31 Days of Wonder by Tom Winter

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Description

Alice is stuck in an internship she loathes and a body she is forever trying to change.

Ben, also in his early twenties, is still trying to find his place in the world.

By chance they meet one day in a London park.

Day 1
Ben spots Alice sitting on a bench and feels compelled to speak to her. To his surprise, their connection is instant. But before numbers are exchanged, Alice is whisked off by her demanding boss.

20 minutes later
Alone in her office toilets, Alice looks at herself in the mirror and desperately searches for the beauty Ben could see in her.

Meanwhile, having misunderstood a parting remark, Ben is already planning a trip to Glasgow where he believes Alice lives, not realising that they actually live barely ten miles apart.

Over the next 31 days, Alice and Ben will discover that even if they never manage to find each other again, they have sparked a change in each other that will last a lifetime. In 31 Days of Wonder, Tom Winter shows us the magic of chance encounters and how one brief moment on a Thursday afternoon can change the rest of your life.

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Sometimes when you approach a book with an open mind you are taken by surprise. I had never read anything by Tom Winter and I wasn’t sure if I would have time to read and review this one. I’m so glad I did.

I loved this book. 31 Days of Wonder is a delightful read. It’s very funny and although some of the humour is quite dark there are lots of poignant and touching moments too.

Alice is a young, hardworking intern at a PR firm who is overweight, who has a boss from hell and colleagues who seem to put her down all the time, making horrible remarks about her weight. She also lives with an awful flatmate.  Alice is one of those really nice people who wants to do the right thing and try to please everyone. Her best friend Rachel doesn’t have a job because she is convinced she is going to be a pop star despite being a terrible singer. She’s pretty bossy and expects Alice to help her achieve her dream.

Ben is a young man with mental health issues – he’s impulsive and says what he thinks, but he also has a flatmate who sounds quite sensible and caring. He also has a job. He has been brought up by his grandparents following the death of his parents when he was very young. He knows he has problems.

Ben spots Alice in a park one day – a girl in a yellow dress – and feels compelled to approach her to tell her how beautiful she is but Alice is whisked away by her boss, Geneva, before he can say anything more. But he does hear mention of Glasgow and is led to believe she lives there.

Without too much thought he decides he is going to Glasgow to see her. Despite his flat mate trying to dissuade him, he still wants to go. He seems rather obsessed by Alice who had actually smiled at him. He also starts ‘seeing’ Alice in various places and situations but knows it’s all in his head. He is still determined to go to Glasgow and he sets off on a borrowed bike.

Meanwhile Alice, to get out of something her friend Rachel wants to organise, says she can’t help because she has a date with Ben and from there the ‘fib’ grows.

The story is what happens to both Alice and Ben in the next month (31 days) and how their very brief encounter starts a journey for each of them that will change their lives.  Their stories are told separately, each chapter heading telling us how near or far apart geographically they are. The book is funny, sometimes poignant and very entertaining.

There are some great characters, including Neville the parrot, and I felt I wanted to help and encourage Ben and Alice as they slowly come to realise that their lives don’t have to stay the same and that things can be different. Ultimately it is a story that leads to hope and possibility.

[My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy]

31 Days of Wonder is published (hardcover and Kindle) on 10 August 2017.

 

 

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Here and Gone by Haylen Beck

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DESCRIPTION

Audra has finally left her abusive husband. She’s taken the family car and her young children, Sean and Louise, are buckled up in the back. This is their chance for a fresh start.

Audra keeps to the country roads to avoid attention and finds herself on an empty road in Arizona, far from home. She’s looking for a safe place to stay for the night when she spots something in her rear-view mirror. A police car is following her and the lights are flickering. Blue and red.

As Audra pulls over she is intensely aware of how isolated they are. Her perfect escape is about to turn into a nightmare beyond her imagining…

Dark secrets and a heart-pounding race to reveal the truth lie at the heart of this page-turning thriller.

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Wow. I loved this book. I was there – right from the first page of Here and Gone. You feel the hot, dry Arizona heat, the dust, Audra’s exhaustion, her aching muscles.

