The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: Home Before Dark by Riley Sager; Narrated by Cady McClain & Jon Lindstrom #BookReview

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What was it like? Living in that house.

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into a rambling Victorian estate called Baneberry Hall. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a memoir called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon.

Now, Maggie has inherited Baneberry Hall after her father’s death. She was too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist.

But when she returns to Baneberry Hall to prepare it for sale, her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the pages of her father’s book lurk in the shadows, and locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself – a place that hints of dark deeds and unexplained happenings. 

As the days pass, Maggie begins to believe that what her father wrote was more fact than fiction. That either way, someone – or something – doesn’t want her here. And that she might be in danger all over again….

This is the first book I have chosen this year as part of the 2021 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. (If you love books, you must check it out, it is the friendliest part of the internet for bibliophiles). The challenge is to read a new book every fortnight that fits the prescribed category for that two-week period.

The first category is ‘A book that was a Goodreads top read of 2020.’ I have again vowed to try and pick unread books from my TBR to fit the challenge categories, rather than buy new ones. So I chose this book, as I had it already as an audiobook.

I love to listen to Riley Sager novels as audiobooks. There is always so much action and tension in his books that they keep the narration rolling along, despite the fact that the narrators always read a lot slower than I could read them myself if I sat down with the paperback. This one was no exception, and it made me eager to get on with my chores so that I could listen to the next segment. The only drawback was that I could not use this audiobook to send me off to sleep at night as I sometimes do, it was too scary! I was afraid I would have nightmares, or frighten myself to death if I woke up in the night and caught sight of my reflection in the bedroom mirror.

The book is told in the voices of two narrators. The first is Maggie who, in the present day, returns to the ‘haunted house’ that her family fled from when she was five years old. Her family grew rich on the back of a book detailing their experiences in the ‘House of Horrors,’ but the experience has marred Maggie’s life since and, on the death of her father, Maggie returns to the house to find out what really happened back then. The second narrator is the voice of Maggie’s father, Ewan, telling the story of their time in the house as detailed in the book. But it is fact or fiction? Honestly, the reader/listener can’t really know until right at the end of the book, both stories (the one in the book, and the book itself) are very convincing. The audiobook is voiced by two different narrators for Maggie and Ewan who are both excellent and it works really, really well as a listen.

There are lots of twists and turns in the book that keep the reader gripped and guessing, right to the end. Parts of it a really unsettling, I quite often felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end and, as I said, I was afraid to listen to it just before sleep. All great signs of this type of ghost story/thriller and things I have come to expect from a Riley Sager novel. If you have enjoyed his books before, you will like this one.

Yes, it’s preposterous. Yes, the ending is absolutely ludicrous. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief so far that it will feel like it is hovering over the Grand Canyon. But these are the things that make this kind of book so much fun and why this book was so popular that it ended up in the Goodreads Top Reads of 2020. It gave me everything I expected in spades and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Can’t wait for his next book.

Home Before Dark is out now as an ebook and audiobook, and will be published in paperback in July, and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a former journalist, editor and graphic designer. Now a full-time author, Riley’s first thriller, FINAL GIRLS, became a national and international bestseller that’s been translated into more than 25 languages. His subsequent novels, THE LAST TIME I LIED, LOCK EVERY DOOR and HOME BEFORE DARK, were instant New York Times bestsellers. His newest thriller, SURVIVE THE NIGHT, will be released in June.

A native of Pennsylvania, Riley now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. When he’s not working on his next novel, he enjoys reading, cooking and going to the movies as much as possible. His favorite film is “Rear Window.” Or maybe “Jaws.” But probably, if he’s being honest, “Mary Poppins.”

Connect with Riley:

Website: https://www.rileysagerbooks.com/

Facebook: Riley Sager Books

Twitter: @riley_sager

Instagram: @riley.sager

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Blog Tour: The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus by Jaime Jo Wright #BookReview

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1928

The Bonaventure Circus is a refuge for many, but Pippa Ripley was rejected from its inner circle as a baby. When she receives mysterious messages from someone called the “Watchman,” she is determined to find him and the connection to her birth. As Pippa’s search leads her to a man seeking justice for his murdered sister and evidence that a serial killer has been haunting the circus train, she must decide if uncovering her roots is worth putting herself directly in the path of the killer.

