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Sunday, April 18, 2021

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

Good morning, everyone! Today I'm a stop on the Random Things Tour for Véronique Tadjo's In the Company of Men

In 2014, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone became the site of a horrific Ebola outbreak. As the virus raged through the countries, it spread fear and death far and wide. It was two years before the epidemic was declared over and it claimed many thousands of lives. It is this outbreak that inspired In the Company of Men: The Ebola Tales

This was not an easy read both for the topic and the times. I've read about Ebola before, but in a more clinical and distanced way. Here, Tadjo brings readers inside the Ebola epidemic with vignettes told by everyone from nurses on site and people tasked with safely burying the bodies to the trees that witness the epidemic wreaking havoc on the human population. 

Each chapter is a different viewpoint. A different experience of the virus. And reading it amidst a global pandemic, it's hard not to see similarities. 

As a nurse outlines the fear that results in those around her when they learn that she works with Ebola patients, it's impossible not to think of all the hospital workers who have been dealing with Covid. That particular piece was moving also when the nurse touches on lack of funding and patients having to buy their own first aid materials to bring with them. 

There are so many parts of this book that made my heart ache. A paragraph about a young girl waiting for her parents' bodies to be removed. Waiting so long that she herself becomes infected. In another chapter, we return to a daughter who was sent away—her father hoped she'd be spared and yet, she's already infected. She survives but her family and even her village are gone. 

The human stories are counterbalanced by nature's voice. The baobab tree, the bat, and even Ebola itself. And when people declare the virus gone, all three know that humans face many threats. The worst threat, though, is humankind itself. 

In the Company of Men is a moving book. The chapters are short, but this is, as you'd probably expect from the subject, a heavy read. It's one that makes you think and one that sits with you well beyond the final pages. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Vanished by James Delargy

Happy Friday! Or a hopefully Happy Friday! I'm set to get my second vaccine dose today :)

I'm also a part of the Random Things Tour for James Delargy's latest, Vanished!

A family has gone missing and the police have a growing suspicion that foul play is involved. 

Lorcan, Naiyana, and their young son, Dylan, have been making a go of living in an abandoned mining town in rural Australia. According to Lorcan's parents, they last heard from the family at Christmas and the lack of contact since is definitely abnormal. 

When the police arrive, they find the family's commandeered house abandoned and no evidence of anyone in sight. Alive that is. They find blood, a vehicle with slashed tires, and a barely charged phone hidden in the dirt. 

It seems apparent that something bad has happened to the family. It also becomes apparent that the family weren't just roughing it for fun—they were hiding from something. 

What a fabulously fun thriller! 

The book alternates between Detective Emmaline Taylor, who's been called in as one of the officers investigating the disappearance, and the family themselves. So the how and why plays out in parallel to the actual missing persons case. 

It's a clever format because it means the reader gets to see what's going on with the family and experience their points of view leading up to the actual disappearance while also following the detectives and discovering clues alongside them. 

The pacing was also pretty brilliant. We meet Lorcan and Emmaline when they arrive in Kallayee and there are only hints of why they're actually there. Much of the earlier chapters are their attempts to fix up the house, find water, and chronicle those efforts for YouTube views and a possible book. But there's a dark cloud that's clearly hanging over everything. 

Meanwhile, Emmaline herself proved to be probably my favorite character in the book! A single woman in her twenties, pressured by her family to settle down, but perfectly happy as an investigator moving up in the police ranks! 

This is a great example, too, where setting becomes a bit of a character itself. An abandoned mining town that was the scene of a collapse that resulted in the deaths of a number of miners. Rickety falling down buildings and dirt and dust as far as the eye can see. The skeleton of a dead kangaroo greets the family and later becomes a landmark for the police as well. Reading this in the midst of a spring snowstorm couldn't prevent me from almost being able to feel the sun and the grit on my own skin!

Vanished is my introduction to Delargy's work and I absolutely cannot wait to read more!

