Fragile – Sarah Hilary

Nell Ballard is a runaway. A former foster child with a dark secret she is desperate to keep, all Nell wants is to find a place she can belong. So when a job comes up at Starling Villas, home to the enigmatic Robin Wilder, she seizes the
opportunity with both hands. But her new lodgings may not be the safe haven that she was hoping for…

I love a good psychological thriller, and Sarah Hilary’s Fragile absolutely nails it.

Nell and Joe, foster kids. Best friends and more. Runaways, living on the streets of London. Joe goes missing after a night at Starling Villas with a mysterious woman, and Nell just has to find out why. She manages to finagle a job there as housekeeper, determined to find out what happened. But there’s more to Starling Villas and its enigmatic, controlling owner Robin Wilder than meets the eye…

Sarah Hilary gradually ratchets up the tension slowly, drawing you into this tale of deceit. Who exactly is Robin Wilder? What happened to the previous housekeeper? What are in all the boxes that Wilder spends his days going through?

The story is told partly in flashback to Nell’s childhood, growing up in a foster home with Joe under the not-so-caring eye of Meagan Flack. And of the terrible events one fateful day which led Nell and Joe to run. But you can never run away from your past, and it has a way of catching up with you.

The writing is sublime, the characters sharply drawn, living long in your mind after you turn the final page. Hilary carefully measures out the story much like Nell takes care of the housekeeping money for Robin Wilder. You’re given exactly enough, at exactly the right time. It’s superb storytelling, perfectly plotted, demanding that you read just one more chapter.

It’s the first of Sarah Hilary’s books that I’ve read, but on the strength of this book, I’ll definitely be reading more.

Highly recommended.

Fragile by Sarah Hilary is published by Macmillan and is out now. Many thanks to Macmillan and Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and for the advance copy of the book to review.

Dead Ground – MW Craven

Detective Sergeant Washington Poe is in court, fighting eviction from his beloved and isolated croft, when he is summoned to a backstreet brothel in Carlisle where a man has been beaten to death with a baseball bat. Poe is confused – he hunts serial killers and this appears to be a straightforward murder-by-pimp – but his attendance was requested personally, by the kind of people who prefer to remain in the shadows.

As Poe and the socially awkward programmer Tilly Bradshaw delve deeper into the case, they are faced with seemingly unanswerable questions: despite being heavily vetted for a high-profile job, why does nothing in the victim’s background check out? Why was a small ornament left at the murder scene – and why did someone on the investigation team steal it? And what is the connection to a flawlessly executed bank heist three years earlier, a heist where nothing was taken…

A new Poe & Bradshaw book is one of those things that will elbow its way to the very top of the tottering pile of books to read. I absolutely loved the first three – The Puppet Show, Black Summer and The Curator (not forgetting Poe & Bradshaw 3.5, Cut Short), and was really looking forward to this fourth full outing for DS Washington Poe and the inimitable Tilly Bradshaw.

I love them both. Poe, the irascible detective sergeant who manages somehow to rub pretty much everyone up the wrong way.

Poe collected enemies the same way the middle class collect Nectar points

And his best friend Tilly Bradshaw. I’d happily read pretty much anything with these two in it, no matter what it might be (seriously, go check out Cut Short, a delightful collection of three short stories).

And this time they’re in rather deeper than they’re used to. Summoned to investigate the murder of a man in a backstreet brothel in Cumbria by a secretive government department, our favourite duo find that there’s rather more going on than first meets the eye.

I could go into more detail about the plot, but suffice it to say that there are shenanigans, misdirections and twists as you’d expect. The case is bigger – involving not only MI5 but also the FBI, the stakes are higher, etcetera, etcetera. There are bank heists, mysteriously missing ornaments, an international trade summit, and a plot to take Poe’s beloved croft away. Oh, and a brilliant character by the name of Bugger Rumble. Craven weaves these elements together masterfully, and I couldn’t put it down.

Look, it’s a Poe & Bradshaw book. I assume you’ve read the first three (and a half) books already, so you’re already champing at the bit to read this fourth outing. If you’re new to the series, you could start here, but why deprive yourself of the fun? These books just keep getting better and better, and they were already pretty darn good to begin with.

Hugely recommended.

Dead Ground by M.W. Craven is published by Constable and is out now. Many thanks to the publisher for the advance copy of the book to review.

A Numbers Game – RJ Dark

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One dead man and a missing lottery ticket.

Two family members who need that money to get away from the rundown Blades Edge estate.

Three local gangsters who want that money for themselves.

