Category Archives: Book Review

Melmoth by Sarah Perry

melmoth

Melmoth is a novel that I’ve been looking forward to since I first heard about its publication, having enjoyed The Essex Serpent and After Me Comes the Flood.

Twenty years ago, Helen Franklin did something she cannot forgive herself for, and she has spent every day since barricading herself against its memory. But her sheltered life is about to change.

A strange manuscript has come into her possession. It is filled with testimonies from the darkest chapters of human history, which all record sightings of a tall, silent woman in black, with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet: Melmoth, the loneliest being in the world. Condemned to walk the Earth forever, she tries to beguile the guilty and lure them away for a lifetime wandering alongside her.

Everyone that Melmoth seeks out must make a choice: to live with what they’ve done, or be led into the darkness. Helen can’t stop reading, or shake the feeling that someone is watching her. As her past finally catches up with her, she too must choose which path to take.

Exquisitely written, and gripping until the very last page, this is a masterpiece of moral complexity, asking us profound questions about mercy, redemption, and how to make the best of our conflicted world.

Melmoth introduces the reader to Helen Franklin, a woman in her early forties who works as a translator in Prague.  Helen intrigued me immediately, as it is clear from the beginning of the novel that she is punishing herself for something, although what past act or misdeeds she thinks she has to atone for isn’t revealed until later in the novel.  She barely eats, drinks nothing but water, and denies herself the most basic of pleasures, sleeping on a hard, bare mattress and not even allowing herself to listen to music.  She seems determined to live in discomfort, and I was curious as to why she would choose to live her life in that way.

Helen has few friends and acquaintances in Prague.  There is her landlady (who is a terrific character), and Karel and Thea, a couple she first met in Prague.  It is Karel who first draws her attention to the tale of Melmoth – a fairytale-esque being dressed in black with bleeding feet, it is said that Melmoth wanders the Earth bearing witness to the atrocities committed by man as a punishment for her own past transgressions.  Helen is dismissive of the tale at first, and yet she is soon swept up in the story as she reads various eye-witness accounts of Melmoth from various locations and points in time.

The novel moves between the present day and the various documents that Helen finds relating to Melmoth, gradually revealing more of this legendary figure, and Helen is quickly caught up in the story, much as Karel was before her.  It seems that Melmoth has an overwhelming allure to all those who discover her, and as her role is to bear witness, Perry uses this character to explore the very human need to share the burden of guilt we may, rightly or wrongly, carry with us and the power of redemption.

Set in a modern-day Prague, Perry captures the nature of the city perfectly.  The story has a heavy Gothic atmosphere, and I found it to be wonderfully creepy with its tale of a black-clad figure who is always watching…  Recommended for those who enjoy Gothic and / or literary fiction, Melmoth is published by Serpent’s Tail, and is available to buy from all the usual places.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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Gone to Ground by Rachel Amphlett

gone to ground

Gone to Ground is the sixth instalment in Rachel Amphlett’s Detective Kay Hunter series, and it’s a series that now feels a bit like revisiting old friends with its wonderful cast of characters.

While attending a crime scene on the outskirts of Maidstone, DI Kay Hunter makes a shocking discovery.

The victim has been brutally cut to pieces, his identity unknown.

When more body parts start turning up in the Kentish countryside, Kay realises the disturbing truth – a serial killer is at large and must be stopped at all costs.

With no motive for the murders and a killer who has gone undetected until now, Kay and her team of detectives must work fast to calm a terrified local population and a scornful media.

When a third victim is found, her investigation grows even more complicated.

As she begins to expose a dark underbelly to the county town, Kay and her team are pulled into a web of jealousy and intrigue that, if left unchecked, will soon claim another life.

Gone to Ground presents a particularly difficult case for Kay as a severed foot is discovered in the Kentish countryside by a group of cyclists.  With no clues as to who it belongs to, where the rest of the body is, or how it got there, Kay and the team face a daunting task, made even more difficult when additional body parts are discovered.  Due to the lack of clues in the case, the investigation grinds to a halt almost before it’s begun, leading to a frustrating time for Kay and her team, and this does make the novel a little slower to start than the others in the series have been, although the pace soon speeds up as they get their first break.

