Ali Land’s debut novel asks: is blood thicker than water?

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

‘Forgive me when I tell you it was me. It was me that told. The detective. A kindly man, belly full and round. Disbelief at first. Then, the stained dungarees I pulled from my bag. Tiny. The teddy bear on the front peppered red with blood. I could have brought more, so many to choose from. She never knew I kept them.’

Annie’s mother is a serial killer. The only way she can stop her is to hand her in to the police. As her mother’s trial looms, the secrets of her past won’t let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family to give her a fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But blood is thicker than water.

This book is gripping from the first page to the last, building up suspense until the reader’s every muscle is tensed with dread at what is going to happen next. It’s undeniably very dark, with some troubling subject matter, but it’s perfect for those who like their thrillers to unsettle and make their skin crawl.

The twists and turns aren’t exactly surprising but Land’s writing more than makes up for it. She knows that a few carefully chosen words can be more powerful than paragraphs of description; splashes of blood on a child’s discarded clothing are more disturbing than seeing the body, and peering through the keyhole can be more terrifying than throwing open the door. It’s claustrophobic and so immersive you’ll find your heart racing and your breath catching in your throat.

Annie is an incredible narrator, struggling to forget who she was and focus on who she might be. But her mother’s presence looms over everything she does, every word she speaks, and despite her best efforts she finds herself slipping back into old habits. She is adept at manipulation, knows just what to say and how to act to get what she wants, but her damaged childhood means she isn’t always in control of herself.

All the characters surrounding Annie are also realistically portrayed. Even those who veer towards stereotype have enough flawed edges to mark them out from the crowd and make the reader care about what happens to them.

The plot does require some suspension of disbelief, but if you’re able to let that go you’re sure to find lots to enjoy here. Good Me Bad Me is an incredible debut novel, and I would highly recommend it.

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A fantastic piece of historical escapism from bestselling author Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

‘Beauty is your gift from God and it should be used and not squandered. Study this face as if it were a map of the ocean, your own trade route to the Indies. For it will bring you its own fortune. But always believe what the glass tells you. Because while others will try to flatter you, it has no reason to lie.’

1527. With their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her companion dwarf Bucino escape the sack of Rome. They head for the shimmering, decadent city of Venice, where the sins of pleasure and the pleasures of sin lead them both down new and dangerous paths.

This was the only book of Sarah Dunant’s five Italian Renaissance novels that I hadn’t read. There was no reason to think that it would fail to live up to the expectation of her other great books, as In the Company of the Courtesan is a fantastic piece of historical escapism, a novel rich in the sights and sounds and smells of the 16th century.

This is a story where brutality and beauty go hand in hand. Dunant is never one to shy away from descriptions of blood and gore; the sack of Rome is described as intimately as any bedroom scene. The perfumed rooms of the wealthy are contrasted with the filth and poverty of the poorer parts of Venice, and during Fiammetta’s sensual morning routine she uses ingredients such as mercury and dove entrails to make her skin flawless and her hair shine. At every step Dunant never lets us forget the squalor beneath the splendour.

The two characters at the heart of this story – the narrator Bucino and his mistress Fiammetta – are a wonderful double act, their relationship adding welcome flashes of humour to what is a dark tale at its heart. Fiametta is far more than just a courtesan; she has trained herself to be witty and intelligent, just as talented at playing the lute as she is at plucking her clients’ strings, and she is always searching for a way to further her status, always calculating how much she can get away with. Bucino, as a dwarf and therefore an outsider, offers a unique perspective tinged with sadness and pathos.

Dunant’s descriptions of decadently beautiful Venice made me long to visit the city. Her original characters rub shoulders with real people from the time period, including writer Pietro Aretino and the painter Titian. The ballrooms lit by candles placed between the ribcages of skeletons, the narrow twisting streets and waterways of Venice, and the vaulting Catholic churches are conjured so vividly that you will look up from the book only to be surprised that you aren’t standing in Italy.

Sarah Dunant is a wonderful historical fiction writer and, for those who have yet to read any of her books, In the Company of the Courtesan offers the perfect place to start.

