Friday, 21 December 2018

Fear of Falling by Cath Staincliffe: Book Review

I requested Fear of Falling from NetGalley on the basis that it was by Cath Staincliffe, knowing nothing about the plot, so started reading with very little if any idea of what to expect. This made it perhaps even more hard hitting than it would have been anyway.

It starts with narrator Lydia, a teenager in the 1980s, meeting and being instantly fascinated by the reckless Bel - their friendship is a thread which runs through the whole book, following Lydia’s life from the ‘80s to the present day... work, relationships, marriage to the lovely Mac, fertility troubles and ultimately their adoption of Chloe, a neglected toddler born to a drug-using young mother. Chloe’s early life experiences have not been good, but she’s young enough, surely, for that damage to be repaired, given enough love and care. Isn’t she?

Lydia, a scientist, and her tattooist husband Mac are wonderful characters and clearly marvellous parents who are devoted to giving Chloe a happy life. There are no limits to their love. But sometimes, any amount of love might not be enough.

The adjective in my mind while reading was “unflinching”. The author pulls no punches in depicting the pain and difficulty of life with Chloe, a girl who fundamentally doesn’t believe she deserves to be loved. There are no easy answers or Hollywood endings to be found here. I couldn’t imagine how it was all going to end, and I could never have imagined how it actually did. 

Some powerful themes emerge, particularly the need for better support when things are impossibly hard, but also the importance and lasting impact of the earliest experiences (according to Erikson’s theory, a time when a child learns basic trust or mistrust: that her cries will be responded to and her needs met, that her world is a safe place.... or that it isn’t). While we see things only from Lydia’s viewpoint, the story is told with huge compassion for everyone involved. 

It could be viewed as a cautionary tale about the perils of adoption, but that is clearly far from the intention. In a postscript to the novel, Cath Staincliffe tells us that she was herself adopted as a baby, so clearly she has a personal insight and connection to the subject, although her story is (thankfully) very different from Chloe’s. And Cath is at pains to point out that most adoptions work well and very few adopters ever regret their decision.

A wonderful, heartbreaking book, highly recommended. 

Friday, 30 November 2018

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan: Review

“In Irish, RĂșin means something hidden, a mystery, or a secret, but the word also has a long history as a term of endearment.”

“Twenty years before, he’d walked away from the Blake case, and it had come back to haunt him.”

February 1993: Called out to a “minor domestic incident” at a remote, decrepit old house, the last thing young police officer Cormac Reilly expects to find is a woman dead of a heroin overdose, and two frightened children - five-year-old Jack and his protective fifteen-year-old sister, Maude. After taking the children to safety Cormac has nothing further to do with the case, but he’s never forgotten them.

Twenty years later in 2013, Cormac, now a Detective Sergeant, has returned to Galway - transferring from Dublin due to his girlfriend’s career (and isn’t that a nice change?) - where he’s not being made particularly welcome by some of his new colleagues. Not only that, there’s a distinct whiff of corruption in certain quarters.

Meanwhile, young doctor Aisling Conroy is reeling from the unexpected suicide of her boyfriend Jack... and the reappearance of the sister Jack hasn’t seen for twenty years. Maude is certain Jack didn’t kill himself, and she’s on a mission to prove it.

I had The Ruin on my “shelf” for ages before getting around to reading it, but I wish it hadn’t taken me so long because I thoroughly enjoyed it. I do love a good police procedural and Cormac is a great addition to the ranks of fictional detectives. The plot is gripping, surprising, at times distressing and ultimately very moving - but Dervla McTiernan never goes for the easy resolution. Something which I would’ve put money on happening at the end then didn’t, and I found that quite refreshing.

The Ruin is the first in a series (yay!) but doesn’t feel like it at times; with unexpanded-upon references to Cormac’s past cases and how he met his girlfriend Emma, I had to double check I wasn’t missing out on some continuity. Presumably, we will learn more in future instalments - the relationship with Emma is only briefly touched upon, but I feel sure there’s more to come. Cormac himself is a great and very likeable character, and there are also some excellent female characters - Aisling, Maude and Cormac’s fellow garda Carrie O’Halloran (I liked her a lot).

I’m now very much looking forward to The Scholar, out next year!

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts: Review

The Flower Girls is a dark, disturbing and really rather haunting story. 

Nearly twenty years ago, the brutal murder of two-year-old Kirstie Swann shocked the nation, not least because the apparent perpetrators, Laurel and Rosie Bowman, were just ten and six years old. Laurel, above the age of criminal responsibility, is tried and convicted of murder, and has remained in custody ever since; her sister, too young to stand trial, moves away with her parents and a new identity.  Still, the public haven’t forgotten the girls dubbed by the press “the Flower Girls” - like other young killers, their names and photographs have become a byword for evil. But nobody knows what really happened that day... because neither Laurel nor Rosie has ever told.

