Girl A by Abigail Dean

Source: Audiobook review copy
Publication: 21 January 2021 from Harper Collins
Narrator : Holliday Grainger
Length: 11 hours 12 minutes
ASIN no: B08B1X7QGL

My thanks to the Publisher for an advance copy for review purposes

Girl A,’ she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you.’

Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped. When her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her six siblings – and with the childhood they shared.

Girl A is one of the most talked about novels of January 2021 and I was really looking forward to listening to the audiobook, having very much enjoyed a sampler previously. Very well narrated by the modulated, calm tones of Holly Grainger, Girl A is the story of Alexandra Gracie, told by her of living in the ‘House of Horrors’ with her six siblings and their mother and father.

As the book opens, we are in the present day. Lexie’s mother has just died in prison and Lexie is the executor of her will and the one who has to decide what to do with the house and the small legacy of £20,000 that is left. Now living in New York, she has to stay in England to negotiate the will with each of her brothers and sisters.

The narrative switches time frames quite often without signalling so it can be quite interesting at times to keep up with whether we are in the past or present. Girl A is rather beautifully and evocatively written and has none of the exploitative horror that you might have expected. The matter of fact-ness of the narrative is one of the things that makes the book chilling.

Yet, you can’t help be a little disassociated from Lexie. She’s a character whose life has been very difficult, but who you never warm to – perhaps because she has never had a good relationship herself.  That has its drawbacks, however, as you never really emotionally engage with Lexie and though her upbringing was indeed pretty horrible and abusive, that experience never quite sears its way into your consciousness in the way you might expect.

Girl A is a detailed exploration of trauma and the after effects; it is an in depth character study of how Lexie has handled her upbringing and how she copes with what she has experienced.

Through Lexie’s narration we understand the various characters, her siblings and their parents and everything we understand is from her perspective. We also get a fascinating perspective on the role of the media in such cases and it isn’t pretty.

There are moments when the silence in this narration prevails and that really makes a point in a way that words would not and Dean’s writing style is quietly tough and sometimes devastating.

Verdict: Well-written, nicely plotted and not sensationalised, this is an interesting story with some compelling moments and a plot moment that was easily anticipated, but was nonetheless impactful. In the end, I think I expected something stronger and more emotionally engaging, but maybe that says more about me than the story? Still very much worth a listen/read,  even if not wholly for me.

Audible                                            Bookshop.org                                Waterstones    

Abigail Dean is a writer from Manchester, living in south London. Her first novel, GIRL A, was published in the UK in January 2021, and was an instant Sunday Times Bestseller. GIRL A will be published in the US on February 2 2021.

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano @napolitanoann @PenguinUKBooks #DearEdward

Source: Review copy
Publication: Paperback 4th February 2021 from Penguin
PP: 352
ISBN-13: 978-0241985892

I read and reviewed this fabulous book a year ago and am delighted to join the blog tour in celebration of the paperback publication with a reprise of my review, which, after the year we have had, makes it more relevant than ever.

One summer morning, a flight takes off from New York to Los Angeles. There are 192 passengers aboard: among them a young woman taking a pregnancy test in the airplane toilet; a Wall Street millionaire flirting with the air hostess; an injured soldier returning from Afghanistan; and two beleaguered parents moving across the country with their adolescent sons, bickering over who gets the window seat. When the plane suddenly crashes in a field in Colorado, the younger of these boys, 12-year-old Edward Adler, is the sole survivor.

Dear Edward depicts Edward’s life in the crash’s aftermath as he struggles to make sense of the meaning of his survival, the strangeness of his sudden fame, and find his place in the world without his family. In his new home with his aunt and uncle, the only solace comes from his friendship with the girl next door, Shay. Together Edward and Shay make a startling discovery: hidden in his uncle’s garage are sacks of letters from the relatives of the other passengers, addressed to Edward.

As Edward comes of age against the backdrop of sudden tragedy, he must confront some of life’s most profound questions: how do we make the most of the time we are given? And what does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?

Dear Edward is the story of a 12 year old boy who is the sole survivor of a terrible plane crash. Anne Napolitano’s novel deals with how he processes existence; what happens when everyone you love has been taken away from you and how it feels to be the one left behind.

Dear Edward works because it is beautifully written, treading just on the right side of the potential mawkishness of this situation. Napolitano intersperses telling the story of Eddie’s life after the crash with scenes from the plane before it gets into difficulty.

Thus we get to meet some of the passengers; to know a bit about who they are and why they are flying; to understand a little of their hopes, fears and dreams.

Eddie’s family were flying from Newark to L.A. because Eddie’s mum, Jane, is a screenwriter. Right now she’s working on stuff that makes her money, but her dream is to write the script she’s been thinking about for years. Eddie’s dad, Bruce home-schools Eddie and his elder brother, Jordan because he doesn’t think schools teach kids to be sufficiently independently minded or to ask searching and difficult questions.

Eddie is 12; Jordan 15. Jordan is everything to Eddie and it is Jordan that creates the biggest hole in Eddie’s heart, because they were the closest they could be.

