Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

First, apologies for two posts on the same day. I’m just catching up on reviews as Covid finally found me and left me a bit under the weather and unable to concentrate on very much. I don’t usually post back to back reviews, and it certainly won’t become a habit.


From winner of the Nordic Council Literature Prize and the Icelandic Literary Prize, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, comes a dazzling novel about a family of midwives set in the run-up to Christmas in Iceland

In the days leading up to Christmas, Dómhildur delivers her 1,922nd baby. Beginnings and endings are her family trade; she comes from a long line of midwives on her mother’s side and a long line of undertakers on her father’s. She even lives in the apartment that she inherited from her grandaunt, a midwife with a unique reputation for her unconventional methods.

As a terrible storm races towards Reykjavík, Dómhildur discovers decades worth of letters and manuscripts hidden amongst her grandaunt’s clutter. Fielding calls from her anxious meteorologist sister and visits from her curious new neighbour, Dómhildur escapes into her grandaunt’s archive and discovers strange and beautiful reflections on birth, death, and human nature.

With her singular warmth and humor, in Animal Life Ólafsdóttir gives us a beguiling novel that comes direct from the depths of an Icelandic winter, full of hope for spring.

My thoughts

I’ve had to think long and hard about this review because the book is so unusual and it took me a little while after I’d finished it to just mull on it and put the big picture together.

There didn’t seem to be a story, as such, as I was reading. Dómhildur seems to be relating her life throughout the book and there is no clear direction. She is the latest in a line of midwives in her family, doing what she has always done, which is what her grandaunt always did, and probably all the other midwives before them. She’s living in her grandaunt’s dark flat, among her grandaunt’s abundant belongings, and seems to have very little personality or life of her own.

During the course of the book we can see that Dómhildur has always lived in the shadow of the legend that was her grandaunt, and has either lacked the confidence or desire to step out and be her own person. Dómhildur begins trying to collate her grandaunt’s life work – a book consisting of decades worth of observations during her long midwifery career and applying her scientific knowledge and personal philosophising to them all. In essence, her own search for the Meaning of Life.

A few random happenings mean that Dómhildur suddenly has time on her hands and brings her into the orbit of new people who unexpectedly introduce small changes to her life which then begin to open her eyes to new possibilities.

It’s not a page turner in the sense of there being action on every page, but for me it was a page turner because of the beautiful language on each page which described the very ordinary life of an Icelandic midwife. The writing is lovely and drew me on. This is not a book for the impatient, but I think it is a book for those with a love of the written word and for those who don’t mind sitting and thinking about the book they have read in order to find the meaning that wasn’t so clear during the reading of it.

Devil’s Way by Robert Bryndza



Kate Marshall’s investigation into a young boy’s disappearance sends her down an unexpectedly twisted path in a riveting thriller by multi-million bestselling author, Robert Bryndza.

When Private Investigator Kate Marshall is rushed to hospital after being pulled into a riptide current in the sea, the near-death experience leaves her shaken. During her recovery, she befriends Jean, an elderly lady on the same ward. Jean tells the harrowing story of how her three-year-old grandson, Charlie, went missing eleven years ago during a camping trip on Dartmoor.

By the time Kate is well enough to go home, she’s agreed to take on the case, but when Kate and her trusty sidekick Tristan start to look at the events of that fateful night, they discover that Jean has a dark past that could have put Charlie in jeopardy.

Was Charlie abducted? Or did he fall into Devil’s Way? A rushing river that vanishes into a gorge close to where they were camping.

When Kate and Tristan discover that a social worker who flagged concerns about Jean and her daughter was found brutally murdered shortly after Charlie vanished, it makes them question everything they thought they knew about the family…

My thoughts

This is book 4 in this series and I am still enjoying it, which actually says a lot as I tend to start getting bored and move on with series quite early on. I still like the two main characters very much. In this book I felt Tristan’s investigative character development stagnated a bit as he seemed mostly there as a side kick to Kate. I’d love to see him have a more prominent role in the private investigator business in the next book and show more of the traits that saw Kate hire him in the first place. The story was strong and I really like the atmosphere of the area around Devil’s Way and the farmhouse and farmlands. I’m looking forward to continuing the series.

The Haunting of Abney Heights by Cat Thomas


An old asylum, a hidden diary and a secret that casts long shadows

When Meg returns to London, she knows she’ll be facing ghosts from her own troubled past.

Yet she doesn’t expect to find her new home so unnerving…

…even if it is a former asylum.

Investigating the mysterious deaths of two asylum patients, Meg discovers an intriguing Edwardian world of steampunk spiritualism, genteel gay romance and radical therapies. Digging deeper, she begins to realise something evil lurked behind the asylum’s liberal façade.

