Monday, 18 September 2017

A Pearl for my Mistress by Annabel Fielding: Review

England, 1933. Hester Blake, a young woman from a Northern town, hopes her new job as a lady's maid will open up new worlds for her; what she certainly never expects is to fall in love with her mistress, young Lady Lucy Fitzmartin.... and for that love to be reciprocated. Things start to turn sour, however, as Lucy finds herself drawn to a dangerous political ideology which begins to lead her down some dark paths. 

This was less of a love story than I'd anticipated. I had perhaps expected more of a focus on "forbidden love" and the barriers encountered by a lesbian relationship - and one with a large class divide, too - in that era. In fact there is little of this, though Hester and Lucy's relationship is necessarily kept a secret - only one other person knows of it. While the initial romance between the two women is sweetly developed, Lucy's growing involvement in alarming political machinations and intrigue forms a large part of the story. I did not anticipate this aspect but very much enjoyed reading it. 

Annabel Fielding has clearly done her research into the period, and I liked the fact that on several occasions I found myself heading off to Google to find out more about the likes of Lady Malcolm's Servants' Ball, or Valerie Arkell-Smith. There is a wealth of fascinating detail which generates a clear picture of the era, from the Northumberland home of the Fitzmartin family to London clubs and parties... and certain social and political attitudes which still carry an alarming ring of familiarity.

 Lucy becomes increasingly corrupted and unlikeable as the story progresses, and it begins to seem that despite some doubts and fears, ultimately she will stop at nothing. Lucy seemed to me primarily to be striving for agency, to never again feel the helplessness she once did, and to prove herself. I really did wonder where it was all going to end for her, and the less educated but far more clear-sighted Hester. Is there any redemption for Lucy? 

Recommended - historical fiction is not a genre I read a lot of, but I enjoyed this very much.

Available on Amazon

Friday, 15 September 2017

Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson: Review

I've long loved Josephine Tey's novels and in more recent years I've also loved Nicola Upson's "Josephine Tey" series in which a fictionalised version of the writer is the main character.

It's an interesting and I feel somewhat audacious premise, given that the stories concern not just the investigation of crimes but also Josephine's personal and romantic life. Of course the real life Josephine wasn't Josephine at all; Josephine Tey was a pen name for Inverness-born Elizabeth Mackintosh. Nicola Upson's character however is clearly Josephine, not Elizabeth, and hence already a step removed from the real person, although she shares many biographical details, including her former career as a physical training instructor and her success as a playwright.

The latest instalment, set in 1937, finds Josephine staying in her lover Marta's new house in Cambridge while Marta is away in America. Josephine's dear friend, Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose, is investigating an apparently linked series of unpleasant murders with a Cambridge connection; meanwhile, a serial rapist is terrorising the women of Cambridge.

This was a really excellent read, tightly plotted and with a genuinely surprising resolution which I certainly did not predict. There's an intriguing literary connection, too, via the acclaimed ghost story writer, scholar and former provost of King's College, Cambridge, M. R. James. He doesn't appear directly, having died in 1936, but nevertheless has a role to play.

As ever this is beautifully and intelligently written and evokes a genuine sense of place and time, both socially and politically. The shadow of the First World War still lingers, the second is not yet a reality, although there is a subtle sense of tensions growing in Europe; but the Duke and Duchess of Windsor can still be photographed taking tea with Hitler. (I looked up the picture in question; it's quite something.)

The rape storyline is sensitively handled and there is no glossing over either the lasting damage done or the attitude of many - the police included - who regard it as not, in itself, really that significant a crime.

There were a couple of phrases which jarred slightly: I'm not sure if people in the 1930s (even Marta) would have used the term "for fuck's sake". But maybe they would; I'm no expert on the matter. 

The title had me puzzled for a while. But ultimately it makes perfect sense. And I do love the covers of these books.

Highly recommended.

Polite request: I'd love to read a future novel set in Josephine's native Inverness!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Doctor Who: Myths and Legends by Richard Dinnick - Review

There've been several Doctor Who books in this mould lately - Time Lord Fairy Tales, The Twelve Doctors of Christmas - all beautifully presented and illustrated hardback books which look just gorgeous on the shelf and are equally enjoyable to read. I imagine the physical copy of Myths and Legends will be the same - hence it does lose something in the ebook format, but the stories themselves are equally fun to read.

There are fourteen stories here, subtitled "Epic Tales from Alien Worlds" and written by Richard Dinnick. While they clearly take place within the Doctor Who universe (there's an introduction by Chancellor Drakirid, Historian to the Bureau of Ancient Records on Gallifrey), the Doctor himself pops up only occasionally in different incarnations and is never named as such. There are plenty of familiar friends and enemies, though - including the Doctor's best frenemy in various guises! - and well known figures from Gallifreyan history.

