Book Review: My Mother’s Shadow

My Mother’s Shadow, by Nikola Scott, is not a book I would have chosen by the cover, looking as it does like some sort of romance. And it does have a romance thread, but underplayed enough not to detract from the main plot which involves a family secret kept for decades. When offered a proof I was told that the writing would appeal to those who enjoyed Kate Morton’s books (I remember liking The House at Riverton). Again, this comparative marketing often leaves me cold but the synopsis intrigued. I decided to put aside my prejudices and review.

The first few chapters were overwrought and my scepticism returned – I was tempted to stop reading at this point. I felt impatient with the giddy behaviour of the protagonist who appeared to lose her power of hearing, knock objects over or bump into things every time she was told something unexpected. The revelations she was offered initially generated denial rather than more natural curiosity.

The story makes use of the now popular trope of telling interlinked tales concurrently across two timelines. The first is written in the form of a diary and begins in the summer of 1958. Sixteen year old Elizabeth Holloway, the only child of George and Constance, is sent to stay in a coastal country house belonging to wealthy acquaintances of her mother. Constance is dying of cancer and does not wish her child to remember her as the husk she knows she will imminently become.

The second part of the story is set forty-two years later. Addie Harrington has been summoned to the family home by her domineering sister, Venetia, to mark the first anniversary of their mother’s death. Venetia revered her mother and has demanded that her belongings be left untouched, the house like a shrine. Their father has remained in a state of limbo since his beloved wife’s sudden and accidental demise.

Addie, who appears to be something of a doormat, had a difficult relationship with her mother, Lizzie, never believing that she fulfilled her exacting demands and expectations. Lizzie had attained a PhD and worked at a university. She wanted greater things for Addie than her chosen career as a baker. The reader is offered more detail than I personally needed about baking.

As Addie and Venetia prepare to leave their father at the family home the doorbell rings. A stranger introduces herself as Phoebe Roberts and tells them that she is looking for Mrs Elizabeth Harrington née Holloway, that she has recently discovered that Lizzie is her birth mother. Phoebe was born on the same day as Addie.

What unfolds is the story of a gilded summer and its dark aftermath. In the later timeline Addie and Phoebe are trying to discover why they were seperated at birth. Neither girl had been told that the other existed. The secret has come to light only because Phoebe came across a notebook written by Elizabeth during her confinement and kept by Phoebe’s adoptive parents.

There are twists and turns aplenty as threads of the mystery are revealed. Wider outcomes are easy to guess but the detail and reasoning are presented at a pace and with sufficient depth to keep the reader engaged. It offers a salutory lesson for those who look back at life in the 1950s as cosy, safe and innocent. The author states:

“Lace-curtain respectability and pre-war propriety relegated women, who’d gained a foothold in the male-dominated society during the war, who’d worked and played and propped uo their country, back to home, hearth and family, subjecting them to the hypocrisy and double standards of a Victorian morality that tolerated little errant behaviour.”

The denoument was reached thanks to the type of coincidence that has to be accepted in a story such as this. I suffered irritations such as the diaries remaining hidden given where they were placed. However, my interest had been piqued and retained, the plot developed with a few clever twists.

A tale of the personal costs of the underlying cruelties inflicted on young women who dared to have sex before marriage, regarded by many as reasonable punishment for moral deviance. The epilogue was rather too twee for my tastes but this was a congenial if unchallenging read.

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

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Book Review: Defender

Defender, by GX Todd, is the first book in a proposed series set in a post-apocalyptic America. The Voices have arrived, from place unknown, with a purpose that is unclear. They occupy the minds of human hosts and fill their thoughts with despair. Mass murders and suicides follow. Those who are left must scavenge abandoned resources to survive. The breakdown of society results in everyone being deemed a potential threat, and with good cause.

Lacey is a teenager, protected from the ongoing social disintegration by her grandmother, until the old lady dies. Left alone in a remote farmhouse, Lacey concocts a plan that will enable her to join her older sister who lives many miles away.

