I Let You Go by Claire MacIntosh

What a remarkable book. Simply riveting from start to finish. Little did I know what I was in for when I began to read…

One cold, English evening, a mother walks her child home from after-school care when tragedy strikes. The novel then takes two primary points of view: a grieving mother’s, Jenna Gray, and that of detective Ray Stevens. The story covers many months and the reader is taken into the dramatic changes that Jenna’s life undergoes, how she copes with her decisions and those made for her and slowly, painfully, starts to build a different future – at least she tries until the past suddenly and cruelly catches up with her.

For Ray and his team, the case that shocked and upset them slowly becomes another cold one: an unsolved crime which eats at their equilibrium. For Ray, and his new colleague, it’s particularly raw but time and crime make other demands of them, that is, until sheer persistence brings a fresh lead… a lead that challenges their faith in humans and in their skills.

This is an utterly gripping book. At one level, I suppose it is a crime/mystery book, but it is also much more than that and, in its structure and focus, it’s quite unlike any other book I’ve read before. The first half is a fantastic study in character, families, grief, desperation, guilt, and how life and relationships make and break us. How we have to live with the choices we make: good and bad. The way MacIntosh draws us into not only Jenna’s attempts to rebuild her shattered life, but also Ray’s devotion to his job, guilt over his family and the trials he and his wife, former cop, Mags face when dealing with their teenage son are raw and real. The personal relationships Ray takes for granted as well as the professional ones he does not ring true as does his self-reproach and constant second-guessing of what he could do better. Jenna’s world and Ray’s come crashing down around them for different reasons and by the time they do, you’re so invested in both of them, it’s s genuine kick in the heart. The sometimes injustice of justice is front and centre.

The second half of the book, after shocking the reader with a twist that some might see coming (I sort of did, but it was no less breath-taking because I did), introduces a new voice and a further examination of relationships and what people will tolerate, sacrifice and deny in order to save face, love, themselves. It is heart-wrenching and difficult reading at times, but it’s also impossible to put down.

The ending is a kick in the guts, nail-biting and gratifying – but also completely suspenseful. I stayed up far too late to finish it as I couldn’t bear going to sleep not knowing how the book concluded. While I imagined a dozen different scenarios, not one came as close to MacIntosh’s outstanding climax and denouement.

If you enjoy well-written mysteries, with great character development, tight plotting and believable, flawed characters, this is one you must add to your library. It is stunning.


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Book Review: The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman

Sometimes, it’s really difficult reading the novels of a writer whom you know takes great pains to be historically accurate while still telling a sweeping, dramatic and emotionally fraught tale. So it is with Penman who, in this last book of The Welsh Prince series, brings the story of the struggles of the Welsh prince, Llewelwyn, and the machinations of Edward Longshanks, King of England, to a close.

For those who know the history, you understand the ending is not a happy one and it’s this that makes the novel difficult reading. The tale of Llewelyn’s reign, his marriage, love, triumphs and losses, his turgid and troubled relationship with is brother, the complex Davyd, are all explored in wonderful, deep and moving ways. Likewise, Edward’s motivations, the relationship he has with not only his brother and cousins, but also his conscience, which appears to conveniently massage events and consequences to suit his purpose, are all told with such emotional truth, you both delight and ache for the characters and the futures that await them.

I adored this book – as I have all the others in this series and, indeed, by Penman. She is a historical novelist par excellence – in that she manages to balance both the history and the story-telling so very well. Lost in the chaos and turmoil of the era, the bloodshed, treachery and religiosity, the story is also laced with romance, honour, adventure (including pirates!) and betrayal.

As is usual with Penman’s work, she brings the female characters (those often diminished or elided by history) particularly to life, representing them as strong, brave, fully-rounded women who while they may not be on the frontline in the physical sense as battles and politics rage around them, nonetheless form the backbone and emotional rearguard upon which their men (husbands, brothers, fathers, cousins and sons) will rely to succour them.

From Ellen to Eleanor to Nell, they are three-dimensional, amazing women who loved their men – faults and all – and in the end, it’s they who bear the heavy cost of their loyalty and love.

A superb conclusion to a tumultuous and possibly lesser known period of history, I cannot recommend this series (or any of Penman’s novels) highly enough.

