See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

If you haven’t seen any of the pre-publication hype over this book, then you may have been living in a cave for the last few months. It’s been hyped. And so I will start by boldly stating: it is well worth the hype.

There’s a good chance that, even if you know nothing else about Lizzie Borden, you have heard the children’s rhyme she inspired: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks, When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.’ Lizzie was tried, and acquitted, of the murder of her father and step-mother – though the acquittal was mainly on the basis that women didn’t do things like that. No one else was ever charged. It is still a mystery.

A great basis, then, for a novel. Schmidt has done her research into the crime and the time and the place and it is skilfully woven into this beauty of a book. Told from the point of view of Lizzie and her sister Emma, who was away from the family home at the time of the crime, as well as two non-family members, the maid Bridget and a further potential suspect Benjamin, you get to walk around the Borden household and try to work out what could have happened. At times the narrative is confusing, especially where Lizzie is concerned, a reflection of her tangled statements to the police. You are left wondering if she is traumatised and upset or really cunning. The other characters are more lucid in comparison and their voices help to bring a context to the family, the killings, and the town they took place in.

This is a visceral book. You might expect that from a book about a double axe murder, but it’s not just from the descriptions of the grisly deaths. Vomit features heavily, as does sweat and a general sense of unwashed bodies. Mr Borden kept the house locked and the windows closed, he didn’t have an indoor toilet plumbed in and so the household all had slops pails to empty each morning. All of this features in the book and makes the reader start to itch, feeling the fetid atmosphere of the house, you can almost smell it. The publicity features flies hovering and buzzing around and the air must have been thick with them.

Fluids. Stench. Dirt. Festering. You get the picture. This is not a happy house. Even the scene where the maid is cleaning has no effect. The oppressive atmosphere builds and at times you may have to put the book down because it gets so creepy. But not for long because you HAVE to know what happens next.

As you can see, I loved this – a really riveting read and a strong sense of atmosphere.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt is published by Tinder Press on 2 May 2017. Thanks to Tinder Books and Georgina Moore for the proof copy that enabled me to write this review.

April reading round up

I feel perhaps I should change the target for my reading challenge this year, I’m well over halfway towards it already. I didn’t expect to get through so many books this year and still manage to keep up with writing every day but it turns out a healthier eating and exercise regime can have unexpected benefits with sleep quality too. *turns into health bore* Sorry.

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

I really enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book, and this got so many great reviews that I nearly wasn’t disciplined enough to wait for the paperback. However, I’m glad I did – because I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it lacked a certain something for me. Obviously the subject matter was dark, and realistic, and impressively low-key – so many lesser authors could’ve made a meal of the revelations, but still. I’m going to hang onto it for a while because I think a re-read may yield more.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

I heard Hamid interviewed on Radio 4 the other week and realised I’d not read his best-known book. How I enjoyed it, once I’d got used to the style. The style is, I think, the best thing about it but its honesty about the politics was refreshing and full of things observers felt perhaps they couldn’t say in the time following 9/11.

The Last Days of Leda Grey – Essie Fox

A journalist finds a copy of a beautiful 1930s silent film star in a shop in a coastal town and sets off to find the star, now a reclusive old lady living in the ruins of a house on the cliffs. His interviews aim to find the truth about her life. I don’t want to go into more detail without giving away the plot but I found it unsettling, immersive, creepy and melancholy. I really enjoyed this!

The Comfort of Others – Kay Langdale

I interviewed Kay Langdale for an earlier post – check it out here if you’re interested

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

Non fiction of the month is a running book that came into my mind when I was out for a run myself. I’ve never read any of Murakami’s novels – I find the cult of him rather offputting and really should get over myself – but I enjoyed this wander around his mind and a lot of what he said resonated with me. The comments about training yourself as a runner and writer make sense, and if I can get myself to run 10k within a matter of weeks, why do I not apply the same techniques to writing with more discipline? While I writer every day, the amounts vary and the results are less obvious – I have a feeling this is more to do with self doubt than anything else. I do like that he doesn’t really think of anything while he runs, because neither do I but I think people often assume that you do.

