Tag Archives: books

The Upstairs Room – Kate Murray-Browne

This is, primarily, a book about the housing crisis. Don’t let that put you off – but most of the characters are, in one way or another, affected by the current housing situation. It’s not an obvious theme for a spooky tale (I’m resisting calling this an out and out ghost story) but it’s also a portrait of a marriage, and an observation on the flighty nature of employment.

Sound too much? It’s mostly deftly juggled by Murray-Browne, though her characters are at times more annoying than they need to be. The main one, Eleanor, a working mother with two small girls moves into a Victorian house in need of renovation with her husband Richard. Richard is, without a doubt, one of the worst men I’ve ever read. He has already taken on a number of projects throughout their married life, and the house is his latest, while he also works part time and studies for an MA.

Eleanor has her doubts about the house, nothing that she can put down to anything more than a gut feeling but as they try to settle in, they find the upstairs room which is full of foreboding, strange leftover objects and scribblings on the wall from ‘Emily.’ Eleanor’s foreboding turn more serious later when the house starts to make her physically ill and has a detrimental effect on their daughter Rosie.

Eleanor isn’t immediately likeable but I felt for her so much as the book went on. Richard, despite seeing her illness, is still wedded to the renovation and overrides her objections. To pay for the renovations they take a lodger, Zoe, who is at a loose end in her career and her life, having broken up with her boyfriend and walked out of a job. She too is difficult to like, but if you wanted to look at representations of women acting like men – especially when it comes to fear of commitment – then Zoe is perfectly true to life. Her main concern is having regular sex, but she also feels the strange atmosphere of the house and starts to spend more time elsewhere.

I liked that it wasn’t too over the top at the end and I wasn’t sure how much I’d really been affected by it – until I had a sleepless night after I’d finished it. Somehow, it will get under your skin.

The Upstairs Room is published on 27 July by Macmillan.

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Two Cousins of Azov by Andrea Bennett

What a treat to read something as fresh and nicely eccentric as this. A book that’s full of stories, without being a book about stories, if that makes any sense.

Two Cousins of Azov or You can’t pickle love (it has a subtitle) ostensibly tells the story of Gor and Tolya, the two cousins of the title, both in the autumn of their days. Gor is trying to make himself better known as a magician and is busy training up a new assistant Sveta while dealing with a series of mysterious events. There’s a tapping. There’s a dead rabbit outside his door, and the egg he wanted to boil for tea has disappeared. Is he going mad or just getting old? Tolya, meanwhile, is in a hospital following a serious illness and being interviewed for a research project for a trainee doctor. Tolya insists on telling him stories of his childhood and harks way back into the past.

The book is structured to alternate the point of view and this makes it easier for the reader to pick out the symmetry in what’s going on. The tales told by Tolya are full of folk stories and charm, and there seems to be a significance to the events happening to Gor – will the two men find each other? Will they solve the mystery?

There is a wide cast of characters, all with little foibles and quirks, (you do have to concentrate to start with in order to get them all straight in your head) and there’s a lot of food mentioned. Of course as the book goes on, we find the characters are all connected and intertwined somehow, and we start to get to the bottom of the mysteries. The food however, is another matter. I do feel this should come with a selection of snacks available to eat while you read so you don’t spend your whole time feeling hungry, the way I did when I was reading.

The blurb on the back mentioned that if you were a fan of Rachel Joyce (which I am) you would like this. This seems correct – both authors look at exploring the lives of ordinary people where perhaps not much adventurous or exciting happens but what does happen has an impact and is worth telling.

In short, this is a charming novel with plenty of humour and fun. The two main characters are playful storytellers and I enjoyed spending time with them.

Two Cousins of Azov is published by Borough Press on 13 July 2017. Thanks to Borough Press for the review copy.

Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

A new Rachel Joyce is always something to look forward to. Joyce specialises in writing about ordinary people, their trials and tribulations and funny ways. Especially their funny ways.

It’s 1988. Frank owns a music shop. He insists on selling only vinyl, despite this being the dawn of the CD. But Frank is not just any music shop owner, a far cry from the intimidating list-making types captured so well in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Frank is welcoming, and happy to broaden his customer’s knowledge and improve their lives through his own knowledge in music. He makes links to different genres, and prescribes them to customers the way a doctor would with medicine.

Frank has attracted a group of friends equally as eccentric. The music shop is housed in a sad, neglected row of shops that a development company is trying to knock down to build ‘luxury’ flats. Scrawled National Front slogans mark many of the boarded up shop fronts. Frank’s friends own many of the businesses nearby and all are uncertain of the future. The Music Shop is, in many ways, a focal point for them all and Frank its unwilling leader. But Frank is alone. We know that his mother Peg bequeathed her love of music to him but she is dead and Frank has no one else. He is a man who needs to be prescribed ‘Verdi Cries’ by 10,000 Maniacs.