Pilgrim encounters Lacey by the side of the road and is persuaded, against his better judgement, to offer her a lift. Pilgrim is swayed in his decisions by The Voice inside his head.

The pair set off together but almost immediately find themselves in mortal danger. It is the start of a fast paced, deadly adventure.

A disparate group led by two sadists are sifting towns they pass through for survivors. When they capture Lacey they regard her as a disposable plaything, until they realise that she has information of value. They have not counted on her determination, nor on Pilgrim’s decision to offer his protection.

The writing is taut and slick with the fast moving action keeping the reader engaged. The unrelenting violence felt exhausting in places – in many ways it reminded me of the Mad Max world.

The bad guys are very, very bad. The good guys are capable of exertion despite horrific injuries, a lack of sustenance and limited sleep. The world portrayed has many intriguing elements. Explanations are drip fed but often rather vague.

Although acknowledging the many strengths of this book I retain reservations. I appreciate that the bad guys’ behaviour is a part of the dystopian world created, but a more nuanced approach would have appealed.

This story would likely work well on screen, and it is an enjoyable enough read. In such a fictional world it feels churlish to desire more human realism.

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

Book Review: Freefall

Freefall, by Adam Hamdy, is the second book in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy (you may read my review of the first here). Set across several continents it opens with a suicide in London, the depiction of which is chilling. The action then moves to Afghanistan where John Wallace, the photographer targeted in the first book in the series, has gone to hide from the world and grieve for his beloved Connie.

Several of the original cast return, although all have been damaged by their horrific experiences, referred to just enough to allow this to be a standalone read. Detective Patrick Bailey has eschewed therapy and turned to alcohol to cope with the lingering effects of his shooting. Over in New York FBI Agent Christine Ash is suffering her own nightmares. Her inability to trust colleagues, a result of her traumatic upbringing, will have deadly consequences.

Ash is convinced that the Pendulum case involved more than one man, that he did not work alone, but her boss remains unconvinced. Proof presents itself when Wallace comes under attack, first in his mountain retreat in Afghanistan and then in Kabul. The reach of a shadowy organisation with apparent links to Pendulum ensures that it is Wallace who is branded a terrorist after he flees the scene. When eventually taken into custody he discovers that nowhere is safe.

Short, pithy chapters keep the reader appraised of the action as it unfolds in key locations. With the forces of law and order compromised it becomes necessary to call on personal friends for assistance, including some wonderfully shady characters. The enemy, whoever they may be, show no mercy.

This is a high-octane, adrenaline fuelled thriller that powers along at unremitting pace yet never runs out of the energy and ingenuity to maintain reader engagement. Along with the gradual reveals, the denouement adds a twist that makes me eager for the next instalment already. An exhilerating, entertaining read.

My early proof copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Close To Me

Close To Me, by Amanda Reynolds, is a domestic thriller in which a woman suffers memory loss following a head injury. The protagonist is Jo Harding, an affluent stay-at-home wife and mother of two grown children. When the story opens she is lying at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their luxurious home. Her concerned husband hovers over her and medical assistance is on its way. Jo remembers little of what happened but is aware that she does not want her husband near.

The tale progresses along two timelines, the first starting from her fall, the second from a year ago. It is Jo’s memories of this year that she has lost. Gradually fragments return but she struggles to place them in context. She discovers that the settled family life she has relied upon, the life she still remembers, has fallen apart.

Jo’s husband, Rob, is reluctant to fully fill in her blanks. She finds his proximity and concern stifling. Their two children, Sash and Fin, are also reticent and more distant than she expects. Initially Jo feels too battered and exhausted to fight back against their secrecy. She also grows afraid of what she may discover when her memory returns. As her recovery progresses she sets about reclaiming her life.

There are the requisite twists and turns as the reader is fed suggestions of disagreements, infidelity and violence but must wait for the truths to be revealed. Jo volunteered at a drop-in centre where she befriended Rose and Nick whose existence Rob deleted from her digital records following her fall. Sash has an older boyfriend whose image triggers disturbing recollections. Fin appears estranged for reasons Jo cannot recall.

