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Top Books of 2020

Each year, I set myself a reading challenge on Goodreads. I read regularly, but even so I like to have a target to reach each year, in terms of the number of books I manage to read. In recent years my target has been 20 books, and this year I decided to increase it to 25. In fact, I ended up reading 26 books this year, and as ever these were an eclectic mix, from ghost stories to romances, and from classics to brand new releases.

As the year draws to a close, I thought I’d review my Goodreads reading challenge list and pick out my favourite reads of 2020. And so, in no particular order, here they are…

The Cold Black Sea – Campbell Hart

There’s something rotten at the heart of the Balfour family. These three stories highlight the darker side of a shared history, told through the voices of different generations.

The Sniper: as the bloodiest battle of WW1 rages all around them, three friends find themselves facing a phantom sniper deep in no-man’s land. Set against the horror of the Somme one thing is certain: you never see the shots, and the marksman never misses.

The Rocking Stone: the vengeful spirit of the Lady of Threepwood stalks Cuff Hill, bringing death to those who catch her eye. When a black metal box is unearthed in an ancient grave, a young girl’s life is transformed. Only the Rocking Stone holds the answers, with the truth found in the ancient fire cast out from the otherworld.

The Cold, Black Sea: A dying woman returns home for the final time, but with her judgement clouded by visions of the past and present, nothing is quite as it seems. As she tries to lay her demons to rest she’s dogged by a journalist determined to uncover a terrible secret.

There’s no escape from the cold, black sea.

I wrote a review of Campbell Hart’s collection of three ghost stories back in October after receiving an advanced copy, and as I noted at that time, they certainly made an impression on me. This was a perfect Halloween read: dark, foreboding and very satisfying as each story explored a different layer of one family’s accursed history.

An Unreliable Man – Jostein Gaarder

From the creative genius of Jostein Gaarder comes a beautiful novel about loneliness and the power of words.
Jakop is a lonely man.
Divorced from his wife, with no friends apart from his constant companion Pelle, he spends his life attending the funerals of people he doesn’t know, obscuring his identity in a web of improbable lies.
As his addiction to storytelling spirals out of control, he is forced to reconcile his love of language and stories with the ever more urgent need for human connection.

I’ve been a fan of Jostein Gaarder’s work for years, ever since I read Sophie’s World as a teen, and this book certainly didn’t disappoint. A touching tale about loneliness which addresses the nature of reality and the extent to which we create stories about ourselves as we navigate our relationship with the world around us.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

Anne Bronte’s second novel is a passionate and courageous challenge to the conventions supposedly upheld by Victorian society and reflected in circulating-library fiction. The heroine, Helen Huntingdon, after a short period of initial happiness, leaves her dissolute husband, and must earn her own living to rescue her son from his influence. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is compelling in its imaginative power, the realism and range of its dialogue, and its psychological insight into the characters involved in a marital battle.

I read a number of classic novels this year, but this one was my favourite. In its day, this book was bold and shocking; so much so that after Anne’s death, her sister Charlotte prevented its re-publication. An epistolary novel told from the points of view of a farmer, Gilbert Markham and the mysterious Helen, whom he admires, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a story of love and sacrifice which does not shy away from addressing the cruelty and unhappiness which no doubted existed within the bounds of many a Victorian marriage.

Five Hundred Miles from You – Jenny Colgan

They live five hundred miles apart. Yet their lives are about to collide . . .

Lissa loves her job as a nurse, but recently she’s been doing a better job of looking after other people than looking after herself. After a traumatic incident at work leaves her feeling overwhelmed, she agrees to swap lives with someone in a quite village in Scotland.

Cormac is a restless. Just out of the army, he’s desperately in need of distraction, and there’s precious little of it in Kirrinfief. Maybe three months in London is just what he needs.

As Lissa and Cormac warm to their new lives, emailing back and forth about anything and everything, finally things seem to be falling into place. But each of them feel there’s still a piece missing. What – or who – could it be?

And what if it’s currently five hundred miles away?

Towards the end of 2020, I made a conscious decision to indulge in some lighter reading. I absolutely loved this book, and couldn’t put it down. It’s a real feel-good read which has it all, including a romantic Scottish highland setting and a good bit of will-they-won’t-they. If you want a book which will make you smile, I’d recommend giving this one a try.

