Category Archives: Review

Triumph in Dust by Ian Ross

Head of Zeus | 2019 (10 January – ebook: 1 December, 2018) | 467p | Review copy | Buy the book

Triumph in Dust is the sixth novel in Ian Ross’s fantastic Twilight of Empire series, books which have followed the career of soldier, centurion and general Aurelius Castus in campaigns across the late Roman empire, from Britannia to Persia, during the early 4th century AD. Triumph in Dust is set more than a decade after the events of the previous novel, Imperial Vengeance, and would, I think, stand alone well. But I’d definitely urge you to pick up this series and read it from the beginning with War at the Edge of the World, if only to find out just how far our hero Castus has come. It’s been an extraordinary, dangerous, thrilling journey.

It is 336 AD. After so many years of conflict and civil war, the empire is at peace. Constantine the Great continues to build the empire’s mighty new capital city of Constantinople. Former general Aurelius Castus is now 60 years old and retired, content in the company of his beloved wife and daughter, trying so hard to forget the terrible events that drove him from Constantine’s service over a decade before. But Castus is not to be left in peace. The Persians are stirring. They threaten the empire’s eastern border with bloody war. Constantine needs an experienced and wise man to assess the situation, to travel across the region’s forts and cities, preparing them for the possibility of war. Only one man will do – Aurelius Castus. Castus is not as young as he used to be. He suspects that his strength and health are failing him. But, after years of retirement, Castus can’t resist the lure of action and command. But, where Castus is going, he will have far more to fear than the Persians. Castus is a famous, respected general. To many, with Constantine nearing the end of his life, Castus is a threat.

Triumph in Dust is an outstanding novel. We’re familiar with Castus and his struggles with Constantine, the emperor’s sons and family as well as with his rival emperors. Castus has had years caught in the middle of civil war, in the most perilous situations. But now Castus embarks on a final mission for an emperor who has caused him so much grief and pain, and it stands out for the very personal struggle that it will bring. Castus is on his own. He has men to advise him, notably his beloved son Sabinus as well as his dear friend and secretary Diogenes, but this is ultimately a personal battle of strength for a man who fears that he may not have much time left. He must find the power within himself but, when it comes to it, he will do once more what he’s always done best – fighting for his empire, sword in hand, with his bare fists if he has to.

Triumph in Dust pits the Roman Empire against arguably its deadliest enemy – the Persians – and the action takes place in the hot deserts of the east. It’s a challenging environment. Life is hard in these forts, towns and cities, travelling between them across the featureless sand can be lethal in the heat. Officials can be corrupt and power-driven. It’s Castus’ job to rally the legions at these remote posts, while constantly being aware that he risks a dagger in the back. But when the war does come then Castus will be ready.

At the heart of Triumph in Dust is what I’ve always enjoyed the most in Roman military historical fiction – a siege! The siege of Nisibis in 337 AD is brilliantly depicted by Ian Ross. It’s exhilarating, exciting, shocking, bloody, astonishing and more. I’ve read some good Roman sieges in fiction over the years but this really must be a contender for the very best. And the fact that Castus is there fighting tooth and claw alongside his men makes us sit even further on the edge of our seats. The book also contains one of the very best depictions (Douglas Jackson has also done this brilliantly) I’ve read of the Roman fighting formation of testudo, the tortoise. With Castus at its heart, we really feel like we’re there and it is truly, truly horrifying, challenging and frightening.

Ian Ross describes Roman warfare so well. He brings the details of it to life in vivid colour and smells. But he is also a master of the rest of it – the politics, the conspiracies and cunning – as well as the details of life in a Roman town, including Constantinople, during the 4th century AD. It feels so real all around us. The story of Castus contrasts with that of his wife Marcellina who must face her own battle to survive as she sees a side to these places that Castus never can.

An element of these books that I’ve always enjoyed is their treatment of early Christianity. In previous novels we’ve seen Constantine’s ambiguous relationship with the faith, as well as his mother’s devotion, but in Triumph in Dust we see very little of Constantine. Instead, we see the role that early Christianity – and a couple of its saints – played in the town of Nisibis, when the town is at peace and also at war. It’s really fascinating and makes the people behind the mosaic iconography of Byzantium seem real and, in the case of St Jacob of Nisibis, extraordinary and very charismatic. Castus, of course, hangs on to his paganism which is so much a part of who he is. This tension between faiths, between the new and the old worlds, between Rome and Constantinople, is such an original and compelling element of the series and is particularly resonant in its finale.

