Tag Archives: crime

UK Crime Review: Sweetpea by CJ Skuse

Sweetpea, C J Skuse, (HQ, Apr 20 2017)

Genres in the mix: crime, black humour

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from Goodreads):

‘This isn’t a book for the squeamish or the faint-hearted … think Bridget Jones meets American Psycho’ – Red

The last person who called me ‘Sweetpea’ ended up dead…

I haven’t killed anyone for three years and I thought that when it happened again I’d feel bad. Like an alcholic taking a sip of whisky. But no. Nothing. I had a blissful night’s sleep. Didn’t wake up at all. And for once, no bad dream either. This morning I feel balanced. Almost sane, for once.

Rhiannon is your average girl next door, settled with her boyfriend and little dog…but she’s got a killer secret.

Although her childhood was haunted by a famous crime, Rhinannon’s life is normal now that her celebrity has dwindled. By day her job as an editorial assistant is demeaning and unsatisfying. By evening she dutifully listens to her friend’s plans for marriage and babies whilst secretly making a list.

A kill list.

From the man on the Lidl checkout who always mishandles her apples, to the driver who cuts her off on her way to work, to the people who have got it coming, Rhiannon’s ready to get her revenge.

Because the girl everyone overlooks might be able to get away with murder…

Review-in-a-tweet: gloriously no-holds-barred, hilarious and disturbing peek into serial killer Rhiannon’s diary. Loved her kill lists!

The emotional ride: almost as crazy as Rhiannon herself! One minute you’re nodding along with her observations about the world, thinking ‘yeah, that’s it exactly’ and the next, recoiling in horror as she reminds you in full technicolour that she’s an actual serial killer.

Narrative style: I loved the diary mode of this, with Rhiannon’s daily thoughts and annoyances. It’s really up close and personal, so you’re never in any doubt why Rhiannon’s doing what she’s doing (or at least, why she thinks she’s doing what she’s doing, I suppose – but that could be a whole other book!)

Main character: fabulous and detailed in all her psychotic glory. I loved her ‘hit list’ approach to daily journalling – each daily entry begins with a numbered list of the people who’ve annoyed her/she’d love to kill. I also loved her dry wit and straight-talking. These were things that helped to make her behaviour seem reasonable, despite everything.

Supporting cast: others in the novel are also really well drawn, even though we see them all through Rhiannon’s obviously quite limited viewpoint. I enjoyed reading them through all her snark, although it is clear that she is surrounded by largely unlikeable people…

I definitely need to reiterate that this is an adult title. It may be the most inappropriate for a YA audience title that I have reviewed here. The humour is very black indeed and there is graphic sex and violence. I would not recommend this book to students as a teacher, although there are some sixth formers who I might mention it to discreetly in an unofficial capacity as I also know that almost all my students will definitely be seeing worse on TV than they would read here (but couldn’t have it said that ‘school’ in any way suggested reading this…!!). Having said all that, it was hilarious and I did have some embarrassment as I read on the bus to work – laughing is generally frowned on in that context…

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

Sweetpea is out now in the UK from HQ, who provided me with a review copy via NetGalley.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge. It is my fifth.

UK Crime Review: Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie

Today I am part of the review tour for a new UK crime novel, out in e-book this week.

Burned and Broken, Mark Hardie, (Sphere, e-book out Jan 2017, paperback May 2017).

Genres in the mix: crime, police procedural

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from the back cover) A vulnerable young woman, fresh out of the care system, is trying to discover the truth behind the sudden death of her best friend.

The charred body of a policeman – currently the subject of an internal investigation – is found in the burnt-out shell of his car on the Southend seafront.

To DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine Russell of the Essex Police Major Investigation Team, the two events seem unconnected. But as they dig deeper into their colleague’s murder, dark secrets begin to emerge.

Can Pearson and Russell solve both cases, before more lives are destroyed?

Mark Hardie was born in 1960 in Bow, East London. He began writing fulltime after completely losing his eyesight in 2002. He has completed a creative writing course and an advanced creative writing course at the Open University, both with distinction.

Review-in-a-tweet: An intriguing, if not always easy read, which certainly keeps you on your toes. No by-the-book crime thriller!

Narrative style: This is one of the things that makes this book different and, at times, difficult. The perspective/point of view shifts every chapter, and sometimes more frequently, not always with a clear anchor to indicate whose viewpoint we’re in within the first sentence or so. This said, the range of perspectives and ‘insider views’ offered as a result of this is useful and certainly adds to the intrigue, but I do feel it could be handled more tightly at times.

The material at the end of the book says that the author is a fan of both crime and literary fiction, and I think that shows in what he’s doing with the book. This is a relatively unusual crime novel in some ways, in that it is trying to avoid some of the conventions (which it perhaps sees as cliches). At times, however, it felt a bit too much like hard work, as I found myself lost as to whose ‘head’ I was in or even a little unsure as to what had just happened. Not one for late night reading when you’re dozy…

Main characters: I grew to admire DS Pearson, although I wasn’t enamoured of him at first. He doesn’t fit established crime series ‘types’ for the main character, which is nice – in a few key ways, this book does ignore/avoid conventions – and he isn’t always likeable, but not in a maverick cop/tough guy way. I really liked DC Russell though, and she had my sympathy from the start. I thought Hardie did a good job of painting a conflicted female character in a tough spot without resorting to the kinds of cliches male crime writers often have. Donna (the ‘vulnerable young woman’) also avoided some obvious cliches in her presentation I think and although her sections were often tough reading, I feel they were done well.

