Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Blog Tour: The Deception of Harriet Fleet by Helen Scarlett

I'm thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for 'The Deception of Harriet Fleet' by Helen Scarlett which is published today. Many thanks to Katya Ellis and Quercus Books for sending me a copy of the book to review. 

1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.

Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour - to spy on her.

Worn down by Eleanor's unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor's obsession - the Wainwright's dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet's own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.

For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths.

'The Deception of Harriet Fleet' is the debut novel of author Helen Scarlett. Set in 1871, during the Victorian era, it has a wonderfully Gothic feel and the story is cloaked in intrigue and mystery. 

'Jane Eyre' is my favourite nineteenth century novel, so when I first saw this book described as a 'spine-tingling homage to great Gothic novels such as Jane Eyre', I was sold. I instantly wanted to read it. There were definitely shades of Bronte's classic in the story but it was also hugely original and brilliant in its own right.   

The heroine of the title, Harriet Fleet, takes a job as a governess at the remote Teesbank Hall in County Durham. The local residents tell of a family marred by tragedy and there is an air of mystery shrouding them. When Harriet arrives, she thinks she is there to teach 18 year old Eleanor, daughter of the Wainwrights but instead she discovers that she has been employed to watch over her and spy on her. The true reason for this is not revealed until much further on in the novel. What does become clear though, is that the Wainwright family have a deep, dark secret which Harriet soon becomes embroiled in as she investigates the family's tragic past. 

In any good book, you need a strong central character and Harriet Fleet is certainly that. I admired her determination to make a new life for herself as she tries to escape the bonds which have been placed upon her. What I really loved about the novel as well, is that it's historical fiction but with a feminist twist. Helen Scarlett highlights the oppression of women during the Victorian period and shows how they do not have the same rights and freedoms that were accorded to men. This is seen not only through the character of Harriet but also her charge Eleanor, who is very much controlled by her father. Society has put constraints on both women but they rally against these as they both seek to build a better future for themselves. 

I loved the sense of suspense that is woven throughout the story. Teesbank Hall itself is quite spooky and this led to an ominous and foreboding atmosphere. The secret of the tragic event that has marred the family is gradually untangled as Harriet delves deeper and deeper into the mystery and I was eager to keep reading to find out the truth. I was kept guessing right up to the end which was a chilling and tragic exposition of one terrible moment in the past. 

This was a stunning debut which I enjoyed tremendously. I am really looking forward to reading more by Helen Scarlett in the future. 

Friday, 26 March 2021

Blog Tour: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

I'm thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour for 'The Lamplighters' by Emma Stonex. Published by Picador Books, this title is out now and is most definitely a book that you don't want to miss out on!

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .

'The Lamplighters' is the debut novel of author Emma Stonex. I read this over one weekend and was absolutely hooked on unravelling the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a Cornish sea tower. I'd heard a lot of pre-publication buzz about this book so I was really excited to get my hands on a copy. Let me tell you now, believe everything you read about this title because it is incredible. 

The story alternates between 1972, focusing on the lighthouse keepers of the Maiden Rock - Arthur, Bill and Vince and 1992, twenty years later, when the mystery of their disappearance is being investigated by novelist Dan Sharp. The present day part of the book incorporates the recollections of the women that were left behind - Helen, Jenny and Michelle. Three women who in many ways, have never been able to put the events of the past behind them. 

I adored the mystery element of the book. I was totally caught up in wondering what really happened to the keepers and how they just disappeared from inside a locked lighthouse in the middle of the sea. As I read along, I did develop my own theory but I could never have guessed at the real events of that fateful day. There's actually a really interesting piece written by the author and available to read here which looks at the real-life mystery that inspired the novel. I found this fascinating and added an extra layer to my enjoyment of the book. 

The setting of the story is wonderful. The sea is almost a character in its own right and I could almost sense its salty tang and wildness/unpredictability. It's incredibly atmospheric and the remote setting serves to highlight the sense of loneliness that envelops the life of a lighthouse keeper. I thought that Emma Stonex did a fabulous job of exploring the inner psychology of the men and each one came alive in my mind as I pictured them going about their day to day routines. 

It's hard to believe that 'The Lamplighters' is a debut novel because the writing style of Stonex is so self-assured and confident. She brilliantly captures the sense of grief felt by the three women left behind and explores what it really means to love someone. I liked the way that she showed how this love can simultaneously lift up and also destroy a person. 

