Heartlands by Kerry Watts

This had great potential, with some really interesting characters and an emotional crime, although I felt the vast amount of characters was slightly confusing.

Twenty years ago, Sophie Nicoll never came home from school. Days later her body was found in a shallow grave on a remote farm a few miles from her hometown. Two boys from her school were found guilty. The press called the boys evil. Sophie’s family wanted them dead. The judge promised they’d never walk free.
Two decades later and schoolgirl Shannon Ross has vanished from a small town in the Scottish Highlands.
It’s Detective Jessie Blake’s first big case since she joined Perthshire Police. Having recently arrived from London, Jessie lives in fear of people finding out about her past and her reasons for moving north.
When Shannon’s body is found in the river on the outskirts of Inverlochty, Jessie discovers she’s not the only one with something to hide. As the small community begins to crack under pressure, people begin to point fingers. And soon, the big secrets hidden within the small town are revealed – with devastating consequences.

This story started off quite strongly, with an intriguing insight into the two boys responsible for the death of Sophie Nicoll. It was interesting seeing the perspective of Daniel, and he was written so well that I still don’t feel like I fully understand him, but in a positive way. He’s a dark character, but he had moments where he seemed really human, and so he was a fascinating character to start with. The prologue is genuinely really shocking, and it’s a great start to the novel.

However, I found the transition between timelines really hard to follow, and it wasn’t immediately clear to me that we had jumped forward. This was quite disorientating, and I feel like there could have been more of an effort to distinguish between timelines in some way. Once I got to grips with this it was interesting seeing some of the connections between the years become more apparent, especially with the introduction of the journalist following both stories.

The four parents were a strong core, with Louise’s grief coming through very strongly, and Jason’s anger painful to watch. However, (spoiler alert) I just found Rob’s true past slightly hard to believe, as there appeared to be little connection between his previous life and present life. I understand the idea of a reformed man, but it was a hard connection to make, and I wished more time had been spent on developing this further. I liked the main detective, I thought Jessie Blake was a solid character, with a great sense of justice and a stubborn determination to solve the crime. Her partner, Dylan, was also great, and they were a brilliant team.

I liked the detectives, and thought some of the characters were written really well, but overall this wasn’t my favourite, and I wished more time had been spent on connecting the past with the present.

The Manhatten Project by Paul McNeive

This was an informed, detailed and realistically terrifying novel, with a solid main character and some heart-breaking motives.

Bioterrorism.
Real. Invisible. Devastating.
And it’s taking New York by storm.
With its insatiable hunger for fast food, easy fixes and life lived at breakneck speed, 
the city that never sleeps is hurtling towards disaster. Now John Wyse, an ordinary New York cop, looks set to be the only person who can thwart catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale …
New York City is under attack. Millions may die. But the enemy’s weapons are invisible, undetectable and creating terror at lightning speed. Now, there’s nothing to stand in their way …
A Hiroshima survivor turned criminal mastermind
A pharma industry riddled with corruption
A Libyan entrepreneur coerced by threats to his family
A New York cop falling fast for an elusive beauty
A visitor to Tokyo from the mountains of Afghanistan
One terrible desire for revenge connects them all. With the clock ticking on an audacious, devastating plot to bring America to its knees, can anyone save New York from catastrophe?

This novel was detailed, fast-paced and had a realistic connection to the Hiroshima tragedy. I felt that the characters were mainly well-written, although more attention was given to developing the character of Tsan Yohoto than John Wyse. Tsan’s past was clearly the contributing factor to his decisions, and for such a sensitive and devastating topic it was well written. His building anger at America, and the grief he was clearly unable to process were the ultimate combination of emotions. What was so horrifying about his plan was that it was so realistic, and it played on current fears and issues. The idea of bio-terrorism is not new, but this plan was so carefully thought out that it seemed like a threat no-one had planned for – as indeed they hadn’t.

There was quite a lot of science and medical detail involved, but I felt that McNeive used just the right amount of detail, while also simplifying it for the reader, in order to keep the reader interested. It felt technical to me, as someone with no science knowledge, but more importantly it felt believable. This is what made it so scary, as it felt like a situation that could actually happen.