Hearthfire rating: 7/10 A book to cosy up with

Burned and Broken is out now in e-book format in the UK from Sphere (Little, Brown Books), who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

The blog tour continues tomorrow with these blogs taking part.

UKYA Review: Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

orangeboyOrangeboy, Patrice Lawrence, (Hodder, June 2016)

Genres in the mix: Contemporary realism

Age target: YA

Blurb saysNot cool enough, not clever enough, not street enough for anyone to notice me. I was the kid people looked straight through.

NOT ANY MORE. NOT SINCE MR ORANGE.

Sixteen-year-old Marlon has made his mum a promise – he’ll never follow his big brother, Andre, down the wrong path. So far, it’s been easy, but when a date ends in tragedy, Marlon finds himself hunted. They’re after the mysterious Mr Orange, and they’re going to use Marlon to get to him. Marlon’s out of choices – can he become the person he never wanted to be, to protect everyone he loves?

Review-in-a-tweet: Gripping, chilling and yet warm and gently told – this is a tale full of the poor (if somewhat inevitable) choices of a boy against whom the odds seem stacked from the first.

The emotional ride: edge-of-your-seat stuff. It’s easy to feel for Marlon from the beginning. I think having the first scene be what is so clearly a first date makes him so vulnerable that we readers easily identify with him and see what a fish out of water he is when everything starts getting serious.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: I’ll be recommending this for Black History month. Yes, I know it’s contemporary and very current and not at all historical, but there’s so much here about how young black people, boys especially, are treated and the expectations people have of them, that it seems really apt to me as a book about Black experience. I think that’s part of what Black History Month is about, so this goes firmly on my list.

Narrative style: The first person narration really helps to ‘get inside’ Marlon’s way of thinking, so it’s easy to understand why he does things, even when you can see (as an outsider) that he’s making the wrong choice.

Plotting and pacing: This is a strong aspect of the novel. It’s a pacey read, with plenty going on in poor Marlon’s life. There’s the whole ‘Mr Orange’ mystery, but there’s also plenty of conflict and mess in his family life too. I enjoyed the thread about his Dad, and the way this was linked in through music – I think that’s a key way a lot of people relate through the generations, which isn’t always noted, so it was nice to see it brought out here.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Thank you to Hodder for allowing me a review copy via Netgalley. For more info on the book see Goodreads, Patrice Lawrence’s blog or Twitter or the publisher’s site.

Release Day Blitz: Random Acts of Unkindness by Jacqueline Ward

Today I’m shining the spotlight on a new release that sounds intriguing. It’s the first in a new crime series.

Random acts of unkindnessRandom Acts of Unkindness

How far would you go to find your child?

DS Jan Pearce has a big problem. Her fifteen year old son, Aiden, is missing. Jan draws together the threads of missing person cases spanning fifty years and finds tragic connections and unsolved questions.

Bessy Swain, an elderly woman that Jan finds dead on her search for Aiden, and whose own son, Thomas, was also missing, may have the answers.

Jan uses Bessy’s information and her own skills and instinct to track down the missing boys. But is it too late for Aiden?

Set in the North West of England, with the notorious Saddleworth Moor as a backdrop, Random Acts of Unkindness is a story about motherhood, love and loss and how families of missing people suffer the consequences of major crimes involving their loved ones.

Random Acts of Unkindness is the first in the DS Jan Pearce series of novels.

Add it on Goodreads        Buy it at Amazon UK


Jacqueline Ward

Jacqueline WardJacqueline Ward writes short stories, novels and screenplays. She has been writing seriously since 2007 and has had short stories published in anthologies and magazines. Jacqueline won Kindle Scout in 2016 and her crime novel, Random Acts of Unkindness, will be published by Amazon Publishing imprint Kindle Press. Her novel SmartYellowTM was published by Elsewhen Press in 2015 and was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2016. Jacqueline is a Chartered psychologist who specializes in narrative psychology, gaining a PhD in narrative and storytelling in 2007. She lives in Oldham, near Manchester, with her partner and their dog.

