The Gifts by Liz Hyder

Coming February 24th 2022 – Zaffre Books/Manilla Press

‘In an age defined by men, it will take something extraordinary to show four women who they truly are…

October 1840. A young woman staggers alone through a forest in Shropshire as a huge pair of impossible wings rip themselves from her shoulders’.

That’s all I’m going to mention about the story itself, because this book pretty much ripped the emotions straight out of my heart and landed them with an almighty boom in between the pages.

The Gifts was an astonishing book to start the year off with. Honestly, I am absolutely blown away by Liz Hyder’s magical, immersive and compelling novel.

It picked me up and swept me off with a whoosh, every time I picked it up. It’s one of those books (which are few and far between) where I have so many notes and post-it’s that I really don’t know where to start to review it!

I’m writing this early in the morning whilst my brain is fresh as I’m suffering a book hangover of gargantuan proportions and don’t want my review to be all “I LOVED IT! I LOVED IT! JUST BUY IT EVERYONE!”

Liz Hyder has made historical magical realism the most magically realistic reading experience. It is relatable, brutally true to present life and beautifully presented with a language that sings. The characters are right there, you can feel them walking around in your mind. The setting and imagery vivid, you can almost taste it, smell it.

I one hundred per cent ‘got’ the story that Liz set out to tell. It’s historical fiction, yes, with magical elements, but it’s also SO MUCH MORE.

I have a lot to say about this book but I also want to keep it all to myself. I read an advance copy that the publisher kindly sent me and if it’s affected me in it’s unfinished state, the finished copy (complete with illustrations!! Eeek!!) is guaranteed to be a marvel. I cannot wait to see it!

When I first started reading, I made notes on the individual characters because there’s quite a few of them, each one playing an essential part to the story. I’m glad I did this, as occasionally, in the first, maybe 100 pages, I did need to refresh my memory about who they were and what they were ‘up to’. And my goodness, they were ALL up to all sorts, I can tell you.

Their individuality soon settled in my mind and I was able to distinguish and switch between them with no problem. That, for me, is a sign of a well written book. I often struggle if there’s many characters, but not here. I was in deep, completely invested in everything going on in the pages.

There’s a chemistry between two of the characters that was done so perfectly. I’m not one for ‘love’ in stories, but I was absolutely buzzing for these two, and their banter was hilarious at times. I was crying with laughter during numerous scenes.

The chapters were short and snappy, which is something I love. I feel like I’m not quite ready to move onto another book yet because The Gifts is still under my skin, like the bursting wings of those ‘chosen’ women.

I’m left with this thought that gets me right here *pounds fist into heart area* – is it really STILL so scandalous that a woman can have the “audacity” to grow a pair of powerful wings and set herself free?

WOW. Just WOW.

Thank you so much Liz for your story. And to the publisher, Zaffre Books for sending me an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Now I’m going to go off and hug the book some more. Etta, Mary, Natalya and Annie, you’re going on my forever shelf eventually, but not just yet, I can’t quite let you go…

Daughters of Darkness II

Daughters of Darkness II

Daughters of Darkness II is an anthology of dark and creepy horror stories featuring authors Beverley Lee, Lynn Love, Catherine McCarthy and T C Parker.

Created by Stephanie Ellis and Alyson Faye of Black Angel Press, this second instalment (the first of which came out in February this year) of gentle chills and out and out terror impressed the pants off my horror-loving self, quite frankly!

Now, I find it quite difficult to review story collections because I easily harp on for ages about each and every story, character, style, plot etc, rambling away and ending up loosing myself, let alone you, the reader of my review.

So without further ado, I shall break it down into four sections about each author, keeping it straight to the point and succinct. I wouldn’t want to keep you from heading off to buy it now, would I? 😉

Beverley Lee

A Whiteness of Swans – 5 stars

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Tender is the Heart – 5 stars

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The Boy Who Wore My Name – 5 stars

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The Secret of Westport Fell – 10 stars

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“As Flora made her way to the door, her fingers and toes numb from the cold, she glanced behind to the small country churchyard slumbering under its ghostly blanket. For all of its quaintness its forlorn song shivered through the heavy veil of grey”.

Gorgeous eh?! Expect the unexpected with Beverley’s writing though. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Lynn Love

A Light in the Darkness Pt 1 – Thou Little Tiny Child – 5 stars

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Pt 2 – O Sisters Too, How May We Do, For To Preserve This Day – 5 stars

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Pt 3 – All Young Children To Slay – 5 stars

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“Lucia muttered something in Italian. There was something voluptuous about the language, something dark and fleshy that made her pulse race a little. Patricia imagined the words filling her mouth like bonbons, sugary and wicked”.

