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How To Belong by Sarah Franklin

Published: November 12th, 2020
Publisher: Zaffre
Format: Hardcover, Kindle
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Lesbian Literature

Welcome to my stop on the tour for this delightful novel. Thank you to Tracy at Compulsive Readers for the invitation to take part and Zaffre for the gifted copy of the book.

SYNOPSIS:

Jo grew up in the Forest of Dean, but she was always the one destined to leave for a bigger , brighter future. When her parents retire from their butcher’s shop, she returns to her beloved community to save the family legacy, hoping also to save herself. But things are more complex than the rose-tinted version of life which sustained Jo from afar.

Tessa is a farrier, shoeing horses two miles and half a generation away from Jo, further into the forest. Tessa’s experience of the community couldn’t be more different. Now she too has returned, in flight from a life she could have led, nursing a secret and a past filled with guilt and shame.

Compelled through circumstance to live together, these two women will be forced to confront their sense of identity, and reconsider the meaning of home.

MY REVIEW:

“She’s gradually learning to identify the shape and heft of other people’s feelings, not just her own. The toil it always takes to be in the world, whoever you are.”

How To Belong is a beautifully-written and absorbing story about our need to belong and finding a place to call home. 

The story centres around Jo and Tessa, two very different women who end up living together when circumstances force Tessa to take in a lodger. Both are facing life-changing upheavals: Jo in her choice to leave her career as a barrister in London to return to her hometown of New Forest Dene, and Tessa as she tries to recover from a devastating break-up and attempts to grapple with the frightening symptoms afflicting her that seem to be worsening, leaving her unable to function at times. They are compelling characters and I enjoyed their awkward dynamic, finding it much more fun to read than if they’d been instant buddies. 

While Jo is undeniably the warmer and more outgoing of the two, I found myself drawn towards Tessa and her mysterious story. While Jo is like an open book, Tessa is one you have to read in order to figure out; the pieces revealing themselves slowly until you can complete the picture. I also related to her fear about her deteriorating symptoms and being scared to have hope. This expertly written character found a place in my heart that I know will linger.

This was my first time reading anything by this author and it certainly won’t be my last. Her engaging prose immersed me in the world she’d created and I quickly devoured this delightful novel. I would highly recommend this book and think it is one you can enjoy whatever genres you usually prefer to read. 

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✰

MEET THE AUTHOR:

Sarah Franklin grew up in rural Gloucestershire and has lived in Austria, Germany, the USA and Ireland. She lectures in publishing at Oxford Brookes University and has written for the Guardian, Psychologies magazine, The Pool, the Sunday Express and the Seattle Times. Sarah is the founder and host of Short Stories Aloud, and a judge for the Costa Short Story Award. Sarah lives in between London and Oxford with her family.

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The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram

Published: October 30th, 2020
Publisher: Bookouture
Format: Paperback, Kindle, Audio
Genre: Historical Fiction, Coming-of-Age Fiction, Biographical Fiction, Lesbian Literature

I’m delighted to finally be able to share my review for this poignant novel. It’s late because of illness, but was worth the wait to read. Thank you to Bookouture for the invitation to take part and the gifted eBook ARC.

SYNOPSIS:

Wanted: Company Daughters. Virtuous young ladies to become the brides of industrious settlers in a foreign land. The Company will pay the cost of the lady’s dowry and travel. Returns not permitted, orphans preferred.

Amsterdam, 1620. Jana Beil has learned that life rarely provides moments of joy. Having run away from a violent father, her days are spent searching for work in an effort to stay out of the city brothels, where desperate women trade their bodies for a mouthful of bread. But when Jana is hired as a servant for the wealthy and kind Master Reynst and his beautiful daughter Sontje, Jana’s future begins to look brighter.

But then Master Reynst loses his fortune on a bad investment, and everything changes. The house is sold to creditors, leaving Jana back on the street and Sontje without a future.

With no other choice, Jana and Sontje are forced to sign with the East India Company as Company Daughters: sailing to a colonial Dutch outpost to become the brides of male settlers they know nothing about. With fear in their hearts, the girls begin their journey – but what awaits them on the other side of the world is nothing like what they’ve been promised…

Based on true history, this is a beautiful and sensual historical novel, perfect for fans of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Miniaturist and The Indigo Girl.

MY REVIEW:

“But having lived through so much upheaval, I doubt I will ever know the full taste of safety. I’m forever assuming some future disaster. Reading myself to flee.”