After the crash, Eddie goes to live with Jane’s sister, Lacey and her husband, John. Of course they take Eddie in, though now he has left Eddie behind; that was for pre-crash, now he is Edward. Lacey and John are nursing their own heartache and Eddie can feel that as soon as he walks into the house. It’s a crushing burden for a 12 year old boy who has lived through what Edward has experienced.

So as we get to know more about Edward, we are also up close and personal with the passengers – an eclectic range of people squeezed into a metal tube thousands of feet up in the air. The ailing old man, the gay veteran, the air stewardess and the jangling re-incarnation lady and most poignant of all, the woman who has just discovered she is pregnant. Each individual life matters to someone, even if just to themselves.

In an age where everything is public and Twitter and Instagram make people feel they have a right to access everyone’s lives, John and Lacey understand that Edward just isn’t going to be able to cope with the attention he is going to get and set out to shelter him as much as they can.

Edward has to get on with life; to learn how to put one foot in front of the other, but for him it is all by rote. He can’t sleep, he doesn’t feel anything and he has neither appetite nor any interest in anything. His life has to be lived, that much he knows, but he lacks interest in knowing how to do that. So it becomes about getting through each day; about not upsetting John and Lacey and about recognising that his status allows him latitude no other 12 year old boy would get.

It is his next door neighbour’s daughter, Shay, who helps him through. She finds a way to make him consider his situation and to give expression to at least some of what he is feeling, in a way that his psychiatrist has never achieved. She’s a straight talker and Edward finds he appreciates that, especially since she’s not going to let him mess her around – and Edward’s life is full of people who don’t know how to say ‘no’ to him.

As Edward recovers from his physical injuries and goes to school, Shay is by his side every step of the way. But Edward is not really living his life; he’s just going through the motions and that much is made clear by the juxtaposition with the scenes from the plane where we are let in to the intimate secrets of the passengers and understand what each has lost when the plane goes down.

Dear Edward is about how Edward learns to live with almost unbearable grief to make a start towards recovery. Part of that is finding a sense of purpose and learning all over again how to connect with people and how to let emotion back into his life. A sprinkling of dry humour keeps the overly sentimental at bay.

Verdict: Beautifully written, poignant and utterly compelling, Dear Edward is a sometimes heart-wrenching and powerful exploration of what it means to lose everyone and how the human spirit can re-connect and find a way to heal. Ultimately uplifting, it has the benefit of prompting this reader to ask ‘what is my purpose in this world?’ which can’t be a bad thing. Highly recommended.

         Bookshop.org.uk           Waterstones            Hive Books      

    

Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach. She is also the Associate Editor of One Story literary magazine. She received an MFA from New York University; she has taught fiction writing for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Dear Edward currently has fifteen international publishers.

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The Shadow Man by Helen Fields @Helen_Fields @AvonBooksUK @Sabah_K

Source: Audiobook
Publication: 4 February 2021 from Avon Books
Narrator: Robin Laing, Cathleen McCarron
Length:  12hrs  49 mins
ASIN : B08LQQK4NH

My thanks to Avon Books for the opportunity to review this audiobook

Elspeth, Meggy and Xavier are locked in a flat. They don’t know where they are, and they don’t know why they’re there. They only know that the shadow man has taken them, and he won’t let them go. Desperate to escape, the three of them must find a way out of their living hell, even if it means uncovering a very dark truth. Because the shadow man isn’t a nightmare. He’s all too real.

And he’s watching.

Readers of Helen Fields Luc Callanach series will be pleased to know that although Luc doesn’t make an appearance in this stand-alone novel, he does appear in a short story included after the end of the audiobook and Gayfield Square Station and the redoubtable Superintendent Overbeck do feature strongly in the novel.

In The Shadow Man Helen Fields gives us a new protagonist, Dr Connie Woolwine. Connie is American and a psychological profiler, just arrived in Edinburgh. She’s been called in to work with D.I. Brodie Baarda, a kidnapping specialist from Met Ops Team in London, following the disappearance of a young mother, Elspeth Dunwoody.

Connie is straight talking, a little sweary and not given to over indulging in politeness or bureaucracy. She has a fascinating backstory that I hope we will hear more of in future books. Baarda is a more gentle soul, a little closed in and together they are a brilliant pairing. From the outset, we know who we are dealing with, even if Connie and Baarda do not.

The Shadow Man is never concealed from the reader; rather we are brought into his fiendish plans; made to be voyeurs as he does what he sets out to achieve and not long into the book, one woman is dead and another has gone missing. More people will disappear as The Shadow Man carries out his focussed research and executes his nightmarish plans….what Connie and Baarda have to do is to work out why this is happening and then work back to who and where to find him.

Those familiar to Fields writing will know that she does not shrink from graphic and stomach churning descriptions when it suits her plotting. This one is certainly dark and gritty, but here it is the sheer creepiness of the antagonist and the skin crawling nature of his demented thought processes that produces the visceral reaction.

Fields is innovative and original in her choice of killer and her well researched medical knowledge plays into this character brilliantly and enhances the character of Connie, too. Her characters are excellent – I especially liked the interplay between Connie and the Pathologist as each begins to take the measure of the other.

