Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

Codename Villanelle

John Murray|6 September 2018|224 pages|Review e-book copy|3*

Originally published as ebook singles: Codename VillanelleHollowpointShanghai and Odessa.

Synopsis from the publishers:

She is the perfect assassin. A Russian orphan, saved from the death penalty for the brutal revenge she took on her gangster father’s killers. Ruthlessly trained. Given a new life. New names, new faces – whichever fits. Her paymasters call themselves The Twelve. But she knows nothing of them. Konstantin is the man who saved her and the one she answers to. She is Villanelle. Without conscience. Without guilt. Without weakness.

Eve Polastri is the woman who hunts her. MI5, until one error of judgment costs her everything. Then stopping a ruthless assassin becomes more than her job. It becomes personal.

I loved the brilliant TV series Killing Eve and when I saw that Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings was the basis for the series I was really keen on reading it. However, this is one of those rare occasions when I preferred the adaptation to the book. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did – just not as much as the TV version. Now, that may be because I watched the TV series first – but I don’t think so. They begin at different points in the story. Codename Villanelle begins by introducing Villanelle, giving her background, real name and the details of her training as an assassin with the codename Villanelle, and her paymasters, known as The Twelve. Thus the suspense in that is built up in the TV series by not knowing anything about her other than her codename, just isn’t there in the book.

Both are fast paced, although the action sequences come over much better on TV, as you would expect.  Both portray Villanelle as a young woman who is psychologically invulnerable – a ruthless and successful killer, experiencing neither pain nor horror and totally unaffected by the pain she inflicts on others or the murders she carries out. But the dynamic between Villanelle and Eve Polastri that plays a large role in the TV series is missing in the book and there are several other changes too.

The book ends before the ending shown in the TV series and I’m assuming the next book Killing Eve: No Tomorrowwill continue the story, which I’m planning to read in the near future. There is a third book on the way too – Killing Eve: Endgame

About the Author

Luke Jennings is a London-based author and journalist who has written for The Observer, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Time. He is the author of Blood Knots, short-listed for the Samuel Johnson and William Hill prizes, and the Booker Prize-nominated Atlantic.

My thanks to the publishers, John Murray, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.’

Mrs Whistler

The Borough Press|2 May 2019|465 pages|Paperback Review copy|5*

I loved this novel about the American artist James McNeill Whistler and his model and mistress, Maud Franklin, the ‘Mrs Whistler‘ of the title. I’m familiar with some of his paintings, his Nocturnes and the portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, known as Whistler’s Mother, but knew nothing about his private life. He was painting at the same time as the Impressionists at the end of the nineteenth century and some of his paintings seem to me to be similar in style to their work, but I think he is above all an individual, standing on his own. I love his signature, a stylised butterfly based on his initials, that heads up some of the chapters in Mrs Whistler.

Whistler Arrangement in White and Black Maud Franklin 1876
Maud Franklin (Arrangement in White and Black) by Whistler 1876

The book covers two episodes in their lives during the years 1876 to 1880 – a bitter feud with his patron Francis Leyland about his fee for painting The Peacock Room, and the libel trial in which Whistler sued the art critic John Ruskin, over a review that dismissed him as a fraud. Ruskin had criticised Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, accusing him of asking for ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ These two events brought Whistler to the point of bankruptcy.

Whistler Nocturne in black and gold
Nocturne in Black and Gold (c.1875, Detroit Institute of Arts)

And interwoven is the story of Maud and her relationship with Whistler. Maud, as the title indicates, is the main character, on the borders of society she is not only his model, but also the mother of two of his children – both fostered at birth. Alongside these two are Whistler’s so-called friend, the flamboyant and duplicitous Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl, and Howell’s mistress Rosa Corder.

It’s a good story, albeit a long one, that moves quite slowly through these four years. I loved all the detail – of Whistler’s impetuous and rebellious character, his relationship with his brother and mother (the real Mrs Whistler), as well as with Maud – and the details of the house he had built in London on Tite Street in Chelsea, which he called the White House, his flight to Venice and most of all about his paintings.

