The Maidens by Alex Michaelides @AlexMichaelides @orionbooks @wnbooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Weidenfeld and Nicolson
PP: 368
ISBN-13: 978-1409181668

St Christopher’s College, Cambridge, is a closed world to most.

For Mariana Andros – a group therapist struggling through her private grief – it’s where she met her late husband. For her niece, Zoe, it’s the tragic scene of her best friend’s murder.

As memory and mystery entangle Mariana, she finds a society full of secrets, which has been shocked to its core by the murder of one of its own.

Because behind its idyllic beauty is a web of jealousy and rage which emanates from an exclusive set of students known only as The Maidens. A group under the sinister influence of the enigmatic professor Edward Fosca.

A man who seems to know more than anyone about the murders – and the victims. And the man who will become the prime suspect in Mariana’s investigation – an obsession which will unravel everything…

The Maidens is a story of love, and of grief – of what makes us who we are, and what makes us kill.

My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review

                                                                                                                                  
Alex Michaelides does enjoy a rarified atmosphere. The Silent Patient, Michaelides first book, dealt with artist, Alice Berenson, accused of murdering her husband and a criminal psychotherapist, Theo Faber. In The Maidens, Mariana Andros is a group therapist who returns to her alma mater, Cambridge University, after the murder of a student.

Mariana grew up in Greece and met her husband Sebastian at Cambridge University and they married. But Sebastian drowned the previous year in a swimming accident and so returning to Cambridge brings difficult memories for Mariana. Tara, the murdered student was Zoe’s friend. She was brutally murdered; stabbed and left in a wood. Zoe is Mariana’s niece and her only close relative. She and Sebastian brought her up after Zoe’s parents died in a car crash and so Mariana returns to Cambridge to look after Zoe.

Michaelides beautifully evokes the Cambridge University atmosphere of cloistered walls, academic excellence and bowler-hatted porters who watch over it all. It’s a great setting for a murder mystery.

The Maidens connects the murder with Mariana using echoes of Greek myths, Before Sebastian’s death, he and Mariana had visited an ancient temple on Naxos  dedicated to Demeter (and Persephone. Persephone is known as “Kore” to the Greeks and that means “maiden”. Now, at Cambridge, she finds a classics professor, Edward Fosca, has a group of female students around him who are referred to as ‘The Maidens’.

Fosca is a dark, good-looking American a specialist in the Classics, notably Greek tragedies. The young women who form his posse all dress in white like Greek maidens. Mariana dislikes him on sight and resolves to help with the investigation when Zoe convinces Mariana that the police have arrested the wrong man.

Mariana is no super sleuth, she is still grieving for Sebastian and when two more women are murdered, she becomes obsessed with proving that Fosca is responsible.  

Using her skills as a therapist she tries to analyse Fosca’s group, even inviting them to a session to explore what is really going on. But the more she digs, the deeper she gets caught up in what seems to be becoming a seriously dangerous obsession. There’s a nice nod to The Silent Patient when Theo Faber is given a small cameo in the book.

The Maidens is a slow burn of a book to begin with. Michaelides takes his time setting up the atmospherically rich Cambridge world and this bears fruit when the combination of the refined college atmosphere melds with bloody Greek myths and a series of ritualistic murders.  Greek mythology is represented not just by Mariana’s past and Edward Fosca’s present, but also through postcards which the killer distributes. There’s a sense of menace that creeps up on the reader through the book and we fear for Mariana’s life and her sanity.

Verdict:  The Maidens is an intense mystery within a stifling atmosphere and the sheer toxicity of Fosca’s masculinity and his posse of adoring young women stands out. It’s no wonder Mariana fixates on him. Michealides though, gives us many suspects to consider and when the killer is finally revealed, the truth is even more pernicious and surprising. An intelligent, cleverly plotted murder mystery.

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Alex Michaelides was born and raised in Cyprus. He has an M.A. in English literature from Trinity College, Cambridge University, and an M.A. in screenwriting from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. The Silent Patient was his first novel and was the biggest-selling debut in the world in 2019. It spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list and sold in a record-breaking forty-nine countries. Alex lives in London

Phosphate Rocks by Fiona Erskine @SandstonePress @erskine_fiona

Source: Review copy
Publication: 17 June 2021 from Sandstone Press
PP: 284
ISBN-13: 978-1913207526

I am really delighted to be participating in the blog tour for Fiona Erskine’s new novel, Phosphate Rocks. I’m hosting The author’s own intrduction to the book – but first let’s have a look at what the blurb says:

During the demolition of a factory, a shocking discovery is made: a mummified corpse encased in a carapace of hardened dust – phosphate rock – surrounded by ten objects that provide tantalising clues as to its identity…

Now doesn’t that sound both intriguing, fun and also a bit different? I love the premise and Fiona’s experience as a chemical engineer is sure to add lots of authenticity to this fascinating novel.

Here’s Fiona to tell you how the book came to fruition:

Phosphate Rocks: Introduction

In early 1988, I was rattling down Leith Walk on my Honda 90 motorbike (0–11 miles per hour in 1 millisecond, although it took longer to get above 11) towards Edinburgh’s dock­land and the Scottish Agricultural Industries (SAI) fertiliser factory. I could tell what sort of shift it was going to be from the factory chimneys. My last one.

Five years previously, when I first informed the deputy manager that I planned to work shifts like the male graduates, he paled. A five-foot-three-and-a-half, sixty-kilo, twenty-something, cocky, over-educated feminist alone at night in a factory of hundreds of big, rough men… he was terrified for them. So, he appointed a trusted, experienced shift foreman to keep me out of trouble: John Gibson.

