I Am Dust – Louise Beech

The Dean Wilson Theatre is believed to be haunted by a long-dead actress, singing her last song, waiting for her final cue, looking for her killer…

Now Dust, the iconic musical, is returning after twenty years. But who will be brave enough to take on the role of ghostly goddess Esme Black, last played by Morgan Miller, who was murdered in her dressing room?

Theatre usher Chloe Dee is caught up in the spectacle. As the new actors arrive, including an unexpected face from her past, everything changes. Are the eerie sounds and sightings backstage real or just her imagination? Is someone playing games?

Is the role of Esme Black cursed? Could witchcraft be at the heart of the tragedy? And are dark deeds from Chloe’s past about to catch up with her?

Not all the drama takes place onstage. Sometimes murder, magic, obsession and the biggest of betrayals are real life. When you’re in the theatre shadows, you see everything.

And Chloe has been watching…

I first heard about I Am Dust at the launch for Louise Beech’s previous book, the magnificent Call Me Star Girl (easily one of my books of the year for 2019). I was intrigued. A ghostly story set in a theatre? I made a note in my List of Books To Keep An Eye Out For.

And lo, here we are some months later, and the book itself lands on my doorstep. Could it possibly live up to expectations? Could it match the heady heights of Star Girl?

Dear reader, it very much does.

It’s a story of love and loss, of murder and mystery, of the glam and glitz of showbusiness in a small theatre, haunted by the spectre of its greatest success, the musical extravaganza that is Dust.

The writing is beautifully evocative, with the Dean Wilson Theatre almost a character in itself. Louise Beech clearly has a deep love of theatre and it just shines through on the page. You can feel yourself walking the backstage corridors, poking your head around the doors of the once glamorous dressing rooms, standing in the wings watching the cast take their bow at the final curtain.

The book is just a lovely, lovely thing. Fiercely funny at times as the ushers put up with yet another terrible play, or try and push pamphlets for Dust, the show that everyone wants to see but sold out in hours.

But the story isn’t all light and showbiz. What began as a game between three friends in 2005 has repercussions in present-day, and the story flits back and forth between the interlocked timelines. Beech’s skill at showing us just a little, just a glimpse behind the curtain at what went on back then before bringing us back to the now of 2019 drives this story on. I read it pretty much in a single sitting, drawn into the world of the theatre and the three friends.

There’s layer upon layer at play here, and just when you think that perhaps you might have it sussed, you realise that it’s all smoke and mirrors, greasepaint and costume jewellery. But the real jewels are there, if you know where to look.

Look, I’ve waffled on for long enough. Do you trust me? Go buy a copy of this book, and spend a couple of hours in the company of players that make up the tale of I Am Dust. You will not regret it.

Hugely recommended.

I Am Dust by Louise Beech is published by Orenda Books in ebook in February 2020, and in paperback in April 2020. Thanks as ever to Karen Sullivan for the review copy.

Books of the year 2019: crime & thriller

We’ve had the list of favourite sci-fi and fantasy, now it’s the turn of crime & thrillers. Again, in no particular order, here we go!

Breakers – Doug Johnstone

Rapidly becoming one of my favourite Scottish authors, Doug Johnstone is back with Breakers. 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.

Nothing Important Happened Today – Will Carver

Hoo boy, is this dark. I thought that Will Carver’s previous book, Good Samaritans was dark (and it most definitely is), but that’s like a little ray of sunshine on a bright spring morning compared with this, Carver’s latest. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. And I read a *lot*.

Little Siberia – Antti Tuomainen

A new book by Antti Tuomainen is always exciting, and Little Siberia is no exception. Told with Tuomainen’s signature wit, Little Siberia is another slice of brilliance from the King of Helsinki Noir. He’s got a lovely flair for character, and the inhabitants of Hurmevaara are a motley bunch, beautifully drawn. But characters alone cannot make a story, so we have a splendidly twisty black comedy to tie everything together.

The July Girls – Phoebe Locke

Just stunningly good. A serial killer story with a twist, told from the point of view of Addie, a young girl caught up in a swirl of events. I’ve deliberately cut part of the blurb from Goodreads as I think this is one of those books that you want to go into knowing as little as possible, and find out for yourself what makes Addie’s story so unforgettable.

I polished off The July Girls in a couple of hours. Impossible to put down, with a truly different spin on the psychological crime thriller.

