#BookReview ‘Thornyhold’ by Mary Stewart #romance #mystery

Browsing at the library I came upon a Mary Stewart novel I hadn’t heard of. Thornyhold. Of course, I couldn’t resist picking it up and putting it on top of my To-Read pile. It’s a small novel, only 212 pages and I read it in two sittings. Published in 1988, Thornyhold is one of Stewart’s last – her first was Madam, Will You Talk? in 1955 – and this is very different from the romantic suspense stories for which she is known and loved. Mary Stewart Gilly Ramsey inherits Thornyhold, a remote cottage, from her mysterious godmother Geillis. Now alone after the recent death of her father, Gilly plans to start a new life at Thornyhold. As she explores the cottage – its mysterious attic which doubles as a pigeon loft, a still room for drying herbs and making herbal cures – she learns more about her benefactor. There are more questions than answers. As a child, Gilly had always found Geillis enigmatic; she appeared when Gilly seemed to need her, one time producing a crystal ball from her bag. Now, as she meets her new neighbours, Gilly learns the history of the house and her godmother’s reputation as a herbal healer. But was she more, a witch or wise woman? Although odd dreams, a barking dog and strange messages sent by carrier pigeon, unsettle her, Gilly has an inner belief that she belongs at Thornyhold. Nothing will make her leave.
Having recently a read a lot of contemporary novels with dense repetitive emotional description and complicated plots, reading Thornyhold felt like drinking a tall glass of water when desperately thirsty. Such a wonderful turn of phrase, clever and thoughtful, but accurate and never over-done. Gilly meets a neighbour who she describes as having smooth rosy cheeks and ‘the wrong red too thick on a small mouth,’ and I know exactly what she means.
Beautifully written, not a word out of place, not a character too many. Delightful. An instant favourite.

Click the title to read my reviews of other Mary Stewart novels:-

If you like this, try these:-
The Diabolical Bones’ by Bella Ellis
Ferney’ by James Long
The Good People’ by Hannah Kent

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#BookReview ‘The Birdcage’ by Eve Chase #mystery

Three half-sisters, an artist father, a crumbling house on a cliff in Cornwall and a mystery event in their past which no-one discusses. The Birdcage by Eve Chase is about fractured families, the unity and division of a shared secret and the need to acknowledge the past in order to face the future. Eve ChaseTold in two timelines – 2019 and 1999 – the story unfolds slowly and takes a while to settle down. The story of the mystery is a long time coming. Three half-sisters – Lauren, Flora, Kat – are summoned to their father’s summer home in Cornwall. Artist Charlie Finch has a chequered history with women, demonstrated by assorted female nude sketches his daughters find in his studio. Charlie is cagey about the reason for summoning them to Rock Point; is he ill, dying, retiring, moving house? As well as trying to work out what’s going on with their father, the three sisters must also unravel their own demons. Lauren is mourning the death of her mother Dixie. Flora, accompanied by two-year old son Raff, struggles beneath the suffocating control of her husband. Kat’s relationship has broken up and her business is in trouble. Add in Charlie’s art studio assistant Angie, former cleaning lady Viv and a mysterious stranger who walks a black dog on the nearby cliffs, and there’s a lot going on.
Everything hangs on an incident twenty years earlier. In 1999, the three teenage sisters are gathered at their grandparents’ house Rock Point for summer with their father who is painting in his studio. The sisters live with their mothers and see each other rarely. It is the summer of the total eclipse of the sun on August 11, a true event. Chase makes much of the strange atmosphere that day, something in the air, the sense that something was going to happen. The story takes a while to get to the secret which is at the root of the constant sibling sniping and jealousy, but this is a journey the sisters personally must travel in order to understand how it made them into the complex adults of 2019.
By the end of the book I still wasn’t one hundred per cent clear which mother belonged to which daughter. The timeline jumps around and many peripheral characters are mentioned lightly and either never or infrequently appear at Rock Point. The final section, after the big reveal, takes a long time to wrap up. Curiously, the Cornish location is incidental. Rock Point, which could be situated on an isolated cliff anywhere, is the strong point. With its idiosyncratic furnishings, aviary of birds, creaks and rumbles, what secrets does this house have to tell?
An atmospheric read – weather plays a big part plus anonymous notes, a dark stranger, talking parrot and slashed car tyre – and the 1999 eclipse at its heart.

