Eva Jordan reviews… The Silent Christmas by M.J. Lee

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Thanks to a cousin who has been researching our family tree, I recently discovered I had a Great-Great uncle who served in the trenches during WWl. He joined at the start of the war as a volunteer in 1914, and just one year later, aged twenty-one, he was dead, killed in action, his body never recovered but is commemorated on the Menin Wall in Ypres, Belgium. How apt then, I should stumble upon Martin Lee’s recently released novella, The Silent Christmas, the fifth in the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, which can also be read as a stand-alone.

Set in both the present day and the WWI trenches, the story centres on the informal football match believed to have taken place between the English and German soldiers during a brief truce on Christmas Day 1914. The first chapter takes us straight to the trenches on December 21st in Belgium, capturing the conditions and possible mindset of some soldiers, ‘He lay on his back on the hard ground and dreamt of England; picnicking on the grass in front of the bandstand, straw hat tipped over his eyes to shield them from the sun… A shadow crossed his face and he felt a tap against his foot. ‘Time to get up, Tom, we’re moving forward… The men began packing up… As they did so, a solitary shell from a German whizz-bang whistled overhead, landing one hundred yards past the farm. None of the men moved or even ducked; each one carried on preparing to move forward as if nothing had happened.’ We then move forward to the present day and discover Jayne Sinclair, a genealogical investigator, asked, just days before Christmas, if she can help shed light on the mystery of several items, namely a label, a silver button and a lump of leather, found in a chest in the attic of her client. Ms Sinclair, who says, ‘Our role as genealogists is to use our research to bring these lost people, the vanished people of our family, back to life,’ agrees, and the mystery begins to unravel.

Written in the third person throughout, The Silent Christmas is a fictional tale exploring the actual events that took place during December 1914, later called the ‘Christmas Truce.’ A real “feel good” story handled with great care and respect, full of hope and love, that is both well written and researched. And, as 2018 marks the 100-year anniversary of Armistice it is also particularly poignant.

You can find The Silent Christmas on Amazon 

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Eva Jordan reviews… Corrupted by Simon Michael

 

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Corrupted, the latest book by fellow Urbane published author Simon Michael, is the fourth in a series of noir gangster crime thrillers concerning criminal barrister Charles Holborne. However, although part of a series there is just enough back-story for it to read perfectly well as a standalone. Set in London’s swinging sixties, the author mixes historical fact with fiction, making Corruption a story that sees its fictional barrister, Charles Holborne QC, drawn into the real-life investigation of a sex ring scandal that involved the Kray twins and some very powerful but corrupt politicians. The author’s note reads, ‘This is not a true crime novel, but the historical facts upon which it is based did actually occur.’

Written in close third person, Charles, the flawed main protagonist, narrates throughout and the story itself unfolds during several crucial months of 1964, namely Friday 26th June–Monday 24th August. Charles, a Jewish East Ender doing well for himself, building his reputation as a brilliant murder trial lawyer, is living with his partner Sally. On the surface all looks well, however, Charles is clearly at odds with himself. ‘An East Ender, born and bred on the wrong side of town, the wrong side of the track and the wrong side of the law, Charles has muscled his way into the Establishment by becoming a war hero, barrister… His acquaintances include Oxbridge graduates with country seats, titles and racehorses; they also include boxers, burglars and con artists. He no longer quite fits in anywhere, and everywhere feels like the wrong place.’

Charles is asked to help a young lad called Teddy who has been arrested and accused of murder. Charles agrees to take the case on and in doing so takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of 1960s London including the music, fashion and haircuts of the time. The author also gives the reader a fascinating glimpse of Fleet Street during the sixties, sprinkled with sporadic but fascinating historical facts like the time Charles takes a run past Jack Straw’s Castle–the pub and reputed favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Bram Stoker. However, at the heart of this story is a dark, uncomfortable tale about power, corruption and sexual abuse. Pacey, but often sombre and heartbreaking, it also includes great dialogue and some extremely well-written courtroom drama. A thrilling page-turner and one I highly recommend.

Eva Jordan reviews… Over My Shoulder by Patricia Dixon

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This is the first book I’ve read by this particular author and it definitely didn’t disappoint. Over My Shoulder is no holds barred look at the physical, mental and emotional effects of a controlling, abusive relationship. A dark psychological thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat racing through the final pages.

Set in Manchester, written in the first person, the story is narrated retrospectively through the voice of Freya, the main protagonist. Freya takes us back to where it all began, as a young woman in her twenties during the 1990s. I didn’t particularly warm to Freya, to begin with. It wasn’t that I disliked her as such, but first impressions painted a picture of someone shallow, materialistic, more concerned about her looks and labels, easily impressed by those who could afford the finer things in life.

However, I quickly realised my initial judgment was somewhat harsh. I also remembered what it was like to be a young woman at the start of my own adult life, all the angst, uncertainty and possibilities that lay ahead, the need to forge my own identity and yet at the same time the need to assimilate, to somehow fit in.