Cold Desert Sky – Rod Reynolds

Rod Reynolds proved with his first two books that he has a deft hand at conjuring up small-town Americana. Here he turns that hand to the larger canvas of ’40s Los Angeles and Las Vegas and again we’re sucked into the murky underworld of the mob. Reynolds has a real gift for place and atmosphere, and you almost feel that should you be dropped into Yates’ world, you could find your way around. Not that the California of Charlie Yates is somewhere you’d particularly want to be, not with someone as connected as Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel on the loose…

The Puppet Show (Washington Poe, #1) – M.W. Craven

I bought The Puppet Show following a load of my bookblogger friends raving about it. Serial killer, dysfunctional detective pairing, sounds right up my alleyway.

They were right. I stayed up far too late one night on holiday powering through this book more or less in a single sitting (if you ignore the break to go get some food). A proper page-turner, this one!

Washington Poe (and what a great name *that* is) is summoned back from suspension to investigate a murder in his patch of Cumbria. The victim, as with the first two, has been burned alive. But this one has something carved into his chest. Carved when the victim was very much alive.

It’s the Poe/Tilly dynamic which makes this book shine, and speaking of which…

Black Summer (Washington Poe, #2) – M.W. Craven

A celebrity chef who definitely killed his daughter, and went to prison for it. But then she turns up, quite definitely alive (if not particularly well). And it was Poe who put him in prison for the murder. Could he have been wrong?

And then she goes missing again, and the evidence all points in one direction. Washington Poe, what have you done?

*claps hands excitedly* Shenanigans afoot! I love shenanigans. Especially when they’re as clever as this!

Worst Case Scenario – Helen Fitzgerald

I must confess that after the first dozen or so pages of Worst Case Scenario I wondered if this was really the book for me. I wasn’t sure if I could cope with Mary’s in-your-face approach to life and work. Borderline alcoholic, menopausal, obsessed with her awful clients, she’s quite the character.

I pressed on and was rewarded with a deliciously dark, delightfully un-PC, often downright hilarious tale of a Glaswegian probation officer’s last days in the job. Mary Shields grew on me with every page, and I found myself watching events unravel with a horrified cover-your-eyes what-will-happen-next sense of anticipation.

Short, sharp and not at all sweet, Worst Case Scenario is a book that’ll live with you for quite some time. Recommended.

The Furies – Katie Lowe

More magic here, of the witchy variety. I was torn between putting this in the crime/thriller section or the fantasy, but it feels right on this list.

A tightly-drawn portrait of a private girls school with secret societies and a mysterious teacher. Oh, and a murder. Though the murdered girl went missing months ago…

Splendidly creepy, The Furies is a book which will keep you up long past the witching hour trying to get to the bottom of what happened at Elm Hollow Academy.

The Neighbour – Fiona Cummins

Told over the course of a few days over the long, hot, sticky summer of 2018, The Neighbour is wonderfully atmospheric, and not a little claustrophobic in places. The cast of neighbours on The Avenue are an intriguing bunch, and you’re never quite sure who to suspect, though you’ll end up questioning what you think about pretty much all of them along the way.

Loved it from the first page to the last. Very highly recommended

Call Me Star Girl – Louise Beech

I read a lot of crime books. Some are good, some are great. This one falls firmly into the latter category. Call Me Star Girl is tautly written, cunningly plotted and twistier than a curly wurly.

Louise Beech has crafted a beautifully dark little tale, with a creeping sense of menace that leaves you wondering if you locked the doors. You might want to go and check. You never know who might be lurking outside.

Highly recommended.

The Lost Man – Jane Harper

The Lost Man is a lovely slow burn of a mystery, leaving you with the dust of the Outback under your nails. Jane Harper has a wonderful ability to evoke the essence of a place and here she really shows off that skill to magnificent effect. You really feel the atmosphere here, the dust-soaked landscape, the incessant sun, the constant knife-edge balance between life and death.

And the death here is one of those properly splendid whodunnits. A man is found next to a remote grave, a circle etched into the sand as he’s struggled to follow the meagre shade whilst slowly dying of exposure and thirst.

Why is he here? Why is a seasoned, experienced farmer, who knows the Outback like the back of his hand, miles from the safety of his car? What has brought him to this place with none of the essential survival equipment that everyone carries by default in this unforgiving environment?


