Straw Gods by Tom O’Brien

My enormous thanks to David Borrowdale at Reflex Press for a copy of Straw Gods by Tom O’Brien in return for an honest review. I don’t read enough novellas or flash fiction and Straw Gods is the perfect way to combine the two!

Straw Gods is available for purchase here.

Straw Gods

A straw man hung above my door like a ward of protection. Really it was a lure to charm my dead husband back. But it, like my other delusions and lies, drew lightning.

Ten years after the death of her husband, Rosa struggles to move on and takes solace in rituals and superstition. Sol, a young fisherman, braves the sea to prove himself to an absent father. As a storm rips through the small community, disaster lays bare old secrets. Rosa and Sol’s lives tangle in tragic circumstances, forcing them to face the truth about themselves and the ones they loved.

Straw Godsis the debut novella-in-flash from Tom O’Brien, a heart-wrenching drama both moving and exhilarating, perceptively exploring the effects of grief and the lasting bonds of family and friendship.

My Review of Straw Gods

39 flash fictions making a complete narrative.

If I said I had no intention of reading Straw Gods when I did, but I thought I’d look at the first entry and was so incredibly moved and mesmerised by Tom O’Brien’s writing that I simply couldn’t tear myself away until I had consumed it all – twice – you’ll understand what a special book Straw Gods is. It is absolutely magnificent and will be heading straight onto my books of the year list for 2021.

The intensity of emotion is Straw Gods is physical. I could feel Rosa’s grief as acutely as if it were my own. And yet Straw Gods is not a depressing read despite the visceral depth of feeling. Tom O’Brien articulates so beautifully how grief can affect us, through his poetic and enchanting writing, that he brings comfort to the reader in knowing others have experienced such feelings too. Reading Straw Gods is cathartic as much as it is captivating.

Each of the individually titled chapters or flash fictions works as a complete piece that can be appreciated alone, but added together into the riveting, fast paced narrative Tom O’Brien provides in Straw Gods, they become breath-taking. There were moments when I gasped aloud as read. I wept too – not just for Rosa and Sol, but for myself and all those who’ve encountered grief in their lives. This really is a book that delivers far more than might be expected. I thought of each entry a bit like a diamond that sparkles and gleams perfectly well alone, but when added to all the other pieces, becomes dazzling so that I could not tear myself away from Tom O’Brien’s words.

Rosa is such a vivid character that I felt less that I was reading about her and more that I was experiencing every nuance of emotion she experiences. This effect is achieved through her compelling first person voice. Bordering insanity in her grief, Rosa distils grief into behaviours and feelings any reader will relate to and this is surprisingly comforting. I loved the way she reaches her personal nadir but is not entirely defeated.

Obviously grief is a major theme in Straw Gods, but there is so much more besides woven into the writing. Themes of marriage, family, self-deception, community, friendship, nature and superstition are just few aspects of this glorious text that hook the reader.

I’m finding it difficult to convey how wonderful I think Straw Gods is, but I would say please don’t let it be a quiet book that few read. Tom O’Brien’s exquisite skill needs lauding from the rooftops. In this slim volume is the essence of humanity, of grief, of honesty and of hope. Straw Gods is utterly fantastic and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

About Tom O’Brien

Tom O’Brien is an Irish writer living in London. Having had film scripts optioned and produced he moved across to prose where he’s been widely published and anthologised in print and online. He’s been long and shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, Ellipsis Zine Flash Collection Competition and the Colm Tóibín Short Story Award, amongst others.

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomwrote or visit his website for more information.

Staying in with Gordon Bickerstaff

One of the pleasures of blogging is being acknowledged by authors. Consequently, I simply had to invite thriller writer Gordon Bickerstaff onto Linda’s Book Bag today to tell me about one of his book because, as well as hearing readers rave about Gordon’s books, Gordon is an author who promotes and supports bloggers. I wanted to return the favour. Luckily he agreed to stay in with me!

Staying in with Gordon Bickerstaff

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Gordon and thank you for agreeing to stay in with me. Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?

I’ve brought along the third book in my series of standalone thrillers from the Lambeth Group series, The Black Fox. I am particularly pleased with this one because I loved writing it, and I am especially proud because it won several awards.

Congratulations on your success with The Black Fox Gordon. I’ve read rave reviews of your books so I’m not surprised to hear they are award winning. So, tell us a bit about the The Black Fox.

The idea for the book came to me when I was a fresher student at Heriot-Watt University in the early 1970s. Excitedly, I went along to a seminar to see the Loch Ness Monster. It was a talk given by Tim Dinsdale, and sure enough he showed us a picture of the Loch Ness Monster. Well, sort of; it was a picture of a fin. He also showed convincing sonar evidence taken by a top-notch research team from the USA as evidence.

Oh. I wouldn’t have expected that. I bet that made you think!

Now, everyone in Scotland knows that the Monster is a tourist attraction for the Scottish Highlands. So, I began to wonder what the Americans were doing in Loch Ness with sophisticated strobe-light cameras and state-of-the-art sonar equipment.

I’ve brought along the famous picture of the Tim Dinsdale’s Loch Ness Monster, or rather a fin, which he said at the time measured six feet in width. Reportedly taken deep in the bowels of Loch Ness by the American team using a motion-activated strobe-light camera.

I think that looks quite creepy Gordon.

Then, by chance, I read about the bizarre unexplained mystery surrounding Rudolph Hess. On May 10th, 1941, Rudolph Hess, the Nazi Deputy Leader, flew a Messerschmitt to central Scotland on a secret mission. He had maps of Inverness. He ran out of fuel because of zigzag manoeuvres to evade detection, parachuted out, and a farmer captured him. The British could have made great propaganda from the capture but instead, kept him in strict isolation.

Crikey!

