Saturday, 31 December 2016

"My Name is Leon" Kit De Waal

My Name is Leon
This is another one of those books which has been cropping up on my timeline with rave reviews for months and I seem to be the only person not yet to have read it, so I was absolutely thrilled when NetGalley granted my wish and I was able to squeeze it in to my 2016 reads!

For anyone else who has not yet come across this heartbreaking story, it is about 9 year old Leon and his baby brother Jake. They are neglected by their mother, Carol, and go to live with foster mother Maureen who immediately brings colour into their life - both literally with her red hair - and metaphorically with her warmth, love and nurture.

But Jake is taken away and given to a new family - he is a baby and he is white. Leon is not.

This is a very moving story of Leon as he tries to come to terms with who he is; tries to deal with his loss, grief, anger and unhappiness; tries to understand the complicated world of adults and of family relationships and then finally, just when all everything seems to lost, finds his place within it.

The story takes place in the 1980s and the era is brilliantly evoked through the references to gifts, treats, prices, belongings, food and music. The characters use of a public pay phone outside the building in which they lived really highlighted how much communication itself has changed. Popular culture references aside, De Waal must have really done her research for this novel as it occurred to me how much must have changed in terms of child protection, law, procedure, monitoring, paperwork and even hospitals since the 1980s.

The 1980s backdrop of social unrest and then conversely the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana also contribute to the underlying sense of uncertainty as well as the need for a fairy tale ending that Leon feels throughout the novel.

"My Name is Leon" is a very loved book by those who have already reviewed it with an outstanding average rating of 4/5 on Goodreads, but I wasn't prepared for just how overwhelming I found the opening chapters. De Waal manages to ensure that the true desperation of the boy's situation is not too harrowing by narrating it from Leon's view and as a nine year old child, his perception and description of what is happening around him allows us to feel sadness yet avoids a moral high ground or a gratuitous sensationalisation of events. It also allows us to stay firmly grounded with Leon and not become caught up in judgement and prejudice towards his mother.

The reader cannot help but fall in love with Leon. The opening of the book starts with him meeting his newborn brother and immediately being left to look after him. Unsure of what to do, he introduces himself and tells his brother all the things he thinks he needs to know.

"My name is Leon and my birthday is on the fifth of July nineteen seventy one. .....Mum's bought you a shopping basket with a cloth in it for your bed. She says it's the same basket Moses had but it looks new." 

There are hints from the beginning that Carol struggles to look after Leon. Tina, her friend and neighbour, often looks after them but the exchanges Leon catches between Tina and her boyfriend reveal that this happens more often than it really should.

"when he sees Leon he always says 'Again?' and Tina says, 'I know.'"

And as Leon is only 9, he will accept Carol's word rather than realising that perhaps her decisions are more selfish, irrational or from someone who is slipping into depression.

"After a few weeks, Carol says Leon can't go to school because it's too wet and rainy."

Leon is emotionally intelligent. He is sensitive. He loves his mum and he wants to look after her. His observations capture an innocence and naivety and Waal's ability to report events through the eyes of young boy are really poignant and resonate with the reader.

"Leon has begun to notice the things that make his mum cry: when Jake makes a lot of noise, when she hasn't got any money, when she comes back from the phone box, when Leon asks too many questions; and when she's staring at Jake."

The fact that Leon knows the best routine for Jake rather than Carol is really heartbreaking and the effort he puts into looking after Jake really shows the bond between the boys - a bond that will leave Leon completely broken when Jake is taken away from him. But it's not just Jake he has to look after, it's Carol herself. And these scenes are upsetting. I had a flashback to the first time I read "Goodnight Mr Tom" to a room full of 12 year olds and that heavy silence which fell across the room as everyone realised the extent of neglect that had taken place.

I really enjoyed Leon's candid comments about the social workers.

"Social workers have two pretend faces. Pretend Happy and Pretend Sad. They're not supposed to get angry so they make angry into sad. This time, they're pretending to care about him and Jake and his mum."

But social services do move the boys to live with Maureen. And Maureen is an absolute fairy godmother. She is all that the boys need. She is gentle, caring, warm and shows intuition, initiative and sincerity when dealing with them. The mentions of touch, hand holding, hand squeezing and love suddenly crept into the pages. My favourite part of the book was in Chapter 8, Christmas Day. I was as excited as Leon as he experienced his first ever real Christmas and I was as caught up in all the magic as he was!

However, things continue to remain uncertain. There are still conversations behind closed door, on phone calls, fraught visits from officials and Leon's growing awareness that unlike Jake, he is unwanted, unloved, inconvenient and likely to be moved on or left behind. There are appearances from Carol and Leon always attempts to read so much more into their meetings than is actually there. He continues to suffer rages and outburst of anger that he tries to contain, tries to conceal but they reflect his deep frustration and unhappiness.

The story continues and although Leon is only ten by the end of the book, there is an element of coming of age to the story. The acquaintances he makes, the things with which he becomes embroiled, the conversations he overhears, all lead up to a climatic ending with plenty of moments of drama and tension. The book ends seeing Leon settled, happy and preparing to plant new seeds and sow new beginnings -both literally and metaphorically. The ending that Leon deserves and all the readers want.

This is an interesting read. De Waal explores a lot of themes, ideas and emotions. She raises questions about nature and nurture, parenthood, siblings, marriage, adoption and fostering. She raises broader social questions. I liked the fact it was told through Leon's nine year old eyes and not those of an adult as it does keep the tone lighter despite the subject matter and does keep things slightly more simplified and hinted at rather than laboured. I did wonder a few times whether it might have worked better had it been in the first person? Although writing convincingly as a nine year old is very difficult and in the close third person that she has chosen, Waal has successfully created a believable voice and Leon feels authentic in his thoughts and dialogue.

I'm glad I have read "My Name is Leon". It will stay with me. There is a lot to think about and I'm unlikely to forget Leon for a long while.

"My Name is Leon" is available on Kindle and in Hardback and will be published in paperback on April 6th 2017.

