Gig Review: Headline’s 2017 Blogger Night

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(photo credit: Georgina Moore, taken from Twitter)

Yesterday I travelled up to London, always a major undertaking for me, to attend a gathering of authors, publicists, bloggers and other book people, organised and hosted by Headline Publishing. It was held on the top floor of their riverside headquarters, Carmelite House, and was my second visit to the building. On this occasion the bitterly cold weather kept everyone inside enjoying the warmth and ambience rather than braving the views from the rooftop terrace.

I had taken my daughter, Robyn (@LeFailFish), as social events can make me anxious and I valued her support. Having collected our name stickers from Jenny (@jrharlow) in the foyer we made our way up to the sixth floor.

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The always lovely Georgina Moore (@PublicityBooks) ensured throughout the evening that everyone felt welcome and included. She introduced us to several of the authors whose books we were able to take away.

I chatted to Alison Weir (@AlisonWeirBooks) about her fascination with the Tudors and the medieval period and now look forward to reading my proof of her latest installment in the Six Tudor Queens series, Anne Boleyn, due out in May. New insights and secrets are promised although Alison ensured that only teasers, not spoilers, were shared last night.

I had a lovely conversation with Gemma Todd (@GemTodd) before realising that this personable librarian is also the author of Defender, which I had spotted early on the book table and eagerly popped into my bag for future reading. This was a popular choice for many attendees.

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Felicia Yap (@FeliciaMYap) and I discussed our love of Belfast where I was raised and now enjoy returning to as a tourist. Visit Belfast (@VisitBelfast) should totally get Felicia to write a piece for them as her enthusism for the city was infectious. Felicia’s debut, Yesterday, is due out in August and I will be hoping for a proof when available.

Copies of Pendulum were also tempting readers on the book table and I had been advising everyone to pick up this taut thriller, a proof of which I read last summer. I was therefore delighted to meet the author, Adam Hamdy (@adamhamdy) and tell him how much I enjoyed his work. He was chatting to a group of bloggers about setting and how he visits each place featured in his story rather than relying on long distance research.

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Meeting other bloggers is always fascinating as we all write for the love of books but often have different perspectives on what we do and how we are recieved. I was particularly pleased to meet Linda (@Lindahill50Hill), Tina (@TripFiction) and John (@Thelastword1962) all of whose reviews are worth checking out.

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Adam, John, Linda and Tina (photo credit: Georgina Moore, taken from Twitter)

There were many other authors, bloggers, publicists, librarians and book sellers enjoying the company and the freely flowing wine. I could have stayed on to pick up writing tips and share book recommendations but, as ever with my trips to the capital, I had a train to catch if I was to make it home. The roads around our village are very dark at midnight – perhaps I read too many thrillers…

Thank you to the team at Headline for inviting me and for organising such a friendly, welcoming event. Also for my goody bag and the opportunity to add even more titles to my tottering TBR pile. Book people are the best.

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Note: hen is my own. In discussing recognition from Twitter pictures I had told John I would bring it to the evening. Next time he wants a live one.

 

Book Review: Quieter Than Killing

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Quieter Than Killing, by Sarah Hilary, is the fourth in the Marnie Rome series of crime fiction novels. Each new release has gradually upped the author’s game and this offering proved no exception. Its taut prose and dark imagery encapsulates the chill of the action and setting. The personalities of key characters are vividly portrayed whilst never detracting from the plot.

DI Marnie Rome’s crime unit are dealing with a series of vicious assaults which she believes may be connected. Each of the victims has a criminal record and Rome suspects the perpetrator may be some sort of vigilante. Not all of her team buy this theory but it gives them something to work with given that none of those attacked have provided a description of their attacker and no witnesses have yet been found. When one of the victims dies from his injuries the investigation escalates to one of murder.

A separate team dealing with gang related crime reports that Rome’s old family home has been broken into and turned over, the innocent tenants hospitalised. Young kids, probably carrying out orders, are suspected yet no valuables appear to have been taken as would be more typical of such a crime. When a box of trinkets is recovered Rome intuits the involvement of her foster brother despite the fact he is in prison. When confronted he offers his usual smattering of accusatory riddles and hard to believe allegations.

