My Books of the Year 2020

Books of the Year 2020

1st January 2021

As we start the New Year this is my opportunity to look back at my favourite books that got me through that awful year of 2020. For all of us who love books they really got us through that difficult year. We could lose ourselves in stories and head of on adventures or we could read some non-fiction and learn from history or read books on natural history. How would we have got through 2020 without books.

This is also my opportunity to thank all the authors and publishers who have trusted me with their books. To each and everyone one of you all I can do is thank you. It is also a chance to mention bookshops. All have struggled through the lockdowns and have had to adapt. All are still struggling and need our support through the months ahead. Bookshops are vital for every community just like libraries. We would be poorer without them. They have managed to adapt by click and collect or many delivering free to people living local and who have been isolating. It has been inspiring to hear and read their stories.

Without further ado here are my ten shortlisted fiction and ten non-fiction books of 2020 and at the end I have chosen my fiction and non-fiction books of the year.

MY TEN SHORTLISTED FICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR

The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

Published by Fourth Estate.

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020

Longlisted for the Booker Prize

The long-awaited sequel to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and the conclusion to the fabulous trilogy. I have to admit this was my tip to win the Booker Prize and make it a hat-trick of wins. I still think this is just some of the best writing in many years.

Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

Published by Doubleday

I have been a fan of Rachel Joyce’s writing for some years now and Miss Benson’s Beetle is set in 1950 a story of adventure and friendship.

Summer by Ali Smith

Published by Hamish Hamilton

Longlisted for the Highland Book Prize

The finale to the seasonal quartet. Like each season the quartet seems to have gone so fast. All four to cherish in the years to come.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Published by Tinder Press

Winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction

Waterstones Book of the Year 2020

This is one book I have been speaking about since I was lucky enough to receive a review copy and was one of the first books of 2020 that I read. Instantly I knew this was something incredible and without doubt Maggie’s finest hour in writing.

A story based on the story of Shakespeares wife Agnes (Anne Hathaway) and their young son Hamnet. It will break your heart but stunningly beautiful. Deserved of all the plaudits.  

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Published by Viking Books

This is just a brilliant debut from the TV quiz master Richard Osman. It has gone on to become one the biggest selling books of 2020. A novel set in a quiet retirement village. Readers will love the characters involved. Warm and very funny.

Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson 

Published by Orenda Books

Sadly, the finale in the Dark Iceland series. As chilling as an Icelandic winter this is gripping finale as Ari Thor returns to solve the death of a young woman found dead beneath a balcony. Suicide or something much more sinister?

Shuggie Baine by Douglas Stuart

Published by Picador Books

Winner of the Booker Prize 2020

The Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year 2020

Shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction 2020

Bleak and heartbreaking. A story set in Glasgow in the early 1980’s of young Shuggie Baine and Agnes his mother. Even now I keep thinking of this story.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Published by Orion Books

Selling well over one million copies the international bestseller. A heart stopping thriller that had me guessing until the very end. Why did Alicia Berenson who had a perfect life and marriage suddenly shoot her husband dead five times in the head. Six years later and incarcerated she has not spoken a word.

Three – Fifths by John Vercher

Published by Pushkin Vertigo

Set in 1995 in Pittsburgh and a story of race, class and violence. A powerful novel, that is so brilliantly written. Nominated for many literary awards.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Published by Raven Books

The Year is 1634 and Samuael Pipps the great detective is being transported to Amsterdam from the Dutch East Indies to stand trial for a crime he says he did not commit. He could face the death penalty. But as the ship sets sail things begin to happen on board.

MY TEN SHORTLISTED NON-FICTION BOOKS OF THE YEAR

The Ratline by Philippe Sands

Published by W&N

A breathtaking account of the life of  SS Brigadeführer Otto Freiherr von Wächter. Painstakingly researched. Otto managed to escape justice as he was indicted for mass murder. Escaping via the Austrian Alps and then to Rome where he was helped by a Vatican Bishop. Powerful and reads like a thriller.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

Published by Little Toller

Winner of the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing

This is Dara’s diary from Spring to Winter looking at the natural world and his own life at school as well as being an environmentalist and conservationist. Beautifully written.

Rootbound by Alice Vincent

Published by Canongate

Longlisted for the Wainwright Prize

Part memoir, botanical history and biography. This is just a beautiful book about what the outside world can do even by bringing it indoors. Insightful and beautifully written.

