The House of Spines – Michael J. Malone


Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who appears to have been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up. Entering his new-found home, he finds that Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman …

House of Spines is a deliciously gothic, spooky tale set in an old house near Glasgow. Inherited by writer Ranald McGhie from a long-lost relative, the house is host to a magnificent collection of books, and more than a few family secrets.

Michael J. Malone has created a beautifully layered story, filled with strong characters, not least of which is Newton Hall which becomes a character in and of itself in the book – with creepy corridors, an ancient lift and long-forgotten rooms and a housekeeper/gardener couple who seem to have become part of the very fabric of the house. We follow young Ran as he first delights in his new-found property owner status but soon the house’s… quirks start to show up. As the secrets unravel, so does Ran’s sanity. Are the events really happening, or has his grip on the real world started to fray?

Fantastic characters, a gloriously mysterious house and a delightfully twisty plot. Highly recommended.

House of Spines by Michael J. Malone is out now, from Orenda Books. You can find Michael on twitter @MichaelJMalone1

Many thanks to Anne Cater and Orenda Books for asking me to take part in the tour, and for the review copy.

All The Wicked Girls – Chris Whitaker


“Raine sometimes complains that nothing exciting is ever gonna happen in Grace again. Daddy told her careful what you wish for.”

Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she’s a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama – especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.

Then Summer goes missing. Grace is already simmering, and with this new tragedy the police have their hands full keeping the peace. Only Raine throws herself into the search, supported by a most unlikely ally.

But perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye

Regular readers (and twitter followers) will be well aware of my love for Tall Oaks, Chris Whitaker’s stunning debut novel. It kept me up until the wee small hours reading.

It was with some trepidation that I started his second book, All The Wicked Girls. The bar had been set pretty high.

I needn’t have worried. All The Wicked Girls is utterly brilliant, though in a different way to Tall Oaks. I’d struggle to pick one to recommend to you if pressed, and would probably insist that you just buy both and thank me (or rather thank Chris) later.

It’s deep and complex, harrowing and heartbreaking, a story of a young girl’s hunt for her missing sister in a small southern bible belt town. Chris Whitaker does small-town America really really well, and the town and townsfolk are pitch perfect. As with Tall Oaks, All The Wicked Girls is a character piece, and what characters they are – from the distraught parents to the fire & brimstone preachers, the harried cops and Raine’s unlikely partners, Noah and Purv.

Much like Manny and Abe from Tall Oaks, I loved the three kids, each with their own secrets, each trying to make it in their own version of the world.

All The Wicked Girls will sit firmly alongside Tall Oaks in my books of the year. As I said earlier, don’t make me choose – buy both and settle down for some of the best storycrafting you’re likely to see for a long time.

Chris Whitaker can be found on twitter @whittyauthor. Go say hi. The go read his books.

Block 46 – Orenda Audio Week

Delighted to be taking part in Orenda Books’ Audio Week, where a host of awesome bloggers (and me) are reviewing the audiobook versions of some fantastic Orenda titles. Plus I’ve got *two* copies of Johana Gustawsson’s Block 46 audiobook to give away! More on that later.

Falkenberg, Sweden. The mutilated body of talented young jewellery designer, Linnea Blix, is found in a snow-swept marina. Hampstead Heath, London. The body of a young boy is discovered with similar wounds to Linnea’s. Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 1944. In the midst of the hell of the Holocaust, Erich Hebner will do anything to see himself as a human again. Are the two murders the work of a serial killer, and how are they connected to shocking events at Buchenwald? Emily Roy, a profiler on loan to Scotland Yard from the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, joins up with Linnea’s friend, French true-crime writer Alexis Castells, to investigate the puzzling case. They travel between Sweden and London, and then deep into the past, as a startling and terrifying connection comes to light.

Firstly, the story. It’s dark and often horrific, told in part through flashbacks to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp towards the end of the Second World War. The characters here are twisted and barbaric in their treatment of the prisoners, and you’re dragged along through the story of Erich Hebner as he does what he needs to do to survive. How this then links to the murder of Linnea Blix in the present, or to the murders of a young boy in London, is what drives this story.

