Book review: And I Darken

It’s not easy being a girl in 15th Century Wallachia – ignored by your thuggish father, destined for a future in the shadow of your quite clearly inferior brother, possibly traded off in marriage as a favour to some mediocre local. But Lada Dracul doesn’t waste any time on self-pity. She’s too busy crushing her enemies (and sometimes her friends too) in her ruthless determination to bow to nobody in life.

This is the strange, violent, ambitious and quite possibly psychopathic central character of Kirsten White’s new series of historical novels. I started reading half-expecting vampires – mainly because of the title and Lada’s surname. But there’s no supernatural element here, although it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to find Lada drinking blood at some point.

Lada is a seething mass of rage, ambition and barely concealed violence

Because this is historical fiction with a twist. Lada Dracul really did exist, but she was a he better known as Vlad the Impaler. He of the heads-on-spikes, the inspiration behind the original Dracula story. Feminise a character like that and you get the ultimate kick-ass heroine. Not the strong-woman trope so beloved by Hollywood (you know the type – can throw a punch, but is actually pretty good-hearted, counsels restraint and steps aside to allow the male hero to shine.) No, Lada is a seething mass of rage, ambition and barely concealed violence and yet somehow manages to stay absorbing and (mostly) sympathetic.

The book tells the story of Lada and her brother Radu, raised by a power hungry nobleman then carelessly sent to Istanbul as political hostages. Radu immerses himself in the local culture and Islam while Lada fights to keep her identity while being drawn into the web of palace politics. There’s drama, intrigue and an unexpected love triangle, the book is tightly plotted and bursting with action as the pair and their friend Mehmed fight to survive in the cutthroat atmosphere of the court.

Lada Dracul, better known as Vlad the Impaler

Part of the reason the book works so well is the dual narration. Fascinating as she is, Lada’s savagery might be tough to take for 500 plus pages – but Radu’s more sensitive nature and his own sometimes heartbreaking story adds feeling and depth, as well as carrying the plot forward. He’s the one who is basically good hearted and counsels restraint.

However, action packed as the book is it sometimes feels like Lada is waiting, biding her time at court until she’s ready to unleash her own bloodthirsty reign across Europe. At times I was desperate for her to just up and leave. But on the plus side this probably means that book two (out next summer) will be even more action packed… I’m pre-ordering it as next year’s sunlounger read already.

And I Darken by Kiersten White is out now


Book review: The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid

I got to a point over the summer when I had complete thriller fatigue. Heavily pregnant, unable to move and beset by life’s realities (Ohgodogodohgod how was I going to cope with TWO CHILDREN?) The last thing I wanted was a dark twisted domestic drama. I wanted total escapism. And that’s how I ended up reading Diabolic in the delivery suite.

It’s set in space, a fantastical future in which the stars have been colonised using great leaps forward in technology – but the ruling class has since turned away from innovation towards religion, locking themselves away from danger in ancient, luxurious space stations.

Nemesis is a diabolic, a sub human, genetically engineered and bonded to a little rich girl named Sidonia, designed to defend her with as much savagery as necessary.

Good sci-fi should be entertaining escapism but still say something about the world we live in

And she is pretty savage – one minor character gets dispatched without so much as a shrug. She is strong, sharp and completely unapologetic – killing is in her nature. As diabolics have been banned by the Emperor who rules over their part of space, she shouldn’t even be alive at all but she finds herself at the heart of imperial politics, a world even more casually vicious than she is.

As the blunt instrument that is Nemesis learns to fit into a far more subtle world, the character’s growth is convincing and enjoyable, and the author has great world-building skills – a must for any sci-fi writer. The book also benefits from being a standalone rather than the first of a trilogy – the plotting is tight, the action beautifully timed and there’s no padding – although it would have been nice to have more detail about the world outside the imperial upper-class bubble.

Diabolic packshot NAVYGood sci-fi should be entertaining escapism but still say something about the world we live in now, and the message here is a warning about equality, fundamentalism and not burying our heads in the sand and avoiding reality (which, ahem, was exactly what I was trying to do.) So while I was looking for a complete break from reality I actually ended up with food for thought, which is just as it should be.

And the baby? Just under 8lb of non-diabolical cuteness. A whole new plot to be written.

