The Dry

Set against the drought-ravaged backdrop of the town of Kiewarra, The Dry (Little Brown, released January 12th) is an involving and undulating crime novel, full of hard-to-fathom characters, plot twists, and unexpected revelations. The chorus of praise for Jane Harper's debut novel has been close to deafening, and I too have some plaudits to add to the pile; this is a clever, interesting book which had me gripped throughout.

Initially the plot is very much detective novel 101, with detective Aaron Falk, the prodigal son of the town, returning from banishment to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler. In a town full of secrets and discord, Luke's suicide and the deaths of his wife and son have shattered the community, and the tensions already present in Kiewarra as the whole town struggles in the bitter heat of the drought bubble up to boiling point as the murder and the investigation uncovers intrigues, secrets, and lies. Aaron Falk finds himself drawn to the investigation, and in trying to uncover what happened to his friend and his family, Falk discovers some secrets which mean Kiewarra, and he, will never be the same again.

This is a book about small towns and the secrets which bind them, the ways that people try to control those around them, and the thousand of tiny cruelties that unfold as the years roll by in a small town where rumours can make or break you. Falk returns after two decades to the town that cast him out, and as the story unfolds we learn both what happened to the Hadler family, and what happened in Aaron's past, too. The pacing of the story is exquisite and so assured - the story is relentless, but also evocative. Harper's painting of the town and its surroundings, arid and full of horrors, both seen and yet-to-be-revealed, is breathtaking.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dry and feel relieved that the hype was entirely justified - this is a fantastic, beautifully written and plotted cry novel.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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Hold Back The Stars

I first heard about Katie Khan's Hold Back The Stars (Doubleday, releases January 26th) in autumn of last year. I spotted the beautiful cover on twitter (it's so pretty and I am constantly a sucker for a blue-and-yellow combination). I tweeted to the publisher and was lucky enough to receive a copy to review, and it wound up being my final read of 2016.

And man, what a way to finish.

Part sci-fi, part YA, part romance, this is beautiful, well-crafted fiction at its very best, and despite sneaking in at the very close of the year, it's firmly one of my favourite reads of 2016, and I think it's going to be an absolute smash in 2017.

Max and Carys are floating far above the earth too far away from their spacecraft to reach it safely. With just 90 minutes of air left, you are immediately drawn into their predicament, and left wondering whether they will make it back to their ship, and home to Earth. My heart was with them as they attempted to make it back.

An Earth, by the way, which looks little like the planet we now inhabit. After a series of disasters and conflicts, this near-future Earth is a planet scarred by its past, and a new kind of civilisation has sprung up - elements of which fell familiar and others which felt new and alien. The construction of this new way of life read a little like the scene setting of the Hunger Games for me - Khan skillfully weaves a new way of life which still feels like it relates to our current one. The tidbits of information we read about different locations really helped to conjure up where the new places had once been on our map. 

Max and Carys are both well-drawn, interesting, flawed and multi-dimensional characters. Neither is pure hero or pure antihero, and their relationship, told in flashbacks which alternate with the present action as they float in the darkness of space reads as a real relationship, full of love, hope, worry and potential. You can see why they've got to this place. I also loved that Carys was the science whizz!

I enjoyed the whole book, but must give particular praise to the barnstorming final third, which made me cry, left me guessing, and took me to places I wasn't expecting. I tore through the final section and parts of it are flashing up in my memory often since I finished this book. Over on goodreads I gave Hold Back The Stars 5 out of 5 stars - this is charming, moving, entertaining fiction. 

It's also much beloved by tiny tortoiseshell cats....

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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The Watcher

The dark days at the end of the year and the cold days of January are always ripe with thrillers, horrors and chillers. There's something almost comforting about curling up under a cosy blanket with some excellent post-Christmas snacks and a big old cup of tea and reading something dark and twisty. I always seem to read lots of these genres when the weather is cold, misty and dreich - nothing like a bit of suspense in the winter's chill.

The Watcher by Ross Armstrong (HQ, releases today) is the latest thriller I've read in this season, and it's a great, taut little psychological thriller. The story begins with a familiar set up - the nosey neighbour! From the publisher: Lily Gullick lives with her husband Aiden in a new-build flat opposite an estate which has been marked for demolition. A keen birdwatcher, she can’t help spying on her neighbours. One day Lily sees something suspicious through her binoculars and soon her neighbour Jean is found dead. Lily, intrigued by the social divide in her local area as it becomes increasingly gentrified, knows that she has to act. But her interference is not going unnoticed, and as she starts to get close to the truth, her own life comes under threat.

