The Christmas Promise by Sue Moorcroft

the-christmas-promise

I love Sue Moorcroft’s books and I also love Christmas so I was absolutely thrilled to get my hands on an advanced copy of her latest creation. Just check out that beautiful cover. Pretty irresistible right? But things are not as cosy as they may at first appear…

So what’s it about?

For Ava Bliss, it’s going to be a Christmas to remember …

On a snowy December evening, Sam Jermyn steps into the life of bespoke hat maker Ava. Sparks fly, and not necessarily the good ones.

Times are tough for Ava – she’s struggling to make ends meet, her ex-boyfriend is a bully, and worst of all, it’s nearly Christmas.

So when Sam commissions Ava to make a hat for someone special, she makes a promise that will change her life. She just doesn’t know it yet…

In this story Sue Moorcroft shows herself yet again to be a master at drawing and exploring the different kinds of relationships between people. Here we are thrust in between mother and son, aunt and nephew, mother and daughter, father and daughter as well as getting involved in a whole host of friendships and work relationships with varying degrees of trust and sympathy. Each character is realistically and sympathetically portrayed so that their relationships too are wholly believable and in no way clichéd. You can’t help but be there with Ava, every step of the way.

The story is undoubtedly satisfying – when you finish it, you’ll probably realise there’s a smile on your face and you’re feeling nicely warm and fuzzy – it’s that kind of read. It’s probably only on reflection that you’ll realise that Moorcroft has actually managed to get you thinking about some pretty heavy subjects – rape and the strains of serious illness both on the patient and those around them for example, in addition to shining a light on the extremely topical subject of Revenge Porn. She shows just how easily this situation can come about and how incredibly difficult it can be to deal with it in a way that doesn’t cause further hurt somewhere along the line. Obviously heavily researched and carefully planned, that part of the storyline is very sympathetically written.

Talking of research, I would never have believed I could get so caught up in the subject of hat making! Ava is a couture milliner and makes bespoke hats for private clients. I became fascinated with the descriptions of the materials she was using, the little decorations she added and the process she went through to find the perfect hat for each customer, make it and then to fit it. The descriptions were so rich I could clearly see the hats in all the different colours and textures. Incredible writing.

Oh, and if you’re not even a tiny bit in love with Sam by the end of the story…

I devoured the book in two sittings – highly recommended – and at 99p for the kindle pre-order, (it will arrive on the 6th October) it’s an absolute bargain. Go on, treat yourself!

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Shtum by Jem Lester

Shtum

‘He’s not just my autistic son, he’s my son.’

Where to start? I finished this book on Boxing Day 2015 and it’s still with me. I couldn’t possibly have tried to review it before now – I needed a bit of distance.

Most of us *think* we know a bit about autism. Some of us may *think* we know quite a lot. For nearly all of us, this is a ‘leave your pre-conceived ideas at the door’ kind of read. It was without doubt one of my top reads of 2015 and now has a pretty secure spot in my Top Ten of all time.

‘I lived a fairy-tale life in my head before I even met Emma and the fairy-tale became real for two years. Then Jonah was born and it was fluffy clouds and sleepless nights. But as he reached three, the fairy tale revealed itself an imposter – the red hood fell away to show the Big Bad Wolf of autism’.

So what’s it about?

Ben Jewell has hit breaking point.

His ten-year-old son, Jonah, has never spoken. So when Ben and Jonah are forced to move in with Ben’s elderly father, three generations of men – one who can’t talk; two who won’t – are thrown together.

As Ben battles single fatherhood, a string of well-meaning social workers and his own demons, he learns some difficult home truths.

Jonah, blissful in his ignorance, becomes the prism through which all the complicated strands of personal identity, family history and misunderstanding are finally untangled.

Sounds pretty serious, eh? And it is. It’s about as serious as you can get. This is no wishy-washy, ‘barely scratches the surface’ account of Autism. This is a warts and all view of Autism at its most severe. Jonah’s Autism leaves him silent but we soon learn that it also leaves other, far more tangible marks too: ‘One more for the album of cuts and bruises, smashed glasses, plates and picture frames.’ The writing can be hard-hitting and shocking. At times you want to put your hands over your eyes whilst simultaneously not being able to stop reading.

