Book Review: Strawberry Sky by Jan Ruth

Strawberry Sky

Grown-up, romance-plus, contemporary fiction.

I was looking forward to this – the third book in the Midnight Sky series having read and enjoyed the two earlier ones.

I wasn’t disappointed. The main characters, Laura and James, had been through a lot in the first two novels, but the start of Strawberry Sky sees them married and ready to get on with their lives.

But now there is a set of new challenges for them to overcome. James is still recovering from the serious injuries he received in the second book and Callum Armstrong, the man believed to be responsible for those injuries, is still around and making his presence felt. James and Laura are also trying to establish a new business at their riding stables and then there’s the matter of Laura, desperate to have a baby but failing to conceive.

As in the earlier books, Laura’s sister Maggie and her family also play a major part in the story as their problems continue to impact on both Laura and James.

The supporting cast, including Rob the vet, and Laura’s assertive friend Carla, as well as the employees at the stable continue to feature strongly. And there’s a brilliant new addition of a young woman who comes to work at the stables and who has quite an effect on Laura.

So there’s plenty to keep the reader turning the pages. As always Jan Ruth’s characters are credible, three-dimensional and fascinating, and the setting of the Welsh mountains and countryside is beautifully drawn. As in the earlier books the healing power of being with horses features strongly too.

Yes all the features of a Jan Ruth novel are here – main characters who’ve lived long enough to have significant back-stories, stunning settings, and a satisfying and well-handled plot.

All in all a first –class read.

Incidentally you don’t have to have read Midnight Sky and Palomino Sky first in order to enjoy Strawberry Sky, but I recommend you do – just for the sheer enjoyment.

Back Cover Blurb: Maggie is devastated by her daughter’s plans, but Jess is determined to remove the past from her life no matter the upset it will cause. James is no longer running from his past, but a multitude of unresolved issues are set to catch up with Laura. As an orphaned foal and a motherless teenage girl slip seamlessly into her life, are they key to a positive change or an omen for impending danger? Armstrong is a troubled young man and a trail of minor events ends in a catastrophe no one could have predicted. Can the family ever recover, or should they simply trust in destiny?

Strawberry Sky is published by Celtic Connections and is available in paperback and as an e-book.

Book Review: Everything Love Is by Claire King

A poignant, mysterious and unforgettable story of love.

Everything Love Is

Everything Love Is lives up to its strap line. It is indeed a poignant, mysterious and unforgettable story of love. It’s a work of contemporary literary fiction and includes themes of love and loss, whilst also engaging in an original way with exploring the role of memory in how we make sense of the world. For readers who enjoy beautiful writing, clever storytelling and a bit of mystery Claire King delivers.

The author uses her beguiling and complex characters to pull the reader in and then only gradually reveals exactly what’s going on.

Baptiste Molino is a therapist and counsellor and is dedicated to helping his clients. He lives and works on a houseboat moored on a canal in Toulouse. He likes living alone and keeping his personal life simple, although he is keen to find out more about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his birth.

Amandine Rousseau is a doctor who is searching for, in her own words, something that makes me feel alive. Joy, passion and despair, something to remember, something to regret. I want to have my breath taken away.

Baptiste and Amandine meet at the start of the book and as the relationship between the two develops, Baptiste’s determination to keep to himself wavers. But just as it seems they may be prepared to make a commitment to each other, the past catches up with Baptiste and he has to make a difficult choice between his own happiness and that of Amandine.

The plot is intriguing and the intrigue is supported by the author’s use of both Baptiste and Amandine as narrators and the characters’ interpretation of events don’t always match. There are past mysteries, but also present ones too. For example there is Sophie the waitress at Baptiste’s local restaurant. What exactly is her relationship to Baptiste and how does she fit into the plot?

The setting also works well in supporting the story. Toulouse’s waterways, and its bars and restaurants, provide small and effective details that bring the story to life. And the upheavals and uncertainties in Baptiste’s life are perfectly reflected in the turmoil on the city’s streets as protestors demonstrate against government reforms.

This book is extraordinary. It is full of originality, poignancy and wonder. The ending is impossible to predict but it will indeed leave you reflecting on everything love is.

Everything Love Is  is published by Bloomsbury and is available in hardback and paperback as well as in eBook and audio formats.