I enjoyed this book and truly didn't see a few of the twists and turns in the narrative. The first-person style of the writing added an immediacy to proceedings and meant you were always left wondering how reliable our narrator might be. This device lent the novel a sense of unease and claustrophobia, ideal for this Rear Window-esque story. The writing of London also chimed well with me - I used to live in an area much like the one where Lily lives, where different lifestyles, housing set-ups and tax bands live next door to one another, and the overlap and the tension this can create at times is written in an involving and observant way.

Inasmuch as I enjoyed this read, there are elements in the later chapters that I feel may divide readers - but surely that's half the delight of a good mystery? I found the denouement really satisfying, and this was a fantastic pageturner. This was a great little winter thriller to read and I think there's lots within the book to tempt readers of the genre - I'll certainly be passing my copy on to my mother next (the woman adores the darker tomes) and I'm excited to hear her take on it too.

Ross writes with confidence and poise - I didn't realise this was a debut until after the fact! Having enjoyed this book, I'll be looking out for his sophomore effort.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.

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Rules for Modern Life

I love a good etiquette guide. Having spent much of my childhood reading and rereading our family copy of Debrett's (a wedding gift to my parents, which as a present was either thoughtful or incredibly shade-filled now I think of it) and thoroughly enjoying modern tomes such as The Fabulous Girl's Guide To Decorum, I have a soft spot for books filled with hints, tips, and ways to navigate the social minefields we encounter every day.

I was delighted, then, to receive a copy of Rules for Modern Life (Portfolio, £9.09) written by the icon that is Sir David Tang. I always look forward to his agony uncle writings when we take the Financial Times, and this book is a witty, funny compendium of Sir David's tips for ensuring smooth passage through the social waters (avoiding the many icebergs which await us all). This is an etiquette guide written with flair and wit, with its tongue firmly in its cheek. Sir David is charm itself and the book is filled with great ideas and helpful hints, but it never takes itself too seriously. I was very pleased with how quick and enjoyable this was to read.

I was also pleased by how many of the pieces of advice were inclusive and warm and (much like my own idea of manners), grounded in common sense and consideration for others. Some etiquette guides get very hung up on which fork to use or how to address an earl - here Sir David focuses on manners that will help you and make life more pleasant for those around you. As the author himself says, "as far as etiquette is concerned, I am always in favour of common sense, rather than pointless conventions."

This is a fun, witty, charming book, and would make an excellent gift. I know I'll be referring back to it in the new year - particularly the hugely helpful chapter on Technology.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.
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In these dark wintry days, sleep is never far from my thoughts. Much like a bear or a badger, I'm all about those deep winter sleeps, and as a self-proclaimed sleep evangelist I am passionate about getting good quality sleep and the impact that can have on your health and wellbeing. When I'm well-rested and replenished I bring more to the table at work, in relationships, in my writing - you name it, if I'm getting my rest I'll be better at it!

Imagine my joy, then, when the gorgeous Julia from Penguin Life sent me a copy of Sleep by Nick Littlehales to read and review. Nick has worked for years with elite athletes at the very top of their fields, and in Sleep he distills his findings from these years of works into easily digested chapters for mere mortals to apply to their own lives. This was a quick, enjoyable read, and I enjoyed Nick's lightness of touch - he's not afraid to get scientific, but doesn't meander off into vast swathes of dense jargon. This is a practical, useful book.

I enjoyed the tips and the methods for creating good sleep habits, and I rarely need convincing on the matter of naps. This book handles the whole topic with skill in a really accessible way. If increasing your sleep health is a priority for 2017, I'd heartily recommend this book. Happy reading - and sweet dreams!

Our whole household takes sleep seriously!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.

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Currently Reading

I love getting books to read for review, and thought I'd start doing a quick post every couple of weeks to update on what books are rocking my TBR (To Be Read) pile! All of the below are copies or proofs from publishers, but I know I'll receive a few books as gifts at Christmas too - bring on the reading!

 I've just finished Sleep by Nick Littlehales (Penguin Life) and I really enjoyed it. I'm passionate about the impact that good sleep habits can have on wellbeing, so am excited to review this soon here on the blog.

 Sir David Tang's Rules for Modern Life (Portfolio) is bringing me such joy. As a child reading Debrett's was my idea of a good time (I never claimed to be the most normal child) so this witty, clever book is proving a most enjoyable read as a grown up.