The Year without Summer – Guinevere Glasfurd

In 1815, a supervolcanic eruption led to the extraordinary ‘Year Without Summer’ in 1816: a massive climate disruption causing famine, poverty and riots. Lives, both ordinary and privileged, changed forever.

1815, Sumbawa Island, Indonesia
Mount Tambora explodes in a cataclysmic eruption, killing thousands. Sent to investigate, ship surgeon Henry Hogg can barely believe his eyes. Once a paradise, the island is now solid ash, the surrounding sea turned to stone. But worse is yet to come: as the ash cloud rises and covers the sun, the seasons will fail.

1816.
In Switzerland, Mary Shelley finds dark inspiration. Confined inside by the unseasonable weather, thousands of famine refugees stream past her door. In Vermont, preacher Charles Whitlock begs his followers to keep faith as drought dries their wells and their livestock starve. In Britain, the ambitious and lovesick painter John Constable struggles to reconcile the idyllic England he paints with the misery that surrounds him. In the Fens, farm labourer Sarah Hobbs has had enough of going hungry while the farmers flaunt their wealth. And Hope Peter, returned from Napoleonic war, finds his family home demolished and a fence gone up in its place. He flees to London, where he falls in with a group of revolutionaries who speak of a better life, whatever the cost. As desperation sets in, Britain becomes racked with riots – rebellion is in the air.

The Year Without Summer is the story of the books written, the art made; of the journeys taken, of the love longed for and the lives lost during that fateful year. Six separate lives, connected only by an event many thousands of miles away. Few had heard of Tambora – but none could escape its effects.

I’m a huge fan of Guinevere Glasfurd’s writing, and really enjoyed her debut novel, The Words in my Hand. Her second offering, an evocative tale of how one natural event can influence the course of many disparate lives, was just as wonderful. The way in which Glasfurd weaves her narrative is masterful, as she brings together a cast of well-drawn characters, from those on the cusp of making history, to ordinary folk just trying to survive. This writer has a real talent for bringing history to life on the page, and I look forward to seeing what she will write next.

Mistletoe Mishaps – Tracy Broemmer

If there’s anything Nic Collier likes less than decorating for Christmas, it’s being called out on local TV news to do just that. When anchorwoman Hailey Gerritsen challenges her to participate in the Christmas decorating contest sponsored by her own news station, Nic has no choice but to play along.

Enter Scott Woodrow, news cameraman, owner of a smokin’ hot body, and all-around nice guy. When Scott shows up to help Nic with her Christmas lights, she assumes none other than Hailey Gerritsen put him up to it.

But as the two of them work side-by-side to finish the decorating, Nic finds herself drawn to Scott and actually enjoying the decorating project and the holiday season.

Will Nic’s newfound holiday cheer last through the season, or will ghosts from her past ruin yet another holiday?

This novella was my festive reading choice for 2020, and it certainly did not disappoint. I’ve read quite a number of Tracy Broemmer’s books now, and she is fast becoming one of my favourite authors of contemporary romance. I really enjoyed the mistletoe premise, and the way in which a lighthearted piece of Christmas folklore propels the characters’ journey along. If you’re looking for a heartwarming love story laced with Christmas cheer, then this book is for you.

The Dead Girl’s Stilettos – Quinn Avery

After a Jane Doe is murdered in journalist Bexley Squires’s hometown, she’s hired by one of Hollywood’s brightest stars to clear his name as a suspect. But her skills as an amateur sleuth weren’t enough to find her missing sister. Does she have what it takes to find a killer?

When she returns to California, she discovers the elite seaside community of Papaya Springs has become more corrupt than she imagined. All too soon, she stumbles into a web of twisted games played by the rich and famous. Along with the detective in charge of the case, who also happens to be her high school crush, she’ll uncover a level of depravity unlike anything she’s ever known.