Many years and several jobs later, after a skiing accident and an even more bruising first brush with fiction, I was persuaded by my partner in life to write down the stories I used to tell arriving home from a twelve-hour shift in Leith docks, caked in phosphate rock.

I embarked on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) armed only with the words ‘I remember’, and it all poured out.

NaNoWriMo is a bit like a Honda 90. You can race ahead with extraordinary speed and exhilaration; tens of thousands of words can be knocked out in a month. Unfortunately, it took me almost a decade to knock that first draft into shape.

The person I found it hardest to write about was John, my mentor and shift companion – enigmatic, infuriating, charming, capricious, obstinate, kind and wise – until I found a way to illuminate him by putting him centre stage, where he belongs.

Like the shaggy dog stories that John shared to get us through a night shift, not all of what follows is exactly true. Names have been changed because the real people involved are still bigger than me. Dates have been changed because my memory is appalling.

I am going to pop up from time to time, like the James Gillespie’s High School and Cambridge University educated smart arse I am, to explain some of the technical stuff. You’ll be able to spot me by the thud of Perry’s 4.46-kilogram Chemical Engineering Handbook (Version 6), the motes of dust (atishoo!) and the rustle of its 2,240 pages.

Inspired by Primo Levi, in the style of Dan Brown, this is the portrait of a factory in all its complex, glorious, intercon­nected, messy entirety. A hymn to the forgotten, the unknown and the misunderstood, this is the story of a fertiliser factory in decline and some of the fine people taken down with it.

I asked John to read this, to see if he wanted to change anything. He refused to even look at it.

‘I trust you, doll,’ he said.

Doll?

OK, then. Gloves off. Carte blanche.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I’m laughing already and looking forward to reviewing it when space allows.

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A professional engineer with forty years of international manufacturing experience, Fiona Erskine’s first graduate job was in the factory described in Phosphate Rocks. Born in Edinburgh, Fiona grew up riding motorbikes and jumping into cold water. After studying chemical engineering at university, she learned to weld, cast and machine with apprentices in Paisley. As a professional engineer she has worked and travelled internationally and is now based in the North East of England. Her first novel, The Chemical Detective, which was shortlisted for the Specsavers Debut Crime Novel Award 2020, was followed by The Chemical Reaction.

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Lucky for One: Bloody Scotland reveals 13 McIlvanney Prize Finalists for 2021 @BloodyScotland @Brownlee_Donald

Five years ago the Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award was renamed the McIlvanney Prize in memory of William McIlvanney. This year his final book, The Dark Remains which was completed with the help of Ian Rankin will be published on 2 September coinciding with the announcement of the McIlvanney Prize shortlist.

The longlist for the McIlvanney Prize 2021 is today revealed to be:

The Cut, Chris Brookmyre (Little,Brown)
The Silent Daughter, Emma Christie (Welbeck)
Before the Storm, Alex Gray (Little, Brown)
Dead Man’s Grave, Neil Lancaster (HarperCollins, HQ)
The Coffinmaker’s Garden, Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins)
Still Life, Val McDermid (Little,Brown)


Bad Debt, William McIntyre (Sandstone)
The Less Dead, Denise Mina (Vintage)
How To Survive Everything, Ewan Morrison (Saraband)
Edge of the Grave, Robbie Morrison (Macmillan)
The April Dead, Alan Parks (Canongate)
Hyde, Craig Russell (Constable)
Waking the Tiger, Mark Wightman (Hobeck Books)



Thirteen – a crime festival’s dozen that can only be lucky for one! Only Val McDermid also featured on the list last year and Chris Brookmyre has featured on every longlist either as himself or his alter ego Ambrose Parry. He describes himself as ‘the Meryl Streep of the McIlvanney’. Craig Russell and Denise Mina are also previous winners.

Bob McDevitt, Director of Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival said:
‘The McIlvanney Prize longlist once again reaffirms that our crime readers love great books by well-loved authors they are familiar with but are always on the lookout for new voices and new ways to tell a crime story. It’s a testament to the breadth and depth of Scottish crime writing’

The McIlvanney Prize will be judged by Karen Robinson, formerly of The Times Crime Club and a CWA judge; Ayo Onatade, winner of the CWA Red Herring Award and freelance crime fiction critic and Ewan Wilson, crime fiction buyer from Waterstones Glasgow.


For the second year running the sponsor will be The Glencairn Glass – the world’s favourite whisky glass.

Finalists for the McIlvanney Prize will be revealed at the beginning of September coinciding with publication of The Dark Remains. The winner will be revealed in Stirling and on-line on Friday 17 September.

The shortlist for The Bloody Scotland Debut Crime Novel of the Year will be announced at the end of June 2021.
The Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival, scheduled to take place in the historic town of Stirling from 17-19 September 2021, will now take place in hybrid form.

The McIlvanney award recognises excellence in Scottish crime writing, includes a prize of £1000 and nationwide promotion in Waterstones. The 2021 longlist features established crime writers and debuts, corporates and indies. Previous winners are Francine Toon with Pine in 2020, Manda Scott with A Treachery of Spies in 2019 (who chose to share her prize with all the finalists), Liam McIlvanney with The Quaker in 2018, Denise Mina with The Long Drop 2017, Chris Brookmyre with Black Widow 2016, Craig Russell with The Ghosts of Altona in 2015, Peter May with Entry Island in 2014, Malcolm Mackay with How A Gunman Says Goodbye in 2013 and Charles Cumming with A Foreign Country in 2012.