Did the patients find out? Was that why they were killed?

Deciphering a coded document takes her nearer the heart of the asylum’s secrets and reveals shocking truths about Meg’s own life. Her grip on reality crumbles as the dark Edwardian past begins to overtake her.

Can she survive the damaging path to the final piece of the puzzle?

Fans of Laura Purcell, Diane Setterfield, Bridget Collins and Stacey Halls will love this quirky gothic mystery.

(CAUTION: Written and set in the UK, this book uses British spelling and terminology. May contain traces of tea and irony.)

My thoughts

First up – the cover art is gorgeous and eye catching.

Second up – I see Goodreads users are describing this as horror and I can’t help but feel this may put potential readers off if horror isn’t their thing. Conversely, horror fans will be left disappointed. I would describe this more as a very solidly written Gothic mystery.

This is the first book I have read by Cat Thomas and I love her writing. It’s the kind of writing that you somehow instinctively recognise as British. It’s understated yet conveys everything it needs to and implies a little bit more and that really appeals to me. I like the way the story is told too, in two time frames. The contemporary story is told in the first person by Meg, a middle aged divorcee who is none too happy to be back in her childhood neighbourhood, with its accompanying bad memories, due to work commitments. The Edwardian era story unfolds mainly through the journal entries of Ella, a young woman who was a patient at the asylum, and of Doctor Woods, the psychiatrist who was treating Ella and the other patients.

I liked the characters too. Meg has a difficult childhood back story which she is being forced to revisit both by being back in the place where she was so unhappy, and by also having to deal with a trunk of her mother’s belongings which she has been able to avoid until now. She gains a small but dedicated group of supporters in the course of her research and I liked the dynamics of the group, the Scoobys as she nicknames them.

What I felt was lacking, considering the title, was a real feel for Abney Heights, the building which had originally been an asylum. We were led in the direction of it being creepy but I never felt that sense of unease which would have added to my reading experience.

I did see the twists coming, but it didn’t detract from the story, and there was a completely wild card chapter near the end which I definitely didn’t see coming.


The Raven Song by Luanne G. Smith


Fleeing Victorian London, a witch finds her newfound independence comes with all-new perils—both mortal and immortal.

Forever untangling the branches of her strange family tree, Edwina Blackwood is at a turning point. Her parents’ disappearances still strike her as unaccountably odd. Her sister’s questionable life and untimely death have left her shaken. Spellfire has transformed her home and livelihood to ash. And now a devious stalker is on her trail. With supernatural detective Ian Cameron by her side, Edwina can’t get out of London fast enough.

Gaining safe passage, she finds refuge with Sir Henry Elvanfoot, famed wizard of the north, and is promised protection from ill-aimed curses. But in this unfamiliar city of fair folk and witches, where the veil between Earth and the Otherworld is about to be lifted, something is amiss. How else to explain Edwina’s sudden prophetic visions? Or the fear that surviving whoever pursues her will require the powers of an ancient bloodline she’s only beginning to comprehend?

Whatever destiny awaits, it’s Edwina’s to finally control. Where will it lead? Only time, cunning, and magic—in this world or the Other—will tell.

My thoughts
This is the second book in the Conspiracy of Magic series. I enjoyed the first book very much, but I enjoyed this one more and hope there will be another book. Book 1, Raven Spell, laid a lot of the groundwork with world building and especially the types of magic and those who wield them. The Raven Song built on all of that, rounding out characters and adding more layers.

I really like the main characters, Edwina and Ian. They were both more fleshed out in this book and their personalities came through more strongly. I also liked the side characters, even one who was treacherous had a mischievous charm that made him impossible to dislike.

My only complaint is that I wanted a lot more of Elvanfoot. Fingers crossed for another book with Elvanfoot in a more prominent role.

#NetGalley #LuanneGSmith #TheRavenSong

Before You Knew My Name by Jacqueline Bublitz


This is not just another novel about a dead girl.

When she arrived in New York on her 18th birthday carrying nothing but $600 cash and a stolen camera, Alice Lee was looking for a fresh start. Now, just one month later, she is the city’s latest Jane Doe, an unidentified murder victim.

Ruby Jones is also trying to start over; she travelled halfway around the world only to find herself lonelier than ever. Until she finds Alice’s body by the Hudson River.

From this first, devastating encounter, the two women form an unbreakable bond. Alice is sure that Ruby is the key to solving the mystery of her life – and death. And Ruby – struggling to forget what she saw that morning – finds herself unable to let Alice go. Not until she is given the ending she deserves.

