19 December 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Yule Island by Johana Gustawsson

Book "Yule Island" by Johana Gustawsson. A pair of scissors, open and points down, in a chilly blue with the device of a skull in the centre. Behind them, a circle divided into eight parts by a repeated, cryptic symbol. There is a snowflake in each section. Behind all this, curving lines which might be branches, or possibly cracks in ice.
Yule Island (Lidingö Mysteries, No1)
Johana Gustawsson (translated by David Warriner)
Orenda Books, 23 November 2023
Available as: HB, 256, PB, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy and purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781914585975

I'm grateful to Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Yule Island to consider for review, and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Having enjoyed Gustawsson's previous Orenda-published mysteries, I was delighted to see this one coming and eager to review it. It is, I think, in atmosphere, closer to Blood Song than to her Roy & Castells series (though I did note that these books all take place in the same world - look out for the reference to the forensics expert!) That is, Yule Island is quite a "shut in", Gothic experience to read as we follow art and antiques expert Emma Lindahl to the lonely, but hardly isolated, Swedish island of Storholmen to appraise a wealthy family's hoarded collection of artwork.

Storholmen isn't remote - it can be reached by water taxi, a trip of only a few minutes, but once you're there it's another world. It is a place dominated by the Gussman family with their allegedly haunted manor house, where a young was woman was found, dead and hanging naked from a tree, nine years before. Once the taxi ceases, you're trapped, unless you can beg a lift. Moreover, its winter - the cold and the darkness almost palpable in Gustawsson's writing, contrasted to the busy urban scene outside Emma's apartment.

With this story, Gustawsson plunges straight into the mystery. There's no messing around, instead the threads are brought quickly together. Creepy Manor House. Troubled and scary history. The frustrated cop who failed to solve the previous murder. Hints of something or someone in the house not at rest. And in the middle of it all, Emma, a more complex character than she appears at first sight. When another corpse is found, she meets Karl, that detective (I enjoyed the subplot featuring him, his boss and her dog) and begins doing a little sleuthing herself.

It's clear by this stage that Emma has some preoccupation with the island, beyond furthering her career by working through the valuables the Gussmans have accumulated. (To add to the creepiness this is a job she's required to do according to a strict schedule, apparently designed to prevent her meeting any of the family or their staff). Gustawsson takes her time, however, revealing Emma's background and why she wishes to undertake the work when she seems to dread, rather than desire, the task, feelings only heightened when she discovers a note begging for help.

Pushed beyond endurance by what she witnesses, Emma also encounters Anneli, the young woman who runs the island cafe (literally the only other place to go apart from the manor) and they form a sort of alliance (in more senses than one). I felt the relationship between the two women was tenderly and convincingly drawn, as were Emma's difficulties with her mother (which hint at some of the darkness that Emma's dealing with - this is only slowly revealed and I won't say more because in this book you need to learn things at Guistawssson's pace).

Also sharing space in this book with Emma and the rest is Viktoria, who has her own take on things to narrate: exactly how it fits with the other storylines also only becomes clear gradually - but I will say that Viktoria's story is one that has overtones of male abuse (readers may want to be aware of this).

Overall, Yule Island has plenty of different mysteries, but they come together nicely into a coherent whole, rather than being separate threads added in to spice the story up. Once things come to a head it is soon clear what has shaped - is still shaping - the horror on Storholmen - Yule Island - and it also becomes clear that not everything can be wrapped up neatly: there will be consequences to what's gone on here - for the innocent as well as the guilty.

An intriguing and moreish start to a series, ably translated by David Warriner, whose lucid English narrative allows the story to speak for itself.

For more information about Yule Island, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Yule Island from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blog tour poster for book "Yule Island" by Johana Gustawsson.

15 December 2023

#Review - The Christmas Jigsaw Murders by Alexandra Benedict

Book "The Christmas Jigsaw Murder" by Alexandra Benedict. Against a background of red and gold wrapping paper, a jigsaw piece is askew...
The Christmas Jigsaw Murders
Alexandra Benedict
Simon & Schuster, 9 November 2023
Available as: HB, 352pp, audio, e   
Source: Purchased
ISBN(HB): 9781398525375

I really enjoyed Alexandra Benedict's Murder on the Christmas Express so once I had completed that trip, I made sure to collect all the pieces for this new mystery.

And it is a mystery in several senses. 

A week before Christmas, misanthropic crossword-puzzle setter Edie O’Sullivan receives a present - a handful of jigsaw pieces making up part of a murder scene. It's accompanied by a threat - Edie has been set a challenge, to prevent a series of murders which will climax on Christmas Eve.

Edie accepts the challenge, to the chagrin of her nephew Sean who, as a young Detective Sergeant, doesn't want her trampling all over the case (either metaphorically or - because Edie seems to know no law - literally, once the bodies start turning up).

The killer, "Rest in Pieces" seems to have a particular hatred of Edie, but is also happy to commit mayhem across Weymouth, causing panic and dismay among the Christmas lights and tinsel. What do they want, and can they be stopped?