I love the characters in this series, and enjoy finding out a little more about them as the series progresses.  Kay has a fantastic bond with her colleagues, and I love the friendly banter that ensues when the team get together.  Kay is a particularly strong character, and one that I’ve liked since she was first introduced in Scared to Death.  Newly promoted, Kay now has the difficult task of balancing her desire to be out in the field during an investigation with the additional managerial duties (and paperwork) that her new role entails.  It wouldn’t be much of a series if the protagonist was stuck at her desk the whole time, and so she doesn’t let this hold her back from the hands-on investigation.  Another character who is worthy of mention is Adam, Kay’s veterinarian partner.  He plays a minor role in the novels, but I love that he always brings a little bit of his work home with him, and while they aren’t relevant to the story, the creatures he brings home always add a little extra fun to the novel, and Misha the goat is no exception.

As with earlier novels in the series, Amphlett delivers plenty of twists and turns throughout the novel, and, as usual, I had no idea who the culprit was until the big reveal.  This is a great series, with a strong cast of characters, and I recommend it to those who enjoy police procedurals.

Gone to Ground is available to purchase now.  Many thanks to Rachel Amphlett for providing a copy for review.

Gone to Ground is the sixth novel in Amphlett’s Detective Kay Hunter series, and you can find my reviews for the other titles in the series through the following links:

  1. Scared to Death
  2. Will to Live
  3. One to Watch
  4. Hell to Pay
  5. Call to Arms 

One More Chance by Lucy Ayrton

one more chance

I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to read and review Lucy Ayrton’s debut novel, One More Chance. It is published by Dialogue Books, a new imprint of Little, Brown Book Group which aims to promote diverse voices in publishing.

THE BATTLE ON THE INSIDE IS JUST THE BEGINNING

Dani hasn’t had an easy life. She’s made some bad choices and now she’s paying the ultimate price; prison.

With her young daughter Bethany, growing up in foster care, Dani is determined to be free and reunited with her. There’s only one problem; Dani can’t stay out of trouble.

Dani’s new cellmate Martha is quiet and unassuming. There’s something about her that doesn’t add up. When Martha offers Dani one last chance at freedom, she doesn’t hesitate.

Everything she wants is on the outside, but Dani is stuck on the inside. Is it possible to break out when everyone is trying to keep you in…

I thought that Dani was a fantastic character, and one that is sadly all too representative of many young women today.  The reader quickly learns that she has been in and out of prison since her late teens, and it’s clear that she knows how to handle herself, striking the difficult balance of not getting herself into trouble (most of the time) yet not letting others push her around, either.  Whilst she encourages her image of someone not to be messed with, it’s apparent that there’s a delicate individual underneath the façade, and I loved these little glimpses of a vulnerable individual who understands that she is caught up in a cycle of drugs, crime, and prison, yet feels powerless to do anything about it.

As well as seeing Dani in prison, there are also flashbacks to her younger days, exploring how she ended up where she did.  This is a common tale of an unhappy childhood and behaviour that spiralled out of control from an early age as she felt that those around – her mother, the man her mother moves in with (I don’t think they actually get married) – didn’t care about her, gave her a hard time, and, before long, gave up on her.  Ayrton doesn’t blame the parents explicitly – Dani’s behaviour is very much her own – but it’s no secret that an unhappy childhood may lead to criminal behaviour in adults, and in Dani’s case it has led her to self-harm, drug abuse, and the crimes associated with funding a habit.

The main aspect of the plot centres on Dani, and how she might get back to her daughter who is in foster care.  Whilst Dani feels that the system is against her – that the vocational courses offered won’t help her, that no one will employ her, that she has no home to go to on the outside – her new cell mate, the mysterious and otherworldly Martha, provides her with an alternative.  The plot does stray a little into the realms of fantasy to achieve its aim, and yet it still felt very real, and readers who are sceptical of such plot devices shouldn’t be put off by this.  I don’t want to explore this in any detail – you’ll have to find out for yourself if she makes it out or not.