There’s always sadness in seeing a much loved series come to a close but Triumph in Dust is a triumphant conclusion. Castus is larger than life and yet still just a man. His reputation soars but we see him at his most vulnerable and at his most alone. It’s a fine portrayal and one I won’t forget. Thanks must go to Ian Ross and Head of Zeus for such a spectacular series.

Other reviews and features
War at the Edge of the World (Twilight of Empire 1)
Swords Around the Throne (Twilight of Empire 2)
Battle for Rome (Twilight of Empire 3) (with interview)
The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire 4)
Imperial Vengeance (Twilight of Empire 5)
Guest post by Ian Ross, author of Triumph in Dust


Book review of 2018

It’s that time of year again… and the task this year is even more difficult than usual because 2018 has been a particularly brilliant year for books (which is just as well as it’s been an especially horrible year in lots of other ways). I must thank all of the wonderful publishers and authors who have brightened my year. Plenty of debut authors have now been added to my list of authors to watch while other writers whose books I’ve loved for years have once again fed my habit for their books – and I’m so grateful.

There are still a few days left of 2018 and so I don’t yet have my final tally of books read but it will be about 192 books, which is over 20 more than last year. That amazes me as I thought I read a lot last year but I think I’ve spent quite a bit of 2018 heads down with my nose in a book. And, as I mentioned, I think 2018 has been particularly strong for books, especially historical fiction. Conversely, I haven’t read as much science fiction as normal this year, which is not a good thing. Usually the year is finished off with the latest Expanse novel by James S.A. Corey but the new one won’t be out until well into 2019. But there has been far less science fiction about in 2018 that’s grabbed me or that I’ve discovered. Which means I’m going to seek out more of it in 2019.

Historical fiction, as I say, has been on top form in 2018, which has made my top books selection especially hard. I could have filled the entire list with it. But I’ve done my best to be strict and resist the temptation to divide my top books by genre. I want it to be difficult!

I’ve also enjoyed crime fiction and thrillers enormously in 2018. I’ve largely avoided psychological thrillers because I read too many of them in 2017 but historical crime and detective crime have been so good this year. As has horror and the Gothic! I’ve especially enjoyed both crime and horror books set in unusual and atmospheric places, such as haunted houses, old mansions, Scottish islands, the Peak District or the Scilly Isles.

Without further ado, here is my top 10, which is actually more like sixteen and a bit. It’s a miracle I got it down to this few as my first list had 58 books on it. They’re in no particular order except at the end when I will try and make my final choice for my favourite book of 2018. I must first, though, thank everyone for taking the time to read my reviews over the past year. I love writing them but you make it all worthwhile. Here’s to a 2019 of books that is every bit as good as 2018. I’ve read a few 2019 books already and the signs are very good indeed!

London Rules by Mick Herron
The fifth book in Mick Herron’s brilliantly witty, sharp and clever Slough House series of spy novels but miraculously the first I’ve read. It won’t be the last and I have the rest all ready to go. Mick Herron is so good at combining tragedy and comedy, showing how closely the two can be linked and how this pulls emotions from us. Jackson Lamb, a man held together by bad habits, once met is impossible to forget.

Don’t Make a Sound by David Jackson
One of the most compelling, gripping and accomplished crime novels I’ve read in a very long time. What it describes is so horribly awful and yet it feels completely believable and real. Outstanding characters, beautifully written, and all presented with a style and skill that urges the reader to keep turning those pages. When you pick this book up, put everything else aside. Prepare to be lost within it. Brilliant.

Night Flight to Paris by David Gilman
This year I was fascinated by stories of spies and wartime, possibly because of the centenary, and more than one of these novels stood out and there’s another on this list. I could also mention Rory Clements’ Wilde trilogy. But Night Flight especially gripped me. I urge you to read this novel and meet these fantastic characters. To feel the tension of following them through the danger of missions and just in daily life, which can be every bit as terrifying, waiting for a car to screech to a halt outside the door, for the sound of boots running up the stairs, the bang on the door, the guns in the face. Clever, complex, gripping, emotionally engaging, terrifying. And so much more.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
I couldn’t wait to read The Stranger Diaries, a stand alone Gothic murder mystery set in an old school by an author I have such affection for, and I loved it even more than I knew I would! This is the best of writing. Elly Griffiths is brilliant at creating characters that might have their flaws and eccentricities but we fall for them so deeply all the same. I love the theme of writing and diaries that runs through it. It is also extremely chilling – imagine writing in your diary only to find out that a stranger has left a message in it! The setting here is every bit as central to the story as the plot and characters and I loved every minute of it all.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas Jackson
The wonderful Hero of Rome series comes to an end with Hammer of Rome. It’s time to say goodbye to Gaius Valerius Verrens. We’ve been through so much together, fighting in some of Rome’s most infamous of conflicts across the empire, beginning with Boudicca. This finale is superb as Valerius returns to where it all began, Britannia.

