TSARINA by Ellen Alpsten

An absolute masterpiece! Thank you so much to Becky Hunter for gifting me this wonderful book! I cannot wait to finish the sequel “The Tsarina’s Daughter” for my spot on the upcoming blog tour.

–Synopsis–

Lover, mother, murderer, Tsarina

1699: Illegitimate, destitute and strikingly beautiful, Marta is sold into labour at the age of fifteen – where in desperation she commits a crime that will force her to go on the run.

Cheating death at every turn, she is swept into the current of the Great Northern War. Working as a washer woman at a battle camp, she catches the eye of none other than Peter the Great. Passionate and iron-willed, Peter has a vision for transforming the traditionalist Tsardom of Russia into a modern, Western empire.

With nothing but wits, courage and formidable ambition, Marta will rise from nothing to become Catherine I of Russia. But it comes at a steep price and is tied to the destiny of Russia itself.

–Review–

Ellen Alpsten is such a talented writer and storyteller. She has expertly crafted an historical novel into an addictive page turner.

1725, INTERREGNUM, Peter the Great is dead, and Catherine (formerly known as Marta) only has a few hours to make or break her destiny.

Whilst she waits for the Council to arrive, she thinks back on her life… and what a life she has led!

Her story is one of bravery, love, resilience, strength, courage, dedication. Her journey through the world is simply breathtaking. Catherine went through so much, had to endure so much, however she had but one motto: show no fear.

Amidst the wars, feasts and famines, social pressures to abide by, such as the dreaded “obligation” to produce sons, Ellen very skillfully depicts what it was like to be a woman in this men’s world. 

Despite it all, Catherine had a very singular relationship with Peter. He chose her (makta), and she chose him (tsarik). She stood by him through all the storms, through his obsessions and ambitions, she accompanied him to almost all the battle camps during the Wars against Sweden or Persia, she nursed him through is long lasting disease (syphilis). 

Peter’s relationship with people, and especially his own son from his previous marriage, were quite tumultuous and she always acted in the background to try and appease things. Catherine was good, kind and lenient. She saved many people from his wraths and managed to secure long lasting friendships and loyalty amongst his closest. Her influence in the background was key, but too often forgotten by historians.

Peter’s reign was one of major changes, new territories, new laws (many, many of them), new capital erected from the ground up (St Petersburg), constitution of a Senate, and much more. Peter was desperate to shake things up and tear apart the old customs, build a new world. In the shadows she played such an important role in this tumultuous period which reshaped Russia, and it simply is a delight to ready this beauty of a book, giving her back the credit that she duly deserved.

Through hell and back, from poverty to wealth, from washerwoman to Empress, Catherine’ story is an inspiration and I am truly grateful to Ellen for sharing her extraordinarily detailed amount of research with the world to bring us this book. 

I personally adored the descriptions of all the jewels… As a qualified gemologist I was pleased to see Ellen’s depictions matching my own (limited) knowledge in this respect!

Ellen’s writing is spectacular, I was completely hooked from the start and couldn’t put it down. Even if I had vague notions of this part of Russian history, reading this incredible destiny greatly enhanced my knowledge and desire to know more. It is a book that everyone should read (although a word of caution, this is not a story for the fainthearted!)

Ellen, if not done so already, it has to be translated in French, I know a few people who will absolutely love this!

With Love
AGJ

TW: rape, adultery, sex, abuse, death, violence, still birth
Out now and available in hardback, paperback, e-format and audio – Published by Bloomsbury Publishing

–About the Author – Ellen Alpsten–

Novelist and journalist

Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, before attending L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. Whilst studying for her Msc in PPE she won the Grande École short story competition with her novella Meeting Mr. Gandhi and was encouraged to continue writing.

Upon graduating, she worked as a producer and presenter for Bloomberg TV in London: knowing no-one and working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work and a nap. Tsarina, the first and only account of the incredible rise of Catherine I of Russia from serf to Empress, is her debut novel. 

Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as  VogueStandpoint and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three children and a chubby, moody fox-red Labrador.

THE WITNESS by Terry Lynn Thomas – Blog Tour

Thank you very much HQ Stories for having me on this blog tour, it is always a joy to be able to read new gems in advance!

Synopsis

From the USA Today bestselling author, comes the second explosive thriller about attorney Olivia Sinclair who must solve a cold-case murder to clear an innocent man’s name…

HE SAW WHAT YOU DID…

Teenager Ebby Engstrom witnesses a murder – and then passes out. The next morning, he wakes in his bed with no memory of how he got there, and is told his mother was stabbed to death the previous night.

Thirty years later, the case has gone cold, with numerous suspects but no new clues – until Ebby starts having uncontrollable flashbacks to that night. As repressed memories surface, he questions his own role in the murder, leading to a dramatic confession and Ebby’s arrest.

Family friend and attorney Olivia Sinclair is convinced of Ebby’s innocence, but the only way to clear his name is to find the real killer herself. And it seems almost everyone connected to the Engstrom family had a reason to want Cynthia dead…

An unputdownable thriller full of suspense, perfect for fans of Gillian McAllister, Alafair Burke and The Good Fight.

–Review–

If you haven’t read the first one in the Olivia Sinclair’ series, fear not! You won’t be lost as Terry cleverly introduces reminders of what happened in the first installment.

And what a great second one! This time, Olivia is not accused of murder and she is trying to turn her life around.

A truly enjoyable thriller, I read it really quickly in 2 sittings (if only I didn’t need to sleep). Through amazingly fluid writing and a great story line, you get engulfed in the mystery until the end! A steady pace, nothing slow and nothing rushed. Perfect!

This story is so much more than just a chase after a murderer from a 30 year old case. Terry spoils us with gripping side stories that perfectly tie in together in the end! 

Who stole the mysterious gold coins at the time of Cynthia Engstrom’s murder? Where did they disappear?

The protagonists are really well rounded and full of secrets. Everyone has something to hide and you never know who will surprise you next.

Through the clever flashbacks and following Ebby, you are discovering the truth alongside him and you get involved in the story, rooting for him to remember.

What is his family hiding? What are they protecting him from?

What is Mark guilty off? Ebby’s awful brother is certainly not as innocent as he wants us to believe!

Who is this mysterious Leanne in Brian’s life? As Olivia and Brian’s relationship is evolving, has a new threat arisen?

Olivia is such a refreshing protagonist, she’s an attorney, she’s clever but she’s no action woman and doesn’t try to be, she’s authentic, genuinely nice and a great person ! We all want her as our friend if we’re ever accused of murder!

Really great story with all the required ingredients: suspense, romance, betrayal, secrets, family drama.

Another success for Terry Lynn Thomas which should delight the fans of whodunnit stories!

Out 23 April 2021 in e-format (Kindle, Kobo, or check out your preferred site)

Out 10 June 2021 in Paperback and Audio By HQ Stories / HarperCollins 

About the author – Terry Lynn Thomas

Terry Lynn Thomas is the USA Today bestselling author of six historical mysteries. The Drowned Woman (previously published as Neptune’s Daughter) won an IndieBRAG Medallion, The Silent Woman and House of Lies released to critical acclaim and became USA Today bestsellers. The Betrayal is Terry’s first foray into the world of domestic suspense. 

When she’s not writing, Terry likes to spend time outdoors with her husband and her dogs. 

Keep up with Terry on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/terrylynnthomasbooks/) Twitter (@TLThomasbooks), Instagram (@terrylynnthomasbooks) or via her website at http://www.terrylynnthomas.com.

Check out review from fellow book bloggers!

Opinions are my own.
AGJ

“TRUST ME” by T.M. LOGAN

Please protect Mia
Don’t trust the police
Don’t trust anyone

What an expertly crafted thrill!

