Category Archives: Book reviews

Blog Tour: Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

HYDRA BF AW.indd

I absolutely loved Six Stories, and I was thrilled to be invited to take part in the blog tour for Wesolowski’s follow up, Hydra.

Welcome to Six Stories. I’m Scott King.

In the next six weeks, we will be looking back at what happened to the Macleod family in 2014 – the incident more commonly known as ‘the Macleod massacre’. We’ll be looking back from six perspectives, seeing the events that unfolded through six pairs of eyes.

One cold November night in 2014, in a small town in the northwest of England, 21-year-old Arla Macleod bludgeoned her mother, stepfather and younger sister to death with a hammer, in an unprovoked attack known as the Macleod Massacre. Now incarcerated at a medium-security mental-health institution, Arla will speak to no one but Scott King, an investigative journalist, whose Six Stories podcasts have become an internet sensation.

King finds himself immersed in an increasingly complex case, interviewing five key witnesses and Arla herself, as he questions whether Arla’s responsibility for the massacre was as diminished as her legal team made out.

As he unpicks the stories, he finds himself thrust into a world of deadly forbidden ‘games’, online trolls, and the mysterious black-eyed kids, whose presence seems to extend far beyond the delusions of a murderess…

As with Six Stories, Hydra is told through a series of podcasts which are released on a weekly basis, featuring a different interviewee in each episode.  I love this format, and I think it works brilliantly as a way of looking at a crime, exploring it from a different angle each week.  In this case, King is considering a relatively recent incident in which Arla Macleod murdered her parents and younger sister.  Whilst Arla was found guilty (albeit under grounds of diminished responsibility) a motive was never really sought, and so while King states he isn’t seeking to solve any of the crimes he looks into, I think that there is a question here as to why she murdered her family, particularly in such a brutal fashion.

King’s investigation into the “Macleod massacre” is riveting, and he quickly begins to uncover a few elements that may explain why Arla committed the crime, as there seems to be little evidence to suggest that she is not guilty, and this becomes a compelling and complex story of a troubled young woman.  I think that the method of telling this from one interviewee’s perspective at a time is excellent – it allows the reader to build up an idea of what happened, which might then be contradicted in the following week’s episode.  I also like that King is on hand to remind the reader of the key details, and the way in which he chips in when something that has been presented as fact is corroborated or contradicted, always reminding the reader (or listener) of the key details.  And whilst King states that his aim isn’t to solve the crime that he’s looking at, Hydra is brought to an extremely satisfying conclusion.

Whilst Six Stories did have a supernatural element, this was much more apparent in Hydra, and I really liked this aspect of the novel.  The inclusion of the black-eyed children – an urban legend (for want of a better term) – adds a very creepy factor to the novel, and I found that this is a book to read after you’ve made sure that the doors are locked and the curtains closed.

Hydra and Six Stories are loosely linked, but can easily be read as standalone novels, and I highly recommend them both.  These are both compelling novels, told in an innovative format, and despite the similarities, I never felt that this was repeating what had gone before.

Hydra is published today in paperback by Orenda Books, and is also available as an eBook.  Many thanks to the publisher and to Anne Cater for the review copy, and for the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐


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

Hydra blog poster 2018 FINAL

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Tony & Susan (aka Nocturnal Animals) by Austin Wright

tony and susan

My book group’s read for January was Tony & Susan, originally published in 1993, and recently republished as Nocturnal Animals to coincide with the release of the Jake Gyllenhaal / Amy Adams film in 2016.

Many years after their divorce, Susan Morrow receives a strange gift from her ex-husband. A manuscript that tells the story of a terrible crime: an ambush on the highway, a secluded cabin in the woods; a thrilling chiller of death and corruption.

How could such a harrowing story be told by the man she once loved?

And why, after so long, has he sent her such a disturbing and personal message…?

I absolutely love a story within a story, and Tony & Susan was no exception.  And I have to say that the Nocturnal Animals story, written by Susan’s ex-husband, was riveting!  It features a man called Tony Hastings who is a rather mild-mannered maths professor.  Tony and his family get into trouble late one night whilst driving to Maine, and the manuscript details Tony’s plight, and the aftermath.  It’s a complex story, and I won’t spoil it, but I was completely invested in the tale, perhaps more so than usual, as I found that Susan’s commentary, which is shared between chapters of the manuscript, enhances the story.  I was a little surprised at how the story ended, however – whilst not a bad ending, it gets a little… strange.