This is definitely one of my stand-out books of the year so far. I was still thinking about it long after having finished reading it and I'm definitely going to be recommending it to everyone.

Monday, 8 March 2021

Review: Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey

Publisher: Swift Press
Published: 4th March 2021

Fifteen years after graduating from Harvard, five close friends on the cusp of middle age are still pursuing an elusive happiness and wondering if they've wasted their youthful opportunities. Mariam and Rowan, who married young, are struggling with the demands of family life and starting to regret prioritising meaning over wealth in their careers. Jules, already a famous actor when she arrived on campus, is changing in mysterious ways but won't share what is haunting her. Eloise, now a professor who studies the psychology of happiness, is troubled by her younger wife's radical politics. And Jomo, founder of a luxury jewellery company, has been carrying an engagement ring around for months, unsure whether his girlfriend is the one. 

The soul-searching begins in earnest at their much-anticipated college reunion weekend on the Harvard campus, when the most infamous member of their class, Frederick - senior advisor and son of the recently elected and loathed US President - turns up dead. Old friends often think they know everything about one another, but time has a way of making us strangers to those we love - and to ourselves...

'Life After Truth' was not the story that I was originally expecting. The book is marketed as being about a group of five friends who meet over one weekend at their Harvard School reunion, fifteen years after they all graduated together. The line from the blurb that caught my eye was the one about the US President's son Frederick, an infamous member of their class, turning up dead on the same weekend. I think I can be forgiven for thinking therefore that this was going to be a murder mystery. A tense whodunnit with the five friends possibly implicated in the death. I was actually way off the mark because the death of Frederick is actually almost a forgotten side note in the book. Insignificant and almost unimportant until the very end. And that's okay because although this might not have been the book I thought it was going to be, I enjoyed it regardless. The story centres around the main characters who reflect on their lives and the journeys that they have all been on, since their days as young students. 

Each chapter is told in the third person and focuses on a different character. Out of the group of friends, I particularly enjoyed the chapters from the perspective of married couple Mariam and Rowan, who fell in love at Harvard, married young and now have two small children in tow. They felt the most relatable to me as they don't have the same wealth and comfort as the others but have a different kind of happiness. I enjoyed the reflection on the events of their past and the insight given into their marriage and how it has been changed by the arrival of their children. 

I felt more detached from some of the other characters, such as Eloise, a 'Happiness' professor, who questions many of her life choices. There was also a lot about AI and the ethics of this in her parts of the book, which I didn't find as interesting. However, the other two members of the group, Jomo and Jules, definitely fascinated me. The line between love and friendship is very much blurred between them as they have left so many things unspoken. The character of Jules seems to be based on Harvard graduate Natalie Portman and she is the only person who doesn't get to share her own thoughts with the reader. That makes her come across as quite elusive which was intriguing. 

'Life After Truth' may not have been the story that I was expecting when I first picked up the book but it was still a thoughtful read about life and friendship. It explores the effect that time can have on a group of people and the way in which relationships can change and evolve. I haven't read anything by Ceridwen Dovey before but I will certainly look out for her future titles, as I really enjoyed her writing style. 

Monday, 15 February 2021

Review: No Experience Required by Janet Quin-Harkin

Publisher: Ellfie Books
Published: 11 January 2021

It s 1989. Life's easy for Deborah Lesley: she's up-market, drives her own flash car to school, and looks pretty good too. She's never had a job, either; but now her parents have split up, and she needs the money. Joe Garbarini is cool. He likes motorbikes, girls, and fun. He doesn't have time for much as he's running the Heartbreak Café when he's not at school. The Heartbreak Café is a noisy hangout on the north Californian coast. Joe's worked there for years, and knows what it takes. He's sure Debbie won't last a month but Debbie's determined to put up with his wisecracks and prove him wrong. 

Set in 1989, this series was originally published in the eighties. Janet Quin-Harkin was a huge favourite of mine when I was a teenager and so I was thrilled at the news that the Heartbreak Café series was being republished for a whole new audience of readers. I thought that the story might feel a little dated considering it's over twenty years old but it didn't at all. It deals with so many universal themes which will resonate with teens today, such as trying to become independent and find your own way in life, juggling the demands of school and friends with a part-time job and facing the trauma of parental divorce, that it still feels as fresh and new as when it was first written.

