Category Archives: Book reviews

How to be a Grown Up by Daisy Buchanan

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I’ll start out by saying that How to be a Grown Up isn’t the sort of thing I’d normally read – I’m just not really into this kind of book, and so it was with a little trepidation that I started reading this.  And I was pleasantly surprised!  It’s a warm, amusing and light-hearted look at Buchanan’s experiences and what she’s learnt along the way.

Synopsis, from Amazon:

For fans of Bryony Gordon and Caitlin Moran, a comforting, witty, supportive book for real twenty-something women who want to discover how they can reach the end of the ‘fun’ decade knowing exactly who they are.

Have you ever felt lost, anxious, panicky about adulthood?

Have you ever spent a hungover Sunday crying into a bowl of cereal?

Have you ever scrolled through Instagram and felt nothing but green-eyed jealousy and evil thoughts?

Award-winning journalist, Grazia agony aunt and real-life big sister to five smart, stylish, stunning twenty-something young women, Daisy Buchanan has been there, done that and got the vajazzle.

In How to be a Grown Up, she dispenses all the emotional and practical advice you need to negotiate a difficult decade. Covering everything from how to become more successful and confident at work, how to feel pride in yourself without needing validation from others, how to turn rivals into mentors, and how to *really* enjoy spending time on your own, this is a warm, kind, funny voice in the dark saying “Honestly don’t worry, you’re doing your best and you’re amazing!”

How to be a Grown Up addresses many different topics – how to manage money, how to love your body, how to survive at work etc. – common areas of concern that many people have struggled with at some point in their lives.  But it isn’t a book that tells you how to fix those problems, it’s not a book that says “do this” or “don’t do that” – I found it to be much more along the lines of “this is my experience, and what I’ve learnt from it” although there are suggestions and tips at various points should you be looking to make a change of some sort.

Given the broad range of topics covered, I think it’s inevitable that I found some of them to be more interesting and relevant to me than others.  I think it’s only natural – we’re all unique, and our own experiences and lifestyles will have led us along different paths, encountering different problems along the way.  That said, I think that there is probably at least one section in this book that would help most people to feel a little better about themselves – it will be a different section for each individual, but whoever we are and whatever life we’ve chosen or ended up in, there will be problems of some kind to deal with, and they are likely to fall into one or more sections of this book.

Buchanan makes several cultural references throughout the book, and I particularly liked these, and I’ll add one of my own:

If you’ve ever felt a bit like Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 i.e. as though, almost overnight, you’ve suddenly become an adult, thrust into a strange new world and you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, then you might like this.  I quite often feel this way, so whilst I’m not the target audience, it’s comforting to know that there are other people are in the same boat.

How to be a Grown Up is a lighthearted and amusing book that essentially says “don’t worry about it, you’re doing ok” and I think that sometimes it’s enough to be told that.

How to be a Grown Up will be published on 6 April by Headline – many thanks to Georgina Moore for sending me a copy for review.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Falling Creatures by Katherine Stansfield

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Those of you who have been following my blog for a while will know that I’m a big fan of novels which take a historical, unsolved crime and put a fictional tale around it – books such as Alias Grace, The Unseeing and Burial Rites to name some of my favourites.  So, I was understandably thrilled when I received a copy of Falling Creatures by Katherine Stansfield, which looks at the murder of Charlotte Dymond in Cornwall in 1844.  Whilst the man accused of her murder was hanged at the time, many consider the trial and evidence to have been unsatisfactory, and in Falling Creatures, Stansfield seeks to reassess the case.

Falling Creatures is narrated by Shilly, a farmhand who works on Penhale Farm with Charlotte.  Shilly is infatuated with Charlotte – as are many men in the vicinity – and is distraught when Charlotte goes missing, and is later found on the moor with her throat cut.  Matthew, another of the farmhands, is quickly arrested, but Shilly doesn’t believe that he is responsible.