Website      Twitter      Facebook


Read Chapter One…

I look a little closer and instinctively back away.
Her eyes are hollow holes where the birds have pecked away at her skull and she’s covered in tiny soft feathers and greying bird shit. Fragments of silvered hair lie on her shoulders, pulled out at the roots and exposing pinprick follicles made bigger by beaks. Her mouth is set in a wry smile showing yellow teeth, as if somehow, despite the torn skin and the deeply painful twist of her body, she’s having the last laugh.
The shock is so deep that it hurts more than it should, and tears threaten as I gaze at her. A human life ending in such a terrible, lonely way. It hits me with sadness so intense that I take a moment to sit with her, to tell her broken shell of a body that someone cares. Then fear oozes through the sadness, pushing it under and reminding me of why I’m here. Where are you, Aiden? Where is my son?
I slump onto a brown box sealed with Sellotape that’s sitting next to a small blue suitcase. It looks like this old woman was going somewhere. Somewhere she never got to.
Bessy Swain, by the looks of post on the doormat. A couple of bills and some takeaway menus. A letter from social services that arrived too late to make any difference.
As well as the boxes there are piles of newspapers and scrapbooks stacked up against ancient peeling sepia wallpaper. From the state of the house this woman has been suffering for a while. Poor Bessy.
Outside, starlings perch on the windowsill, quietly watching, judging me as I put off the inevitable phone call. Through the open kitchen door I can see a couple of blackbirds standing on the shed roof, and I can hear their song of accusation. I know I need to call this in and get Bessy some dignity, but I also need to finish what I came here to do.
The day job kicks in and I pull my scarf around my nose and mouth to protect my senses from the rancid fumes I hadn’t even noticed until now. My phone starts to ring, forcing me into the here and now.
I look at Bessy’s body and then at the flashing screen. Shit. It’s Mike. My partner in crime. Crime solving, that is. Like me, he’s a Detective Sergeant working on Special Operations.
‘Jan. Where the hell are you?’
I pause. How am I going to explain this? I take a big breath and then pull down my scarf.
‘Right, yeah. I was just . . .’
‘Looking for Aiden. Come on, you’re going to get us both sacked. You’re supposed to be in Lytham Road, attending the Operation Prophesy briefing.’
On the worn kitchen worktop that separates the lounge from the kitchen a dead starling stares at me, its dried eyes condemning me from the pits of death.
A small metal toaster holds the remains of two slices of bread, which have been pecked right down to the toaster elements. The dead bird is lying close to the toaster, its feathers puffed from electrocution.
How many birds are there in here?
In my hurry to get inside I hadn’t registered anything apart from needing to know if Aiden was here. But now, sitting here with my mobile hot against my cheek, I realise I am sitting in a house covered in bird feathers and faeces.
The back door slams shut in a gust of wind. A few stray starlings are flying about in the kitchen, but most of the birds are now outside, my entrance breaking open their jail. What I can’t understand is why the windowsills are covered in them, their wings and curled up feet scratching at the dirty glass.
Then I realise they want to get back in.
‘Jan? Jan? Are you there?’
I nod at my mobile phone.
‘Yep. Look, I’ll just finish off here. I got a tip off about there being a funny smell coming from a house and I thought . . .’
Mike sighs deeply.
‘I know exactly what you thought. But this has to stop. Or you have to do it in your own time. It’s not just your own life you’re fucking up here. I’m your partner and I’ll back you up, but there’s a line. There’s a fucking line. Where are you anyway?’
The secure safety net I have in Mike has started to fracture recently and it shatters a little more now with the pain in his voice. I desperately want to put it right, but I can’t. Not yet. I have to deal with this.
‘57 Ney Street, Ashton.’
‘Connelly’s rented houses, aren’t they? I’m telling you, you’re heading for trouble.’
I end the call there. He’s right. I’m heading for trouble. But put any parent in my position and try telling me they’d do differently. I have a good reason. Mike knows that, but he also knows that everyone else’s lives are moving on and he’s trying to drag me on with him.
I push the phone into my bag and I pull my scarf back up against the smell. It’s invaded my hair, clothes and skin, but the action gives me a bit of comfort and control.
There’s a sudden noise from upstairs and my heart skips. The memory of Aiden calls me back and overpowers the sensible part of my brain urgently screaming that maybe poor Bessy wasn’t alone after all. Maybe someone killed her. Maybe I shouldn’t be here on my own. Maybe I shouldn’t be here at all. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I tread the worn stair carpet and creep up, nudging open the first door on the right. It’s a boy’s bedroom, all red and white, Manchester United. So she has children. Or grandchildren? But no one is in here now.
Slowly I move on to the next door and there’s a flash of feathers. Two starlings fly past and circle the landing. Another flies at me as I step inside, hitting the side of my head. It’s a dull thud on the temple that causes a slight flash, then turns into a sickening stinging sensation. The shock bursts the tears that have been waiting to be shed since I found Bessy and not Aiden. I slump on an old double bed and touch my forehead, feeling for the dampness of blood, but luckily there is none. I shift my weight onto a pretty pink quilt and pillows for respite.
Suddenly, sitting alone in the empty house, I feel so very small and wish someone would tell me what to do next. Tell me how to find my son.
The thought that he could be captive, suffering, or dead suffocates me, and I feel my body begin to panic. Large hands squeezing my lungs. And then there’s another bird flapping, this time in a large wooden wardrobe. Sounds loosen the squeeze and I can breathe again. I need to finish this.
I open the double wardrobe door and duck out of the way this time as the bird escapes onto the landing, joining the others.
‘How did you get in there, little guy?’
They fly round and round, looking for a way out, some kind of escape, and I know how that feels. This release calms me somehow and I take an enormous breath and find raw comfort from the material of my scarf as it sucks into the crevices of my mouth.
There’s a chest lodged at the bottom of the wardrobe, like a forgotten treasure. It’s against regulations, it’s against everything I thought I stood for, but I open it anyway. I need to find out more about Bessy.
Inside, there’s another box and some papers, on top of a rolled-up baby shawl. Pink. She must have a son and a daughter.
I’m not sure what I’m searching for. A way to avoid it happening to me? What not to do. How to not die alone.
I open the inner box and there are bundles of twenty-pound notes. My fingers trace the smooth paper and lines of thick rubber bands. It isn’t often you see money like this, all rolled up and waiting for something important. My thoughts switch back to Aiden.
I remember his dark hair and angry teenage skin. I remember that I will do anything to get him home. And somehow, at this moment, the realisation of something happening to my son makes me stoop down and contemplate the unknown territory of stealing.
I’ve worked in the police force for almost two decades; I know how criminal minds work. I know that whoever has Aiden could come knocking any second, minute, hour, day now demanding money. I’m surprised they haven’t already. Time I have, but money I don’t and, as I realise the weight of a potential ransom, an intense panic prickles in my fingers. Before I can refuse this primal urge, I push the notes into my deep shoulder bag, along with the papers.
I know it’s wrong, of course; even as I’m doing it I sense my own desperation. I’m a member of the police force. I’m the most honest person I know, committed to catching the scum who do this sort of thing. Yet I can’t help myself. This is different. This is for Aiden. This could be the only way I will ever see my son again.