For more recommendations and reviews you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

Friday, 30 December 2016

"The Trouble with Goats and Sheep" Joanna Cannon

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

This book has been on my wish list for a long time and I am so glad that I eventually got to read it. As soon as I mentioned I was reading it, my timeline was flooded with other bloggers and tweeters telling me how much I would enjoy it - and they were not wrong! This book seems to be greeted universally with words like "lovely", "beautiful" and "delightful" and I think there are very few books that ever succeed in creating that warmth of response and a sense of yearning from readers who want to discover it again for the first time. So although I may be late, I can now join my fellow book bloggers in their fondness for this book and proudly say I have joined the herd!

The story is set in 1976 during the heatwave and this is immediately evocative of long, hot, summer days. We are immediately transported back to a time we can all picture through its sepia filter and many of us can see ourselves once again in the throws of childhood and immersed in our Jackie magazines.

The heroes of the story are Tilly and Grace, our ten year old detectives who set out to discover what has happened to neighbour Mrs Creasy who has mysteriously disappeared. The Avenues are alive with whispers and gossip and it is up to Tilly and Grace to dig behind the secrets, piece together information from the adult conversations and actions around them until they can discover the truth - something which will turn out to be much more than they anticipated .......

Narratives told from the point of view of a ten year old are tricky to get right, but when the author does, they are immensely effective and enjoyable. Cannon gets it right. I really enjoyed the chapters from Grace's point of view. I loved her voice, her observations, the connections she made, the conclusions she drew and that refreshing bluntness, naivety and innocence all at the same time which made me smile and chuckle to myself a lot. Through Grace and Tilly, Cannon is able to pose quite complex questions about human nature and reveal information about characters in the neighbourhood that is actually quite heartbreaking or unpleasant but the children's interpretation and responses bring a lightness of touch which prevent the novel from becoming too overwhelming.

For example, the throwaway comments like, "My mother spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down" actually reveal much more to the reader but to Grace, she's simply stating a fact and the wry humour is all in our heads rather than hers. Grace is brilliant at transferring any comments that could be derisory in that way only children can:

"My mother said I was at an awkward age. I didn't feel especially awkward, so I presumed she meant that it was awkward for them."

Grace and Tilly spend their summer in and out of the neighbours' houses as they set about investigating the disappearance of Mrs Creasy. Cannon captures the essence of a neighbourhood well and particularly an era when children would run between houses happily and play out for the whole day. One of my favourite characters was Mrs Morton.

"Mrs Morton was always trying to force chocolate on to us. She had a tin-full in the pantry and no children of her own. The pantry was cavernous and heaved with custard creams and fingers of fudge, and I often had wild fantasies in which I would find myself trapped in there overnight and be forced to gorge myself to death on Angel Delight."

But there are undertones and implications from the beginning that all is not as it seems and that actually, despite it's gentle humour and summer setting, this book is going to probe at more meaningful themes. And at times, Grace's observations are extremely accurate and perceptive.

"Why do people blame everything on the heat?" asked Tilly
"It's easier," I said
"Easier that what?"
"Easier than telling everyone the real reasons."

This continues as Cannon gradually brings in chapters from other households. Her prose is beautiful and her use of language creates images and characters effortlessly. It's possible to become immersed in her characters' homes and relationships and Cannon creates a perfect balance between telling a story that entertains and engages us as well as peppering it with moments of sadness, tragedy and comments that cause you to pause and reflect.

"[Brian] knew she would have pulled the blanket over her legs, and the Milk Tray box would be massacred and left to the carpet, and the television would be playing out a conversation with itself in the corner. He knew that she would not have risked moving from the edges of her crocheted existence. A world within a world, a life she had embroidered herself over the past few years, which seemed to shrink and tighten with each passing month."

Cannon's novel is about a close community with a hidden past. It is about the dangers of gossip and assumptions - not just for the obvious reasons, but I also liked how some characters use it to define themselves - for example, Brian reflects how his mother uses overheard snippets of conversation:

"It was as though she used hearsay as a web to trap people's attention, that she didn't believe she was interesting enough to hold on to them any other way."

The metaphor of goats and sheep is very clever and I really enjoyed how Cannon applied the analogy to the character's in the book. Tilly and Grace's search for God to help protect them all is charming and again highlights their innocence and simplistic view of a complex, dark adult world.

There are so many little comments or sentences that are slipped unassumingly into the prose or dialogue yet carry much more significance, weight or meaning. Also, there are many descriptions, images and moments caught briefly yet deserving of more consideration and thought. I really enjoy a story that has this kind of double layer to it; the writing is so polished and controlled it really deserves to be savoured so that all the nuances and details dropped gently on to the pages are really absorbed and appreciated. Cannon manages to make you smile and then want to cry all at the same time with her pertinent insights into human nature and the whole emotional reckoning of a coming of age story.

I recommend this book. It's a very enjoyable novel with much to savour and discuss. It is sure to become quite a classic. There is so much praise for it from so many acclaimed authors that I'm sure it will gain the success it deserves and it's great to see it in the Richard and Judy Book Club list for 2017.

If you enjoyed this book you may also like "The Girls" by Lisa Jewell, "Instructions for a Heatwave" by Maggie O'Farrell and "The Girls" by Emma Cline.

For more recommendations and reviews from me you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

Thursday, 29 December 2016

"Unravelling Oliver" Liz Nugent

Unravelling Oliver
Oliver Ryan is a handsome and charismatic success story. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, Alice, who illustrates his award-winning children's books and gives him her unstinting devotion. Their life together is one of enviable privilege and ease - enviable until, one evening after supper, Oliver attacks Alice and beats her into a coma. 

In the aftermath, as everyone tries to make sense of his astonishing act of savagery, Oliver tells his story. So do those whose paths he has crossed over five decades. What unfolds is a story of shame, envy, breath-taking deception and masterful manipulation. Only Oliver knows the lengths to which he has had to go to get the life to which he felt entitled. But even he is in for a shock when the past catches up with him. 

