Category Archives: Transworld Publishing

Into The Water – Paula Hawkins

For those of you who were following the blog before it’s hiatus, you may remember that I was a real fan of The Girl on the Train, the novel that went on to sell and sell and sell, and have a movie made and then sell more and sell more and sell more. I was a fan of it from the off (I think I read it a month or so after it came out, my thoughts are here) finding the thrills and the slightly side eye wry way it looked at how society pigeon holes women and how they ought to behave. So I was instantly looking forward to the follow up, Into The Water, which I wanted to go into forgetting all those sales I mentioned but must have been a pressure for Paula herself in some way. A shame that success like that can bring the freedom to write but also brings out the pressure and reviewers knives freshly sharpened at the ready. This reviewer has no sharpened knife. This reviewer thought it was bloody good.

Transworld Publishers, hardback, 2017, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

When they came to tell me, I was angry. Relieved first, because when two police officers turn up on your doorstep just as you’re looking for your train ticket, about to run out the door for work, you fear the worst. I feared for the people I care about – my friends, my ex, the people I work with. But it wasn’t about them, they said, it was about you. So I was relieved, just for a moment, and then they told me what had happened, what you’d done, they told me you’d been in the water and then I was furious. Furious and afraid.

The main story that runs through Into The Water is that of Jules who finds out that her somewhat estranged sister has died, seemingly having thrown herself into the infamous ‘drowning pool’ back in their home town of Beckford. (I say the main story because there are layers of stories throughout the drowning pools history, the first narrative in the book being of Libby in the 17th century, this will all make sense soon I promise.) Despite herself Jules returns to her hometown to look after her niece, Lena whose best friend died in the drowning pool not long before her mother, who clearly would really rather Jules hadn’t come into their lives and harbours some ill will against her aunt for her seeming desertion of her family until now.

As Jules starts to sort out Nel’s house, she discovers that her sister had a rather grim fascination of the drowning pool and its history. For many, many years it has had a dark history, particularly for women, as it was the place of the drowning of accused witches (see, told you Libby’s narrative would make sense soon) as well as the spot of suicides of women for generations since. Yet what if some of the deaths weren’t suicide, what if someone used those legends and tragedies for their own gain. Would Nel really be the sort of woman to kill herself and leave her sister behind? These are the things Jules starts to contemplate, whilst also bit by bit her history with her sister and their estrangement start to come back to Jules and also make her question how well liked her sister might have been.

 I returned my gaze to you, to your slender wrist, to the place where the onyx clasp would have rested on blue veins. I wanted to touch you again, to feel your skin. I felt sure I could wake you up. I whispered your name and waited for you to quiver, for your eyes to flick open and follow me around the room. I thought perhaps that I should kiss you, if like Sleeping Beauty that might do the trick, and that made me smile because you’d hate that idea. You were never the princess, you were something else. You sided with darkness, with the wicked stepmother, the bad fairy, the witch.

This is all gripping stuff. I mean you have historical drownings of suspected witches, a period in history I find fascinating and I do love a good witchy tale. (I have to admit when I thought Paula had written a thriller about 17th century witches I was almost beside myself. That isn’t this book, though there is a slight supernatural moment or two which I really liked and thought really worked.) Then you have the deaths throughout the years since, one of which really genuinely shocked me – in an ‘I am slightly disgusted with myself for enjoying being so shocked’ way. Then you have the modern day family drama, another thing I love, and the secrets from the past that come back to haunt you. Then Hawkins adds another level, perfect for nosey people like me, as you start to get to know (and nosy about in) the lives of other people in Beckford and go behind those twitching curtains.

It’s a fucking weird place, Beckford. It’s beautiful, quite breath taking in parts, but it’s strange. It feels like a place apart, disconnected from everything that surrounds it. Of course, it is miles from anywhere – you have to drive hours to get anywhere civilised. That’s if you call Newcastle civilized, which I am not sure I do. Beckford is a strange place, full of odd people, with a downright bizarre history. And all through the middle of it there’s this river, and that’s the weirdest thing of all – it seems like whichever way you turn, in whatever direction you go, somehow you always end up back at that river.

Admittedly this might not be for everyone, there are about eleven or twelve narrators in this book. Yet for me, the way Nel and her life intersected (and in some cases didn’t, who doesn’t love a red herring) with the rest of the people of Beckford and any naughty/dark shenanigans they had going on in their own lives and homes creates a wider jigsaw puzzle for you to put together. I really liked that. I particularly liked Erin Morgan one of the detectives on the case, who I really hope comes back in another Hawkins novel in the future.

One thing I find crime fiction and thrillers can do really well is look at human nature and how some people react in that kind of pressure, in Into The Water with such a big cast you have plenty of that. The area that they excel at, when done well, is looking at a subject or theme in society of our times, or the times if they are historic. As I mentioned in The Girl on the Train it looked at alcoholism and the expectations/stereotypes society created for women, and did it brilliantly I thought. With Into The Water Hawkins takes a look and discusses – and I am have not named many characters so as you can see how this happens yourself with no spoilers – the subject of consent and again, I think, handles it brilliantly whilst really making you think. I shall say no more.

I really, really admire Paula Hawkins for doing something really quite different from what people might have expected after the success of The Girl on the Train. How easy it would have been to create another thriller with a smaller cast and just one big juicy, twisty plot. Instead she has created multiple narrators, multiple plots and multiple mini drama’s around the central story and created a whole town and a whole host of characters and their secrets. I think it really worked, it certainly had me turning the pages until the early hours. I look forward to the next.

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Filed under Paula Hawkins, Review, Transworld Publishing

Little Black Lies – Sharon Bolton

Sharon Bolton, formerly S.J. Bolton, has slowly but surely become one of my favourite crime authors over the last few years due to her Lacey Flint series, which has become one of my favourites. Her latest novel Little Black Lies is a standalone set on the remote Falkland Isles where it seems like from the very beginning we know just who is going to kill someone and just who is going to get killed, yet as with all of Sharon’s novels that would be far to simple, and from the off we know this is going to be a tale with many, many twists.

9780593069202

Transworld Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I believe just about anyone can kill in the right circumstances, given enough motivation. The question is, am I there yet? I think I must be. Because lately, it seems, I’ve been thinking of little else.

And with these words Caitlin, the first of our narrators opens up the start of Little Black Lies. What has lead to her thoughts on murder, we very soon discover, is the death of her children who were left in the back of her friend’s car which in a moment of carelessness tragically falls off a cliff and into the ocean around the small Falkland island they have lived on all their lives. Indeed they were best friends until that tragic event almost three years ago. Yet while Caitrin is plotting the murder of her former friend a young boy goes missing, something which has happened before over the years, and soon everyone on the island is hunting for a child and their abductor or possible killer.

I have to say that I think Little Black Lies might just be the most complexly crafted, yet brilliant executed (if you will excuse the pun) of her novels that I have read. Not only do we have the duo plots of Caitrin’s murderous planning and the missing boy which make for very tense and page turning fodder, Bolton throws some extra twists and turns as we go. Firstly there is the fact that the novel is written over three parts and set within just six days (pacey). Initially we are in Catrin’s head as she plots the unthinkable, we then go into the head of her ex lover Callum who fought in the Falklands War and has some form of post traumatic stress resulting in blackouts, finally we have Rachel who clearly has depression and who spends most of her time riding and talking to her horses… who talk back.

This of course is genius because we have what everyone? Yes, three unreliable narrators, pretty much a feast if you love an unreliable narrator as much as I do. You also have three very different versions of the same series of events, yet when stitched all together (as each one reveals that little something extra, or a little additional facet) reveal something close to the truth. We think, though with Bolton we can never be sure and she does something so clever on the last page it utterly chilled me. I will say no more on that.

What is also brilliant is that whilst we have these three characters at the forefront, we have a host of characters who could quite easily be the potential killer/abductor, if one of these three isn’t. This isn’t quite a locked room mystery obviously yet on a remote island there are only so many people it could be, it is either one of the villagers or a tourist from the cruise ship. Even as the islanders start to remember the cases of other missing children they would far blame an outsider than one of their own who they have lived with for years, especially as some of those fought for their island in the conflict.

Pouring coffee from the jug on the table is the head teacher of the school, a man called Simon Savidge who became something of a hero in what, only half jokingly, is called the Falkland Island’s Resistance. In the early stages of the Argentinean occupation, while the islanders were waiting for the British Task Force to arrive, Simon made contact with the groups via a forbidden radio, keeping them informed about Argentine movements on the ground.