'No Experience Required' centres around Debbie, whose parents have just split up. Finding it hard to cope with a mother who has decided to go back to school, Debbie decides to get a part-time job. When she stumbles across the Heartbreak Café her mind is made-up that this is where she's going to work, even though she has never flipped a burger in her entire life. She begins to work alongside the gorgeous Joe and they develop a bit of a love/hate relationship. But with sparks flying between them, could their wisecracks mean something more?  

I adored the Heartbreak Café gang. There's cool Joe who all the girls are head over heels in love with, Ashley and her penchant for chocolate, plus geeky Howard and carefree Art. They are such a great gang that I wanted to scoot over on a stool, with a dish of chocolate madness in front of me and join in with all their fun.

If you're looking for hot and sizzling then you won't find it here but what you do get is a sweet, clean teen series where the romance is innocent and you won't catch the characters using any expletives, not even when things get steamy in the kitchen. It's such a refreshing change that I enjoyed kicking back and delighting in a wonderful slice of nostalgia.   

Next up in the series is 'The Main Attraction'.  Will Debbie and Joe ever become a couple?  You'll have to wait and see.      

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Blog Tour: Heartbreak Cafe series by Janet Quin-Harkin

I'm delighted to have been invited by Ellfie Books to take part in the blog tour for Janet Quin-Harkin's Heartbreak Cafe series. It's very exciting that the whole series is being re-published in February which is the first time in over thirty years. I was a huge fan of Janet's books when I was a teenager and I still have some of them among my collection now. 

The Heartbreak Cafe series centres around Deborah Lesley and her life as it’s turned upside down when her parents split up. She finds herself having to move house and find a job in the popular beach hangout Heartbreak Café where life is never dull. In this hit eighties series about teen life in northern California, themes of friendships, work, family, divorce, and love are ever present. From movie makers coming to town and surprising romances, the Heartbreak Café series will transport you to a retro California, full of sun, surf, and heartbreak. 

Janet has very kindly put together her Top 5 Writing tips for the blog tour:

1.Write the book you are dying to read but it’s not on the shelf.

2. Don’t ever write anything because you think it will sell. You have to be passionate about anything you write.

3. Nothing is written in stone! If a scene is serving any useful purpose it has to go, even if it’s the best prose you have ever written.

4. Once you have created characters, it’s their story. Let them go where they want to, do what they want to. If you are experiencing writer’s block it’s often because you are forcing characters to do something they don’t want to.

5. Don’t talk about writing that book someday. If you want to write, you have to sit down and write. Every day. Writing is a craft form, not an art. You only get better at manipulating words when you practice, practice.

Janet Quin-Harkin first found success as a picture book writer, winning several awards. She was then asked to write a teenage series and Heartbreak Café was born! The first in the series No Experience Required was an instant success when it was originally published in the eighties. By the time the third book came out she was selling half a million copies. Since then Janet has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller. Writing under the pen name Rhys Bowen, she is the author of the historical Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness mystery series. She has won the Agatha Best Novel Award and was nominated for the Edgar Best Novel. Janet is British and divides her time between California and Arizona.

Visit her website to find out more about Janet aka Rhys Bowen and her books. I've definitely got a hankering to read her Royal Spyness mystery series now!

Monday, 1 February 2021

Review: Lock the Doors by Vincent Ralph

Publisher: Penguin
Published: 4th February 2021

Tom's family have moved into their dream home. But pretty soon he starts to notice that something is very wrong - there are strange messages written on the wall and locks on the bedroom doors. On the OUTSIDE.

The previous owners have moved just across the road and they seem like the perfect family. Their daughter Amy is beautiful and enigmatic but Tom is sure she's got something to hide. And he isn't going to stop until he finds the truth behind those locked doors. . .

Will their dream home become a nightmare?

Before I started reading ‘Lock the Doors’ by Vincent Ralph, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a YA horror or a thriller. After the first few chapters, I knew that I was going to be treated to a twisty, dark story which was full of suspense and which featured some very heavy, emotional issues. As I read on and the plot deepened and gradually began to unwind, it perfectly mirrored the way in which the main character Tom, started to discover the truth about his new home and the family that previously lived there. 

This review is difficult to write because I really do not want to give anything away which would spoil a new reader’s enjoyment of the book. I definitely think that the less you know about it in advance, the better off you will be. This is a story that creeps up on you bit by bit and by not knowing the truth, it makes the revelations, when they come, even more shocking. Tom was a great central protagonist and it was certainly interesting to see a character struggling with OCD. This isn’t something that I’ve come across before in YA books. Although at the start Tom seems pretty quiet and dare I say it, a bit timid, as he reveals more about himself, you realise that he has been through a huge amount of childhood trauma but grows in confidence so much throughout the story. He is dogged and determined as well, which means that when he befriends Amy, the girl that used to live in his new home, he is fascinated by the secret that he believes she is hiding and determined to help her.