Despite scenes like the one above, as readers we are never in any doubt about the depth of Ben’s love for his son. You can’t help but like Ben. He’s so imperfect and human. This is no two-dimensional, flawless character with the patience of a saint. On the contrary, Jonah’s autism leaves Ben an alcoholic single dad, terrified of the future: ‘What’s going to happen when he’s older? When he’s too big for even me to handle. Will he kill someone? Maim them? What happens when I’m dead?’ What must it be like to live every day with that kind of fear?

He battles to not only get his son the help he needs (even when this goes against his own desires) but also to understand this condition and how it affects Jonah specifically. You soon realise that Autism for one is not the same as Autism for another but equally, Jonah’s Autism today is not his Autism of tomorrow: ‘The only thing predictable about Jonah is his unpredictability.’

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it is almost unbearably sad at times. I certainly got through a respectable amount of tissues whilst reading it but that didn’t stop me wanting to pick it up. In fact I couldn’t wait to. I read it in 24 hours (perhaps not the most Christmas-sy read I could have chosen, granted) but I HAD to know how it ended. The tears came from trying to imagine that absolute helplessness, the terror, the sheer and utter exhaustion but also in trying to imagine what it must be like to NOT be able to connect with your child, even on the most basic level: ‘So few moments feel like true connection with him, I almost grieve when each one ebbs away.’

Ben’s dad provides another lens through which to view the situation and Jonah more specifically. It works, and despite that part of the story also requiring some tissues, it also prevents the story from becoming too dark and introspective.

Perhaps the best way to describe this book is as a book of strong emotions. As well as tears and laughter I also admit to a healthy dose of hate for Jonah’s mum, Emma. I can’t explain why without spoilers so I’ll leave it at that. But if you have read it, it’d be nice to rant about that with you.

An absolutely stunning read, from a (unbelievable though it may sound) debut author. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Highly, highly recommended.

‘This wonderful, exhausting, terrifying, vulnerable, beautiful son of mine.’

Lost King (The Omar Zagouri Thrillers #2) by Heather Moore

Lost King

I am a sucker for historical fiction and thrillers, as well as being fascinated by all things Ancient Egypt so when I read this blurb, I just knew I had to dive in…

So what’s it about?

Undercover agent Omar Zagouri has been ordered to Giza. A prominent Egyptologist was murdered, and a priceless artefact—the only complete version of the Book of the Dead—is missing. Omar is still reeling from the recent disappearance of his girlfriend, Mia Golding, but he puts his quest to find her on hold to track down the lost piece of history.

Omar’s mission is not just to locate the sacred book; he must also rescue the two archaeologists kidnapped and forced to translate its hieroglyphics under threat of death. Their kidnapper is determined to discover the text’s rumoured explosive revelation: that Moses did not receive the Ten Commandments from God but instead copied them from the Egyptians. Though Omar’s need to find Mia grows more urgent, he must focus on finding the enemy who will stop at nothing to ignite a controversy that will change history, and the world, forever.

This is the second of the Omar Zagouri series but it worked perfectly as a standalone novel and I didn’t feel at a disadvantage not having read the first one.

The story is fast paced and action-packed, with a triple narrative – two of which are happening in the modern day and the third telling the story of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut –generally regarded by Egyptologists as one of the most successful pharaohs, reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty.

Hatshepsut

And wow, what a compelling story it is. I couldn’t put it down. The whole novel is extremely tightly plotted with well developed, likeable characters (you can’t NOT like Omar!) but it’s the story of Hatshepsut that made is fascinating for me. She is the ultimate Ancient Feminist and I found myself inwardly cheering her on as well as going off and googling obscure facts about her and her life.

The modern day stories work well too, combining action, intrigue, espionage and a bit of romance for good measure. What more could you want?

I enjoyed it so much I’ve asked the author for a copy of the first in the series… watch this space!

