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Return of the Magi by P J Tracy

Emil Rice is a habitual thief, promising, each time he is caught, that he will never steal again. When he is arrested for the twenty-third time, he is ordered to carry out community service at a secure mental health facility, where he will have to live-in for a whole year. While he is there, he is befriended by two elderly female patients  who have been waiting for the arrival of Emil for a long time having convinced themselves that he is the third wise man and that he will help them to find the Christ Child.

This is not the sort of book I would usually read but, as a fan of P J Tracy’s Monkeewrench series, and as the festive season is approaching, I thought I would venture into the unknown. What I found was an easy to read, humerous, short story that restores your faith in human nature.

Despite Emil being a career criminal, it is impossible not to like him and his carefree attitude. We are aware from the start that he has not had the happiest of childhoods and so, for much of his life, has been devoid of a conventional family. In some ways, he finally finds this at the facility, even if his new family consists of two elderly women who think he is one of the Magi! Underneath all of his bravado, Emil is an extremely caring man, a trait we see in his dealing with Ralph, another of the patients, and also when he embarks on his journey to ‘the City of David’.

Edith and Gloria, the two elderly women provide a comic touch to the book and although they are clearly deluded, their resourcefulness is a lesson in not to underestimate the aged. The way they take Emil under their wing is a joy to read, even if Emil does not always share their enthusiasm!

If you are looking for a short, heartwarming read, then Return of the Magi is the book for you!

With thanks to Net Galley and Penguin UK Michael Joseph for the ARC.

 

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Blood’s Game by Angus Donald

IMG_1162Close to poverty, young Holcroft Blood can’t believe his luck when he begins working for the Duke of Buckingham, one of the most powerful men in England. Noticed almost immediately for his ability to decode ciphers, Holcroft is soon promoted to a position that enables him to betray his master. Meanwhile, Holcroft’s father, Colonel Thomas Blood, has fallen on hard times and makes a living by any means necessary so when he is tasked to steal the Crown Jewels, he knows he is putting the lives of himself and his family in danger.

Charles II is my favourite king (yes, I have a mental list of favourite monarchs!) so when I saw the premise of this book, I knew that this would be right up my street. Although he does not appear much in the book, the first time we encounter the king is certainly a memorable experience with him attempting to evacuate his bowels! He certainly lives up to his ‘Merry Monarch’ nickname, and I was happy to find that although some of his antics are definitely questionable, Blood’s Game does not besmirch his memory in any way!

I initially thought that this would be mainly about Colonel Blood and his attempt to steal the Crown Jewels and, although this is one of the plots in the book, the main character is his son, Holcroft. I really enjoyed reading the rise of Holcroft from the boy who was bullied on the streets of London to the trusted helper of the Duke of Buckingham. Nowadays, he would definitely be classed as being on the autistic spectrum, but back in the Stuart times, his ability to remember card sequences and decode complicated ciphers would have made him an oddity. I was pleased to see that, rather than ridiculing him, Holcroft’s talents were recognised and used to advance his career.

Although this is a piece of historical fiction, the author has stayed close to the facts of the stealing of the Crown Jewels by Blood, embellishing where it is needed. As a direct contrast to his son, Colonel Blood is a thoroughly unlikeable character although, even though I already knew the outcome of his crime, by the end of the book, I was willing him to get away with it! The writing of the characters in Blood’s Game is one of its biggest strengths and Angus Donald has created realistic portrayals of some of the most interesting people in British history.

I am pleased to see that this book is now going to be part of a series – something I will definitely be awaiting with interest!

With thanks to Readers First for my copy of Blood’s Game.

 

The One that Got Away by Annabel Kantaria

 

A Facebook-organised school reunion after fifteen years is hardly top of Stella’s to-do list but she is intrigued as her ex, the renowned businessman George Wolsey will be there. Ever since they split up at the age of eighteen, in rather acrimonious circumstances, they have not been in contact, but that night changes everything. Embarking on an affair built on a web of lies, it soon becomes apparent that once someone gets you back, they may never let you go…

On paper, this is not the sort of book I would usually read, but after being enthralled by Annabel Kantaria’s last book, The Disappearance, I had to give this one a go. I am so glad I did even though I am now suffering from lack of sleep through not being able to put it down!

At the start of the book, my heart went out to Stella, a woman who, despite her highly successful catering company, has always been missing something from her life. George, on the other hand, came across as a bit of a playboy, a ‘jack the lad’ who is used to getting everything his own way. When they met at the reunion, I cringed as he tried it on with Stella despite his wife, Ness, being in the same room. Ness appeared to be the sort of woman content with turning a blind eye to her husband’s misdemeanours as long as she was able to wear the finest clothes and receive the latest cosmetic procedure.