She is travelling through Arizona on her way to California, trying to keep to country roads, with her two children aged 11 and 6 in the back of the station wagon, hoping to make a fresh start, having fled New York and an abusive husband. She’s looking out for a safe place for them to stay for the night.

When a police cruiser appears behind her and gets her to pull over in an isolated area a few miles from where there is a place to stay, she’s fearful that the authorities have found her and will have her charged with parental abduction. The officer tells her the car is overloaded and that it’s not safe to drive and offers to move some of her stuff from the back of her car into his cruiser and to take Audra and the children to the guesthouse in town and arrange for her car to be towed there later. However while moving some of her stuff, the officer finds a bag of marijuana. Audra swears the drugs are not hers but she is arrested, handcuffed and searched, despite no female officer being present. You quickly realise Officer Whiteside is not a nice character. He radios for his deputy to come and get the children and take them to a safe place.

As she sees her children being taken from her in a police car, her thoughts turn to the past 18 months and we get some insight as to why she left her husband and also the fact that in the past she had a history of substance abuse.

I don’t want to give too much away here but when Audra is taken to town the Deputy’s car isn’t there. Aura keeps asking for them but after she is processed and taken to a cell on asking again where her children are, the officer’s reply is “What children?”

Now the real nightmare begins. Audra is totally alone. When she is allowed to phone, she phones the ‘friend’ in California she is told not to contact her again. It gets worse, the authorities suspect she has harmed the children and hidden their bodies. The investigation gets very serious. The FBI’s Child Abduction response deployment team arrive. Someone leaks details of her medical history. The press get hold of the story and it’s all over the television. However someone called Danny sees the news reports and realises he has a similar story to tell: missing child, wife blamed, wife committed. No one had really listened to his thoughts on what had happened. He becomes part of the story too.

The story switches between what is happening to Audra and what is happening to the children. There is also a conversation happening in an internet private members forum and you just know something very bad is being planned. The pace is very good. There is a good balance of the different threads, a race against time, some twists. We get enough back story to make sense of the present. There are some strong characters, both good and bad. Audra’s past has made her stronger and a survivor, but there are a few moments when you feel it would be so easy for her to give in. There is also a wonderful sense of location. Heat and dust, a dying town, closed mine, dry riverbed, empty properties. You get the picture. It’s a well written story.

The story really grabbed me. It’s tense and the pace doesn’t really let up. I read it mostly in one sitting. I didn’t want to put it down. I managed to finish it around 1.30 am. The best kind of book  

I had intended to hold back this post until nearer publication date however Here and Gone is available now in ebook format. The hardcover version will be available later this summer.

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Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

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When twenty-two-year-old Olivia is coerced into marriage by the cruel Alistair Sheldon she leaves England for Egypt, his home and the land of her own childhood. Reluctant as she is to go with Alistair, it’s in her new home that she finds happiness in surprising places: she is reunited with her long-estranged sister, Clara, and falls – impossibly and illicitly – in love with her husband’s boarder, Captain Edward Bertram.

Then Clara is abducted from one of the busiest streets in the city. Olivia is told it’s thieves after ransom money, but she’s convinced there’s more to it. As she sets out to discover what’s happened to the sister she’s only just begun to know, she falls deeper into the shadowy underworld of Alexandria, putting her own life, and her chance at a future with Edward, the only man she’s ever loved, at risk. Because, determined as Olivia is to find Clara, there are others who will stop at nothing to conceal what’s become of her . . .

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I enjoy a good thriller and I also like well-written romantic fiction especially historical so Beneath a Burning Sky ticks all the boxes for me. There is mystery, intrigue, illicit romance, abduction, lies, betrayal, murder. The story takes place in 1890s Alexandria when Egypt was still under British occupation and begins with an abduction then takes us back to a few months earlier.

22 year old Olivia has been brought to Alexandria by her husband Alistair who, you find out very quickly, is a thoroughly nasty, controlling, cruel character. Olivia is very unhappy but is unable to tell anyone. So, I thought to myself, it’s a bit of a melodrama; maybe a bit of a cliché.

I’m happy to say I was wrong. It’s better than that and I really enjoyed the story.