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman by Julietta Henderson - Excerpt

It's a brand new week and I'm super excited to be able to share an excerpt from a brand new book hitting shelves tomorrow!

Today I get to feature Julietta Henderson's debut, The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman. But first, here's a bit about the book from the publisher:

Little Miss Sunshine meets Wonder in this delightfully charming, uplifting book club debut about a twelve-year-old would-be comedian who travels across the country to honor his dead best friend’s dream of performing in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe—the only problem being that his friend was the funny one of their duo.

Twelve-year-old would-be comedian Norman has got a lot going on, including a chronic case of psoriasis, a distinct lack of comic timing and a dead best friend. All his life it’s just been him, his single mum Sadie, and Jax, the ‘funny one’ of their comedy duo. So when Jax dies not only is Norman devastated, it’s also the end of the boys’ Five Year Plan to take their comedy act to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe when they turned fifteen.

But Norman decides to honor Jax by performing at the Fringe, on his own. And not when he’s fifteen—but rather in four weeks’ time. But there’s another, far more colossal objective on Norman’s plan that Sadie wasn’t quite ready for: Norman wants to find his father. Eager to do anything that might put a smile on her boy’s face, Sadie resolves to face up to her own messy past and track down the father who doesn’t even know Norman exists, and whose identity Sadie herself isn’t quite sure of.

Thus begins a road trip from Cornwall to Scotland, featuring a mother and son who will live in the reader’s heart for a long time to come.

I've been craving some lighthearted, feel good reading of late, and this fits the bill exactly! 

And now, here's a taste of The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman:

1
SADIE


When I was born my insides lay outside my body for twenty-one days. Which is unexpected but not nearly as unusual as you might think. For every 3,999 other babies that come out with everything tucked in neatly and sealed away exactly where it should be, there’s one like me. Nobody really knows why. Luck of the draw, my father used to say.

For those three weeks while I lay spread-eagled in an incubator like a Nando’s special, a crowd of doctors gathered every morning to discuss their cleverness and, as my organs shrank to their correct size, bit by bit they gently posted a little more of the me-parts that had made a break for it back inside.

Well that’s the way my mother told it anyway. The way my father told it, the doctors gathered around the incubator every morning to discuss whether they’d be having my large intestine or my liver for their lunch, and whether it’d be with chips or salad. And that right there might tell you almost everything you need to know about my parents.

On my insides’ final day of freedom the head surgeon pushed the last bit through the slit in my stomach and stitched it closed, presumably with everything in its rightful place. I was declared whole and sent home to begin life like almost nothing had ever happened.

Except that even when the regular hospital check-ups stopped, and the scar on my stomach that I’d never lived without faded to a thin silver seam, I can always remember still feeling the tugging behind it. Something I could never quite name, nudging at the fleshy edges whenever things were going badly, or too well. Or just for fun. To remind me how easily those parts of me that never really fit could come sliding out. Any time we like Sadie. Any time we like.

It wasn’t until I held my own son for the first time that the constant, dull pressure of keeping the scar together receded. When a nurse placed that slippery, crumpled up bundle of boy on my chest, I tightened my grip on a handful of hospital sheet as my world creaked on its axis, bumped into a comfy spot and was finally facing the right way.

I didn’t feel the tug on the scar again until a different boy died, and to say I wasn’t ready for it isn’t even the most important thing. Because by then there was a lot more at stake than just my own stupid insides spilling out into the world. I was as scared as hell and I had no idea how to fix any of it. And that right there might tell you almost everything you need to know about me.

2
NORMAN

First rule of comedy: Timing is everything

Timing is everything. First rule of comedy, Jax says. Because when push comes to shove, if you can get the timing right you can get a laugh. He says. Well I don’t really know how to tell when push is coming to shove but I’ll tell you something I do know. That rule works the other way too. Because when the you-know-what starts to hit the fan, if your timing’s wrong there’s pretty much zilcho you can do to stop it from splattering all over the place.

