‘House of Earth and Blood’ – Sarah J. Maas

CHAPTERS 1-5 ONLY (NetGalley Extract)

We’re introduced to Bryce and her world is, to put it bluntly, chaotic. A clear attempt to bring in an older audience, but the story will be what really makes it work. Hints of an intriguing world, though we’re not given a lot of detail here. What we do get, however, is a definite setting-up of a story to capture our interest…who is behind this attack? Why Bryce? Will she survive this?
Thanks to NetGalley for the sneak peek…thank goodness I don’t need to wait too long for the release of the book itself.


I got a little caught up in the hype at this foray into adult literature. I started in earnest…and then I have to admit to struggling.

I can’t put my finger on exactly why this was so hard to get into, but I really felt like I might not finish it at certain points. And that feeling continued for over thirty chapters – which is just too long to expect a reader to stick with you in the expectation that it’s going to get better. I did…and put my trust in reading buddies who pretty much unanimously voiced the view that it was worth sticking with. To them, thanks, as left to my own devices I probably would have bottled this.
The character of Bryce (part-human child of the Autumn King) is flawed, but you root for her from the beginning, and the dynamics of her various relationships hint at some intriguing developments. There’s plenty of background info given and the world-building is established as we read. We get lots of suggestions about shifting power alliances and past events are clearly going to have bearing on what we see/will see. From the outset we are clear that a range of groups have a vested interest in the events depicted…and we are somewhat in the dark as we try to piece together quite how everything fits.
To cut a very long story short, this book focuses us on a hunt for a long-lost Fae relic. As the search takes place, we have a side-story of what exactly led to the deaths of Bryce’s friends at the start. There’s the drawn-out relationship problem, this time featuring Bryce and Hunt. For those familiar with Maas’s writing the relationship is a prickly one, with both parties damaged in some way; a lot of teasing and sexual tension; the usual ‘white noise’ of overblown sexualised moments that promise much but never quite deliver…and the very firm expectation that things will sort themselves out eventually. We also get a fair amount of complicated family relationships and action from other worlds that means we’re never quite certain where this is going. And then, once things get going, we have some great scenes.
I think this is one to mentally prepare yourself for. Perhaps you’ll love it from the start – in which case, once we hit that magic moment (it was part three onwards for me) you will be fair gushing in your praise for Maas and the feel good factor delivered by what comes later. For me, the latter stages really were emotional with plenty of action to engage us and hints of some fascinating developments to come. There was upset, love, fear, hope and a growing sense of a world showing its true potential. It helps that Bryce has her vulnerable moments, as when she really gets going she’s hard to ignore and that knowledge that she’s in it for the right reasons keeps us rooting for her.
Having taken weeks to get to part three, the latter stages got their claws in me and I raced through the last fifty-odd chapters in a couple of days. That doesn’t sit well with me, but it was most definitely worth it. And now I cannot wait to see how Maas continues the events set in motion.


‘Grace is Gone’ – Emily Elgar

While this begins slowly, it soon picks up pace and becomes a fascinating read. Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me to read it prior to publication.

The story focuses on what happens when Meg, a much-loved local woman, is found murdered in her home. Her daughter, Grace, is missing and so begins a tense hunt to discover what happened to her and try to find her alive.

Watching this story unfold is a journalist called Jon who seems unhealthily interested in this story. As we follow him through his day, we learn why. This family is known to him. Things between them didn’t end amicably years earlier when Jon interviewed them and suggested Meg’s ex should not have been cut out of Grace’s life in the way he was. With Simon, Grace’s dad, the prime suspect for this kidnapping we guess it’s only a matter of time until we find the truth.

Simon is, eventually, found. He refuses to cooperate with the police, but asks to talk to Jon. Breaking with protocol, focused only on getting Grace back safely, this is allowed. And so begins a tale stranger than any you could invent.

Not knowing crucial information is essential to the success of the book. Whatever our views of the characters involved, it certainly raises interesting questions about criminality and human behaviour. The ending is ambiguous, and this definitely encourages us to reflect on the information we have been given and consider what we would do with it.


‘The Last One’ – Alexandra Oliva

When I first agreed to buddy read this a while ago it sounded like a novel idea, experimenting with the concept of post-apocalyptic events and tying it in with the excitement surrounding social media. The idea of a group of reality TV contestants taking part in a survival show, and being unaware of the fact that the outside world they left was no more, sounded so extreme that I was imagining a thrilling read. However, recent world events and the issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic lent this read an eerie sense of foreboding. At times I had to steel myself to continue, gripped but not in a way I was necessarily enjoying.