The Diabolic by SJ Kincaid is out now
Diabolic packshot white

Book review: Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend

I would defy anyone to get a copy of Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend through the post and not think: this has to be some kind of joke.

After all, the world of YA semi-mythical romantic fiction has been aching for a good parody for some time. What started with sexy vampires went onto encompass fairies, gods and strangely attractive trolls until pretty much any mythical beast you can think of started turning up at high schools across America, trying to blend in and falling for clumsy innocents along the way.

Add to that the sub genre of cross-species erotica which had a little moment last year – Taken by the T-Rex, Ravished by the Raptor, and the many, many works of Chuck Tingle – and you’ve got the recipe for a pretty funny send-up.

The problem with books like that is that the joke wears thin by page 35 and starts to feel like a waste of your valuable reading time. But something about the blurb on this one made me want to pick it up, and after the first few chapters I started wondering, where the hell is he going with this?

Because HPtB isn’t a joke book – author Alan Cumyn (his actual name) is perfectly serious.

Well, semi-serious.

Well, he keeps a straight face.

So the plot: Sheils Krane is a control freak, the student body president at her high school who has everything under control – the

Author Alan Cumyn is serious. Well, semi serious.

Principal, her grades and her obedient but not-very-exciting boyfriend Sheldon. Then Pyke, the world’s first Pterodactyl high school student lands on the school running track and suddenly everything changes.

This is HUGE, right? A freaking pterodactyl! Where does he come from? How is it that he has the torso of a human being? Why the hell does he need a high school education? And why does Shiels’ nose turn purple after dancing with him? Don’t think you’re going to get an answer to these questions, Cumyn doesn’t bother. You just have to go with it.

hptbAnd that is what Shiels learns she has to do too as her attraction to Pyke pulls apart everything she thinks she knows about herself and forces her to ask herself what she really wants out of life.

And that’s the thing about this story. Rampant dino aside, it reflects many of the pressures on teens today: that tightrope walk between staying focused on your future – grades, college – and letting go and enjoying the crazy, intense, hormone-raging high of being young.

What isn’t there – thankfully – is the appearance-obsession you see in so many High School YA books. Sheils takes up running (initially) to compete with her love rival but she doesn’t measure the circumference of her thighs or bemoan her freckles/untameble hair/tendency to blush. It actually doesn’t matter what Shiels looks like – although there are many lyrical descriptions of Pyke’s ripped (and mysteriously furry) abs. And the scene where Pyke is in bed and there may or may not be an extra lump sticking up under the blanket made me laugh out loud.

I found it tough going sometimes – some of the sentence construction made it a bit of a tricky read and the style is a bit repetitive. Still. I stuck with it out of sheer fascination – I just wanted to know where the hell he was going with this story, and the result was pretty intriguing.dino1

So, as an offbeat YA treat Cumyn pulls it off – after a fashion. I see this one being a cult hit – I don’t see a movie starring Vanessa Hudgens as Shiels, but frankly that’s a bit of a relief.

Are we seeing the spawning of a new hot-dino-romance genre? Maybe not, but there’s definitely room for this kind of weirdness on my bookshelf.

Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn is out now.

Book review: Beside Myself

Identical twins have been swapping places for centuries now, from the Man in the Iron Mask through to The Parent Trap, but the twins in Beside Myself don’t exactly swap – it’s more like one performs a hostile takeover on the other.

Helen and Ellie are identical, although Helen is the leader and silly, slow Ellie is the oppressed follower. The school, their friends and even their mother all have a slightly lower expectation of Ellie, just waiting for her to mess up. Then one day Helen suggests they swap places and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

Before she knows it, Helen is forced into the role of secondary twin – rejected and forced into the background while Ellie (or Hellie as her bitter twin comes to call her) gains confidence and grows. There follows a dark and gripping tale of addiction, mental illness and the strange bond between sisters who hate each other, but still share a link which neither of them can break.

How much of our identities is made up by the judgements and opinions of others?