A potential suspect goes missing as does his mother, a kindly neighbour raising the alarm. The team recovers fresh evidence and witness statements but their new boss, Ferguson, instructs them to focus on the murder. With conjecture rather than proof linking the various cases Ferguson will not prioritise Rome’s hunch that all these crimes may somehow be linked to her.

The battle for survival fought by those living in the run down estates of ignored and dirty London are brilliantly evoked. There is a brooding violence lurking within the twists and turns. Each new scene oozes menace. Those investigating get caught up in this dangerous world, not least because some of what is going on touches close to home.

I love the author’s writing. Her use of language is masterful – I hope she takes pride in the sentences she crafts. Put together they create a roller coaster ride of a story, heart stopping in places yet every aspect enjoyed. This is crime fiction to satisfy even the most discerning aficionado.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: This is How it Always Is

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This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, tells the story of the Walsh-Adams family. Rosie is a doctor. Her husband, Penn, is an aspiring author. They live in an old, sprawling farmhouse in Wisconsin with their five young sons. In the summer months Rosie’s mum rents a small house nearby and helps out with the kids. Life is full and exhausting and chaotic but somehow they get by. Then their youngest, their clever and precocious three year old son Claude decides that he wants to be a girl.

At first it doesn’t seem to matter. It is assumed to be a phase. Claude wears an old dress of Rosie’s around the house. He wants to wear it to preschool but his parents say no, worried about how the other kids would react. Slowly they come to realise that Claude feels stifled by their insistence that he conform to society’s expectations for his gender. They accept the weird in their other sons, and there is plenty of weird in this family as there is hidden in most others, but still they struggle with allowing their littlest boy to grow his hair and wear a dress. This is what he wants. This is all he wants.

What follows is the family’s attempt to accommodate Claude’s obvious and growing need. It is a constant balancing act between allowing their child to be herself and protecting her from the rancour of those who see this sort of behaviour as a perversion. Amongst the children it is difficult but the greatest challenge is dealing with the sometimes vicious reactions of adults.

As Claude grows, changes are made to help her become the girl she feels she is. As happens during any child’s development, a whole new set of problems emerge as she ages. Should Claude’s history be shared with those who don’t know she was once a boy?  And then, how should they deal with puberty?

By placing Claude in a big family the author is able to explore the effect of gender dysphoria on siblings. When Claude starts a new school she is accepted as a girl because her classmates are told no different. It was never intended to be hidden but that is what happens How is the truth to be revealed now that she has made good friends? Secrets take their toll on all involved.

Rosie and Penn are doing the best they can for Claude and sometimes this seriously disrupts the lives of their other children. All are developing and learning, trying to fit in and get by. So much of a parent’s efforts on behalf of their children are directed towards giving them the best chances for the future. When it comes to Claude this may include drugs and possible surgery. Timing affects the success of outcomes, but can they be sure that this is what their young child will want later in his or her life?

The writing style is gentle despite the difficult issues being presented. Rosie and Penn do not always get things right, but then what parents do? The hypocrisies of society’s attitude to gender are well evoked, as is the intolerance of a supposedly progressive country. In the middle of it all is a child who longs for acceptance for what she is, something that she struggles to find words to explain.

For me the most shocking aspect of this book was not just the blatant but also the passive aggressive treatment of transgender individuals, even by those who consider themselves liberal, and the high rate of suicide amongst the young that this causes. Gender dysphoria is not going to go away just because it discomforts those who would prefer everyone to conform to their narrow definition of normal. What is needed is better education and acceptance, and not just along lines proscribed by tick box legislation which can sometimes create little more than different sets of boxes for people to be squeezed uncomfortably into.

This is a thought provoking read that I am happy to recommend. It does not offer easy answers, but the questions asked are more profound than acceptance of binary gender change.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Where Dead Men Meet

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Where Dead Men Meet, by Mark Mills, is a tale of adventure, espionage and dark secrets. Set in 1937 Europe it introduces the reader to Luke Hamilton, a foundling who was adopted by a wealthy British couple and now works as a junior air intelligence officer at the British Embassy in Paris. When an attempt is made on his life it is at first assumed to be a case of mistaken identity. It transpires that little is as it seems.

