make within The Escape.

This is a book you really must buy and read straight away. The Escape is as exciting as it is suspenseful. It is honestly such a brilliant book that I can’t get off my mind. I loved it from start to finish – I really don’t think I’ve enjoyed any other thriller quite like this one.

The Body in the Ice by A.J. MacKenzie

Published by Zaffre on April 20, 2017

Thank you for joining me for an interview on the blog.

The Body in the Ice, book two in the Hardcastle and Chaytor mystery series, will be published by Zaffre tomorrow. Can you tell us a bit about it?

It’s a story of divided families and mixed loyalties and bitter conflict, set in the cold heart of winter in a country at war. It opens on Christmas Day, 1796, with the discovery of a body of a young black woman frozen into the ice of a pond outside New Hall, a big house near St Mary in the Marsh. Her companion, seen travelling with her, has disappeared. Soon after, the Rossiter family, the owners of New Hall, return to the Marsh after an absence of many decades in America. The Rossiters, or some of them, had fought on the American side during the recently concluded War of Independence.

So why have they come back to England now? Can there be any connection between their arrival and the discovery of the body? Just what secret is New Hall hiding? There are plenty of twists and turns, an unexpected visitor for Reverend Hardcastle, the return of an an old foe and the arrival of some new adversaries, before what publishers like to call ‘an explosive ending’.

The series is set in Kent and in the 18th century. What inspired you to write about that date and location?

It’s a combination of the time and the place. Romney Marsh is a fascinating place, quite different from the rest of Kent. One resident of the Marsh later wrote that the world is divided into five parts: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Romney Marsh. In many ways it is an enclosed community, one that is suspicious of strangers and has a strong sense of local loyalty.

And the time is the 1790s, when France and Britain are locked in warfare after the French Revolution. You can see the coast of France clearly from Romney Marsh. It’s a strange and sometimes eerie place, and a violent and dramatic time. We have tried to capture that drama and eeriness in The Body in the Ice and in its predecessor, The Body on the Doorstep.

What do you find most appealing about writing historical novels?

L.P. Hartley famously said that ‘the past is a foreign country’. But we love travelling there, and we love being tour guides too. We enjoy bringing a period of history to life, taking readers into another time and helping them to sense what life was really like there. So, if you fancy an immersion in smuggling, espionage, politics and village life in Georgian England, grab your passport and join us.

How much do you enjoy any research you do for each book?

Research is fascinating. As well as the Hardcastle and Chaytor books, we’re working on a couple of other projects at the moment, so today, for example, one of us is reading about the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin while the other is digging into French property law. We’re essentially curious people – probably in both senses of the word, come to that – and we like learning things.

For a historical novel, there’s three kinds of research. First, there is reading up on the background, in books or online sources. Maps are an essential part of this type of research, in order to get a sense of space and topography. Then, we always try to get out and drive or walk the ground, look at the places where events take place, see what features of the landscape we can use and what we need to change or invent. We spend a lot of time staring at empty fields and river crossings, which really worries passers-by. And then there is character research, building and developing our characters until we really know them as people. The last is particularly enjoyable because we can let our imaginations run free.

How does the process of writing as a duo go? Are there any aspects you find particularly challenging, that authors not writing as a duo don’t experience?

The film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen once described their writing collaboration as ‘a conversation’. We’re a bit like that. We talk and discuss ideas, bat them back and forth, help each other solve problems, rein in each others’ wilder flights of fancy. The books sort of evolve out of that process, somehow. We’re both pretty busy, and the main problem we experience is finding enough time to sit and work together.

Do you have any plans to celebrate publication day?

If the weather holds, a nice walk on the beach in north Cornwall, or on Dartmoor. One of us has a school governors’ meeting in the early evening but after that there is a possibility that alcohol may be consumed.

Do your feelings ahead of publication day for the second book in the series differ to how you felt before The Body on the Doorstep was published, now readers have already been introduced to Hardcastle and Chaytor?

The feeling when you see your first novel published and hold it in your hand can never be repeated. This time, with The Body in the Ice, there’s a little trepidation too. This is the ‘difficult second album’, and we’re very keen to know whether people will enjoy this story as much as the first one; or even, hopefully, more... We also wonder how they will react to the changes and developments in our two lead characters, Reverend Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor. So, yes, looking forward to it, but just a little bit scared…

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

When not writing, we think about writing... But we do have a life outside of writing. As well as other work (teaching and examining) and volunteering, music looms large in both our lives. One of us sings (a lot) and writes music, while the other listens to music (also a lot). We’ve been to six live music events already this month, all locally in West Devon.

Can you tell us one thing we would be surprised to learn about you?

1. Marilyn has just set Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree to music,as a birthday present to a friend who sings with her in an a capella trio. They sang it the other day, busking in Exeter city centre.

2. Morgen owns two acres of land on the moon, in the Flammarion crater. We’re not giving out the address, though. We like our privacy.