Following the trial, Shilly is approached by Mr Williams, who also wants to help Matthew, albeit for reasons that Shilly isn’t initially aware of, and the two of them seek further evidence to clear Matthew’s name.

Falling Creatures is a compelling tale, and one that I wanted to get to the bottom of in terms of identifying the culprit, although I have to admit that I didn’t feel all that much connection with the characters.  Initially, Shilly was someone who the reader doesn’t really know – very little information is given as to her background, and the only things that the reader knows about her are her feelings for Charlotte and her constant cravings for alcohol.  Given the strength of devotion to Charlotte, I hoped that she would become a much stronger character following the murder – inspired by a need for justice if nothing else – but this didn’t really happen.

If Shilly is somewhat vaguely drawn, she is at least likeable in her way.  Charlotte, on the other hand, I found to be manipulative and something of tease, assessing the local men in order to determine the marriage that could improve her standing the most, stringing them all along in the process.  Her murder was horrific, but I found that I wanted to know who killed her more from the perspective of solving the puzzle and bringing someone to justice rather than out of any need for closure for the death of a character that I liked.

The case is well thought out though, and I liked how Stansfield assessed the crime and the evidence through Shilly and Mr Williams, and whilst I didn’t take to the characters all that much, the plot did hold my attention enough that this wasn’t an issue.  I also liked the conclusion that Stansfield came to – whilst it wasn’t entirely surprising, it was well thought out, and fit with the evidence presented.

I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely keen on the more supernatural side of the novel, although that is purely down to my own personal taste, and I’m sure that others will enjoy the slightly different twist that this gives to the tale.  If it was just herb lore and superstition, I think I would have enjoyed it more, as that would have been fitting with the time, but I found that it went beyond that, and for me it just didn’t sit right in the novel.

Falling Creatures will be published on 23 March 2017 by Allison and Busby. Many thanks to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen

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Hannah is in her early thirties and works as a senior manager for a firm of accountants.  Attending a training course, she is thrilled when she’s told that she is being considered for promotion to director, and rushes home to tell her partner, Matt, the good news, stopping to buy champagne on the way home.

But when she gets home, Matt isn’t there, and neither are any of his possessions.  Everything he has bought has gone, and the house looks exactly as it did before he moved in.  Even the books she’d moved into the loft to make some room for him are now back on the shelves.  To make matters worse, there are no photos of him left on her phone, his contact details have been deleted, his Facebook account deactivated.  It’s like he never existed.

Determined to find Matt, Hannah begins to investigate his disappearance.  But while she is hunting for Matt, someone is playing games with Hannah – moving things around the house, making silent calls.  Is it Matt tormenting her, or is something more sinister going on?

Gone Without a Trace is one of the novels I picked up at the Headline Blogger Night – I was intrigued by the premise of someone disappearing so completely that you might wonder if they’d ever existed.  I didn’t expect to become so completely enthralled by this novel, however.  I absolutely loved it, and read it over the course of a single day.

Hannah is a fascinating character, and you feel a great deal of sympathy for her plight, coming to hate Matt in the process.  There are often signs that a relationship is coming to an end, and yet Hannah can’t think of anything that she should have picked up to as a warning sign.  They hadn’t been arguing more than usual, they were both happy in their work and lives, and there weren’t any signs that he was having an affair.  As far as Hannah is concerned, he’s abandoned her completely, and she, understandably, wants to know why.

As you might expect, Hannah’s predicament soon begins to affect her in other ways, and she begins to struggle at work – missing important deadlines and not checking work correctly – and stops seeing friends, with the exception of her closest friend Katie, as she puts everything into finding Matt.  There are times when you want to tell her to just let it go, such is the impact on her life, although I was so drawn in to the scenario that I REALLY wanted to know why he’d left in such a way.

