Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

I must start this review with a bit of an apology. I’ve fallen behind with reviews because I’m currently unwell, with orders to rest, walk a lot and eat a lot, so the upshot is that I’m now daunted by the reviewing task ahead of me! Not helped, of course, by the fact that I’m reading like a reading ninja. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I do a series of short reviews. There are some books I really want you to read and I don’t want to hold you up!

Commander by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2021 (28 October) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

Commander by Paul Fraser CollardEgypt, 1869. Jack Lark is working as an official agent for the Consul-General but he is bored. The chance for adventure and purpose comes when he meets the famous explorer Sir Samuel White Baker, who has been engaged by the Pasha of Egypt to lead an expedition into the Sudan to eradicate the slave trade and open the area to commerce. It will be an arduous journey. The danger posed by smugglers and slavers will be more than equalled by the horrendous conditions of travelling up the crocodile-infested Nile into deepest Africa with the water levels dropping by the day. Jack Lark cannot wait.

Commander is the tenth novel by Paul Fraser Collard to feature Jack Lark, an enigmatic man of inscrutable feelings, with a taste for disguise, a need to protect his heart, and a great skill with the rifle and sword. He is a born leader, despite the London slums of his birth. But Jack is getting on in years. There are more aches and pains than there used to be. He should take it easy. But he really doesn’t want to do that. Although the tenth, there’s no actual need to go back to the beginning if you haven’t met Jack before, other than that you would be in for a treat.

This is a novel full of adventure and excitement, whether that’s because of the scenes of hand to hand combat, or from the drama of Lark, his men and the crew trying to inch the expedition vessels through the clogged up, narrow Nile, watched by reptile eyes. There is also violence and there were scenes I had to skim over. I am rather squeamish. As usual, there is also female interest but these women have no need of Jack Lark. They have their own role to play in the story.

Jack Lark is one of my favourite fictional heroes and it’s good to see him back. I loved the Nile setting and for me that’s the stand out feature of this excellent addition to the series.

Other reviews
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire

The True Soldier
The Rebel Killer
Fugitive
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

 

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2021 (4 November) | 512p | review copy | Buy the book

The Swift and the Harrier by Minette WaltersIt is 1642 and England is descending into Civil War. The country is divided as are families, even minds, as tradition and religion and long-held loyalties come under attack from brave new ideas. Jayne Swift is the daughter of a gentry family in Dorset but she has long resisted attempts to marry her off and now her parents and brothers are learning to accept her as a physician with a growing reputation for her skill. When Lyme Regis is besieged by a Royalist army, led by one of the King’s nephews, Jayne’s skills are needed by both sides. Jayne’s intention of remaining neutral, being physician to both Royalist and Parliamentarian, is suspected by some and there are claims on her from both sides. One man in particular seems to walk the line between each side, the mysterious William Harrier, who first appears to Jayne as a footman but acts like no servant. This is a war like no other as the prospect of a King’s execution makes all too clear.

I love Minette Walter’s writing and characterisation whatever the genre and I love that she has turned her attention to the English Civil War, one of my favourite periods of history. The Swift family embodies the tragedy of this war, with the very real possibility that father may face son, brother may face brother, on the battlefield. The Swift and the Harrier examines the trauma of this as well as the efforts people, including landowners, made to resist the war and its pillaging, looting, violent soldiers. Effectively, this is a war of three sides. Sometimes all would be calm, when the fight is taken elsewhere, but at other times it literally comes to the door.

Jayne Swift is defiantly neutral whereas William Harrier’s allegiances are, at least initially, unclear. This means that the novel shows us both sides, making a distinction between the cause and those who fought for it. The ways in which an army treats its soldiers is important to Jayne, the physician who must pick up the pieces, and it’s telling that many of the Royalist soldiers are effectively pressganged whereas the Parliamentarian soldiers are well-trained and motivated. Neither side emerges smelling of roses but The Swift and the Harrier made me re-evaluate my own assumptions about the Civil War and it completely altered my point of view. As someone who lives in Oxford, surrounded by reminders of Charles I’s residence in the city, it’s about time that I looked over the city’s walls to the claims of the other side! All of which means that I was thoroughly engrossed in the novel.

