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Facade by Helen Matthews

Following the death of her husband abroad, Imogen returns to England. She is impoverished and bitter. By contrast, her sister Rachel appears to be a successful business woman, happily married and a mother. She has all that Imogen doesn’t, and more.
While Imogen has to rely on pity and handouts, Rachel is supporting their parents in the upkeep of their beautiful home called the Old Rectory. The title of the book, Facade, aptly represents that old family home but it also has another deeper and more sinister meaning – it’s about all the secrets and sins that are hidden behind the facade.
Twenty years earlier, Rachel’s baby brother drowned. An air of mystery and unspoken secrets lie behind that death. With Imogen’s return and her embarking on a vicious campaign of revenge, the silence will have to be broken and the secrets will drift to the surface.
Facade is a complex, gripping and unputdownable psychological thriller. With every new page and every new revelation you will be drawn deeper into it, and you won’t be able to take a break until the very last page when everything is finally revealed.
Matthews has achieved huge depth in her portrayal of her protagonists, Imogen and Rachel, who narrate this twisty tale. Their perspectives are diametrically different to begin with, but then as you go on, you begin to discover disturbing overlaps and similarities.
This book is really well written and the storyline structured to perfection. Highly recommended.
The author has recently released another thriller, The Girl in the Van. It promises to be as good as Facade. It’s already on my list.

Being Alert by Charlie Laidlaw

Charlie Laidlaw has smashed it with Being Alert! I read it in a couple of seatings, chortling and snorting with amusement right through it.

Being Alert is political satire at its best, in the same league as Yes, Prime Minister and In the Thick of It. The author has a sharp eye for the outrageous and the absurd. He captures with flair and unforgiving astuteness the nonsensical antics of the ruling elites occupying the corridors of power in today’s Britain.

The main players are only thinly disguised under their new aliases: Winston Spragg (the PM), Derek Goings (his right-hand man), Kevin Kock (Health Secretary), Mick Gore, Vijay Patel (Chancellor), Timothy Raambo (the Foreign Secretary) and so on, and so on . . . ignorant advisers, slap-dash dilettante decision-makers, fantasists, sycophants and downright idiots ramble, strut and swagger through the pages of this brilliant book in a show of their abject and irredeemable incompetence.

The story is set during the turbulent time of the pandemic and while it is a satire and the author’s dry humour will have you in stitches, it is also a damning account of how badly the British government handled the crisis. There are sections in italics where Laidlaw reports the actual events and shocking statistics that require no commentary. In that respect, Being Alert is a tragicomedy – it is incredibly funny but is is also terribly poignant. Laidlaw holds Tory political elites to account, and he is merciless.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

Running away from trouble in the UK, Jess arrives in Paris to hole up for a while with her brother Ben, who has half-heartedly invited her (or rather acceded to her inviting herself). But when she gets to his flat in an upmarket apartment block, Ben is nowhere to be found and a patch of bleached floor testifies to something sinister. Jess has nowhere else to go. She stays and tries to understand what happened.
The neighbours aren’t friendly or forthcoming with any information about Ben. It seems like they close ranks or simply don’t know; or perhaps it is their famous French discretion. Each of them harbours their own version of Ben and what their relationships with him were like. None of them were straightforward. Their memories are coloured with emotions, frayed, and there are huge gaps as information is withdrawn from the reader until the very end. None of the characters are likeable or trustworthy and that includes Ben as seen through their eyes. You can’t tell whether he was a victim or a perpetrator. The suspense is maintained right to the final chapters.
There are hard-hitting themes in this tense psychological thriller: alcoholism, sexual exploitation, modern slavery, drugs, societal inequalities, police corruption and the corruptive effect of wealth on morality and family dynamics etc etc etc.
Although the ending was inevitable and therefore expected, the nuance of it and the few final twists make it worth reading to the last page while remembering to breathe.
My only tiny issue was with the slowness of retrospection when each character speaks for themselves – there is a lot of internal monologue, telling rather than showing, and repeated explanations. That adds up to the over 400 pages of this book, which if some of that was left to the reader to work out for themselves would make this book much tighter and faster-paced.

Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol McGrath

Accessible, bristling with vivid details, unflinching, warts-and-all account of how the Tudors practised love, sex and romance: Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England by Carol Mcgrath

Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England is an exploration of morality and the mores in one of the most popular and widely fictionalised period of British history. In this brilliant expose, Carol Mcgrath, historian and an acclaimed historical fiction author, dives under the bedsheets of Tudor lovers, joins in rowdy festivities, visits brothels, peeks into Henry VIII’s marital and extra-marital beds, learns about inventive if not quite effective contraception methods, dances, flirts and recites romantic poetry. She takes us from the highest echelons of Tudor society to the lowest, talking about the love life of Henry VIII and his highborn mistresses, his daughter, the virgin queen Elizabeth I, but also prostitutes, witches and wenches. McGrath presents a full and comprehensive picture of Tudor sexuality, matrimony, childbirth, fashion, beliefs and rituals. She puts it into the context of religion, customs, philosophy and arts. She makes interesting links to the medieval, catholic era that preceded the Tudors, and contrasts it with the Protestantism and puritanism of the sixteenth century. She embeds the Tudors in the wider European context of the flourishing renaissance awakening. She makes reference to what came next. Sex and Sexuality is written in easy flowing, accessible language. It is vivid, full of fascinating details and quotes, thoroughly researched and bristling with tasteful, dry humour. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

All For You by Louise Jensen

This book is like one of those fireworks displays. You start reading it and you know you are in for something spectacular that will be blow your brains. But there is a bit of a wait – the slow burner of anticipation in the first two-thirds of the book. That’s where Jensen develops her characters and builds the suspense. From page 1 you are told that Connor is going to be taken. In a way he expects it himself. He’s carrying a guilty secret and is overwhelmed by grief over a tragedy that has befallen his girlfriend. His mother Lucy is totally absorbed by his brother’s illness. Kieron has a degenerative liver condition and may soon need a liver transplant if he is to live. His father, Aiden, is entangled in an affair he doesn’t know how to end and fears that if he does end it, the consequences may be dire for him and his family. 
Days are counted to the moment of Connor’s disappearance, and when it finally happens you will be tempted to conclude that maybe, on some level, you could have predicted it. That moment is the first firework going off, but it certainly isn’t the last. More and more revelations and twists blow up in your face, a whole barrage of even bolder, brighter and more explosive illuminations. In the last third of the book Jenson puts on the real fireworks extravaganza. You will be kept on your toes to the very end, and then you will be exhausted.

The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill by C S Robertson

The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill: The must-read, incredible voice-driven mystery thriller by [J. Craig  Robertson]

This is one of those unorthodox books that defeat the star-rating system. I couldn’t say, hand on heart, that I loved it and thus give it five stars. The story was gruesome and the protagonist unlikeable (never mind loveable). Grace has some character traces of Eleonor Oliphant (withdrawn from society at large, odd, damaged, lonely) but she isn’t sweet or vulnerable. She is hard as nails, her job isn’t for the faint-hearted and although she cares deeply, she shows it in most unpredictable ways.
But although The Undiscovered Death of Grace McGill isn’t loveable, it is a brilliant book. I simply cannot give it less than 5 stars. Its brilliance comes from the original concept, nuanced characterisation, moral and societal commentary that doesn’t amount to preaching, and the shocking twists that turn the whole storyline on its head.
If you’re squeamish, you may find some passages difficult to read, especially those describing Grace’s task of cleaning houses after the bodies of their occupants lay there undiscovered for months. Similarly, Grace’s interactions with her alcoholic, abusive father are unpleasant and upsetting – you may well want to step in and smash the man’s head in.
If you can deal with those explicit passages, Grace McGill will take you to some very dark places as she searches for the truth about the disappearance of a young woman fifty years ago. Chilling read!

Fortune’s Hand, the triumph and tragedy of Walter Raleigh by R.N. Morris

Fortune's Hand: The Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh by [R.N.  Morris]

Fortune’s Hand, the Triumph and Tragedy of Walter Raleigh isn’t a biography in the conventional sense of the word. It is all together something different and much, much more exciting.

It is, of course, about the meteoric rise and an equally spectacular fall of the Elizabethan adventurer, privateer, courtier and solider, Walter Raleigh. But you will find that R.N. Morris isn’t just writing about the man – in the course of the book, he becomes the man. I was astounded, as I tread deeper into his story, by how comprehensively the author managed to get inside Raleigh’s head. Or perhaps it was the other way around – perhaps it was Raleigh who possessed the writer’s mind? However it happened, the personality acquisition was complete, seemingly on a molecular level.

The fact that the book is written in the first person abets this author-to-protagonist metamorphosis. Norris is intimate with Raleigh’s innermost thoughts, his desires, his ambitions and calculations. As a reader, I trusted Norris’s interpretation of Raleigh as a rogue and chancer but also Her Majesty’s most loyal servant, brutal executioner but also a foster carer of his enemy’s disabled son, reckless hell-raiser but also a cunning political strategist.