The stories vary in length and tone, and the book is easy to dip in and out of.

Rather like the previous Time Lord Fairy Tales, a number of stories are clearly based on familiar tales - often this is obvious from the titles (e.g. Jorus and the Voganauts, The Vardon Horse). Quite a few also fit neatly into Time Lord history and fill in some gaps in interesting ways - the last one, Pandoric's Box, being particularly notable in this regard, with one particular much-missed face making an appearance.

All in all, despite the main man (soon to be woman!) being mainly absent, this was a fun read, and yes, I will probably buy the hardback....

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh: Review

This is the first in an occasional series in which I revisit the books of my childhood. (Because yay, nostalgia!) I was notorious within my family for always having my nose in a book (nobody thought this was a good thing) but Harriet the Spy was a bit different from the usual because it was American and most of the books I read were British, that being what I mainly had access to. (The other notable American one I remember was Freaky Friday.)

Anyway I loved Harriet the Spy and probably read it four or five times. Naturally it inspired me to copy Harriet's example and follow people around with a notebook. Equally naturally, this didn't go down too well with the adults around me, and my spying career proved short lived.

Harriet's adventures first hit the shelves in 1964, but it was about 12 years after that before I first discovered her in my local library. (I spent a lot of time in that library. I can still visualise it quite clearly in my mind.) I remember a chunky hardback with an orange cover - though I'm not certain it was this one. It could have been.

 The recent Collins Modern Classics edition has a very un-Harriet looking Harriet:

Preparing to write this review, I realised I really didn't know much if anything about writer Louise Fitzhugh, and did a bit of research. I was fascinated to read on Wikipedia that

"It was very popular among young girls, particularly unfeminine or non-conforming girls who lacked representation in fiction; Fitzhugh, like many of Harriet's fans, was a lesbian."

and saddened to learn that Fitzhugh died, of a brain aneurysm, at the age of only 46.

Exploring further turned up several examples of women describing how much the book meant to them and even analysing the lesbian subtext.

Given all of this I was even more excited to read this book again and find out what impression it made on me now, as an adult after all these years. 

The first thing I noticed was how little I actually remembered about the plot, despite all those re-readings. It was the character of Harriet that stuck in my mind rather than anything that actually happened, and I think that is because eleven-year old Harriet M. Welsch is just such a memorable character. Aspiring to be both a writer and a spy, Harriet spends her time observing those around her and writing down her findings - and opinions about them - in a notebook. Her parents are loving but busy; Harriet spends time with her nurse, "Ole Golly" who dispenses many pearls of wisdom, and her friends Janie and Sport. Janie plans to be a scientist and blow up the world (insert topical joke of your choice here). Sport - a boy - plans to be a famous ball player but has to spend a lot of his time cooking and cleaning for his single dad. 

Harriet's life hits crisis when her beloved Ole Golly leaves to get married, and around the same time her notebook, which contains many unflattering observations about people, falls into the hands of her classmates. Understandably affronted about the contents, the whole class - including Janie and Sport - turns against Harriet. Between her unacknowledged grief for Ole Golly and the pain of being ostracised by her peers, suddenly it's not easy being Harriet.

Harriet is a very unconventional and eccentric character - particularly given the time when this was written. She is not most people's idea of a model child. She's wilful, outspoken, uncompromising and has quite a temper. She has mean thoughts about people, and writes them down. Apparently the book has on occasion attracted controversy due to the flawed characters and supposed bad example (brilliantly, one school board complained that it encouraged children to "lie, spy, back-talk and curse").

What about that lesbian subtext though? I'm not sure I would necessarily have thought of it without knowing that the author was a lesbian. I think it's less about sexuality and more about being a bit different, a bit of an outsider, and not necessarily conforming to the prescribed gender roles. Harriet herself, but also her friends Janie and Sport, don't fall neatly into their supposed categories. Janie is far more interested in science than frocks and dancing classes. Sport reads cookbooks and takes on a caring role in his household.

As for Harriet, nothing about her is conventionally feminine, including her preferred choice of clothing. In fact, I think it's fair to say that Harriet rarely thinks about being a girl at all, and it certainly never occurs to her for a single second that her gender should limit her options in any way at all. And she has an innate, unshakeable self belief that carries her through even when life is difficult. All of this makes her hugely important to many young readers.

Ultimately I think this is largely about growing up and realising that, as Ole Golly tells Harriet, "sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you should always tell the truth" - advice which will resonate with many LGBT readers.

Harriet the Spy is still a great read, and despite being now 53 years old has barely dated in many ways. I wonder what Harriet M. Welsch is like now, at 64? I imagine her as a writer and academic, still as outspoken and eccentric as ever, if not more so. Maybe a bit kinder after all those years of adulthood. Still observing people, though possibly not sneaking into their dumb waiters. I hope she still has that huge sense of self belief. I can't imagine her ever losing it.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan: Review

Blurring fact and fantasy is my trade. I am a con artist. A prevaricator. I make up stories.