New book releases for September 2017

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories

This collection of short stories is the result of eight authors being given after-hours freedom at their chosen English heritage site, immersed in history, atmosphere and rumours of hauntings.

There’s nothing I love more than a truly chilling ghost story, and these short stories from authors including Sarah Perry, Mark Haddon, Andrew Michael Hurley and Jeanette Winterson promise to be the perfect read for that time of the year when the nights start closing in.

Release date: 28th September

Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens by Alison Weir

The first in an epic new series, this is the story of England’s medieval queens, stripping away romantic mythology to reveal the real lives of these royal women in the century after the Norman Conquest.

I’m a fan of Alison Weir’s historical fiction but I’ve never read any of her non-fiction. This new release promises to tell the untold and often ignored tale of England’s early queens.

Release date: 28th September

The Ravenous by Amy Lukavics

When the youngest daughter of the Cane family, Rose, dies in a tragic accident, her sisters are devastated. And when she is brought back from the dead, they are relieved. But soon they discover that Rose must eat human flesh to survive, and when their mother abandons them, the sisters will find out how far they’ll go to keep their family together.

This book sounds bizarre and horrifying in equal measure, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

Release date: 26th September

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

Liza Cole, a novelist whose career has seen better days, has one month to write the thriller that could land her back on the bestseller list. As the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur, Liza’s husband is arrested for the murder of his best friend, forcing Liza to face up to the truths about the people around her.

I’m still searching for the 2017 thriller that will really blow my socks off; I’m hoping this one could do just that.

Release date: 28th September

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

In a quiet town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a school playing field. As journalists flock to the scene, one of them catches a teacher, Nate Winters, embracing a student. The student claims she and Nate are having an affair, sending shockwaves through the close-knit community. Then the student disappears, and the police have only one suspect.

Described as ‘harrowing’ and ‘a haunting mystery’, this book promises to be full of twists and turns.

Release date: 26th September

Eight Ghosts SV

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

Jerusalem, 1119. A small group of knights seeking a purpose in the violent aftermath of the First Crusade set up the Knights of Templar, a band of elite warriors. Over the next 200 years, the Templars would become the most powerful religious order of the medieval world.

I’m trying to read more non-fiction this year and, as I don’t know much about the Crusades, this book from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones sounds very intriguing.

Release date: 19th September

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Paul loves his wife. But he also wants to get rid of her. So he promises her a romantic weekend getaway, and with every hour that passes he ticks off another stage in his carefully constructed plan.

A new thriller from a bestselling author, this book has been described as ‘fast-paced, dark, and slightly disturbing’.

Release date: 7th September

The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay

In 1860, a 70-year-old widow named Mary Emsley was found dead in her home, killed by a blow to the back of her head. What followed was a murder case that gripped the nation, a locked room mystery which baffled even legendary Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The case has finally been solved by author Sinclair McKay, in this captivating study of a 19th century murder.

I do love a bit of true crime and this Victorian murder mystery sounds right up my street.

Release date: 7th September

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, the women become feral and violent. In West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women’s prison, affecting all the inmates except one.

I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King, but any new release from the master of horror (plus his first full-length collaboration with his son) deserves a mention.

Release date: 26th September

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

15 years ago in small-town New Jersey, a teenage boy and girl were found dead. Most people concluded it was a tragic suicide pact. The dead boy’s brother, Nap Dumas, did not. Now Nap is a cop, but he’s a cop who plays by his own rules, and who has never made peace with his past.

I have a soft spot for Harlan Coben; his books are always fun and easy to read (even if all his female characters are the same person) and his standalone novels are often his best.

Release date: 26th September

Dark and disturbing thriller about the power of family ties

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

‘On the nights my words cut deepest, sliced quick and deadly as scalpels, her eyes practically bulged from her face, and I was filled with a rotten, hellish joy because at least she was finally looking at me. At least she finally, finally saw me.’

