Review: The Good Friend by Jo Baldwin

blog book review of The good friend

Champion swimmer, Jenny, once had a best friend and a boyfriend. But she lost both when she moved to Australia to further her swimming career. Now she is taking a career break and is desperate to reconnect with Kath, the friend she could always rely on throughout her childhood and teens, who is now living in France with her husband and child.

But as Jenny spends more time with Kath and her family, she starts to realise that maybe the past didn’t happen quite as she thought. And that the events of the her past are threatening not just her present but her future too…

The twists and turns of the story as Jenny slowly uncovers why her father really decided to move them both to Australia are genuinely gripping, and the ending is fantastic. I would love to tell you why but then I would spoil it for you! It is obvious that the reader has spent an extensive amount of time in France; the market scenes and social gatherings are exceptionally well-described, at times I could practically smell the scented warm breeze on the fraught summer evenings where Jenny starts to see the ‘real’ Kath and find out what exactly happened all those years ago.

This is a definite page-turner!

Book review: The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt

blog book review of last list of judith kratt

It’s 1989 and 70-year-old Judith Kratt decides to create an inventory of her household and its valuables; the pie safe, the copper clock, the Tiffany lamp. As she catalogues each item they trigger memories and stories, which she also documents. And secrets.

Switching between her childhood as the eldest daughter of the most powerful white family in a small South Carolina cotton town, and present day where she lives in the family home with her black companion Olva, this novel is in turn a meditation on the significance of heirlooms and memory, and proof of the harm secrets can cause a family down the generations.

Judith’s myopic (willful?) misunderstanding of current white attitudes towards the black residents of the town are damaging not just to Olva but also to Olva’s friend Marcus and his daughter Amaryllis. But worse, they’re dangerous and lead us to realise that Judith may not be the most reliable of narrators. When Judith’s estranged sister, Rosemarie, reappears after more than fifty years, Judith’s attitudes are challenged, family ties questioned and Judith’s secrets exposed.

Even though the novel echoes the slower rhythms of the South, it is still well-paced and at times positively hums with tension. I don’t think I took a breath during the description of the mechanic, Charlie’s, last moments in town.

With echoes of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tartt’s The Little Friend and Stockett’s The Help, this is an exceptionally well-accomplished first novel. I can’t wait to see what Bobotis writes next.

With thanks to NetGalley for enabling me to read this pre-publication.

Book review: The Binding by Bridget Collins

Blog image - The Binding

In the vein of Diane Setterfield and Natasha Pulley, The Binding is rich immersive, spellbinding storytelling at its best.

Emmett Farmer is summoned by a master binder, Seredith, to leave his farming life and become her apprentice. But this is no ordinary type of bookbinding. Binding is a feared craft that creates suspicion in the community; it enables someone to erase a set of memories, secreting their unwanted knowledge away into a book unique to them. Not as a novel, but as a true story unique to them, binding their memories to the page.

Emmett learns what it means to bind someone’s memories and how high the cost can be. Because memories have value not just to their owners but to others…and they are prepared to pay handsomely for them. And if a book is destroyed, the memories are returned to their owner all in one emotional moment.

This is a thought-provoking novel with genuine emotional depth. The character names feel almost Dickensian, in that they have obviously been lovingly crafted to suit each character, in true storytelling style.

My one quibble is that there is a significant shift of tone and narrative halfway through the novel; it moves from a tale of fantasy to one of forbidden love. I am not complaining, as I enjoyed the second half just as much, but after finishing The Binding, I felt as if I had read two novels not one. And please don’t let that put you off, the two halves do complement each other neatly.

This is going to be a huge hit in 2019 – I read it in proof format (thank you, NetGalley) and can’t wait to get my hands on a printed copy; in deference to its binding subject-matter, the cover is gorgeous!

Book review: The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

blog book review The Stranger Diaries

I decided to request this on NetGalley when I saw that it was described as “A gripping contemporary Gothic thriller… Wilkie Collins and MR James meet Gone Girl and Disclaimer”; I do love a Gothic thriller!

Clare Cassidy is a literature teacher specialising in the Gothic writer RM Holland, about whom she teaches a short course  every year. Then Clare’s life and work collide tragically when one of her colleagues is found dead, a line from an RM Holland story by the body. The investigating police detective is convinced the writer’s works somehow hold the key to the case. And Claire realises she is right when, after the (first) murder, she notices some other writing in her diary. Writing that isn’t hers…

I enjoyed this novel, particularly the meta narrative element of the novel. Elly Griffiths ‘quotes’ regularly from Holland’s work throughout The Stranger Diaries and in fact opens the novel with a long extract from his most famous short story, before shifting the reader cleverly into the main story arc by introducing Clare’s creative writing group deconstructing the Gothic story.