Book Review: Blast Radius by R. L. McKinney

blast-radius

Superb storytelling in a tale of tenacity, hope and faith in tomorrow

Genre: Contemporary fiction

Blast Radius is a story about grief, guilt and recovery. It’s also a story of love and tenacity and of hope and faith in the future. This is a five star read.

The novel’s main character and its narrator is Sean McNicol. He has recently been invalided out of the Royal Marines after being injured while on active service in Afghanistan. The bomb explosion which killed his friend and comrade, Mitch has left Sean with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and deafness in one ear. He has returned to the small Scottish town where he grew up to try and rebuild his life.

The narrative is at times brutal, at times poignant and moving. It is always vivid. Sean’s rehabilitation involves the facing of demons, the effort to reconnect with friends and family, the struggle to make new connections and a new life. And through it all, Sean’s buddy, Mitch, is although dead, ever-present.

The other characters are all well written and realised. Amongst the main ones, there’s Sean’s stoical and hard-working sister Janet, who has been more like a mother to him and who continues to love and support him. There’s Molly and also Paula, both of whom he went to school with, both of whom are moving on in their own lives, and both of whom have an impact on his recovery. And then there’s his wonderful, big-hearted employer, Harry.

The setting of a small, rundown Scottish town is also well drawn. It provides an appropriate backdrop to lives blighted by poverty, alcohol and hopelessness, but the story moves beyond these confines. Sean ventures into the surrounding countryside when he’s out running and there he’s inspired by the beautiful landscape of the hills and moors of south central Scotland. His horizons are further broadened when he goes hiking in the rugged surroundings of the north of Scotland.

The broader themes of war and politics are also touched on, but it’s a light, non-preachy touch and all the more effective for that. Similarly the use of colloquial Scots dialect is effective but not overdone.

Type of read: Blast Radius is a stay-up-reading-far-too-late book. It has you at the first page and although you want to find out how it all it plays out, you don’t want it to end. Great stuff.

Blast Radius is published by Sandstone Press and is available as a paperback and as an ebook.

Book Review: Who’d Have Thought It? By Christine Webber

whod-have-thought-it

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

This book is packed with interesting characters. There are friends, lovers, and families and lots of entangled relationships between the individuals. The characters are so well drawn, it’s easy to imagine the book as a TV serial drama.

The story centres around GP Annie Templeton who finds herself single in her fifties when her long marriage comes to an end. Having to cope with an elderly parent who has dementia, a demanding job, grown-up but still needy children, and friends who need her support through their own life challenges take up a lot of her time and energy.

But in amongst it all she does long for a new partner to share her life with. However, it’s not easy and her quest has false starts, dead ends and surprises along the way.

Who’d Have Thought It? is bursting with warmth, humour and poignancy. It’s a story of mid-life in all its vibrancy, frustration, messiness and joy.

Type of Read: One to two sittings, snuggled up with wine and chocolate. Grown-up fiction for mature women for whom life is still full of love and surprises.

Back Cover Blurb: A year after discovering that her husband no longer loves her, Dr Annie Templeton wakes up with a sudden relish for singledom. However, she soon realises that being single in your fifties is very different from being single in your twenties. How, she wonders, do people of my age – with careers, adult children doing unwise things with unwise people, parents going gaga, and friends falling ill, or in or out of love – ever have the time and energy to find a new partner? Who’d Have Thought It? is a romantic comedy, which will make you laugh and cry – often at the same time.

Who’d Have Thought It? is published by On Call and is available in paperback and as an e-book.

Book Review: Buy Buy Baby by Helen Mackinven

Buy Buy Baby

Genre: Contemporary fiction

Having read and enjoyed Helen Mackinven’s first book Talk of the Toun, reviewed here, I had positive expectations for this one. I wasn’t disappointed.

The plot is essentially a quest. It is narrated in alternate chapters by two women Carol and Julia. They are both on the same mission. They want to have a baby. But both of them are single and have given up on finding a long term partner with whom to have a family. Then a very practical solution presents itself but it comes at a cost.

Although set in a (fictional) suburb of Glasgow, with characters who speak in the local Scots dialect, this novel has widespread appeal. The characters are recognisable. Some are likeable, others not. All of them are realistically flawed.

The book could have been a very bleak read but the author uses a light touch and just enough humour, albeit some of it black, to ensure the mood and message are hopeful. Yes the loss of a child, loneliness, marital infidelity, and an unflinching portrayal of domestic violence are in there, but the main characters are most definitely not hopeless victims. They are feisty, warm and determined to help themselves. They also come across as authentic.

