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Breakers by Doug Johnstone (Orenda Books)

I’m sure you have gathered by now, I’m a big Orenda Books fan, and recently, there has been a run of absolutely brilliant books from the Orenda bookshelves. I was excited by the blurb of Doug Johnstone’s Breakers. Here it is:

Seventeen-year-old Tyler lives in one of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas. Whilst trying to care for his little sister and his drug-addicted mother, he’s also coerced into robbing rich people’s homes by his bullying older siblings.

One night whilst on a job, his brother Barry stabs a homeowner and leaves her for dead. And that’s just the beginning of their nightmare, because they soon discover the woman is the wife of Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Deke Holt.

With the police and the Holts closing in, and his shattered family in terrible danger, Tyler is running out of options, until he meets posh girl Flick in another stranger’s house. Could she be his salvation? Or will he end up dragging her down with him?

The first thing I want to say about this book is that if you like your novels with hearts and flowers, you might want to steel yourself before reading this novel. But read it, you should. The narrative is incredibly powerful – it’s gritty and gory, with its roots firmly in the downtrodden and criminal underworld of Edinburgh. Johnstone depicts this slum-like, deprived location with such resonance that the reader cannot help but want to see Tyler and his little sister, Bean, get out of this desperate situation.

However, this novel is deeper than a hard luck story. This is a novel of bad luck and bad choices. Tyler, Bean and Flick are all victims of their parent’s circumstances, and as children in this situation, they are fighting battles they really shouldn’t have to. Johnstone shows their resourcefulness despite their lack of available resources and their resilience after particularly harrowing experiences. As a mother, this novel tugged at my heartstrings from start to finish, and I found myself wanting to know how Tyler, Bean and Flick turned out.

What Johnstone shows is that you can break a cycle of turning to crime when poverty-stricken or indeed, lacking in parental guidance. It doesn’t matter who you are or what background you are from, everyone has a story and their own demons to battle. As a narrative, this is a proper page-turner of a novel that you don’t want to put down. It’s fast paced, shocking at times, and Johnstone uses every literary tool in the box to develop a multi-faceted novel that generates a multitude of emotions in the reader.

I love this novel. It wasn’t an easy read in that there was a strong sense of realism in the narrative, in terms of the surroundings/location, and the situation of these children, but Johnstone shows light in the dark and hope in the seemingly hopelessness of Tyler’s situation. Also, by putting Tyler and Flick together despite their considerably different backgrounds highlights the misconception that money brings you happiness. Undoubtedly, Orenda Books has yet another successful novel on their hands. I will be recommending this novel to anyone who loves a gritty page turner.

Worst Case Scenario by Helen Fitzgerald (Orenda Books)

It is often the case that authors selected to be published by Orenda Books tend to explore the road less travelled, choosing topics that are rarely written about and challenging the reader’s perceptions. It is what makes Orenda Books novels so special. One of their latest signings is Helen Fitzgerald, and like other Orenda authors, I had full expectations that I would be taken on a literary journey that I had not been on before. Here’s the blurb:

Mary Shields is a moody, acerbic probation offer, dealing with
some of Glasgow’s worst cases, and her job is on the line.
Imprisoned for murdering his wife, Liam Macdowall has published
a series of letters to the dead woman, in a book that has made
him an unlikely hero – a poster boy for Men’s Rights Activists.
Liam is released on licence into Mary’s care, but things are far
from simple. Mary develops a poisonous obsession with Liam
and his world, and when her son and Liam’s daughter form a
relationship, Mary will stop at nothing to impose her own brand
of justice … with devastating consequences.

Fitzgerald’s uses her main character, Mary, as a vehicle to explore a number of thought-provoking and often taboo topics, such as male domestic violence, paedophilia, and the dreadful state of our social care system. Fitzgerald doesn’t hold back in her approach. This is a gritty novel that doesn’t show the main protagonist as a hero, or even in a favourable light most of the time. Mary Shields is your proverbial “car crash”, though a lot of it isn’t really her fault. However, Worst Case Scenario gives a good overview of the life of someone who works in social services, the impossible challenges that they are expected to overcome, and the unfairness of a system that is designed to help people in need.

