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Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silver

Many years ago in another life, I used to do weekly book reviews – back when I averaged about one book every week.

 

When I started Bert’s Books, the idea was simply to monetise the blog by offering the books I reviewed for sale. Of course, as many of you will know, Bert’s grew to be something much bigger than I’d ever anticipated and instead of merely a diversion while I looked for a ‘real job’ it became my ACTUAL job.

 

Ironically, the reviews were one of the first things I ended up stopping because I didn’t have the time.

 

I’m not sure if I still don’t have the time but I wanted to try – because I’m reading so many great books that I want to share them with as many people as I can.

 

Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey is one such book.

 

It starts with Thora escaping a club in Cologne – a get-to-know-you night for students at the university. It’s too noisy and crowded for her, so she heads to her private space in the cemetery for some peace and quiet.

 

But there’s someone there. Santi is lying on his back in front of the broken clock tower looking up at the stars.

 

The two of them talk and though not exactly friendly there is clearly a spark of something between them. They egg each other on and encourage themselves to climb to the top of the tower for a better look at the stars.

 

They spend a wonderful evening together and Thora’s convinced that they may well become best friends – until a short time later when she discovers that Santi died, falling from the tower.

 

It seems the story is over before it can really begin. But then…

 

Santi is a teacher, a class of eight-year-olds, amongst whom is young Thora who wants to be an astronaut when she grows up…

 

We alternate from Santi to Thora as they live their many lives – sometimes they’re friends, other times teacher and student, or lovers. Or siblings. Whatever they are, wherever they start, they are destined to meet each other again and again and again.

 

This is the sort of book where it didn’t take much of a pitch for me to want to read it. I love quirky fiction where reality is as it should be, but distorted by something unexplainable.

 

Like The Time Traveler’s Wife or The First Time Lauren Pailing Died– this book is firmly grounded in reality, but with an added twist of something unexplainable. The characters don’t realise that anything weird is going on – at least at first – and so the beginning third of the book is more like a collection of short stories.

 

But, whatever they are, whatever age they are when we meet them, the characters are the same and so we learn more about them, in all their guises as the book goes on, so with each ‘short story’ we become more and more invested.

 

That’s the over-arching question the book asks. Is it possible to know everything about a person? Even if we spend all our time with someone, share every waking thought, can we really know their true self if we don’t experience them as a teacher, brother, mother, lover?

 

It’s branded as science fiction – a mistake to my way of thinking – but it’s about as traditionally sci-fi as the Time Traveler’s Wife is fantasy.

 

I always try not to give spoilers in my reviews – and there’ll be no change to that policy here – but, I do want to talk about the ending, if only to tell you that it works.

 

Some books with a ‘gimmick’ like this don’t always end in a satisfactory manner, not quite answering all the questions – or worse trying to explain why and how everything happened and managing to take the magic out of it as they do.

 

This is the opposite. I thought the explanation that we got,  that the characters got worked really well and tied up Thora and Santi’s story(/stories) in a perfect way.

 

This is Silvey’s debut novel and not since The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has a debut novel felt so ambitious and accomplished – I can’t wait to see what she does next.

 

In the meantime, I may just have to revisit Meet Me In Another Life because it’s a book that definitely invites an immediate re-read. And you may just want to read it again. And again. And again…

 

Meet Me In Another Life is published in Hardback on 8th July 2021 – you can pre-order it here.

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Bert’s February 2021 Reads

I’ve decided I need to actually keep track of the number of books I read each month – and what better way to do that than blogging about them?

In February I read 9 books – and I enjoyed them all, but for those that care about that sort of thing, I’ve ranked them!

They’re all available to purchase – or pre-order. If it sounds like your thing, or if you’d just like to find out more, then just click on the links

 

9. The Sunshine Kid by Harry Baker

This is book of collected poems – and I’m not normally a poetry fan, but these are very modern, very funny poems.

I saw Harry Baker live at the Edinburgh fringe and I was blown away.

I since watched all his stuff on YouTube. You should definitely check him out – seeing him perform the poems is better than reading them yourself!