Spoilers about to happen… What was surprisingly satisfying about this was that the plan actually succeeded. Normally, these sorts of plans are heroically discovered at the last second, and yay the world has been saved! What McNeive has cleverly done is show the realities of this threat, combining scenes from the police and doctors with stories of real people dying, whole families being wiped out and people suffering. It was honestly quite frightening to read, as no-one was safe. And yet, this is what made the novel so effective, as it highlighted the utter helplessness of America in this situation.

I also felt there was a lot of nuance in the novel, as there was a sense of awareness of race and ethnicity, and these were only brought into the story where relevant. One book I read recently was particularly bad at assuming the terrorist suspects had to look a certain way, but McNeive’s book is considerably more nuanced and different than this. One description of a suspect details not only his ethnicity, but also his height, clothes, backpack etc. and when John Wyse spots a potential fit for the suspect, it’s the clothes and backpack that lead him to this conclusion. This isn’t to say that race and ethnicity are ignored, as that would be equally unrealistic, rather that McNeive shows a good level of detail, bringing in a variety of views in discussions about Islam, demonstrating flawed thinking from police officers, but also offering characters that have a more open mindset.

The vast range of characters in this book can be quite hard to follow, but if enough attention is given towards understanding them all, it’s a very satisfying read, with lots of far-reaching connections, and a very surprising plot twist near the end. John Wyse is a very likeable detective. What I liked is that even though he is an intelligent character, and is naturally suspicious, there was no unrealistic sudden ‘light bulb moment’ solving the mystery at hand, more a sneaking suspicion that something is wrong and good old-fashioned detective work. Yes, towards the end there is more excitement and sudden revelations, but this worked really well and made the build-up much more exciting.

This is a terrifying, realistic and detailed book, set over the space of more than a year to show how a well thought out, but fundamentally morally wrong plan, comes to fruition. It shows the psychological consequences of real events from the world’s history, and the deep impact it has had on communities around the world. The genuinely upsetting first chapter sets up an emotional story, building to a frightening peak of terror, and ending with what I felt was an extremely satisfying ending. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking to read a political thriller that’s a bit different. Without a doubt, a 5* star read.

The Manhatten Project
Paul McNeive
Black & White Publishing, 16th May 2019

They Call Me The Cat Lady by Amy Miller

This adorable, personal and moving story of Nancy Jones, her five cats, and her past, was honestly lovely to read.

You’ve seen me on the street. You’ve walked past my house, and pointed, and wondered. The cat lady. All on my own, with only my five cats to keep me company. Did no-one ever tell you that you can’t judge a book by its cover?
Everyone in town knows Nancy Jones. She loves her cats. She loves her tumbledown house by the sea. She loves her job in the local school where she tries to help the children who need help the most. Nancy tries hard not to think about her past loves and where those led her…
Nancy never shares her secrets – because some doors are better kept locked. But one day she accepts a cat-sitting request from a local woman, and at the woman’s house, Nancy sees a photograph, in a bright-red frame. A photograph that opens the door to her painful past…
Soon Nancy doesn’t know what frightens her the most: letting her story out, or letting the rest of the world in. It’s impossible to find companionship without the risk of losing it. But can Nancy take that risk again?

Nancy is such an uplifting yet sensitive character – I really love novels that are character-centric. Her relationship with her cats was so cute, the way she spoke to them was so genuine and their personalities seemed to really shine through. The moments with Nancy and her cats were some of my favourite scenes in the whole novel, as she was at her most comfortable and relaxed, and the reader got to see another side to her than during her interactions with other people.

Nancy’s story was honestly so heart-breaking. Her cautiousness and safety-conscious attitude were an intrinsic part of her, and it was devastating that the one time she relaxed a bit something tragic happened. I won’t give too much away, but seeing her genuine pain and guilt affect her present-day relationships and decisions was very emotional. Her relationship with her ex-husband was clearly problematic in various ways, with overwhelming feelings of guilt and blame hanging over both of them. Their reunion towards the end was super sweet, and it was satisfying for the reader to see some of their issues being resolved.

I felt like Nancy’s journey throughout the novel was so beautiful, and it was explored in a really in-depth way. She started as a really lonely and fragile woman who slowly became more confident and happy throughout. Her friendships and relationships improved dramatically as the story went on, and I loved how the improvement of her house mirrored this. Her house started as a ruined and dusty dumping ground, with an overrun garden and unused rooms. By the end it was transformed, reflecting Nancy’s personal growth and increased happiness, and I loved how this connection between the two worked.