This was a fun and enjoyable book, the more so - oddly perhaps? - because Edie is actually a thoroughly dislikable character. (She knows this - asked 'How many people do you p*** off every day?' Edie response is simple: 'Sure. I'm an a******e.' Admittedly as the story proceeds we learn more about what she's suffered, which goes some way to make her more sympathetic, but her behaviour is simply outrageous. Not suffering fools gladly, and rampaging across police business, is only part of it. She insults everyone she meets, behaves obnoxiously, and goes out of her way to be as disagreeable as she can. If somebody is targeting her, it's hardly surprising, and the list of suspects isn't going to be short. 

How Edie resolves this, what it might cost her, and where in her shady past she'll need to go to find the resources she needs in this crisis - well, read the book if you want to find out! It's frankly a puzzle bt one that Benedict pulls off triumphantly. 

And as I said above, that's not the only puzzle. Hidden in the story are multiple challenges for the reader, including anagrams and song titles (some of which I managed to solve, but mostly not - the story is so good and so distracting!) It's also got a pleasingly Dickensian (while modern) affect, signalled by the opening words: 'No one was dead, not to begin with.' Indeed there's perhaps a touch of the Miss Havisham about Edie - if Miss H was prone to solve murder mysteries.

All in all, immense fun.

For more information about The Christmas Jigsaw Murders, see the publisher's website here -

12 December 2023

#Review - Secrets Typed in Blood by Stephen Spotswood

Cover for book "Secrets Typed in Blood" by Stephen Spotswood. The title is spelled out on a page jutting from an old fashioned typewriter. The page is spattered with blood.
Secrets Typed in Blood (Pentecost and Parker, 3)
Stephen Spotswood
Headline, 12 October 2023
Available as: PB, 384pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy 
ISBN(PB): 9781035409464

I'm grateful to Headline for providing me an advance e-copy of Secrets Typed in Blood to consider for review.

I was excited to see not just one new Pentecost and Parker mystery this year, but two. I'll be reviewing Murder Crossed Her Mind, Book 4 in the series, shortly - but before that, what did I make of Secrets Typed in Blood?

Well, this is a clever, sharp detective novel that nicely explores the 1940s scene around the writing and publication of pulp detective novels while - at the same time - being a rather superior example of the genre, and indeed one with a distinctly noir-ish twist. But all that apart it's a real pleasure to welcome back Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker.

The two sleuths - or perhaps I should say, New York's foremost private detective and her assistant - are called in by Holly Quick, a writer of hard-boiled murder tales for half the pulp magazines in the city, when her scenarios begin playing out in real life. Bound on her honour to keep Holly's secrets - Holly has her reasons for these - Lillian risks souring her relationship with the New York police as the bodies pile up. There's also tension between Lillian and Will and, as ever, the latter doesn't take it well when Lillian tries to keep her away from the action.

I simply loved this book. Its gallery of smart women who know what they're about - not just Lillian, Will and Holly, but others besides - are a formidable counterpoint to the somewhat patronising NYPD. The introduction of Holly - a chain smoking, reclusive writer who spins out her stories paid by the letter - is a masterstroke, as is the involvement of a gumshoe Lillian brings in (to Will's disgust). We also learn more about how Will and Lillian support the women of the city, whether it's running self-defence classes, giving pro bono advice or tracking down missing relatives. (The background there is a clearly darkening climate for womens' rights, as they are squeezed out of "mens'" jobs and pushed back into the home, their behaviour policed and deviancy increasingly not tolerated).

Best of all though we see Will playing a lead role in things, and how far she's come since the first book. Juggling an undercover role on a separate case with investigating Holly's problem and discreetly supporting Lillian who (as regular readers will know) isn't in good health, she provides a running commentary (often a frustrated commentary) on progress which keeps the book moving at a brisk pace and hints at what is to come.

At the heart of things though is as classic a mystery as you could wish, the what and the why teasingly elusive even as Pentecost and Parker get further into the detail. It's all here in plain sight but also, it's fiendishly difficult to decode - just as a detective mystery should be.

All in all, another cracking instalment in this series which, to my mind, just gets better and better.

I'll be back with a further update when I've finished Murder Crossed Her Mind. You'll forgive me if I sign off now to do that...

For more information about Secrets Typed in Blood, see the publisher's website here.

8 December 2023

#Review - The Fragile Threads of Power by VE Schwab

Cover for book "The Fragile Threads of Power" by VE Schwab. A silhouetted figure in black with curly hair is surrounded by streamers of red and while, the red streamer overlaid with a street map.
The Fragile Threads of Power
VE Schwab
Titan Books, 26 September 2023 
Available as: HB, 576pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781785652462

I'm grateful to Titan Books for letting me have an advance e-copy of The Fragile Threads of Power via Netgalley to consider for review.

I was glad to see Schwab return to Grey, Red, White and (shudders) even Black London, the variously magic (or not) settings for her magnificent Darker Shades of Magic trilogy.

Glad - More Lila! More Kell! - but also slightly apprehensive because, and we've all seen them of course, I didn't want this to be another example a of writer returning to familiar ground when they should have left alone and done something new instead.