The story opens with the murder of a nun who is clubbed to death in the English orphanage where Luke spent the first seven years of his life. Over in Paris Luke attends the Exposition Internationale where he is approached by Bernard Fautrier, a man he assumes is trying to trade state secrets. The currency of the moment is information but Luke has been warned by his employers not to become involved.

There then follow a series of assassination attempts which leave an alarming body count and Luke is forced to flea. Unsure who to trust, but aware that he is only alive due to the actions of Fautrier, Luke makes his way to Germany where he makes contact with a young women named Pippi Keller. At first she refuses to believe his story. She and her assossiates work below the radar of the authorities smuggling people and artifacts across the border and away from the Nazis. She has good reason to hate Fautrier.

When an operation is compromised Luke’s life is once again threatened. The action moves through Switzerland and on to Italy. Luke is being pursued by a variety of shady characters intent on his demise. When he finally learns why he realises that Fautrier is right and he has a stark choice – kill or be killed.

The time period is well evoked with the threat of war and the undercurrents of distrust. With the benefit of hindsight it is too easy to judge but at the time there were many who saw potential for gain in the rise of the likes of Mussolini. The treatment of the Jews in Germany released ill-gotten wealth that plenty were eager to benefit from. The persecuted scientists and intellectuals were courted by England and America, aware that their knowledge and abilities could be used to gain national advantage.

Luke is a likeable hero with his vulnerability and reluctant bravery. Pippi is granted a strength that makes her an appealing sidekick. Despite the action and ever present danger there is an old-fashioned gentlemanly feel to the tale. The reader is transported to a fairly recent yet bygone era. An unchallenging but nevertheless enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Smoke Hunter

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The Smoke Hunter, by Jacquelyn Benson, is an Indiana Jones style action adventure story with a fiesty, female protagonist. It begins in late nineteenth century Britain, when women were still denied the vote and expected to stay at home or work at menial tasks. Those who demanded intellectual respect, who suggested they were as capable as men, were accused of hysteria. Wives were chattels and the unmarried considered wives in waiting. Men enjoyed their privileges and were determined to retain their position.

Eleanora Mallory refused to conform to the supposed female ideal. Since childhood she had dreamed of becoming a field archaeologist. Despite graduating at the top of her university class the only job she could then attain was as an archivist in a civil service records office. Now she is about to lose even this. While waiting in her bosses office to be sacked she spots a book that looks out of place. Curious about why it should be there she steals it.

This action earns her the ire of a dangerous stranger. When Ellie opens the book and discovers a map to a legendary city alongside a mysterious artefact she decides to follow its trail and travels to Central America. She is unaware that her enemy is hot on her heels. To escape him she lies to a local map maker, Adam Bates, and together they embark on a quest through the jungle. What they find there has the potential to change the course of history.

The plot may be fantastical but it is also a lot of fun. The pace is fast moving throughout and there is plenty of humour, especially in the sparring between Ellie and Adam. Despite being a well brought up young lady, Ellie at no point loses her determination to be treated as an equal. She may not have a man’s strength, but her slightness and intuition can be used to her advantage.

Of course, the men struggle to accept that she is to be taken seriously.

“It was too dangerous for a lady. He couldn’t be at peace knowing he was putting a woman’s life at risk. Ellie wanted to retort that he did that every time he impregnated his wife”

This is not a story for those looking for realism but it is highly entertaining. The writing is fluid and accomplished; it is hard not to rush each page to find out what happens next. Ellie’s ruminations as she realises with horror that she is attracted to a man are amusing. It is unusual and pleasing that, despite having fallen in love, she retains her wits and resolve.

I do not normally go for stories that are close to something told before, but this book is such a rollicking read I am happy to recommend it. It is engaging, fun, and provides intrepid role models for both genders.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Cartes Postales from Greece

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“The gods gave the Greeks this idyll, but look what they have done with it.”