 

8. What’s the T? by Juno Dawson

This is a book aimed at young adults who are confused (or perhaps even certain) about their gender. It explains everything they might expect from starting their trans journey as well as sensitive advice that being trans isn’t a one size fits all situation.

This is a perfect book for the target audience, but I read it wanting to learn more about what it means to be transgender and it also helped me understand what other people might be going through and just how I can help. This is the kind of book we should all read, because you never known when a young person in your life might need your help.

 

7. Final Cut by SJ Watson

Final Cut features Blackwood Bay – an ordinary place. It’s a seaside destinatin where tourism has dwindled thanks to the economic downturn.

Alex decides it’s the perfect place to shoot her documentary, but she faces suspicion when she arrives from the locals. Why is she there? Nothing exciting ever happens in Blackwood Bay. Does it?

I thought I was so clever when I worked out a twist early on – but when it was revealed just a few short pages later, I realised I had an exciting ride on my hands. This is a great read!

 

6. Beast by Matt Wesolowski

Beast is the fourth book in Wesolowski’s Scott King series in which the investigative journalist looks into complicated cases and broadcasts his findings in a podcast.

Three people have been convicted of Elizabeth Barton’s murder, but through six interviews King begins to dig deeper into the case for the truth.

This one is set during 2018 when the Beast from the East descended on Britain leaving a blanket of snow behind and even though it’s told after the event, it feels incredibly realistic. You can really feel the cold wind blowing through – and it’s almost as chilling as the story itself.

 

5. Deity by Matt Wesolowski

Zach Crystal is a cultural phenomenon, rock star, enigma, Deity. Or at least he was.

Now, he’s dead, burned in a fire and the world is mourning. But among the mourners there is an ever-increasing number of dissenters, people claiming that the truth behind his charitable work may be darker than it appears.

Scott King is out to investigate in the latest series of Six Stories.

This explores our relationship with popular culture, how we blindly worship people we don’t really know… and how we continue to do so, despite the truth suggesting we really shouldn’t. This is such a great series and I can’t wait to read more.

 

4. Jigsaw Man by Nadine Matheson

Anjelica Henley is taken from desk duty and put back on a live case when body parts are found along the Thames. They bear the hallmarks of notorious serial killer Peter Olivier, but he’s safely locked up in jail. So is this a copycat killer?

Henley heads to the prison to seek Olivier’s help in catching this new killer, but seeing as she was the one who put him inside in the first place, helping her is the last thing on his mind…

Like all detective stories, this one works really well, not because of the crime story, but because of the detective investigating it. I loved getting to know Henley as she battled to save future victims – as well as her own personal life. Definitely a character I’m looking forward to seeing more of in the future.

 

3. Common Ground by Naomi Ishiguro

Stan is being bullied at his new school and it’s making him miserable. Each day after school he spends time on the common, away from the boys at his school and his mum at home.

It’s on the common where he meets Charlie, a charismatic boy a few years older than him and they become instant friends. Charlie is a traveller and while Stan has no problems with that, there are plenty of people do and their friendship is cut short… until years later when they meet up again in London.

This is a great book and Charlie is an instantly likeable character in the first part, so that by the time you meet him in the second you are really drawn into what’s changed for him to make him so downbeat.

 

2. The Secret life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain

When Albert Entwistle is told he must retire, he starts to reflect on his lonely life and realises how alone he truly is.

He starts to look back on his life, how his father’s negative reaction to gay men forced him into a closet he never left, and he realises that in order to move on and finally start living, he needs to track down George, the boy he fell in love with nearly fifty years ago.

I really enjoyed this gentle, uplifting story about a man who has let his secret dominate his entire life. Ultimately, it’s a story about community and finding people around us who we can let in and enhance our lives.

And reminding us, it’s never too late!

 

1. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

In 1972, three lighthouse keepers vanish from the tower in the days between Christmas and New Year. They’ve been living there on their own for weeks, waiting for the next relief to arrive, but when he does, there’s no sign of them.

The clocks are stopped at 9.15 and the door is locked. So where are they?