So why does he think this one is real?

Thriller writer Liza Cole (though I initially kept wanting to call her Liza Cody) is under pressure. A lot of pressure. Her publisher is pushing her to deliver her next novel. She's struggling to get pregnant, undergoing experimental fertility treatment. And on top of everything her husband David's best friend and law partner, Nick, has mysteriously disappeared, leaving David distraught and distracted.

The unusual structure alternates between Liza's narrative and chapters of the novel she is writing, in which protagonist Beth, a new mother, discovers her husband is having an affair - with explosive consequences. (Liza was told that the protagonist of her last, critically-panned, novel "lacked agency". It's not a criticism that can be applied to Beth.) But where does fact end and fiction begin? As secrets old and new begin to emerge, the line between imagination and reality becomes increasingly blurred.

This novel-within-a-novel structure, stories bleeding into one another, reminded me a little of Morag Joss's excellent The Night Following - although the two books are very different in tone.

It did take me a while to get into, as I got used to the parallel storylines. But once I was grabbed, that was it - I had to keep reading.

There were a couple of things (I won't say what) which in hindsight seem blindingly obvious but took me a shamefully long time to notice. So I guess maybe they weren't that obvious after all. Hiding in plain sight, perhaps.

I did wonder how childless Liza managed to know quite so much, and write quite so convincingly, about the minutiae of life with a new baby. Research is one thing, but it read very much like experience.

A very intriguing and very, very cleverly constructed story; the sort you immediately want to go back and read parts of again in the light of later revelations. I love it when that happens.

Former journalist and television producer Cate Holahan is the author of three novels, of which Lies She Told is the most recent.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey: Review

I love a good police procedural, but for some strange and inexplicable reason Jane Casey is an author who has never previously crossed my reading radar (bookdar? readar?). So I was surprised to learn that this is actually the seventh in a series featuring (newly promoted) Detective Sergeant Maeve Kerrigan. And I'm also very happy, obviously, as I now have a whole new back catalogue to explore!

Eighteen year old Chloe Emery – a young woman with some apparent mild learning difficulties – arrives home unexpectedly to find the house covered in blood and her mother, Kate, missing. There’s no body, but it certainly looks like a murder has been committed. Unravelling what has happened proves quite a challenge for DS Kerrigan and her colleague Josh Derwent, encompassing evangelical Christian neighbours, missing persons and some complex relationships. It’s an intriguing story which is tightly plotted and unpredictable.

As said, this is the seventh in the series and there’s clearly a lot of back story to the main characters, which is referred to at times but never impacts negatively on the story for a reader who, like me, is new to the series.  Maeve’s relationship with her colleagues is well drawn, particularly a prickly love-hate sort of thing with Derwent (again, there’s clearly history there)  – their interactions are very enjoyable to read. There’s also fast-track-graduate Georgia, new to the team, who hasn’t exactly impressed Maeve so far.

I loved the character of Maeve, a tough, committed police officer who perhaps cares too much at times. (As Derwent observes: "You do the job with all your heart. You really care. But you need to let your head make your decisions, not your heart. Your heart is big, but it's stupid as shit.") There are also some really horrible characters here, who are very well drawn and (unfortunately) believable. 

A very minor gripe: quite far into the story, Maeve has to guess at Kate's full name and maiden name. I'd have thought the police would have already found out these details about a person whose murder they're investigating; in my experience of dealings with the police (on a purely professional basis, honest), they're obsessed with finding out everyone's full name plus any other names they've ever been known by. Yeah - I said it was minor.

In this book at least, Maeve doesn’t seem to have much of a personal life outside the job – though there are references to a past relationship which is clearly still affecting her. I did detect (using my amazing detective skills) a distinct flavour of good old Unresolved Sexual Tension between Maeve and Derwent (again, not having read the other books, I don't know the background). It feels like it should probably stay unresolved, though, as I really like their relationship as it is.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and will definitely seek out Jane Casey’s previous books.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World by Debbie Tung: Review

The title of this book of short comics and the adorable cover illustration drew me in the moment I saw it. "Quiet Girl in a Noisy World" - now that's a title and a concept I can relate to.

As a child I constantly heard about how shy and quiet I was and how I always had my nose in a book. (Clearly, nobody considered this a good thing, on the contrary, it was seen as a definite character flaw.) As an adult I have struggled with introversion and social anxiety, although as I've got older I've learned to deal with it better. I've always needed large amounts of time on my own to enable me to cope with the rest of life, though, and I'm sure I always will.

If you've ever eaten lunch at your desk to avoid socialising with colleagues; pretended not to see an acquaintance on the street to avoid having to make embarrassing small talk; or used the self service checkouts to avoid interacting with an actual person, this book is for you. (I have done all of these things, and felt bad about them.)

