Category Archives: Review

The House with the Golden Door by Elodie Harper

Head of Zeus | 2022 (12 May) | 400p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

The Roman city of Pompeii is enjoying its heydey and life is looking good for Amara, who once worked as a prostitute in the city’s most infamous and famous brother, the Wolf Den. She has been rescued by a wealthy man and he is now the only man she serves as one of Pompeii’s most glamorous courtesans. But she can’t leave her friends there behind. She is haunted by their continued suffering while being all too well that her own good fortune is transient. And so Amara sets out to help them, especially her closest friend Victoria, and that means she must go back into the wolf’s lair.

The Wolf Den was my favourite novel of 2021. It brought the streets and houses of Pompeii to life for me in a way no other book has done. I’ve visited the place often and I’ll never see it with the same eyes again thanks to the power of Elodie Harper’s prose and research. I was so pleased that there is more and so I couldn’t wait for The House with the Golden Door. Even before I started reading, I was stunned by the beauty of the cover. These are seriously gorgeous books!

The novels are set during the few years leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius. The fact that we know what lies in store adds such a sense of foreboding and I can’t help hoping that the author takes us right up to these events. But the novels don’t miss the drama of the eruption. Instead, the focus is on the daily lives of these damaged women, as well as on the men who own them, the men who love them and all of the other people who tread these streets as shop workers, slaves, business men, courtesans, inn keepers. I love it.

I think any novel is bound to suffer by comparison with The Wolf Den which, to my mind, is nigh on perfect. The fact that Amara has been removed from that awful brothel of the first novel, a major character in its own right, detracts a little from the power of the second. I also found the storyline involving Victoria difficult. Nevertheless, The House with the Golden Door is an excellent novel and once more it is filled with the details that make these novels stand out. There are so few good novels about Roman women or society in general. This was indeed a man’s world. And it is wonderful to immerse oneself in their stories, although everything about Amara’s life and her past is so hard. But there are moments of joy and happiness and I feel like we’re there with her for it all.

Once more, I should point out that these novels are not salacious or erotic. These might be courtesans and prostitutes but they’re also enslaved women living in a city full of life and colour as well as violence and threat. I can’t wait for the third book. I need to know what happens to Amara next. I’m hoping that in the meantime I can return to this incredible place in person myself.

Other review
The Wolf Den

The Capsarius by Simon Turney

Head of Zeus | 2022 (14 April) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It 25 BC and Egypt is not what it once was. Pharaoh-less, it is ruled by Romans, hungry for its wealth and resources. The Queen of the Kush, far to the South, also has her eye on it and that means trouble. The 22nd legion is sent up the Nile to deal with the Queen’s army and raiders and among it is Titus Cervianus, an army medic and scientist who has the distinction of being both extremely talented at mending people while being incredibly unpopular and picked upon. It doesn’t help that he finds himself friends with one of the legion’s troublemakers, Ulyxes. As they travel deeper into Egypt, there is danger everywhere, from within the legion, from terrifying enemy fighters, and from the Nile itself, which thrashes with crocodiles.

I love a Roman military adventure and have read many of them over the years. The Capsarius is such a fine example for lots of reasons, not least its author, Simon Turney. What he doesn’t know about the Roman world and its military engine isn’t worth knowing. The amount of research he does for each of his books (fiction and non-fiction) is extraordinary and all of that means that you can enjoy his novels while also feeling that you’re learning something.

The setting of The Capsarius is fantastic and it is effectively a military tour up the Nile at a time with the wonders of ancient Egypt are fading but are still marvelled at and have a power to awe. Temples are described in beautiful detail that captures the enigma of Egyptian religion and architecture. I’ve visited many of these places myself on a leisurely cruise up the Nile and the novel brought back memories of the colour and heat of middle and southern Egypt.

But this is a dangerous place for Cervianus, not least because his fellow soldiers keep wanting to kill him while the officers in charge make reckless decisions about their mission. Cervianus seems to reel from one disaster to the next, while all of the time the legion is plagued by attack, the hostile environment, the heat, and then there are the crocodiles. I’m rather glad there were none of those on my cruise. Unfortunately, the crocodiles seem to like nothing better than the taste of a sweaty Roman soldier.