This is a truly gripping and chilling tale which is absolutely fulfils the definition of psychological thriller. As the front cover says, this is a compelling "whydunnit" and I love that word- this is all about the why rather than the what. We know the crime, we know the villain and we know the victim. But what terrifies us the most is why Oliver did what he did.......It is a complex, exceptionally well written novel about a sociopath and its unbelievable this is Nugent's first novel as it has the accomplished feel of a much more established or classic author from this genre.

At only 230 pages it is a slim novel and really can be read in one sitting - preferably in bed, late at night, in the dark, on your own - not in the bath, as I did, which meant I suddenly realised I was sitting in stone cold water and very wrinkly! Although the bathroom acoustics were rather effective when I actually gasped out loud and whispered "wow" a few times - but for most of the time I was silent - so utterly enthralled and mesmerised by Nugent's haunting characterisation and beautiful prose. 

The opening is excellent. 

"I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her. She just lay on the floor holding her jaw. Staring at me. Silent. She didn't even seem to be surprised." 

You know when you pick up a book and just scan the first line and know immediately you are going to totally love it? Well, that's what "Unravelling Oliver" was like for me. And I did totally love it. All of it. Hugely. 

"I am aware that I am not the easiest of people. Alice has told me so. I have no friends, for example. I used to, many years ago, but that really didn't work out. We drifted apart and I let them go - voluntarily, I suppose. Friends are just people who remind you of your failings." 

Oliver is deeply unpleasant. He is so calm, matter of fact, ordinary, intelligent and articulate. He is so cold and unemotional. There is a real sense of underlying malevolence and evil lurking within him and he is immediately threatening. He is a loner, unfeeling and selfish. But completely fascinating. 

"It turns out that I am a violent man after all. It comes as a shock to me. I have been psychologically assessed. I decided to tell them almost everything. Apparently, I have been harbouring bitterness, resentment and frustration since my childhood. Now, there's a surprise." 

We also hear from several other voices over the course of the novel which effectively offers us further insight as the characters explain their relationship with Oliver, what they know of him and his marriage. This is a really good way of painting a more detailed picture as we cannot wholly trust Oliver. Also these characters are from different stages in Oliver's life so they offer valuable points of view as to how his past might have affected his current behaviour. Each of them have had a very different relationship with him, with varying degrees of intimacy and so the reader begins to build up a more rounded view which in turn reveals a much more unsettling portrait of Oliver.

Nugent is able to write each voice convincingly, creating an authentic character each time with a distinctive voice. The variety of voice and style helps release some of the intensity if we were only to hear from Oliver and also develops the themes and plot more effectively too. Stanley's voice did feel like a formal police statement or as if he was talking to a journalist but actually that is quite effective in itself as the reader really does want to interview these people and find out what they know about Oliver. And as Oliver has been apprehended and we know him to be guilty, it is authentic that some of these narratives have this feel to them. It also highlights how vivid and compelling Oliver's chapters are and to be honest, his was the voice I enjoyed the most and was always wanting to get back to.

However, that said, Eugene's character was very cleverly portrayed. Nugent's use of punctuation and sentence structure was very well done for this section and felt extremely authentic and convincing. I think she has real skill in creating memorable, distinctive characters through monologues which is due to her careful choice of vocabulary, punctuation and structure.

Nugent uses some fantastic imagery. This was one of my favourite sentences:

"There was a pregnant silence that threatened to give birth any minute. Eventually I broke its waters." 

There really is depth, weight and resonance to her writing and it really deserves to be admired and savoured.

And as for the ending of "Unravelling Oliver", well, you'll just have to see for yourself!

I am really pleased that Nugent has been selected for the Richard and Judy Spring 2017 Book Club reads with her second novel "Lying in Wait" and hope that this ensures lots more people discover her chilling and haunting books.

"Unravelling Oliver" published in 2013 and in 2015 by Penguin.

For my review of "Lying in Wait" please click here:

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

"Watch Me" Angela Clarke

Watch Me (Social Media Murders, #2)


The body of a 15-year-old is found hours after she sends a desperate message to her friends. It looks like suicide, until a second girl disappears.

This time, the message is sent directly to the Metropolitan Police – and an officer’s younger sister is missing.

DS Nasreen Cudmore and journalist Freddie Venton will stop at nothing to find her. But whoever’s behind the notes is playing a deadly game of hide and seek – and the clock is ticking.


This is Angela Clarke's second instalment in the Social Media Murders series and a very strong sequel to "Follow Me".

Clarke does not disappoint with this engaging crime thriller. It is as fast paced, as edgy, as contemporary and hard-hitting as "Follow Me". It continues to excite readers as its two main protagonists constantly come face to face with professional and personal dilemmas, conflict and emotional turmoil as they race to solve the cyber crimes while at the same time as addressing their own pasts, their own secrets and their own guilt which keeps coming back to haunt them and link them to the murders they are now trying to prevent.

Although this could work as a stand alone novel, I do think it would be better to read in sequence - which won't be difficult as once you open up a book by Clarke, she drags you in immediately, pulls you along at brake neck speed until before you know it, you're fully immersed in her vivid and colourful world of punchy dialogue, action, excitement and feisty characters who leap off the page.

"Follow Me" is centres around Twitter and is about the appropriately named Hashtag Murderer who uses their followers and tweets to reveal their motives, clues and movements. "Watch Me" explores Snap Chat which I found really interesting as this is the favoured social media platform of my children's peer group and I have already experienced (second hand thankfully) some of the effects of its misuse, so to see it dramatised here into something even more sinister was fascinating and doubly chilling. Snap Chat seems to feel a little more sinister than Facebook or Twitter because of its premise (the posts disappear within 8 seconds or something equally short, but people are poised ready to screen shot them and then can keep them viral for as long as they like).

"You've got 6 seconds to view this. Her school uniform felt like it was tightening, her white shirt compressing, her striped tie snaking around her neck. Her mind scrabbled for normality. Five seconds. Her hand shook. Her fingers didn't respond. Four seconds................One second. From deep inside the command grew, forcing its way up and out of her, juddering her whole body. 'Mum!' she screamed. And the photo vanished."

