Monday, 24 July 2017

Acts of Love by Talulah Riley

Acts of LoveActs of Love by Talulah Riley
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Bernadette knows what she wants.

Tim is perfect, and she's always had a feeling that something is about to happen between them.

He might have just announced his engagement to the sickeningly wonderful Elizabeth, but the ring's not on his finger yet.

And when Elizabeth starts meddling in Bernie's own love life, she knows it's time to act.

Yes, Elizabeth's best friend Radley might be charming, charismatic and intelligent.

But he's not Tim.

And Bernadette's not a woman who takes no for an answer.

I didn't like this one at all. Usual chick lit/modern romance nonsense set in LA with an English heroine, billionaire male character and unrequited love. Way too long with none of the mystique and mastery of Gone with the Wind to which it has been compared. Simple lack lustre plot line, simpering self indulgent characters and a completely uninteresting and boring story line. Nothing like the superb Mitchell novel that it is being compared with. To my mind this novel is just mushy nonsense with no originality or creativity. I couldn't be bothered to read to the end I'm afraid and although I have been harsher with this review it is because you'd have to be brilliant to be compared to the timeless novel that Margaret Mitchell produced and this certainly wasn't even close. Sorry this only gets 1 star from me.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

The A to Z of You and MeThe A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is a striking literary debut of love and mortality perfect for fans of quirky, heart-wrenching fiction like Nathan Filer, David Nicholls and Rachel Joyce. Ivo has all kinds of everyday joy in his life - he's young, he's in love, he has friends who promise to stand by him if life ever goes wrong. Then one day, life does go wrong. He makes a mistake, and it's big and unforgiveable. Now time is running out and his life is falling apart. But he's going to put it together again. His own way.

This is a story about how far love must stretch to gather a life in pieces. And how strong friendship never dies.

Oh dear, another deeply depressing and maudlin novel. I like to read for escapism, entertainment, mystery and intrigue not to read about terminally ill people who spending their days in a hospice with no visitors or friends resort to playing a game of A-Z and a memory that goes with it. I really didn't connect with this book, it was too depressing, I skim read it and although the author tried it was just too miserable for me to keep going. Ivo was very self indulgent seeming not to take responsibility for the situation he finds himself in and therefore not very likeable. Dreary, dull and uninspiring I could not recommend it giving it only 1 star for effort.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending me this in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo

The Light We LostThe Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two people. One choice. What if?

Every love story has a beginning…

11th September 2001. Lucy and Gabe meet in New York on a day that will change their lives – and the world – forever. As the city burns behind them, they kiss for the very first time.

Over the next thirteen years they are torn apart, then brought back together, time and time again. It’s a journey of dreams, of desires, of jealousy, of forgiveness – and above all, love.

And as Lucy is faced with a devastating choice, she wonders whether their love is a matter of destiny or chance.

…what if this is how their story ends?

Sorry not for me. This was achingly slow and characters lacked depth; I didn't engage with them or the story and it became very boring very quickly. I skim read most of it - essentially its' about a love affair between two people Lucy and Gabe told from Lucy to Gabe - it starts with a tragedy of 9/11 and frankly for me it was a tragedy of a novel. Characters lacked realism and depth, the atmosphere of the novel was doom and gloom and I ended up not caring what happened to either of them in the end.

Very transparent with an ending that was lack lustre and an overall uninspiring drab read. Can only give his one 2 stars - instantly forgettable.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

And I Darken by Kiersten White

And I Darken (The Conqueror's Saga, #1)And I Darken by Kiersten White
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she'll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.

A Young Adult book and I guess it helps if you are a young adult reading it. I never really bought into the kind of myths and legends genre so it was a stretch on believability having said that it is darkly addictive although I do wonder at the intensity and hidden depths of young minds in reading this. Set in Transylvania at the height of the Ottoman Empire it tells the story of Lada Dracul who was abandoned with her brother Radu by their father to be bought up in the Ottoman Sultan's court. Lada has learned at an early age that ruthlessness is the key to survival and success and their lineage makes her and her brother targets.

Lada is one tough cookie, ruthless, driven to take revenge on the empire that is holding her captive but when she meets the sultans' son Mehmed she is torn between her feelings as they inevitably become rivals. Lada is the epitome of the feminist heroine, fierce, resilient but with all the feminine wiles that will get her what she wants.

Good descriptive passages this is set in eastern Europe and peppered with different religions and traditions interwoven with complex relationships which makes this a compulsive read. Clever linking to historical and political events this adds to the authenticity of the novel and guides the reader along a fast paced addictive journey. Young adults will love it and even skeptics like me will be hooked - great storytelling has to have a 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5* for Goodreads and Amazon.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The Reminders by Val Emmich

The RemindersThe Reminders by Val Emmich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Overcome with the loss of his boyfriend Sydney, Gavin Winters has set fire to every reminder in their home. A neighbour has captured the blaze on video, turning this little-known TV actor into a household name. Gavin flees LA for New Jersey, where he hopes that ten-year-old Joan, the daughter of a close friend, can reconnect him with the memories of Sydney he is now in danger of losing for ever.
Joan was born with a rare ability to recall every single day of her life in perfect detail, and in return for sharing her memories of Sydney, Gavin will help her write a song for a local competition. For Joan has had enough of being the girl who can't forget – she wants to be the girl who will never be forgotten . . .
Charming, beautifully observed, poignant and funny, The Reminders by actor and musician Val Emmich is an irresistible story of the unlikely friendship between a grief-stricken man who can’t remember and a ten-year-old girl who can’t forget.

Joan Lennon Sully is a ten year old little girl with HSAM - Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory which means she is one of the very few people in the world who can remember exactly everything that has happened in her life including events, dates, and conversations which she can relay verbatim.

She loves the Beatles and enters a song writing contest helped by her father and new actor friend. Gavin the actor friend finds her to be sometimes tiresome and annoying and finds himself traipsing all over town searching for clues to a mystery.