Many years later, Rosie - now known as Hazel, and having successfully rebuilt her life - is staying at a Devon hotel with her boyfriend when another young girl, five-year-old Georgie Greenstreet, goes missing.

It looks like the past is coming back to haunt her.

The story is told from a number of angles - we see Laurel and Rosie/Hazel both then and now, but we also see their story through the eyes of others.

Joanna, the aunt of murdered Kirstie, has diverted her grief into anger, devoting her life to ensuring that her conception of justice is done - for Joanna, that means Laurel’s never getting out of prison, not if she’s got anything to do with it.

Meanwhile, tenacious Detective Constable Lorna Hillier is determined to uncover the truth about what’s happened to Georgie before it’s too late.

Despite the unpleasant subject matter the story is compellingly and sensitively written, forcing the reader to examine notions of guilt, responsibility and retribution, particularly through the character of Joanna. The crying out for vengeance-at-all-costs  of a certain section of the general public is laid bare here during a radio phone-in involving Joanna when one caller remarks that Laurel “should’ve been hanged from the start”. “You’d have hanged a ten-year-old?” enquires the host, causing the caller to quickly backtrack... though only slightly.

There’s a strangely fairytale quality at times about The Flower Girls - but most definitely the darker kind. There’s nothing cosy or comforting here. And the ending is truly unexpected and horrifying. 

An excellent read but with some dark and difficult themes.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Book review: Pulp by Robin Talley

I loved Robin Talley’s previous books and as soon as I read the synopsis for this I knew it was so far up my street that I was desperate to read it. A novel dealing with the lesbian pulps of the 1950s? Yes please! The genre was a fascinating one and with Robin Talley I knew it would be in safe hands.

The books, with their lurid titles and covers, were marketed as titillation (many, though by no means all, were written by straight men and were pretty bad) but the better ones often meant a great deal to women who discovered them and saw, perhaps for the first time, that they were not alone in their feelings. Unfortunately the “morality” of the time precluded happy endings for the lesbian characters, who almost invariably ended up dying or turning straight - exceptions were few and far between. A lot of the books referred to are real (including, believe it or not, Satan Was a Lesbian).

Anyway, in the present day seventeen-year-old Abby, struggling after her breakup with girlfriend Linh and difficulties between her parents at home, discovers and is quickly captivated by the strange world of 1950s lesbian pulp novels, in particular one called Women of the Twilight Realm by the mysterious Marian Love, who apparently only published one novel and promptly disappeared. Abby becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Marian... 

Many years earlier in 1955, another young woman, Janet, is equally captivated by A Love So Strange, the novel she stumbled upon at a bus station bookstall, seeing in it a much-needed recognition of her own feelings for her friend Marie. But times are far more dangerous for Janet than for out-and-proud twenty-first-century Abby.

The hysterically repressive political climate of the McCarthyist 1950s is very well evoked and it was fascinating (and terrifying) to read about the measures taken against anyone who was suspected of, well, anything, particularly anything communist-y or gay-y. At one point a female character comes under suspicion because “her voice is too low” - that’s the level of absurdity people were dealing with. Although clearly far too young to remember any of it, Robin Talley has definitely done her research (Senator Hunt was a real person for instance).

There are lots of nods to real writers of that and other times - Bannon Press is clearly a reference to writer Ann, perhaps the best known of the lesbian pulp authors, and I felt Claire Singer’s name was a reference to the pseudonym under which Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt, Claire Morgan. (Also the Sheldon Lounge - Alice Sheldon?) I’m sure there were many I missed.

I thought I knew where the plot was going in terms of what happened to Janet, but as it turned out, I was barking up an entirely wrong tree and the outcome was a big surprise. Let’s just say I did one character a major disservice.

For me this book entirely lived up to its promise - I loved it.

Pulp can be preordered here.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Blog tour review! Betsy and Lilibet by Sophie Duffy

The book...

London, 1926: two baby girls are born just hours and miles apart. One you know as the Queen of England, but what of the other girl—the daughter of an undertaker named in her honor? Betsy Sunshine grows up surrounded by death in war-torn London, watching her community grieve for their loved ones while dealing with her own teenage troubles . . . namely her promiscuous sister Margie. As Betsy grows older we see  how the country changes through her eyes, and along the way we discover the birth of a secret that threatens to tear her family apart. Sophie Duffy dazzles in her latest work of family/historical fiction. A tale which spans generations to explore the life and times of a family at the heart of their community, the story of a stoic young woman who shares a connection with her queenly counterpart in more ways than one.