A House of Ghosts by W.C. Ryan
I love a haunted house ghost story and this is quite possibly the best I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed the way in which the story relates to the First World War, a conflict that created so many ghosts. Kate Cartwright is a brilliant heroine with an attitude towards ghosts that is fascinating and so effective here. It’s beautifully written and richly evocative of its time and setting. It’s frightening in places but also, rather unexpectedly, I found it comforting and warm, despite the chill of its winter storm.

Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry
This irresistible novel presents a thoroughly engrossing and immersive tale of seafaring disaster, madness, impossible love and loneliness set against the backdrop of 19th-century Boston, Nantucket and the vast blue expanse of the ocean. Its portrait of Hiram Carver, doctor to the insane in Charleston near Boston in Massachusetts, and a man we watch disintegrate, should not be missed. I love novels about the sea, especially when they’re tinged with the hint of mystery, of the unknown, and this beautiful and exquisite novel swept me off my feet.

Someone Like Me by Michael Carey
This wonderful book, my favourite by this fabulous author, works so well as a work of horror but it also travels so deeply into the human psyche to explore the ways in which its characters cope with trauma and loss. I fell very deeply for this book and for some of its lives – most particularly Fran, Lady Jinx and Molly. I have no words to describe how much I love Molly and Jinx. The love we feel for them makes sections of this novel heart wrenching. It’s impossible not to feel completely involved. And with the pain we feel comes the huge reward of reading a novel that is so utterly captivating.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom
At last Matthew Shardlake returns! The setting is Norfolk during the reign of young Edward VI, a time of unhappiness and revolt, and Shardlake and his friends are caught up in the very heart of it. Sansom is an exceptional writer. His prose is truly immersive, bringing the Tudor world to life around us with his elegant and precise descriptions. The plot is riveting and goes way beyond the case that Sansom has been sent, by the Princess Elizabeth, to investigate. In my opinion, this is the best in the series.

Noumenon Infinity (and Noumenon) by Marina J. Lostetter
The Noumenon books (hence the total of 16 and a bit for my list because I’m including two books here) are, with the addition of another SF book later on in the list, the most fun I had reading science fiction this year. I read them back to back and they ticked every box. Spaceships, distant planets, alien artefacts, AIs, time distortions, people adapting to life aboard a generation starship, bloodcurdling terror, love, the unknown. All of it described so beautifully and evocatively, with humour and sensitivity, by Marina J. Lostetter, an author who can do no wrong in my eyes.

The Moscow Cipher by Scott Mariani
If I had to choose one series of books to smuggle away with me while I was marooned on a desert island (with a cocktail bar and air-conditioned suite), it would be Scott Mariani’s Ben Hope thrillers. These are my favourite thrillers in the world and I’ve read them for years. I could rave about Ben Hope all day long and very happily I get the chance to do so twice a year because that’s how often he’s published. The Moscow Cipher is the book I’ve picked here but it could just as easily have been the second 2018 Hope novel, The Rebel’s Revenge.

Retribution by Anthony Riches
Anthony Riches is a prolific author of the most brilliant Roman military historical fiction. His Empire series is one of my very favourites from any genre but more recently he’s given us the Centurions trilogy which brings to bloody life the Batavi Revolt that followed the death of Nero. This series is very fine indeed and the tale it tells is pleasingly complex and hugely rewarding, not to mention thrilling. It ends in spectacular fashion with Retribution, one of the very best novels I read this year.

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott
Manda Scott can do no wrong in my eyes. Her writing is impeccable, her insight into human behaviour, as well as into the themes of history, is profound. A Treachery of Spies is a superb spy thriller which traces the origins of a complex web of treachery and lies back to the Second World War and a group of the French Resistance. Good and evil battle it out here, the fight that never ends. It’s like the end of the world to see such heroism and courage slaughtered while we must praise the valour of people like Picaut, our heroine, and others in this novel who will not give up the fight. An outstanding novel from one of the very finest authors writing today.