What I loved about the narrative in this novel is its no-holds-barred bluntness. No sugar-coating, just an honest depiction of a damaged character who, at heart, wants to do right by everyone who deserves it. True, Mary makes a lot of horrendously bad decisions that cost her, but often, this is down to the restraints placed on her by the job that she does. Also, we can’t underestimate the effects of the menopause on a woman’s state of mind!

Helen Fitzgerald has written a brilliant novel that, in true Orenda tradition, is uniquely formed and not afraid to talk about subjects many authors would stay well away from. Like Mary, I felt completely exhausted and in need of a glass of wine by the time I finished it, but to me, that’s a great response to have to a novel. It’s such a cleverly written novel with perfect balance of humour, poignancy and intrigue. I look forward to reading other novels by this author in the future.

Worst Case Scenario Cover

Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech (Orenda Books)

I am always excited when I hear about a new Louise Beech book release. Since her first novel How To Be Brave, Beech has consistently written beautiful novels that pull at every possible emotion throughout. I had no doubt that Call Me Star Girl would be just as amazing.

Here’s the blurb:

Tonight is the night for secrets…

Pregnant Victoria Valbon was brutally murdered in an alley three weeks ago – and her killer hasn’t been caught.

Tonight is Stella McKeever’s final radio show. The theme is secrets. You tell her yours, and she’ll share some of hers.

Stella might tell you about Tom, a boyfriend who likes to play games, about the mother who abandoned her, now back after twelve years. She might tell you about the perfume bottle with the star-shaped stopper, or about her father … What Stella really wants to know is more about the mysterious man calling the station … who says he knows who killed Victoria, and has proof. Tonight is the night for secrets, and Stella wants to know everything… With echoes of the chilling Play Misty for Me, Call Me Star Girl is a taut, emotive and all-consuming psychological thriller that plays on our deepest fears, providing a stark reminder that stirring up dark secrets from the past can be deadly…

I have come to expect Beech’s novel’s to take me on a journey into the life of someone who is strong, yet fragile, with a complexity of emotional baggage that defines their life no matter how much they try to reject it. In a series of flashbacks, from the perspectives of multiple characters, a picture is built up of Stella’s life in the build up to her final show, her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and the origins of these traits. Beech lays out a jigsaw of emotional pieces for the reader to put together and as always, the narrative is clever, unexpected and jam-packed with poignant, tear-jerking scenes.

What I absolutely love about Beech’s novels is that each novel is unique in plot, structure and hits a multitude of different genres in each book. In Call Me Star Girl, there’s elements of mystery, crime, ghost, romance, domestic noir and even a little erotica. I love that I can’t categorise it as this genre or that genre, but as a stunningly crafted work of art that ticks every box of the perfect read checklist.

Every so often, an author comes along that has the ability to blow you away with every single piece of literature that they offer up. Beech is undoubtedly one of those authors. Despite knowing to expect a rollercoaster ride from her previous novels, there’s many twists, turns and loop-the-loops that the reader just isn’t prepared for. Every.Single.Novel. Beech has an extraordinary skill for creating the perfect novel time and time again, and she is the author whose novel I look out for each time I hear that a new one is released. She is undoubtedly jewel in the Orenda Books crown. Call Me Star Girl is a wonderful addition to Louise Beech’s masterpieces and I cannot recommend it enough.

 

 

Welcome To The Heady Heights

One of the first Orenda Books that I read and reviewed was The Last Days of Disco, by David F. Ross. I was struck by its poignancy despite it’s consistently humourous narrative, and being the first in a trilogy, the other books in the series were in a similar vein. (The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas and The Man Who Loved Islands). Having enjoyed this trilogy so much, I was excited to read Ross’s latest novel, Welcome To The Heady Heights.