The plot is intricate and well-paced and the creepiness level ramps up as the book develops, leading to massive tension and a growing intensity that threatens to explode. Fortunately this is leavened by some excellent light and shade in the dialogue between the characters of Baarda and Woolwine.

The narration by Robin Laing and Cathleen McCarron is excellent – it really helps to have a male and a female voice and their voices and accents work well together.

Verdict: Another hugely successful read from Helen Fields. It is quite a long book and could have used a little more editing, but nothing that distracts from a truly terrifying plot and some great characters. I predict this one will be a sure fire winner and hope to see much more of Woolwine and Baarda in the future.

Bookshop.org                                Audible                             Waterstones    

An international and Amazon #1 best-selling author, Helen is a former criminal and family law barrister. Every book in the Callanach series claimed an Amazon #1 bestseller flag. Helen also writes as HS Chandler, and last year released legal thriller ‘Degrees of Guilt’. Her audio book ‘Perfect Crime’ knocked Michelle Obama off the #1 spot. Translated into 15 languages, and also selling in the USA, Canada & Australasia, Helen’s books have won global recognition. Her first historical thriller ‘These Lost & Broken Things’ came out in May 2020. She currently commutes between Hampshire, Scotland and California, where she lives with her husband and three children.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar @MeghaMaj @ScribnerUK

Source: Review copy
Publication: 21st January 2021 from ScribnerUK
PP: 304
ISBN-13: 978-1471190261

My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review

A girl walks through the slums of Kolkata holding an armful of books. She returns home smelling of smoke, and checks her most prized possession: a brand-new smartphone, purchased in instalments. On Facebook, there is only one conversation.

#KolabaganTrainAttack

On the small, glowing screen, she types a dangerous thing…

‘If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?’

Set in contemporary India, A Burning is the story of three unforgettable characters, all dreaming of a better future, whose lives are changed for ever when they become caught up in the devastating aftermath of a terrorist attack.

As Jagtar Singh Johal, a Scot, faces the death penalty in jail in India, A Burning feels like an incredibly timely and uncomfortable novel. Jagtar Singh Johal was arrested in 2017 shortly after his wedding in Punjab and charged in connection with conspiracy to murder Hindu nationalist leaders linked to the ruling party of Narendra Modi, the prime minister. Tortured into confessing to a terrorist plot, he has now appealed to the British Government to demand his release.

So A Burning is more than just an exceptional , propulsive novel, it is also a reflection of contemporary Indian politics, and so much more besides.

A Burning follows the lives of three loosely connected characters in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Jivan is a young Muslim woman who is fighting her way up in the world. She comes from a very poor background and was brought up in the slums. The fortunate recipient of a scholarship, she proved herself an adept pupil and good at athletic, too. Her PT teacher would occasionally share his lunch with her, seeing how hungry she always arrived at school. Now she has left school without a backward glance and is working in a clothes shop in the new shiny glass and chrome Mall and has recently purchased that most desirable of things, a smartphone.

Jivan is a thoughtful young woman who helps others and on the day of the attack, she is taking some textbooks to Lovely, a hijari who wants to be an actor and who she is helping to learn English. Jivan was passing time while having a cigarette at the station, posting on Facebook where she had recently been adding to her friends and in the course of this, was idly reflecting on the role of the police in the train attack. Suddenly she finds herself the focus of a police arrest and is imprisoned for suspected involvement in the attack and for consorting with a known terrorist in the form of a young man she had been chatting to on Facebook, albeit about nothing in particular.

Lovely, our would-be actor is transgender. She dreams of being up there with the best of Bollywood actresses and in pursuit of her goal she has been going to acting classes and getting Jivan to teach her English. She knows that Jivan was carrying textbooks to her that day and not the incendiary devices that the police claim.

 Our last principal character is the weakest of the three. PT Sir is a Hindu and a PT teacher in a local school, once attended by Jivan.  Recognising a famous actress addressing a nearby crowd he finds himself in the position of being able to be helpful at what turns out to be a political rally. Flattered by the attention these right wing politicians bestow on him, he is soon sucked into their schemes and it is not long before he begins to recognise the advantages that a career in politics can bring, whatever the cost.

A Burning is the tragic story of corruption, the suppression of freedom of expression in a democracy, of religious intolerance and bigotry, of class strata, media manipulation and of the dangers of using social media in an intemperate world.

The writing here is taut and sparse. Not a word is wasted. Megha Majumdar makes it all too easy to see how each of these characters has a dream of bettering their lives and shows us with startling clarity just how easily seduced that makes them – so easily  exploited by those who can into betraying everything they once cared about.  

As Jivan languishes in prison, people are making political capital out of her and a maelstrom of anger is whipped up against her for her alleged monstrous crimes.  We can only watch in horror as her fate is decided by those who have an agenda and her life is left to those who can influence her fate but will they do so when it comes at a cost to them?

Verdict: A range of important themes are tackled in this short but vital book. And though I know it speaks predominantly of contemporary Indian politics, nevertheless it has resonance here and lessons for all of us. A thought provoking and timely read.