Ayrton has used her experience working for a prison charity to full effect to give the reader an insight into what life is like on the inside for young women today, and the hopelessness that many feel.  The characters and the setting are authentic, and I loved the snippets of statistics and excerpts from the Prison Service Instructions which add context to the story and emphasise Dani’s experiences.  Despite parts of the plot being slightly fantastical, this novel opens the reader up to the harsh reality of a prisoner’s life, and yet still manages to incorporate moments of hope.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Ayrton does next.

One More Chance is published in paperback on 15 November, and is available to purchase now on Kindle ( for just £0.99 at the time of writing this post!).  Many thanks to Millie Seaward for the opportunity to read and review this novel.

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes

the children of jocasta

As I’m sure regular readers of this blog are aware, I’m a big fan of novels that give a new spin on an ancient myth, and I was delighted to hear Natalie Haynes speak at last year’s Hay Winter Weekend, allowing me to pick up a copy of her second novel, The Children of Jocasta.  If you do get the opportunity to hear Haynes give a talk, please do go – I found her talk at Hay to be incredibly interesting and extremely amusing.

In The Children of Jocasta, Natalie Haynes retells the Oedipus and Antigone myths to reveal a new side of an ancient story…

My siblings and I have grown up in a cursed house, children of cursed parents…

Jocasta is just fifteen when she is told that she must marry the King of Thebes, an old man she has never met. Her life has never been her own, and nor will it be, unless she outlives her strange, absent husband.

Ismene is the same age when she is attacked in the palace she calls home. Since the day of her parents’ tragic deaths a decade earlier, she has always longed to feel safe with the family she still has. But with a single act of violence, all that is about to change.

With the turn of these two events, a tragedy is set in motion. But not as you know it.

The Children of Jocasta retells the stories of two Greek plays – Oedipus Tyrannos and Antigone.  I was familiar with the tale of Oedipus in the broadest terms – it’s difficult not to be when Freud borrowed his name to describe certain feelings towards one’s opposite sex parent – but Antigone’s tale was a new one to me.  This didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the novel at all, and I felt that it worked as an introduction to these plays.  The novel alternates between the two narratives, and while the two plays are separate, they are connected, and I loved the way that Haynes intertwined the two, revealing a clue in one to explain something in the other.

The tale of Oedipus is told from the perspective of Jocasta, a relatively minor character in Sophocles’ play, despite the important role that she plays, and I thought that this was a nice spin on the story.  Indeed, Oedipus is all but relegated to the side-lines, not appearing until quite late in the novel, and then playing a relatively minor role.  Similarly, the second narrative is told from the perspective of Ismene (Isy) – again a minor character in the play, given a new voice by Haynes in order to tell the story from a different point of view to those traditionally used.

Haynes admits to playing fast and loose with some of the detail in her author’s note at the end of the novel.  I’ve no issue with this, and I wouldn’t have been aware of many of the changes had she not pointed them out herself.  And I think that to tell the story from the perspectives she did that this was necessary.  It’s difficult to focus on Jocasta and yet show Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, for example – you can’t have both, and so the Sphinx becomes a bandit horde terrorising the area around Thebes that Oedipus does battle with, mentioned in passing, rather than being a key scene1.

I haven’t gone into any detail of what happens in either narrative – this is one of those novels where you either know the key details or I’d have to spoil it for you – but this is an entertaining retelling of two Greek tragedies that I’d recommend to fans of Madeleine Miller and Emily Hauser.

Rating ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Also, the riddle of Sphinx can’t be done any more brilliantly that in Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids.

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

sea of rust

I was drawn to Sea of Rust when it was first published in 2017, attracted to the idea of an end of the world novel in which humans are extinct and it’s now the turn of the robots and AI that we developed to serve us.

HUMANKIND IS EXTINCT.

Wiped out in a global uprising by the very machines made to serve them. Now the world is controlled by OWIs – vast mainframes that have assimilated the minds of millions of robots.

But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality, and Brittle is one of the holdouts.

After a near-deadly encounter with another AI, Brittle is forced to seek sanctuary in a city under siege by an OWI. Critically damaged, Brittle must evade capture long enough to find the essential rare parts to make repairs – but as a robot’s CPU gradually deteriorates, all their old memories resurface.