How’s that for gorgeous descriptive writing?! I love accents, I could hear this moment with such clarity, and almost taste those bonbons. Fabulous Lynn, truly it is.

Catherine McCarthy

The Spider and the Stag – 10 stars

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“…glass jars filled with chunks of unpolished gemstones and sorted according to the spectrum of a rainbow. Spools of threads and whirls of wire, perspex boxes glinting with silver and gold clasps and catches. A non-caloric candy store”.

Catherine keeps on doing this. Hits me right here *punches own heart* with everything she writes. Her stories are kept on my “I can’t describe how brilliant this author is without waving my arms around frantically and probably spitting a little bit in excitement” shelf.

T C Parker

The Body Tree (Hummingbird 1) – 5 stars

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Undeserving (Hummingbird 2) – 5 stars

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“The face of one was obscured entirely by a black hood fixed around its neck with hangman’s rope; the head of another was entirely absent, its body not only decapitated but dismembered and its absent arms and legs piled in an untidy heap on the floor below”.

How utterly grotesque! TC’s story made the gruesome so fascinating!! She seems to know where to draw the line, not quite turning my stomach, but getting pretty close! That quote is one of the milder ones I’ll have you know!

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With vivid imagery, delicious darkness that went from gently chilling to the darn right macabre throughout, this is the first ever anthology that’s got a spot on my ‘best of the year’ Goodreads shelf.

Thank you ladies, from the bottom of my dark heart for your writing and your wonderfully twisted imaginations. You aided my escapism from this mad, bad, real world, I absolutely loved every minute of being freaked out in your fictional ones. And huge thanks to Stephanie for sending me a copy, it was a pleasure to read.

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Daughters of Darkness II eBook : Lee, Beverley, Love, Lynn, McCarthy, Catherine, Parker, T.C., Ellis, Stephanie, Faye, Alyson: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

This isn’t a normal review because this isn’t a normal story. I’m saying nothing about the plot or characters. Nothing.

Just read it.

Starve Acre is a book that begs so many questions and creates so many thoughts from start to finish.

Here’s a ‘running commentary’ as it were, of my reading experience..

-oooh hello there beautifully poetic, darkly disturbing writing

-hang on, wait, what’s happening?

-soooo, what happened before then?

-crikey, what’s GOING to happen?

-OMG, WHY is it happening?

-wait, WHAT?! Erm, what on earth did he do?

-WHY did he do it?

-Jeez, why is she like this?

-And why the hell is he like that?

-No way!

-*Brain explodes* The End.

And all that in under 250 pages!! Unbelievable!

I started off putting post it notes marking notable paragraphs every ten, maybe 15 pages. But really Starve Acre is one big post it note of dark beauty. Every paragraph of every page is post-it note worthy, so I gave up.

Anyway, do yourself a favour, read Starve Acre. I’ve just ordered Hurleys’ other two books, The Loney and Devils Day, because it’s the law.

“What you go searching for and what you find aren’t always the same”.

Life on Other Planets by Matt Cook

It’s 1997 and Ben Carters Great Aunt Pearl has just died. Ben arrives with his Dad, Victor, and various Aunts and Uncles meet at the dilapidated old house in order to get cracking with the sorting out and organising of the funeral. Nothing unusual about that, where there’s life, there’s death. Where there’s families, there’s stress. Goes hand in hand.

However, no one can seem to find Aunt Pearls Will, which is a tad problematic. Patience is tested, the families true colours begin to emerge and relationships take a bit of a toxic turn. And then there’s the discovery of something called the ‘Church of The Holy Heavens’ which causes no end of questions and suspicions. Things begin to get as messy as the stale old house itself.

At first glance the title and cover hints that the story is going to be somewhat ‘out there’. Other planets, things that are not of this world, the suggestion of alternative life and beyond.

But the story within couldn’t be more grounded to planet earth and the people on it if it tried. I found myself becoming quickly absorbed and at one with the trials and tribulations of the Carter family.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 47 years of being on planet earth, it’s that humans can be pretty crap when it comes to familial stress. Moving house, new jobs, new schools, relationships, babies, doing the monthly ‘big shop’, health, money, death. It all plays a part in what we all become as we age and slide into that older generation category. (I’m not quite there, yet…!)

As we age, the more knowledgeable we become, yes? Well, actually, having just spent 266 pages with fourteen year old Ben and seeing his family unit through his young eyes has triggered a bit of a rethink actually.

Matt Cooks writing gave me a bit of a zap when I started reading. I knew from a very early point that this was going to be a thoughtful, relatable story, with nuggets of dark humour dropped in throughout.