3. We had a five-month-long honeymoon in an ancient motor caravan driving across northern Europe in the dead of winter – and we’re still married.

If you could choose one book published during the past year that you would recommend we read, what book would that be?

Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan is Not Obliged. It’s a very forthright, funny, well-written and moving book. Definitely worth reading. Ayisha's second book The Other Side of Happiness will be our treat to read on a short holiday to France later in the month.

Monday 17 April 2017

Invisible Women by Sarah Long

Published by Zaffre on April 20, 2017

Is it ever a good idea to meet up with an ex-boyfriend?

Let’s admit it, we have all at some point thought about a past love who might just have been The One That Got Away. Whether you’re happily or unhappily coupled, proudly single or on the look-out, there is always a lingering nostalgia for the the boy who used to make your heart sing.

Sweetened by distance, distorted by rose-tinted spectacles, the memories can jump up and surprise you at any moment. And with the power of social media, you can turn dreams into reality with the click of a mouse. The friend request, the innocent catch-up chit chat, then the ‘we must meet up for a drink some time.’ Next thing you know, you’re telling your partner you might be late home one evening, but forgetting to mention the friend you’re meeting is your ex. After all, it’s only a drink, why frighten the horses? You sit there with your gin and tonic, in a state of heightened excitement, waiting for your teenage dreamboat to walk in the door. And fail to notice the portly, balding middle-aged man who is grinning and waving to you from the other side of the bar.

This is pretty much what happens to the heroine of my novel INVISIBLE WOMEN. Seduced by their online banter, Tessa is intrigued to meet up with the boy she hasn’t seen since she was seventeen, even though she is now married with grown up children. It is scientifically proven that emotions experienced during our youth leave a powerful imprint on the young brain that is all too easily reawoken at a later date. Which can be complicated if you don’t both have the same idea about how to deal with them!

You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens to Tessa, but I admit I drew on my own experience of friends being thrown into turmoil in their fifties by the unexpected resurgence of an old flame. If it’s not through Facebook, it could the school or college reunion. Somewhere in the ravaged face of that unremarkable man, you find the spark you’ve been missing, and it’s the beginning of a passionate affair that may embarrass your children, but is a massive endorsement for the over fifties. At the best wedding I’ve ever been to, the bride wore full white regalia in defiance of her mature years and her groom serenaded her during his speech with an emotional rendition of ‘When you were sweet sixteen.’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

INVISIBLE WOMEN by Sarah Long is published by Bonnier Zaffre

Sunday 16 April 2017

Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl

Published by Orenda Books on April 15, 2017

Faithless is the first book I have read in the Oslo Detectives series, the first one translated into English I think, but judging by the quality of this book and that ending, I am desperate to get my hands on any future translated books in the series! This book had me gripped from page one. I’d just flicked it open to read the opening chapter before bed and before I knew it early morning sunlight was peeking through the curtains and I was down to my last twenty pages. I was so absorbed in the plot and was unaware of just how quickly I had been reading it until then, but there hadn’t been a single moment where I considered putting the book down. Faithless is a dark and atmospheric novel and one that I found to be utterly enthralling.

When the body of a woman is found dumped, scalded with hot water and wrapped in plastic, Oslo detective Frank Frølich is shocked to discover that the woman is not only someone he’d met recently but also someone he arrested recently as she was in possession of cocaine. On top of that, she also has connections to an old friend of Frølich and so he has a bit more invested in this particular case than he should have. I thought Frølich’s personal link to this case made it all the more interesting as we get to see the development of his character too as he battles with his conscience and the lines between professional and unprofessional conduct. He’s put in a difficult position but I liked the challenges he faces as it made me warm to his grumpy persona even more. Frølich is a complex character and I found the more we learn about him, the more intrigued by him I was.

I have to say just how much I love how the cover represents the woman’s body wrapped in plastic. This is such a stunning and powerful graphic which showcases one of the main themes of this novel. One thing I loved about this book though was just how much was going on. There are many cases rolled into one book here and each of them are resolved at their own pace which allows the other unsolved cases to take over. Not only is there the identity of the murderer to discover but also a missing student case to uncover as well as much more in this relatively short but impactful novel.

As the layers to the book peel away, what is left behind is one main case, the murder of Veronika Undset, and this particular case had me glued to the pages dying to get some answers. I was truly blind-sighted by the author as I guessed the outcome of the case early on and then by the time we discover what really happened my own guess was forgotten as I had about ten other ideas about what could have happened and they were, of course, all wrong, because I was right the first time! I loved picking at some of the clues and trying to work this one out for myself. I found that the somewhat calmer nature of the police in Faithless enabled me to get more involved in trying to figure it all out myself and this is one aspect I particularly enjoyed because it makes for a more inviting police procedural novel where, as the reader, I felt more a part of it than I would usually.