I think we are all also aware of how easily comments and posts on social media can let people pose as someone else, be anonymous, be unpleasant, make a huge network of virtual friends and allow situations to get out of control. The opening of "Watch Me" is about DS Nasreen's email that accidentally gets sent to the wrong recipients and that horrible sense of dread and disaster that comes from pressing the wrong button too soon or even assuming that anything sent online can be trusted to only reach that one person it is addressed to. On this much lower, less sinister level than what then goes on to unfold in the story, we can all relate to how 'deadly' the internet can be and I think that is what makes Clarke's novels so appealing to people.

I absolutely admire Clarke's knowledge of IT and can only imagine the level of research that went into making this novel so authentic and technically accurate. There is technical jargon and there are lots of conversation and explanation of technology, IT and social media but it is all relevant and all presented in an accessible and easily to follow manner. I thought it was really interesting to see a crime novel replace the forensic terminology from a physical crime scene to a new kind of forensic vocabulary as the police analyse the more virtual world of social media and iPhones, laptops, computers and people's online profile.

"Follow Me" centres around journalist Freddie Venton and I liked the fact that "Watch Me" spends more time developing DS Nasreen Cudmore's character and that the readers get to learn more about her and particularly at the beginning, see more of the story from her point of view. Nasreen is earnest, hardworking, sincere and dedicated which contrasts - and compliments- Freddie's more maverick side.

"It was one of the reasons she was good at her job: she liked to know why, liked to ask questions, put things, and people, where they belonged. Uncertainty was what life gave you; order was what you made with it."

Nasreen is painfully aware of her reputation and about the judgment from her peers. The opening of the novel shows us Nasreen at a more vulnerable, emotionally fragile place which ensures an immediate sympathy, empathy and interest in her character.

"..she'd played right into their hands. Idiot. Could she call in sick?........Nasreen's need to people please still overrode everything else." 

Nasreen and Freddie share a dark secret that will forever bind them together. They are both flawed, guilty, responsible and the fact that they are called in to work on a teen suicide creates an extra layer of tension. When they were teenagers themselves, they were blamed for causing the suicide of a school acquaintance (revealed in "Follow Me"). Nasreen's anxiety is therefore heightened from the outset although she remains profession and reveals her knowledge (and Clarke's knowledge too) of teen suicide with a reference to "the Werther effect" during the initial police meeting.

When we are reintroduced to Freddie she is still reeling from the events of "Follow Me" - with a quick reminder of the key details for all of us! Clarke's continuity is flawless and also compounds the sense that this is a fast paced series. Freddie is a bit of an internet guru - making her the perfect team mate in this investigation. I liked the way her need for the internet is presented a bit like an addiction, reminding us of its power; its use for good and its use for bad.

"She needed the internet. All that information at her fingertips. All that power."

The dynamics between the women is really interesting. They are quite different kind of characters but yet need each other for different reasons. The added complication of a shared past brings a fresh angle to the idea of a detective partnership. The journalistic skill of Freddie and the more traditional conservative investigative skills of Nasreen also make a great combination.

"[Freddie was good at] ....seeing it from two steps back, making it fit a story. It was a good trick to have....flippant remarks, black humour; a good coping mechanism. But it was one Nasreen didn't like. It was important not to lose sight of the human cost at the heart of their cases. That was what drove you on, made you look longer, harder, keep trying."

The most enjoyable thing about the novel is its cracking sense of pace. All successful crime thrillers need some kind of countdown - some kind of reminder that everyone is working against the clock to stop any more murders and Clarke does this with her chapter headings. The whole story takes place over just a couple of days and the opening chapter header reminds us just how many of the 24 hours are left until the murderer will carry out their threat.

"Wednesday 16th March, 16.20, T-17 hrs 10 mins"

The sense of pace is also emphasised constantly through the very nature of Snap Chat:

"her brain crackled. This wasn't a wind up. This was a threat. Her fingers flew. Four, three, two.....she screenshot the image, taking a photo of it half a second before it disappeared forever."

I enjoyed this crime thriller a lot. It is relevant, exciting, chilling and dramatic. There is mystery, suspense, fear and plenty of threat. Once again, I look forward to the next instalment and hope that there are more Social Media Murders to come. Freddie and Nasreen have a lot of potential for a long term working partnership and I would like to see more about their relationship developing as they solve more crimes together. I like the very contemporary appeal of the books and think that Clarke has tapped into something which fascinates all of us that use social media - and perhaps those that don't too!

However, don't let this book may affect your own use of the internet. .....! Next time you log on, keep your fingers crossed that the following words do not appear on your screen:

"Who wants to play?"

"Watch Me" is published on12th January by Avon.

For my review of "Follow Me" please click here:

If you like the sound of this book you could also try:

  • Viral by Helen Fitzgerald
  • Cut to the Bone by Alex Caan
  • The Good Girl by Fiona Neill
Angela Clarke

Angela      Clarke

Angela Clarke is an author, playwright, columnist, screenwriter and broadcaster. Her debut crime thriller Follow Me was named Amazon’s Rising Star Debut of the Month January 2016, longlisted for the Crime Writer’s Association Dagger in the Library 2016, and shortlisted for the Dead Good Reader Page Turner Award 2016. Watch Me is the second instalment in the Social Media Murder Series. Angela’s memoir Confessions of a Fashionista is an Amazon Fashion Chart bestseller. Her play, The Legacy, enjoyed its first run and rave reviews at The Hope Theatre in June 2015. She hosted the current affairs show Outspoken on Radio Verulam for six months in 2014, and has appeared on the BBC World Service, BBC Radio 4, BBC Three Counties and more. Her journalist contributions include: The Guardian, Independent Magazine, The Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, and Writing magazine. In 2015 Angela was awarded the Young Stationers' Prize for achievement and promise in writing and publishing. She volunteers with Womentoring, and the RSA Meet a Mentor scheme, and others, to help encourage and support marginalised artists into the industry. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Angela lives with her husband and far too many books.