Debbie's drawings are charming and engaging, deceptively simple: chronicling her life from postgraduate studies through relationships, marriage and first employment. I related so strongly to her feelings and experiences. It's incredibly heartening to know I'm not the only person to feel secretly relieved when social events are cancelled, or to overthink previous conversations, or to dread making a work phone call in a room full of people.

After reading the section where Debbie takes an online personality test, I was inspired to take one myself. (I came out as an INFP, if anyone's interested, which rings fairly true.)

Ultimately there is a very affirming message here of "it's OK to be you". It's OK to be quiet. It's OK to need (lots of) time alone to rest and recharge. It doesn't make you an inadequate human being. Even if that's what you've always thought.

Introverts of the world - unite! (Oh, wait.)

Debbie Tung is a cartoonist and illustrator from the West Midlands. She shares her comics on Tumblr at Where's My Bubble?

Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land: Review

"I remember a story I read. A Native American tale where the Cherokee tells his grandson there's a battle between two wolves in all of us. One is evil, the other good. The boy asks him, which wolf wins? The Cherokee tells him, the one you feed."

I knew little about this book before reading it, and honestly, had I known a bit more - specifically, about the nature of the subject matter, which is very dark and disturbing, I'm not sure I would have chosen to read it. If I'd read this story in the newspaper (heaven forbid), I'd have quickly turned my eyes away and tried, probably unsuccessfully, not to think about it. As it was, I read the beginning and had serious doubts about whether I wanted to carry on. Then I read a bit further, and I still had serious doubts about whether I wanted to carry on. But somehow I did find myself reading to the end, which is some kind of testimony as to what a compelling read this is. It's a very impressive debut novel.

Fifteen year old Annie's mother is a serial killer of young children - a psychopath, it would appear - who not only horribly abused her own daughter but also made her somehow complicit in her crimes. Finally, Annie spoke out. She went to the police; her mother was arrested and put on trial; Annie was given a new name and identity (Milly) and placed in foster care, with only her foster parents and the headteacher of her new school knowing of her real identity and connection to the now notorious killer. But her new home is not the safe haven and fresh start she'd hoped for; the daughter of the house, Phoebe, is the meanest of mean girls and hell bent on making "Milly's" life even more of a misery. 

We see everything through Annie/Milly's internal monologue. Is she a reliable narrator? Only up to a point. Her monstrous mother, who she simultaneously hates, fears and yearns for, continues to exert a powerful pull over her, but her character only emerges through her daughter's eyes. It's impossible to understand why she did what she did, or indeed how she got away with it for so long. Clearly she's convincing and credible; her job gives her access to vulnerable women and children, but I still feel a certain suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept that nobody noticed the missing children or indeed that Annie herself was a victim of abuse.

The story is really about Annie's internal battle between on the one hand what she knows to be good and right and on the other hand the deeply entrenched effects of the only life and (some kind of) love she has ever known. Can she ever become her own person, free of her mother's malign influence, or are they just too deeply entangled to ever really separate? She is her mother's daughter, after all...

Beautifully written, thought provoking and deeply disturbing.

Ali Land has a background in child and adolescent mental health. This is her first novel.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Not Thomas by Sara Gethin - Review

Not Thomas is the second book I've read in a row (the other one being Frances Maynard's excellent The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr) which deals at least in part with a damaging mother-child relationship.

Admittedly, the two situations are very different, and in some ways diametrically opposite. Elvira is a young woman; Tomos (the five-year-old narrator of Not Thomas) is a little boy. Elvira's Mother was forty-five when her child was born; Tomos's Mammy was just fourteen. Elvira's Mother was extremely controlling, Tomos's Mammy very neglectful. But there are similarities, too: both mothers fail to recognise or value their child's needs; both see them as a burden rather than a gift. Actually, I think Tomos and Elvira would get on really well together.

The story is told from Tomos's point of view, and as readers we can plainly see that his life is appalling. Even his basic physical care needs aren't met, let alone his emotional needs. Meals are a packet of crisps, if he's lucky. (He saves the pink packets for Mammy, though, because they're her favourite.) Tomos loves his Mammy, Rhiannon (Ree) and craves her attention, but it's never forthcoming. Half the time she's not even there, leaving Tomos to fend for himself. Thankfully there are some people looking out for Tomos. Kaylee's mammy walks him to and from school every day, and tries to keep an eye on things. His young teacher, "Miss", genuinely loves him and does everything she can to help him. Not everyone is so supportive, though - there are some people (I'm looking at you, Miss Pugh Year Two) who can't look beyond the dirty, smelly clothes and unsigned permission slips to see the child in need.

