To the Dogs by Louise Welsh

To the Dogs by Louise Welsh

To the Dogs is a literary thriller that tells the story of how Jim Brennan’s comfortable middle-class life starts to come apart at the seams. Returning from a work trip to China, he learns that his wastrel of a son has been arrested on drugs charges. As the son of a now deceased Glasgow hardman, he has overcome his background to make a name for himself in academia, and is in line for the top job at the university. Suddenly all this is in jeopardy as he has to decide whether to save his family or his career. Characters from his past life, with long memories and a score to settle, now emerge from the shadows and try their best to destroy him.

The descriptions of life at the university are convincing as Louise Welsh actually teaches creative writing at Glasgow University so brings an authenticity to the narrative. Many years ago, I was a student there, and this book brought back a lot of memories as I recognised many of the locations.    

The characters are well drawn but few of them are very likeable. There are several strands to the plot, maybe too many, and any one of them could bring him down. The pacing is a bit uneven, but the quality of the writing kept me turning the pages. To the Dogs is a tense and gritty thriller with plenty of twists to keep you guessing who is trying to destroy everything Jim Brennan holds dear.   

I really enjoyed The Cutting Room and The Second Cut by this author, this book not quite so much only because I found it hard to warm to the main character. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but this one is very striking and I like it a lot. I fully intend to read more from her back catalogue, and look forward to reading her next book. Thanks to Canongate and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

Art of the Chase by Jennifer Giacalone

Art of the Chase by Jennifer Giacalone

When a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi is stolen from a gallery in Florence, it is thought to be the work of elusive art thief Gustav, nemesis of Fleur van Beekhof, agent with Europol’s Amsterdam Art Crimes Division. Six years before, Fleur and her partner Renata had failed to capture Gustav and everything in her life had since gone wrong. On arriving in Italy, she discovers that she is expected to work with Renata, her ex-wife who she has not spoken to since their acrimonious divorce. Despite having very different temperaments, they work well together despite the unfinished business between them. What follows is part road trip, part detective story and part romance. I enjoyed the investigation into the art theft and the trip round Europe more than the romance in this story. At times it felt like there was just too much going on.

The characters are well drawn and believable, the various cities they travel to are vividly brought to life, and the art world is well researched and convincing. Although the narrative deals with some serious topics such as gambling addiction, fraud and forgery, the witty (sarcastic) dialogue between Fleur and Renata keeps things from becoming too dark. The story is mostly told from Fleur’s point of view, which means that we have no idea what is going on in Renata’s head . At first I did not take to her, she just seemed to be ‘too much’, but over time I came to appreciate her way of thinking. On a personal level, this is a story about redemption and second chances – the question is will Fleur and Renata be able to work through their differences and make a fresh start?

I’ve read a few books recently set in the art world, and Art of the Chase is one of the better ones. I would love to read more detective stories focused around art as it’s a vast and fascinating subject. I thoroughly enjoyed Art of the Chase, and would be interested in reading more books featuring Fleur and Renata, especially if there was not so much emphasis on their personal relationship. Thanks to the author for a digital copy that I review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

The Happiest Ever After by Milly Johnson

The Happiest Ever After by Millie Johnson

Polly Potter’s life is not going to plan. She is taken for granted by her partner, Chris, who is not willing to put any effort into their relationship, and sidelined and exploited by her misogynistic boss, Jeremy. The only thing that makes her life bearable is her creative writing class, and the novel she is writing where her heroine Sabrina is everything Polly is not. Unable to bear it any longer, Polly plans her escape, but is thwarted by what happens at the wedding vows renewal ceremony where she is forced to be a bridesmaid (in a hideous frock) to her horrible snobbish sister-in-law, Camay (great name and yes I’m old enough to remember the soap). Forced to make a run for it, she heads for the coast where she remembers being happy as a child with her uncle and aunt, only to be mugged and suffer a head injury. She wakes up in hospital believing she is Sabrina, with no memory of her life as Polly, but a strong sense that she needs to stay hidden.