If you would like to see more of my recommendations and reviews you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

SAMPLER "Little Sister" Isabel Ashdown

Little Sister

If you can't trust your sister, then who can you trust? A gripping, twisty thriller about family secrets and betrayal for fans of CJ Taylor, Katerina Diamond and Lisa Hall

'A missing baby girl, a marriage ravaged by mistrust, a sibling rivalry with a very dark heart: LITTLE SISTER had me gripped from start to finish.' Louise Candlish, author of THE SWIMMING POOL

After sixteen years apart sisters Jessica and Emily are reunited. With the past now behind them, the warmth they once shared quickly returns and before long Jess has moved into Emily's comfortable island home. Life couldn't be better. But when baby Daisy disappears while in Jess's care, the perfect life Emily has so carefully built starts to fall apart.

Was Emily right to trust her sister after everything that happened before?

"Little Sister" will be published on 27th April by Trapeze.

I received the first three chapters from NetGalley for this novel and although I'm delighted to have read the sampler, I am now so disappointed not to have the whole book! I am desperate to read the entire novel and it's going to feel a long wait until April when I'll finally be able to get my hands on it! 

I normally avoid samplers for this very reason but I could not resist this title. I love the front cover and all it implies about the characters, the atmosphere and what might happen. I have seen publicity for "Little Sister" appearing all over social media and seen tantalising reviews from authors. I'm also a bit of a sucker for a story about sisters, having one myself and understanding how emotionally complex the dynamics between siblings can be - and how perfect the uncovering of a family's relationships can be for a psychological thriller.  

There is lots of ambiguity and confusion in the opening as we start Chapter 1 with the narrative of Jess who conveys her state of mind through captivating prose:

"Am I drunk - or dreaming - or dying even? My head feels submerged, as though I'm looking up through water, yet at the same time there's a feeling of clarity that frightens me.....I gasp for air, my memories suddenly, horrifically breaking through the surface awake, aware, remembering." 

We find ourselves in the middle of a crime scene -in the middle of a scene of which has left the main characters in a state of devastation, chaos and distress. We are only privy to Jess's point of view initially and this cleverly places us in the situation of desperately trying to piece together exactly what has happened as Jess appears confused and unsure of what is going on- immediately raising questions about her reliability as a narrator. The response of the detective towards Jess also implies suspicion. 

"Her voice is solid and reassuring, and I feel her eyes drilling right down inside me, as if she's lifted the top off my head and peered in. She's giving me a second chance." 

And then Jess's behaviour and panicked thoughts left me wondering just what had happened and just what was going on. They are convincing for someone suddenly finding themselves in the worst situation they could ever imagine while simultaneously raising endless questions in the reader's mind.

"even when I'm telling the truth, my voice says I'm lying. How am I supposed to behave? how are you meant to arrange your hands on the desk- to focus your gaze - to pitch your tone of voice-  when all the while you know they're on the lookout for tiny signs of nervousness and deceit?" 

We then hear from Emily who offers another point of view about the relationship between the sisters and Jess. 

"After all these years, Jess had faded until she had begun to take on the sepia tones of a distant memory or of a tim watched long ago, the images patchy and incomplete." 

It seems that Ashdown's writing is exactly the kind of writing I love - dark, chilling, descriptive, reflective, compelling prose, full of effective images that create intrigue and tension. I really liked her description of the crime scene:

"They gather like portrait studies: the devastated parents bent over the dining room table, a police officer on either side; the huddle of strangers through the archway, poised to photograph the island worktop, the bloodied kitchen floor......" 

And then the really intriguing sentences about lies which subtly reveals so much more about the character and prepares us for a read that will obviously be totally gripping:

"Little fibs, everyday untruths, the tweaking of facts to help us sail through life more smoothly......Are they lies?" 

The ending of this short sampler left me completely hanging on for more -I was frustratingly pressing my kindle button hoping there were more pages lurking beyond as I was totally hooked and so full of questions about so much....... This is definitely going on my TBR pile for 2017 and I am very excited about reading it when it comes out in April! 

In the meantime, I now need to go and check out Isabel Ashdown's previous novels as I have not read any of her other books and hopefully these will keep me satisfied until April! 

"Little Sister" is out on 27th April 2017 and available for preorder on Amazon.

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

Isabel Ashdown

Isabel Ashdown

Dark, compelling and beautifully twisty ... have you read Isabel yet?

Isabel Ashdown was born in London and grew up on the south coast of England. The opening of her debut won the Mail on Sunday Novel Competition, going on to be published as GLASSHOPPER (Myriad, 2009) and being named as one of the best books of the year. Today, she writes full-time, walks daily, and volunteers in a local school for the charity Pets as Therapy. Isabel lives in Sussex with her carpenter husband, their two children and dogs Charlie and Leonard. Isabel is represented by Kate Shaw of the Viney Literary Agency, London.

Her latest novel, LITTLE SISTER is out in ebook April 2017 / paperback July 2017 (Orion/Trapeze).


Wednesday, 28 December 2016

"Scared to Death" Rachel Amphlett

Scared to Death (Detective Kay Hunter, #1)

A serial killer murdering for kicks. A detective seeking revenge.

When the body of a snatched schoolgirl is found in an abandoned biosciences building, the case is first treated as a kidnapping gone wrong. 

But Detective Kay Hunter isn’t convinced, especially when a man is found dead with the ransom money still in his possession.

When a second schoolgirl is taken, Kay’s worst fears are realised.

With her career in jeopardy and desperate to conceal a disturbing secret, Kay’s hunt for the killer becomes a race against time before he claims another life.

For the killer, the game has only just begun…

This is Book One in a new Detective series from Amphlett - who has quite an extensive back catalogue of crime fiction novels already, unbeknownst to me when I came across her on social media! Amphlett has a high profile on Facebook and Twitter so I was keen to read "Scared to Death" after having seen such positive feedback from other bloggers and read a lot of Amphlett's own blog posts and Facebook updates. Then she mentioned the book was set in Maidstone - where my family live - and I decided I had to read it! I bought it, read it, then bought a few more for some of my family to read over Christmas! 

Kay Hunter, the protagonist, is very likeable. She is sensible, intelligent, focussed and isn't afraid to speak her mind. Her strength and appeal often comes from the fact she asks deeper questions and doesn't settle for the most obvious explanation. She has an eye for missed details and I enjoyed the way she would, almost nervously, bring them up during the police discussions that would then set them off on a new course of investigation. 