Cartes Postales from Greece, by Victoria Hislop, is a series of intriguing vignettes woven into the story of a spurned lover’s odyssey, which is itself wrapped inside a tale of misdirected communications. A journey, both physical and spiritual, is documented in a series of postcards and then a notebook, posted to a woman the sender did not know.

The book includes beautiful, colour pictures of each setting in Greece. Set alongside the prose, they evoke an idyll, yet this is not a tale of paradise found. As with anything touched by man, there is also darkness.

The story opens in London where a young women is working in telesales having left her family home in Cardiff to seek the capital’s bright lights. That brightness is still lacking from her life. When postcards start arriving at her basement flat, addressed to someone she assumes must have been a previous tenant, they carry with them a ray of sunshine she badly needs. They are signed only ‘A’ and arrive with a regularity that she comes to anticipate, a highlight in her grey days. She pins the cards to an underused corkboard admiring the tableau thus created. She daydreams about their provenance.

When, after many months, the flow of missives ceases, she decides it is time to act. She will visit some of the places depicted for herself.

On the morning of her departure a parcel arrives containing a notebook. She adds this to her luggage and reads a portion each evening whilst away. Its contents form the heart of this book.

‘A’ is a middle aged art expert writing a book on Cycladic sculpture. He is using his publisher’s advance to fund research, travelling around Greece and its islands. Here he encounters welcoming locals offering up a plethora of tales based around each location. He recounts his travels and these anecdotes, painting a picture of a Greece in transition. Family remains all important. The financial crisis, its effects, and the resentments it causes are gently explored and reactions explained.

As with so many traditional cultures, the role expected of women grated. In a patriarchal society men’s egos demand massage, children are expected to pander to their parents’ wishes. The other side of this is the support offered, although always at a price.

The Greece portrayed is one of a society well used to having to fight for its freedom. The histories of Ancient Greece, the centuries long Turkish occupation, and the more recent experiences of the Second World War are all touched upon. These offer interesting background to tales of people and the hold of place, the draw of home. The beauty of the landscape and way of life are presented in all their colours. It can be as picture perfect as any tourist could wish for, but there are also many shades of grey.

I found the denouement a little contrived but consider this more a book of short stories. As such it is an enjoyable read. Greece is presented with much sympathy but is not overly sweetened.

A book to transport the reader, a holiday in the mind. If I return to the country I shall look around with fresh eyes.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Pendulum

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Pendulum, by Adam Hamdy, is an all action crime thriller that it is easy to envisage as a movie, not surprising perhaps when the author is also a screenwriter. It is the first of a proposed series of books exploring the world of the protagonist, John Wallace, a financially successful photographer whose life is turned upside down when a masked and armoured killer gains access to his home and attempts to hang him. John’s death was to have looked like suicide and this is just what the authorities believe when unexpected events allow John to escape and he turns to them for help. John is sectioned for his own safety. Having failed in his quest the killer determines to try again.

With the help of a sceptical but thorough policeman, John discovers that there may have been other victims, assumed suicides who left behind notes or videos on the internet exposing sordid secrets. Shattered families are unwilling to accept John’s premise that their loved ones may have been murdered. John must stay under the radar of the authorities lest the killer discover his whereabouts and finishes the job.

The killings continue but, with no obvious connection between the victims, the police are at a loss as to who this phantom could be or where he may strike next. John remains on his hit list and it seems that nowhere is safe.

The tension never lets up. John suffers many injuries as he enacts daring escapes yet he somehow keeps going. The body count rises.

As the clues scattered throughout the text start to coalesce the serial killer’s identity and aims are revealed. The reader comes to understand how he selected and gained access to his victims.

This is a very modern mystery but contains all the elements of a traditional whodunnit. The writing is taut, the story compelling. The reveal at the end induces a desire for more, as may be expected with a planned series.

There is a place for reading as easy entertainment and, despite various improbabilities, this should not be trivialised for filling such a niche. On a weekend when I desired a little escapism it was just what I was looking for. An enjoyable, well constructed suspense thriller. I look forward to the next release.