Present Day

The old circus train depot will either be torn down or preserved for historical importance, and its future rests on real estate project manager Chandler Faulk’s shoulders. As she dives deep into the depot’s history, she’s also balancing a newly diagnosed autoimmune disease and the pressures of single motherhood. When she discovers clues to the unsolved murders of the past, Chandler is pulled into a story far darker and more haunting than even an abandoned train depot could portend.

I am delighted to be taking my turn on the blog tour today for The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus by Jaime Jo Wright. Huge thanks to Kelly Lacey at Love Books Tours for inviting me to take part and to the publisher for my copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

I am an absolute sucker for any book set around a circus. They have always fascinated me, and something that encapsulates childhood magic and fantasy, a feeling we all love to revisit when jaded adulthood and life stress gets us down. I barely even read the blurb for this, I just saw the title and the cover and said ‘sign me up.’

It’s my own fault then that the book wasn’t at all what I was expected! For some reason, I had got into my head that this was some kind of middle-grade, circus-set murder mystery. How wrong I was ! It was something much darker and more complex, a deeply nuanced novel exploring love, family, stigma, and finding oneself through independence. I absolutely blooming loved it.

This is a dual timeline novel, set in the small town of Bluff River, Wisconsin. The narrators are Pippa Riley, a young woman living in the town in 1928. She is an abandoned child of the circus, taken in by the rich owners and brought up as their daughter. Pippa finds herself irresistibly drawn back to the circus and the mystery of her parentage. But the circus can be a dangerous place to be for young women these days…

The second narrator is Chandler, a single mother struggling with parenthood, holding down a job and the ravages of an autoimmune disease. A troubled relationship with her own family leads to a sense of isolation, and she is wary of the friendly approaches of locals in Bluff River, where she has been sent to formulate development plans for the old railway terminus and other buildings connected to the long-defunct circus. But mysterious discoveries and strange goings on mean she has to team up with a handsome stranger to solve a decades-old mystery.

The lives of the two women have so many parallels across the years. Pippa is living at a time of new opportunities for women, but conservative societies are resisting their emancipation, and Pippa is struggling to balance her strict upbringing against her desire to embrace this newly-minted era of female liberation. Chandler is determined that her own independence will not be undermined by her illness or her single-parenthood, and she hides her struggles from everyone in fear of having restrictions placed on her by those who care about her. The book explores the complex dynamics of family and the struggles of women to balance the expectations and judgements of society with their own needs and desires. These dilemmas have not changed much for women over the centuries, and it is something we can all relate to.

The book also explores they way society views and treats people it views as different or abnormal, and how the circus became a refuge for misfits and loners. Often ridiculed as exploitative and voyeuristic, this book explores the idea that it actually provided a place of understanding and companionship for those on the fringes of society. It is a fascinating dichotomy that the author explores with interest and sympathy.

On top of this, there is a fascinating and quite terrifying murder mystery to be solved. A serial killer known as The Watchman seems to be stalking the circus, but years later, the community is questioning whether the real culprit was identified at the time and whether the stigma his descendants have carried through the years has been placed on the correct shoulders. The idea of disparate relations of a serial killer carrying the tarnish of their ancestor’s actions through the years is sad, but used to great effect for the plot of this novel and I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of the story. The author weaves the two timelines together with great skill, slowly uncovering the truth across the years, and I was on the edge of my seat by the end, in both the 1920s and the present day!

The prose is richly textured, evocative and an absolute joy to read. It is one of those books that you can get totally lost in, so effective is the author in constructing the time and place in which she has set the novel. I was drawn through the book effortlessly, not wanting to break off and destroy the fictional bubble in which I has been ensnared by her skill. As soon as I had finished the book, I wanted to go and pick up her other novels and see if I could get that feeling back again. This was my first book by Jaime Jo Wright, but it definitely will not be the last. Oh, the joy of discovering a great new author with a back catalogue on which you can binge, is there any greater pleasure for an avid reader?

The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus is out now and you must absolutely get you copy here.

About the Author

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Jaime Jo Wright is the author of five novels, including Christy Award winner The House on Foster Hill and Carol Award winner The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond. She’s also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of two novellas. Jaime lives in Wisconsin with her cat named Foo, her husband Cap’n Hook, and their littles, Peter Pan, and CoCo. 

Connect with Jaime:

Website: https://www.jaimewrightbooks.com/

Facebook: Jaime Jo Wright

Twitter: @jaimejowright

Instagram: @jaimejowright

Pinterest: Jaime Jo Wright

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Blog Tour: Carrion by Graeme Cumming #BookReview

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CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY. WORDS HAVE POWER.

