Breakers – Doug Johnstone

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings, he’s also trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addict mum.

On a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead, but that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.

With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in devastating danger, Tyler meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house, and he thinks she may just be his salvation … unless he drags her down too.

Well now. What do we have here?

A Scottish family drama? A taut crime story? Boy-meets-girl from the other side of the tracks blossoming romance? Puppies?

Check, check, check and yes, check. But take those simple ingredients and put them in the hands of Doug Johnstone and what you end up with is something truly special. If Michelin did stars for books, then Breakers would be wearing its star bright and proud.

Johnstone does characters and place exceptionally well, as evidenced in his previous book, Fault Lines. But here, his starkly contrasting aspects of Edinburgh are done so well. I love a book with a sense of place, and Breakers leaves you feeling that you could walk its streets (though you might want to avoid the estate that Tyler lives on) from the descriptions on the page.

The story bounces around Edinburgh, from the rough estates where Tyler and his family live to the more well-to-do suburbs where they go on the prowl for houses to break into.

Which is where Barry does something spectacularly stupid, even for him. And crime lord Deke Holt is on the hunt. It’s not going to end well…

And the characters! Tyler, young carer to his drug-addict mum and devoted older brother to his little sister Bean, forced into an impossible situation by his thuggish brother Barry. Forced to make some hard choices to survive, and to protect his beloved Bean.

Short, sharp and decidedly not sweet, Breakers is one of those books that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Hugely recommended.

Breakers by Doug Johnstone is published by Orenda Books and is out now. Thanks as ever to Karen Sullivan for the copy of Doug’s book to review.

The Pursuit of William Abbey – Claire North

South Africa in the 1880s. A young and naive English doctor by the name of William Abbey witnesses the lynching of a local boy by the white colonists. As the child dies, his mother curses William.

William begins to understand what the curse means when the shadow of the dead boy starts following him across the world. It never stops, never rests. It can cross oceans and mountains. And if it catches him, the person he loves most in the world will die.

A new book by Claire North is always a welcome event. You never know quite what you’re going to get, but can rest assured that it’ll be different and thought-provoking.

The Pursuit of William Abbey is exactly that. Starting with a horrific, brutal event, we’re drawn into the life of Dr William Abbey and his quest to stay one step ahead of his pursuer, the shadow of a young boy murdered by white colonists in Natal. Abbey was present at the lynching, and cursed by the boy’s mother. Langa never stops, undeterred by mountain range or ocean, by desert or forest. He is utterly relentless.

As Langa grows closer, Abbey discovers that he can see the truth in people’s hearts. Close enough, and Abbey finds himself unable to stop himself from blurting those truths out to any and everyone who’ll listen.

If Langa catches up with Abbey, someone he loves will die, and the chase will begin again.

North does not spare us of the brutality of war or colonialism. Some sections of the book are hard to stomach, deliberately so. Man’s inhumanity to man is writ large across the pages of this book as Abbey travels from continent to continent.

Abbey finds himself at the attention of The Nineteen, a shadowy organisation who promise him salvation from his curse. He just needs to do a few little jobs for them first – go here and find out those truths, go there and find out some more. Always travelling, always moving, always pursued.

North’s writing is, as always, wonderful and easy to lose yourself in. In part I wanted to finish the book to find out what happens, but on another level I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere, the astonishing cast of characters that she conjures forth throughout the book.

If I had any criticism, it would be that the pace, relentless as it is for our titular William Abbey, flags ever so slightly around the halfway mark. But it recovers as we approach the final act, leading to an ending which…

Well, I’ll have to leave that to you, dear reader. Will Abbey find absolution for his sins? Will he escape his pursuer?

I’m not sure my words are doing this book justice – for a more thorough review I’d like to direct you to David at BlueBookBalloon who is far better than I am at putting such things in the perspective they deserve.

In short, The Pursuit of William Abbey is a work of an astonishing imagination. A Claire North book is always worth investigating, and if you do get this one, I’d love to hear what you think.

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Thanks to Nazia Khatun at Orbit for the advance copy of the book to review, and to Tracy Fenton for inviting me onto the blog tour.

This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Among the ashes of a dying world, an agent of the Commandant finds a letter. It reads: Burn before reading.

Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between two rival agents hellbent on securing the best possible future for their warring factions. Now, what began as a taunt, a battlefield boast, grows into something more. Something epic. Something romantic. Something that could change the past and the future.

Except the discovery of their bond would mean death for each of them. There’s still a war going on, after all. And someone has to win that war. That’s how war works. Right?