Years earlier, Olivia and her sister Clara had been forced to leave their childhood home of Cairo after the death of their parents and return to England to their grandmother. However their grandmother, a bitter, nasty woman, had kept them apart and had allowed no communication between the sisters. The grandmother also had a hand in leaving Olivia no choice but to marry Alistair, colluding with him to virtually blackmail Olivia into marriage. On a happier note, it turns out her older sister Clara is married to Alistair’s business partner and has been living in Alexandria with her husband and children.

The story is quite complex, there are several threads and quite a lot of characters, and yet I didn’t find it too complicated. It is well written with a good balance of description, dialogue and background information so it’s not difficult to read. The romantic parts are not overly mushy but they are part of the story. I didn’t try too hard to work out the connections between some of the characters; I just let myself enjoy the story and the plot twists and wait for the connections to be revealed in time.

You hope there will be a happy ending but you can’t be entirely sure given the way the story unfolds. You just have to read it and find out for yourself!

Beneath a Burning Sky is Jenny Ashcroft’s debut novel in the UK. It was published in paperback on 29 June 2017 by Sphere. It is also available for Kindle.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Sphere for providing a digital copy]

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Standard Deviation – Katherine Heiny

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DESCRIPTION:

A rueful, funny examination of love, marriage, infidelity, and origami. Simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, this sensational debut will appeal to fans of David Nicholls, Nick Hornby, Nora Ephron and Lorrie Moore

Graham Cavanaugh’s second wife, Audra, is everything his first wife was not. She considers herself privileged to live in the age of the hair towel, talks non-stop through her epidural, labour and delivery, invites the doorman to move in and the eccentric members of their son’s Origami Club to Thanksgiving.

She is charming and spontaneous and fun but life with her can be exhausting. In the midst of the day-to-day difficulties and delights of marriage and raising a child with Asperger’s, his first wife, Elspeth, reenters Graham’s life. Former spouses are hard to categorize – are they friends, enemies, old flames, or just people who know you really, really well?

Graham starts to wonder: How can anyone love two such different women? Did he make the right choice? Is there a right choice?

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Although Katherine Heiny’s short stories have previously appeared in various publications, I believe Standard Deviation is her first full length novel and what a delight!

I really wasn’t sure what to expect but it is very funny; full of joy and love, but with just a few heartbreaking moments.

It’s a family story based around Graham, his second wife Audra and their 10 year old son, Matthew. ‘Standard Deviation’ is a reference to their son’s scores in various assessment tests which had led to a diagnosis of Aspergers.

Graham is a bit older and fairly quiet. His first wife, Elspeth was very cool, calm, collected and in control. Audra is the complete opposite. She never stops talking – about anyone and anything – the just opens her mouth and keeps going. Says what she thinks. She comes out with the most inappropriate things at the most awkward moments. If she doesn’t know the whole story she just makes things up. She thinks everyone should be a friend: talks to everyone, invites random characters to come for a meal or even stay with them, which leads to some great storytelling. She just has no filter. Volunteers for things, kind of meddles in things, even wants to become involved in the life of Graham’s first wife. At the same time, I really liked her. She’s not a bad person. In fact she’s a wonderful character but as I was reading I kept thinking, “Oh no. Don’t say that! Oh please!”

They worry about Matthew and want the best for him. Audra latches on to any interest Matthew might have and runs with it. He gets interested in origami so she finds an origami ‘club’ for him. We encounter more eccentric but wonderful characters and hilarious escapades.

It’s not all fun and laughter. There are a few thoughtful moments and some poignant episodes. It’s not all plain sailing but you just hope that things will work out well for everyone in the end.

I really enjoyed the book. It’s a well written, entertaining novel with interesting characters and good dialogue. It made me laugh out loud a few times. I certainly wouldn’t mind if there was a sequel. In fact I would be delighted!

Standard Deviation is due to be published in hardcover on 1 June 2017

[My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for an advance copy]

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Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre

#BlogTour : I’m so excited to be reviewing this book on publication day and would like to thank Grace Vincent of Little, Brown UK for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.  It’s two firsts for me –  it’s the first time I’ve been part of a blog tour and I’m the first stop. 