Stare straight ahead and think about nothing. That’s a world famous Jax Fenton tactic for what to do when you get yourself into a bit of a mess. Works every time he reckons and he should know. Only maybe it doesn’t. Because when I stare straight ahead all I can see is that big shiny wooden box and instead of nothing I’m thinking about everything. And loads of it. Like does any light get in through the joins and did they let Jax wear his Frankie Boyle Tramadol Nights tour t-shirt. And does whoever put him in there know he only likes to sleep on his side.

The massive scab on my chest feels so tight that I’m scared to breathe too deep in case it splits down the middle and bleeds all over my new shirt. Stare straight ahead. I move just a bit so I almost can’t see the box behind a couple of heads and my arm touches Mum’s. When I feel her, straight away the mess on my chest relaxes and lets me take half an almost good in-breath. Nearly a whole one. Right before it stabs me all the way through to my back and kazams like a rocket down to my toes. I’m pretty sure I can hear it laughing. Timing is everything, sucker.

And by the way, that’s another thing I know. That you can’t trust your timing no matter how good it’s been in the past. Not even for people as excellently funny as Ronnie Barker or Dave Allen or Bob Mortimer. Or Jax.

Because even if you nick a little bit of money for sweets every week-day morning from your mum’s purse, even if you accidentally-on-purpose leave your stepfather’s car door open so the cats get in and wee on the seats, and even if you’re the naughtiest kid in the whole school by a long shot, when you’re eleven years, 297 days and from what the paramedics can tell anything between twelve and sixteen hours old, it’s definitely not a good time to die.

Stare straight ahead and think about nothing.

3
SADIE

Squashed into the end of the pew with my body leaning into the shape of the space that Norman’s made, I could feel the tense and release of his arms as his small boy hands curled in and out of fists. The buttoned down cuffs of his sleeves rode up ever so slightly with every movement to reveal the trail of psoriasis that spread triumphantly down to the second knuckles. His face was blank as a brick. Dry eyes staring straight ahead.

‘Just hold on. Hold on son. You’ll get through this.’ I murmured reassuringly. Telepathically. But Norman’s hands kept on curling and flexing and then I noticed his chest was keeping time, rising and collapsing with the movement of his hands. I knew what was lying in wait underneath the thin fabric of his shirt, so then I had another thing to worry about.

I had to admit it looked like he wasn’t getting my message, possibly because my best telepathic motherly voice was being all but drowned out by the other, very much louder one that lived in luxury inside my head. Fuck you Sadie. You can’t even get this right. As usual it wasn’t pulling any punches.

The priest who had never met him declared the end to Jax’s life and people began shuffling out of the pews as fast as they could, as if death might still be hanging around looking for company. They knocked our knees, murmured apologies and spilled their overflow of sadness all over us. Like we needed it. The moving huddle in the aisle parted from the back as Jax’s parents set off on their million mile walk, and without turning my head I felt more than saw Josie Fenton hesitate ever so slightly as they passed us. But then they were gone. And my son’s eyes remained fixed on some invisible point that I could only hope lay somewhere far, far beyond the awfulness of the moment.

A good forty minutes after the last person had left, I reached for Norman’s nearest hand and closed it gently between mine. The chill of the empty church had sidled deep into my bones and I was shocked at the heat of his raw knuckles on my palms. The voice in my head began stage whispering nonsense louder and louder and Norman’s hand stayed rigid in its fist. But I didn’t need that voice to tell me what I’d already figured out about thirty-eight minutes before. I wasn’t going to be nearly enough for this.

Excerpted from The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman @ 2021 by Julietta Henderson, used with permission by MIRA Books.

About the Author: Julietta Henderson is a full-time writer and comedy fan who splits her time between her home country of Australia and the UK. The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman is Julietta’s first novel.

For more about Henderson and her work you can visit her website here. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Huge thanks to the publisher for letting me share this with you today!

The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman is officially out from Mira tomorrow. 