And coming up in 2020, a couple of stunners:

A Dark Matter – Doug Johnstone

Three women, grandmother, mother and daughter, investigating different strands of mysteries. Doug Johnstone with another cracker of a book. Look out for a fuller review in 2020!

Three Hours – Rosamund Lupton

Words just can’t do this justice. Put it on your list, pre-order it now, but brace yourself. You are not ready. Phenomenally good.

Books of the year 2019: sci-fi & fantasy

Ah, 2019. A great year for books. And here, in no particular order, are my favourite sci-fi and fantasy books.

Darkdawn (The Nevernight Chronicle, #3) – Jay Kristoff

Darkdawn - Jay Kristoff

The review that I’m most proud of this year.

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, for giving us this, perfect ending.

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

Just stunningly good. Two time agents leave letters to each other up and down the time streams. Like nothing you’ll have read before.

Survivors (The Voices #3) – G.X. Todd

Defender is good. Hunted is great.

Survivors knocks it out of the park. 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. If you’ve not experienced The Voices books, get on it. Now.

The Undoing of Arlo Knott – Heather Child

It’s an incredible concept – what if you could flip back in time a few moments to undo something you’ve said or done? What if you could keep trying, a second chance, a third? Heather Child’s second book (following the fabulous Everything About You) explores just that. Mind-bendingly brilliant.

Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

A mysterious murder at a magical school? Two of my very favourite things! Though we are very much not at *that* school for Witchcraft and Wizardry. And the murder is so *very* gruesome that even You Know Who might blanch at it. And yes, there’s a Chosen One.

Mixing magic with murder, this is most splendid, and highly recommended.

The Rage of Dragons (The Burning, #1) – Evan Winter

Fast, brutal, African-tinged epic fantasy featuring incredible swordfights, revenge, magic, demons and of course, dragons.

What’s not to like?

It’s so good. The battle scenes are incredibly well written and you feel that you’re deep in the action, dodging blades. The political skulduggery is suitably devious. The training montages are exciting and brutal, and there’s a real sense of menace and danger from the demon-inhabited underworld.

Billed as Game of Thrones meets Gladiator, The Rage of Dragons definitely has flavours of both, possibly more of the latter, but is most certainly its own concoction of epic fantasy.

Velocity Weapon (The Protectorate #1) – Megan E. O’Keefe

Smart, slick sci-fi with brilliant characters and a cracking plot, Velocity Weapon is everything I love about science fiction. The worldbuilding is superb, spanning hundreds of years of political shenanigans and a planetbusting doomsday weapon wouldn’t be amiss in an Iain M. Banks novel.

If you like your space opera played out on the grandest, galaxy-spanning stage, with some brilliantly diverse characters and a whip-smart plot, then this book is for you.

Loved it. Ten sentient AIs out of ten. Hugely recommended.

The Raven Tower – Ann Leckie

At face value The Raven Tower checks all the regular classic fantasy boxes. A son returns home from afar to take up his father’s post as ruler, only to find that his position has already been filled by his scheming uncle. A kingdom under threat. Mysterious machinations at court. Gods making alliances with mortals.

Yes, it’s a story of gods and power and what people will do to gain the latter and the price they’re willing to pay to do so. But Ann Leckie does this with such a deft hand that you’re left marvelling at how it’s all constructed. The way she plays with character and language and structure reminded me not a little of the skillful hand of Claire North, and whilst they tell very different stories, they both show a similar joy at playing with expectations.

Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb, #1) – Tamsyn Muir

This is one of my favourite books of the year. Weird, dark and often very funny, I loved it from the first page to the last.

It’s got everything – lesbian necromancers, a giant labyrinthine crumbling (possibly haunted, definitely deadly) house by the sea, swordfights, murder, blood, skeletons, locked rooms (which should *definitely* stay locked), mysterious mystics, battling Houses, daring cavaliers and a cluedo-esque whodunnit running throughout.

Hugely recommended. I can’t wait to see where the story takes us in Harrow the Ninth, which is out next year.

The Secret Chapter – Genevieve Cogman

A Librarian’s work is never done, and once Irene has a quick rest after their latest adventure, she is summoned to the Library. The world where she grew up is in danger of veering deep into chaos, and she needs to obtain a particular book to stop this from happening. No copies of the book are available in the Library, so her only choice is to contact a mysterious Fae information broker and trader of rare objects: Mr. Nemo.