For Brittle, that means one haunting memory in particular…

With humans out of the way, you might expect that the world would run more smoothly, and be managed according to logic rather than the whims of a few individuals who have, by luck or judgement, gained power over their respective areas of the map.  It couldn’t be further from the truth.  Now that humans are extinct, there are two One World Intelligences (OWIs) – vast mainframes with intellect and capabilities outstripping those of individual robots – seeking domination.  That domination entails destroying the other OWI, as well as absorbing the memories and knowledge of each individual robot for their own purposes.

Sea of Rust follows Brittle – a robot designed as a caregiver, supporting the ill and elderly in their day to day needs.  Left with no purpose (as with most robots, her purpose expired with the human race) Brittle now wanders around the desert that is all that’s left of the American Midwest, seeking out spare parts to repair herself as bits and pieces begin to fail, and trying to avoid being absorbed by the OWIs.  I found Brittle to be surprisingly human, and I liked the contrast of introspection, which I wouldn’t expect from a robot, combined with the abilities to make precise calculations as to distance, speed etc. that I would expect.  Her end goal might be different to that of a human left at the end of the world – finding parts rather than food or medicine – but the challenges are the same as she tries to find what she needs whilst avoiding other robots who are doing the same.

As well as sharing her own story, Brittle also reflects upon the last days, months, and years of the human race, explaining how and why the war started, and how it ended as it did.  Once war was declared, I think that the result was inevitable, and most robots – whatever their original purpose – were involved in the fight, seeking out and killing any remaining pockets of human resistance.  I thought that this was a fascinating, if worryingly plausible, scenario, but it was good to understand why there were no humans left, and I really enjoyed these parts of the story.

Sea of Rust is a fantastic end of the world saga, but an original one in that our own world has already vanished, leaving it in the hands of robots as the two remaining OWIs fight it out for supremacy.  I loved that there are robots – like Brittle – who don’t want to be absorbed by these vast mainframes, and just want to be themselves, and this novel raises interesting questions about identity and individualism.  At the same time, it is an excellent story with plenty of action and a great plot, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

a brief history of everyone who ever lived

Today I’m sharing my review of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived – one of my rare forays into non-fiction.

This is a story about you.

It is the history of who you are and how you came to be. It is unique to you, as it is to each of the 100 billion modern humans who have ever drawn breath. But it is also our collective story, because in every one of our genomes we each carry the history of our species – births, deaths, disease, war, famine, migration and a lot of sex.

Since scientists first read the human genome in 2001 it has been subject to all sorts of claims, counterclaims and myths. In fact, as Adam Rutherford explains, our genomes should be read not as instruction manuals, but as epic poems. DNA determines far less than we have been led to believe about us as individuals, but vastly more about us as a species.

In this captivating journey through the expanding landscape of genetics, Adam Rutherford reveals what our genes now tell us about history, and what history tells us about our genes. From Neanderthals to murder, from redheads to race, dead kings to plague, evolution to epigenetics, this is a demystifying and illuminating new portrait of who we are and how we came to be.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is split roughly into two halves.  The first half covers the history of homo sapiens – where we came from, how we spread to inhabit so much of the world, and what we did along the way.  As this is a book about genetics, it looks at our history from the perspective of what DNA evidence can tell us about our past, using those few remains discovered in conditions permitting DNA to be recovered, as well as what our own DNA reveals about our history.  The second half focuses more on where we are now, and what recent developments in what is still a relatively young science can, and perhaps more importantly, can’t tell us, and I found it to be an interesting read.  Many of the ideas behind this are incredibly complex, but Rutherford explains things in such a way that they are understandable to those with little background knowledge on the subject.

I’m not going to go into the science at all – it’s not my area of expertise, and I’d only do it badly – but this book covers the history of the science as well as what that science can now tell us.  And there are some wonderful parts of our history explained, such as our fraternisation with homo neanderthalenthis (we have, on average, approx. 3% Neanderthal DNA, so, you know, that came from somewhere), and our tolerance to lactose to name but two.  There’s also a wonderful (if slightly gruesome) explanation of the bubonic plague, and exactly what caused the symptoms that are so well documented, and I found that to be extremely interesting.