Susan reads the manuscript in three sittings, with brief interludes in between.  These give the reader more of an insight into Susan’s character, as well as her relationship with Edward, and how she met her second (and current) husband, Arnold.  I didn’t really take to Susan as a character – she comes across as being quite meek, and unwilling to rock the boat, even when she’s not entirely happy about something – Arnold’s affair(s), for example.  She also seems to think quite a lot of herself, which I do find quite off-putting.  This didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the novel in any way, however, and I found that this gave me a more objective outlook on both the overarching novel as well as the manuscript that Susan reads.

Once I finished Tony & Susan, I did find that I had an outstanding question – why did Edward send Susan the manuscript some 25 years after their divorce?  I have a couple of theories on this, but they are just that – theories.  At a simplistic level, I think that Tony was perhaps giving Susan a big **** you – having her so thoroughly engaged by this story that he has written, when she had little faith in his ability while they were together, although she did work to support him during that period.  I don’t know if I’m looking for a bigger meaning that simply isn’t there, but this does feel a little too straightforward – I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read this.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Intruder by P. S. Hogan

the intruder

I was intrigued by the idea behind The Intruder when I first came across it, and I was delighted to be sent a proof in advance of its publication.

He has the key to hundreds of houses.

Maybe even to yours.

William Heming is an estate agent. He’s kept a copy of every key to every house he’s ever sold. Sometimes he visits them. He lets himself in – quietly, carefully – to see who lives there now, what they’re like, what they’ve been doing.

But what will happen when he gets caught?

I try to write my own synopsis when reviewing a book, but I love the brevity of the above – I think that it tells you everything you need to know, and to say more might give spoilers.  For the same reason, I won’t go into to the plot in too much detail – The Intruder is a novel that is best approached with as little prior knowledge as possible.

I think that premise behind this novel – that of an estate agent who keeps a copy of the keys to each of the houses that he sells – is a deceptively straightforward one, and from this, Hogan has written a fantastic novel that is gripping throughout.  It’s a brilliant idea that is creepy and plausible, and I was hooked from the first page.

The Intruder is told from William Heming’s perspective, and Hogan has created a brilliant antihero in this character, and one that will stick with me for some time to come.  Whilst his actions and motivations are questionable, he does take on a vigilante role at times, and some of the antics he gets up to are highly amusing.  The novel does take a darker turn, however, and this is a compelling thriller that will elicit that “just one more chapter” feeling.

One aspect that I particularly liked was that Heming doesn’t give a great deal away about himself.  He, understandably, keeps himself apart from those around him, revealing little about himself, and the reader is similarly kept a little distant from the narrator, although with more background than the characters in the novel.  Even his appearance, other than being pleasant, isn’t commented upon all that much.  Whilst this vagueness of character doesn’t always work, for me this made the story even creepier, as it suggested to me that it could be absolutely anyone – maybe even the estate agent you’ll buy your next house from…

The Intruder is a brilliant, fast-paced read that builds up to a fantastic ending.  I wasn’t sure where it was going to go, but I was delighted by how it ended.  Highly recommended.

The Intruder will be published in eBook format on 1 February, and in paperback on 31 May by Black Swan.  Many thanks to Rosie Margesson for providing a copy for review.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Power by Naomi Alderman

the power

The Power is a novel that I bought shortly after its publication in 2016 – I was immediately grabbed by the premise of women becoming, almost overnight, the dominant sex.  Now that I’ve read it, I have to admit that I’ve found it quite difficult to review.  It’s not a bad book in any sense – I enjoyed its exploration of gender role reversal – but it’s proved a tricky one to discuss.  Bear with me.

All over the world women are discovering they have the power.

With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain – even death.

Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they’ve lost control.

The Day of the Girls has arrived – but where will it end?

There are so many words that I want to use to describe this novel – fascinating, brutal, and terrifying are the key ones that spring to mind.  Fascinating because this novel turns gender roles on their head, quite literally.  Since “the day of the girls”, it is boys who are told to stay in groups, to not get separated from their friends, and to not stay out too late.  It is boys who are segregated in schools for their own protection.  And, in some countries, men are no longer able to gather without a woman present, and are not allowed to drive.  I think that what stood out for me was that there is nothing done to the men in this novel that doesn’t currently happen to women somewhere, other than the very obvious difference that men aren’t able to electrocute women at will, not without a few tools at least.

