Category Archives: Review

May and June – looking back and looking ahead

A bit of a catch up today! I didn’t do a review of May and June, largely because there was so much I didn’t or couldn’t talk about. My grief for my mum was very raw and I was involved in organising and dealing with the funeral plus all of the other jobs involved with being the Executor. I’m still deeply involved in a lot of that stuff, longing for it to end, but I am in a bit of a better place now and so I’m ready to get back to it and tell you just how little I read in May and June!

There are other happier reasons why I didn’t read as much as I would have liked, especially over June. I finished the second draft of my novel! It finished off at about 88,900 words and, printed out, it seems to weigh more than a very fat cat and so, no matter its insides, in appearance and bulk it has heft! But I suppose it’s the insides that really matter so I’m now in the process of editing the hard copy and realising that I gave one character at least three surnames and went on about the weather in one month before remembering it’s set in a completely different month. But overall I’m pretty pleased with it and hope to send it off soon so that I can start collecting rejection letters.

Books, books, books!

The Pretender's Gold by Scott MarianiOn to my reading! My tally for May and June is dismal – I’ve read only twelve novels, at least half of what I would normally read over two months. Apart from the reasons above, I think a good reason why it’s so low is because my reading routine has been well and truly scuppered by Lockdown. In the old world, I used to read at least three hours a day thanks to my commute to work and my work lunch hour. I never thought I would miss my commute but I really do and I certainly miss those times when I would sit in a pub with my book and a glass of wine. As it’s unlikely I’ll be back in the office any time soon, this is set to continue. But, should the sun actually deign to come out again, then at least I can find myself a quiet beer garden and do some proper reading.

But there is another reason why I’ve read so few books. I am, I’m honoured to say, once again one of the judges for the Historical Writers Association Gold Crown award. This means I have quite a pile of books to read and so I have been working through these whenever I get a spare moment. I can’t wait for when we can release the long list later this summer. Historical fiction is my greatest book love and it’s wonderful to see so many good books being published, especially during such a hard year as this one.

Onto the books I can talk about! May saw the return of Ben Hope, my favourite thriller hero. I love this series by Scott Mariani more than any other and so I leapt on The Pretender’s Gold and I absolutely loved it. This is one of Ben’s best adventures and I can heartily recommend it. I read two other action or political thrillers over these two months – Curse the Day by Judith O’Reilley and Double Agent by Tom Bradby. I enjoyed both of these, particularly Tom Bradby’s thriller. I can see this developing into an unmissable series for me.

I read two new historical fiction novels – much of the historical fiction I’ve been looking forward to this summer has been postponed (along with so many other novels), but I was so glad to read these two as they’re by authors I read every year – Lionheart by Ben Kane and The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLean. Both books are significant in different ways. Ben Kane is best known for his fabulous Roman novels and so Lionheart takes him and us to the entirely new territory of the late 12th century and the reign of Richard I. I loved it. This is such a favourite period of history of mine and so I had been looking forward to this. The emphasis here is very much on Richard the warrior and so it’s an action-packed adventure with a very charismatic figure at its heart. The House of Lamentations is the final novel to feature Damian Seeker, Cromwell’s enigmatic spy. This has been a landmark series and I will miss it. I’m delighted, but not surprised, to say that it ends in brilliant fashion.

I read two horror novels, or one and a half. I’m not sure if The Curator by M.W. Craven is strictly speaking horror but it certainly takes us into that territory and it is glorious. It’s always good to spend time with Poe, Tilly and Flynn and they’re on fine form here. But it’s certainly dark, chilling and terrifying. We’re in ‘safe’ horror land with Devolution by Max Brooks. When a volcano erupts in Washington State, the men and women of a hi-tech eco-commune have much more to worry about than ash. This hugely enjoyable novel raises all sorts of debate about survivalism and the nature of mankind as predator or hunter. It’s told in an intriguing way, too, just as you’d expect from the author of World War Z.

Without a Trace by Mari HannahThis leaves five police procedurals and psychological thrillers. I was so pleased to see Kate Daniels return after such a long time in Without a Trace by Mari Hannah. The previous book ended with such a cliff hanger and I was desperate to pick up the story of Kate and Jo. This is a fantastic series. Do take a look at it, if you haven’t already. I did enjoy The House Share by Kate Helm – this is an utterly bonkers psychological thriller set in a luxurious shared house which contains more secrets than it does people. Such a lot of fun! I can also strongly recommend The Babysitter by Phoebe Morgan and Three Perfect Liars by Hiedi Perks. I read everything these two authors write and their latest novels confirmed why. Finally, I read The Flight by Julie Clark, which didn’t quite work for me, after an excellent beginning, but is well liked by many. So, although I didn’t read a great deal, I did pick some corkers!