Whilst the topic as a whole is fascinating, there were some wonderful little anecdotes included that I particularly enjoyed where DNA had, rightly or wrongly, been used to prove something or other.  As an East Midlands gal, the exhumation of Richard III from a car park in Leicester a few years ago was local news.  It was interesting to see this unfold from the perspective of the investigations that went into proving the identity of the remains.  As a contrast, there was an example of a book published a few years ago purporting to have discovered the identity of Jack the Ripper via DNA evidence.  One of these investigations was run with the utmost care and attention to detail and a thoroughness that leaves the result beyond doubt, the other… was not.  Let’s just say there’s a reason I remember the Richard III story and not the other, despite them occurring at a similar point in time. 😉

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is written in an extremely engaging style, and I loved the footnotes that were both helpful and often amusing (I still can’t get over the scientific name “ba humbugi” for a species of snail, or “gorilla gorilla gorilla” for a Western Lowland Gorilla found in Africa (it’s ok, he said I could laugh about this)).  Rutherford makes the complex science behind these ideas accessible to the reader, and it’s wonderful to read a book that shouts about its topic whilst still being clear about its limitations.  Recommended.

Blog Tour: The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond

the golden orphans

I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond today – a novel I was immediately attracted to when I read the blurb.

Within the dark heart of an abandoned city, on an island once torn by betrayal and war, lies a terrible secret…

Francis Benthem is a successful artist; he’s created a new life on an island in the sun. He works all night, painting the dreams of his mysterious Russian benefactor, Illie Prostakov. He writes letters to old friends and students back in cold, far away London. But now Francis Benthem is found dead. The funeral is planned and his old friend from art school arrives to finish what Benthem had started. The painting of dreams on a faraway island. But you can also paint nightmares and Illie has secrets of his own that are not ready for the light. Of promises made and broken, betrayal and murder…

The Golden Orphans offers a new twist on the literary thriller.

The novel opens with our unnamed protagonist attending the funeral of his friend and mentor, Francis Benthem.  He is the only person in attendance, until a small convoy of four strangers (to the narrator, at least) arrive to pay their last respects.  Their identities and their relationship to Francis is unknown, but it’s clear to the reader that there are questions to be answered here.  I think that this opening scene is extremely clever.  It’s deceptively simple, but immediately raises questions as to who the narrator is, what Francis was doing in Cyprus, and, of course, who these attendees at his funeral are.  It sets the tone for the whole novel, which has an almost dreamlike quality – there’s something surreal about it all, and I was immediately captivated by the slightly strange atmosphere.   It’s obvious that things aren’t quite what they seem, and this successfully pulls the reader into the story.

Set on Cyprus, I thought that the location worked brilliantly.  The island’s history is new to me, but Raymond incorporates this into the novel in such a way that I’m interested to learn more whilst knowing enough to ensure that the story makes sense.  I won’t go into the details because this history is central to the plot, but I loved the way that what initially seemed to be a random if striking setting came to be such a key feature, and so unexpectedly.  It takes a little while for the relevance of the island’s past to become apparent, but it’s a real “a ha!” moment, as things start to become clearer to the reader.

I found the pace to be pleasingly slow as the narrator – who goes unnamed throughout the whole novel – begins to understand Francis’s work, and how he might continue with this unusual project.  Whilst unravelling this mystery, he also has his own problems to deal with, and I think that the opportunity to work abroad comes as a welcome relief – the situation with his girlfriend and how to solve that particular problem becoming clearer with distance.  Whilst the reader doesn’t know the narrator, there’s plenty of insight into his character and his relative cluelessness comes across as endearing.

The Golden Orphans is a wonderful literary thriller, and I enjoyed the artistic and historic elements to the story which make this a unique tale.

The Golden Orphans is published by Parthian Books.  Many thanks to the publisher and to Emma of damppebbles blog tours for the review copy and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.


Make sure you check out the other stops on the blog tour:

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