I absolutely love YA thrillers and while I wouldn’t call this a typical book in the genre, it has a lot of the elements that I enjoy. Particularly the slow build of suspense and the desire to keep on and on reading, to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. There are some hard-hitting themes in the book which were well handled by the author and which tackle some quite difficult and emotive issues. I didn’t guess anything that happened and was definitely kept on my toes from beginning to end.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Review: The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin

Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Published: 21st January 2021

Cinderella married the man of her dreams - the perfect ending she deserved after diligently following all the fairy-tale rules. Yet now, two children and thirteen-and-a-half years later, things have gone badly wrong.

One night, she sneaks out of the palace to get help from the Witch who, for a price, offers love potions to disgruntled housewives. But as the old hag flings the last ingredients into the cauldron, Cinderella doesn't ask for a love spell to win back her Prince Charming.

Instead, she wants him dead.

Cinderella married Prince Charming and they lived happily ever after...or did they? In 'The Charmed Wife' Olga Grushin imagines what may have happened to these classic fairy tale characters, 13 years after that well known ending. Now with two children in tow, is Cinderella still living a life of blissful romance with her Prince?

The blurb for this book immediately caught my attention. I love anything to do with classic fairy tales, reworkings and new interpretations, so I knew from the start that this is a title I wanted to read. I was extremely intrigued about the story and excited to delve in. This is most definitely a book for adult readers as it deals with some pretty heavy topics throughout.

The book is split into three distinct sections. I enjoyed the first part immensely which features Cinderella sneaking away to ask a witch for help with her situation. Things haven't quite worked out the way she thought they would and she needs assistance trying to put things right. The second part was quite unusual and I think that's where it lost me a little. I thought it was very clever as it interweaves nods and references to a lot of other fairy tales and while I could appreciate how skilfully this was done, my enjoyment of the story as a whole, definitely dipped. The final part moves the scene to modern day New York which confused me to start with but works to allow the author to link together a lot of the themes and issues touched upon throughout the book.    

On finishing, I have conflicting feelings about this title. On one hand, there were lots of things that I enjoyed about it and it kept me wanting to read on because I literally had no idea what was going to come next. On the other hand, it was extremely dark and subversive and personally, I think I like my fairy tales to be a little more sugar-coated. 

Monday, 18 January 2021

Review: Tales From the Hinterland by Melissa Albert

Publisher: Penguin
Published: 14th January 2021

In this brutal and beautiful world a young woman spends a night with Death, brides are wed to a mysterious house in the trees, and an enchantress is killed twice - and still lives.

But it's not safe inside these pages, and once you enter, you may never want to leave . . .

The highly anticipated collection of stories set in the creepy, haunting fairytale world first introduced in Melissa Albert's internationally bestselling and critically acclaimed Hazel Wood series.

As the January evenings are dark and cold, this was the perfect read for the start of the year. Deliciously dark and fiendish, 'Tales from the Hinterland' by Melissa Albert is a collection of short stories set in the fairy tale world, first introduced in the Hazel Wood series. I haven't read the latter but I don't think it mattered at all, as you don't particularly need to have any prior knowledge to enjoy this book. 

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not always a huge fan of short story collections (although I have read some really good ones lately) so I was a little bit apprehensive when I started reading this. I need not have worried though as the stories are so inventive, original and mesmerising that I was drawn in by the varied range of tales told. There were some that I definitely enjoyed more than others but I think that's always the way with short stories. My favourites were 'Hansa the Traveller', 'Alice -Three-Times' and 'The Skinned Maiden'. These were the ones that really gripped me and which I found especially creepy and devious. 

This is a fairy tale world where happy ever after does not exist and where the characters' fates hang in the balance. Melissa Albert's imagination is allowed to run wild in this spine-chilling collection which I advise not reading when you're in the house alone! 

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Blog Tour: Review: I Give It a Year by Helen Whitaker

Today I'm hosting a stop on the blog tour for 'I Give It A Year' by Helen Whitaker. Thanks to Alex at Orion for asking me to take part. 

Publisher: Orion 
Published: 7th January 2021

Her husband's moved out - and her dad's moved in...