To be honest not much goes on and it was a bit schmaltzy for me - very sweet but just a little too much saccharine which made it hard for me to really like this novel. Sorry only a 2 stars from me.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Before Everything by Victoria Redel

Before EverythingBefore Everything by Victoria Redel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anna, Molly, Ming, Caroline, Helen: the Old Friends.

Since adopting their official name aged eleven, they have seen each other through careers, children, illnesses, marriage, divorce, addiction, fame, fall outs.

But now, Anna - fiercely loved mother and friend, and the Old Friends' glue - is diagnosed with cancer again, and this time, tired of recoveries and relapses, pitying looks and exhausting regimes, she simply says: no more.

As her health declines, the politics of the still lived-in world merge with memories of the past while each Old Friend tries to accept the truth of what is happening: they are losing someone they cannot imagine life without.

Before Everything is a celebration of friendship and love between a group of wonderful women.

End of sixth grade they made it their official name. It was a joke one afternoon but they liked the way it sounded. Permanent. The Old Friends. This way, the five girls agree, it's just a fact. And ours forever.

Sorry not my type of read at all. Very maudlin tale about five firm friends since school who gather together to say their final goodbyes to their friend Anna who having to face recurring cancer has decided she will not seek further treatment and enters a hospice. It was told from each of the five friends' perspective going back and forth to reveal their enduring friendship. It was executed well but I like to have a book that gives me a little entertainment and this was not it. The subject matter was just too heavy for me. Because I wouldn't have chosen it to read and it was sent for an honest review I must say it was well written and sympathetically done and for that I would give it 3 stars but not one for me .

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Island of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

Island of SecretsIsland of Secrets by Patricia Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

'The story started at dawn on the fourteenth of September, 1943 . . .'

All her life, London-born Angelika has been intrigued by her mother's secret past. Now planning her wedding, she feels she must visit the remote Crete village her mother grew up in.

Angie's estranged elderly grandmother, Maria, is dying. She welcomes Angie with open arms - it's time to unburden herself, and tell the story she'll otherwise take to her grave.

It's the story of the Nazi occupation of Crete during the Second World War, of horror, of courage and of the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children. And it's the story of bitter secrets that broke a family apart, and of three enchanting women who come together to heal wounds that have damaged two generations.

Set during the Second World War years in Greece the story takes place on the island of Crete where Angie returns to her birthplace to visit her elderly grandmother Maria much against the wishes of her own mother. Maria wants to make her peace before she dies to tell Angie the terrible story that she does not want to take to her grave.

German occupation of the island during the war reveals some terrible stories that are based on the mostly true stories told by the elderly women of Amiras. This was mixed nicely with the culture and traditions of this village. Gradually as secrets are revealed we piece together the past. Good characterisation and vivid descriptive passages bring this story to life. A little flitting between past and present did make it a bit tricky to maintain continuity but it didn't spoil what was otherwise a good read. Some good twists and mysteries carefully revealed make this a worthwhile read. Not my usual genre but does get a well deserved 4 stars.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Good Girlfriend's Guide to Getting Even by Anna Bell

The Good Girlfriend's Guide to Getting EvenThe Good Girlfriend's Guide to Getting Even by Anna Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Lexi's sport-mad boyfriend Will skips her friend's wedding to watch football - after pretending to have food poisoning - it might just be the final whistle for their relationship.

But fed up of just getting mad, Lexi decides to even the score. And, when a couple of lost tickets and an 'accidentally' broken television lead to them spending extra time together, she's delighted to realise that revenge might be the best thing that's happened to their relationship.

And if her clever acts of sabotage prove to be a popular subject for her blog, what harm can that do? It's not as if he'll ever find out . . .

Chiclits are not my usual read although I must confess to being a Sophie Kinsella and Jane Costello fan so when I saw this was recommended for these authors fans I had to read it. I really enjoyed the humour and some laugh out loud moments that this entertaining book had.

Lexi's sporting mad boyfriend Will skips her best friends' wedding to go and watch his favourite team play football and is captured on camera which is then sent to Lexi while she is at the wedding. Believing her boyfriend to be at home with a stomach bug she is incensed and hell bent on revenge. What follows are some hilarious escapades while she tries to prevent him from enjoying his various sporting pursuits.

In addition to sabotaging all sporting events Lexi is also writing a blog about it to which she gets hundreds of reviews. The more she posts the more reviews she gets, she believes Will won't ever read it so where's the harm. She is conscious that she is painting a very one sided picture of Will and is slightly guilty of this yet she carries on, you can see how this is going to spiral out of control.

Good characters who all seem to gel with each other, great hilarity and good observational techniques.

Things come to a head but you'll have to read it yourself to find out whether it is a happy ending or not.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Ten Dead Comedians: A Murder Mystery by Fred Van Lente

Ten Dead Comedians: A Murder MysteryTen Dead Comedians: A Murder Mystery by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fred Van Lente s brilliant debut is both an homage to the Golden Age of Mystery and a thoroughly contemporary show-business satire. As the story opens, nine comedians of various acclaim are summoned to the island retreat of legendary Hollywood funnyman Dustin Walker. The group includes a former late-night TV host, a washed-up improv instructor, a ridiculously wealthy blue collar comic, and a past-her-prime Vegas icon. All nine arrive via boat to find that every building on the island is completely deserted. Marooned without cell phone service or wifi signals, they soon find themselves being murdered one by one. But who is doing the killing, and why? 

A darkly clever take on Agatha Christie s And Then There Were None and other classics of the genre, Ten Dead Comedians is a marvel of literary ventriloquism, with hilarious comic monologues in the voice of every suspect. It s also an ingeniously plotted puzzler with a twist you ll never see coming!"