A substantial chunk is set during the siege of Lyme Regis and this is enthralling. I know and love the place and it was fascinating to imagine the bombardment and privations of the siege in the town, and the role of the cobb, which I’ve walked along so many times. The descriptions are fantastic and it’s also good to imagine the role that women would have played in the defence of their homes and families. Jayne’s own role as physician is carefully drawn. It feels believable. She works closely alongside male doctors, giving an air of authenticity to her role, but whereas some of them cling to medieval ways, Jayne is all about hygiene and cleanliness.

The main subject of the novel, apart from the war itself, is the  growing relationship between Jayne and the enigmatic William Harrier, who pops up at critical times in the novel. He is a man of many guises but he remains mysterious. As a result, I didn’t particularly warm to him, as I did to Jayne and her brothers, and I did think there was a certain inevitability to this element of the story.

My favourite characters were the novel’s eldest – Lady Alice, Jayne’s father and the Duke, William’s grandfather. The impact of civil war on the older generations is particularly fascinating. Too old to fight, their opinions ignored, their loyalties to the old ways trampled upon, their sons divided, it must have been extraordinarily difficult. Jayne’s father is a good man who struggles to hold his family and home together. His growing pride in his daughter is wonderful. The Duke is a marvellous creation! There is a tenderness in the way that Minette Walters writes these characters. She is also at pains to show that one must look below the surface in judging a person. I did enjoy Cromwell’s cameo appearance!

The Swift and the Harrier is a fine novel, reassessing a period of history that continues to fascinate and has left its mark across the land. It’s beautifully written. It’s brutal at times – the opening chapters contain a horrific scene (don’t let that put you off) – it’s also tense. But there are also quiet and happy times as families go against the mood of the times and come together.

Other reviews
The Last Hours
The Turn of Midnight

The Genesis Inquiry by Olly Jarvis

Hobeck Books | 2021 (12 October) | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Genesis Inquiry by Olly JarvisElla Blake is a much-respected and in-demand QC when she disappears from view, hiding in her van in Northumberland, finding a refuge in anonymity and the dramatic and historic landscape. It’s a false haven and, as she sinks, she knows that. The chance to repair herself comes from an unlikely source. A Cambridge University college wants her help. One of their dons, Matthew Shepherd, a genius polymath, has disappeared on the brink of discovering something that could change humanity’s future and understanding of the past. Ella is intrigued but, more importantly, heading to Cambridge will allow her to reconnect with her daughter Lizzie. But, as Ella digs deeper into the mysteries of Shepherd’s project and understands the magnitude of its significance, she soon realises that she is in deadly danger and so too are all those she holds dear.

I am a huge fan of thrillers that revolve around historical secrets, archaeological mysteries and enigmatic, dangerous organisations and so The Genesis Inquiry was a book I couldn’t wait to read as soon as I heard of it. What makes this book stand out, however, isn’t so much the mystery at the heart of it (although that is certainly intriguing), but its characters and the developing and changeable relationships between them. I really, really like Ella Blake. She is a woman in the prime of her life who has reached the pinnacle of her career but she has realised that it is built upon glass. She is vulnerable, wracked by guilt and anxiety, and yet you would never know it to look at her. Ella is very easy to relate to. Her relationships with her daughter, her daughter’s friends and with the US agent who helps them with their inquiry, bristles. But the warmth of Ella grows through the novel and it really is extremely compelling and engaging as we become increasingly close to her.