I’ve been involved in missing person cases before and I’ve looked at the mother, desperate and determined, and wondered how far you would go to find your child. Now I know. All the way Aiden, I’ll go all the way to find you, son.
I unravel the pink shawl, hoping I will, for a moment, lose myself inside someone else’s memories or pain instead of my own. No such luck. My hand touches fragile bone, and a tiny skeletal hand falls into mine.
I almost scream, but aren’t I Detective Sergeant Janet Pearce, Surveillance Specialist? Aren’t I hard? Tough? Impenetrable? I close the lid with shaking fingers and replace the box, hurrying now, fighting back tears. This is all wrong. It’s all too much and I rush downstairs.
My phone rings just as I’m standing in front of poor Bessy. Mike. Again.
‘Jan? Have you left there yet? You need to be here. We’re starting the briefing in half an hour and if you don’t make this one . . .’
The bag is heavy on my shoulder and pinching at the skin under my cotton T-shirt. I need to get it to my car before I ring this in, but now I have no choice. If I don’t say anything to Mike someone will suspect further down the line. I check my watch. I’ve been here ten minutes.
‘OK. I’ll be there. But I need to ring in a suspicious death.’
There’s a silence for a moment. I can hear him breathing. Mike knows what I’m going through. He gets it. He’s probably my best friend in the whole world right now. He speaks again.
‘Not . . . ?’
‘No. An old woman. Looks like natural causes, but a bit gruesome. Anyway. That’s what I found when I got here. I’ll wait until someone arrives, then I’ll be right with you.’
I sound composed, professional, but I’m still shaking. I hang up. He’ll be pleased, because I’ve got a legitimate excuse to miss the briefing. I hurry through the kitchen, out the door, and through the yard. The birds scatter then regroup on the telephone wires above.
My car’s in the back alleyway. I take the money and push it under the front seat. I push the letters into the elasticated pocket on the side of the door and pull my bag back onto my shoulder. Oh my God. What am I doing? I know this is so fucking wrong and I try to tell myself again that it’s necessary. But away from the drama of the house sense creeps in. If there was going to be a ransom from Connelly wouldn’t it have come weeks ago?
No. I can’t do it. I can’t. I pull out the money and push it back into my bag and hurry back to the house. What was I thinking? This isn’t me. The birds just sit there, their heads turning as they watch me rushing around. I try to shoo them away, because they are witnesses to my uncharacteristic misdemeanour, but they won’t go.
I move past Bessy, running now, and toward the narrow stairs, silently apologising for disturbing her secret.
But it’s too late. I see a blue flashing light against the darkness of the room and hear the back door open. Two uniformed police officers appear and someone is banging on the door.
Hugging my bag and shame to my chest, I fumble with the lock and open it. DS Jack Newsome, one of my opposite numbers in the regional police, pushes past me, followed by two uniformed officers.
‘Jesus Christ. That’s awful. How long’s it been here?’
I don’t like Jack. He hasn’t got a compassionate bone in his body. I find myself moving protectively between him and Bessy.
‘She, Jack, she. This is a person. A woman. She deserves a little respect.’
The word sticks on my tongue, heavy with mockery. Respectful, unlike me, who has just stolen her life savings. I’ve never felt guilt like this before, and I wonder how people can live with it. He smirks.
‘Right, Jan. She. How long has she been here?’
I see Bessy with fresh eyes. As Jack does, as any policeman would. Her faded dress is sagging in odd shapes against the decomposition of her body, and brown lace-up shoes sit the wrong way round, her ankles ballooning awkwardly in the crossed position they must have rested in as she died.
‘I don’t know, Jack. But I arrived fifteen minutes ago. Had a tip off about a bad smell and was just passing.’
He’s nodding and grinning. Yet underneath I can see his annoyance as he sighs and wipes his hand through his dark hair, then wipes tiny beads of perspiration away from his forehead. And, of course, the giveaway twitch at the corner of his eye that always tells me when Jack thinks he’s onto something.
‘Just passing, were you? A little bit out of town, isn’t it? Away from your usual place of work? So who was the tip off from?’
I smile now and wonder if it covers up my devastation.
‘Member of the public. In a public place. Just on my way to Ashton Market buying some bacon for the weekend when I heard two women talking about this property and the smell. Simple as that.’
He’s shaking his head.
‘OK, Jan, if that’s how you want it. I suppose all’s well that ends well.’
We look at Bessy. She’s someone’s mother. Like me.
‘Not for her, though. Which is why we’re here, not to find out the ins and outs of my shopping habits. No?’
Jack turns away now. He’s looking toward the kitchen. As he approaches the door, I hear a flutter of wings and beaks tapping on glass.
‘What the bloody hell? Get those birds out of here. And search the house. Get forensics down here, and we need a coroner’s wagon for the old bird here. Cover her up, John. She’s giving me the creeps.’
So the police machine swings into action. I stand there for a moment, wondering if there is a way for me to put the money back, but the two uniformed officers are upstairs now, battling with angry starlings.
I don’t mention that they will need two coroner’s vehicles, one for poor Bessy and one for the tiny baby. God only knows why she’s got a dead baby in her wardrobe. That poor woman must have had a terrible life if the state of this place is anything to go by. Without a word I leave by the front door and walk around to the back alley.
The houses are well maintained and I feel a little easier now the neighbours are out and I have a reason for being here. I get in my car and, with the bag still over my shoulder, drive off. In my rearview mirror the birds still watch, their heads cocking.
Two streets away, I pull up outside an old peoples’ home. I know this is a safe spot away from CCTV. My phone hasn’t even got a signal here. I’m a surveillance expert, latterly of the Communications Department, more lately promoted to DS in Special Operations. It’s my job to know these things.
Even so, guilt overwhelms me, and I remember when I first became a police detective; so full of goodwill and always on the side of the person who had been harmed. I spent hours poring over mind maps and evidence boards, midnight sessions in the operation room and endless visits to witnesses.
Sometimes when I lie awake at night thinking about Aiden, I wonder if I would have shuffled events in a different way this wouldn’t have happened. That always leads to me swearing that from now on I’ll do the right thing, be good, anything, as long as I get him back. Holding myself bolt upright, smiling, being polite, saying thank you; are they all little combinations to finding out what has happened?
In the clarity of daylight it all seems different. No hippy thinking will get me through the day. Action is needed. And, after all, in this game it’s almost impossible to be good all the time. The deeper you get into something, the more complex the relationships, the situations. Everyone’s got something on someone, and they’re going to use it at some point. Until now I’d kept my fingers out of the till, been good as gold. But this is different. This is personal.
I count the money. There’s forty-four thousand pounds. Jesus. I automatically scan the horizon for the signs I know are there, at the root of my suspicions of where my son is. Connelly. I see the scarves and shoes hanging from the telephone wires, silent messages in an unspoken world and my heart turns back to stone.
I push the money under the seat, still distraught that I took it, more distraught that I couldn’t put it back, and seeing no way to return it now. I decide that, in return for it, I’ll do what I can to see Bessy Swain’s case resolved. I’ll do what I can to find out why she had to hide a baby. Someone owes her that, at least.

Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

Random Acts of Unkindness is out today on Amazon UK
There will be a review tour in mid-July: watch this space for more details! Thanks to the lovely Faye (daydreaming star) of Daydreamer’s Thoughts for sharing the info with me.

 

 

Recommendations Round-up: Revision Season Special – Escapism All Round

As GCSE and A Level students are starting to knuckle down to some serious study, I thought I’d offer you a selection of recommended reads that do not feature school and definitely do not include characters deciding their careers. I’m not promising no-one thinks about the future in any of these, but this is not the place for school-set contemporaries, ok?

These are reads to take you far away from classrooms and exams and the kinds of conversations about the future that you’ve been having or are having regularly at the moment. Just don’t get too carried away and neglect the study, alright? (My best advice – use a timer for both study and relaxation, so you’re fully doing both at different times, and not having to feel guilty about reading when you should be studying or, worse, only half studying because you’re resentful about having no time to yourself).

Fantasy Genre – to really get away from reality

I’ve got quite a lot of good recs here, including YA and adult titles.

Fantasy revision readsOne of the hottest new YA titles around is Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands, which swishes together aspects of the Arabian Nights stories with elements of a good Western for some sharp-shootin’ fun with a fab female lead (who, naturally goes undercover as a fella at first to enter a shooting competition). If a UK setting – however fantasy-enriched – is more your scene, I have two great (and completed) series for you: The Night Itself by Zoe Marriott is the first in her urban fantasy series using Japanese folklore for the fantasy elements. This one all kicks off with her heroine’s (ill-advised, of course) usage of her family’s treasured katana for a fancy dress party. The second UKYA possibility here is Liz de Jager’s fab fae-focused series which opens with Banished, in which Kit, her protagonist, works to protect people from magical and mystical creatures intruding into our world. Naturally, things blow up and Kit finds herself in the middle of epic battles. Another UKYA fantasy tip, a series with two books out and a third to follow next year is The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury. Said daughter was removed from her family to live as a pampered assassin, able to kill with just a touch – her bare skin is lethal to all except the royal family,

Grisha & Throne of GlassFinally on the YA front, if you enjoy high fantasy (stories fully set in another world like Game of Thrones) and you haven’t yet discovered them, two US YA series to immerse yourself in are Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series, which opens with Shadow and Bone, and Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass. Both feature a kick-ass teen girl protagonist and offer complex characterisation and richly-imagined worlds. Bardugo’s series is complete as a trilogy, while Maas has 4 novels out and more to come.

For adult fantasy series, I have two quick recommendations for you (note: both have sexual content):

adult fantasy revision reads

  • The Jane True series by Nicole Peeler is a snarky urban fantasy in which Jane discovers that she is part selkie and meets other ‘supes’ (supernatural creatures) and ‘halflings’ like herself. Tempest Rising is the first instalment.
  • Undead and Unwed is the first in MaryJanice Dickinson’s very tongue in cheek series about a vampire. These are very light-hearted and funny books, somewhere between Sex in the City and Twilight.

Crime/Thriller genre – books set in our world but hopefully far from your reality…

crime recs for revision

For a great YA thriller, I recommend Tanya Byrne’s Heart-Shaped Bruise. Set in an institution, this tightly-narrated novel offers clear insight into a criminal’s journal. It’s a chilling and absorbing read.

Two recent adult-market crime thrillers that I recommend are In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. They’re quite different, but both superb. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a standalone thriller focusing on a woman who has inexplicably been invited to the hen weekend of an old schoolfriend in a secluded cottage deep in the woods. The novel opens with the woman in hospital, unable to remember what has happened, with police outside her room. Someone Else’s Skin, however, is the first in a police series featuring DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake. Books 2 and 3 are also now out and are equally good. I love this series because it’s gritty, UK-set and you get a good sense of the detective characters as well as a strong mystery/thriller.