Cervianus’ medical knowledge is called upon with alarming regularity and the detail of his progressive methods is both fascinating and, I have to say, gory. But there is something really appealing about Cervianus. He is an entertaining and true companion, loyal, very unlucky and clever. Despite being widely unliked, he does find friends in strange places, including among the native Egyptian auxiliaries, who are fascinating in their own right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of an unusual man and his exploits on the trail of the Kush queen’s army. The descriptions of the Nile and the legacy of its pharaonic past are wonderful as the army moves further and further away from Alexandria ad the familiar. Simon Turney knows his stuff and the fascinating detail and insight makes this novel stand out. If you love Romans and the ancient world, you’ll love this.

Other reviews (also writes as S.J.A. Turney)
Caligula
Commodus
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
With Gordon Doherty – Sons of Rome

Breathless by Amy McCulloch

Michael Joseph | 2022 (17 February) | 320p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

Adventure journalist Cecily Wong needs a break and she also needs to put the past behind her. To do that she must confront her fears and the golden opportunity comes when legendary mountaineer Charles McVeigh offers her an exclusive interview. If, that is, she can reach the summit of Manaslu in Nepal, the eighth highest mountain in the world. It is a monumental task but Cecily and the other teams on Manaslu will have more than the elements, the lethal terrain and the lack of oxygen to contend with. There is uneasiness among those on the mountain, Cecily hears things she cannot explain, there are memories of fallen climbers, and soon there are deaths.

I have always been drawn to thrillers set in cold, wintry and inhospitable places. There is something about the battle to survive against all that the environment can muster against you. Having said all that, I’m not physically drawn to them at all and mountains terrify me! But the same cannot be said for Amy McCulloch, a fine writer who knows what she writes about. This is an author who has summited Mount Manaslu. She actually did it. How amazing is that?! And all of that personal experience and endeavour makes Breathless more real and convincing than ever.

You really can feel the effort and inherent danger of this climb. Cecily Wong and her fellow climbers are not ‘normal’ people. There is something truly epic about them, whatever their failings and arguments, and that something special really shines out in this novel, even while we see their flaws. Few of the climbers, if any, are without their personal battles. There is much to prove on the lawless precipices and crevasses of Manaslu.

The descriptions of actually how to scale a mountain such as this are fascinating, with the repeated climbs to camps for acclimatisation and so on, as well as the detail of specific parts of the climb, particularly sheer walls of ice and rock. This mountain has claimed many lives and, reading this, you can understand why. And that’s even without the thriller element! But this is a great place to get away with murder.

The thriller itself is an exciting read and very atmospheric. This feels like a haunted mountain and that adds to its tension and air of dread. I liked Cecily, our journalist heroine who must overcome some personal, traumatising hurdles to find the story that will save her career. It is true that the story is a bit predictable (I worked it out early on). Nevertheless, this is an entertaining thriller that really captures the sheer effort of the ascent. I was none the wiser by the end why anyone would want to put themselves through it but I was left in awe of this author who did just that.

Our Child of Two Worlds by Stephen Cox

Jo Fletcher Books | 2022 (31 March) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

In the troubled Cold War years of the 1970s, the world still reels from the events of Meteor Day when humanity learned that it wasn’t alone in the universe. A young alien child, Cory, landed alone on Earth and was adopted by Molly and Gene, who were prepared to risk everything to save and comfort this frightened, strange, wonderful child. But not only that, humans learned that there is another species, deadly, mechanical, snakelike, that destroys all life before it, that is already making incursions into the solar system. Now people look to the stars and hope for Cory’s people to arrive because this is not an enemy that can be fought without help.

Meanwhile, Cory continues to learn about life on this, his other world, while missing his home terribly, seeking to connect across the stars in his dreams. But Cory is a much loved child, not to mention a celebrity, and the subject of endless speculation, wonder and even fear. Molly’s concerns are much more practical – to keep her family together, to keep Cory as content as possible, and survive whatever will come.