The review...

I adored Sophie Duffy’s previous books, so was thrilled to have the opportunity to read Betsy and Lilibet, which sounded like and indeed proved to be an entrancing read.

It opens in 2016 with the words “I never thought I’d be old”. But there Betsy Sunshine is, nearly ninety years of age, living in a Bognor Regis care home and looking back at her life: born weighing three pounds and a bit, named after the equally brand new princess, surviving against the odds.

Betsy tells her own story and I really loved her voice. Other than her name and the day of her birth, undertaker’s daughter Betsy apparently has little in common with Princess-later-Queen Elizabeth yet their lives run in parallel and even occasionally intersect, throughwartime, feuding with a difficult younger sister, sweeping social change, Thatcherism, terrorism and complex family relationships (oh, how complex!).

Betsy’s account of her life story is interspersed with her present day narrative (I especially loved her observations about life in the care home), and quotes - I assume real ones - from her namesake and birthday-sharer Queen Elizabeth II. As family and friends gather round her, are some of Betsy’s chickens finally coming home to roost?

There are some glorious moments here - Sophie Duffy really excels at characterisation and dialogue. The conversation between Betsy and her great grandson Tom was particularly fabulous but there are many others equally memorable and quotable. I loved the ending too.

Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, Betsy and Lilibet is a captivating story of love, death and everything else. Highly recommended.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Blog tour! The PawLife Guide: Dog Care at Home by Gina Harding

The book...

DOG CARE AT HOME gives you the information you need to have a happy and healthy dog no matter what your dog’s current stage in life, in just 10 minutes a day. Over 200 hours of research including interviews with veterinarians and fellow dog owners around the world.

Dog Care at Home is the all-in-one book to have at home. With six veterinarians that have contributed to this ultimate guide, rest assured you are in reliable hands.

Inside you will discover:

  • Choosing the right breed
  • The basic steps of raising a puppy 
  • What vaccinations are for and why your dog needs them
  • Travelling with your dog 
  • How to perform CPR on your dog 
  • Health and hygiene including dental care 
  • Choosing the right veterinarian 
  • When it’s time to say goodbye 
  • And much more!

PawLife’s Dog Care at Home is the answer for all your dog parenting needs in one comprehensive guide that ensures your dog lives a long, healthy and happy life.

The review...

For many years I didn’t particularly consider myself a dog person. Not that I disliked them or anything, but I’d just never had that much to do with them. Then this happened...

So now I’m a bit of a born-again dog mum with a great enthusiasm for all things canine-related, so when the chance came up to read and review a dog care guide, I grabbed it immediately.

Gina’s love for her dog Harley shines through and she is evidently very motivated to share her enthusiasm and knowledge with others - hence her “dog blog” and now, this book, which covers every stage from choosing a puppy (or adopting a rescue dog) to the ageing process and, ultimately, saying goodbye. While there are other books which go into more depth about, for instance, puppy training or dealing with behavioural issues, Gina does manage to cover an awful lot in an accessible way. Lots of gorgeous doggy pictures are a bonus too (though I could happily have lived without ever seeing the one of worms!!).

There is a slight Australian focus but after all dogs are dogs everywhere, so most things continue to apply wherever you are, and there should be helpful information here for every dog lover.

The author...

Gina is an enthusiastic dog lover, so much so that she founded her own dog blog business called PawLife, which has been awarded top 10 Australian Dog Blog. This wouldn’t be possible without her best friend Harley, who is a toy poodle mix. They are continually going on new adventures, testing out new squeaky toys.

Gina recently discovered her writing passion and wanted to create the ultimate guidebook that would support, educate and inspire pet parents and yet to be pet parents around the world. Gina and Harley are originally from Australia, where the weather is always beautiful. This is Gina’s first book and she looks forward to writing many more to help fellow pet-parents; with her fur-baby Harley by her side.

Social media links...

The giveaway...

Terms and conditions - UK entries welcome. Please enter using the Rafflecopter link. The winner will be selected at random via Rafflecopter from all valid entries and will be notified via Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over. Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will be passed to the giveaway organiser and used only for fulfilment of the prize, after which time I will delete the data. I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Blog tour: The Victoria Lie by Sarah Marie Graye

The book...

When is a lie a lifeline? To Tori, lies are everything.

Zoe wants to end her life. But she can’t just leave a note. She needs to say goodbye to boyfriend James and best friend Alison.

