Monday, 24 April 2017

Book Review - Madam Tulip by David Ahern




Out-of-work actress Derry O'Donnell is young, talented, a teeny bit psychic ... and broke. Spurred on by an ultimatum from her awesomely high-achieving mother, and with a little help from her theatrical friends, Derry embarks on a part-time career as Madam Tulip, fortune-teller to the rich and famous. But at her first fortune-telling gig - a celebrity charity weekend in a castle - a famous rap artist will die.

As Derry is drawn deeper into a seedy world of celebrities, supermodels and millionaires, she finds herself playing the most dangerous role of her acting life. Trapped in a maze of intrigue, money and drugs, Derry's attempts at amateur detective could soon destroy her friends, her ex-lover, her father and herself.

Madame Tulip is the first in a series of Tulip adventures in which Derry O'Donnell, celebrity fortune-teller and reluctant detective, plays the most exciting and perilous roles of her acting life, drinks borage tea, and fails to understand her parents.


Although I read a lot of crime fiction and thrillers it's been a while since I've read a cosy mystery. However, having enjoyed the genre in the past I was delighted when David Ahern contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in reading Madam Tulip.
As the first book in what will be a series of Madam Tulip books (there is already a second book, Madam Tulip and the Knave of Hearts, with a third book on the way) the story builds slowly as first we are introduced to the characters and their relationships to one another, setting the scene for the crime that Derry inadvertently becomes involved in. As the lead character it is vital that Derry O'Donnell has enough depth to be an engaging protagonist who can carry a series. Thankfully she is exactly that. She is intelligent, resourceful and self deprecating, and by cleverly giving her an alter ego (the eponymous Madam Tulip) the author has provided her not only with a reason for becoming involved with a situation where a crime occurs but also with an alternative method for interacting with the other characters. The use of her second sight makes for an interesting twist and I was pleased to note, not overdone. It provides her - and us - with clues but they are never straightforward and still require solving using the more traditional cosy mystery methods of solving crimes - snooping and luck. The secondary characters are also well written, I particularly enjoyed the relationship Derry has with her parents - and they have with each other; it's probably best described as somewhat dysfunctional yet written with a light touch that makes any disagreements more comedic than bitter. The crime that kick starts Derry's amateur sleuthing isn't particularly unusual, a rap singer dies at the first charity fundraiser Madam Tulip has been engaged to attend. After being privy to certain conversations Derry quickly realises his death isn't an accident. Nevertheless it builds into a well constructed mystery with some real tension alongside the humour.
I really enjoyed Madam Tulip, it was a pleasure to remind myself of how much fun lighter crime fiction can be. I'm looking forward to finding out what mystery she finds herself involved with next!
Many thanks to the author for my copy of Madam Tulip, received in return for my honest review.

Madam Tulip is published by Malin Press and can be purchased here.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Book Review - How to Stop Time by Matt Haig




'I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.'

Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he's been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life.

Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover - working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. Here he can teach the kids about wars and witch hunts as if he'd never witnessed them first-hand. He can try and tame the past that is fast catching up with him. The only thing Tom mustn't do is fall in love.

How to Stop Time is a wild and bittersweet story about losing and finding yourself, about the certainty of change and about the lifetimes it can take to really learn how to live.