One morning, Ilsa Brauchmann, a woman in a green coat stands outside the shop. She catches Frank’s eye and then she faints onto the pavement. It’s a strange start to a strange relationship but Frank finds himself drawn to her and when she asks him to teach him about music they go on a series of ‘dates’ to a local cafe where he talks and brings her records. But Ilsa has a secret and this could ruin everything.

It’s the cast of characters and their interactions that make this book. Frank mostly plays it straight but others are allowed to be as eccentric as possible, and I especially love Kit, Frank’s young clumsy loving music shop assistant who likes to hand-draw their posters.

But there is a serious point to make too, about the pace of technology and development and how it can leave people behind. And then of course, there’s the music. We need a playlist to go with this book, to play as you read. I love that this has such variety, that a plotline about Handel’s Messiah sits alongside Aretha Franklin. Frank talks to people about music the way none of my boyfriends ever did, and their conversations were the poorer for it. Here we can clearly see that music has a power, to change, to heal, to talk to others and that it can take the soul of the lowliest people and make it fly.

The Music Shop is about connecting with others, about how we’re all worth a little time and effort, no matter how low we get. It’s about the wonder of Vivaldi and Miles Davis and Shalamar (yes really).

The Music Shop is published by Doubleday on 13 July 

Thanks to Alison Barrow for the review copy.

Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Ever wanted more time? Wouldn’t it be useful to live longer, learn more, have more experience, travel…

How about 600-700 years?

That’s the premise of How to Stop Time – a type of people, referred to here as Albas, who age very slowly.

The story is narrated by Tom, very much in the present day, yet born in the 1500s. Tom is part of the Albatross Society, a band of people led by mysterious millionaire Hendrich, who protect and help Albas when they run into trouble. Tom’s past includes a meeting with Shakespeare, travel with Captain Cook and playing a range of instruments – sounds glamorous doesn’t it? But his appearance is a front for a troubled soul. Tom’s mother was drowned as a witch when his condition caused suspicion among the townspeople where they lived and her death haunts him, as does his promise to her on the ducking stool that he live.

One hundred years later or so, Tom falls for Rose and marries her. Their love is sweet and kind, but his condition makes this difficult too and they are estranged for a time before Rose dies of the plague. This too haunts Tom. But it is his love for his daughter Miranda, herself an Alba, that troubles him the most. After he left Rose, Miranda ran away and for 400 years he’s tried to find her.

This is an ambitious yet easy to read book – encompassing observations on human nature, Donald Trump, greed, death, love and pride. Haig explores what makes us human and what we do to protect ourselves and those we love.

How to Stop Time is published by Canongate Books on 6 July

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy

Review: Secrets of the Italian Gardener by Andrew Crofts

Andrew CroftsToday I welcome Andrew Crofts onto the blog as part of the blog tour for his new paperback title: Secrets of the Italian Gardener.

You may have read Andrew Crofts before, without knowing it. He’s a ghost writer. I’m always impressed by the idea of ghost writers, putting all that work in and not getting the credit. I think the attraction comes from the lingering idea of writers being dreamy inspired types, rather than thinking about it as an actual job.

Secrets of the Italian Gardener is Crofts as himself, although his main character is, you guessed it, a ghost writer. And the main question behind the plot is a simple one – what would make someone ghostwrite the story of a dictator? Would that make you complicit in their crimes? Do you need to be emotionally invested in your subject to be able to write about them?

Secrets of Italian Gardener‘Secrets’ is a novella, a slim 145 pages with the most gorgeous cover. It tells the story of a ghost writer trying to cobble together enough details of a Middle Eastern dictator, in order to write his biography. To do so, once in a while he is granted a few moments with Mo, the dictator, in his palace – a character we rarely meet but who in my mind became a mixture of Saddam Hussain and Colonel Gaddafi. The ghost has little to do with the rest of his time but brood on personal matters, and talk to the Italian gardener Lou.

We know fairly early on, that the ghost (who I think is unnamed – I’ve just scoured the text for his name. I don’t think I noticed this before – it’s written in the first person so it’s not immediately obvious) has had something awful happen at home and is separate from his wife and daughter. We can only speculate on what would drive someone to leave home and family to talk to a dictator about his life choices. And there is a safety, a cushioning, to the job. Not only is the ghost cushioned from facing whatever his reality at home is, but safe within the palace walls, all the inhabitants are shielded from the realities faced by the citizens outside, and further abroad.

