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
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.
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.
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.
I feel perhaps I should change the target for my reading challenge this year, I’m well over halfway towards it already. I didn’t expect to get through so many books this year and still manage to keep up with writing every day but it turns out a healthier eating and exercise regime can have unexpected benefits with sleep quality too. *turns into health bore* Sorry.
My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout
I really enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book, and this got so many great reviews that I nearly wasn’t disciplined enough to wait for the paperback. However, I’m glad I did – because I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it lacked a certain something for me. Obviously the subject matter was dark, and realistic, and impressively low-key – so many lesser authors could’ve made a meal of the revelations, but still. I’m going to hang onto it for a while because I think a re-read may yield more.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
I heard Hamid interviewed on Radio 4 the other week and realised I’d not read his best-known book. How I enjoyed it, once I’d got used to the style. The style is, I think, the best thing about it but its honesty about the politics was refreshing and full of things observers felt perhaps they couldn’t say in the time following 9/11.
The Last Days of Leda Grey – Essie Fox
A journalist finds a copy of a beautiful 1930s silent film star in a shop in a coastal town and sets off to find the star, now a reclusive old lady living in the ruins of a house on the cliffs. His interviews aim to find the truth about her life. I don’t want to go into more detail without giving away the plot but I found it unsettling, immersive, creepy and melancholy. I really enjoyed this!
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami
Non fiction of the month is a running book that came into my mind when I was out for a run myself. I’ve never read any of Murakami’s novels – I find the cult of him rather offputting and really should get over myself – but I enjoyed this wander around his mind and a lot of what he said resonated with me. The comments about training yourself as a runner and writer make sense, and if I can get myself to run 10k within a matter of weeks, why do I not apply the same techniques to writing with more discipline? While I writer every day, the amounts vary and the results are less obvious – I have a feeling this is more to do with self doubt than anything else. I do like that he doesn’t really think of anything while he runs, because neither do I but I think people often assume that you do.
Guernica – Dave Boling
I know very little about the Spanish Civil War so my non-fiction aims now include Antony Beevor’s book about it – there is so much literature based around the conflict. This was an interesting book and I think it probably benefited from me not having much knowledge of the war. The first half of the book is mainly to immerse the reader in the town of Guernica and some of the families within. There are brief cameos from Picasso and the German bomber in charge of the attack. The characters are perhaps a little one-dimensional but I didn’t think I mind this, until the main attack occurred and then I found that I wasn’t as upset at what happened as I might have been in the hands of a better author. The other problem with Guernica is that of course, there was no real revenge or conclusion to the atrocity, so the author has to manufacture a slightly contrived ending in order to bring about an end to the story. But having said all that, I still found this an interesting read and it will spur me onto find out more.
Hold Back the Stars – Katie Khan
I rarely read sci fi but I enjoyed this very much indeed. The opening chapter is astonishing, and draws you right in, hand in heart. This is a love story between Carys and Max and we find them floating in space further away from their spaceship, and with only 90 minutes worth of air left. In that time, we learn about how they met and why they’re floating in space. It turns out there’s been a massive war that has destroyed the USA and the Middle East, and much of the remaining world has joined together in a utopian system which forbids people to form close relationships until they’re over 35. And the asteroid belt has moved closer to Earth and prevented humans from exploring space any further. As you can imagine, there is a lot to cover in the book, and Khan intersperses the countdown of air chapters with the backstory with ease.
The Lauras – Sara Taylor
I thought Taylor’s first book was good but not completely enjoyable. This was different. Told in the first person by Alex, a teenager of indeterminate gender, as their mother leaves their father and goes on a road trip, just the two of them, to clear up loose ends. Alex’s mum spent her youth in foster homes and broken homes and has gone through all kinds of unpleasantness, but made friends – many of them called Laura – and promises along the way. The two of them have to stop every so often for Alex to go to school and for the mum to make some money by waitressing but essentially make their way across the US and finally up to Canada to find one of The Lauras. Along the way, Alex starts to grow up, find out more about what kind of person they want to be. It’s an occasionally bleak, but always absorbing read.
Standard Deviation – Katherine Heiny
If you ever wanted to read a book that talked about the phrase, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” this is it. Heiny’s first novel is a very funny story of a marriage, told from the point of view of Graham, the husband. His second wife Audra is unlike anyone I would ever want to meet in real life, and there are moments when Graham appears to feel the same. Through a string of awkward encounters at parties, with his first wife, with friends and odd acquaintances, Graham and Audra look after their son, who has Asperger’s and try and get through life as best they can. It’s insightful, bitchy, wickedly funny and a really good read.