So in that sense, the author got Freya’s character bang on because she also demonstrated just how vulnerable young people are, how prone to manipulation they can be and therefore, despite coming from a loving and caring family, what a prime target for dangerous, and controlling individuals like Kane, they can be. Kane is the antagonist in this tale, a real anti-hero, the very epitome of evil, although, as with all good storytelling, the reader is not privy to the depths of Kane’s depravity until much further into the story.

Over My Shoulder is a dark tale of domestic abuse and the far-reaching, destructive effects such a relationship can have on the victim and their loved ones. Well written with a sympathetic understanding of a difficult subject matter, it is a rollercoaster of a read that also delves into the murky underworld of criminals and sexual predators. Gripping, hard-hitting, it is not a read for the faint hearted but it is one that will find you taking a sharp intake of breath towards the conclusion and will also, perhaps, at times, like me, find you looking over your shoulder.

You can purchase Over My Shoulder on Amazon

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Eva Jordan reviews… Before The Fall by Juliet West

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A great war.
A powerful love.
An impossible choice.

A tale of forbidden love, Before The Fall is beautiful, poignant and heartbreakingly sad. Set in London’s East End during the First World War, this is a fictional tale based on true events.

Hannah Loxwood is the struggling young mother of two children, namely 4-year-old Alice and 2-year-old Teddy. Her husband, George, one of many young men who has voluntarily enlisted to fight in the Great War, is across the channel, fighting. To help make ends meet, Hannah and her children move into the home of her older sister, Jen, and brother in law, Alec, and to help pay her way Hannah takes a job offer in a local café. There, she meets Mr Blake, Daniel, a welder. “This man, he’s not like your average docker. He’s well built all right, strong like you have to be, but there’s something unusual about him. A word comes to my mind – elegant – and I tell myself not to be so daft. It isn’t a word I’ve thought of before, let alone said.” Hannah quickly realises she is drawn to the quietly intriguing Daniel in a way she neither expected nor anticipated. The feeling, as it turns out, is mutual. “All the single girls in London and he has to fall for a soldiers wife … beautiful, odd, vulnerable.” Nonetheless, Hannah is a married woman; social norms must be observed at all times. Hence Hannah and Daniel must do their level best to suppress any thoughts or feelings that go beyond friendship. However, as the war rages on, Hannah finds herself wondering if her husband will ever return home again – and if indeed she actually wants him to.

Well researched, full of fascinating historical details, including police statements, newspaper reports and witness statements, Before The Fall is a brilliantly crafted, superbly written novel. The characters are well rounded and believable, especially Hannah, written in the first person – whom I became highly invested in – and Daniel, written in the third person. The author’s prose is wonderfully captivating and highly evocative – I could see the smog, smell the river, feel the hunger, and sense the desperation. However, although set amongst the fear and uncertainty of war-torn London, this is not a war story but rather a mesmerising, realistic, and haunting tale of love. It is also a story about the plight of women, their sad indictment and the difficulties they faced if caught challenging a ruthless wartime society. A sensitive, powerful, must-read.

 

Eva Jordan reviews… Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn

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They say timing is everything and to my mind, this is a story that couldn’t be more socially and politically relevant. With global movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, Anatomy of a Scandal delves into the murky waters of sexual harassment, political corruption and abuse of power, the underlying suggestion that the perpetrators of such deeds are often orchestrated by those who have obtained their position in life through privilege and opportunity.

The story centres around three key characters, namely Kate, a highly ambitious barrister, James, an MP and close friend of the Prime Minister, and Sophie, his loyal wife. Kate, working class, single and child-free, has worked hard to forge a successful career for herself. With a few close friends and barely any social life she is a somewhat serious character. She also has a strong belief in right and wrong, in justice, which in part powers her ambition to succeed. However, as the story evolves, you can’t help but wonder what other forces fuel her drive.

James, Oxford-educated, is both charming and attractive. Unlike Kate, James, thanks in part to his privileged upbringing, has a strong sense of entitlement and, despite his charming façade, harbours a sanctimonious disdain for anyone he believes is beneath him, including most women. Sophie, James’s wife, recalls a conversation with her husband, “‘The trouble with women,’ James once told her, making the sort of sweeping generalisation he would never make in front of female colleagues but did at home, ‘is that they lack the courage of their convictions. Mrs Thatcher aside, they don’t have our self-belief.’”

Sophie, with “a look that belonged to a certain class” is both snobbish and elitist, “James will be fine (she says when her husband is accused of a criminal offence) because he is the right type … and he has the prime minister’s patronage.” She is not a particularly likeable character but she does redeem herself towards the end of the story.

Part courtroom drama, part psychological thriller Anatomy of a Sandal is set during the present day with flashbacks to the past. Gripping and pacy it is extremely well written with believable, well-rounded characters. A timely thought-provoking study of class, privilege and toxic masculinity, eerily echoing recent and current debate. A brilliant read and one I highly recommend. A big fat five stars from me!