The other characters, too, are very well drawn as are the relationships between them. There are the ups and downs of best friendships, the rubbing along of sisters, the bond of aunt and niece. There’s the annoying, snobby neighbour and even a long-suffering dog. Carol’s boss, Isobel comes across as an absolute gem and ‘Paedo’ Pete makes quite an impression too.

I particularly liked the mothers of Carol and Julia both still very much involved in their grown-up daughters lives and both demonstrating that the love and support you offer your children is lifelong and doesn’t end when they become adults.

Yes, this is a book with motherhood in all its forms very much to the fore. And it’s a story of hope and resilience in the bleakest of situations. A most satisfying read.

Type of Read: Afternoon on the sofa, bedtime, on the commute, on holiday – this one ticks lots of suitability boxes.

 

Back Cover Blurb:

What price tag would you put on a baby?

Set in and around Glasgow, Buy Buy Baby is a moving and funny story of life, loss and longing. Packed full of bitchy banter, it follows the bittersweet quest of two very different women united by the same desire – they desperately want a baby.

Carol talks to her dog, has an expensive eBay habit and relies on wine to forget she’s no longer a mum following the death of her young son. Cheeky besom Julia is career-driven and appears to have it all. But after disastrous attempts at internet dating, she feels there is a baby-shaped hole in her life. In steps Dan, a total charmer with a solution to their problems.

But only if they are willing to pay the price, on every level…

 

Buy Buy Baby is published by Cranachan Publishing and is available in paperback and as an e-book.

Book Review: Silent Water by Jan Ruth

Silent Water

Genre: Contemporary romantic fiction

I do like contemporary novels with romantic relationships at their heart, but I also like the characters, especially the women, to be twenty-first century in their aspirations, their experience and their way of life, and now I’m officially an old bat, I especially like them to be at least over forty.

Jan Ruth does not write soppy, unrealistically romantic, relationship tales, and that’s why I like her books. They tick all my contemporary romance criteria.

And Silent Water is no exception. It’s the third in the Wild Water series and I did enjoy being back with Jack and Anna once more. If you haven’t read the first two, I recommend you do so. You could do a box-set binge 🙂

Here are characters with full and messy lives. These are 3D people with flaws and baggage. They are credible, mixed-up and real. Even the children are complex and real. Eleven-year-old Lottie is a particularly vivid character.

Once again, the Welsh landscape is a bit of a character in its own right. There’s the brooding lake of the title and, the wilds of the mountain tracks, but there’s also the market town of Conwy and the seaside resort of Colwyn Bay. And, always, there’s the weather doing its bit to add to the atmosphere.

The plot is a tangle of various strands, the stakes are high and the emotion full on, but the author handles it all beautifully. Love in its many forms including marital, family and sexual runs through the whole story and it sets up plenty of conflict and a fair amount of jeopardy too.

There are moving moments of realisation and new self-knowledge for the main characters, as well as old patterns of behaviour which prove hard to escape from.

There are also twists and a level of suspense which made the final chapters especially hard to put down.

This is realistic, grown-up romance, peppered with grit and a fair bit of intrigue, and it all adds up to a highly satisfying read.

Type of Read: Feet up, comfy sofa, no distractions apart from very dark chocolate and a full-bodied red.

Back Cover Blurb: The tragedy and comedy that is Jack’s life; a dangerous web of lies concludes a bitter-sweet end. Jack Redman, estate agent to the Cheshire set and someone who’s broken all the rules. An unlikely hero or a misguided fool? In this sequel to Dark Water, Jack and Anna must face the consequences of their actions. As the police close in and Patsy’s manipulative ways hamper the investigations, will Jack escape unscathed? With her career in tatters and an uncertain future, Anna has serious decisions to make. Her silence could mean freedom for Jack, but an emotional prison for herself. Is remaining silent the ultimate test of faith, or is it end of the line for Jack and Anna?

Silent Water is published by Celtic Connections and is available as an e-book and as a paperback. The other two books in the series are Wild Water and Dark Water

Book Review: An Unknown Woman by Jane Davis

An Unknown Woman

Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction

We like to think we’re more than the material stuff we own. But, honestly, if we lost all our belongings, from the contents of that odds-and-ends drawer in the kitchen, to our most precious heirlooms in a house fire, along with the loss of our home, wouldn’t that be up there as one of the most awful experiences we could suffer? And wouldn’t it affect more than just our material world?