Our Child of the Stars is one of my favourite books of all time. I love science fiction and especially tales of first contact, but there is so much more to this story than that. That’s partly because of Cory, who has to be one of the most adorable, sad, loving and curious figures that I’ve come across. But it’s also because of the setting in this small part of America in a reimagined and struggling 1970s. Molly and Gene are a wonderful couple. It’s so good to see them all again in Our Child of Two Worlds, set a little bit after the previous novel, with Cory’s identity now revealed and his powers emerging.

Despite the love that surrounds him, Cory is lonelier than ever, particularly as he’s aware that people fear him. But he loves to play with his powers and it’s a pleasure to read about the games he plays. Until the worry grabs him again. He’s been traumatised by the events of Meteor Day. He knows better than anyone how terrifying the Snakes can be. And he misses his family.

In Our Child of Two Worlds, we learn more about Cory’s people, how they communicate and how they love as families and explorers, as well as their mission. I loved the time spent on interstellar spaceships, the hope that not all aliens are out to destroy the world. But the fear of the Snakes is genuine and well-founded.

There are smaller concerns, equally important in many ways. The prospect of the arrival of Cory’s people means the chance of a life in the stars for Gene. Molly is more rooted in the family home. They are a loving couple but there is a shadow creeping in from the corners.

Stephen Cox writes beautifully and fills his characters with warmth and self-questioning. I love the incidental characters who debate whether Cory is a hoax. There’s the drama surrounding Molly’s family. There are tensions that play out on an intimate scale against the massive context of aliens, space travel, the potential end of the world. It works brilliantly.

There is also considerable excitement and tension as the realisation grows that the world truly is in danger. It’s a fantastic story, told so well. Do read Our Child of the Stars first. You need to do that and then Our Child of Two Worlds will be irresistible reading. How I adore Cory, the boy who loved by two worlds!

Other review
Our Child of the Stars

Impossible by Sarah Lotz

HarperCollins | 2022 (17 March) | 448p | review copy | Buy the book

A misfired, mistyped, angry email from Nick to  Bee – not at all the person who was supposed to be on the receiving end – is to change both their lives. Not instantly and not with great shifts of the ground beneath their feet, but slowly and gently. Bee is amused by Nick’s grumpy email (he’s a ghost writer who hasn’t been paid on time) and his self-deprecating humour while Nick falls for Bee, with her strange business of repurposing wedding dresses and her dire blind dates. They slowly get to know one another, purely online, using each other as a way to talk through some quite difficult situations in their lives. They have friends but in many ways they are isolated. Finally comes the time when Bee and Nick are ready to meet in person, under the clock in Euston Station, but, from that moment, the truth begins to dawn and it is impossible.

I love Sarah Lotz’ books. They’re unusual, very clever, frightening in some ways and not a little quirky. I like that. With Impossible, the author returns to the top form of The Three and Day Four, two books I cannot recommend highly enough, and which deserve a re-read. In those novels Sarah Lotz played with the horror genre. This time, romance gets its speculative and curious makeover.

This is a romance but not as we know it. Much of it is conducted by email at a distance, with the narrative alternating between Bee and Nick as they go about their lives while emailing amusing updates to their ‘penpal’. This means the reader gets to laugh but there is also sadness as we get to know the other people in their lives, especially Nick’s stepson Daniel. But all this leads up to where the novel is going and I am not going to say a word about that at all! I hadn’t read a review of Impossible before I read it and that did help but I do want to write this to urge you to dive in. If you don’t read romance normally then this is the romance for you and if you do read it then you will also fall in love with it.

Impossible is clever, sharp, warm, witty and original, as well as being fabulously written. It has the appeal of epistolary novels such as 84 Charing Cross Road while being very different. But, at the heart of it, lies a slowly and beautifully developing love affair between two immensely likeable human beings. It did me good to read it.

