Fiction

Dystopian fiction – Vox and The Farm reviews

It’s release day for Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments, and book world is alight with discussion on all things dystopian. I’ve not yet got my hands on a copy of The Testaments, but thought I’d review a couple of other dystopian books that I’ve recently read that link neatly to Attwood’s themes.

Vox, by Christina Dalcher, describes the subtle erosion of women’s rights to equality by a hard religious right administration in the US. It starts so disingenuously – a proposal that if women simply stepped out of the workplace and returned to their ‘proper’ position of working in the home, that would free up jobs for unemployed men. And so begins a spiral to the point at the start of this book, where women’s voices are restricted to a small number of words per day. When the administration requires the unique scientific skills of one woman, though, they are prepared to make exceptions, and the story follows Dr. Jean McClellan as she sees another side to what is happening to women in the US. If this book had come out ten years ago, I would’ve seen it as an interesting dystopian take. With all that’s happening at the moment in the US and the UK, the subtle erosion of rights sat very uncomfortably with me. I thought the story was cleverly done, and definitely pulled me along to the conclusion.

The Farm, by Joanne Ramos, is a story that you could absolutely believe would happen right now. Young women are recruited as surrogates for wealthy women, and housed in a luxury ‘retreat’ where they are served all the right foods for pregnancy, given exercise regimes and told they are helping a woman who is unable to have a baby herself. As the women at The Farm compare stories, things start not to stack up and they begin to question the restrictions around their lives there and the motivations of the women that have hired them. It’s written with verve and with authentic experience of the vulnerability of recent immigrants, and I loved some of the characters. Nicely done, and another good tie in with Attwood’s work. On to something a little more cheerful next!

Crime, Fiction

The Poison Garden by Alex Marwood – Review

On Twitter recently someone asked which author you’d read without seeing either blurb or cover, and my immediate answer was Alex Marwood. I’ve read all of her books, which are standalones, and they’re all utterly brilliant. She’s the queen of beautiful tension – there’s no wham bam drama, just this awful foreboding in the telling. You know something terrible is going to happen (and in fact in this book you know that from Chapter One), but her plotting is subtle and gently leads you through twists, turns and revelations.

Her new book is The Poison Garden, a story that explores what happens when a family emerge from a survivalist cult into the real world after a tragedy. Marwood explores the bewilderment of the returnees, who’ve never really known a life beyond their compound and the stories they were told by their leader. This is set against a family member who’d remained on the outside with no knowledge of her extended family on the inside, and who now has to pick up the pieces and adjust. There’s such skill in both plotting and writing here, and you just feel that horrible sense of what might be to come as you move towards the conclusion. I loved it, but read it way too fast and was very sad to finish it.

Fans of Alex Marwood’s writing might like Alice Clark-Platts’ The Flower Girls (although it’s on a similar theme to Marwood’s debut The Wicked Girls). I would also recommend the late lamented Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)’s books – such brilliant psychological thrillers. Savour this book more than I did, I read it far too quickly.

This review is of a NetGalley edition. I purchased all of the previous three Alex Marwood books.

Fiction, Historical fiction

Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – Review

This is an astonishing literary fiction debut. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott has done a very clever thing – written a semi-fictionalised account of a semi-fictionalised account. Truman Capote was the trusted confidant of much of New York society, listening to their intimate worries and travelling the world with them. His inner circle became known as the Swans, and included Jackie Kennedy’s sister Princess Lee Radziwill, Gloria Guinness and C.Z. Guest. But Capote decided to write a thinly disguised book about the Swans and they saw this as the ultimate betrayal (he never finished the book, but one chapter, La Côte Basque, was published in Esquire in 1975). 

This book swaps between the viewpoints of the Swans and Capote and must have taken an enormous amount of research. It’s a sumptuous sweep of a book, moving from both the peak of the friendships to the betrayal, and the voices come loud and clear through the pages. I loved it, but it’s a rich multi-course meal – take your time and savour it. It’s not one to be rushed. You might need to read a palette cleanser afterwards, and I will be picking up something much lighter next.

Blog Tour, Crime, Fiction

Razia by Abda Khan – Blog Tour

“Farah is a young lawyer living and working in London. She’s just ended a long relationship, and her parents are looking for a husband – whether Farah wants one or not. So far, so normal. But at a work dinner, hosted by a dangerously powerful man, she comes across a young woman called Razia, who Farah soon realises is being kept as a domestic slave.

We follow Farah’s daring investigations from the law courts of London to the brick kilns of Lahore, as she begins to uncover the traps that keep generation after generation enslaved. Everywhere she turns there is deep-rooted oppression and corruption, and when the authorities finally intervene, their actions have dire consequences.

Farah teams up with a human rights lawyer, Ali, and the two become close… but can she trust him; can they help Razia and others like her; and will they ever discover the explosive secret behind these tragic events?”