A sheet of black filled his vision as hundreds of birds dived at the cottage, pointed beaks thrust forward. From this angle, he couldn’t see many of them striking it, but the few he did see held nothing back as they hammered into the shutter. The scale of the attack was beyond anything he’d seen or heard of. And bloodied casualties littered the ground: skulls shattered, wings broken, innards spilling from them. The fact that so many of them continued with the onslaught in spite of this filled him with even more dread.

Salin has always wanted an adventure and, when the opportunity presents itself, he grabs it with both hands, taking his friends along for the ride – whether they want to or not.

With strange lands come strange creatures that stand between them and their goal. And that goal is the same for someone else, a man who believes the prize is worth every sacrifice – especially when the sacrifices are made by others.

The future is about to change. But who for?

I am so delighted today to be taking part in the blog tour for Carrion by Graeme Cumming. My thanks to Kelly Lacey at Love Books Tours for giving me a place on the tour, and to the author for my digital copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

Let me tell you a little story. Two years ago, I agreed to take part in the blog tour for a book by an author I had never read before. I promptly failed to put the tour in my diary and blithely forgot all about it until the tour organiser emailed me the day after my post was due to ask me what had happened. This was the first time I had ever failed to post a review on time and I was absolutely mortified. I went and grovelled to the author, who was grace and charm personified, read and reviewed the book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I made a new friend.

That book was Graeme’s last novel, Ravens Gathering (you can read my review here), and since then, I have had the pleasure of meeting Graeme in person. He comes across as the most mild, kind, unassuming person you could wish to meet. Which leads to the question, where the hell is the part of him that wrote this book hiding day to day?

This book is impossible to categorise. Is it horror? (Bits of it definitely are.) Is it fantasy? Is it a thriller? Is it some type of dystopian morality tale? Is it just all of these things mixed together? It is certainly unlike anything you will have read before. The closest I can get to describing it is Lord of the Rings meets Game of Thrones meets The Birds. It was completely outside my reading comfort zone, but I was thoroughly gripped from start to finish.

The book starts of very Hobbit-like with four people (?) setting off on some kind of quest. I wasn’t sure who they were to begin with, and for the first few chapters you have to concentrate quite hard to sort out who is who and what is going on, as the narrative jumps between quite a few different viewpoints, and there is no clear definition of who is doing what or why. Eventually, all is revealed, but you do need to stick with it to begin with until it shakes itself out. There is plenty of action to keep you occupied while the strands arrange themselves, and I found the book really gripping from the off, and it only got more and more so as it went along. By the end, the strain on my nerves was almost too much to bear, because I absolutely NEEDED things to work out a certain way, such was my absolute loathing for one of the characters, but I wasn’t sure it was going to end to my satisfaction.

The book is a visceral read. I know I referred to LOTR, but the violence level is definitely more George R. R. Martin than J. R. R. Tolkein. Graeme is not shy about bumping off what appear to be central characters, or people you have grown attached to, and he does it in some imaginatively gory ways. There is a strong element of horror in the book, particularly in the first half, and I felt this very strongly. It was oppressive and nerve-shredding, not a book for relaxing in the bath with for sure. If you want something to get the adrenaline pumping, this is it.

Graeme has done some fantastic world-building in this book, I could really picture the setting for the novel and completely bought into it. There are a lot of interesting ideas explored here, and some really well-constructed characters. He may have created the most hateful antagonist of any book I have come across in a long while, which has the effect of making the reader totally invested in the outcome of the quest. The whole thing came together very effectively, and I am really pleased for him, because I know this book has been a labour of love.

This book isn’t going to be for everyone, but it is very original, action-packed, immersive and evocative. I hope lots of people pick it up and experience it for themselves, because it is unlike anything else you will have read this year.

Carrion is out now and you can buy your copy here, if you dare!

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About the Author

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Graeme Cumming lives in Robin Hood country, and has spent most of his life immersed in fiction – books, TV, movies – turning to writing his own during his early teens.

With his interests in story-telling sparked by an excessive amount of time sitting in front of a black and white television, his tastes are varied.  Influences ranged from the Irwin Allen shows (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, etc.) to ITC series (The Saint, The Champions, Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) and so many more), so the common theme was action and adventure, but crossed into territories including horror, fantasy and science fiction as well as crime and espionage.

 This diverse interest in fiction continued with his reading and his discovery of the magical world of cinema.  As a result, his stories don’t always fall into a specific genre, but will always maintain the style of a thriller.

