Sunday, 14 May 2017

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is completely brilliant! This is far and away the best book I've read this year. I had assumed from the title that the story was going to be something along the lines of Bridget Jones, but the cover with the burnt out matches (on the UK version) intrigued me and I thought perhaps there was more to it - maybe a psychological suspense?

It turned out I was completely wrong about that too! There is no 'big twist you'll never see coming'; there are no big twists at all, just a very clever story about an unusual and interesting character, whose past history is revealed a tiny bit at a time. (Pay particular attention about halfway through). I'm not quite sure what genre to classify this as. It did remind me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, but I think that is more the style of writing; it's not really a psychological suspense.

The story is about Eleanor Oliphant who is nearly thirty years old. She's been in the same job since leaving university, has no ambition, and is happy to just keep doing the same things every day for the rest of her life. However, she has no friends - she has no social skills at all - and the kind of things the rest of us take for granted - smart phones,  social media, etc - completely flummox her. The other clue that things are not quite right in her life, is that she drinks two bottles of vodka every weekend, and has developed a crush on a musician who she is convinced will fall madly in love with her once he realises she exists. And every Wednesday she speaks with her horrible mother, who completely tears any self-confidence she has built up over the previous week to shreds. To me, she felt like a 1930s debutante who had suddenly been plonked into the 21st century and was completely clueless.

Of course things can't carry on like this and one simple act of kindness will turn Eleanor's ordered life upside down.

The story is told from Eleanor's point of view and, as well as being absolutely hilarious (this is one of those books that actually does have lots of those 'laugh out loud' moments), is by turns sweet, funny, sad, quirky, poignant, touching, incredibly lovely and completely wonderful. I loved it!

Thank you to Gail Honeyman, Harper Collins and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Review: Did You See Melody by Sophie Hannah

When I got my hands on this book I'm afraid it leapfrogged my 30-book-high to-be-read pile and I started on it immediately. I devoured it within 2 days! 2 days in which I was supposed to be doing other stuff, but I couldn't put it down.

The first half of the book is told from the point of view of Cara Burrows, an English woman running away from the (fairly minor) problem in her life. I can't tell you more about that, other than Cara wouldn't have a problem if she just learned to communicate with her family (husband and two children). When she asks for their opinion, and gets an answer she doesn't want, rather than plead her case she takes a chunk of money out of the family savings and heads off to a luxury spa in Arizona in retaliation. Although she does not tell her family where she is going, she does give them the date she plans to return - and then constantly checks their social media to see if they're missing her.

Cara arrives at The Swallowtail resort in Arizona full of self-righteous indignation, and completely disorientated from her flight. So when she picks up her key and goes into her room, it takes a moment for it to dawn on her that the room is already occupied by a father and his teenage daughter. Instead of quickly leaving Cara hides in the bathroom, making the situation worse, hearing them wake up and begin talking to each other - and discussing the person hiding in their bathroom ...

Later, when everything has been sorted out, it dawns on Cara that the man's 'daughter' may have been Melody Chapa, the most famous 'missing' child in America - her parents are currently in prison, suspected of her murder. But did Cara really see Melody, or imagine the whole thing?

I found Cara incredibly irritating but vastly entertaining - she comes up with some great one-liners towards the end of the book. I loved her friend Tarin, the 'Badass Mom', a florist who fancies herself as a sleuth. Tarin's relationship with her stroppy daughter is also entertaining, in an Eddy/Saffy (Absolutely Fabulous) kind of way. It's Tarin who perseveres with the 'is she/isn't she Melody' investigation (when Cara wishes Tarin would let the whole matter drop) and gets the police to take the case more seriously.

There is a lot of backstory, which I wasn't so keen on, telling the history of Melody's disappearance, the police investigation and the trials of the people suspected of murdering her. Some of this backstory is told in articles Cara reads online, some is told through transcripts of a TV show. The transcripts I found harder to concentrate on (they'd work better in a TV/film adaptation). I'm afraid I ended up skipping some because I wanted to get back to the story happening in the present. I wouldn't recommend doing this though, because I missed a fairly vital clue!

Overall, I really did enjoy this book. Sophie Hannah is a brilliant writer and there were lots of genuine twists I didn't see coming. Several times I thought I'd worked everything out, only to be thrown by another twist - particularly at the end. I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes well-written mysteries, lots of twists, psychological suspense that's a little bit different, and stories with eccentric characters.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of this book, which isn't out until 24th August 2017.

Thank you to Sophie Hannah, Hodder & Stoughton, and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Review: A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

I'm a sucker for a pretty cover, and it was the cover of this book that made me download it, as I had never heard of the author*. From the vintage look and the blurb, I got it into my head the story was going to be a glamorous 'golden age' murder mystery set on board a ship. A kind of Agatha Christie meets Downton Abbey. In fact, the story is a very clever psychological suspense - one of those stories that slowly draws you in and builds up the tension until you can practically feel it closing in on you.