Tori is waiting in the wings to fill the space Zoe will leave behind, wanting to claim both James and Alison for herself.

But with Zoe still alive and Alison’s childhood friend Ruby now on the scene vying to fill the gap, Tori realises she has her work cut out.

Just what lengths is Tori willing to go to in order to claim Alison and James for herself?

(Trigger warnings: Suicide, depression, IRA bombings, ADHD, Autism, manipulative characters.)

The review...

The Victoria Lie opens in disturbing fashion. A young woman, Zoe, boards a London tube train one day and spends hours travelling back and forth on the Victoria Line; only gradually over this opening section are her motivations - her carefully-laid plans - revealed. This scene stirred up powerful feelings for me, perhaps especially in Zoe’s apparent certainty, calculation and lack of doubt about her chosen path. Let’s just say this is a case where I think the “trigger warning” is entirely justified.

It’s a very unusual and original premise and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it before. Is there any way back for Zoe?

Like Sarah Marie Graye’s first novel, however, the focus is also on the people around Zoe... literally, in this case, gathered around her hospital bed. In the previous book, The Second Cup, a character who has committed suicide is the catalyst but the story is mainly about the ones left behind and the effects on them. Here, Zoe is still alive, but although she is a central character there is equal focus on her friend Alison, boyfriend James (well, maybe not him so much) and other characters Ruby - Alison’s childhood friend - and Tori, Alison’s work colleague.

I did get confused sometimes about the interactions between these characters, and some of the subtleties about cups of coffee and who said what to who were, at times, lost on me. I had to keep reminding myself who was who and how they knew each other, though this did settle down as the story progressed. 

I do have to say that I did feel a bit uncomfortable with what seemed at one point like constant references to Ruby’s skin colour - it seemed like her “difference” was always being pointed out, both by herself and others, and this didn’t feel entirely natural to me. Again though this did settle down as the characters became more established/

It was nice to see characters from the previous book (Faye and Beth) popping up. And I liked the (fourth wall breaking?) bit at the end where someone, presumably the author, interviews the characters - an original way of rounding things off.

Sarah Marie Graye has clearly thought deeply about her characters, their feelings and motivations and the story is carefully and insightfully crafted with a keen eye for detail, both practical and emotional. It’s a challenging but often rewarding read about - among other things - friendship, lies, neurodiversity and mental health.

The author...

British writer Sarah Marie Graye is the author of The Butterfly Effect series, which looks at suicides and those left behind. The Second Cup, the first book in the series, was published in July 2017, and this Blog Tour is to celebrate the launch of the second book in the series, The Victoria Lie.

Social media links...

The giveaway...

Win 3 x signed copies of The Victoria Lie by Sarah Marie Graye (Open to UK only)

Terms and conditions - UK entries welcome. Please enter using the Rafflecopter link. The winner will be selected at random via Rafflecopter from all valid entries and will be notified via Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over. Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will be passed to the giveaway organiser and used only for fulfilment of the prize, after which time I will delete the data. I am not responsible for despatch or delivery of the prize.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Blog Tour: A House Divided by Rachel McLean

The book...

Jennifer Sinclair is many things: loyal government minister, loving wife and devoted mother.

But when a terror attack threatens her family, her world is turned upside down. When the government she has served targets her Muslim husband and sons, her loyalties are tested. And when her family is about to be torn apart, she must take drastic action to protect them.

A House Divided is a tense and timely thriller about political extremism and divided loyalties, and their impact on one woman.

The review...

When I read the synopsis and author bio, I knew immediately that this was a book I wanted to read. A political thriller touching on some very current issues of terrorism, Islamophobia and political intrigue, focusing on a woman MP? Sounded right up my street.

In the first of a trilogy, Jennifer Sinclair, a junior minister in a future Labour government, finds herself at odds with the party leadership as increasingly repressive measures are imposed in the name of security... and has difficult and far-reaching decisions to make as a result. But neither she nor anyone else could have predicted quite where things are headed, as the political climate takes on a definitely dystopian flavour. While the likes of Trump and Brexit aren't directly referenced, their shadow definitely looms large.

Amid an atmosphere of escalating terror threats, far-right activity and increasingly toxic political rhetoric, Jennifer finds danger coming terrifyingly close to home. 

I liked Jennifer’s voice which felt original and compelling, with her roles as a Government minister, Birmingham constituency MP and wife to Yusuf (and mother to Samir and Hassan) providing her with a unique perspective as matters unfold, and also a perfect way of illustrating the very real impact of government policies on people’s lives.