Murder and scandal under the hot California skies – what’s not to like? I really enjoyed this first book in Quinn Avery’s Bexley Squires series. It is a well-paced mystery with twists and turns aplenty, which I am sure fans of this genre will find satisfying. The heroine’s return to her hometown, her re-connection with her teen crush and the question of her missing sister all add further depth and interest to the story. Quinn Avery has been prolific in writing this series, a number of which are now available. They are on my to-read list for 2021.

Book Review: The Cold, Black Sea by Campbell Hart

There’s something rotten at the heart of the Balfour family. These three stories highlight the darker side of a shared history, told through the voices of different generations.

The Sniper: as the bloodiest battle of WW1 rages all around them, three friends find themselves facing a phantom sniper deep in no-man’s land. Set against the horror of the Somme one thing is certain: you never see the shots, and the marksman never misses.

The Rocking Stone: the vengeful spirit of the Lady of Threepwood stalks Cuff Hill, bringing death to those who catch her eye. When a black metal box is unearthed in an ancient grave, a young girl’s life is transformed. Only the Rocking Stone holds the answers, with the truth found in the ancient fire cast out from the otherworld.

The Cold, Black Sea: A dying woman returns home for the final time, but with her judgement clouded by visions of the past and present, nothing is quite as it seems. As she tries to lay her demons to rest she’s dogged by a journalist determined to uncover a terrible secret.

There’s no escape from the cold, black sea.

The Cold, Black Sea is the latest release from Scottish noir author Campbell Hart. It comprises a trio of ghost stories, all linked by their connection to one family through a number of generations. I had previously read The Sniper and The Rocking Stone when they were published individually, and it was very satisfying to see them brought together with The Cold, Black Sea, a story which packs a considerable punch in rounding off the tragic tales of the Balfours.

The Sniper is a strikingly original ghost story, set on the battlefields of the Somme during the First World War. It is a disorientating read, told from the perspectives of three different young men from Glasgow as they grapple with ghostly sightings on the western front. Hart deploys fragmented, multiple first person narratives to great effect, drawing the reader into a gruesome hellscape in which it is often unclear what is real and what is imagined. Herein lies the story’s magic, and when the mist clears at the conclusion, the sense of futility and tragedy is palpable.

If The Sniper draws upon the horrors of relatively recent history, The Rocking Stone reaches out to the magic of the ancient past. It is a story of spells and curses, of old druid legends and the price paid by those who get caught up in them. Using multiple first person points of view, Hart weaves a richly descriptive and creepy tale with an unexpected twist. The protagonists are members of the Balfour family, and are relatives of one of the young soldiers in the first story. By the end of this second story, there is a growing sense that this particular family is cursed.

The concluding story, The Cold, Black Sea, is a masterful piece of noir storytelling. Haunted by the past, a present day Balfour seeks to lay ghosts to rest while confronting her own impending demise. Again Hart deploys a fragmented, multi-perspective narrative to great effect, leaving the reader with a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right. And, of course, it isn’t: the fates of the previous generations hang heavy over the protagonist, but so do her own secrets. When all is revealed at the conclusion it is breathtakingly dark, and for fans of this genre, enormously satisfying.

A highly recommended collection, perfect for Halloween. Five Stars. Get your copy here.

***I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.***

Book Review: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

“The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds”

Mary Barton, the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, is beautiful but has been born poor. Her father fights for the rights of his fellow workers, but Mary wants to make a better life for them both. She rashly decides to reject her lover Jem, a struggling engineer, in the hope of marrying the rich mill-owner’s son Henry Carson and securing a safe future. But when Henry is shot down in the street and Jem becomes the main suspect, Mary finds herself hopelessly torn between them. She also discovers an unpleasant truth – one that could bring tragedy upon everyone, and threatens to destroy her.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s debut novel is my first classic novel of the year, having set myself a goal of reading more classic literature, particularly focusing on nineteenth century novelists. I must say that prior to reading this I was already a fan of Gaskell’s work, having greatly enjoyed reading North and South, and watching the TV adaptations of both this and Cranford.

Mary Barton is set in early Victorian Manchester, a grimy, industrial place, where life is hard and poverty is rife. Those familiar with North and South will recognise the early emergence of similar themes: the plight of the poor, the apparent indifference of the wealthy, and the class tensions bred in large part by the socio-economic precarity faced by all. As in her subsequent novel, Mrs Gaskell addresses these overarching themes with sympathy and understanding, giving them context through her setting and relevance to her characters, thus demonstrating both their complexity and dire consequences.