It all starts in a train when Kathryn asks Ellen to keep an eye on Mia, this beautiful 3 months old baby, just for a minute and then disappears. 

Set over the course of 6 (very) stressful days, this fast paced story keeps you on the edge of your seat and dramatically increases your heart rate!

Who is really Ellen? She is clearly not an ordinary woman. She is going through a tough time in life, her marriage is falling apart, she has just been told she cannot have children. Her barren state and the pain resulting from it add to her compulsion to protect Mia at all costs but there is something more, something that makes the reader connect with her – I personally spent the whole time desperately wanting to help her!

Where did Kathryn vanished to? Is she safe? Why would someone just leave their 3 months old with a complete stranger ? What danger is she in? Is she even the mother? Is someone after her? 

Who are those men following Ellen? How do they link to the whole mystery? 

Why did Kathryn say the police shouldn’t be trusted? Are they involved somehow?

So many, many questions!

Connections are perfectly made throughout the chapters, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place exactly when they are supposed to. Every single protagonist is suspicious and you get engulfed in wittily linked parallel stories, leaving you wondering about the subtle clues until the end. 

Without giving any spoilers, I was glad to finally discover that my suspicions had been right but T.M Logan brilliantly threw me off the scent many times and made me question and doubt everything until the last chapter. 

I highly recommend you pick it up if you are a mystery enthusiast and thrill chaser!

Thanks again Readers First and TM Logan for the opportunity to read it in advance. 

Out on 18 March – available to pre order 
Published by Zaffre Books

SYNOPSIS:

TWO STRANGERS, A CHILD, AND A SPLIT SECOND CHOICE THAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING . . . Ellen was just trying to help a stranger. That was how it started: giving a few minutes respite to a flustered young mother sitting opposite her on the train. A few minutes holding her baby while the mother makes an urgent call. The weight of the child in her arms making Ellen’s heart ache for what she can never have. Five minutes pass. Ten. The train pulls into a station and Ellen is stunned to see the mother hurrying away down the platform, without looking back. Leaving her baby behind. Ellen is about to raise the alarm when she discovers a note in the baby’s bag, three desperate lines scrawled hastily on a piece of paper: Please protect Mia Don’t trust the police Don’t trust anyone Why would a mother abandon her child to a stranger? Ellen is about to discover that the baby in her arms might hold the key to an unspeakable crime. And doing the right thing might just cost her everything . 

“The Favour” by Laura Vaughan

I was lucky enough to be given the chance to listen to the advance copy of the audiobook narrated by Helen Keeley, and I have to admit that I absolutely adored this story.

“This is not my place, these are not my people”. 

Quite a catchy mantra to illustrate the core of this beautiful book: how far would you go to fit in?

Ada is obsessed. Adopted as a baby by the great writer Anthony Howell, she is desperate to belong to his world, to be “one of them”. After his death when she was 13, she’d had to endure the disappointing ordinary life her mother wanted for her. 

However, a chance to reclaim her rightful destiny presents itself when her godmother offers to pay for her to embark on a trip throughout Italy: “The Dilettantes’ Discoveries”. 8 weeks amongst the elite society following a tradition established since the 17th century, to “delight” in arts and intellectual discovery and enjoy “la Bella Vita”. 

Ada has one goal: to become essential to those entitled and privileged people that are part of the voyage, to be part of their inner circle and appear indispensable. When tragedy strikes, the perfect opportunity to enmesh becomes reality, but at what cost?

Laura Vaughan’s writing is brilliant. I adored her exquisite depiction of Italy, its art and monuments, its streets and treasures. It made me travel right there and then to those places I have been to before and where I desperately long to go back to. She successfully made me feel the air and the heat on my skin, smell the scents, taste the food, bask in the beauty of this country. 

The characters are so full, complex and deep, you are compelled to try and enter their thoughts, only to be proven wrong about what you thought you knew.