Rachel McLean has drawn an alarming - and in many ways alarmingly plausible - picture of a near future with some disturbingly Orwellian overtones. At the same time I found this a very enjoyable read, particularly the scenes in Parliament which had a definite ring of truth about them, and I was desperate to know how it would all end up. (Spoiler: it’s a massive cliffhanger! The second book promises to be a cracker!) While I don't think the politician characters were necessarily based on real current figures (let's face it, some of the real ones are far too unlikely to ever be believable as fiction...), they were always easy to visualise and I felt I was getting a real insight into behind the scenes at Westminster.

An intriguing - and often alarming read - which links personal and political in a compelling way. Many thanks for the opportunity to be part of the blog tour!

The author...

I’m Rachel McLean and I write thrillers and speculative fiction.

I’m told that the world wants upbeat, cheerful stories - well, I’m sorry but I can’t help. My stories have an uncanny habit of predicting future events (and not the good ones). They’re inspired by my work at the Environment Agency and the Labour Party and explore issues like climate change, Islamophobia, the refugee crisis and sexism in high places. All with a focus on how these impact individual people and families.

You can find out more about my writing, get access to deals and exclusive stories or become part of my advance reader team by joining my book club at

Social media links...

Saturday, 8 September 2018

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica: Review

Set adrift by the death of her beloved mother - lost in grief and unable to sleep - Jessie’s life is thrown into turmoil. As Jessie travels further into sleep deprivation, things get rapidly stranger. And then stranger still. Is Jessie really the person she has always believed herself to be?

Twenty years earlier Eden, a young married woman, yearns for the baby it seems she can’t have. Eden knows she will do anything, whatever it takes, to have a child. 

The story gradually unfolds both from the increasingly distorted viewpoint of Jessie - the unreliable narrator to end all unreliable narrators - and Eden as she tells her own story in journal form. As things for Jessie become increasingly bizarre I was occasionally reminded of another great unreliable-narrator story, Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans.

The ending has come in for criticism, even anger in some quarters, and in some ways I can see why, but in fact it was so well done that I thought it was okay. I kind of suspected earlier on where things were going - there were a couple of perhaps too obvious giveaways - though not completely. In fact I found the ending both moving and satisfying with a real sense of redemption and hope after the often dark and even sinister tone of earlier. 

When the Lights Go Out was an enthralling and very compelling read.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Blog Tour: Sleeping Through War by Jackie Carreira

The book...

It is May 1968. Students are rioting, civil rights are being fought and died for, nuclear bombs are being tested, and war is raging in Vietnam. For three ordinary women in Lisbon, London and Washington life must go on as usual. For them, just to survive is an act of courage. How much has really changed in 50 years?

Purchase Links...

The review...

In 1968 (that’s the year I was born!) three very different women are, in their own very different ways, surviving in the face of adversity.

A young Portuguese widow, Amalia, is struggling to bring up her young son and make ends meet as best she can in post-colonial Lisbon.

Far away in London, Rose, a nurse from St Lucia, works in a care home and deals with casual prejudice and discrimination on a daily basis. (For context, Enoch Powell has just made his notorious Rivers of Blood speech.) With people protesting in the streets against immigration, how much has really changed?

Still further away in Washington DC, a mother writes heartfelt letters to her son fighting a faraway war.

Told alternately in the third person (Amalia), the first person (Rose) and in the form of letters from Washington (I don’t think we’re ever told “mom’s” first name?), we are drawn into the lives of the three women, who are unconnected and whose lives are very different yet who share much. All the characters were marvellous - and in many ways heartbreaking - but I think Rose was my favourite. I loved her voice, and her friendship with her young neighbour, Brenda, was hugely moving. 

Amalia’s story was equally moving and filled me at times with horror, rage and helplessness as I felt the impossibility of her situation. Yet all three women show great bravery, resilience and compassion.

Interspersed with the narrative are news reports which impart a flavour of the time and cast light on the context of the era in which the women are living, and the broader social and political forces which affect how their lives are experienced.

With a delicate and sensitive touch, through these deeply personal stories Jackie Carreira depicts the reality of women’s lives then and now. A lovely read

Many thanks to the author and Rachel's Random Resources for the opportunity to be part of the blog blitz.

The author...

Jackie Carreira is a writer, musician, designer, co-founder of QuirkHouse Theatre Company, and award-winning playwright. She mostly grew up and went to school in Hackney, East London, but spent part of her early childhood with grandparents in Lisbon's Old Quarter. Her colourful early life has greatly influenced this novel. Jackie now lives in leafy Suffolk with her actor husband, AJ Deane, two cats and too many books.

Social Media ...

FACEBOOK: @SleepingThroughWar