Like many books being pitched as part of Thriller Season this year, it’s not really strictly speaking a thriller. There are no twists and turns or ghastly murders – but it is addictive reading with a few revelations along the way. And although the central idea seems a little silly (Surely someone would notice. Don’t twins have different moles and stuff?*) the idea that such a thing could happen, and the havoc it could wreak on someone’s life and sense of identity is nothing short of compelling. That’s what keeps you reading on.

cover of beside myself by ann morgan two stick figures drawn in condensationIt’s a great one for reading groups as it throws up so many questions. Would Helen have continued to be “perfect” if the swap hadn’t happened, or would the flaws in her personality have come out anyway? And how was it that Ellie could suddenly lose her clumsiness, her untidiness by taking on Helen’s mantle? In short: How much of our identities is made up by the judgements and opinions of others?

For anyone who ever had a sibling and saw small differences in their treatment, the question is irresistible, and the novel itself is eminently readable. So although the central premise is old as the hills and there are a few cracks in it besides, it’s still a fresh, entertaining take which is definitely worth reading.

*There is a partial explanation but it would involve spoilers so I’m keeping schtum.

Beside Myself by Ann Morgan is out now.

Other Thriller Season reviews include…

The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Book review: The Widow

If you’re wondering which book is going to be “This Year’s Girl On The Train,” stop stressing about it: it’s this one.

There’s a few reasons for this and some of them are commercial – the publisher, Transworld, won the book in a hotly contested auction and has thrown its full weight behind getting it into as many readers’ hands as possible. Industry bible The Bookseller has already dubbed it TYGOT – it’s well on its way to being a must read.

But the real reason is that, like Paula Hawkins’ novel, the book has the kind of premise that makes a reader’s mouth water in anticipation.

the book has the kind of premise that makes a reader’s mouth water in anticipation

Think about it:

A little girl named Bella vanishes and all the evidence points to a man named Glen Taylor, but due to an epic police cock-up the trial collapses and Glen walks free. Throughout the whole experience, despite his character being dragged through the mud, his wife Jean stands loyally by him.

Then four years after Bella’s disappearance Glen dies leaving Jean free to be herself, to tell the truth about her husband for the first time. What happened behind closed doors? Is Glen guilty and if so, why did Jean stand by him? And what will she do now?

the widow book coverCome on, it’s got you going “oooh” already, hasn’t it?

Told through the eyes of three different narrators – Bob Sparkes, the police inspector who messed up the trial; newspaper journalist Kate Waters who’s after the inside story and the widow herself, the story is slowly pieced together by the three characters, the pace gathered and you wonder what on earth Jean is going to reveal next…

It’s a fantastic idea for a story, and there are some sympathetic, well drawn characters. The glimpse into how newspapers operate – signing real-life stories onto a contract and hiding them away in a hotel – is accurate and realistically told without anti-press hysteria but also without hiding the more uncomfortable side of the business: the doorstepping, the news editors screaming for their headlines.

But as for the widow herself, as for Jean – I never felt I truly got under her skin. I couldn’t understand why she was so loyal to such a mediocre person as Glen or why she kept a lid on her own needs and desires for so long. She was strangely ageless to me (if the author specified her age at some point I apologise for missing it, but from the way she talked she could have been anything from 35 to 55.) This could be because Barton paints such an effective picture of her suffocating home life that you end up picturing Jean as a stifled 1950s housewife rather than a 21st Century woman.

One thing is for sure, though – this book is going to be huge. It hits on a raw public nerve and gives us a peek behind the headlines. TV rights have already been snapped up, and I can hear the water-cooler conversations brewing already. Definitely one to watch.

The Widow by Fiona Barton is out on 14th January.

More reviews and thriller season chat here.


Book review: Viral

If there was an award for best first line of 2016, Viral would definitely be the winner – I won’t repeat it here but it’s certainly not one to show your Great Aunt Ermintrude. Although if Auntie E was to keep reading, she’d find an eye-opening tale about the modern world and the traps it sets for young people.

It’s about the hypocrisy surrounding young women and sex

Su and Leah are sisters and naturally their parents put them into pigeonholes – Su is the good one, studious, neat and considerate. Leah is the irresponsible, selfish one.

But when the girls both go on holiday to Magaluf, Su is the one who finds herself starring in a drunken sex video which goes viral and blows her entire life apart. Disgraced and ashamed, Su flees and tries to lose herself in Spain leaving the rest of the family to face the consequences at home in Scotland.