Tomos's life wasn't always like this. Until recently both he and Ree lived with foster parents, who Tomos called Nonna and Dat. They loved Tomos and looked after him, and it's perhaps this early stability which has helped Tomos to remain the lovely boy he is. (Because he really is.) But then something happened, and now it's just Tomos and Ree - and her boyfriend Brick. Tomos's vulnerability is both heartbreaking and terrifying.

Ree isn't evil or directly abusive, she's just inadequate, and incapable of seeing beyond her own needs for long enough to provide her son with any care or protection. She's able to pull things together just enough when needed to keep the social workers at bay, though. They know things aren't right, but there just isn't quite enough evidence to do anything about it. There are many missed opportunities for various people to see how things really are and help Tomos, which make painful reading.

Tomos's everyday life is bad enough, but things can still get worse, and they do. I was so worried about him by this stage that I could neither stop reading nor hardly bear to continue as the situation became unbearably tense.

I've read some criticism on the grounds that Tomos's narrative voice is unrealistic - far too sophisticated for a five-year-old. But what we're reading isn't Tomos writing or speaking (of course no five-year-old is that articulate); it's what he is thinking and experiencing. And a certain amount of licence is needed in order to allow the story to flow, and to convey information to the reader about which Tomos is not necessarily aware - usually via him conveniently overhearing conversations. Very occasionally, this can feel a little forced. But it's hard to see how else this information could be conveyed without stepping outside of Tomos's viewpoint.

This is a marvellous book, in which you become completely immersed in Tomos's world; I can't imagine anyone could read it without caring desperately what becomes of him. It's a vivid depiction of what life is like for a child in a chaotic environment where no adults are capable of taking responsibility. Highly recommended.

Sara Gethin is a pen name for children's author Wendy White. This is her first book for adults.

Friday, 25 August 2017

The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr by Frances Maynard - Review

Elvira Carr is twenty-seven years old, lives with her controlling Mother, loves animals and knows a very great deal about biscuits. Elvira likes life to be regular and predictable, but things become very unpredictable when Mother is hospitalised with a stroke. Suddenly Elvira's restricted life is opening up in unexpected ways, but it's hard to know how to act and how to cope with all these new situations. Some Rules are clearly needed to guide her...

Inevitable comparisons will be drawn with books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I was also reminded of  Emily Barr's The One Memory of Flora Banks. All great books which feature protagonists who do not function in, as Elvira would put it, NormalTypical ways. 

Elvira knows only too well that she has some difficulties because of her Condition, but she is resourceful, determined and potentially more capable than she has ever been allowed to be. Life without Mother is different, often frightening, but also far more interesting and ultimately fulfilling. There are mysteries to be solved and challenges to be faced.

Elvira's voice is engaging and completely believable. It's a pleasure to share her unique way of viewing the world. In fact all the characters are easy to visualise (for some reason I envisaged Elvira's fearsome Mother as something like Neville's Gran from Harry Potter, only maybe without the vulture hat). Sylvia next door and her family, the staff at the nursing home and at the animal rescue centre are all vividly drawn. I especially loved Paul and his father, Charlie and of course Akira the dog.

Elvira's story is enthralling, often funny, sometimes sad, and ultimately uplifting. Highly recommended. I loved it.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

The Stolen Child by Sanjida Kay: Review

Zoe Morley is an artist and a mother - it's not always easy to combine the two, particularly when husband Ollie seems increasingly absent, more engaged with his work than with his family. She paints the moors where she lives, and cares for their two children: seven year old Evie who they adopted at birth - the child of a drug-using mother, born addicted - and little Ben, the surprise baby who came along five years later. But Zoe's world is completely upended when Evie begins receiving cards and gifts from someone claiming to be her birth father - a person whose identity they have never known. He wants her back - and he's coming to get her. But who is he and what is he really after?

Sanjida Kay deftly leads us - and Zoe - down various garden paths and moorland trails before the truth is finally revealed.

The Ilkley setting was well depicted and added an atmospheric further dimension (thankfully the little voice insistently singing "On Ilkley Moor Baht 'At" at the back of my mind did shut up after a while). It's good to read books with such a distinct sense of place, especially when that place is somewhere other than London.

Something I really loved about this book was how believable and realistic the characters felt. Evie herself was far from a generic child-in-danger but a complex character in her own right, with conflicting emotions and loyalties. Zoe, too, was a character whose actions and reactions, while not always sensible (who is?) always felt credible and human in the context of the situation. The police were neither idiots nor superheroes but professionals doing a difficult job to the best of their abilities. There was only one character, towards the end, whose actions and motivations I found harder to comprehend. 

There are a couple of maybe too convenient coincidences, but the plot is well crafted and kept me engrossed throughout, desperate to find out what had happened to Evie and who was responsible. Sanjida Kay doesn't gloss over the complexities of relationships, including the parent-child relationship - especially when complicated by adoption.