Knock Knock by Anders Roslund @HarvillSecker @FMcMAssociates

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Vintage Publishing
PP: 448
ISBN-13: 9781787302457

I am delighted to bring you an extract from the first solo novel by Anders Roslund, the acclaimed novelist whose books written with Börge Hellström and with Stefan Thunberg have been widely acclaimed and read by millions.

Knock Knock is the first Inspector Ewert Grens novel written entirely under his own name and has been hugely anticipated. Let’s see what the blurb says:

Seventeen years ago, Inspector Ewert Grens was called to the scene of a brutal crime. A family had been murdered, with only their five-year-old daughter left behind. The girl was moved out and placed under witness protection, but while the case went cold, Grens is still haunted by the memory. When he learns that the apartment where the crime took place is now the scene of a mysterious break-in, Grens fears that someone is intent on silencing the only witness. He must race to find her…before they do.

Perfect for fans of Jo Nesbo, Steig Larsson and Samuel Bjork – don’t miss out on the latest Scandi-crime sensation.

Now, doesn’t that sound terrific? Let’s head straight into an extract to whet your appetite further:

A beautiful door.

Dark, heavy wood, early twentieth century. It somehow belongs with the muted, hollow sound of his knocking that fills the rounded stairwell, echoing off the slightly too steep steps, the high and elegant ceiling, and the flowery wallpaper that grows more lushly realistic on every floor. Ewert Grens, standing in front of an apartment in central Stockholm, knocks again even harder.

‘Somebody’s in there. I hear them all day long. I hear it through my living room floor, in my hall, even in the bathroom. You wouldn’t believe how thin the walls are in this building.’

A voice, pinched and irritated, comes from behind him. Grens doesn’t turn around, doesn’t answer, just rings the bell for a fourth time.

‘Someone’s singing – probably one of the kids, I’m fairly certain they have three. And I think it might be a TV too, very loud. It’s been on for at least a couple of days. And not during the day – all night, too. I was the one who called, I live in the apartment upstairs.’

The detective superintendent finally glances behind him. A man, just over forty, arms crossed, the kind of guy he dislikes immediately without really knowing why. The type who puts their ear to the door and listens.

‘Happy birthday.’

‘What?’

‘That’s the song the child sings. Happy birthday to you. Over and over.’

The neighbour called in about the strange sounds. And called again when strange sounds turned to strange smells.

‘I’m going to have to ask you to return to your own apartment now.’

‘But I’m the one who . . .’

‘Yes – and you did the right thing. But now I need you to go back upstairs so I can take care of this.’

Grens waits until he’s completely alone before knocking a third time, impatiently, urgently, as if the muted and the hollow are calling out decisively. When no one opens the door, he bends down to peek through the letterbox, but before he gets there, someone on the other side tries to turn the lock. They don’t manage, but they try again. He can hear a quiet thump on a hardwood floor.

‘Police.’

Thump, thump, like someone jumping.

‘Police. Open the door.’

A lock that is slowly being turned. A handle that seems to move on its own.

Ewert Grens doesn’t like using a weapon. But still he grabs the gun from his shoulder holster and takes a step back.

Her hair is quite long. Blonde. He doesn’t know anything about children, but if he had to guess – she’s four, maybe five years old.

‘Hello.’

She’s wearing a red dress. Big stains on its chest and stomach. She smiles, her face is also stained, maybe from food.

‘Hello. Is your mummy or daddy at home?’

She nods.

‘Good. Can you go and get them?’

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘They can’t walk.’

So strange.

How the stench, sharp, intrusive, a stench he’s so familiar with, which met him faintly as soon as he entered the beautiful stairwell and assaulted him anew the moment the child with stains on her dress and her face opened the door – how that stench doesn’t really become part of his consciousness until he takes a few steps into the hall and is standing in front of a man slumped over in a chair between a coat and a shoe rack.

‘This is my daddy.’

A large hole sits on the right side of his forehead. Shot at close range from the front, probably a handgun and a soft-point bullet, half lead, half titanium.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That all sounds so deliciously dark and quintessentially Scandi Noir. Already I have it marked as an absolute must read!

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Anders Roslund has published ten novels to date as part of the successful writing duos Roslund &Hellström and Roslund & Thunberg. His books have been read by millions and he is the recipient of numerous prestigious international awards, including the CWA International Dagger, The Glass Key and the Prix du Polar Européen.Knock Knock is the first novel published under Roslund’s own name. Photo (c) Emil Eiman

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One WayStreet by Trevor Wood @TrevorWoodWrite @QuercusBooks @ellakroftpatel

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Quercus Books
PP: 448
ISBN-13: ‎ 978-1787478381

My thanks to Ella Patel and Quercus Books for an early copy for review

A series of bizarre drug-related deaths among runaway teenagers has set the North East’s homeless community on edge. The word on the street is that a rogue batch of Spice – the zombie drug sweeping the inner cities – is to blame, but when one of Jimmy’s few close friends is caught up in the carnage, loyalty compels him to find out what’s really going on.

One Way Street sees the welcome return of Jimmy Mullen, the homeless, PTSD-suffering, veteran as he attempts to rebuild his life following the events in The Man on the Street. As his probation officer constantly reminds him: all he needs to do is keep out of trouble. Sadly for him, trouble seems to have a habit of tracking Jimmy down.