I needn't have worried. Schwab is canny enough to not simply repeat what worked so well before, and  bolsters the book with new characters who intrigue the reader while the central quad - Lila, Kell, Ray and Alucard - settle down, as it were, and focus. Those familiar with that group will though recall that they're a pretty awkward, intractable lot who aren't going to behave and pay attention at the snap of the author's fingers and indeed, we have Lila Being A Pirate, Kell Sulking, Rhy Kinging and Alucard, well, Alucarding. 

This first half of the book serves as a helpful reminder of just what went before and how each of the four stands in relation to the others, but Schwab doesn't have the story on pause - as the four sort out their issues, or not, we're also introduced to new comers Tesali, a sparky young runaway who has some serious magical abilities and runs her own repair shop in red London, and Kosika, the new Queen in White London. Both are outsiders, living on their wits and having to make sense of a dangerous world. Both have a lot of backstory, which Schwab allows to unfold slowly - if ever tempted to hurry this, she resisted and rightly; there is a lot to tell and both women are fascinating. They are destined, it's clear, to attract trouble and we begin to see that for Tesali (for Kosika I think it's looming in the next book).

(Apart from Tesali and Kosika, Rhys' new Queen, Nadia, an enchantress with her own underground lab, also intrigued me. She's clearly up to something more than simply defending her family, but what?)

Of course once trouble starts, Lila won't be far away and the really good news about this book is that as things heat up, with the sinister rebel faction The Hand making its move, Lila gets REALLY knife-y and plunges into the thick of things. This is what I was waiting for. Red London is absolutely made for sinister plots, for skulking figures glimpsed in dark alleys, strange conspiracies and for treason. And there's plenty of all these. (Yes, treason - there is a traitor in this book, in fact more than one, and you'll be smart if you can spot them - I didn't).

It all creates an engaging, fast-paced and pleasingly complicated story that benefits not only from those new characters but from the returning, somewhat older (I won't say, more mature) cast from the earlier books. As established figures, it's good to see them bickering away but even better to see the impression they make on the newcomers. I didn't think Tesali was actually very impressed by Lila, and The Fragile Threads of Power sets up some dynamics that it will be fun to see play out in future books.

A strong followup to Darker Shades that definitely avoids all those "second trilogy blues".

For more information about The Fragile Threads of Power, see the publisher's website here.

4 December 2023

#Blogtour #Review - Dead Sweet by Katrín Júlíusdóttir

Cover for book "Dead Sweet" by Katrín Júlíusdóttir. The Reykjavík waterfront, with churches and other buildings visible,. The sea is stained a deep red, in contrast to the rest of the image which is in shades of grey, white and black.
Dead Sweet
Katrín Júlíusdóttir (translated by Quentin Bates)
Orenda Books, 1 December 2023
Available as: HB, 256pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781914585999

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of Dead Sweet to consider for review, and to Anne for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

Dead Sweet is an intriguing and enthralling debut novel, written by an ex Minister in the Icelandic Government and showing, I think, the insight of an insider in its portrayal of government, police and wider society.

The story follows detective Sigurdís as she attempts to unravel the murder of prominent campaigner turned civil servant Óttar Karlsson. Karlsson was a man accustomed to getting his way but it soon emerges that he was also a man who kept secrets and whose life was lived in compartments. As the police dig deeper and deeper, they begin to uncover a host of potential motives - but there is an understandable caution at digging too deep. Will Sigurdís be able to persuade her boss Garðar to pursue potentially embarrassing leads?

I have to say, I totally loved Sigurdís as a protagonist. Where's a whiff of darkness about her - she is struggling rather in her chosen career after losing it when on patrol one evening and her colleagues are torn between sympathy (she had a difficult upbringing which has left her with trauma) and suspicion. The dynamic between her and them is one of several ways that Júlíusdóttir explores insiders and outsiders: she is both at the same time, as, it seems, was Karlsson. We are all, the author seems to be saying, many different people in the course of our lives and I was reminded of the "All the world's a stage" speech from "As You Like It" with various stages and aspects of both Sigurdís and Karlsson gradually emerging. 

Indeed, Karlsson is, for someone we see briefly at the start of the story when he dies but who is, if not dead "to begin with", at least dead from then on, still very involved with the story. It's basically a process of exploring the impact he had on others: the harms, the impressions, the trauma and the delusions that he left behind. I think that's why Sigurdís becomes so obsessed, pushing the bounds of protocol and eventually stepping right over them in her determination to find the truth. Something in the "victim" resonates with her own sense of pain and hurt and unresolved loss - even as her own history seems to be coming back to haunt her.

If all that sounds a lot in a shortish book, and potentially rather heavy, it's really not - Júlíusdóttir spins a cracking tale and keeps the revelations and teasers unwinding so that there's something to discover on every page, and Sigurdís is an engaging and empathetic heroine who I look forward to hearing more about soon.

I would give a content warning for some scenes of domestic abuse and controlling behaviour.

For more information about Dead Sweet, see the Orenda Books website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy Dead Sweet from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

Blogtour poster for book "Dead Sweet" by Katrín Júlíusdóttir