Such a gripping mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end with exciting twists and turns. This book is a true delight. An successful immersion experience that I highly recommend. 

Thank you NetGalley and W.F.Howes Ltd for giving me the opportunity to listen to the audiobook in advance

Out 4 March 2021

Synopsis:

‘Absorbing, intelligent and atmospheric… Genius’ Elizabeth Haynes
_________________________

Fortune favours the fraud…


When she was thirteen years old, Ada Howell lost not just her father, but the life she felt she was destined to lead. Now, at eighteen, Ada is given a second chance when her wealthy godmother gifts her with an extravagant art history trip to Italy.

In the palazzos of Venice, the cathedrals of Florence and the villas of Rome, she finally finds herself among the kind of people she aspires to be: sophisticated, cultured, privileged. Ada does everything in her power to prove she is one of them. And when a member of the group dies in suspicious circumstances, she seizes the opportunity to permanently bind herself to this gilded set.

But everything hidden must eventually surface, and when it does, Ada discovers she’s been keeping a far darker secret than she could ever have imagined…

‘Intelligent, elegant and immersive’ Claire Kendal

‘A compulsive story, written with steely intelligence and wicked prose’ Elizabeth Buchan

ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE by Mike Gayle

“Apparently, loneliness is a bigger killer than cancer, can you imagine that?”

What an incredible and uplifting book. Mike Gayle’s writing is flawless and made me fall in love with all the characters. I could not get enough of it and did not want it to end. I cried, I laughed, I loved, I was so surprised by the unexpected twists and turns: this is the recipe for a 5 stars book. I don’t tend to give star rating as I don’t always consider it fair but there is no question from me here.

Meet Hubert Bird. 84 years old living in Bromley, speaking to his daughter Rose every week on the phone, living an uneventful quiet life, even though he pretends the opposite to Rose. When she announces she will be visiting for the first time in years from Australia, Hubert is caught up by the lies and the friends he invented: he only has a few months to build real life friendships to redeem himself. Since Joyce, the love of his life died 13 years ago, Hubert has slowly closed himself off from the world. But this is a wake-up call.

When his new neighbours Ashleigh and Layla force themselves into his life, Hubert cannot escape the glum realisation the he is deeply lonely. “People, it seemed, were either too busy, too closed off, too suspicious, or too deaf to make friends.”

Cleverly taking us back and forth from the late 50s when Hubert arrived in the UK as part of the Windrush generation all the way to his quest for friends today, Mike Gayle opens a window onto what it was like to be West Indian from Kingston in England. Racism, abuse, hardship, were unfortunately the lot of Hubert and his friends. Thankfully things have changed today but clearly not enough.

Through all those beautiful, complex and deep characters, Mike’s message is one of hope. Proof that if you are lucky enough to meet true love everything is possible. It is so important to be surrounded by people you love to get through tough times. When people get together behind a cause, it can truly make a profound difference and instigate change.

I am yet to read more books from Mike Gayle but he has definitely made it to my auto-order list with this beauty. It was love at first word, and I can only recommend you pick up a copy if you haven’t already read it.

With love,
AGJ

Paperback published in 2021 by Hodder & Stoughton

“WE ARE BELLINGCAT – An intelligence agency for the People” by Eliot Higgins

Happy Publication Day !!

Synopsis: « We Are Bellingcat tells the story of how a school dropout created a whole new category of information-gathering and galvanised citizen journalists to solve some of the biggest stories of our time, using just their computer screens. It charts the tools that have developed for analysing data since the 1990s, from geo-location software that can pinpoint a precise place, to an app that can identify to the half hour the time of day when a photograph was taken. And it digs deep into some of Bellingcat’s most successful investigations – the truth about the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 over the Ukraine, the sourcing of weapons in the Syrian Civil War, scoops into journalistic phone hacking – with the drama and detail of a crime novel. »

“Identify, Verify, Amplify” – and this is how Bellingcat’ story goes. 