The Roanoke girls seem to have it all. But there’s a dark truth about them which is never spoken. Every girl either runs away, or dies. Lane is one of the lucky ones. When she was 15, over one scorching summer at her grandparents’ estate in rural Kansas, she found out what it really means to be a Roanoke girl. Lane ran, far and fast. Until 11 years later, when her cousin Allegra goes missing, and Lane has no choice but to go back.

If I was asked to describe this book I would say it was a cross between the sweltering atmosphere of The Dry by Jane Harper and the twisted themes of Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The story is set in the small town of Osage Flats, surrounded by miles of empty, dusty countryside beneath a scorching sun. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and creepy. Never once are you allowed to forget the heat, the threat just around the corner, and the feeling of dread only increases as you are drawn further into the story.

Lane is a compelling narrator, a woman struggling with a past that has twisted her emotions until love and hate have become irrevocably intertwined. Like Gillian Flynn’s protagonists, she isn’t always likeable; she hurts people just because she can and she runs away instead of confronting her issues. Lane isn’t cookie cutter; she isn’t the clichéd ‘strong female character’ who so often populate thrillers and crime novels. She is flawed but her broken edges make her fierce. Dare to cross her, and she goes for the jugular.

The writing is deliciously dark, drawing you into the story and making it impossible to look away, even when you wish you could. At times it’s a little on-the-nose and could have used more subtlety, but overall I really enjoyed it and would definitely read more from this author in the future.

Engel moves smoothly between past and present, managing to make both sides of the story equally engaging. The ending is satisfying, if a little predictable, and ventures into twee territory at the very end, which is a real shame considering the darkness of the rest of the novel.

The Roanoke Girls is a story about the power of family ties and the kind of secrets that corrupt from the outside in. An unsettling read, and one you’ll continue to think about long after turning the final page.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Philippa Gregory’s new novel shows women navigating dangerous political waters

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

‘I love my father because I know that he will never die. Neither will I. We are chosen by God and we walk in His ways, and we never swerve from them. We don’t have to earn our place in heaven by bribing God with acts or Masses. We don’t have to eat bread and pretend it is flesh, drink wine and call it blood. We know that is folly for the ignorant and a trap for papist fools. This knowledge is our pride and glory.’

This is the true story of the three Grey sisters: Jane, Queen of England for nine days; Katherine, whose lineage makes her a threat to the rightful succession; and Mary, a dwarf disregarded by the court but all too aware of her position as a possible heir to the throne.

I’m a huge fan of Philippa Gregory, particularly her Tudor novels, and she has claimed that this one will be her final story in a popular series spanning 11 books.

Gregory has once again proven why she is the queen of historical fiction. Her characters are women navigating dangerous political waters, aware that even taking the precaution of closing all the windows and doors isn’t enough to ensure they won’t be overheard by spies. Even an innocent remark can lead to a charge of treason, and the monarch is able to hold men and women in the Tower at their leisure without charging them of any crime.

The Grey sisters are each very different. We have pious Jane, an innocent but devout girl at the heart of a treasonous plot to sit her on the throne of England; wilful and light-hearted Katherine, who marries for love against the Queen’s wishes; and Mary, little in stature but possessing more dignity than anyone else at court. Around these three characters Gregory crafts an intriguing story of family and treachery, jealousy and passion.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is its exploration of the ‘last Tudor’ referenced in the title: Queen Elizabeth I. When most people think of Elizabeth they imagine her as queen in a time of glory and momentous change, when Shakespeare was writing, the New World was just discovered, and the monarch presided over a court full of the brightest minds of their generation. Gregory’s novel shows an altogether different side of Elizabeth, painting her, through the eyes of the Grey sisters, as vain, vindictive and needlessly cruel.

The main problem in this book is that the narrators spend such an awful lot of their time locked behind bars, unable to even make contact with anyone outside. As such we hear of the important political events taking place in England from characters who aren’t actually witnessing them first hand.

The other aspect of this book I had trouble with is the fact that there is next to no character development. We are introduced to each of the Grey sisters at the start of the novel, and they remain the same until the very end. I prefer my characters to change over the course of a story, watching them develop and grow, and that is something the reader definitely doesn’t get from this book.