The only quibble I had was with the ‘big reveal’ – I wasn’t necessarily convinced by the murderer or his motive. However, it was a lot of fun getting to the denouement and I really enjoyed reading it.

A review of Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit

blog book review of Miss Kopp

Seeing ‘Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit’ pop up on my NetGalley suggestions reminded me how much I absolutely loved ‘Girl Waits With Gun’, the first in the ‘Kopp Sisters’ series of novels. So I couldn’t resist requesting it, even though I have not yet read books two and three in the series (me bad!), but having read this, I will definitely have to go back and catch up! Although, to be clear, you don’t need to have read the others in order to enjoy this one.

In book four, Deputy Kopp has now been in her role for a year with the New Jersey Police. She is still struggling to overcome the inherent misogyny directed at her from the general public and her colleagues, as well as manage her friendship with Sheriff Heath whose wife is not happy about Constance’s presence at the station. Especially as it’s election time, and there are a lot of people who don’t like Deputy Kopp…

With several sub-plots about the various guilty (and not-so-guilty) female inmates of the jail, this book takes you on a roller-coaster journey where you are rooting for Miss Kopp at every high and low of her exciting yet challenging life.

The master of storytelling – Carlos Ruiz Zafon: A review of The Labyrinth of the Spirits

Blog book review The Labyrinth of the Spirits

The Shadow of the Wind left a lasting impression on me when I read it on publication 17 years ago (and on subsequent re-reads). The next novels in the sequence, The Angel’s Game and The Prisoner of Heaven, had the same effect. And now I can add The Labyrinth of the Spirits to that list. For those of you who have been holding out for this, the final novel in Zafon’s The Cemetery of Forgotten Books quartet, you’re in for a treat. And for those of you who haven’t been fortunate to read his novels yet, I strongly recommend you start. Right now.

Described as, “…an intricate and intensely imagined homage to books, the art of storytelling and that magical bridge between literature and our lives”, The Labyrinth of the Spirits combines the genres of fairy tale, thriller, romance and detective stories to provide an extraordinary reading experience.

It was a genuine treat to welcome my old friends, Daniel Sempere and Fermin Romero de Torres, back into my life, and have the opportunity to revisit the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, still one of my most favourite fictional places of all time. Even more delightful was meeting Zafon’s latest creation, Alicia Gris, one of the most extraordinary anti-heroes ever to be captured in the pages of a book. Seductive, tortured, sensitive and  cruel, Alicia is a tour de force.

In Labyrinth, Daniel is now a young man, running the Sempere & Sons bookshop in 1950s Barcelona, sharing this life with his loving wife and son. Yet he still frets over his mother’s death and feels the shadows from his past, and hers, threatening his happiness. When Alicia enters his life, and re-enters Fermin’s, the stage is set for the final chapter in Daniel’s search for the truth about Isabella Sempere.

Dazzled, obsessed, haunted… this could describe many of the characters in The Labyrinth of the Spirits, but  definitely describes me while reading it; I could not put this book down! 


The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas

blog book review of The Psychology of Time Travel

A thought-provoking, page-turning, complexly plotted, fabulous read!

Imagine that time travel was actually possible – what would that be like?  Who would own the ‘rights’? What would the ramifications to history be? What would the constant changes in time do to a time traveller’s circadian rhythm? And what would you do if you knew a crime had been committed in another time?

All of these questions, and more, are answered imaginatively and creatively by Kate Mascarenhas; she even includes a time travel glossary at the back of the book to help the reader understand the time travellers’ jargon as they flash backwards and forwards in time, intersecting with their ‘green’ selves and their ‘silver’ selves, as well as their fathers, granddaughters and friends.

Focusing on four female time travel pioneers, The Psychology of Time Travel is a dazzling debut novel from Kate Mascarenhas. For anyone who loved The Time Traveller’s Wife or Arcadia, this is for you.

The Last, Hanna Jameson

blog book review of The Last

Dystopian present/future? Check.
Modern take on the ‘country house murder mystery’ genre? Check.
Conflicted narrator? Check.

The Last by Hanna Jameson is a fast-moving, yet thought-provoking, exploration of what happens when a set of strangers thrown together by chance have to cope with a catastrophic world event. Far from family and friends, with no access to the internet or any form of news, limited supplies, and the constant threat of looters and raiders, the guests at L’Hotel Sixieme support each other, turn on each other, prey on each other but ultimately come to rely on each other in their new post-nuclear world.