Having said all that, The Genesis Inquiry is a thriller and it is a very exciting affair, as Ella and the others travel great distances on the trail of both Matthew Shepherd and his scattered clues. Obviously, I will tell you nothing about any of that as I don’t want anything to dampen your curiosity as the pages fly though the pages. But I do love a mystery that revolves around ancient manuscripts, biblical texts and ancient and modern science. It all contributes to the importance and significance of the mystery that is to be discovered.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Genesis Inquiry. I loved the places, especially Cambridge and Lindisfarne. I did find that my interest in Ella exceeded the pull of the mystery but I believe that this is actually a tribute to the author’s writing, which I think is very good indeed. I really hope that we will get the chance to meet Ella Blake again.

Five Minds by Guy Morpuss

Viper | 2021 (2 September) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Five Minds by Guy MorpussIn the near future, Earth’s population crisis has been solved through drastic measures. On reaching adulthood, people can select how the rest of their lives will be lived – as a worker in their own bodies, as glamorous and wealthy pleasure-seekers (but for a pitifully short life), as a kind of human-android hybrid. All have their lifespan limited. But, for the longest life, people can opt to share a body – five minds in one body for about 140 years – but with consciousness limited to four hours as each mind takes its turn through the day.

Alex, Kate, Sierra, Ben and Mike have lived together in one body for 25 years. While Mike does everything he can with his time to keep the body fit, others within the commune have treated it less well. The time has come to compete for time credits to buy a new host body. They must play a series of virtual games in the ‘death parks’, places where people play to gain time but so often lose it. But, as the games play out, one of the five goes missing and soon it becomes terribly clear – they have been murdered. Someone wants to kill them off one by one. But who? Could they be sharing a body with a killer?

Five Minds is such an original and clever speculative novel, which takes the concept of a locked room murder mystery to extremes, with some of the suspects confined within one body, and each of the minds using their allotted shift of time to investigate. The chapters move through the structure of the day, moving between the minds, with Alex starting the day. It’s purposefully disjointed with each mind having to readjust to where their predecessor in the body has left them. They can communicate through messages, leaving clues and warnings – or lies and deceits. It’s an intriguing way for a murder enquiry to be conducted.

The science fiction element comes to the fore in the Death Park, a horrendous place of shifting realities and manipulation. Some of the games are frightening, others physically challenging, but the cost can be extreme, even fatal. What a place!

It is a dark novel. There seems no pleasure to be had living in four-hour chunks, in a body that isn’t your own, with the minds of others that you don’t particularly like. What if you’re the one who never sees the sun or even daylight? You can see why few select this course but there is a sadness about the other types of life. The setting of the Death Park seems appropriate to the gloom of a world that has no room for the people who live on it.

Five Minds raises questions about what type of life one might want, what one might be prepared to do to have more time, what time one might give up for a short life of luxury. But it is also an excellent crime novel that goes off in all sorts of unexpected directions. It does get complicated, which you’d expect when nobody has time to see the full picture, and is very clever and satisfying in the way it develops.

The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

Zaffre | 2021 (30 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Burning Road by Harry SidebottomIt is AD 265 and the famous general Ballista is returning from Rome and the empire’s battlefields to his family in Sicily. With him travels Isangrim, the eldest son he barely knows. The journey is intended to remedy that but, from its outset, catastrophe piles on disaster and it becomes a fight for survival. The island is aflame with a slave revolt. The roads aren’t safe, luxurious villas have become slaughter houses, as slaves spill out from farms, mines and houses, following the man they believe to be their messiah. Many of them are recently captured Germanic warriors and Ballista, himself considered a barbarian by many of his equestrian class, as well as by his son, feels a connection but his mission is to keep his son safe, to find his family and defeat the brutal revolt.

Ballista is back! Most readers of Roman historical fiction will be familiar with Harry Sidebottom’s ‘Warrior of Rome’, who has been missing from the author’s more recent historical thrillers. The author continues his run of stand along thrillers set in the ancient world but this time he gives us Ballista as well and the result is, in my opinion, the best of his novels. This is no mean feat at all as it has serious competition.

