Tag Archives: Reading

Review: The Road to California by Louise Walters

Louise Walters’ third book turns out to be her first. When I finished reading this, I tweeted her to say how much I enjoyed it and she replied to say it’s been sitting in a drawer for 10 years. Would that we all had novels of such quality in our drawers!

road to californiaThe Road to California is the name of Joanna’s quilting business. She sews beautiful quilts to earn a living, recycling vintage material from charity shops. The business is named after a quilting pattern but also has relevance for Joanna, who is sheltering secrets her son Ryan knows nothing of.

The book opens with Ryan at school, teased and bullied until one day he snaps, punches his bully and is suspended. A further incident at school later sees him accidentally punch his bully’s girlfriend and Ryan is excluded from school.

His mother, not knowing what else to do, suggests two things. One is to homeschool Ryan for a while and she joins forces with flower child Sharon and her children at a weekly study group. And she also makes a call for help. Into their lives rides Lex, a motorcyclist, glamorous and wealthy. Lex and Ryan hit it off immediately, and the reader (and then Ryan) soon suspect he is Ryan’s father.

Ryan, away from school, starts to blossom, reading a lot and practising the writing his old teacher told him he had a talent for. He also starts to study with the bully he punched from school, an unlikely friendship but a rewarding one. Relationships bloom between the three of them but then tragedy strikes.

This is a character-led novel, beautifully written, and full of normal flawed people just trying to get on with life the best way they can. The relationships are excellently portrayed, and it’s an absorbing mature read. As with a patchwork quilt, there are lovely details on the smallest parts that combine to make a stunning whole. I loved how the characters interacted, how Walters manages to illustrate how the mistakes we make can lead to the memories we rely on later. It’s a lovely novel and I wholly recommend it!

Walters is the author of two previous books, Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase and her self-published follow up novel, A Life Between Us. The Road to California is also published on her own imprint and is easily her best yet. It is released in paperback on 1 March. Thanks to Louise Walters for my advance copy via Netgalley.

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

evelyn hardcastleSebastian Bell wakes in a wood, yells “Anna!” and swears he saw a woman shot before his eyes. Waiting, chasing, he hears a stranger approach behind him, slip a compass in his pocket and say “east.” Bell, who can remember nothing of his life before this moment, finds himself in Blackheath, a house isolated in a forest away from the nearest village, where a house party is being held to welcome home Evelyn Hardcastle, prodigal daughter.

And so we begin. While I usually hate comparisons that mix up other books, this is kind of a mixture of The Time Traveller’s Wife and Agatha Christie, but with an added touch of violence and nastiness not found in either. It’s all plot and a twisty, turny, details based plot at that, where everything could have significance so after a while you have no idea what is important and what isn’t.

Bell, it turns out, is merely a handy body for someone called Aiden Bishop to inhabit for a while. Aiden has been placed in Blackheath to solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle who will die later that evening. Aiden gets to inhabit eight different bodies of guests at the party and use them to try and work out what is going on. He has been given his mission by a mysterious Plague Doctor, who must be told by 11pm who the murderer is, otherwise Aiden will be condemned to repeat the day all over again, but remembering nothing, until he gets it right. But, there are further twists. Aiden is not the only one trying to find out the answer; he’s in competition with others to find it and make his escape, and he must do so before he runs out of bodies to inhabit for there is a terrifying footman chasing him down ready to kill his hosts.

Confused? You will be. And yet this is an addictive read. Trying to make sense of the day and the clues as Aiden travels back and forth through the same day in different bodies, trying to remember who he is, who the mysterious Anna is, who is a friend and who an enemy, and ultimately who does kill Evelyn is pretty difficult. It’s breathless stuff. Unless you have a notebook to hand, you may as well not bother trying to work it all out but sit back and enjoy the ride.

There’s not much in the way of character or insight, this is just a crazy story told in a way designed to confuddle and pique your interest. It’s a lot of fun, a breathless rollercoaster read that should do well.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is published by Raven Books on 8 February. Thank you to the publishers via Netgalley who allowed me to read an advance copy.

Review: We Own the Sky by Luke Allnutt

Warning. This is a dreadfully sad book. Unless you have a void where your heart should be, you will need tissues and possibly, some consoling biscuits.

we own the sky coverOn the face of it, it’s a bog standard boy meets girl story. Rob meets Anna at university where she is wowing people with her accountancy skills and he is planning a computer revolution. Rob is the narrator of the story and nice enough, though I imagine his school reports read “Could do better if he applied himself.” He is the son of a taxi driver and studies at Cambridge without any of the hang ups I would have there, for example. Anna is more complicated, the product of an odd family life and Rob states a number of times that she could come across as cold or distant.