Looking ahead to July

July is starting very well indeed with The Split by Sharon Bolton. I’ve missed bookshops being open so much and so, as soon as they re-opened, The Split was the first book I bought (along with Cut to the Bone by Roz Watkins). I’m hoping stock will work its way into the shops soon as there are others on my to buy list which I can’t wait to get (thinking of Island of Secrets by Rachel Rhys and The Devil You Know by Emma Kavanagh, among others). I digress… I am thoroughly enjoying The Split, as I do all of Sharon Bolton’s books. This one is set on the remote island of South Georgia and has an intriguing structure.

I usually have about thirty books to review in July but this year it’s more like a third of that, with so many titles delayed until later this year or even 2021. I’m looking forward to investigating what is being published this month and filling up my shopping basket. July books I’m particularly looking forward to are The Resident by David Jackson, The Storm by Amanda Jennings and Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh. I must also catch up on Cut to the Bone by Roz Watkins, Eden by Tim Lebbon, The Sea Gate by Jane Johnson, The Last Wife by Karen Hamilton and The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman.

So what have I missed? If there are any May and June books I really should read and any July books you can recommend – I could really do with some science fiction – please do let me know!

I hope you’re all doing well and managing to find comfort and peace in the company of good books (and jigsaw puzzles).

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLean

Quercus | 2020 (9 July) | 410p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House of Lamentations by S.G. MacLeanIt is 1658 and Cromwell’s England is no longer what it was. Cromwell himself, who lives in palaces as a king in all but name, is rumoured to be dangerously ill while his regime tortures and brutally executes minor royalists for little more than unwise gossip. People are leaving the country, sick at how events have played out. But, while disenchanted Puritans head to the Americas, royalists head eastwards to Bruges where the exiled King Charles II plots with his impoverished court to reclaim his throne. And that is where we find Damian Seeker, a secret agent of Cromwell’s spymaster John Thurloe. Seeker, undercover as a carpenter, has a spy among Charles’s circle and the royalists are determined to identify who it is. Seeker hears word that a woman is being sent to sniff them out. Seeker knows that his identity would also be revealed and his fate would be sealed. But in a city full of English refugees, with both a convent and a brothel a focus for new arrivals, where is this woman to be found? The race is on to be the first to discover her identity.

The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. Sadly, The House of Lamentations, the fifth in the series, is the last. This novel brings together the men and women, spies and double agents of the previous books and so, while it is a self-contained story in many ways, I would definitely recommend that you read these five books in order. The fourth novel, The Bear Pit, especially influences events here.

Knowing that The House of Lamentations is the last in the series, I went into the novel with some trepidation. The enigmatic Damian Seeker is one of my favourite figures in historical fiction and I always look forward to these books. I will miss Seeker very much. But history tells us that Cromwell’s Commonwealth didn’t last and that 1658 was a turning point in its demise. This was a dangerous time, of tension, uncertainty and cruelty. All of this is brilliantly captured by S.G. MacLean. The opening chapter leaves us in no doubt as to the brutality and unhappiness of Cromwell’s London and England in 1658. It’s a shocking opening and it feels like a relief when we’re then taken to Bruges and the shabby court of the king in exile.

Bruges is a change of scene for these novels and I really enjoyed discovering the city as it would have been in the mid-17th century. Bruges is in the control of Spain, Jesuit priests walk its streets. The city’s institutions are brought to such vivid life here – its convent, its brothel and its prison, all of which influence events. Then there is the house containing four of Charles’s supporters, not all of whom are as they seem. One of them is someone we got to know well in The Bear Pit. The reader knows this can’t end well. But there are new people to meet here, too, including the extraordinary and resiliently mysterious Sister Janet, an Englishwoman who became a nun in Bruges over fifty years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the chapters spent in her company. Nobody knows what she’s up to. The Seeker may have met his match. I’ve always liked Lady Anne in these books. There is conflict and chemistry in her relationship with Seeker and, once more, this is one of the highlights of The House of Lamentations.