Twenty years later, a writer approaches the women left behind to try and help them settle the mystery. But do they know more than they’re letting on. And why aren’t they speaking anymore?

This is a brilliant, atmospheric read. I could feel the wind and the waves around me as I tore through the pages, desperate to get to the end and solve the mystery. I think this will be one of my favourite books of the year.

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A Little Life – A Big Review

This post was originally published back in 2015 in a previous life, on a previous blog. I thought I’d share it for you now so you can see just why I love A Little Life so much 

 

It’s not often that I’m wrong, it’s an even more infrequent occurrence that I admit that I’m wrong. But I was.

Earlier this year, I read A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and I wouldn’t stop raving about it. I even, what now seems a touch prematurely, considering it was January, billed it as my book of 2015.

I was wrong.

And that’s not to do down A Place Called Winter, it’s still within my top five books of all time, and most other years, would easily win the book of the year title.

But, a few months ago, a book by Hanya Yanagihara landed on my desk at work. It’s a big brick of a book, over seven hundred pages, and I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even read the blurb, but I was told by a colleague that I would enjoy it. Mostly because he knew I enjoyed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

So what was I expecting? The great American novel. A bit of a saga. Not much else.

The blurb tells us it is the tale of four friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But really, it is the story of Willem and Jude. But REALLY, it is the story of Jude.

We meet them when they’ve first moved to New York and Willem and Jude are looking for a place to live together. It is made clear at the very beginning, they are not a couple, nor are they brothers. They are simply friends. Best friends.

And that is what the story is about; the importance of friendship, how it effects our lives and how it can be bigger, yet more uncategorised than romantic love, than sexual love.

A Little Life is the story of love between men. It explores all aspects of it, and it does so beautifully, and yet so tragically.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novel without giving anything away, or indeed without going on for pages about the tiny point that you want to talk about, so perhaps the best thing to do is to tell you about the structure of the book.

The titular little life in question is that of Jude St Francis, and it is through a non-linear construction that we learn about it. He is mysterious, and reluctant to talk about his past, to the point that his friends, his closest friends know nothing of him, except not to ask.

It is over seven hundred pages long, but each section, each chapter, feels like its own book. We learn in them the stories of all four characters to varying degrees, and though some of the chapters are as long as eighty pages, the prose and the characters are so elegantly drawn, it is impossible not to get swept away.

Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote in the Bookseller that she read the book in one night. This is unbelievable, believable, and unbelievable again all at once.

Initially, the size of the book is off-putting. It certainly doesn’t strike you as a quick read and the first thirty to forty pages are confusing. There are so many male twenty-something characters that it is difficult to tell them apart.

But then, something clicks and you’re not just able to tell the characters apart, but they have started to become part of you. The book starts to become part of you and although you kind of broadly know what’s going to happen, you have to read on. And that’s when you understand how it’s possible to have read it one night.

The desire to read on is strong, but what I can’t understand, is how anyone can be emotionally stable enough to read it in one sitting. There is a point about a third of the way through – and I don’t think this spoils anything – where the tragic background of Jude starts to become clear, and you realise that this is a book that’s going to break your heart.

That’s not to say it is filled with unrelenting misery. I read A Little Life at the same time that I downloaded Will Young’s latest album 85% Proof. It’s a typical Will Young album, cracking vocals, a little bit dance-y but quite melancholy, but I had it playing in the background as I read parts of the book, and every song on it seemed to fit the plot.

Three songs stand out:

Thank You – a song from Jude to Caleb

Blue – a song from Willem to Jude, that actually contains the line “We live a little life”

And Joy – a song that is melodically upbeat and happy, but is lyrically about hope. “Nothing really matters, we’ve got everything we need, take a big leap and we will feel joy.”

It’s a song about daring to hope that things are going to work out, and that is the pervading feeling that you get from this book. Life is miserable, bad things happen, but the characters in this book are not just living little lives, they’re living great ones, because of the relationships and friendships that they form with each other.

There’s a whole section of the book in the last third called “The Happy Years” and by the time you get there and you see the heading, your heart sinks, because you know that nothing is going to stay happy, by this point, you know it’s a book that’s not only going to break your heart, it’s going to shatter it and use the bits to create itself a home.

