Skull in the Ashes written by Peter Kaufman


University of Iowa Press
Publication date – 15 September 2013

ARC from NetGalley

1.5 stars out of 5

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Perhaps this is a strange quote to use at the beginning of a review, however, it summarises my feelings perfectly at the end of this book. Skull in the Ashes caught my eye because the cover art told me that inside was a world of murder, mystery, intrigue, and a gold rush manhunt but the outcome was weak, bland and problematic. Allow me to explain.

In 1897 the general store in Walford, Iowa, belonging to Frank Novak, burns to the ground. When the ashes are examined the charred remains of a body are found and it is discovered there are two possible victims, Frank Novak or Ed Murray. New forensic procedures and witness testimony determine the victim to be Murray. This discovery, circumstances of the night, combined with the three separate life insurance policies owned by Novak, ensure that a manhunt ensues to capture and prosecute the suspected murderer.  It is at this point where the real problems with the text start to develop.

Kaufman, perhaps from a lack of editorial direction, often includes information which seems irrelevant to the overall progress of the story. Multiple instances of this occur; the first one that truly bothered me was the repetitive references made to mosquitoes. The second occurred shortly after. Kaufman introduces a woman “…with the lilting Irish name of Sadie O’Hara…” (31%) and in the following paragraph writes, “O’Hara was said to have information on Novak and Jack Swift…but when Perrin asked her about these two men, she replied that she had not seen either one in Dawson City.” My interpretation of this statement is that she did not actually know who Novak or Swift were. Compounding my issue with this statement are three things; why the reader needs to be informed of her nationality, why it’s important for her to be included though she has no information and why she is named when the man who confirms Novak’s identity is anonymous and remains so despite the footnote. Compounding this are the segments of text which appear to be almost identical to earlier portions bar a few textual changes. This repetition made me reflect on who Kaufman’s intended audience is.

There also seemed to be a distinct ethnocentric element to the text. For example, “The Chilkoot were a whipcord-tough group of men and women,” (24%); the generalisation of other First Nations people as “Indians” – correct for the historical context but inappropriate in the 21st century, especially for a University publication. The, already mentioned reference to the Irish Sadie O’Hara and a reference to the German Nels Degn and his “strange sounding” name. It is interesting to note some of the other “strange” names recorded in the text but are not drawn to the reader’s attention because of the assumption they are “American”.  Let me be clear – I am not making any accusation of racism, merely reflecting on the inconsistencies.

To be perfectly honest, this book is not “an impressive piece of historical detective work” as Robert Loerzel states nor is it, as Patrick Millikan writes “…a gripping page turner.” For me, it was a dreadful disappointment. Kaufman has taken a fascinating era of history, which could have covered and given so much and turned it into a chequered, rather dull set of notes. It is unfortunate that this reads like an unedited proof. Perhaps this book would have been better if it were a history of the American penitentiary system in Ohio during the late 19th century/early 20th century with the Novak murder as a case study. Skull in the Ashes suffers from what seems to be a lack of editorial direction.

I truly do dislike writing negative reviews as Kaufman states Skull in the Ashes is the work of six years and I can appreciate the hard work and effort he has put into researching and writing this finished product.

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With a Zero at its Heart written by Charles Lambert

With-a-Zero-at-its-Heart .

Harper Collins UK / The Friday Project
Publication date May 22 2014

ARC from NetGalley

4 out of 5 stars

24 themed chapters.
Each with 10 numbered paragraphs.
Each paragraph with precisely 120 words.
The sum of a life

I was instantly intrigued and terrified by these opening words of blurb. Intrigued because I wanted to see how a writer would pull off an entire novella in this style and terrified in case it turned into a series of short stories with no interlinking parts or conclusion. I need not have worried. Lambert has constructed a convincing device to tell the reader a semi-autobiographical tale that leaves you feeling complete. Some moments are genuinely, laugh out loud, funny. Other moments succeed in eliciting true compassion. Other moments, again, are achingly familiar.

The angst of getting changed at school.
The fear of pick pockets, criminals, new loves found when travelling.
The joy of finding books.
The sadness at losing a friend, a pet, or a parent.