There is much more to this novel than its tale of spies and plots. There is another story running through it of a young woman with a terribly scarred face. Seeker is driven to find her and learn her story, even though he knows this puts his mission in jeopardy. We, too, are desperate to know. The curious link between the convent and the brothel is also explored so brilliantly as we learn about the choices many women were forced to make. There is an undercurrent to this novel. This is a man’s world in so many ways but the novel draws on all life, male and female, and, with the exception of the tremendous Seeker, my favourite characters are its women.

The House of Lamentations is a fine finale to a superb series set during one of the most fascinating, exciting and dangerous periods in English history. I was fully immersed in its story and its setting, which is brought to life due to all of the historical detail, whether it describes town streets, buildings, clothes, furnishings or people. This is an excellent historical mystery, spy thriller and adventure which is, as always with this series, beautifully told. If you haven’t read these books then now, with the series complete, is the perfect time to do so. You will not be disappointed. I look forward to going wherever this wonderful author next takes us.

Other reviews
The Seeker
The Black Friar
Destroying Angel
The Bear Pit

The Curator by M.W. Craven

Constable | 2020 (4 June) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Curator by MW CravenSomebody is going around chopping off the fingers of men and women and leaving them in the most inappropriate places across Cumbria. Analysis shows that each victim, none yet found, has lost two fingers, one taken off before death and the other afterwards. Some fingers show signs of anaesthesia, others don’t. It’s a disturbing case, not just because it means that there are at least three murdered people to discover, but also because the crime seems inexplicable. DI Stephanie Flynn of the National Crime Agency is called in to investigate, along with her team of DS Washington Poe and analyst Tilly Bradshaw. As they begin to unravel a complex and baffling case, they get a call from an FBI agent in the US who warns them that they are dealing with a deadly killer, the Curator.

The Curator is the third novel in the brilliant Washington Poe series (aka the Poe and Tilly series). The book stands alone very well and so you don’t need to have read the others – The Puppet Show and Black Summer – but you really should anyway! Like so many other people, I adore Poe, Tilly and Flynn. The relationship between loner Poe (and Edgar his dog) and the socially-challenged and utterly adorable Tilly is one of the most irresistible in crime fiction. I couldn’t wait to read The Curator and spend time with them again. It came as no surprise to me that it is every bit as wonderful as the previous two books.

While Poe and Tilly are undoubtedly the main draw in this series – you must meet them if you haven’t already – they’re not the only one. The Cumbrian landscape is beautifully portrayed. The Curator is set in winter. The countryside and coast are stunning, impossible to leave for most people in the book, while they are also harsh and even dangerous. M.W. Craven writes so well and not just in creating fabulous characters. You can feel the cold and isolation in these pages and also the glory of it.

The Curator tells a very clever story. The premise is macabre and fascinating and the plot is intricate and complex. Poe and Tilly are the perfect team and it takes all of their combined skills to tackle this killer. There are moments of true horror in the book. There are difficult moments for Poe and Tilly, especially Poe, and there are some dark times when I could hardly bear to look. It’s traumatic, it’s compelling and it’s immersive. It’s also warm and gently humorous at times. We’re under no illusion of how far Poe will go to protect those he cares for. That’s more apparent than ever in The Curator but, as always, there is Tilly who keeps Poe grounded by caring for him in a way that Poe is now comfortable with. I have always had a soft spot for Flynn, perhaps even more so now. This is such a fantastic series. I cannot wait for the next.

PS, I particularly love the cover of this one.

Other reviews
The Puppet Show
Black Summer

The House Share by Kate Helm

Zaffre | 2020 (14 May) | 386p | Review copy | Buy the book

The House Share by Kate HelmImmi is desperate for a new place to live. She’s fallen out with her boyfriend and is now an unwelcome guest on the sofa of her best friend. The Dye Factory in a great part of London and seems the perfect opportunity. It’s a state of the art building, offering five floors of communal living, along with a roof terrace with an honesty bar, a gym, a gaming area and library and a housekeeper, and all for a very reasonable price. There are rooms for eight residents and right now there are two free. Immi will have to compete for one of them in a series of interviews with the other residents during a house party. Immi gets one of the rooms. At last she can get her life back on track. Her fellow residents seem pleasant enough and the rules don’t seem too onerous. It all seems too good to be true. There’s a reason for that. It is.