Bookshop.org Waterstones Hive

Megha Majumdar was born and raised in Kolkata, India. She moved to the United States to attend college at Harvard University, followed by graduate school in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She works as an editor at Catapult, and lives in New York City. A Burning is her first book.

Shiver by Allie Reynolds @AuthorAllieR @headlinepg

Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 January 2021 from Headline
PP: 432
ISBN-13: 978-1472270245

My thanks to the publisher for an early copy for review

When Milla is invited to a reunion in the French Alps resort that saw the peak of her snowboarding career, she drops everything to go. While she would rather forget the events of that winter, the invitation comes from Curtis, the one person she can’t seem to let go.

The five friends haven’t seen each other for ten years, since the disappearance of the beautiful and enigmatic Saskia. But when an icebreaker game turns menacing, they realise they don’t know who has really gathered them there and how far they will go to find the truth.

In a deserted lodge high up a mountain, the secrets of the past are about to come to light.

This is the perfect time of year to read Shiver and given that it is that most enjoyable of things – a locked room mystery, it seems very fitting for our #lockdown reading, too! Told in alternate chapters – harking back 10 years and in the present day, it tells the story of six friends who were once highly competitive snowboarders, vying for prizes and sponsors until one of them disappeared.

Since then, their lives have taken different paths and ten years later each receives an invitation to return to the Alpine Lodge in Le Rocher, where they were last all together. Our storyteller is Milla and it is her first person perspective that guides us through the story of both past and present. But even as she does so, we are aware that we may not be getting the whole truth….how reliable a narrator is Milla?

The friends compete in an especially dangerous Winter Olympic sport – the Half Pipe – a U-shaped high-sided ramp or runway used in snowboarding, where any loss of focus can mean disaster and serious injury or worse. With walls of ice as high as 22ft and snowboarders competing to do the highest jumps, twists and turns, competitors have to be at the top of their game.

Milla had not really wanted to come back to Le Rocher but she has always regretted not becoming closer to Curtis, Saskia’s brother and a man for whom she has always harboured strong feelings. And this invitation has come from Curtis, just weeks after Saskia has been declared legally dead after going missing in the Alps that last time, ten years ago. So she understands his need to say goodbye and wants to be there for him.

But when she gets there, it is only to find that each of the five has received an invitation purportedly from the one who would most make them want to attend, yet none of them will confess to sending any invitation at all. And so the cat and mouse games begin..

Shiver paints a fascinating picture of the cut and thrust world of professional snowboarding and the athletes who compete in it. The sheer threat of taking on the Half Pipe every day and risking life and limb makes them intense and focussed, living life to the max against the cold, pristine white Alps – an amazing backdrop for this story to play out on. Reynolds own experience makes this element of the book sing with authenticity and the danger adds a real element of fascination to this exhilarating and polished read.

The Alpine Lodge, when they reach it, is devoid of staff and they are asked to give up their mobile phones before an ‘icebreaker’ session. And that’s where it all starts to go wrong.

Imagine that deserted place, winds whistling outside, a glacier waiting to claim them and your hairs will stand on end with echoes of The Shining in the back of your mind.

As these five friends look askance at each other, not knowing who to trust, wondering who invited them and why, danger is present in every room and corridor and with no-one trusting anyone else, it is inevitable that bad things are going to happen. And they do!

Verdict: Reynolds tells a great story and the past comes alive through Milla’s descriptions of what went before.  She keeps the reader on tenterhooks, offering up suspects and cleverly laying clues only to have you second guess yourself as matters develop. A chilling and spine-tingling, page-turning read and an accomplished debut.

Bookshop.org                                Waterstones                    Foyles

Allie Reynolds was once a freestyle snowboarder in the UK top ten at halfpipe. She spent five winters in the mountains of France, Switzerland, Austria and Canada. She’s had many jobs including nanny, barmaid, London primary school teacher, bookshop assistant and French teacher/translator. In 2003, she swapped her snowboard for a surfboard and moved to Gold Coast Australia, where she taught English as a foreign language for fifteen years.Allie became a full-time writer in 2018. Her short fiction has been published in women’s magazines in the UK, Australia, Sweden and South Africa. She has two young children and a cat who thinks he’s a dog.

Into The Woods by David Mark @davidmarkwriter @HoZ_Books

Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 January 2021 in e-book from Head of Zeus
PP: 448
ISBN-13: 978-1800246362

My thanks to the publisher for an early copy for review

If you go into the woods, you’re in for a dark surprise.

Thirty years ago, three girls followed a stranger into the woods. Only two returned. The surviving pair have never been able to remember what happened or what the fate of the third girl was. Local rumours talk of hippies and drugs and mystic rituals, but no one has learned the truth.

This story is just what Rowan Blake needs. He’s in debt, his journalistic career is in tatters – as well as his damaged body – and he’s retreated to the Lake District to write. Yet even Rowan isn’t prepared for the evil he is about to unearth, for the secrets that have been buried in that wood for far too long…

I’m a fan of David Mark’s writing. His brain never fails to come up with an intriguing plot, some fascinating and often dark characters and usually a good helping of dark and gruesome. He is good at levelling this style with dark humour and a bit of the ordinary in life which brings it all together in a believable way.