 I found Hold Back The Stars by Katie Khan (Doubleday, release date 26th January) utterly gripping - charming, vivid and unusual (and as the photo above shows, Leela approved).

 How To Be A Grown Up by Daisy Buchanan (Headline, release date 6th April) is a book I've just started and have fallen for, hard. Like a conversation with trusted friends over a few glasses of wine, this is stirring, inspirational stuff, full of advice, asides, and humour. Loving it so far.

 I've only read three chapters of The One by John Marrs (Ebury, release date 26th January for ebook, 4th May for paperback) so far and I'm already freaked out. Excellent stuff.

What are you reading?

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My Sister's Bones

There's something about the dark days of winter that makes a good, twisty, dark thriller seem so inviting. As the world darkens and the mercury drops, there's something so satisfying about curling up with a book that keeps you guessing.

And My Sister's Bones certainly does that. The debut novel from author Nuala Ellwood, released already as an ebook, with the hardcover debuting on February 9th, is a masterpiece of taut, creepy fiction, full of horror, humanity and more twists than you'd believe.

The story of the Rafter sisters, Kate and Sally, and the journeys they both take after a childhood scarred with horrora is full of special moments and intriguing characters. They both react to what they've been through in very different ways, with Kate becoming a successful war correspondent, launching headlong into the chaos and confusion of conflict and Sally trapped in a cycle of self-hatred and drinking. Kate is the sister who has managed to escape their upbringing, but that all changes when their mother dies, forcing Kate to return to the family home. There Kate tries to make sense of some unusual occurences and to reveal the truth before something very, very bad happens...

The book builds the suspense of the situation beautifully and Ellwood is astute in showing new information and fresh twists slowly and in a staggered manner - some of the changes in the narrative I really didn't see coming.

When the true villian of the piece emerges, they (haha, I'm not giving you a pronoun clue!) are truly hideous and the final third of the book is a huge crescendo - having set up the characters and the scenario so well here Ellwood has free rein to end proceedings with a bang.  Or several bangs, to be more precise.

My Sister's Bones is a story of family, a story of forgiveness, and a story which manages to end on a note that is tinged with hope as well as sadness. If you're looking for a real page-turner, I'd strongly recommend this book. I am so excited to read more from Nuala Ellwood in the future!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book to review from the publisher. All opinions, thoughts and ponderings are my own.

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

This is a beautiful, beautiful book. It arrived a couple of weeks ago when the Penguin fairies sent me a copy to review.

Within the gorgeous, cloth-bound pages there are numerous plates and pieces of William Morris artwork, illustrating the familiar verse of The Twelve Days of Christmas. As the gorgeous cover would suggest, the pages are filled with beautiful details and amazing pictures, all handpicked by the team at the Victoria & Albert Museum (the V&A), who combed their large collection of William Morris patterns for this book.

This book is amongst the first in a new partnership between the V&A and Penguin Random House Children's, who are to be working together to create a bespoke range of books and gifts drawing upon the many delights of the museums vast archive. Having enjoyed the illustrations immensely I'm excited to see what other creations are waiting in the wings.

A charming gift for the child, artist, or lover of beautiful things in your circle.

Disclaimer: As mentioned above, I was gifted a copy of the book. All opinions and Christmassy glee are my own.
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Scrappy Little Nobody

Picture taken from the book's own site because my high-def pic didn't save correctly. Ah, the perils of blogging at pace.
I make no bones about the fact I like to read widely. I'm happy to pick up most books, bar a couple of genres that just don't thrill me (gory horror and really out-there sci-fi/fantasy, if you're wondering, and even in those cases I'm always willing to have a go for an exceptional book that's been recommended to me). I like literary fiction, self-help, YA, thrillers, non-fiction (of a bazillion different ilks), historical fiction, classics, autobiographies, mysteries, children's books, comedy, romance, 'man-goes-on-a-quest' tomes. If there's a book in my immediate vicinity, I'll give it a read.

That being said, there are two genres which are probably my comfort zone. The two kinds of book that I've always got time for, and can read whatever my mood or situation is. The first group is chicklit. Like or loathe the term, by employing it you will know exactly what I'm talking about, and I love a good escape with Cecelia Aherne or Jojo Moyes or Sophie Kinsella. 

