The Chalk Man – CJ Tudor

chalk man cover

“The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves.”

Short version: It, without the demonic clown.

Eddie Adams thinks his past is tightly locked up in his head. But as childhood friends and old memories start to come out of the woodwork, is it finally time to face up to the past? Because in 1986, five pre-teen friends have their idyllic summer holiday shattered first by a horrific accident, and then the discovery of a dead body. But the chalk stick figures – they were just a game. Who, then, has sent each of them a letter 30 years later, with just that single stick figure drawing?

There was something in the description of this that called to me, despite the fact that I rarely read dark thrillers these days. But, oh, this spoke to the teenage me who adored Stephen King books – and it really is somewhere between Stand By Me (aka The Body) and It – although as I say, without those supernatural elements. They aren’t missed: this is a gripping enough mystery without bringing in anything other worldly.

The chapters alternate between 1986 and 2016, and both strands follow Eddie as his life goes from perfect childhood to tinged with terror and darkness. It’s very well done: both plotlines are equally intriguing, adding to the other, so the flip back and forth never left me wishing for the other segment. I did prefer the earlier segments, though, as the mood that’s conjured is just brilliantly evocative of those 1980s childhood summers that some of us remember (albeit with less, y’know, dead things!), and some have grown to love from watching Stranger Things.

I did think I’d guessed the ‘whodunnit’ early on, only for the whole thing to swerve in an unexpected direction – hurrah! Still, as the mysteries start to be unravelled at the end, there were just a few bits that seemed perhaps a little too coincidental, so I’m knocking a mark of for that.

Otherwise, though, I gobbled this in just two days – it really was that gripping! Absolutely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 342 pages
First published: January 11th 2018
Series: none
Read from 6th-7th January 2018

My rating: 9/10

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A Murder for the Books – Victoria Gilbert

A Murder for the Books cover

“Anyone who claims there are no stupid questions has never worked in a public library.”

Having fled an embarrassing end to a terrible romance, Amy Webber is now director of the library in the small, old town where her aunt lives. Still, it’s far too soon to deal with the flirting from a hunky new neighbour as she sets about helping him research some of the town’s past. Murder and poison and disappearances make for juicy history – but not so happy times when the past starts to seep into the present.

I requested this book from NetGalley because I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my ‘cosy mystery’ reads, set in libraries or bookshops. This one, however, was perhaps a little less cosy and actually quite dark on the murder mystery side – nothing too awful – but with a hefty dose of chick-lit romance. Throw in a shiver of the supernatural and it was all rather intriguing.

While I wasn’t exactly enthralled with the romance aspects – just not my genre – I did enjoy the descriptions of the historic town and its dark past events. There are plenty of characters to throw red herrings in the mix, before an okay-if-not-brilliant denouement of the present mystery ties in nicely with the cold case.

Overall, this was a nice enough read. I’m not entirely sure where the series could go next, but the writing style was strong enough to make me consider finding out.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 12th December 2017
Series: Blue Ridge Library Mysteries book 1
Read from 4th-11th December 2017

My rating: 6/10

Doctor Who: Myths and Legends – Richard Dinnick

Doctor Who Myths and Legends cover

“Heroes. Gods. Monsters. Time Lords.”

Amazingly, it’s been over a decade since Doctor Who made a triumphant return to the screen, becoming more popular than ever to the point where the recent sneak peak of the Christmas special, aired during BBC’s Children in Need appeal, caused absolute squeee’ing overload on social media. If you’re finding it too hard to wait the a little over a month to go before the full episode airs on Christmas day, perhaps this book of short stories will fill the gap for you.

Myths and Legends is a collection of fourteen tales, giving a Gallifreyan twist to familiar stories from our own history: the Argonauts escaping from the Cyclops, for instance, or the Wooden Horse of Troy. Despite being a fan of Greek myths, I didn’t find it particularly easy to spot the links at times – the table of contents helpfully lists the inspirational tale –  which… I’m not sure, but is probably a good thing.

To be honest, some of the stories try a little too hard to fit a space-age tale into something written thousands of years ago. The Minotaur’s labyrinth, for instance, is rather shoehorned into a tale about the Racnoss, a spider-species that was featured in the 2006 Christmas special, The Runaway Bride. Now, spiders and mazes are fine together, but here it just seemed rather a daft way to try and get your prey to where you’re about to eat them – hmm.