Guernica – Dave Boling

I know very little about the Spanish Civil War so my non-fiction aims now include Antony Beevor’s book about it – there is so much literature based around the conflict. This was an interesting book and I think it probably benefited from me not having much knowledge of the war. The first half of the book is mainly to immerse the reader in the town of Guernica and some of the families within. There are brief cameos from Picasso and the German bomber in charge of the attack. The characters are perhaps a little one-dimensional but I didn’t think I mind this, until the main attack occurred and then I found that I wasn’t as upset at what happened as I might have been in the hands of a better author. The other problem with Guernica is that of course, there was no real revenge or conclusion to the atrocity, so the author has to manufacture a slightly contrived ending in order to bring about an end to the story. But having said all that, I still found this an interesting read and it will spur me onto find out more.

Hold Back the Stars – Katie Khan

I rarely read sci fi but I enjoyed this very much indeed. The opening chapter is astonishing, and draws you right in, hand in heart. This is a love story between Carys and Max and we find them floating in space further away from their spaceship, and with only 90 minutes worth of air left. In that time, we learn about how they met and why they’re floating in space. It turns out there’s been a massive war that has destroyed the USA and the Middle East, and much of the remaining world has joined together in a utopian system which forbids people to form close relationships until they’re over 35. And the asteroid belt has moved closer to Earth and prevented humans from exploring space any further. As you can imagine, there is a lot to cover in the book, and Khan intersperses the countdown of air chapters with the backstory with ease.

The Lauras – Sara Taylor

I thought Taylor’s first book was good but not completely enjoyable. This was different. Told in the first person by Alex, a teenager of indeterminate gender, as their mother leaves their father and goes on a road trip, just the two of them, to clear up loose ends. Alex’s mum spent her youth in foster homes and broken homes and has gone through all kinds of unpleasantness, but made friends – many of them called Laura – and promises along the way. The two of them have to stop every so often for Alex to go to school and for the mum to make some money by waitressing but essentially make their way across the US and finally up to Canada to find one of The Lauras. Along the way, Alex starts to grow up, find out more about what kind of person they want to be. It’s an occasionally bleak, but always absorbing read.

Standard Deviation – Katherine Heiny

If you ever wanted to read a book that talked about the phrase, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” this is it. Heiny’s first novel is a very funny story of a marriage, told from the point of view of Graham, the husband. His second wife Audra is unlike anyone I would ever want to meet in real life, and there are moments when Graham appears to feel the same. Through a string of awkward encounters at parties, with his first wife, with friends and odd acquaintances, Graham and Audra look after their son, who has Asperger’s and try and get through life as best they can. It’s insightful, bitchy, wickedly funny and a really good read.

The Comfort of Others: Q&A with Kay Langdale

I’m so pleased to welcome Kay Langdale to the blog today, to answer questions about her most recent book, The Comfort of Others.

CoverMinnie and her sister Clara are two elderly spinsters living in an old house in the middle of a housing estate.  They have an ordered lifestyle, trying where they can to stop decay in the house, and living quietly together. One day Minnie starts to write again in her childhood diary, finally ready to record the unspoken sadness at the heart of the sisters’ existence.

In the house opposite them, lives Max and his mother. Max has never known his father and is happy with his life until his mother gets a new boyfriend. Confused and feeling rejected, he starts to use his mother’s old Dictaphone as a diary.

The two characters become unlikely friends and their stories intertwine, each influencing the other in ways they didn’t expect. And as they do so, the ghosts of the past and the challenges of the present weave together to make an enthralling read.

I should start the Q&A by saying how much I enjoyed the book – I raced through it, reading it very quickly. It’s absorbing, moving and there’s some lovely humour and humanity in it.

Kay Langdale © John Cairns
Kay Langdale Photo credit: John Cairns

What made you decide on a diary format?

I felt that the diary format allowed me to get under the skin of the characters better, especially Minnie. Her reticence meant that she would not have chosen to talk directly with anyone about what happened to her, and so allowing her to write it down felt like the most authentic means of capturing it. With Max, the Dictaphone allowed uninhibited chatting which felt somehow more age appropriate. At the beginning he says that he feels like a reporter, and so it allows him an emotional freedom to explore what’s happening to him.

The book hinges around the idea of an estate sold off with new houses surrounding a large manor house – Minnie is hemmed in. Where did this idea come from? Is the house based on anywhere in particular?

