Tag Archives: Reading

Review: How We Remember by JM Monaco

How We RememberToday I’m hosting the blog tour for JM Monaco’s how We Remember, a debut novel of dark family secrets and their after effects.

Jo O’Brien, Irish-American professor of Art History living and working in London, returns home after her mother’s death and, in the process of clearing out her mother’s diary and papers, is reminded of an incident from her teenage years which stirs up all kinds of memories. Family secrets come to the fore, as the three family remaining family members deal with a history of addiction, mental ill health, and bitter confrontations.

Jo is a well written character and the book is shaped around her. She’s not always likeable and she makes a lot of mistakes, but all this makes her recognisable and realistic. What a mess her family life is. But this is not a plot-based book, instead it’s a snapshot of what happens when the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it through the day all start to unravel.

Some passages are hard to read. Jo’s account of the incident in her mother’s diary, a sexual assault by her uncle, made me bite my lip but even worse were the recriminations from her own family members that Jo, a teenage girl, had been ‘asking for it’. And the family dependence on alcohol, the accounts of depression that devastated their family life but was never really treated are heartbreaking.

Despite this, I wouldn’t want you thinking it’s a dreary or sad read. It’s frank, realistic and has passages of tenderness and love that show you that we’re all just trying as hard as we can, sometimes against the odds.

It’s a sure-footed debut and worthy of critical and popular acclaim.

How We Remember is available from Amazon,
Netgalley or Red Door Publishing website.
JM Monaco’s blog can be found here. 

Thanks to Red Door Publishing for the copy of the book in exchange for a review.

Review: Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

Take nothing with youA new Patrick Gale is always something to celebrate but in recent years his books seem to have taken on an extra quality. I do feel he’s one of the country’s best writers – portraying empathy, love and the human experience with deftness, wit and a sure touch. We must celebrate him more. Perhaps a knighthood?

It opens like this:

‘At an age when he was reassured that life was unlikely to surprise him further, Eustace found, in rapid succession, that he was quite possibly dying and that he was falling in love for the third time.’

Wham. And you’re in! Eustace is our hero, about to undergo cancer treatment and falling for Theo, who he hasn’t yet met because Theo is on deployment in the Middle East with the army. Their relationship has so far been conducted over the internet, and Eustace is reluctant to tell Theo of his diagnosis. Eustace’s best friend Naomi, a cellist, has made him a playlist to listen to while he takes his treatment and it is this that sparks memories for Eustace.

The bulk of the book is Eustace’s story from his childhood in Weston Super Mare where his parents run an old people’s home. One day, Eustace’s mother takes him to see Swan Lake and later, remembering the music and the athleticism, Eustace dances to Tchaikovsky in front of the old ladies in the home before being severely reprimanded and signed up for clarinet lessons. But the clarinet teacher is sent away and instead Eustace and his mother find Carla Gold, a cellist and teacher. They are both hooked and Eustace begins lessons.

Eustace finds he is a good player, and devotes himself to playing and practicing. Aside from this, his story is that of a boy growing up to discover his sexuality, how he tentatively explores this with his schoolfriend Vernon. It’s standard stuff and yet there is a charm to it, Eustace is a curious and engaging boy.

Things change. Eustace does not win a scholarship to the private music school he wants to go to and his parents, whose relationship is strained, cannot afford the fees. So he has to go to the local comprehensive, nervous of how the others will view him and starts to mix with a broader range of young people than he has before. Eustace gets to go to a cello summer camp with Carla’s celebrated teacher. If he does well there, he could go on to be a professional musician. It is at the camp that he meets Naomi and her friends, and where he feels less isolated. But before he can perform at the camp’s final concert, his father arrives to take him away. His mother has been involved in a car accident and is in hospital.

Like many teens, Eustace senses his sexuality is something he must keep secret and despite experimenting with his friends, he knows he is different. It is at Carla’s house in Bristol where he stays over on Friday nights before lessons on Saturday that he finds allies. But, when something truly shocking occurs in the last 40 pages of the book (I mean, really, I gasped out loud) he also finds he has allies elsewhere.

I won’t say more but this really is a wonderful read. It’s such a cliche to use words like mature, sensitive writing but this is an engaging, absorbing book, with humour and love and awkwardness and wonder. All it needs is an accompanying soundtrack to really take you along with it.