(Image of Hatshepsut by Postdlf from w, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=895004)

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air

One of my WOW reads of the year – and we’re not even half way through yet. When I heard Lucy Kalanithi talking about her amazing husband and this book on the radio, I knew I had to read it. Anyone who is worried that this is a depressing read – think again. Anyone who is thinking to themselves ‘I don’t like non-fiction’ – think again. Huge thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this incredible read.

So what’s it about?

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live. 

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away? 

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

This is Paul Kalanithi’s examination of his own diagnosis and mortality both as a doctor and as a patient – the two differing perspectives raising many questions which Kalanithi tries to make sense of by writing about them. This is not a book of ‘answers’ but one which can’t fail to make you think, deeply.

Nor is it the story of a ‘normal’ man. Kalanithi was clearly extraordinary. Yes, as a medical practitioner but also as a writer, a thinker, a husband, a dad. His wasn’t a job. It was a calling and one that he saw as a great privilege: ‘I resolved to treat all my paperwork as patients and not vice versa’. I can only imagine what such a man could have achieved.

Interspersed amongst his own thoughts are stories of patients he has met and treated as well as anecdotes from other doctors. The story is above all a human one, laying bare the failures as well as the successes. Who knew that the difference between curing a patient and causing Locked-in Syndrome lies in about two millimetres of brain matter? Who isn’t wowed a little by the fact that the quoted doctor knows this because ‘the third time I did this operation, that’s exactly what happened.’

Fascinating, educational and heart-breaking in equal measure. This book will stay with me for a long time.

‘Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when’.

This is Your Life Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

This is your life Harriet Chance

There was a lot of buzz surrounding this in the ‘book-terverse’ and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Having finished it, I’m not entirely sure why I’ve waited so long to read any Jonathan Evison. His ability to write what appears at first to be a really ‘sweet’ story, but which in reality is anything but, is superbly clever.

So what’s it about?

With Bernard, her husband of fifty-five years now in the grave, seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance impulsively sets sail on an ill-conceived Alaskan cruise that her late husband had planned. But what she hoped would be a voyage leading to a new lease of life becomes a surprising and revelatory journey into Harriet’s past.

There, amid the buffets and lounge singers, between the imagined appearances of her late husband and the very real arrival of her estranged daughter mid-way through the cruise, Harriet is forced to take a long look back, confronting the truth about pivotal events that changed the course of her life. And in the process she discovers that she’s been living the better part of that life under entirely false assumptions.

Part-dysfunctional love story, part exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters, nothing is what it seems in this charming tale of what it truly means to begin again.

Through Harriet’s interactions with her ‘difficult’ daughter Caroline, her son Skip, and Bernard himself (is she going a bit mental? The reader, and her offspring, are never quite sure…), we are given an incredibly vivid look at her life so far. Finally released from the shackles of a marriage in which her daughter describes her as ‘servant, nurse… practically his mother’, we are introduced to a 78 year old woman whose relationship with her children is beginning to show all the signs of suffocating role reversal.

Harriet is no longer a pushover. Bernard’s illness has taken its toll and changed her forever. Just when you think you know where the story is going, another layer is peeled away and the story takes off in an entirely new direction. Similarly, just as you feel you’re getting to know the ‘gentle’, strait-laced Harriet Chance she comes out with something like: ‘Admit it, the real reason you chose cremation was because you yearned to see his mortal shell pulverized’. By the end of the novel, the reader is left in no doubt about the horrifying reality of Bernard’s final 18 months.

Harriet certainly has regrets and, particularly in the case of her daughter, is sad at how their relationship has turned out but she doesn’t over-indulge in vast quantities of misplaced guilt. I found this a great relief – after all, I didn’t particularly like the insufferable Caroline and actually identified more with the mother than the daughter. Harriet is, despite everything, a very practical and (perhaps surprisingly) a very independent woman: ‘Darlings, if you really want to help me, fix that garage door… if you want to comfort me, how about sending an Easter card?’

Evison’s ability to capture the somewhat fraught mother-daughter relationship is just brilliant. Does he have sisters I wonder? ‘Why does it always come to this between her and Caroline? As though they’re out of patience before they’ve even begun… after the briefest of exchanges their relationship devolves into this prickly state of nervous exhaustion’.