Head On by John Scalzi
This book is so much fun! A virus has left some people ‘locked in’, in a waking coma. They are able to transfer their consciousness into robots called threeps. And now threeps have become superstars, competing in a popular sport in which the object is to cut off the head of one’s opponent. It’s impossible for the locked in human controlling the threep to die – until one day one does. A threep FBI agent must investigate an extraordinary conspiracy. There are some big and serious themes here but Head On is also a book full of lightness, humanity and fun. John Scalzi is such a witty writer, one of my very favourites, and he’s filled his threeps with personality. I love this book!

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
This novel is astonishing, gobsmacking and all kinds of words that fail to do it justice. It tells an elaborate (that’s an understatement) tale set one party weekend in a country mansion just after the First World War. When one of the guests, Evelyn Hardcastle, is found murdered, the ingredients are there for delicious cosy crime. But throw those preconceptions out of the window right now! Evelyn will die not once, but seven times. Aiden Bishop must try to solve the crime, time after time, and each time he will inhabit the body of a different person. Someone is determined that he will not be successful. Stuart Turton is a genius. I’ve never come across plotting like this before. And I must also mention the gorgeous maps. This book is my runner up for top book of 2018.

Which leaves only one. My favourite book of 2018 was…

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate MascarenhasThe Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas. This is the tale of four women who invented the time machine in 1967. Half a century later, in 2018, Odette discovers the dead body of an elderly woman in a locked room in a toy museum, a death perhaps foretold by a message sent from the future back to 2017. And so begins one of the most incredible novels I’ve read for several years. It’s an enormous achievement. It is an immensely rewarding novel that is also very cleverly complex and so you do need to pay close attention. It’s certainly worth it. It is mesmerising. The narrative jumps and skips backwards and forwards throughout, following the lives of a group of women over fifty years or so, but mostly focusing on events in 2017 and 2018. And making it even more complex and absolutely riveting is that sometimes we meet a character in the ‘wrong time’, when she is time travelling. There is none of that directive that we’re used to that two versions of the same person can’t co-exist in the same time – here you can have as many of yourselves as you like. You can revisit key times in your life and share those times with a limitless number of yourselves. You can even dance with yourself, if you fancy it.

The mystery at the heart of the book is such a good one and every bit as quirky and curious as the rest of the novel. But its enormous appeal lies mostly in its wonderful, wonderful people and the wit and warmth with which they’re described as they flit and dance through each other’s lives – and their own. Sometimes they can bring misfortune, even death, but mostly they bring love and such a depth of feeling. Utterly captivating and my favourite novel of 2018.

Honourable mentions

This list was very hard to compile. I had to make some difficult choices. So I thought I’d include here six honourable mentions for books I loved so much from the three genres that I adore – historical fiction, science fiction, crime/thrillers.

Historical fiction
Clash of Empires by Ben Kane
The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson
Old Baggage by Lissa Evans
The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Igguldon
Blood’s Revolution by Angus Donald
The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

Science fiction
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
Adrift by Rob Boffard
Ball Lightning by Cixin Liu
Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton
Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn

Crime and thrillers
The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox
The Blood Road by Stuart MacBride
Panic Room by Robert Goddard
Star of the North by D.B. John
Under the Ice by Rachael Blok
The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

Phew! What a smorgasbord of fantastic books! The challenge is laid down to 2019….. bring it on!

Roman historical fiction – a big thank you!

Rome: Eagle of the Twelfth by MC ScottAs the end of the year approaches – and while I continue to hum and haw about my top ten books of the year (at one point this week I managed to get my top 10 down to 58), I thought I’d embark on a series of posts to thank those serial authors whose books I have loved over the years and who, in very large part, are responsible for making me the hungry reader that I am today.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction, to put it mildly, and there are some series that I have deep affection for and I look forward to the latest addition every year. The fact that each series must eventually end is not something that makes me happy. And this year I’ve mourned the loss of more than one. Although there is now the excitement of wondering where these beloved authors will take us next!

I’m an archaeologist by trade and my favourite period has always been the Roman era. Roman historical fiction forms the heart of my book love. Other periods of history do come in and cheekily steal my attention but I can never get enough of the Romans. So here are the authors I’d heartily recommend, although I suspect that many of you will be enjoying their books already and you don’t need me to tell you how flippin’ marvellous they are.