I drove past a large house once that had been similarly surrounded by an estate, and I was very struck by how it looked as if it was marooned in its own space like a vast sea creature. I felt the idea worked on multiple levels; life is going on beyond the house while Minnie is ‘encased’ within it, and also the estate has erased the parkland but it’s all still there in Minnie’s mind. It allowed the past spaces to still have a physical, ghostly presence.

The book is made up of tiny details and there’s a theme of ‘noticing’ things, overlooking people as they go about their lives. You seem to celebrate the beauty in the everyday – do you see this as part of the writer’s job?

Yes, most definitely. I also think the small things often communicate the most. So often, it is a small detail about someone’s life that tells us the truth of that life. I think that the home, and the daily round, are sacred spaces.

I loved Max’s humour – he was such an enjoyable narrator – the book has such distinctive character voices, Minnie being more formal. How did you ensure the voices were so distinctive while you were writing them? Did you write large parts in each voice and then divide them up for the smaller chapters?

I confess to hopping between them. I had a very strong sense of them as characters right from the beginning and so moving between their voices wasn’t difficult. The first time we see Minnie is the image I first had of her; waiting, hands clasped, by the bay window. Minnie’s most difficult scenes I wrote in one section, mostly because it was such an immersive piece of writing. I also listened to the Bach Goldberg sonata piece Minnie refers to – over and over while I wrote – which was a way of steeping me in Minnie’s experience. (It’s the version played very slowly by Glenn Gould and is for, me, the musical heart map of the book.)

Minnie’s formal style makes the two shocking scenes almost more shocking and sad because of the matter of fact way she relates them. Yet in some ways her sister Clara seems more repressed of the two elderly women. Was this something you consciously wanted to explore? Minnie’s experiences as a young girl, and then as a palliative nurse, make her more alive and attuned to the importance of showing kindness while we learn little of Clara and how she feels.

You are absolutely right. It was completely my intention that Clara remained ‘unexplained’. The things we know about her – that she painted a watercolour, that she sat on a bench with a boy, that a Latin teacher phoned her – is all reported by Minnie. We only see Clara through the prism of Minnie. We always see Clara behaving responsibly –as first born children often do – and conducting herself just as her mother would like. The only time Clara indirectly communicates is when she plays the piano at two key moments in the novel.

I saw Minnie and Clara’s relationship to each other like a duet, but we can only hear one voice. It was my intention that the reader has to piece together Clara’s story for themselves – to imagine how it was for her. I’m quite interested in one day writing Clara’s version. Perhaps she was not always as stultified as Minnie perceived.

The other thing I loved was a small detail about Max’s friend Eddie who has special needs. Max’s friendship with him is important to both of the boys but it’s not made a big deal of in the book. I liked how Max was able to connect with ‘outsiders’ but how he just sees them as other people – his innocence is refreshing and ideal. Was this a conscious decision to reflect something about Max or did you want to include a different character who was just part of the landscape?

It was both. I wanted Max’s world to be less confined that Minnie’s, and I thought it was important – and realistic – that he would have school friends and experiences outside of his home and Rosemount. But, the fact that Max is so intuitive about Eddie’s needs was important in the way I was trying to build his character. For Max, the quality of love is a little unreliable and as such he is watchful and alert. He is quick to sense other’s discomfort or disquietude. However, his natural warmth and sunniness means he is also quick to provide an antidote to it. With Eddie, he works within what makes Eddie comfortable. It’s that innate sweetness which I think Minnie senses in him, which is why she allows herself to begin the friendship.

Thank you for such interesting and insightful questions – I’ve loved answering them.

There we go! Thank you so much to Kay Langdale for answering my questions. The Comfort of Others is available now in paperback, priced at £8.99.

My thanks to Hodder Books for sending me a free copy to prepare the questions

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I’m so pleased to be hosting the blog tour for Rebecca Mascull today! I really enjoyed reading The Wild Air – it’s got a great heroine and a story that sheds light on a little known part of history. Here’s my review:

We need more adventure books these days. Especially us women. I don’t mean thrillers involving dark secrets and titles with ‘girl’ in them, I don’t mean crime books, or secret missions and explosions. I mean proper adventures, heroines doing brave, bold, daring things, going further and better than others.