I would definitely recommend this, it was different to a lot of my recent reads, but it was fun, inspiring and a very sweet story.

They Call Me The Cat Lady
Amy Miller
Bookouture, 26th April 2019

Closer Than You Think

This was a compelling thriller, with some interesting insights into the mind of the killer themselves, while tending to focus on Claire, the only surviving victim.

He’s watching. She’s waiting.
Having barely escaped the clutches of a serial killer, Claire Moore has struggled to rebuild her life. After her terrifying encounter with the man the media dubbed The Black-Out Killer, she became an overnight celebrity: a symbol of hope and survival in the face of pure evil. And then the killings stopped.
Now ten years have passed, and Claire remains traumatised by her brush with death. Though she has a loving and supportive family around her, what happened that night continues to haunt her still.
Just when things are starting to improve, there is a power cut; a house fire; another victim found killed in the same way as before.
The Black-Out Killer is back. And he’s coming for Claire…

I thought the main character, Claire, was very well written. Her vulnerability was so clear, but it was inspiring to see her go from strength to strength throughout the novel. Her fear and constant anxiety was so intense I even started feeling on edge myself, clearly showing the high quality writing in these scenes. Claire’s relationship with her mum was really heart-warming, and her mum was so supportive. It was a wonderful dynamic to read, with unspoken actions between them meaning more than words a lot of the time. Claire’s stepdad was another strong presence, offering her support from a distance, and recognising the long-lasting psychological effects that Claire’s past has had on her. The family unit was really strong, perhaps stronger than it would be in reality, but it was still believable due to the great writing.

Claire’s new boyfriend, Paul, was a really intriguing addition to Claire’s life, and I think it really worked that we didn’t get to see his perspective of their relationship, and instead we only saw hers. He seemed to be the perfect man – perhaps too perfect in some ways, so as to make him seem suspicious, but I do have to say that I didn’t feel this really worked. He simply seemed like a generous and patient man, and I didn’t believe he was the culprit behind the Black Out Killings. The segments that were written from the perspective of the Black Out Killer had a couple of details in that didn’t seem to match Paul as the suspect, so it wasn’t believable enough for me.

In terms of Claire’s personal development and trust issues, making Paul a suspect did work, as it highlighted her improvement and confidence, but other than that I didn’t feel it served too much purpose.

I won’t give away who actually did it, but I did suspect it was them. There were a couple of details I picked up on that made me suspect this character, so I was really satisfied to know that I guessed right. However, the ending left me feeling really frustrated. The relationship between Claire and the killer wasn’t explored enough, and I would have liked more insight into their relationship and history. It was quite an abrupt ending, although I do understand that it was meant to suggest at character growth from Claire herself.

Overall, this was an intriguing mystery, with an unusual motive behind them and some fascinating insights into the mind of the criminal. The ending left me feeling unsatisfied, which was a shame.

Closer Than You Think
Darren O’Sullivan
HQ Digital, 15th March 2019

Monthly Wrap Up: April

Welcome to my first Monthly Wrap Up post!

This month I’ve read a lot of Lee Child, as the promise of his new paperback Past Tense arriving really got me in a nostalgic mood and made me want to re-read some of the early Jack Reacher novels. I’ve always really enjoyed re-reading novels, it’s never been a problem for me. I believe that I always notice something new when I re-read a book, and although it’s not as surprising or exciting the second time round, there’s instead a real fondness for the book and the knowledge that I know I’ll definitely like this book! When I’m really busy, I like to re-read, as it requires less focus and is more relaxing I think. So yes, I read some of Lee Child’s books for the second time and loved them.

I’ve done quite a few blog tours this month which have been fun! It’s nice being a part of a small group, even community, that are all reading, thinking and writing about the same book, even if we don’t necessarily interact directly with each other. I love reading the other reviews on the same blog tour, seeing opinions that differ or match mine, and reading their reasons for this. It’s always so interesting seeing how the same book provokes different reactions in people.