In his Author’s Note Matthew Plampin lists the books he consulted in writing his novel and referenced the online archive of Whistler’s correspondence at the University of Glasgow, which he used, as he puts it, for ‘many of this novel’s best lines.He explains that there are gaps in the records – notably about Maud. The American art critic Elizabeth Pennell and her husband Joseph had compiled a biography of Whistler in 1903, but they found that certain details were elusive. They had questions about Howell, about the saga of The Peacock Room and about Maud. Maud was still alive at the time but refused to talk to the Pennells, as they described it: ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not.‘  Plampin’s fictionalised biography fills in some of the gaps in the story, imagining what Maud thought and how she coped with Whistler’s behaviour and attitude towards her and especially about how she felt about her daughters, living with their foster family.

Many thanks to the publishers, The Borough Press for my review copy via NetGalley.

About the Author

Matthew Plampin completed a PhD at the Courtauld Institute of Art and now lectures on nineteenth-century art and architecture. He is the author of five novels, The Street Philosopher, The Devil’s Acre, Illumination, Will & Tom and Mrs Whistler. He lives in London with his family.

A Snapshot of Murder by Frances Brody

A Snapshot of Murder (Kate Shackleton #10)

 

Crooked Lane Books |19 April 2019|Print length 339 pages|e-book review copy|3*

Blurb (Amazon):

Yorkshire, 1928. Indomitable sleuth Kate Shackleton is taking a well-deserved break from her detective work and indulging in her other passion: photography. When her local Photographic Society proposes an outing, Kate jumps at the chance to visit Haworth and Stanbury, in the heart of Brontë country, the setting for Wuthering Heights.

But when an obnoxious member of their party is murdered, the group is thrown into disarray. Is the murderer amongst them, or did the loud-mouthed Tobias have more enemies than they might have imagined?

Armed with her wit and wiles, and of course her trusty camera, it’s up to Kate to crack the case, and get that perfect shot too . . .

A Snapshot of Murder by  Francis Brody is the 10th in her Kate Shackleton series. I’ve read three of her earlier books and I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much. I think, though, that the setting is excellent, particularly in Haworth when the Bronte Parsonage Museum was opened in 1928. But I was disappointed to find that the murder could have taken place anywhere – it no connection to the Brontes, or to the opening of the Museum, apart from the fact that the murderer took advantage of being in a crowd of people and managed to slip away unnoticed. 

I like Kate Shackleton – she’s a competent private investigator, but the murder mystery was too easy to solve. It began well but it was obvious who was going to end up dead and although there are several suspects, it soon became obvious who the culprit was and my interest waned. And any sympathy I had for the murderer had just disappeared by the end of the book.

My thanks to the publishers, Crooked Lane Books for my review copy via NetGalley.

Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre: Blog Tour Review

A standalone psychological thriller full of twists, lies and betrayal

Fallen Angel

Little, Brown Book Group|25 April 2019 |Print length 384 pages|my copy an e-book/Review copy via NetGalley|4*

Blurb:

To new nanny Amanda, the Temple family seem to have it all: the former actress; the famous professor; their three successful grown-up children. But like any family, beneath the smiles and hugs there lurks far darker emotions.

Sixteen years earlier, little Niamh Temple died while they were on holiday in Portugal. Now, as Amanda joins the family for a reunion at their seaside villa, she begins to suspect one of them might be hiding something terrible…

And suspicion is a dangerous thing.

My thoughts:

I was delighted when Caollin Douglas at Little, Brown Publishing asked me if I wanted to take part in the blog tour for Chris Brookmyre’s book, Fallen Angel. I’ve enjoyed reading some of his earlier books, Quite Ugly One Morning and Not the End of the World as well as his last book, The Way of All Flesh a novel about medicine in the nineteenth century, which he co-wrote with consultant anaesthetist Dr Marisa Haetzman (his wife) under the pen name of Ambrose Parry. 

Fallen Angel is a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing about everything right from the first page – someone was murdered, but who was it and why, and just who was the killer? It was a quiet killing and it looked as though the victim had died of a heart attack. It is only at the end of the book that victim and the murderer are revealed.

In 2018 the Temple family are spending the summer at their seaside villa in Portugal for a reunion after the death of the head of the family, Max Temple, who was a psychologist, specialising in debunking conspiracy theories. The last time they were all there together was in 2002 when one of the children had disappeared from the villa, and was presumed drowned. It was ironic considering Max’s speciality, that there was a lot of speculation on the internet about how she actually died, with suggestions that the drowning story had been fabricated to conceal abuse or neglect.