I’m so pleased to welcome Kay Langdale to the blog today, to answer questions about her most recent book, The Comfort of Others.
Minnie and her sister Clara are two elderly spinsters living in an old house in the middle of a housing estate. They have an ordered lifestyle, trying where they can to stop decay in the house, and living quietly together. One day Minnie starts to write again in her childhood diary, finally ready to record the unspoken sadness at the heart of the sisters’ existence.
In the house opposite them, lives Max and his mother. Max has never known his father and is happy with his life until his mother gets a new boyfriend. Confused and feeling rejected, he starts to use his mother’s old Dictaphone as a diary.
The two characters become unlikely friends and their stories intertwine, each influencing the other in ways they didn’t expect. And as they do so, the ghosts of the past and the challenges of the present weave together to make an enthralling read.
I should start the Q&A by saying how much I enjoyed the book – I raced through it, reading it very quickly. It’s absorbing, moving and there’s some lovely humour and humanity in it.
What made you decide on a diary format?
I felt that the diary format allowed me to get under the skin of the characters better, especially Minnie. Her reticence meant that she would not have chosen to talk directly with anyone about what happened to her, and so allowing her to write it down felt like the most authentic means of capturing it. With Max, the Dictaphone allowed uninhibited chatting which felt somehow more age appropriate. At the beginning he says that he feels like a reporter, and so it allows him an emotional freedom to explore what’s happening to him.
The book hinges around the idea of an estate sold off with new houses surrounding a large manor house – Minnie is hemmed in. Where did this idea come from? Is the house based on anywhere in particular?
I drove past a large house once that had been similarly surrounded by an estate, and I was very struck by how it looked as if it was marooned in its own space like a vast sea creature. I felt the idea worked on multiple levels; life is going on beyond the house while Minnie is ‘encased’ within it, and also the estate has erased the parkland but it’s all still there in Minnie’s mind. It allowed the past spaces to still have a physical, ghostly presence.
The book is made up of tiny details and there’s a theme of ‘noticing’ things, overlooking people as they go about their lives. You seem to celebrate the beauty in the everyday – do you see this as part of the writer’s job?
Yes, most definitely. I also think the small things often communicate the most. So often, it is a small detail about someone’s life that tells us the truth of that life. I think that the home, and the daily round, are sacred spaces.
I loved Max’s humour – he was such an enjoyable narrator – the book has such distinctive character voices, Minnie being more formal. How did you ensure the voices were so distinctive while you were writing them? Did you write large parts in each voice and then divide them up for the smaller chapters?
I confess to hopping between them. I had a very strong sense of them as characters right from the beginning and so moving between their voices wasn’t difficult. The first time we see Minnie is the image I first had of her; waiting, hands clasped, by the bay window. Minnie’s most difficult scenes I wrote in one section, mostly because it was such an immersive piece of writing. I also listened to the Bach Goldberg sonata piece Minnie refers to – over and over while I wrote – which was a way of steeping me in Minnie’s experience. (It’s the version played very slowly by Glenn Gould and is for, me, the musical heart map of the book.)
Minnie’s formal style makes the two shocking scenes almost more shocking and sad because of the matter of fact way she relates them. Yet in some ways her sister Clara seems more repressed of the two elderly women. Was this something you consciously wanted to explore? Minnie’s experiences as a young girl, and then as a palliative nurse, make her more alive and attuned to the importance of showing kindness while we learn little of Clara and how she feels.
You are absolutely right. It was completely my intention that Clara remained ‘unexplained’. The things we know about her – that she painted a watercolour, that she sat on a bench with a boy, that a Latin teacher phoned her – is all reported by Minnie. We only see Clara through the prism of Minnie. We always see Clara behaving responsibly –as first born children often do – and conducting herself just as her mother would like. The only time Clara indirectly communicates is when she plays the piano at two key moments in the novel.
I saw Minnie and Clara’s relationship to each other like a duet, but we can only hear one voice. It was my intention that the reader has to piece together Clara’s story for themselves – to imagine how it was for her. I’m quite interested in one day writing Clara’s version. Perhaps she was not always as stultified as Minnie perceived.
The other thing I loved was a small detail about Max’s friend Eddie who has special needs. Max’s friendship with him is important to both of the boys but it’s not made a big deal of in the book. I liked how Max was able to connect with ‘outsiders’ but how he just sees them as other people – his innocence is refreshing and ideal. Was this a conscious decision to reflect something about Max or did you want to include a different character who was just part of the landscape?