From a “one-man band” gathering data and posting on message boards during the Arab Spring to a full independent enterprise capable of identifying Russian killers, Eliot Higgins has grown a great deal. Through these pages, you get to discover the fascinating “behind the scenes” of open-source investigation and how it all began.

You get to immerse yourself in Eliot’s journey from his blog relying on crowdfunding to the company employing many, that is Bellingcat today. The author takes us through a very detailed account of the techniques used by the Bellingcat “sleuths” during the biggest stories they have covered: war in Syria, Salisbury attack, downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight “MH1”. All of this ensuring that all data provided and shared can be verified by whoever accesses it. 

Using many different tools, ranging from the simplest to more advanced (such as geolocalisation via the analysis of the sun’ shadows, Google Maps / Earth, image reversing, analysing hours of footage, scouring social media accounts and so much more), Bellingcat has uncovered so much evidence regarding some of the worst acts of our time, sometimes even shaming the governments’ data gathering capabilities, and this only by analysing what was all along in front of our eyes and for all to see (if one knows where to look).

The only criticism that I can make is that we sometimes get lost in a vast amount of details and the transition from one case or one idea to the next, does not always makes sense. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed it, it isn’t an easy read for everyone – if you, like me, enjoy investigative reports or scientific journals, then you should definitely try and read it. 

What is truly incredible is that everyone could do it, if one is ready to spare some time. Behind the technicalities of it all, Eliot also demonstrates that we are stronger when working together. One person can start something wonderful but only with the help of others can it achieve its true potential, grow and strive. 

A truly informative book, and if you would like to investigate further, you can also check out their website: https://www.bellingcat.com.

Thank you NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing for the advance e-copy. 

Book published on 4 February 2021 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Opinions are my own

“WE ARE ALL BIRDS OF UGANDA” by Hafsa Zayyan

“We were trying to exterminate them for a while [but] you can’t exactly stop birds from flying, can you? […] In a way, I suppose we are all birds of Uganda.” What a beautiful metaphor used by Hafsa Zayyan in her truly accomplished debut novel broaching the subject of migration and its consequences.

In today’ society where so many of us travel to and live in different countries to the one we were born in (including myself!), you would really hope that racism would be eradicated. Through a very well crafted love story, Hafsa Zayyan (winner of the Merky Books New Writer’s Prize) shows us that it is unfortunately not the case.

Cleverly switching from the contemporary story of Sameer, 26 year old London city lawyer born in Leicester, to the life of his grandfather Hasan in Uganda in the 20th century, Hafsa is offering us a very astute parallel between two worlds, both being quite different but paradoxically so similar, filled with complex characters mirroring each other.

Working relentlessly day and night at the law firm, Sameer is selected to go to Singapore and help set up a new office there. He shies away from breaking the news to his parents. He knows that they will refuse to understand this, as they expect him to take over the family business and marry a girl from the local mosque according to family tradition and culture. Trying to convince himself this move is a great opportunity, something still nags at him but he cannot figure out what. In the weeks preceding his departure, tragedy strikes one of his best friends back in Leicester, forcing him to feel the devastation and face the wrath of his parents. When an old family friend who knew and lived with his grandfather in Uganda comes and visits, Sameer suddenly feels the need to go and discover this amazing country, and maybe find the answer to what is troubling him deep down.

As for Hasan, the reader gets to discover him through the love letters he wrote to his departed wife Amira. With him, we are transported to Uganda in the 20th century (between 1945 and 1981), witnessing Sameer’s origins alongside the major events of this time there: independence from Britain, the rise of nationalism and racial tensions, political coup and pure hatred of non African, the expulsion of Asians out of Uganda, before being allowed back in after the end of the dictatorship.