At the beginning there were clues that things were going to change in ways we were not imagining. While we got to see all the characters and their interactions everything was tempered somewhat by the filter of our main character, Zoo.
I got rather frustrated by the presentation of the characters on occasion. The attempt to pigeon-hole people and force their actions to fit a preconceived notion of how they would be seen by others meant I felt a lot of events were written about in order to present a particular slant.

Where the story really picked up was once we followed Zoo through her time following her surviving whatever she had experienced. She emerges from the woods in a dazed state. She can’t see. When she meets young Brennan she is convinced he is merely part of the crew. All her experiences in her mind form part of the test she has agreed to.

Yes, a little more background to the scenario would have been good. Understanding how this occurred might have been helpful, but the isolation Zoo has experienced does mean the detachment and lack of information makes sense. A bleak ending may have been appropriate, but I actually felt heartened by the potentially hopeful resolution to this story.

Now, as Boris Johnson has just announced a lockdown in Britain with immediate effect this seems like an apt time to find something a little cheerier to dip into…


‘Eight Perfect Murders’ – Peter Swanson

Malcolm Kershaw – bookstore worker, widow and suspect in a series of murders. At least that’s what we’re led to believe initially.

Malcolm narrates his story, and it’s clear we’re not being told everything. The question is, what’s being hidden and why? When an FBI agent asks to speak with Mal in connection to a series of murders we’re immediately intrigued. There seems to be a link between a number of deaths and a blog post written some years ago by Mal called Eight Perfect Murders. Someone appears to be using the list to carry out their own killing spree.

While the initial idea seems rather far-fetched, we slowly learn further details that indicates there is indeed a link. We also get told by Mal himself that he’s hiding things. The details he does give us mean we have developed a sense of trust and I certainly didn’t want to think badly of him.

As the story develops little details are revealed that start to affect the way we regard Mal. His actions become increasingly strange, and it’s evident that there’s twists coming…but it’s all about working out why and when this info is given.

It’s hard to say more without inadvertently revealing details that are crucial to the book’s success. While I’d not read all the books mentioned on the list, the literary link was appealing and Mal – though evidently not quite the good guy I had him pegged as initially – has a rather mercurial charm. By the notional end I felt rather disappointed that things were going to go that way.

A huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with this in exchange for my thoughts.


‘Dandelion Wine’ – Ray Bradbury

Summer 1928 and young Douglas Spaulding is our main focus. For those who like a clear character arc, or well-defined events this will probably feel frustrating. The book seems to be made up of a series of vignettes, with some characters traced throughout but each capturing a moment or a significant experience.

While it’s not without its frustrations, there is much to love about this.
Douglas himself – and his brother, Tom – are certainly characters to be intrigued by. I suppose they are quite typical of the time/small-town mentality, but the joy they find in the simple things and the pleasure they take from their experiences was so positive. I loved the story of 95 year old Helen Loomis and the ice-cream, the happiness machine and the tarot witch. I don’t recall why I’ll have read it but the piece with Lavinia and the Lonely One (I recall a story called The Whole Town’s Sleeping) still sent shivers up my spine.

Not necessarily a story that will keep you gripped from the outset, rather a series of quite charming occurrences that each tell us something about ourselves and our common experience.


‘The Guest List’ – Lydia Foley

Will Slater, TV star of a survival show, is due to marry Jules Keegan on a remote Irish island. The two look perfect together, and Jules is – with the help of her sister, best friend and the wedding planner – determined to make this day special.

We start by being introduced to the dramatic moment when a body is discovered on the night of the wedding. We’re not told who, and I assumed it would be a fairly straight-forward ‘whodunnit’.

Immediately after this dramatic announcement we are introduced to some of the key characters of the story. As we learn a little more about each character we realise that many of them are harbouring secrets, and we do realise that a number of characters have good reason to want Will dead.

As the story progresses it was fascinating to see the menace such an isolated setting could generate. The cast of characters were flawed in many ways, and yet it was not until quite late on that we actually got answers as to how certain stories and events linked.

While the story was told in a way that kept you guessing I can’t help but feel that the ending all got wrapped up just a little too quickly.


‘The Murder at the Vicarage’ – Agatha Christie

I’ve read very few novels by Agatha Christie, but I have clear memories of Miss Marple being shown on tv when I was younger. First impressions do count…and I’d always had this vague recollection of her being a rather prim and interfering elderly woman.

My overwhelming response after reading this was that Miss Marple as she appears here was the germ of an idea, but she’s not fully formed. In fact, we see very little of her – just an appearance at key moments. She is presented as shrewd yet on the ‘busybody’ side – always hovering and overhearing/seeing things she perhaps doesn’t need to.

In this first of the Marple series we focus on the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the kind of man many could find reason to kill. He’s found shot in the Vicarage and we follow the vicar and various villagers around as they try to establish the truth.