When not writing, Graeme is an enthusiastic sailor (and, by default, swimmer), and enjoys off-road cycling and walking.  He is currently Education Director at Sheffield Speakers Club.  Oh yes, and he reads (a lot) and loves the cinema.

Connect with Graeme:

Website: https://www.graemecumming.co.uk/

Facebook: Graeme Cumming

Twitter: @GraemeCumming63

Instagram: @graeme_cumming_author

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Book Review: Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad

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When a vampire seduces you, death is minutes away. When she hires you, you’ll soon wish you were dead.

It’s a truth known to every guardian who worked for Fiona, including Daniel. Aside from managing the day to day chores and keeping her protected, he manages an investment portfolio to buy stolen blood from hospital workers. The 250-year-old Fiona needs 10 pints of human blood every night. As a result of this, Daniel and Fiona are always on the lookout for police, but fail to notice their gradual encirclement by Mors Strigae, an ancient order of monks dedicated to the extermination of vampires. Gone for a century, the monks start a new war when they destroy Fiona’s sire. This time, her vampire family is pushed to the edge of extinction — and the humans who serve them are hunted and executed.

After 35 years, what keeps him loyal? And will he ever be allowed to leave?

It’s publication day for Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad and I am delighted to be reviewing the book in celebration. Happy publication day, Dan, and my thanks for the digital copy of your book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

I am in no way a connoisseur of vampire novels by any stretch of the imagination. When I was searching my library for examples of the genre to use in my Instagram photo for this book, I had far fewer to choose from than say, legal thrillers or romance novels set in cafes. Therefore, I may not be the best judge of how great an example this is of the oeuvre. I am not a massive reader of horror. In fact, it specifically says in my review policy that I don’t review horror. How, then, did Dan persuade me to read his book? I’m not quite sure, he is obviously a silver-tongued charmer that has a way with words, and this book confirms this is true.

Lover of horror or not, expert on vampire novels or not, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Fiona’s Guardians. It is a fresh, modern take on the genre where Dan has brought vampires, their feeding techniques and the tools used by their adversaries to hunt them down are all very twenty-first century. The book is fun and smart and pacy and I fairly raced through it at double-quick speed.

The author has created some really interesting characters in this novel, from the vampires and their clan (I especially like the idea of feisty female vampires kicking ass and fighting the ancient vampirical patriarchy), their guardians (humans on the side of blood-sucking vampires, a fascinating dichotomy) and the zealous order of monks chasing them down. The interplay between the different groups makes for an action-packed narrative, provactively imbued with moral questions of who are really the evil characters in this book; it may not be who you think.

All in all, this book is endlessly entertaining, even for people who wouldn’t normally read horror novels of vampire stories. It is not overly-gory or scary, but witty and amusing and diverting. If you are looking for a Halloween read that won’t make you want to sleep with the lights on but will provide you with a few hours entertainment, this is the book for you.

Fiona’s Guardians is out today in paperback and ebook and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Book Review: The Secrets of Saffron Hall by Clare Marchant #BookReview

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Two women, five centuries apart.

One life-changing secret about to be unearthed.

1538
New bride Eleanor impresses her husband by growing saffron, a spice more valuable than gold. His reputation in Henry VIII’s court soars – but fame and fortune come at a price, for the king’s favour will not last forever…

2019
When Amber discovers an ancient book in her grandfather’s home at Saffron Hall, the contents reveal a dark secret from the past. As she investigates, so unravels a forgotten tragic story and a truth that lies much closer to home than she could have imagined…

It is publication day for The Secrets of Saffron Hall by my fellow RNA member, Clare Marchant. Very happy publication day, Clare! My thanks to the publishers for my digital copy of this book, received via NetGalley, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

This is a dual timeline story, following the lives of two women living a quincentenary apart, but with a thread of shared experience that somehow binds them across the centuries. In the early sixteenth century, Eleanor is a young girl, reluctantly married but making a go of her new life at her husband’s grand house in Norfolk, growing saffron to increase his fortunes. It is a time of great upheaval in the country, as Henry VIII enacts the Act of Supremacy and begins to dissolve the monasteries. In current times, Amber has suffered an earth-shattering upheaval of her own, and goes off to hide at her family’s long-time home, Saffron Hall, where her future becomes inextricably linked with Eleanor’s past.