I loved Trevor Wood’s first Jimmy Mullen outing The Man on the Street about a veteran Navy officer. Jimmy Mullen was a leading regulator in the Royal Navy Police, but his PTSD from his time in the Falklands led him into a downward spiral and after a spell in prison, onto the streets. Mullen is an accidental detective, and it’s usually his mates Gadge and Deano who find trouble for him. Mullen’s loyalty is fierce, to his friends and his dog, Dog. He’s slowly getting to know his daughter Kate again. He also has a relationship with Julie, a woman he met in the previous book.

Out on licence, he’s doing now got a room in a hostel and has started group therapy. It’s winter and life on the streets is very hard. A wave of drug deaths, principally among the young, is sweeping Newcastle and Sunderland; police suspect a new variant of Spice is the cause.

Jimmy discovers that Deano has a younger brother, Ash, who he lost contact with years ago. Deano has heard that Ash has recently been seen in Sunderland and disappears off to look for him. Jimmy and Gadge know that Deano is vulnerable and set out to help him find his brother, only to fall foul of the spice dealers. Then Ash is found, dead.

As Jimmy starts to look into who is peddling this bad batch of drugs, his life once again comes under threat and the progress he has made in trying to live a normal life is sent right back to square one.

Trevor Wood’s strength lies both in his excellent characterisation and in his ability to plot a storyline that plays to the strength of those characters, making it both believable and honest. Often it’s one step forward, two steps back for Jimmy who finds the hostel grim, but grimmer still is having no fixed abode in the midst of winter. Still, as Sandy, his probation officer reminds him, all he has to do is stay out of trouble…

Trevor Wood paints an exceptional picture of life on the streets and the characters who inhabit the world of the rough sleepers. In this book we learn a lot more about young Deano and where he came from. All these characters have complex, difficult backgrounds; each has their own set of circumstances which led to be homeless. In Deano’s case it is a legacy of abuse and neglect dating back to his early years that has led him to become an addict and we find out about that past in this book because it is coming back to haunt him in a big way when he searches for his brother, Ash.

When you don’t have anything, you tend to lose your faith in people, too. Jimmy Mullen is suspicious, but he is loyal to Gadge and Deano and he looks out for them. He’s also fortunate to have made a couple of useful contacts in a local journalist and in DS Andy Burns; contacts that will be helpful in his search for the drug dealers and when he, yet again, falls foul of the law.

The Newcastle of Wood’s books stands out as a striking character in its own right. His characters feels authentic and Jimmy’s flaws are as well etched as his strengths. Wood sees what life on the streets is like for an invisible underclass and he shows the importance of homeless shelters such as The Pit Stop just as he portrays the grim reality of the men’s hostel.

The conversational crack is good, though and the jokes can flow when Jimmy, Gadge and Deano are in the mood. They may not have a lot to laugh about, but this camaraderie can keep them going.

Wood’s plot is dark and gritty utilising flashbacks to Deano’s childhood, and the whole theme of drugs and using children is as chilling as it is, sadly, authentic. Once more, everything Jimmy has achieved is put in jeopardy as Jimmy gives no quarter in searching for the truth.

Verdict: With lots more character information and development; this is a great addition to the series. The way forward for Jimmy is becoming clearer, but as Wood has shown, we can take nothing for granted. I really like this protagonist and his mates and Trevor Wood has drawn them brilliantly even as he once more makes them face dangerous adversaries. Excellent!

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Trevor Wood has lived in Newcastle for twenty-five years and considers himself an adopted Geordie. He’s a successful playwright who has also worked as a journalist and spin-doctor for the City Council. Prior to that he served in the Royal Navy for sixteen years. Trevor holds an MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) from UEA. The Man on the Street, his first novel, was published to widespread critical acclaim and won the 2020 CWA New Blood Dagger. One Way Street is his second novel.

Mrs England by Stacey Halls @stacey_halls @ZaffreBooks @Tr4cyF3nt0n

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Manilla Press/Zaffre Books
PP: 400
ISBN-13: 978-1838772864

My thanks to Tracy at Compulsive Readers and Zaffre Books for an opportunity to review

West Yorkshire, 1904.

When newly graduated nurse Ruby May takes a position looking after the children of Charles and Lilian England, a wealthy couple from a powerful dynasty of mill owners, she hopes it will be the fresh start she needs. But as she adapts to life at the isolated Hardcastle House, it becomes clear there’s something not quite right about the beautiful, mysterious Mrs England. Ostracised by the servants and feeling increasingly uneasy, Ruby is forced to confront her own demons in order to prevent history from repeating itself. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect family – and she should know.

Simmering with slow-burning menace, Mrs England is a portrait of an Edwardian marriage, weaving an enthralling story of men and women, power and control, courage, truth and the very darkest deception. Set against the atmospheric landscape of West Yorkshire, Stacey Halls’ third novel proves her one of the most exciting and compelling new storytellers of our times.

Stacey Halls builds up a beautiful, encompassing, atmospheric world and then populates it with characters that stand out. From the outset I was drawn to Ruby May, a Norland Institute nanny. Ruby is the daughter of a Birmingham shop-keeper and she has attended the Norland Institute as a scholarship girl. Ruby has been working for a glamorous and wealthy couple, the Radletts, caring for their only child, Georgina. It’s her first job since graduating from the Norland Academy and the family are as thrilled to have her as she is to be there.

Then out of the blue, Mrs Radlett tells Ruby that that Mr Radlett’s job means relocating the family to Chicago. Ruby is devastated. The family wants her to go with them; that was never in question, but for reasons of her own, Ruby will not go. The Norland Institute is less than pleased. Norland nannies are trained to expect to stay with a family when it moves, and leaving a family before a child has outgrown a nanny is frowned upon.

