Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham

I love it when a writer whose work you love never lets you down. Michael Robotham is one of those and with the first book in his new series, Good Girl, Bad Girl, featuring psychologist Cyrus Haven (who makes an appearance in one of the Joe McLoughlin books), he even ups the ante in terms of suspense, a cracking plot and flawed, marvellous characters you champion the entire way.

When a very troubled young woman, whose given the name Evie Cormac, applies to court to be released from the children’s home she’s been held in for the last six years after being discovered in a secret room in a house where a brutal murder happened, Cyrus is called in to assess her. Equal parts fascinated and wary of Evie who, it appears, possesses the uncanny ability to tell when a person is lying, Cyrus also knows he has to unlock her past in order to help her secure a future. But Evie, while tolerant of Cyrus, is not ready to talk about who she is or what she endured. Resilient yet vulnerable, damaged and damaging, clever and filled with self-loathing and yet a desire to be “normal”, Evie is not like anyone Cyrus (who has his own demons and tragic past) has met before.

When a case Cyrus is working on and Evie’s present collide, danger for both of them rears its head, placing both their lives on the line. Cyrus and Evie must not only rely on all their innate and learned skills to survive, but more importantly each other. Thing is, can these two wary souls let down their defences long enough?

Fast-paced, enthralling and at times, very suspenseful, and always clever, this is a great read. While at first I was disappointed it didn’t feature the beloved Joe, Cyrus is an engrossing character and, in Evie, I think Robotham has struck creative gold. While this novel resolves itself in one sense, in another, where both Cyrus and Evie are concerned, it raises far more questions than it answers setting the framework for an exciting new series. I for one cannot wait to see where Robotham takes these characters and thus, his readers.

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The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth

I always look forward to a new Kate Forsyth book coming out, knowing I will be transported into the past and lose myself in a mesmerising story. The Blue Rose is no exception, taking the reader back, in the first instance, to revolutionary France where a young woman named Viviane lives in a deteriorating chateau with a mean and controlling Great Aunt and a small staff of retainers, one of whom is like a brother to her. But when a Welshman, David, is hired by her distant, dissolute father (who spends most of his time in Paris) to prepare the gardens according to current fashions so he might bring his new, young heiress wife to the country, Viviane finds in David a sincere and kind friend. What starts as friendship swiftly transforms into something more, but Viviane knows that should her father learn of her growing feelings for the Welsh gardener, a man well below her in terms of social standing, any dreams she has will not only be shattered, but David’s life will be in danger. 

When Viviane’s father returns unexpectedly, not even Viviane could predict his reaction, and what subsequently unfolds. Whisked away to Paris, married and forced to comply with her father and husband’s every wish, Viviane believes David and what life with him promised her is lost forever. But as rebellion against the French monarchy and the aristocracy foments and political forces rise to crush the oppressors and anyone who stands in their way, Viviane learns that her father, let alone David’s fate, are the least of her worries…

Without giving too much away (unlike the blurb on Goodreads which needs to come with a major spoiler alert. I only just read what is said and it gives away the entire plot of the book!), The Blue Rose is a sweeping historical tale of love, loss, class, exploration, discovery, cultural differences, political turmoil and bloodshed. Not only does the action take place against the murderous and bloody backdrop of the French Revolution, but the narrative (told from two different points of view) also shifts to China and the opening of trade routes through the mysterious interior. Botany also plays a part in the story but, it wouldn’t be a Forsyth novel if fairytales (in this instance, the story of “The Blue Rose”), in all their metaphorical and cultural significance, didn’t also play a huge role.

This was a lovely book that, with the exception of some of the barbarous activities of the revolutionaries and the wilful indifference and cruelty of the aristocracy that led to the uprising in the first place, was easy to read in the sense that the narrative flowed. At times, the characters functioned like archetypes, vessels for the larger meanings they carry and which are often symbolic – much like the roses in the tale. One example is David, whose reaction to Viviane’s choices seem at first churlish if not downright childish. But like any hero, David has to undergo a journey of transformation – the external and physical voyage to China becoming a metaphor for a grand interior metamorphosis. In the same way, the villainous roles – especially Viviane’s father, seemed too awful and selfish to be real – however, this is not the case as any reading of that period of history (and others) will demonstrate. The indifference of some members of the upper classes to the plight of the lower ones is astounding and shameful to contemporary readers – Forsyth captures this utter selfishness and wilful indifference well. The descriptions of both the chaos that was Paris and France for the relevant years are deeply disturbing and it’s testament to both Forsyth’s research and her talent as a writer that they’re also very visceral. 