Before You Knew My Name doesn’t ask whodunnit. Instead, this powerful, hopeful novel asks: Who was she? And what did she leave behind? The answers might surprise you.

My thoughts

Alice and Ruby arrive in New York on the same day, unknown to each other but both running from something. Once in the big apple their lives go in different directions but collide the day that Ruby finds Alice’s murdered body. Alice is a Jane Doe, but Ruby can’t put this nameless girl out of her mind. The story is narrated by Alice, which is an interesting POV. She tells us of her sadness at her unexpected death and her desperation to be identified and not remain nameless and forgotten, and through her we are given insights into Ruby’s struggle to come to terms with what she saw and to find out who Jane Doe was, seeing in the dead girl’s anonymity echoes of her own loss of self identity.
This was a book that started slowly but increased the pace as it went along. I really enjoyed it and the ending was very satisfying.


Starling by Sarah Jane Butler


Starling can trap a rabbit, cook a meal from a hedge and hear a bailiff coming from a mile off. All she has ever known is a nomadic existence, traveling in a camper van with Mar, her strong-willed mother. But Mar has cut them off from their community, and this winter they’re stuck in deep mud in a wood, with no fuel, no money and no friends.

One morning, without explanation, Mar leaves and doesn’t come back. Utterly alone, Starling must learn to survive without her mother and build a life on her own terms.

An offer to stay with an old friend draws her into a more conventional way of living – but can rootless Starling ever find a place where she truly belongs?

My thoughts

To begin with, while the book description is accurate, it is deceptively simple. Starling is a complex character, raised wild and semi-feral in her thought processes. This is a result of having been brought up by Mar, someone who is an incredibly strong presence in the book. Mar’s deep mistrust and avoidance of humans has rubbed off on Starling to the point where Starling also trusts no one. So when Mar abandons Starling without warning Starling is completely adrift and with nowhere to go and no one to turn to except for the childhood friend she hasn’t seen for many years and whom she also feels abandoned by.

Starling is not always an easy person to like. Even knowing why she does the things she does it is hard to see her hurt others, sometimes unknowingly and other times intentionally. Being forced to live fully with other people for the first time in her life without Mar’s judgemental presence helps Starling to see, for the first time, that perhaps Mar’s perception of the wider world and those who live in it might not be entirely reliable.

This is a very insightful book with characters that get under your skin. One part of me hopes for a sequel, but the larger part wants to leave the story exactly where it ended and let my imagination continue to fire.

Signal To Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia


A literary fantasy about love, music and sorcery, set against the background of Mexico City.

Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends — Sebastian and Daniela — and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…

Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?

My thoughts

I loved the premise, along with the bright cover, but the story felt weirdly flat for me and I think it was because I really didn’t like the main character, Meche. She didn’t seem to have any redeeming characteristics, being both a user and abuser of her friends. Which brings me to my next issue – how did she have friends, let alone keep them? Which made someone loving her a bit of a stretch.

It also took a very long time for the story to get going. I remember at the halfway mark wondering if and when it would get interesting. Thankfully the story itself did. It’s told in two timelines – 1988 and 2009 – and this is a plot device I usually enjoy except that the voices sounded the same in each. Despite being 21 years older, there didn’t seem to be any maturation of the characters. The second half was more interesting to read though and finally felt as though the story was moving forward.

Having loved Mexican Gothic I was full of anticipation for this and I’m sure that coloured my expectations but Signal To Noise just never really got going for me.

The Locked Away Life by Drew Davies


Everyone has secrets… But are they saving you or destroying you?

Esther has shut away herself in her vine-covered manor house on the top of a hill for as long as she can remember. Everyone in the village whispers about the scandal that broke her heart. She has cut herself off from the world – until now. Now, she needs help uncovering the mystery that has plagued her for decades…

On a sunny spring day, eighteen-year-old Bruno is in the local library when he spots an advert. The old lady on the hill is looking for internet lessons, and Bruno sees his chance. Forever the outsider, he can’t wait to escape the sleepy village – the paid position could be his ticket out of there.

Esther and Bruno have nothing in common, except that they are both in hiding, and their secrets are stopping them from truly living… Esther must come to terms with her past, and Bruno needs to figure out his future. Can these two strangers save one another?

Just as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, this page-turner is for anyone who has ever felt left behind or came close to giving up.