Other reviews
The Three
Day Four
The White Road

(as S.L. Grey) Under Ground

The Interview by C.M. Ewan

Macmillan | 2022 (17 February) | 439p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Interview by CM EwanKate Harding is ready to reboot her life. The chance comes with a last-minute interview for a post at Edge Communications, a famous PR company. The interview is set for 5pm on a Friday, not the best of times perhaps, and things don’t start well. She’s late, daunted by the size of this massive new glass building in London, and then finds herself being interviewed by someone other than she expected, the rather charismatic Joel White. The interview takes place in a glass office, high above London’s streets. Joel begins to ask his questions and, as they become increasingly personal, Kate’s anxiety and nerves are transformed into terror.

And that’s pretty much all I want to say about the plot because The Interview  is a fabulous, tense stand alone thriller and it shocks time after time as Kate descends further through the circles of hell. If only the people in the streets below would look up! Interviews can be frightening at the best of times and it’s easy to empathise with Kate as she sits in this glass box facing questions from a man who clearly knows far too much about her. But this empathy then becomes mixed up with tension, fear as the thriller takes off and becomes a truly exhilarating read. It’s not often I can say that about a thriller, perhaps once or twice a year.

Much of the novel takes place over a very short period of time, making it all the more urgent and immediate, but as it goes on we have flashbacks, teaching us more about Kate and her interviewer. This adds context to the interview, although my favourite sections were definitely those set in this incredible building, which couldn’t be more fitting for such a horrifying scenario! The fact that everything takes place just out of plain site of a busy London, with office workers pouring out of the surrounding buildings into pubs and bars, adds so much to the tension. I have to add that I really like Kate’s character, her resilience and courage.

if ever a book should be called a page turner, that would be The Interview. It is chilling and intense but more than anything else it is thoroughly entertaining.

Other review
A Window Breaks

Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Bantam | 2022 (24 February) | 336p | Review copy | Buy the book

Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles KristianErik Amdahl is tormented by nightmares since the death of his daughter Emilie, wanting nothing more than to keep his remaining daughter Sofia safe. But Sofia is becoming a teenager and, finally, Erik accepts that he must fulfil old promises made to both daughters and take Sofia on a great adventure, on the ‘Long Ski’ through the dramatic wilderness of north Norway. But it doesn’t go as planned. A place they presume to be safe turns out to be far from it and soon they must ski for their lives, pursued by ruthless killers, heading deeper and deeper into the glaciers, mountains and forests of an ice-gripped landscape.

Giles Kristian can do no wrong in my eyes. He is a superb storyteller, one of the very finest writing today, and now after some outstanding historical novels on the Vikings, the English Civil War and the post-Roman Britain of Arthur and Lancelot, he has written a modern thriller set in a country that he knows so very well. The topic and setting might be different from his previous novels but there is a connection. There is a spirituality and mythology to this snowy, lethal, beautiful environment that Erik’s Viking ancestors would recognise.  Erik is taken to the very limit of his endurance, like one of Giles Kristian’s other heroes, like the Viking Sigurd or Raven or Lancelot. In times of such extremis one looks beyond the natural world for comfort and, in places of such beauty and danger, that other world can be found in the surrounding rocks, rivers, trees and animals. The local Sami people are wise about their environment and this must be protected.

Where Blood Runs Cold is as beautifully written as the author’s other novels. It shares the same feel of place as well as a strong sense of danger, great tension and, on occasion, violence. It is a thriller and so the reader expects excitement! They get it here. It is a hunt and pursuit with the extreme cold proving equally as dangerous as the killers at their heels. But there are still quiet times, when the father and daughter hide in their dug-out snow caves, and they bond and remember Emilie. The relationship between Erik and Sofia is tender and one’s heart goes out to Sofia who just wants to help her Pappa when she is at the very limit herself.

I love wintry thrillers and I am fascinated by Norway, a country I want to visit very much. I found Where Blood Runs Cold thoroughly exciting but I also found myself caught up in the story of a father and daughter coming together in the most dangerous of situations. Giles Kristian has demonstrated that not only can he make any period of history his own but that he can also master a new genre entirely. Not that this was a surprise to me! He is a wonderful writer whose books belong on your shelf.