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic

dystopian revision recs

Of course, another way to escape the here and now is to read about other societies, especially those with brutal regimes or those that are falling apart. Here are a few recs for those, all YA, and all UK. Do you fancy a creepy cult masquering as peace-loving earth-worshippers? Try Seed by Lisa Heathfield. Or a terrifying  post-apocalyptic world in which drugged-up supersoldiers have taken over? For that, read The Fearless by Emma Pass. Finally, you might enjoy a trilogy (2 books are out now) featuring a UK split into the pagan Greenworld (living in harmony with the environment) and the Redworld (exploiting the environment and being materialistic). Anna McKerrow’s Crow Moon starts with this premise and spins a magical battle there.

Whatever you choose, don’t forget: work AND rest!

March’s Reading Log

It’s time for the monthly round-up! These posts help keep track of the reading challenges I’m doing this year and also give a quick shout-out for all the books I’ve been reading (not just those I review).

I won’t give too much detail here (as this kind of post gets long really quickly) – just a quick summary of each book read and some stats. The book titles link to their Goodreads pages for more info.

Mar reads

The Sin Eater’s DaughterMelinda Salisbury, Scholastic, 2015, YA fantasy

Loved this well-crafted fantasy focusing on Twylla, taken from her family as the incarnation of the Gods’ daughter, Daunen Embodied. She can kill by touch with the poison that seeps out of her skin, yet miraculously leaves her unharmed. A great start to a new trilogy, with a satisfying conclusion to this phase of the story.

Crow Moon, Anna McKerrow, Quercus, 2015, YA fantasy

A brilliant read that I lapped up quickly and now have to wait a year for the sequel to. Set in the Greenworld, a pagan haven version of contemporary Cornwall and Devon, the novel focuses on a crisis for protagonist Danny, never really much of a believer in the pagan ways. Another trilogy-opener which concludes the initial story well. Definitely recommended for fantasy and/or dystopia fans.

Starring Kitty, Keris Stainton, Catnip, 2014, MG contemporary

Gorgeous MG/younger YA romance focusing on Kitty’s difficulties balancing friendship and first (same-sex) love against the backdrop of a film competition. This is the first in a series, each of which will focus on a different friend in the group – a great concept for exploring the contemporary world in detail. It’s also a brilliantly-executed example of how to ‘do’ diversity with great, relatable stories. Spotlight on Sunny, the second in the series is also out now and once my youngest has finished with it, I’ll be grabbing that too!

Jessica’s Ghost, Andrew Norriss, David Fickling, 2015, MG contemporary

This book really surprised me. Billed as a MG  ‘friendship’ novel, it tackles mental health issues and raises the idea of suicide without alienating or frightening the target age group. I’ll be astonished if this isn’t on prize shortlists next year but please don’t be put off by the ‘worthiness’ I’m implying here.  most importantly, I really enjoyed it – it’s a great read.

Marly’s Ghost, David Levithan, Egmont, 2015, YA contemporary

This Valentine-themed reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol makes a fabulous read. I loved the fidelity to the original in many small details, rendered with a hefty dose of creativity and originality. My reading of it was definitely enhanced by knowledge of the Dickens, but I’m sure it would still be a greatly satisfying contemporary read without that.

How to Fly with Broken Wings, Jane Elmore, Hodder Children’s, 2015, MG contemporary

I greatly enjoyed this gentle contemporary about finding out who you are and what matters, set on a London housing estate during a series of riots. Dual narration from the points of view of Willem, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and Sasha, whose boyfriend bullies Willem. Definitely recommended for around 9+.

The Testimony of the Hanged Man, Ann Granger, Headline, 2015, adult crime

This is the fifth in the series, but the first I’d read. I had no trouble following it and am definitely interested in reading more in the series. It’s great to read a Victorian London-set mystery with dual narration from the Police Inspector MC and also his wife, who does her own investigation. A relatively gentle crime and a mystery to enjoy.

Nightbird, Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 2015, MG fantasy

I’d loved other Hoffman novels (for adults) which I’d read and found this both really true to form – focused on families, identities within families, and magic – and beautifully rendered for the younger age group. A great read for 9+ fans of contemporary stories with a touch of magic.

Bomb, Sarah Mussi, Hodder Children’s, 2015, YA thriller

I enjoyed this pacey thriller with relentless danger and breathless narrative style. It’s absolutely recognisably Sarah Mussi – if you liked Siege and/or Riot, you’ll like this too. If you haven’t tried her before, read her for a high action, high stakes political thriller.

True Face, Siobhan Curham, 2015, Faber and Faber, YA self-help

I haven’t read a self-help book for teens before but am thoroughly impressed with this one. Focused on living an authentic life and ignoring unhelpful and potentially damaging media messages, this book leads teen readers through a series of exercises to rediscover their own interests and feelings, and to bring their own desires to the forefront of their lives. I’m definitely recommending this empowering read to girls of 13+.

Challenges Progress this month – books read:

UKYA/UKMG titles: The Sin Eater’s Daughter, Crow Moon, Starring Kitty, Jessica’s Ghost, How to Fly with Broken Wings, Bomb

own book: The Sin Eater’s Daughter, Crow Moon, Starring Kitty

TBR-escapee: Testimony of the Hanged Man

Reviews published this month:

Full reviews: The Sky Is Everywhere, Jessica’s Ghost

eligible for British Books Challenge: Jessica’s Ghost

eligible for Dive Into Diversity ChallengeJessica’s Ghost (representation of mental health)

Plans for next month

To review more! March has been very busy for me and, although I’ve managed to tuck away a good few reads, this hasn’t translated into many reviews – yet. This is something I definitely plan to remedy in April.