Hammer of Rome by Douglas JacksonThis year, Douglas Jackson finished his Hero of Rome books with the fantastic Hammer of Rome. Gaius Valerius Verrens is a true hero of Rome, a man we’ve followed through hard times and good as he’s faced some of Rome’s deadliest enemies of the 1st century AD, including Boudicca. He did not emerge from that fight unscathed.

In the new year, Robert Fabbri will finally conclude his chronicle of the rise to power from humble origins, through bloody war, of the Emperor Vespasian. Tribune of Rome began the series and it now ends with Emperor of Rome. Vespasian is not the man he once was – how can he be? He must now learn to become a god.

Another series due to end in the new year is Ian Ross’s Twilight of Empire series set in the 4th century AD. It began with War at the Edge of the World and will conclude with Triumph in Dust in January and I cannot wait to read it! Aurelius Castus is such a fine character who has risen through the ranks to the very top but there seems no end in sight to the civil war that has divided the empire into pieces.

Anthony Riches is an author it’s an absolute pleasure to rave about. He’s just finished a trilogy on the incredible Batavian Revolt, which followed the death of Nero. The Centurions trilogy began with Betrayal and concluded this year with Retribution. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and so good is it, I am prepared to forgive its disruption of his long running Empire series (begun with Wounds of Honour), which is due to continue shortly. We’ve travelled a long way with Marcus Aquila and his troop of Tungrians and I can’t wait to resume the journey.

Conn Iggulden has turned his attention elsewhere in more recent years but his Emperor series is superb. Covering the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the series ended with the brilliant The Blood of Gods. Conn’s most recent novel takes us to ancient Greece with the fantastic The Falcon of Sparta.

Eagles at War by Ben KaneI’ve been a big fan of Ben Kane for years and he’s given us several series and I love them all. Ben has tackled Hannibal and Spartacus. My favourite series so far by Ben has been his recently completed trilogy on the great defeat of Varus in AD 9 by Arminius and the seizure of Varus’s three eagles – Rome’s most infamous and famous defeat. It began with Eagles at War, which tells the terrifying and bloody tale from the point of view of centurion Tullus. It’s brilliant. Ben’s latest novel, Clash of Empires, tells the story of what happened when Greek culture encountered head on the might of Rome.

Harry Sidebottom is well known for his military series featuring Ballista, the Warrior of Rome (begun with Fire in the East, and Ballista has reappeared recently in this year’s excellent Roman thriller The Last Hour – Ballista has only one day to save the emperor from assassination and the empire from disaster. I can also recommend Harry’s now complete trilogy The Throne of the Caesars, begun with Iron and Rust.

The Earthly Gods by Nick BrownI am a huge fan of Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series. Cassius Corbulo is a young spy thrown very much into the deep end and sent off on all manner of perilous missions across the empire during the late 3rd century AD. His Christian servant Simo is such a memorable creation as is Cassius’s bodyguard and ex-gladiator Indavara. This series began with The Siege and the most recent and sixth novel was The Earthly Gods. I long for this series to return – I’m keeping everything crossed.

Manda (MC) Scott is one of the finest writers about, whichever period of history she writes about. I adore her Rome series, which began with The Emperor’s Spy and ended with book four The Art of war. The Eagle of the Twelfth, set during the reign of Nero, is one of the very best novels I’ve ever read. Demalion of Macedon is an extraordinary character. This is powerful writing that also never forgets how to tell a good tale.

Britannia by Simon ScarrowWhen talking about Roman military fiction, I can’t leave out Simon Scarrow’s Macro and Cato series which I have loved for years (the latest novel The Blood of Rome was published this year. My favourite is Britannia). You also shouldn’t miss SJA Turney’s Marius Mules’ long running series which covers the military campaigns of Julius Caesar. The series began with The Invasion of Gaul.

I can’t get enough of Roman crime fiction and some series have long legs. David Wishart’s Marcus Corvinus series is possibly my favourite and I’ve been reading it for more years than I care to mention. This year the nineteenth was published, Family Commitments, and I think it could be one of the best of the entire series. Although arguably Corvinus isn’t the star of the books. That honour begins to his butler Bathyllus and his megalomaniac chef. Other series that I’ve enjoyed are Rosemary Rowe’s long running series featuring the British mosaic maker Libertus (the latest novel is The Price of Freedom) and Steven Saylor’s Sub Rosa series. The Throne of Caesar about the assassination of Julius Caesar was published this year and it is wonderful! I must also recommend Ruth Downie’s crime series which features Roman doctor Ruso. His latest case, Memento Mori, was published this year.