Click the title below to read my reviews of two other novels by Eve Chase:-

If you like this, try:-
Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore
My Husband the Stranger’ by Rebecca Done
Whistle in the Dark’ by Emma Healey

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#BookReview ‘Never’ by @KMFollett #thriller

I’ve read and enjoyed the excellent historical Kingsbridge series by Ken Follett but have never read one of his contemporary thrillers. Never, his latest, is a fast-moving story that, despite being a hefty 832 pages, I read hungrily. Ken FollettInternational politics, terrorism, drug smuggling form an unstoppable chain of events that move the world, inch by inch, to the edge of horrifying conflict. This is the content of so many dramatic films and books and is the basis for Follett’s story. He makes it powerful by letting the events unfold through the eyes of five people in different countries, each involved in local matters with far-reaching implications. As events spiral, I didn’t want to put the book down. It’s an uncomfortable read, the sensible cautious voices are at times shouted down by the brashest, loudest hard-liners and, like all the best thrillers, it makes you think ‘could this happen’ and ‘what would I do.’
Follett’s narrative is premised on how events unfolded prior to the First World War when a chain of seemingly small things culminated in a global conflict. Never starts in Northern Africa. Abdul works undercover, tracking cocaine shipments used to fund IS’s operations in the region. Tamara Levit works for the CIA in Chad where climate change is edging the rural population closer to starvation, forcing many to trek north to Europe in search of a better life. Border conflict with neighbouring Sudan is a daily threat. Chad’s president is an unpredictable dictator and terrorists are using North Korean and Chinese weapons.
In China, the government is polarising. Chang Kai is 45 and vice-president for international intelligence. He is communist royalty. His father is one of the Chinese old guard, a political hardliner, a traditionalist, but Kai is new generation Chinese. He studied at Princeton and is married to a television actress. President Chen is talked at by both sides. Prior to his election he had the ear of the traditionalists but since has taken moderate decisions. Now the North Korean neighbours are causing trouble. When there are problems in the north, it inevitably draws in not only South Korea but also the Americans and Japanese. In America, President Green is dealing with a truculent teenage daughter, an unhappy husband, and a populist challenger who fills the airwaves with dangerous rhetoric.
This is a scary thriller that makes you gobble up the pages without realising. The story is wide-ranging and is better for it. Well researched and expertly paced. The early chapters are slower as characters and situations are introduced and explored, then as the political tensions and dangers increase the story pace picks up. The ending comes in a rush but that is what happens when communications are down and control is lost.
It leaves you asking, ‘what if.’

Click the titles to read my reviews of other Follett novels:-
THE EVENING AND THE MORNING [Kingsbridge prequel]

If you like this, try:-
Exposure’ by Helen Dunmore
The Travelers’ by Chris Pavone
Last Light’ by Alex Scarrow

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#BookReview NEVER by @KMFollett #thriller https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5R4 via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Diamond Eye’ by @KateQuinnAuthor #WW2