It is also brutal and terrifying, in the sense of what some (few) women choose to do with their newfound ability, and some parts of the novel make for uncomfortable reading.  The idea of male genital mutilation is mentioned, and there are a small number of rape scenes – women now being able to use their power to make a man erect whether he is willing or not.  Some scenes aren’t entirely pleasant to read, although Alderman avoids gratuitous violence, and part of what makes it so uncomfortable is that it highlights issues that are prevalent in society today, albeit with roles reversed.

The Power follows four key characters who take on different roles in this new society.  There’s Tunde, a Nigerian man who captures early footage as the change becomes more apparent, and then seeks to document the changes in various countries, conscious that he is now “the weaker sex”.  In American, there’s Allie, an abused foster child who remodels herself as a faith leader, and Margot, a politician whose own daughter awakens the power in her.  There’s also Roxy, a London crime lord’s daughter, who is one of the more powerful women in the novel.  I did find some of these characters more interesting than others, although all have their role to play, and I think that Allie’s journey is particularly interesting.

The novel is bookended by letters between a Neil Adam Armon (you’ve spotted the anagram, right?) and Naomi.  Neil has written an historical novel about how women came to power, presenting the novel as the most plausible narrative for what happened, covering the immediate aftermath as well as what happened after that.  I enjoyed this narrative device, particularly as it allows Naomi to comment (amusingly) upon what a world ruled by men – something she has never known – might look like.

The Power is a thought-provoking read which seeks to highlight the injustice in the world that results from gender differences.  It’s well-written and entertaining, if not always entirely comfortable.  Recommended.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Confession by Jo Spain

the confession

Late one night a man walks into the luxurious home of disgraced banker Harry McNamara and his wife Julie. The man launches an unspeakably brutal attack on Harry as a horror-struck Julie watches, frozen by fear.

Just an hour later the attacker, JP Carney, has handed himself in to the police. He confesses to beating Harry to death, but JP claims that the assault was not premeditated and that he didn’t know the identity of his victim. With a man as notorious as Harry McNamara, the detectives cannot help wondering, was this really a random act of violence or is it linked to one of Harry’s many sins: corruption, greed, betrayal?

This gripping psychological thriller will have you questioning, who – of Harry, Julie and JP – is really the guilty one? And is Carney’s surrender driven by a guilty conscience or is his confession a calculated move in a deadly game?

The Confession is told from three perspectives – Julie (the wife), JP (the attacker), and DS Alice Moody, who investigates the attack, although Alice’s chapters are few and far between.  I thought that all three were great characters – complex and multifaceted, with both Julie and JP eliciting sympathy, albeit for different reasons, and with neither of them being wholly likeable.  Alice takes a minor role, and yet the scenes between her and her colleagues add some lighthearted relief, and I liked that she was a little different to most fictional detectives.

The reader only sees Harry through the eyes of others, although this is enough to get a sense of the man.  He reminded me a little of The Wolf of Wall Street – someone who made a lot of money through some not entirely above-board dealings, particularly in the lead up to the financial crash, although that was one bullet he managed to dodge, coming out of it disgraced, but without his lifestyle taking a hit.  Even though he is largely detestable, there are a couple of moments I warmed to him a little, although I can’t tell you why without spoiling it for you.  Again, these are incredibly complex and realistic characters, who aren’t entirely good or bad.

Through the Julie and JP chapters, the reader gradually learns about their backgrounds, and that of Harry, and what a story it is!  I was absolutely gripped as events unfolded and the build up to the big reveal.  The Confession has a brilliant plot, and even when I knew what happened, there was an extra little twist at the end that I didn’t see coming.  The Confession is a fantastic novel, and one that brings something a little different to the psychological thriller genre.

The Confession will be published by Quercus on 11 January as an eBook, and on 25 January in hardback.  Many thanks to the publisher, Hannah Robinson, and Bookbridgr for the proof.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

the wicked cometh

The year is 1831. Down the murky alleyways of London, acts of unspeakable wickedness are taking place and no one is willing to speak out on behalf of the city’s vulnerable poor as they disappear from the streets.  Out of these shadows comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums by any means possible.