The second group of books I really enjoy? Is the ever-growing genre of books by intelligent, talented women in the public eye and/or the entertainment business. I adored Bossypants. Yes Please genuinely made me think and changed my life for the better. Both Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Why Not Me? entertained me greatly, as well as cementing my opinion that if Mindy Kaling ever needs a fat, less-famous, British wingwoman (it's a niche role, but let's go with it), I clearly have to make the shortlist. And recently I thoroughly enjoyed The Year of Yes, by the force of nature that is Shonda Rhimes.

So when I discovered that Anna Kendrick was penning a memoir, I was excited. I've always enjoyed her acting, whether it's in Up In The Air, or the Pitch Perfect franchise, or Into The Woods. The real selling point for me, however, was Kendrick's twitter, because the woman gives amazing tweet - they are dark, funny, witty, sharp and often a little R-rated. Which I love! In a world where a lot of famous folk seem content to tweet fairly beige content or avoid the platform entirely, celebrities like Anna Kendrick and Chrissy Teigen offer a refreshing realness.
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A Christmas Cornucopia

Now that Advent Sunday has passed, I am transitioning well and truly into Christmas mode. Trees are being trimmed, jollity abounds, and the strains of Christmas music can be heard as I busy myself writing cards, running errands, and planning fun. I truly adore this season, as Advent moves towards Christmas proper, and have been accused more than once of being a little bit of a Christmas geek.

How perfect, then, that Penguin sent me a copy of Mark Forsyth's A Christmas Cornucopia to review in the lead up to the festive season. I'm a big fan of Forsyth's other books (being an English teacher I've been gifted other books of his in the past and particularly enjoyed The Etymologicon) and was happy to hear he'd turned his talents to the delights of Christmas.

Forsyth's tone is a unique one - it always reminds me of a brilliant professor holding forth on a subject they know well. Whatever twists and turns the narrative may take, you never doubt that you are in expert hands and are quite happy to follow along with Forsyth as he traverses eras, traditions and cultures. Rather than employing a dull list format, this is a book where the prose flows, taking you on a journey, and the whole book is suffused with humour. It really was a treat to sit down and read a chapter or two after lunch or before bed.

The content of the book is fascinating. Despite being a bit of a Christmas nut I was delighted to discover that there was much contained within that I did not know already. Each chapter brings plenty of information and charm, but I think chapter 5 (entitled Santa Claus: The Biography) is my favourite; I feel I am quite the expert on Saint Nick now.

This is a sweet and illuminating book and I think it would make a lovely gift. I think I'll be sending copies to a couple of friends who love this season too, and I think it would be appreciated by fans of Christmas, history and culture alike.

Disclaimer: As mentioned above, I was gifted a copy of the book. All opinions and Christmassy glee are my own.
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Swing Time

Many moons ago, back in the hot, hot summer of 2016, I popped over to Penguin. As an aside, my inner-bookworm-child still gets very excited by the fact that I know people at publishers, for what it's worth. While I was there I was given a couple of books to review, because I love to keep reading. One of the books was Swing Time, the new novel from the national treasure that is Zadie Smith.

Swing Time is a book about so many things - class, race, dance, friendship - and it feels specific and universal, all at once. Incredibly readable with vivid, interesting, flawed characters, this is Smith writing at the top of her game. I love how she's unafraid to write real characters and how she shies away from casting heroes and villains. The complexity and richness of the human experience and how we all react to and interact with one another fills each part and chapter.

The narrator of the book is never named, and this distance is fitting - as a character she always seems a little detached, a little distant. The other characters - Tracey, her erstwhile childhood friend; the villagers she encounters in Africa; Aimee, the popstar she works for - are all boldly drawn and described; the narrator is more shadowy and indistinct.

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The Nightmare Before Christmas

One of my favourite treats in the run up to Christmas is curling up in front of the Christmas tree with a hot beverage (or a cheeky cocktail) and watching a Christmas movie. I am properly into films at this time of the year, and in addition to the ten I listed in my post last year, there are several others that get trotted out ever December. Gone With the Wind. The Sound of Music. Mary Poppins. And The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a wonderful, heartwarming tale, as Jack Skellington tries to bring his own special magic to Christmas. Inventive, silly, creepy and heartwarming, it's a sweet and cosy tale with just enough darkness to avoid the saccharine-ness of some festive fare. I was delighted, then, when I learned that Penguin was publishing a picture book of the story on the Picture Puffin imprint, with words and illustrations by Tim Burton, the film's auteur.

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I'm Claire, a thirty-something teacher, writer and blogger living in London.

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