But Ruby is adamant and offers to take on any family that will have her if she can stay in the country. It is clear that Ruby has reasons for refusing to travel abroad, and she is clearly keen to stay in contact with her family, but more than that she is not saying.

So Ruby finds another placement, one that Norland would not easily have filled without her volunteering. She is to work for the England family and their four children. Mr England runs a cotton mill set amidst the dark woods of the Yorkshire moors surrounded by a rather bleak countryside; so different from the London society she has been used to.

Arriving on a wet and windy night, Ruby realises just how isolated this place is when she has to dismount her carriage and walk through the dark woods to get to Hardcastle House where she is to reside. She learns that the children’s previous nurse had been Mr England’s nanny and had taken on his children, finally dying of old age.  

Ruby May has a lot to do during her first days and weeks at Hardcastle House. Her predecessor’s eyesight was not so good in her latter years and so there is a great deal of basic housekeeping to do in the nursery. To her surprise, Ruby finds that her orders come direct from Mr Charles England and that Mrs England, Lilian, has little to do with either the children or the running of the house.

Ruby finds herself in somewhat of an isolated position. She is not a servant and the other household staff look on her with suspicion, suspecting she thinks herself a cut above them. So Ruby ploughs a lonely furrow, becoming the children’s guide and protector; teaching them, playing with them and keeping them nicely washed and dressed. All these are normal duties; ones which are usually carried out to allow a loving mother to be the beautiful, smiling presence in her children’s lives – but that’s not happening here. Instead it is the affable cigar smoking Charles England who stops in to the nursery to enjoy time with his children.

The reader knows that this is a house in which something is off. Ruby knows it too, and she feels so sorry for Mr England who bears the burden of his wife’s cold exterior and has to be everything to his children.

Ruby May is such a brilliant character. Determined, hard-working, and so concerned for her family, in particular her sister, to whom she writes weekly. She sends half her wages home, too.  Though we don’t know quite why she is concerned for her sister, it shines through in the way she eagerly awaits her letters.

Stacy Halls allows us to fall for Ruby May while building an atmospheric and menacing undercurrent to life at Hardcastle Hall. There’s a naivety to Ruby that alerts the reader to the possibility of real danger and this helps keep tension high as events develop.

Hall wonderfully creates a suspenseful mystery with a dangerous edge. Utilising a terrifically created dark atmosphere of bleak countryside, dangerous crags and dark woods the whole feel of the novel is one of impending disaster. As we puzzle over what secrets Ruby is keeping, we begin to realise the terrible power that is being exerted in Hardcastle House – a power that threatens the children in Ruby’s care.

Mrs England is a slow burner, all the better to build to the menace that is the poison at the root of the relationships in Hardcastle Hall. Both a Gothic mystery and also an exploration of a marriage, Mrs England shines a light on the status of women in Edwardian society.

Verdict: A beautiful, dark portrait of a bleak Edwardian marriage, full of deception, misdirected power and terrible secrets.  Atmospheric, simmering with tension, with richly-drawn characters and a strong sense of place that permeates the book, Mrs England is a fine historical novel with themes that resonate today. I could not put it down.

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Stacey Halls was born in 1989 and grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and has written for publications including the Guardian, Stylist, Psychologies, The Independent, The Sun and Fabulous. Her first book The Familiars was the bestselling debut novel of 2019. The Foundling was her second novel.

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I Know What I Saw by Imran Mahmood @imranmahmood777 @BloomsburyRaven

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Raven Books
PP: 384
ISBN-13: 978-1526627629

My thanks to the publishers for an early copy for review

I saw it. He smothered her, pressing his hands on her face. The police don’t believe me, they say it’s impossible – but I know what I saw.

Xander Shute – once a wealthy banker, now living on the streets – shelters for the night in an empty Mayfair flat. When he hears the occupants returning home, he scrambles to hide. Trapped in his hiding place, he hears the couple argue, and he soon finds himself witnessing a vicious murder.

But who was the dead woman, who the police later tell him can’t have been there? And why is the man Xander saw her with evading justice?

As Xander searches for answers, his memory of the crime comes under scrutiny, forcing him to confront his long-buried past and the stories he’s told about himself.

How much he is willing to risk to understand the brutal truth?

Imran Mahmood’s debut novel, You Don’t Know Me was a stand-out book that still lingers in my memory, so I was really keen to read I Know What I Saw. It is another piece of distinctive and compelling writing; quite different from anything I have read before.

Our protagonist is Xander Shute, once a man who had everything, now living on the streets. Xander read Mathematics at Cambridge then went into investment banking where he was forging a successful career, had great friends and a beautiful partner. Then his life fell apart and now he can’t bear to be indoors for any length of time. He sleeps in parks and on the streets in doorways.

Life on the streets is rough. He is constantly provoked, kicked and moved on, often being injured in the process. One night, after he is attacked in the park, bleeding and in need of medical treatment, finds a downstairs doorway in the heart of Mayfair in which he can shelter.  Moving down to it, he realises that the door is open, goes in, and finding the apartment empty, falls asleep on the floor behind the sofa.

He is awoken by the noise of an argument.  A man and a woman are quarrelling and then the quarrel turns nasty, ending in the violent death of the woman. After the man has gone, Xander runs away, but can’t forget what he has seen and reports the murder to the police.

What then follows is a nightmare.

Imran Mahmood creates a deep and layered portrayal of a man whose memories cannot always be relied upon. His complex character is designed to make us root for Xander in our liberal, conscience-stricken way, and it is fascinating to realise how much his portrait of Xander is designed to do just that. Would we feel so invested in Xander and his outcome if our protagonist had been homeless and on the streets as a result of drug addiction, I wonder?