Razia by Abda Khan

These men and women would work in these fields and stand on the side of roads like this up and down the country, for hours, just so they could earn enough to feed their family dhal and roti. She felt a sudden pang of sadness, a strong feeling of grief, such as she had never experienced before; a fierce and unexpected attachment to these people, and their struggles, even though they were all perfect strangers to her.

Modern slavery is one of those topics that pops up on the news from time to time, but is primarily a hidden abuse that lurks in the shadows. It’s one of things that we think perhaps rarely exists in modern Britain, and yet the Home Office conservatively estimates there are 13,000 slaves in the UK today (see here for a recent example involving 400 victims alone). Abda Khan brings this subject out into the light in her new novel, Razia. Khan’s background as a lawyer and campaigner brings a realism to the story of Farah, a young lawyer who stumbles across a case of modern slavery amongst the highest echelons of society. The story moves from London to Lahore as she tries to help the victim and is an unflinching read – there are some lovely and touching moments, but with this subject matter it was never going to be hugely cheery. This book moved me and opened my eyes to something that I know must be going on somewhere near me. For an exploration of a difficult topic in an accessible way, I would highly recommend it.

For more on modern slavery see here from the charity anti-slavery. Abda Kahn is an author and a lawyer and won the Noor Inayat Khan Muslim Woman of the Year Award 2019. Razia is published to coincide with World Day against Trafficking in Persons, and can be pre-ordered here.

I received a free copy of Razia in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other amazing bloggers on this blog tour, as shown below.

Blog Tour, Crime, Fiction

One Way Out by A.A. Dhand – Blog Tour

A bomb detonates in Bradford’s City Park.
When the alert sounds, DCI Harry Virdee has just enough time to get his son and his mother to safety before the bomb blows. But this is merely a stunt.

The worst is yet to come.
A new and aggressive nationalist group, the Patriots, have hidden a second device under one of the city’s one hundred and five mosques. In exchange for the safe release of those at Friday prayers, the Patriots want custody of the leaders of radical Islamist group Almukhtareen – the chosen ones. The government does not negotiate with terrorists. Even when thousands of lives are at risk.

There is only one way out.
But Harry’s wife is in one of those mosques. Left with no choice, Harry must find the Almukhtareen, to offer the Patriots his own deal.

If you’re a fan of extremely pacy thrillers / police procedurals that are bang up to date, I have good news for you. If you like a copper with a difficult backstory, I have even more good news for you. And if you like a copper with a backstory but are a bit bored with that copper being a middle-aged out of shape bloke with a drinking problem, you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this review. You just filled your bingo card. Go and buy this book immediately.

The set-up on this is cracking. DCI Harry Virdee has a catalogue of family issues, including an interfaith marriage which has not gone down well with the wider family, and a brother with an interesting business model. So when he takes his mum and son out to the park for the day, it seems a pleasant break from everything else that’s going on his life. But when a bomb planted by a nationalist group goes off, he and his family manage to get away safely, only to find that his wife is caught up in an ongoing hostage situation related to the original explosion.

Harry is obviously desperate to save his wife, and his deep knowledge of the local area makes him uniquely qualified to do so. With the help and encouragement of his politician friend, he sets out to find those that the nationalist bombers want handing over to them, the leaders of the radical Islamist group, Almukhtareen.

This is a really tight plot, which cracks along at pace. It’s also highly topical, covering the rise of both religious extremism and nationalism. The hostage scenario is a really clever set up, and I’ll confess to being worried that the rest of the book might disappoint. It doesn’t. Harry is an interesting and complex character who, especially given his own wife is in danger, is quite prepared to resolve the situation by any means. It’s a bit Roy Grace police procedural, a bit Jack Reacher action thriller, all set against a very modern British city. I loved it.

One Way Out is available on 27th June in ebook and hardback. It’s the fourth in the Harry Virdee series. I received a free copy for this blog tour in return for an honest review. Please do visit the other excellent bloggers on this tour, as shown below.

Crime, Fiction

The Whisper Man by Alex North – Book review

So this was a happy mistake. I spotted it on NetGalley and thought “ooh I love Alex North’s books!”. Well, I’ve no idea who I was thinking of because this is a debut, and it’s an extraordinarily accomplished one.

Tom and his son Jake have suffered the appalling loss of their wife and mother, Rebecca. Jake is showing great signs of distress, especially as he found his mother dead at home, so Tom decides they need a fresh start and at Jake’s prompting, chooses a curious and some might say scary house in Featherbank. But as they arrive, a boy is taken, bringing back memories in the community of the child abductions and murders carried out 20 years previously by The Whisper Man.

This is a multi layered book which is a proper edge of your seat thriller. Alex North pulls all the strands together at the end, and I was desperate to get there to see how he did it. Really nicely done and a strong plot and characterisation. In terms of the creepiness and oppression of living in a small village, there were resonances of The Killer You Know by S.R. Masters which I previously reviewed on a blog tour. The references back to historic crimes reminded me of The Flower Girls by Alex Clark-Platts and The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood. I’d recommend any of these as a tie-in read.