'I have been in love only once in my life. I suppose that makes me a romantic, in a sense. The idea that you have one true love, that no one else will compare after they have gone. It’s a sweet idea , but the reality is terror itself. To be faced with all those lonely years after. To exist when the point of you has gone.'
The Humans by Matt Haig is the first book I reviewed on Hair Past a Freckle and pretty much the reason why this blog exists. It remains my most recommended book and the one that means the most to me. It was the book I needed when I most needed books.
Four years on and How To Stop Time is Haig's first adult fiction book since The Humans. He's not been quiet in the meantime having written a young adult novel, Echo Boy, a self-help memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, and two books for children, A Boy Called Christmas and The Girl Who Saved Christmas. Having read them all (as well as his previous novels The Radleys, The Last Family in England, Shadow Forest and The Runaway Troll.) I know a little of what to expect from his books. I don't know if there's an author writing today who is better than Haig at making it seem as if his book is written with you in mind. He has a deep understanding of the human condition and writes with such honesty and clarity that his books become more than just stories, they are beacons of hope in what are troubled times.
How To Stop Time continues this theme, again Haig's principal character - in this case Tom Hazard - needs to learn what it means to live. Tom doesn't have any problem staying alive, in fact he's over 400 years old, but forced to move every few years before people become suspicious by his much slower ageing rate ('The speed of ageing among those with anageria fluctuates a little, but generally it is a 1: 15 ratio') and the knowledge that his condition means he is dangerous to become close to has led to a lonely existence. Despite leading what many would consider an extraordinary life, born in 1581, he has spent time with Shakespeare, had a drink with F. Scott Fitzgerald, sailed to the South Sea Islands and watched as mayflies (humans who age naturally, Tom and others like him are albas - short for albatrosses, once thought to live to a great age) have invented bicycles, cars, the telephone, television and the internet, he craves an ordinary life.  Now working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive he finds himself drawn to Camille, the French teacher but he knows he should heed the warning from Hendrich, leader of The Albatross Society and facilitator of his new lives every few years - in return for certain 'favours'...
‘The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,’ he said. ‘There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love . No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay.’
Living in London means Tom is surrounded by memories from his long past. How to Stop Time isn't written chronologically, something in Tom's present will remind him of past events and we're transported there. Haig writes so vividly that these scenes are always far more than distant memories. His evocation of the sights, smells and sounds bring Tom's past to life;
'It was an area, essentially, of freedom. And the first thing I discovered about freedom was that it smelled of shit. Of course, compared to now, everywhere in or out of London smelled of shit. But Bankside, in particular, was the shittiest . That was because of the tanneries dotted about the place . There were five tanneries all in close proximity, just after you crossed the bridge. And the reason they stank, I would later learn, was because tanners steeped the leather in faeces.
As I walked on, the smell fused into others. The animal fat and bones from the makers of glue and soap. And the stale sweat of the crowd. It was a whole new world of stench.'
 By having a plot with a meandering timeline we are reminded that history isn't just something that happened long ago, we are history too. Tom may use social media now but he recognises how we are linked to the past, how the conflicts, superstitions and oppressive regimes from previous centuries are lessons we never really learn from. He has seen people repeat the same mistakes over and over, the contemporary setting providing a sharp reminder that we still haven't learnt and still allow our differences to divide us.
How to Stop Time is a beautiful book, it's not a word I would use often to describe a novel but it's completely charming. From the simple wish to prepare breakfast for a loved one ('Toast. Blackcurrant jam. Pink grapefruit juice. Maybe some watermelon. Sliced. On a plate.')  to the description of 19th century New York ('But I looked at the New York skyline and felt like the world was dreaming bigger. Clearing its throat. Getting some confidence.'), to the heartbreaking despair of loss ('I did not know how to be me, my strange and unusual self, without her. I had tried it, of course. I had existed whole years without her, but that was all it had been.') I fell in love with it within the first few pages, it's a book that celebrates the things we all need to make us feel human - music, art, food, love. Haig's writing of what happens inside heads though gives How to Stop Time its heart. He writes with his soul which gives the book a touching honesty and although it may be a fantastical story of a 400 year old man, it's actually telling a universal truth, that life needs to be lived. For all the hurt, the losses along the way, we can't allow fear of grief to prevent us from experiencing the joys of living, to allow ourselves to hope and to love and be loved.
Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy, received through Netgalley in return for this review.

How to Stop Time will be published in the UK by Canongate on 6th July 2017. You can follow Matt Haig on Twitter as @MattHaig1 and Canongate as @canongatebooks.


Monday, 10 April 2017

Book Review - Reconciliation for the Dead by Paul E. Hardisty



Fresh from events in Yemen and Cyprus, vigilante justice-seeker Claymore Straker returns to South Africa, seeking absolution for the sins of his past. Over four days, he testifies to Desmond Tutu’s newly established Truth and Reconciliation Commission, recounting the shattering events that led to his dishonourable discharge and exile, fifteen years earlier. 

It was 1980. The height of the Cold War. Clay is a young paratrooper in the South African Army, fighting in Angola against the Communist insurgency that threatens to topple the White Apartheid regime. On a patrol deep inside Angola, Clay, and his best friend, Eben Barstow, find themselves enmeshed in a tangled conspiracy that threatens everything they have been taught to believe about war, and the sacrifices that they, and their brothers in arms, are expected to make. Witness and unwitting accomplice to an act of shocking brutality, Clay changes allegiance and finds himself labelled a deserter and accused of high treason, setting him on a journey into the dark, twisted heart of institutionalised hatred, from which no one will emerge unscathed. 


