Category Archives: Reviews

History’s Most Shocking Serial Killer Brought to Life: The Affliction Series by Romina Nicolaides

Bathory's secret1609, Hungary. Powerful Countess Erzsébet Báthory has been searching for an illiterate book binder to collate her journals. Why illiterate? So that no one will discover her extraordinary, violent past. Kati, a local peasant, has just the skills she requires. The girl is keen to live in the castle with the Countess, until the horrors of her employer’s habits begin to be revealed. 

Horror isn’t always my thing, but Nicolaides’ novels are something totally different. They transcend the genre with their gritty action and gorgeous historical detail. They’re macabre and evocative, and there’s book binding, which I’m very into at the moment.

Chillingly, the title character is based on the real Erzsébet Báthory  (click the link to read about her deeds) – reputedly history’s most prolific female serial killer. Her legend has long been embellished with vampiric overtones, and Nicolaides seamlessly blends fact and fiction compellingly (she has an academic background in history). If you’re tired of sparkly teenage vampires, this is the ideal antidote.
Vampire edificeThrough the ‘Afflicted’ characters (those who survive on blood), there is an exploration of morality, mortality and what it means to be human.

The second novel focuses on Kati. I don’t want to give too much away to those of you who haven’t read the first one yet, but suffice it to say, dramatic events happen, there’s violence, travel, peril, love, and a secret society or two: all the ingredients for a page turner.

I’m excited about the next in the series too.

If you’d like to try them out, the links to purchase can be found here. They’re astoundingly cheap so I highly recommend you give them a go.

Please share to help give this awesome indie series the exposure it deserves.

 

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New Words for Old by Caroline Taggart

newThis book is a celebration of the versatility of language: the neologisms and portmanteaus that have slipped into modern parlance. From the origins of the emoticon (in 1912, would you believe) to a glorious section on the symbolism of colours, it’s a lovely book to keep and dip into.

Did you know that ‘rock and roll’ is named after the motion of a ship? You roll one way and rock the other, which a chap thought would alliterate nicely in a song for a ship-based musical he was working on.

I had no idea that ‘zoom’ was an adjective, describing a humming noise, before becoming a verb in the late nineteenth century when cars and such came in and a word was needed to describe the way they flew by.

Nor did I know that ‘focus’ is Latin for ‘hearth’ or ‘fireplace’, which was the centre, the focus, of the household.

As you can see, I found this just the most interesting, absorbing thing. The joy of etymology is the mutability of language, and Caroline Taggart communicates this perfectly.

Are you a massive word nerd like me? Your best etymological discoveries in the comments please!

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Mrs Hudson and the Malabar Rose by Martin Davies

mrsThis is a brilliant second installment to the Hudson and Holmes series, and, rather appropriately, has a festive theme. The bulk of the action occurs between Christmas and New Year, so you simply must read it this instant to fully appreciate the atmosphere.

In this novel Holmes and Watson have been tasked with protecting the precious Malabar Rose gemstone, which a crafty magician is keen to purloin. When it inevitably disappears, said conjurer is locked in the midst of an escapology  trick onstage – how could it have been him? And what does all this have to do with a clockwork-toy maker, an Ealing clerk going missing, and the glamorous Lola del Fuego?

I think the risk with having Mrs Hudson being a smart cookie is that it might detract from Holmes, but i think Martin Davies manages to balance both; Holmes isn’t buffoonish, but he doesn’t notice everything that Mrs Hudson does.

I love this book’s wry self-awareness, like the moment when Flottie asks Hetty whether she’d like her to explain what’s going on. Hetty says that she’ll wait until Mrs Hudson sits them all down and explains it at the end – the classic detective-genre denouement.

I’m excited for the next in the series, arriving early 2016.

Can you recommend any other detective novels that subvert expectations? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

 

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Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse by Martin Davies

Mrs hudsonI love a bit of fictional revisionism, especially when women triumph. I am thus delighted by The Holmes and Hudson series wherein Mrs Hudson proves herself to crucial to solving Sherlock’s cases. Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse is witty, pacey and involving. The central mystery concerns a tropical curse, a series of locked door murders, and a rather shifty butler.

I particularly enjoyed the brief, unelaborated allusions to past mysteries she’s solved that are just casually slipped in:

‘Had she not realised the importance of the half-eaten omlette and the train ticket for Bodmin, we would never have discovered the bungalow near Scarborough, and Bertie would most certainly have committed bigamy with the undercook.’

What I love most about Mrs Hudson is that her domestic knowledge is part of her superior intellect: she sees things that a gentleman wouldn’t see; she has an army of grocers’ lads and errand boys to give her the word on the street. The juxtaposition of detection and domestic is glorious; every now and then she will whip out a vital piece of evidence that she’s put in the cutlery drawer for safe keeping.

As is the convention in detective fiction, the novels are narrated by an involved, but not titular character. In this case, the housemaid, Flotsam, which nicely mirrors the Sherlock/Watson relationship. Flottie is a great character: observant, sharp and willing to learn.

It’s a great idea, nicely done, and ideal for a long winter evening. I’m reading the next in the series as soon as I’ve finished typing this.

 

 

 

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My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises by Fredrik Backman

my grandmotherThe best thing about this novel is that it feels like a full on quest, but takes place in one small town. The eponymous eccentric grandmother has been telling seven-year-old Elsa magical stories throughout her childhood. Grandmother created vivid worlds, called The Land of Almost Awake and Miamas, of heroes, dragons and adventures that gradually show themselves to be allegorical. Real life with Granny is full of adventure too as she and Elsa break into the zoo, wind up their officious neighbour and shoot paintballs off the balcony. There are surprises, serious social issues, and an enormous dog.