Nevertheless, Xander is who he is and whatever he has been, he is now itinerant, one of society’s forgotten people, living a largely unseen life under the radar. His voice is strong though, if sometimes unpredictable, and his sense of the need to get justice for this woman is what drives him throughout the book.

Told by Xander, the reader learns about his relationships, family circumstances, friendships and ultimately, why he chose to walk away. His character is beautifully drawn and the reader cannot help but be pulled into his orbit. This is a man you would pull out the stops for; a man whose convictions help you to believe his story for all the flaws and missing parts of memory that surround his telling of the story. None of that matters though, because the people who matter in his quest for justice – the police – don’t believe him at all. But Xander can’t give up, whatever the cost. He has to find peace or he will lose what’s left of his mind.

Imran Mahmood is such a good story teller. His impeccable prose brilliantly presents the character and his situation, creating a wonderful sense of atmosphere, a fine sense of place and a character you want to root for, even though you know he isn’t entirely reliable. The truth, when it comes, is like a blow to the gut.

Verdict: I Know What I Saw is gripping, immersive and engaging. It is a brilliantly told story of a man struggling to remember; a man you are willing to succeed in his task whatever the cost. Intelligent, atmospheric and innovative, it is an impeccable piece of writing and deserves to be a massive success.

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Imran Mahmood was born in Liverpool in 1969 to first generation Pakistani parents. He has been working at the criminal bar in London for over 20 years and regularly appears in jury trials across the country dealing in serious and complex criminal cases. You Don’t Know Me was his debut novel. He lives in South East London.

Everything Happens for a Reason by Katie Allen @KtAllenWriting @OrendaBooks @RandomTTours

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 April 2021 in ebook and 10 June 2021 in paperback from Orenda Books
PP: 320
ISBN-13: 978-1913193614

My thanks to Orenda Books for an early copy for review.

I loved this book so much that I reviewed it back in April and I want everyone to read it, so I have joined the blog tour and am re-posting my review to spread the word about this beautiful book as far as I can.

Mum-to-be Rachel did everything right, but it all went wrong. Her son, Luke, was stillborn and she finds herself on maternity leave without a baby, trying to make sense of her loss.

When a misguided well-wisher tells her that ‘everything happens for a reason’, she becomes obsessed with finding that reason, driven by grief and convinced that she is somehow to blame. She remembers that on the day she discovered her pregnancy, she’d stopped a man from jumping in front of a train, and she’s now certain that saving his life cost her the life of her son.

Desperate to find him, she enlists an unlikely ally in Lola, an Underground worker, and Lola’s seven-year-old daughter, Josephine, and eventually tracks him down, with completely unexpected results…

Both a heart-wrenchingly poignant portrait of grief and a gloriously uplifting and disarmingly funny story of a young woman’s determination, Everything Happens for a Reason is a bittersweet, life- affirming read and, quite simply, unforgettable.

On the face of it, this isn’t the kind of book I’d normally pick up. It’s not crime, it’s about something intensely personal, dealing with a mother’s grief after the death of her stillborn baby boy. But the fact that it comes from Orenda makes it interesting and so I picked it up. I find that in a Covid world, my emotion is much closer to the surface than it used to be and I wasn’t sure that I was going to welcome that intrusion into my life.

What I found was a bit of a revelation. Katie Allen’s book is touching and quirky. It is funny and uplifting and even as she makes you laugh and you find yourself enjoying the madness of the characters her protagonist, bereaved mother Rachel, meets on her journey, Allen will deliver a sudden sucker punch that is a huge moment of grief that entirely takes the wind out of your sails.

Written in the form of a series of emails to her stillborn son, Luke, Rachel tells Luke of her days, while charting the progress he should have been making in his development. It should be maudlin, but it most certainly isn’t. There were times when I gasped at the sheer crassness of people’s responses, especially from Rachel’s family, to Rachel’s and her husband, Ed’s loss. From the titular ‘everything happens for a reason’ to unbelievable suggestions that its time she got over it, the difficulty people have in knowing what to say is very well portrayed.

So too is the impact on Rachel’s marriage. Not through direct exploration, but by the way we see how Rachel and Ed react differently to the decisions they have to make, including just the most awful discussion, if you can call it that, over whether or not to have a funeral. Honestly I think it’s one of the best explorations of how men and women think differently that I have seen in a book.

Katie Allen writes of grief with a light touch and Rachel’s need to find the reason that her son lost his life takes us on a journey that introduces us to some colourful characters as Rachel throws herself wholeheartedly into chasing down that reason (he’s called Ben) and then making sure that Ben lives a meaningful life. Into Rachel’s life comes Lola, the London Underground employee who helps Rachel find Ben, and Lola’s daughter, Josephine, who charms and enchants.

Allen writes with a dry humour mixed with wit and acute observation. And then sometimes she will put in a line that is so honest it takes your breath away as you contemplate the scale of grief she is dealing with. Sometimes it’s just a small thing, but it resonates like someone striking a gong in a room full of silence, because a moment earlier you were laughing with Rachel and now you’ve stopped in your tracks, remembering.

Everything Happens for a Reason is heart-breaking and emotional. It is laugh out loud funny and has wonderful moments where the reader gets lost thinking about hot men and sausage dogs as Rachel tries to transform Ben into living a life that is good enough to compensate for her baby dying. It’s mad, of course, but chasing down that idea at least keeps her mind focussed on something other than interminable grief.