What happened next completely shifted my opinion of all three characters as Annabel Kantaria gives a masterclass on how we can’t always know what goes on behind closed doors. Appearances can certainly be deceiving and this is definitely the case in The One That Got Away as George descends into a spiral of despair and Stella’s manipulations come to the fore. By the end of the book, my opinions of the characters had changed so much that I was willing George to return to the philandering ways we experience at the start.

My only concern was the ending. Don’t get me wrong – it was a very unexpected and worthy finale, but I really wanted a different form of closure for George. That is just my personal opinion though!

The One That Got Away is another fantastic read from Annabel Kantaria and I thank her, Net Galley and HQ for the ARC.

 

 

The Girl From Ballymor by Kathleen McGurl

510u-LpbteLIn Ballymor, Ireland in 1847, Kitty McCarthy is struggling to keep her family alive due to the potato famine that has already killed all but two of her children. In the present day, Maria has arrived in Ballymor to research the life of her ancestor, the Victorian artist Michael McCarthy. Will she be able to discover the circumstances surrounding his early life and also what became of his beloved mother, Kitty?

I have loved all of Kathleen McGurl’s previous books and The Daughters of Red Hill Hall was one of my favourites of last year.  I had, therefore, been eagerly anticipating The Girl From Ballymor, and am pleased to say that it is just as good as the rest!

One of the things I like most about Kathleen McGurl’s books is how she seamlessly merges past with present and this is evident here. Speaking as somebody who has ancestors who left Ireland during the potato famine, I found Kitty’s plight highly emotive and could understand her desire to ensure that her son escaped to a better life. Despite living in horrendous conditions, Kitty was an incredibly strong woman and, like Maria, I too became engrossed in the mystery surrounding what became of her. Inevitably, her story was never going to end well, and when her fate was finally revealed it was tinged with more than a touch of sadness.

Sometimes in a dual-timeline story, I find myself liking one of the timelines more than the other but this is not the case in The Girl From Ballymor. Both parts of the story were equally as engaging and were interlinked in a way that moved the plot on. I felt that Maria was a very real character and could sense her trepidation as major changes were about to affect her life in a huge way.

With its cross-genre approach, The Girl From Ballymor will appeal to fans of historical and genealogical fiction and also anyone who enjoys a gentle mystery. This is another great book from Kathleen McGurl and I hope there isn’t too much of a wait before the next one!

With thanks to HQ and Net Galley for the ARC.

 

Death of a Cuckoo by Wendy Percival

4631636995_252x379When Gina Vincent’s mother dies, she is shocked to find a photograph that challenges everything she thought she knew about her life. Calling upon the services of genealogist Esme Quentin to help her make sense of it all, their search takes them to an abandoned property formerly used as a home for young pregnant women. Secrets run deep in this building and Gina soon finds herself facing danger as she tries to uncover the truth about her past.

It has been some time since we last read about Esme Quentin (Blood-Tied and The Indelible Stain) so this book was long overdue! Death of a Cuckoo is not a full-length novel, but Wendy Percival has still managed to write a superb page turner, linking mystery and genealogy effortlessly. For anyone who hasn’t read the previous books in the series, this could be read as a standalone and would provide a good introduction to the character of Esme.

In Death of a Cuckoo, Esme takes a back seat in the investigation, providing the main character, Gina, with advice and recommendations of where to go next. As in most books of this genre, this turns out to be more than just a straightforward case of family research as secrets from the past start to impact on the present, putting the lives of all those involved in danger. The mystery was an interesting and plausible one and I felt for Gina as she tried to find out who she really was in the most awful of circumstances.

This is a well-written short read and I hope that the wait for the next Esme Quentin story isn’t as long!

 

The Silk Weaver’s Wife by Debbie Rix

517jii+ZhdLIn the year 1704, Anastasia is planning to marry her sweetheart in secret in an attempt to escape her violent father. After her attempt is thwarted, however, she is forced to marry an older silk weaver and begin a new life, against her wishes, in Venice. Not content with swapping one abusive life for another, she plots her escape.  In 2017, another woman, Millie, is also experiencing relationship problems. When her affair with married boss Max is abruptly ended, she is happy to travel to Italy to write an article for work, where she meets, and falls in love, with Lorenzo. She soon becomes fascinated by the silk making process and is determined to identify the mysterious woman in a portrait she has seen.

I admit that I did not know what to expect when I started to read this book as romantic fiction is a genre out of my comfort zone. I do enjoy dual time-frame books, however, and I was intrigued by the mystery concerning the subject of the painting. When I began to read, I started to have reservations as Millie’s story did not really grab me. A soon as Anastasia’s story kicked in, though, I found myself reading at a much quicker pace, desperate to know how she would escape from her husband. As the book progressed, and there began to be cross-overs between the two time-frames, I started to enjoy Millie’s story much more and was keen to know how their respective stories would end.

Of the two main characters, Anastasia was, by far, my favourite: a strong woman who overcame her fears and tragedies to achieve a fulfilling and rewarding life. Millie, on the other hand, I wanted to shake at times for allowing Max to railroad her into decisions that she did not really want to make. I found it interesting that the more independent woman was the one from the eighteenth century, a time when women had fewer rights than their twenty-first century counterparts.