Oh did I mention there is a war veteran/hero called Simon Savidge, just like me (the name not the war hero)? Well there is, look how simply and cleverly I dropped that huge literal name drop in. As it is, the fictional Simon Savidge of the Falklands is the father of the senior detective Josh, who we soon learn is a bit crap at his job. These additional characters come fully form and offer an interesting and fully realised bunch of suspects; The Savidge’s, Caitrin’s ex husband Ben, Mel the transgender cook…  I could go on.

Bolton also uses these characters to add another angle/layer to the book, the background of the Falklands. Through both characters like Simon and particularly with Callum, along with other stories which weave in and out over the six days as we meet the islanders, we are given snapshots of the conflict and some of the politics behind it as well as a sense of what the Falklands is like today. If this is all beginning to sound very, very dark (and in parts it is exceptionally so, if you love whales one bit will be very difficult to read, I struggled) and rather chilling and creepy (which it also is especially on some of the wrecked boats, yes a book set on boats) there are also some lighter and occasionally incredibly funny moments. Rachel’s conversations with her talking horse being some of them, no really…

‘Come on you grumpy old bugger. We’ve got work to do.’ I flick the bolt on his door. He kicks it open himself and walks out into the yard, his coat gleaming in the sunshine. Officially, Bee would be described as a black horse, but that barely does him justice. I’ve counted over a dozen shades in his coat, from deepest black to rich red brown.
‘Any of those brats around?’ He looks disdainfully for the kids he despises. ‘I’m peckish.’
‘Grandma’s on the premises.’ I drop my voice at this point. There are windows open in the house and you never know where she might be lurking. ‘Plenty of meat on that ass.’
‘Where the fuck are we going now?’ I’m leading him to the trailer and he’s not that keen. ‘We’ve been out once.’
‘Estancia. You like it there.’
‘Fuck I do. Blue clay sticks on hooves for weeks.’

I have always said that an author could never write a book that was set on a boat or had talking horses in it that I would like, damn you Sharon Bolton as that challenge has been met and I thought Little Black Lies was a corker of a thriller – and not just because it broke my book bugbears, which I promise I didn’t thrown down to Sharon as a gauntlet, ha. It is really one of those thrillers that have everything. It has brilliantly unreliable, complex and occasionally rather unlikeable characters at its dark heart; many layers of plots and history; and so many twists and turns, which keep going right until the very last page. Seriously, your jaw might just drop, mine did – easily my thriller of the year so far.

Who else has read Little Black Lies and what did you make of it? Have you read the Lacey Flint series and what about Sharon’s previous standalone novels which I am now itching to get to? As always I would love your thoughts.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Review, Sharon Bolton, Transworld Publishing

The Incarnations – Susan Barker

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next eight weeks I am going to be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. First up is Susan Barker’s stunning third novel The Incarnations which in just under 500 pages takes you on an epic journey from China in 2008, to five points in its history, going as far back as AD 632 and tells of two souls destined to keep meeting. Intrigued? You should be…

9781784160005

Transworld Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 477 pages, kindly submitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Beijing, 2008 and taxi driver Wang has started to receive mysterious and strange letters from someone who claims to have known Wang and been a part of his world not only in this life but also in five other previous lives throughout China’s dynasties. Worryingly this stranger seems to have a detailed view about his life in the present, not only where he lives with his wife and daughter, but also some of the secrets that Wang has been trying to keep hidden. As Wang reads through the letters and the many supposed lives he has already lived, his life in the here and now starts to change and unravel all at once. This may be a horrendous time for Wang yet it is a wonderful time for us readers as we get sent into China’s many pasts, and the stories that are revealed there, and also have the added thrill of following Wang as he tries to discover the (actually very creepy) ‘Watcher’ and just what it is that they want.

I breathed your scent of cigarettes and sweat. I breathed you in, tugging molecules of you through my sinuses and trachea, and deep into my lungs. Your knuckles were white as bone as you gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to reach above the headrest and touch your thinning hair. I wanted to touch your neck.

What is quite hard to describe unless you have read the book yourself (and then it is still quite tricky) is how many wonderful layers Barker creates in The Incarnations. We have Beijing in 2008 as it gears up to the Olympics, where Wang and his family live a hand to mouth existence despite his father and (deliciously wicked) step mother living in the lap of luxury not far away, another layer being the mystery as to why Wang has shunned their life and indeed has a tempestuous relationship with them. We also have the layers of Wang’s past from his childhood, teens, twenties and early thirties and some of the stories he has kept hidden from those he loves as well as he can. The way this all unfolds creates a fascinating view of modern China and various parts of its society, from the noodle bars on the streets to the luxury penthouses above.

If that wasn’t a fictional feast enough we have the addition five layers of time periods over 1,000 years of China’s history, where in each we get a very different story and so try and work out how the two souls the Watcher claims to be themselves and Wang will find each other. We have peasants and sorceresses in the Tang Dynasty, AD 632; two escapees in the desert during the Jin Dynasty, 1213; a group of the Emperor’s tortured and mutilated concubines in the Ming Dynasty, 1542; sailors and pirates in the Qing Dynasty, 1836; and a group of reactionary school girls in the People’s Republic of China, 1966. I told you it was a feast, and if you think this all sounds terribly confusing  I promise you it’s not, its crafted brilliantly, you’ll gulp it all down and be enamoured with every new cast of characters you meet whatever their intentions and tales.

One hundred serving eunuchs scurry from the peripheries of the Hall of Literary Brilliance, remove the silver-domed plate lids and carry them away. What a feast! The Emperor licks his lips and points at a dish of noodles. The Eunuch Food-taster cries, ‘Appraising the viands!’ and pincers some dangling threads of noodles with his chopsticks. The Eunuch Food-taster nibbles, nods that the noodles are unpoisoned, and the Emperor proceeds to eat. Concubine What’s Her Name hovers out of eye shot, at the shoulder of His Majesty’s fox-fur-trimmed robes. Concubine Meek and Timid. Oh how ashamed of her I am. But to behave in any other manner is to provoke his wrath. To dine with the Emperor Jiajing is not to eat oneself but to stand beside him, encouraging him and praising him for every mouthful he masticates. A sip of elk-horn and deer-penis brewed tea necessitates a cry of, ‘Oh how this revives the blood, enhances potency, O Emperor of Ten Thousand Years!’

What is incredible is that in each of the periods of China’s history we visit we are completely engulfed, so vivid is Barker’s description. It takes a considerable amount of work for any author to build a modern world or a single historical one, let alone a modern one and five more in the past that are each fully formed and capture you in their detail. Through her prose Barker treats you to the smells, tastes, voices and senses of that time; from the food that they eat, the clothes they wear and the sex they have (this is a very sensual book in many ways) to the politics of the time or in many cases the dictatorships. I was completely bowled over by this and revelled in the descriptions that we are treated to, be it the darker sides of life in each time or the more titillating.

‘Impoliteness!’ she scolds. ‘One mustn’t spit the Jade Liquor as though it scalds the tongue. One must swallow and smile.’ After twenty years of whoredom, Madam Plum Blossom’s knowledge is as boundless as the sea. ‘Men have all sorts of peccadilloes,’ she tells me. ‘Some men like to Penetrate the Red during a woman’s moon cycle, or piddle on a woman out of the Jade Watering Spout. Some men like to poke a woman in the back passage, which is called Pushing the Boat Upstream.’

That paragraph not only shows that what I said about there being sex in the book is true, it also highlights how playful, funny and entertaining The Incarnations often is. Sex is not in the book simply for the sake of it however. It is often used to highlight characters behaviour, as a powerful tool or weapon when needed or most importantly to discuss sexuality. The fluidity of sexuality is one of the novels main themes, as is the metaphor of sexuality being or equalling freedom for many. Sexuality also links in with one of the other main themes of the novel which is love in all its forms. From familial to passionate, from friendship to that fine line of hatred and of course the question of soul mates.

Early in The Incarnations we are told that ‘History taps you on the shoulder, breathes its foggy thousand-year-old breath down your neck… But you pretend not to hear.’  I find the idea of how history and past lives, be they linked to ours or not (to our knowledge at least) can form us even in ways we aren’t aware of in the slightest. I think you would be hard pushed to find a book that looks at this idea in depth in a more wonderfully written or inventive way; especially one with such a sense of gusto, adventure and storytelling.