The action is non-stop and immediate, beginning with the catastrophic sea voyage – this is hugely exciting! From then on, Ballista and Isangrim, or Marcus as his son wishes to be known, undergo ordeal after ordeal and Isangrim, a boy on the edge of young manhood, has to grow up fast and brutally. This is one of the great successes of the book, the growing relationship between Ballista and Marcus, who are worlds apart in so many ways, and the development of Marcus into Isangrim. The theme of barbarian versus Roman is a major one and so much of it is embodied in the remarkable figure of Ballista, whose reputation is formidable and yet he stands apart from Rome in many ways even though he is so important to it.

There is violence here but it’s not overdone and reflects the cruel lives endured by slaves. My sympathies were conflicted, there’s no black and white, but the revenge inflicted on owners is as horrifying as you’d imagine. The novel also raises the question of can there be such a thing as a ‘good’ owner. We have to remember that this is a novel about the Roman world, which is so different to our own, but the theme of slavery is timely and The Burning Road is a reminder that the empire was built on the ownership, labour and mistreatment of slaves. Sometimes that backfired as here, with the realisation that slaves far outnumbered their owners.

Harry Sidebottom, whose background is teaching classics at Oxford, really knows his stuff and he enriches his novels with his knowledge about warfare and society in the ancient world. One of the aspects of The Burning Road is that the author places Sicily firmly in its historical and mythological context. The thrilling story of Ballista’s journey across the burning island, so famous for its volcano, is also a story of Sicily’s legends and Greek battles of the past. They almost signpost Ballista’s heroic, epic journey.

I’m also glad to say that Ballista gets his chance to lead men in a fight once more and there are fantastic sections in which Ballista fights to save a town from attack. Sieges are one of my favourite aspects of Roman military fiction and few write of them as well as Harry Sidebottom.

It’s not often that I read a book in one day, let alone in one sitting, but that’s just what I did with The Burning Road. I’m not a fast reader and so I spent some wonderful hours one sunny Sunday in the garden engrossed in this novel, enjoying spending time with Ballista again and getting to know his son. I didn’t even move to have lunch! If you haven’t read any of the Ballista novels it doesn’t matter. The Burning Road stands alone brilliantly as a Roman thriller and as an outstanding historical novel.

Other reviews
Warrior of Rome I: Fire in the East
Iron and Rust: Throne of the Caesars I
Blood and Steel: Throne of the Caesars II
Fire and Sword: Throne of the Caesars III
The Last Hour

The Lost Ten
The Return

The Expanse Re-read – Book 6: Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey

It’s a true but saddening cliché that all good things must come to an end and it’s with a mixture of feelings that I look forward to the publication a month from now of Leviathon Falls, the final (sobs) part of what has become my favourite science fiction series, The Expanse. It’s been some time since the publication of the last novel (the eighth), Tiamat’s Wrath, in fact I’m rather shocked to discover it’s more than two and a half years. You don’t need me to tell you how much the world has changed since then but I do know that I am very ready to discover what is to happen to Holden and his crew, not to mention that pesky protomolecule.

I am delighted and honoured to take part in Orbit Books’ celebration of this landmark series, while we await Leviathan Falls. A re-read has been taking place by some of my most excellent fellow book bloggers (do take a look at the poster below) and I am so pleased to be taking up the mantle for Book 6 – Babylon’s Ashes.

The Expanse is, obviously, a series and so it’s not one you’d want to read out of order. If you’ve been following the re-read then you’re reached Babylon’s Ashes and so I’m very happy to encourage you to read it, while trying hard not to spoil anything for those who haven’t. I’m not mentioning the TV series here as I’ve not watched it. I just can’t. I adore these books and the crew of the Rocinante lives in my head as I know them and I don’t want that messed with, however good the series might be.

For starters, here’s the official blurb:

The sixth book in the NYT bestselling Expanse series, Babylon’s Ashes has the galaxy in full revolution, and it’s up to the crew of the Rocinante to make a desperate mission to the gate network and thin hope of victory. A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood. The Free Navy – a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships – has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinante for a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network. But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun.