Here’s the blurb:

It’s the year punk rock was born, Concorde entered commercial service and a tiny Romanian gymnast changed the sport forever…

Archie Blunt is a man with big ideas. He just needs a break for them to be realised. In a bizarre brush with the light entertainment business, Archie unwittingly saves the life of the UK’s top showbiz star, Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, and immediately seizes the opportunity to aim for the big time. With dreams of becoming a musical impresario, he creates a new singing group called The High Five with five unruly working-class kids from Glasgow’s East End. The plan? Make it to the final of Heady’s Saturday night talent show, where fame and fortune awaits…

But there’s a complication. Archie’s made a fairly major misstep in his pursuit of fame and fortune, and now a trail of irate Glaswegian bookies, corrupt politicians and a determined Scottish WPC are all on his tail…

The first thing to point out is that it is impossible to read a David F. Ross novel without reading it in a Scottish accent. In fact, it should be! It undoubtedly enhances the reading experience.

Like his trilogy before it, Ross treats the reader to a beautifully balanced funny yet moving story, as he takes us on a journey to explore the fabric of Glasgow’s people and places. There’s a variety of characters from all walks of life, depicted in true Ross fashion, who seemingly don’t connect, but the threads all come together to make a magnificent literary tapestry of the contrast between different segments of society, from the downtrodden, to the criminal, to the celebrity.

I don’t want to give anything away but look out for Archie’s pitch for a new game show to celebrity entertainment mogul, Heady Hendricks. I literally laughed out loud on my morning bus to work. Archie is ahead of his time, as I think his game show suggestion would undoubtedly have a place in today’s reality TV society. It couldn’t be any more dangerous than Dancing on Ice!

The narrative itself is beautifully written, and the character of Archie, in particular, is impossible to feel anything but affection for, even when he gets up to a few questionable things. He’s a dreamer, undoubtedly, but he has a good heart and good intentions, and having him as the main protagonist has you cheering him on from beginning to end.

Set in the 1970’s (a tiny bit before my time, only being born in 1978), Ross paints a picture of a different world, before technology was key and women were often treated as second-class citizens, particularly in the workplace. However, he also draws on the parallels, such as the pedestal we put celebrities on, the ways in which different classes are treated, and the underbelly of corruption that feeds into every society.

I loved this novel, just like I loved the Disco Days trilogy. To have the skill to write a novel that can make you laugh out loud and also make you cry is something I can only dream of having, but Ross absolutely nails it in this novel. One phrase in the novel seemed to sum it up perfectly (although it wasn’t necessarily it’s purpose in the narrative): “But she was joining the dots. The many, many threads –random when examined individually, but wound together, they began to make sense.” (Kindle location:3383 of 3725) That’s exactly what this novel does, and it does it exquisitely well. Bring on the next David F. Ross funny tear-jerker!

Heady Heights aw.indd

 

The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech (Orenda Books)

Reading a Louise Beech novel is like eating a beautifully crafted cupcake: you know before you taste it that it is going to be amazing, you enjoy every delicious mouthful and you feel sad after eating the last bite because this wonderful morsel has given you such immense pleasure that you can’t bear the thought that it is finished. i was very excited about the release of The Lion Tamer Who Lost and it sounded very intriguing. Here’s the blurb:

Be careful what you wish for…
Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he
wishes it hadn’t…
Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve.
When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined…
Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems
to be guided by fate. Or is it?
What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?

One thing that always strikes me about Beech’s novels is that they are never one genre or another. You can’t fit her novels into a category, which is testament to the brilliant imagination that she has to generate a novel that is completely individual and incomparable to any other. The Lion Tamer Who Lost is no different. The characters go on a journey that Beech crafts beautifully, taking the reader back and forth in time to explain Ben and Andrew’s stories.

There’s an incredible honesty about The Lion Tamer Who Lost that enables the reader to sympathise with every character, even when they are doing something that is not necessarily the right thing to do. Each character has their flaws but the way Beech portrays them gives the reader a rounded view of them so they can forgive the character’s bad decisions. Every character has a tale to tell that shapes their attitudes and behaviour, and they are not always as the reader would expect.