The Lost Spells by Jackie Morris and Robert Mcfarlane

Published by Hamish Hamilton

If you loved The Lost Words then you will automatically know and love the follow up or the kindred spirit to The Lost Words. Breataking in its beauty in both words (Spells) by Robert Mcfarlane and the artwork by Jackie Morris. It is never too far away and how it has helped during periods of lockdown and being isolated. It is just georgeous!

The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts

Published by Doubleday

I was just blown away by this incredible book. Across the landscape that is Siberia are the lost pianos that were created during the boom years of the nineteenth century. Sophy Roberts travelled this land in search of the pianos. This remarkable book is her story.

Jeoffrey: The Poet’s Cat – A Biography

Published by The History Press

Jeoffrey was a cat that lived over 250 years ago and with the poet Christopher Smart were confined in an asylum. This is the story of Jeoffrey the cat and how it came to be in one of the greatest poems of all time’Jubilate Agno’.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Published by Viking Books

Barack Obama started to write his memoir as he boarded Air Force One as he left the White House as President of America. This is the first part of what will become one of the great political memoirs. Obama writes with the calmness and assurance and with humour that we came to know and love. It is just a fabulous read.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

Published by William Collins

What was it like to be around Churchill and his family through the countries darkest period, the blitz? This is the book to read. It is a gripping and page turning read that was painstakingly researched by Larson.

Beethoven: A Life in Nine pieces by Laura Tunbridge.

Published by Viking Books

In 2020 we celebrated the birth of truly one of the greatest composers the world had ever seen. Ludwig van Beethoven. Yet there are so many myths. Here Laura Tunbridge looks at parts of his life in each chapter and a piece of music. Not to be missed if you love Beethoven.

The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia

Published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books)

Winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2020

Some books just leave me speechless. The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia was one of those books. A stunning book that looks at the Oceans and the need to trade goods but in the end not only goods but culture. Not a small book in over a thousand pages but a book that will stand the test of time. A masterpiece and a deserving winner of the Wolfson History Prize.

And so now I have to find my fiction and non-fiction book of the year. There have been so many incredible books this year and selection ten fiction and ten non-fiction was hard enough. So hear are my two books of 2020.

My Fiction Book of 2020

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Published by Tinder Press

It had to be Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. This story of grief and loss has staye with me throughout this year and I cheered the when Maggie O’Farrell won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. How on earth does Maggie follow up on Hamnet. If you have not read Hamnet yet then this is one book that you must read. So much is weaved into the storyline about Agnes and Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, about a Kestrel and then there is the flea that finds its way aboard ship in Alexandria and the time of the plague that shut the playhouses in London and the devastation it would cause. Maggie’s writing is just dazzling.

My Non-Fiction Book of 2020

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia

Published by Allen Lane (Penguin)

A difficult decision to find my favourite non-fiction book of 2020, but ultamately The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia won through because it is a remarkable piece of writing. One of the greatest books on world history. I read The Boundless Sea through part of the Summer and just became lost in the book. Inside there are pages of maps and colour photographs that go to make up one book that takes pride of place among my non-fiction books. To even begin to think about writing a history of the oceans is heartstopping to produce a work that is a masterpiece. From pirates to kings to sailors and slave ships to conquerers they are all here. One day I will re-read and travel the worlds oceans through time again. Worthy winner of the 2020 Wolfson History Prize.

So there we are my books of 2020. A year that books got us through the worst year we have ever known. We will need books just as much in 2021. So here’s to all the writers and publishers and bookshops across the UK.

Have a Happy, peaceful and safe 2021.

Happy reading.

John

Olga by Bernhard Schlink

Olga by Bernhard Schlink

Translated by Charlotte Collins

Summary:

Olga is an orphan raised by her grandmother in a Prussian village around the turn of the 20th century. Smart and precocious, she fights against the prejudices of the time to find her place in a world that sees her as second-best.

When she falls in love with Herbert, a local aristocrat obsessed with the era’s dreams of power, glory and greatness, her life is irremediably changed.

Theirs is a love against all odds, entwined with the twisting paths of German history, leading us from the late 19th to the early 21st century, from Germany to Africa and the Arctic, from the Baltic Sea to the German south-west.

This is the story of that love, of Olga’s devotion to a restless man – told in thought, letters and in a fateful moment of great rebellion.

