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.

Thriller

A Single Source by Peter Hanington – Review

Peter Hanington is a BBC journalist and this shows very strongly in his new thriller, A Single Source. The book is set in the Arab Spring of 2011 and follows three parallel tracks. The main track is around a BBC journalist called William Carver and his colleague Patrick, who are sent to Cairo to cover the unfolding events there, but there are subsidiary plot strands involving two brothers so desperate to leave Eritrea and find a better future in Europe that they are prepared to undertake a hugely dangerous journey, and a former BBC editor who has now changed sides and is working in the press office of the Ministry of Defence.

Carver is a maverick, old school journalist who is a luddite when it comes to technology but has a nose for a story and for finding the best sources. A brilliant story comes to him, but he only has a single source, and with forces trying to push him off course he fights a battle to get the story on air.

The writing around the fictionalised version of the Arab Spring is very evocative and I very much enjoyed reading a journalist’s view of what was unfolding and how it was reported. Hanington’s BBC credentials mean that this is wholly believable and authentic (sometimes too much so, as some of his references to Broadcasting House are a bit niche). Carver is a hugely flawed character, but you can’t help rooting for him. I felt the plot strand involving the brothers from Eritrea was a little neglected – although the description of their journey was heartbreaking, I felt the weaving in of this to the main plot was underdone. Overall though, a really good and educational read, and understandably praised by many other journalists.

This review is of a NetGalley edition, that I received for free in return for an honest review. A Single Source by Peter Hanington is published on 2nd May 2019.

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.

Blog Tour, Crime

The Killer In Me by Olivia Kiernan – Blog Blast Review

As a crime fiction fan, there’s absolutely nothing better than discovering a new author who writes brilliant police procedurals. It’s like Christmas and birthday all rolled into one, with someone turning up with a giant portion of your favourite cake for good measure (carrot cake, please). For some reason, Olivia Kiernan’s first book (Too Close To Breathe, now out in paperback) had passed me by, so my first acquaintance with Dublin-based DCS Frankie Sheehan was her second outing.

As a reader, I’m really picky in my crime fiction – I want believable protagonists, a tight plot and something that hooks me from the off and keeps me guessing. The Killer In Me ticks all those boxes, with an attention grabbing start as DCS Sheehan faces two huge challenges: solving a horrific double murder and dealing with pressure from a family member to look into a potential miscarriage of justice 15 years previously. The setting will bring a familiar feeling to Tana French fans as the action all happens in and around Dublin, but it’s definitely faster paced than, say, French’s The Wych Elm. Kiernan keeps the pace and the tension high and I whizzed through it, compelled to see how the two plot strands unwound.

Too Close to Breathe, the first DCS Sheehan book, is now out in paperback

Let’s hope there’s a third book in the pipeline somewhere, because this has the makings of a really strong police procedural series. I went straight out and bought Too Close to Breathe and read it immediately afterwards, which hopefully tells you how much of a fan I am.

Many thanks to riverrun, Quercus Books and NetGalley for the advance copy provided in return for my honest review, and for the invitation to take part in the Blog Blast. The Killer In Me is published on 4th April in hardback. Please do check in with the others on this blog blast, listed below.

Fiction

Reasons to be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe – Review

There’s nothing better than picking up a book by an author you’ve not read before and discovering an absolute gem. Is it too much to say that Nina Stibbe is a 21st century Austen?

Stibbe’s pen portraits of 18 year-old Lizzie, her mechanic cum novelist mother with an unusual way of getting out of a fix, her siblings, her stepfather and her bonkers dental surgeon employer are a dream. The writing here is dry and witty, and although this book doesn’t scream plot action it pulls you along waiting for the next pearl to fall from someone’s mouth. I’d laughed out loud before I’d finished page one. Situations that would seem utterly preposterous in most books feel completely natural here with this motley crew of characters. This novel is in part a coming of age for Lizzie, part an exploration of families and relationships and part dealing with grief, but as a whole it’s a glorious Eton Mess of a book that’s beautifully written. I’m so pleased to have read it.

This review is of a Netgalley advance copy.

Crime, Fiction, Thriller

The Wych Elm by Tana French – Review

It took me a while to get into this – I felt the set up was quite protracted – but once it got going I was completely hooked. This is the story of Toby, a young man who suffers a serious assault at home. As a result of this, and his uncle’s terminal diagnosis, it’s decided that he should move in with his uncle at the old family home. There he can continue to recuperate whilst supporting his uncle.

When a skull is later found in a Wych Elm in the garden, the story slowly unravels until all sorts of long hidden secrets tumble out. Thoughout the book the police are an almost sinister presence as they try to solve the case in parallel with Toby trying to understand what has happened. This is so cleverly plotted (as you’d expect from Tana French). I wasn’t sure to start with, but loved it by the end. For that reason it’s a four not five star read for me, but very nicely done.

This review is of a purchased copy.

Non fiction

Disrupted by Dan Lyons – Review

At Newsweek I worked for Jon Meacham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson. Here I work for a guy who brings a teddy bear to work and considers it a management innovation.

DAN LYOns

I’m late to this book – it was published in 2016 – but I doubt I’ll read a better non-fiction book this year. Dan Lyons had a long career in print journalism, but when he was laid off in his fifties he decides to enter a new career in a tech start up. Hired as a “marketing fellow” he looks forward to advising on media strategy, writing for their blog and attending conferences. His emergence into a world of orange walls, orange desks, orange T shirts and a candy wall is initially an amusing look at a clash of both ages and working cultures but gradually turns into open mouth disbelief at the way the company is operated and funded. If you’ve ever worked in tech like me, been interested in what tech companies are like, or wondered how a start up gets funded or goes for an IPO, this is for you. It’s a great exposé of what some might say is the next great bubble, with a sting in the tail. Highly recommended.

This review is of a purchased copy.

Fiction

Meet Me At The Museum by Anne Youngson – Review

God, how I loved this. It’s a gentle meander of a book in which two people in later life, who’ve never met, strike up a correspondence. Their letters weave back and forth over the months, and as time passes and they gradually reveal more and more of themselves, their relationship deepens. It’s a debut novel, which is astonishing, as I found it so accomplished. I stumbled across it as a Modern Mrs Darcy book club pick, and I’m so very glad I did. Highly recommended as a cozy, sofa read.

This review is of a purchased copy.

Crime, Thriller

Keep Her Close by M.J. Ford – Review

This is the second in the DS Jo Masters series, and this time out she’s tasked with investigating the disappearance of an Oxford student. The original investigation broadens out as other young women begin to disappear, and Jo Masters’ history means that she starts to distrust all around her.

This is a pacy police procedural that can be read as a stand-alone, although there are references to her previous outing in Hold My Hand, which I will definitely put on my To Be Read list. Fans of UK crime fiction will enjoy this I feel – a solid plot and nice pace pulls you through the story and Jo Masters is an interesting protagonist. Thoroughly enjoyable.

This review is of an advance copy provided by NetGalley and Avon Books.