And it’s this theme of loss that Jane Davis explores in this novel.

Her starting point is a devastating house fire in which her characters, Anita and Ed, lose everything they own.

They’re a married couple in their forties, living in Surrey and commuting to their respective jobs in London. Childless by choice, they seem, on the face of it, to have a good life. But when their house burns down it’s not just their possessions they’re stripped of. All aspects of their life are laid bare.

The narrative sees Anita and Ed question everything about their lives and to realise that they may not want the same things after all.

The story is told mainly from Anita’s point of view but significant parts of it are also related through the eyes of Anita’s parents, Ron and Patti, who’re dealing with identity issues of their own. And Ed’s voice comes through too.

The story builds slowly, and along with the exploration of identity, the issues of maternal instinct, post-natal depression, family bonds and marital fidelity are also in the mix. And through it all there’s the question of how we see ourselves and how others see us, and of what it is that makes us who we are.

And the literary element of the story is beautifully overlaid with the warmth and vibrancy that comes from well-fleshed out and sympathetic characters. As a reader you care about the characters. There’s a credibility and authenticity to their story, to their hopes and fears.

Davis has a light touch. She writes with subtlety and nuance. And she does that most important of things, something many writers of literary fiction fail to do, she tells a good story.

Type of Read: Good one for holiday reading, when you can really indulge yourself with great writing, a glass of red and some dark chocolate.

An Unknown Woman is published by Rossdale Print Productions and is available as a paperback and as an e-book.

 

Back Cover Blurb:

If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?

Look in the mirror and ask yourself a question. Who are you? Do you know the answer?

At the age of forty-six, Anita Hall knows exactly who she is. She has lived with partner Ed for fifteen years and is proud of the life they’ve built. They go out into the world separately: Ed with one eye on the future in the world of finance; Anita with one foot in the past, a curator at Hampton Court Palace. This is the life she has chosen – choices unavailable to her mother’s generation – her dream job, equal partnership, free of children, living in a quirky old house she adores. She is happy. Their foundations are solid and their future seems secure.

That was before the fire.

Anita stands in the middle of the road watching her home and everything inside it burn to the ground. She and Ed have nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Fifteen years of memories gone up in smoke.

Before she can come to terms with the magnitude of her loss, hairline cracks begin to appear in her perfect relationship.

And returning to her childhood home in search of comfort, she stumbles upon the secret her mother has kept hidden, a taboo so unspeakable it can only be written down.

The reflection in the mirror may look the same. But everything has changed. She thought she knew who she was. But not any more.

Authentic and heartbreaking, this intoxicating new novel by award-winner Jane Davis is an exploration of identity, not as a fixed point, but as something fragile, shape-shifting and transient.

The reflection in the mirror may look the same. But everything has changed.

Book Review: Talk of the Toun by Helen Mackinven

Talk of the Toun 2Genre: Contemporary Fiction

It’s 1985 in central Scotland in this pre-coming of age story by debut novelist, Helen Mackinven. And it’s an impressive debut.

A natural storyteller, Mackinven presents an, at times, claustrophobic (in a good way), sharply observed story of growing-up, of the early teenage years of Angela and Lorraine, of the ups and downs of their intense friendship, of moodiness, menstruation and the mysteries of boys. All the 1980s stuff is there, ra-ra skirts, Frankie goes to Hollywood and Cagney and Lacey on the telly.

There’s a lot that’s colloquial and local in this tale, but the themes are universal in terms of both place and era. The characters at times aren’t particularly likeable, but that’s because they’re human failings are very much on show. And the author skilfully uses their flawed humanity to make them interesting and real. It’s to the author’s credit that the reader comes to care very much about Angela and Lorraine. Read More »

Book Review: The Girl on the Ferryboat by Angus Peter Campbell

Girl on the Ferryboat

Genre: Contemporary fiction

I had already read a previous book by Angus Peter Campbell, Archie and the North Wind,  I reviewed it here. So I came to read this one expecting great things. I wasn’t disappointed.

The writing is lyrical. Yes, there are smatterings of Gaelic, but this in no way interferes with the reading of the book in English, on the contrary it adds another layer of texture to an already beautiful work of prose.

There’s a sort of magical realism quality to the telling of the tale. It’s a story of love––of love and its possibilities––of lifelong love, of love lost, love unrequited and love found. And intertwined with the lives and loves of the characters there are the opposing forces of chance and fate.