I was mesmerised by The Incarnations and loved it from start to finish. Barkers’ writing has a sense of darkness, comedy, history and adventure whilst also being a thought provoking, intelligent and sophisticated novel too. It is also one of those brilliant instances where it completely transfixes you in a fictional world and then provides you with an urge to go and read more. I now want to go off and not only read Susan Barker’s earlier two novels, I also want to dig out some Murakami (did I mention there were grooms turned into chickens and ghosts in this book?) and go and find lots of books on China’s history. If you have been pondering what to read next, look no further than this book.

Has anyone else read The Incarnations or indeed any of Susan’s earlier novels? I would love to hear your thoughts on them if so. I would also love any recommendations on (entertaining and insightful) books on China’s history too please thank you very much.

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Filed under Black Swan Books, Books of 2015, Fiction Uncovered, Review, Susan Barker, Transworld Publishing

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

It is going to be very hard to write about Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins without mentioning its predecessor Life After Life, which I loved and is one of my favourite of Atkinson’s novels. The first reason for this is that as I am sure many of you will be aware A God in Ruins is a ‘companion’ novel to its predecessor, as we follow Teddy Todd who is the brother of Life After Life’s protagonist Ursula. The second reason is that if you haven’t read Life After Life (and you really should have because it’s brilliant, I was on the panel that crowned it winner of The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize) then I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience you have to come. Thirdly I just think to compare them is lazy as yes they have some of the same characters and situations, and indeed this one nods to the other on occasion, yet all books should stand alone in their own right. A God in Ruins certainly does.

9780385618700

Doubleday, hardback, 2015, fiction, 395 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A God in Ruins is essentially the story of the life of Teddy Todd. We follow him from his younger years with his siblings, under the domineering matriarchy of their mother Sylvia, through the First World War and then onto the second, where he serves his nation in the skies, and onto life afterwards when he becomes a husband, father and grandfather. To give you all that information doesn’t spoil anything either,  as it is the story of a life though not a linear one. We the reader see Teddy’s life through a jumble of periods in time, perspectives and people and builda picture puzzle of his life by putting together the set pieces.

I am a huge fan of Atkinson’s and have been ever since my Gran gave me a copy of the brilliantly bizarre Human Croquet. Her writing is quite simply brilliance. Firstly she is a master of the art of a bloody good story; one of my favourite things she does is use parentheses (which you will all know I am a fan of, though not as much as I love a comma) to make you feel that she herself is telling you the story over a cup of tea. Secondly she is fantastic at characters; who all walk straight out of the book, off the page and probably down the same street as you. Thirdly she plays with the form of writing without it ever being pretentious or a little too clever for its own good; she can mix up a story so the reader has the joy or putting it all together and play tricks with language (like with Mr Manners). Fifthly, she has a wonderful sense of humour and knows just when to use it, bringing laughter at just the right moments, even when they are dark.

Teddy took the train back north the same day and lay awake all night worrying about his only child and her only child. Viola had been a lovely baby, just perfect. But then all babies were perfect, he supposed. Even Hitler.

I think with A God in Ruins, and with the creation of Teddy, Atkinson may have brought us one of her most vivid characters, who is also one of her most subtle. We have the enigma that is Ursula, the wonderfully comic and sarcastic snobbish Sylvia (who I could read an entire book about) and the vile Viola. Teddy, and indeed his wife Nancy to a degree, is a very average man who does some extraordinary (to us, as they are just his life to him – another sign of Atkinson’s genius) things and who we get to see every side of be it through his eyes or those around him which I found utterly fascinating.

Her father seemed so old-fashioned, but he must have been like new once. That was a nice phrase. She tucked that away for later use as well. She was writing a novel. It was about a young girl, brilliant and precocious, and her troubled relationship with her single-parent father. Like all writing it was a secretive act. An unspeakable practice. Viola sensed there was a better person inside her than the one who wanted to punish the world for its bad behaviour all the time (when her own was so reproachable). Perhaps writing would be a way of letting that person out in the daylight.

I should add here that in A God in Ruins even the characters who only show up for a page or two all come fully formed and often (through Atkinson cleverly and almost unnoticeably stepping in and telling us of the future even though we are in the past) giving us their life ahead. These seemingly minor characters can also be used to highlight issues with a real poignancy, for those of you who have read it I will give you one name, Hilda – completely got me when I was least expecting it to.

I really wanted to have a chat with Atkinson (if only we could all be so lucky) after reading the book because I wanted to ask her if one of the themes in A God in Ruins is ‘what makes a hero’ or ‘what being a hero means’. As we follow Teddy’s life we see what it is that can make an ordinary person become a hero and how a hero can go back to being an ordinary person. There are several moments that made me think of this. Most obviously there are all the ordinary people drawn in to fight wars, who go from being civilians to fighters or spies yet then what happens to them after the war when ‘normal’ life resumes. What do they do and how do they cope with the change? This in itself leads to what it means to be a war hero?

‘Teddy won’t shoot anything,’ Sylvie said decisively. ‘He doesn’t kill.’
‘He would if he had to,’ Nancy said. ‘Can you pass the salt please?’
He has killed, Teddy thought. Many people. Innocent people. He had personally helped ruin poor Europe. ‘I am here, you know,’ he said, ‘sitting next to you.’

Yet in giving us the full story of Teddy’s life Atkinson looks at the quieter moments of heroism too. The moments that are heroic yet on a much smaller minimal scale, like a selfless act of pure love, a simple moment of kindness, or something which seems insignificant and costs nothing yet can change a person’s perception of themselves, their life or the world around them. She also looks at what it means simply to be good.

Previously on this blog I have mentioned I feel that the world wars are periods in time which have been well mined, possibly overly, by contemporary writers and so really need a different angle in order to make me sit up and take notice. I have to admit that initially when the sections of Teddy’s life during the Second World War came up I was worried that I might possibly lose interest. I had to study the Blitz at least three times at school and so I always think I am going to be lectured to. On occasion I initially wanted the pre and post war stories of Teddy’s life to take over again. This faded the more into the war we went as Atkinson writes from the lesser used angle of the skies brilliantly and one particular chapter had me on the edge of the sofa. However the most poignant moment of the whole of A God in Ruins is linked to the war and, without giving anything away, it is a single paragraph which will hit you over the head like the shovel (and probably make you cry a little bit as it did me) and make you understand why Atkinson has written the book she has. I will say no more than that.

As you may have guessed I thought A God in Ruins was rather ruddy marvellous. It charmed me, entertained me, thrilled me, beguiled me and then in the simplest, smallest and most understated of moments completely broke me when I never expected it to. It is also a wonderful insight into what it is that makes us human. It also does something slightly unusual with the Second World War book, yet probably the one of the most affecting alongside Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I would highly recommend you read it. I cannot wait to see what Atkinson has up her sleeves for us next.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Doubleday Publishers, Kate Atkinson, Review, Transworld Publishing

Like This, For Ever – Sharon Bolton

Murders are horrific, they are also grimly fascinating. I know I am now alone in this, yet many people might not like to admit that they feel this way. With a murder we empathise with the victim and their family, we also find the little horrific facts that get reported along the way grimly fascinating, we also like to try and work out who the killer might be even if we have very few of the facts and nothing evidential. It is human nature; it is why crime has become one of the biggest selling genres of books around the world.

Transworld Books, paperback, 2013, fiction, 512 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In Like This, For Ever we see a series of murders through the eyes of an eleven year old boy, Barney, who has become fixated by them. Part of this is the element of human nature as I mentioned above, part of it is also that the victims are young boys like himself which adds empathy for them to him and also a fear that he could at some point fall under the killers eyes and become a potential victim. Part of it is that Barney would really like to catch the killer, gaining some acclaim and attention from his dad but also from some of the kids at school who bully him for the black outs that he sometimes gets. He is not alone and soon, along with some of his friends, he decides to play investigator yet catching a killer can mean catching that killer’s attention.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in London, Dana Tulloch and Mark Joesbury of the Major Investigations Team are getting nowhere in trying to solve who this killer is. With the slowly dawning realisation of the public that this might be a serial killer and then the disappearance of more children Tulloch and Joesbury have to work fast before time runs out. Yet this killer is clever, so clever in fact that soon the police start to be taunted by a killer that is making themselves known on social media and making the public interest and fear all the wider spread.