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman

Happy Book Birthday to Clay McLeod Chapman! His latest, Whisper Down the Lane, is out now from Quirk books!

In 1983, a single mother and her son move to a new town for a new start. Instead, they find themselves at the center of a case alleging abuse and satanism at the child's school.

In 2013, a teacher at a small private school finds a mutilated rabbit with a birthday card addressed to that little boy from so long ago.


This latest from Chapman is inspired by the very real McMartin Preschool Trials and Satanic Panic that so gripped the nation in the late 80s and early 90s.

I really wasn't expecting this book to be quite as unsettling as it turned out to be. I'm a seasoned horror reader and most of the stuff I dive into doesn't bother me. 

This one was a bit different.

I've definitely noticed that since I had my son certain themes bother me a lot more than they used to. Don't get me wrong, there are themes that always bothered me, but there are more now that I have a kid and this book hit on some of those HARD!

Richard is still something of the new guy in town. He's recently married to a fellow teacher who has a young son Richard is still trying to bond with. But he doesn't talk about his past and no one knows all that much about him. 

Except someone apparently does. 

The school's dead rabbit left with a birthday card just for him? He's able to cover that one up by being the first person on site. The dead bunny is reported but the card isn't something he's going to share. 

More and more, though, it becomes clear that someone has it in for Richard. And it becomes harder for him to cover that up. 

The parallel story taking place is that of Sean, a five year old who's just moved to a new town with his mother. And he becomes the main witness in a growing case against the teachers at his school. 

The horror here isn't Satanism. It's the human factor. The McMartin Preschool Trials were the Salem Witch Trials of their day. There was a frenzy to the paranoia that drove the case and that's the central horror that is present in Whisper Down the Lane. 

Chapman weaves a story that not only delves into how something like this can come about but how the events and their effects can echo through multiple generations. And yeah, it's deeply disturbing!

Order a copy from your favorite indie via Bookshop!

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Distant Dead by Heather Young

It’s Friday! Today I’m a stop on the Random Things Tour for Heather Young’s The Distant Dead.

The new math teacher has been murdered. 

A small town in Nevada, where nothing really happens, is the unfortunate scene of a shocking murder. A local math teacher who had only recently moved to town has been found burned to death. And it was one of his own students who discovered the body. 

Adam Merkel was quiet, but he'd managed to form a few strong bonds in the short time he'd been in Lovelock. No one has any idea why he'd be killed. It's a fellow teacher who makes it her goal to find out who would want him dead. 

The Distant Dead is a sneaky kind of book. It wasn't at all what I'd expected—but in such a good way!

This is the kind of book you want to savor. The narrative shifts between Sal, a quiet boy with a big imagination who'd been befriended by Merkel, and Nora, a fellow teacher in Lovelock. 

Both Sal and Nora shine through Young's prose! And Merkel, even though he's dead, is so vividly painted through their eyes and their stories. 

Both Sal and Nora know loss. They both know loneliness, too. And though Merkel is clearly a damaged person, which the reader can glean from the very first interactions between him and the other characters, he brings something wonderful out in both Sal and Nora. Which is why Nora in particular is determined to find out who killed him. 

The Distant Dead is that wonderful blend of captivating storytelling under the guise of suspense that turns into something much different. To tell what that is would be spoiler-y but I will tell you that this is a bit of a sad story that will stick with you long after you turn the final pages. 

The Distant Dead is out now in the UK from Verve. It's also out in hardcover here in the States and due out in paperback in August. 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Source by Sarah Sultoon

Happy Thursday, readers! Today I’m a stop on the Random Things Tours for Sarah Sultoon’s The Source!

1996: Carly’s mother hasn’t been right for some time. Most days, she’s too drunk to take care of herself, much less Carly and her infant sister. So it’s up to Carly to do whatever it takes to keep them in food and clothing. 