The Wild Air - jacketThank goodness, then, for Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air. It’s a proper adventure telling the story of Della Dobbs. Della is an unlikely heroine, shy and diffident at the beginning and living in the shadow of her family in Cleethorpes. Della’s father doesn’t like her very much, transferring his affection on her older brother Puck and her younger sister Cleo. When Della’s widowed Aunt Betty moves to Cleethorpes, Della finds someone who recognises her talents in engineering and love of flight. Together they work to make Della an aviatrix – one of the pioneering women flyers who made the path so much easier for later stars such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.

The book is in two distinct parts – the first is Della’s set up, flight training, and subsequent success at air shows around the country and across Europe. But then comes the First World War and Della is grounded and stuck at home instead of being allowed to help the war effort with her talent. There’s a love story too, as Della’s friend and penpal Dudley makes his feelings known. (Incidentally, we should have more pen pals in the world. Especially ones that share geeky enthusiasms.)

As the war develops, Della has to go on an adventure, even more of one than learning to fly in a man’s world. I won’t go into any more detail because of spoilers but this is what I mean by an adventure story – daring deeds, peril and bravery. Suspend your disbelief and just immerse yourself in the excitement.

The Wild Air is well researched, featuring cameos from several real aviatrixes, and there is some technical detail about the planes but fortunately (for us non-petrolhead readers) this is just the perfect amount. The story seems at once a long time ago yet startlingly relevant as we still hear about discrimination in the aviation industry. I’ve not read either of Mascull’s previous books but this has thought, passion and attention to characters in it that means I will be seeking her backlist out.

Have I mentioned the cover? When I saw the book first mentioned on social media, I loved the beautiful cover and wanted to read it without knowing what it was about. Isn’t it lovely?

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published on 4 May 2017 by Hodder Books and is priced at £18.99 in hardback.

I received a free review copy via Netgalley – thank you.

Bookmarks, collecting and not folding that page corner over

I admit it. I often fold the corners over of my books to mark my page. I never used to do this – as a child that read avidly I mainly used bus tickets as bookmarks and would never dream of ‘damaging’ a book in this way. Working in a bookshop tends to take away any reverence you have for books so corners folded down it is, though I still balk at anyone who leaves a book open and face down.

All of which is ridiculous since I inherited my grandmother’s bookmark collection. She was a regular but, I think, not voracious reader and had a small bookcase with some of her favourites on – Miss Read I especially remember – as well as making frequent trips to the library. I’ve no idea how she came to collect bookmarks but I remember us always trying to find them for her when we went on day trips or holidays. My aunt did the same.

our bookmarks
‘Our’ bookmarks
The bookmarks were kept in a large flat white cardboard box that would no longer shut flat but when I got them I transferred them into an album with collectors pages which was easier to store in my tiny house. And then I put them into a cupboard and forgot about them, continuing to use cardboard promo bookmarks or fold the corners down while I read.

This situation has recently changed. I have decided that it is now important to maintain and grow the collection. Important to me, I mean. Like organising my recipe cupboard, this strikes me as something that only middle class grown ups do but what the hell. Over the last year I’ve started to buy bookmarks whenever we’ve gone somewhere and I’ve added them to the folder.

international bookmarks
International bookmarks
I thought you might like to see a few of them. Many are from National Trust or English Heritage sites, castles, big houses, or museums. It may be that bookmarks are a quintessentially British item, especially embossed leather ones, but certainly the majority of the collection are from this country.

Having said that, here are some from other countries. I remember buying the New Zealand one which must have been my first addition to the collection, back in 2008.

There are several that have meaning for my family and where we lived. (See ‘Our’ Bookmarks above) They also used to make bookmarks to remember the country’s special occasions and historic moments, which came in a cardboard folder with the date on. Commemoration bookmarksThere are a number of these – mainly royal occasions and so on and the small collection is probably my least favourite part. It strikes me that this is the kind of thing that the Brexit crowd might like – perhaps they could produce one to celebrate our first national batch of innovative jam or something.

Craft bookmarksThere are a few handmade craft bookmarks – crochet, pressed flowers and woodcrafts. And at least one that I think I made as a child out of a piece of leather. There are also the novelty bookmarks, which I remember liking as a child with beads in the shape of ladybirds on the end, and a furry cat head, and strange shaped bookmarks.