My Review:

I was so moved by The Reader by Bernhard Schlink when I read it some years ago and still remains with me to this day. So I was delighted to have received a copy of Olga (W&N) in the post last month. I was so taken by the story of Olga who was an Orphan and her life in a Prussian village at the turn of the 20th century.

Bernhard Schlink remains one of Germany’s most respected authors and the poignant story of Olga is a compelling novel of hopes, love and dreams. Olga was brought up by her grandmother in Pomerania but it is a harsh upbringing and it is a story that that weaves through two World Wars. Olga has dreams of becoming a teacher and attends college to train. Soon Olga would meet and fall in love with the aristocratic Herbert. The two leading characters could not be from two different backgrounds. His parents vehemently are against their relationship but Olga wants to be with Herbert.  

Herbert has another side to him and he wants to be the best and is a bit of an adventurer and travels the world and instilling his own arrogance but it is on an arctic expedition that he subsequently disappears in 1913.  By now Germany is growing in its own self confidence and rising power across not just Germany but also across Africa.

By the end of World War II, Olga is in West Germany and is now deaf. But now she works for a family and raises their son Ferdinand. This becomes a lasting friendship and Ferdinand is surprised that on her death she leaves him something. But the story does not end here and we move forward a few years and it is what Ferdinand finds that confirms her devotion to the love she lost many years before a love that was doomed. So what does Ferdinand find? This you will have to find out for yourself.

Absolutely adored Olga and her story and devotion to a man with a wanderlust. Timeframes fly by in a blink of an eye but say and detail so much of the time. Bernhard Schlink is master storyteller and if like me you loved and have not forgotten The Reader then you must not miss Olga.

288 Pages.

Thank you Alainna Hadjigeorgiou for the review copy of Olga by Bernhard Schlink.

Olga byBernhard Schlinkwas published by W&N on 12th November 2020 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org

Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior

Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior

Summary:

Veronica McCreedy is about to have the journey of a lifetime . . .

Veronica McCreedy lives in a mansion by the sea. She loves a nice cup of Darjeeling tea whilst watching a good wildlife documentary. And she’s never seen without her ruby-red lipstick.

Although these days Veronica is rarely seen by anyone because, at 85, her days are spent mostly at home, alone.

She can be found either collecting litter from the beach (‘people who litter the countryside should be shot’), trying to locate her glasses (‘someone must have moved them’) or shouting instructions to her assistant, Eileen (‘Eileen, door!’).

Veronica doesn’t have family or friends nearby. Not that she knows about, anyway . . . And she has no idea where she’s going to leave her considerable wealth when she dies.

But today . . . today Veronica is going to make a decision that will change all of this.

My Review:

After reading Ellie and the Harp-maker I did wonder how Hazel Prior was going follow up on her debut novel which I really loved. I need not have worried Away with the Penguins (Black Swan) is a fabulous life-affirming story.

We are introduced to Veronica McCreedy who is 85 and who is recluse and lives in a large remote house by the sea in Ayrshire, Scotland. Straight away I was drawn to Veronica as there was just something about her. That feeling that she feels that there is still so much to offer the world and that her age and encroaching deafness should not be a barrier to that.

Veronica has no financial concerns as she does seem to be secure and there is the large house, there is Eileen her assistant and then there is the gardener but apart from that there is no-one in her life and no relatives that are close by so she spends most of her time alone. She can be found wandering the beach picking up the litter that visitors have discarded. Veronica really does have a few choice words for people who litter her beach. What Veronica does enjoy though is to spend time in front of the TV watching wildlife documentaries with a cup of her favourite tea.

It is while settling down to watch one of the wildlife documentaries that something changes for Veronica, the programme is about Penguins! It is a moment for our character that changes everything.

When Eileen suddenly finds that Veronica does indeed have a relative living not too far away she sets off to meet Patrick who is her grandson. The meeting does not go as well as she hoped, at the end of the day she wants to leave her estate to someone but it clearly is not going to be Patrick.

But there is Penguins on Locket Island. But Antarctica is long way from the coastline of Ayrshire in Scotland. But this is Veronica and she wants to save the Penguins and she will not be deterred even by those scientists who advise her that her age is against her. Veronica is on a mission. But does she save the Penguins?