What a wonderful book is The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn. The fictionalised story of a real Soviet female sniper fighting in what is now Ukraine in the early years of the Second World War, this is a novel I didn’t want to put down. Kate QuinnThe life of Kiev resident Mila Pavlichenko, young mother and history student, changes when the Nazis invade. Already an accomplished shot with a rifle, she leaves her young son Slavka with her mother and goes off to war. In the 18 months of her time on the frontline as a sniper, the real Mila scored 309 official ‘kills’. She is injured fighting in Sevastapol and, once recovered, is ordered to join a diplomatic mission to the USA to persuade the Americans to join the European war. The action in America is probably the most fictionalised part of The Diamond Eye which is based in part on Mila’s memoir. Quinn states in her Author’s Note that parts of the memoir are clearly Mila’s own voice, other entries seem like Soviet propaganda.
This is not just a war story with guns and death and trenches. Quinn tells the story of a young woman, torn from all that is familiar, who finds strength inside herself and with her comrade snipers, to do what must be done. Some of her fellow soldiers have brief times at her side; others, the most skilled snipers, survive. She discovers how difficult it is, when you know you may die tomorrow, to open yourself up to friendship, or love. She acquires a nickname, ‘Lady Death,’ and spurns the frequent attentions of her senior officers. Her girlfriends also volunteer, her estranged husband turns up as a combat surgeon, but there are few light moments in her life. Her primary motivation is to defend her homeland, that is the only thing keeping her away from home. Between missions she gathers leaves and sends them to Slavka, she carries her dissertation with her and takes it from her backpack to read to remember the life she once had. Quinn alternates the dark story of Mila’s fighting, first at Odesa and then at Sevastapol, with her later trip to Washington in 1942 plus excerpts from the diary of the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who Mila met on that trip.
This is a shocking story and a compelling one. The sections about sniper technique and tactics are not for the faint-hearted but the current war in Ukraine adds a reality check and there are light-hearted moments in Washington as Mila meets the American press, not alerting her hosts to the fact that she can speak English. Also lightly woven through the fighting sections are snippets of Russian folklore, a reminder that Mila’s country has roots and traditions much older than the Soviet Union.
Quinn creates a heroine we care for. Brave and determined with a sharp edge of sarcasm, this is Mila’s story as imagined by the author. The two parts of the story – the fighting, the subsequent trip to America – are key to the growth of an unusual and exceptional young woman. So what if the final section lurches into ‘thriller’ territory, it made the pages turn even faster.
Highly recommended.

And here’s my review of THE ROSE CODE, another WW2 thriller by Kate Quinn.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Bear and the Nightingale’ by Katherine Arden [#1 Winternight trilogy]
Midnight in Europe’ by Alan Furst
Corpus’ by Rory Clements [#1 Tom Wilde series]

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THE DIAMOND EYE by @KateQuinnAuthor #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5QW via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Drowned City’ by KJ Maitland #historical #crime

The Drowned City by KJ Maitland is first in the Daniel Pursglove historical crime series. Maitland is a new author for me and the premise is fascinating. After the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, King James I is nervous of Catholic rebellion. Pursglove is plucked from prison and offered amnesty if he tracks down an elusive Catholic conspirator, Spero Pottingar, believed to be in Bristol. While there, Daniel must also prove if the recent deadly Bristol flood was a natural disaster or witchcraft. KJ MaitlandI enjoyed the Jacobean setting, unusual in historical crime novels, but found it slow to get going. Daniel’s introduction – we first meet him imprisoned in Newgate – is negative. Why he’s imprisoned isn’t explained, nor do we learn about his life prior to being locked up. But we do know he’s a magician and this sleight of hand proves useful as the story unfolds. I finished the book with no clear idea who Daniel Pursglove is.
The description of the Bristol flooding – a true event – is well done, visceral and moving. Death, destruction, disease, loss of livelihood. Maitland doesn’t spare the reader in her descriptions of violence and rotting corpses. People simply disappeared – drowned, safely embarked on a ship before the flood, or slipped away to start afresh somewhere new. Daniel has no idea if Pottingar is a real person or an invention. He may be in Bristol, have fled, or never been there at all. This gives wonderful opportunities for fictional twists and turns and when the twist came at the end, I was surprised.
The Drowned City is steeped in historical detail but at the expense of plot and character development, possibly because this is the first in the series. More is sure to be unveiled in further books but as the first book, this failed to keep me interested. Daniel’s reason for being in Bristol got lost at times in detailed description and the convoluted factions, with so many clues and red herrings that I got lost and the tension left the page. The middle section was particularly slow.
So, not a page-turner for me but if you like dense historical crime mysteries it may suit you.