And there are moments during The Happy Years where you’re screaming at the characters, urging them to just… well, I shan’t say. But you are. They’re making themselves miserable and it’s unbearable.

Then, at the end of The Happy Years, at their happiest, something happens, in the last three to four paragraphs. I had to put the book down and walk away.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were maybe a hundred pages or so left. I had time to finish it before going for dinner at my mum’s, but by this point, I knew that I would not be in any state come the end of the book, where I would be able to be around people, let alone make small talk with my granddad and mum.

I came back in the evening, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and began to read.

I started with Will Young playing in the background, but it became clear after just one page that the music wasn’t suitable. Not because it didn’t match, but because I was being sucked into this world. Into Jude’s world.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that first part of the last section is told from Jude’s point of view – as I’ve already said, the book is told in a non-linear structure – and I started to cry.

I’m not a big crier. I’m not emotional. But sometimes when watching a film, or a TV program, a small tear will escape. It happens more often with books, where one or two tears will trickle down my face. It last happened with A Place Called Winter, and previously to that it happened with the book that I won’t name (I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s becoming less and less important to me that I don’t share it, perhaps one day, I will).

In the space of 98 pages, I cried four times. A trickle or two of a tear. Maybe on one occasion three tears, because I really screwed up my face and squeezed that third one out. This was surprising enough to me, to know that A Little Life had truly affected me, but then…

The last section of the book is a letter from Harold – Jude’s adoptive father, and it had made a tear escape already once. And then there is the payoff to a moment three or four hundred pages earlier and I immediately started to sob.

Big, unmanly, tears misting my eyes, properly crying.

I had to put the book down, two pages from the end, because I couldn’t see to read. I had to compose myself before I could bring myself to carry on any further.

To people who want more than plot from their books, the kind of person who might enjoy The Goldfinch, then I would ask you to please read this book, to stick with it past that first confusing section (which by the way, I think is intentional, because it seems ridiculous now, that one could confuse any of these characters).

I was wrong when I said A Place Called Winter was my book of the year. It’s still a very good book, one of the best. But, if there’s a book better than A Little Life, I don’t have the emotional strength to read it for at least six months, and so I am crowning A Little Life my book of 2015.

It’s probably the book of my life.

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Review: The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd

Sometimes a publisher will hit on a winning formula for a book and suddenly we’ll see the publishing slate with similar titles. Similar jackets. Similar titles.

One of these mini-trends recently has seen the full name of the protagonist appears in the title with reference to an unlikely quantity of their death.

I avoid picking up these books, because I’ve read one of them and though I liked it, I don’t want to read it again. I want something new. It’s not necessarily an approach of book selection I recommend – it’s often just a marketing ploy and the book itself is very much its own story.

The latest book to prove me wrong is The First Time Lauren Pailing Died by Alyson Rudd.

Lauren Pailing is a young girl when she first discovers there is something different about her. Occasionally, she can get glimpses into other worlds where things are different to hers. Sometimes they’re only small differences, other times they’re big ones.

She thinks this is normal, but when she starts to receive funny looks from her parents, her teachers, her friends she starts to self-censor about what she reveals.

Then she dies.

Except she doesn’t. In the moment before her death, Lauren gets a glimpse at another life, one where she doesn’t die in the accident, and she travels through to it.

The timeline splinters and – much like Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow – we follow the different worlds as the same characters traverse different events, and each of them deal with grief.

In one world, her parents deal with the grief of losing their child. In another, Lauren deals with the grief of losing her old life and having to adjust to this new one where things are ever so slightly different.

Later in life, Lauren shifts again and in her latest world, she starts trying to investigate what has happened to her. We end up following a few different worlds, which sounds like it could be confusing, but Rudd cleverly ensures we follow a different character in each one.

The concept of parallel worlds is explored, but only obliquely. The bizarreness of the worlds is only lightly touched upon by Lauren who can sense that things are different, but isn’t quite sure what.