This is a beautiful novel about self-discovery and you the reader will go on a journey with our character who has a big heart despite the sadness from her past and although she may be a bit cranky at times, you want to make sure that her dream comes true. A gorgeously written and well researched story that really makes Hazel Prior a great storyteller.  

 416 Pages.

Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior was published by Black Swan on 22nd October 2020 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Winner of the Booker Prize 2020

Shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction 2020
The Waterstones Scottish Book of the Year 2020

Summary:

It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest.

Shuggie is different. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety. The miners’ children pick on him and adults condemn him as no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.

Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride. A counterpart to the privileged Thatcher-era London of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, it also recalls the work of Édouard Louis, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, a blistering debut by a brilliant writer with a powerful and important story to tell.

My Review:

As a book blogger, I tend to get lots of messages saying “have you read this or that book yet” but this year more than any I have received so many messages saying I need to read Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador). Finally, I got my hands on a copy and now I know why. Some books leave a lasting impression on you long after you have finished reading. But Shuggie Bain did something different. I don’t think the story of young Shuggie will ever leave me. It is heartbreaking and brutal but beautiful if that makes sense? Whether my review of the Booker Prize 2020 winner will do it justice I am not sure.

Set in Glasgow in 1981 when the city was struggling and hopes and dreams lay in ruins for many. This is not a story that is easy and there was a number of times that I had to put the book down, but you are drawn back to the story of young Shuggie Bain.

For Agnes Bain all she wanted was a nice home and a garden but now she is an alcoholic and her life is nothing like what she was dreaming about. Shug, her husband cheats on her, and Agnes gambles away her benefits. She has three children, Catherine has married and left to live in South Africa to get away from her mother, then there is Alexander who is eventually thrown out of the house which now leaves the Shuggie who has to cope with everything at home. If that is not enough, when the family move to a new place surrounded by black slag heaps and Shuggie attends a new school only to be bullied as he is different from the other boys then he goes home to care for his alcoholic and abused mother.

This is not an easy novel to read as it is hard as a punch in the stomach at times but then again it is meant to convey a story of addiction and poverty and also of abuse. About a teenage boy who is picked on by others of his own age but also the adults of the village who see him as different and not right. But at the same time it is a story of a relationship between a mother and her youngest son and how he cares for her despite at times the brutal way she would treat him. Then there is his father who did not understand him and wanted Shuggie just to be like the other boys.

As hard as it was to read at times, this is a very intimate look at a family but also about the poverty of Glasgow during at this time. Beautifully crafted by Douglas Stuart and a deserved winner of this year’s Booker Prize and will be talked about for many years to come. Shuggie Bain is not an easy read and many will find the themes difficult but it really is worth the time to get to know the characters.

448 Pages.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was published by Picador on 6th August 2020 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Summary:

My name is Nat Davy. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? There was a time when people up and down the land knew my name, though they only ever knew half the story.
 
The year of 1625, it was, when a single shilling changed my life. That shilling got me taken off to London, where they hid me in a pie, of all things, so I could be given as a gift to the new queen of England.
 
They called me the queen’s dwarf, but I was more than that. I was her friend, when she had no one else, and later on, when the people of England turned against their king, it was me who saved her life. When they turned the world upside down, I was there, right at the heart of it, and this is my story.
 
Inspired by a true story, and spanning two decades that changed England for ever, The Smallest Man is a heartwarming tale about being different, but not letting it hold you back. About being brave enough to take a chance, even if the odds aren’t good. And about how, when everything else is falling apart, true friendship holds people together.

My Review:

The year is 1625 and this is the remarkable story of Nat Davy. Nat is just ten-years-old but he is not like other boys of the same age. The Smallest Man (Simon & Schuster) by Frances Quinn is based on a true story that will span two decades. It is a remarkable story and one that is both fact and fiction.

Nat Davy was born into a family who were poor, but this never stopped Nat being happy but already the truth was becoming real to Nat and his family. Nat is different. Nat Davy is small but not just small, he is actually very small.

When you are different people stop and stare and they talk about you. Nat is our narrator as he tells his remarkable story. Nat’s life is about to change from a world of being shown off in a freak show. For the price of a Shilling he is taken from his family and is whisked off to London for a new life and is presented to the new Queen of England, Queen Henrietta Maria the wife of King Charles I.

He is to become the Queen’s latest pet to go alongside the dogs and also monkeys of court life. Imagine for one moment being a pet to the new Queen?