Some of my favourite books this month have been Past Tense, Dead Inside, The Girl in the Painting, My Best Friend’s Secret and If Only I Could Tell You. Looking back at these, I’m surprised that only half are crime/thrillers. This has always been my favourite genre, and I’m sure it always will be, but I’ve really loved getting out my comfort zone a bit more and appreciating other genres.

Check out all my posts from April, and find out which one I picked out as my Book of the Month!:

I kicked off April on the 6th with a Bookouture Blog Tour for My Best Friend’s Secret by Anna Mansell! I thought this was was a fascinating and in-depth look into the lives of 4 different women, showing how they interacted with each other, the complexity of their characters and their lives but it also had a great story linking them all together.

I then did my own review of Past Tense by Lee Child on the 13th, and I mean, I always love the Jack Reacher books, but this was a brilliant, fast-paced and yet slightly unusual story from Child. I really enjoyed this, and would probably read it again!

On the 14th I took part in the Bookouture Blog Tour for The Girl in the Painting by Renita D’Silva. and oh my gosh this was beautiful. It was truly emotive, and I loved the way it linked the past with the present and used the setting to compliment the feelings of the characters.

Next, on the 15th (wow I had a busy week…) I took part in the damppebbles Blog Tour for I Want You Gone by Miranda Rijks. I wouldn’t say this was my favourite book of the month – although the story was brilliantly creepy, and it moved pretty quickly, there were moments were it felt a bit far-fetched, but for a slightly different read I would recommend this!

I did yet another Blog Tour for Catch Your Death by Kierney Scott with Bookouture on the 20th! This book has convinced me I want to read the rest of the series – the main character was so stubborn and determined that she almost makes things more difficult for herself, but she’s also incredibly quick-thinking and intelligent, making this book a brilliant read!

I then reviewed Dead Inside by Noelle Holten on the 24th, which I honestly loved. With brilliantly written characters, a real sensitivity and emotion throughout the story, and a satisfying ending, this had it all. I’ll definitely be reading future books in this series.

On the 28th I reviewed If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman, which was a really poignant and moving story. The writing is truly beautiful, seriously emotional, and I thought that Beckerman added in just the right amount of suspense and intrigue without taking away from the story.

Finally, I finished off the month with another damppebbles Blog Tour for Fatal Fortune by Miranda Rijks, which I thought was a nicely written, fast-paced mystery with really interesting characters.

BOOK OF THE MONTH

I’ve loved a lot of the books I’ve read this month, which has been great! Although I’m tempted to pick either Past Tense or If Only I Could Tell You as my favourite book of the month I’m actually going to go for The Girl in the Painting! I honestly can’t express how much I loved this, and out of all the books I’ve read this month, it’s the one I’m still thinking about, despite reading it nearer the start of April.

The Swap by Fiona Mitchell

This was a powerful and poignant tale about discovering the real meaning of family, parenthood and love.

Two women. Two children. One swap.
Tess and Annie both went for IVF at the same clinic, at the same time. They both went home with a child, but that child isn’t theirs. Their embryos were mixed up, and they went home with the wrong child.
Three years later they discover the devastating error. Tess wants to swap the children back while Annie doesn’t, so they embark on a hard journey of discovery about themselves, motherhood and family.

*warning: minor spoilers*

I loved this. I thought it was really inspiring and gave a lot of food for thought about what family really means. It makes you consider what it takes to create and build a family, about nature vs nurture and the love a parent has for their child.

Tess was such a painful and heartbreaking character. She had pain and grief etched over her throughout the novel, but it wasn’t clear why until quite far through, and it was emotional to see how much the events of her past have affected her relationship with her children in the present. Her sheer desperation to have a relationship with her daughter who was born to Annie was really intense. It made her so frustrating to read at times, as she made some potentially destructive choices throughout. This, however, is what made her such a ‘real’ character, it’s what made her story so heartbreaking to read and it really intensified her story, gripping the reader even more.