The parts of the novel that take place in China are fascinating for their historical veracity. The aura of mystique and, dare I say, majesty is well captured as are the grand ambitions and colonial authoritarianism of the English – something that simply didn’t work in China. The question of just what and who is “civilised” and what imperial power actually means, hovers at the edges of nearly every interaction and provides a stimulus for thought. 

Overall, I really enjoyed The Blue Rose for its sense of history, grandeur and exploration of culture and humanity, which come together in what’s a magical tale. 

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All That’s Dead by Stuart McBride

Each new addition to the Logan McRae series by Stuart McBride has become my “reward” book: that is, I set myself certain writing and research tasks and only once they’re finished do I permit myself to read the next installment in the life of Inspector Logan McRae and the motley band of loyal, hilarious, brave, foolhardy and often clever people who work with and, sometimes, against him. As a consequence, I relish the experience and then mourn when it’s over, knowing I have to wait at least a year until once more, I can be, albeit for a brief time, part of this madcap, dangerous world that is policing in Aberdeen, Scotland.

In this book, Logan, Steele, Rennie and co have to pit their wits against some Alt-Right Scottish nationalists who go on a spree, committing terrible atrocities against those they believe have betrayed Scottish independence and fostered more than cordial relations with the Brits. The results are bloody and terrifying and the criminals, though identified early, hard to pin down. As a result, the media make scapegoats of the police, representing the law as buffoons who are about as much use (as one great phrase in the book puts it) as a plasticine bicycle.

Against time and bad will, Logan and the team try to prevent another crime, another grisly death. But just when it seems they have all the answers, more questions surface which throw the entire investigation on its ear.

Filled with fabulous, quirky characters, crackling dialogue (that has you alternately splitting your sides laughing or appreciating the emotional depths of a seemingly simple phrase) and written at a pace that will keep you reading well into the night, this is another splendid addition to one of my all-time favourite crime series. Cannot wait for the next one. 

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Little, by Edward Carey

Little, by Edward Carey, is an unusual book in many regards. Not only is its subject matter, a fictionalized retelling of the life of the woman who would become Madame Tussaud, bleak, filled with quirky characters (not the least, the central one, Marie Grosholtz who is given the nickname, Little) and related against a backdrop of bloody unrest and civil war (the French Revolution), but the voice in which its relayed is very different as well. 

Once you become accustomed to the style of the narration, it’s easy to be swept up into Little’s tale.  When young Marie, who lives in Berne, comes into the orbit of the eccentric and clever Dr Curtius, her universe is expanded and yet simultaneously contracted. Responsible for making moulds of various organs and body parts for the local hospital, the Dr finds in Marie a willing and very able assistant. Sharing his insatiable fascination for the human body, Marie slowly starts to find her place in the world. But, it seems, the world isn’t quite ready for Marie. 

A move to Paris opens doors for Curtius and his peculiar talents but more or less closes them for Marie. It’s not until a twist of fate throws her in the path of royalty that her life undergoes a dramatic, but in many ways, bizarre change. 

Based loosely on Madame Tussaud’s personal history, this is a story of familial relations, noble favour, longing, broken hearts, artistry and passion – the latter for humankind, but not in the way you might expect. Little is a strange protagonist that, like many who encounter her, you feel both drawn to and repelled by. She is honest, direct, humble and yet lit by an internal fire that somehow Carey manages to make burn through the pages.

Told over decades, it’s a sad, dark story and yet utterly compelling as well. For fans of literature, history and books that seek to fill in the huge gaps history tantalizingly leaves, particularly when it comes to women and those who lack a real voice, this Little book is for you. 

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The Hunt for Atlantis by Andy McDermott

Having recently finished The Atlantis Gene by A.G. Riddle, I was really in the mood for another, fast-paced, escapist Atlantis-themed novel. Andy McDermott’s The Hunt for Atlantis, the first in what is a very long series featuring archaeologist, Nina Wilde and former British SAS soldier, Eddie Chase, appeared to fit the bill.