The restricted setting of the hotel and grounds for the majority of the novel creates a suffocating, sometimes threatening environment, and cranks up the tension as Jon Keller, the main protagonist, insists on investigating the murder of the dead child found on the premises in the days after the nuclear bombs hit the US and Europe. Any more detail will entail spoilers so I won’t say any more except that I really enjoyed this novel and would definitely recommend.

“There is no friend as loyal as a book” (Hemingway) – a review of Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

blog book review of Bookworm

Never has the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover been proved more wrong. You can and you should. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is beautiful inside and out. A tribute to the extraordinary importance that books have in childhood. I laughed, nodded my head vigorously, and even shed a tear as I read this wonderful memoir.

childrens-stories.jpgIn one of those coincidences that life throws at you, I visited my parents while reading Bookworm. My dad casually mentioned that there were a couple of boxes of mine still up in the loft and I should go through them as he was planning a clear out. And oh, how glad I am that I did. I opened up the boxes and there were some of my old childhood friends. The rush of nostalgia when I saw the covers overwhelmed me. Many of my favourites have sadly been lost, or donated, over the years so it was a very eclectic mix that remained. But every book had a history for me. And I spent a couple of hours exclaiming happily over each and every book in those boxes.

I had the same feeling reading Bookworm.  Reading as a child, I would frequently emerge dazed and blinking, hours after first picking up the book, confused as to why I wasn’t in Narnia, fleeing from a laboratory with my fellow rats, ice skating with Hatty in the moonlight, or making a shelter from willow branches on a secret island.

My parents supported, but were slightly baffled by, my constant urge to read. Breakfast (“put that book down and eat your toast!”), still breakfast (“are you reading the cereal box?! just finish your breakfast!”), post school/pre-tea time (“why don’t you go and run around outside?”), bedtime (“alright, one more chapter”), still bedtime (“lights off now”), still bedtime (give me that torch), still bedtime (“you’ll ruin your eyes sitting in the windowsill using light from streetlamp, for the last time, stop reading and go to sleep”)…you get the idea.

The only way to keep me in books was our local library. Without fail, every week my dad would take me to there (and in school holidays, twice a week, such a treat that was!) where he would patiently wait as I agonised over which five books to check out. And every birthday and Christmas, my mum would make sure that all the relatives knew which books I did(n’t) own or hadn’t read, in a vain attempt to ensure that I received books I hadn’t already read.

owl afraid of the darkAs adults we forget that intense love and passion we had for our books as children. How we could read and reread the same book over and over again. Every now and then I still have a flash of that childhood passion, like when I come across a particular  edition of the The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. [He was an owl. He had issues. He was called Plop. He was perfect in my eyes.] I read and reread Plop’s story so many times. And every time I finished the story, I felt the same sense of satisfaction that Plop had managed to overcome his fears.  Another children’s book that I reread obsessively was The Secret Garden. It was a revelation to me; the main character was a girl, but not a sweet ‘setting an example’ kind of girl, but a grumpy one. A girl who gave as good as she got, who could scream louder than a boy, a girl who had an adventurous spirit and who wasn’t afraid. Mary Lennox, I salute you.

Reading this memoir, it felt as if Mangan was telling the story of MY childhood reading; every chapter of her book journey reflects a step I took on my reading journey (I suspect we are a similar age!). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Garden Gang (The Garden Gang!!). Enid Blyton. Roald Dahl. Tom’s Midnight Garden. The horsey books. Narnia. The boarding school stories (Ah, Chalet School!). The dystopian future books (Z for Zachariah, Changes). Judy Blume who gave me the courage that I would survive my teenage angst. And last, but certainly not least, I Capture the Castle.

This is a memoir for anyone who loved books as a child, who saw them as friends, who could quote whole chunks from them. And for anyone who still loves reading as an adult.


I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell

blog book review of I am I am I am

I read this in hardback when it was first released (as I do all of Maggie O’Farrell’s books) but the recent release of the paperback prompted me to go back and reread it.

And thank goodness I did. Once again I got to marvel at the perfect tone of her stories and her lyricism. What struck me, as I read her stories, is her sense of optimism and above all her will. Her will to survive. Her will to succeed. Her will to carry on carrying on. There is not a single self-pitying sentence in the entire book. Her wit and her wisdom shine through every page, but not in a saintly way – she is matter of fact and tells her tales warts and all.

You would be forgiven for thinking that 17 brushes with death (well 16, those who have read it will understand my caveat) would make O’Farrell maudlin, fearful, or see herself as ‘unlucky’. But, as she tells an ex-boyfriend, she sees herself as lucky.

I read this book in a single sitting the first time, and again this time round. And I suspect I will, the third and fourth time (ad infinitum) that I read this. And you should to.