Meet Malachite Jones – the foremost (and only) psychic medium on the gritty Blades Edge estate. All he wants are two things: a name that isn’t ‘Malachite’, and a quiet life. And maybe some real psychic powers, but he’s making a living without them.

Janine Stanbeck wants to find her dead husband Larry’s winning ticket and escape Blades Edge with her son. And she thinks Mal can help her.

But Larry’s dad is the crime lord of the estate, and he wants that ticket for himself, and worse for Mal, he’s not the only criminal with his eyes on it. Add in two coppers desperate to nick Mal’s best, only, and admittedly quite dangerous, friend, Jackie Singh Kattar, and Blades Edge is getting pretty crowded.

Malachite Jones might not really be able to talk to the dead, but if he and his friend Jackie Singh Kattar can’t find that money and a solution that pleases everyone they’re likely to be in need of a psychic medium themselves.

So, what have we here? A crime novel set on a sprawling, gritty estate in Yorkshire, with a psychic medium on the hunt for a lost lottery ticket worth quite a lot of money. And a series of other unsavoury characters who want the ticket for themselves, and are not afraid to let Malachite Jones know exactly how much they’re willing to hurt him if he doesn’t hand it over.

I read a lot of crime books. So do you, probably. But it’s refreshing to find one that manages to combine a lovely dark, twisty plot with a healthy dose of humour. I loved Mal and Jackie, the two leads with their long history and tenuous ‘friendship’.

The week started unseasonably warm for spring, and with my best friend sitting on top of me, threatening violence. From there it only went downhill.

Malachite Jones – ‘psychic’ medium (ably, if reluctantly, assisted by his assistant Beryl, who knows everyone and everything going on on the Blades Edge estate). Jackie Singh Kattar, respected businessman (just don’t ask what business, or you’ll find out he’s made you his business), sharp dresser and with a nice little line in motors. Best friends. And boy, do you want Jackie on your side.

But it’s not just them – the supporting cast is also brilliant – Trolley Mick Stanbeck and his dim (but wanting to improve themselves) sons. The Russians. The dodgy coppers (one of whom Jackie assures Mal she fancies him)

It’s just a joy from the first page to the end. Do yourself a favour, grab a copy for your kindle (ebook only at the moment) and settle down with a brew. Malachite Jones and his best friend Jackie Singh Kattar are about to become your new favourite duo.

Highly recommended.

A Numbers Game by RJ Dark is published by Wavesback, and is out now.

You can buy a copy from Amazon here

Books roundup – April/May

Blimey, June already? Where has the year gone?

When I sat down to do my May catchup, I realised that I’d not done a post of the books I read in April. Ooops. Bad bookblogger. Double dose then.

I thought I’d not read much recently, but both April and May saw me get through six books each, after only three in March (and one of those was in audiobook)

April

April kicked off with MR Carey’s finale of his superb Ramparts trilogy, the Fall of Koli. A fitting end to a brilliant set of books.

Next up was Blackstoke, by Rob Parker. Delightfully spooky goings on in a new housing estate. Not for the faint hearted!

These Lifeless Things, by Premee Mohamed is a superb little novella about an alien invasion, told through the journal of Eva, a survivor of the invasion, found by Emerson a young anthropologist sent to study the ruins of our former civilisation.

Then we had Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder, by TA Willberg. Intriguing premise and location – a secret detective agency beneath the streets of London, full of traps and dangers and murder. It just didn’t quite grab me, though I did finish it.

Strong contender for the book of the year list, Louise Beech’s This is How We Are Human is just stunning. I finished it in an afternoon. Be warned, you’ll need tissues.

Another contender for The List is Black Reed Bay, by Rod Reynolds. Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of Reynold’s books, from his Charlie Yates trilogy to his more modern, London-based Blood Red City. In Black Reed Bay we’re back in America, present day. A young woman dials 911 from an exclusive beachfront community, then promptly goes missing. Proper page-turner crime. Highly recommended.

May

Started May with a couple of excellent non-fiction books. Run Walk Crawl: Getting Fit In My Forties, by Tim Lebbon was great (and included cake).

As was Peaks and Bandits, by Alf Bonnevie Bryn. The tale of a young Norwegian climber who set off to Corsica in his Easter holidays in 1909, it’s packed full of amusing anecdotes, including a snake called James, and an incident with a quart ceramic jar of Crosse & Blackwell marmalade that they persuaded someone to carry up a mountain. Oh, and they meet some bandits, of course. 

Dead Ground, by MW Craven was one of my much anticipated books of the year, and it’s another cracking outing for Poe and Tilly. Book four in the series, well worth a look.