#WantYouGone @cbrookmyre @LittleBrownUK

 

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What if all your secrets were put online? Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister with learning difficulties when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her online, drawing her into a trap she may not escape alive. Who would you turn to? Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile source on the wrong side of the law. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything. What would you be capable of? Thrown together by a common enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they have more in common than they realise – and might be each other’s only hope.

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Want You Gone is another wonderfully entertaining thriller from Chris Brookmyre, in the Jack Parlabane series.  Chris is a brilliant writer and this time we are led into the world of hackers, cyber crime, fraud and corporate espionage.

The book starts with what looks like two separate stories (or three if you count the cyber attack on the bank), one told by Sam Morpeth, a teenage girl who is becoming overwhelmed with the responsibility of looking after her younger sister with learning difficulties. Things get worse when she’s told she can’t claim benefits because she is in full time education. No one seems to be listening. In the evenings when her sister is asleep she spends her time in online chat rooms to escape her harsh reality.

In the ‘second’ story, investigative reporter Jack Parlabane is in London having been invited there for an interview with Broadwave, an online news site. Could this be an opportunity to get his career back on track? While he’s there, there is a major cyber attack on RSGN Bank. Parlabane recognises the trademark of a group of hackers called Uninvited and contacts a hacker who goes by the name Buzzkill with whom he has had dealings in the past, in the hope of getting some inside information on the hack for a story. Jack has no idea who Buzzkill is, he’s never discovered his real identity nor actually spoken to him and he doesn’t particularly want to owe him any favour but he gets some quotes and writes a piece for Broadwave.

Sam’s situation then suddenly deteriorates further when she is hacked by a blackmailer who seems to know everything about her and is threatening to reveal things from her past that could lead to her going to jail. The blackmailer is demanding that she steal a prototype device from company. Having read Jack Parlabane’s story about the attack on the Bank she attempts to contact him to seek his help.

The two soon find themselves involved in the dark world of cyber-crime: hacking, breaching security systems, corporate espionage, all the while trying to identify the blackmailer who calls himself Zodiac. They also find themselves having to ‘disappear’ after a body is found on premises where Jack had gained entry having previously hacked the software that controlled access.

Despite some of the things Sam has done, she comes across as a good character and I had a lot of sympathy for her. I also like Jack Parlabane despite his, at times, rather dubious past when his actions in pursuit of the truth of a story sometimes led to him stepping over the line. The two characters worked well together. I also got the feeling there was another connection between Jack and Sam waiting to be revealed.

The first part of the book moves along at steady pace but is never boring. It’s not long before the action really starts and then the pace really ramps up until the conclusion. Sam tells her story in first person voice. Jack’s story is narrated in the third person. The dialogue is good and there is an exciting immediacy. As I read I could see the story playing out in my head and I got very engrossed.  There are a few surprising twists. For me, it quickly became a real page turner.   Wonderful stuff!

Publication date:  20 April 2017

Author’s website:  www.brookmyre.co.uk

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[My thanks to NetGalley and Little Brown UK for an ARC and to Grace Vincent of Little Brown UK for inviting me to take part in the blog tour]

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Before The Rains – Dinah Jefferies

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1930, Rajputana, India. Since her husband’s death, 28-year-old photojournalist Eliza’s only companion has been her camera. When the British Government send her to an Indian princely state to photograph the royal family, she’s determined to make a name for herself.

But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome, brooding brother. While Eliza awakens Jay to the poverty of his people, he awakens her to the injustices of British rule. Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think. But their families – and society – think otherwise. Eventually they will have to make a choice between doing what’s expected, or following their hearts. . .

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I’ve really enjoyed Dinah Jefferies’ previous novels.  Before The Rains is her fourth one and they just seem to get better and better.  I just like her style of writing.

I loved this story of Eliza, a young widow trying to make a name for herself as a photojournalist, in 1930s India, and who has just been given a commission to spend a year living in the palace of Prince Anish, photographing the royal family and life in the princely state of Juraipore for a new archive.

Not everyone in the castle welcomes her presence. She was sent there by the British government, and some think she may be spying for the British, but she does seem to get along with the younger son, Jayant.