Now you may be wondering where on earth Lacey Flint is in all this, after all this is the third Lacey Flint novel. I know I was. Without giving away any major spoilers I can say that Lacey, who is currently off the police force after what happened in her last case (in Dead Scared, which is bloody scary) does get involved and at a time when she swore to herself that she wouldn’t get involved in another case herself, especially one which chimes to a time in Lacey’s murky past which we are slowly but surely learning more and more about.

The kids on the touchline were watching her approach. Lacey studied each in turn. The smaller boy was edgy and nervous. The girl was bold-faced and defiant, just like she’d been at that age, but scared underneath it. The young were so bad at hiding their feelings. All except Barney, who, she had to admit, was a pretty cool customer. He’d turned back to watch the match again, she’d almost be convinced if it weren’t for the angle of his head. He was watching her. Then the taller of the boys followed his lead, turning his back on Lacey, slinging an arm around Barney’s shoulders, saying something a little louder than necessary. Then he laughed. Barney laughed too, as though the two of them had just shared something hilarious.
As Lacey drew close, the girl looked her up and down, sizing up everything she was wearing, and then turned her back, as though she wasn’t worth any more interest. Little minx. The younger boys couldn’t take their eyes off her. They were like small mammals when a snake gets ready to strike.

These three stands create a fantastic thriller from an author who is easily becoming one of my favourite crime writers. With its many viewpoints Like This, For Ever really looks at a series of murders from all angles from those involved closely and those from a distance. I have to admit I wasn’t sure that the voice of an eleven year old would really work for me in a crime novel but in many ways I think it is what gives this book a real edge. Barney sees and hears things going on around him, he might not always understand them or may not catch their implications, we as the reader do however and this adds a really clever, and sometimes incredibly sinister, dynamic to the book. Doubly cleverly it also adds a certain naivety to the novel, child murders are very uncomfortable ground, yet Barney’s narration somehow softens the horror as it ups the fear. It is really hard to describe and genius of Bolton to do, a true masterstroke.

Also, as always in this series, Lacey Flint adds another edge to it. Rogue at the best of times, without being assigned to the case or indeed being on the force any longer, Flint takes it even further with this novel. As she does so we get snapshots into a part of her past, and her psyche, that we haven’t seen before. In the Lacey Flint series, really it is the mystery of who Lacey really is and what on earth has happened in her past, which we are slowly uncovering. Just as I didn’t have a clue who was the murderer in this book until the last chapter, I have no idea where Lacey’s back story will take us next. Part of me is desperate to, whilst the other part is enjoying the slow reveal and doesn’t want this series to end.

To cut to the chase Sharon Bolton (or S J Bolton as you may know her) has gone and done it again. Like This, For Ever is an intelligent, scary, chilling and gripping thriller that will have you reading until the small hours, both because you are gripped and because you are too tense or scared to turn the light out. Each novel in this series just gets better and better, and the first one was blooming brilliant, so I cannot wait for the next – which thankfully is sat on my shelves already. I love the mix of intrigue, genuine fear and hint of something ‘other’ that they evoke. If you haven’t given them a whirl then you really, really must.

If you would like to hear more about the Lacey Flint novels you can hear Sharon and myself in conversation here. Who else out there has read the Lacey Flint series? What about the standalone novels? I am very excited because in the forthcoming Little Black Lies guess who makes an appearance? Yes, a certain Simon Savidge, I am both thrilled and nervous about this.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Review, S.J. Bolton, Sharon Bolton, Transworld Publishing

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

We have all done it haven’t we? Or should that be, we all do this don’t we? We have all been sat on a bus, the train, been in the car (preferably not driving) or just been nosey through the net curtains and seen certain faces again and again and made up lives for those people we regularly see but don’t  dare to speak to. This has been the case with Rachel as she makes her way to and from London, creating the perfect life, projecting her own dreams, on one couple who she names “Jason and Jess” whose house she passes twice a day. However one day on her way into London Rachel sees something that isn’t right, “Jess” is kissing a man who definitely isn’t “Jason” ut on their decking.  Things take a twist a few weeks later when it turns out that “Jess” is actually a girl called Megan who has gone missing, with the knowledge of what she has seen has Rachel got the key to the mystery?

Transworld Books, hardback, 2015, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

This could be a simple and thrilling, erm, thriller in itself until we see Rachel realise that the night Megan went missing was also a night when Rachel got off the train at the nearby station, very drunk, to go and watch the house she used to live in with her ex husband, who now lives there with his new wife Anna and their child. Yet, in one of her more and more frequent drunken states, Rachel blacked out and can’t remember what happened. Yet from the state she wakes up in and with the fuzzy feeling of dread it would appear that whatever it was it was very, very bad – what could this mean?

The Girl on the Train is one of the best thrillers I have read in quite some time and not just because of the intriguing premise. Hawkins does some very clever, tricky and twisty things with this novel that make it one of those brilliant mysteries that work on many levels. Firstly of course there is the above mentioned plot, a mystery which quite simply begs for the reader to follow Rachel as she tries to solve or absolve herself from any involvement with what has or hasn’t happened.

Secondly is the unexpected way in which the novel is written. I imagined that the whole novel would be Rachel trying to find out just what the blinking heck has happened. Wrong! Initially we get the story from Rachel ‘in the present’ but soon we get the narratives both of Megan (before and leading up to her disappearance) and Anna, who Rachel seems to have just as much of an obsession with as she did “Jason and Jess”, giving us a whole new light on Rachel. All this creates an additionally compellingly complex aspect to the novel, without being hard work or off putting, along with three intricate and multifaceted female narrators.

I am not the girl I used to be. I am no longer desirable; I am off putting in some way. It’s not that I’ve put on weight, or that my face is puffy from the drinking and lack of sleep; it’s as if people can see the damage written over all over me, they can see it in my face, the way I hold myself, the way I move.
One night last week, when I left my room to get myself a glass of water, I overheard Cathy talking to Damien, her boyfriend, in the living room. I stood in the hallway and listened. ‘She’s lonely,’ Cathy was saying, ‘I really worry about her. It doesn’t help, her being alone all the time.’ Then she said, ‘Isn’t there someone from work, maybe, or the rugby club?’ and Damien said, ‘For Rachel? Not being funny, Cath, but I’m not sure I know anyone that desperate.’

Rachel is someone you both feel rather sorry for, when she is vulnerable and heartbroken/just plain broken, yet feel really creeped out by when she starts hitting the bottle and hanging around her old street either to watch her old house or try and ingratiate herself within Megan’s. On the one hand you want to sit with her and a bottle (or six) and just let her vent, then you want to give her a bit of a shake and tell her to get a grip of herself, then feel you would avoid her in the street at all costs and cross to the other side, before promptly feeling bad and sympathising again. This is wonderfully depicted in Rachel’s relationship with Cathy, an acquaintance of sorts who kindly let her stay and is really quite regretting it now.  As she is clearly down the road to alcoholism you sympathise whilst also being fully aware that she us completely unreliable and possibly an obsessive stalker trying to fill the sad and cold emptiness in her life in any way she can. At the same time you just know all she wants is to be happy. This adds an emotive and often slightly uncomfortably realistic side to life that we have all had elements of in our lives, though hopefully we didn’t go to quite the same lengths.

Megan and Anna’s narratives may not appear as often but that doesn’t make them any less vivid, human or naturally flawed. Anna is a woman who came into Rachel’s ex husband’s life all confidence and stole him from her, now with a new baby and Rachel drunkenly turning up out of the blue she is becoming a paranoid bag of nerves, is this karma for what she has done? Megan may also seem perfect and have the most handsome of men in her life, she is also a sex addict who cannot stop herself from having affairs and getting herself into trouble. As the novel moves on each of the women lets more and more of the facade they have given their lives slip a little more creating a fascinating, brooding and ominous tension that makes you (cliché alert, but true) turn the pages faster and faster to the final dénouement. I won’t say too much more as I want you to go out and grab this book and spend some riveting time with these three characters.

The Girl on the Train is one of those thrillers I love because it can be read in a number of ways. You can read it as a bloody good thriller. You can read it as a fascinating insight into the psyches or three women and how they are trying to survive in the situations they find themselves. You can read it as a look at how society sees, and often pigeon-holes women, into certain categories based simply on the expectation of women morally, how they look on the surface or their lifestyle choices and how that affects them and what the realities are. Or you can read it as all three. Whatever you do read it!