February’s Reading Log

It’s time for the monthly round-up! These posts help keep track of the reading challenges I’m doing this year and also give a quick shout-out for all the books I’ve been reading (not just those I review).

I won’t give too much detail here (as this kind of post gets long really quickly) – just a quick summary of each book read and some stats. The book titles link to their Goodreads pages for more info.

Despite February being a fabulously bookish month for me (I went to two brilliant events: the launch of Arsenic for Tea and the first UKYA Extravaganza), I did less well than in January with 7 books completed and many of my personal challenge aims missed (although I did read both British Books and Diverse Books).

Oh well, better luck next month!

Feb reads

Arsenic for TeaRobin Stevens, Random House Children’s, 2015, 9+ historical mystery

Set in the 1930s, this is a classic Country House Murder Mystery for kids. It’s the second in the Wells and Wong series which started with Murder Most Unladylike. I cannot recommend this highly enough – both for kids and for adult fans of boarding school series and/or kids’ crime. A triumph of diverse representation as well as a brilliantly conceived mystery.

Close Your Pretty Eyes, Sally Nicholls, Scholastic, 2013, YA contemporary with chiller/thriller elements

I really enjoyed this: clever first person narrative, heartbreaking in places, great is-it-or-isn’t-it haunting plot. Hard to classify, or to sum up briefly. If a damaged narrator (she’s 11 and on her 16th home…) and a vengeful ghost appeals at all, definitely pick it up.

Counting by 7s, Holly Goldberg Sloan,  Piccadilly Press, 2013, YA contemporary

A quirky read that grew on me fairly rapidly: by the end I was definitely rooting for Olivia and the bizarre group of people she had surrounded herself with. The story of a teenage genius who loses both parents in a car accident, this is also about family and community an identity. Worth sticking with.

The Dead Men Stood Together, Chris Priestley, Bloomsbury, 2013, YA chiller/horror

Fabulously inventive re-imagining of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which I believe would be a brilliantly enjoyable tale even if you didn’t know the original. Reading it from a position of being familiar with the story, however, it is impossible not to admire how Priestley has filled in the gaps and made it a solid YA horror/chiller for today.

All The Truth That’s In Me, Julie Berry, Templar, 2013, YA historical

I remember seeing a lot of hype about this one and was disappointed when it came to reading it myself. I found the narration quite disorienting (it’s like a letter directly addressed to another character) but the mystery of what has happened to the central character – she was kidnapped and returned around two years later with her tongue cut out – is intriguing enough to carry it.

The Sky Is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson, Walker, 2010, YA contemporary

This book is just lovely, which is an odd thing to say about a book that focuses on grief and mourning, I know, but it is also about love and forgiveness and families – and poetry. It’s also extraordinarily well-done. I loved Lennie’s poems shared within the pages and also the quirkiness of her family. Highly recommended for those who love a convincingly emotional YA novel.

Bird, Crystal Chan, Tamarind, 2014, YA contemporary

This is a great read in terms of diversity, focusing as it does on a Jamaican-Mexican-American family and particularly discussing clashes in the beliefs and traditions of those different cultures. It does so very well, and is another heartbreaking family story. I definitely enjoyed its dreamy and lyrical qualities and would recommend it for 12+ readers.

Challenges Progress this month – books read:

I did so much less well this month in terms of challenges! No TBR-reduction, no personal challenge met and no own (as in neither review nor for school) books read. Oops!

UKYA/UKMG titles: Arsenic for Tea, Close Your Pretty Eyes, The Dead Men Stood Together.

Reviews published this month:

Full reviews: Arsenic for Tea, Squishy McFluff, The Weight of Souls,

eligible for British Books Challenge: Arsenic for Tea, Squishy McFluff,

eligible for Dive Into Diversity Challenge: Arsenic for Tea (narrator is from Hong Kong)

Plans for next month

To prioritise my challenges (which, remember, I did set for myself, after all!)

To read some of the books I picked up at the fabulous UKYA Extravaganza.

Bookish Adventures: Arsenic for Tea launch in Cambridge

arsenic for tea propsMy youngest daughter and I spent a lovely afternoon yesterday in Cambridge for the launch of Robin Steven’s marvellous middle-grade mystery, Arsenic for Tea.

We enjoyed reading time on the train (and my daughter was excited that there was a refreshments trolley, like Harry Potter – although there were no chocolate frogs at all!).

The launch itself was great. Look at the lovely spread! We were particularly impressed by Daisy’s birthday cake and the Poirot-moustache cup cakes, not to mention the lovely props table next to the Reading Throne 🙂

Robin read the tea scene from her book and then she cut the cake and we all dug in. (Nobody was injured).

arsenic for tea launch

My daughter really enjoyed the detective quiz and ‘how to plan a Wells and Wong mystery’ sheet provided and she is beyond thrilled with her signed books (and with her moustachioed photograph with Robin!). I have to say, having read both books in their kindle forms, it is quite exciting to be able to see the gorgeous maps in print – they really are a lovely additional touch.

Jpeg

UKMG Review: Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens

arsenic for teaThis book is brilliant! I loved this at least as much as I loved the first in the series, Murder Most Unladylike. This series is shaping up to be a great read for 9-12 kids, but also a wonderfully nostalgic treat for adult readers who enjoyed school stories like Blyton’s or the Chalet School books.