The characters are brilliantly realised – I loved Emily Roy and Alexis Castells in particular as they unpick the unpleasant clues behind these horrific murders. There’s a real international feel to the book – written by a French author (and here translated into English by Maxim Jakubowski), with the action moving from Falkenberg in Sweden to London, with a Canadian Behavioural Insight Analyst (Roy) and a French crime writer based in London (Castells). Regular readers of this blog know of my love of books which give you a sense of place, and Block 46 delivers this in spades, across the various locations in the book.

The audiobook is narrated by Patricia Rodriguez and Mark Meadows. If I had any criticism, I found Patricia’s delivery to be a little too measured and slow. However, the great thing about the Audible app is that you can alter the speed of the narration. I found that by bumping it up fractionally to 1.25x speed, the delivery felt better for me, and I got through the book quicker – always useful when you’ve got a lot of other books to read! The shift between Rodriguez and Meadows as narrators worked really well and really gave the story an extra dimension.

Karen at Orenda Books has given me TWO copies of the audiobook to give away – leave a comment here on the blog, or retweet a link to this post – I’ll pop all the names into a random number generator next week and announce the winners on twitter. You’ll need an account at audible.co.uk though!

You can find Johana Gustawsson on twitter @JoGustawsson. Block 46 is published by Orenda Books.

Nemesister – Sophie Jonas-Hill

It’s a psychological mystery where the female protagonist stumbles into a deserted shack with no memory but a gun in her hand. There she meets an apparent stranger, Red, and the two find themselves isolated and under attack from unseen assailants.

Barricaded inside for a sweltering night, cabin fever sets in and brings her flashes of insight which might be memory or vision as the swamp sighs and moans around her.

Exploring in the dark she finds hidden keys that seem to reveal her identity and that of her mysterious host, but which are the more dangerous – the lies he’s told her, or the ones she’s told herself?

A woman with no memory of who she is. A woman with no name, with a gunshot wound and no idea where or how she got it…

Nemesister kicks off at a breathless pace and doesn’t really let up. It’s a compelling, gothic tale, told through the eyes of a character who can’t remember who she is. Flashbacks light up parts of her story, but they merely add to the confusion. Who is she? How has she got to the shack? And who is the mysterious stranger?

As the night draws in, it becomes clear that the pair are forced to spend the night together. The sense of unease begins to escalate.

Nemesister is an intriguing read. The characters are fascinating, and the setting claustrophobic and intense. Secrets are revealed gradually, but so are the lies – we’ve got an unreliable narrator, in an unreliable situation, with a distinctly unreliable companion.

It’s hard to say too much without giving away too much of the story. Suffice it to say that if you like your psychological thrillers in the american gothic style, with a hot, sticky, confined location, then Nemesister should be on your list.

Nemesister, by Sophie Jonas-Hill is published on July 6th 2017 by Urbane Publications. You can find Sophie on twitter @SophieJonasHill, or at her website The House of Crooked Sisters.

The blog tour continues tomorrow!

The Cardinal’s Man – MG Sinclair

I’m delighted to be kicking off the blog tour for M.G. Sinclair’s The Cardinal’s Man. Set in Cardinal Richelieu’s 17th-century France, this is a story about how great figures of history can pass by unnoticed. Those that have been born in the wrong body, sex or society at the wrong time; reminding us ‘that for every Archimedes of Shakespeare, there have been other seeds which have had the misfortune to fall on far stonier ground’.

Intrigued? Here’s an excerpt from the start of the book!