Her children may be concerned about Bernard’s continued ‘presence’ in her life. She categorically is not and it undoubtedly serves a very real narrative purpose: ‘Just suppose I took a little comfort in it… I suppose you two would want to deprive me of that, wouldn’t you?’

The various threads of conflict (and there are a lot of them!), as well as the uncovering of some fairly earth-shattering secrets creates a delightfully uncomfortable, unpredictable and gripping read. One of my favourites of the year.

About the author

Jonathan Evison is an American writer best known for his debut novel All About Lulu published in 2008, which won critical acclaim, including the Washington State Book Award. In 2009, Evison was awarded a Richard Buckley Fellowship from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. A second novel, West of Here, will be released in February 2011 from Algonquin. Editor Chuck Adams (Water for Elephants, A Reliable Wife, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers Homes in New England) has called West of Here the best novel he’s worked on in over four decades of publishing.

In his teens, Evison was the founding member and frontman of the Seattle punk band March of Crimes, which included future members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.

Born in San Jose, California, he now lives on an island in Western Washington.

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

The Medici Mirror

Back in the summer I read a wonderful novel called Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey. I loved it and was swept away by Melissa’s ability to create atmosphere and such a vivid sense of place – you can read my review here. I loved it so much that I (maybe a little cheekily!) asked Melissa if she’d send me a copy of her first book. Well she did, and I’m so very glad because I loved this one too. Check out the cover above – that in itself rang a whole lot of my bells. Doesn’t it just invite you in?

So what’s it about?

‘I have heard, but not believed, the spirits of the dead may walk again…’

A hidden room

When architect Johnny Carter is asked to redesign a long-abandoned Victorian shoe factory, he discovers a hidden room deep in the basement. A dark, sinister room, which contains a sixteenth-century Venetian mirror.

A love in danger

Johnny has a new love, Ophelia, in his life. But as the pair’s relationship develops and they begin to explore the mystery surrounding the mirror, its malign influence threatens to envelop and destroy them.

A secret history

The mirror’s heritage dates back to the sixteenth century, and the figure of Catherine de Medici – betrayed wife, practitioner of the occult, and known as the Black Queen.

The Medici Mirror is a haunting story of jealousy, obsession, and murder, perfect for fans of Kate Mosse and Barbara Erskine; a story about the ability of the past to influence the present and of love’s power to defeat even the most powerful of curses.

This is another novel with an incredible sense of place. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the old, derelict shoe factory with all its machinery and materials still in situ. I could almost smell the dust and leather and was just as keen as the protagonists to see it brought back to life. But nothing lies dormant for decades without accumulating its fair share of secrets and this factory is no different.

From the very beginning the reader realises that this narrative will be split. It opens with Catherine de Medici and her concerns regarding her husband’s affair before moving to the modern day and Johnny’s story. Johnny is at a vulnerable stage in his life and very early on meets the somewhat mysterious love interest, Ophelia – who happens to be a fashion photographer specialising in shoes. As the two of them and Johnny’s beautiful colleague Tara start to dig away at the history of the factory you just can’t help but want to know how the two eras will be linked. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to point out the significance of the mirror in the title at this point…

The narrative deftly switches between Contemporary London, Victorian London and 1540’s France bringing in some incredible historical detail which Melissa must have spent considerable time researching. I love novels which lead me off on a ‘Google tangent’ and this had me looking up Victorian shoes, Venetian mirrors and the story of Catherine de Medici and her husband (the King of France) in more detail.

Melissa writes strong, female characters particularly well but all the characters in this novel are well-rounded, if flawed – as they should be. The story is excellently plotted with a very satisfying ending – a compelling mix of murder, passion, intrigue and the supernatural. It’s a ghost story in the vein of my favourite Victorian ghost stories; eerie, spooky and chilling rather than terrifying but no less accomplished because of that. It’s gripping and smart – and unbelievably, a debut novel. A perfect read to curl up with on a winter’s evening. Thank you so much Melissa! I can’t wait for book number three.