Although Kay is a new character and this is a new series, there are hints of a back story. It's cleverly worked into the novel so hints and clues are laid and enough interest generated for the reader to want to know more and to develop a relationship with Kay that will sustain itself beyond just one book, but without detracting or distracting us from the main plot. 

The story starts with a great premise. There is a kidnapping, a ransom, a death. The novel is very plot driven and we go headlong into the story straight away. The rapid pace continues throughout the whole book. There is lots of well written dialogue which strikes the perfect balance of revealing enough detail about the characters so that they are three dimensional without slowing the pace as the crime investigation rattles along. The short chapters also help generate suspense and plenty of action. 

This book is enjoyable because it has all the ingredients needed for a classic crime fiction novel. It has a good cast of characters all fulfilling the necessary roles, a good level of police procedural detail, pace, twists and complications all delivered at the right moment. Although it might feel a little straight forward and formulaic to some, I think it's actually very satisfying and it feels like Amphlett will become a 'go to' author for a reliable read which fits firmly in the category of crime drama.

With Kay Hunter, Amphlett has struck a good balance. Kay is not overtly flawed or hiding any deep traumas but at the same time is not a simple character. Her partner is a doctor, there is a sub plot about their relationship which adds another layer to the story and there is also the fact that Kay's career is in jeopardy and a back story about this lurks in the shadows.  This stops her becoming too predictable and flat. 

"She'd certainly found out who she could trust and who would stand by her assertions of innocence after the whole debacle." 

Although generally very stable and balanced, her dynamism is shown through her ability to notice detail and ask questions in front of her superiors who are sometimes too quick to judge her. She is willing to risk her reputation and alienate herself in order to get things right and make sure nothing is missed or conclusions are not drawn from misinformed presumptions. 

"I can't help thinking this wasn't simply a kidnapping. Maybe Melanie's death was deliberate."
"I keep wondering if there's more to this than what we're seeing at the moment.' 

This quiet, understated character who then thoughtfully raises a new point of view is very likeable, admirable and believable. Kay Hunter will appeal to readers and will gain their support and interest as so many people will be able to relate to this sort of person or indeed recognise it as the kind of detective they might make if they found themselves in this position. She also has grit and strength shown not just through the fact she has faced a Professional Standards Investigation but also through her comments before investigating the crime scene:

"Right, she muttered, Let's see what you did to her." 

Most of the story is told from the point of view of Kay but there are some chapters that come from another character, Eli Matthews. These chapters are chilling and immediately get the reader asking plenty of questions about who this person is, what they might have done and whether they are good or bad. There is ambiguity in the voice to keep the reader guessing and as we read more chapters about Eli, his storyline grows and develops with its own twists and surprises. I liked following the voice of the villain and that Amphlett had given him his own storyline to play out alongside the main investigation. 

For me, the moment when the significance of the title of the book was revealed was really chilling and created a lot of tension and suspense. 

By Chapter 50 the writing has become so tense and dramatic that Amphlett has created a real sense of desperation and of time running out for both the victim and the police. The descriptions are great and the locations used are spot on for a crime scene, lending themselves perfectly for the dark and thrilling atmosphere of fear and danger which Amphlett evokes. 

The ending was very good and we are fully prepared for the second instalment. Amphlett is not done with Kay Hunter - and neither am I! I look forward to the next book in the series and getting to know more about this character and the crimes she will work on. I would recommend this book for all fans of police procedural crime fiction. It is an easy read, a plot that delivers and with enough intrigue, twists, drama and suspense to keep you engaged and turning the pages. 

"Scared to Death" published on 6th December 2016 and is available on Amazon. 

Rachel Amphlett

Rachel Amphlett is the bestselling author of the Dan Taylor espionage novels and the new Detective Kay Hunter series, as well as a number of standalone crime thrillers.

Originally from the UK and currently based in Brisbane, Australia, Rachel is a member of International Thriller Writers and the Crime Writers Association, with the Italian foreign rights for her debut novel, White Gold, being sold to Fanucci Editore's TIMECrime imprint in 2014.

An advocate for knowledge within the publishing industry, Rachel is always happy to share her experiences to a wider audience through her blogging and speaking engagements.

You can keep in touch with Rachel by signing up to her mailing list via her website (, or via Facebook ( and Twitter: @RachelAmphlett

If you would like to see more of my reviews and recommendations, you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

"Good Me Bad Me" Ali Land

Good Me, Bad Me
It is impossible to ignore this cover - it's so eye-catching and totally implies this book is going to be dark, complex and psychologically thrilling. I was desperate to read it as soon as I saw it appearing on Twitter and NetGalley -especially as the promise of a really high quality thriller continued with the inciting strap line that "Good Me, Bad Me" was......


And I totally agree, I really think it is. This is an unnerving, unsettling, eerie read with a protagonist who is truly psychologically fascinating. The suspense and tension created from this fresh, original and disturbing voice will absolutely delight and terrify fans of  "Grip Lit" - and, as the publishers suggest, it will make a perfect choice for a reading group as Land has created a character you will want to talk about as soon as you've finished the last sentence! 

Here's a bit of the blurb to entice you further or if you prefer, the official trailer.......

'NEW N A M E .
S H I N Y.
ME . '

Annie's mother is a serial killer. The only way she can make it stop is to hand her in to the police. But out of sight is not out of mind. As her mother's trial looms, the secrets of her past won't let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family and name - Milly. A fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be.

But Milly's mother is a serial killer. And blood is thicker than water.

Good me, bad me. She is, after all, her mother's daughter...

The opening pages firmly place the reader inside the mind of Milly. Her short statements, blunt observations, economical use of language and jolting punctuation create a unique voice of a troubled teenager who seems distracted, distant and on edge. This is really effective in presenting a character who is complicated from the first line. We can't immediately relate to her; we want to feel sympathy for her but somehow feel held back as the narrative is so controlled and sparse.  This is a child who we want to feel sympathy for, we want to rescue and redeem but something niggles away - some little sense of unease that nags you not to rush too quickly into taking her under your wing. 