They marry after graduation, move to London, make money and then tragedy strikes. Anna miscarries two babies. Anna is devastated, or so we imagine – Rob says very little about this at this point. And then they have Jack, a lovely little boy. Rob is the primary carer, all seems well until Jack starts to fall or lose his balance.

I won’t go too much further in the plot as I don’t want to spoil what happens next, but it is emotionally very difficult – for Anna and Rob, and for the reader. All we know from the book’s opening is that Rob is now living alone in Cornwall, drinking hard and picking up women for one night stands. He spends time taking panoramic photos to put on his website We Own the Sky, and the relevance of this title becomes clear as we learn more about Jack.

As you may gather, Rob is not the most sympathetic of characters, but he is very real and flawed in ways that make you know him – he’s that bloke you’re friends with on Facebook. One of the loose themes of the book is how casual acquaintances deal with other people’s losses (spoiler: badly) and how all those posts you see on Facebook can be a by-product of a thousand poor attempts to empathise. When it comes down to it, few of us will always say the right thing in the face of another’s tragedy – either through embarrassment or inexperience – but this book does offer a raw lesson in how to think about enormous life changing issues.

Anna and Rob face their tragedy in different ways, and again, these are absolutely relatable and filled with flaws. These are both very human characters, and excellently portrayed. We Own the Sky is the product of the author’s own cancer diagnosis, and also a way of coming to terms with his father’s death from cancer – and the theme of father-son relations runs throughout the book, with Rob and Jack, Rob and his own father, and other fathers and sons that Rob meets. Between the lines of this is someone who knows exactly the kind of pain experienced and resilience required to face hard times, and someone who also knows that we’re only human and that people fail, especially when facing the loss of a loved one.

Essentially, this is a simple story, well told and full of facts as well as human emotions. It will break you but it does offer you a hand back up again, a way home. It’s a shattering debut.

We Own the Sky is published on 8 February by Trapeze Books. Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for offering me a review copy.

 

Review: Turning for Home by Barney Norris

This is a slow read. And, for anyone reading advice about writing books that show and don’t tell, it breaks all the rules. Told in the first person by two alternating points of view, Robert and his granddaughter Kate, Turning for Home is nonetheless a fascinating account of the interior world.

So what’s it about? It’s about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, about the effect we can have on other people, about loss, mental illness and it’s about not eating.

Robert is a retired member of British Intelligence who worked in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He is celebrating his 80th birthday when a former contact comes to see him at home to ask about a new investigation the British government are carrying out following a series of interviews of former combatants on both sides – a project undertaken by Boston College. The interviews brought out more secrets than anyone wished and there is danger of trouble stirring up again. Both men are afraid of repercussions, bother personally and politically.

Among the party guests is Kate, Robert’s granddaughter, who is recovering from a near death experience following an eating disorder. Kate is Robert’s ally, and he enlists her help to have his meeting uninterrupted. In return, he has always stood by her in her difficult relationship with her mother, a relationship seen by Kate as a possible trigger for her mental disorders. The two characters narrate the events of the party day to us, reminiscing over the past and recapping difficult decisions, painful memories and explaining slowly how they came to this point.

The book was inspired, if that’s the word, by the idea of eating – or, more accurately, not eating – as an act of control by the desperate, as a political act and as a personal one. It’s a loose thread but enough to hold the novel together and is thought provoking without the author hitting the reader over the head to make his point.

Both characters are real – grubby, sometimes mistaken, pig headed but ultimately loving and supportive to each other. I especially liked Kate and it can be the case that male characters mess up writing women, but Kate is perfectly done.

It’s a slow read and I think some may be tempted to give up before finishing, but I recommend sticking with it. It’s absorbing and rewarding in ways few books are these days, not an awful lot happens and yet we cover a lot of ground. It’s also worth saving it for a few days when you can devote a chunk of time to each chapter, rather than fleeting pages on the bus or whatever. It’s an intelligent book and asks questions of its readers.

Turning for Home is published on 11 January by Transworld.

My thanks to the publishers for my free copy via Netgalley for review purposes.

Three Things About Elsie – Joanna Cannon

So you may remember Joanna Cannon’s debut The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, did STORMING things last year so there’s been quite a lot of anticipation for her follow up book.

three things about elsieLet’s start with how it looks. Covers are important. This has Battenberg cake on it. And jigsaws. Look at that. Already you’re interested, right?

Goats and Sheep was all about friendship and small mysteries and things that happen to you that seem unremarkable in the wider world but have a massive effect on you and hey, so is this. But where Goats and Sheep featured two little girls, this focuses in on an old lady called Florence who lives in sheltered accommodation and doesn’t like it very much.