The author handles the dual timeline brilliantly, expertly weaving the two stories together, so it is easy to follow whose story we are in, and how the one is feeding in to the other. She gives both women a strong, defined character and an equally important and well-developed storyline, so the novel feels well balanced and satisfying in both timelines. I was equally invested in the fates of both women, and completely sold on the idea that Amber’s future happiness, in her head at least, depended on her resolving the puzzle of Eleanor’s past.

This novel deals with a very difficult subject matter and, as someone who has been through this experience herself, I found the author dealt with it sensitively and with great understanding and tenderness and honesty. Whilst it did bring back some difficult memories, it left me moved and comforted, rather than distraught, and I would not have wanted to be put off reading it, although I suppose some who have been through the experience more recently and for whom the issue is more raw, may want to proceed with caution.

The author brings the life of the sixteenth century vividly to life in this book, and I became completely lost in the daily existence of Eleanor’s household and her duties and cares. It is a historical period that is rich in happenings and excitement and Clare mines them expertly and cleverly to provide the tension in the book. If you know any of the history of this period, the introduction of one character to the narrative will set alarm bells ringing, and you will be waiting for the fallout to ripple through the narrative. Clare has been very clever with the way she has woven real historical figures with fiction in the text, and I was almost reading the last part of the book from behind a metaphorical cushion, waiting for the inevitable. It is hard to get someone on tenterhooks when they almost feel like they know what is coming, so I take my hat off to this author that she managed it.

This is a vivid, moving, evocative story with a hint of the supernatural, and I absolutely loved it. It is a must-read for fans of the time period, and for a great, dual timeline story. Excellent work.

The Secrets of Saffron Hall is out today in paperback, audio and ebook formats, and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Growing up in Surrey, Clare always dreamed of being a writer. Instead, she followed a career in IT, before moving to Norfolk for a quieter life and re-training as a jeweller.

Now writing full time, she lives with her husband and the youngest two of her six children. Weekends are spent exploring local castles and monastic ruins, or visiting the nearby coast.

Connect with Clare:

Facebook: Clare Marchant Author

Twitter: @ClareMarchant1

 

 

Desert Island Books: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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The circus arrives without warning. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Against the grey sky the towering tents are striped black and white. A sign hanging upon iron gates reads:

Opens at Nightfall
Closes at Dawn

As dusk shifts to twilight, tiny lights begin to flicker all over the tents, as though the whole circus is covered in fireflies. When the tents are aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign lights up:

Le Cirque des Rêves
The Circus of Dreams

The gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition.
They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.

Now the circus is open.
Now you may enter.

Discover this amazing fantasy read with a different kind of magic.

Like a lot of people my age, or any age I guess since my daughters loved them too, my first introduction to independent reading, and the very first books I fell hopelessly in love with, were The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton. Those magical stories of three children who discover a fantastical tree in a wood near their house, populated with fairy creatures and with a rotating roster of enchanted lands that they could visit at the top, transported me into my wildest dreams.

When I first read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, it is the closest I have felt as an adult to those transformative moments when I first lost myself in the pages of The Enchanted Wood and was taken to Fairyland. This book is a wondrous adult fairytale full of magic and enchantment and this is why it is number seven on my list of books I would take to my desert island, and the most recently-published book on the list.

If you haven’t read this book, it takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century and involves two people locked in a game of skill which takes place in a magical nighttime circus that travels the world. It is also a passionate love story. But none of this truly captures the essence of why I love this book so much, or why it is one I return to again and again.

It is the magic with which Erin Morgenstern has managed to imbue every word of this novel, the intricate detail of her descriptions of every aspect of the story, the way she stimulates every sense of the reader throughout and fully transports you to this wondrous place that can’t possibly exist, but she makes you feel like it does, and the sheer audacity of her imagination, the way she has let it run completely and unashamedly wild in creating the circus and everything in it.

This book is rich and opulent and amazing, in the truest sense of the word. Since I started writing myself, my latest reading of the book in preparation for drafting this post had me stepping back slightly and admiring the breadth of Erin’s imagination in conjuring this magical circus, and also the complex tale of competition she has woven around it. The character development, the way she suggests, rather than overtly explains, many of the plot devices, allowing the reader scope to stretch their own imagination, all of these are writerly skills that I covet greatly and can appreciate the ease with which she wields them, whilst marvelling at the sheer amount of work that must have gone in to creating such a detailed and intricate novel. At the same time, this book makes it impossible for me to remain dispassionate, it pulls me in every time and transports me fully into the illusion she has created, losing myself completely in the Labyrinth of her creation.