My thoughts

Told in alternating points of view by Bruno and Esther, this is a beautifully written story about unlikely friendships, finding one’s sense of identity, and setting right past wrongs. It deals with some sensitive issues with enormous compassion and understanding.
Bruno is confused about his identity and desperate to escape the small village where he lives, due to the stigma of his Romani heritage and the fear of being trapped working in the industrial complex where all the young village men end up working and never leaving. He takes a job teaching elderly recluse, Esther, how to use the internet – “the online” as she calls it. Esther’s backstory, along with her refusal to let her decreasing mobility take away her independance, was also very strong. Esther is a wonderful character who refuses to engage in fake niceness and only respects honesty.
I loved how all the characters had their own distinct personalities and the conversations with each other. None of it felt manipulated or forced.
This is a heartwarming book that will make you fall in love with the characters but also really tug at your heartstrings. I was hooked from the prologue and remained hooked until the very end, which I absolutely loved.

Thank you to Netgalley for an advanced copy in return for my honest review.

In the Middle of Hickory Lane by Heather Webber


Emme Wynn has wanted nothing more her whole life than to feel like part of a family. Having grown up on the run with her con artist mother, she’s been shuffled from town to town, drawn into bad situations, and has learned some unsavory habits that she’s tried hard to overcome. When her estranged grandmother tracks her down out of the blue and extends a job offer—helping to run her booth at an open-air marketplace in small-town Sweetgrass, Alabama—Emme is hopeful that she’ll finally be able to plant the roots she’s always dreamed of. But some habits are hard to break, and she risks her newfound happiness by keeping one big truth to herself.

Cora Bee Hazelton has her hands full with volunteering, gardening, her job as a color consultant and designer, and just about anything she can do to keep her mind off her painful past, a past that has resulted in her holding most everyone at arm’s length. The last thing she wants is to form close relationships only to have her heart broken yet again. But when she’s injured, she has no choice other than to let people into her life and soon realizes it’s going to be impossible to keep her heart safe—or her secrets hidden.

In the magical neighborhood garden in the middle of Hickory Lane, Emme and Cora Bee learn some hard truths about the past and themselves, the value of friends, family, and community, and most importantly, that true growth starts from within.

My thoughts

Heather Webber is like my comfort blanket or a warm hug when I want to read a book that is full of love and friendships and caring, and In the Middle of Hickory Lane delivers all this in spades.

Emme is a lost soul. She doesn’t know who she is anymore or what to do with her life next, so when she receives an invitation from her grandmother to come and stay in the small Alabama town of Sweetgrass she sees it as a lifeline. When she arrives her cousin, Cora Bee, is recovering from a broken heart and a broken foot and Emme moves in to be her assistant and a tentative friendship blossoms. For the first time in her life Emme finds herself surrounded by family and friends who truly care about her.

This is a story about found family and friendships and is beautifully told. In all of the author’s books that I have read there is an element of magical realism but it’s done lightly but interestingly. She has a gentle, calm writing style and I can highly recommend this if you want a book that leaves you feeling happy, relaxed and uplifted.

Thank you to Netgalley for my copy in exchange for an honest review.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson


In a valley steeped in legend lies an abandoned house where Edens may be lost, found and remade…

The White Valley in the far west of Cornwall cuts deeply through bluebell woods down to the sea. The house above the beach has lain neglected since the war. It comes with a reputation, which is why Mila and her mother Magda acquire it so cheaply in the fateful summer of 1954.

Magda plans to restore the house to its former glory: the venue for glittering parties, where the rich and celebrated gathered for bracing walks by day and sumptuous cocktails by night. Mila’s ambitions, meanwhile, are much less grand; she dreams of creating a safe haven for herself, and a happy home for her little girl, Janey.

The White Valley comes with a long, eventful history, laced with tall tales. Locals say that a white hare may be seen running through the woods there; to some she’s an ill omen, to others a blessing. Feeling fragile and broken-hearted, Mila is in need of as many blessings as she can get. But will this place provide the fresh start she so desperately needs?

My thoughts

Mila and her overbearing mother, Magda, move to a neglected old house in a deep valley in Cornwall, along with Mila’s daughter, Janey. They plan to restore it and turn it into an exclusive holiday retreat but soon learn that the locals do not like the house because of its dark history, which they are reluctant to talk about, and many are hostile to the new occupants. This setting is very atmospheric and has a strong Gothic feel to it. The Cornish legend woven through the story is fantastic and I loved the supernatural touches, which were done with a light hand. Most of the characters are very strong and memorable, but the one who I felt had the least personality was the main character, Mila. This is partly explained by her recent back story and also having always felt unloved and overwhelmed by her very strong mother, but at the same time I struggled to see what her attraction was for the main male character. I really enjoyed the story though and Jane Johnson remains one of my favourite authors.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for the opportunity to review this book. My opinions are my own.