If you like this, try:-
Winter Pilgrims’ by Toby Clements
Cecily’ by Annie Garthwaite
The Silver Wolf’ by JC Harvey

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#BookReview ‘The Postcard from Italy’ by @Angela_Petch #WW2

I’ve never been to Puglia in Italy, the south-eastern coast down to the heel, except in the pages of The Postcard from Italy by Angela Petch. Vividly she brings to life the coastline, the stone-built trulli houses, the caves. It is a magical setting. Stretching backwards from today to the closing months of the Second World War, this is an enthralling family story of love and separation. Recognising love when it’s there, but also understanding when it’s absent. Angela PetchIn 1945, Puglia, a young man awakes, injured, disorientated. He doesn’t know who he is or how he came to be in a trullo, a rural stone house, cared for by strangers. The teenage boy Anto explains how his grandfather Domenico saw him fall from a warplane. Called ‘Roberto’ by his rescuers, his memory stubbornly refuses to return. He can speak English and Italian but knows nothing about fishing or farming. As he helps them in their daily routines, gathering food, catching fish, tending vegetables, repairing the trullo, his nights are full of confusing dreams.
In present day Hastings, England, Susannah mourns the recent death of her father Frank and the descent of her grandmother, Elsie, into the clouds of dementia. Clearing Elsie’s house, Susannah finds a yellowing postcard of a beautiful farmhouse in Puglia and a message of love. Realising this is the same farmhouse in a painting by her father but unaware of family links with Italy, she can’t reconcile this message of love with her brittle, acidic grandmother who always preferred Susannah’s blonde-haired younger sister Sybil. So, while a friend looks after her antique bric-a-brac shop at home, Susannah takes a holiday in Puglia. Determined to find the house in her father’s painting, she learns to heal herself, to speak a little Italian and in so doing falls for two handsome men.
Petch uses conventional wartime story themes – amnesia, separation of loved ones, the vulnerability of loneliness and grief, and the fear of those who exploit war for gain – and adds the twists and turns of flirting and love. Petch has written four novels set in Tuscany, so Puglia is a new setting for her but her knowledge of Italy shines on every page. Susannah’s holiday is extended as she turns detective but the clues, when she finds them, bring more questions rather than answers.
Susannah is the spine of the story but my favourite character was Anto, so complex, so brave, so intriguing. This is a wonderful book to sink into, a perfect holiday or weekend read.

Here’s my review of THE TUSCAN SECRET, also by Angela Petch.

If you like this, try:-
Another You’ by Jane Cable
The War Child’ by Renita d’Silva
The Tuscan Contessa’ by Dinah Jefferies

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THE POSTCARD FROM ITALY by @Angela_Petch #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5Qk via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Duchess’ by @Wendy_Holden #historical

The Duchess by Wendy Holden turned out to be a surprising read. After all, we all know the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, don’t we? I started the book half-expecting not to finish it, unsure whether I could empathise with Wallis Simpson. But having read Wendy Holden’s first novel – Simply Divine, published in 1999 – and many since, I was curious about her subject matter. I finished it wanting to go back to the beginning again, reading it with fresh eyes. Wendy HoldenHolden, a former journalist, has done her research to portray the middle-aged American divorcee. Wallis arrives in London in 1928 with her second husband Ernest, determined to be a part of the party scene. Scrimping and saving, and with the quick mind and equally quick tongue of her mother, she learns to deal with the snubs, putdowns, cold shoulders and snobbishness, all the time backed by her steady husband. After a difficult childhood raised alone by her mother without much money, followed by an abusive first marriage, Wallis now reads the Court Circulars and newspaper stories about the parties of the Bright Young Things and longs to have fun. But she hadn’t bargained on the British class system. With her own sense of chic and by altering cheap dresses herself, Wallis catches the eye of Coco Chanel who offers some salutary advice.
The dual timeline, always from Wallis’s viewpoint, alternates between the Duke of Windsor’s funeral in 1972, and Wallis’s life in England from 1928-1936. After a lot of hustling, scrimping, spending money they don’t have, the Simpsons meet the Prince of Wales and are invited to his home at Fort Belvedere, Windsor, for the weekend. There we see the divisions between the prince’s public role and private political views. Holden juxtaposes the freedom and ‘what if’ American approach to life with the stuffy 1930s British ‘not possible’ view. This culminates finally in the Abdication. The final twist is intriguing.
The first few pages are a slow read and felt more like a historical record – there is a lot of emotional and historical baggage wrapped up in this story – but the story gets going once Wallis is in London. She struggles to be accepted, hosting cocktail ‘open evenings’ that no one attends, always being sparkling and entertaining despite Ernest’s misgivings. We see her vulnerabilities as the difficulties of her childhood, and her first marriage, are revealed. I finished the book with new-found respect for Ernest Simpson.
I read The Duchess in two days on holiday. Compulsive, wicked, sad and funny, I was left with a feeling of regret about the Windsors, and for Ernest, though with the obvious footnote that this is a fictional account not a biography. Even taken with a large pinch of salt, I came to empathise with Wallis; simultaneously head over heels in love but also exasperated, despairing, trapped, powerless, lonely and maligned.
Definitely food for thought. A compulsive fictional take on royal history