I received a copy of The Whisper Man from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Crime, Fiction

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – Agatha on Acid

This book is insane. Stuart Turton said in his author’s note that he wanted to write something inspired by Agatha Christie, but this is Agatha Christie on a mix of steroids and acid with a Groundhog Day chaser. It’s a melange of classic stately home murder and supernatural twists. If you make it to the end, I think it will definitely stick with you.

The narrator lives the same day over and over again, waking up each in day in the body of a different person in the cast of characters who are attending a house party in a stately home. The only way he can escape this living nightmare is to solve the murder of the daughter of the family that owns the house, Evelyn Hardcastle. 

If that’s not enough, as well as the book having multiple characters narrating the book, it spools back and forth between them at different times of the day. 

The blurb on the copy I have has praise from some top authors and I can completely see why. It’s clever, it’s original, it’s gripping and it’s got more twists than an Alpine pass. But man, it’s a hard read. I’d recommend having the cast of characters by your side as you read it, and maybe even making notes. It’s so complicated. Not one to read late at night when you’re tired, or after a large wine – you need to give it your full attention. If you’re prepared, I think you’ll appreciate the cleverness of the plot, but this is not a light read. I gave it four stars, and looking on Amazon there are lots of one star reviews and lots of five star reviews. I can completely see why. Rejoice in the plotting mastery, but I’ll need something a little easier for my next read and a long lie down.

This review is of a purchased copy.

Fiction

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames – Review

It is, perhaps, best to start by saying what Stella Fortuna isn’t. The title might suggest it’s one of those Groundhog Day type books where the same events happen over and over again until something jolts the plot into a new outcome. This is not that book. The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is the story of one woman’s life and family, over the broad sweep of around a hundred years, from the early 20th century until the present day.

I have come to understand Stella as a woman of incredible will and strength, of charisma, of innate intelligence. She was not a woman of her time, and she was made to pay a high price for her unwillingness to conform.

Stella Fortuna is born into a poor family in rural Italy, and her dilemma is that she simply will not conform to the expectations of her family and community as a woman, a wife and a mother. Her name of ‘lucky star’ proves to be more of a curse than a blessing, and as the title suggests she experiences many near-death misfortunes in her long life, both in Italy and America. Cheering this book is not (there are some dark themes) – but it’s utterly believable, compelling, and so, so beautifully written. You can’t help but wish the best for Stella, who pushes back when both fate and family seem so keen to break her.

Every so often I break out from my normal diet of non fiction and thrillers and settle into a slower paced read. At 438 pages, this is a pretty long, rich, tasting menu of a book which deserves to be savoured. The narrator (whose identity is not revealed until much later in the book) draws you in, settles you by the fire and tells you Stella’s story with so much depth and detail you’ll believe you’re in an Italian village eating minestra. To me, it had vibes of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson although clearly in a very different setting – think of that huge sweep through history seen through one person’s eyes. Take your time over this one, it’s really worth it. I was sad to end it, but I know exactly which friend it’s going to next.

The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna by Juliet Grames is published on 7th May 2019. This review is of an advance copy provided in return for an honest review.

Fiction, Thriller

Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly – Review

Such a cleverly plotted and worked book. Erin Kelly’s story revolves around a “stone mother” – a Victorian asylum that has, as so many others, been converted into flats. This is a psychological thriller which weaves together families and mothers with the history of the hospital, and which works its way back in time, peeling off layers to get to the core of the story. Prepare to be led down literal and plot corridors as Kelly navigates us through the generations. I read this in one extremely long sitting, I simply couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended and perfect bank holiday reading.

Fiction, Thriller

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides – Review

I read this in two sittings and wow. Just wow. A brilliant psychological thriller that totally had me until the final page. Theo Faber is a psychotherapist who begins working in a secure unit. He becomes somewhat obsessed with cracking the case of Alicia, who had murdered her husband and never uttered a word since. Theo is convinced that his skills could bring her speech back and help her move forward, but as he slowly unpicks the circumstances leading up to the murder, his own life starts to unravel. These two plot strands move side by side through the novel as Theo gets deeper and deeper into trying to work out what happened to Alice and her husband.

An utter and complete page turner with an astounding twist. I’ve read that others saw the twist coming, but I guess that might depend how you read a thriller. Sometimes the twist is obvious, but for my part I try not too hard to second guess what’s coming as I genuinely want to be surprised. In this case, i didn’t think it was at all jumping off the page – Michaelides really weaves all the strands together brilliantly. I absolutely could not put it down. Alex Michaelides is also a screenwriter (this is being made into a film) and I think it really shows – the plot is so strong and the dialogue completely believable. Bravo – an amazing debut novel.

This review is of a purchased copy.