I loved the premise of The House Share. The house itself is a big star of the book and I loved how there’s a plan of the house at the beginning. And, as things turn strange, there’s that feel of an Agatha Christie about it, where all of the suspects are gathered under one roof and the only thing uniting them is that each has at least one skeleton in the cupboard. The move from paradise to hell is an appealing one in psychological fiction and it’s done very well here.

The novel moves week by week through Immi’s probation period in the house. Our narrator changes. Most of the time we’re with Immi but we also spend time with the other new resident in the Dye Factory, Dex. The two of them are drawn together as the newcomers but they’re also suspicious of one another and it’s fun to watch their developing relationship from both sides. Neither, you won’t be surprised to learn, is quite what they seem. But, in this book, who is?

The other residents are very intriguing and more than a little odd. When strange and disturbing events begin to happen and to escalate, the residents become even more curious and unhinged. But how does this relate to the house? Immi is determined to find out and we want to know just as much as she does.

I’ve heard The House Share described as bonkers and I actually think that’s pretty accurate! That doesn’t stop it, though, from being thoroughly entertaining and a lot of fun. It’s well-written, humorous, dark and curious as well as being very hard to put down. It is implausible, there’s no doubt about that. But I was perfectly happy to go along with it. Why anyone would want to move into this house is beyond me….

The Babysitter by Phoebe Morgan

HQ | 2020 (28 May) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Babysitter by Phoebe MorganCaroline Harvey is murdered in her home in Suffolk. She had been babysitting for her friend but, when her body is found, the baby is not. A frantic search for baby Eve begins, obsessing the media and the public, driving on the police. Caroline herself is almost forgotten. But a couple of days later, police arrive at a luxurious villa in France and arrest Callum Dillon for murder. He had been on holiday with his wife Siobhan and their daughter Emma, visiting Siobhan’s sister Maria. And now he is escorted back to England in handcuffs, leaving his bewildered family to scramble back home after him. Siobhan’s life is torn apart as she tries to understand her husband’s connection to Caroline. Who was Caroline? Why would anyone want to murder her? And where is Eve? The world watches.

I absolutely loved Phoebe Morgan’s The Girl Next Door and I couldn’t wait to read The Babysitter, and it was every bit as good. Once more we’re given the treat of a stand alone psychological thriller, which tells a good story involving people you want to read about.

I love the structure of The Babysitter. The novel moves between the present and the past and focuses on Siobhan Dillon and the murdered woman, Caroline, whose life we watch in its final days leading to that fateful night. There’s a poignancy in getting to know a woman while being only too aware that her hours are limited. Siobhan is especially interesting as we try and discover just how much she knows about Caroline and her husband. She has to deal with the fallout of her husband’s arrest as it tears her family apart. It’s hard not to empathise with this woman facing such a crisis.

There are two other central figures to the novel – the innocent baby, Eve, and the not so innocent, philandering and vain husband, Callum. But just because he’s unfaithful, does that make him a killer? That’s the quandary faced by the detectives on the case who also have chapters devoted to them and their investigations. There are so many questions to be answered and this, along with the really appealing structure and the fantastic writing of such a fine author, helps to make The Babysitter a stand out thriller.

I doubt there’s a psychological thriller out there that doesn’t proclaim that you won’t see the twist coming. In the case of The Babysitter the claim is true. It’s extremely hard to put down, it kept me guessing and it’s very well-written to boot!

Without a Trace by Mari Hannah

Orion | 2020 (19 March) | 400p | Gifted copy | Buy the book

Without a Trace by Mari HannahWhen flight 0113 falls from the sky over the Atlantic on its way from London to New York, DCI Kate Daniels’ world crashes around her. The love of her life, Jo Soulsby, was booked on that flight as fall out after a crisis in their relationship. Kate can’t leave her work behind her, it’s always top of her mind, and now Kate is learning the cost of that. She rushes to London with her DS, Hank Gormley, a man who is as fond of Jo as he is of Kate, and manages to talk her way into the investigation, soon working alongside the FBI to solve the mystery of what happened aboard the plane and why. Meanwhile, back in Northumberland, a gangster has been found murdered. It’s a critical case and Kate knows she should be in charge of it, as does her boss, but she has only one thing on her mind, something she has to do, and that is to discover what happened to Jo.

I am a huge fan of Mari Hannah and Kate Daniels and I’m sure I’m not alone in being thrilled that Kate has at last returned! It’s been four years since the excellent Gallows Drop but it’s as if Kate hasn’t been away. Without a Trace is part of a series but this is a stand alone story and so you could happily enjoy it without having read the others. But if you have followed these books, then you’ll know about the yo-yo relationship between Kate and Jo and about the closeness between Kate, Hank, her boss and with the rest of her team. They are tight, very tight, and this has helped to make these wonderful books so special and so emotionally charged.