Pandora's Boy by Lindsey DavisLike so many of us I’ve read and loved Lindsey Davis’s books for years. Who doesn’t love Marcus Didius Falco, Vespasian’s spy? His cases kept me entertained for years until it was time for him to retire and settle down in the antique business. Now it’s the turn of his adopted daughter Flavia Albia, who must also contend with Rome’s attitudes towards a female detective (Rome doesn’t like it) plus a new husband who is suffering from being struck by lightning. Flavia’s last case was Pandora’s Boy. She will return for her seventh case, A Capitol Death, in the spring. Fantastic!

I’ll finish with Rome’s emperors. I just can’t get enough of them. I’ve hugely enjoyed Margaret George’s two books on Nero, beginning with The Confessions of Young Nero and concluding this year with The Splendour Before the Dark. Caligula by Simon TurneyOne of the book highlights of this year was Simon Turney’s fantastic novel on Caligula. Simon will next turn his attention to Commodus – this makes me very happy indeed.

And so there we have it! I know I’ll have left wonderful authors and fabulous books out and I’ll be troubled by that. But I think there’s enough here to start with. My plea to publishers is that you never stop publishing Roman historical fiction. I cannot be without it. I need more! And to all of those authors whose novels have, and continue to, thrill, move and entertain me – I’m so grateful. Thank you! I can’t wait to travel back through time with you again next year.

The Rumour by Lesley Kara

Transworld | 2018 (ebook: 10 December; hardback: 27 December) | 312p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Rumour by Lesley KaraWhen her little boy Alfie is bullied at school, single mother and estate agent Joanna Critchley makes the difficult decision to move from London to the small seaside town of Flinstead. She fortunately finds another job quickly and it’s certainly useful to be living so close to her mother, a handy babysitter. But Alfie continues to find it difficult to fit in. To help him, Joanna knows she must try harder to get on with the clique of mothers who wait at the school gates.

They’re not an easy group to penetrate, with their book clubs, parties and babysitting circles, and so Joanna, almost without thinking, blurts out a particularly juice bit of gossip she’s heard – that Sally McGowan, a woman who years before, as a child, murdered a little boy, lives in Flinstead. Everyone knows her name will have been changed but that makes the mystery all the more tantalising. But, as the gossip begins to spread and women start to be suspected, Joanna realises what a dangerous can of worms she’s opened, especially when she starts to get hate tweets on Twitter – ‘Rumours can kill’. It’s too late.

As we follow Joanna around the community, we get to know a range of woman, most of whom are at the age when they could conceivably be the hated and notorious child killer Sally McGowan. There are so many red herrings and possibilities. More than once I thought that I’d worked it out but I’m so pleased to say it actually kept me guessing until the very end. This doesn’t happen often so this is very good news!

But aside from the mystery, we have the human story of Joanna and Alfie as they try to make a home for themselves in this new town. I loved the depiction of Alfie and his best efforts to make new friends while coping with the situation they’re in. The Rumour paints such an engaging portrait of a small community dealing with the spread of paranoia and suspicion while exploring the difficulty of trying to fit in. The whole novel, though, is overshadowed by the spectre of Sally McGowan and the terrible crime she committed. Can such a woman ever put the past behind her? And when names have been changed, lives have been rebuilt and reshaped into the unrecognisable, how can you ever know who you can trust?

The Rumour is such an entertaining read. I read it in two sittings during the course of one day. It’s one of those books when you read one short chapter, you immediately have to read another. There is something rather salacious about its subject matter and theme, which did slightly put me off, and, at the start the style is rather jumpy and unsettled, but I’m so glad I persevered. The book does settle down during the second quarter and the large number of raving reviews are definitely deserved. It is an utterly addictive read.

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher

Virago | 2018 (1 November) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

House of Glass by Susan FletcherIt is June 1914 and Clara Waterfield, a young botanist of independent means, is summoned to the large house of Shadowbrook in the Cotswolds. The house had been owned by the Pettigrews, a family feared and loathed among the local community, but with the last of the line having died, the decaying house is now owned by Mr Fox. Clara’s task is to fill a glasshouse with exotic plants from Kew Gardens. It shall be a haven for Mr Fox. But the strange thing is that Mr Fox refuses to be seen. The housekeeper explains that he is usually away on business but, when he is around, he keeps to his rooms on the first floor and he is not to be disturbed. His house is left unloved.

