Top 5: My most anticipated summer reads

The Good Daughter
Author: Karin Slaughter
Publication date: 13 July

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind…

Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn’s happy smalltown family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father – Pikeville’s notorious defence attorney – devastated. And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.

Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer herself – the archetypal good daughter. But when violence comes to Pikeville again – and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatised – Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it’s a case which can’t help triggering the terrible memories she’s spent so long trying to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime which destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won’t stay buried for ever…

Why I’m looking forward to it: Karin Slaughter is one of my go-to crime writers and one of the few that I auto-buy. She’s great at writing gripping stories with plot twists that I don’t see coming.

The Word is Murder
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publication date: 24 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: A wealthy woman strangled six hours after she’s arranged her own funeral. A very private detective uncovering secrets but hiding his own. A reluctant author drawn into a story he can’t control. What do they have in common?

(So far, so enigmatic! But then I saw this blurb on Horowitz’s website…)

Summary from Horowitz’s website: It’s been two years since Injustice aired and Detective Daniel Hawthorne needs cash. Having gotten himself fired from his job at the Metropolitan police, Hawthorne decides to approach Anthony Horowitz. He’s investigating a bizarre and complex murder and he wants Anthony to write a book about it, a bestselling book of course, with a 50/50 split. The only catch is they need to solve the crime.

But award winning crime writer Anthony Horowitz has never been busier in his life. He’s working on Foyle’s War and writing his first Sherlock Holmes novel. He has a life of his own and doesn’t really want to be involved with a man he finds challenging to say the least. And yet he finds himself fascinated by the case and the downright difficult detective with the brilliant, analytical mind. Would it be really such a crazy idea for Anthony to become the Watson to his Holmes? The Hastings to his Poirot? Should he stick to writing about murder? Or should he help investigate?

Why I’m looking forward to it: This sounds really interesting – Anthony Horowitz has actually written himself into this novel as a character. I recently read and really enjoyed Magpie Murders, which featured a book within a book, and this seems like it will be equally unique. I’m hoping that this latest novel lives up to my high expectations!

The Readymade Thief
Author: Augustus Rose
Publication date: 10 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Lee Cuddy is seventeen years old and on the run, alone on the streets of Philadelphia. A fugitive with no money, no home and nowhere to go, Lee finds refuge in a deserted building known as the Crystal Castle. But the Castle conceals a sinister agenda, one master-minded by a society of fanatical men set on decoding a series of powerful secrets hidden in plain sight. And they believe Lee holds the key to it all.

Aided by Tomi, a mysterious young hacker, Lee escapes into the unmapped corners of the city. But the deeper she goes underground, the more tightly she finds herself bound in the strange web of the men she’s trying to elude. Aware that the lives of those she cares for are in increasing danger, it is only when Lee steps from the shadows to confront who is chasing her that she discovers what they’re really after, and why.

Why I’m looking forward to it: I haven’t read a good thriller in ages. I also love a conspiracy plot. This sounds like a cross between I Am Pilgrim and The Da Vinci Code, and a perfect summer read.

The Music Shop
Author: Rachel Joyce
Publication date: 13 July

Amazon/Goodreads summary: 1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann. Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind…

Why I’m looking forward to it: I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and while I wasn’t as keen on Perfect, I still think the Rachel Joyce is a really talented author. She has a real skill in creating characters and settings that leap off the page. This sounds like it could be a really interesting story and I’m excited to read it.

The Last Tudor
Author: Philippa Gregory
Publication date: 8 August

Amazon/Goodreads summary: Jane Grey was Queen of England for nine days. Using her position as cousin to the deceased king, her father and his conspirators put her on the throne ahead of the king’s half-sister Mary, who quickly mustered an army, claimed her crown and locked Jane in the Tower. When Jane refused to betray her Protestant faith, Mary sent her to the executioner’s block. There Jane turned her father’s greedy, failed grab for power into her own brave and tragic martyrdom.