Oh and don’t pay attention to the comparisons to other novels in the genre (novels which I also loved I will hasten to add) as I really think The Girl on the Train should be read for its own merits as it can certainly stand up for itself. Who else has read it and, without spoilers, what did you think of it?

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Filed under Books of 2015, Paula Hawkins, Review, Transworld Publishing

The Days of Anna Madrigal – Armistead Maupin

I am not very good with goodbyes, nor am I very good with endings. There are all those mixed emotions; denial, upset, happy tears, sad tears – it is all a bit much really. I think it is a mixture of all these that has caused me to pause rather often as I have been putting my thoughts together about The Days of Anna Madrigal, Armistead Maupin’s final in the Tales of the City series which I have loved since I was in my teens.

Doubleday, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Anna Madrigal is now 90-something and in the prime of old age, she has become something of a legend within the LGBT community, not only in her hometown of San Francisco where she is an institution, but all over the place. However Anna is filled with nostalgia and the events that happened when she was a young boy Andy, a boy who knew he was very different from the other boys and girls and who did something that Anna has been keeping secret for a very, very long time.

I am of course very delicately tip toeing around any spoilers because I really don’t want to give anything away to have those of you who love the series and haven’t read this one yet, or those are just discovering it (and should really go back to the start as then you have nine books to get through) because you have such joys ahead – you lucky things. What I can say is that Anna decides that she will go back and face her past and rectify, if she can, any of the wrongs that she may have caused in her past.

They shared a merry moment of bonding until Brian interrupted it. “Wait a minute,” he said to Anna. “You told me you chose your name for the anagram.” The old woman shook her head slowly. “I told you it was an anagram. There’s a big difference.” Brian’s face turned pouty. “So you were just blowing smoke up my ass.” Anna smiled dimly. “You may have been inhaling, dear, but I wasn’t blowing.”

This gives the book a wonderful sense of resolution and (if you have read it) to the whole series going full circle. Anna Magrigal has always been the heart, and in many ways the link that binds, the Tales of the City series and indeed the wonderful characters, Mouse, Mary Ann Singleton, Mona, Brian etc, together throughout. Wherever she is they end up being (Burning Man is involved in this novel) or somehow finding themselves linked to her in another fateful or coincidental way. At the same time she has always really been its biggest mystery and enigma in the series. Where did she come from? What happened that made her lose contact with her mother and the whore house in Winnemucca? Well we go back to the 1930’s and find out thanks to some wonderful (and vividly described and created) flashbacks which brings the hardship of anyone ‘different’ to the full force and in a way looks back at LGBT history and, of course, supplies us with a great story.

It is this mixture of a great stories with more serious issues lying in the background, sneaking into your brain, which is what I have always loved so much about Armistead Maupin’s writing. There’s levels and there’s bigger issues underlying to make you think, while the characters you love and the situations they find themselves in make it all the more real. The main theme for me in The Days of Anna Madrigal for me was ‘ageing’. Be you in your late twenties or thirties, your sixties or your nineties it is something we all think about, even if for the briefest of moments. Maupin looks at ageing and looks at its pitfalls, like your body failing you or not feeling able to keep up with the rest of the world or being at odds with it. I must point out it also celebrates it in many ways too. I often found it all incredibly touching.

If only he knew, though Michael. Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.

The other themes of the book, which link to age in many ways, look at endings and goodbyes – I have already mentioned I am not very good at these. Goodbye’s don’t have to mean death, they can mean goodbye to friends you’ve moved on from, places you loved which maybe aren’t for you anymore, goodbye to guilt or the past. There is so much in any goodbye and again Maupin looks at this in a wonderful way which will move you, unless you happen to be dead inside in which case you don’t deserve the mixed tears of joy and sadness that might be ahead.

She regarded him benignly until she caught his gaze. “So this is the end of candlelight?” He hesitated. “Well… if you wanna put it that way.” “How would you have me put it?”

It was the sense of pleasant nostalgia that I was left with the most having closed The Days of Anna Madrigal knowing it was the end of the series. A nostalgia for all the joy that the characters and their tales have brought me, along with the sense of having gone full circle. After all more often than not, the ending of something is actually the beginning of something else, or the start of a new cycle, isn’t it? I guess I just have to start all over again don’t I and relive the memories and stories that I am most grateful and thankful Armistead Maupin has brought into many of our lives.

Actually, the end of the Tales of the City and Simon Savidge story, as I like to think of it, isn’t quite over yet. For one, I have just got my mother reading them and she loved the first. Secondly, I am giving it away on World Book Night, so I will be passing on the Tales that way too. So who else is a fan of the Tales of the City novels? Is anyone else gutted, even though we have all these to re-read, that the series has now come to an end? Oh and if you would like to hear Armistead talking more about the book, you can do so with me (who turned into a bit of a fan boy) here on You Wrote The Book. Are there any other series that are so endearing you could recommend to fill the void these will now leave?

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Doubleday Publishers, Review, Transworld Publishing

Dead Scared – S. J. Bolton

How times flies. It doesn’t seem that long ago since I read Now You See Me, the first in S.J Bolton’s, or Sharon Bolton as she has now ‘some out as – as it were, series of DC Lacey Flint crime novels yet it is in fact two years. After having read Now You See Me I remember being desperate to read the next one but putting it off as I didn’t want it to be overkill. Pun unintended. Yet once having finished Dead Scared I was (almost) kicking myself for having not read it sooner. But sometimes the best crime novels shouldn’t be binge read and saved and savoured for the right moment, as you may have guessed from that statement Dead Scared is another bloody brilliant crime thriller. Pun fully intended.

Bantham Press, hardback, 2012, fiction, 378 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

At Cambridge University a girl has tried and failed to take her own life in an extreme and unusual way, and yet she survives. Yet psychologist and lecturer Evi Oliver thinks there is something much darker possibly going on as she looks into suicides in the university and discovers that there have been 19 cases in 5 years. DC Lacey Flint is then assigned an undercover role, from DI Mark Joesbury, as a student at the school to look into the cases and find out more about what might be going on that the clothed detectives are concerned could be a case of something much darker. Soon enough Lacey is thrown into a world of internet suicide pacts, cruel student pranks and then she starts to have nightmares and the suspicion that the scary dreams of a man coming into her room might actually not be her brains overactive imagination. Could someone genuinely be scaring these girls to death?

As with Now You See Me there is much to admire about Dead Scared. Firstly it is really gripping and incredibly chilling. I was completely hooked from the very start of Dead Scared, and actually ended up reading it in two sittings both well into the night which was most unadvised when you then have to go through the house turning all the lights off and frankly have the creeps. Fear is something that we all have and know the sensation of and just as Bolton’s killer, or killers, uses that to their advantage with their victims so does Bolton with her readers. I don’t like clowns, even though they aren’t my greatest fear, I like them even less now. This book seriously gave me the shivers.

Secondly, not only are there several red herrings and dead ends to leave the reader constantly second guessing themselves and who the killer is, there is also a clever second plot around some creepy goings on in Evi Oliver’s life which has you pondering how and if the two may or may not be interlinked. Perfect puzzling fodder for anyone who loves a good (and occasionally rather grisly; one method of supposed suicide really, really bothered me – and it wasn’t even the clown one) crime and playing detective along with the detectives.

Thirdly I love Lacey Flint. Not quite in the on/off way that DI Mark Joesbury does, but she is a really fascinating protagonist. She is likeable despite the fact she is bolshy, she is honest yet sometime all too emotion driven (which is both a good and bad thing), she is also flawed (she likes a drink and casual sex and other activities) but most interestingly is she is a mystery. Still two books into the series Bolton is revealing, or actually not revealing but teasing, us with Lacey’s back story. I think there is much more for us to find out, I won’t give it away but one thing we learn about her made me do a ‘what?’ especially as she works for the police, and as we do I think it is going to get darker and darker.

Fourth and finally, because I may just sound like a stuck record of praise, what I like so much about her novels is that yes there is a lot of crime yet there are also real issues of ‘the now’ which are dealt with in her books. In Now You See Me (which I also heartily recommend if you hadn’t guessed) we are given a Ripper copycat killer thriller, which also looks at the issues of the homeless in London and how they are treated and seen by society. In Dead Scared we have a genuinely unsettling and creepy novel which also looks at the rate of suicides in the young, some hard facts and figures are placed in the book which leaves you really thinking.