Jo is a needy mother, mourning the role she assigned herself in life now that her children have flown the nest. She is aspirational on their behalf, convinced that her offspring could have fabulous futures if they would only do as she says. Jo struggles to move on, to accept the decisions they make for themselves.

I read this book in a sitting; the writing throughout is taut and engaging. There were, however, aspects that grated. Jo and Rob played a ‘game’ where they discussed the method they would choose to kill each other, a conversation I found weird. Jo opines that “Rob’s love and loyalty are two things I never have to worry about” which came across as glib.

As a novel to provide escapism this is a well constructed thriller even if personally I prefer stories with more breadth and depth. For those looking for easy entertainment, with an added touch of the disturbing, this could be a good book to read.

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

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anne Boleyn

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn – A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir, is the second in a series of specially commissioned books each of which tells the story of one of Henry VIII’s wives from their point of view (I reviewed Katherine of Aragon, here). Like the first, this instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised story based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. As the author explains at the end, “The scenes in this novel are imagined, but they are not improbable.”

The story of Anne Boleyn has been told many times and from many directions both in books and on film. Each offers a slightly different take on a woman for whom relatively little personal historical detail remains. There are portraits, poetry, letters from the king, and occasional mentions in writing by her contemporaries. These have been woven into the various accounts with which those who have an interest will be familiar. All of this is to say that I was already aware of much of the story being told over these five hundred pages. I needed some fresh angle to hold my attention.

The story opens at Anne’s childhood home of Hever Castle in Kent when she is twelve years old and learns that she is to be sent away to serve at the court of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands. Anne is delighted by this news, especially as she is gaining preferment over her older sister, Mary. Her only regret is that she will be separated from her beloved brother, George.

Anne spends the next nine years serving in royal courts around northern Europe where she perfects her French language, manners and dress, and learns to play the game of courtly love. She is influenced by the scholars who visit with her mistresses, many of whom espoused enlightened views for the time on the role of women and the church. These views did not preclude the court gentlemen from attempting to have their way where the ladies were concerned. This is presented in what felt a very modern voice.

When war between France and England is threatened Anne returns home where she is found a place at the court of Queen Katherine. Here she falls in love but is thwarted. She is also noticed by Henry who starts his pursuit of her affections.

It took around seven years for Henry to find a way to marry Anne. This period is covered in around two hundred pages during which I struggled to maintain engagement. Naturally Anne changes over this difficult period in her life. She has chosen to eschew the love of others for the potential power of a match with a king.

There are other events to consider, especially those affecting her family. Anne’s regard for George is tested and her increasingly arrogant behaviour gains her enemies. She appears to do little of note while waiting other than call down vengeance on those who will not actively support her cause.

Once Anne is pregnant the story picks up pace although her inability to bear a living son is well known. As Henry seeks his entertainments elsewhere Anne becomes a solitary figure, widely disliked and with her hard fought for power on the wane. Anne’s enemies may now treat her as she did others.

Facing death, Anne takes on a piety that had not previously been obvious. I suspect this is not unusual. I balked at the portrayal of Anne’s decapitation. The Author’s Note at the end, especially on this, was interesting to read.

The author, a respected historian, offers new angles to consider in a number of areas which I will not spoil by detailing. She is an accomplished writer and the story flows. What it lacked, as far as I was concerned, was enough new material to maintain my interest. Given the book’s length, in places I needed more.

For fans of historical fiction this is a carefully researched and nicely written addition to the story of Anne Boleyn. I put my sometimes less than positive response above down to the number of other accounts of this queen that I have both watched and read. I do still look forward to the remaining instalments in this series. I know less about their protagonists.