 

 

 

 

 

As you might expect, I like the bookmarks with literary connections the most.

literary bookmarks

I need to find some more. And yet, I should also consider using some of them once in a while, if only to stop folding down the corners of my books…

What do you use as a bookmark? Tell me in the comments below!

March reading round up

I am so far ahead in my reading challenge this year! 23 books and counting. My knitting has lapsed to make room for it. And there were some absolute crackers this month.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

I will post a proper review for this once it’s published but in the meantime, pre-order it because it’s excellent.

How to Measure a Cow – Margaret Forster

I like Margaret Forster but as a novelist she did seem to blow hot and cold. This is a cold, I’m afraid. It’s got an interesting premise but she never followed through on the bit that would have held my attention the most.

A Life Between Us – Louise Walters

The second book from Louise Walters, following her enjoyable debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase. I have reviewed this elsewhere on the blog so you can read more here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Dear Ijeawele

Bought to celebrate International Womens’ Day earlier in the month, this is a series of lessons in how to bring up a girl in this world. This is fifteen suggestions on how to view the world and to bring your daughters up to be brave and bold. Written to answer a friend who asked for advice, Adiche has a range of things to say that really resonated with me as a woman and as the mum of a girl.

After Julius – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The reading group suggestion this month, and an odd read. I love Howard’s work and this is very dense in places but wonderfully structured. I couldn’t decide if I liked any of the characters completely, they were so believably flawed – callous and sympathetic, hopeless and kind. Howard always covers darker aspects of stories than you expect for a novelist of her time, especially when it comes to matters of sex, but this renders her a strong clear voice of how far we can go to hurt each other.

The Wild Air – Rebecca Mascull

Another book that I will review on publication later this month. Beautiful cover, fascinating story. Watch this space.

Dadland – Keggie Carew

My non-fiction choice this month was a bit hard-going so it’s been read on and off all month. It’s not actually hard to read not is it too harrowing despite the subject matter but for some reason I struggled with it. Anyway, Dadland is Keggie Carew’s attempt to understand and explore her father’s life as he descends into dementia and starts to lose his memory. In part tribute, in part history, Tom Carew led a fascinating life – war guerrilla for the British in France and Burma, thrice married, businessman, friend to Patricia Highsmith, the list goes on. Keggie researches all this and intersperses the history with personal anecdotes of growing up with Tom, and looking after him as he grows less capable. Despite finding this a long read, it’s a rewarding one.

Poetry and me

It was World Poetry Day this week. I’ve always had a troubled relationship with poetry. Where does it fit? Do you curl up and read a volume of poems the way you do with a novel? Is it possible to get lost in it, in the characters, the situations, the way you do with a novel?

Looking at this, I have decided school was the place that turned me off poetry. I know some people hate books because they had to read them at school but for me this was always the opposite – I love Hamlet because I had to study it, ditto Pride and Prejudice. But I feel that school did succeed in putting me off poems. And mainly my grammar school, where I took my GCSEs and A Levels. Our third year teacher taught us Sylvia Plath’s poems while clearly hating Plath himself, and told us (a room full of girls) that everything she wrote was the result of a hysterical fixation with her father. Our first set text at A Level was WH Auden, a poet I have much respect for now I don’t have to write critical analysis of his writing any more. I discovered that many of his poems were wonderful, full of lyricism and insight, but many more so difficult. The latter were, of course, the ones the essays were to be written on. My A level grade was two lower than predicted, making it harder to get into university, and my grandmother heard this and said, ‘oh Susie, I thought you were good at English!’ I’m not wholly blaming Auden but he didn’t help.

Yet, away from school, poems I remember from childhood have positive memories. My family loved Milne, Lear and other nonsense – I wanted to read Sonia Spell at my grandfather’s funeral. I always refer to black beetles as ‘Alexander’ and can still quote The King’s Breakfast to my daughter which makes her laugh.

As an adult, I encountered some lovely poems while reading novels. My favourite poem, ‘Autumn Journal’ by Louis Macneice, was featured in a Rosamunde Pilcher novel, where the scene when Antony Hopkins reads ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ in the film version of 84 Charing Cross Road would always make you love that one.