Escape
(1608 – 1632)

Sebastian Morra was born in Camoches, a village in the hinterlands of Normandy. Forty miles from Caen, it lay on an outcrop facing five thousand miles of open Atlantic, clinging to its spur like some barnacle to a whale. It was the ocean that brought the whiting, the bass, the mackerel, the bream and the crab. But it was also the ocean that brought the wind. A hard easterly that stung the eyes, that blew away the earth and left only sand and rock behind; that brought clouds and driving rain from September to June, an incessant wetness which made its way through every wall, roof and into the damp logs which sputtered in every fireplace. Dark and unrelenting months as the air tugged and squalled, wearing the people down as they protected their soil behind low walls, binding it as best they could with beans, beetroot and turnip, or else braved the water, with its currents and rip tides – moods that answered only to the earth and the sun.
The only release came with summer, both a blessing and a curse, a momentary respite from the scrabble and toil, a few weeks to revel, drink and forget. But always too brief and always with the same bitter ending, when the wind returned and the sodden cycle began all over again.
The village was a quarter of a mile from the shore, a straggle of no more than sixty dwellings, all in varying states of disrepair. Sebastian’s was no exception. Like its neighbours, it was walled with mud and stone. Timber was avoided, the fishermen knowing all too well how their boats suffered in the salt and the breeze. But while rock could resist the elements, whatever the mortar, the wind would pick it out, leaving the loose stones to crumble – particularly high up, near the thatch. And no matter how much his parents tried to repair the seaward side, they could never seal all the cracks or keep out the chill which followed every setting sun.
The inside was divided into two. One room for his parents. The other, larger, was used for everything else – a place to eat as well as a bedroom for him and his brothers at night. It was dark. The only light came through the open chimney and a door on the landward side, and Sebastian was to remember it more as a burrow than a home. A life of shadow. All of them packed together like a litter of newborns. Evenings spent crouched tight round the fire, with its familial stench of smoke and sweat that made its way into their clothes, skin and nose until everything they drank or tasted was overpowered by it.
Both his mother and father shared the local physiognomy, flat faces that had been ground to the nub, though it was there the similarity ended. His father was black-eyed, sullen and lean, dressed in his dark tunic, either away at sea or staring into the fire with a drink in his hand. She was the opposite. Blue-eyed, always around and busying herself in her dress and shawl, nudging and cajoling, a whirl of good humour and chat. They squabbled incessantly but seemed to fit each other’s absences well enough. She found comfort in his silence while he found sanctuary in her warmth. And each seemed content in their role, she taking care of the children, he fetching the water and catching the fish.
Sebastian was their first child, and as such, his birth was celebrated. However, by the age of three it was obvious something was wrong. While his chest was normal enough, his back, limbs and jaw remained of infantile proportions – the skull outlandish on his tiny body. Consequently, many of his earliest memories were of distorted faces: the expressions of horrified relatives, visitors flinching as they caught his eye, the stares of unfamiliar children peering round doorways.
Revolted, his father avoided him whenever possible. Instead the boy took sanctuary in his mother’s company. Pitying him, she swaddled him close, at first within the confines of the crib, and then when, aged five, he was able to escape it, she still kept him close to her skirts – safe from his two younger brothers Charles and Audrien who rampaged through the gloom, a pair of clumsy giants oblivious to his presence. And there he remained for his earliest years, secure in his orbit. A speck in infinite space, yet safely revolving around a single star.

The Cardinal’s Man is published by Black & White Publishing on 11th July.

Sebastian de Morra is born with as difficult start as one would care to imagine. A dwarf, born to a peasant family, he has only two things going for him – a first-class mind and a determination to find refuge from the sharp edges of the world.

Using his disadvantage to his advantage, he becomes a jester at the Parisian court entertaining the nobility. Making enemies easily, he also makes a powerful ally when one of history’s most notorious figures, his Red Eminence – the Cardinal Richelieu – requires his services. Under the Cardinal, he finds himself facing and even crossing swords with some of the greatest names of state, until his final task – an undertaking on which the entire future of his country depends.