Eva Jordan reviews… Fifty Years of Fear by Ross Greenwood

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Fifty Years Of Fear is one of three novels in the Dark Minds Series written by Ross Greenwood, all of which are set in or around Peterborough. Sad but thought-provoking, this is a story about families, lies and secrets, brothers, loss and regret, and missed opportunities. It is also a reminder that we should never be too quick to judge others and cautionary tale that shows how a simple act of kindness can literally change your life – forever.

The opening of the book tells us that Vincent Roach was born in 1966, the same year as England won the World Cup – “When I look back, it sometimes feels as though it was downhill after that.” Chapter one begins fourteen years later. It’s 1980 and Vinnie, unlike his older brother Frank, who comes across as a bit of a thug, is both quiet and unassuming. Both brothers live with their parents and their father has just had a stroke. A bit of a book lover, bullied at school until Frank steps in, Vinnie is, for all intents and purposes, quite unremarkable. We are also made aware that a childhood accident at the age of seven has left Vinnie without much memory of his life prior to then. Chapter by chapter, we then follow Vinnie’s life for the next thirty-six years.

Through a series of flashbacks, Vinnie starts to remember his early childhood, although it will take years for him to understand that things are not always as they first appear. Vinnie matures into a young man. Happy for a while we see him get his first taste of independence and a holiday to Cromer where he falls in love. Then comes the loss of his father, followed a couple of years later by the death of his mother. Vinnie marries a girl he meets at work. He’s happy for a while but it’s short-lived. When the newlyweds move into a new home of their own, with new neighbours, life slowly descends in the wrong direction for Vinnie. However, although at times sporadic, and despite Vinnie’s concerns that trouble and violence appear to follow him around like a bad smell, it is older brother Frank that remains a strong presence in Vinnie’s life, a much valued constant. Which proves especially true when Vinnie finds himself behind bars. Is Vincent really guilty of the crime he is accused of?

Fifty Years Of Fear is a gripping tale about misfortune and redemption and a reminder of just how easily things can go wrong in life, despite our best intentions. It is also a story about self-discovery, that people are not always as they first appear, including how we think we come across to others. Vinnie, written in the first person, is the main protagonist and storyteller throughout and, like all the characters we are introduced to, is both extremely well drawn with plenty of emotional depth. The author has a distinctive writing style and covers some upsetting issues with great sensitivity. Despite being quite an emotional read at times it is also well paced with a few moments of humour. There is even a mention of the infamous ‘Crown to Town’ pub-crawl – if anyone reading this lived in Peterborough and is old enough to remember! A remarkable story, one I highly recommend and one that will stay with me for a very long time.

 

 

 

Eva Jordan reviews… A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray ‏

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Published by Oneworld Publications

This year marks the  100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in the UK.  Also, on March 8th, it was International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, observed annually since the early 1900s. I, therefore, thought it appropriate to review a book that was both fitting and relevant to both these historic events.

A History of Britain in 21 Women is written by Dame Jenni Murray; probably best known as Radio 4’s presenter of Women’s Hour and whom I had the very great pleasure of meeting last year. These short biographies are a personal selection chosen by Murray to present the history of Britain through the lives of twenty-one women, whose lives embodied hope and change, who refused to surrender to established laws of society, and, who still have the power to inspire us today.

In the introduction, Murray, born in 1950, states that growing up “the role of a woman was to learn how to be a good wife and mother, do the cooking and cleaning and nurture those her around her.” She quotes Thomas Carlyle, circa 1840, who said ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ and as a young girl growing up in Barnsley in the 1950s and ‘60s that’s pretty much what Murray believed. However, it was education that made her question the expectations placed on women, and after attending a wonderful girls’ school she began to discover many women that had influenced history and also challenged the assumption that a woman’s place was in the home.

Murray writes about, to name but a few; Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni tribe who fought bravely against the Romans to preserve a social structure that had been practised by, and was so important to the women of the tribes of Britain, namely equality; Aphra Behn, the first English woman playwright to earn her living by her pen; Astronomer Caroline Herschel, after whom a crater on the moon is named; And, computing pioneer Ada Lovelace. We are also given an insight into the courageous account of writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840) entitled ‘Account from Paris of a terrible Operation – 1812, who, when she discovered she had breast cancer and under the insistence of specialist surgeons, underwent one of the first recorded mastectomies at a time when there was no effective anaesthetic – ouch! She was 59 years old at the time and went on to live until the ripe old age of 88!

Written as biographies in small chunks, A History of Britain in 21 Women is well researched, informative and entertaining. Dedicated to “all the young people who need to know” it is an illuminating, easy read offering a great deal to both women and men of all ages. However some of Murray’s omissions were interesting and there was one woman in particular whom I felt wasn’t deserving of a place amongst such great individuals – but that’s purely politics. Nonetheless, a thought-provoking read finishing with a timely reminder that we still have a way to go and the fight for gender parity must continue.