After the war, he was convicted of conspiracy, and sentenced to life in Spandau Prison. His secret mission remained undiscovered, so in a bizarre situation, the four Allied powers managed his imprisonment in rotation: France, Britain, the US, and the Soviets. Then at the ripe old age of 94, and very feeble. He hanged himself. The USA was guarding him when he died. So, I pondered over these mysteries, which link America to Rudolph Hess to Scotland and Loch Ness. I stirred in a healthy dose of fiction, and a great story came out of the pot.

Wow. That sounds brilliant. I love fiction founded in fact. I must get round to reading The Black Fox. As well as gthe Loch Ness still, what else have you brought along?

I’ve brought along a picture of Urquhart Castle beside Loch Ness. The final climactic scene is set here.

If the book is as dramatic as the landscape, readers are in for a treat. I know The Black Fox is part of a series. Can it be read independently of the other books?

The Black Fox is the third in the Lambeth Group series. These thrillers are standalone stories that can be ready in any order, but if read in order, development of the main characters builds through the series.

That’s good to know. How would you define the series?

I’m asked from time to time if the stories are crime thrillers. They are not police procedural or detective stories. The Lambeth Group is a secret government department, which brings academics and special forces operatives together to work undercover on specialist criminal and conspiracy investigations deemed too secret and too dangerous for the public judiciary system.

The series take inspiration from the 1970s TV series ‘Doomwatch’. A secret government department, which deploys scientists along with intelligence operatives to investigate, neutralise, and protect the national infrastructure of the UK.

The principal characters are special forces-trained, Zoe Tampsin and university academic, Gavin Shawlens. One Amazon reviewer described the series as Mission Impossible meets James Bond with Zoe as Ethan Hunt and Gavin as Benji Dunn. All the books except the first (Deadly Secrets), feature Zoe as a smart and capable undercover intelligence operative who uses brains and cunning to overcome her adversaries.

I think The Black Fox – and, indeed, the entire Lambeth Group Series – sounds thrilling. Thanks so much for staying in with me to chat about it Gordon.

The Black Fox

Readers’ Favorite Book Awards 2019
Gold Medal Winner in Thriller/Espionage.
A full package of action, adventure, mystery, and thriller suspense with an exhilarating female lead.

Zoe Tampsin is resourceful, smart and special forces-trained, but she has been given an impossible mission. She must protect scientist, Gavin Shawlens, from assassination by the CIA, and discover the secret trapped in Gavin’s mind that the CIA want destroyed.

As the pressure to find Shawlens escalates – the CIA send Zoe’s former mentor to track her down and her fate seems sealed when he surrounds Zoe and Gavin with a ring of steel. With each hour that passes, the ring is tightened, and the window for discovering Gavin’s secret will shut. Zoe is faced with a decision that goes against all of her survival instincts. If she is wrong -they both die. If she is right – she will discover the secret and become the next target for assassination. Run for your life…

The Black Fox is available for purchase here.

About Gordon Bickerstaff

Gordon Bickerstaff hails from Glasgow. He taught biochemistry at several Scottish universities, and undertook laboratory research on enzymes. After thirty years of university teaching and research, including 25 years as an Open University tutor, he retired his academic pen, and picked up a fiction pen.

Gordon lives with my wife in central Scotland where corrupt academics, mystery, murder, and intrigue exists mostly in my mind. He enjoys reading, writing, walking in the hills, 60s & 70s music, and travel.

For more information, visit Gordon’s website, find him on Facebook and Amazon or follow him on Twitter @GFBickerstaff.

Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been suffering FOMO. All round the country are wonderful wintry scenes and here in South Lincolnshire it has remained stubbornly snow free. And then I remembered that the lovely Alison Menzies from Elliott and Thompson has sent me a surprise copy of Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell and so I’m delighted to review that book today.

Published by Elliott and Thompson, Fifty Words for Snow is available for purchase through the links here.

Fifty Words for Snow

Snow. Every language has its own words for the feather-like flakes that come from the sky. In Japanese we find Yuki-onna – a ‘snow woman’ who drifts through the frosted land. In Icelandic falls Hundslappadrifa – ‘big as a dog’s paw’. And in Maori we meet Huka-rere – ‘one of the children of rain and wind’.

From mountain tops and frozen seas to city parks and desert hills, writer and Arctic traveller Nancy Campbell digs deep into the meanings of fifty words for snow. Under her gaze, each of these linguistic snow crystals offers a whole world of myth and story.

My Review of Fifty Words For Snow

Fifty international words for snow.

My goodness, Fifty Words for Snow is a beautiful book in every sense of the word. It is glorious to look at with stylised blue and white frost inspired end papers that match the cover and a sensational snow crystal image on a contrasting blue background to accompany every one of the fifty entries. But physical attributes aside, the written contents are just wonderful. Beautifully researched with references at the end of the book so that readers can extend their enjoyment beyond the pages of Fifty Words for Snow, it was Nancy Campbell’s Prologue that initially captured me, her dedication to Anna and the intensity of emotion behind the book that made it all the more special.

There’s science, geography, ecology, religion, language, literature, history, philosophy, myth and culture and so much more weaving through every entry so that the reader is taken on a fascinating exploration of the world. Nancy Campbell’s writing is poetic and gorgeously descriptive. The opening paragraph to her entry 39. Ttutqiksribvik if presented physically differently on the page would make a glorious poem, for example, and I spent quite a long time rereading the words and visualising them as poetry rather than prose. And I think that’s one of the joys of Fifty Words for Snow. It certainly instructs and entertains, but Nancy Cambell’s writing has a quality that mesmerises even when, as an illustration, she is describing the reason for a 25 km/h lower speed limit in Estonia in her Jäätëë entry.

Fifty Words for Snow is magnificent. It transports the reader far from their own lives into other places from the comfort of their own home. Nancy Campbell’s writing educates subtly even as it distracts the reader, providing so much more than the sum of its fifty entries. I thought it was wonderful.