It was both. I wanted Max’s world to be less confined that Minnie’s, and I thought it was important – and realistic – that he would have school friends and experiences outside of his home and Rosemount. But, the fact that Max is so intuitive about Eddie’s needs was important in the way I was trying to build his character. For Max, the quality of love is a little unreliable and as such he is watchful and alert. He is quick to sense other’s discomfort or disquietude. However, his natural warmth and sunniness means he is also quick to provide an antidote to it. With Eddie, he works within what makes Eddie comfortable. It’s that innate sweetness which I think Minnie senses in him, which is why she allows herself to begin the friendship.
Thank you for such interesting and insightful questions – I’ve loved answering them.
There we go! Thank you so much to Kay Langdale for answering my questions. The Comfort of Others is available now in paperback, priced at £8.99.
My thanks to Hodder Books for sending me a free copy to prepare the questions
I’m so pleased to be hosting the blog tour for Rebecca Mascull today! I really enjoyed reading The Wild Air – it’s got a great heroine and a story that sheds light on a little known part of history. Here’s my review:
We need more adventure books these days. Especially us women. I don’t mean thrillers involving dark secrets and titles with ‘girl’ in them, I don’t mean crime books, or secret missions and explosions. I mean proper adventures, heroines doing brave, bold, daring things, going further and better than others.
Thank goodness, then, for Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air. It’s a proper adventure telling the story of Della Dobbs. Della is an unlikely heroine, shy and diffident at the beginning and living in the shadow of her family in Cleethorpes. Della’s father doesn’t like her very much, transferring his affection on her older brother Puck and her younger sister Cleo. When Della’s widowed Aunt Betty moves to Cleethorpes, Della finds someone who recognises her talents in engineering and love of flight. Together they work to make Della an aviatrix – one of the pioneering women flyers who made the path so much easier for later stars such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.
The book is in two distinct parts – the first is Della’s set up, flight training, and subsequent success at air shows around the country and across Europe. But then comes the First World War and Della is grounded and stuck at home instead of being allowed to help the war effort with her talent. There’s a love story too, as Della’s friend and penpal Dudley makes his feelings known. (Incidentally, we should have more pen pals in the world. Especially ones that share geeky enthusiasms.)
As the war develops, Della has to go on an adventure, even more of one than learning to fly in a man’s world. I won’t go into any more detail because of spoilers but this is what I mean by an adventure story – daring deeds, peril and bravery. Suspend your disbelief and just immerse yourself in the excitement.
The Wild Air is well researched, featuring cameos from several real aviatrixes, and there is some technical detail about the planes but fortunately (for us non-petrolhead readers) this is just the perfect amount. The story seems at once a long time ago yet startlingly relevant as we still hear about discrimination in the aviation industry. I’ve not read either of Mascull’s previous books but this has thought, passion and attention to characters in it that means I will be seeking her backlist out.
Have I mentioned the cover? When I saw the book first mentioned on social media, I loved the beautiful cover and wanted to read it without knowing what it was about. Isn’t it lovely?
The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published on 4 May 2017 by Hodder Books and is priced at £18.99 in hardback.
I received a free review copy via Netgalley – thank you.
I came to the second novel by Louise Walters with some anticipation, having enjoyed her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase very much. This second book is being self-published by Walters, an act of independence to be admired.
A Life Between Us is set in the present day and features Tina, a lonely housewife, avid reader, compulsive overeater and bereaved twin. Tina is still grieving – her twin Meg, we know, died in childhood in an incident that Tina blames herself for. When Meg asks Tina to avenge her, we are plunged back into the past and the story of Tina’s aunt Lucia.
The narrative switches between the past, as we begin to find out more about Lucia, and the present, as Tina starts to follow her husband’s advice to get out more, joins a reading group and makes a friend.
Walters has written of a lovely, engaging, ordinary woman who has very little idea of how she is struggling, and her hapless husband who is equally stuck in different ways. (I mean it as a good thing when I describe Tina as ordinary – the kind of person we could all meet.) Walters is excellent at portraying an isolated woman, as she showed in her debut novel, and here she describes Tina’s attempts to make sense of her world with a strong sense of pathos. She has also written a real *SPOILER ALERT – KIND OF* nasty piece of work in Lucia, someone whose first scene as a child displays some of the mean spirit she will continue throughout. The mean streak is not really explained, as some authors might do, and this is refreshing. She just is.