There’s the usual red herrings thrown in, and what was proven here was that sometimes the obvious solutions are the truth. People are, at heart, quite predictable and observation counts for an awful lot.


‘In the Clearing’ – J.P. Pomare

I was able to read In the Clearing thanks to Secret Readers, and this is a book I will definitely recommend.

We have two clear voices telling the majority of the story. There’s a young girl called Amy who we can see is part of a cult and she recounts some of the abuses and brainwashing she endures at the hands of those she calls family. And then there’s Freya, a woman who hints at a traumatic past, who lives with her young son Billy. A familiar face from Freya’s past pops up, and somehow we know these events are connected but aren’t sure how.

As the story progresses I was quite horrified by the details we’re given about life in The Clearing and the way this group is organised. This is not comfortable reading.

Freya herself is not a particularly easy character to empathise with. Abrasive and, at times, her own worst enemy. However, when her son disappears we start to sense there is more to come.

What I was struck by was the way in which the various strands come together. I genuinely did not see some of these links, and the ending gave me serious goosebumps as I can only imagine where this might go.


‘The Virgin Suicides’ – Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides was one of those reads that had me fully engaged throughout, though now I’ve finished it I feel none the wiser about what I’ve read.

My first impression stems from the fact that the narrator is very hard to fathom. At times one voice; at others, a voice speaking as representative of many. It’s evident that the narrator is a male, someone on the periphery of these events and watching in fascination as the story unfolds – even involved to a small degree – but never really coming to any awareness of the story they are watching.

Our narrator, like so many of those around him, is obsessed with the Lisbon family. We begin with the story of Cecilia, the youngest sister, who after a failed attempt to kill herself leaves a rather macabre party and throws herself onto their fence. We don’t know why, and we get very little sense of how this event impacts those left behind.

Following the narrator through their recollections of the neighbourhood memories of the family meant I always felt quite detached from the events described. The description of the decline in the family home and their personal appearance, as well as the behaviours exhibited, all indicate extreme reactions to a traumatic event. I felt saddened that a family in such turmoil were, effectively, abandoned as nobody knew how to break through the barriers they’d imposed on themselves.

It came as little surprise to see the gradual unfolding of the lives of the remaining family members. There was a grim resignation to this, but it all felt avoidable.
While this confused me and has left me rather uncomfortable, I am curious to read more by this author.


‘American Dirt’ – Jeanine Cummins

This is a book that you will have heard about – either because of it being talked about as a must-read of 2020, or because of the almighty stink kicked up because the author is white and writing about the experience of Mexican immigrants. So many reviews focus on the slating of the author and the publishers for allowing a woman of assumed privilege to make money from an experience she has no first-hand knowledge of. I’ve read numerous reviews commenting that money should be given to people of the appropriate ethnic background to tell their stories, and we should not be supporting this book. Like other situations, a first-hand narrative is often going to have a rawness to it that you cannot ever hope to emulate, but why on earth would we be so short-sighted as to proclaim that if this cannot happen the stories should not be told?

I don’t think this is a question that has an easy answer, so I read the book in spite of some misgivings.

The story focuses on the tale of Lydia and her young son, Luca. Lydia is a bookseller and her husband was a journalist. They lived a relatively comfortable life in Mexico, but the growing violence surrounding them is hard to ignore. Lydia’s husband writes a piece on a local leader of a cartel (the same man that Lydia has befriended as he is a regular visitor to her bookstore) growing in significance and reach. As a result, sixteen members of the family are massacred as they gather in their home. Our first meeting with Lydia is as she takes shelter with her terrified son in a shower stall, desperately hoping that the gunmen will not find them.

Now, I cannot ever begin to fathom how this experience would affect you. It is – I would hope – never going to be a situation I will find myself in. As such, I couldn’t begin to comment on how truthful this story is or how accurately the writer depicts the subsequent attempt of Lydia to journey thousands of miles with her son to try and escape the threat they are now under and attempt to get to the safety of America.

What I can say, without a doubt, is that the story we are given as we follow Lydia is told in a way that encourages you to consider the situation of not just Lydia but all the characters she encounters. There’s so much highlighted that is wrong with the current system, but in spite of this we see humanity at both its best and worst. We are never quite sure whether Lydia will be safe or not, and the risks she has to take as she tries to protect herself and her son are monumental. She has to make split second decisions that go against everything she has considered normal.

While I cannot hope to add anything to the debate surrounding the publication of this, I do feel it tells a story that will give a brief glimpse into a very unpleasant aspect of our world today. It might not be quite the story many would like, but if it opens the way to more such stories I cannot help but feel it’s a good thing.