About Nancy Campbell

Photo by Annie Schlechter

Nancy Campbell is an award-winning writer, described as ‘deft, dangerous and dazzling’ by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Her travels in the Arctic between 2010 and 2017 have resulted in several projects responding to the environment, most recently The Library of Ice: Readings in a Cold Climate, which was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019. Her previous book on the polar environment, Disko Bay, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2016. She has been a Marie Claire ‘Wonder Woman’, a Hawthornden Fellow and Visual and Performing Artist in Residence at Oxford University. She is currently a Literature Fellow at Internationales Kunstlerhaus Villa Concordia in Bamberg, Germany.

For more information, visit Nancy’s website. You’ll also find her on Twitter @nancycampbelle and Instagram.

The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

It’s far too long since I featured Ruth Ware on Linda’s Book Bag. I was lucky enough to hear Ruth speak at Capital Crime in September 2019 and wrote about that occasion here. Prior to that I featured Ruth’s The Lying Game here and reviewed In a Dark, Dark Wood here. Today, I’m delighted to share my review of Ruth’s The Death of Mrs Westaway which is my book group read for January and was actually my choice!

Published by Penguin imprint Vintage, The Death of Mrs Westaway is available for purchase through the links here.

The Death of Mrs Westaway

When Harriet Westaway receives an unexpected letter telling her she’s inherited a substantial bequest from her Cornish grandmother, it seems like the answer to her prayers.

There’s just one problem – Hal’s real grandparents died more than twenty years ago.

Hal desperately needs the cash and makes a choice that will change her life for ever. She knows that her skills as a seaside fortune teller could help her con her way to getting the money.

But once Hal embarks on her deception, there is no going back. She must keep going or risk losing everything, even her life…

My Review of The Death of Mrs Westaway

Hal needs money – fast!

In the interests of complete honesty, I must confess that I was a little unsure initially that I was going to enjoy The Death of Mrs Westaway as much as I had anticipated because it felt slow at the beginning as Hal’s background is established and I wasn’t sure how it was going to evolve. How wrong can a person be? I loved it! That more measured start is actually essential in drawing in the reader and feeding them information that will prove vital to the plot, but perhaps not in ways they realise – though obviously I can’t say more for fear of spoiling the read. If others have those initial misgivings like me I’d urge them to read on. The Death of Mrs Westaway is a captivating story.

There’s a real sense of the Golden Age of crime writing underpinning modern events like loan sharks, that gives The Death of Mrs Westaway a fresh, yet timeless appeal. The book feels eloquently crafted and so carefully plotted, with a tension that increases as the narrative progresses so that I found myself wondering what was happening with Hal when I wasn’t reading about her and frequently couldn’t set the book aside even when I was supposed to be doing something else. I was drawn into the story until I actually dreamt about it, finding myself in sinister corridors with a threatening sensations in my dreams. Echoes of du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers through the character of Mrs Warren, of Agatha Christie in plotting and setting, and of Shakespearean themes of greed, murder, tyranny and guilt, layer The Death of Mrs Westaway with a fascination that I found completely compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed the slightly mystical and gothic sensation created by the iterative image of tarot and the magpies too. Ruth Ware knows exactly how to enhance her atmosphere by seeping into her reader’s psyche and drawing on their own superstitions and experiences to make her story all the more creepy and hypnotic.

I really enjoyed Hal’s character. Her tenacity when faced with adversity coupled with her sense of right and justice make her an interesting person to read. I felt the way her full name, Harriet, is condensed to Hal brilliantly represented her core strength because she is more powerful than she looks. However, what I enjoyed most about the characterisation in The Death of Mrs Westaway was the way Ruth Ware used those not actually present to drive the narrative. Both Hal’s mother and Mrs Westaway are dead from the outset and yet they have a presence that lingers and shapes in a fascinating way so that the reader realises how even a past we didn’t know we had might affect us in our present and future. Indeed, The Death of Mrs Westaway is one of those books that offers more, the more the reader engages with it.

The Death of Mrs Westaway was not what I was expecting. From an unsure start I was drawn into a tale of intrigue, lies, twists and manipulation that was hugely entertaining and that I thoroughly enjoyed.

About Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware is an international number one bestseller. Her thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game, The Death of Mrs Westaway and The Turn of the Key have appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the Sunday Times and New York Times. Her books have been optioned for TV and film and she is published in more than 40 languages. Ruth lives near Brighton with her family.

For more information, visit Ruth’s website, follow her on Twitter @RuthWareWriter , or find her on Facebook and Instagram.

Deeper Than Words, A Guest Post by Gabrielle Yetter, Author of Whisper of the Lotus

Now that we are back in lockdown and travel denied us once again, my thoughts turn to the far off places I’ve had the chance to visit in the past. One of the countries I loved was Cambodia where, in spite of its quite recent history, I found the people to be utterly charming. When I realised that Gabrielle Yetter’s book Whisper of the Lotus could transport me back to Cambodia and its people I simply had to ask Gabrielle to write a guest post for Linda’s Book Bag.

Whisper of the Lotus was published on 22nd October 2020 and is available for purchase here.

Whisper of the Lotus

A buzz sounded from inside Charlotte’s handbag, so she stopped and fumbled for the mobile phone she’d switched on after landing. Surely nobody would be contacting her here.
Her fingers curled around it and she flipped open the case and checked the message: Welcome to Cambodia, Charlotte. You have 57 days

Sometimes you have to go a long way from home to come full circle back to discover what was right in front of you..

Charlotte’s mundane, dead-end life lacked excitement. She never imagined that sitting on a plane to Cambodia, struggling with her fear of flying, would lead to her being befriended by Rashid, an old man whose tragic secret would take her on a mystery tour of discovery.