When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the fiercely intelligent and mysterious Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past slowly begin to poison her new life and both she and Rebekah are lured into the most sinister of investigations.

Hester and Rebekah find themselves crossing every boundary they’ve ever known in pursuit of truth, redemption and passion. But their trust in each other will be tested as a web of deceit begins to unspool, dragging them into the blackest heart of a city where something more depraved than either of them could ever imagine is lurking…

The Wicked Cometh includes several elements that I enjoy in a novel: a determined heroine, a suspicious sounding society, and plenty of dark deeds with people going missing, never to be heard of again, and it came as something of a surprise that I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as I expected to.

Starting with the positive, I thought that Hester was a great character, and I loved her determination to improve her situation.  Her parents died when she was young, and, with no family willing or able to take her in, she moved to London with her family’s gardener and his wife.  There, they struggle, and this educated young lady finds herself living in ever-worsening conditions through no fault of her own.  This background gives Hester a brilliant strength of character, and makes her increasingly determined to achieve something better.  I loved that she wasn’t intending to wait for some man to improve her situation, but was willing to make her own way in life.

I also loved Carlin’s writing style, and I thought that it was very in keeping with the time in which the novel is set, with a dark, Gothic edge that fits perfectly with the story.  Similarly, the mystery element of the novel – the missing people – is well-delivered, particularly as Hester and Rebekah begin to investigate.  And I enjoyed this element of the plot, which becomes increasingly dark as they begin to unravel the mystery.

I did, however, find the pace to be a little slow, particularly to begin with, and this is perhaps why I struggled with this novel a little more than I expected to.  Additionally, I didn’t like the big reveal.  Not in the sense of the outcome, which I did enjoy, but the way in which it was delivered.  This is purely personal preference, and I’m sure that others will like it more than I did, but it just wasn’t for me.

The Wicked Cometh will be published on 1 February.  Many thanks to the publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, and Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review this title in advance of its publication.  Whilst it wasn’t entirely suited to my tastes, I think that those who enjoy dark, gothic mysteries will like this one.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

how to stop time

I was delighted when I found out that Matt Haig was doing an event at this year’s Hay Festival Winter Weekend in November, and I was thrilled to pick up a copy of his latest novel, How to Stop Time, and to have the opportunity to get it signed by the man himself.

How to Stop Time introduces Tom Hazard, who appears to be around 40 years old, but is actually closer to 440 years old.  His secret?  Tom has a rare condition called anageria, which means that, since puberty, he has aged 1 year for approximately every 15 years that pass.

The first rule is that you don’t fall in love

Whilst this may sound appealing – it’s close to immortality, after all – there are downsides, and Tom has to hold himself apart from others, because coming to love and care for someone who you’re bound to outlive by hundreds of years would not be easy to deal with.

To avoid arousing suspicion, Tom, and those like him, are encouraged to move around regularly, cutting all ties and starting afresh somewhere new, and the novel opens as Tom takes up a post as a history teacher at a London comprehensive.  I loved this cover story for Tom – it’s a perfect fit for someone who has not only studied history but has lived it, and he is able to bring it to life for his pupils as few others can.  Of course, this allows for some humorous moments, as Tom occasionally slips up in front of his class, talking about an event as though he was actually there!

The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, and covers both the present day and Tom’s new posting, as well as key events from his past, and I loved gradually getting to know this intriguing character.  The reader slowly builds up a picture of Tom, from his childhood in the late sixteenth century where he first learned to be cautious as people began to notice that there was something not quite right about him, and through experiences both good and bad.  I absolutely adored Tom as a character, even though I wanted to shake him at times, and he is one that will stay with me for some time.

Another aspect of the novel I particularly enjoyed was the shadowy Albatross Society, which is headed up by the extremely cautious Hendrich.  The Society helps Tom and those like him to move around regularly (every eight years is recommended), providing funds, official papers, and anything else that they might need to begin a new life.  Hendrich takes a very authoritarian approach to running the society, however – it’s his way or not at all – and there is a price for being looked after, and Hendrich is a man who will make sure that you pay up.

How to Stop Time is a wonderfully life-affirming novel that manages to by turns to be both amusing and sad, and I raced through it to find out what would happen to Tom.  I think it’s a novel that different people will take a different message from, but for me it came down to allowing yourself to live, even though that may mean that you occasionally get hurt.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