Friday, 20 September 2019

The Corpse Played Dead by Georgina Clarke: a Book Review

Well, this was different. And I mean that in a good way. 

Georgina Clarke’s The Corpse Played Dead is set in Regency London and begins with notorious prostitute Lizzie Hardwick on the way to the theatre, dressed up in her finery, travelling the streets in company of her employer and to the jeers of the crowd — because Lizzie is a woman who (in a previous book in the series) sent a murderer to the gallows and he died cursing her. What a start! 

This is  the second in the Lizzie Hardwick series and I came to it without having read the first, but didn’t need to know the earlier story to become completely consumed by this one. Lizzie’s previous involvement in crime has brought her to the attention of the Bow Street Runners (the police). When strange and violent happenings begin to occur at the Garrick Theatre she’s persuaded to trade her trade (so to speak) for more honest employment as a seamstress at the theatre in order to find out who is prepared to commit murder to ruin theatre manager and impresario David Garrick — and why. 

This was a terrific story, and Lizzie is a terrific lead. The supporting characters are all terrific, too (I particularly enjoyed the public love-ins and private bitching that characterised both Lizzie’s relationship with her co-workers and those of the actors). And Lizzie’s slow-burn relationship with the handsome, austere and disapproving law officer Will Davenport is one that’s captured me early on and is, I hope, going to keep me engaged for some time yet. 

This is by no means the first book of this period that I’ve read with a theatrical setting, but nevertheless I liked the original take on the more traditional regency novel, with the heroine a straight-up honest and open prostitute rather than a slandered and maligned woman of better quality. It meant that her relationship with Will is problematic and, I think, her feelings about herself, too. 

It was nicely written, beautifully set and a page-turner. What more could you ask? 

Thanks to Netgalley and Canelo for a copy of this book in return for an honest review. 

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Bistro by Watersmeet Bridge: Book Review

Sometime — just sometimes — a book comes along that’s as warming as a cup of hot chocolate in a snowstorm, a feelgood read in what seems like an increasingly crazy world. Julie Stock’s latest contemporary romance novel, The Bistro by Watersmeet Bridge, is one of those books. 

The Bistro by Watersmeet Bridge by [Stock, Julie]So the caveats. It isn’t twisty or shocking or chilling. It’s a romance, which means you’re not going to be surprised by the ending and it doesn’t have plot twists that will catch you in the solar plexus. It isn’t literary (in the sense that you lie awake half the night wondering what it means or if you’ve missed something). But as for what it is…it’s a stonking great cuddle of a book, and I adored it. 

So, the plot. Finn’s bistro in a Devonshire village is in deep trouble and his only option is to sell. When he’s made an offer by Fuller’s, the restaurant chain, on the basis that he remains as chef but a new manager comes in, he has to accept. 

The new manager turns out to be Olivia Fuller, daughter of the chain’s founder, who’s been given Finn’s bistro as a project by her father and is determined to make it a success. Finn, naturally enough, resents the new manager though he finds her attractive, and all sorts of different sparks begin to fly. Just as everything starts to look rosy, the commercial world gets ugly and Finn and Olivia are left with a fight to save their bistro. 

I really loved it. Julie Stock creates believable, engaging characters and places them in realistic and testing situations, so that I found myself rooting for both Finn and Olivia — and, of course, the bistro. Time simply flew by while I was reading it and though it wasn’t a page turner in the traditional sense (I didn’t have to keep reading to know what happened next) I was totally absorbed  from page 1. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Book Review: Without Her by Rosalind Brackenbury

Rosalind Brackenbury’s Without Her is a thoughtful and beautifully-written piece of women’s fiction.  Claudia is living in America where she’s approaching retirement from her job as a lecturer in film studies when she learns that her lifelong friend, Hannah, (the Her of the title) has gone missing. Claudia drops everything to fly to the south of France where Hannah’s husband, Philip, is waiting at the family holiday home for Hannah to turn up. The story is slender in terms of action but that doesn’t matter. It’s many-layered and thought-provoking, picking up on themes of social obligation, of sacrifice, of control over one’s own life. Claudia is the narrator and as she and Philip wait to see whether Hannah (who has something of a history of disappearing and reappearing) will turn up, she reviews their friendship and their fallouts, the things they did together and the things that kept them apart. 