In a land of golden temples, orange-clad monks, and smiling people, Charlotte discovers nothing is as she’d expected. She also never imagined the journey would take her back to the night when her father walked out on the family.

And who was Rashid? Was he just a kindly old man, or was there something deeper sewn into the exquisite fabric of his life?

From the author of The Definitive Guide to Living in Southeast Asia: Cambodia and Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of AdventureWhisper of the Lotus is a multi-layered story about friendship and family, love and identity, set in an exotic, magical country in Southeast Asia.

Deeper Than Words

A Guest Post by Gabrielle Yetter

The first time we met SomOn was in June of 2010. My husband, Skip, and I had just flown across the world to begin new lives in Cambodia, and SomOn’s face was the first we saw. He stood at the airport gate, clutching a board displaying our names, ushered us into his bright orange tuk-tuk, and drove us to the simple guesthouse that would be our first port of call.

Ten years later, when I published Whisper of the Lotus, SomOn was one of my central characters. His sunny personality and childlike spirit embodied so many of the people we met during our four years in Cambodia and it was only fitting he’d be part of the book.

The story is about the journey of a young woman named Charlotte who goes to Cambodia to visit her best friend and escape from personal challenges back home. On the way, she meets a mysterious old man who changes the direction of her life, causing her to question everything she’d ever believed in. And, when she arrives in Phnom Penh, guess who drove the tuk-tuk that came to meet her?

When Skip and I settled into Cambodia, SomOn’s role became as significant in our lives as it was in Charlotte’s fictional world. A sole breadwinner and father of two beautiful children, SomOn always had a smile on his face and a moment for anyone in need. Once, when visiting a local zoo, we noticed a blind beggar playing a flute nearby. SomOn leapt up, reached into his pocket, and handed him a bundle of notes. Another time, he swerved in the middle of the street, backed up the tuk-tuk and handed money to a widow who was squatting on the corner of the road. This, from a man who made nine dollars on a good day. He would return our cash if we mistakenly overpaid him, invite us to his one-room home for dinner, bring us “happy new year” gifts, and unfailingly show up at our front door every day for almost three years to drive us to work.

In Whisper of the Lotus, he’s Charlotte’s guide and watchdog. He’s also the embodiment of typical Cambodian quirkiness. He speeds through Phnom Penh, “dodging cars and SUVs like an ant between elephants”, insists Charlotte visits the horrifying Tuol Sleng genocide museum on her first day, and tells her “not to worry” when the tuk-tuk becomes trapped in gridlocked traffic on the way to the airport.

Charlotte gasped as they narrowly missed a dog, then groaned out loud when they were forced to stop at another traffic light. Cars, buses, and bikes streamed across the road in front of them, jamming the passageway. The light turned green. Nothing moved.

She leaned forward again. ‘SomOn, how much farther to the airport?’ Her palms were sweaty. This wasn’t looking good.

‘Not long. You fine.’

Aware of the Cambodian tendency for understatement, she looked at her watch. ‘I don’t think we’re fine at all,’ she said. She scanned the street for any sign of traffic movement and saw none. They were stuck.

Since Skip and I left Cambodia five years ago, SomOn has kept in touch through Facebook. He updates me in broken English about his new venture into the guesthouse business, tells me about the challenges of the recent flooding, and sends photos of his family and their activities. So, when I sent him a note telling him I’d written a book and that he was in it, his reply was “Ohh really I’m very happy to hear that,” with two smiley-face emojis.

The following day, his Facebook profile photo had changed. It now showed a smiling SomOn holding a copy of Whisper of the Lotus in front of the Phnom Penh riverside. And even though we may not speak the same language, I know our communication goes deeper than words.

*

That’s just wonderful Gabrielle, thank you. Finding out about SomOn brings back many happy memories for me, such as racing through the streets of Phnom Penh in a rickshaw being driven by a manic, laughing one eyed driver who couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group, as well as the more sobering ones of visiting the genocide museum and the Killing Fields. Hearing about SomOn has made me desperate to read Whisper of the Lotus too.

About Gabrielle Yetter

Gabrielle Yetter has lived in India, Bahrain, South Africa, Cambodia, England and the USA. She worked as a journalist in South Africa, owned a dining guide in San Diego, wrote a cookbook about traditional Cambodian desserts and freelanced for publications and online sites in the US, The Netherlands, South Africa, and Southeast Asia.

In 2010, she and her husband, Skip, sold their home in the US, quit their jobs, gave away most of their possessions, and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia.

In June 2015, she co-authored Just Go! Leave the Treadmill for a World of Adventure, with Skip. In May 2016, she published her first children’s picture book, Ogden, The Fish Who Couldn’t Swim Straight followed by Martha The Blue Sheep in 2017.

She lives in Eastbourne, England and her first novel, Whisper of the Lotus, was released in November 2020.

For more information, visit Gabrielle’s website, find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @gabster2.

Beneath Cornish Skies by Kate Ryder

I’m delighted to share my review of Kate Ryder’s Beneath Cornish Skies as part of Rachel’s Random Resources’ blog blitz. My enourmous thanks to the author and to Rachel for inviting me to participate.

Published by Aria on 7th January 2021, Beneath Cornish Skies is available for purchase here.

Beneath Cornish Skies

To an outsider, Cassandra Shaw’s life looks perfect. She lives in a beautiful, luxurious house in the English countryside, with a handsome, wealthy boyfriend who insists she needn’t do a day’s work in her life. But Cassie knows that something is not right. Her boyfriend has grown colder, treating her more like a housekeeper than a future wife. And her time feels empty and purposeless.

Cassandra has always been riddled with insecurities and self-doubt, but, just for once, she decides to take a chance on a new beginning. She answers an advert for a live-in nanny, dog walker, cook and all-round ‘Superhuman’ for a family living in a rambling manor house on the rugged North Cornish coast. The work is hard and tiring, but Cassie has never felt so fulfilled.