Other reviews
God of Vengeance (Rise of Sigurd 1)
Winter’s Fire (Rise of Sigurd 2)
Wings of the Storm (Rise of Sigurd 3)

Raven: Blood Eye; Raven: Sons of Thunder; Raven: Odin’s Wolves
The Terror: a short story
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury
Lancelot

With Wilbur Smith – Golden Lion

The Man in the Bunker by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2022 (20 January) | 476p | Review copy | Buy the book

The war is over and it is time for the guilty to pay for their atrocities. While the Nazis are rounded up, ready for trial and punishment, their leader is believed dead. He committed suicide in his bunker under Berlin’s bombed streets, his body burned. But did Hitler really die in the bunker. The American and British secret service suspect he escaped, their suspicions supported by a trail of strange and violent deaths in Germany. It is time once more for Tom Wilde, an American Professor of History at Cambridge University and reluctant spy, to head to Germany and follow the clues and trace the witnesses to the truth. But Wilde is not alone. He is paired with Dutch soldier Mozes Heck, who has his own agenda and it could get both of them killed.

The Tom Wilde series is one of the very best being written today and I have been a huge fan of it from its beginning. Rory Clements is an excellent writer who has written both Tudor and World War Two thrillers. Interestingly, Wilde is an expert in Elizabethan history. There is a wider perspective to these novels, a strong sense that intrigue and deception are timeless and that the past can repeat itself. I like that. The Man in the Bunker is the sixth novel in a series that has taken us from the troubled, ominous years just before the war, through the war and now to its immediate aftermath when the concentration camps are being liberated and the true horror of the war is revealed. Berlin at this time is such a fascinating setting for a thriller that is enthralling from start to finish.

I think that The Man in the Bunker stands well alone as it very much focuses on the matter at hand, removing Wilde from his life and family in Cambridge. It is apart from the earlier novels. But I really recommend reading them all. Wilde is a fantastic character, an intellectual and a man of action. He has his hands full here, though, thanks to Heck, who holds his own against Wilde and adds a real edge of danger and menace to the story, while being a constant reminder of the personal motivation of many to bring the Nazis to justice. The two men uncover multiple stories of suffering and endurance. This is a powerful, disturbing novel.

Wilde and Heck interview several of the people who knew Hitler most, adding to the mystery element of the novel while also providing a chilling picture of Hitler and those closest to him during the last days of the Reich.

The Man in the Bunker is thoroughly exciting, ingenious and page-turning. Now that the war is over I wonder what the future holds for Tom Wilde but I really hope we haven’t seen the last of him and his wife, Lydia. This has been a great series from the beginning but I think that this, the sixth, is my favourite.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus

Nemesis
Hitler’s Secret
A Prince and a Spy

The Queen’s Lady by Joanna Hickson

HarperCollins | 2022 (20 January) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1502 and Henry VII and his queen Elizabeth desperately mourn the loss of their son and firstborn heir, Prince Arthur, so newly married to Katherine of Aragon. It is Lady Joan Guildford’s task to console the Queen, while comforting the remaining precocious royal children, to whom she is Mother Guildford. Her son Hal is Prince Henry’s closest friend and Joan’s life is interconnected with the royal family in so many ways but all that will change when the damaged, insecure King suspects so many of his courtiers of corruption, including Joan’s husband. Joan finds comfort in her home and household, in teaching English to Princess Katherine. She discovers that she can love again and with the accession of Henry, a Renaissance prince, to the throne, everything will change once more for this remarkable and well-loved woman.

The Queen’s Lady follows on from Joanna Hickson’s The Lady of the Ravens, which presents a marvellous introduction to Joan, a young woman who forged such a deep relationship with Elizabeth of York during the later years of the Wars of the Roses and spent her free time looking after the ravens at the Tower of London. The two novels form a complete whole and I would heartily recommend you read them both but The Queen’s Lady also stands well on its own, especially as it enters into a new era – the decline of Henry VII and the emergence of Henry VIII. It’s worth mentioning that the novel doesn’t venture into the well-trodden divorce/remarriage years of Henry VIII’s reign and that is something to be thankful for!