I would highly recommend Dead Scared. If you like gritty and realistic crime thrillers which will have you hooked but also look at the darker aspects of society and we human beings then you can’t go wrong with these. If the series carries on like this then Sharon is going to be up there with Tess Gerritsen, Sophie Hannah, Susan Hill and Kate Atkinson as one of my very, very favourites. I can’t wait for the next one, and as I have discovered the 4th DC Lacey Flint book is out in May I might have to dive into Like This, For Ever (the third) ridiculously soon.

P.S From now on I will always call S.J. Bolton Sharon Bolton, this edition was just under the S.J. title.

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Filed under Bantam Press, Books of 2014, Review, S.J. Bolton, Sharon Bolton, Transworld Publishing

Babycakes – Armistead Maupin

If you haven’t read any of the Tales of the City series then could you leave this post, turn your computer off and run to the nearest bookshop, buy it, curl up with it and then come back when you are sorry that you have missed such utter joys until this day. Seriously, jog on, I won’t speak to you until you have. If you are one of those people who is clearly very naughty and is reading on, or if you have read them and you are wishing I would just get on with it, let me tell you that I think the Tales of the City books are not only my very favourite series but some of my very favourite books.

Returning to them is always an absolute joy, I feel I have lived with these characters on 28 Barbary Lane for all my life – impossible I know but that is how much they have meant to me since way back when and how real they have become in my mind. Knowing that there was a new one coming out, The Days of Anna Madrigal, I decided to re-read them all again after the new year only I realised that I always seem to re-read the first three (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City) and then stop so knowing them inside and out (in a gorgeous and familiar way) I decided to start with book four in the series Babycakes (possibly after watching the first three’s adaptations on DVD first, don’t judge me they are almost as good as the first), and once again was lost in that familiar world of Mouse, Mary Ann and Mrs Madrigal once again. Note: Now if you haven’t read this series and still haven’t gone, right this minute, to buy them all this is your last chance as being the fourth in the series I may have to give some things away. You’ve been warned.

Black Swan Books, 1984 (2010 edition), paperback, 320 pages, taken from my own shelves

Babycakes opens with none other than The Queen as she arrives in San Francisco on a trip around America. The city is abuzz with the news and Mary Ann Singleton, now a TV reporter, is out in her very best hat (only befitting if you are even talking about The Queen on the telly, let alone being in her company) and trying to get a big story from it all. Her husband Brian is still waiting in a restaurant and trying to deal with career focused Mary Ann when really what he wants is a pregnant Mary Ann who he will happily become a house husband to. Michael ‘Mouse’ is also feeling rather lost and grieving since the death of his lover Jon. While all of The Castro is focused on the arrival of ‘another’ Queen in town, they are avoiding the fact that HIV and Aids are becoming a big problem in the city. Michael however knows about it all too well and feels the need to escape which, with the help of Mrs Madrigal and a runaway seaman, he does and flies to London where he finds a familiar face in a very unfamiliar world, though this familiar face doesn’t want to be discovered…

What I loved about Babycakes, and what I invariably love about every Tales of the City and Armistead Maupin book, is how on first glances these are a series of charming tales about a whole host of wonderful, diverse and colourful characters. Yet they also cleverly look at the much darker side of life and somehow make it more digestible without being any the less thought provoking or emotional. In Babycakes there are four main themes going on in the background; the first is subject of men who really want to be dads and stay at home husbands (which people still find an unusual set up), racism, grief and the arrival of HIV and Aids onto the gay scene in the early 1980’s.

The other Michael’s face registered gratitude, then confusion, then something akin to discomfort. Michael knew what he was wondering. ‘I don’t have it,’ he added. I am just a volunteer who answers the phones.’
A long silence followed. When the waiter finally spoke, his voice was much more subdued. ‘My ex-lover’s lover died of it last month.’
An expression of sympathy seemed somehow inappropriate, so Michael merely nodded.
‘It really scares me,’ said the waiter. ‘I’ve given up Folsom Street completely. I only go to the sweater bars now.’
Michael would have told him that the disease was no respecter of cashmere, but his nerves were too shot for another counselling session. He had already spent five hours talking to people who had been rejected by their lovers, evicted by their landlords, and refused admission to local hospitals. Just for tonight, he wanted to forget.’

These moments in Babycakes really hit home, probably because of all the lighter and more quirky stories around them, which I think Maupin does brilliantly as they stand out all the darker. They are also done with great sensitivity and it is this duality, and was also done marvellously when dealing with the Jonestown Massacre in Further Tales of the City, which makes the series so important as well as being so compelling to read. I can’t really say any more than that, I just really love them.

Since reading Babycakes, just before I started Significant Others, I discovered that The Days of Anna Madrigal will be the finale to the whole series. I won’t lie, having loved these books since I was a teenager (they were like a godsend to show there were more diverse/different people out there in the world) my stomach almost dropped out with horror. So I have decided that I will save the fifth to eighth book re-reads until after I have read the finale and have them to go back to afterwards. I have a feeling there will be tears for all sorts of reasons. I wonder if when I meet Armistead next week (for You Wrote The Book, if any of you have questions let me know) I could slip him a £5 note to get him to write just a few more? Ha!

For a slightly less rambling and emotional response to Babycakes visit A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook. Who else has read the Tales of the City series, be they in your formative years or not, and which has been your favourite along the way? Can you believe that it is really coming to an end? If you haven’t read them yet, then what on earth are you still doing reading this post? Get on with your bothers and down to a bookshop/library right this minute!

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Black Swan Books, Books of 2014, Review, Transworld Publishing

Chocolat – Joanne Harris

I have had Joanne Harris’ ‘Chocolat’ in the TBR for ages and ages and ages. Why has is shamefully languished there for years? Well, it is one of those rare cases where I have seen (and really enjoyed) the film of the book first and so have had to wait until the actors and plot left my mind so that I could let the story and the prose work with my brain to create it all over again from scratch.

***** Black Swan Books, paperback, 1999, fiction, 384 pages, from my own personal TBR

It is Mardi Gras and the start of Lent (so perfect time to be reading this book) in the small rather sleepy yet picturesque town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes when two strangers arrive on the change of the winds. From the moment they arrive Vianne Rocher, and her daughter Anouk, cause a stir with the townsfolk both with their sense of the exotic and the mysterious way in which they suddenly arrived.

Rather than attracting the locals to the mystery of them seems to repel them in some kind of fear. This is increased when Vianne decides that she will settle into the town and open a chocolate shop, right opposite the church, at the start of Lent. From here on in she becomes a symbol to Father Reynaud, the local priest and man many seem to fear, of all that is unholy and a detriment to the town. It soon becomes an unspoken war between the two that one of them will survive in this town and see the other disappear, yet who is good and who is bad?

I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.

The other thing that I really loved about ‘Chocolat’ (and again even having seen the film, which I will now stop mentioning) was the way it felt like a rather modern fairytale for grownups and also a book which has that delicious, pun intended, sense of the magical and the real merging and mingling without any spectacular fireworks or magic spells. You as the reader get to know Vianne rather well and yet, like with the town’s people, she is slightly an enigma. You find yourself asking, as everyone else in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes does, if indeed Vianne might just be a witch, or is it all smoke, mirrors and scrying in chocolate?

“I know all their favourites. It’s a knack, a professional secret like a fortune-teller reading palms. My mother would have laughed at this waste of my skills, but I have no desire to probe further into their lives than this. I do not want their secrets and their innermost thoughts. Nor do I want their fears or gratitude. A tame alchemist, she would have called me with kindly contempt, working with domestic magic when I could have wielded marvels. But I like these people. I like their small introverted concerns. I can read their eyes, their mouths, so easily; this one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet smiling one the soft-centred apricot hearts; the girl with the windblown hair will love the mendiants; this brisk, cheery woman the chocolate brazils.”

Like every town anywhere Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is full of secrets and for some reason, could it be the scent of chocolate in the air or Vianne herself, it is in the chocolate shop that people feel suddenly they can share what is going on behind closed doors. This of course creates some wonderful off shoot storylines and some marvellous characters. My favourites were most probably Josephine Muscat; a woman under her husband’s violent thumb and made out by all to be a crazy thief, and also Armande Voizin; the oldest woman in the town who people have to respect for that but also think is a witch and elderly rebel, an embarrassment even to her family.