Our protagonist is Rowan Blake, a journalist with a bit of a moral vacuum. With one moderately successful true crime book behind him (critics liked it, didn’t make mass sales) he is now bereft of ideas and his publisher is biting his ear off for the book whose advance has long since been spent on drink and other necessities of life.

When we meet him, he is nursing badly injured hands as a result of an encounter with someone who really didn’t like his last book and Rowan has retreated to his sister’s cottage in the Lake District, the biliously named Bilberry Byre, ostensibly to write his next, now very late, book, but in fact to lie low and hope no-one finds him.

It doesn’t hurt that he can live rent free, either. Having left journalism to write books, he has no source of income to fall back on. Just as well his sister, Serendipity (Dippy) is a decent woman who though she despairs of her brother, still doesn’t have the heart to see him on his uppers without helping.

Dippy’s 12 year old daughter, Snowdrop is entranced by her uncle. She dreams of becoming a journalist and is determined to help him with whatever his next project is. In fact, she has an idea that he might want to explore.

Dippy has a friend, Violet Sheehan, who is a member of the local library book club. Three decades ago, she was a pupil at the Silver Birch Academy, an alternative, slightly hippy school in Wasdale with new age ideas and a holistic approach where the teaching was relaxed and pupils were encouraged to express themselves and to explore alternative cultures.

Violet had two friends then: Catherine Marlish, the local vicar’s daughter and Freya, a new girl at the school whose father was away on business so much of the time that she really just lived at the school. 

Mr Sixpence, was the school healer; something of a shaman, he worked with the unhappy and troubled pupils sent there by harassed and troubled parents who didn’t have any ideas about how else to find help for their children. Mr Sixpence was a gentle, friendly soul whose treatments may have been unorthodox, but who listened and seemed to get results.

It all came adrift after one night when these three friends went into the woods with a stranger and though no-one can remember exactly what happened, only two came out again and Mr Sixpence was never seen again.

Now Violet has been trying to piece together bits of her fragmented memory and to write it down, hoping to make sense of it. But Violet, who was never the most likeable of children, prone to selfishness and bouts of rebellion, has suddenly gone off on her travels to ‘find herself’.

Still, Rowan sees the kernel of a story here. At the very least, it is something he can sell to his publisher to keep him off Rowan’s back; at best it will turn out to be a story worth pursuing. With Snowdrop ready at his side to push him when he loses heart, Rowan begins to investigate.

David Mark writes a slow burn of a novel that creeps into your soul and slowly wraps its evil tentacles round your heart squeezing roughly as it finds the weak spots and starts to exert its horrific hold on you.  The dank weather and the bleak, sparse woods with their old mine workings hold horrors that you wish you hadn’t discovered.

There is real malevolence here; a madness in the air and as Rowan looks more deeply he finds a trail of menace, violence, evil and corruption that some have worked hard for years to keep buried.

Mark’s characterisation is spot on. Rowan Blake is a fascinating character – a mix of rascal and intrepid journalist. Blake is a charming rogue and a man with no moral compass and no hesitation when it comes to getting a story.

With this book you want to give yourself time to soak in the atmosphere and consider the complexity of all the characters. Mark’s writing drips with atmosphere and the sense of menace and real evil is palpable even leavened as it is by some fantastic darkly humorous moments.

I’ve become a huge David Mark fan over the course of several of his books and I loved this one for its atmosphere, characters and the way in which he magically captures the intensity of the story.

Verdict: Utterly compelling reading, it held me in its grasp and squeezed ‘til I was breathless.

Bookshop.org                                Waterstones                    Forum Books

David Mark spent more than 15 years as a journalist, including seven years as a crime reporter with The Yorkshire Post – walking the Hull streets that would later become the setting for the internationally bestselling Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy novels.His writing is heavily influenced by the court cases he covered: the defeatist and jaded police officers; the inertia of the justice system and the sheer raw grief of those touched by savagery and tragedy

The Dressmaker of Paris by Georgia Kaufmann @GeorgiaKaufmann @JennyPlatt90 @HodderBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 28 January 2021 from Hodder & Stoughton
PP: 368
ISBN-13: 978-1529336023

I need to tell you a story, ma chère. My story.

Rosa Kusstatscher has built a global fashion empire upon her ability to find the perfect outfit for any occasion. But tonight, as she prepares for the most important meeting of her life, her usual certainty eludes her.

What brought her to this moment? As she struggles to select her dress and choose the right shade of lipstick, Rosa begins to tell her incredible story. The story of a poor country girl from a village high in the mountains of Italy. Of Nazi occupation and fleeing in the night. Of hope and heartbreak in Switzerland; glamour and love in Paris. Of ambition and devastation in Rio de Janeiro; success and self-discovery in New York.

A life spent running, she sees now. But she will run no longer.