This is a life far and away from anything that Nat could have envisaged even at the tender age of just Ten. Soon Nat realises that the Queen is lonely and misses her family something incredible happens and the two form a unique bond of friendship.

England is now in the grip of a civil war Nat was about to embark on a journey of a lifetime with the Queen a life away from his home in Oakham. Nat is our hero and a character the reader will get behind and cheer with his triumphs and tragedies. Beautifully crafted and researched by Frances Quinn The Smallest Man is a triumph of a novel.

384 Pages.

Thank you to Jessica Barratt (Simon & Schuster and also Anne Cater (Random Things Tours) for the review copy of The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn.

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn was published by Simon & Schuster and will be published on 7th January 2021 and is available to pre-order through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org

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The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

Summary:

The death of a ninety-year-old woman with a heart condition should absolutely not be suspicious. DS Harbinder Kaur certainly sees nothing to concern her in carer Natalka’s account of Peggy Smith’s death.

But when Natalka reveals that Peggy lied about her heart condition and that she had been sure someone was following her…

And that Peggy Smith had been a ‘murder consultant’ who plotted deaths for authors, and knew more about murder than anyone has any right to…

And when clearing out Peggy’s flat ends in Natalka being held at gunpoint by a masked figure…

Well then DS Harbinder Kaur thinks that maybe there is no such thing as an unsuspicious death after all.

My Review:

We head off to quiet town of Shoreham on the coast of West Sussex for a murder mystery that really is an entertaining read. The Postscript Murders (Quercus) by Elly Griffiths focuses on the sudden death of a ninety-year-old woman in her sheltered accommodation flat. The police do not believe foul play as Peggy Smith had a heart condition.

Carer Natalka Kolisnyk finds arrives at Peggy’s flat and finds her dead sitting in her favourite chair by the window. This is where Peggy would sit with a pair of binoculars and she would enjoy the view and would also note passers-by. DS Harbinder Kaur arrives and believes it is natural causes but it is not long before Natalka has cause for some suspicions about how Peggy died.

Peggy Smith had an interesting background as a ‘murder consultant’ for crime writers and she would plot murders for writers. Her bookshelves are full of thrillers and many would contain written acknowledgments for Peggy’s involvement in writing of the book. But what would this have to do with Peggy’s death?

When Natalka talks to some of Peggy’s friends that include Edwin Fitzgerald who is an ex-BBC Radio Three presenter, Benedict Cole who a former monk but now runs a café that she believes that there was more to Peggy’s death than the police believe. But they need to come up with some evidence.

When Natalka and Benedict are in Peggy Smith’s flat sorting through some of her books they are held up at gun point and now they know something more sinister is going on and now DS Harbinder Kaur starts to take Natalka’s theory that Peggy was in fact murdered.

A wonderfully entertaining mystery novel that will appeal to readers who enjoy a crime novel with a few laughs along the way. I really enjoyed Elly Griffiths writing as she is strong on characters and adds a few red herrings along the way to keep the reader guessing. I have a feeling The Postscript Murders will be under many peoples Christmas trees this year. I am already looking forward to Elly Griffiths next novel due out in February.

352Pages.

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths was published by Quercus Books and was published on1st October 2020 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org

Three-Fifths by John Vercher

Three-Fifths by John Vercher

Summary:

Set against the backdrop of the simmering racial tension produced by the LA Riots and the O.J. Simpson trial, comes this powerful hardboiled noir of violence and obsession

Pittsburgh, 1995. Twenty-two-year-old Bobby Saraceno is a biracial black man, passing for white. Bobby has hidden his identity from everyone, even his best friend and fellow comic-book geek, Aaron, who just returned from prison a newly radicalized white supremacist.

During the night of their reunion, Bobby witnesses Aaron mercilessly assault a young black man with a brick. In the wake of this horrifying act of violence, Bobby must conceal his unwitting involvement in the crime from the police, as well as battle his own personal demons.

Three-Fifths is a harrowing story about racism and brutality that is more urgent now than ever.

My Review:

A powerful and also moving debut novel by John Vercher, Three Fifths (Pushkin Vertigo) is set in 1995 and I have to say it was a book that I could not put down and found myself waking up in the early hours just to carry on reading this compelling novel.

