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.

Snare – Lilja Sigurðardóttir

That cover. oof. So good.

After a messy divorce, attractive young mother Sonja is struggling to provide for herself and keep custody of her son. With her back to the wall, she resorts to smuggling cocaine into Iceland, and finds herself caught up in a ruthless criminal world. As she desperately looks for a way out of trouble, she must pit her wits against her nemesis, Bragi, a customs officer, whose years of experience frustrate her new and evermore daring strategies. Things become even more complicated when Sonja embarks on a relationship with a woman, Agla. Once a high-level bank executive, Agla is currently being prosecuted in the aftermath of the Icelandic financial crash. 

So, I’m late to the party. Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s third book in her Reykjavik Noir trilogy, Cage, has just been published, and here’s me not having read any of them.

Until today, that is. I practically inhaled book 1, Snare, over the course of an afternoon, and promptly kicked myself for missing out. At least I don’t have to wait for books 2 and 3, I suppose!

Snare follows three strands: Sonja, drug smuggler snared in a spiralling series of ever more dangerous strategies to get cocaine into Iceland. Agla, high-level bank executive under investigation following suspicious activity in the banking crash, and Sonja’s lover. Rounding off the trio we have the relentless Bragi, a customs officer determined to crack down on the drug smuggling through his airport.

I must admit that I found Sonja and Bragi’s stories more interesting than the seemingly drier financial investigations into Agla’s past, but it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in the later books.

Sigurðardóttir has crafted an elaborate game of cat and mouse with Snare, though it’s not always clear who’s the cat and who’s the mouse. I’ve got a huge soft spot for a good twisty tale, and loved this one – from the brilliant characters to the Icelandic setting (huge thanks for the pronunciation guide!), I just couldn’t put it down. Right, now onto book 2!

Recommended.

Snare by Lilja Sigurðardóttir is published by Orenda Books. Translated by Quentin Bates (@graskeggur). Huge thanks as ever to Karen at Orenda for the review copy.

You can find Lilja Sigurðardóttir on twitter at @Lilja1972 or at her website http://www.liljawriter.com/

The Black Hawks – David Wragg

Delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for David Wragg’s The Black Hawks. More about the book later – first, a guest post!


Where did the Black Hawks come from?

Or “Whence came the Black Hawks?” if you like your titles pithy but archaic

Minor spoilers ahead, but if you’ve already read the blurb there shouldn’t be anything too destabilising

History

History was one of my favourite subjects at school. It’s no secret that you don’t have to look far with many works of fantasy to see their historical inspirations (cough Wars of the Roses cough), and I’m no great exception to the rule – no matter what horrors you can imagine, there’s always some historical bastard who got there first, often with considerably more enthusiasm. The period that most fascinated me was the Italian Wars of the 15th and 16th Centuries, featuring treachery, intrigue, mercenary companies and wars by proxy, shocking assassinations and an overmighty church intent on carving out its own territorial legacy. Astute readers may be able to draw some parallels in the book.

Classic Fantasy

I grew up immersed in Classic Quest Fantasy, from the Hobbit onwards, and internalised much of what I read as How Things Should Be Done. There should always be a journey, and a rag-tag band coming together to save the day from a terrible threat. Against that, however, we must balance…

My spiteful nature

I’m a contrary sod, and have an alarming tendency to do the opposite of what’s expected of me, simply because. The Black Hawks is the first of a two-part story (the Articles of Faith series) – a bilogy, not a trilogy, as my agent has begged me to stop calling it. I planned it as two instead of three just to be different. Many of the book’s events and characters are likewise a reaction to my much-loved fantasy tropes, starting with…

The also-rans

Fantasy has a tendency to put heroes front and centre (especially Heroic Fantasy, for some reason), from common-or-garden chosen ones to the Greatest Warrior Who Ever Lived to the Last Scion of the Bloodline and so forth. I thought it would be satisfying to focus more on those at the sharp end, who are just trying to scrape a living together while a fantasy plot-line rages on in the background. What might happen, for example, if you or I found ourselves caught up in the whirlwind of your standard fantastical intrigue?

Well, we’d almost certainly die immediately, so I had to take a few liberties with the story.

Personal experience

It’s not a huge spoiler to say Chel, the main character in the book, gets hurt.

A lot.

As well as a genre fiction, I’ve enjoyed a bounty of chronic pain in various forms since my teens. I thought it might be nice to share some of that day-to-day unpleasantness with my protagonist.