An entertaining homage to Agatha Christie - this is a humorous take on And Then There Were None - all the characters are comedians who are lured to the island in the Caribbean to collaborate on doing a special television show with the legendary funny man Dustin Walker. The 9 comedians all have a varying level of success in the industry, some are hoping to revive flagging careers, others believe a special show could not be complete without them. As with the Agatha Christie book all the comedians arrive to find the island is completely deserted except for them and no sign of their host. One by one they are all being picked off and killed meaning that one of them must be the killer.

Good inventive novel where the characters were believable if not all likeable but I think that is the intention. Clever inventive murders that give nothing away until the end. Thoroughly enjoyable read, funny in parts, sad in others but never boring. Quite and addictive read with a good ending and plenty of red herrings. Have to give this one a 4 star rating - had it been an original story and not a take on someone else book I would have given it a 5.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Little Kiosk by the Sea by Jennifer Bohnet with guest post

The Little Kiosk by the SeaThe Little Kiosk by the Sea by Jennifer Bohnet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Time’s running out to save the little kiosk by the sea…

Sabine knows that if she doesn’t come up with a plan to save her little kiosk soon, it might be too late. If only her best friend Owen would stop distracting her with marriage proposals!

Harriet is returning to Dartmouth for the first time in thirty years, haunted by the scandal that drove her away and shocked by an inheritance that could change everything.

Rachel never expected to find love again after her world was shattered a year ago. But it seems as if the sleepy seaside town has different ideas…

One thing’s for sure, it’s a summer they will never forget!

I love a summery contemporary so couldn't wait to get started on this one. Working full time I find it difficult to read during the week, I need light reads that I can pick up read a couple of pages and put down until I have time to return to it. This was what I was hoping to do with the book due to it's length I thought it would be perfect.

The Little Kiosk by the Sea, is a sweet book, one where we follow regulars from the area (Dartmouth) getting into the summer season, it is focused around the kiosk, which is been threatened with closure. This is where I thought the book fell down a bit for me, there were just too many characters for me to understand what was going on. As I said before about my situation, it could just have been due to the fact I didn't have enough time to really get into it. I found it hard to keep up with the characters, although there were some stories that I really enjoyed.

I particularly liked Rachel and Harriet's stories, I could have just read a book about them. I thought the baby Carla story was a little silly and very unrealistic, it didn't seem to go anywhere either. Although this is based round the kiosk, the focus comes away from this and the stories of the people are what make the book.

This would be a perfect read on holiday with a cocktail in one hand and laying on a sunbed. I feel that it was an easy going read and I only wish I had dedicated a whole day to get into the story, I feel had I of done this I would have enjoyed it a lot more. I would rate this as 3.5*, which has been rounded up for Amazon and Goodreads.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Guest Post:

Well the first thing you must absolutely do is to arrive by ferry rather than the inland route. There are two ferries continually criss-crossing the river but my preference is always for the Higher Ferry. Seeing Dartmouth from the other side of the river for the first time is unforgettable, as Ellie in The Little Kiosk By The Sea found the day she joined her mother Harriet in the house she’d inherited. Be warned though, there can be a lengthy wait for the ferry in the height of summer.

Once in Dartmouth there is so much to see and do but start with a wander along the Embankment towards the ancient Bayards Cove from where the Mayflower and Speedwell set sail for America. So much activity on the river these days, yachts, dinghies, even the occasional frigate making an official visit to the Royal Naval College high on the hill overlooking the town. You’ll walk past several of the little kiosks advertising fishing and boat trips, similar to the one in the book. If you have time, take a trip on the small passenger ferry out to the castle - keeping a an eye out for the beautiful bronze mermaid on her rock.

Back in town explore the centre of town with its medieval streets - Duke Street with the Butterwalk, Anzac Street, Foss Street usually a riot of flowers and hanging baskets in summer. As you wander around you’ll see flights of old steps in various parts of the town - explore where they lead and you’ll see parts of Dartmouth that visitors rarely see.

Celebrate your visit at the end of the day sitting by the boatfloat in the centre of town with a typical Dartmouth ice-cream - coffee flavour with Devonshire clotted cream on top and a chocolate flake. Delicious!

The Little Kiosk by the Sea by Jennifer Bohnet is out 6th July (HQ, £7.99) Find out more about Jennifer’s writing at

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig

Aftermath: Life Debt (Star Wars: Aftermath, #2)Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Emperor is dead, and the remnants of his former Empire are in retreat. As the New Republic fights to restore a lasting peace to the galaxy, some dare to imagine new beginnings and new destinies. For Han Solo, that means settling his last outstanding debt, by helping Chewbacca liberate the Wookiee’s homeworld of Kashyyyk.

Meanwhile, Norra Wexley and her band of Imperial hunters pursue Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and the Empire’s remaining leadership across the galaxy. Even as more and more officers are brought to justice, Sloane continues to elude the New Republic, and Norra fears Sloane may be searching for a means to save the crumbling Empire from oblivion. But the hunt for Sloane is cut short when Norra receives an urgent request from Princess Leia Organa. The attempt to liberate Kashyyyk has carried Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a band of smugglers into an ambush—resulting in Chewie’s capture and Han’s disappearance.

Breaking away from their official mission and racing toward Kashyyyk, Norra and her crew prepare for any challenge that stands between them and their missing comrades. But they can’t anticipate the true depth of the danger that awaits them—or the ruthlessness of the enemy drawing them into his crosshairs.

Life Debt is the second book in the Aftermath trilogy written by Chuck Wendig. This is a better story than the first, without a doubt and if you are a fan of Star Wars then this trilogy is a must read.

However, with that being said, I still find the main characters hard to connect with (as I find many irritable or just unlikeable). I felt disappointed as I started the book and found the characters in a situation almost identical to one they found themselves in in the first novel (this thankfully resolved itself quickly). I also felt that the characters did not develop sufficiently, their relationships and personalities (but again, this could just be me). I was always led to believe that the second part of a trilogy contained the darker of the material, and I was hoping this would mean one of the main characters being killed off, and although the writer seemed to play with that idea at one point, he ultimately decides against it.