Rosa Kusstatscher is every inch the poised, sophisticated fashion plate. This is what you might expect of a woman who helped inspire one of the most famous Paris couturiers and whose own reputation as a highly successful businesswoman in the fashion industry is second to none.

Rosa is a woman who understands the value of clothes and dressing and whose make up tips begin every chapter of this glorious book. Tonight, though, as the book opens, she is getting ready for the most important meeting of her life and her usually implacable confidence has given way to a nervous doubt.

Georgia Kaufmann’s sweeping historical novel covers Rosa’s life from her beginnings as a young girl waiting tables in an inn in the mountains of Italy, where everything changed with the Nazi occupation and the influx of soldiers that brought to the small village. Rosa’s circumstances were such that she was left with no option but to escape in the dead of night to Switzerland where she threw herself on the mercy of a man she did not know but whom she hoped would be kind to her.

Rosa begins to settle in Switzerland. It is here that she discovers she has a flair for fashion and knows instinctively what cut of a cloth will most flatter a woman and sobegins her lifelong love of dressmaking. But it is also in Switzerland that she has to make the worst decision of her life – one that allows her to pursue her dream but to give up all that she holds most dear including her security and the love for the family that she has built.

She travels to Paris, begging for work at every atelier she can find, sewing until her fingers bleed until she finds a friend in the atelier of new young fashion designer, Christian Dior.  One of the strengths of this novel is the fierce strain of female friendship that runs through it, While Rosa’s fortunes often rise and fall with the men she encounters, it is some of the women she meets who remain her strongest and most steadfast friends throughout her life.

Rosa learns a lot at Dior and after meeting a renowned chemist with a ‘nose’ for perfume she and her new husband move to Brazil where she embarks on her own path to success as a noted fashion designer in her own right.

There’s a sadness that follows her though and as her success grows, so her heart misses what she has left behind.   

As we follows Rosa’s career and she takes a journey that crosses continents, spans decades and covers a number of significant relationships you can’t help but be drawn to a woman who gives everything she has in pursuit of her dream and yet whose heart is constantly punctured by those who let her down.

Yet Rosa has learnt to be resilient and the matched she once made for love she now makes for business in an effort to ensure that those puncture wounds will no longer reach her heart. And yet, it is these very barriers she has put up that make her more vulnerable than ever and my own heart reached out to her as she finally finds what she has been looking for ever since she fled Italy.

Georgia Kaufmann’s book is entrancing. It draws you in and makes you care about Rosa. Her journey is a mixture of inspiration and dedication and you can’t help but admire what she has achieved even as you wish more for her. I used to love the dynastic northern sagas of Barbara Taylor Bradford. The Dressmaker of Paris has that same feel about it.

Verdict: I let myself get swallowed up and carried away by The Dressmaker of Paris and I’m not a bit sorry. Lush, sweeping, deliriously good, it enchants and delights. Perfect lose yourself, #lockdown reading. I loved it.

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Georgia Kaufmann studied Social Anthropology and Demography at Cambridge, LSE and Oxford. She currently lives within cycling distance of central London with her husband, two daughters and a cat. The Dressmaker of Paris is her debut novel

The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor @cjtudor @MichaelJBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 January 2021 from Michael Joseph
PP: 400
ISBN-13: 978-0241371305

My thanks to the publisher for an early copy for review.

500 years ago: eight martyrs were burnt to death
30 years ago: two teenagers vanished without trace
Two months ago: the vicar committed suicide

Welcome to Chapel Croft. For Rev Jack Brooks and teenage daughter Flo it’s supposed to be a fresh start. New job, new home. But, as Jack knows, the past isn’t easily forgotten. And in a cose-knit community where the residents seem as proud as they are haunted by Chapel Croft’s history, Jack must tread carefully. Ancient superstitions as well as a mistrust of outsiders will be hard to overcome. Yet right away Jack has more frightening concerns. Why is Flo plagued by visions of burning girls? Who’s sending them sinister, threatening messages? And why did no one mention that the last vicar killed himself? Chapel Croft’s secrets lie deep and dark as the tomb. Jack wouldn’t touch them if not for Flo – anything to protect Flo.

But the past is catching up with Chapel Croft – and with Jack. For old ghosts with scores to settle will never rest . . .

C. J. Tudor knows how to tell a creepy story that is going to make the hairs on your neck bristle and send shivers down your spine. Dark, spine-tingling and absolutely mesmeric, this is a 21st Century ghost cum horror story that absolutely works today.

It is deliciously dark and thrilling and kept me riveted for hours at a time. Jack and her teenage daughter Flo have come to the ancient Sussex village of Chapel Cross where Jack is to be the temporary vicar. Nether really wanted to come here from the bustling Nottingham city where Jack had previously worked, but Jack is out of options and this is where she has been sent. A fresh start is always good, right?

Chapel Croft has quite a history. In the 16th Century Protestants Martyrs were burned to death in the churchyard and local folklore has it that two of them, young girls named Abigail and Maggie now haunt the churchyard, warning of impending doom.