A superior psychological thriller and I will definitely seek out Sanjida's previous novel, Bone by Bone.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan - Review

I'd heard good things about this, but I wasn't really in a hurry to read it. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was the title; a bit too close to all those bookshop/teashop titles which seem so beloved by publishers right now (in the UK, anyway). You know - Afternoon Tea at the Little Bookshop on the Corner. Cream Buns at the Jane Austen Cafe. That sort of thing. Which is in no way intended as a criticism of the books themselves, many of which are very good indeed. 

Anyway, turns out I should have read it sooner, because I really loved it. It was a bit of a slow burner for me in the beginning, but once I was a couple of chapters in I was well and truly hooked. 

When a troubled young man, Joey, hangs himself in the Denver bookstore late one night, Lydia, his favourite bookseller, finds herself more involved in his life and death than she ever expected. Initially drawn in by an inexplicable photograph found on his body, and then by cryptic messages left for her by Joey through the medium of his beloved books, the secrets of both Joey's life and Lydia's own begin to gradually unspool, and unlooked-for connections to emerge. 

Lydia is an engaging character, intelligent and compassionate, a survivor of a horrifying event in her childhood which she has never really faced up to. She has found something of a sanctuary at the bookstore, among a diversity of colleagues, and the dispossessed regulars, like Joey, who haunt the aisles and corners of the store. All of these characters are wonderfully drawn. 

The story gathers pace as both Joey's and Lydia's stories emerge but despite a horrible past event and some painful subject matter, never seems to approach the category of "thriller" - it somehow feels more gentle than that, with a writing style that subtly draws you in. A beautiful and ultimately really rather heartbreaking read.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell: Review

Looking at it backwards it was obvious all along. But back then, when she knew nothing about anything, she had not seen it coming. She had walked straight into it with her eyes open.

Fifteen year old Ellie Mack: a golden girl with a glowing future, excelling at school, madly in love with her first boyfriend, cherished youngest child of loving parents. Ellie has everything to live for. But Ellie is gone. She simply disappeared one day in 2005, never to be seen again. She was last seen checking her reflection in a car window, on her way to the library. And then she was gone. No clues, no sightings, nothing. The police eventually conclude she has run away, but mum Laurel never believed it. Ellie had no reason to leave home, and every reason to stay.

Ten years later, Laurel hasn't slept properly since 2005. She's lived alone for seven years, waiting for news that never came. Finally, some news does arrive, but far more questions than answers remain.... especially when a new man, Floyd, comes into Laurel's life. Laurel's determination to uncover the truth at all costs, interspersed with snippets from the past and from the points of view of other characters, makes for a seriously enthralling read.

I really don't want to say anything more about the plot; I began this book knowing very little about it, and it was a real voyage of discovery. Knowing more than a very little would spoil it, I think. Missing-child thrillers are ten a penny at the moment, of course, and I approach them with a degree of trepidation (it's a subject which can and sometimes does go badly wrong) but this is something special.

Then She Was Gone is an incredibly compelling, addictive read. The story drew me in right from the start and didn't let go till I emerged out the other end, feeling broken, emotionally wrung out, my head full of the characters and story. (Then I had to go to work, and attempt to function normally!)

There are some great characters here - including one utterly monstrous human being - and all are convincingly drawn. I was especially able to relate to the character of Laurel, who is far from perfect but profoundly driven to learn the truth about what happened to her daughter - as I think any mother would be.

Make no mistake: parts of this book are unremittingly dark - heartbreakingly so. Certain scenes and themes were very upsetting, and packed a massive emotional punch. Honestly, much as I enjoyed the book, I don't know if I could bear to read it again for this reason. I finished it this morning and I  still felt tearful now.

(Lisa's acknowledgements at the end describe her fear, having written the book, that it was simply too bizarre, and her editor's radical and brilliant suggestion to balance out the bizarreness. I'd love to know what that suggestion was!)

We expect nothing less than an excellent read from Lisa Jewell, but she's surpassed herself this time. I think this story will stay with me for a long while.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase: Review

There's a patter of small footsteps. A swing of a plait. A flick of yellow ribbon. Something pulls at the edges, a darkness that no one dare name.

In 1959, the four Wilde sisters - beautiful Flora, forthright Pam, Margot (the narrator) and little Dot - have been sent by their flighty but loving mother to spend the summer at Applecote Manor with Aunt Sybil and Uncle Perry while their mother Bunny is, as Perry puts it "hopping around the clubs of Cairo" (actually Marrakech). They used to spend holidays there, but haven't been for five years - not since Cousin Audrey mysteriously disappeared one day, aged twelve. "Simply vanished, the poor darling," as Ma told them, disclosing little further detail, and Margot - not really wanting to believe it to be true - didn't enquire further. But now she is back at Applecote, the matter suddenly seems more pressing, and over a long hot summer, secrets begin to emerge. 