Red and Blue are two operatives on opposing sides of the Time War. Each determined that their side should be victorious, each travelling up and down the braids of time to make a subtle change here, or a little tweak there to encourage the desired outcome. Blue works for Garden, at one end of the time stream. Red is an agent of The Commandant, at the other. Each working for their own side, trying to foil the other.

So far, so sci-fi. But this is so much more. It is, at heart, a series of letters between the two agents. Letters written in the seeds of a plant, nurtured over hundreds of years. In the flow of a lava field, in the feathers of a goose, in knots tied in a sample of cloth, the missives grow increasingly abstract and lyrical.

Letters which start as taunts, which turn into mutual admiration, and ultimately into love letters the like of which have rarely been seen. The word poetic fails to do justice to the missives of these star- and time-crossed lovers.

Victoria Schwab (another of my favourite authors) summed up this book perfectly.

Holy shit this was good.

V.E. Schwab

It’s more than good. It’s astonishing. You should read it.

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is published by Jo Fletcher Books and is out now.

Huge thanks to @runalongwomble and @bluebookballoon for bringing this book to my attention

17 Church Row – James Carol

Three years ago, Nikki and Ethan Rhodes suffered a devastating loss when their four-year-old daughter Grace was tragically killed in a road accident. Ethan, a radio personality, escapes into work, leaving Nikki to care for their remaining child, Bella, who hasn’t spoken since that day.

Seeking a fresh start, the family moves into a revolutionary new house designed by renowned architect, Catriona Fisher. The house features a state-of-the-art security system, along with every amenity you could dream of.

For the Rhodes’ this is a chance to finally pick up the pieces and get on with their lives in a place where they feel totally safe.

But what if 17 Church Row isn’t the safe haven that they think it is?

I really enjoyed this – it’s a smart, sharp techno-thriller with an interesting cast of characters and an intriguing setting. We’re all becoming used to having smart assistants around these days – from ‘hey Siri’ to ‘OK Google’ or Alexa, help is but a request away. Phones by our side, smart devices in our homes, voice control over lights, heating, every part of modern-day living is gradually being handed over to our technological helpers.

The tech in 17 Church Row is a bit more futuristic, to almost Star Trek levels.

The Rhodes’ new home has this tech built-in. Alice is set up to deal with your every whim, almost before you realise what it is you need. Fancy a coffee? It’s already made. Pizza for tea? No problem, it’s been ordered from your favourite restaurant.

A traumatised young girl who’s lost her sister and can no longer talk? A family grieving for their daughter?

What can Alice do for them?

Hard to say much more without spoiling the fun, but it’s an engaging tale, which picks up momentum in the second half before rattling to a satisfying ending. A proper page-turner, lose yourself in the action. Great fun.

Thanks to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

Ghoster – Jason Arnopp

Kate Collins has been ghosted.

She was supposed to be moving in with her new boyfriend Scott, but all she finds after relocating to Brighton is an empty flat. Scott has vanished. His possessions have all disappeared.

Except for his mobile phone.

Kate knows she shouldn’t hack into Scott’s phone. She shouldn’t look at his Tinder, his texts, his social media. But she can’t quite help herself.

That’s when the trouble starts. Strange, whispering phone calls from numbers she doesn’t recognise. Scratch marks on the door that she can’t explain.

And the growing feeling that she’s being watched

Ah, the humble smartphone. Where would we be without them? That constant ping of notifications – texts, emails, Twitter, Facebook. The socials. All to easy to get sucked in.

After reading this book, you may very well look at your little slab of glass in an entirely different way…

I went into Ghoster fresh, didn’t read the blurb, didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard great things about Jason Arnopp’s previous book, The Last Days of Jack Sparks from friends and fellow bookbloggers, so jumped in with both feet.

What starts off as a regular ‘what happened to Scott?’ thriller takes a very sharp turn in an entirely unexpected direction. Spoiler-free version: It’s dark, it’s very creepy, and entirely brilliant.

The story bounces between the then – Kate and Scott hooking up and their blossoming relationship – and the now, the ‘what on earth has happened to him?’. Arnopp has entirely too much fun playing with us – setting up little tidbits of information, scraps of their lives, another cliffhanger to entice you to keep turning those pages.

And turn those pages you will.

Ghoster is a cautionary tale at heart. We put so much of ourselves online, but never know quite who might be watching.

Highly recommended, though you might end up spending a little less time with your phone as a result.

Ghoster by Jason Arnopp is published by Orbit Books and is out now. Thanks to Tracy Fenton at Compulsive Readers for inviting me to take part in the blog tour

A Cheesemonger’s History of The British Isles – Ned Palmer

Every cheese tells a story. Whether it’s a fresh young goat’s cheese or a big, beefy eighteen-month-old Cheddar, each variety holds the history of the people who first made it, from the builders of Stonehenge to medieval monks, from the Stilton-makers of the eighteenth-century to the factory cheesemakers of the Second World War.