Irene and Kai make their way to Mr. Nemo’s remote Caribbean island and are invited to dinner, which includes unlikely company. Mr. Nemo has an offer for everyone there: he wants them to steal a specific painting from a specific world. He swears that he will give each of them an item from his collection if they bring him the painting within the week.

Everyone takes the deal. But to get their reward, they will have to form a team, including a dragon techie, a Fae thief, a gambler, a driver, and the muscle. Their goal? The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, in a early twenty-first century world, where their toughest challenge might be each other.

The Secret Chapter marks the sixth instalment in Genevieve Cogman’s wonderful Invisible Library books. I’ve been a huge fan of the series since the very first chapter of the very first book.

Short catch-up: Irene Winters is a Librarian. The Library connects worlds, and the Librarians jump between worlds to collect books. Oh, and there are dragons and Fae, and they don’t like each other much. The dragons prefer worlds which tend towards order, and the Fae towards chaos. Kai is Irene’s assistant. And a dragon.

Still with me? Excellent. Now, you’ve either read the other books, in which case you’ll need no enticement from me to read this one. Or you haven’t, in which case hie yourself off to the nearest bookshop (or library, of course) to get yourself a copy of The Invisible Library and settle down for some rollicking adventures.

In The Secret Chapter, our heroes must get their hands on a book. So far, so standard. Except the only copy of the book belongs to Mr Nemo, a delightfully Bond-esque villain (with a secret lair and a malevolent octopus, naturally). And Mr Nemo wants a very specific painting from another world in return.

Oh, and he’s assembled a motley crew (including Irene and Kai) to go and acquire it. A crew which includes a Fae thief, an ace getaway driver, a dragon computer hacker, a gambler and some muscle.

What could possibly go wrong?

Hijinks, naturally, ensue. And what hijinks they are. I love a good heist story! The action comes thick and fast. The gang fall out, get back together, fall out, and it’s all just wonderful.

I love these books so much, they’re very much a comfort read for me. Doesn’t matter where Irene and Kai end up, I know that we’re going to have a blast.

Very much recommended.

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman is published by Pan and is out now. Huge thanks to Genevieve Cogman for the copy to review.

Black Summer – M.W. Craven

Jared Keaton, chef to the stars. Charming. Charismatic. Psychopath . . . He’s currently serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of his daughter, Elizabeth. Her body was never found and Keaton was convicted largely on the testimony of Detective Sergeant Washington Poe.

So when a young woman staggers into a remote police station with irrefutable evidence that she is Elizabeth Keaton, Poe finds himself on the wrong end of an investigation, one that could cost him much more than his career.

Helped by the only person he trusts, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, Poe races to answer the only question that matters: how can someone be both dead and alive at the same time?

And then Elizabeth goes missing again – and all paths of investigation lead back to Poe.

Earlier this summer I picked up a copy of M.W. Craven’s The Puppet Show on my kindle. Loads of book bloggers had been raving about it. Cpuld it possibly stand up to the hype? A serial killer on the loose, a dysfunctional pair of detectives, sounded right up my street.

And indeed it was. I stayed up entirely too late reading it, unable to sleep until I found out what was going on.

So now we have Black Summer, book 2 in the Washington Poe series. I missed out on the hardback release, but the same gang of book bloggers was raving about this one too (do they have no respect for my TBR pile?). I was delighted to be asked to join the blog tour, and sat down to see what our old friends Washington Poe and Tilly Bradshaw got up to next.

A celebrity chef who definitely killed his daughter, and went to prison for it. But then she turns up, quite definitely alive (if not particularly well). And it was Poe who put him in prison for the murder. Could he have been wrong?

And then she goes missing again, and the evidence all points in one direction. Washington Poe, what have you done?

*claps hands excitedly* Shenanigans afoot! I love shenanigans. Especially when they’re as clever as this.

Poe has to work out how someone who was most definitely dead is now most definitely not. And who better to help than Tilly Bradshaw, computer genius?

As with The Puppet Show, it’s the Poe/Bradshaw dynamic which gives these books an extra zing. But the story here is taut and will keep you turning pages and second-guessing yourself until the wee small hours. I loved the cat-and-mouse game between Poe and Keaton, the chef.

The Puppet Show was (and is) great. Black Summer is, dare I say it, even better. Roll on Washington Poe #3!

Black Summer by M.W. Craven is published by Constable and is out now in paperback. Many thanks to Beth Wright for inviting me onto the blog tour.

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.