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Book Review: Falls the Shadow Sharon Kay Penman

FFalls the Shadow  (Welsh Princes, #2)alls the Shadow is the second book in The Welsh Princes series and mainly focuses on Simon de Montfort and Henry III (father of the future Edward Longshanks) – their relationship, families and the clash of wills and subsequent terrible conflict that arises between them and sweeps England and other countries in its wake. Parallel to their story is that of Leilo – Llewelyn ap Gruffyd, a young Welsh prince who suffers the alienation of his immediate family but is rewarded with the love and trust of his grandfather, Llewelyn Fawr, the man who united Wales against the British and achieved elusive peace – but for how long?

Beautifully told, the novel segues in point of view and place, taking the reader from the Welsh highlands to Westminster, to a particular castle in England, the Tower of London, and France, as well as, later, bloody battlefields. What I adore about Penman’s writing is that she brings these well-known (and some obscure) historical figures to life, painting them in rich and vivid detail. The women particularly, often rendered absent from the pages of history, burst from the novel, their passion, intelligence and sometimes vanity, as well as their commitment to their men, children, cause and country is fabulously explored.

Simon de Montfort, arguably, the central character of this novel, is sometimes painted as a brusque and cold commander by history or as a saint. In this book, he’s revealed as a deeply religious man, devoted to his wife, Nell (sister of Henry III) and family, and even though he has a wicked sense of humour, as someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly. That Henry III is perhaps the greatest fool of all (and in this novel, not simply in de Montfort’s eyes), causes constant strain and pressure as Henry makes poor decision after poor decision, costing lives, allegiances and honour.

Characters either love or loathe de Montfort and the kingdom is pretty much divided along lines of supporters of him or the king. Betrayal lurks in every corner, bribery and corruption are currency and who to trust and when becomes much more than a deadly game.

Spanning years, the book covers de Montfort’s meeting with young Nell (a widow who, at 15 swears herself to the church), their swift courtship and wedding and then years pass as sons are born to them and grow.

Likewise, Henry also raises a family, and the cousins become close; favourites are quickly identified and relationships develop, all against a backdrop of the huge schism growing between their parents and the kingdom’s disenchantment with the liege.

In the meantime, Henry makes inroads into Wales with the help of the cunning Marcher lords (the English aristocracy who owned lands on the borders of Wales and England and who were mostly related to Henry through marriage- which caused no end of resentment) and drives a wedge between Llewlyn Farr’s sons, leaving Wales in disarray and fighting over leadership. Out of this mess, young Leilo, now a man, rises to meet his destiny.

Torn between loyalty to the king and the rights of the men and women Henry rules, de Montfort has to make an important decision – one for which he could, potentially, pay a terrible price – one that, should it go wrong, will cost his family and their future as well.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot (though those familiar with the history already know the tale), but I am in awe of the way in which Penman not only juggles perfectly the telling of history through fiction, but keeps the plot bubbling and the characters fascinating even when “what happens next? is foretold. It’s testimony to her skill as a story-weaver that you invest so heavily in the men and women who populate this tale.

Penman also has a knack for recreating the period – her rendering of life in medieval times – from the religiosity, to the food, dress, manners and interactions is remarkable. As character rides through the snows in Wales, or listens to the bells chiming throughout London, or smells the sweet scent of heather in the breeze from a field in north England, so too do you.

The battles that are described in this book, just like the daily rhythms of the peers and royal house, are also graphic and so very real. Blood, fear, violence, ridiculous bravery; the search for honour through death is represented unflinchingly. I know some other readers found these parts a little long if not tedious – I didn’t. I felt they were an essential part of the story – the price that had to be paid, the toll that’s exacted from these remarkable people who believed in an ideal and were prepared to sacrifice anything to see it achieved.

This is where Penman completely excels. She captures the essence of humanity through her words – in all our glory and shame, our false pride and fearlessness, our courage and spirit. She also manages to show flaws in the most noble of characters and strengths (even if it’s simply through the love he or she bears for a child) in the most weak or repugnant of individuals.

I finished this book and moved straight onto the last in the series, which, so far (I am almost halfway through) is equally magnificent. “They” say “truth” is stranger than fiction. When you have both brought together in such excellent hands, the combination is intoxicating and a reader of novels’ absolute pleasure.

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