The structure that Beech uses in this novel is perfect for building up the stories of these characters without giving everything away. The novel starts mid-way through Ben and Andrew’s stories then you are taken back and forth between the past and present day to illuminate why Ben seems despondent and somewhat haunted in the initial chapters. The quotes from Andrew’s books at the beginning of each chapter also carry their own messages and it is a perfectly balanced novel to create an optimum amount of mystery and desire to find out the full picture.

Love is, without a doubt, the main theme of this novel and Beech depicts the intensity of familial love, passionate/sexual love and friendship love with incredible skill. In Beech’s dedication at the front of the novel, she quotes her friend who says “love is love, no matter who it’s between”, and this is ultimately the message that you get from this novel, and what a beautiful sentiment to be left with! This has always been my own belief too, so to read a novel which reinforces that has been an absolute pleasure.

Yet again, Louise Beech has created a perfect novel. I have yet to read anything by Beech that I have felt has been missing something, which is why I always look forward to reading her stories. I enjoyed this novel from start to finish and I laughed, and cried, which is always a good sign. This is an incredibly moving novel, as Beech’s novels always are, and it was immensely enjoyable to read, taking me no time at all, as I couldn’t put it down. Louise Beech is undoubtedly the jewel in the Orenda Books crown and I look forward to reviewing her next masterpiece.

thumbnail_Lion Tamer front cover final

 

The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

I’m delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor.

The Backstreets of Purgatory is a novel that brings together a variety of characters in Partick whose stories, though separate, intertwine throughout. Finn Garvie, the main character, is a spoilt man-child who strives for perfection in his art. He aspires to be the Caravaggio, his inspiration, of his time, but is struggling to assimilate his ideas onto the canvas. His girlfriend, who loves him, doesn’t know what to do with him; his best friend just irritates him and he is beguiled by the beautiful Kassia, convinced that she is his muse. When Caravaggio himself shows up in Finn’s life, stuck in purgatory until he assists Finn in finding his art mojo, Finn’s life takes an unexpected and sinister route.

This is an unusually constructed novel that deals with mental health issues, societal expectations and the individual character’s perceptions of success or failure. Taylor tells each character’s story, their thoughts on how their life has got to where it is and where they think it is going, and mirrors this with the other character’s who are inextricably linked across the board.

Taylor gives us a well-written, highly descriptive novel that is reminiscent of classic novels, with multi-sensual descriptions, and detailed, multi-faceted characters that are fraught with worries and show a distinct lack of confidence in themselves, that encourages them to skew their view of their surroundings and of those people around them.

This book also provides the reader with a lesson in Caravaggio himself. I knew nothing about Caravaggio beforehand, and Taylor gives enough biographical information and that of his paintings to give the reader enough information to follow the story but it also gives the reader an education too.

I found this novel a little unusual in places but it is funny, emotional, violent at times, and often poignant, ticking a lot of boxes in my “good novel” checklist. I look forward to reading Taylor’s next novel.

Absolution by Paul Hardisty

The Claymore Straker series by Paul Hardisty is without a doubt a very valuable jewel in the Orenda Books crown. Every novel is a journey, figuratively and literally as Straker travels far and wide to fight his cause. I was honoured to be asked back on to the blog tour for this latest instalment.

In Absolution, Straker almost shares the limelight with his old flame, Rania, as she gives an account of her story in journal form alongside the third person narration of Clay’s story. Having kept his head down since giving evidence about his military service in South Africa to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his cover is blown and those who surround him are put in grave danger as he is hunted down. Parallel to this, Rania’s husband and young son have gone missing, and she is being framed for their murder. As both parties try to solve their problems using their skills honed from previous adventures, Clay and Rania try to help each other whilst fighting their feelings for each other for the greater good.