So, this zap, let me explain. On starting a book, sometimes you read a paragraph, or one sentence in the first few chapters and you already know that you’ve got yourself some quality writing. That’s exciting. That’s the zap.

‘The refrigerator was a riot of mould and malfunction; ancient foodstuffs of unknowable content glistened and furred and hatched plans.’

I mean, who’d think to link crusty-labelled jars of the unknown with dodgy best before dates in the back of a cupboard with the ‘hatching of plans’? Matt did, and it made me laugh far too hard, I completely got it. I’ve rummaged through a similar cupboard or two myself!

That’s how Matt writes. His humour has a slightly dark, yet soft, spiritual side. He has a real understanding of the human psyche, which shines throughout the book. This is particularly prominent with his characters. He must of cast his mind back to his fourteen year old self numerous times.

Matt has created a heartfelt story that is full of life, even though the plot is predominantly about death. Humans are simply being human. Teenagers loitering on the sidelines, often invisible, yet brimming with ideas and carefully trying to work out their own lives. Adults in the thick of it, unknowingly (and probably knowingly) cocking things up.

Many of us have been there, lived it, seen it.

But have we properly seen it?

Fact: Matt has.

I think he’s a bit of a ‘people watcher’. He sees things from a different angle, this helped in creating his characters, the descriptions and situations.

‘I tried again to speak, to clear things up, but my voice was a chewy substance that fell straight out of my mouth on to the floor’.

Matt has a way with words, his story telling has a flow that is so immersive. Before I knew it I had read well over half the book, I’d only picked it up for a chapter or two. A sure sign of a great book is when you’re lost in those pages and don’t realise you have been until you stop, and jump back out into real life.

I would highly recommend Life on Other Planets to everyone. It’s the kind of book which would appeal to adults, teenagers, or a senior human being. It’s got an abundance of emotion, and what stood out most of all was it’s readability. It’s so readable, you don’t even feel yourself getting sucked in. I felt like I was hiding in a cupboard in Pearls hallway, earwigging and spying on the family.

So as you’ve probably gathered, I absolutely loved it and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Matt has up his sleeve. Marvellous stuff!

Thank you Matt for sending me a gifted copy, it’s found it’s comfy slot on my forever shelf.

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

OK, so this mysterious book has been doing the rounds and luckily I didn’t come across any spoilers prior to starting it. Thank goodness!! 

Right, how to write the vaguest of vague reviews yet keep it interesting. Now that’s what I call a challenge!!

How have readers reviewed this without letting the cat out of the bag I’ll never know. It’s a tough one to write. But I’ll do my best. 

What/who’s it about then? 

Well, Ted, predominately. A recluse of a man who lives in a boarded-up house on the street in the books title. It’s situated on the edge of a wooded area somewhere in NW Washington state, US. 

He lives with his young daughter, Lauren and his religious pet cat Olivia. Yes, you read that right, a RELIGIOUS CAT.

There’s history of children going missing in the area, but none of them have ever been found and the crimes have never been solved. 

This is the first time I’ve read a book, finished it, and then had the pleasure of watching it being discussed on television. I was determined to watch Between the Covers on BBC2 last night with the smuggest face ever. Yes, even the guests talking to Sara Cox also struggled to say much about it in case they leaked spoilers!

Throughout reading I had to stop and hold onto my head for fear of my brain exploding! I lost count of how many times I said ‘wait, what, hang on a minute, that can’t be right’. I was re-reading sentences, dialogue, descriptions multiple times because I could not believe what I was reading. 

The Last House on Needless Street is a book I will never ever forget. I went to bed last night thinking about it. Working out how to write a review that would do it the justice it deserves.

I awoke this morning absolutely none the wiser so just thought I’d get a very basic synopsis down and then go from there. 

To be honest, you just need to read it. If Stephen King loved it, then it’s got to be something pretty special don’t you think? 

I will say that Kings’ fans will definitely see a few nods to the man himself throughout the book. Clever, Catriona, very clever indeed!

I can’t say any more about it really, apart from if you buy one book this year, make it this one. It will blow your mind. 

‘People who have lived together for many generations share a special kind of madness’.

Apparently the film rights have been snapped up already and it’s translation rights have been sold in 18 territories. 

Catriona Ward is an exceptional writer and story teller. I’ve read stacks of horror and to discover something of such high quality within this genre is a bit of a rarity these days. It’s dark, clever, incredibly well researched and it could quite possibly be my Book of the Year. 

One last thought, if I were to read it again, knowing what I know now, it would be a completely different story. I don’t re-read that often, but this one is just begging for it!!

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