The writing is terrific. I could feel the heat of the summer sun on the back of my neck and smell the lavender; I could sense Claudia’s emotions and feel the tension as concerns for Hannah’s welfare began to rise. The problem for me, though, was that no matter how well the book was written and constructed I didn’t enjoy it as much as it probably merited. 

The reason? I really, really didn’t warm to any of the characters, with the possible exception of Philip. Hannah was positively dislikable, an attention-seeking diva who put her nearest and dearest through stress and misery in the name of her own self-obsession, and all of those people she hurt seemed to adore her all the more because of it. The end of the book raised questions that I should have been more interested in answering than I was, but when it got to the end I’m afraid I really wasn’t invested enough to care what happened to Hannah. 

It’ a shame, because it’s otherwise an excellent book, highly accomplished. But I’m afraid I really, really wasn’t engaged enough to give it five stars. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Dreamscape Media for a copy of this book in return for an honest review. 

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Book Review: Murder at Whitby Abbey by Cassandra Clark

Dark Age monastic thrillers have been around for a while, ever since the days of Brother Cadfael (and possibly before) and while I wouldn't say I’m an insatiable fan, I dod enjoy them. Cassandra Clark’s Murder at Whitby Abbey, is the first I’ve met featuring a nun, and i have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Sister Hildegard of Meaux is sent with a young monk and two seasoned older monks (veterans of the Crusades and so termed “monks militant”) to Whitby Abbey to bid for a holy relic, a lock of hair purporting to be that of St Hilda of Whitby. When the quartet they discover a monastery at increasingly violent odds with the local townsfolk, three other contenders for the ownership of the relic — and a mysterious death. The death turns out to be murder — but who killed Brother Aelwyn and why? Hildegard and her companions are determined to find out. 

The book was a slow starter and in places I found it confusing, but once the pace picked up it turned into a really gripping read, with moments of heart-stopping fear as Hildegard  faced not only an unknown adversary determined to stop her unmasking the murderer, but also risks to her own virtue in a world where being a nun was no guarantee of respect. 

Set in the late fourteenth century against the background of raucous Christmas revels and rising civil unrest, the book is full of local colour. What made it for me, though, was the characters. Hildegard is no saint, a real woman paying penance for past misdemeanours; devout Luke falls in love with a prostitute; and the two monks militant, Egbert and Gregory, were action heroes of a most unusual type. (I confess: I think I possibly fell a little bit in love with them both.) 

Though it’s the tenth in the series and I haven’t read any others (though I now will) it worked fine for me. Apart from the slow start I thought it was a terrific read and the conclusion was both clever and satisfying. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Severn House for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Book Review: The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen by Ada Bright and Cass Grafton

Hmmm. Maybe I should start with a disclaimer. While I quite enjoy Jane Austen I wouldn’t class myself as her biggest fan, though I read a lot around the period. Bearing that in mind I approached Cass Grafton and Ada Bright’s The Particular Charm of Miss Jane Austen with an open mind.

It’s a time-slip novel, cleverly plotted (perhaps too cleverly as there were a few places where I got confused) and engagingly written. The story is one in which Austen fan Rose, participating in a Jane Austen festival in her home town of Bath, meets a stranger who turns out to be Jane Austen herself, trapped in the present day. Rose’s task is to get Jane back so that the world won’t be deprived of the books she will one day write.

I enjoyed a lot about this book but for me there was fundamental weakness and that was the utter desperation with which Rose felt she had to return Jane to her own time so that she could write all those books. The authors set this up as if they were Saving The World but to me that felt slightly silly as (gulp) I can’t help feeling we would all have survived without Miss Austen’s existing six novels, just as we’ve survived without all the ones she might have written if she hadn’t died young.  

In theory not being a huge fan shouldn’t be a problem as one would expect a book to have a wider appeal than just the die-hard fans. (I’m not a great Charles Dickens fan either, for example, but I’ve recently enjoyed books which feature him as a character). The problem was that I felt rather as if I was on the outside looking in, invited to a party where I know a few people but they all know everyone else better and want to talk in detail about mutual (to them) acquaintances whose names I barely know. I feel a bit churlish saying this but I did feel the significance of some of the plot passed me by. 