The makers of Broadchurch have acquired the TV rights to this one, and it’s being hotly tipped, so the book stands a good chance of going viral itself – and it is a compelling look at what happens when an ordinary person makes a drunken mistake that just happens to make it onto YouTube. It’s about the hypocrisy surrounding women and sex and about what holds families together when something like this happens.

viralIt’s a short book, tightly focused on the events of just a few days (with the occasional flashback) and the characters are real and loveable – especially Leah, the immature bully who finds more strength than she expected. However, don’t come to this expecting a crimey, thrillery read – the darkness just isn’t there. Fitzgerald has too much affection for her characters – and chances are you will too.

So it’s not Gone Girl. It’s a family drama, a coming-of-age tale and a wry look at the weirdness of our society. Enjoy it for that, and it definitely won’t disappoint.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald is out 2nd February

More reviews and thriller season chat here.


Book review: The Darkest Secret

The whole world knows that three-year-old Coco Jackson went missing overnight on the night of 29th August, 2004. The email appeal to look for her whereabouts was seen by over a million people, making her face one of the most recognised on the planet. And yet 10 years on there is still no sign of her. So what really happened at that exclusive, luxury Sandbanks development? And do the people who spent the weekend with her know more than they are letting on?

There’s unpopular, moany Claire, cast by the press as the neglectful mother after her daughter’s disappearance.

Then there’s her husband Sean, a wealthy and wholly self-absorbed property developer who doesn’t see a problem inviting his mistress Linda and her husband to the weekend’s festivities along with their closest friends the publicist Maria Gavila and her family.

It’s a masterclass in tightly wound plotting

And finally there’s the ghastly Clutterbucks, the most absurd Tory power-couple in history – but frankly they haven’t got a clue about most things.

This dark and gripping book focuses on two weekends – the fateful one when Coco disappeared and one 10 years later when the Jacksons and their hangers-on gather for Sean’s funeral. Coco’s half sister Mila and her twin Ruby make awkward company as they travel to their father’s funeral, still struggling to come to terms with what happened without knowing the full truth. And then, slowly, the story unfolds.

I’ve already gone on about the flaws in thrillers. The unlikely character jumps, the crazy twists that are just out to shock… well, this book has none of those. It’s a masterclass in tightly wound plotting with each character perfectly primed to play their part, and with the seeds of each twist subtly sown to make it completely believable. And if you happen to spot one coming you feel rather pleased with yourself rather than let down by the author.

darkest secret coverThe sign of a good crime yarn is how you feel afterwards when the writer’s spell wears off. Does it still add up? Were there clues laid out for you all along which you just failed to spot because they were too well woven into the fabric of the writing? This book ticks all those boxes, adding in acute social observation, wry humour and characters you’ll love to hate. A tasty, twisty treat.

The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood is out now.

Find more reviews and thriller season chat here.

It’s thriller season!

Over the last few years, January has become Thriller Season. Publishers launch their twisty-turny tales when in the gloomiest darkest month of the year, then slowly excitement builds until by summer there’s a copy of that year’s crime hit in every airport departure lounge and by every pool. It worked last year with the smash hit Girl On The Train (soon to be a movie with Emily Blunt) and now everyone’s at it. So if you like your narrators unreliable, your families laden with dark secrets and your book covers monochrome then this is the month for you.

As the New Year approached, my TBR pile was overflowing with intriguing catchlines, books with ‘girl’ in the title and promises that this book would be every bit as exciting as Paula Hawkins’ novel which I remember last year was being promoted as every bit as exciting as Gone, Girl before it.

If you like your narrators unreliable and your families laden with dark secrets this is the month for you

For the reader, this is good news. Thrillers focus on plot, on strong, love-to-hate characters and juicy dark secrets – often the kind of situation that could happen to anyone. It’s a great formula but it’s also so easy to get wrong.

The problem is often in the twist. Flynn’s book set the trend for the jaw-dropping reveal and some authors seem to start writing the book with the twist in mind – then make their characters jump through all kinds of outlandish and increasingly unbelievable hoops to get there. I’m going to assume you’ve read Gone Girl here (if you haven’t, skip to the end of the paragraph) and argue that the ending of the book was colossally absurd. For starters, anyone who has had fertility treatment can tell you it ain’t that easy to get pregnant from one measly batch of home-frozen sperm.

pile of books with dark coloursOften the flaws are obvious as you read and doubt creeps in before the end as you think, that character would never do that, or hang on, where the hell did she get that gun from? But sometimes the author has done their job so well that you’re carried along by the page-turning writing and it’s not until after the book that you get that post-thriller hangover. The whole plot comes unravelled in your mind and the experience is ruined.