Gone Without a Trace that starts relatively slowly, but the pace soon quickens as Hannah’s search becomes increasingly desperate and frantic, and as a reader I found that I was completely hooked, and I think that fans of psychological thrillers will absolutely love it.  I didn’t expect the final outcome at all, and I absolutely loved the ending.  There are many books that are published with the bold claim to be the next The Girl on the Train et cetera, but this is one of the few that deserves that accolade.

Gone Without a Trace is available to purchase as an eBook (currently at the bargain price of £1.99 on Amazon) and will be published in paperback on 23 March.  Many thanks (once again!) to the team at Headline for the opportunity to read and review this novel.

Rating: ★★★★★

Blog Tour: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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Today I’m absolutely delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Beth Underdown’s debut novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister.

When Alice returns to her home of Manningtree, Essex from London following the death of her husband, she isn’t sure of the reception she will receive.  Her parents have both passed away, and she is unsure of how her half-brother, Matthew, will react.  He never approved of her marriage, deeming her husband to be beneath her, and so Alice isn’t entirely surprised by the somewhat cool reception she receives, and is relieved that he is willing to take her in.

But Alice soon finds that Matthew’s status has changed since she was last in Manningtree, and he is now an important man who is often consulted upon various matters by men of standing in and around the area.  And then she begins to hear rumours of witchcraft, and learns of accusations that have been made against many of the women in and around Essex.  And of a book, in which Matthew writes the names of the accused, and the evidence against them.

Initially dismissive of the gossip, Alice becomes increasingly concerned as more women are incarcerated, and as Matthew begins to involve her in his activities…

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a stunning work of fiction, based upon the actions of Matthew Hopkins, the so-called Witchfinder General.  It opens with Alice locked in a room.  The reader doesn’t initially know why she has been locked away, and the novel then returns to a point nine months earlier and Alice’s arrival in Manningtree.  Underdown has done a fantastic job of slowly building up the tension throughout the novel, and what begins as a woman concerned with little more than how she will be received by her brother soon descends into fear on her part as she realises the activities he has become involved in.  I really enjoy novels that share a part of the ending with the reader at the outset – knowing the destination and not the path that lies between here and there can be fascinating, and so it proves to be the case here.

I thought that Underdown successfully evoked both time and place throughout the novel, both in terms of the culture and the way of life, but also the superstitions that were rife at the time.  Accusations of witchcraft were not new during Hopkins’ time, and would often be made for the most frivolous of reasons:

Talk of witchcraft was often resorted to when other charges were hard to prove.  Women were taken up for it… it was done to teach them a lesson

And so Alice is initially dismissive of the gossip – such accusations happened occasionally, but the women involved are usually released after a relatively brief period in prison.  She soon comes to realise that the situation is much more serious, however, and that the evidence that Matthew collects may result in a much harsher sentence than she would expect:

Suddenly I feared that I had been part of something that could have nothing but the reddest of ends.

The characterisation in The Witchfinder’s Sister is also excellent.  Alice is a strong individual, but very much aware that she has limited options available to her following the death of her husband, and she is almost entirely reliant upon Matthew’s kindness.  Her initial disbelief at the rumours and her situation put her in an extremely difficult position, and it was hard not to empathise with her tale.  Matthew is also a fascinating character, and I enjoyed Underdown’s dissection of what drove him to take the actions that he did.  I don’t know how much truth there is in this aspect of the novel, but I found the reasons provided to be both fascinating and plausible.

I found this to be captivating fictional account of the actions of an infamous individual, and fans of historical fiction will lap this up – I absolutely loved it.

Many thanks to Katy Loftus for providing a copy for review, and to Josie Murdoch for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.  The Witchfinder’s Sister was published by Viking on 2 March 2017 in eBook and hardback.

Rating: ★★★★★


About the Author

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Beth Underdown lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester. Her first novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister, is based on the life of the 1640s witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. Beth’s interest in seventeenth-century England was sparked by the work of her great-uncle David Underdown, one of that period’s foremost historians. She came across a brief mention of Matthew Hopkins while reading a book about midwifery, igniting an interest which turned into an all-consuming hunt for the elusive truth about this infamous killer.