There’s only one jarring moment when discussing the differences which makes the reader realise just how different the world is, but I sense this is purposeful from Rudd. The point of this book isn’t the things that change between the worlds – it’s the things that stay the same.

The characters are all grieving, all of them going through the same thing and you root for them all, even though, they can’t all possibly be happy in all worlds.

I’m giving The First Time Lauren Pailing Died 7.9 out of 10. You can order your copy now for just £8.99

 

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Review: Proximity by Jem Tugwell

Proximity by Jem Tugwell  

 

ProximityOne of my goals when I started Bert’s Books was to find good books that you might not normally find.

 

That’s either because they don’t have big marketing budgets, or they simply get lost among one of the other hundreds of books that get published every week.

 

From indie publisher Serpentine Books, Proximity by Jem Tugwell is exactly that.

 

It’s the first in a new series ‘iMe’ and follows DI Clive Lussac as he struggles in an underfunded homicide department to investigate a murder. At the same time, he must contend with a marriage that’s broken down.

 

So far, so very like many other police procedurals. What sets Proximity apart from the rest?

 

It’s set in the very near future and through the eyes of Lussac, it appears to be quite a bleak one.

 

Technology has evolved to the point where every citizen is microchipped meaning that when a crime occurs, the police can find out exactly who was in the vicinity at the time.

 

It means that any ‘proximity’ crimes such as violent assaults, murder, kidnap have been all but eliminated. They do still exist, but for Lussac in the homicide department, all he needs to do is press a few buttons and – bam! – crime solved.

 

He almost longs for the old days when solving crimes actually meant doing some real police work.

 

So, when a body is found with no proximity data, he must rely on his long-forgotten detective skills to track the murderer the old-fashioned way – before they strike again.

 

What I liked about this book was that the world it inhabits feels very real. Sometimes you can read books set in the future that don’t feel relatable, but this definitely feels like it could be something we’re headed towards.

 

It feels like we only get a glimpse of the changes – and most of them are presented in a negative light by the curmudgeonly Lussac, so I’m looking forward to finding out more about this world in the next book in the series.

 

One thing it does reveal to us – if we didn’t already know it – is that crime will always find a way and that there will always be those who believe themselves to be above the law.

 

I’m giving Proximity 7.6 out of 10 – and if you like Proximity check out The Warehouse

 

Buy Proximity by Jem Tugwell

 

Pre-order the sequel No Signal now

 

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Review: Bone China by Laura Purcell

In a past life, I was responsible for shortlisting books for a prize, and I read some books I wouldn’t normally read.

9781526602534One of those – and eventual winner of the prize – was the gothic horror novel The Silent Companions. Before reading this, I wasn’t really a fan of historical fiction, but it really seems to have converted me into the genre.

Bone China is the latest from author Laura Purcell.

It features Hester Why, a nurse who has moved to a remote part of the Cornish coast to avoid her own past. There she meets the strange inhabitants of Morvoren House, including the frail lady of the house Louise Pinecroft.

Hester is trying to keep a low profile, but also, she knows that something strange is going on and she starts trying to get to the bottom of it.

We alternate between Hester’s story and forty years previously when Louise first moves to the house with her father, a doctor who is trying to cure consumption.

The character that links the two stories is the creepy Creeda, a young maid that starts at the house when Louise and her father first move in. She comes from a family that produces Bone China and it’s this crockery that forms part of the gothic mystery.

I think I enjoyed this more than Silent Companions – it really pulls you into the world that you can almost feel the wind whistling around you as Louise walks across the cliffs.

Like Silent Companions it presents a gothic mystery, one that it doesn’t fully explain as well, so it leaves open the possibility that the fairies are real.

I gave Bone China 7.8/10

You can buy a signed hardback edition of Bone China while stocks last

Also Available:

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Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I read Daisy Jones & The Six right at the beginning of 2019 and declared then that I thought it was going to be one of my favourite books of the year.

I haven’t stopped banging on about it since then, so it seemed the right time to finally get around to doing my review of it.

It’s also part of Bert’s Books of the Year on twitter – check it out. #BBOTY

Set in the 1970’s, it’s the story of an average rock band who release the defining record of the era when they collaborate with Daisy Jones.