Fredrik Backman is a Swedish author, well known for the 2014 bestseller, ‘A Man Called Ove’ which also has his brilliant blend of endearing, emotive ridiculousness, with underlying depth of meaning.

Have you read either? I’d love to know what you thought. Comments please!

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What I Read on My Holiday

I’ve been away for a little while, holidaying here:DSCN0170

When I wasn’t promenading around the coast, I was sitting in a window seat, overlooking the sea, reading books, and relaxing like a sloth on a bank holiday. I generally like to read humour when I’m on vacation to sustain my good mood. Here’s what I read:

  • Queen Camilla by Sue Townsend is a witty, often silly sequel to The Queen and I. It imagines an inept republic wherein the Queen and her family are exiled to a rundown council estate. In this installment the opposition wants to reinstate the monarchy, but will the British public go for a royal family where Camilla is Queen? Another claimant to the throne also appears, Graham the board game enthusiast, putting a nerdy spanner in the proverbial works. Delightfully, Townsend also gives character and subplot to the royals’ beloved corgis and the local dogs, planning an uprising of their own. It’s proper fun holiday read.
  • A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French was unique in that I could take or leave the plot, but the characters were pure excellence. Chapters are told in turn by Dora, a facebook-obsessed, OMG-Mum-you’re-so-embarassing kind of teenager; Oscar, her younger brother, who emulates Oscar Wilde in everything from his speech to his cravat; Mo, their mother, a child psychologist who fails to apply the theory to her own kids, and is having a bit of a mid-life moment; and once, powerfully, Husband, who had been a background character for most of the novel. Oscar is undoubtedly my favourite. French has a fabulous talent for voice and comic timing.
  • Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant by Veronica Roth I started reading the first as it’s the book the young ‘uns chose for the library teen book club. It’s not that they need me to talk much (I’m just the moderator/biscuit provider) but I prefer to have read it so I can nod along and ask the occasional discussion point. I think it’s an excellent YA book club choice as there’s plenty to talk about: Society has been divided based on personality types – so there’s psychology, politics, nature vs nurture, government control, family or group allegiance and all sorts of themes. By the end of the first I needed to know what happened next, hence the other two. Has anyone seen the film? Worth a watch?

What do you think of my holiday reads? What do you read on holiday? Comments warmly welcomed.

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Academy Street by Mary Costello

AcademyIt seems to be the in thing to compare novels to Stoner. Of the many titles I’ve seen with the ‘If you liked Stoner then you’ll love….’ tag, this is the most deserving of comparison.

It spans the life of Tess Lohan, growing up in Ireland (in present tense, like life is to a child), then as an adult emigrating to the US (in the past tense). It is written with beautiful insight and maturity, with the perfect amount of detail. Tess is quiet, even mute for a spell, and lives a sort of ordinary life. It’s hard not to love a character who reads: Tess “became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books. I am made for this, she thought.”

I didn’t love the ending, but I wanted other people to have read it so I could talk about why it didn’t feel quite right to me. It provokes discussion.

It’s one of those brilliant novels which shows how each person, however apparently unremarkable, experiences the full gamut of love and loss, tragedy and happiness.

If you’re writing a novel, don’t feel you have to write a hero, write a human.

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Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

notThis is an autobiography which reads like a novel, and an excellent one at that. Through parallel narratives of the past and present, Cumming describes his difficult childhood and the influence his father’s ire had on his adult life. The startling discoveries he makes about an ancestor through the BBC genealogy show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ are matched with doubts and revelations in the present day.

Despite the darkness of some of the subject matter, Cumming’s voice is funny and brilliant. He is an endearing and talented writer, with a story worth telling. The central mysteries make it near-impossible to put down.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The GuernseyWhat luck to have two writers in the family. When Mary Ann Shaffer became too unwell to make changes suggested by her publisher, her niece Annie Barrows took over. This novel of letters has many voices, but a beautiful and consistent heart.

A London journalist, Juliet, strikes up a correspondence with members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and becomes fascinated with island life during the Nazi occupation. After being caught out after curfew, the brilliant Elizabeth invented the lie that they had been carried away at their literary society, and the fictional society quickly became fact.

Although there are deeply serious events at its centre, the novel is gorgeously funny and chooses just the right character to tell each part of the story, the luxury of the epistolary form. The narrative unfolds compellingly, with small mysteries, a parrot, and an earnest child – a few of my favourite things! The island is the perfect location; a natural, if run-down, paradise compared to post-Blitz London. The ending is utterly perfect.

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The Stray American by Wendy Brandmark

the strayMany thanks go to Holland Park Press for sending me a review copy.

Larry is alone and lonely, working in London, far from his native Boston. He works at an American College, putting through jocks whose parents pay the bills and foreign students, desperate for a permanent path out of their homelands. Although he is a flawed character, he wants to be a good lecturer; he holds office hours every week, even though no one comes. Brandmark is excellent at creating little details that give characters extra dimensions.

He eventually meets Carla, who is tiny and artistic, and lives in a blank, white apartment with no blinds. The novel stays in shades of white and grey, resting in bleakness, until Larry and Carla visit her mother at the seaside. I enjoyed Larry’s enjoyment of its Englishness: how quaint and amusing he found ordinary things like tea and cake in the afternoon. It took me a while to hear Larry’s voice, but once I did, I empathised with him.

The Un-Americans are another colourful aspect of the novel; they’re a group of ex-pat Americans variously crashing protests to make friends and holding thrown-together Thanksgivings. The novel explores the timeless themes of identity and belonging, expressing how hard it is to find love, and friendship, in a new place.

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