As Cassie learns to connect with the natural beauty unfolding around her, Cornwall starts to offer up its secrets. Soon, Cassie starts wondering if she was drawn to this isolated part of the coast for a reason. Why was she guided to Foxcombe Manor? What are the flashes of light she sees in the valley? Is it her imagination or does someone brush past her? And who is the mysterious man living deep in the woods?

A beautiful romance with a hint of ghostliness, Beneath Cornish Skies is for anyone who has ever longed to start their lives again.

My Review of Beneath Cornish Skies

Cassie’s life is about to change!

Beneath Cornish Skies is a sweeping story of landscape, identity and romance that takes the reader through a range of emotions in a glorious setting. Kate Ryder’s writing is an authentic blend of history, geography and the natural world with just a touch of magical realism that is most unusual. She weaves factual detail into her narrative so that there is an added layer of interest and engagement. I looked up some of the references as I read and this added an extra layer of interest for me.

Cassie’s first person narration draws in the reader, making them feel as if Cassie is addressing them personally. I very much appreciated the fact that Cassie’s name changes as she sloughs off her old life and identity, and becomes someone new. She did, however, infuriate me in her attitude to David who so enraged me I could quite cheerfully have caused him physical harm.  I wanted her to realise her worth much more quickly, but this is one of the themes of Beneath Cornish Skies and Cassie’s self-discover is essential to the plot.

There’s an intense sense of longing beneath Cassie’s story, not just in her present but in the past too as the reader encounters the ghosts and places of history. Cassie longs for love and happiness, but above all else she wants to belong. I think that feeling will resonate with many readers.

Beneath Cornish Skies is a slow burn of a story and one that rewards a careful reading as mysticism blends with more prosaic elements such as Cassie’s caring for horses and another family. I think it would translate into a successful Sunday evening television series as Cassie learns that her fate is in her own hands. I felt it had a touch of Catherine Cookson in a modern era.

The setting of Cornwall in Beneath Cornish Skies is very vivid and I very much enjoyed the compelling allure of the sea because it felt like a metaphor for Cassie’s life, ebbing and flowing with different moods. I thought Kate Ryder conveyed extremely accurately how life is unpredictable and that we have to be true to ourselves. In fact, the romantic narrative aside, one of the aspects I enjoyed most in Beneath Cornish Skies was the exploration of theme, especially the concept that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Beneath Cornish Skies transports the reader through time and place so that it provides an escape from the real world for a while.

About Kate Ryder

Kate Ryder is an award-winning, Amazon Kindle international best seller who writes timeslip and romantic suspense in a true-to-life narrative. On leaving school she studied drama but soon discovered her preference for writing plays rather than performing them! Since then, she has worked in the publishing, tour operating and property industries, and has travelled widely.

Kate is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Society of Authors.  In 2017, she signed a 4-book contract with Aria (digital imprint of award-winning independent publisher, Head of Zeus).

Summer in a Cornish Cove, a contemporary romantic suspense set on the Lizard Peninsula, gained her a nomination for the RNA’s 2018 Joan Hessayon award, while its standalone sequel, Cottage on a Cornish Cliff, reached the heady heights of No. 2 in Kindle Literary Sagas.

Secrets of the Mist, a mysterious timeslip romance, not only achieved No.1 Kindle best seller flags in the UK, Canada and Australia, but also reached No.49 in Amazon UK Paid Kindle. In the original, self-published version (The Forgotten Promise) it was awarded the first Chill with a Book “Book of the Month”.

Originally hailing from the South East of England, today Kate lives on the Cornish side of the beautiful Tamar Valley with her husband and a collection of animals.

You can find out more by visiting Kate’s website, following her on Twitter @KateRyder_Books or finding her on Facebook and Instagram.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

Sugar and Snails News from Anne Goodwin

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It’s a real pleasure to welcome back Anne Goodwin to Linda’s Book Bag today. There’s a very special event happening at the moment with one of Anne’s novels and I simply had to invite her back to tell me all about it.

Staying in with Anne Goodwin

Welcome back to Linda’s Book Bag Anne, and thank you for agreeing to stay in with me.

Thanks, Linda, I’m delighted to be here again. You’ve generously hosted me twice before, with posts about how the narrators of my first two novels were shaped by childhood experiences and the dynamics of their families of origin.

Yes indeed. The post linked to Sugar and Snails is here and the one for Underneath is here.

Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?

I’ve brought my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, a midlife coming-of-age story about a woman who has hidden her past identity for thirty years, afraid she’ll lose everything if her secret gets out. It was published in 2015 but I’m sharing it this evening because it will be free throughout February. Anyone who’d like a copy can reserve it here.

How brilliant. We all love a free book. I know Sugar and Snails has been incredibly well received Anne. Tell us, what can we expect from an evening in with Sugar and Snails?

A bumpy journey with an uplifting ending. Sugar and Snails received advanced praise from a consultant psychiatrist, a trans campaigner and a Booker-prize-shortlisted author, among others. Readers have called it a “fascinating portrait of a struggle with unusual demons” that turns out to be “about much more than you realise”. It’s “a well written novel dealing with a difficult subject sensitively and with compassion” that “takes a close look at how secrets and lies can affect our entire life, down to the heart of who we are” and is “destined to open hearts and minds to an experience that’s rarely explored in the realms of fiction”.

I think it sounds brilliant Anne! I’ll definitely be heading here to reserve my free copy! What else have you brought along and why have you brought it?

I’ve brought my walking boots and a First Aid kit! Sorry my boots are rather muddy – I’ve left them by your back door – but walking is fundamental to my writing process, and I’ve included a scene in Sugar and Snails in which Diana, my main character, recalls a childhood walk with her father in the Peak District National Park.