My other minor ‘hmm’ about this work is that it made me feel like I’m not a big enough geek. I’ve watched Dr Who since… oh, okay, maybe not give away my age ;)… since well before its modern regeneration, but I found myself wondering at times if I just don’t pay enough attention to get some of the winks and nods here. But then, after a few I found myself wondering why there weren’t more tie-ins to the series as shown on screen. With a title like this has, I suppose I expected more… specifics?

Overall, this is a perfectly adequate set of stories, but somehow didn’t quite hit the mark for me. Perhaps it’s the slightly written-for-youngers simplistic style, or simply a flaw in this reader and/or her expectations. Your mileage may vary, as they say, and if you do have a small TARDIS on your premises, chances are you’ll get more out of this than I did.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages / 14 short stories
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 25th September – 13th November 2017

My rating: 6/10

Ironclads – Adrian Tchaikovsky

ironclads cover

“Sturgeon says that, way back when, the sons of the rich used to go to war as a first choice of career.”

It’s the near future. Brexit has happened, but unable to stand alone the UK becomes part of the US – giving the latter a toehold right next to Europe. Governments are increasingly irrelevant, as it’s the giant Corporations who are running things now – including war. And as the opening sentence suggests, the sons of the rich are once again choosing war as a career. Well, it’s not like they have to risk their lives: they’ve got all the money, all the tech. No, it’s an excuse for them to play general while the grunts like Sgt Ted Regan are the cheapest of commodities.

So, when one of the ‘Scions’ – the mega-rich in their armoured tech marvel ‘suits’ – goes missing somewhere in the Nordic countries, it’s Regan and his closest few squad mates who are sent on the rescue mission. And, of course, things are never exactly what they first seem…

This is a short, standalone novella, but wow does it pack in the ideas! The plot is this one mission, but we get plenty of snippets about how the world has changed in the not-so-distant future, grounded in very real politics and such going on right now. It’s a little eerie at times, to be honest.

For the main, though, this is action all the way, with heavy dollops of very satisfying sci-fi all presented with just the right amount of characterisation – the latter not always a sure thing with such strong concepts and world-building. It’s nice to see the location of Sweden and Finland used for a change, too.

I’ve been meaning to try some of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s much-praised work for ages now, and if his longer work is anything like this I’m only sorry I haven’t tried it sooner! Recommended, for sci-fi fans, gamers, and anyone who might like a dose of action with a strong warning about ‘what if…’!

NetGalley eARC: 160 pages / 10 chapters
First published: November 2017
Series: none
Read from 2nd-6th November 2017

My rating: 9/10

A Pocketful of Crows – Joanne M Harris

A Pocketful of Crows cover

“The year it turns, and turns, and turns.”

Taking inspiration from The Child Ballads (which I’ll confess I’d never heard of, but turn out to be a collection of traditional ballads collected by Francis Child, rather than songs about children!), A Pocketful of Crows is a lovely, if dark, fairy tale-esque story of the magic of nature, and love, and revenge.

Set over thirteen chapters, one for each month and back to the beginning again, the use of the seasons is really wonderful. We follow a nameless wildling girl, a creature of the forest, who risks her innate magic for the love of a young man from the town. The outcome of this has a real sense of dread and inevitability through the first third or so of the book, with the remainder taken up with consequences.

I really enjoyed this. It’s very immersive for a relatively short book, catching up my emotional response almost from the get-go. My only minor complaints would be the use of the terms ‘folk’ and ‘travelling folk’ for the two kinds of people in the story, which I found a little confusing at first, and the ending just seemed ever so slightly abrupt.

Perhaps another few paragraphs could have lightened the mood a little, as overall it’s quite a dark tale, and I must confess I love the slightly more whimsical nature of T Kingfisher in her fairytale retellings. That’s a personal thing, though, as the cold indifference of nature, or at least its mix of dark and light, is perhaps one of the themes here.

Recommended, particularly for those who enjoy their fairy tales but are perhaps looking for something a little more unique.

NetGalley eARC: 256 pages / 13 chapters
First published: 19th October 2017
Series: none
Read from 28th September – 6th October 2017

My rating: 8/10

Death Overdue – Allison Brook

death overdue cover

“Time to move on.”

I’m getting quite fond of the ‘cosy mystery’ genre, turning to these kinds of titles for easy and uplifting reads. I also love books set in libraries, so this sounded like a win-win.