There are several good parts to this book, the first being the role of classic characters, Han, Leia and Chewbacca feature heavily in the last third of the book. The twist, although fairly obvious, provided some good and much needed action sequences. The mystery around Gallius Rax is the most intriguing part of the plot, and I personally always enjoy the imperial stories more anyway. Once again, the story expands the galaxy, describing new creatures, food, recreational activities, whilst showing how the New Republic operates and functions, ultimately immersing you in the world and making it feel that little bit more real.

The Aftermath trilogy is an important series in the new Star Wars canon and so, a must read. However, I have found the first two slow reads and the awkward interludes and present tense only make the books harder to read (in my opinion). The highlight of the trilogy so far, is undoubtedly the creation of Gallius Rax and the Emperor’s plan for him.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Honeymoon by Tina Seskis

The HoneymoonThe Honeymoon by Tina Seskis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's trouble in paradise . . .

For as long as she can remember, Jemma has been planning the perfect honeymoon. A fortnight's retreat to a five-star resort in the Maldives, complete with luxury villas, personal butlers and absolute privacy.

It should be paradise. But it's turned into a nightmare.

Because the man Jemma married a week ago has just disappeared from the island without a trace. And now her perfect new life is vanishing just as quickly before her eyes.

After everything they've been through together, how can this be happening? Is there anyone on the island who Jemma can trust? And above all - where has her husband gone?

When I read the blurb of this book I knew it would be one that I was going to enjoy. It sounded right up my street.

This book jumps from the past to present and gives the reader a picture of how Jemma ended up in a luxury resort in the Maldives. This is something that she has dreamed of for years and now it has finally arrived there seems to be trouble in paradise. One morning Jemma wakes up and Jamie (her husband) is missing, she chooses not to alert the authorities straight away but decides to confide in a woman she has just met.

When things start to become serious and it looks like Jamie isn't coming back the police begin to suspect Jemma. Is she really capable of killing her husband? What would be the point?

I did enjoy this, it was everything I enjoy in a book, mystery/thriller chick lit and set somewhere exotic, however I thought it took a long time to build and then the ending happened so quick. Almost you blink and you miss it, I also felt a little let down by the ending as I thought it was unbelievable. Saying this I would still recommend it to others as it would be a fab holiday read. Due to these reasons I have given this 3.5*, rounded up for Amazon and Goodreads.

I would like to thank the publisher for sending this in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Beneath a Burning Sky blog tour with extract

Beneath a Burning Sky: A gripping mystery and a beautiful love story that ticks all the boxes by [Ashcroft, Jenny]

When twenty-two-year-old Olivia is coerced into marriage by the cruel Alistair Sheldon she leaves England for Egypt, his home and the land of her own childhood. Reluctant as she is to go with Alistair, it's in her new home that she finds happiness in surprising places: she is reunited with her long-estranged sister, Clara, and falls - impossibly and illicitly - in love with her husband's boarder, Captain Edward Bertram.

Then Clara is abducted from one of the busiest streets in the city. Olivia is told it's thieves after ransom money, but she's convinced there's more to it. As she sets out to discover what's happened to the sister she's only just begun to know, she falls deeper into the shadowy underworld of Alexandria, putting her own life, and her chance at a future with Edward, the only man she's ever loved, at risk. Because, determined as Olivia is to find Clara, there are others who will stop at nothing to conceal what's become of her . . .


Central Alexandria, 30 June 1891 She reached for a wall, furniture, anything that might stop her falling. But there was nothing, and she fell, knees first, landing painfully on floorboards thick with dust. She pushed herself up, snapping her head this way, that way, disoriented by the speed with which everything was happening, straining to see. But after the fierce sunlight outside, the darkness swam and she could make out nothing but shadows and luminous spots. She started to scream. A hand came over her mouth: strong, rough, forcing the sounds back into her. Men filled the room; three of them, no, four. Her breath came quick and short through her nose. She smelt sweat, garlic, a trace of hashish. Outside, she could hear the distant noise of the street: horses’ hooves, the trundle of a tram. The men talked in Arabic around her, so calm. It terrified her, how in control they sounded. The hand on her mouth dropped. ‘What do you want?’ Her own voice was high, too strained, and unnaturally English. ‘I want to go. Let me go.’ She blinked, her eyes becoming used to the darkness. The room was all but empty; just a pile of crates in one corner, a table of glass bottles in another. The men were dressed in the white robes of locals. Their faces were concealed by rags. Footsteps clicked in the cobbled alleyway outside; the scrape of what sounded like a handcart. She opened her mouth, screaming again, calling for help. The man before her looked down, his eyes dark, wholly empty. Bored, almost. He shook his head, and reached Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 1 19/04/2017 14:00 2 for one of the cloths covering his own face. Seeing what he intended, she arched her body away. ‘No. No, no, no.’ She scrambled to stand. Someone forced her down, the other shoved fabric covered in sweat and grime into her mouth. She gagged, choking, as more cloth was tied around her face. Barely able to breathe, with tears pouring down her face, she looked to the door. White cracks of daylight shone through it. The packed Rue Cherif Pasha was only a moment’s walk away. She lunged, making a break, but they jammed her back down to the floor. Her gown spread around her. Her head cracked. Why are you doing this to me? It came out as nothing but moans through the cloth. She thought about her sister outside, still on the busy street. Perhaps in Draycott’s restaurant by now. The soldier, Fadil, too. Did he know? Would he come? Her mind moved to her home, all of them waiting. Especially him. Would he sense she was in trouble? Oh God, she couldn’t be here. This couldn’t be. A man crossed to the centre of the room. He opened a trapdoor. Noxious smells rose up. She felt herself being hauled along. She shook her head, kicking. It was a useless protest. They reached the hole in the floor. She saw stone stairs, gaping black, and pulled away, thrashing, filled with new terror. Where are you? The question to her sister and Fadil screamed in her mind. Why aren’t you coming? The first man disappeared into the floor. He seized her by her boots and pulled. Another pinned her arms to her side, heaving her along. As they carried her down, her body twisting and scraping along the rough brickwork, the others followed. Find me. The trapdoor shut over her. Please, please. Find me.