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

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The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

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There are some novels that you hear a lot about months before they are due to be published.  The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, which will be published next month, is, for me, one such novel.  Needless to say, I was thrilled when I was approved to read this title via Netgalley.

Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Louise (Loo), have spent years travelling from place to place, never settling anywhere for too long.  But as Loo gets older, Samuel thinks that it would be good for her if they settled somewhere – somewhere she can make friends and focus on school – and on the cusp of Loo becoming a teenager, they settle in Olympus, Massachusetts – Loo’s mother’s hometown.

Samuel finds work and Loo attends the local school, but they are haunted by Samuel’s past, which he has spent a long time running from.  Loo knows little about it, but her father has twelve scars on his body, caused by bullets from various points in his criminal past – a past that might not be done with them yet.

The novel alternates between the present day and Sam’s past, and the reader experiences both Loo’s experiences as an outsider trying to settle in at a new school and gradually becoming a woman as well as learning about Sam’s past, one bullet at a time.  Because of this, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley contains two quite different narratives, and the reader gets to experience both a coming of age tale, although Loo’s coming of age is quite different to the norm, as well as something of a thriller as we learn more about Samuel and his background.  I really enjoyed both narratives, and I thought the way the two stories came together was brilliantly done.

Sam’s tale is dark, violent and occasionally humorous.  And yet while his past is somewhat unwholesome and anything but typical, I found him to be a likeable character, and I did sympathise with him.  This was for two reasons – his love for his wife, Lily (Loo’s mother), and daughter comes through very clearly in the novel:

For the first time he had something to lose, and it was funny how that changed things.

The second reason is that he doesn’t come across as being a violent man, unless a situation calls for it.  He will (and can) defend himself, but only uses violence when it’s necessary.  Sadly for him, this proved to be more often than not.

Loo, on the other hand, should be quite a different character, and yet you don’t live alone with a man like Samuel Hawley without picking up a few tips and tricks (which he is more than happy to share with her).  Eleven years old at the start of the novel, her life has been one of constantly moving around as Sam tries to prevent his past catching up with him, and this sets Loo apart from others of her own age, even when they settle in Massachusetts.  Becoming a victim of the school bullies, she reacts.  Violently.  And I have to admit that I loved her for it.

Over the course of the novel, the reader sees Loo develop into a young woman, with all the usual steps and phases that such a path takes, and it’s difficult not to pity her a little for living alone with a father, with whom a daughter might not always want to discuss certain things.  That said, I really liked the father / daughter relationship portrayed here, which, now that I think about it, isn’t all that common in fiction.  Despite his past, Sam is clearly trying to do his best for her, and will do whatever it takes to keep her safe, and I enjoyed the exploration of what it means to be a parent, but also the acknowledgement that we don’t always know people as much as we think – even those closest to us:

Even in the shadows she could see his scars.  The skin was different there.  Puckered and ghostly.  And now she knew the story behind one of those ghosts.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a brilliantly entertaining novel that reads a little like a Quentin Tarantino film, with a bit of family drama thrown in for good measure.  It will be published on 6 April 2017 by Tinder Press.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a copy for review.

Rating: ★★★★☆

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

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One hot summer’s day, John Cole decides to leave his life behind.

He shuts up the bookshop no one ever comes to and drives out of London.  When his car breaks down and he becomes lost on an isolated road, he goes looking for help, and stumbles into the grounds of a grand but dilapidated house.

Its residents welcome him with open arms – but there’s more to this strange community than meets the eye.  They all know him by name, they’ve prepared a room for him, and claim to have been waiting for him all along.

As nights and days pass John finds himself drawn into a baffling menagerie.  There is Hester, their matriarchal, controlling host; Alex and Claire, siblings full of child-like wonder and delusions; the mercurial Eve; Elijah – a faithless former preacher haunted by the Bible; and chain-smoking Walker, wreathed in smoke and hostility.  Who are these people?  And what do they intend for John?