2006: Marie is part of team of journalists who’ve worked to land a massive story on England’s trafficking industry. But just as they’re about to go live, a much delayed update on Operation Andromeda—the army sex scandal—is about to happen. 

Carly’s desperation and Marie’s determination are on a collision course as the story plays out, but just how they’re connected only becomes clear in the end. 

Carly is just thirteen in 1996. She and her baby sister live at home with their mother while their older brother has enlisted in the Army and lives on the nearby base. There's no father—he was killed in the line of duty—and there's no money thanks to their mother's most recent affair. 

Carly is tough. She spends her day in school and comes home to care for her sister, knowing that her mother hasn't been capable of doing so for quite some time. Carly is the reason they get by. 

Marie is an assistant producer in 2006 and has worked hard on the a story about trafficking. The book begins with the culmination of all of those efforts as she and another journalist record a secret meeting with actual traffickers. And she's not going to let their story get sidelined—not when it means the people behind these kinds of deals will get off without being brought to justice. 

This was a hard one for me. It’s the latest in a string of books I’ve read about human trafficking, but Carly’s storyline made this one even harder to read. Sultoon definitely adds a human element to the desperation that is involved in this kind of tale and it is an absolutely heartbreaking read. And it’s not one for the fainthearted by any means.  

Sultoon is incredibly talented and I can only assume that elements of this story come from things she herself learned about and possibly covered in her time as a journalist herself. Her acknowledgements imply as much. I think she's done a very good job with, as mentioned, the human element. I can't imagine anyone walking away from this book without being deeply affected. 

Note: The Source is available now in the UK and will be available in the States in November!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Bound by Vanda Symon

Good morning, readers! Today I’m a stop on the Random Things Blog Tour for Vanda Symon’s latest, Bound

A couple has been attacked. The husband shot, at close range, and his wife beaten and bound to a chair. Their teenage son discovered them and is likely not a suspect, but Sam Shephard is given the task of interviewing both him and his mother. 

It’s a case that appears to be professional. It’s clear the killers had a motive, though what it is still baffles the police. But they came prepared and left behind little to know evidence. 

Just what the couple was involved in becomes the biggest question, especially when the suspects are finally identified. Not only are the suspects known to the police, but they've been able to skirt prosecution before. Sam and the rest of the team know that the case has to be airtight if the killers are going to be brought down for good!

This is the fourth book in the Sam Shephard series. So, first things first, this is my introduction to this series and I absolutely found it easy to dive in and did not feel one bit lost! Whew! 

(That said, I've already bought two of the prior three books!)

This is also, as far as I know (this is going to be a rabbit hole situation for me) my introduction to New Zealand crime fiction. And I adored it!

Bound is a pretty traditional police procedural. Sam is the main character and the plotting of the crime and investigation are excellent. Even more than that, though, the book focuses a lot on Sam's personal life. Enough so that even if this is your intro to the series (like me!), you get a fabulous sense of who Sam is and what motivates her. 

She's a great detective. Not seriously flawed in the way many traditional leads in these kinds of books are. But she's in a not-so-secret relationship with a coworker that could definitely draw the wrong kind of attention. She's also a bit of a verbal punching bag for her boss. 

Oh, and her relationship with her mother isn't great either. 

I really loved this book and cannot wait to read more of the series!

As an added bonus, I had the extreme pleasure of being able to attend yet another in-conversation event hosted by Orenda that paired Simone Buchholz (you can read my review of her excellent latest here) and Vanda Symon—moderated by Craig Sisterson, who, it was revealed, was the person who pitched Orenda on Symon’s series. And I’ll go ahead and extend a thanks there because I don’t think I’d otherwise have had the chance to discover this series at all!

It was a true delight to hear Symon and Buchholz both talk about their writing and settings. Sisterson asked some really great questions, which made it even more fun to dive into more of Bound!

Quick note, Bound is readily available in the UK and will be available in the US November 1—plenty of time to read the first three books: Overkill, The Ringmaster, and Containment. I promise, you will not be disappointed!