I can see from the photo you’ve brought how walking is inspirational Anne, but why the first aid kit?

The First Aid kit is for Diana, and it’s not only blisters from ill-fitting boots I’m worried about. She’s self-harmed since childhood and, although she hadn’t cut herself for some time, it’s always a risk when she’s stressed. And she’s pretty stressed when the novel opens: she’d planned to give Simon (whom she’s been dating chastely for a few months) a night to remember, but he’s likely to remember it for all the wrong reasons. I don’t want her getting blood on your furniture.

Oo. Neither do I. 

I’ve brought an extract too, so you can see what Diana is like:

The front door slams. I rise stiffly and stumble down the remaining stairs. Dragging my fingertips along the dado rail, I reach the kitchen and flick the light switch on the wall. I note the lustre of the sunshine-yellow cupboards and the chill of the tiles on my bare feet, but from a distance, as if I’m researching a stranger’s home.

I pull out drawers and rummage through the contents. I select my best knives and rank them by length along the worktop, the way a toddler might arrange her toys: breadknife; chef’s knife; carving knife; the whole gamut of blades, right down to the fruit and veg knife with the yellow handle, still smeared with dried threads of pumpkin from our supposed romantic meal. Pushing back my sleeve, I test each one against my forearm. None of them up to the job.

I fumble in the cupboard under the stairs for my torch and beam it around until it highlights an old shoebox stuffed with tools. The Stanley knife is a work of art in its simplicity, with its green plastic casing and satisfying heft in my hand. The blade seems sharp enough but it’s freckled with dirt-coloured paint. Taking a crossed-tip screwdriver, I unleash the blade and turn it over. The triangle of pristine steel peeping out from the sheath gives me an artisan’s sense of accomplishment.

My ears are abuzz with white noise as I push back the sleeve of my dressing gown to the crook of my arm. Flexing my wrist, the blood vessels reveal themselves below the surface like waterways on a map. The pads of my fingers trace a raised blue-green vein, from the middle of my forearm, through crossings of taut white scar tissue to the base of my thumb where it branches out with arteries and purple capillaries in a sanguineous river delta.

I locate a patch of clear skin amongst the tangle of old scars and apply the blade. At first there’s nothing more than a puckering at either side. As with sex, I’m sorely out of practice. I press harder, digging the tip of the knife so deep that by rights it should reach bone. Still nothing. Pressing harder still, a tiny red bauble bubbles at the tip of the blade.

Maintaining an even pressure, I scrape the knife along my arm. The bauble clones itself over and over, beads on a rosary that multiply and merge into a glistening red band. Dropping the knife, I bring my arm to my mouth: the vibrant colour, the taste of hot coins, the pain as sharp as vinegar spearing the fug of nothingness with the promise of peace. When Simon left, I was drowning. Now I’m floating on a sea of calm.

In the kitchen, I bind a folded tea towel round my forearm, gripping one end in my teeth to brace the knot. Secure as a swaddled baby, I mount the stairs to bed.

My word, that’s a powerful piece Anne. Thank you so much for sharing it with us and for staying in to tell me more about Sugar and Snails. While you’re lacing up your walking boots and heading off, I’ll tell readers more about Sugar and Snails and remind them about how to get a free copy of the book:

Sugar and Snails

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At fifteen, she made a life-changing decision. Thirty years on, it’s time to make another.

When Diana escaped her misfit childhood, she thought she’d chosen the easier path. But the past lingers on, etched beneath her skin, and life won’t be worth living if her secret gets out.

As an adult, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, the city that transformed her life. She’ll lose Simon if she doesn’t join him. She’ll lose herself if she does.

Sugar and Snails charts Diana’s unusual journey, revealing the scars from her fight to be true to herself. A triumphant mid-life coming-of-age story about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

Don’t forget to reserve your free copy of Sugar and Snails here. You can also buy Sugar and Snails here.

About Anne Goodwin

Anne Goodwin is the author of two novels and a short story collection. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Throughout February, subscribers to her newsletter can read Sugar and Snails for free. Subscribe here.

For more information about Anne visit her website, follow her on Twitter @Annecdotist, visit her Amazon author page or find her on Link tree and YouTube.

Staying in with Mari Hannah on Without A Trace Paperback Publication Day

I might be ever so slightly excited today as it’s Without a Trace publication day and the fabulous Mari Hannah is staying in with me to chat all about this latest Kate Daniels book. I’m delighted to be part of these launch celebrations and would like to thank Alainna at Orion for inviting me to participate. Let’s see what Mari told me about her latest book:

Staying in with Mari Hannah

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Mari and thank you for agreeing to stay in with me.

Hello Linda. Thanks for inviting me to your wonderful site and for all you do for writers and readers. In the current climate we need you more than ever.

It’s a pleasure to help share bookish news Mari. I rather think I know, but tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?

I’d like to share a DCI Kate Daniels title with you today, her seventh. Without A Trace is out in hardback, e-book and audiobook. Due to the current pandemic, the paperback launch was delayed and will now take place today, January 7th. It’s been a long time coming and I’m very excited.

Congratulations and happy publication day Mari. It must be such a frustration to have publication dates changing in the current climate, although from what I hear, Without a Trace is well worth waiting for and I’m delighted to have a copy waiting to be read! What can we expect from an evening in with Without A Trace?

On these dark winter nights, nothing beats curling up in front of the fire with a glass wine and a page-turning crime thriller. I hope your readers find it intriguing and compelling.

Oh, absolutely, and if these reviews are anything to go by I think we’re in for a treat:

Tell me a bit more about what’s happening with Kate in Without A Trace.

Kate Daniels’ world is imploding. She’s out of her comfort zone, out of control, far from her Northumberland base. Without A Trace is as much about love and loss as it is about an investigation over which she has no jurisdiction. That doesn’t stop her.