I defy anyone to read this book and not wish with their whole heart that the circus were real and you could visit it. Taste the cinnamon pastry twists, watch the Twins and their performing kittens, jump through the Cloud Maze, ride the Stargazer and breathe in the stories in the tent of boxes and bottles (have I dropped enough tantalising hints to make you want to pick up this book yet?) If the Night Circus were real, I would be a reveur for sure.

This book is the closest thing to magic I have come across as an adult, the book that has taken me nearest to recapturing that magic you feel as a child losing yourself in a fairytale. The only other experience I have had that has given me similar tingles, is visiting Disney World. This is childhood magic captured and distilled to perfect in a very grownup story and I absolutely adore it.

If you would like to get your own copy of The Night Circus, you can buy it here.

About the Author

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ERIN MORGENSTERN is the author of The Night Circus, a number-one national best seller that has been sold around the world and translated into thirty-seven languages. She has a degree in theater from Smith College and lives in Massachusetts.

Website: https://erinmorgenstern.com

Facebook: Erin Morgenstern Books

Twitter: @erinmorgenstern

Instagram: @erinmorgenstern

Tempted By…Traveling Sisters Book Reviews: Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith

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The small town of Red Bluff, Mississippi, has seen better days, but now seems stuck in a black-and-white photograph from days gone by. Unknowing, the town and its people are about to come alive again, awakening to nightmares, as ghostly whispers have begun to fill the night from the kudzu-covered valley that sits on the edge of town.

When a vagabond family appears on the outskirts, when twin boys and a woman go missing, disappearing beneath the vines, a man with his own twisted past struggles to untangle the secrets in the midst of the town trauma.

This is a landscape of fear and ghosts, of regret and violence. It is a landscape transformed by the kudzu vines that have enveloped the hills around it, swallowing homes, cars, rivers, and hiding terrible secrets deeper still. Blackwood is the evil in the woods, the wickedness that lurks in all of us.

Today’s Tempted By… is for a book that I bought following this review by Brenda of the Traveling Sisters Book Reviews blog, run by a trio of Canadian sisters. I often find that, being on a different continent, they review books that I might not come across on many UK book blogs, so their recommendations are a good way to inject some variety in to my reading. This book had already been raved about by the author, Sarah Knight, so once Brenda confirmed that she loved it too, I knew I simply had to get it. Plus, I just LOVE that cover.

The book I am talking about is Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith.

It is very hard to tell from the review, and from reading the book’s blurb, what genre of book this is. Is it a horror story? Supernatural? Romance? Crime? Thriller? A combination of all of them? This uncertainty is one of the things that drew me in, I have to say. I love the idea of going in to a book without really knowing what I am going to get.  And that mixture of emotions that Brenda describes – “a quiet feeling of bleakness, darkness and hope” – I am intrigued to know how this combination manifests itself in the story. It is a great skill to write a review that is so tempting without giving anything at all away!

You may have visited the Traveling Sisters Book Reviews blog without realising it, when it was known as Two Sisters Lost in a Coulee. If not, and you do take a look, you will find a friendly blog with a great mix of reviews in lots of different genres, author interviews and Q&AS, and plenty of other bookish stuff designed to keep bibliophiles delighted. You can find the blog here.

And, if you find yourself intrigued by the book after reading Brenda’s mysterious but glowing review, you can buy Blackwood in all formats, here.

Blog Tour: Spirited by Julie Cohen #BookReview

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Three women carry unspeakable truths in their heart. At what cost will they find their freedom?

In Victorian England, Viola is an amateur photographer struggling with the grief of her father’s death and the sterile atmosphere of her marriage to her childhood friend, Jonah. When she discovers a talent for capturing ghostly images on camera, Viola comes to the attention of a spirit medium, and a powerful attraction between the two women is sparked…

As each woman puts herself at risk, secrets are brought to light that will change their lives forever.

I am so thrilled to be closing the blog tour today for Spirited by Julie Cohen. My thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in the tour and to the publisher for my copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

This is one of those book reviews that you dread starting to write, because I just know I am not going to be able to do this wonderful book justice, or truly convey its magic and just why I loved it so much.

A really ambitious book, the story tackles so many different issues that my head is still reeling from trying to sort through all the ideas and feelings and images with which the novel has peppered my mind. In addition, the book is rich with period detail, visually evocative, and explores fascinating subjects including Victorian photography techniques, life below stairs in a grand house, Spiritualism and British Rule in India, so huge amounts to absorb and enjoy. I know this is one of those books I will return to again and again and still find new details to appreciate.