Eye of the Sh*t Storm, by Jackson Ford is the third in his Frost Files series, and he’s managed to turn the action/adventure/snark dials up even further. Splendid entertainment, and hugely recommended.

A Numbers Game, by RJ Dark is one I’ve had my eye on for a while. I had a peek at a super-early version of the book a couple of years ago. Luckily RJ Dark ignored all of my feedback and produced a superb little crime thriller set on an estate in Yorkshire. Mal and Jackie are your new favourite duo, trust me.

Rounded out the month with Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education, which I really enjoyed. It’s a tale of a magical school, but unlike any you’ve seen before. Education really is deadly at the Scholomance, there are no teachers, no friendships other than strategic ones to help you graduate. And not everyone will make it through lunch, let alone the year. Highly recommended.

Phew. That was April and May. Some great books in there. Have you read any of them? Any take your fancy? Do let me know, and let me know what you’ve read recently that you think I’d enjoy!

Run Walk Crawl: Getting Fit In My Forties – Tim Lebbon

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At forty-one I was overweight and unfit. As I turned 50 I was thirty pounds lighter, having spent my fifth decade training for, and racing multiple Ironmans, marathons, and other crazy adventures. This account of that fitness journey through my forties includes broken bones, severe chafing, regular cursing, rubber and lycra, an element of masochism … and cake.

So let’s get this clear from the start. I’m roughly the same age as Tim Lebbon is now, and did not get fit in my forties. I was, however, intrigued to see how he did it. And by the mention of cake.

I love cake.

This book threw me a little at the start – I was sort of expecting a tale of ‘oh how unfit I was’ followed by a training montage of sorts covering the next decade, with few juicy tales of derring-do, adventure and generally appearing out of the far end with the author being trimmer, fitter, and clutching the aforementioned cake.

Run Walk Crawl is definitely not that book. The training montage bit (without giving too much away) takes up a slim section near the start when our hero realises that he is somewhat overweight and unfit, and decides to do something about it. It’s not long before he’s running marathons, swimming triathlons and ultimately, taking part in more than one Ironman. And it’s the tales from those adventures that take up the majority of the book. And you know what? It’s great fun. For the reader, that is. Rather less fun for our hero getting up at the crack of dawn to go swim in a freezing lake, run up and down some hills and cycle what some would describe as ‘quite a long way’ afterwards. All for a t-shirt and a medal, and perhaps a slice of cake.

(Look, I know I said I love cake, and I really really do. But I’m not sure you’d catch me putting that much effort in. Probably explains my waistline.)

Tim Lebbon is a natural storyteller, and I found myself polishing off this book in the course of a couple of sittings. It’s a short book, but definitely filled with the tales of derring-do, adventure and with the author appearing at the far end trimmer, fitter and with the cake. Just don’t go into it looking for training plans – Tim’s approach seems to be ‘just get off your butt and go and do it, it’ll probably be fine’

I enjoyed this book a lot. Nearly as much as cake, and that’s saying something.

You can get a copy of Run Walk Crawl here

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1527286762

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1527286762

Run Walk Crawl: Getting Fit in my Forties by Tim Lebbon is published by Dreaming In Fire, and is out now. Many thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour, and to the publisher for the advance copy of the book for review.

Eye of The Sh*t Storm – Jackson Ford

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Teagan Frost might be getting better at moving sh*t with her mind – but her job working as a telekinetic government operative only ever seems to get harder. That’s not even talking about her car-crash of a love life . . .

And things are about to get even tougher. No sooner has Teagan chased off one psychotic kid hell-bent on trashing the whole West Coast, but now she has to contend with another supernatural being who can harness devastating electrical power. And if Teagan can’t stop him, the whole of Los Angeles will be facing the sh*tstorm of the century…

Buckle up folks. Teagan Frost is back. Following on from The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t With Her Mind (hi, Teagan) and Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air (err, hi again Teagan), we find our psychokinetic heroine up to yet more shenanigans. But that pesky Jackson Ford has cranked the dial all that way up to eleven on the action, peril and snarky internal monologue scales, probably cackling to himself at the same time. Oh, wait. He did that with book 2. Somehow he found the boss-mode setting on those dials.

And I love it.

Teagan and the gang from China Shop are on a white-knuckle ride from page one. This time there’s a new kid on the block, and he’s got a certain set of skills that are literally electric.

The sh*t hits the fan (of course) and the gang find themselves separated and pursuing their own goals. It’s a great chance to see the characters running solo for a while, and gives us a real insight into the team dynamics, and Teagans… complex relationships with them all.