This is a very personal story for Kate that will resonate with readers. It’s about never giving up. It asks how far you’d go in order to find a missing loved one – or at least find closure. It also has an international element involving US Homeland Security, the FBI and the Metropolitan Police’s Casualty Bureau – Aviation Security Command.

Ooo. Interesting! I think never giving up might need to be the anthem for the decade!

Kate breaks every rule in this one, going off-book, ignoring orders and a whole lot more to achieve her aim. I threw everything at her and she responded, as I knew she would, to a crisis that spans both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

So as well as a cracking thriller in Without A Trace, we get some vicarious travel too. Brilliant!

What else have you brought along and why have you brought it?

I’ve brought along a guest . . .

Gabriele Torres is an army veteran, experienced law enforcement officer and the special agent in charge of the US side of the investigation. Like Kate, she’s no slouch.

I had a lot of fun watching these formidable women collaborate on a major disaster that has taken many lives. Inevitably, they don’t always see eye-to-eye – I may have understated this! – but in a search for the truth they join forces. Who knows? Maybe Kate and Gabriele will get together in a future book.

Now that would be interesting. Thanks so much for being here, Mari, and telling us all about Without A Trace and a slightly belated Happy New Year.

Thanks Linda.

Without a Trace

A FATAL CRASH

A plane on route from London to New York City has disappeared out of the sky. This breaking news dominates every TV channel, every social media platform, and every waking hour of the Metropolitan Police and US Homeland Security.

A PRIVATE TRAGEDY

The love of DCI Kate Daniels’ life was on that aircraft, but she has no authority to investigate. This major disaster is outside of her jurisdiction and she’s ordered to walk away.

A SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH

But Kate can’t let it lie. She has to find out what happened to that plane – even if it means going off book. No one is safe.

And there are some very dangerous people watching her…

Published by Orion, you’ll find Without a Trace for purchase here, through these publisher links, and there are signed copies of Without A Trace available for purchase here.

About Mari Hannah

Mari Hannah is a multi-award-winning author whose authentic voice is no happy accident. A former probation officer, she lives in rural Northumberland with her partner, an ex-murder detective. Mari’s debut, The Murder Wall, won her the Polari First Book Prize. Her second picked up a Northern Writers’ Award and her body of work won her the CWA Dagger in the Library 2017, an incredible honour to receive so early in her career. In 2019, she was Programming Chair of Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and was awarded the Diva Wordsmith of the Year. In 2020, Mari won Capital Crime ‘Crime Book of the Year’ for Without a Trace. Her Kate Daniels series is in development with Sprout Pictures.

For further information, visit Mari’s website, follow her on Twitter @mariwriter, or Instagram.

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Fabulous Children’s Books from @Books2DoorUK

I’ve reviewed several children’s books that I’ve received from Books2Door here on Linda’s Book Bag but I haven’t ever really said much about the company who have sent them to me for review.

With schools opening and closing, online learning, the inability to meet up with friends and all the restraints that our children are dealing with, now seems the perfect time to engender a love of reading. Through books children can escape the everyday world and the lovely folk at Books2Door have some fabulous new worlds for children to discover. I’ve found Books2Door really fabulous in offering a wide range of books and I love the fact that the more books you buy, the more points you get to redeem against future purchases.

Established in 2004, Books2Door provide discounted children’s books and there really is something for everyone on their website. You can search by age (and yes, there are books for adult readers too), price (starting at 99p), popularity and so on, so that there is the chance you’ll find a book for any reader.

You’ll find the my reviews of books I’ve received from Books2Door as follows:

Michael Morpurgo’s 8 Book Collection here

Calming Art Therapy Colouring Book here

The World of David Walliams Book of Stuff here

Horrid Henry’s Mischievous Mayhem here

Evie in the Jungle here

Latest Order

Most recently I was offered a choice of books for review on 22nd December and I chose a box set of Anthony Horowitz’ Alex Rider books because in the past I have written teaching resources for Hodder for other of Anthony Horowitz’s Power of Five books (available from Books2Door here) which I thoroughly enjoyed, so I’m excited to read this series (which you can also buy here and which is cheaper than on a well known online store!). Having placed that order on 22nd December, I received a confirmation on 23rd and the books arrived on 24th. Given the Christmas post I thought this was absolutely brilliant service and is exactly the service I have had every time I’ve had books from Books2Door. Indeed, I think it says something about the level of service they provide when they have an average score of 4.9/5 on Trustpilot from over 14,000 reviews.

The books are well presented in a cardboard holder that gives any child an instant bookshelf. I forgot to photograph the packaging they came in, but the parcel arrived in pristine condition. I confess I haven’t actually opened the collection yet as I didn’t want to spoil it! That said, I’m desperate to get reading this series so there will be a review of Stormbreaker soon! The set contains:

Stormbreaker

The first book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series. In the first book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, fourteen-year-old Alex is forcibly recruited into MI6. Armed with secret gadgets, he is sent to investigate Herod Sayle, a man who is offering state-of-the-art Stormbreaker computers to every school in the country. But the teenage spy soon finds himself in mortal danger. Stormbreaker is available individually here too.

Point Blanc

The second mission in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series. In the second book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, teenage spy Alex is sent by MI6 to infiltrate the exclusive Point Blanc Academy. But the academy hides a deadly secret. Can Alex alert the world to the truth before it’s too late? Point Blanc is available separately here too.

Skeleton Key

The third, explosive mission in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series. In the third book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, teenage spy Alex faces his most dangerous challenge yet. Teaming up with the CIA, Alex must go to a remote Caribbean island called Skeleton Key, where the insane general Sarov is hatching explosive plans to re-write history. Skeleton Key is available separately here too.

