Tag Archives: review

The Maid’s Room by Fiona Mitchell – Q&A session

Fiona Mitchell Photo credit: Jed Leicester
Fiona Mitchell Photo credit: Jed Leicester

Today I’m really pleased to be joined by Fiona Mitchell, whose novel The Maid’s Room, has just come out in paperback. The story of two sisters, Dolly and Tala, Filipino maids to the privileged community in Singapore, The Maid’s Room is a sometimes shocking, sometimes funny account of the hidden lives of others and how much we need to connect with each other. While Dolly and Tala are struggling looking after others and making enough money to send home to their own children, Jules, a newcomer to Singapore, has her own difficulties among the expat community.

Fiona, thanks so much for answering my questions. I really enjoyed the book and thought the issues it covers are so pertinent today. There is the danger that exploitation like this is hidden in plain sight; that if you don’t think about the reality of the lives of others around you, then it doesn’t exist.

Let’s start off by asking about how you came to write The Maid’s Room?

I moved to Singapore in 2009 where lots of people employ live-in domestic helpers. When an estate agent showed us around a flat, she pointed to a 12ft by 5ft bomb shelter and said, “your maid will sleep in here.” When I mentioned the lack of windows, she said, “they don’t need things like that.” This attitude abounded. I met people who confiscated their maids’ passports and issued curfews. And it wasn’t as if domestic helpers were protected by the law; back then, they didn’t even have a legal right to one day off per week. When I spoke to domestic helpers, their reality was even more upsetting – every woman had a story to tell, and only being given rice to eat was the most common one. I was a freelance journalist, and at first I thought I’d write a feature, but the issue felt much bigger than a few thousand words, and I started to wonder whether writing a novel could be the way to go.

The two maid characters, Dolly and Tala, are beautifully written and each is flawed and as open to exploiting their situations as they are being exploited. I liked that Dolly, as the submissive and calm sister in the face of abuse, is as able to pick up some benefits for what she has to put up with in her own quiet way, as much as the outspoken Tala. How did you work out the characters of the sisters when you were writing the book?

Tala’s character came easily to me and she was my favourite character to write. She was based on a domestic helper I got to know with a massive personality, although the woman I knew wasn’t nearly as bolshy as Tala. Dolly was much more difficult to write; it took me lots of drafts to capture her voice. In early drafts the sisters were just close friends, but somehow that didn’t work. When I decided to make them sisters, Dolly’s character fell into place.

The Maid's Room coverA lot of the conflict comes from the two blogs – Vanda with her ‘rules’ for maids, and Tala’s Maidhacker. Has the internet made this kind of thing easier to uncover or is it a handy plot device (or a bit of both)? 

The idea for the Vanda blog came from a blog that was running when I was living in Singapore. This anonymous blogger actually wrote a series of rules on how to treat domestic helpers – it was clear she saw domestic helpers as somehow inferior to her, and it appalled me. I wrote to her to complain, but of course she didn’t put my comment up, so Tala taking matters into her own hands and writing her own blog was me wanting to shift the power away from people like Vanda.

It must have been difficult to ensure that the rich white characters, especially Amber, didn’t come across as cliched and two dimensional in their awful behaviour towards the maids. How aware were you as you wrote, that on some level readers would need to sympathise with some of the women so it wasn’t just a maids vs employers story?

I was very much reflecting what was around me, and although I experienced people treating domestic helpers badly, I only made friends with people who respected the women. From that point of view, there was always going to be a Jules in my book. I knew that for the book to be compelling, I’d need to have sympathetic characters, albeit hugely flawed ones. But to be honest, I didn’t consciously think about making the expat characters sympathetic, the balance just arrived naturally.

There is a secondary plot through the book about motherhood, about losing children, keeping children and risks to motherhood – for all four of the main female characters. I especially related to this line: ‘…no amount of watching other people’s grief had taken hers away, and hers was nothing compared to such things.’ This idea that unless we’re really suffering somehow our pain is invalid, and yet all these women have experienced loss in different ways and each is as valid as the others. Was writing the book cathartic for you, working through your own grief?

I was really down when I found out I would never have a second child, and I felt incredibly guilty about my unhappiness. It was overwhelming at times and it was this emotion that kickstarted me to write a book. Every time I sat in front of my computer and typed, it brought me a kind of peace. That first draft was quite depressing, but as I came to terms with my situation, the book gained more light and laughs.

Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed reading the book and having the chance to ask you about the book.

The Maid’s Room is published by Hodder and Stoughton today and retails at 8.99. Thanks so much to the publishers for my review copy.

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: 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.