I found the opening chapters a little confusing as the members of the family are introduced and their relationships are established. There are a lot of them, none of them are very likeable and there’s plenty of tension as they don’t get on well with each other! It is not made clear for a while who the parents of the baby were. What is clear is that this is a dysfunctional family with a multitude of problems!

Joining them are the family at the next door villa, lawyer Vince, his second wife, Kirsten, and baby Arron, with their nanny, Amanda. A Canadian student and aspiring journalist, she is a fan of Max and is thrilled to discover that she is staying next door to the Temple family. She had read the reports in the press and on the internet about the tragedy of their missing child. But although her attempts to find out more are not welcomed, she gradually she uncovers layers upon layers of secrets and lies.  

The narrative moves between events in 2002 and 2018, seen through the various characters’ perspectives. After a slow start, the pace increases, the tension rises and I became totally gripped by the mystery. I really didn’t want to stop reading. I liked the setting at a beautiful resort in the Algarve, providing an idyllic backdrop to the story of this truly dreadful family. It’s a novel about a family in crisis, about toxic relationships and about the psychology of conspiracy theories. 

My thanks to the publishers,  Little, Brown Book Group for my review copy via NetGalley.

Follow the tour today:

Fallen Angel Blog tour

About the Author (from his website)

Chris Brookmyre

Chris Brookmyre was a journalist before becoming a full-time novelist with the publication of his award-winning debut Quite Ugly One Morning, which established him as one of Britain’s leading crime authors. His Jack Parlabane novels have sold more than one million copies in the UK alone, and Black Widow won both the McIlvanney Prize and the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award.

The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker by Jenni Keer

Meet Lucy, aged 25, and Brenda, aged 79. Neighbours, and unlikely friends.

The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker

Avon Books UK|10 January 2019|Print length 309 pages|e-book Review copy|4*

The Hopes and Dreams of Lucy Baker is a romantic novel with a touch of magic about it. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would as it’s a bit lighter than the type of book I usually prefer. But it has a feel-good factor and also gives a sympathetic and understanding picture of the problems of living with dementia. And as you can tell from the heading of my post this is a novel about friendship. It’s also about family relationships, love, caring for others and the importance of finding your own inner strength.

I like Lucy – she’s a cat lover and an excellent knitter and also a kind, warm-hearted and generous character. At the beginning she lacks self-confidence and finds it difficult to assert herself both with her overbearing mother and in her job at Tompkins Toy Workshop. Her friendship with Brenda helps her develop a sense of her own self worth. I also like Brenda, with her purple-streaked silvery hair, and a love of rainbow clothes; in a previous age she would probably have been called a ‘wise woman’ or even a ‘white witch’ with her herbal remedies, potions and lotions. But when she is diagnosed with dementia she realises that her life will inevitably change.

And more change is on the way when a new neighbour, George, moves into the house next door to Brenda and a scruffy black cat finds it way into the neighbourhood. It was not a huge surprise to me how things would turn out when Brenda gave Lucy a silver locket that when opened revealed words engraved in an ornate script. Brenda explains it’s a special locket that will boost Lucy’s confidence at work and with her mother and also help her find her true love.

Lucy’s confidence improves and her creative side begins to blossom. I loved all the details of Lucy’s job at Tompkins, where she works in the sales office and her friend, Jess who works in accounts. There’s plenty of office banter and gossip as well as disputes and misunderstandings. But things are about to change there too as a new general manager, Sam is appointed.

The characters are sympathetically drawn, the dialogue is realistic and there are plenty of amusing and moving scenes. I was thoroughly entertained and absorbed in the story, from the beginning, with the knitted figures of Poldark, Ed Sheeran, Harry Potter and Wolverine sitting on Lucy’s sofa, to the final scenes when Lucy realises that ‘true love is the real magic.’

This is Jenni Keer’s debut novel and I hope to read more of her books in the future.

About Jenni Keer (from her website):

20180328_084938

‘After gaining a history degree, Jenni Keer embarked on an interesting career in contract flooring before settling in the middle of the Suffolk countryside with her antique-restorer husband and their four teenage boys. She has valiantly attempted to master the ancient art of housework, but it remains a mystery, so is more usually found at her keyboard writing fun romantic comedies with #blindcat Seymour by her side. When not up to her elbows in family life, she can be found busy with her Edwardian marquetry business, planning her next fancy dress party or practising her formation dance moves.’