Jana Beil has not had an easy or happy life. She’s fought to survive, escaping violence and neglect only to find herself homeless and starving on the streets of Amsterdam in the late 17th century. She is grateful to find employment in the home of Master Reynst and his daughter, Sontje, but tragedy strikes when Reynst loses everything after a bad investment and Jana faces uncertainty once more. Sontje is faced with just one option; to travel to Batavia as one of the Company Daughters, a bride for one of the VOC settlers on the Dutch colony. When Sontje asks Jana to accompany her she agrees, eager to both escape her life in Amsterdam and to find a way to keep close to Sontje.

I am a big fan of historical fiction, especially when it’s based in fact, so I was instantly drawn to this book which is based on the true stories of Dutch women who were shipped to the other side of the world to become brides for strangers. It was a long and arduous ten month journey where they face increasing hunger and illness that threatens to end their voyage before they reach their destination. It is clear that the author has done a lot of research which she blends with fiction and vivid scene setting to transport you to another time and place, immersing you in this poignant tale.

“I ignore the fear rooting in me and feel triumph in this. Even in our captivity, we’ve found each other. Seized at whatever joy we can find.”

The characters are well written and richly drawn. I loved the protagonist, Jana. She’s easy to like and root for, a strong and determined character who isn’t typical of the women of the day. We follow her as she goes on a compelling journey that is both literal and figurative, her life marred by tragedy; where every time she feels like things are finally going well something comes along to pull the rug from under her feet once again. She isn’t someone who wishes to conform to what society expects of her, and over the course of the book her rebellious streak becomes increasingly evident as she is determined to carve her own path.

“I can’t help but feel bitterness—the fact of my body’s ownership passing from hand to hand—my father’s pummelling, the other men with their pawing and leering, as though I existed only for their gaze.”

The author also examines the lack of freedom, rights and choice available to women of the day. They are owned by men their whole lives and at their mercy. They can only hope for a father, husband or master who is kind and doesn’t beat or rape them. It’s a bleak existence and they have no way to independently make their way in the world; even a widowed woman is looked upon with suspicion if she doesn’t quickly remarry.

Atmospheric, harrowing, moving and hopeful, this was an easy and entertaining read that I would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✰

MEET THE AUTHOR:

Samantha Rajaram spent most of her childhood in Gillette, Wyoming, where she and her family were the first Indian-Americans to live in the community. As a law student, she focused on social justice and international human rights law with a focus on female sex trafficking.

She is now an educator, and currently teaches composition at Chabot College in Hayward, California. She lives in the California Bay Area with her three
children.

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Betrayal by Lilja Sigurdardottir

Published: October 1st, 2020
Publisher: Orenda
Format: Paperback, Kindle
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime Fiction, Psychological Fiction, Political Fiction, Lesbian Literature, Translated Fiction

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for this outstanding piece of Icelandic Noir. Thank you to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation to take part in and Orenda for the eBook ARC.

SYNOPSIS:

When aid worker Úrsula returns to Iceland for a new job, she’s drawn into the dangerous worlds of politics, corruption and misogyny … a powerful, relevant, fast-paced standalone thriller.
 
Burned out and traumatised by her horrifying experiences around the world, aid worker Úrsula has returned to Iceland. Unable to settle, she accepts a high-profile government role in which she hopes to make a difference again.
 
But on her first day in the post, Úrsula promises to help a mother seeking justice for her daughter, who had been raped by a policeman, and life in high office soon becomes much more harrowing than Úrsula could ever have imagined. A homeless man is stalking her – but is he hounding her, or warning her of some danger? And why has the death of her father in police custody so many years earlier reared its head again?
 
As Úrsula is drawn into dirty politics, facing increasingly deadly threats, the lives of her stalker, her bodyguard and even a witch-like cleaning lady intertwine. Small betrayals become large ones, and the stakes are raised ever higher…

MY REVIEW:

Oops, they did it again. With this exciting new thriller Orenda once again prove they only publish the best and most original fiction. This is why they’re one of my top publishers and I’m always eager to read an Orenda book.

Ursula, a former aid worker, has returned to her native Iceland after being traumatised and burned out by the horrors she has seen. When she starts a new job as a minister, she hopes it will finally help her to find her place at home and that she’ll be able to continue to help others without having to leave her family or experience further trauma.

On her first day she promises to help a mother who begs for her help in getting justice for her daughter, saying the fifteen-year-old was raped by a police officer the year before but the investigation has stalled. But she finds she’s met with resistance at every turn and can’t help but wonder if there is something more going on. Why does no one seem to want to investigate the accusations? And is Ursula’s sense that she’s a pawn in a game that she’s not privy to just her imagination, or really happening?

This gripping thriller was a roller-coaster ride, full of so many twists and turns I got book whiplash. I loved the short, sharply written chapters, multiple points of view and the intricate, tangled web the author wove. I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. But every time I thought I’d untangled the clues the story would take another turn and I’d have to try and figure it out all over again.