Other characters are portrayed with similarly keen insight into both their psyche and physicality: the Queen (her manner, her scent, the sounds and vibes surrounding her), the obnoxious Lord Oxford, dr John Dee, the hostile new king, James I – a whole plethora of Elizabethan players brought to life.

Events aren’t described linearly, but in carefully selected sections that are put under a magnifying glass and dissected before the reader’s eye. Some of them are drawn in such intense and lyrical prose that you will feel as if you are swept into it and drown in it, only to be catapulted to the surface. The language is raw in places, and thus authentic without being pretentious.

Fortune’s Hand By R.N Morris has been quite a discovery for me, prompted by a friend’s recommendation for which I cannot be grateful enough. If you enjoy all-encompassing historical tour de force this book is for you.

Not My Brother’s Keeper by Colette McCormick

Reading Not My Brother’s Keeper I was reminded of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers at odds with each other because of the catastrophically bad choice made by Cain. Living with the consequences of that choice was damning.
In Not My Brother’s Keeper, the older brother Robert is a bit like Cain: he makes the wrong – even immoral – choice and takes the wrong turn in life, a decision that will haunt him for years. He abandons his pregnant girlfriend Michelle and leaves town, asking his brother Tom to watch out for her.
Tom is to some extent the equivalent of Abel – the good brother who stays behind, picks up the loose ends, keeps the family together and ultimately is rewarded with love and happiness with Michelle. Until, that is, Robert decides to come back and open old wounds.
Not My Brother’s Keeper is a thought-provoking tale about family, morality, decency and second chances. The story will stay with you long after you read the last sentence. Highly recommended.

A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

A Fatal Crossing by [Tom Hindle]

A transatlantic ship with over two-thousand passengers onboard carries the secret of an old gentleman’s death from Southampton to New York. At first, his death is dismissed by the captain as an accident, but James Temple, a persistent Scotland Yard detective, is permitted to investigate – as long as he is accompanied everywhere by the ship’s officer, Mr Birch. A thorough inquiry follows, witnesses are pursued and interviewed, and slowly a picture of art theft and high-society indiscretions begins to be painted.

Tom Hindle’s writing has been compared to Agatha Christie and indeed it has the elements of classic detective narrative and plotting. The partnership between James Temple and Timothy Birch is particularly vibrant and really benefits the story. Both characters are complex, each man harbouring his own secrets. The underlying tragedy of Birch’s missing daughter adds extra emotional depth to Birch’s narrative (the story is told from his point of view).

More deaths and further complications abound but the investigation ploughs on to the final unmasking of the killer. However it isn’t the identity of the killer that provides the ultimate, most unexpected twist to this tale. It is something entirely different. I did not see it coming and I must admit that it was quite a shock. I shouldn’t even intimate at what it is as that would spoil your pleasure of reading this book and getting to that earth-shattering denouement in your own time.

The Book of Sand by Theo Clare

The Book of Sand by [Theo Clare]

The Book of Sand starts as a story of two worlds – almost two different dimensions. There is the desert with shifting sands and dunes that are capable of burying whole cities; the nights are haunted by monstrous, blood-thirsty beings who are neither dead nor alive and who don’t seem to have a stable physical form. In that world a group of strangers is thrown together by fate or rather by mysterious design. The group – referred to as Family – travels by day in search of Sarkpont (a holy grail that has the power to end their apocalyptic ​desert trek). By night they cower in their shuck which is detached and suspended in mid-air to protect them against night-time perils. Spider, possibly of French heritage but that is only implied, is the focal character. We see the Family’s endeavours through his eyes.

In parallel to the desert world, there is the contemporary world of a teenage girl called McKenzie, a science geek, fascinated  with sand and desert ,who one day wakes up to find a lizard in her bed. Her world, though seemingly safe and ordinary, begins to undergo a strange transformation. Others can’t see what she is seeing and soon her mental health comes into question. 

You know that in time the two worlds will collide or merge in some way. The story leads that way. I found McKenzie’s story unremarkable at first, but soon it absorbed me and at some point took over from the fantastical world of the desert. Although you will have six hundred pages to plough through, this book is worth persevering with. Your time will be well invested.

The Book of Sand is a reflective and mesmerising tale set in a dystopian reality which tests man’s resilience. It is about interdependence and commonality of purpose.  It is about togetherness and the intrinsic value each of us represents. All in all, it is an exquisite and thought-provoking story. The ending will take you deep inside yourself, into your past and even your beginning.