Babylon's Ashes by James S.A. CoreyAnd here’s my review:

Babylon’s Ashes is the sixth in the series and, while you could enjoy it as a standalone book, I really advise against it. Each of the books is very different but each complements the others and broadens even further this brilliantly imagined future world and solar system. As a whole, they form the story of Captain Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. Whatever goes on around the crew, however extraordinary it might be, the heart of the series lives aboard the Rocinante. It is an utter delight to follow their adventures as they do their utmost to save humanity from itself – and from something else. Do read the books in order. This review assumes you’ve done just that.

The war in the solar system continues with Earth, the mother world of mankind, now all but destroyed by the militant forces of the Free Navy, an organisation that claims to act on behalf of the Belters, the inhabitants and miners of the industrial outer planets and the asteroid belt. Many humans have sought escape on the planets beyond the strange gate complex but these new fragile colonies rely on supply ships from the solar system for survival – these ships have become the target for Marco Inaros, the leader of the Free Navy. Mars and Earth have formed an uneasy alliance in the effort to fight back and who better to lead their enterprise than the infamous Captain Jim Holden, regarded as hero by many and traitor by others? The battle lines are drawn aound the Medina Station at the entrance to the gate network, a place so alien it may never be understood, never be tamed.

As anyone who’s read the Expanse series knows, these are no ordinary military SF novels. Each of these books is strongly character-driven and Babylon’s Ashes is no different. Jim Holden is a wonderful figure who has evolved over the course of the novels as the responsibilities have weighed ever heavier on his shoulders. He always has a smile for his crew. He inspires them. But they know him well and can see the cares that lie below. There’s something so touching about the way that he gathers video and audio clips of people living ordinary lives to try and prove to a solar system at war that every one within it is a human being. It’s great to see some of our much-loved characters again, including my favourites Bobbie and Avasarala. And there’s another figure from the past, too – Captain Michio Pa, whom we first met in Abaddon’s Gate. And she is fantastic.

The novels might depict dark and frightening events but ultimately the message is one of hope, compassion and humanity. And this is achieved by making us care so deeply for the crews of the ships that we travel aboard. The crews of the Rocinante and the Connaught view themselves as families – the Connaught crew actually is a family with members forming one marriage. There are other dysfunctional examples of family aboard the principal Free Navy vessel for contrast but the overriding message is that a harmonious family, however unconventional its composition, can prop up society. But what a battering it’s going to take.

As usual in the Expanse series the chapters flit between the different characters, allowing us to move around the conflict and see what life has become on planets, on ships, on space stations, and in the presence of the awe-inspiring gates. The action sequences are deadly and thoroughly exciting but the thrill of Babylon’s Ashes extends beyond the combat because of the intensity of the crisis facing this poor solar system. This is a series with big vision!

Each of the books is different but in them all we can’t forget the protomolecule and the threatening alien shadow. Anything is possible in the future for Holden, his ship and crew, and the people of Earth, the inner planets, the Belt and the colonies so far away. This is a spectacular series.

Wish You Weren’t Here by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch

Farrago | 2021 (14 October) | 304p | Review copy | Buy the book

Wish You Weren't Here by Gabby Hutchinson CrouchGhost hunters have never been so busy. The cases are building up for the Rook family but this job should be a quickie. They’ve headed for Coldbay Island, a small island off the coast of Lincolnshire, where they have been hired by the local vicar Grace Barry to rid her church of an angry spirit that likes nothing more than to smash the place up. But Brenda and her son Darryl see such things as they cross the bridge onto the island – ghosts are everywhere they look, sad and lost spirits, far too many for Brenda’s sister Charity to pop out of this realm. The island appears to be deserted of the living and it soon becomes clear that this will be no quick case. Indeed, the Rooks are soon rather concerned that they’re all that stands between the world and the apocalypse.