The story is about Lily Shepherd, who is travelling from England to Australia on the Orontes as part of the Government's assisted-passage scheme. Once she arrives, she will apply to work as a maid in one of the large houses in Sydney. It is 1939, and Britain is on the brink of war. Why would Lily want to leave her family, whom she loves very much, and travel to the other side of the world to work in domestic service - something she has sworn she would never do again?

Lily will be sharing her cabin with Audrey and Ida, two former chambermaids from Claridge's Hotel. While Audrey is friendly, Lily takes an instinctive dislike to Ida, who can't seem to say anything nice. At dinner, Lily finds herself seated on the same table as Edward and Helena Fletcher, a brother and sister who appear to have fallen on hard times. Lily is increasingly attracted to the good-looking Edward, but he seems to be obsessed with glamorous socialite Eliza Campbell. Eliza, meanwhile, takes Lily under her wing, paying for her excursions and lending her designer clothes - but are her motives entirely altruistic?

I loved the incredibly detailed descriptions of life on board the Orontes, and the places Lily visited, from the pyramids of Egypt to a Buddhist temple in Ceylon. I felt as though I'd travelled back in time and was taking the cruise along with Lily. The cast of characters, who all seemed to be running away from something, were fascinating. The author allows the reader to get to know character in turn, letting us discover their real personalities one flaw at a time. Which character's behaviour will result in their murder? Which character will be goaded into carrying out that murder?

A Dangerous Crossing is an absorbing and compelling read about an eclectic cast of characters forced into claustrophobic proximity with people they would normally cross the street to avoid. I loved it! Also, what a brilliant title!

If you love reading historicals with a bit of a mystery, or tightly-wound psychological suspense, you will love this book. If you're a fan of fast-paced murder mysteries then this might not suit, as the first murder does not take place until a good three quarters of the way through the book.

*Rachel Rhys is the pen name of Tammy Cohen/Tamar Cohen

Thank you to Rachel Rhys, Doubleday and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

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Friday, 17 March 2017

Review: Mystery at Maplemead Castle by Kitty French

I absolutely love, love, love this series. I'm at that point where I wish Kitty French was a new-to-me author, and had written ten books in this series already, and I could read them all back-to-back. Why do I love them so much? First, it's the characters. I adore them. I want to go ghostbusting with them. I want hot reporter Fletcher Gunn to shadow my every move (don't tell my husband) and Marina to bring me cakes fresh from Nonna's kitchen. I wouldn't even mind giving Leo Dark advice on unrequited love - although it would be very tempting to tell him to get his hair cut and to ditch the cloak.

Confused? Let me explain. At the grand old age of 27, Melody 'I see dead people' Bittersweet has decided to stop fighting the unique talent which is persistently getting her fired/losing her potential boyfriends, and has set up The Girls' Ghostbusting Agency. Along for the ride are best friend Marina, the terrifyingly efficient Glenda, and naive young Artie, who has just enough sense to dig the girls out of trouble if they need it. Each book has a haunting and it's Melody's job to find out what is keeping the ghost or ghosts from moving on. In this story Maplemead Castle is haunted by circus folk - two trapeze artists and their ringmaster - doomed to repeat the events that led to their deaths every single night. And also haunted by something else I won't mention, because you'll have far more fun reading that scene without a spoiler!

This series would appeal to fans of romantic comedies, mysteries and the kind of ghost stories that don't take themselves too seriously. Imagine a cross between Scooby Doo and the Shopaholic series - only with ghosts instead of designer handbags. You don't have to read this series in order, but you would be missing a treat if you didn't. Thoroughly recommended! One of my favourite books this year.

Thank you to Kitty French, Bookouture and Netgalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review. I chose it myself, no one asked me to review it and I don't know the author.

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(now published as The Skeletons at Scarborough House)

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Review: Everything but the Truth by Gillian McAllister

The cover and title attracted me to this book but, as it turned out, it was a different story to the one had I been expecting! I thoroughly enjoyed it though!

The story is about Rachel and Jack, who have been together for a very short time and who are expecting a baby together. Everything is going well until Rachel sees part of an email on Jack's iPad: 'Douglas's Atrocity Rears Its Head Again'. So who is Douglas and what did he do that was so terrible? This question begins to eat away at Rachel until it is all she can think about. It doesn't help that when she meets Jack's family and friends they seem to be hiding something from her, but the more she digs about in Jack's past, the more questions are raised.

And as we learn more about Jack, we also learn more about Rachel - that she split up with her last boyfriend because she didn't trust him, and that she has a huge secret in her own past ...  