The good news is that there’s lots of strong contenders around this year (I’ve pictured a small selection here but there are many more.) I’ve had fun – well, sinister, spine-tingling fun – diving into them all and will be ready to share my reviews soon.

Happy dark and scary new year!

Reviews so far are:
Viral by Helen Fitzgerald
The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood
The Widow by Fiona Barton

Book Review: The November Criminals

When it comes to life, Addison Schact thinks he has it all figured out. Well, don’t you always when you’re 18? He makes a nice living dealing pot to his classmates, enjoys a semi-detached relationship with his father and spends his spare time (of which there is a lot) hanging out with and wildly shagging his best friend-not-girlfriend, Digger.

And then one of his classmates is murdered, and he can’t stop thinking about it…

This kind of story really isn’t my thing. Arrogant, amoral male narrator racketing lazily around town between drug deals? Ugh, no. But by the time I was about 80 pages in I realised I was hooked. Because Addison does have charm and isn’t quite as blind to his own weaknesses as you’d think. What’s more he is an acute observer of the hypocrisies of the adults around him. Take his observation of the Gifted & Talented group in his High School, which he skewers instantly as a racist tactic ensuring the white kids still get the better education in a mainly-black school.

But then he takes on something you know is too big for him too handle, too dangerous and beyond the capabilities of a small time pot dealer who doesn’t even understand why fuck-buddy arrangements can get complicated. I read through swathes of the book chewing on my fingers thinking this is all going to go horribly wrong.

It’s not a spoiler to say Addison survives – the whole book is his elaborate answer to a college admissions test question: “what are your best and worst qualities?” It’s also not a spoiler to say we explore these in great detail, and it’s definitely not a spoiler to say that you learn to appreciate Addison for who he is.

it’s rare to see this level of subtlety, where the writer says one thing and the reader understands the truth underneath

In a market where unreliable narrators are rapidly becoming the norm, it’s still rare to see this level of subtlety, where the writer says one thing and the reader understands the truth underneath without there being the literary equivalent of a flashing neon sign to point it out. On any writing course they hammer that old “show don’t tell” rule into you and this is a masterclass. It’s what Addison does that reveals who he really is.

As in all coming-of-age books there’s some growing up to do. But does he come out of it a better person? You’ll have to get back to me on that after reading it. But the book really has something special and I wasn’t surprised to see it’s being released as a film early next year. I’m imagining something quite arty, in the manner of Napoleon Dynamite rather than blockbuster but if I were you I’d snap up the book first, enjoy the fabulous writing, then see if the film makes the grade.

The November Criminals by Sam Munson is out now.

Book review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street coverI had a fab time putting together the Cosmo summer reads list this year – it was great to be able to mix different genres and throw in a couple of wild cards. My one regret was that I spent so much time justifying this book as ‘accessible fantasy’ that I didn’t have enough words to describe how wonderful it is. I even called it a ‘caper’ which, although there were moments of high adventure, was a bit of a misnomer really. There’s so much more going on than that.

This is the story of Thaniel, a lowly Victorian civil servant who narrowly escapes an Irish Republican bomb by what seems to him like a stroke of luck. This leads him to the workshop of Keita Mori, Japanese exile, genius watchmaker and prescient.

Imagine meeting a person who remembers the future and can arrange your life to get the result he wants, lining up coincidences like a human domino run? To Thaniel Mori’s world is fascinating but his new friend Grace is profoundly disturbed. Is Mori a kindly man sorting things out for the best or a manipulative monster whose actions have robbed an innocent man of his free will?

You find yourself asking questions about love, trust and surrender

Woven through the action is an intriguing glimpse of 19th Century Japan, a race to find the mysterious bomber and a touching, unexpected love story. You find yourself asking questions about love, trust and surrender, making up your mind about a few things – then changing it again, several times in the course of a chapter.

It’s definitely a book that keeps you on your toes.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is out now.