In the present day, Jessie has moved to Applecote Manor with newish, frequently absent husband Will, little daughter Romy, and reluctant stepdaughter Bella. She's hoping for a new start - especially for the troubled Bella, grieving for her dead mother and violently rejecting Jessie's right to even exist - but things aren't working out quite as she had hoped. As the past begins to seep into and perhaps even parallel the present, Jessie wonders if she has made a terrible mistake. 

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written with a delicate touch. The characters - the four Wilde sisters, tragic Sybil, angry Bella and the rest - are so vividly drawn and there is a compelling sense of place.

I think ultimately this is a story about the bonds between sisters and the complicated grief of a mother for a daughter and a daughter for a mother. An enthralling read with a very satisfying and even uplifting ending. I loved it.

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah - Review

I'm a big fan of Sophie Hannah - it's probably true to say I've read everything she's published, including the earlier novels which nobody seems to mention anymore (they're awesome, by the way). So I was very much looking forward to Did You See Melody?

It's a stand-alone novel, i.e. not part of her Culver Valley series (well, I suppose it would be difficult to plonk Culver Valley Police down in a luxury holiday resort in the middle of Arizona, which is where this book takes place). Still, I kind of missed Charlie, Simon, Proust and the rest. Especially Proust, for some reason. I'm not sure what that says about me.

Anyway, instead we have Cara Burrows, a British wife and mother who, amid a personal crisis, has scarpered, alone, to Swallowtail for some thinking time (spending a third of the family's savings in the process). The relaxing holiday she'd hoped for doesn't quite materialise, however, as she unwittingly walks into a mystery when a receptionist accidentally gives her the key for the wrong room in the middle of the night. Is it possible that the young girl she sees is really Melody Chapa, famously murdered by her parents seven years earlier? And is Cara herself now in danger as a result?

Sophie Hannah writes tightly plotted, intelligently written puzzle-box mysteries where intriguing, seemingly inexplicable things occur and have to be gradually unravelled. You need to keep your wits about you as the plots can turn out to be pretty complex. Often, there's deep psychological stuff going on too. Here, because Cara (not being an American) doesn't know about the Melody Chapa murder case, a fair bit of exposition is required, and this is largely done initially via Cara's online research. This works quite well though as I said, you do need to concentrate. Then again, I read most of this while squinting at my Kindle on a sun lounger on holiday, so my powers of concentration may have been impaired.

I loved the descriptions of the super-luxurious holiday resort. (My hotel, while nice enough, wasn't on quite that level. My sun lounger did not, sadly, have a button to summon a waiter with a drink. But a girl can dream.) And I loved, or in some cases loved to hate, some of the characters. Tarin in particular was a delight. As always with Sophie Hannah, there's humour here too, particularly with certain characters, and I laughed out loud at Cara's chlorophyll/chloroform confusion - mainly because it's so very much the sort of thing one might think and then feel a right idiot for doing so. The transcripts of YouTube clips from interviews on a popular "justice" show are appallingly compelling. It seems like where Melody is concerned, everyone has their own agenda.

Melody's character remains rather elusive throughout, with her voice rarely being heard. But maybe that's the point.

All in all another great read from the ever reliable Sophie Hannah.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Betrayals by Fiona Neill - Review

The question isn't whether our memories are false - it's how false are our memories?

The Betrayals is an intriguing story about a fractured family and the fallibility of memory.  When self-deluding Nick - an expert on memory formation, ironically - leaves his wife, cancer specialist Rosie, for her friend Lisa, the effect on daughter Daisy in particular is traumatic. Years later, a letter from Lisa triggers a relapse in Daisy's mental state. Brother Max, meanwhile, is haunted by guilt about his own hidden role in what happened.

The book does require careful reading to grasp what is going on, as everyone's accounts differ slightly (as Daisy quotes from Kazuo Ishiguro, acknowledging the unreliable nature of memory - "This was all a long time ago and I might have some of it wrong."). There were times when I was unsure I fully understood all the implications of what was happening. I'm still not sure I understand the point of one or two minor characters. However it all (mostly) comes together and delivers a genuinely surprising ending.

Where this book really shines though is in the portrayal of Daisy's OCD - a widely misunderstood and trivialised condition - and the catastrophic effect of this on her and those around her, particularly brother Max who becomes reluctantly embroiled in her rituals. This really does represent the complex, insidious and horribly destructive nature of the condition, and as someone who has a close family member with OCD - albeit not quite the same as Daisy's - I appreciated this very much.

Lisa's rejection of conventional treatment for her cancer in favour of the - to put it nicely - mumbo-jumbo purveyed by the appalling Gregorio is also depicted very well.