My thanks to the publishers, Avon Books UK for my review copy via NetGalley.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

London, 1667 – a royal scandal that could change the face of England forever…

The King's Evil

HarperCollins|4 April 2019|464 pages|Hardback |Review copy|5*

This is the third book in Andrew Taylor’s series following James Marwood and Cat (Catherine) Lovett. I loved the first two – The Ashes of London (set in 1666) and The Fire Court (set in 1667, eight months after the Great Fire of London), so I was delighted when Felicity Denham at HarperCollins asked me if I’d like a proof copy of The King’s Evil to review. It is not necessary to read the earlier books as I think they all work well as standalones, but I think it helps if you do.

The King’s Evil carries on from where The Fire Court ended. Seven years after the restoration of the monarchy it’s still a time of political and social change. Whilst Charles II still had immense power as the King a new middle class, both professional and administrative, was evolving. James Marwood is a government agent in Whitehall, working as a clerk for William Chiffinch, one of the commissioners of the Board of Red Cloth. Chiffinch was also Keeper of the King’s Private Closet and Page of the Backstairs, an important position as he controlled private access to the King. In addition Marwood also works under Joseph Williamson, the Undersecretary to the Secretary of State for the South, one of Charles’s most powerful ministers.

Charles had reinstated the ceremony of ‘touching for the King’s Evil’ as a demonstration of his divine right to rule – a ceremony in which the monarch touched those people suffering from scrofula, a disease, now known as  tuberculosis, that caused the swelling of the bones and lymphatic glands in the neck (the book cover illustrates the ceremony). It was believed that the King’s touch cured the disease.

The novel begins as Marwood is in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall watching the ceremony. Chiffinch had told him to attend on the orders of the King to meet Lady Quincy and do whatever she commanded. Lady Quincy, accompanied by a small African child, her footboy suffering from scrofula, tells Marwood to meet her outside the church near the Tower of London. She also warns him that Edward Alderley, her step-son, is out for revenge on Cat Lovett because of what she had done to him. (This refers to events in The Fire Court). 

In order to keep her identity secret Cat, whose father had been one of the Regicides, is going by the name of Jane Hakesby. She had been working for Simon Hakesby, a surveyor and architect, on a garden pavilion project in the grounds of Clarendon House. Then Alderley is found dead in the well in the garden pavilion.

Marwood is asked to look into the circumstances of Alderley’s death, under the King’s authority. He decides to keep his connection with Cat to himself, whilst he tries to find out where she has gone and who was responsible for Adderley’s death. Was it an accident, was it suicide, or was it murder? After Chiffinch received an anonymous letter naming Cat as the murdererhe sent officers to arrest her, but she had disappeared. So this was taken as a confession of her guilt. Marwood was afraid that this could implicate him too if it became known that he had told her that Alderley knew her whereabouts.

In addition, Lord Clarendon is convinced that Alderley was involved in a conspiracy against him and also suspects that someone in his household is involved in the plot. He is out of favour with Charles, and had recently been removed from the office of Lord Chancellor.  But he’s still potentially politically powerful as his daughter is married to Charles’s brother, James, the Duke of York. His grandchildren, the Princesses Mary and Anne, are the next heirs in the line of succession if Charles remained childless.

Marwood tries to find Cat, and also escorts Lady Quincy to Cambridge on a secret mission. Eventually his investigation into Alderley’s death leads him to discover who is behind the plot against Clarendon, and also to uncover a potential royal scandal in which Lady Quincy and the Duke of Buckingham, one of Charles’s favourites who had supplanted Clarendon, play important roles. 

I loved the characterisation and all the details of the setting, bringing to life scenes at the royal court as well as in the refugee camps that housed the homeless as the work of rebuilding London continued. Andrew Taylor is a supreme storyteller, combining fact and fiction – his novels are full of historical details that slot seamlessly into his stories. The King’s Evil is historical fiction at its best, full of suspense and tension, an intricate and tightly plotted murder mystery, enhanced by the intrigue of a royal scandal. 

I loved it.

Many thanks to the publishers, HarperCollins for my review copy.

Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce

Picador|5 April 2018 |288 pages|Kindle edition |Review copy|3*

I wasn’t sure I would like Dear Mrs Bird by A J Pearce because, although it’s historical fiction and one of my favourite genres, it has received so much hype that made me wonder if it was over-hyped and whether I’d find it a bit of a disappointment.