“’Well, well, it’s M’sieur le Cure.’ The voice came from just behind me, and in spite of myself I recoiled. Armande Voizin gave a small crow of laughter. Nervous, he?’ she said maliciously. ‘You should be. You’re out of your territory here, aren’t you? What’s the mission this time? Converting the pagans?’
‘Madame.’ In spite of her insolence I gave her a polite nod. ‘I trust you are in good health.’
‘Oh do you?’ Her black eyes fizzed with laughter. ‘I was under the impression that you couldn’t wait to give me the last rites.’     

The final brilliant thing that I really liked about ‘Chocolat’ was that Harris, as you can see from the excerpts I have chosen, writes the book in both the perspective of Vianne and Father Reynaud. This gives you a really interesting double perspective of how they feel about each other and how they both see the people in the town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes from completely different outlooks. She also manages somehow to make neither party really bad, even though there is one side you are rooting for more than another, even though each one has flaws and rightly or wrongly sees themselves as the right party in all of this.

So are there any negatives, honestly I couldn’t say there were. I just really enjoyed the experience of reading ‘Chocolat’, I loved the characters, the slight dark atmosphere the book has that broods and builds and of course I loved the chocolate which completely takes over your senses, you can taste and smell it coming off the page. In fact maybe that is the slight concern with the book, the amount of chocolate that I simply HAD to eat, I had no choice, whilst reading it.

As I am planning on reading the next two of the books in the ‘Chocolat’ series, I could (if the books have chocolate in them this much and this wonderfully) end up the size of a house and be sending Joanne Harris a large invoice for all the chocolate I have had to buy for the cravings and the membership I will need for a gym afterwards. ‘Chocolat’ is truly a delicious book and I am excited to have so much more Joanne Harris to look forward to.

Who else has read ‘Chocolat’ and what were your thoughts? Which of Joanne Harris’ other books have you read and would recommend? I have a real hankering to watch the film, with a big box of chocolates, later – in fact that could be my Friday night sorted.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Joanne Harris, Review, Transworld Publishing

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

It is very rare that I re-read a book, even my favourites. I always have a fear that in doing so some of the charm will wear off or the surprises that you had on the first read won’t reappear. One series of books and indeed one book in particular, that I have returned to again and again over a good few decades is ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin. As it is LGBT History Month this month I decided it was a fitting time to return to Barbary Lane once again, hopefully bringing a few of you along with me.

***** Transworld Books, paperback, 1978, fiction, 269 pages, from my own bookshelves

At the end of her vacation from her homeland of Cleveland, Mary Ann Singleton decides, rather recklessly for her, that staying in the city of San Francisco should be a more permanent move. Initially moving in with her old friend Connie, who is a little more free and easy that Mary Ann can believe, she finds her own apartment at 28 Barbary Lane above her mysterious and initially rather odd seeming landlady Anna Madrigal, neighbours Mona, Mouse, Brian and soon Norman. It is Mary Ann’s story of arriving and settling in San Francisco that makes the initial tale in which more and more tales of the mixed bunch of characters around her diverge and merge off of, some linking back on each other and some adding twists and turns you wouldn’t see coming. All together they do, as the title suggests, make a wonderful collection of tales, and indeed a narrative of, the city. I don’t want to spoil the tales and their twists for you though so I won’t discuss the plot/s further.

For me the main joy of the book and this has been the case every time, in the fifteen years that I have re-read it on and off, is the fact that it feels like real life. The city of San Francisco comes straight off the page, I haven’t been there (and would love to if anyone fancies treating me, ha) but I feel I have, so vivid is the description and the atmosphere of the place from the luxury of the Halcyon’s apartments to the supermarkets and dry cleaners of downtown. In fact it does very much feel like a love letter to and from San Francisco in many ways.

‘Well, take your time. There’s a partial view, if you count that little patch of bay peeping through the trees. Utilities included, of course. Small house. Nice people. You get here this week?’
‘That obvious, huh?’
The landlady nodded. ‘The look’s a dead giveaway. You just can’t wait to bite into that lotus.’
‘What? I’m sorry…’
‘Tennyson. You know: “Eating the lotus day by day, To watch the crisping ripples on the beach, An tender curving lines of creamy spray; To lend our hearts and spirits wholly to the influence of”… something, something… You get the point.’
‘Does the… furniture go with it?’
‘Don’t change the subject while I am quoting Tennyson.’
Mary Ann was shaken until she noticed that the landlady was smiling. ‘You get used to my babbling,’ said Mrs Madrigal. ‘All the others have.’ She walked to the window, where the wind made her kimono flutter like brilliant plumage. ‘The furniture is included. What do you say dear?’
Mary Ann said yes.
‘Good. You’re one of us then. Welcome to 28 Barbary Lane.’
‘Thank you.’
‘You should.’ Mrs Madrigal smiled. There was something careworn about her face, but she was really quite lovely, Mary Anne decided. ‘Do you have any objection to pets?’ asked the new tenant.
‘Dear… I have no objection to anything.’

It is the characters that steal the show, Mrs Madrigal, Mary Ann and Michael/Mouse in the main, walking off the page as they do so with flaws and all. Maupin is a master of characterisation and prose each character being multifaceted with good sides and bad, secrets here and there and just regular people of all walks of life. I don’t think in any book I have read outside of the ‘Tales of the City’ series have I found a set of characters that depict all aspects of society, in terms of ages, sexuality, backgrounds, wealth, races, etc, without feeling false of like the author is trying too hard. Maupin covers homophobia, terminal illness, affairs (of people of all ages and sexualities), spies, murder, lies and even cults without any effort or feeling like he is trying to make a shocking statement. There is also a short sharp episodic feel to the book, no surprise as originally it was serialised in a San Francisco paper, that makes it almost unputdownable; you find yourself saying ‘just one more, oh go on another one’ as you go along.

For me at fifteen, and still at thirty if I am honest, what Maupin says to me is that these are characters who are all trying to figure themselves out and so you can too at the same time. As the series goes on, and the more you return to it, all these characters feel like friends. Here I have to admit I wanted to – okay I still do a bit – take the place of Mouse when I was fifteen and have best friends like Mary Ann Singleton and Mona and live in one of Mrs Madrigal’s apartments. In that teenage phase we all have, I think, where I used to save up 20p a week to runaway it was Barbary Lane that I was aiming for. I owe a huge thanks to Armistead Maupin for not only for making me love reading and providing me with escape in my younger years but for also making me realise it was okay to be a bit different from everyone else, that it didn’t matter – or that it wouldn’t matter to those people who really cared about me – and that I would find my way in life okay. It was books like this one and how it reached out to me, way back when in my teens, and made me want to start something like The Green Carnation Prize so other people could find books like this as well, be they a teenager or adult.

Anyway, I have gone off on a tangent, as you can see ‘Tales of the City’ is a book that means a huge amount to me. It is a book, for me, which epitomises what reading is all about, exploring worlds we don’t know and with characters walk off the page and we befriend from all walks of life. It’s one that is a joy to discover for the first time, which I hope some of you have done or will do, and even more of a joy to return to time and time again – and it never seems to age. I cannot recommend, or love this book, enough.

Who else is a fan of ‘Tales of the City’ and the series? Who also loved the TV show, why can’t they do the whole lot? Who has returned to it again and again? Who has tried it for the first time and what did you make of it?

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Filed under Armistead Maupin, Books of 2013, Review, Transworld Publishing

Keeping the Dead – Tess Gerritsen

In my book thoughts yesterday I mentioned how that book had appealed to me because as a child I really liked fairy stories. Well, something must be in the air because one of the reasons that I utterly loved ‘Keeping the Dead’ by Tess Gerritsen, or ‘The Keepsake’ as its known on some international shores, was the fact that it started with a tale of mummies and dusty old museums, something else I was fascinated by as a kid. I am wondering what is making me want to read books which have, for me not anyone else, such links with my childhood and my first early reading days. That could start a whole post of its own, so let’s get back to the book in hand.

Bantam Books, paperback, 2009, fiction, 448 pages, from personal TBR

Madam X is the talk of the town as ‘Keeping The Dead’ opens, though she is not initially (oh how things change) as salacious as she sounds. In fact she is an ancient mummy who has been unearthed in the archives of one of Boston’s biggest, if longest forgotten, museums. This is big news for the museum and indeed for the city and so a packed room of media and specialists, including Maura Isles, await the live X-Ray. When a filing appears on the screen they initially believe they have found a major new discovery in the field of Egyptology, who knew that the Egyptians had made these advances in dental treatment? However, when the bullet from a very modern gun appears on the screen it appears that this may have been a much more recent homicide and so Detective Jane Rizzoli is called in to investigate. Soon the Museum is searched and before long more relics are found and they appear to be much less ancient than they look. It seems someone is collection women, or bits of them and soon enough this killer strikes very close indeed.