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

Book Review: Keep Me Safe

Keep Me Safe, by Daniela Sacerdoti, is a tale of romance with a  touch of the supernatural. Its protagonist is Anna, a newly qualified nurse living in London, whose live-for-the-moment partner, Toby, decides to leave her and their six year old daughter, Ava, to start a new life for himself in Australia. Traumatised by the abruptness of her beloved father’s departure, Ava neither speaks nor eats for three days. When she comes around from this episode she starts to mention memories that make no sense. She recalls a life by the sea and, although acknowledging Anna, asks for her other mother and to be taken home to a place called Seal.

Anna has had a difficult upbringing. She spent much of her childhood in and out of foster care, eventually becoming estranged from her alcoholic mother. She is determined to provide her daughter with the love and stability she herself craved. Anna does not miss Toby but feels that she has failed Ava by not keeping their little family together. She tries to ignore Ava’s desire for this other mother, refusing to explore the reasons behind the impossible recollections. Anna believes that her daughter belongs to her, not appearing to understand that people cannot be owned, that they are individuals with emotions and free will.

When Ava’s school starts to suspect that the child needs help Anna finally investigates what her daughter has been telling her. She discovers that Seal is a small island off the west coast of Scotland. She decides that they will travel there for a holiday in the hope of putting these issues to rest.

Anna and Ava are readily accepted by the small, island community. There they discover love, and heartache, and the source of Ava’s memories.

I rarely read romances as I find them too simplified and predictable. The supernatural elements of this tale, although of interest, could not season it sufficiently for my tastes.

What grated most though were issues in timeline and continuity, plus abilities given to a couple of the young children. For example, Anna, portrayed as a deeply caring mother, seemed comfortable leaving her child alone in their guest room during the night while she went out, without apparently telling anyone. Five and six year olds were able to write multi-syllable words independently and neatly. Caty and Sorren’s ages and when events happened in their histories did not always make sense.

To return to the story arc, there were few surprises, plenty of romance, a touch of jealousy, and all ended up where I had expected.

This may be a story more suited to those who enjoy a little romantic escapism and are less irritated by plot technicalities. It was not for me.

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

Book Review: Gone Without A Trace

Gone Without A Trace, by Mary Torjussen, is a psychological thriller that takes a while to get going but ends up packing an almighty punch. Set in and around the Wirral Peninsula in Northern England, its protagonist is a young and ambitious professional woman, Hannah, who lives with her boyfriend, Matt, and socialises with a group of similarly minded friends. She is closest to Katie who she has known since childhood. They have a competitive relationship, likening themselves to the sisters neither of them have.

When the book opens Hannah is returning from a training course in Oxford where she has been commended by her employers for her recent performance and told to expect the promotion she has been working towards for some time. Happy and excited she is eager to share this news with Matt, picking up champagne on her way home to enable them to celebrate. After a long drive she opens their front door and immediately realises something is wrong. Every trace of Matt’s occupation has been removed. She has been left no explanation.

What follows is shock, distress, despair and then determination. Hannah discovers that Matt’s phone number is no longer available. He has left his job and removed himself from all social media. He has not just left her but also disappeared. She can find no one who knows where he has gone.

Hannah will not give up. She sets out to track Matt down, believing if she can talk to him he will want to return. Her work suffers and her friends worry but she refuses to be deterred. When she starts to receive texts from unknown numbers and realises that someone has been in her house when she is not there, she believes Matt is behind the intrusion and will not be persuaded otherwise.

I couldn’t empathise with this Hannah. For a successful, professional woman she seemed blinkered and irritatingly unable to face reality. She did not seek time off work despite recognising her performance was now well below par. I struggled to push through this section of the book.

The shocking explanation, when it eventually came, made sense of most of what had gone before. The pace picked up, the tension rose and the denouement was impressively constructed with a chilling finish.

Narrated in the first person, this was not a comfortable read but explores interesting topics. Before knowing why, Hannah’s dogged determination to find Matt and the personal cost she seemed willing to pay came close to making me set the book aside. I am glad that I persevered.

I am somewhat reluctant to recommend a book that I struggled with in part, yet the ending made the reading worthwhile. There are complex issues to ponder, not least how much support friends can be expected to offer. Once understood, Hannah is a fascinating creation.

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