Though this was an easy and quick read for me, it is far from an easy plot. Complex and richly drawn, our protagonists must navigate the sexist halls of politics while trying to figure out what game they are playing, dealing with threatening messages, and being stalked by a homeless man who says he knows her and claims to be trying to warn her of some danger only he can see. It’s unclear how it all fits together, but I loved how the author slowly unveiled the truth, taking the reader on a journey that examines topics such as the dark side of politics, misogyny, police corruption, mental health and betrayal.

Like the story, the characters are all well written and readable, but it is Ursula who is the star of this story. She’s a strong, determined and fiesty who is also flawed. Over the course of the book we follow her journey to accept and come to terms with some of those flaws, including PTSD from her time doing charity work and the deep, dark trauma from her childhood: her father’s murder. She is a gutsy and fascinating character who I loved reading, even if I didn’t always agree with her actions.

Atmospheric, harrowing and very real, Betrayal is an immersive page-turner. This is Icelandic Noir at its best. I highly recommend this book to any thriller lover and can’t wait to read more by this talented author.

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✰

MEET THE AUTHOR:

Lilja Sigurðardóttir is an Icelandic crime-writer born in 1972. She is the author of novels, stage plays and screenplays.

Her novels have been published in Norwegian, Danish, Czech, Macedonian, Polish, French and English and film rights to the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy (Snare, Trap and Cage) have been sold to Palomar Pictures.

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The Big Chill by Doug Johnstone (The Skelfs 2)

2020-08-05-14-06-40

Published: August 20th, 2020
Publisher: Orenda
Format: Paperback, Kindle, Audio
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Suspense, Psychological Fiction, Urban Fiction, Lesbian Literature

Welcome to my slightly late stop on the blog tour. Thank you to Anne at Random Things Tours for the invitation to take part and Orenda for the ARC.

SYNOPSIS:

Running private investigator and funeral home businesses means trouble is never far away, and the Skelf women take on their most perplexing, chilling cases yet in book two of this darkly funny, devastatingly tense and addictive new series!

Haunted by their past, the Skelf women are hoping for a quieter life. But running both a funeral directors’ and a private investigation business means trouble is never far away, and when a car crashes into the open grave at a funeral that matriarch Dorothy is conducting, she can’t help looking into the dead driver’s shadowy life.

While Dorothy uncovers a dark truth at the heart of Edinburgh society, her daughter Jenny and granddaughter Hannah have their own struggles. Jenny’s ex-husband Craig is making plans that could shatter the Skelf women’s lives, and the increasingly obsessive Hannah has formed a friendship with an elderly professor that is fast turning deadly.

But something even more sinister emerges when a drumming student of Dorothy’s disappears and suspicion falls on her parents. The Skelf women find themselves sucked into an unbearable darkness – but could the real threat be to themselves?

Following three women as they deal with the dead, help the living and find out who they are in the process, The Big Chill follows A Dark Matter, book one in the Skelfs series, which reboots the classic PI novel while asking the big existential questions, all with a big dose of pitch-black humour.

MY REVIEW:

The Big Chill is the second book in the Skelfs Series, which follows the Skelf women – Dorothy, Jenny and Hannah – as they work together running the family funeral home and private investigation company. I haven’t read the first book but the author quickly catches you up on the traumatic and life-changing events that occurred.

The story jumps straight into the action with a car chase interrupting a funeral that leaves the unidentified driver dead. The family matriarch, Dorothy, can’t let it go and is determined to find out who he was and lay him to rest. But this isn’t their only investigation, with others running simultaneously, as well as the funeral business always keeping them busy.

This was a complex and layered novel, with lots of drama, tension and things bubbling beneath the surface. I loved the fascinating mix of three generations working together in dual roles that is an unusual pairing. It’s a brilliant basis for a series, so different from anything else I’ve read.

The characters are well-written, compelling and full of depth. They are each trying to come to terms with the distressing and painful events of book one, and are still haunted and trying to make sense of it all. In the three women, the author shows how trauma and PTSD can affect people in different ways in a very real and relatable way that hit home with me a number of times. The background characters were also fully drawn with interesting storylines and back stories of their own. I’m very eager to read more about Archie and his unusual condition.

If you’re looking for something different that will hold your attention and make you come back for more, this is the book for you. I’ll definitely be reading book one and look forward to seeing what’s next for the Skelf women.

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✫

Doug Johnstone Author Pic

MEET THE AUTHOR:

Doug Johnstone is the author of ten novels, most recently Breakers (2018), which was longlisted for the McIlcanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. Several of his books have been bestsellers and award winners, and his work has been praised by the likes of Val McDermid, Irivine Welsh and Ian Rankin. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts and journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.

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