‘Learn you to die’ is the advice that Jane gives in a letter to her younger sister Katherine, who has no intention of dying. She intends to enjoy her beauty and her youth and find love. But her lineage makes her a threat to the insecure and infertile Queen Mary and, when Mary dies, to her sister Queen Elizabeth, who will never allow Katherine to marry and produce a potential royal heir before she does.  So when Katherine’s secret marriage is revealed by her pregnancy, she too must go to the Tower.

‘Farewell, my sister,’ writes Katherine to the youngest Grey sister, Mary. A beautiful dwarf, disregarded by the court, Mary finds it easy to keep secrets, especially her own, while avoiding Elizabeth’s suspicious glare. After watching her sisters defy the queen, Mary is aware of her own perilous position as a possible heir to the throne. But she is determined to command her own destiny and be the last Tudor to risk her life in matching wits with her ruthless and unforgiving cousin Elizabeth.

Why I’m looking forward to it: Philippa Gregory is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m a history graduate who wrote her dissertation on the evolution of the Royal Family – and I’ve always been fascinated by this turbulent period of history. I also love how Gregory’s books always give us a unique (and female) perspective on historical events.

What are your most anticipated summer releases? Did any of mine make your list?

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

The miniaturistThe story:
Nella Oortman moves to Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of successful merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But when she arrives, Johannes is absent while his sharp-tongued sister Marin rules the house with an iron fist. Johannes presents Nella with a miniature version of her new home as a wedding gift, which she proceeds to fill with tiny replicas of objects and people – created by a mysterious miniaturist who seems to know far too much about inner workings of the Brant household. It soon becomes clear to Nella that the house has many secrets. Determined to get to the bottom of things, she uncovers far more than she expected and sets off a dangerous chain of events.

My thoughts:
I know that there are a lot of people who absolutely loved this book, but while I enjoyed the story and thought it was well written, I just didn’t connect with the characters. To me, it felt like I was being told, rather than shown, how the characters felt about unfolding events. As a result it all felt a bit detached, and I never felt any real emotion on their behalf.

The interactions between Nella, her husband and the other members of the household seemed limited and stilted – so much so that I really didn’t believe in the relationships that developed between over the course of the book either.

The story started well and I was intrigued by the situation and the mysterious miniaturist. The middle part meandered on quite slowly, and while it did pick up towards the end I just wasn’t that interested in the outcome. The story line about the miniaturist feels unfinished and isn’t fully explained, which was frustrating and left me feeling like I was missing something.

That said, I really liked the setting of seventeenth century Amsterdam, the descriptions of the city and the historical insight into Nella’s daily life. It was really interesting to get a glimpse of the difficulties faced by women and by anyone else who didn’t fit into the strict rules of society, and how this impacted on their lives and experiences.

This feels like a short review but I just didn’t really have any strong feelings about this book either way, which in itself is a bit of a disappointment given all the hype that surrounded it on its release.

Historical melodrama with Philippa Gregory

If you’ve read any of the other books in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins War series, then you’ll soon see that the White Princess is very much in the same vein. Each book in the series is told from the point of view of a woman at the heart of the royal court. Here, we experience events through the eyes of Elizabeth, Princess of York. Daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, the young princess is no stranger to war, loss and hardship – having experienced the extreme highs and lows of being in a position of power throughout her father’s reign.

The White PrincessAfter her father’s death, his youngest brother, Richard III is King. Her two younger brothers are believed to have been murdered in the Tower of London. Her mother continues to plot and conspire with enemies both at home and abroad – determined that, one way or another, her children will find their way back to the throne.

As Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard grows, and his wife continues to fail to provide an heir, she reigns over the royal court like a queen. But when Henry Tudor invades to take Richard’s crown, Elizabeth must learn to adapt to a very different way of life. With her lover dead on the battlefield, she must play the role of a dutiful wife in a court where her heritage means that she will never be trusted, even by those closest to her.