It is an overused cliché, yet ‘Keeping the Dead’ is an incredible page turner. I read this in three sittings (all at an airport, and if you don’t love flying read a book like this, I didn’t think about landing, being in the air or taking off as I was so engrossed) during a single day. I then promptly felt guilty for devouring it so quickly when I imagine it took quite a time to write, but this was a pure reading pleasure. Well, if you can call a book about a psychopath who likes to make relics of his victims, and use ancient ways of preserving them, a pleasure that is?

‘Keeping the Dead’ is the seventh in the Rizzoli and Isles series which has made Tess Gerritsen so well known, and now of course is a major (and not to bad from what I have watched so far) TV series. It is also possibly the novel which, I think, stands alone the most if you haven’t read any of the previous novels. It’s not that Rizzoli and Isles don’t develop as characters, they just aren’t the focus of this thriller, and indeed it happens over a very short space of time, in the present day sequences, because it’s the back story that we learn as we go. So Rizzoli and Isles are necessary, and indeed it is another of their shared cases, just not on every page because the heart of the story lies elsewhere. I have heard that the next in the series ‘The Killing Place’ focuses much more on our heroines as one of them goes missing. I have had to force myself not to pick it up twice in the few weeks since I put this one down, I want to savour them.

It is always hard to try and make anyone rush out and by a crime novel when you can’t really give anything away, instead I just keep banging on and on about the series and hope that you will all take note and go and pick one up. I have been debating it a while but I think, whilst I have special memories attached with the first two; both ‘The Surgeon’ and ‘The Apprentice’ for introducing me to Rizzoli and Isles, I think that ‘Keeping The Dead’ might be my favourite one yet. They started off well,they just keep getting better and better, and more and more addictive.

Who else is a Gerritsen fan? Which of the non Rizzoli and Isles novels have you read and what did you make of them? Should I really spread out a series or just indulge when the mood takes? What do you do?

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Filed under Bantam Press, Books of 2011, Review, Rizzoli and Isles, Tess Gerritsen, Transworld Publishing

Wallflower at the Orgy – Nora Ephron

One of the things I do like about my local library is that they have a huge set of shelves that greet you when you walk in; in fact you almost walk into them because they are so in your face when you arrive. It was on these shelves that I spotted Nora Ephron’s ‘Wallflower at the Orgy’ which grabbed my attention from the title and the image that it threw in my head. Pulling it off the shelf I saw that it was a collection of her early essays and after reading and thoroughly enjoying ‘Heartburn’ earlier in the year and so I decided to give this a go.

Nora Ephron is known around the world for her script writing and films such as ‘When Harry Met Sally’, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and ‘Julie & Julia’. I had no idea that she had started her career as a journalist. From the title you might be expecting ‘Wallflower at the Orgy’ to be Nora Ephron writing about sex, which I could imagine would be hilarious and brilliant; however it’s not the case. This collection was actually published back in 1970 and was Nora Ephron’s first collection of early journalism and some of the articles she had written in various magazines.

In this collection we get an insight into what is expected and what women want in the late 1960’s which makes for rather interesting reading. Ephron herself worked for Cosmopolitan as a freelance writer and so is writing ‘current women’s pieces’ (such as a hilarious make over that Ephron herself endures in a very funny essay) and meeting with those ‘current women’ including the founder of Cosmopolitan, one of the most powerful women at the time, Helen Gurley Brown who often finds herself in tears.

The novel also deals with journalism at the time, I was expecting Ephron’s 1970’s world of journalism to be very different from mine yet actually its not, in fact I would say that without such joys as the worldwide web, ‘google’ and the like journalists had to work a lot harder. Ephron starts the book telling how she was taught to write minimally and yet write around a person rather than simply repeat exactly what your interviewee tells you which a lot of modern journalists could do with learning. We get lovely Ephron features on clothing, self help, cooking, visiting movie sets (for Catch 22) and also a horrendously brilliant sounding gossip magazine called Women’s Wear Daily which is still running.

The book lover in my really honed in on the sections where Ephron discusses books. She had me debating actually picking up Ayn Rand’s works as she discusses ‘The Fountainhead’, her thoughts on ‘Love Story’ by Erich Segal, which became a cult classic and I had never heard of so may have to look up, and a wonderful piece on Jacqueline Susann who wrote ‘Valley of the Dolls’ which has made me want to run off and read that now.

It’s a real mixture of essays which have one common thread which is Ephron’s wonderful narrative which is filled with honesty and also humour. There’s a knowingness which rather than making her sound a little bit smug and patronising actually makes you feel like when you have come to the end of each article you have just had a good natter with one of your friends. It’s not ‘Heartburn’ it’s something rather different and yet equally enjoyable, a book you can dip in and out of at your leisure. 7.5/10

This collection was from the library, I think it’s only out in actual shops in America though you can get it on a certain bookselling website.

Have any of you read any of Nora Ephron’s other collections? I have spotted there is a new one coming in 2011 which I am quite excited about. Have any of you read Erich Segal’s ‘Love Story’ and what did you think of it? Do you think I would like Jacqueline Susann’s ‘Valley of the Dolls’ as much as I now think I might?

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Filed under Nora Ephron, Review, Transworld Publishing

The Bone Garden – Tess Gerritsen

You all probably know how much I love the books by Tess Gerritsen and you also probably know how much I love all things Victorian, so imagine if the two things were combined, it would be just the perfect read. That is exactly what ‘The Bone Garden’ is and as you might guess I won’t be recommending it to you enough. Even if you haven’t tried Gerritsen before or have never planned to give this book a whirl do give this post a read and you might just be convinced.

‘The Bone Garden’ is something a little bit different from the other Tess Gerritsen novels that I have read so far in the fact that really this is a historical mystery and a modern mystery set in alternating chapters and, you guessed it, somehow they both link to each other in a way that twists and turns as you read along.

As the book opens we read a letter regarding ‘The West End Reaper’ who terrified Boston in the 1830’s. I have to admit I did go and google to see if ‘The West End Reaper’ actually existed which shows how believable the story is. It is also a nod in the direction of the UK’s very own ‘Jack The Ripper’ a mystery which still puzzled the world today. We are then taken to modern day Boston where Julia Hamill has recently bought a new house after a messy divorce and whilst clearing the garden discovers a skeleton. Alternating between Julia’s efforts to find out who the body is and why its there and going to the events of the 1830’s which proves to be a particularly gripping romp and mystery combined, especially as you learn that one of the characters became one of the pioneers in medicine.

I liked the modern elements of the novel yet it was definitely the older period of the book which got me hooked especially when seen through the eyes of our plucky (I hope that word doesn’t put people off) heroine Rose Connelley and Norris Marshall a young farm boy who gets accepted at medicine school despite all odds and must do all he can, including grave robbing, to support himself. There is also the man Oliver Wendell Holmes (who I thought was Gerritsen’s homage to Sherlock but is actually real) and the mysterious cloaked figure who is determined to murder at any cost.

In some ways ‘The Bone Garden’ has been described as a spin off from the Isles and Rizzoli novels which have become one of my favourite series to read. Realistically though there is no Rizzoli in this novel and not as much Isles as you might think from the blurb, though Isles does appear on and off in the modern alternating part of the story and its always nice to see a friendly character now and again. Yet I would say if you haven’t given Tess Gerritsen a whirl and you fancy trying her out then this would be a great starting point (though I would of course say start the series with ‘The Surgeon’ if you are after the modern storylines alone).

I really enjoyed this and it has been the perfect read to help cure a rather depressing period of reading difficulty. It is also yet further proof of why Gerritsen deserves to be the number one best seller in the UK which she has been with her latest novel. So should you want a gripping historical mystery, some winter escapism or to give Gerritsen a whirl; then you can’t go wrong with this. 8/10.

Anyone else given this a whirl or any other of Tess Gerritsen’s novels? There will be a special post tomorrow which will give you much more insight into the world of Tess Gerritsen. I shall say no more for now!!

I was bought this book as a present a couple of years ago, I am savouring the series as they come though (even though I now realise its actually a seperate novel rather than part of the series).

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Filed under Review, Rizzoli and Isles, Tess Gerritsen, Transworld Publishing