Chapter One 

Ramleh, Alexandria, March 1891 Olivia looked out across the bay. Sweat prickled on her forehead, down her spine. Her bathing pantaloons and tunic stuck to her skin. It was baking for March; everyone kept telling her so. You didn’t bring Blighty’s weather out with you then. (Really, how could she have?) The sun, even at just a little after nine, was biting; the kind of hot that after years of freezing English winters and disappointing summers she didn’t think she would ever become accustomed to. She rolled her tight shoulders. Her woollen costume moved with them, across her bruises, catching painfully on her cuts. She tensed her jaw on the urge to wince. She never winced. The Mediterranean lapped the rocks beneath her, a turquoise blanket that stretched out to the horizon and made home seem so far away. Around the headland, towards the city, long-tail boats scudded back to the harbour, sails full as fishermen returned to Alexandria’s morning markets, the waiting steam trains and donkey carts that would deliver their catch to Cairo, Luxor, a hundred other desert towns. The water flashed gold, speckled with light, inviting Olivia in. She glanced back at the house. Her new husband, Alistair, stood on the veranda, ready for the office in his three-piece, the skin of his savagely elegant face as white as the veranda fencing surrounding Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 5 19/04/2017 14:00 6 him. He held a cup and saucer in hand, lingering over his morning tea: imported Ceylon leaves, a dash of milk from the kitchen cow, half a level spoon of sugar. (‘Level, Olivia, not heaped. Level.’) His gaze was fixed on her, watching. Always watching. Olivia took a step. She felt rather than saw Alistair pause mid-sip, saucer held aloft, cup of Ceylon’s finest suspended. She flung herself forward and held her breath as first steaming air then cool water rushed through her layers, a balm to her burning skin. She dived deeper, lungs filling, fit to burst. For a sweet, submerged moment, she was invisible. She broke the surface with a gasp, and swam out with swooping strokes. She was a confident swimmer, she’d learnt in the Solent as a child thanks to the icy dawn immersions that the mother superior at her boarding school had insisted on (excellent for your constitutions, girls, and your wicked souls). The distance between her and the shore quickly grew. It was only when her arms would take her no further that she rolled onto her back and let herself drift. Occasionally she turned her head towards the house, straining to make out Alistair’s ramrod form, imagining the tick of irritation in his eye. It was a familiar routine by now. She’d been coming to this bay at the bottom of their garden every morning since Alistair had brought her to Alexandria three weeks ago; the fact that Alistair hated her doing it (‘I won’t descend to drag you out in front of the servants, but you should be in the house. With me. It’s improper, this gadding around in the water. Your skin is turning quite native.’) gave her reason enough to carry on. He made her suffer come nightfall, of course. With words first (‘What’s going on in your mind, Olivia? Have I not made myself clear?’), and then all the rest of it. But she wasn’t fool enough to believe that if she stopped, he would. He’d been finding reasons to punish her ever since the sodden winter’s day two months ago that she’d finally relented, given up on her hopeless search for an alternative, and married him. It wasn’t as though she’d swum the frozen Thames back then. No, it had been her melancholy at the ceremony that he’d taken her to account for that night. After that, it was the clothes she’d brought Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 6 19/04/2017 14:00 7 in her trunk for the P&O voyage to Alexandria (totally unsuitable, far too thick, for God’s sake. Was she listening? Was she?), then her laugh at the captain’s joke over dinner (frankly flirtatious), and so it went on. Olivia closed her eyes, pushing the memories away. She floated, hair loose around her. The water muffled everything but her own breathing in her ears. The sun moved higher in the sky; she felt the tell-tale tightening of freckles cropping on her cheekbones and sighed inwardly, knowing her lady’s maid would insist on doses of lemon juice for nights to come. She glanced again at the terrace and, seeing only space where Alistair had been, exhaled. She waited a few minutes more, enough time to ensure he’d really left for the day, off to the headquarters of his cotton export business in the city, then made her way back in. As she sliced through the soft swell, her unhappiness weighing bluntly inside her, she consoled herself with the thought that her older sister, Clara, would be calling soon. She came every morning, riding over by carriage from her own home up the coast. Sometimes she was alone, more often than not she brought her sons, Ralph and little Gus. Olivia still got a jolt, seeing them all. Clara especially. Real again, at last. For fifteen long years, ever since the two of them had been forced to leave their childhood home of Cairo for England following the death of their parents, they’d been kept apart. They’d had no communication – their grandmother had made sure of that: not a letter, not a word. Olivia hadn’t even known Clara was living back in Egypt, the land they’d been born in, until Alistair had arrived on her doorstep in London and told her. Clara had been little more than a shadow to her; that dull ache of knowing she existed somewhere in the world, but with no clue as to where. And a memory, just one, of the day their grandmother – full of hate towards their dead mother and determined to exact her revenge, as though death wasn’t enough – had torn them apart: that freezing January morning at Tyneside docks, back when Olivia was eight, Clara fourteen, and which Olivia tried, very hard, never to think about. Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 7 19/04/2017 14:00 8 She didn’t think about it now as she pulled herself from the sea, clambering out of the water. Wrapping herself in her bath sheet, she turned, picking her way over the rocks and into the garden. As she padded up the lawn towards the house, grass stuck to her toes. Water evaporated from her skin, leaving salty snail-trails on the unladylike tan of her forearms. The villa loomed large before her, a palm-fringed palace. Its terracotta walls were laced with jasmine, the shutters flung open in every room revealing the shadows of servants moving within. Olivia passed into its stultifying shade. On the way to the stairs, she paused at the door to the boarder’s room – a cavalry officer by the name of Captain Edward Bertram. He’d been staying with Alistair, a business associate of his father’s, for years. It wasn’t an unusual arrangement – all British officers rented private rooms in Alex, there was no great garrison here as there was in Cairo – but Olivia had yet to meet this houseguest. He’d been away ever since she arrived. Today, though, the door to his room was ajar and two maids chattered within. Olivia asked what they were doing, and they replied that Sir Sheldon (they all called Alistair so, even though he wasn’t a ‘Sir’ anything; it was the way of Egyptian servants with their masters) had asked for the room to be readied for the captain’s return. Word had come that he’d be back that night. Olivia shrugged, unsurprised by Alistair not bothering to mention it to her, and only mildly curious to meet this captain at last. Her life was so full of strangers these days, what difference would one more make? She carried on upstairs, her thoughts fixed on getting ready for Clara. By the time she reached her bedroom she’d all but forgotten Captain Edward Bertram was on his way home. Edward dropped down into his seat as the Alexandria Express creaked into motion, steam filling the air beneath the vaulted iron roof of Cairo’s central station. He pulled his case of cigarettes from his jacket and lit one, inhaling slowly as the train Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 8 19/04/2017 14:00 9 chugged out to the fierce daylight beyond. As it picked up speed, funnel blowing, the beggar children who lived in the surrounding slums – blackened urchins with round eyes and mouths that were too big for their faces – swarmed alongside the carriages, hands outstretched. Edward stood, throwing what coins he had for them, then winced as one leapt for a window and was pushed from within, landing, a ball of scrawny limbs, in the rocks and dirt. He came to a halt just shy of the rails, but was up within the instant, ready for more. Edward shook his head, staring after him. ‘Serves him right,’ came a bored voice from opposite; a sunburnt man in a top hat and three-piece suit. ‘You shouldn’t have encouraged them, you know.’ ‘Yes.’ Edward smiled tightly, reclaiming his seat. ‘Lazy buggers.’ ‘Just so.’ ‘Perhaps you have a factory somewhere you could put them to work in? Some sixteen-hour shifts would do them the power of good.’ The man narrowed his eyes. ‘I’m in the civil service.’ Edward laughed shortly. ‘Of course you are.’ He took another drag on his cigarette, stretching his legs out before him, and turned to stare at the flat-roofed slums of Cairo passing by, letting the man know the conversation was closed. The past weeks at the garrison training recruits had been hellish. He would have been pleased to be getting away from it – those baking days in the fly-infested boardroom, the lectures on the basics of the men’s role (desert reconnaissance, border patrols, self-important circuits around town to remind everyone who was boss, and so on) – had he not been so depressed at the prospect of returning to Alexandria. He’d asked for the month in Cairo as a favour from his colonel, Tom Carter, to get him out of town; he’d been disgusted by the callous way Alistair had gone off to England to fetch Clara’s sister for his wife, incredulous that – more than a decade on from Clara’s humiliation of Alistair, during that London season only ever spoken Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 9 19/04/2017 14:00 10 of in whispers – Alistair should have redressed the balance with such calculated determination. For Edward had no doubt that’s what it was all about, that Alistair’s choice of wife had far more to do with Clara than with Clara’s sister. But even he, who’d observed Alistair’s fixation with Clara many times in the three years he’d been living with him – wondering how the hell Clara tolerated his pale eyes on her at parties, the curl in his lip whenever she spoke – had never imagined it would cause him to stoop so low. He simply hadn’t trusted himself to be present when Alistair returned from London, dragging the new Mrs Sheldon with him. And the time away in Cairo had made him see just how sick he’d become of life in Egypt; not just his role – the drills, the endless drills, the desert trips and constant monitoring of locals who’d never asked to be governed in the first place – but living with Alistair too. He’d wired Tom. Any chance of my getting out and going home before my commission is up? None, Tom had replied. Everything all right, old man? Not really, wrote Edward. How about a transfer? Tom had set the process in motion: a promotion to major, in Jaipur. It would take a while, but it was going through. Edward wasn’t a fool, he knew that in the end life in India would be more of the same. But since he apparently had no choice but to serve out his time in the cavalry, he might as well do it somewhere new. After all these years in Egypt, he needed a change of scene. Jaipur would feel different. For a while at least. He turned to the window, watching as the city gave way to desert, the dunes rolling past. He drew on his cigarette, paper crackling, and exhaled; smoke spiralled through the open window, mixing with the white haze of the desert beyond. He was right to go. Really, when all was said and done, what was there to keep him in Egypt? ‘Livvy!’ Clara called out from beneath the fig tree. ‘I hope you don’t mind us making ourselves at home?’ She smiled, cheeks dimpling. Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 10 19/04/2017 14:00 11 She’d laid out a tartan rug in the shade and was sitting, lace skirts cushioned around her, with baby Gus gurgling on her lap. Clara’s older boy, eight-year-old Ralph, was on the lawn beside them, freckled face serious, stockinged legs braced, hammering hoopla pegs into the lawn. He looked up at Olivia and waved his hammer. ‘Hello, Aunt Livvy.’ Olivia waved back. As she crossed the grass towards them all, Clara gestured at a wicker basket. ‘Oranges,’ she said. ‘I brought them from my garden, they’re out early this year. All the warm weather. Try one, Livvy, they’re positively bursting with sunshine.’ Olivia said she was fine, thank you, she’d never really liked oranges. Clara’s brow creased. ‘You used to . . . ’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Yes,’ Clara said, ‘Mama grew them too. I remember you eating them when you were little.’ ‘Really?’ Olivia frowned, trying to recall ever doing such a thing. But there was nothing there, just a blank. All of her childhood before she and Clara were separated was just that. The morning they arrived in England after their parents died, those freezing London docks, Clara’s sobbing face, her own desperate fear as her grandmother told her where she must go; there was a wall in her mind, blocking out everything behind it: her early years back in Cairo, Clara as a child, their parents’ faces, the sound of their voices . . . Gone. It was Clara who held all the memories; she was passing them on to Olivia one by one. Your education. ‘I used to peel the white bits for you,’ Clara said now, staring down at an orange. ‘You liked it, I promise.’ Olivia sighed, said she was sure she had. She dropped down onto the blanket, landing with a soft thud. She leant over Gus, tickling him under the chin. He squirmed, rustling against Clara’s gown. Leaves cast shadows on his face. So dark, this little man, as though he’d sun-baked in the womb. He eyed Olivia warily. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to try and take you from your mama.’ She Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 11 19/04/2017 14:00 12 tickled him again. ‘I wouldn’t dare.’ He screamed blue murder with everyone except Clara. Clara stroked the curve of his olive cheek. ‘Little monster,’ she said softly. A maid came out with a jug of minted water, some pistachio biscuits. They drank and nibbled whilst Ralph played. Clara peeled an orange, dripping juice into Gus’s mouth. Every time Ralph landed a hoop on a peg, he’d turn, and Clara would exclaim, making him beam. The longer Clara watched him though, her own expression shifted, became heavy. ‘Are you all right?’ Olivia asked. ‘Yes,’ she said distractedly, ‘of course.’ ‘You look sad.’ ‘No, no, not at all. I’m splendid.’ ‘You’re not.’ Olivia nudged her. ‘You turn ever so British when you’re only pretending to be all right.’ ‘Do I?’ Clara laughed at that. ‘So?’ Olivia prompted her. She shrugged, eyes on Ralph. ‘I was just thinking of him going off to school in England, that’s all. July seems too soon.’ ‘Have you told him yet that he’s going?’ ‘No. I can’t do it. Jeremy doesn’t seem to want to either. He’s obviously hoping I’ll give in first.’ A dent formed on her brow. ‘Foul man.’ It was hardly unusual for Clara to speak of her husband so. She might have told Olivia that she’d felt differently once, years ago, back when she first met Jeremy during that London season – Jeremy, a joint partner in Alistair’s vast network of cotton plantations, had been in England with Alistair on business, and Clara, introduced to them both at a debutante ball, had (to Alistair’s lasting chagrin) fallen for Jeremy’s charms instantly – but these days she was always calling him foul. Olivia struggled to see it herself. Jeremy was so kind to her, stopping to chat whenever he called at the house, enquiring as to whether she was bearing up Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 12 19/04/2017 14:00 13 with the homesickness, not finding the damned heat too intolerable, the loneliness too hard. Olivia always assured him that she was well (a lie that came like breathing; a legacy of the nuns who’d beaten the habit of betraying upset from her long ago. Self-pity is a sin. And what do sinners need? Yes, that’s right . . .) but she could tell from Jeremy’s grimace that he knew she wasn’t, that she hadn’t been ever since Alistair had convinced her grandmother to exercise her legal rights as guardian, cut her off from her inheritance, leave her destitute if she didn’t agree to marry him. That or send her back to the convent as a nun. She couldn’t help but be grateful to Jeremy for his understanding; if they’d lived in a world where thoughts really were all that counted, his silent empathy would have meant a great deal. He could be distant with Clara though, she supposed; the two of them rarely seemed to talk, other than about the children. Still, Olivia would take distance over the alternative any day of the week. ‘I want to keep Ralphy back another year,’ said Clara. ‘He’s still such a baby. My baby.’ She paused, frown deepening. ‘I’d keep him with me for ever.’ ‘Then why don’t you?’ ‘Because Jeremy won’t have it. He says it’s not fair on him, that we’ve already held him up, and it will be harder on Ralph in the long run if we do it again.’ Ralph collected his hoops, threading them onto his chubby arm. He caught Olivia’s eye and smiled. She, thinking of the brutal loneliness awaiting him, managed barely a grimace in response. Clara said, ‘Grandmama’s written. She wants to come over at the start of July, take Ralphy back herself. She’s booked the voyage.’ Olivia turned, aghast. ‘I know,’ said Clara, looking as desolate as Olivia felt at the prospect. ‘I’ve written to say she mustn’t, but I’m not sure she’ll have any of it.’ She raised her face to the sky, eyes scrunched with the effort of her thoughts. ‘I’d take Ralph myself, but Gus is so little for the journey, and I can’t leave him here, it’s too hard.’ Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 13 19/04/2017 14:00 14 ‘Why?’ Olivia asked. ‘Why is it hard?’ Clara didn’t answer. Olivia said, ‘You have to do something, Clara. You can’t let that witch take Ralph.’ Still, nothing. Olivia filled her cheeks with air and let the breath out. Even the thought of Mildred made her feel ill. It wasn’t just the way she’d helped Alistair blackmail her into marriage, the delight with which she’d reminded Olivia that given her parents had left no will, she’d won complete control of Olivia’s person, her money, until she wed. I mean it, Olivia, I’ll see you back in that convent, don’t think I won’t. Who else can you go to for help? Your friends have no means. You haven’t seen your sister in years, I expect she’s forgotten all about you. It was everything else Mildred had done, back when Olivia and Clara were children. Olivia could picture her even now at those docks, dressed in black taffeta, waiting at the foot of the gangplank when she and Clara got off the ship after their journey from Cairo. She could see the fog blowing from her mouth, hear the satisfaction in her thin voice as she told Clara she’d be taking her home to Mayfair, young Olivia here had somewhere else to be, a convent school in fact. Say goodbye quickly now. The nuns are waiting, Olivia . . . And then, what had happened next . . . No. Olivia drew breath. She returned her attention to Clara. ‘You can’t let her come,’ she said again. ‘I can’t face it.’ ‘Nor can I.’ Neither of them spoke for a while after that. Clara fiddled at Gus’s frock, then peeled another orange, only to let it sit, uneaten, by her side. Ralph threw more hoops. Olivia batted at the flies. At length Clara asked Olivia, as she always did, how things had been with Alistair since yesterday. Olivia lied, as she always did, and said fine, or fair at any rate, and received the usual small smile: pained, disbelieving. Olivia picked at a blade of grass. She could feel Clara watching her, waiting for her to say more. But Olivia didn’t know how to begin to put words to her marriage. And really, what was the point? What Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 14 19/04/2017 14:00 15 could Clara do? It wasn’t as though Alistair would ever let her leave; he reminded her nightly that he’d track her down if she ever tried it, that he’d have her in the madhouse as a lunatic before he released her from her vows. Olivia pulled at the grass, making it snap. Ralph, giving up on his hoops, loped over and dropped down by her side. She tried for a smile, ruffled his tawny hair. Clara reached over, taking hold of her fingers, squeezing. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, for the hundredth time. ‘If I’d only known what he was planning when he left for England, I could have sent money, helped. Simply forced Grandmama to tell me where you were. But he never breathed a word of it, not to me, not to Jeremy . . . ’ ‘It’s not your fault,’ said Olivia. ‘I feel as if it is. What I did to him all those years ago, Jeremy too. His friend. He’s never let it go, and now you’re paying for it.’ Olivia looked down the lawn towards the bay. ‘I don’t want to be here when he comes home tonight.’ She heard the words before she realised she was going to speak them. She gave a self-conscious laugh, awkward even at this small honesty. Clara tightened her hand. ‘Leave a note,’ she said. ‘Tell Alistair you’re meeting me for dinner. Jeremy mentioned they have a big contract on, they’ll be working late. If you get away from here by seven you’ll miss him. I’ll book a table in the Greek Quarter, you haven’t been to Sabia’s yet. I might be a little late, I have an errand to run, but you can always have a drink whilst you wait.’ Olivia nodded, relieved. Edward’s man, Fadil, was waiting outside Alex station, wiry in his oversized khaki, bald head glinting in the late afternoon sun. He had both their horses with him. Edward took his own stallion, patting his silky flank, then shook Fadil’s hand, pleased to see him after these weeks away. It wasn’t often they were parted. Fadil had been working for Edward ever since he’d come to Egypt, back when the British Protectorate was first established in ’82. He was an excellent batman as well as soldier, and Edward normally took Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 15 19/04/2017 14:00 16 him everywhere. But he’d insisted he’d cope alone in Cairo on this occasion. Lines were rigidly drawn at the garrison there, the quarters for native soldiers were rank; Edward wouldn’t stable his horse in them, let alone subject Fadil to the filth. He hadn’t written to tell Fadil that he was going to India. He was ashamed of the secrecy, but he couldn’t face it, not yet. He’d asked Tom to keep the news from the rest of the men too. He hated goodbyes; until his date for going was locked, he wouldn’t start them. He asked Fadil how life had been this past month. Fadil said fine, normal. Edward enquired after each of his lieutenants, Fadil told him they were well, drilling every day. ‘Naturally,’ said Edward. Fadil held out a note. ‘From the colonel, sayed.’ Edward took it, stifling a yawn. It was the stuffy carriage, it had jaded him. His eyes moved over Tom’s scrawled hand. Immy’s furious about your transfer, all my fault apparently. She says I’m to take you both to dinner tonight to apologise for arranging it. Meet us at Sabia’s at seven. Will be good to see you, old man. Edward smiled, pleased in spite of his tiredness, at the prospect of spending the evening with Tom and his wife. He decided to go to the parade ground to change; his tails had been freshly pressed back in Cairo, he had everything he needed with him. He couldn’t stomach returning to Alistair’s just yet. He swung into the saddle and rode from the station with Fadil by his side. As they clopped through the stuccoed city centre, Edward stared at the odd remnant of a shattered wall, the broken ruins where offices had once stood. Even a decade on, the rubble still made him stop, pause: these lingering marks of the damage done by the Royal Navy’s guns, back when they’d had to pound Alex with cannons before the ruling khedive would allow them in to set up British rule. A reluctant intervention, so the story went, when political unrest in the country ran out of all control – government coups, riots, and so on. Everyone knew it had been as much to do Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 16 19/04/2017 14:00 17 with the allure of Egypt’s rich cotton fields, cheap labour and easy access to the East. It wouldn’t do to speak of that, of course. Edward kicked his horse on, down into winding streets that led to the harbour. They were packed, even at this late hour, the cobbles hemmed in by stone dwellings, market stalls, fruit shops and bakeries. The air was rich with the tang of ripe fruit, spices and onions sweating in oil. Edward wove this way and that, avoiding the crowds. As he and Fadil reached the coast road, though, Edward spurred them both on into a gallop, relieved to be in the open, moving. He gave his horse the reins and drank in the deep blue of the Mediterranean, its colour such a contrast to Cairo’s dust. He kicked. Faster. A warm wind rushed around him, raw with salt. Desert blossom spread over the sandbanks lining the road. Edward breathed deep on the scent, the fresh air, relishing it: a short burst of life before Alex crackled and withered in the deadening summer heat. He arrived at the restaurant early and lingered outside, looking down the wide avenue. It was a rich part of town, full of the villas of wealthy Greek families who’d moved across the sea to make Alex their home over the centuries. The pavements had more than one well-dressed couple strolling along them. Cypress trees swayed lazily in the balmy air; the sun was only just setting. Edward, legs still twitching from being on the train for so long, decided on a walk himself. It was then that he saw her, crossing the road from where several carriages were parked. She was dressed in a sleeveless blue gown, and she was tanned; unusually so. It was the first thing he noticed. She looked up at the restaurant sign, eyes registering its name. She pressed her tooth to her bottom lip. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked, since he had to say something. ‘Not lost?’ ‘Not lost,’ she said. ‘Just making sure I’m in the right place.’ Beneath a Burning Sky for B.indd 17 19/04/2017 14:00 18 Her voice was the second thing he noticed: soft, warm; nothing like the cut-glass tones he was used to. She carried on in. And he stared after her. He could hardly stop himself looking.