Then there’s that finale – I’m saying nothing, but seriously Jackson? When do we get book four?

Highly recommended, as per usual

The Eye Of The Sh*t Storm by Jackson Ford is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Many thanks to Nazia Khatun and Orbit Books for the copy to review.

Peaks and Bandits – Alf Bonnevie Bryn

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In 1909, while dreaming of the Himalaya, Norwegian mountaineer Alf Bonnevie Bryn and a fellow young climber, the Australian George Ingle Finch, set their sights on Corsica to build their experience. The events of this memorable trip form the basis of Bryn’s acclaimed book Tinder og banditter – ‘Peaks and Bandits’, with their boisterous exploits delighting Norwegian readers for generations. 

Peaks and Bandits is a short book, but packs a huge amount into its 117 pages. Young Alf Bonnevie Bryn decides to set off to Corsica to climb some mountains with his friend George Ingle Finch in their Easter holidays from school in 1909. Our Norwegian hero and his Australian chum have more than a few adventures along the way, fording freezing rivers, rescuing cats from bathtubs, spreading fake money to make their own funds go further. They introduce skiing to Corsica to repay a friendly farmer. There’s a hilarious story (well, more than one) about a snake called James, which I shall leave you to find out for yourselves. There’s an incident with a quart ceramic jar of Crosse & Blackwell marmalade that they persuaded someone to carry up a mountain. Oh, and they meet some bandits, of course. The list goes on.

It’s a lovely, quirky little book, with a real sense of derring do and proper adventure. Huge kudos to Bibbi Lee, the translator. They’ve captured the wit and charm of the book beautifully, and it feels so natural you forget that it’s been translated from the original Norwegian.

Originally published in 1943, Peaks and Bandits is a classic of Norwegian literature, and is now available in English.

I highly recommend that you pick up a copy. I got my copy via my subscription to Adventurous Ink, a book club covering the best in adventure, travel and nature books, curated by Tim Frenneaux. No affiliate links, just a subscription I really enjoy!

Peaks and Bandits by Alf Bonnevie Bryn (translated by Bibbi Lee) is published by Vertebrate Publishing.

Black Reed Bay – Rod Reynolds

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When a young woman vanishes from an exclusive oceanfront community, Detective Casey Wray’s investigation plunges her into a darkness she could never have imagined

A new book by Rod Reynolds? Yes please. We’ve had 40’s Noir with his Charlie Yates books (splendid stuff), then a change of pace, decade and country with Blood Red City. And now with Black Reed Bay we’ve hopped back over the Atlantic to the shores of Long Island, present day.

Tina Grace has gone missing from an exclusive, quiet beachfront community after making a distressing 911 call. Apparently running for her life, she has disappeared into thin air. And the neighbours are a curious bunch.

Then the first body turns up…

Reynolds has already shown that he’s got a real knack for character and place, and Black Reed Bay is no exception. Having captured modern London to a tee, and given us a very authentic-feeling 40s America, we now see that it doesn’t seem to matter where he sets his books, they all have that crucial realness to the location. You feel that you could drive the streets of Hampstead County and feel that Atlantic sea air on your face.

But a book cannot live on location alone. Enter Detective Casey Wray, a fantastic lead in this top-notch slice of contemporary American Noir. Casey’s investigation leads her down a twisted path of conflicting witness statements, with pressure from on high adding to her woes. Luckily she’s got her partner Cullen on her side. I loved the dynamic between these two, the easy banter and friendship just shines.

The story fair crackles along, with rising tensions between the detectives and the top brass, and a desperate family wanting to find their missing Tina. There are a lot of suspects in play, and it’s a testament to the writing that Reynolds keeps us on the edge of our seats from start to finish.

It’s another cracking crime thriller from one of my favourite authors, and I’m delighted to see that it’s just the first in a new series. I can’t wait to see what he’s got in store for Casey Wray next.

Highly recommended.

Black Reed Bay by Rod Reynolds is published by Orenda Books and is out in ebook on 28th May 2021, and in paperback in September. Many thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

This Is How We Are Human – Louise Beech

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When the mother of an autistic young man hires a call girl to make him happy, three lives collide in unexpected and moving ways … changing everything. A devastatingly beautiful, rich and thought-provoking novel that will warm your heart.

You read a lot of books in this blogging game. Some of them are good, some of them are great. Then there are books like this.

I don’t know how Louise Beech does it, but she’s done it again. After Call Me Star Girl, I was hooked. I Am Dust confirmed her as one of those authors where I’d read anything they write. And now with this? I’m lost for words.