When I picked up Wish You Weren’t Here, the first in a new series, I had little idea what to expect. I hadn’t read a novel by Gabby Hutchinson Crouch before and I have a bit of a hit and miss relationship with novels of the supernatural. But what a treat I had in store for me. This is an absolute belter of a book! It’s about 300 pages, so all too short and leaves me wanting book 2, but every page counts.

I loved everything about this book. The author introduces us to the Rook family with great skill – Brenda and her husband Richard, their grown children Darryl and Charity, and Darryl’s husband Janusz who looks after the books. Each of these wonderful people feels so real. They have flaws – some a bit more significant (and downright absolutely terrifying) than others. They also have skills. Oddly, perhaps Janusz, the only ‘normal’ one among them, is the most extraordinary because he holds them all together, protecting and loving them, and he is the subject of what I found to be the most terrifying scene of the book.

The setting on this creepy, cold island is fantastic. And that made me accept everything that happens. It’s both realistic and fantastical, thanks to its separation from the mainland of northeast England via that frightening bridge. It’s no wonder the ghosts are depressed.

The writing is fabulous. It’s dark but it is also very funny (the dialogue had me cracking up time after time!). Tragedy lies at the heart of much of its humour. I also found it genuinely frightening and disturbing, despite the Ghostbusters feel of some of it. There is also a sadness surrounding the ghosts as we’re given glimpses of their living past. Wish You Weren’t Here might be short but it contains such a lot.

Wish You Weren’t Here is funny, dark and full of great characters and cameos, whether living, dead or undead. The setting on a creepy island off Lincolnshire seems entirely fitting for a potential apocalypse. This is fabulous writing and it’s quite incredible how much depth, how many full relationships, the author packs into such a short novel. I cannot wait for book 2. This is quite easily one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year and is perfect for a spooky October read!

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves

Macmillan | 2021 (2 September) | 400p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It’s a hot summer’s night when DS Jen Rafferty attends a party thrown by her magistrate friend Cynthia. She is approached by Nigel Yeo, a doctor whose role is now to monitor NHS trusts in this part of north Devon. He needs official advice from a police officer but, drunk, Jen is in no state to offer it and so he leaves. The next day Yeo is discovered murdered at Westacombe, the home of a rural community of artists, a shard of glass from a vase made by his daughter Eve in his neck. While Jen struggles with the guilt of not having helped Yeo when he needed it, her boss DI Matthew Venn must unravel the lies that tie this community together and seek out the killer in its midst. But one of the suspects is a close friend of Matthew’s husband Jonathan. This unusual case is about to get very personal, for Matthew and for Jen.

The Heron’s Cry is the second novel in Ann Cleeves’ new series, Two Rivers, which began in fine style with The Long Call. Matthew Venn immediately became one of my favourite literary detectives (along with the author’s other famous creation, Vera). Matthew is a fantastic character. He’s quiet, well-dressed, reserved and infinitely kind and well-loved, not just by his husband but also by his friends and colleagues (except for his boss, of course, who hates everyone except DC Ross May), and it’s good to see them all again in The Heron’s Cry.

Once more, the emphasis is on the people who drive the story onwards, making it an immersive and gentle read. It’s lovely to meet such characters as Lucy again while it’s also good to get to know others better, such as Jen and Jonathan, and especially Matthew. The author takes her time to guide us through the personalities and conflicts of the community of artists, and their relationship with their powerful, wealthy patron Frank Ley.

The locations by the coast in north Devon are wonderful! It’s a hot summer, the beaches are beautiful and full of holiday makers, contrasting with the unhappiness of the artists and the menace of the killer, as well as the stories of despair that Matthew and his team uncover.

I should mention that this is a good example where the author’s foreword should most definitely be at the back of the book. I found it spoilery. Resist the urge to read it!