A showdown is inevitable and comes in the form of a revolution, like the Arab Spring. We witness the downfall of a dictator and get a glimpse into who holds the real power in a society different to our own – a novella of political intrigue then. But it’s also a portrait of a marriage and how two people try to hold themselves together when faced with great tragedy. Finally it’s a question of ethics. Where do you draw the line, what’s your breaking point and how much are you willing to sacrifice your principles when you need to?

Some writers could, and would, make this into a longer thriller; a full novel of excitement and intrigue. But it’s not really necessary. There’s enough backstory and context laid out for you to imagine the rest and what you get here is a tightly plotted story with enough moments of reflection to provide clarity and depth of character. The result is still exciting but retains an air of realism (and cynicism, may I suggest?) about how the world really works. It doesn’t resort to cheap tricks for entertainment and is therefore unlikely to star Tom Cruise in any film adaptation. I say this as a good thing.

An absorbing, well crafted novella.

Secrets of the Italian Gardener is published in paperback by Red Door Publishing on 6 July 2017. Thanks to Red Door for the review copy.

Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I was interested in the idea of her second novel, especially when it was announced that Kathryn Williams would be providing an accompanying soundtrack.

Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer-songwriter from the 1970s who takes a day to listen to her back catalogue and choose 16 songs to represent her life and work. As she does so, the story of her life emerges and we find out more about why each was written and what Cass has gone through to get to where she is, isolated and alone, but about to emerge with an album of new material.

Each chapter starts with a song and charts a part of Cass’s life, from her entrance into the world as the daughter of a vicar who christens her Maria because he feels she should, leaving Cassandra as her middle name. Cass’s mother has depression and leaves her husband and daughter to run away to Canada when Cass is a young girl. This act changes Cass’s life – emotionally in ways she takes years to recover from, and physically as she moves from her devastated father to live with her aunt and uncle. It is there that she takes her first real steps to a musical career.

Told purely from Cass’s point of view, the book is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of the mistakes we make as we get through life, and is unskimping on the details – the drug taking, drinking, domestic abuse. This is a novel about consequences, how we live with them, and about the elusive second chance.

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett is published on 15 June 2017 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I jumped at the chance of reading this because I LOVE the idea of a book with an accompanying soundtrack. There aren’t many books that do this; there are variations, obviously, such as playlists featuring songs mentioned in all the Rebus books, for example, and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music has an accompanying CD. Greatest Hits, however, has an accompanying soundtrack that was written especially for the book –  performed by the lovely Kathryn Williams – and I’m looking forward to hearing the songs when my pre-order arrives.

Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer from the 1970s who sits one day and evaluates her life while choosing her favourite songs from her back catalogue. Each chapter starts with the lyrics to the song and tells of a period in Cass’s life starting with her childhood as the daughter of a vicar whose mother suffered from depression and PND and then ran away to Canada with another man. The fallout from this changed Cass’s life, emotionally and practically, as she moved to live with her uncle and aunt.

We know from the present-day parts of the book that Cass has undergone some kind of tragedy that has meant she retreated from the world and that she is about to re-emerge with some new material. The details of this are made clear as the book progresses, in heartbreaking fashion.

Told purely from Cass’s point of view, Greatest Hits is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of mistakes made – and is unskimping on details, including drugs and domestic abuse -and about consequences and how to live with them. If this sounds pretty depressing, don’t depair – it’s a really enjoyable read.

Thanks to NetGalley for their advance copy. Greatest Hits is published on 15 June 2017 and the accompanying CD by Kathryn Williams is also available on that date.

Damian Barr’s Literary Salon

Some of you may know of my love for the US author Richard Russo. When I heard he was making a rare UK appearance at Damian Barr’s Literary Salon at the Savoy I knew I had to make the effort to go. A Monday night and a trip from Nottingham and back for work the next day – all doable with planning and caffeine.

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Classy bird me, here’s a picture I took in the women’s toilets. Aren’t they palatial?

Imagine, if you will, a local government worker with a book to sell, a working parent whose little spare time is spent reading and writing, a comfortable if tiring routine to the days, little social life, an introvert with a hint of shyness (laying it on thick but still…) Now imagine The Savoy, all 1930s decor, hushed corridors and doormen, the Lancaster ballroom a swirling light blue, plaster detail, gilding and mirrored doors. FULL of people many of whom know each other, all of whom appear to be fully au fait with their surroundings. And take a breath.