This novel does a great job of exploring a marriage arranged for political reasons. In this case, their match has been made out of a need to protect their families and to win over the hearts of the Yorkist public. At first their relationship is portrayed as being driven by hate, fear and suspicion. As plots by York loyalists continue to abound, Elizabeth is viewed as a threat and tightly controlled by her husband and mother-in-law. But as her relationship with Henry grows, and her beloved children are raised in the ways of the reigning royal court, Elizabeth is forced to come to terms with what it means to be a Tudor.

Royal women at the time were used as nothing more than pawns in a strategy to get to the crown. Elizabeth is married to a king, but the people closest to her continue to conspire to get a York boy on the throne. If they are successful, Elizabeth would be cast down and her sons disinherited in the name of her father’s family. She is trusted by no-one, putting her in the most dangerous and precarious position of all. For her, there are no outcomes that can truly be a win, as someone she loves will have suffered.

Unlike some of the women featured elsewhere in the series, Elizabeth has very little power to control events. She is kept in the dark and must make her way through as best she can, doing anything she can to emerge unscathed. The helplessness of her situation is quite frustrating. However, Gregory’s writing remains compelling and riveting and her characters are entirely convincing. This book also goes over a lot of the material that we’ve already seen earlier in the series. For these reasons alone, I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as some of the others.

Other reviewers have made a lot of the fact the Gregory take liberties with the historical evidence that we have, twisting it to meet her fictional narrative. I’ve never had a problem with this aspect of Gregory’s writing – the facts that we have are all open to interpretation in some way and it’s interesting to read someone ‘s take on things, even though one look on Wikipedia will mean that we all know what will ultimately happen to all of the characters.

A vibrant assault on the senses

Frog Music‘Frog Music’, from Emma Donoghue, takes us back to the brothels and backstreets of San Francisco, and to the sweltering heatwave and smallpox epidemic that characterised the summer of 1876. The novel opens with the murder of Jenny Bonnet. The only other person present at the scene of the crime is her friend Blanche, one of the star performers at the infamous House of Mirrors bordel.

The rest of the novel flits back and forward in time. In one narrative stream, we learn how Blanche and Jenny first met, and how their chance meeting and friendship may have led to the shooting. In the other strand, we follow Blanche’s wild search for the guilty party after Jenny’s death.

Famous for her ability to capture the hearts, minds and bodies of men, Blanche lives with Arthur – her ‘maque’, her man or her pimp depending on how you look at it – in a Chinatown apartment, performing twice a week in a titillating dance show of risqué burlesque. We quickly learn that Blanche’s baby son is being raised out of town, and is seen by his parents only rarely, allowing them to carry on with their own lifestyles without worrying about his upbringing.

But when Blanche happens to run right into the infamous Jenny Bonnet, it’s the catalyst that will change everything. Continue reading

A truly extraordinary tale

Museum of ETAlice Hoffman’s latest novel, ‘The Museum of Extraordinary Things’, takes us into the beating heat of New York city at the turn of the century.

Born with webbed fingers, Coralie has been raised to be a human mermaid in her father’s museum for the strange and the unusual. From an early age, she’s been trained to hold her breath, withstand extreme cold and swim for miles in the Hudson River. Now eighteen, she performs in a tank for people who come to view her and a whole host of other living wonders for their amusement. Her father, the cold and detached Professor Sardie, rules every aspect of her life, and ruthlessly exploits his star attraction to help bring in business. As the large amusement parks of Coney Island threaten to tempt away his customers, the Professor’s methods become more and more extreme.

Eddie, born in Ukraine and driven to New York with his father after vicious pogroms killed his mother, has spent his life railing against the expectations of his Jewish faith. Now a photographer working for the New York newspapers, he sees first-hand some of the city’s most horrendous crimes and events, including the notorious Triangle Fire. But Eddie also has a skill for finding people that are lost, and when he’s approached by a man hoping to find the truth of what happened to his missing daughter, his world and Coralie’s are set to collide.

But while Coralie and Eddie and their romantic story-arc take centre stage, the story that I fell in love with was the story of New York itself. Continue reading

Markus Zusak’s ‘The Book Thief’

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief opens with a crowded train, snow and the death of Liesel’s younger brother. This is the first death to touch her life. There will be many more. This is also the moment when she steals her first book, a gravediggers instruction manual.