I was expecting a psychological thriller, but it wasn't really. No one is murdered, there are only a few scenes when the heroine feels she is in jeopardy, there is no race against time to catch a killer. Instead we have a very cleverly written psychological suspense/domestic noir, with brilliantly drawn characters - I did love Jack! The clues are dripped in a little bit at a time and, although it is quite a leisurely read, I found myself reading faster and faster to find out what happens. Each time Rachel catches Jack out on a lie, the tension racks higher and higher, and at the same time we find out more about Rachel's own secret; it was like watching a car crash in slow motion and being unable to stop it.

So, Everything but the Truth is a gripping and compelling read, with a moral about being honest - and that if you're going to snoop around in someone's past, you really ought to be prepared for what horrors you might find. Recommended!

Thank you to Gillian McAllister, Michael Joseph and NetGalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Review: The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder's Sister is set in the mid-1600s and opens with Alice returning to Essex to live with her brother, Matthew Hopkins. Her husband is dead and she is pregnant and destitute. Alice and Matthew were very close as children but they parted on bad terms when she married the son of their old servant, Bridget - the woman Matthew blames for the accident that left him scarred.

Alice is uneasy to realise that not only is their childhood bond is no more, Matthew intimidates her. One of the servants tells her he has a great book that has the names of all the witches written down in it. Yet this is the 17th century - who believes in witches?

But in the town there is talk. Young children have died and people are saying it was done with witchcraft. Alice assumes the gossip will come to nothing. The women arrested are obvious choices - elderly, eccentric, living alone. Despite Bridget's pleas for her to speak to Matthew, to do something, Alice remains quiet, believing the women will be found innocent. Instead, more women are seized and Matthew turns his attention to other towns and villages - and now he wants Alice to help him.

The Witchfinder's Sister is one of the best books I've read this year. It is beautifully written with so much historical detail I felt as though I was there, witnessing it all. The atmosphere is dark and brooding, with the occasional hint of the supernatural. The subject matter is bleak; it is based on real events, so anyone familiar with history will know there can be no happy ending for some of these women. However, the author has mixed fictional characters in with the real ones to keep the reader on edge, and there are a few very clever twists - including one I'm still thinking about! 

From our 21st century perspective, it is easy to laugh at those who believed in spells, charms and witchcraft. But then you realise how easily a petty squabble can be blown up out of proportion, how easy it is to blame someone else for your misfortune - and suddenly The Witchfinder's Sister seems horribly topical.

There is not much actual violence in the novel, the subject matter is disturbing enough, but it is bleak in places. Anyone who enjoys well-researched historical novels, or real-life stories of witches, will love this. The cover is absolutely beautiful and the final line is brilliant. I'm hoping there's going to be a sequel!

I definitely recommend it - I'd give it six stars if I could.

Thank you to Beth Underdown, Viking (Penguin Random House) and NetGalley for my copy of this book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Review: To Kiss a Thief by Susanna Craig

This story popped up as an 'also bought' recommendation from Amazon and the title intrigued me. I am wary of buying books by authors I don't 'know', so I read a sample and was hooked. Sarah Pevensey is the daughter of a wealthy merchant and has recently married St John Sutliffe, Viscount Fairfax. It is an arranged marriage and neither parties are particularly happy about it. Her father wants a title for his daughter and St John's father needs her large dowry as the family are broke. Sarah and St John have only been married for a couple of weeks when Sarah is found sitting on the lap of Captain Brice, her clothing in disarray and the priceless Sutliffe sapphires missing from around her neck. She tries to explain her innocence to her husband, but he just walks out of the door. Her father-in-law calls for the Bow Street Runners and only her mother-in-law is sympathetic - arranging for Sarah to escape the house to a small fishing village on the Devonshire coast. When a body is pulled from the Thames a few weeks later, it is identified as Sarah's and everyone believes she is dead. 

Meanwhile, unknown to Sarah, St John fights a duel with Captain Brice, survives, but leaves immediately to the West Indies, only returning three years later. St John is told his wife is dead, but then finds a receipt for her pension in his step-mother's possession. He heads off to Devonshire to find out what is going on.

As it turned out, the plot of this story is similar to one I read a few weeks ago, but it did not spoil my enjoyment. I liked that at the start Sarah is a 'little mouse' but when she begins to make friends with the villagers, and realises how hard their lives are, she begins to work to help them them and her own confidence improves. By the time St John turns up she is more than capable of dealing with him - but he still believes she's a liar and a thief ... 

The author creates lots of problems for the characters to work through. Just as you think they are finally due a happy ending, something else pops up. There is a mystery to solve too, regarding the disappearance of the jewels, and where they have been for the past three years, although that was not too hard to solve.

This story is the first in a series of three, loosely tied by the heroes having recently returned from the West Indies and the heroines running away from something. But I did enjoy it and have downloaded the next one.