The only child of two writers, M.G. Sinclair grew up in a world that revolved around literature. Breaking the family tradition, he rebelled and joined the corporate world, where he worked as a copywriter and marketing executive. However, unable to escape the inevitable, he has now completed his debut, a historical novel inspired by a trip to the Prado in Madrid.

author photo (C) Orlando Gili

The blog tour continues tomorrow…

Exquisite – Sarah Stovell

Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.

Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.
When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops… Or does it?

So, what can we say about Exquisite? Well, for starters I read it in a day, in pretty much one sitting. I’d picked up a sampler from Karen at the Orenda Roadshow in Leeds, a tantalising glimpse to whet the appetite.

Having read the full book now, I can happily report that it does not disappoint. Exquisite is an utterly compelling domestic noir of a burgeoning friendship which takes a rather ominous turn following a writers’ retreat in Northumberland.

Told from the viewpoints of Bo Luxton, a well-established author, and Alice Dark, a young woman with dreams of becoming a writer, the two start exchanging emails following the retreat and soon become friends. Bo’s life appears to be idyllic – a gorgeous writing retreat in the Lake District, a successful writing career, a happy family. But is there something deeper, something more… sinister going on? By contrast, Alice Dark is young, a fresh-faced wannabe writer, keen to learn everything she can from her mentor.

The characters are fascinating, the scenery gorgeous, and the sense of something slightly off becomes more and more unsettling as the novel continues to grow. Shifting viewpoints tell each side of the story and gradually unravel the truth. Or do they? The concept of the unreliable narrator is familiar (and great fun), but having two people tell the same events with their own slant on what happens is unusual. It works remarkably well.

Exquisite, by Sarah Stovell is published by Orenda Books, and is available now. You can find Sarah Stovell on twitter @sarahlovescrime. Many thanks to Karen at @OrendaBooks for the review copy.

The Mayfly – James Hazel

The Mayfly by James Hazel is the first in what I’m sure will be a long-running series featuring ex-detective turned lawyer, Charlie Priest. Charlie has… issues (as all good protagonists do), but in this case they’re rather more interesting than most. He’s approached by Kenneth Ellinder, a wealthy entrepreneur, to investigate the murder of his son, Miles.

Oh, and what a murder it is. You’ll need a strong stomach for this one! Charlie and his team investigate, albeit reluctantly at first, and are swiftly drawn into a mystery dating back to the World War II and the interrogation of a Nazi surgeon. The story is interspersed with flashbacks to the questioning, and I really liked how this tied back into the story. I’d have loved to find out a little more about Colonel Ruck around that time. Perhaps a spin-off series…?

The Mayfly is a cracking psychological mystery. I loved the character of Charlie Priest – despite initial worries that he was going to be a yet another cookie-cutter ex-policeman-turned-lawyer (personal issues: check, family issues: check), he quickly grew on me with his quick thinking, smart wit and sense of humour. The plot hums along at quite a pace, sagging only slightly in the final third – there’s a romantic element which I felt kind of got in the way of the main narrative a little, but that’s more my personal preference than anything else. The supporting cast are also great – Georgie and Okoro fill out the gang nicely (more of Mr Okoro please) and Charlie’s family… well, I’ll let you find out more about them.

A sharply told tale – I look forward to seeing what Mr Priest gets up to next.

The Mayfly by James Hazel is published by @BonnierZaffre and is out now. You can find James Hazel on twitter @JamesHazelBooks

It’s happening again.

A mutilated body discovered in the woods.
A murderous plan conceived in the past.
A reckoning seventy years in the making . . .

Charlie Priest, ex-detective inspector turned London lawyer, is hired by influential entrepreneur Kenneth Ellinder to investigate the murder of his son. But Priest is no ordinary lawyer. Brilliant, yet flawed, this case will push him, and those closest to him, to the edge.

Priest traces the evidence back to the desperate last days of the Second World War. Buried in the ashes of the Holocaust is a secret so deadly its poison threatens to destroy the very heart of the establishment.
With more victims going missing, Priest realises that not everyone should be trusted. As he races to uncover the truth, can he prevent history from repeating itself?