When war breaks out, it will affect everyone living on Himmel Street – including Liesel and her new foster family. It will drive wedges between fathers and sons, and cause others to give up all hope. It will make people keep secrets from their best friends. It will force families into impossible dilemmas, as they have to choose whether or not to sacrifice their principles by staying silent and protecting themselves and those that are dependent on them.

Unlike other books set against the backdrop of WW2, The Book Thief moves away from the action of the battlefields and instead takes us inside a typical German home, on a typical German street. Rather than being a story about war, it’s a story of how war and events impacted on the life of individuals. Continue reading

M. L. Stedman’s ‘The Light Between Oceans’

the-light-between-oceansIn the early half of the twentieth century, lighthouse keeper Tom and his young wife Isabel are living on an isolated life on an island far off the coast of the Australian mainland. The conditions are tough, contact with the outside world is few and far between and the job is demanding, but they make it their home.

It’s a life that seems perfect, but for one thing. Isabel is unable to carry a baby to term. After numerous heartbreaks, all seems lost. Then a boat washes ashore, carrying the body of a dead man and a very much alive baby girl. The decision they make that day, to not report the wreck and to keep the baby and raise it as their own, will set into motion a chain of events that will last for years to come.

The book questions our morality, and asks whether doing something you know is wrong can ever be right. It also questions what makes a parent – is it the person that’s raises a child or the person that gives birth to it? Continue reading

‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke

Touted as the Harry Potter for adults, Susanna Clarke’s ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ is set in an alternate version of 19th Century England rife where magic is very much present. From the theoretical magicians that gather across the country to the hundred of people across the northern counties still waiting for their Raven King to come back and claim his throne, magic has an undeniable impact on everyone in the kingdom, rich or poor.

StrangeBut while magical societies discuss the great feats of the past, in Yorkshire one man is determined to bring back practical magic. Surrounded by his precious books, the reclusive Mr Norrell heads to London to lend his help to the war effort and defeat Napoleon. Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange stumbles across magic as a profession almost by accident. Inventive, passionate and eccentric, his style and approach to the study and practice of magic is entirely different from Norrell’s – leading to an inevitable clash of opinions.

England is split into ‘Strangites’ and ‘Norrellites’. A war of words is played out through the magical journals. Increasingly great and ambitious magic is played out on the battlefields of Europe, the savage English coastline and the drawing rooms of the English aristocracy. People are raised from the dead, rain takes on solid forms, darkness falls for days on end and cities, roads and forests are moved to a magician’s whim. But beyond all of this lurks shadowy figure of the Raven King and the malevolent world of faerie looking to reek havoc on those that dare to lay a claim on English magic – bringing dark and unforeseen consequences.

It is undoubtedly an amazing feat of world building. There’s a whole bibliography of fictional titles mentioned throughout the book, each with a fictional author and subject matter, as well as a complete magical history stretching back for almost 1000 years. This history is recounted along with numerous stories, legends and folklore relevant in long explanatory footnotes that make the book seem almost like an academic work rather than a novel.

This does help to give a great sense of context, but at some points it did get a little frustrating, especially when I was nearing the end of the novel and more interested in the actual characters than an exhaustive story that seems in no way connected to the story. At these points, it was probably a good job that I was listening to this as an audiobook – as I would have been sorely tempted to skip thorough these whole sections.

One up-side of the impressive length, however, is that each and every single character is completely and utterly brought to life. Everyone is given his or her own backstory and individual characteristics, again helping to totally immerse the reader in Clarke’s world. The book is packed with black humour and subtle social commentary that continues to drive the story along even through the more intense sections dedicated to historical magical debates and incidents.

Another thing I loved was the ending, which worked really well and made me smile. I actually enjoyed it so much that I haven’t been able to get really interested in another book since – always the sign of a good read!

Also, for anyone interested and those that have already read the book, it’s recently been announced that the BBC are producing a TV adaptation starring Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel in the title roles.