Florence is a bit of a trouble maker, but once in a while you can see her heart is in the right place. The story opens as she has fallen in her flat and she lies on the floor and spots the mess under the dresser, and starts to tell her story. An unmarried woman with no children, we could assume she has had a dull life, but when an old man turns up at the sheltered accommodation, she is convinced he is not who he says he is, but instead a shadowy figure from her past.

Florence is accompanied everywhere by Elsie, her best friend, and soon also by another resident, Jack, who helps Florence to solve the mystery. Along the way, we come across a supporting cast of characters, some sad, some apparently busybodies, some just witnesses flitting in and out of lives, but all important in their way.

The story was apparently inspired by Joanna Cannon’s work with older people as part of her day job, and serves as a reminder that everyone is someone, and no matter how we may dismiss them, old people have as much right to exist and be haunted by the past and have their own opinions and quirks as much as anyone else.

It’s a lovely story, and I think will put a lot of people in mind of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ although I think I prefer this as there was something about Florence (and especially Jack who I loved as a character) that stuck with me more. However, expect to hear the two books discussed in the same breath. Florence is an engaging narrator for all her foibles, and her unreliability is as much of her charm as anything else.

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon is published on 11 January 2018. Thank you to Netgalley for the free review copy.

Books of the Year 2017

I’m sorry, OK? Blogging fell by the wayside in the second half of 2017. I have no real excuse except that life generally happened and I wasn’t there to make time for blogging. Which was a real shame because I read some cracking books in the second half of the year.

In total (and I’m still reading some so it’s an incomplete total) I read 83 books this year. Except I didn’t because I didn’t finish reading 7 of those. So I completed reading 76 books this year and I have 3 on the go at the moment.

Of the 84, 61 were by women authors, 22 by men and 1 was an anthology of essays by a range of authors. There were 15 non-fiction books which is probably the highest number of non-fiction I’ve read since graduating.

Before I do my top 5 of the year, a few honourable mentions:

Richard Russo – Everybody’s Fool

A follow up to one of my favourite books of all time, Everybody’s Fool is set in the cold fictional town of North Bath, USA but the focus shifts from Donald Sullivan to his nemesis, policeman Doug Raymer instead. There are perhaps fewer belly laughs this time around, but this is a poignant and at times funny book, well worthy of a place on your shelf. Plus I was thrilled to be able to see Richard Russo talk about this earlier in the year at Damian Barr’s Literary Salon at The Savoy in London.

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From

A novella about the forthcoming apocalypse and how that chimes with the experiences of new motherhood. London is under water and our nameless heroine and her new baby travel north to try and escape the floods. Not a wasted word, it’s unsettling but with moments of great insight and emotional depth.

And now… *drum roll*

2017-12-22 12.13.41In no particular order… My top 5 books of this year. This is my top 5 reads, not just new books, although most of these are published this year, there is one classic which I’d never got round to before.

Mary Beard – Women and Power

A short treatise on the history of men telling women to shut up, from a wonderful classicist. This examines the history of women’s silence, and how silence has meant a loss of power, influence, wealth and respect in public and private life. This is a short but powerful book and asks some tough questions, meaning to provoke debate and stir up conversation, instead of providing all the answers. A great read from a great woman.

Sarah Winman – Tin Man

A lovely and unusual book about grief, and about male friendships, and love and closed emotions. I know this has made a lot of end of year lists and it’s a quiet book, striking a note as you read and leaving you gladdened that you made time for it. Listen to the blurb: ‘It begins with a painting won in a raffle: fifteen sunflowers, hung on the wall by a woman who believes that men and boys are capable of beautiful things.’ I really recommend reading this.

Tor Udall – A Thousand Paper Birds

My favourite book of the year. Another book about grief, and especially about how men handle grief, and the loss of a loved one. This is another quiet book, full of everyday beauty, but each of the characters is so well portrayed, so flawed and clueless as they navigate the world that you can’t help but be drawn into their struggles. The book concerns the death of Audrey, wife to Jonah, friend (and more?) to Harry. Her death leaves both men devastated but there’s more – for in Kew Gardens, where much of the book is set, sits Chloe, an artist who folds paper birds, and there in Kew runs Milly, a little girl roaming freely among the plants. These lives are intertwined and we can only guess at how as we read. This is emotionally piercing, at times heartbreaking, and in other places an utterly beautiful read. Buy it for everyone you know.

Maggie O’Farrell – I Am, I Am, I Am

Boy, this was a tough read. Devised by O’Farrell as comfort for her daughter who was dreadfully ill, she describes her own brushes with death, to lessen the fear and to bring death into the everyday. Some of the accounts are more tenuous than others but many are real enough, and some are genuinely harrowing. I was emotionally wrung out by the end of reading this, but it’s a beautiful book and thought provoking both about death, and how we handle life.

Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own

This could have been written this year. It’s still so relevant, especially if you’ve read the Beard book, above. Again concerned with the silencing of women, Woolf examines the unsung, using the analogy of Shakespeare’s sister (not the pop group). Famously, she says in this that to write a woman needs two things, a private income and a room of one’s own and goes on to examine why. But there is hope for those of us who have neither and Woolf above all things advocates just pegging away at this, at writing despite the odds, that if we do keep at it, we will raise Shakespeare’s sister and give her voice, that all work is worthwhile if it gives voice to women’s thoughts.

That’s it for 2017! I’ve accumulated a lot of advance copies for books coming out in 2018 so there will be more reviews next year, and I will commence the year with the new Joanna Cannon book, Three Things about Elsie, which is published on 11 January and splendid.

Until then, a very Merry Christmas to book lovers everywhere.

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: 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.

Bringing back the bodies… *

I was delving into the BBC’s website the other day and came across one of my favourite authors, Barbara Trapido, on the Book Club programme. She and the audience were discussing The Travelling Hornplayer. Trapido has written seven novels and four of them are linked. By linked, I mean that characters return and live on in different stories. They’re not sequels exactly, or at least not in the standard way that we expect, if only because I’m not sure if Trapido envisioned writing them all like that when she started out. From the way she describes it on the programme, it sounds a more organic process, that by thinking about a situation she also considers “Who do we know that would do this?” and sometimes that answer is a character that already lives in her head, or on her pages.

I have a complicated relationship with sequels, in that I find most of them invariably spoil the original for me. Jo’s Boys and Little Men, for example, are awful, and EM Forster wrote a brief sequel to A Room With a View, included in my paperback version as an extra ‘treat’ for the reader (every reader except me that is.) Successful sequels, when done well, can bring more to the originals, can enhance and continue the characters and answer some of the readers’ questions. The best example of this I can think of are the sequels to Rebecca – Mrs de Winter by Susan Hill and Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman. They both continue the best aspects of the original while staying true to it (for example, neither of them name the main character, indeed I doubt any reader would find a name satisfactory).

Series are different, since they aren’t sequels in the true sense. But you can still find yourself disconcerted if the author does something unexpected. I still haven’t finished Michael Tolliver Lives just because I was so thrown by the sudden switch to the first person narrative after six books told in the third person.

Trapido’s approach is rather fun. Having just dug my copy of The Travelling Hornplayer out, I found a family tree and connections map that I must have drawn years ago when I first read the books.

2017-05-12-14-18-49.jpgIsn’t it sweet? But complicated and messy in a way that suggests that a) I’m rubbish at drawing family trees or b) Trapido ended up with a set of coincidences that are as messy as life itself.

With these interactions between books, Trapido says in Book Club that she was reprimanded and “not forgiven” by some readers who didn’t like the direction that character had taken. I do understand this. My favourite Trapido book is her debut Brother of the More Famous Jack, and I love the main character Katherine so much that I am disappointed by her overbearing smothering (yet completely understandable) mothering of her second child Stella, which has such damaging consequences later. All of this comes out in The Travelling Hornplayer where, it also transpires that Katherine’s husband Jonathan has been having affairs. Of course he has. I forgive Jonathan’s transgression because it’s in character but I have trouble reconciling myself to him and his family isolating Katherine – although she chooses to travel to Ireland with him at the end of BOTMFJ, she has had a shocking bereavement and a spell of mental illness and the last thing she needs is to be alone with a baby while he writes books and philanders. Her concentration on the baby is understandable but I wonder if she would have been like this had she had a closer physical network of family and friends nearby who could have helped and lessened the focus.

What makes people feel resentful about characters changing in this way is that when you read, you accompany people through their story and, in many cases, get to a happy ending. ¬†A later volume means you’re not allowed to let them go on living happily ever after. As a reader, you’re powerless to stop the mistakes they make and this can be worse when you thought you got safely with them to the end of their first book.

As a writer though, there is an attraction to this approach. Getting to know a character can often mean that you think of them in certain situations, so why not put them through the wringer all over again? The convenience of having a ready-made philanderer on hand must have been helpful and gives you a chance to pop back and say hello to those you haven’t quite done with.

This makes it sound like the answer for a lazy writer and that’s not the case at all. Trapido’s books are intricate weavings of characters and situations, with literary references thrown into the mix. If you’ve not read her before, why not give her a try? You won’t regret it.

*with apologies to Hilary Mantel