The Story set in Pittsburgh begins with Bobby Saraceno who is a young biracial black man, who tells everyone he is white but does not tell anyone that his father was black and he never got to know his mother who was white but clearly had her problems. Bobby his is true identity from everyone. His closest friend Aaron has just been released from a three-year term in prison and they meet up but there is something about Aaron that has changed. Being inside has changed him, something clearly effected Aaron as he has become radicalized and a white supremacist.

Tensions are running high as the backdrop is set against the O.J. Simpson trial and the riots in LA. It is late in the evening and the pair are involved in a crime and this is where Bobby sees Aaron assault a young black man, leaving him fighting for his life.

Bobby is clearly fearing for his own safety and if caught he knows he will go to prison for a number of years. If this was not difficult enough he knows his friend still does not know his true identity and what then if he finds out, and then when Bobby’s father suddenly appears after many years, this is where he not only has to come to terms with his past and his true self but this will also collide with the very present day and the dangers this will bring. This is a powerful narrative that John Vercher has written in Three-Fifths and is a story that involves many themes that include race, identity, friendship, racism, family.

John Vercher has manged to write a debut that is masterful and also timely. I felt I wanted to learn about the characters as the story went on you become involved with the characters. A novel that cries out to be read. John Vercher is a new writer to watch.

@jverch75 @PushkinPress

248 Pages.

Thank you Poppy Stimpson and Pushkin Press for the review copy of Three Fifths by John Vercher.

Three Fifths by John Vercher was published by Pushkin Pressand was published on 1st October 2020 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Summary:

An impossible murder
A remarkable detective duo
A demon who may or may not exist

It’s 1634 and Samuel Pipps, the world’s greatest detective, is being transported from the Dutch East Indies to Amsterdam, where he is facing trial and execution for a crime he may, or may not, have committed. Travelling with him is his loyal bodyguard, Arent Hayes, who is determined to prove his friend innocent, while also on board are Sara Wessel, a noble woman with a secret, and her husband, the governor general of Batavia.

But no sooner is their ship out to sea than devilry begins to blight the voyage. A strange symbol appears on the sail. A dead leper stalks the decks. Livestock are slaughtered in the night. And then the passengers hear a terrible voice whispering to them in the darkness, promising them three unholy miracles. First: an impossible pursuit. Second: an impossible theft. Third: an impossible murder. Could a demon be responsible for their misfortunes?

With Pipps imprisoned, only Arent and Sara can solve a mystery that stretches back into their past and now threatens to sink the ship, killing everybody on board.

My Review:

The Devil and the Dark Water (Raven Books) by Stuart Turton is a fantastic historical adventure on the high seas with so many twists and turns and more than just interesting characters that makes Turton’s second novel one not to miss if you enjoyed his first.

Set in 1634 and the renowned detective Samuel Pipps is on-board a ship that has set sail from the Dutch East Indies but he is not investigating a crime more a case that he himself is under arrest. The ship is bound for Amsterdam where Pipps will stand trial and he may even face execution if found guilty. Determined to prove his innocence is his bodyguard Arent Hayes.

The Saaradam is carrying cargo and also some interesting passengers among them Sara Wessel and her husband who just happens to be the governor general of Batavia from where they are sailing from. But there is another passenger aboard the ship. The gruelling journey will take approximately eight months to reach Amsterdam. Even before the ship has sailed a leper warns the passengers and crew that a demon by the name of Old Tom is already on-board ship and their fate is sealed. The leper then meets a grizzly end.

The ship sets sail and things do not go smoothly as the crew and passengers begin to wonder what is going to happen as murder and fate awaits. There is of course one passenger who may yet be of help but he is locked up in the deep in the ship. As a ferocious storm approaches there is whispers of another ship stalking them in the distance, could this be the ghost ship that was mentioned?

There are supernatural overtones within the plot as well as secrets, intrigue and murder. Turton has weaved together a gripping mystery novel along with many characters on the Saaradam that have no-where to run or escape ‘Old Tom’ but for some only death awaits.

The book runs close to 600 pages so this is heavy book but superbly written with historical references. A rollicking good read, and if you enjoy a mystery novel set on the high seas and will be in many reader’s selections of best fiction of the year.