But Mr Fox isn’t the only unusual presence at Shadowbrook. Clara hears footsteps at night; flowers brought into the house are dead within hours; paintings on the walls fall to the ground. The housekeeper and maids have no doubt what is causing the disturbance – Shadowbrooks is haunted. Clara is determined to find out what is going on in the house, what it is that worries the villagers. As the country heads towards a war that will change everything, Clara becomes immersed in this Gothic house of secrets.

I love a creepy Gothic tale, especially one that is focused upon a large decaying and unloved country house. There are so many closed doors, creaky floors and dark, forbidden passageways, rumours of ghosts – we have all of that and more in House of Glass. By contrast, the world outside Shadowbrook is enjoying a fine summer, although the fact that it is 1914 casts a shadow over even the sunniest days. There is a sense that for many, there will be no more summers. The setting is enticing. The fact that it’s set in the beautiful Cotswolds, which is my own part of the world, made me enjoy it even more.

Clara is a fascinating and unusual heroine. She has what we would know as brittle bone disease. Just a touch can cause an agonising break. Her body is distorted by old and recent breaks, and vividly coloured with bruises. After years spent indoors as her poor bones grew and developed, she is now free to venture outside and this is the world that captivates her. She must always be careful but she is happiest when her fingers are immersed in soil, caring for plants. There is something very no-nonsense about Clara Waterfield. She wears her hair down and unpinned, she speaks bluntly, she has turned her back on religion, and she is a strong supporter of the movement to win female suffrage. Clara stands on the edge of a new world for women. She is ready to enter it.

There are other characters in House of Glass that I really enjoyed, especially Hollis the gardener and Kit the neighbouring landowner, but the novel’s heart belongs to Clara Waterfield. The story is told in Clara’s own words and Susan Fletcher brings her to life beautifully.

House of Glass is gorgeously written as Clara endeavours to make sense of this strange, potentially very frightening world around her. I especially enjoyed the first half of the novel during which time is spent evoking the world of Shadowbrook and its surroundings. There is such a mood of foreboding and menace, offset by the beauty of the weather and the garden. Dark and light contrast so well. I’m not so sure that I fell entirely for the way in which the plot developed in the latter stages of the book but my overriding impression of House of Glass is how beautifully its world and characters are portrayed. I loved the sense that a new modern world is on the horizon, on the other side of the horror that will be the Great War. There is a strong feeling of uncertainty and unhappiness due to the war but for Clara and women like her new possibilities and freedoms beckon while old attitudes to women, especially concerning female morality and their role in the workplace, may be about to start changing.

Presumed Guilty by Jane Isaac

Self-published | 2018 (1 December) | 346p | Review copy | Buy the book

Presumed Guilty by Jane IsaacWhen Stuart Ingram is run over and killed on a zebra crossing having just picked up a late-night takeaway, life will never be the same for his family. His wife Gina can barely cope. Just the suggestion that Stuart may not have been the man she thought she’d married, that he may have had his secrets that would be enough to drive somebody else to seek him out and kill him in cold blood, is enough to grind her into the ground. The role of police Family Liaison Officer is crucial and Gina is given one of the very best – DC Beth Chamberlain of the Northamptonshire police, a woman who has both empathy and a knack for wheedling out secrets deeply buried. She knows the right questions to ask and knows how to listen. But when Stuart’s murder is swiftly followed by another, Beth realises that nothing about this case is going to be straightforward.

Presumed Guilty is the second novel by Jane Isaac to feature Family Liaison Officer Beth Chamberlain and I’m so delighted to see her again. The books stand alone, although the trauma that Beth suffered in the previous case means that her superiors are being extra careful with her this second time around. Beth is allowed to go nowhere on her own. She strains against the leash and pushes boundaries but there’s a sense that Beth has learned a lesson she won’t forget. But otherwise, there is nothing about this second book that would prevent you enjoying it on its own. It’s so easy to fall for Beth. She’s a fantastic character and she’s supported by some other people, especially DS Nick Geary, who are extremely likeable. There’s a strong sense with Presumed Guilty, and with its predecessor After He’s Gone, that we’re in good company.