As with the other books in this series, Hardisty writes with great intelligence and weaves his narrative with scientific, political and religious analysis to educate the reader and provide truthful background to the settings in which he places Clay and Rania. Together with the stunning imagery to describe the most barren of landscapes, and his brilliant character structuring, a Hardisty novel does not disappoint.

The dual narrative with Rania’s diary and Clay’s perspective through a third person works really well. Both characters are flawed and are haunted by their past actions, yet both characters are driven by love to make difficult choices. Sometimes there is no good decision for the character’s to make and Hardisty’s bravery for putting these decisions into their hands is to be admired.

This novel moves fast and it did not take me long to read it, mainly because I could not put it down. Straker is such an intriguing character and no matter what he does, the reader wants him to have a happy ending, ideally with Rania given their attraction to each other. From the title of the book, and the direction the narrative takes, Hardisty could well leave this series as it is and it will be beautifully rounded off. However, there is undoubtedly potential for more and I would be sorry if this would be the last Straker novel.

The Meal of Fortune by Philip Brady

I was delighted to be asked to read and review The Meal of Fortune by Philip Brady. From the premise of the novel, it seemed like it would be a funny story.

Here’s the blurb:

THE BLURB:  The world of arms dealing, espionage and TV cookery collide in this fast moving comedy caper.

Failing celebrity agent Dermot Jack thinks his luck might have turned when a mysterious Russian oligarch hires him to represent his pop star daughter.

Disaffected MI5 officer Anna Preston is just as happy to be handed the chance to resurrect her own career. Little do they know that their paths are about to cross again after seventeen years as they’re thrown together in a desperate attempt to lure a notorious arms dealer into a highly unusual trap.

Hard enough without having to deal with the lecherous celebrity chef trying to save his daytime TV career or the diminutive mafia enforcer who definitely has his own agenda. Then there’s the very impatient loan shark who ‘just wants his money back’.

And Anna’s bosses are hardly playing it straight either. But one thing’s for sure. There’ll be winners and losers when the Meal of Fortune finally stops spinning. Oh, and another thing, Anna and Dermot are absolutely not about to fall in love again. That’s never going to happen, OK?

There is a lot going on in this novel but Brady keeps the plot moving with wonderful fluidity. Each character brings its own comedy to the story and all the characters are hilariously flawed in some way.

Alongside the hilariously funny characters, the plot is exciting and keeps the reader gripped throughout. Brady has multiple storylines going on yet manages to seamlessly link them all to a fantastic conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this novel. Any novel that offers up funny and exciting, like The Meal of Fortune does, is well worth a read and I would recommend it for anyone who likes a book that makes them laugh out loud.

The Man Who Loved Islands by David F. Ross (Orenda Books)

The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespa’s have been two of my favourite books of the last two years. I have been looking forward to reading the final book in the Disco Days trilogy, The Man Who Loved Islands, whilst feeling a bit sad that this is the last one. However, I knew that it would be a fitting end to what has been a brilliant series.

Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller, once best friends, now barely acquaintances, have slowly come to realise that while they have followed their passions, now middle-aged, life has left them behind and they are depressed at the thought that their best years are behind them with nothing to look forward to but loneliness and eventual death. Having both reached an impasse in their respective lives, with health problems looming over them and career satisfaction a thing of the past, they are forced to re-assess where it all went wrong and to try to make things right. They need to find a common purpose, and using contacts from their past lives, including the mad, but hilariously funny, Max Mojo, former manager of the Miraculous Vespas, Bobby and Joey embark on a challenge of a lifetime, to try and right some wrongs and to secure a future for them both.

The Man Who Loved Islands, like the first two books, is a political and social commentary using the predominantly working class characters to highlight what it is like to make your own destiny in the face of social adversity. Ross discusses crippling mental illness, overwhelming loneliness, ambition and the ties of family in good times and bad, with a remarkable honesty. What Ross does so beautifully is that he creates a narrative with the perfect balance of poignancy and hilarity that keeps the reader invested in his characters and they will laugh and cry with each emotionally charged chapter.