The story revolves around Viola, who has recently lost her father, the mainstay of her life, and she is floating, lost and disoriented. The only thing anchoring her is her childhood friend and recent husband, Jonah, and she clings to him like a lifebelt. But Jonah is recently returned from India, where he has experienced something which has fundamentally changed him, and he and Viola have lost their connection, their marriage getting off to a rocky start. They move to the Dorset coast, where they meet spirit medium, Henriette Blackthorne, who touches both their lives profoundly in different ways. But she may not be all she seems.

This is a story about loss and grief and faith and love, and the different ways they can manifest themselves, what happens when they are tested, and how they endure if they are true. It explores the way that women were limited and trapped in Victorian society, by limits on opportunity, lack of personal property and societal expectation. But equally how men can be trapped too, by similar expectation, by public standing and by honour and duty. It looks at what it costs people to break these bounds and be true to themselves, and where flying in the face of convention can lead.

This book is an impressive feat of writing. Whilst slow-burning, it aroused in me such fascination and passion for the topics the author is exploring that I simply could not put it down. I was completely immersed in this world she has built, and did not want to leave it and break the spell that the narrative wove around my mind and my heart. At the same time, the analytical and logical part of me took a step back and admired the sheer amount of work that it took to craft this book. The detail in the research that was needed to imbue the story with all the texture, colour and intricate imagery that it contains is just staggering. This book was clearly a labour of love, and that shows in every sentence. It would be a fairly hard-hearted soul that failed to be touched by the devotion that oozes from this novel.

This book is, at its heart, a very tender love story. Between the childhood friends who have to navigate their way to a new relationship once they realise their incompatibility as husband and wife. Between Viola and her father, her faith and what her relationship with Henriette brings out in her, partly against her will. Between Jonah and India and the things he discovers about himself there. Between the author and her characters. Between me and this novel. I just adored it.

What more can I say. Brava, Julie Cohen.

Spirited is out now in hardback, ebook and audio formats, and you can buy a copy here.

Do please check out the other blogs taking part in the tour:

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About the Author

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Julie Cohen grew up in the western mountains of Maine. Her house was just up the hill from the library and she spent many hours walking back and forth, her nose in a book. She studied English Literature at Brown University and Cambridge University and is a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing, including classes for the Guardian and Literature Wales.

Her books have been translated into fifteen languages and have sold over a million copies; DEAR THING and TOGETHER were Richard and Judy Book Club picks. Her most recent novel is the critically acclaimed LOUIS & LOUISE.

Julie lives in Berkshire with her husband, son and a terrier of dubious origin.

Connect with Julie:

Website: http://www.julie-cohen.com

Facebook: Julie Cohen Books

Twitter: @julie_cohen

Instagram: @juliecohenauthor

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Book Review: The Owl Service by Alan Garner #ThrowbackReview

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It all begins with the scratching in the ceiling. From the moment Alison discovers the dinner service in the attic, with its curious pattern of floral owls, a chain of events is set in progress that is to effect everybody’s lives.

Relentlessly, Alison, her step-brother Roger and Welsh boy Gwyn are drawn into the replay of a tragic Welsh legend – a modern drama played out against a background of ancient jealousies. As the tension mounts, it becomes apparent that only by accepting and facing the situation can it be resolved.

I read an article that a friend of mine had posted on Facebook recently about why people are turning to old, familiar, favourite books and TV series during lockdown, because they are comforting and known in a time of the new, strange and frightening. I, myself, have found this to be true, watching old episodes of Gilmore Girls and Midsomer Murders, and picking up copies of firm favourites from my bookshelf.

This may be initially why I was drawn to grab my copy of The Owl Service from my bookcase, but once I had read it again, I realised that this book no longer felt familiar to me at all and that coming back to this as an adult was a totally different reading experience, and not a comforting one at all. Somewhere between my last reading of this book, which must have been in my mid-teens, either I or the book had changed and become strangers who had to learn to relate to each other in a different way.

The book I remembered from my childhood was a slightly spooky story about a dinner service whose pattern came to life if you made the owls and odd things happened to the children who found it. When I read it now, I wondered why the book hadn’t terrified me as a child, and realised I had not really understood the story at all, because it is really about a trio of children being drawn against their will into an ancient magic that repeats itself by manifesting through a set of people down through the centuries.