Despite its flaws, Gregory has once again succeeded in what she does best: taking real women from history and giving them a voice. She has stuck to her traditional formula and as such her fans will find much to love here. I’ll be keen to see what she comes up with once she frees herself from facts and comes up with her own original characters.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

First fantasy novel from historical fiction author Conn Iggulden

Darien by C.F. Iggulden

No one wanted to be cast out, to have to go to the city for work. There were no good endings there, everyone knew that. When young girls ran off to Darien, their parents even held a simple funeral, knowing it was much the same. Perhaps to warn the other girls, too.

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king. It will summon strangers to the city – Elias Post, a hunter; Tellius, an old swordsman; Arthur, a boy who cannot speak; Daw Threefold, a chancer and gambler; Vic Deeds, who feels no guilt; and Nancy, whose talent might be the undoing of them all.

Darien is the first fantasy novel from historical fiction powerhouse Conn Iggulden. I only discovered Iggulden this year and am halfway through his Wars of the Roses series, which I absolutely love. When I heard he was crossing over into fantasy I was beyond excited to see what he would come up with. Though Darien isn’t without its flaws, there is lots here for fantasy fans to enjoy.

The world Iggulden has created is interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, but I wish he had gone into more detail. The political system of 12 ruling families wasn’t really explained and the magic system was interesting but also could have benefited from more detail. 350 pages isn’t really enough for an epic fantasy novel and it seems Iggulden made the choice to sacrifice world-building in order to spend more time fleshing out his characters.

Which explains why the characters are the strongest part of this book. They each have their own motives and have interesting backgrounds, and keep the reader emotionally engaged in the outcome of the story. The only place where Iggulden falls down is with Nancy, who comes across as the archetypal Strong Female Character and is subjected to a forced and unnecessary romance.

Iggulden is a master at pacing and the final conflict displays his skill at writing battle scenes while never losing sight of his characters’ human nature. It is a tense, exciting finale and one that will have you eagerly anticipating the next in the series.

Darien is not the perfect fantasy novel, but it was a good opening to a series, leaving enough questions unanswered to make you want to come back for more. I just hope Iggulden fleshes out his fantasy world a little more with the sequel.

Many thanks to Penguin for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Dark Peter Pan retelling has edges sharp enough to cut

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

Peter brings Jamie to his island because there are no rules and no grownups to make them mind. He brings boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper then a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Peter promised they would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

I picked up Lost Boy in Waterstones without ever having heard of it or its author before. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I haven’t been this excited to write about a book in a long while. This Peter Pan prequel turned out to be one of those unexpected reads that comes out of nowhere and completely knocks your socks off.

This is a brilliant novel. Fairy tale retellings are 10 a penny but this one is different; it has edges sharp enough to cut and will keep you up way past your bedtime. Henry creates incredible suspense – even though everyone already knows the story – so that you’re never sure what is just around the corner, or waiting on the next turn of the page.

Our narrator is Jamie, a boy who has been living on Peter Pan’s island for as long as he can remember. During all those years of never growing up, Jamie has looked up to Peter, has loved him with all his heart and trusted him always. But things are changing on the island, and Jamie starts to see Peter in a new light.

The Peter Pan of this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cares only for fun and games, for adventures and laughter, but what matters to him most is that the other boys all adore him. The moment one of them starts to doubt him is the moment they no longer matter to him, and there are plenty of ways on the island for a careless boy to disappear.

Lost Boy is strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its group of boys trapped on an island, the captivating claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense that something very, very bad is just seconds away from happening.

In Henry’s hands the sugar-sweet Disney-fied version of Peter Pan becomes a terrifying portrait of a ‘mad child’ whose idea of fun is killing pirates and watching boys fight to the death. The other boys are little more than toys that he picks up and puts down as he wishes, but he is so charming and brave that they can’t help but love him. Only Jamie understands Peter’s true cruel, manipulative nature, but even he isn’t immune to Peter’s influence.

I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan, the characters and gripping storytelling will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it leads you to its thrilling, inexorable end.