It has a unique way of telling the story – it’s a transcript of a Talking Heads TV documentary. The unseen interviewer speaks to various members of the band as well as people who were around the band as they rose to fame.

There are some members who don’t get spoken to, though it’s not clear why – is there a rift? Have they died? All options are quite possible as we learn about the bonds that formed amongst the band members – and the bonds that broke down over time.

It’s fascinating to see the relationships change, plus the different perceptions of different events. You almost forget that these aren’t real people – in fact, I had to google just to check.

Though it’s a book, you can almost hear the album sound-tracking the story, so it becomes a bit of a disappointment once you get to the end that the album doesn’t actually exist.

I was a bit put off at the beginning because the style is so different, however you very quickly get into the rhythm of it and the characters – particularly Billy and Daisy – end up staying with you longer after the final page.

It’s being made into a mini-series set to air on Amazon Video, and with Reese Witherspoon set to executive produce it looks like it will be a big hit, so make sure you’ve caught up on the book beforehand.

I’m giving Daisy Jones & The Six 8.6 / 10

 

You can buy Daisy Jones & The Six in hardback now

Or pre-order the paperback edition now

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Review: The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

In a past life I used to write book reviews every week (you can find them over at alexjcall.wordpress.com) – but setting up a website, and reading about a million books a month has taken up all my time and I’ve not done any in-depth reviews for a while.

 

Fortunately, I’ve become much more productive AND I’ve built a new spreadsheet (you should know by now, I love a spreadsheet) which will help me not only keep track of the millions of books but also score them based on five factors:

 

  • Genre
  • Character
  • Engagement
  • Plot
  • Diversity

 

I’ll talk more about these measures, why they’re important in and how I measure them in more depth in the future, but for now, it’s time to look at the first book to receive the Bert’s review treatment.

 

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

The Vanished Bride

The Vanished Bride is the first in a new historical crime series: The Brontë Mysteries.

 

As the name suggests, the book focuses on the Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – as they solve crime in the sleepy setting of Haworth in West Yorkshire.

 

We join the sisters in the summer of 1845 when Charlotte receives news from her friend Matilda, a governess at nearby Chester Grange. Her mistress is missing and her bedroom is covered in blood.

 

It is Anne who first suggests that they investigate, having read about detectorists in the paper, but it is Emily who runs with it, determined that it not be against the wit of three intelligent women to be able to solve the mystery.

 

The three of them set off to Chester Grange to find out more about what has happened, and from there they find themselves embroiled in a plot that only gets more befuddling the further they look into it.

 

Bella Ellis is the pseudonym of Rowan Coleman, author of – amongst many other things – The Summer of Impossible Things. This is meant as a compliment, but if I hadn’t known that this book was written by Coleman, I wouldn’t have been able to guess.

 

I’ve never read any of the Brontës before, but the three sisters are written completely in period style, as if a classic Victorian writer had written the book themselves. The dialogue and their thoughts immediately take you straight into nineteenth century life, such that you simply cease to notice it’s a historical novel at all.

 

The plot itself is a satisfying mystery which is resolved without resorting to hiding anything from the audience, and definitely left me wanting more from the sisters – each of whom have distinct personalities.

 

It is clear Ellis/Coleman has a great fondness for the Brontës and as she notes herself in the acknowledgements, while there is no evidence that the sisters solved crime in their spare time, neither is there any evidence that they didn’t.

 

I’m not sure the book is enough to make me want to read anything by the Brontës, but it has definitely made me want to find out more about them – perhaps even a trip to Haworth is in order to see the parsonage.

 

A few notes on the scoring before I reveal it –

  • I favour a 1–10 scale as I think 5 doesn’t give a lot of difference.
  • I’m a harsh judge – I’ve never given a book perfect marks before – truly exceptional books will get a 9.
  • I’ll not review books which score less than five – it means I don’t recommend them, which means we don’t need to talk about them.

 

I’ve given The Vanished Bride 7.1 out of 10 – it’s available to buy now in hardback.

 

It’s a great book which I loved, and has definitely made my list of favourite books of this year.