I prefer to write my own synopsis as part of my reviews, but I’ve used the blurb from the book here, as I think it sounds fascinating.  A strange community who are waiting for a man who has never met them before?  Colour me intrigued.  And yet, this element of the mystery is solved relatively early on in the novel and, to me, was a little anticlimactic.  I think that this is completely my own fault, as I expected something quite different, but I did find the answer to be a little disappointing.

That said, there is a fair amount of ambiguity in this novel, so it might be that my interpretation of events is too literal.  For instance, it’s not at all clear in what time period it’s set.  There are cars and telephones (although no mention of mobiles that I picked up on) so this does limit how early it could be.  But the drought and the heatwave could indicate a near-future in which global warming and climate change have become more noticeable.  I chose to interpret it as current day, but that was a choice, and there were points at which I questioned this decision.

I was also struck by the distinct lack of other people in the novel.   There is John and the small commune, but hardly anyone else.  This did lead me to a couple of theories which I’m not sure that I should comment on in this review.  However, there are a couple of other individuals later in the novel, which put paid to my theories.  Even so, I don’t want to give others pre-conceived ideas about the novel, so I’ll say no more on this, but if you have read After Me Comes the Flood, please let me know – I’d love the chance to talk about this and compare ideas!

I do think that I would have got a little more from this novel had I have understood more of the biblical references.  Such things often pass me by, and whilst some were obvious, I do feel that I was missing the bigger picture or the underlying message that Perry was trying to make.  That’s not to put anyone off – I don’t think you have to be an expert in such matters to understand these references, it’s just that I’ve had very little exposure to such things, and am therefore largely ignorant in this regard.

Perry’s writing is, of course, absolutely gorgeous – she’s an incredibly talented writer.  I loved the subtle foreshadowing throughout the novel of what was to come.  I have to admit that I did prefer The Essex Serpent, which I found to be more accessible, but I did enjoy the ethereal quality of After Me Comes the Flood.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Dead Over Heels by Theresa Braun

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Unlucky in love Veronica has had enough of online dating, but decides to make one last attempt with Sebastian who seems a little different from the kind of guy that she’s encountered previously.

Having seen on Veronica’s profile that she has an interest in the paranormal, Sebastian take her to a reportedly haunted restaurant for their first date.  Things go well, and a month into the relationship, they return to the same restaurant, but get more than they bargained for when they have a paranormal encounter.

Determined to understand what they’ve seen, Veronica begins to dig, but the truth might be worse than she had feared.

I went into Dead Over Heels not entirely sure what to expect.  From the description, I had assumed that this was a romantic tale with horror / paranormal undertones.  Now, romance isn’t really my genre, but when Theresa offered me the chance to read and review her novella for my blog, I decided that it would be a nice change from my usual kind of read.  And I’m so glad I did!  This is a wonderful little tale that is more focused on the paranormal elements than the romance side of things, and which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Dead Over Heels is 38 pages long, and is an extremely quick read.  Short stories can be a little hit and miss, as the author doesn’t have the luxury of fully developing either the character or the plot, but Braun has done admirably in this tale.  I thought that both Veronica and Sebastian were well developed and their backstories fitted into the novel seamlessly.  Similarly, the plot, although quick, does build tension from the first date when there are hints that there is something a little unusual going on.  The ending is brilliant, and I certainly didn’t see it coming.

As I was reading, I was reminded of Kate Mosse’s short story collection, The Mistletoe Bride.  Whilst Mosse tends to focus on more historical settings, I felt that this was similar in tone, and I think that if you enjoy that kind of tale then you would enjoy Dead Over Heels.  Recommended if you’re looking for something a little different.

Many thanks to Theresa for providing a copy for review.

Rating: ★★★★☆