It's New Year's Eve, and Iris has just found out that her husband, Adam, is cheating on her. Furious, she kicks him out, and enlists her Dad to move in and help with the children whilst she tries to mend her broken heart.

But her Dad soon starts to display signs of Alzheimer's, and Iris realises that if she loses her partner, she'll be managing an awful lot on her own. Soon, she realises that Adam wasn't the only one taking their marriage for granted, and for the sake of the children she decides to give him one more chance.

But is it braver to stay than to run? And can anyone fall in love with the same person twice?

This is the first book I've read by Helen Whitaker so I was looking forward to trying a title by an author who is new to me. 'I Give It A Year' begins with Iris discovering that her husband has been having an affair. The story chronicles the year that follows as Iris and her husband Adam explore what went wrong and whether they can save their marriage after his infidelity. 

What I found really interesting about the book is the way in which the author shows that there is more than one side to the story. It is not as clear cut as it might first seem and my sympathies were definitely divided between the two main characters. Iris decides that they will have a year to try to work things out and so they start couples counselling. This isn't something that I've come across very often in stories that I've read so I thought it was a fascinating way of digging beneath the surface of a marriage, to explore some of the reasons why it may have begun to break down. Whitaker writes with honesty and sensitivity and this section of the book was very well handled. 

As well as the focus on the marriage, the author also explores the difficulties and struggles of dealing with a parent with ongoing signs of Alzheimer's. This has an impact on the whole family and at times, I found this quite hard to read about but it's something that affects a huge number of people so I like the fact that the author was brave enough to tackle the topic. 

'I Give It A Year' was an original and honest novel which I very much enjoyed. The characters were brilliantly portrayed and I the story was truthful and emotional. I will definitely be looking out for more books by Helen Whitaker in the future. 

Don't forget to check out all of the other stops on the 'I Give It a Year' blog tour. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Published: 12th September 2017

Augustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone.

At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success, but when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crew mates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

As Augustine and Sully each face an uncertain future against forbidding yet beautiful landscapes, their stories gradually intertwine in a profound and unexpected conclusion. In crystalline prose, Good Morning, Midnight poses the most important questions: What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives?

'Good Morning, Midnight' is one of those special books that cross your path and which you have no prior knowledge of. You start reading and often the story might be a little slow in the beginning and you wonder if you're going to enjoy it, but then bit by bit, it starts to creep up on you and the characters begin to get under your skin and soon you can't put it down and find yourself thinking about it constantly. This is exactly what happened to me with Lily Brooks-Dalton's captivating debut. Originally published in 2017, it has recently been made into a Netflix film starring and directed by George Clooney. As I'm one of the few people that don't seem to have Netflix, I hadn't heard anything at all about it and so there was a definite sense of intrigue when I started reading. 

The story is set in both the Arctic Circle and the wide expanse of space. The chapters alternate between Augustine, an astronomer who is the last man standing on an Arctic research base and whose only company is a young girl called Iris and Sully, an astronaut on a return space flight from Jupiter. Both characters are cut off from civilisation and facing circumstances that are often beyond their control. After reading the first few chapters, I really wasn't sure how both storylines were going to connect but when they eventually did, it was extremely clever and very poignant. 

The story unravels gradually, giving plenty of opportunity to enjoy and appreciate Brooks-Dalton's exquisitely beautiful writing. I loved the descriptiveness of her prose. Also while reading the chapters set in the Arctic, I could almost imagine that I was feeling the same sense of isolation as Augustine. He is at the end of his life and spends a lot of time reflecting on the life choices he has made along the way. Sully, although seemingly living a life that many may envy, hasn't truly started living yet. Separated from her family after always putting her career first, she begins to reflect on how she may want her life to look in the future, in a world that may no longer be recognisable. The story considers what happens at the end of the world and explores how people come to understand their true selves and what really matters to them.     

If you're not a fan of open-ended novels then you may not like the fact that there is no neat end to the story. Answers are not necessarily given and some things are left open to interpretation. Although this isn't something that I normally like, I actually think it worked well here and suited the novel perfectly. Just as the characters don't know what is coming next, we don't know as readers either. 

'Good Morning, Midnight' is a book that I have kept thinking about, long after having finished reading it. Presenting questions about loneliness, life and death, it conjures up emotions in the reader that are at our very core. I would recommend this novel without hesitation and hope that the Netflix adaptation may deliver the book to a much wider audience than it has already had. 

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