This is Milly Johnson’s twenty-first novel and I’ve read and loved every one of them. She writes wonderfully believable characters (nice and nasty) and doesn’t shy away from serious issues, always treating them with sensitivity and humour. The Yorkshire settings are like characters in their own right. I really enjoyed the corporate espionage thread in this one and the sense of karma in the ending. The excerpts from The Daily Trumpet, correcting misprints but somehow managing to make them even worse, are hilarious. The Happiest Ever After is by turns heartbreaking and uplifting, and will leave you with the idea that sometimes friends are better than family as you can choose them yourself. I always read every new novel by Milly Johnson, they just keep on getting better and better, so I look forward to reading her next one very soon. Thanks to Simon & Schuster UK and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.  

Bridges to Burn by Marion Todd

Bridges to Burn by Marion Todd

Bridges to Burn is the eighth in the DI Clare Mackay series of detective novels set in St Andrews. A promising young student takes her own life after a compromising video appears online that her boyfriend swears he did not send. In another seemingly unrelated case, a man comes in to the station to claim that someone is stealing from his terminally ill father, who is then found dead the next day in suspicious circumstances. At first glance, there is nothing to connect these investigations, but as Clare and her team dig deeper, it starts to look as if there might be.

After eight books these characters are well established and familiar. Marion Todd achieves the right balance between the police investigation and the private lives of the main characters, using humour to offset the often harrowing nature of the crimes they encounter on a daily basis. In Bridges to Burn, the writer addresses topical issues such as cyberbullying, teenage suicide, fraud and corruption with a light touch.

We follow the investigation as it is happening, over a short period of time, and learn that there is no short cut to finding the culprits, just painstaking attention to detail and examining every angle. There are several twists that I did not see coming and plenty of red herrings to put the reader off the scent, and as always a satisfying conclusion. You could read this as a standalone, but I thoroughly recommend that you start at the beginning of this excellent series, you won’t regret it. As you might have guessed, I am a big fan of these books and look forward to reading the next one. Thanks to Canelo Crime and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Porcelain Maker by Sarah Freethy

The Porcelain Maker by Sarah Freethy

The Porcelain Maker is a dual timeline historical novel, split between the 1930s and 1990s, set mostly in Germany. It concerns the lives of talented German artist Bettina Vogel, and Austrian architect and sculptor Max Ehrlich who is Jewish. They meet while at art school and fall in love, but this is not a good time to be any kind of artist in Germany as the Nazis tighten their grip on all aspects of life and culture. Only with hindsight do we know how dangerous it would be to remain, but getting out was both difficult and expensive. Bettina and Max made plans to escape, but before they could get away Max was captured and sent to Dachau, and only his skills as a sculptor saved him from certain death.

The modern part of the story concerns Bettina’s daughter Clara and her search for the identity of her father. For some unfathomable reason, her mother refused to name him and would not discuss what happened all those years before. On a trip to America where some of the Allach porcelain figurines are up for auction, Clara discovers a photo that helps her get to the bottom of the mystery.   

I was surprised to learn that the porcelain factory at Dachau actually existed as I had never come across if before. I am not normally a fan of fiction set during this period, but The Porcelain Maker has a slightly different emphasis than usual, and I enjoyed the focus on art rather than the horrors that took place at the camp. I was shocked and surprised how early in the decade, many years before the outbreak of war, the Nazis were controlling every aspect of life for their own nefarious and twisted ends.

The characters are well developed and believable, the art scene in Berlin in the 30s vividly evoked, and there is a good balance between the different timelines with neither overshadowing the other. Some aspects of the narrative were difficult to read, and the overwhelming atmosphere of tension and menace brought home to me what it must actually have been like to live through this period in history. The writing is very assured for a debut novel, the ending rounds it all off nicely, and I look forward to reading the next book by this writer. Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.