Annie, the other mother affected in this story, seemed to balance on that thin line between judgmental and concerned. At times she was annoying, because she seemed to be assuming things about Tess’ relationship with her son that weren’t completely true – although Mitchell did offer a rather intense and revealing insight into the way that the assumptions Annie made can easily happen. Annie starts to questions the relationship she sees between Tess and Freddie, convincing herself that something isn’t right – yet Mitchell really digs deeps into this to show the various layers and emotions that are involved between Tess and Freddie. Families are incredibly complex, and this book really highlights this in such an effective and emotive way. Apart from this, Annie’s relationship with her daughter Willow was really sweet, yet it was clear that she was being torn apart by the discovery that she actually had a son. In some ways she seemed more vulnerable that Tess, but she turned this into a strength, and coped with the discovery admirably.

The two children themselves were adorable – they seemed unaware of what was happening in their lives and the massive potential changes that were happening, but they also weren’t oblivious. Willow’s obvious distress at times around Tess was sad to see, but completely understandable. Freddie’s anger and frustration really heightened the emotions in various situations, but the times in the book when he was quiet and subdued were even more upsetting to read. They were written so well, especially considering they were in some ways the focus of the novel, despite it being written from the perspective of the mothers.

The journey that the two mothers went on was really insightful. It was such an interesting look at family and motherhood, and I felt the ending was exactly as it should have been. It provided a sense of calm after a truly rocky journey, but at the same time, it hinted at irrevocable change and acceptance that would benefit both mothers and children.

I loved this book, it’s stayed with me long after I read it and would definitely recommend it!

The Swap
Fiona Mitchell
Hodder & Stoughton, 18th April

Dead Inside by Noelle Holten

This was a really emotional and hard-hitting read, with a focus on domestic abuse and the pain it causes while also incorporating elements of a traditional detective mystery.

One by one they’re being killed off. Who’s behind it…?
DC Maggie Jamieson has just joined a new team. Confronted with getting to know her colleagues and trying to solve a brutal murder, she soon finds herself suspecting those she works with and knows well. As the body count rises and links between the victims appear, it’s clear this case is personal.
Soon, Probation Officer Lucy Sherwood’s husband is found dead. Maggie struggles to believe that Lucy could be capable of this, but no other suspects seem to be forthcoming.
Can Maggie solve this and find the truth in time?

This novel really built up the suspense, and despite there being lots of characters to keep track of, they were all written brilliantly. From the genuinely creepy Mick O’Dowd, to the strong-minded Shell Baker, and the trustworthy DC Maggie Jamieson, they were all perfectly written and interacted with each other wonderfully.

There were a lot of different types of relationships to include in this book, which Holten has written with nuance and emotion. Lucy and her husband Patrick were a fascinating but heartbreaking pair, and seeing Lucy’s pain was really hard to read in places. In places it was genuinely upsetting to read, but this is credit to the brilliant and emotive writing. Lucy’s reasoning with herself regarding Patrick’s behaviour and why she stayed was equally hard to read considering her job as Probation Officer, and the logic and determination she showed in that role. She was a perfect main character, with just enough focus on her to show the struggle she was going through, but still with enough focus on the crimes themselves.

The police officers themselves were great. PC Kat Everett was hilarious at times with her swearing, and offered a few light-hearted moments in an otherwise hard-to-read book. Her wild emotions and intense anger were also relatable, as was her colleague Mark’s disgust with the domestic abuse offenders they came across. It was interesting seeing how the officers balanced their personal feelings with their professional duties, and I felt their emotions were portrayed really believably.

Moving on to the actual crimes themselves, it was one of those mysteries that genuinely had me stumped as to who was committing them. I had some theories throughout the book, but it was so cleverly written that I almost didn’t have time to spend being too suspicious of anyone or working it out. There was so much going on, and it was nicely fast-paced, that I honestly didn’t think about who was responsible for the murders at all. Although I wouldn’t say I was totally shocked by who did it, I didn’t feel that this was a negative at all, as it felt like it was more about why they did it, the long-lasting effects that abuse has on people, and the person’s relationship with their past.

I also liked that the ending was sort of split in two (I’m trying not to give too much away…), and it wasn’t a clear wrapping up of all the deaths in one go. Lucy’s fragile state towards the end was devastating, but there was a real sense that her inner strength was still there, and she was definitely a survivor.

This book was brilliantly nuanced and emotive, the crimes themselves were fascinating, but the real depth is in the characters themselves. The writing is so clever, so emotional and just genuinely touching. I loved this, it’s a 5 star read, and I’d definitely recommend it.