Right from the start you get a real sense of the contrasts: the heat and dust and poverty Eliza sees surrounding the castle, and the scents, colour and opulence of the interior.  This is something I find the author does very well – her wonderful descriptions seem almost effortless but you get a great sense of time and place.  It’s easy to imagine you are there as the story unfolds although you couldn’t possibly have been there (in my case I’m too young – I wasn’t born until the 1950s!)  Dinah is an excellent storyteller.  I suppose you could say it is historical romantic fiction (historical in the sense of recent history) but it has depth.  It is a time of growing political unrest, the Indian population is governed by the British.  Eliza is an interesting character who doesn’t really fit the mould of a young English woman in India.    The plot moves at a good pace and the various threads of the story are woven expertly.

It’s a story of love, friendship, secrets, deceit, sacrifice, betrayal. There are a couple of twists although they weren’t entirely unexpected. Overall, a very satisfying read.

Author’s website:  here

Before The Rains was published by Penguin on 23 February 2017.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Penguin for an ARC]

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Everything but the Truth – Gillian McAllister

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It all started with the email. It came through to her boyfriend’s iPad in the middle of the night. Rachel didn’t even mean to look. She loves Jack, and she’s pregnant with their child. She trusts him. But now she’s seen it, she can’t undo that moment, or the chain of events it has set in motion. Why has Jack been lying about his past? Just what exactly is he hiding? And doesn’t Rachel have a right to know the truth at any cost?

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I loved Everything but the Truth . It gently sucked me in and then ….. wow! Secrets, lies, suspicion, obsession, truth(?)

Rachel is expecting Jack’s baby. She’s three months pregnant. She hasn’t known him long but she loves him. He’s a travel writer for a magazine. They don’t live together (yet). Jack lives with his cat in a house his parents had bought for him. Although they have been together seven months Rachel has still never met any of his friends.

It’s a lovely start to the story. Rachel is the narrator and tells us about Jack. You can tell she loves him. He sounds like a nice guy, a gentle soul with a few endearing traits.

And then she saw that email on Jack’s iPad in the middle of the night – just the notification, just enough to nudge her curiosity. Saw him dismiss the notification and when she casually mentioned that she thought he might have received an email he said ‘No, no,’ and changed the subject.

Then when she finally gets to meet his friends in Oban. she’s confused that they call him JD when his name is Jack Ross. She asks Jack why and he gives an explanation but she also notices a change in his demeanour and sees him making a “shut up” gesture to his friends that she obviously is not meant to see. The more she thinks about it, the more she realises that she knows very little about the father of her unborn child.

That is just the beginning of her suspicions, triggered by awkward silences, looks, words. We are fed little snippets of information that build up tension and suspicion. Rachel asking questions; watching Jack’s face for any changes. Getting plausible answers. There is definitely a sense of paranoia, starting small but increasing. Is it Rachel’s imagination? Or is she right to seek explanations. It’s possible that Rachel already has trust issues. After all apparently she and her long term boyfriend had broken up because of her unfounded accusations that he was cheating, just a month before she met Jack.

Finding out the ‘truth’ starts to become a bit of an obsession. Her family and friends warn her not to obsess but you just know she will. Using social media, she searches for him and any information available but there is very little. While visiting at his parents in Oban a letter arrives addressed to a J Douglas; she does the unthinkable and opens it then seals it up again. When later she ‘innocently’ asks him about it he tells her uses two names for his writing. Of course it then starts again, taking her phone into the bathroom or kitchen and searching for anything on J Douglas.

When she doesn’t find anything, she becomes even more suspicious. What lengths will Rachel go to to satisfy herself that she knows everything? Invasion of someone’s privacy is a very serious matter. Is it ever justified?

I think I’ve said enough. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone. It’s quite a complex multi-layered tale that is well written and easy to read. The characters are strong but no one is spotless and squeaky clean (in my opinion). As I read on, doubts crept in. Are things really as Rachel tells us? As her paranoia increases we get snippets about her past including the death of her mother and the circumstances leading up to her career change.

Initially I did consider what Jack may be hiding but I soon realised I was way off. I simply accepted the twists and turns and just enjoyed the story. A very satisfying page turner and a great debut.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Penguin UK – Michael Joseph for providing a review copy]

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