The soundtrack to each novel is integral to the action on the page and in The Man Who Loved Islands, this is no different. Ross threads classic songs throughout the narrative to add another layer to the story. Much like a film creates an emotional connection by its soundtrack, so too does the song choices in Ross’s novels. Of course, Bobby is a DJ, and Max Mojo is a band manager, so music is an important aspect of the plot anyway, but the choice of songs is key, provoking a memory in the reader or placing the action at a particular time or location, and as much as the reader is mentally reading the novel in a Scottish accent (that might just be me), they are also mentally listening to the soundtrack as they read, which undoubtedly enhances the reading experience.

Ross also takes advantage of the locations in which his novels are set. Most notably in The Man Who Loved Islands, is the use of the Ailsa Craig as the location of Bobby and Joey’s challenge. Ailsa Craig reflects a monument that stands the test of time despite being battered by the elements and the wildlife, perhaps in the same way that the friendships within the trilogy survive despite taking a severe beating over the years. Bobby and Joey have had a turbulent relationship since they parted ways in their late teens but they remain fiercely loyal to each other, often despite themselves. Even Max Mojo, who looks after himself first, also seems to look after those who have helped him over the years, even if it is not always intentional.

The Man Who Loved Islands is a story about what happens when you have fought for your dreams against all odds, but have squandered friendships along the way, finding yourself lonely, regretful and unhappy. All the characters are perched on a knife-edge and their fortunes could go either way with every decision that they make, but ultimately, they have reached middle age and something is missing. Ross has finished off this trilogy in tremendous fashion. As we have come to expect from Ross, the plot lines have been intricately woven, and have been tied up beautifully in this last novel in the trilogy. Among the humour and the sadness, Ross injects hope into his novels and even when there seems to be no way back, the spirit of the characters in adversity as they rally each other in their own inimitable way, encourages the reader to see that everyone has the opportunity to change their trajectory.

Looking at the trilogy as a whole, this is a fantastic politically, socially and musically influenced set of novels about growing up and out of Ayrshire in the 80’s and revisiting the characters in the present day to see how they did. I love a book that can make me laugh out loud in one chapter and make me an emotional wreck in the next and every single book in this trilogy has had this effect on me. I have enjoyed every single page of these novels, from the nostalgia filled first book to the reality check third novel and I’m sorry that it is all over. I’m very much looking forward to reading future David F Ross novels, but I will be undoubtedly be revisiting this trilogy in the future as these novels have become firm favourites.

Man Who Loves Islands

My Girl – Jack Jordan

Today is my day on the blog tour for Jack Jordan’s latest novel, My Girl. I hadn’t read any of Jordan’s work before this novel so I didn’t really know what to expect. Sometimes I think that it is good to read a book without any expectations and that is certainly the case with My Girl. I rarely get chance to read a book from cover to cover but I was compelled from the first page until the last and finished this book in no time at all.

My Girl tells the story of Paige, a woman whose alcoholism is spiralling out of control following the murder of her daughter and the suicide of her husband. She pushes away those who love and care for her and as descends to new lows, strange things start to happen that has Paige questioning her sanity as she realises that she is fast losing grip on reality.

I’ve tried to be as vague as possible in this overview so I don’t ruin the novel for future readers as this is a book that will absolutely floor you by its twists and turns. This beautifully written book puts you in Paige’s shoes as the reader learns the depths of this poor woman’s despair. My Girl is filled with pathos and it is a highly emotional read. I was regularly moved to tears and Jordan treats extremely emotive topics with such sensitivity and tact that he is able to elicit a truly sympathetic response to Paige, even when she isn’t helping herself.

My Girl is difficult to review without revealing too much, but like a few books I’ve read recently, it is one of those magical books that you wish you can un-read and read again, just so you can relive the shocks and rollercoaster of emotions that Jordan provides in this book. Jordan has struck a beautiful balance between character and plot to give the reader a perfect reading experience. My Girl deals with topics that are not particularly pleasant but the novel as a whole is just brilliant. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you like a gritty, gripping novel, you’ll love My Girl.