More recently the village has been preoccupied with the disappearance of another two young women. In 1990, two teenagers Merry and Joy, disappeared and never been found. Disconcerting enough, but when Jack learns that her predecessor did not die a natural death and then is given the creepiest of gifts, you know she is in for a bumpy ride.

Central to the success of this book is the relationship between mother and daughter. Flo is fed up and a bit rebellious but she and Jack understand each other well and their relationship is strong and though at times it can be combative, it is a loving one.

As they try to settle in to their new home Flo finds that not everyone is welcoming and she is the target of a couple of unpleasant teenage bullies. Fortunately though she has a friend in Wiggly, a young man she met while taking photographs in the churchyard. Wiggly has  a disability but he is kind and Flo is drawn to him.

This being C. J. Tudor, it is not long before creepy things start to happen and once they do the action is unrelenting and furious. Tudor weaves an intricate plot where the threads intersect and as she pulls tightly on the ends, the whole thing comes together to form a tapestry that really holds the interest as you watch the picture unfold, open-mouthed.

A recurring motif in the book is the image of stick figures left menacingly on Jack’s doorstep and in other places where they are guaranteed to sopok people. These are reminiscent of Twanas, which readers may recall are are a recurring nightmarish theme in the Blair Witch Project. They are mysterious, humanoid stick figures that is the signature symbol of the Blair Witch and they were used in her unholy black magic rituals. All of which just adds creepiness to this already ultra creepy story.

Told mainly from Jack’s first person perspective, there is also a third person narrative for Flo and an outsider who creeps around the fringes of this book intent on finding Jack for reasons of his own, until it is time for him to take centre stage. The pacing is strong and quickens every time danger approaches (which it does – a lot!).

Verdict: Excellent characters, hugely atmospheric settings, sinister goings on and murderous intent all combine to create a tense and chilling ghostly atmosphere where you fear for the lives of characters you have come to both like and respect. A fabulous blend of crime, horror and psychological thriller which will have you cowering under the duvet and not just because it is winter! Highly recommended.

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C. J. Tudor was born in Salisbury and grew up in Nottingham, and has recently moved to Kent with her partner and young daughter.Her love of writing, especially the dark and macabre, started young. When her peers were reading Judy Blume, she was devouring Stephen King and James Herbert.Over the years she has had a variety of jobs, including trainee reporter, radio scriptwriter, dog walker, voiceover artist, television presenter , copywriter and now, author.

The Survivors by Jane Harper @janeharperautho @GraceEVincent @LittleBrownUK

Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 January 2021 from Little Brown
PP: 384
ISBN-13: 978-1408711989

My thanks to the publisher for an early copy for review

Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on a single day when a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. The guilt that haunts him still resurfaces during a visit with his young family to the small coastal town he once called home.

Kieran’s parents are struggling in a community which is bound, for better or worse, to the sea that is both a lifeline and a threat. Between them all is his absent brother Finn.

When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge in the murder investigation that follows. A sunken wreck, a missing girl, and questions that have never washed away…

It is the fantastic writing that draws me to Jane Harper’s books and in this one the writing is exceptional. The Survivors is all about the characters; the lives they have led, the secrets they share, the guilt they feel and the need to bring old wounds to the surface to be healed.

The Survivors is a beautifully drawn, detailed study of four friends, Kieran, Olivia, Ash and Sean who once played and swam together until tragedy struck and Kieran lost his brother. Mia’s best friend Gabby disappeared that day and Sean’s brother, Toby also died. Time moved on and Kieran moved away. Now he his partner Mia and their baby daughter have come back to Evelyn Bay on the rugged Tasmanian Coast. Kieran’s father Brian has dementia and he has come home to help Verity, his mother, pack up the house and move him into a care home.

Coming home brings a welter of emotions for Kieran. Returning to Evelyn Bay brings back so many memories, not the least being the night his brother died – a night he has always blamed himself for. For Kieran had gone out 12 years ago to a cave he knew he should not be in and when the storm blew up two men, one of them Kieran’s brother, took the boat out and went looking for Kieran and perished in the sea while Kieran survived. Kieran knows that people still blame him for the lives lost that night.

Heading into the bar that has stood in Evelyn Bay since their youth, Kieran and Mia meet Olivia and find that she and Ash are now together. Sean’s nephew Liam is working there, along with Bronte Laidler, an art student who has taken temporary work to bring her close to the sea which is the focus of her artistic endeavours.

Liam especially bears a grudge against Kieran. He blames him for the loss of his father that night and his anger has been smouldering just under the surface every day of the last 12 years.

When the young waitress Bronte is found murdered on the beach, the memories of that unforgettable day resurface and all the emotions, too.

Harper does not so much write as paint her characters. The chiaroscuro gives a vivid impression of these characters, adding to the drama and imbuing them with strong emotional overtones. The suspicion hangs heavy in the air, the sly suggestions swirl around as Sean struggles to assert himself as an adult male and Kieran wrestles with his guilt so palpably.

Central to the success of this book is the seascape dominated by the tide, by rough waves and storms. Here the cruel sea reigns and the birds seemingly harbingers of doom as the cold deadly water lashes against the rocks and the caves gape their dark open mouths wide the better to swallow up travellers. No-one does atmosphere like Jane Harper.