Take Nothing With You is published on 21 August by Tinder Press. Thank you to Georgina Moore for the review copy.

Review: The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen

lost letters william woolfWhat a lovely premise this book has. As soon as I heard it, I wanted to read it. William Woolf works for the Royal Mail at the Dead Letters Depot. Woolf is a Letter Detective,  sorting through all the letters that never get delivered. He tries to deliver or return them, seeking out the stories that led them to be mis-addressed, trying to decipher the smudged writing, the torn packaging or lost street names.

Doesn’t that sound fascinating? I love these sort of things – the element of fantasy, a system that a more generous, more patient world could have had if we wished it. And it features letters – regular readers of the blog will know I love letters and the epistolary style. So I dived in.

Oh! The book blurb mentions missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers. But there’s also whale vomit and old medals and stories of kindness, connections and long-remembered deeds. That’s the just the letters. If I’m honest, I would have been happy with just these. But there’s also William Woolf himself.

William is a failed writer married to Clare. They met at university with William tried to start up a book club and only Clare came along. Their early passion has waned, as they all do, into a comfortable companionship, or has it? For Clare is unhappy. She is frustrated that William is content being a letter detective, she isn’t quite happy at her job as a lawyer, she doesn’t want to consider having a family until they are set up better, and their relationship is now a series of misunderstandings and sniping comments. This portrayal of a soured marriage felt well written and realistic, though there was a part of me that wanted to tell them both to grow up and behave. It can be tedious reading other people’s arguments.

Then one day at work, William discovers a special letter, the first in a series, addressed to ‘My Great Love.’ It is the work of someone called Winter, who lives in London and has enough eloquence and mystery to get William hooked on trying to find them. Soon Winter’s letters contain enough for William to start wondering if he is actually the great love mentioned in the letters. As Clare leaves him, his quest to find Winter begins.

This is an accomplished novel with great insight into how relationships change and develop and change again, with ups and downs. It was a little too sentimental in places to completely charm me – I found Winter to be more of an irritant that she was meant to be but I put that down to my misanthropic heart and I know others will love it. For me the great character was William’s slightly bonkers workmate Marjorie, lonely, ample-bottomed, but obsessed with other people’s love letters and Valentines.

Lost Letters is a great testament to the power of the written word, even by the worst point of their relationship, William and Clare still communicate by letter, and it offers hope for second chances and our own powers of resilience.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf is published on 12 July 2018 by Michael Joseph and available in all good bookshops. My thanks to the Michael Joseph team who sent a proof copy for review.

Twenty Four Stories

Five or six years ago I walked through Nottingham’s Old Market Square. It was near Christmas, dark overhead but the Christmas market was in full swing, including the annual ice rink. The scene gave me a ‘what if?’ moment and I turned it into a story.

I wrote and edited and wrote and tinkered, made it longer, cut it down and was finally happy enough to submit it. It didn’t get very far – it was too simple, not enough of a twist at the end, not dark enough for many magazines. I forgot all about it and moved on.

A year ago, we woke to the awful pictures of Grenfell Tower, the smoking black horror dominating the news and the skyline. And a little project was born. Watching the news were people who decided to help, who knew that the trauma experienced by residents of Grenfell and the local area would be incredibly difficult to recover from without support. A fundraising project could ensure that a trauma charity could come in and provide support to the families and help them process their experience.

24 stories book coverTwenty Four Stories is a book for Grenfell Tower – a story for every storey – funded by a crowd of generous souls, edited by Kathy Burke and published by Unbound. Twelve of the stories are by established writers, twelve of them are by us amateurs.

I saw a call for submissions on Twitter.

I dug my story out. I polished it and I submitted it. 500 other people did the same.

A year after Grenfell, our book will be published. Twenty-four stories of hope, unity, community and love, all of them chosen to be positive and uplifting. I’m so proud to be a part of this, so pleased that my little story is helping play its part. There is so much crap out there, so many horror stories, so many people willing to be negative or criticise or dismiss. Sometimes a small gesture, a story, a smile, a kind word is all that’s needed. That’s what this book is about.

All the profits from the book go to the Trauma Response Network to help their work supporting people with PTSD.

Twenty Four Stories is available to buy from all good retailers. It’s filled with fantastic writing and it looks brilliant. A top read and a good cause! Buy it. Play your small part.

 

 

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.