Go on, treat yourself: The Medici Mirror

The Ghost Tree by Sara Bain

The Ghost Tree by Sara Bain

Those of you who have followed my reviews for some time may remember me going on about how much I loved The Sleeping Warrior last year. It was without doubt one of my top reads of 2014. Well, Sara Bain has done it again with The Ghost Tree – her second novel, and one of my top reads of 2015. I’m now chomping at the bit for the finale of the trilogy.

So what’s it about?

Five years after the death of his wife, MacAoidh Armstrong moves into a smallholding in southern Scotland with the intention of living a self-sufficient existence. In the nearby town solicitor Libby Butler is trying to find peace after her recent deadly brush with the unknown.

On a hill by the steading stands The Ghost Tree: all that remains of the former Ringcroft of Stocking. Local legend says that when the last Ghost Tree dies, the Rerrick Parish Poltergeist will return.

Just days after MacAoidh moves in, he is forced to contend with a number of strange events that distance him from the local community. Turning to Libby for help, they find themselves challenged by a series of bizarre and terrifying occurrences which defy all logical and scientific explanation.

As the phenomena become increasingly violent and lives are threatened, Libby must delve into closely guarded secrets to discover the reason for the present terror… and come to terms with her growing feelings for MacAoidh. Can she save the pragmatic Highlander from an ancient evil, and in doing so will she lose her heart?

This is no ‘ordinary’ story. In fact Sara Bain just doesn’t do ‘ordinary’ – thank goodness. What she does do, she does brilliantly. This novel isn’t easily classified and certainly can’t be pigeon-holed into a nice, neat category. In fact I’m not even going to try because to do so would do it a disservice. For those that have read the first book, this is less ‘gentle’ than The Sleeping Warrior and really does pack a punch in places but on the other hand, it’s also more romantic – whatever it ‘is’, it just works. Again.

Firstly, the setting is perfect. What could be a better place for what is ultimately a rather frightening tale than an isolated smallholding in Southern Scotland? ‘I grew up with tales of haunted ruins by Loch Assynt, Lochan Dubh and Achmore; strange beasts in the water in Lochan Feith an Leothaid; dead sailors walking and mermaids at Sandwood Bay’.

One of the many other things that Sara Bain does brilliantly are her heroes. I honestly didn’t think anyone could top Gabriel from the first novel who I’m not ashamed to admit I fell in love with. But actually, MacAoidh is anything but disappointing: ‘He’s a wonderful, gentle human being. What’s not to love about him?’ I don’t know how she does it, but I’m certainly not complaining.

Don’t believe in ghosts? Don’t worry, MacAoidh Armstrong doesn’t either. Not even when one of the barns on his land completely disappears: ‘it’s space filled with empty, dark, countryside’. And others are similarly disbelieving: ‘So you’re saying all this can be put down to a physical expression of psychological trauma?’ Is it or isn’t it?

Don’t let the paranormal aspect put you off. This is no sentimental ghost story. As in the first book, Libby’s completely down-to-earth character and Bain’s exceptional writing style ensure the book remains firmly grounded. Libby is still as wonderfully flawed and straight-talking as ever: ‘I’ve got an attitude problem. I’m excellent at making enemies but not so good at keeping friends… I don’t deserve someone to share my life with. I was a really horrible person two years ago and I’m still a bit of a bitch’. Some of her conversations with MacAoidh’s mother are laugh out loud funny. She’s just brilliant. I’d love to take her to the pub and buy her a beer.

Do you ever finish a novel and wish you could read it again for the first time? I feel that way about both of Sara’s books. They are unlike anything else I’ve read in the last two years and I can’t wait for the third part in the trilogy. Thank you so much to Sara for sending me a copy.

‘It’s only through the conservative rules of science and Christianisation that we, as a modern race, have stopped believing in anything that can’t be plausibly predicted by mathematical formulas or the Bible. What if we’re wrong?’

Get The Ghost Tree on kindle for only £2.63 at the moment – a complete bargain: The Ghost Tree

And if you want to read them in order (not a requirement but they’re both excellent reads), The Sleeping Warrior is only £1.99: The Sleeping Warrior