All in all an interesting and valuable read which does repay close attention. Recommended.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Friend Request by Laura Marshall: Review

"I am a decent person now. I pay my taxes and go to the dentist. I recycle. I care about my friends, and about the world in general. But how do I reconcile that with the things I did when I was sixteen? I'm that person too, aren't I?"

In the debut novel from Laura Marshall, Louise is shocked to receive a Facebook friend request from her old schoolmate Maria - because Maria has been missing, presumed dead, for over twenty-five years.

In the age of social media it feels inevitable that someone would, at some point, write a novel with this title and basic premise. It could've gone either way - good or bad - but I'm happy to report that Laura Marshall's story is most definitely the former. Actually, it's really great.

Louise has got on with her life for over twenty-five years since Maria died - she's been married and divorced, built her own business, has an adored four-year-old son, Henry. But for all of that time she's been haunted by what happened to Maria and by her own role in that. Now it looks like Maria, or someone posing as her, is back. But why, and why now? 

The narrative follows both the present day and 1989, when the younger Louise fervently tried to win the favour of the popular Sophie (clearly, to adult eyes, a highly skilled manipulator of her friends). As another '80s schoolgirl, albeit a few years earlier, I was able to relate to the era. I should think "Sophies" exist in every time period, though, eternally bolstering their own egos and papering over their own insecurities at others' expense. How far will Louise go to keep in with the in crowd?

The teenage friendship dynamics are skilfully drawn and make the reader question whether they would, in similar circumstances, act in the way Louise did despite knowing it was wrong. I'd like to think I wouldn't. But then again I was basically a complete idiot when I was sixteen, so who knows? 

The plotting is tight and in true psychological thriller tradition, as the tension mounts, Laura Marshall manages to cast suspicion on pretty much everybody yet still keep the outcome a complete surprise. There's plenty of momentum throughout but this builds as we approach the final reckoning and near the end - as the truth was coming out - my emotions were really put through the wringer, even to the point of tears at certain revelations.

The characters, including the less pleasant ones, were all believable - sometimes disturbingly so - and some were even likeable. I was able to relate to the protagonist, Louise, in various ways. But ultimately, it's the innocents in this book who will stay with me.

Highly recommended.

Next up: The Other Woman by Laura Wilson.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Art of Hiding by Amanda Prowse - Review

"Finn had promised her a life free of worry, a good life for her and their children.

Finn had lied."

Amanda Prowse has now written a number of family drama type novels - I've read two, I think, and enjoyed them both. The Art of Hiding is the most recent, published on 18 July this year. It has a rather lovely, striking cover and the synopsis sounded like it would be an enjoyable read. 

Our protagonist here is Nina - wife and mother, who we initially meet living a very affluent lifestyle courtesy of husband Finn. The Nina we meet at the beginning of the novel apparently doesn't have that much in her life to worry about (despite a lack of confidence and a general feeling that she doesn't fit in with the other parents at her sons' expensive school), as her main concerns are burning issues like whether or not to take snacks to her elder son's rugby match. Actually, Nina has plenty to worry about.... she just doesn't know it yet. 

When Finn is killed in an accident Nina quickly learns that her comfortable life is an illusion. Her husband's previously successful business is bankrupt and there are huge debts. Finn had promised always to take care of her, and after a difficult, insecure childhood Nina was happy to let him do just that, abandoning her aspiration to become a nurse and relinquishing any involvement in the business or their finances. Now, though, her life and that of her two sons, Connor and Declan, is crashing down around her. No longer cushioned by her husband's money, homeless and broke, Nina has to - somehow - rebuild her life without him. And just maybe rediscover some of the aspects of herself that were submerged and suppressed in her marriage. 

This is an emotional read, especially the first part of the book. It's easy to relate to Nina's desperation as the full extent of the crisis becomes clear, and there are some painful scenes of her pleading for help from various quarters which is not forthcoming. Indeked, it's hard not to feel angry at the utter lack of empathy shown by, for example, the headmaster of the school the boys have attended since they were three years old. Clearly when the money runs out, so does many people's humanity. 

We follow Nina's struggles as she moves, with her boys, back to the area where she grew up and hunts for a job, rapidly discovering that years of marriage and motherhood have not qualified her for very much at all, and see her beginning to question whether - despite her love for her husband - her marriage was quite as perfect as she had thought. 

While the basic plot has certainly been done before, Amanda Prowse is a natural storyteller who creates relatable characters and situations and knows how to engage the reader's emotions. If there's a criticism to be made, it's that some of the dialogue doesn't  always quite ring true. It's a minor quibble, though, and I enjoyed this a lot. (I was particularly pleased later in the book when it looked like the story was going to go in a certain, overly predictable direction which made my heart sink slightly. Amanda Prowse subverted my expectations, and I appreciated it!)

Up next: Friend Request by Laura Marshall.