On September 11 2001, I was in the audience for Radio 4’s book club programme. My reading group had applied to attend and we’d been assigned poetry with Wendy Cope. This was possibly the first time I had seriously read and examined poems since school, and could think of nothing to say or contribute to the discussion in the audience. What I do remember was the early news of the planes hitting while we were on the train going down to London, standing in the lobby of Broadcasting House watching the screens and comforting an America reading group member, being told that BH was at heightened security and being escorted round the building, seeing BBC employees gathering round TV screens talking in low voices. The book club presenter, the lovely Jim Naughtie, had his passport and suitcase sent ahead to Heathrow in case he could fly out to report from New York, and had theories about what was going on. But for two hours we sat and talked about poetry with Wendy Cope who was charming. It seemed a surreal experience. Against BBC regulations I kept my security pass because it had the date stamped on it. I wonder where that is…

Recently, however, I’ve been coming across poetry more and more. Following many bookish people as I do on social media, you come across a lot of posts that quote poems and many of them have stopped me and made me think.

I then read this blog post from Claire King. Her point about having to make time to read, schedule it in some way, is a good one. I do have to do this. But with so much going on, it’s hard to carve out big chunks of time. Perhaps poetry is the answer. The skill of expressing so much in so few words also appeals to me, though you’d never know it from this blog post.

With this in mind, I went to seek out some poetry today. The library had very little. The bookshop selection was much better, once you got past the anthologies, which I dislike as a whole – they make it all so twee. “Poems that make men cry” is a dreadful idea. And the idea of poetry as a literary version of Classic FM’s ‘Smooth classics at 7’ programme, where all your stress is soothed away strikes me as doing the genre a disservice. So it was to the shelves of poets I went and where I realised the depth of my ignorance. They had sold out of Derek Walcott, following his death last week, unsurprisingly, so I went for James Fenton, having heard a discussion about his poetry collection ‘Yellow Tulips’ on Radio 4’s a Good Read. A selection from a female author was harder – our poetry scene seems dominated by Pam Ayres (no disrespect Pam but I’m not sure you’re what I need right now) and Wendy Cope again – I still have my signed BBC copies. So I had to go on instinct and have come away with Emily Berry ‘Stranger Baby’.

I shall update you on how I get on. But if you have any recommendations, please send them my way.

Competition time! Win an author’s kit

I’m celebrating. And to have you join in my celebrations I’m giving away everything you need to be a writer. Everything, except the sheer bloody mindedness, which I’m afraid you’ll have to cultivate yourself.

Would you like to win: coffee, biscuits, writing maps, notebooks and pen? You would? Great, read on.

Your prizeYour ultimate writer’s kit includes:

Four Writing Maps! Containing prompts, illustrations and suggested reading on a theme, these pocket sized beauties are perfect for when you need a bit of inspiration. Each map has at least 12 prompts and these can be used anywhere, in groups or alone, and can give you an idea to transform your surroundings, observations and memories into stories. In your prize are: The Writing Over the Top Map, Writing with Fabulous Trees Map, Writing People Map and My Writing Life Map

Two pocket/ handbag sized lined notebooks, just perfect to carry around for when you need to jot something down

A Pilot G-Tec C4 pen, in a fetching coppery brown colour

A bag of freshly roasted coffee from Nottingham’s own Roasting House, to bring on that period of intense productivity we all need once in a while

A box of superior Elsa’s Story lemon butter cookies to munch while editing

How to enter

You have a number of different ways to enter the competition and each one will give you extra chances to win.

  1. Follow this blog and leave a comment below
  2. Follow my Facebook page and leave a greeting on my wall
  3. Follow me on Twitter and RT my pinned tweet for this competition

The competition will close on 31 March and the winner will be announced on 2 April.

*Open to UK and RoI residents only

Review: A Life Between Us by Louise Walters

I came to the second novel by Louise Walters with some anticipation, having enjoyed her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase very much. This second book is being self-published by Walters, an act of independence to be admired.

A Life Between Us is set in the present day and features Tina, a lonely housewife, avid reader, compulsive overeater and bereaved twin. Tina is still grieving – her twin Meg, we know, died in childhood in an incident that Tina blames herself for. When Meg asks Tina to avenge her, we are plunged back into the past and the story of Tina’s aunt Lucia.