This is going to be a really short review.

Just read it.

There, that’s it. Trust me.

You want more? This is a story which a mother pays a call girl to make her autistic son happy. You might feel a little… apprehensive approaching this book, given the subject matter. But you’re in the hands of Louise Beech here. Nothing is as simple or straightforward as it appears. And it’s handled with such love and compassion that you emerge blinking from the other side, having fallen completely for the three leads.

I read this book in an afternoon, having unceremoniously dumped the TBR pile to one side. And yes Louise, you made me cry.

Sebastian is a young man (twenty years, six months and two days old, thank you very much) who very much wants to have sex. But he struggles with relationships, as other people’s prejudices get in the way. And some people can’t see past the surface to the man underneath. His mother Veronica can, of course. And she’s heartbroken to see her son have to battle through life. Opportunity presents itself in Violeta, a call girl. Could she bring herself to pay this woman to take care of her son? What would he think if he ever found out?

Each of the three has their own story to tell, and they tell it their own way. Beech’s characters are always fantastic, and there’s no exception here. They’re complex, layered, really real people who come alive off the page and leave you changed by the end. Prejudices examined, wrung out and hung up to dry.

Beautifully and sensitively told, This Is How We Are Human is a story about love and life, of discrimation and difference, and the choices we make. It’s ultimately about being… human.

Hugely recommended, I’m putting this straight on the books of the year list.

This Is How We Are Human by Louise Beech is published by Orenda Books and is out now in ebook, and paperback in June 2021. Many thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

The Fall of Koli – MR Carey

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The world that is lost will come back to haunt us . . .

Koli has come a long way since being exiled from his small village of Mythen Rood. In his search for the fabled tech of the old times, he knew he’d be battling strange, terrible beasts and trees that move as fast as whips. But he has already encountered so much more than he bargained for.

Now that Koli and his companions have found the source of the signal they’ve been following – the mysterious “Sword of Albion” – there is hope that their perilous journey will finally be worth something.

Until they unearth terrifying truths about an ancient war . . . and realise that it may have never ended.

Here we are. Book three in M.R. Carey’s Ramparts trilogy. We’ve followed Koli on his adventure for such a long way, from The Book of Koli back in April 2020, through The Trials of Koli late in September, and now to this final book, nigh on a year since we started.

And what an adventure it’s been. Regular readers of this blog will know how much I love Carey’s writing. And how much I love a good dystopian post-apocalyptic setting. Put those three things together and I’m a happy little reader. Just keep me topped up with regular cups of hot tea and a steady supply of biscuits and we’re good.

Reader, I loved The Book and The Trials. And of course you’ve listened to me banging on about them for the last year, and have read and enjoyed them, haven’t you?

HAVEN’T YOU. (right, you at the back, yes, you. Get thee to a bookshop, pronto)

The rest of you have? Excellent, excellent.

So, why do you need me to persuade you to read book three? You’re as invested in the adventures of Koli, Cup and the irrepressible, mischievous Monono as I am, surely? And not forgetting Spinner and the Ramparts back at home base in Mythen Rood of course!

The Fall of Koli finds our intrepid adventurers rather at sea in their hunt for the mysterious ‘Sword of Albion’. Quite literally. They’re rescued by Paul, Lorraine, and their something’s-not-quite-right-here son, Stanley, who are apparently alone on the megaship Sword of Albion. It’s up to Koli and the gang to figure out what’s going on, and not to put too fine a point on it, things escalate quickly…

Back in Mythen Rood, Spinner is facing some challenges herself, both from within the encampment and outside, with the Peacemaker from Half Ax determined to get hold of all the tech in Ingland. I was torn reading this book, as Carey knew just when to switch viewpoints from Koli to Spinner to ensure maximum tension! I really loved watching Spinner’s character grow across the three books, and become the fantastic, clever, resourceful woman we find here.

It’s these different viewpoints and wonderfully diverse characters that really make these books shine. It’s an exploration of identity and growth; from young, naive Koli Woodsmith, to the older, wiser Ursala, Cup – the young trans woman and the bouncy, virtual Monono Aware who helps Koli find his place in the world. Carey clearly loves these characters and it’s a testament to his writing that they all come across equally well-drawn despite their differences.

It’s hard to say more without giving away too much about this book. I’m confident that if you’ve read the first two, you’ll absolutely love this one too.

Hugely recommended.

The Fall of Koli by MR Carey is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Many thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the advance copy of the book, and to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.