Emotions can’t run higher than they do in Without a Trace. Kate Daniels can be prickly, defiant and stubborn but she also feels intensely, with so many of those guilt feelings that many of us have to deal with, I’m sure. She is a fantastic creation. She feels very real to me. Her relationships with people can be difficult but her loyalty is never in doubt and the people she works with love her. I am so fond of Hank, her second in command. He’d risk everything to see Kate through this and he never leaves her side. We also see here Kate interacting with her team’s partners. This is a family.

The story in Without a Trace is great with it really reaching its unputdownable crescendo in the second half. There is a lot of detail about planes and airports in the first half, which adds authenticity and tension (and is very impressive!) but in the second half it’s none stop action and it is exhilarating. It’s powerful stuff, very much so. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

Without a Trace was such a joy to read. It’s comforting to be back with one of my favourite detectives and my namesake. Mari Hannah is a superb storyteller as we’ve seen from this series and from the others (the Ryan books and the Stone and Oliver series). She can do no wrong and we have been given a treat with Without a Trace. I hope we see Kate again soon.

Other reviews
Gallows Drop
The Silent Room (Ryan 1)
The Death Messenger (Ryan 2)
The Lost (Stone and Oliver 1)
The Insider (Stone and Oliver 2)
The Scandal (Stone and Oliver 3)

The Pretender’s Gold by Scott Mariani

Avon | 2020 (28 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pretender's Gold by Scott MarianiWhen Ross Campbell stumbles across a lost hoard of gold coins by Loch Ardaich in the Scottish Highlands, he finds himself in all sorts of trouble. He finds himself dead. People want those coins and they’ll stop at nothing to find them. That means they also go after Ross’s colleague, who turns out to be the nephew of one Boonzie McCulloch, a retired army sergeant who happens to be the close friend and mentor of Ben Hope. When Boonzie goes missing, Ben Hope immediately leaps into action, racing from his home in France to the wintry Highlands. All hell breaks loose. This is Ben Hope, after all.

In my opinion, and I know I’m right in this, Ben Hope is the greatest action hero you can find in fiction being written today and this is my favourite thriller series. I’ve reviewed these books for years and read them for much longer than that. I adore them and I love Ben. The Pretender’s Gold is the 21st in the series and I’m not surprised to say that it is fabulous and is among my favourites. As with all of these books, it stands alone very well but hopefully it might inspire you to go back and discover Ben’s earlier adventures.

I loved the setting for The Pretender’s Gold. Ben spends much of his time fighting baddies and righting wrongs across the globe, while his home – a farm where he and his team train forces to rescue hostages – is in France. This time he’s in Britain and the Scottish location is wonderful. There is a great deal of warmth in the descriptions of the Highlands and their people. You can feel the cold as Ben tramps across snowy hills and through frosty woods on the trail of an elite band of killers. The story is a good one, too, going back to a particularly interesting period of Scottish history. I’ve always enjoyed how these novels, to varying degrees, mix history and thrills.

Ben is a fantastic character. Hated by car rental companies and loved by whisky distillers, hating to kill but still very good at it, and almost unkillable but, we sense, not really. His past is chequered but for this novel he leaves much of that behind. His focus is on his old army friend Boonzie, who is quite a character in his own right. I loved spending time with him. We care for him and desperately want Ben to save the day.

At a time when I’m slow to read a book, I raced through The Pretender’s Gold. I read it during a dark time and it, and Ben Hope, was good company. These books are so well written. They’re exciting and exhilarating with just the right amount of humour. But there are also shadows. Ben might be an action hero but there is substance to him. He feels like an old friend to me and it was a joy to spend time with him once more. I can’t wait to rave about him again.