A review of ‘Midnight in St Petersburg’ by Vanora Bennett

*Advance review*
(Century, April 2013)

In a city brimming with unrest and on the brink of revolution, one young woman steps off a train in possession of stolen papers and in search of a refuge from the violent pogroms of Kiev. Welcomed into the Leman family, Inna becomes an apprentice in their violin-making workshop and as she carves out her place in St Petersburg, she also gains a newfound confidence in herself.

midnight-st-petersburg-220x338As political tensions escalate, Inna finds herself torn between two men who represent very different paths. Wild and quick-tempered, Yasha throws himself into revolutionary politics with abandon. Their relationship, while built on passion and desire, also has the potential to destroy the safety of the life that Inna has created. On the other hand, respectable Englishman Horace, with a position at the prestigious Fabergé jewelry house, represents security and steady, unerring loyalty.

As the situation in St Petersburg becomes increasingly dangerous, Inna is forced to choose between following her head or her heart.

I loved this book. Set in one of the most tumultuous periods of Russian history, the reader experiences some of the most important events of the period through the eyes of an ordinary family who are just trying to live and to stay afloat. From a historical point of view, we’re introduced to some of the key figures of the time, from Rasputin to Lenin, and it really shone a light on the cultural and religious differences of the people living in St Petersburg at the time and the how events impacted on these different groups.

As someone who’s trying to learn Russian (albeit extremely slowly!) I really enjoyed how the author added little details explaining the nuances of Russian language and customs. I can only imagine how tough it would have been – and probably still is – to live in Russia as a foreigner. I also loved that the character of Horace was based on the real life story of the author’s great-uncle, it gave the novel a really personal touch.

One thing that I would say is that it took me a while to get really into the story. I didn’t immediately relate to Inna as a character, I found she came across as quite dispassionate and almost calculating. That said, as a young Jewish woman fighting for her survival, that’s probably exactly who she needed to be, and the tone contributed to the overall feeling of distrust and of tension revolutionary Russia. Still, it would have been great to have a bit more information about the central characters earlier on in the novel, as it might have helped me to become emotionally invested in them a bit earlier on.

By the end though, I was completely hooked. It was fast paced, packed full of tension and led up to a really satisfying conclusion. A definite must read for anyone interested in historical fiction!

(Massive thanks to the publishers for the review copy – much appreciated and enjoyed!)

Review of The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

On a scorching summer’s day in 1961, 16-year-old Laurel is the only witness to a shocking crime that will shake the foundations of her beliefs forever. Fast forward 40 years and Laurel, sitting at her dying mother’s bedside, struggles to reconcile the events of that fateful day with the loving family she has always known – before the truth is lost forever.

The Secret KeeperThe story stretches from 1940’s London, when England is caught up in the midst of The Blitz, to a rural family home in 2011. To say goodbye to her mother, Laurel must try to piece together a mystery seventy years old and in doing so, will find herself immersed in the lives of Dorothy, Jimmy and Vivian, whose paths will collide with devastating and far reaching effects.

I’ve read all of Kate Morton’s previous novels and really enjoyed them, but I’m also well aware that this type of novel – which combines multiple threads set in different periods of history working their way towards a dramatic revelation and family resolution at the end of the novel – is in danger of becoming a generic fallback format for authors writing in this genre. However, in The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton has managed to take this type of novel and somehow make it seem fresh, new and exciting.

I actually listened to this as an audiobook and thought it really worked in this format. The narrator, Caroline Lee did a really good job of maintaining a sense of urgency and interest despite the fact that the recording was nearly 20 hours long.

The big twist at the end of this novel was one that I really didn’t see coming, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it long after I’d finished the book. Also with this style of novel, I tend to have a ‘favourite’ thread, and can sometimes come to resent chunks of the novel set outside of that time or away from those characters. This didn’t happen this time. I enjoyed every strand of this book equally and I actually slowed down towards the end because I wanted to stay in the world that Morton had created for just that little bit longer.