If you like this, try:-
The Glass House’ by Eve Chase
The Orphan’s Gift’ by Renita D’Silva
The Cottingley Secret’ by Hazel Gaynor

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THE DUCHESS by @Wendy_Holden #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5Qe via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Moonlight & the Pearler’s Daughter’ by @LizziePook

Moonlight and the Pearler’s Daughter, the debut historical mystery by Lizzie Pook, is a surprise, full of twists and turns with a determined female lead character who defies 19th century conventions to find the murderer of her father.
The gritty, sometimes disgusting descriptions of the pearler’s living conditions are vivid and not for the faint-hearted. Set in an 1896 at Bannin Bay, a poor Australian pearl fishing settlement on the edge of the coast, the settlers are surrounded by indigenous people and their lands. When her father’s pearling lugger, the White Starling, returns from a long sea trip without him, Eliza Brightwell is told her father Charles disappeared from his boat overnight and is assumed drowned. Her brother Thomas, under pressure to keep the family business out debt, departs immediately to the nearby town of Cossack to sell his catch to traders. Alone, Eliza refuses to accept her father is dead but when she asks questions, is advised to accept the inevitable.Lizzie PookThis is a raw town of crime, racism, jealousy, blackmail and abuse. A detailed examination of the available facts, and a mysterious note she finds in her father’s diary, lead Eliza to places she cannot go. Fettered by conventions of the time, Eliza soon realises she needs a male companion to enter the disreputable parts of town. An outsider herself she chooses another outsider, German itinerant worker Axel Kramer, to help her. He can gain admittance to places where she should not be seen or is barred from entering. Alternating with Eliza’s investigations are two other passages – the hunt for Aboriginal crewman Balarri who is automatically assumed guilty of murder, and passages from her father’s diary in which he writes nature observations and notes about his pearl shelling business.
The murder story takes place in 1896 but we also see flashbacks ten years earlier to 1886 when the Brightwell family – Eliza, her parents and brother, plus Uncle Willem and Aunt Martha – arrive in Bannin Bay from England, planning to become wealthy fishers of pearl shell. Pook places clues everywhere so don’t ignore these shorter sections.
I didn’t settle into this story until the second half. The first part establishes the setting – the village of Bannin Bay – with such gritty realism that the descriptions of the climate, mould, insects, smells and unpleasant people dominated everything else. There are also intricate descriptions of the industry of pearl fishing. This meant I was slow to connect with Eliza, other than that she is unconventional. But when she and Axel take a lugger to search the remote islands beyond Bannin Bay, to the Lucettes, Cockatoos, Rosellas and Nevermores, the story becomes more dynamic. Moving the action away from smelly Bannin adds air to story and removes conventions from Eliza and Axel. Knife, their young crewman, is also an intriguing character who is under-used.
This is a complex and ambitious story for a debut and Pook is an author worth watching. It’s a pity that at times the story felt weighed down by Australian history and the treatment of the indigenous population. The book is clearly founded on solid historical research but at times it felt that the pace of the story and the characterisation suffered in need of a lighter hand with research.