The novel is written with a third-person omniscient narrative voice, a highly fashionable choice of narrative in Mrs Gaskell’s era. As a result, the narrator knows all of the characters’ thoughts, feelings and motivations, as well as their pasts, presents and futures. For modern readers, used to the more limited omniscience and the subtleties of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ which are common traits in modern literature, this can take a bit of getting used to. However, the narrative style doesn’t detract from the dramatic elements of the story, as the novel is well structured to ensure that the reader doesn’t learn everything all at once.

The title character, Mary, is a well-drawn and sympathetic heroine, who develops through the novel from a naive girl who makes some youthful mistakes into a brave young woman who, despite facing impossible choices, determines to chart the correct course. Like most of Gaskell’s characters Mary isn’t perfect, which serves to make her more endearing. The supporting cast around her is also wonderful, and I particularly warmed to Mary’s friend, Margaret, and her grandfather, Job Legh. At times I found Mary’s two love interests, Henry and Jem, a little two-dimensional; Henry’s sudden death means that his feelings towards Mary are never fully explored, whilst Jem is absent for great swathes of the novel, only really coming into his own towards the end. I would have liked to have known them both better, but overall this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel.

Finally, the dialogue is rich and authentic, filled with wonderful dialect words and expressions from the period. As a Lancastrian it was a joy to read; I could hear those Mancunian accents clearly in my head. For those less familiar with northern English dialects, the public domain edition I purchased included a glossary of terms embedded in the text, which at times proved useful.

A compelling read which clearly evokes nineteenth century northern life. Five stars.

Book Review: Eagle Mountain by Hillary Devisser

Marie walked out on her husband after the second slap and has been standing on her own two well-heeled feet ever since. To say she has trust issues is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In her opinion, a steady man is a luxury, not a necessity.

Cole has a long history of impulsivity and a savior complex as big as his shoe size. A laundry list of guilt and bad decisions follow him wherever he goes. What he lacks in judgement he makes up for with heart and good intentions.

Thrown together by fate, the unlikely pair must decide whether what they have is love or just the thrill of the chase.

Eagle Mountain is the fourth book in Hillary Devisser’s Coal Country series of romance novels set in southern Illinois. Having read and enjoyed Eagle Mountain’s three predecessors, I was eagerly anticipating this latest instalment of lovely, uplifting reads. I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed.

The heroine of the story is Marie, a fiercely independent woman from St Louis who has had more than her fair share of tough times. Bitter experience has hardened her views on love, and in the wake of yet another failed romance, she decides to take a break from the city and do some much-needed healing against the backdrop of a forest retreat. There she meets Cole, whom fans of the series may remember as one of the male protagonists from the first Coal Country novel, The Fishing Hole. Like Marie, Cole comes with a whole lot of baggage, but it seems like it’s not always opposites that attract and, very quickly, sparks begin to fly. But with old habits dying hard and old flames reappearing, the path to true love is far from smooth.

As in the previous books, Devisser employs a third-person narrative, which works well for giving equal insight into both protagonists’ thoughts and experiences. Devisser has a talent for creating likable, memorable characters, with Marie and Cole being no exception. For the avid reader of this series, there is the added bonus that Devisser reintroduces characters from the previous books in a supporting cast of relatable, down-to-earth people who bring a smile to your face. Equally smile-inducing is the setting; the small town, the dense forests and the mountain roads, all beautifully described. I’ve never visited southern Illinois, but Devisser’s writing makes me feel as though I should.

Eagle Mountain is a gently-paced read, but not without its twists and turns – the ending, in particular, was quite unexpected. Like the previous Coal Country novels, however, it succeeds in being a real feel-good romance. This is the sort of book you can curl up with on a chilly autumn day, whilst wearing woolly socks and sipping a mug of hot chocolate. Five stars.

Eagle Mountain will be released on 1st October 2019. Pre-order your copy here. To find out more about Hillary Devisser’s books, visit her website or Goodreads page.