I love Joanna Hickson’s novels. She writes beautifully and the studies are full of emotion and feeling as she places the lives of women at the centre of history. Here we have not only Joan but also Elizabeth of York, Margaret Beaufort (Henry VII’s incredible mother), Joan’s maid, Katherine of Aragon, the Princesses Margaret and Mary as well as many other mothers, wives and daughters. They might not fight on the battlefield (although Katherine has a yearning to do this) or have official roles in government but they provide such a fascinating perspective on key events, such as the disintegration of Henry VII or the Field of the Cloth of Gold. And childbirth is shown to be every bit as dangerous as anything a man may face in war.

The Queen’s Lady is without doubt one of my favourite novels by Joanna Hickson. I love the historical setting with Henry VII’s increasingly strange and paranoid behaviour, removing him so far from his stature as triumphant warrior on Bosworth Field. The impact of this on Joan’s husband, Sir Richard, is really tragic and moving, and pathetic in the true sense of the word. Joan is cut adrift and we watch how she deals with it. There is romance but it isn’t sentimental. Joan is not a sentimental woman. She’s practical, busy and warm, a natural teacher and protector. I really like her. She’s a true historical figure and the author breathes life into her.

The scenes set at court are wonderful, with all of the feasting, jousts and games, the complicated system of living quarters, the etiquette surrounding the royal family. I also enjoyed the sections in which Joan accompanies the princesses to their royal husbands – of Scotland and of France. There is so much going on and I was thoroughly engrossed from start to finish, in the quiet moments and in the times of drama.

The Queen’s Lady completes Joan’s story and what a story it is! I cannot wait for the next novel from this fabulous author.

Other reviews
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride
Red Rose, White Rose
An interview
First of the Tudors
Guest post – What’s In a Name?
The Tudor Crown
The Lady of the Ravens

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett

Viper | 2022 (6 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Twyford Code by Janice HallettMany years ago, schoolboy Steven Smith found on a bus a book by Edith Twyford, a writer now considered old-fashioned, a bit dodgy. It’s covered in strange scribbles and messages. He took it to his teacher Miss Isles who became obsessed with it, believing the book to contain a code that could decipher a great mystery. On a school trip to Bournemouth shortly afterwards, she vanished without trace, her disappearance haunting Steven for the rest of his days.

After a stretch in prison, Steven decides to do something about it. He determines to decipher the code himself and to find out what really happened to Miss Isles. Steven isn’t good at writing and so he records all of his interviews with his old schoolfriends and anyone else he encounters in his investigations to solve his own past. But Steven soon discovers that he isn’t the only person to be intent on solving the mystery of the Twyford Code and by then it is too late. Steven is caught in a web and, just out of reach, the answers to it all tantalise.

The Appeal was my favourite crime mystery of 2021 and one of my very top reads of the year. It’s actually one of my favourite novels of all time, not just for the story it tells but for the way in which it tells it. It’s ingenious. It’s an updated epistolary novel, which involves the reader with the mystery in such an engaging and thoroughly gripping way. It’s a hard act to follow but Janice Hallett is a very clever writer and in The Twyford Code she tweaks the style just a bit to deliver another original and consuming standalone mystery.

This time, the novel comprises a series of transcripts. These contain numerous mis-hearings of certain words, presumably due to the transcription software, adding a very curious element to the prose. This is the sort of novel, like its predecessor, in which the reader needs to keep their wits about them, staying alert and always on the look out for clues. The whole book is a puzzle. But where does it lead?

The Twyford Code is also a novel about a vulnerable boy who grows into a damaged soul. We learn about his relationships with his family, his school days and the trouble that he has found himself in. Now he has a mission. But will it be the death of him?

More than that, I cannot say. These are books to immerse oneself in, to be driven by curiosity and fascination to discover where they lead. I cannot wait for the next novel.

PS – I love the cover!

Other review
The Appeal