Chilling then, in more ways than one, The Survivors is a brilliantly told story of complex characters struggling with truth, lies and guilt. Told mainly in Kieran’s voice, The Survivors starts slowly and draws you in, alternating present day with some flashbacks to give you a hint of what happened from Kieran’s perspective until he reveals everything from his memory.  Tension suffuses this novel and as it builds to a crescendo, you wonder whether the waves will dash everything to dust or whether there will be survivors once again.

Verdict: Jane Harper’s best book yet. Atmospheric, intense, chilling and so beautifully and powerfully descriptive it’s like clinging adrift in a tiny boat as the seas buffet you around. So good.

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Jane Harper is the author of international bestsellers The Dry, Force of Nature and The Lost Man. Her books are published in more than 35 territories worldwide.
Jane has won numerous top awards including the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel, the British Book Awards Crime and Thriller Book of the Year, the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year and the Australian Indie Awards Book of the Yea

Exit by Belinda Bauer @BelindaBauer @PenguinAudio @PenguinUKBooks

Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 January 2021 from Penguin Audio
Narrator: Tim McInnerny
Length: 9 hrs 42 minutes
ASIN : B083P71FXG

IT WAS NEVER SUPPOSED TO BE MURDER . . .

Pensioner Felix Pink is about to find out that it’s never too late . . . for life to go horribly wrong.

When Felix lets himself in to Number 3 Black Lane, he’s there to perform an act of charity: to keep a dying man company as he takes his final breath . . .

But just fifteen minutes later Felix is on the run from the police – after making the biggest mistake of his life.

Now his world is turned upside down as he must find out if he’s really to blame, or if something much more sinister is at play. All while staying one shaky step ahead of the law

Belinda Bauer’s Exit is a delightful listen. It is darkly comic, full of wonderful characters and the plotting is exquisite – every time you think you understand what is going on, Bauer wrong foots the reader and things turn out to be not at all what they seem.

The crux of the story centres on Felix Pink a 75 year old widower from Devon and member of a group who call themselves ‘the Exiteers’, a bunch of (largely) elderly people who, without actually breaking the law, act in support of those who are terminally ill and wish to end their own suffering.

We meet Felix as he is preparing to embark on an outing with a new recruit, Amanda, younger than most members, but whose own experience of a suffering relative has, she tells Felix, made her understand the importance of the Exiteers cause.

Together they arrive at No 3, Black Lane, the house of Charles Cann, an elderly man whose cancer has taken hold and who has contacted the Exiteers for their help in ensuring an orderly end to his suffering. They key is where it should be and they let themselves in. Felix knows this could be tough for Amanda so he is prepared for her to be upset. But when she breaks the cardinal rule to not actually help a patient Felix is determined that she should not be blamed. She will need to learn, but now is not the time. However, when it transpires that the wrong man has died, things are very much murkier indeed!

Felix is determined to shoulder the blame for what has happened and determines to hand himself over to the police. But wait! First he to make sure Mabel his dog is taken care of. So he hot foots it over the back fence and heads for home just as young pc Calvin Bridge arrives with his partner to investigate after an anonymous tip off.

Calvin is a lovely lad. He’s just finished a spell in plain clothes where his boss, DCI Kirsty King, thought he displayed talent and initiative. But Calvin harbours a terrible secret. He comes from a family whose criminal activities are well known in this neighbourhood and despite changing his name, Calvin knows that his connection to them could end his police career were it to become known. So he sits on his ambition and goes back to on the beat work without a murmur.

Belinda Bauer’s book has a light and quirky touch that belies its body count and controversial subject matter.  It is a beautifully plotted and elegantly constructed novel that offers us two charming if slightly sad protagonists in Felix and Calvin both of whom are in search of the real answers as to what exactly is going on. Our joy as readers in following their paths as they converge and diverge again is in seeing how both find a renewed sense of self and a refreshing interest in the people around them.

Bauer’s book is full of wonderful characters and in this audiobook, beautifully narrated by Tim McInnerny.  The dialogue is sharp and witty, the characters endearing and the hilarious sets of misunderstandings and fantastic plot points lead to a brilliantly funny murder mystery I think everyone will enjoy.  Tim McInnerny cleverly reigns in the irony to give free range to a wonderfully oddball set of characters and his pitch perfect dialogue is a joy to listen to.

Verdict: A fantastic listen. This is a moving and often poignant novel that has real heart, a spritely humour and lots of really clever twists. It celebrates its characters in a way that makes you feel as if you know them. By the time you finish listening, you will both know and love them and that makes this a real wonder of a book and a great listen.

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Belinda Bauer grew up in England and South Africa and now lives in Wales. She worked as a journalist and a screenwriter before finally writing a book to appease her nagging mother. With her debut, Blacklands, Belinda was awarded the CWA Gold Dagger for Crime Novel of the Year. She went on to win the CWA Dagger in the Library for her body of work in 2013. Her fourth novel Rubbernecker was voted 2014 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. Her books have been translated into 21 languages.

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