Obviously, there was no need to worry. Everyone was friendly. The room was a lovely atmosphere and I sat and chatted to those on my table – all seemed to think I was slightly bonkers to be here from Nottingham for the evening, and none of whom had heard of Richard Russo before. I did my best to recommend books for them to start with, and said he was very funny.

The Literary Salon was set up just as I left the book industry so while it was my first time, it’s well established as a high class literary event – “always a good night out” said the man at my table. I sipped a lovely Valpolicella – recommended by another Damian Barr project A Book and a Bottle – to be drunk while reading Jessie Burton’s The Muse (on my TBR pile so now I will be forced to buy some wine – such a hard life). Fine writers, good wine, lovely surroundings – it’s all you could want if you fancy a bit of the high life once in a while.

Damian appeared with a flourish from behind the stage curtains, nattily dressed in bow tie and light blue trousers. He gave a sparkling introduction, referencing Noel Coward, the importance of diversity and tolerance and mentioning the terrible events of Saturday night not far away on London Bridge. And then our first guest was up.

The joy of all literary events, of course, is that you get to hear about books and ideas that you may not otherwise come across if just browsing. I doubt I would have otherwise found Sam Leith’s book You Talkin’ to Me? or Natalie Haynes’ Children of Jocasta but they were both terrific and obviously now added to my ever-growing TBR list.

A break before the main man appeared. I was getting slightly nervous by this point as I needed to leave soon to catch my last train home. I had planned on 9.15 leaving time but we were reconvening after the break at 9pm and I’d have come all this way and barely caught what I wanted to see. It’s a literary salon, I’m not criticising, the atmosphere was much better relaxed but… eeek!

Richard Russo
Richard Russo (left) Damian Barr (right)

But then there he was, reading out a selection from Everybody’s Fool, and how the people at my table laughed. I felt vindicated in my praise. It was a lovely interview, moving in places and funny in others, or it was until I finally had to sneak out.

Now, obviously the sensible person with a trek across London to make her train at St Pancras takes a cab. I am not a sensible person and I hate cabs and avoid them wherever possible (don’t ask why – it’s completely irrational of me). A combination of running and the tube was therefore my option. As I did this, I learned a number of things:

  1. I usually run 10k twice a week so distance and endurance is not an issue but not wearing a sports bra is. Ouch.
  2. Running while trying to preserve the lemon meringue cupcakes you bought as a treat for the hubby is a lost cause.
  3. Running in a waterproof coat causes heat to build up from your body so that when you reach your destination, you sit and steam gently. A sauna from within. Such a great look.
  4. My backpack, so useful for everyday life, does not take well to running and will burst open. Say what you will about London but I know of few other cities where a strange man will step into a rain-soaked road, pick up the contents of a woman’s handbag – including smashed face powder and a tampon – and return them to her without batting an eyelid. (The northern man is too preoccupied with humour for gallantry in this way.)
  5. The Northern line from Charing Cross doesn’t go to St Pancras – only Euston where you have to catch a different train across or run down the Euston Road. No prizes for guessing which I chose.

I made the train with minutes to spare and tucked into my Savoy sandwich and smashed cupcake.

What lessons can we learn from this?

The Literary Salon events are lovely and I must come again. Next time, however, perhaps a hotel and an early morning train would be the way to go. Or even, maybe, a cab.

Review: The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

Novellas still seem rare but are often intriguing. There is much in the 170 pages of The End We Start From that could have been fleshed out and given more detail but I’m not sure the end result would have been as powerful.

All you need to know is that an enormous flood has wiped out London and much of England. No why, when or how. While some preparations were in place, the devastation was still hard to manage. The narrator and heroine of this book, unnamed, flees with her husband and newborn son (also unnamed, in fact characters are only referred to by their first initial in this book) to Scotland to his parents’ home. When a further family tragedy takes place the three of them up and leave again, to a refugee camp but the husband runs away, unable to cope.

Unnamed and baby leave the camp and sail to an island commune where they are safe for a while but reports of the mainland leave her feeling she must return and try to find her husband.

So far, so post-apocalyptic, but what grounds the story and makes it both powerful and relevant is the part of the narrative about the new baby. Interspersed with the devastation and fear are her experiences of new motherhood, so normal and down to earth and relatable. These serve to make us realise how and why life goes on, that for every tragedy, every natural disaster or war or attack, humans endure through devastation, panic and heartbreak.

In a world that seems every day to turn its back ever harder on those fleeing war zones and all kinds of horror, it is perhaps more important than ever that books like The End We Start From are published, and to provide a searing glimpse of “there but for the grace…” that we seem to so badly need. An excellent debut.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is published on 18 May 2017 by Macmillan

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.