A lot of it was very clever, though. I loved the parallel worlds, with and without Jane, in which Rose is confronted with the person she would have been if her interest in the Austen novels and their author hadn’t existed. Her online friendship with American girl Morgan, over in Bath for the festival, would never have existed and in particular I was taken with the dilemma in the romance which was failing for Rose’s in the world with Jane’s writing blossomed in the world without it — a clever touch which genuinely had me struggling to see who it would be resolved. 

I did enjoy this book, as I say, and any Austen fan will surely love it. It’s not the authors’ fault it didn’t quite touch my heart in the way I would have liked. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Canelo for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Book Review: A Dream of Italy by Nicky Pellegrino

A Dream of Italy by [Pellegrino, Nicky]Sometimes a book just hits the spot and Nicky Pellegrino’s A Dream of Italy did just that. Good books — even great books — don’t work for every reader and I confess I’m a bit picky, but I thought this book was utterly fabulous. 

It’s set in the small, declining village of Montenello in southern Italy where the mayor, Salvio — young, handsome, single and with a matchmaking mamma at his back — decides that the way to attract new blood is to offer some of the derelict properties to foreigners for a Euro apiece on condition they renovate them. The first three properties sold bring very different newcomers to the village. Divorcee Mimi is looking for a new start; Elise applied for the project with boyfriend Richard but carries on alone after their relationship breaks up; and middle-aged couple Edward and Gino are struggling with what they both want from their relationship.

Nicky Pellegrino weaves together these diverse characters and the village locals to create and intriguing and uplifting tapestry. As I read I felt the sun on my skin and the sweet sugar blast of cake from the pasticceria on my tongue; I saw the vivid colours of the deep Italian south and heard the lilt of the accents. 

All of the characters were well-drawn, believable and appealing and their stories drew me in, individually and collectively. As their stories progressed and Salvio’s dream of a revived Montenello (not to mention his mother’s dream of a daughter-in-law) met with bumps in the road, I became entirely absorbed in this new and entrancing world. 

It’s rare that I rave about a book quite as completely and maybe another reader will spot flaws in it. If there are any, I don’t care. It swept me along and I kept reading until it was done. A lovely, lovely read. 

Thanks to Orion and Netgalley for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review. 

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Book Review: The Reversible Mask by Loretta Goldberg

I have to say straight out: Loretta Goldberg’s The Reversible Mask is one of the best-written books I’ve read for a very long time. 

It’s billed as a historical mystery but it’s much more than that, the journey of a soul in troubled times. Edward Latham is a Catholic at the court of Queen Elizabeth I but, unable to reconcile his beliefs with his service at court, he flees to Scotland to offer his service to (Catholic) Queen Mary. But Scotland is as unstable as England is unsafe and it’s only the beginning of Edward’s adventures. 

As he careers around Europe in the service of various Catholic powers we learn about his life and his loves, his good side and his bad. The portrayal of the battles between his heart and his head, his faith versus his inherent allegiance to his country, all make for a sensitive and, in the end, compelling portrayal. 

I say “in the end” because this book isn’t without its weaknesses and the middle section seemed to drag for me, to the extent that I almost gave up on the book. It was a section where Edward is in Constantinople pursuing information on the Ottoman Empire’s trade policies, and while this isn’t quite as dull as it sounds it’s certainly a section where there’s relatively little action. The main part of it is Edward’s romantic adventure with the man who seems the love of his life, but the section is too long a lull in what’s otherwise an action story. (There is an scene where Edward and his servant disguise themselves as a camel, but that was all the action, and I found it more than a little unbelievable).

I feel a bit mean criticising the book in this way, especially given that Goldberg’s writing is so deliciously inventive and luxuriant, but the best books marry plot, pace and character in the perfect balance and for me this book didn’t quite deliver in this respect. It’s definitely one I’d recommend, though. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Madeglobal Publishing for a copy of this book in return for an honest review.