The use of 'you' is also really effective as it pulls us straight into the story, almost like an accomplice. Although Milly is actually talking to her mother, there is an intimacy created through this directness which shows the reader that Milly is caught in a complete dilemma about how she should feel towards her mother and to what extent she is still being controlled by her. 

Forgive me when I tell you it was me.
It was me that told.
The detective. A kindly man, belly full and round.

I liked the way Milly described her visit to the police station to confess the crimes of her mother. For a young girl who has witnessed such atrocities and who has taken themselves to the police station to report their own mother, there seems something very cool and detached about her voice.

Come now, he said. You need to hear this. The silence waiting for his superior to arrive. Bearable for me. Less so for him.

I found this eerie and unnerving. It also raised lots of questions in my mind about Milly's role in what had happened and whether I should feel sorry for her or be wary of her - a question which Land made sure the reader kept asking all the way through the novel. From the beginning there are little comments which make the reader wonder about the relationship between Milly and her mother and I did have to reread a few sentences in that kind of blink-and-you'll-miss-a-vital-clue kind of way.

You said nothing to them, yet everything to me. I nodded.
But only when no one was watching.

It was a brilliant way of keeping me completely hooked to see how the story would play out.

So Milly is sent to live with Mike, Saskia and their daughter Phoebe. Milly is terrified of being "found out"; she is scared of finding out what she might be as well as being found out by the family - although what might be found out is left ambitious and to the imagination of the reader. Land builds great suspense from this fear that Milly herself seems to be frightened of herself. What is it that she is frightened of? What is it that she's worried about them finding out? What is it that scares her about herself so much? Especially now her mother is locked up behind bars.

The voice of Milly continues in its very distinctive style. Initially I did wonder that despite admiring the author's skill in creating such a clever narrative voice, could it sustain itself throughout the whole novel or would it become too jarring? Would the novelty wear off? But actually, Milly's voice becomes strangely addictive. I couldn't always identify with her, I didn't always like her but ultimately she was so fascinating I could not keep away from her.

Glances, I work hard to decipher them, harder than most. My psychologist at the unit enlightened me. You may have a compromised ability to read emotions, he said. He meant: my mind does not function the same way an average person's does.

Milly is articulate and I liked the way she reported things from her sessions with psychologists, doctors and therapists. At times her voice reminded me of some of the most famous dysfunctional characters in literary fiction and I think it's a real credit to Land that she has brought Milly to life with such authenticity and conviction.

There are many indications that Milly has had a hideous time. There are references to sleepless nights, inappropriate touch, violation and a darkly chilling metaphor about a snake to convey the horrors her mother subjected her to and the level of indoctrination and control.

I've managed to keep your nighttime visits a secret so far. The fact you come as a snake, underneath the door. Up into my bed. Lie your scaly body next to mine, measure me. Remind me I still belong to you.

However, the crimes of Milly's mother are never fully articulated and for this I was very grateful. There was no need for Land to gratuitously add details or in fact fully clarify what had happened. In fact, I think this made the book more successful, more compelling, more edgy and actually perpetuated more fear and horror within my mind. The fact that the mother is such a huge character but remains without a voice, without her own narrative and almost completely anonymous is incredibly powerful. This is a book which is truly psychologically disturbing because of the thoughts and rationalisations the character shares with us; because of the glimpse into the workings of their mind rather than the crime scene and destruction they have run from. As Milly says when Mike talks about using hypnotherapy to 'unlock her':

Better left locked, I wanted to tell him.

Just as Milly's voice is vivid so too are the other characters in the book. I think the most captivating character aside from Milly is definitely Phoebe. There were times I loved to hate her, times when I admired her front, times when I winced at her cruelty and times at which I felt her pain. She's as complex and as damaged as Milly.

On a more lighter note, I also particularly liked the description of the Art Teacher:

"A corduroy skirt, a paisley shirt, a walking project not quite finished, the kind of chaotic style you'd hate, Mummy. Colours and layers. Layers and colours. Hands twist around each other, oversized rings clink and collide, dodgem cars."

Milly's attitude towards adults is quite derisory. She seems to be able to see Saskia's failings and flaws better than anyone else. She seems to see the fallibility in Mike's therapy sessions but at the same time her desperation to be accepted and part of a real family reveal her true age and true needs.

Mike is an interesting character; a man who means well, has good intentions, wants to help but at the same time there are moments when it is so obvious that he is unable to see the issues within his own family and own relationship. But the more you read on the more you wonder whether he is a victim or a villain. In fact, at the end of the book this is the most burning question I have - who is the victim and who is the villain? How much are all the characters to blame  / responsible for the events? Who do we believe? Who do we trust?

All I know is I really enjoyed this read and was hugely impressed by the author's writing. Land's has managed to construct a very disturbing and complex character with a voice that will send chills down your spine long after you've finished the last line. There is something deliciously dark and truly thrilling about this novel. Read it. If you dare.

"Good Me Bad Me" will be published on 12th January 2017 by Michael Joseph.

For more recommendations and reviews you can follow me on twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Ghostly Tales for Christmas Eve

I love a good gothic tale full of suspense and eerie suggestion and as it's a tradition to tell a ghostly tale on Christmas Eve I thought my last post before Christmas should be a recommendation for some of the best books to end shivers down your spine tonight! 

The Woman in Black
This is just 160 pages long and can be read in one sitting. Although you will not sleep after reading it.  

It's such a famous tale now that I'm sure you are all familiar with the premise. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor in London is summoned to deal with the papers of Mrs Alice Drablow who has recently died. Her house is across a causeway and Kipps is forced to stay the night there alone to complete his task. But what is the mystery surrounding this woman and what is her legacy? And what will happen to Kipps alone on this island for the night?

I love this book. I have read it and read it and taught it and bought it and seen the play and seen the film and read it and taught it and seen the play again and again and again. I have not slept because of it, I have seen the woman in black hiding in my curtains, in the corridor and literally jumped out of my skin watching it at the theatre even after five times of seeing it! Susan Hill is a brilliant writer and this tale will creep under your skin and haunt you long into the night of Christmas Eve! 