It is difficult to know which poignant parts to share without spoiling another readers enjoyment.
I will share only my favourite part;


The Silent Sister written by Diane Chamberlain


Ordinarily, I do not read anything that can be called “chick lit”. It just isn’t to my interest. It was, then, a surprise to read The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain and discover that not only was it a mystery but “chick lit”.

Chamberlain’s prose is smooth and gripping and by the time I realised what was happening, I was too engaged with the story to stop reading. The story flowed seamlessly from start to finish without any glaring problems that kick you abruptly out of the story. I found myself imagining the characters and the houses and the multitude of scenes as clearly as though I were watching a movie. This is always part of my reading experience but how clear my image is, is directly influenced by the writing.

The characters are strong and believable. I feel Riley is the most developed character but as the narrator, she would need to be. Danny was an enigma that I always wanted to know more about and it is interesting to see in Chamberlain’s note at the end, she thanks a friend(?) for her help in bringing Danny forward. I found Jeannie and Christine to be exactly what you would expect from the circumstances and I was left feeling I didn’t know enough about Lisa. I can’t discuss Lisa here because of the dreaded spoiler but it will be interesting to see what other readers make of her.

I’ve given this 3.5 stars because it doesn’t really sit well for me in the 3 or 4 star ratings I’ve given this year.

This is a great story if you’re on the beach or going on a flight of a few hours. It does have a couple of moment where I felt it was a little over wrought, with too much angst but for the most part, these passages can be overlooked.

I did think at the end that I wouldn’t go back and read any more by Chamberlain because I didn’t want to tarnish this story, so it was another surprise to see I’ve got three other titles marked as to read. This is the power of books. You never know where they’ll take you, where you’ll be delivered, or what they will open up for you.

Thank you Diane and NetGalley for the AR copy.

Death Can’t Take A Joke written by Anya Lipska

lipska4.5 out of 5 stars

Death can’t take a joke, published by The Friday Project/Harper Collins, the second novel by Anya Lipska, continues following two lead characters, Natalie Kershaw – a tough “girl-policeman” and Janusz Kiszka – a Polish private eye; plus an assortment of characters supporting the duo throughout. Detective Sergeant “Streaky” Bacon, Oskar, Ben and of course, the bad guys, are fantastic creations and drive a highly realistic and accurate plot.

When Jim Fulford misses a pint in the pub with Kiszka, a chain of events is begun that leads the reader around Walthamstow, Canary Wharf and into the world of organised crime, illegal imports and prostitution.

Lipska writes believable characters, characters who leap off the page and would not be out of place in London and the world. Kershaw is a strong female character. She is more than happy to look after herself, she stands up for her principles and has unwavering convictions and morals. Kershaw is a refreshing character in literature and she is also unique. I can think of few other examples, from my personal reading list, of who she could compare with.

Janusz Kiszka is similar. He is depicted as a gentleman. A man who seeks to protect women from abusers, a man who cooks, a man who has the best interests of his family and friends at heart but isn’t so passive he has lost his ability to drink, carouse and get himself into the odd scrape.

I wish I could phrase my praise in a better way. All I can say is thank you Anya and that I’m waiting with great anticipation for the next adventure with two of my favourite literature mates.

The Boy That Never Was — written by Karen Perry




2 out of 5 stars
Read April 2014

Reviewed as an ARC from Goodreads – with thanks.

really wanted this to be good and it sounded fantastic reading the blurb but sadly, I have been left disappointed.

The writing was easy. When I say easy, I mean a single syllable word was always used where something a little more challenging would have been appropriate.

The story is told in two character narrative. It doesn’t work. Neither of the characters are sympathetic, both are needy, self obsessed pains in the backside. The back and forth between the characters was far to much like that other, overrated work, Gone Girl. There was always the hint of depth but it never quite eventuated.

The nefarious, or meant to be nefarious, Cozimo, seems to be a clone of Count Fosco from the Woman in White. I am not so naive I cannot recognise where inspiration has struck but this is so blatant it is almost insulting and in many ways, a thumbing of the nose to say, look how clever we are.

This is definitely not the criminal thriller I was expecting. It is cheap, holiday, chick lit and I feel like I was conned in a way because the marketing and the cover do not suggest this.

I can see why a lot of people have enjoyed this and rated it highly but it just didn’t charm me.