Catch-Up Quickies 27

First a quick explanation!

Due to some severe health issues over the last few years, and a lingering chronic condition, my planned review schedule went right out of the window and I have been scrabbling ever since to get it back on track.

In my latest attempt to try to regain some lost ground, I have been scrunching some of my (overdue) NetGalley reviews together into one or two posts each week: shorter reviews, but still covering all of the points I intended to.

That’s the plan anyway and, despite a somewhat disturbing number of hospitalisations so far this year, I am soldiering on with it!

Title:  The Spirit Engineer
Author:  A.J. West
Publisher: Duckworth Books

Blurb:  Belfast, 1914. Two years after the sinking of the Titanic, high society has become obsessed with spiritualism. In their collective grief they are attempting to reach their departed through séances.

William Jackson Crawford is a man of science and a sceptic, but one night with everyone sitting around the circle, voices come to him seemingly from beyond the veil, placing doubt in his heart and a seed of obsession in his mind. Could the spirits truly be communicating with him or is this one of Kathleen’s parlour tricks gone too far?

Based on the true story of William Jackson Crawford and famed medium Kathleen Goligher, and with a cast of characters that includes Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, West conjures a haunting tale that will keep you guessing until the end.

Review: This gothic suspense/horror is based on a true story and real people.

The first section of the book, leading up to the tragic family crisis, is a distressing drama of hubris and pomposity – I was reminded of George Banks from Mary Poppins, but without the happy change of heart. And once William Crawford receives his terrible lesson about his misplaced values, things take a dark turn and keep getting darker.

William, his family, and the reader are plunged into a world of seances and spirits, which he initially doubts and challenges, but eventually allows himself to be persuaded into, in an attempt to salvage something positive from his own personal horrors. Alas, an initial upturn in his fortunes feels like the last big climb of a rollercoaster whose loops hold only madness, delusion and despair, and the reader can only watch helplessly as William plunges blindly onto every ill-conceived path set before him.

By the end, we come full circle, from rocks to rocks, and a final hint that perhaps there is always hope after all, and maybe a drop of truth in every ocean of deceit. It’s a neat touch that leaves it up to the reader how far they want to believe.

Very cleverly constructed, this is a deeply upsetting and utterly compelling read that sent me rushing to research how much was fact and how much fiction. I always feel the mark of a good historical fiction read is in the blurring of lines between the two!

Purchase Link: The Spirit Engineer on Amazon

Title:  Wish You Weren’t Here
Author:  Gabby Hutchinson Crouch
Publisher:  Farrago Books

Blurb:  A fresh, fun, supernatural comedy by acclaimed author and TV scriptwriter. The bickering but loving Rook family run a little family business.

Ghost hunting.

And things has picked up recently. Something’s wrong. 

Bad spirits are abroad, and right now they’re particularly around Coldbay Island, which isn’t even abroad, it’s only 20 miles from Skegness. The Rooks’ ‘quick call out’ to the island picks loose a thread that begins to unravel the whole place, and the world beyond.

Is this the apocalypse? This might be the apocalypse. Who knew it would kick off in an off-season seaside resort off the Lincolnshire coast? I’ll tell you who knew – Linda. She’s been feeling increasingly uneasy about the whole of the East Midlands since the 90s.

Review: I loved Gabby Hutchinson Crouch’s Darkwood series, but I love this new Rooks series even more!

The action and humour are more aimed at adults here – think Douglas Adams, Tom Holt, Robert Asprin – as the Rook family visit a haunted seaside island to find and ‘deliver’ the spirits there, and instead find themselves faced with ghosts, demons and an impending apocalypse. Good job they brought their accountant with them!

All of the characters here are brilliant and the interplay between them is witty and touching, as the family secrets gradually start to spill out. Add in plenty of action and some lovely worldbuilding details about how the family’s skills work, and these literary Ghostbusters shot straight onto my favourites list – I already have my eye on the upcoming sequel, Out of Service!

This is a perfect light-hearted romp of an urban fantasy read and I have to warn you, it ends on more than one cliffhanger, so you’ll end up as desperate as I am for more… 25th September, so not long now!

Purchase Link: Wish You Weren’t Here on Amazon

Title:  The Cabinet
Author:  Un-Su Kim
Publisher:  Angry Robot

Blurb:  Winner of the Munhakdongne Novel Award, South Korea’s most prestigious literary prize.

Cabinet 13 looks exactly like any normal filing cabinet. Except this cabinet is filled with files on the ‘symptomers’, people whose weird abilities and bizarre experiences might just mark the emergence of a new species.

But to Mr Kong, the harried office worker who spends his days looking after the cabinet, the symptomers are just a headache; from the woman whose doppelganger broke up with her boyfriend, to the man with a ginkgo tree growing from his fingertip. And then there’s that guy who won’t stop calling, asking to be turned into a cat…

A richly funny and fantastical novel about the strangeness at the heart of even the most ordinary lives, from one of South Korea’s most acclaimed novelists.

Translated by Sean Lin Halbert

Review: Highly surreal in content, this translated novel follows Mr Kong as he reads about and gets to know a new kind of people, who he terms ‘symptomers’ who have unique abilities and unusual deformities, all documented in the files in Cabinet 13.