Other reviews
Ben Hope 7: The Sacred Sword
Ben Hope 8: The Armada Legacy
Ben Hope 9: The Nemesis Program
Ben Hope 10: The Forgotten Holocaust
Ben Hope 11: The Martyr’s Curse
Ben Hope 12: The Cassandra Sanction
Ben Hope 13: Star of Africa
Ben Hope 14: The Devil’s Kingdom
Ben Hope 15: The Babylon Idol
Ben Hope 16: The Bach Manuscript
Ben Hope 17: The Moscow Cipher
Ben Hope 18: The Rebel’s Revenge
Ben Hope 19: Valley of Death
Ben Hope 20: House of War

Double Agent by Tom Bradby

Bantam Press | 2020 (28 May) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Double Agent by Tom BradbyDouble Agent, the new thriller by well-known ITV news reporter Tom Bradby, follows directly on from Secret Service, which was published last year. Although Double Agent can be read as a stand alone, it does reveal everything that happened in the previous novel and also, I think, its impact would be much greater if you knew what had happened. So please do read Secret Service first. It is excellent. This review assumes you’ve done just that so do please step away if you don’t want to know anything about what has gone on.

Kate Henderson is a senior officer at M16 and the whole agency is in turmoil following recent events. Kate has been personally affected more than most and her home life is now as fragile as her career. She knows that she is barely hanging on. She can only sleep with the help of medication. She’s worried about her children and is grieving the loss of people close to her. Her therapist advises her to have a complete break from work. But she can’t. Nothing that happened before has gone away. It looks as if there may still be a Russian mole in the secret service. The same Russian spies are in touch again and this time they have more evidence to support the outrageous claims that a very senior British politician is a Russian spy. In return, the Russian spies wish to defect to the UK. But is it all true? Kate feels under attack, that she’s being watched, suspected. She has to discover the truth so that she can sleep at night. Her close friends at M16 support her but can they really be trusted? Can anyone be trusted, especially now when nothing feels safe?

Secret Service is such a fantastic thriller and I’m pleased to say that so, too, is Double Agent. It is different, though. This time Kate must deal with the dramatic fallout of previous events on the secret service, the government and on her own life, which has been transformed as a result. The focus is now fully on Kate Henderson, a woman of integrity and feeling, who has reached the end of her tether while still having to go that extra mile to discover a truth that may not be even knowable. She is driven while at the same time she is close to exhaustion. It’s an extremely powerful portrait by Tom Bradby. Kate is a fascinating character, fully three-dimensional, and she is also likeable.

We experience this shifty and shifting state of affairs through Kate’s perspective and that means that the people around her remain shady, untrustworthy and potentially sinister. There is also a new figure for Kate to deal with – Suzy from M15 who has been assigned to Kate as her Deputy but her motives are entirely unknown and Suzy herself is a complete enigma and a woman of many contradictions. That makes her very interesting to read about.

In the midst of this tense tale of spies and murder, there is the human tale of Kate and her family. I don’t want to go into that here because you really do need to know what happened in the first book, but I love the way that this is done, especially the portrayal of Kate’s fragile daughter.

There were a couple of moments in this book that made me shout out with shock. I actually did that. It’s not often a book catches me out. Double Agent does.

If you enjoy spy thrillers half as much as I do then you’ll really like these books and the characters within them. I love the fact that they deal with the old enemy – the Russians. We’re reminded of that Cold War past as Kate travels by train across Russia. I love all that – the atmosphere, the mood, the tension. Double Agent is an excellent spy thriller which complements Secret Service perfectly.

Other review
Secret Service

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Orion | 2020 (28 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1179 and Henry II rages war against Ireland’s kings. Ferdia, more usually known as Rufus, is a young Irish nobleman who is now a hostage to secure the good behaviour of his family. Rufus is taken to Striguil Castle (now known as Chepstow) where he is put in the charge of the powerful de Clare family. As the years pass, Rufus becomes ever more distant from his homeland, tormented by a brute of a knight and distracted by his own desire to become a squire to a great lord. When Rufus saves the life of Henry’s son, the charismatic warrior Richard, Rufus’s life is changed forever and dictated by new loyalties and new battles to fight. This is an uneasy time. As the King’s health declines, his sons turn against one another in a scramble for power and land. Rufus has his part to play in a struggle that will divide the land and put a family at war with itself.

Ben Kane is known to many of us as a fine writer of Roman historical fiction and so it came as a surprise to me to learn that he was turning his attention to that other favourite historical period of mine – the late 12th century and the reigns of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, two of the most mesmerising figures in English history. Lionheart, the beginning of a new trilogy, tells the story of Richard through the fictional character of Rufus, whose own story is every bit as action-packed and dangerous as Richard’s.