Verdict: I’m not sure I’m doing a great job of explaining why this book works so well or is so warm and uplifting. I think it is that mixture of honesty, of humour, of Katie Allen’s ability to write characters that have depth and charm and sometimes brusqueness, coupled with scenes that linger in the memory because they are so powerful. Katie Allen has written a portrait of a woman in the midst of profound grief that is raw, truthful and immensely powerful but which makes you laugh even as you cry and which ultimately leaves you with hope. I really liked Rachel and I loved this book.

OrendaBooks                                 Bookshop.org                                Waterstones

Katie Allen used to be a journalist and columnist at the Guardian and Observer, and started her career as a Reuters correspondent in Berlin and London. She grew up in Warwickshire and now lives in South London with her husband, children, dog, cat and stick insects. Everything Happens for a Reason is her first novel.

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The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson @MichaelJBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Michael Joseph
PP: 384
ISBN-13: 978-0241400128

My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review

TEACHER WANTED ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD . . .’

Una knows she is struggling to deal with her father’s sudden, tragic suicide. She spends her nights drinking alone in Reykjavik, stricken with thoughts that she might one day follow in his footsteps.

So when she sees an advert seeking a teacher for two girls in the tiny village of Skálar – population of ten – on the storm-battered north coast of the island, she sees it as a chance to escape.

But once she arrives, Una quickly realises nothing in city life has prepared her for this. The villagers are unfriendly. The weather is bleak. And, from the creaky attic bedroom of the old house where she’s living, she’s convinced she hears the ghostly sound of singing.

Una worries that she’s losing her mind.

And then, just before midwinter, a young girl from the village is found dead. Now there are only nine villagers left – and Una fears that one of them has blood on their hands . . .

No-one does remote Icelandic locations quite like Ragnar Jónasson. This time, set in the 1980’s, it is Una, a 30 year old Reykjavík teacher who, struggling since the suicide of her father, is attracted by the idea of getting away from it.  When her friend shows her an advertisement for a teaching job in the remote village of Skálar, on the north east Icelandic peninsula, she ponders a lifestyle change.

Una, who’s been barely living, spending her meagre cash on drink and hiding herself away, thinks a complete change of scene can only do her good. Skálar has a population of only 10 people, so she will be away from it all, but forced to socialise, she thinks, so that will do her good.

But the reality is different from the somewhat more romantic vision that Una had envisioned. As her car struggles to cope with the journey, packing up as she arrives at the edge of the village, she finds herself without any means of leaving. It’s not a huge problem, as everyone walks everywhere in Skálar, but she has barely arrived before Jónasson is piling on the sense of claustrophobic isolation that we love so much in his novels. This time it carries with it a very real sense of tension and foreboding which is only exacerbated when Una finds that she is hardly welcomed by the villagers.

Una has two pupils. Edda, 7, is Salka’s daughter and Una is to live in Salka’s attic. The other girl, Kolbrún, is 9, but where Edda is friendly and cheerful, Kolbrún is reserved and taciturn.  

Skálar is a fishing village with a few homes, a small co-op store with irregular hours, a farm and a church. It’s even smaller than Una anticipated, but what really gets to her is that no-one is really friendly. Even Skalar, with whom she is living, is reserved. Inga, Kolbrún’s mother, does not seem to want Una to teach her daughter and Kolbrún’s father, a fisherman named Kolbeinn, has hardly met her before he starts automatically hitting on her. Others in the village are even less accommodating to this newcomer and the reader gets the distinct feeling that there must be a reason why Una is not welcome here; that these people have a secret they are shielding.

A second perspective, very much in the background, gives hints of what may be going on but offers no clues as to how to reconcile that perspective with what Una is facing.

There’s one small spark of light in Thor, a man she meets who lives in the old farm house. But though he is not hostile to Una, neither does he actively seek out her friendship, which is odd given their age and single status.

Una settles into her teaching routine but at night, when she withdraws to her room to drink the wine she buys from the local store, her sleep is more and more distressed by nightmares. She starts to be disturbed by a piano’s sound in a room below and a child in a white dress, singing a lullaby.

Una believes this is the ghost of Thrá who died in mysterious circumstances in the house 60 years ago. When she tries to talk about what she hears and sees, she is dismissed and told that perhaps she should ease up on her wine consumption. Yet the villagers all know about Thrá who used to live in this very house where Una now sleeps. Because this is set in the 1980’s, the absence of mobile phones and the internet slows down all Una’s research opportunities and this too, adds to the suspense.

Jónasson beautifully creates this added layer of supernatural suspense on top of an already tense and chilling environment until we don’t know whether Una is losing her mind or what she sees is real. The beautifully layered mingling of chilling suspense with more than a hint of the supernatural is a fantastic concoction and Jónasson blends these two elements perfectly. When a visitor, rare at this time of year, shows up looking for Hjördís, who sometimes rents rooms, then subsequently disappears, Una can’t believe that no-one in the village thinks that disappearance is odd.

Then disaster strikes at Christmas and Una is now faced with another mystery that has to be solved before she can truly understand what lies beneath the surface of this cold and hostile community.

Though the story itself lacks a bit of punch, its carried off by the atmosphere created by Jónasson.

Verdict: Ragnar Jónasson really is a master of chilling, atmospheric story telling. The Girl Who Died is haunting and intense and the plotting is sublime. With nods to the gothic, this is both crime and a ghostly story where the setting reigns supreme.