The first part of the story introduces us to Mr Kong and the Cabinet, and details many of the different symptomers he comes across in his illicit research and then in his official capacity as a kind of ‘cabinet manager’. This section of the story feels like a kind of Twilight Zone or X-Files collection, and as someone who is always drawn to tales of the strange and unusual, I eagerly consumed these anecdotes of oddity.

In the second section of the novel, the story takes a sudden turn into action thriller territory, as Mr Kong is pursued and tormented by a shadowy organisation intent on extracting his knowledge of the symptomers. There is even a potential romantic sub-plot as one of Mr Kong’s colleagues becomes involved in his situation, thanks to her own ostracization in the office.

Then the third section lost me completely, as it felt like the author rushed to a conclusion, eager to drop his own story threads completely and simply tuck the characters away , out of sight and mind. It felt like such a wasted opportunity compared to the strange and beautiful surrealist horror of the initial set-up, as if the author had accidentally taken a left into thriller territory and then on realising his mistake couldn’t find a way back.

Still, I would read more from this author simply for the surreal vignettes he conjured of lizards for tongues, trees for fingers, and bodies that can survive on glass or gas, or sleep alone. Those little story seeds were my kind of weird!

Purchase Link: The Cabinet on Amazon

Title:  Are We Having Fun Yet?
Author:  Lucy Mangan
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail / Viper / Profile Books, Souvenir Press

Blurb:  Meet Liz: all she wants is some peace and quiet so she can read a book with her cat Henry, love of her life, by her side. But trampling all over this dream is a group of wild things also known as Liz’s family. Namely:

Richard – a man, a husband, no serious rival to Henry.

Thomas – their sensitive seven year old son, for whom life is a bed of pain already.

Evie – five year old acrobat, gangster, anarchist, daughter.

And as if her family’s demands (Where are the door keys? Are we made of plastic? Do ‘ghost poos’ really count?) weren’t enough, Liz must also contend with the madness of parents, friends, bosses, and at least one hovering nemesis. Are We Having Fun Yet? is a year with one woman as she faces all the storms of modern life (babysitters, death, threadworms) on her epic quest for that holy grail: a moment to herself.

Review: I’ve read quite a few fictional ‘mummy diaries’ and this one was by far my favourite!

There are no big events here, no life-changing decisions or family disasters – no plot at all really! Just the daily dramas of ordinary life with children, friends, family and partner, told in a witty and very relatable way.

Some of the moments were interestingly realistic to me as a reader, with some bad decisions having painful consequences but others being ‘let slide’ in the name of family harmony. I’m sure we have all known someone who has forgiven their partner’s mistakes in order to keep the status quo, and yet we rarely see that in fiction, where erring partners must be jettisoned immediately (and often replaced with improved versions before the book ends).

I totally lived this year in Liz’s life right alongside her, and wasn’t ready to stop reading when it finished. In fact, I already owned Bookworm and have added everything else Lucy Mangan has written to my wish list now on the strength of those two – very different, equally excellent – reads. Plot or not, her style of writing really resonates with me and her stories thoroughly engage me.

Purchase Link: Are We Having Fun Yet? on Amazon

Title:  Black Drop
Author:  Leonora Nattrass
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail / Viper / Profile Books

Blurb:  This is the confession of Laurence Jago. Clerk. Gentleman. Reluctant spy.
July 1794, and the streets of London are filled with rumours of revolution. Political radical Thomas Hardy is to go on trial for treason, the war against the French is not going in Britain’s favour, and negotiations with the independent American colonies are on a knife edge.

Laurence Jago – clerk to the Foreign Office – is ever more reliant on the Black Drop to ease his nightmares. A highly sensitive letter has been leaked to the press, which may lead to the destruction of the British Army, and Laurence is a suspect. Then he discovers the body of a fellow clerk, supposedly a suicide.

Blame for the leak is shifted to the dead man, but even as the body is taken to the anatomists, Laurence is certain both of his friend’s innocence, and that he was murdered. But after years of hiding his own secrets from his powerful employers, and at a time when even the slightest hint of treason can lead to the gallows, how can Laurence find the true culprit without incriminating himself?

A thrilling historical mystery, perfect for readers of C.J. Sansom, Andrew Taylor, Antonia Hodgson and Laura Shepherd-Robinson.

Review: I read this one not long after reading The Spirit Engineer and, while set in different time periods, there are definite similarities between the two stories in both style and content.

The main character here, Laurence Jago, is a well-meaning clerk who is gradually drawn out of his depth – in the world of espionage, rather than paranormal investigations – and inexorably spirals downwards into addiction and paranoia.

I found the reading induced acid-anxiety, as poor Jago does his best to do the right thing at every turn, but inevitably gets it wrong and sabotages himself. I felt so much pity for his inept flailing towards justice and happiness!

The story is based on true events around the French Revolution and the trial of Thomas Hardy for treason, with some of the characters here fictional and others real historical figures. And I couldn’t tell the difference, to be honest, unless I specifically recognised the name (Pitt, for example). Yet again, a narrative that seamlessly blends history with story to great effect.

Overall, an interesting and entertaining historical mystery fiction, if painful to read for anyone with an ounce of empathy!

Purchase Link: Black Drop on Amazon

Not one book in this batch that I didn’t like, and two that I absolutely loved!

I hope they appeal to you as much as they did to me – do let me know…?

Happy reading everybody and keep shining 🙂


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