Above all else, Lionheart is an adventure and it’s a thoroughly exciting one as we follow Rufus through his early, horrendous months as a hostage and his personal struggle against the cruel Robert FitzAldelm to his time in the service and retinue of Richard, then the Duke of Aquitaine. It’s told in the first person and this places us in the heart of the action and there is plenty of it, in England and on the continent where Richard must contend with not only his own brothers and their allies but also with the King of France. If there’s one person that seems to attract trouble even more than Rufus, it’s Richard, a man born to skirmish, besiege and battle.

But there’s more to the novel than fighting. We’re also taken inside castles where courtliness guides behaviour and squires pursue love, or something much less refined as they make their beds in the great hall. Rufus is a fickle lover, demonstrating how the ideal of chivalry and courtesy, exemplified by the greatest knight, William Marshal (who, I’m thrilled to say, plays a role here), wasn’t the reality for most. I enjoyed the moments spent inside castles just as much as I did those spent outside.

As usual, Ben Kane writes very well and the pages fly through the fingers. The story of Richard I is a familiar one but there is so much to it and it deserves another retelling, especially by an author who is clearly deeply immersed in the period and perhaps relishing the shift from Rome. Lionheart reads as if it was fun to write and this definitely rubs off on the appreciative reader. Historical fiction provides escapism during these difficult and strange times and Lionheart fits the bill perfectly.

And if you haven’t read any of Ben’s Roman historical fiction yet (and why not?!), take a look at the reviews below. My favourites are the Spartacus books and the Eagles trilogy.

Other reviews
Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War
Spartacus: Rebellion
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles
Eagles in the Storm
Clash of Empires
(and others) A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii

Three Perfect Liars by Heidi Perks

Century | 2020 (30 April) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book

Three Perfect Liars by Heidi PerksLaura is a director in an advertising agency and she lives for her work and her clients. That all changed when she had a baby. She had thought that six months’ maternity leave would be enough but when the time comes for her to go back to her job she discovers it wasn’t nearly long enough. But her husband has given up his lesser paid job to be a stay at home dad and now they need her income. So she goes back to the office only to discover that Mia, her maternity cover, has more than got her foot under the door. She cannot be budged and suddenly Laura feels far from secure. But why won’t Mia leave when she had insisted that she had to move on at the end of the six months? And why does something feel not quite right about her? Is it just envy and hurt making Laura feel this way? Mia isn’t alone in not wanting Laura to return. Janie, the wife of Harry the boss, who gave up her high powered courtroom career to support her husband, doesn’t trust Laura and trusts Harry even less. And she has a secret that she wants none of them to discover.

Two months after Laura’s return, a fire devastates the office buildings. All three women are the police’s chief suspects and each is questioned along with their colleagues. DC Emily Marlow knows that they’re all lying to her. But which of them started the fire?

Three Perfect Liars is a stand alone psychological thriller that I could not put down. This isn’t often the case for me, especially at the moment, but I was so easily able to lose myself in this story. I had thought before beginning that the fact that the committed crime is arson might not be enough to hold my attention but this was totally unfounded. The crime is an intriguing one and sets the frame for the story but the heart of this book is not about the fire itself but about the relationship between these three women, Laura, Mia and Janie. And I found all three of them so beautifully drawn by Heidi Perks and I was invested in all three.

Laura is a fantastic creation and it’s so easy to feel for her situation. I’ve been on the other side, covering maternity leave twice and there are elements of this that can be quite difficult, and it’s impossible not to sympathise with Laura who feels that the ground has been swept from under her feet while, on the other hand, she longs to do nothing more than spend time with her son and husband. The situation threatens both her sanity and her marriage. But Mia isn’t the baddie of the piece. She has her own story to tell and the more we get to know her the more we feel for her, too. The same with Janie. The secrets that each hides are deeply involving for the reader, exploring the burdens that some people must bear and hide.

Harry is at the centre of these women’s lives, for good and bad, and everything revolves around him. He is nothing like the women. He is weak, vain and seemingly intentionally obtuse. His life is the contrast to those of the women, including his wife. He surrounds himself by men. Laura was the only female director on the company’s board. There is a culture in his firm that isn’t good.

The novel moves between Laura, Mia and Janie and regularly through the pages are the typescripts of Marlow’s interviews with Harry’s employees. This is brilliantly done and really upped the intrigue and the pace. Everything moves forward, compellingly, until the night of the fire.

I’ve enjoyed Heido Perks’ novels before. She writes very well and creates wonderful characters. Without a doubt, though, Three Perfect Liars is her best to date and I can thoroughly recommend it.

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