(Hell is) Other people

I’m old enough to have had a lot of jobs and worked on many projects, and in every one of them it’s been the people alongside me who have made or wrecked the experience. It’s possible to perform horrible, mindless drudgery and still look forward to a day of glorious chat with brilliant colleagues; conversely, a shower of dreadful bastards can swiftly torpedo the dreamiest posting. Given the chance, I’d assemble my own mercenary crew in a heartbeat. But you don’t often get to pick your colleagues – and nor do my characters.

This modern world

The book, and its sequel, contain a few more modern parallels than I’d first intended. Some will be obvious, some more subtle, but it shows we can’t help being influenced by our creative climate. Black Hawks 1 was first drafted in 2015 in relative peace (then revised many times since), but book 2 was written in the chaos of 2016. You can see what you make of it next year.

The Black Hawks are unleashed on 3rd October.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg is published by HarperVoyager. Many thanks to David Wragg for the guest post, and to the publisher for the copy of David’s book for review. You can find David Wragg on twitter at @itsdavewragg, or at his website https://www.davewragg.com/

Life as a knight is not what Vedren Chel imagined. Bound by oath to a dead-end job in the service of a lazy step-uncle, Chel no longer dreams of glory – he dreams of going home.

When invaders throw the kingdom into turmoil, Chel finds opportunity in the chaos: if he escorts a stranded prince to safety, Chel will be released from his oath.

All he has to do is drag the brat from one side of the country to the other, through war and wilderness, chased all the way by ruthless assassins.

With killers on your trail, you need killers watching your back. You need the Black Hawk Company – mercenaries, fighters without equal, a squabbling, scrapping pack of rogues. Prepare to join the Black Hawks.

Darkdawn – Jay Kristoff

The greatest games in Godsgrave’s history have ended with the most audacious murders in the history of the Itreyan Republic.

Mia Corvere, gladiatii, escaped slave and infamous assassin, is on the run. Pursued by Blades of the Red Church and soldiers of the Luminatii legion, she may never escape the City of Bridges and Bones alive. Her mentor Mercurio is now in the clutches of her enemies. Her own family wishes her dead. And her nemesis, Consul Julius Scaeva, stands but a breath from total dominance over the Republic.

But beneath the city, a dark secret awaits. Together with her lover Ashlinn, brother Jonnen and a mysterious benefactor returned from beyond the veil of death, she must undertake a perilous journey across the Republic, seeking the final answer to the riddle of her life. Truedark approaches. Night is falling on the Republic for perhaps the final time.

Can Mia survive in a world where even daylight must die?

Holy[1] fuck[2]. Darkdawn[3]: magnificent[4]!


[1] It’s a story about gods. The gods of day and night, and what happens when they fall out. And boy, do they fall out.

[2] There is a *lot* of smut. No, I’m not complaining either.

[3] Book 3 of the Nevernight Chronicles. It has come to my attention recently that some of you (mentioning no names) haven’t read Nevernight yet. I have been talking about this book FOR EVER. I will pimp it to you at the drop of a hat. I will pimp it to a hat, given half a chance that it might actually read it. I recommended it to a friend at work last week when he spotted Darkdawn on my desk, and not only did he read it, he went out and bought Godsgrave *and* he’s nearly finished Darkdawn.

[4] Can you write a review in a footnote?[5]

[5] I mean, what sort of pretentious arse would do that, gentlefriends?[6]

[6] Let’s give it a go, shall we?

Darkdawn. Hooyah. It’s the final chapter in our murderous little Mia’s story. And no, that’s not a spoiler. Jay Kristoff did warn us, all the way back in Nevernight, page one.

This is very much the end. But what a glorious end it is. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry, it’ll make you put the book down and glare it at. It is a just and right finale to my favourite trilogy, and my favourite assassin/gladiati/pirate.

Oh yes. There are pirates this time round. Cloud Corleone, with his four bastard smile, is just a glorious, glorious character. And there’s a pirate king too.

Look, gentlefriend. You’re one of two sorts of people.

One – you’ve read Nevernight and Godsgrave, in which case you’ve almost certainly bought a copy of Darkdawn and read it already. Nothing I say, and no amount of footnotes will make the slightest difference to you.

Or two – you’ve not read Nevernight (or Godsgrave), in which case you need to rectify that IMMEDIATELY, at which point you’ll be the first sort of person, in which case this review will mean nothing to you, etc etc.

Go, read the books. Laugh, cry, blush at the smutty bits, and when you’re done, we can talk.

Talk about the stabby bits, the funny bits, the pirates and gladiators and assassins and cats made of shadows, of the mountain of murderers, the gods, everything.

Then we’ll go back to the books and read all about a girl called Mia. For we love her so very very much.

Thank you, Jay Kristoff.

PS – if anyone has a spare ARC of Darkdawn to complete my collection, I will love you forever. I might even send you a cake.