While it is a little slow in places, perhaps frustratingly so at times, The Heron’s Cry is a very enjoyable read, filled with wonderful characters, and it tells a story that has depth, heart and menace. I can’t wait for the return of Matthew, Jen and Jonathan.

Other review
The Long Call

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

Avon | 2021 (30 September) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collector's Daughter by Gll PaulEvelyn’s long life has been extraordinary. The daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, she grew up at Highclere Castle, but, just like her father, Lady Evelyn Herbert had no interest in high society. Her dream was to travel and be an archaeologist, a dream that came true when Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun while working for Lord Carnarvon. Evelyn was the first person to crawl inside the tomb. It was the defining moment of her life, the greatest moment. But it was followed by a series of tragedies that would shape the rest of Evelyn’s life, despite her long and happy marriage to Brograve Beauchamp. And now, over fifty years later, Egyptian academic Ana Mansour is determined to discover what really happened all those years ago in the tomb and what it is exactly that Evelyn has determined to forget.

I am a huge fan of Gill Paul’s novels. I adore them. She manages to focus on women at the heart of events that are irresistible to me and now, with The Collector’s Daughter, she’s done it again. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 is so utterly fascinating, glamorous, dangerous – I could not wait to read it! Eve Beauchamp is a wonderful character, in the scenes where she’s young and in those chapters where she’s old and ill. This is the story of her life and the people she filled it with, both living and dead, and they are all so vividly portrayed along with the world in which they lived.

There is a darkness to the novel. We are aware of the curse and Eve was closer to it than most and the character of Ana Masour haunts the pages. She haunts Eve. It’s as if she’s there every way Evelyn turns. The past is not escapable. It doesn’t die. It just decays like Tutankhamun in his desert tomb. The atmosphere is constant and heavy. You can feel the heat of Egypt, the mustiness of the tomb, the light of Highclere Castle, the love in Evelyn’s heart.

The Collector’s Daughter is completely engrossing. As always, Gill Paul combines absolutely fascinating historic events with the most interesting and fully realised people, adding an air of mystery, a hint of something menacing, a curse, as well as the joy of living.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband

Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband’

The Lost Daughter
The Second Marriage

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

HarperCollins | 2021 (2 September) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Chateau by Catherine CooperAura and Nick have uprooted their young family – boys called Bay and Sorrel – and moved from London to a dilapidated chateau in France. There is an unbelievable amount of work to do on it but a project such as this is just what Aura needs to take her mind off why they left England in such a rush. Best not to think about that. Luckily, chateau buying is all the rage with Brits and so the local ex-pat community soon takes the new couple under their wing, offering practical help as well as glamorous parties. It helps that the project is being observed by a TV documentary film crew. They even manage to get an au pair for no more cost than food and board. It seems too good to be true. And of course it is. The alarm bells are starting to go off even before one of their neighbours is found murdered.

Hot on the heels of The Chalet comes The Chateau. I love the recipe of these novels – a remote location, a small community of strangers, a murderer in their midst, a bunch of lies. I thoroughly enjoyed The Chalet and so I was looking forward to this and it did not disappoint. What a bunch of people…. It’s difficult to know who is the most despicable. Aura is our narrator for much of the book and it’s clear that what she doesn’t say is more important than what she does. The reader is left to fill in the gaps as slowly the truth emerges about what they left behind in London. You’ve got to wonder about anyone who would name their sons Bay and Sorrel, though.

The chateau itself is a fantastic location for a psychological thriller. It’s an abomination. Aura might view it as this beautiful ruin crying out for repair but it’s clearly horrible, dangerous, creepy and malignant. It fits the mood of the novel perfectly and reflects the characters of most of the people in it, including the ghastly ex-pats. Even the film crew are shifty.

I’m not going to give anything away but what I will say is that the way in which this story plays out is thoroughly satisfying. Catherine Cooper is such a good writer, she sets the scene so well. It’s creepy but it’s also fun and a little bonkers! I can’t wait to find out where she’ll take us to next!

Other review
The Chalet