The Little Stranger

In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. 

I bought this in hardback when it was first released and absolutely loved it. Waters has achieved a truly masterful tale that is so full of suspense that it is the reader's own imagination which reacts to Waters' suggestions and makes it all the more terrifying and chilling. Even thinking about the book now, 7 years later, I can remember key passages that literally made me shiver with fear. It's a long book at over 450 pages but absolutely well worth it. 

This House is Haunted

1867. Eliza Caine arrives in Norfolk to take up her position as governess at Gaudlin Hall on a dark and chilling night. As she makes her way across the station platform, a pair of invisible hands push her from behind into the path of an approaching train. She is only saved by the vigilance of a passing doctor.

When she finally arrives, shaken, at the hall she is greeted by the two children in her care, Isabella and Eustace. There are no parents, no adults at all, and no one to represent her mysterious employer. The children offer no explanation. Later that night in her room, a second terrifying experience further reinforces the sense that something is very wrong.

John Boyne's novels are always a guaranteed good read and this is no exception. It's a mix of "Turn of the Screw", "Rebecca", "Jane Eyre" and Dickens but hugely readable, accessible and chilling. Another 5 star rating from me!! 

The Turn of the Screw and Other Short FictionEdgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales and PoemsThe Collected Ghost Stories of M. R James
Classic ghostly reads from the original inventors of the psychological thriller and detective fiction, these short story collections will satisfy any reader looking for a dose of ghost stories. The stories are short, chilling, accessible and haunting. Recommend! 

Thin Air

In 1935, young medic Stephen Pearce travels to India to join an expedition with his brother, Kits. The elite team of five will climb Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain and one of mountaineering's biggest killers. No one has scaled it before, and they are, quite literally, following in the footsteps of one of the most famous mountain disasters of all time - the 1907 Lyell Expedition.

This relatively shorter novel of 288 pages is subtitled "A Ghost Story" and that is exactly what it is! A clever, chilling, compelling read that is short enough to enjoy in a couple of sittings thus ensuring that the tension is taught and beautifully controlled throughout the whole length of the book. Paver's writing easily captures the style of the 1930s, placing you firmly in that era; her ability to narrate so convincingly in the believable voice of a male protagonist is commendable. I liked the tone and it reminded me of several other very established authors - particularly Susan Hill.

The Thirteenth Tale

Biographer Margaret Lea returns one night to her apartment above her father’s antiquarian bookshop. On her steps she finds a letter. It is a hand-written request from one of Britain’s most prolific and well-loved novelists. Vida Winter, gravely ill, wants to recount her life story before it is too late, and she wants Margaret to be the one to capture her history. The request takes Margaret by surprise — she doesn’t know the author, nor has she read any of Miss Winter’s dozens of novels.

As Vida Winter unfolds her story, she shares with Margaret the dark family secrets that she has long kept hidden as she remembers her days at Angelfield, the now burnt-out estate that was her childhood home. Margaret carefully records Miss Winter’s account and finds herself more and more deeply immersed in the strange and troubling story.

Both women will have to confront their pasts and the weight of family secrets... and the ghosts that haunt them still.

I read this many many years ago but I can still recall the haunting atmosphere and mystery surrounding the story of Vida. There are twists, shocks, confusion, suspense and tension and all set in a rambling country house revolving around a family's hidden secrets. Compelling. It has also been adapted by the BBC in 2013 very successfully with a stunning cast of Olivia Coleman and Vanessa Redgrave. 

The Unquiet House
Mire House is dreary, dark, cold and infested with midges. But when Emma Dean inherits it from a distant relation, she immediately feels a sense of belonging.

It isn't long before Charlie Mitchell, grandson of the original owner, appears claiming that he wants to seek out his family. But Emma suspects he's more interested in the house than his long-lost relations.

And when she starts seeing ghostly figures, Emma begins to wonder: is Charlie trying to scare her away, or are there darker secrets lurking in the corners of Mire House?

This has overtones of Susan Hill and "The Woman In Black" and although there is a supernatural twist to the story, it certainly still unnerved me and kept me jumping from shadows after staying up too late to finish reading it! 

The Fire ChildThe Ice Twins
The Fire Child:
When Rachel marries dark, handsome David, everything seems to fall into place. Swept from single life in London to the beautiful Carnhallow House in Cornwall, she gains wealth, love, and an affectionate stepson, Jamie.

But then Jamie’s behaviour changes, and Rachel’s perfect life begins to unravel. He makes disturbing predictions, claiming to be haunted by the spectre of his late mother – David’s previous wife. Is this Jamie’s way of punishing Rachel, or is he far more traumatized than she thought?

As Rachel starts digging into the past, she begins to grow suspicious of her husband. Why is he so reluctant to discuss Jamie’s outbursts? And what exactly happened to cause his ex-wife’s untimely death, less than two years ago? As summer slips away and December looms, Rachel begins to fear there might be truth in Jamie’s words:

‘You will be dead by Christmas.’

The Ice Twins:
A year after one of their identical twin daughters, Lydia, dies in an accident, Angus and Sarah Moorcraft move to the tiny Scottish island Angus inherited from his grandmother, hoping to put together the pieces of their shattered lives.

But when their surviving daughter, Kirstie, claims they have mistaken her identity—that she, in fact, is Lydia—their world comes crashing down once again.

I loved both these books. Chilling. Haunting. Ghostly. Suspenseful. Highly highly recommend. 

When I was growing up we adapted the ghost story telling tradition and always saved something spooky to watch on New Year's Eve which we always spent with friends.  Here's are a few recommendations:
Woman in black ver4.jpgImage result for images thirteenth tale tvImage result for images turn of the screw tv

Image result for images marchlandsThe Secret of Crickley Hall
Image result for pictures of and then there were none

So all that's left is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year! Thanks to everyone who has supported me with my blog this year and all the publishers, authors and book bloggers who make Bibliomaniac possible and have helped feed my passion for books!