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Ragnar Jónasson is an international number one bestselling author who has sold over two million books in thirty-two countries worldwide. He was born in Reykjavík, Iceland, where he also works as an investment banker and teaches copyright law at Reykjavík University. He has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, and, from the age of seventeen, has translated fourteen of Agatha Christie’s novels. His critically acclaimed international bestseller The Darkness is soon to be a major TV series.

Fragile by Sarah Hilary @sarah_hilary @panmacmillan @publicityhannah

Source: Review copy
Publication: 10 June 2021 from Pan MacMillan
PP: 352
ISN-13: 978-1529029444

My thanks to Sarah Hilary and Pan MacMillan for an advance copy for review

Everything she touches breaks . . .
Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperate to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong.
So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the opportunity with both hands.
But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for. Her employer lives by a set of rigid rules and she soon sees that he is hiding secrets of his own.
But is Nell’s arrival at the Villas really the coincidence it seems? After all, she knows more than most how fragile people can be – and how easy they can be to break . . .

Sarah Hilary is one of the most exciting writers I know. Her prose is scalpel sharp; the structure of her novels is flawless and her subject matter is always relevant and exciting. So a stand-alone from this superb author is a moment to rejoice and Fragile is an absolute triumph. From the outset it is the intensity of her characters that grasps the reader. Often, whilst reading, I found that I was holding my breath and when I had finished this stunning book I felt as if I had been walking barefoot on splintered glass.

Nell Ballard has never really known what it is to be loved, but she has made up for it by loving those she cares for. Rejected by her mother when she was only 8 years old, she has been living in a foster home in Wales, where she was born, ever since. Meagan Flack is her foster mother, a bitter, chain-smoking woman who takes in children for the money. Flack cares not for the children, but Nell, starved of love, makes up for that deficit by learning how to be a caring mother, despite the complete absence of such role mothers in her life.

It’s a hard burden to put on a child and Nell is not mature, so her love for the other children in the home and her shouldering of domestic tasks mask what’s really going on in her mind. All Nell really wants is to be loved and to have that love reciprocated, but with no knowledge of what that really means, it’s pure emotion that flows through her.

Meagan does not like Nell, despite all that Nell does to keep the children clean and fed. There’s a boy in the home, Jo Beach and he and Nell pair up. Jo is a chancer. A charming but sly boy, he has learnt his survival skills from his foster homes and he knows how to deflect blame and inveigle himself into the good graces of the adults around him. It is his special skill.

Joe is a good looking boy, which makes him less of a trial to Meagan. They recognise common traits in each other. Then, after Joe and Meagan have spent a wonderful day swimming, tragedy strikes.

Joe convinces Nell to run away with him and the pair end up in London, where Joe takes the lead, using his charm and his grifting skills to find places to stay; never staying long but though he and Nell feel they are exploiting those they meet, they are still exploited children doing what they can to stay alive in an unfamiliar and unforgiving city.

Nell does all she can to cling on to Joe whom she loves so much. But something in Joe is broken; he is a lost cause who disappears off leaving Nell to search for him. And that search takes her to Starling Villas, a narrow townhouse. The last time she saw Joe, he was heading inside.

It’s the only clue to his whereabouts that she has, and so Nell, after keeping watch, decides to find a way in. Using her brain, she finds that the owner, Dr Robert Wilder, is in need of an assistant and cleaner, but she manages to parlay her way into the role of housekeeper.

Wilder has very clear ideas of what is expected of her. He has rules for the order in which things are to be done; what he will eat and how it will be served. Nell sets out to make herself indispensable, keeping in the background, adhering to his rules and polishing and scrubbing the house.

Wilder appears unfeeling, hard and yet straining at the seams with repressed emotion. Starling Villas is a cold and unwelcome place; an invisible house slotted between other buildings, hiding its secrets away. It’s a cold and isolating space that feels somehow other; unreal and out of place.

Hilary does that sense of gothic so well; you can feel the seeping tension between the Wilder and Nell which is part borne of the relationship between the middle aged Wilder and the teenage Nell, his housekeeper and partly the presence of Carolyn Wilder, Robin Wilder’s wife, whose bitter malice is pure poison. Though there are strong echoes of Rebecca in this story, there’s something of Wuthering Heights too. Passion, obsession, jealousy, intimacy, and secrets are all part of the Starling Villas mix.

Told mainly by Nell, we also hear from Meagan Flack whose flashbacks helps to give added dimension to a story sometimes seen from two sides.

It’s hard to explain how Hilary achieves this tension, this sense of danger that pervades the house and makes everyone who enters it so enveloped in a cruel mist of bitterness and anger, but she does and it is a remarkable sensation. The sense of repression just builds until even an exchange in the local shop becomes sharp with meaning.

As Fragile reaches its heart-breaking conclusion, corrosive relationships, fractured dreams and spiteful revenge all take their toll, leading to a devastating finale.

Verdict: Fragile is a book full of menace and grim foreboding that is fully played out. These are fragile people; some cracked, just waiting to splinter apart, some broken already. An intense, complex, layered and beautifully drawn character driven novel, it will seep into your bones and cause you to feel profound loss and grief for these poor children whose lives should have been so different.

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Sarah Hilary’s debut novel, Someone Else’s Skin, won the 2015 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year and was a World Book Night selection. The Observer’s Book of the Month (‘superbly disturbing’) and a Richard and Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. No Other Darkness, the second in the series, was shortlisted for a Barry Award in the U.S. Her D.I. Marnie Rome series continues with Tastes Like Fear, Quieter Than Killing, Come and Find Me, and Never Be Broken. Fragile is her first standalone novel.

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