This is less a whodunnit, despite Meg’s urging for revenge, and more an examination of how we deal with grief and loss. A confident and assured novel.
A Life Between Us is published on 27 March by Troubador Press. You can buy a copy here.
I read Anam’s debut years ago as part of the judging group for the Guardian First book Award and then had the pleasure of talking to her at a publisher’s dinner a few months later. She was a lovely, very neat person – I remember thinking how ‘together’ she was considering the whirlwind that her first book had been for her. Having made such an impression on me, I completely didn’t realise that this was a sequel until halfway through. Like the first, this features a strong Bangladeshi woman as the main character, this time Rehana’s daughter Maya. I really enjoyed this despite knowing nothing about the politics and history it described (a quick stop in Wikipedia needed). Maya and Rehana are very realistic characters, likeable but flawed, rushing into mistakes and meaning well. I’ve just bought the third book in the series and am looking forward to seeing what happens to them all next.
A lovely trip back to the Eighties for us kids who grew up about the same time. I recognised a lot of the references and a couple of them had me going “oh my god yes!” in sympathy (hint: French toilets.) The story is a little rambling but charming and the protagonist – 12-year old Harper – is such a sweetie that you want to spend a lot of time with her. The story concerns her parents’ divorce and subsequent relationship and financial woes – so far, so run of the mill perhaps but the writing and the point of view is what makes the difference here. Really enjoyable read.
Oh this is an amazing book. I’d heard good things about it and there it was on my bookshelf when the reading group suggested we read it. The story of three people – two inmates and a doctor – in a Yorkshire asylum in the early years of the Twentieth Century, this is beautiful. I don’t want to write too much in case I give anything away so instead, please know I could easily gush over it till you’re all bored .
I got a free review copy of this from NetGalley and therefore feel quite bad about not really enjoying very much. It has an intriguing premise but I felt the execution was lacking. Each part of the book is narrated by a different character and the idea is that we examine how well we can ever really know our neighbours. And that’s all fine, except the point of view of the secret protagonist only came in at the end and was the most interesting, so a little bit wasted. In my eyes anyway.
I bought this while still mourning, and am pretty sure that I’d read it before but I remembered nothing. How I enjoyed it. Such bitchy voices! Such insecurity! So many digs that probably went way over my head! Suzanne Vale is a great protagonist – really flawed and occasionally dislikeable but you really root for her, certainly by the end. I loved it.
My vow to read one non-fiction book per month continues with this and I’ve barely finished reading it before I press it on my husband so he has an idea of ‘what we have to put up with.’ Kessel’s book is an examination of women in sport – how we should do it more, what we have to gain, the media, the male atmosphere of sport, the negative comments, images and attitudes of sporting bodies that have hampered women’s sporting achievements and participation for decades. It’s both eye opening and depressingly familiar – I read several bits nodding my head in recognition and welled up with anger at my PE teachers, midwives, acquaintances and any number of people when I realised the extent of prejudice, the size of the barriers we’re facing. Read it if you’re a parent, if you watch a spot of tennis in June, if you’re a hardcore fan and even if you couldn’t give a shit about sport – it gives a fascinating insight into a wider society issue.
Part of the myth of writing is the amount of time spent in front of a screen. Or a notebook. Or however you do it. Time away from tapping away on that keyboard is time wasted, we think, and sit and try to get something, anything, down on the page.
But of course, it doesn’t really work like that. Interviews with well known writers see them discussing the habits that take them away from actually getting something down – running, walking the dog, baking and so on. Perhaps for those of us writing between working, commuting, looking after the family and so on, doing anything other than sitting at your desk seems like a luxury – or a procrastination technique.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Claire Wingfield’s book 52 Dates for Writers gives you 52 chances to do something that will help develop your writing, explore your characters, find a setting, and generally have a bit of fun with your writing, as well as getting you up and about – literally or figuratively.
Divided into 12 chapters, each covering aspects such as mastering point of view, problem-solving, and timelines, the suggestions ask you to go out and do something different that can then be applied to your writing – a work in progress or maybe something new. While you may not think these themes are new – and you’d be right – the get up and go aspect renders them fresh. Examples of activities include: ride a tandem, go geocaching, take tour of your hometown, and go house hunting. Each subject suggests ways in which you can use the new experience, and how you can shape your thinking or try out a new idea on your WiP.
I take any ideas and assistance I can get and the ideas here were fun and thought provoking. So here’s my tip – get up off your bum and get writing!