Police procedurals often mention Family Liaison Officers but rarely by name. It’s great to see the role given such precedence and it certainly adds something special to the novels. It’s different and it’s fascinating. It brings the victims’ family into the heart of the case and, in fact, some chapters of Presumed Guilty are presented from the perspective of Stuart Ingrams’ new widow Gina. I really warmed to Gina as we see her almost fade away before our eyes. Beth has to treat her with suspicion but she also treats her with care. It’s a fine line to tread.

Presumed Guilty has such a good plot. It moves along at a fast pace as it becomes ever more complex, involved and tense. But Jane Isaac’s skill goes beyond being able to plot a good tale. She writes so well, breathing life into her characters, combining procedure with a very human perspective. The author certainly knows her subject. We’re told that her husband is a detective, which can’t hurt! The book has such an air of authenticity and detail about it. I also liked the fact that it’s set in a more unusual location – Northamptonshire, a county that combines large towns with beautiful little villages. We have both here. I did have some thoughts about the novel’s ending, which I obviously can’t go into, but this is minor.

Presumed Guilty demonstrates once more that we have a series and heroine here that I hope will run and run. I absolutely adore Jane Isaac’s DI Will Jackman series but this one is every bit as good. Excellent!

Other reviews
Before It’s Too Late (Jackman)
Beneath the Ashes (Jackman)
The Lies Within (Jackman)
After He’s Gone (Chamberlain)

The Eternity War: Exodus by Jamie Sawyer

Orbit | 2018 (29 November) | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Eternity War: Exodus by Jamie SawyerExodus is the middle book in Jamie Sawyer’s trilogy The Eternity War and it picks up exactly at that jawdropping moment where Pariah left off. So do read Pariah first. This review assumes that you’ve done just that.

Lieutenant Keira Jenkins leads a team of SimOps (Simulation Operatives), her Jackals. These men and women make suicide missions their speciality. They transition into ‘skins’, organic and enhanced bodies that can fight and die as supersoldiers, time after time, while their vulnerable bodies stay safe in their tanks. Each violent death, though, leaves a painful stigmata on their real bodies. Life such as this takes its toll. But the Galaxy is in crisis. After a time of peace between humans and the alien Krell, war has once again broken out, inflamed by a disease that is transforming the Krell into something even more terrible, horrifying and lethal. The pot is being stirred. Old enemies presumed defeated are back while there is a new group to fear – the terrorist Black Spiral network. Jenkins’ Jackals are vital for the survival of the Alliance but, in order to learn the truth about the true nature of the threat, they must first survive the horrific prisons of the Directorate.

Jamie Sawyer is a master of military science fiction pageturner thrillers! His first trilogy, The Lazarus War, named after the legendary SimOps leader Lazarus (aka Conrad Harris), a man who had risen from the dead more often than anyone else, first took us into the world of the Alliance, the Directorate, the Krill and the other aliens that exist in the shadows. Jenkins had been a member of the Lazarus Legion but now she leads her own unit and this new trilogy is every bit as action packed as the first.

Exodus is the middle novel but it tells an exciting story in its own right before laying the groundwork for the conclusion. The action never lets up and so the pages race through the fingers as Jenkins’ Jackals tackle baddies left right and centre, in prisons, planets, spaceships and other stranger places. Some of what they face is enormously brutal, the stuff of nightmares, particularly towards the beginning of the novel, but a big reason why this all works so well is because we’re so invested in the characters.

The Jackals are such a varied bunch – Novak, the man imprisoned for life who is working off his sentence; Zero, the young woman rescued from desperation by Lazarus as a child; Lopez, the rebellious daughter of one of the most important politicians in the Alliance; Feng, a renegade Directorate clone soldier; and then there’s Pariah – I’m not going to say anything about Pariah… But Keira Jenkins has now firmly established herself as my favourite. There are other characters we’ll meet here that will delight anyone who’s read Jame Sawyer’s novels before. But the people I’ll remember the most are the utterly appalling Directorate military who stamp their book on the book at its very beginning.

This is fast, military science fiction. It doesn’t explain how things work and it doesn’t spend pages on character development – there simply isn’t time, there isn’t a moment to waste as Jenkins’ Jackals plunge from one death trap to another. It’s an exhilarating, fun adventure, with a great bunch of baddies to hate, some loathsome aliens to fear and some fine heroes to get behind. All set in space! Excellent. And book three promises to be the most explosive of them all.

Other reviews
The Lazarus War: Legion
The Lazarus War: Origins
The Eternity War: Pariah