It is obvious that the author has done a tremendous amount of research to merge fact with fiction, providing a fantastic historical account of the silk trade in eighteenth century Italy. Debbie Rix has painted an evocative picture of the book’s locations, whether it be Venice, Amsterdam or Spitalfields and truly transports you back to the eighteenth century.

For any fans of historical fiction or, indeed, any Italophiles, The Silk Weaver’s Wife is a great read.

With thanks to Bookouture and Net Galley for my copy.

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

When she receives an email informing her that her twin sister is dead, Ava Antipova isn’t exactly filled with grief. To Ava, this sounds exactly like the sort of scheming she is used to from Zelda, the sister she has not seen for the past two years. Returning home in an attempt to unearth the truth, she soon finds herself on a scavenger hunt that has been set up by her ‘dead’ sister. With her family in a downward spiral, will Ava be able to discover the whereabouts of her missing sister?

I was initially drawn to this book by the cover and the premise of a mystery being solved by way of a scavenger hunt. Although this is being billed in some quarters as a ‘thriller’, I certainly would not agree – there is definitely an air of mystery but is more of a study of the main characters involved in the story. Despite this, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Dead Letters and, although some of the plot lines could be predicted, there were enough clever twists to keep you guessing.

The Antipovas are a dysfunctional family of immense proportions: Nadine (Ava’s mother) is a divorcee suffering from early onset dementia; Marlon (Ava’s father) has a new family who seemingly want nothing to do with his children from his previous marriage and the missing sister, Zelda, is a drug user who will use anyone to help her achieve her aims. Is there any wonder Ava has escaped her past and started a new life in France?! Having a family winemaking business has not exactly helped either as they are all, as Ava admits, alcoholics. Although the characters are not exactly likeable, I did find myself feeling sympathy towards Ava’s plight as she was, once again, manipulated by her sister.

Dead Letters is a strong debut from the author and I look forward to reading her next offering.

With thanks to Atlantic Books and Readers First for my ARC.

 

The Missing Man by Nathan Dylan Goodwin

61gMJQkjzYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After discovering the truth about his parentage, the time has finally arrived for forensic genealogist Morton Farrier to locate his biological father. The Missing Man takes him to the east coast of America to discover what exactly happened to Harley ‘Jack’ Jacklin after disappearing from the family home following a fatal fire. Knowing that his time in the States is limited, Morton faces a race against time before his father is lost forever.

Although this is a novella, Nathan Dylan Goodwin has managed to pack in an awful lot of story! The plot moves between three time frames, detailing the beginnings of Morton’s grandparents’ relationship, the lead up to and the repercussions of the fire and Morton’s search for his father. With so much jumping around in time, it could have been quite easy to become confused but the author has ensured that this does not happen and keeps you engrossed throughout.

In typical Morton Farrier style, he might be celebrating his marriage with a honeymoon in the USA, but you just know that much of his break is going to be spent on genealogical business! Never usually one to shy away from a difficult case, it was disheartening to see Morton come up against brick walls so it was good to see his new wife encouraging him not to give up. To find out if he does find his missing man, you’ll have to read the book! I will say, though, that it was nice to see Mr Farrier not having to protect himself from people trying to stop his research!

One of the things I like the most about Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s writing is his accurate use of genealogy resources, both online and in record offices. As a genealogist, I find the research side fascinating and I found it interesting to see how Morton applied his UK research skills in the records of another country.

For any fans of other genealogical fiction authors, I highly recommend Nathan Dylan Goodwin’s Morton Farrier books. I look forward to the next full-length installment!

 

 

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

img_0999Single mum Louise is content with her life until she meets David. Young, attractive and interested in her, she can’t believe her luck. Then she meets her new boss and, to her horror, it’s the same man. What makes matters worse, is that she also meets and befriends his wife, Adele. It doesn’t take Louise long to realise that there is something very wrong with their marriage but who is telling the truth? Is David the dangerous control freak he is being made out to be and is Adele as weak and vulnerable as she claims?

There has been a lot of online buzz about this book and so I felt I had to see what all the fuss was about myself. Although the blurb clearly states that there is going to be a killer twist, I was certainly not prepared for what it was! Knowing that there was going to be a twist, I spent most of the book desperately searching for clues to no avail – this is something that cannot be predicted!

It is quite hard to review this book without giving anything away, but I will say that the story is told mainly from the perspectives of Louise and Adele, both in the present and in the past. The characters are well-written and the author does a fantastic job in steering you away from the truth so that when that ending does come it hits you hard!

Behind Her Eyes was not the book I expected, but this is a good thing! It’s not often I am completely wrong-footed by a book so well done Sarah Pinborough! My advice would be to read other reviews of this book sparingly as there are a few spoilers out there…

With thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the ARC.

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