Carrie Singleton is getting ready to leave her childhood town again and go back to her rootless existence when she’s offered a better role at the library where she’s been temping. One of her first tasks is organising a talk by a former police detective, one who’s now promising to solve the cold case he failed with fifteen years before: the murder of a local mother and library employee. However, it seems that the secret killer might be less than keen to let him have his say…

There’s plenty to enjoy reading this book, but in all honesty I can’t give it a very high rating. It’s a lot more ‘chick-lit’ and romance-based than I would have hoped, which could be fine, but alas that pushes the mystery and paranormal bits not only to lesser importance but to rather rushed and not-great written parts. The opening murder, for instance, seems very clunkily handled: a ‘I know I need this bit, but not quite how to write it’ feeling, which is a real shame.

There’s also the usual fluffy genre failing of the heroine’s too-perfect life falling into her lap. First it’s the near-perfect job – okay, that one comes with half an explanation. But then there’s the massively reduced rent on an amazing house, interested dishy men to chose from, family who spoil her endlessly, enemies made good, and heck – we can even squeeze a kitten in here because why not?! I didn’t even wholly like the main character, with her goth look so easily cast aside, murky reasonings for turning sleuth and quite frankly daft ways of stumbling onwards, and not-great treatment of other characters.

Still, it was easy enough to read and keep going with, despite the flaws. Perhaps the next in the series will be able to build on the strengths – an intriguing and helpful library ghost, for instance, or perhaps an explanation as to how this particularly library is so well-funded – and lose some of the fluffier failings.

NetGalley eARC: 336 pages / 37 chapters
First published: October 2017
Series: A Haunted Library Mystery book 1
Read from 6th-11th October 2017

My rating: 5/10

The Easy Way to Mindfulness – Allen Carr

Easy Way to Mindfulness cover

What if there was a simple, no-effort way to reduce stress, free yourself from anxiety and depression, and increase your happiness? This book’s not quite promising to magically transform your life into rainbows and unicorns, but it’s not far off!

I actually am a huge believer in the power of mindfulness, and meditation, and have experienced a positive change in my life from years of both. However, I’m by no means an expert so any help is more than welcome. Step forward this ‘Easy Way’ title, from the people who apparently devised the best quit smoking method ever – surely a good credential?

Well, they seem to think so, as the book half-reads as a giant advert for the system and previous books – which I found massively irritating. Even discounting those bits, the examples tend to go back to smokers – which was beyond irrelevant to me, and actually left me struggling as I have no experience to connect to such an addiction. Could I move the example over to, say, tea or chocolate? Not so much – unlike smoking, there isn’t the same black-and-white it’s awful, and quite frankly I don’t really want to give up tea or chocolate (having done both at certain points) so this “every smoker absolutely wants to quit” message is again pushing me away.

So: I’d suggest that this is perhaps a book for people who have or want to quit smoking, drinking, gambling, etc, perhaps even using the Easy Way method, and want to go deeper into the mindful techniques that they’ve already used for that.

I did quite like some of the imagery: head in a box of flies-that-are-your-issues, mindfulness is not trying to squish the flies but rather taking your head out of the box. One chapter (13) in particular resonated with me, about the struggling against things being more stressful than the thing itself; life is change, go with the flow etc etc.

However, while there are little bits and pieces like that throughout the book – and these are handily summarised in a final chapter run through (that could, I suspect, have been the outline for a better stab at the full content) – I felt it could have been much better written, with a lot more flow. Paragraphs don’t always follow from the previous one, but rather jump around a little, and the content of each chapter isn’t necessarily as strongly linked to the title as I would have expected.

It really doesn’t help that every single chapter seems to include heavy advertising for the quit smoking clinics and previous books. This is shoe-horned in regardless of whether it actually fits with the mindfulness concept under discussion, which was hugely off-putting. And then the last 10% of the book is a list of clinics’ contact details and previous books o_O

Overall: it’s got some useful advice buried in the advertising, and I suspect that if you’re already a member of the Easy Way audience this might resonate more with you, but I couldn’t help be disappointed that it wasn’t a little more helpful, a little more on-topic (I am hugely interested in mindfulness, after all!) and a little less advertisement for a product I have no use for.

NetGalley eARC: 197 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 15th October 2017
Series: part of the Easy Way series of self-help books
Read from 3rd-7th October 2017

My rating: 5/10