Back in 2015 I was sent a copy of The Abrupt Physics of Dying, an eco thriller by a debut author, the CWA John Creasy Award nominee Paul E. Hardisty. It should have been the sort of book that left me cold, big action thrillers are not my thing. Instead I fell in love, both with Claymore Straker and Hardisty's writing. This love was confirmed in the follow up last year, The Evolution of Fear and I've been eagerly waiting this latest instalment since then.
Reconciliation for the Dead sees Straker returning to his South African homeland. After the events in Yemen and Cyprus he has decided it's time to confront his past and has agreed to testify before Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although ostensibly set shortly after Cyprus, the book is actually more of a prequel, with the action set in Angola as we meet the young Claymore Straker and learn of the terrible events that lead not only to his dishonourable discharge from the army but also to the psychologically damaged man we know from the first two books. This is the book that takes us not only into Clay's dark past but also to South Africa's shameful history when their army fought Communism in neighbouring Angola in order to protect their own Apartheid regime. 
As always Hardisty has written an uncompromising and brutal action thriller. He doesn't sanitize war, it's ugly and vicious, there are multiple deaths, a vicious rape and always the stench not only of blood and sweat but also of corruption. 
What Hardisty also achieves though is superlative characterisation, he never sacrifices top quality character development for the complex, exciting plot. Claymore has always been a deeply engaging lead character, a tenacious justice-seeker who is prepared to take any steps both to survive and to expose the truth and yet still a man deeply tormented by the things he has seen and done. This is where we finally learn why he is so troubled, the court transcripts from his testimony a reminder that the older Straker is still desperate to atone for his past. The young Straker is forced to re-evaluate  everything he knows and ultimately loses some of himself as he becomes torn between his country and the search for the truth. The secondary cast isn't forgotten either, both his allies and those who seek to harm him are vividly realised. We are finally properly introduced to Eben, the friend we first met as a horrifically injured veteran in the first book is brought to life here making his eventual fate all the more tragic. Rania appears only briefly this time, instead he meets two new female characters, Zulaika and Vivian, both strong and brave women who play pivotal roles in the story. His enemies are truly evil, as always Hardisty's research means the plot is firmly influenced by real life events and the horrific research into chemical and biological warfare makes for chilling reading. As Straker gradually reveals the truth about his past he is questioned by the various commissioners and even in these brief transcripts Hardisty has ensured that each panel member has a clear and distinct voice, we know who is sympathetic to him and who is suspicious of the role he played.
Reconciliation for the Dead is perhaps the highlight of a superb trilogy, it's a powerful and honest look at war, inhumanity, brutality and the need for forgiveness. It's a complex and engaging thriller that never forgets that the lead character is a human being who is deeply affected by the events that shape his life and lead to him taking the lives of others. My love affair continues and I look forward to Straker's next outing knowing I'm in for another another superb book at the hands of an author who is truly on top of his game.
Many thanks to the publishers for my advance copy, received in return for my honest review.

Reconciliation for the Dead will be published by Orenda Books on 30th May 2017. You can follow Orenda on Twitter as @OrendaBooks and Paul E. Hardisty as @Hardisty_Paul .



   

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Book Review - The Idea of You by Amanda Prowse


With her fortieth birthday approaching, Lucy Carpenter thinks she finally has it all: a wonderful new husband, Jonah, a successful career and the chance of a precious baby of her own. Life couldn’t be more perfect.
But becoming parents proves much harder to achieve than Lucy and Jonah imagined, and when Jonah’s teenage daughter Camille comes to stay with them, she becomes a constant reminder of what Lucy doesn’t have. Jonah’s love and support are unquestioning, but Lucy’s struggles with work and her own failing dreams begin to take their toll. With Camille’s presence straining the bonds of Lucy’s marriage even further, Lucy suddenly feels herself close to losing everything…
This heart-wrenchingly poignant family drama from bestselling author Amanda Prowse asks the question: in today’s hectic world, what does it mean to be a mother?


The Idea of You is a departure from the usual books I read but I know Amanda Prowse has a devoted readership and the subject of this book is something I can identify with. I have three daughters now but have also had three miscarriages and having read some early reviews of The Idea of You knew that pregnancy loss was a main theme of the book so decided it was time to try something different.
Many people who read this book will also have first hand knowledge of pregnancy loss and so it's important to point out that the subject is sensitively handled. However, it's also (quite rightly) covered honestly, this isn't a book that deals in euphemisms when it comes to miscarriages. I believe this is entirely correct, despite being so common there still seems to be a stigma surrounding miscarriage so although this is a work of fiction I applaud the author for her open approach to the subject.
Although Lucy and Jonah's struggles to have a baby form the main thrust of the story, relationships are also an emotive theme. At first the couple seem to have an almost prefect marriage but various pressures soon end up putting their relationship under strain. I have to admit that at times I struggled to warm to the characters in the book. I had conflicting feelings about Lucy,she often seemed very naive for a successful business woman  and I found her inability to discuss her problems openly to be frustrating at times. This is addressed as the book progresses and I became more sympathetic towards her later in the story. Jonah, I felt in some ways was almost a peripheral character and after a promising beginning I found him somewhat self obsessed although again I did feel sympathy for him as the book progressed. I actually found the relationship between Lucy and her stepdaughter, Camille to be the most interesting part of the book and really enjoyed the ups and downs between the two as they struggle to understand one another. Their relationship actually felt more believable to me than Lucy and Jonah's marriage which seemed to be either too idealised or near to falling apart. 
The Idea of You is a warm and empathetic book that handles universal subjects with sensitivity and an honest clarity. I'm probably not quite a convert to family dramas but am very glad to have read it and can understand why so many people love Amanda Prowse's books.
Many thanks to the publishers for my copy received through Netgalley in return for this review.

The Idea of You is published by Lake Union Publishing.