Producing an easy read out of a heavy subject like racism is no easy feat. Mixing stereotypes and perception, past and present, history and fiction, love and betrayal, Hafsa wittily makes us face the reality of racism through many of its countless faces: from the unconscious daily bias, workplace discrimination, familial beliefs and expectations, social media slander, to the blatant hatred and violence towards people of a different colour. What is also brilliantly depicted is the irony of it all: even the victims of racism are guilty of perpetuating it in a different way; and everyone has its own “motivation”: tradition, culture, obligation, wealth redistribution, fear, love, hate etc.

How do you make things better? How do you consciously stop the bias, even an unconscious one? Have things really changed between Uganda in the 1970s and England today?

A truly thought provoking novel which makes you wonder and question yourself and the world long after putting it down. A real success. I thoroughly enjoyed it, highly recommend it and cannot wait to read Hafsa’s next work.

Thank you very much to Net Galley and Merky Books for sharing this beautiful story with me even though I requested it after publication. Thank you Hafsa Zayyan for captivating us with your words.

Book published on 21 January 2021
An imprint of Merky Books

Disclaimer: opinions are my own.

THE PROPHETS, by Robert Jones, Jr.

I am in awe… in awe of this incredible and magnificent book by Robert Jones, Jr. His quill is pure poetry and, even though his prose is heartbreaking, it is also breathtaking. I could not put it down. I was transported right there and then, mesmerised by it all.

The story takes place in Mississippi, at the Halifax’s family cotton plantation, whereby you meet different, complex and multi faceted characters; from master and enslaver Paul Halifax, his wife Ruth and their son Tim, through James the overseer, to the enslaved Maggie, Sarah, Puah, Essie, Amos, Adam, Beulah, and their memory: the Ancestors. Each of them sharing with you their point of view regarding life (and lack of) on the plantation, but more importantly deep, private, and painful secrets, and opening up a window through which you get to discover “The Two of Them”.

Samuel and Isaiah.

Two slaves. Two children. Grown into men by force, surviving the hell that is slavery in this place referred to as “Empty”, by loving each other in the secret of the night and the stars.

Their relationship and “forbidden” love brings out mixed emotions in all the characters, from indifference, to anger, to love. Some see them as the best tool for toil, others as a threat to the community’s survival. Despite it all, they choose freedom. The freedom to decide who they love and how.

Through the Ancestors, the words reach out of the page and cradle your head with their strong but invisible hands and your eyes are forced wide open: you are compelled to bear witness to the atrocities of the past, and reflect upon it all. They share their memory and try and instill hope and will that it shall never happen again. They open your heart up to love.

Robert Jones, Jr. transports you with brio to the deep recesses of the protagonists’ souls, “The Prophets”, where he depicts so brilliantly the power of love, the power of freedom; you get engulfed, slapped and submerged with emotions; sharing the enslaved’s innate secrets, what makes them hold on to life, that piece that is theirs and theirs alone, that no one knows about and therefore cannot be stolen away from them, that secret power that fuels their desire to survive, amongst the horrors they all had to endure.

Robert Jones, Jr.’s writing is pure genius, it makes you feel like someone reached down your throat with their bare hand, grabbed your guts and twisted them. You feel it all. Everything in its entirety. The joys, the pains, the disgust, the horrors, the love… everything. This book swallows you whole and spits you out feeling oh so fragile, weak, torn apart but enriched.

Humanity is depicted at its purest and at its worst, recounting how fear makes some of us behave like monsters, trying to bend those who are different to us to fit our established beliefs and expectations of conformity.

Lyrical and powerful, this book is truly a masterpiece, approaching themes so relevant in today’s society, but which won’t prevent it standing the test of time and becoming a classic.

I can only humble myself and say: thank you Mr Jones, Jr. you have shaken me to my core.

Anne.G.J

Book published on 5th January 2021 by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Edition Limited, an Hachette UK Company.

Disclaimer: these opinions are my own – this books touches upon difficult subject and will get the reader faced with depiction of sex, rape, slavery, murder, death, torture.