Eagle Strike

The fourth, thrilling episode in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series. In the fourth book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, teenage spy Alex is in the South of France, hoping to sever his links with MI6. But when a sudden attack on his hosts plunges Alex back into a world of violence, he soon uncovers a plan called Eagle strike – a discovery more terrible than anything he could have imagined. Eagle Strike is available separately here too.

Scorpia

The deadly fifth mission in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series. In the fifth book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, teenage spy Alex travels to Venice to discover the truth about his past. But the truth lies with a criminal organization known as Scorpia, and Alex must make a choice… work for MI6 once more, or betray everything he believes in. Scorpia is available separately here too.

Ark Angel

The action-packed sixth adventure in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series. In the sixth book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, teenage spy Alex has a chance encounter with the son of multi-billionaire Nikolei Drevin. Soon Alex finds himself in the middle of an international crime hunt. The connection – Ark Angel, a revolutionary space hotel with catastrophic potential. Ark Angel is available separately here too.

Snakehead

Undercover in a poisonous world, teen spy Alex Rider is back for his seventh adrenalin-rush adventure! In the seventh book in the number one bestselling Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, teenage spy Alex is forced into the Australian secret service. His target is the criminal underworld of South East Asia, and a ruthless organization known as the Snakehead. Snakehead is available separately here too.

Crocodile Tears

The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean

My enormous thanks to Jenny Platt at Hodder for inviting me to participate in the launch celebrations for Will Dean’s The Last Thing to Burn. I’m delighted to share my review today.

The Last Thing to Burn will be published on 7th January 2021 and is available for pre-order through the links here.

The Last Thing to Burn

He is her husband. She is his captive.

Her husband calls her Jane. That is not her name.

She lives in a small farm cottage, surrounded by vast, open fields. Everywhere she looks, there is space. But she is trapped. No one knows how she got to the UK: no one knows she is there. Visitors rarely come to the farm; if they do, she is never seen.

Her husband records her every movement during the day. If he doesn’t like what he sees, she is punished.

For a long time, escape seemed impossible. But now, something has changed. She has a reason to live and a reason to fight. Now, she is watching him, and waiting . . .

My Review of The Last Thing to Burn

The Last Thing to Burn is an absolute masterpiece. It is one of those books that will stay with me for a very long time because it gets under the skin of the reader from the very first sentence and holds them spellbound throughout. Will Dean’s prose is sparse and starkly beautiful so that not a syllable is wasted in conveying character, creating setting, and imbuing his narrative with such tension that I found it a physical experience to read The Last Thing to Burn. It is a stunning book.

I live in the Fens and the descriptions of the farm, the skies and the oppressive nothingness are fabulously evocative. Subtle references to local landmarks give an authenticity that slams the reader into the action with filmic clarity. There is so much isolation at all levels – the actual and the emotional – that somehow The Last Thing to Burn could not have been set anywhere else. Will Dean captures the very essence of the place.

There’s an intensity that is almost visceral in The Last Thing to Burn. I could feel Will Dean’s words seeping into me, making me tense so that I experienced Jane’s life as if it were my own. And although Jane is not his protagonist’s name, I feel I have to call her that in this review because I was so convinced by her narrative voice that I don’t believe I have the right to uncover her full identity for readers. This is her story completely whilst simultaneously being a tale that could apply to so many trapped in modern day slavery. I found her strength of character, her intelligence and her sense of love and loyalty almost too great to bear at times because the writing made me feel as she felt and experience what ‘Jane’ endured so absolutely realistically. As she is subsumed into life on the farm and her real identity is eroded both physically and emotionally, she illustrates the utter power of human resilience and love.

Jane’s husband is terrifying. It is his ordinariness and his routines, contrasting with his systematic psychological and actual brutality, that make him so compelling. When he was away from Jane in the farmhouse I was permanently on edge wondering when he might return. It’s the way Will Dean omits parts of the husband’s background that makes him so scary. We don’t know him fully or understand completely why he behaves the way he does and we can only guess at the atrocities he might be capable of so that our imaginations feed into the tension and atmosphere created. I thought this was sublime writing. I must also mention the gradual increase in burning that links so effortlessly with the gradual increase in violence referenced by Of Mice and Men throughout the text that also enhances the tension. I’d even go far as to say that Will Dean’s creation of this atmosphere surpasses Steinbeck’s writing in affecting the reader.

Alongside a superb narrative that propels the reader into Jane’s petrifying world, Will Dean manages to illustrate all too realistically the lives of those exploited in the shady world of illegal immigration. I think The Last Thing to Burn shows more effectively than any newspaper article about gangmasters and containers the suffering so many have to endure simply to try to do their best for families back home. Yes, The Last Thing to Burn is a fantastic fictional thriller but it is also an example of compassion, realism and a lesson for us all in looking beyond appearances and not taking for granted the lives we have and what might be happening to others.

Heartbreakingly possible, terrifying and, I am sure, about to win all the accolades in 2021, The Last Thing to Burn is astonishing. I can’t stop thinking about it and feel privileged to have read it. Do not miss this one.

About Will Dean

Will Dean grew up in the East Midlands and had lived in nine different villages before the age of eighteen. After studying Law at the LSE and working in London, he settled in rural Sweden where he built a house in a boggy clearing at the centre of a vast elk forest, and it’s from this base that he compulsively reads and writes. His debut novel, Dark Pines, was selected for Zoe Ball’s Book Club, shortlisted for the Guardian Not the Booker prize and named a Daily Telegraph Book of the Year. The second Tuva Moodyson mystery, Red Snow, was published in January 2019 and won Best Independent Voice at the Amazon Publishing Readers’ Awards, 2019. The Last Thing to Burn is his first standalone novel and his first book with Hodder.

You can follow Will Dean on Twitter @willrdean, on Instagram and on his YouTube Channel for further information.

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