If you like this, try:-
Rush Oh!’ by Shirley Barrett
The Pearl Sister’ by Lucinda Riley
The Night Child’ by Anna Quinn

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MOONLIGHT AND THE PEARLER’S DAUGHTER by @LizziePook #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5Q6 via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ by @ajpearcewrites #WW2 #romance

Sometimes I hear about a book when it is launched but somehow miss the tide. Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce was published in 2018 and two weeks later became a Sunday Times top ten bestseller. In 2019 it was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. The first few pages are fresh and engaging, light humour at a time when people when people were living day to day in the Blitz. My only doubt was that I would find the jolly tone too much if it continued for the whole novel. AJ Pearce

It is 1941 in London and Emmy Lake applies for a job as a war correspondent and  instead finds herself typing up letters for the problem page of a distinctly faded women’s magazine, Woman’s Friend. The premise is fascinating. The tone is full-on jolly which at times is irritating. The strength of the book for me lies in the second half.

Emmy lives with her friend Bunty on the top floor of Bunty’s grandmother’s house. Both girls have daytime war jobs and volunteer in the evenings. Emmy is frustrated by her boss Mrs Bird’s dismissive rules about letters from emotional young women and starts to reply directly to the women, hiding the letters and posting her replies in secret. When she doesn’t get found out, she becomes bolder, and prints one of her replies in the magazine. Dumped by telegram by her boyfriend, Emmy agrees to go out with Bunty and her boyfriend William and finds herself set up with a blind date. As Emmy’s love life takes a turn for the better, the girls’ friendship is tested as it has never been tested before. Inevitably, Emmy’s letter writing catches up with her in spectacular fashion and she is sent home.

The book is at its best when examining the relationship between Emmy and Bunty, the depth of their loyalty, and what happens when cracks begin to appear. This is a lightweight, cozy war romance which takes a serious tone towards the end. An easy weekend read.

Read how AJ Pearce researched London in World War Two for Dear Mrs Bird.

If you like this, try:-
Please Release Me’ by Rhoda Baxter
You’ll Never See Me Again’ by Lesley Pearse
One Step Too Far’ by Tina Seskis

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#BookReview ‘Brat Farrar’ by Josephine Tey #mystery #thriller

What a revelation is Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, a thoughtful mystery of assumed identity I didn’t want to put down. It is the first Tey novel I have read and I now have that wonderful prospect ahead of me, anticipating seven more novels to enjoy. The book first came to my attention on social media – Twitter or Facebook I don’t recall – when a fellow writer, sadly I don’t remember who, said she re-reads this novel as the brilliant telling of a mistaken identity mystery. Josephine Tey

Brat Farrar, an English orphan, has returned to London after years travelling, most recently living in America working with horses. Horses are an important part of the story. Crossing the road, he is seen by Alec Loding, a fading actor who recognises Brat’s uncanny resemblance to Patrick Ashby, a thirteen year old boy who committed suicide years earlier. Patrick’s body was never found and Loding – who grew up nearby and knew the Ashby family well – sees the opportunity for Brat to appear at the Ashby family home and stud, Latchetts, as Patrick. In return for coaching, Loding will receive a regular payment for the rest of his life. Brat proves to be unexpectedly convincing during the training period and both men decide to go ahead with their scheme. The family and its lawyers are won over by Brat and the emotional return of Patrick. His younger twin brother Simon and heir to the Ashby inheritance is not convinced, however.

What follows is a cat and mouse game of who-has-guessed-what in which I grew to like Brat and dislike Simon, not what I expected. Tey creates complex characters with light and shade and, though the novel was first published in 1949, it is not dated. Brat tailors his own experiences to dovetail with what may have happened to Patrick if he had run away – no body was found, the inquest passed a verdict of suicide based on a note found after Patrick’s disappearance – and he finds himself loving the Ashbys and Latchetts.

An excellent read.

Oh and to the writer who inspired me to read Brat Farrar, a huge thank you!

If you like this, try:-
The Quarry’ by Iain Banks
Wolf Winter’ by Cecilia Ekback
The Snakes’ by Sadie Jones

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BRAT FARRAR by Josephine Tey #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-48P via @SandraDanby