The narrative switches between the past, as we begin to find out more about Lucia, and the present, as Tina starts to follow her husband’s advice to get out more, joins a reading group and makes a friend.

Walters has written of a lovely, engaging, ordinary woman who has very little idea of how she is struggling, and her hapless husband who is equally stuck in different ways. (I mean it as a good thing when I describe Tina as ordinary – the kind of person we could all meet.) Walters is excellent at portraying an isolated woman, as she showed in her debut novel, and here she describes Tina’s attempts to make sense of her world with a strong sense of pathos. She has also written a real *SPOILER ALERT – KIND OF* nasty piece of work in Lucia, someone whose first scene as a child displays some of the mean spirit she will continue throughout. The mean streak is not really explained, as some authors might do, and this is refreshing. She just is.

This is less a whodunnit, despite Meg’s urging for revenge, and more an examination of how we deal with grief and loss. A confident and assured novel.

A Life Between Us is published on 27 March by Troubador Press. You can buy a copy here. 

February reading

A short month but not bad for reading.

The Good Muslim – Tahmima Anam

I read Anam’s debut years ago as part of the judging group for the Guardian First book Award and then had the pleasure of talking to her at a publisher’s dinner a few months later. She was a lovely, very neat person – I remember thinking how ‘together’ she was considering the whirlwind that her first book had been for her. Having made such an impression on me, I completely didn’t realise that this was a sequel until halfway through. Like the first, this features a strong Bangladeshi woman as the main character, this time Rehana’s daughter Maya. I really enjoyed this despite knowing nothing about the politics and history it described (a quick stop in Wikipedia needed). Maya and Rehana are very realistic characters, likeable but flawed, rushing into mistakes and meaning well. I’ve just bought the third book in the series and am looking forward to seeing what happens to them all next.

What a Way to Go – Julia Forster

A lovely trip back to the Eighties for us kids who grew up about the same time. I recognised a lot of the references and a couple of them had me going “oh my god yes!” in sympathy (hint: French toilets.) The story is a little rambling but charming and the protagonist – 12-year old Harper – is such a sweetie that you want to spend a lot of time with her. The story concerns her parents’ divorce and subsequent relationship and financial woes – so far, so run of the mill perhaps but the writing and the point of view is what makes the difference here. Really enjoyable read.

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

Oh this is an amazing book. I’d heard good things about it and there it was on my bookshelf when the reading group suggested we read it. The story of three people – two inmates and a doctor – in a Yorkshire asylum in the early years of the Twentieth Century, this is beautiful. I don’t want to write too much in case I give anything away so instead, please know I could easily gush over it till you’re all bored .

We All Begin as Strangers – Harriet Cummings

I got a free review copy of this from NetGalley and therefore feel quite bad about not really enjoying very much. It has an intriguing premise but I felt the execution was lacking. Each part of the book is narrated by a different character and the idea is that we examine how well we can ever really know our neighbours. And that’s all fine, except the point of view of the secret protagonist only came in at the end and was the most interesting, so a little bit wasted. In my eyes anyway.

Postcards From the Edge – Carrie Fisher

I bought this while still mourning, and am pretty sure that I’d read it before but I remembered nothing. How I enjoyed it. Such bitchy voices! Such insecurity! So many digs that probably went way over my head! Suzanne Vale is a great protagonist – really flawed and occasionally dislikeable but you really root for her, certainly by the end. I loved it.

Eat Sweat Play – Anna Kessel

My vow to read one non-fiction book per month continues with this and I’ve barely finished reading it before I press it on my husband so he has an idea of ‘what we have to put up with.’ Kessel’s book is an examination of women in sport – how we should do it more, what we have to gain, the media, the male atmosphere of sport, the negative comments, images and attitudes of sporting bodies that have hampered women’s sporting achievements and participation for decades. It’s both eye opening and depressingly familiar – I read several bits nodding my head in recognition and welled up with anger at my PE teachers, midwives, acquaintances and any number of people when I realised the extent of prejudice, the size of the barriers we’re facing. Read it if you’re a parent, if you watch a spot of tennis in June, if you’re a hardcore fan and even if you couldn’t give a shit about sport – it gives a fascinating insight into a wider society issue.