This is marketed as a children’s book, but it isn’t really a book that can be properly understood by children. So much of what is going on in the story is inferred, rather than outwardly expressed, and would be much too complex and subtle for a child to understand. Alan Garner’s writing is very sparse, lacking description and embellishments, but this makes it all the more powerful in some ways, because there is so much room for the imagination to do its work, and we all know from childhood nightmares what our imaginations can conjure when given free rein. And, I think, that having lived and experienced so much, sometimes adult imaginations can produce some truly terrifying thoughts, especially in a time of heightened alarm such as we have at the moment.

This is a really powerful and evocative story, written in a bare writing style, which is a feat of magic in itself. But I don’t think I have had such a profoundly different reading experience from the one I expected as when I picked up this book after a gap of 34 years. Going back and rereading the same book does not always mean you get the same story.

The Owl Service is out now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Alan Garner was born in Congleton, Cheshire, in 1934. His began writing his first novel at the age of 22 and is renowned as one of Britain’s outstanding writers. He has won many prizes for his writing, and, in 2001 he was awarded the OBE for services to literature. He holds two honorary doctorates and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. In 2004 he co-founded The Blackden Trust http://www.theblackdentrust.org.uk

Blog Tour: Black Magic’s Prey by Kristin McTiernan #BookReview

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Hiding is no longer an option.

Tess has been stalker-free for fifteen years. She’s been living in trailer parks and preparing to run at any minute—all because in ninth grade she turned down the wrong Brujo. He comes from a long line of male witches and even back in high school, his powers were terrifying.

He used those powers to punish Tess. To make her do things. Awful things.

Now she has a new life. She’s got a good job, a decent Airstream trailer, and a best-friend-maybe-girlfriend. She’s careful not to reveal too much about her dark past.

But none of that matters. No matter where Tess goes, he will always find her. Unless she’s willing to trust a man who may be even more twisted than her stalker’s curse.

Today I am on the blog tour for Black Magic’s Prey by Kristin McTiernan. My thanks to Emma Welton at damp pebbles blog tours for inviting me to take part and to the author for my digital copy of the book, which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.

This is going to be a hard book to review because I’ve never read anything quite like it, and paranormal romance is not one of my go to genres, if that is even what you call this genre. Confused yet? Apologies. This is a a really unique book to me, but I’ll do my best to give you my impressions of it in a way that makes some kind of sense!

The story involves a young woman whose life has been blighted by being stalked by an individual from her childhood, whom she rejected, with the added complication that he is a powerful, male witch and can make her do horrible things from afar that blight her life. She thought she had escaped from him and was in hiding, but then she realises he has reappeared in her life, and she needs to take drastic action to rid herself of him once and for all, but her chosen path might make things worse.

It is a really interesting premise for a book and these ‘brujos’ are not a legend I have come across anywhere before, so I found that really fascinating. The plot was very pacy and entertaining, and the book is also quite short, so it was something I consumed in one two-hour sitting, and it held my attention throughout. I found the writing style convincing and easy to read, and I enjoyed the author’s voice very much, it was fresh and exciting to me.

I think there were things in the book that might prove off-putting to some people. If you are at all squeamish regarding violence or fairly graphic sex scenes, you won’t enjoy this. It is a book that doesn’t hold back from this and it is necessary to the plot. It also involves a couple of relationships that are somewhat violent, misogynistic and unequal and I think this may be triggering for people who have been on the wrong side of similar relationships in the past. I haven’t, but there were a couple of things that made me feel uncomfortable, although this is one of the driving plot points of the book, so I don’t think it was done gratuitously.

For anyone made of sterner stuff, who likes paranormal romance and is looking for something out of the mainstream, I would imagine even in this genre, this will tick all of your boxes. It certainly kept me reading from start to finish and was unlike anything I have come across before. A bold and unique read from a confident writer. I believe it is the beginning of a series, and there is definitely a part of me that wants to know what happens next!

Black Magic’s Prey is out now and you can buy a copy here.

Please do check out the rest of the tour for more reviews and content:

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About the Author

Kirstin McTiernan

After waffling between joining a convent and enlisting in the Marines, I settled on the latter at the age of seventeen. After finishing my enlistment, I studied English literature with the intent of becoming a teacher. But after realizing I loved words more than teaching others, I used my degree to become a professional writer and editor, first with the federal civil service and then with the private sector. A lover of all things spec-fic, I wrote about women in weird situations, whether it’s magic or time travel, and enjoy the journey I take my characters on.

Connect with Kristin:

Website: https://www.kristin-mctiernan.com

Facebook: Kristin McTiernan

Instagram: @kristinmagoo

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