Raised by parents obsessed with discovering the location of the lost city of Atlantis, it’s natural that after their sudden deaths in Tibet years earlier, Nina should continue with their work. Believing she’s found the location of the lost city, it’s not until her application for a university grant to test her theories is rejected and she is picked up by a philanthropic Norwegian billionaire Kristian Frost and his organisation, that Nina can begin her hunt in earnest. But there are others interested in what Nina has found and her search, so much so, Frost hires a bodyguard to keep her safe – the crude but courageous, Eddie Chase. And so the adventure really begins.

From the snow-clad regions of Norway, to the heat of the Middle East, steaming jungles of Brazil, the dark depths of the Atlantic and dangerous streets of New York, the hunt to find Atlantis and the secrets the ancient civilisation has kept for millennia is on. Can Chase keep Nina and those in the Frost organisation keen to see her succeed safe from the deadly brotherhood determined to see her fail? Or will Atlantis remain hidden forever?

This novel started well. The pace was break-neck, the premise (if you suspended your disbelief) fine and the characters were solid enough. The descriptions of car chases, plane crashes, shoot-outs, explosions, and so many near-death experiences were cinematic to say the least. But after a while, the whole run, shoot, run, shoot, get captured, freed, run, shoot, repetitiveness became a little tired, even for this action-buff. Not only that, but the cliched dialogue and often sexist representations (beautiful women, handsome – once you get to know them – heroes and ugly villains), galled a wee bit too much. Then there was the unconvincing brain power of Nina the central figure who everyone was relying on to find Atlantis. Even so, they had to bring in her (pedestrian) professor and mentor to do some translating. As he begins, suddenly, Nina (after a hard face palm) remembers she CAN do it after all – d’oh! Do they send said professor home? No. he hangs around like a fart in an elevator and is just as odious. That’s only one example of the clever woman character versus unnecessary extra person failing in that regard. Then there was the lack of sexual chemistry between Nina and Eddie, the other characters with “doom” tattooed on their forehead (metaphorically speaking), so you knew from the outset what their fate would be – and so on. In other words, the novel became quite predictable very quickly.

In the end, while I enjoyed a great deal of the tracking location and various discoveries, it was all a bit too much, and I just wanted to the story to end. Overall, it was the escapism I thought I was after but, sadly, it didn’t allow me to escape from the fact I just didn’t enjoy the story as much as I’d hoped.

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The Other Half of Augusta Hope by Joanna Glen

Just as this book is divided into two narratives (that aren’t quite halves), so too I felt divided when I first started reading it. On the one hand, I could appreciate the quality of the writing, but on the other, I didn’t think I liked the precocious protagonist, Augusta, nor the way nothing much seemed to happen. In many ways, I wondered where the story was going to go, if anywhere. How wrong I was. For, at some point, the story grabbed me by the head and heart and I was taken on an interior journey like no other and utterly captivated.

This is a tale of a twin, Augusta, and her fierce intelligence and desire to understand everything, break it down into components she can grasp and link, despite living in a small English village and despite her parents and twin’s contentment with their home and village. Fascinated by words and the world around her, at a very young age, Augusta, the bane of the parents and teachers’ lives, picks the small African country of Burundi, just because of the sound the word makes, and decides to learn everything she can about this strife-torn place. But her increasing knowledge of Burundi, other places, words, and later languages, people and cultures, just increases her desire to escape her roots and discover where and if there is somewhere else she belongs.

The novel doesn’t belong to Augusta alone, sharing it is young African, Parfait, who happens to live in Burundi but, like Augusta, feels a longing to shake off his origins and explore, find out if there is somewhere else he can feel truly at home.

When terrible tragedy shakes both Parfait and Augusta’s lives, they’re forced to take stock and step out of their uncomfortable existence and set off into unchartered territory – not necessarily of the geographical kind, but of the emotional. It is through their disparate journeys that they come to understand themselves and those around them and realise their place once and for all.

This book was a slow but beautiful build that at brief times moved swiftly, and other times lingered on something small, but nevertheless significant before creating a huge impact – often later in the tale. The twin narratives, much like Augusta and her twin, Julia, are complimentary and diverge, but never at the expense of plot. The language is lyrical and the play on words (including those in the title), which I confess at first grated upon me, became a magical component of the story – for after all, how to do we express, understand and communicate with others, if not mainly through words? Do we not seek, as Socrates’ Symposium posits, our “other half” in various ways? Augusta’s delight in language and wordplay becomes infectious and imparts layers of meaning that often only become apparent after the fact.

Like Augusta and Parfait, this lovely book lingers in the imagination and heart long after the last page.

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