Cheesemonger Ned Palmer takes us on a delicious journey across Britain and Ireland and through time to uncover the histories of beloved old favourites like Cheddar and Wensleydale and fresh innovations like the Irish Cashel Blue or the rambunctious Renegade Monk. Along the way we learn the craft and culture of cheesemaking from the eccentric and engaging characters who have revived and reinvented farmhouse and artisan traditions. And we get to know the major cheese styles – the blues, washed rinds, semi-softs and, unique to the British Isles, the territorials – and discover how best to enjoy them, on a cheeseboard with a glass of Riesling, or as a Welsh rarebit alongside a pint of Pale Ale.

This is a cheesemonger’s odyssey, a celebration of history, innovation and taste – and the book all cheese and history lovers will want to devour this Christmas.

When I saw this book pop up on twitter, I knew it was going to brie really gouda. A grate book, some might say.

Ok, that’s enough of the cheese puns. I promise.

Ned Palmer, freelance cheesemonger (no, I didn’t know that was a thing either) and writer, takes us on a journey through British and Irish history, via the story of cheese in his new book, A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles. And what a journey it is!

Ned takes us from Neolithic feasts (4000 BCE – 43BCE), through the Romans, the impact of monks and monasteries on cheesemaking, the introduction of big cheeses in the 1500s, right up to factory production, the Milk Marketing Board, and right up to the current renaissance in artisan cheesemakers.

Be warned. There are a *lot* of cheeses in this book. And you will want to try them all.

Ned is a generous host on this meander through history – at times funny, always fascinating (did you know that Double Gloucester is so named because cream from the morning milk was added to the previous evening’s milk? Or that Cheshire cheese tends to have colour added down south, but up north we prefer it white?), his knowledge of cheese, and cheese making, is encyclopaedic.

Along the way, we’re introduced to a host of small independent cheesemakers around the country, who produce a mouthwatering array of delicious local cheeses, be they made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk. From Hawes Wensleydale (“As pale and creamy as a milkmaid’s shoulder.”) to Stichelton (“hints of malty digestive biscuits, marmite and bubblegum.”), Ned has an evident love of his subject which comes across on every page.

I devoured this book, lost in the history, drooling over the descriptions of the incredible array of cheeses on display. No more for me the anodyne generic cheddar sold by the block – I’ll be hunting out the local producers, the markets, and maybe even a pilgrimage to Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, where Ned learned his craft.

A fascinating read for any cheese lover. Get it on your christmas list (if you can wait that long!)

Many thanks to Profile Books for the advance copy of Ned Palmer’s book for review.

You can find Ned Palmer on Twitter at @CheeseTastingCo

Survivors – GX Todd

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who hear voices, and those who want to silence them.

Pilgrim is a man with a past he can’t remember. When he wakes alone in a shallow grave, there is a voice in his head that doesn’t belong to him. It explains who he is and what he’s done. It tells him he has one purpose: to find a girl named Lacey.

As Pilgrim is drawn north to Missouri in search of Lacey, he must also travel back to where it all began – to those he left behind. War is coming, and Pilgrim is going to need all the allies he can get.

So here we are. Book #3 of The Voices, following on from Defender and Hunted, both of which made my Books of the Year for 2017 and 2018. A high bar has been set.

Survivors just smashed it. The first two books are brilliant, but in this, Todd has taken it to the next level. Hard to say too much without giving too much away – if you’ve read the first two then you’ll need absolutely no nudging from me to pick up this instalment.

If you haven’t read Defender or Hunted, then get yourself to a bookshop immediately, clear a weekend, stock up on tea and biscuits and settle down for what one book reviewer said about them:

It’s dark and brutal, and definitely not for the faint-hearted, but if you give it a chance, it’ll grab you by the hand and take you on a dust-soaked ride across the wilderness to some places you’ll not soon forget.

(ok, it was me)

Survivors takes us back in time to before the Voices, and we get to know a little more about how the world came to be in the state we find it in Defender. We also find out a lot more about the mysterious Pilgrim, and it was fascinating to learn his backstory.

As with the first two books, Todd’s worldbuilding is just superb, rich and gloriously imagined. I read Survivors on a road trip in the US over the summer, and couldn’t think of a more appropriate setting. Todd also does characters really *really* well, and despite the relative heft of this book, you find yourself lost in the pages, only emerging blinking into the daylight after the final page.

Book four just cannot come soon enough. Easily one of my favourite series of books, ever.

Survivors by G.X. Todd is published by Headline on 31st October 2019. Huge thanks to Caitlin Raynor and Headline for the review copy.