576 Pages.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton is published by Raven Books and was published on 1st October 2020 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop or through Bookshop.org that supports your local independent bookshop. UK Bookshop.org

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

Summary:

In an isolated castle deep in the Styrian forest, Laura leads a solitary life with only her elderly father for company. Until one moonlit night, a horse-drawn carriage crashes into view, carrying an unexpected guest – the beautiful Carmilla.
So begins a feverish friendship between Laura and her mysterious, entrancing companion. But as Carmilla becomes increasingly strange and volatile, prone to eerie nocturnal wanderings, Laura finds herself tormented by nightmares and growing weaker by the day…
Pre-dating Dracula by twenty-six years, Carmilla is the original vampire story, steeped in sexual tension and gothic romance.

My Review:

Being as today is Halloween, I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the day than with a cult classic that went on to inspire such books as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James to The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice, not to mention the films under the Hammer House of Horror. I can only be talking about Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) First published in 1872 and what a stunning new edition that has just been released by Pushkin Press not to mention that fantastic cover. (One you have to see).

Acclaimed as the very first vampire novel, the story is set with a backdrop of a castle deep in an Austrian forest were Laura and her poorly father live in an almost solitary life. The days seem to merge into one for Laura. That is until one late one evening with the moon glowing in the night sky a horse-drawn carriage crashes and now the castle has a beautiful guest that is Carmilla.

Carmilla is to unwell to travel after the accident by chance or design and so she now is a guest of Laura and her father, and it does not take Carmilla too long to settle into her new residence and Laura has become intoxicated with the beautiful visitor. It does not take too long for a deep friendship to form, but it is Carmilla who has set her sights on Laura. Now Carmilla’s strange and also not to mention her nocturnal behaviour is having an effect on Laura who now suddenly finds she is having nightmares and is getting weaker as each day goes by and her strength is waning. Carmilla is beginning to prey on Laura.

The story is written eight years after the events at the castle, and just who were travelling with Carmilla and what was their purpose, what really brought Carmilla to the castle and to prey on Laura?

It is Baron Vordenburg who has experience of vampires that arrives to save Laura from Carmilla’s spell. But for Laura years after the experience Carmilla’s presence is still felt as she is haunted by the beautiful temptress and is that Carmilla’s footsteps she can hear in the dead of night?

If you are a fan of gothic vampire stories then I can really recommend Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu and read how it all began. Highly Recommended.

Happy Halloween

Thank you to Poppy Stimpson and Pushkin Press for the review copy of Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu was published by Pushkin Press and was published on 15th October 2020, priced at £9.99 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.

Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man by Edward Wilson

Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man by Edward Wilson

Summary:

1941: a teenage William Catesby decides to leave Cambridge to join the army and support the war effort. Parachuted into Occupied France as an SOE officer, he witnesses tragedies and remarkable feats of bravery during the French Resistance.

2014: now in his nineties, Catesby recounts his life to his granddaughter for the first time. Their interviews weave together the historical, the personal and the emotional, skipping across different decades and continents to reveal a complex and conflicted man.

Catesby’s incredible story recounts a life of spying and the trauma of war, but also lost love, yearning, and hope for the future.

My Review:

Delighted on publication day to share my review of Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man (Arcadia Books) by Edward Wilson. This is a gripping wartime spy novel set in two time zones set in 1941 and 2014.

The career of spy William Catesby has been set out across seven previous novels and what a remarkable career. In Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man we find our hero recounting his wartime role to his granddaughter.
Catesby was only a teenager when he walked away from Cambridge University and join the fight against Nazis that had defeated mainland Europe. But for Catesby his role because of his unique background he joined the Special Operations Executive and following his training was parachuted into the highland region of Southern France, Catesby was there following the massacre of Oradour-sur-Glane as well as supplying weapons to the French underground forces fighting the Nazis and creating mayhem and chaos with the tactics of a highly trained SOE operative.


Now as the years have passed and it is 2014 and Catesby is in his nighties and the memories of his years as a spy are still there like time capsules in his memory and he is spending time with his granddaughter recounting his remarkable life.


I found this to be fantastic read and also one that was also moving as Catesby was a human that cared for the future of the human race. Many will ask about the previous spy novels but you need not worry as this can happily be read as a standalone novel. But like me you may want to seek out the previous seven books involving William Catesby. Highly Recommended.

350 Pages.

Thank you Sophie Ransom (Midas PR) for the review copy of Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man by Edward Wilson

Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man by Edward Wilsonwas published by Arcadia Books and was published on 15th October 2020 and is now available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.

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