Frølich and Gunnarstranda are the main detectives in Faithless and despite not knowing any of their history I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on too much by not having read the other, untranslated books in the series. To me even though Faithless is part of a series it read like a standalone in that nothing felt lacking. This was an easy book to slip right into and the dynamics between the workforce early on, and throughout, helped me to engage in the story and the characters soon became familiar to me which is not normally the case when you begin reading in the middle of a series.

The pacing of Faithless was exactly how I liked it, not rushed but instead built up and teased out in a slower, steadier pace, burning with tension and haunting with its lingering prose. I found the tone to the writing at times could be quite chilling and suspenseful as the case in this book is quite a bleak one. I don’t think I’ve been this engrossed in a book like this for a long time. The author had me absolutely hooked from the moment we discover Veronika has been murdered and though I could not wait to discover what had happened to her, I was disappointed that the book had to come to an end because I was enjoying it too much. I’m a big fan of that ending though, and I will be recommending this book for a long time to come, right until I can hopefully get my hands on the next book in the series.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Exposure by Aga Lesiewicz

Published by Pan Macmillan on February 23, 2017

The People at Number 9 by Felicity Everett

Published by HQ on April 6, 2017

The People at Number 9 is a book I really couldn’t wait to read and I was thrilled when my copy came in the post. I’d seen a lot of this book on Twitter and that cover had me so intrigued. There was something so teasing about the blurb which led me to believe this was going to be a tale of secrets and screwed up characters. I was expecting lots of twists and turns and drama too, and though I'm not sure how much the book met my expectations on that level, that really didn’t seem to matter because I was absolutely enamoured by this book anyway.

When a new couple moves into number nine, the house next door, Sara is absolutely compelled by what she sees. Gav and Lou are free, artistic characters who seem to breeze through their lives in a nonchalant manner, and they fascinate Sara. When she finally says hello to her new neighbours, it isn’t long before Sara and Lou are the best of friends. In fact Lou soon becomes Sara’s only friend as she quickly pushes her other friends aside so she can spend more time with Lou, Gav and their kids. But is Lou expecting too much of her new neighbours? I was waiting for it to all end in tears.

The cover and blurb to The People at Number 9 asks the reader whose side they are on. All the way through reading this book I just didn’t know! My allegiance kept switching sides and sometimes I found that I couldn’t really side with either couple. I found this character driven story really engaging though as both couples’ antics fascinated me. At times I found Lou harmless and at others I felt she was taking advantage of Sara's want for her friendship. Other times I found Sara really judgemental and the kind of friend I knew would be judging me and talking about me the moment I'd left her company. Gav and Neil are involved in this book too, they only play a slightly more minor role to Sara and Lou in the grand scheme of things and I found them both easier characters to read, though even with the men in this book I struggled to choose a side.

I loved this book’s representation of neighbours, sort of the twitchy curtain feeling you get thinking that your neighbours always know what you're up to, when you're leaving the house and what you do with your time. This book also represents the flip side of this. How you build up a picture of your neighbours in your mind only to discover they're not who you think they are. Sara in particular seemed absolutely obsessed with Gav and Lou and she could not stop talking about them or thinking about them. To me she came across as a quite lonely character who would do anything to keep hold of her new friends, people who inspired her and took her away from the dull, repetitiveness of her daily life.

Sara appeared quite a lot like that girl at school who was so desperate to hang out with the popular crowd that she'd ditch her less popular friends in a flash. This is what I pictured as I saw Sara move on from her friendship with Carol in a bid to befriend Lou. Sara was not the innocent party by any means but I did feel like Lou’s control over Sara, intentional or not, had a bit of a Mean Girls feel to it in a sort of ‘you can hang out with me as long as you don’t hang out with her’ kind of way. Poor Carol! In fact a lot of the friendship and the issues between Lou and Sara reminded me of some of the trivial stuff teenage girls have issues over, except that in The People at Number 9, their kids were involved too, often in an unsettling way.

I can’t quite understand just what it was about this book. Usually I love my books to be filled with drama, secrets, betrayals and the kind of book that you know with every chapter could come to a head. The People at Number 9 didn’t have anywhere near as much drama as I had expected. It wasn’t filled with twists and turns. In truth, not a lot happened in this book but it had a real hold on me straight away and I was never for one second bored. I was absolutely mesmerised by the characters and their day to day lives. By the time I’d reached the end of one chapter, I couldn’t resist reading the next, and I read almost two thirds of the book in one go. It all felt a bit sordid, like I was snooping on my own neighbours and just couldn't help myself. I found this book incredibly addictive and I couldn’t wait to read more, to learn more, to see what each new chapter would bring.

I was so fascinated by The People at Number 9. I’m really dying to talk more about it. I think book clubs could spend hours going over the events of this book and never come to a conclusion about whose side they are on and the rights and wrongs on either side. I love it when a book divides readers, when nothing is black and white. The People at Number 9 is an absorbing, dark novel which should appeal to all fellow people watchers and nosy neighbours alike.

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