Goodreads Summary:

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t really about Daisy at all. Naturally, Daisy is furious.

Then one of their party falls seriously, mysteriously ill – and everything points to poison.

With wild storms preventing anyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem – and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy looks suspicious, the Detective Society must do everything they can to reveal the truth . . . no matter the consequences.

The plot of Arsenic for Tea is skilfully worked. Even as an adult and a lifetime murder mystery reader, I failed to correctly guess whodunit – I’m choosing to see that as evidence of Robin Steven’s skill and not anything else 🙂 As with the first novel, I changed my mind a couple of times as she led me merrily down the wrong corridor entirely.

Characterisation is also excellent: everyone loves Hazel and Daisy and it is great to see a realistic friendship for this age group without constant high drama and hurtfulness – yes, that is a reality sometimes, but not always. Hazel’s status as ‘other’ (she’s Chinese) allows her to make fabulous insights into English society of the 1930s, as well as strike a chord with child readers and demonstrate how diversity in children’s books can be done really well in a genre story without becoming the dreaded ‘issue book’. In no way is the story ‘about’ Hazel’s foreignness, but it definitely adds an edge and raises questions of its own for MG readers to think about at a safe distance (this IS the 1930s, after all!)

As an adult who grew up on Blyton’s school stories, the whole language and routines of boarding school life (bunbreak, brick, prep) are an absolute delight to me. There is something gloriously nostalgic and comforting about these stories, although they are entirely contemporary in many ways (some of the plot details I am sure would never have been broached by Blyton and there is the positive attitude to diversity, of course).

first class murderI love that this book takes us out of Deepdean, the girls’ school, and instead creates a classic country house mystery by sending Hazel to spend the holidays with Daisy at Fallingford. (I’m also excited that the next is called First Class Murder and features a train on the cover – I think Robin Stevens is working her way through cosy mystery tropes!!) Incidentally, while I’m telling you about things I’m excited about: my youngest and I are going to the launch of Arsenic for Tea in Cambridge Waterstones tomorrow. If I can remember to take pictures and not just fangirl, I’ll share more about that on Sunday.

All in all, I hope it’s clear that I am absolutely recommending this one to everyone from about 9 upwards. It’s also Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February, so very easy to get hold of (check out the Pinterest board of displays that Robin Stevens has collected, as many Waterstones branches have gone all out for this one!)

Arsenic for Tea is out now from Random House Children’s Books. I am very grateful to have been allowed a review copy via NetGalley.

Reading is… #1: Reading is a comfy blanket

Welcome to my new series! Reading is… where I’ll explore the reading experience, along with some recommendations for books that fit that particular category for me.

Today’s topic is how reading is like a comfy, cosy blanket, or something warming and comforting. One of the many reasons we read is for the comfort of the familiar. How often has your enjoyment of a book been enhanced by its relation to your uniqueness? Whether it’s a familiar place, experience or interest, books with that personal link never fail to make a connection.

Familiar places

sea books

I grew up in East Anglia, living on the coast for several childhood years, and on the Norfolk Broads for my mid-late teens. This makes books set in this region, or with similar characteristics, comfy and familiar to me.

That’s definitely one of the reasons I enjoyed Kendall Kulper’s The Witch of Salt and Storm so much recently – although this is very much an insular, island fishing community and I grew up in a touristy seaside town, the sounds and smells of the sea were so brilliantly evoked as to feel homely. I’m also familiar with a fair bit of fishing community tradition in the way of shanties and ballads, having spent a considerable amount of time in folk pubs in my youth and many of those old tunes came back to me as I read.

Familiarity with the setting was also a factor in my enjoyment of The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths. Set in North Norfolk and making great use of a fictionalised salt marsh landscape, this crime series opener felt wonderfully bleak and unforgiving.

Familiar experiences

Teentalk recommends

speech recs 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I teach English – mostly Language – to teens, including things like how conversation works and how language varies around the UK (and world) and between different age groups. This makes me particularly aware of how teens speak, both from being surrounded by teens most days and from teaching them to actively  analyse their own and others’ speech patterns. So, as I have blogged before, I am especially fond of UKYA and UKMG books which evoke this speech well. I have highlighted the keen skills of James Dawson, Keris Stainton and Keren David at this before, but would now add recommendations on this count for Zoe Marriott’s marvellous trilogy opening with The Night Itself; Ruth Warburton’s A Witch in Winter series and Non Pratt’s Trouble.

Familiar specialist knowledge

folklore fantasy

 

 

 

 

 

One of my interests is folklore, ranging from fairy and folk tales to beliefs in fae creatures and moon lore. I have loved many fantasy novels for their use of these elements, but recent particular folklore-focused reads have been Liz de Jager’s Banished, Katy Moran’s Hidden series and Katherine Langrish’s West of the Moon, which in quite different ways centre on the traditional notions of fae creatures as a threat. While the Banished series is a sharp urban fantasy, with occasional forays into the fae realm, the Hidden series has a more ethereal quality, feeling more timeless and less contemporary. West of the Moon is aimed at a younger audience (the others are both YA) and is set clearly in the past, in a time when belief in trolls was part of everday life.

So, these are some of the books that have evoked a comfy blanket feel for me (some despite their less-than-comfy subject matter!) due to familiar elements within them. I suppose the other large category of comfy books would be those that are repeatedly re-read. I tend not to do that, although I have read through the Harry Potter series more than once and have revisited some childhood favourites with my own children.

Of course, as well as reading to see the familiar, we also read to seek out the Other, and that will be the topic of my next Reading Is… post. What gives a book that comfy blanket quality for you?