The main character, Alasdair is prompted to look back over his life after a chance re-encounter with Helen whilst travelling on a Hebridean ferry. The two had first met on a similar ferry crossing about forty years before. That meeting had been brief as they passed each other and exchanged a few words on the staircase between decks on board. But it had made an impression on them both. Alasdair reflects on what might have been and what has been. He recalls the time in his youth when, on leaving university he returned home from Oxford to the island of Lewis and worked with a local boat builder to build a boat for a couple of elderly neighbours. These elderly neighbours had experienced a long and happy life together and still had hopes, plans and dreams. He then recalls his own experiences of love––of his first love and then his own long-lasting and happy marriage which ended with his wife’s death. Helen’s story is also told. Indeed there’s a lot of head and time hopping but the whole remains coherent.

The Scottish Hebrides, especially the island of Mull, are beautifully represented as are the ways of island life. But this is no parochial tale. On the contrary the characters are well travelled and worldly wise. Yes, it’s an introspective story, but it’s also outward looking and universal at times.

And although there’s a wonderful magical wistful a quality to the story, the nostalgia is never hopeless. On the contrary the mood is one of acceptance and of hope. Alasdair acknowledges that misunderstandings can have long term, sometimes negative, implications on a person’s fate. But he also recognises that active decision making can lead to positive effects.

This book is a short, poignant, sweet but not sickly, journey through the lives of its characters. in places it reads like a memoir.

Campbell has crafted a tapestry––a tapestry where some of the panels are rather abstract yes, but the whole is well stitched together. It could have got horribly messy but it doesn’t. And, ultimately as with any art,  it’s down to the reader to interpret the meaning.

Type of read: Evening, in a quiet room – just the sounds of a ticking clock and a crackling fire, curtains drawn and with a whisky to hand.

The Girl on the Ferryboat is published by Luath and is available in hardback, paperback and e-book formats.

Displacement: The Novel’s Emotional Turmoil

From the upheaval of loss to insight, acceptance and love

Displacement Cover MEDIUM WEB - Copy

This is the second of two posts where I share a bit about why I chose the theme of displacement for my novel of the same name. In the first post I talked about physical displacement – displacement from home and country. In this post I’m going to look at the emotional aspects explored in the novel.

Rachel, one of the two main characters, is a fifty-something woman. She lives alone on the Isle of Skye, one of the Hebridean islands off Scotland’s west coast. Her home is on a small farm, or croft as it’s called in the Scottish highlands. And as well as looking after her sheep, she also works as a children’s book illustrator and writer. Rachel has been through a lot of upheaval in her life––divorce, grief after the loss of her soldier son, killed in Afghanistan, and then as the story begins, the loss of her mother who she’s been living with and caring for.

And the other main character, is newly retired Edinburgh police detective, Jack. He’s coming to terms with his retirement, has just had heart surgery, and is feeling stuck in a relationship that has run its course. Like Rachel he is divorced. At the start of the novel he has just bought a rundown cottage in the (fictional) Skye village of Halladale. He plans to do it up and to use it as a holiday home.

Both Rachel and Jack have lost their way emotionally. Both of them need to come to terms with the changes in their lives and to find a new way of living. During the course of the novel both of them explore new ways of life.

Rachel goes to Israel-Palestine, where her brother lives. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage and to see if she too can settle and make a new life in the Middle East. And the people she meets there certainly open her mind to new ways of living and new possibilities. There’s Hana, a Palestinian woman who owns a guest house on the West Bank where Rachel spends a few days. The conversations Rachel has with Hana are life-changing. And then there’s Eitan, an artist, and best friend of Rachel’s brother. Eitan reawakens in Rachel what it is to be a woman and a person in her own right––not just a mother, daughter or ex-wife.

Jack meanwhile finds working on his cottage to be therapeutic. He also finds walking in and photographing the stunning Skye landscape provides him with time and space to decide what’s next now he’s retired.

And then there’s the relationship between Rachel and Jack. They establish a strong friendship before Rachel leaves for Israel and it’s a friendship that benefits both of them emotionally. But there’s also a complication––an undercurrent that both of them sense but neither acknowledge––they are strongly attracted to each other. Beginning a new relationship isn’t something either of them wants and it’s this emotional complication that drives the narrative of Displacement forward.

At its heart Displacement has the question of whether Jack and Rachel can become new anchoring points in each other’s previously turbulent lives.