Today 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.
A 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.
What 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.
Phew! What a title! Your Second Life is a French phenomenon. Published three years ago, word spread and it’s now a bestseller, staying in the French top ten for over a year, despite its terrible title. Now it’s coming to England.
It’s rather cute to look at, a small hardback with a Tiffany blue cover and the title in red. ‘The novel that made 2 million people happy!’ reads the strapline.
Your Second Life is about Camille, a normal working mother who, like all of us, is trying to juggle her life and finding it hard. She doesn’t like her job, her work colleagues laugh at her, she’s lost connection with her husband and she spends time shouting at her son and hating herself for doing so. Her self esteem is rock bottom and, when she has a tyre blow out one night in a rain storm, she seeks help in a nearby house to call a mechanic and finds much more.
Claude, an older handsome Frenchman, is inside the house and as Camille breaks down from stress he comes to her rescue.
“You’re probably suffering from a kind of acute routinitis.”
“Acute routinitis. It’s a sickness of the soul that affects more and more people in the world, especially in the West. The symptoms are almost always the same: a lack of motivation; chronic dissatisfaction; feeling you’ve lost your way in life; finding it hard to feel happy even though you have more than enough material goods; disenchantment; world-weariness…”
“But… how do you know all this?”
“I’m a routinologist.”
I admit, this made me laugh. For we’re all Camille, aren’t we? Claude goes on to help Camille reconnect with her life and her sense of self. From here the novel is basically a self-help book, with Claude offering tips on how to make time for what’s important and discard negative energy. I’ve read business books with narratives before so it’s a tried and trusted technique and works nicely here too. (Claude would, I’m sure, tell me that my dislike of the title is part of my negative energy and I should change it. Yeah, maybe…)
The feminist in me did bristle at parts of the book, some of which I think might be a reflection of French culture, but nevertheless. Camille is encouraged to see herself as both the problem and the solution, taking her frustrations with her husband, son and patronising rude workmates and changing her ways in order to get them change theirs. At no point is she allowed to suggest to her husband that he might do some housework, to make her feel better, for example even as the new Camille, she’s still putting herself down for not doing some cleaning, and she’s really pleased when she has time to make dinner. When she and Claude tackle her self esteem and negative body image, she rates her success by how many compliments she gets from men, with no other real benchmark.
Of course, nothing in the book says you have to follow the same path or rate your own self improvement in the same way as Camille. So yes, I’m going to rate my own body image in how I feel about it, thanks very much. The techniques suggested by Claude are all listed in the back of the book to help offer advice or guidance on what you might like to tackle – most of them are really simple, things like using positive notebooks, making collages of people you admire, mindfulness, taking small steps, and so on.
As you can imagine, there’s little tension in the book as you know Camille will work her problems out but I liked the ending – a neat wrap up and continuation. We can all help each other.
Whatever you might think about self-help books, taking some time to be mindful or appreciating the small things, staying positive and taking small steps towards new habits are all good things to try and a reminder like this is helpful to all of us. After all, we’ve all been Camille, we’re all struggling from time to time. Using Your Second Life can help you take stock – it’s a fun read with a little lesson within.
When scholars explore the decline of modern civilisation they will cite two causes. The first is the invention of the motorcar. The second is the decline of letter writing. A good letter is a gift but a good correspondence is an art form. You can find insight, honesty, and character in a good correspondence.
This is why I love epistolary novels. And why I love Anne Youngson’s debut, an epistolary novel of searing truth and beauty.
Meet Me At The Museum is about Tina Hopgood, a Norfolk-based farmer’s wife who, along with a group of her teenage friends, wrote to a Danish professor on the discovery of Tollund Man, and had him dedicate his book to them. Years later, Tina has reason to evaluate her life and writes again to the professor via the Silkeborg Museum, to ask if he thinks she should visit, if she has wasted her potential; in short, if she is special. The professor is dead but Tina receives a reply from the museum’s curator, Anders Larsen, a man who also has reason to evaluate his life, and so a correspondence begins.
Much has been made of Youngson’s age, a refreshing 70-years old, when discussing this debut and the novel too, features protagonists that are older than many we often see. Tina and Anders discuss their families, their failures, their losses, their children and their wider interests, as well as talking of Tollund man and the nature of digging up or replanting and their connection to the world. They are both given to reflection and regret and the correspondence soon grows into an intimacy neither perhaps experiences elsewhere.
Real life must intrude, into correspondence as in all else, and Anders’ daughter provides some plot developments. But then Tina writes that she will correspond no further, leaving Anders to wonder what has happened to her.
This is a lovely novel and although there was quite a lot of discussion of ancient graves and funeral rituals for my liking, these parts were easily moved on, leaving the reader to dwell instead on the voices. Several points while reading I was tempted to join in the correspondence, telling them of my own experiences related to the subject.While there may have been other ways to tell this story, I believe none would have been so effective, the epistolary form giving Tina and Anders the intimacy they crave while retaining a distance, and this juxtaposition is essential to the feel of the novel. An old fashioned way of telling (although they do switch to email halfway through) an ageless story – about connection and significance, about belonging and love.
Meet Me At the Museum by Anne Youngson is published by Doubleday on 17 May. With thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.
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.
A 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.
What a tonic this book is. I saved it to read until one cold snowy evening last week, as the Beast from the East did its worst outside and it was an excellent decision. ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ is exactly what you would want to be reading while the elements are howling at the door. It is warm, cosy in the best sense, and full of positive loveliness.
The story is told by Emmeline Lake, Emmy to her friends, who dreams of being a journalist – a lady war correspondent (it’s 1941) to be precise – and so when she spots an advert for a junior at The London Evening Chronicle, she seizes her chance and goes for an interview. It is only when she has quit her job and told all her friends at the fire station where she volunteers, that she finds the job is actually a typist at the Woman’s Friend, an ailing women’s monthly. Not only that, but she is the junior assistant to Mrs Bird, a redoubtable creature who is the magazine’s Acting Editress and agony aunt. Furthermore, Mrs Bird has STANDARDS when it comes to the type of letter she will answer and these are very restrictive indeed.
“I hardly think the Woman’s Friend reader wants her afternoon spoilt by This Kind Of Thing, do you?”
“Affairs… losing their heads… babies… UNPLEASANTNESSES,” she boomed, pausing to let the abomination sink in. “And, even, Miss Lake… NERVES.”
Well, really. Emmy tries to make the best of it, if only to save face and also because she starts to become friends with the rest of the very small staff at the magazine. However, she regards the women in the letters very differently to Mrs Bird and, after her early attempts to get Mrs Bird to answer some of the queries fail, decides to answer the letters herself.
Emmy lives with her best friend Bunty, and friends with a wider circle of girls, all of whom are trying to make it through the bombing raids in one piece, doing their bit but still trying to have fun. Emmy’s friends at the office are friendly and full of that old fashioned ‘making the best of things’ spirit but none of this feels cliched – you immediately care for all of them and don’t mind if this all sounds familiar in a Sunday evening TV drama kind of way. Mrs Bird herself must have been great fun to write.
As you can imagine, the letter writing scheme soon has consequences but not until after a dreadful tragedy that shakes Emmy’s world.
This is a light read, easy to get through, but shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It seems so rare these days to have a book that offers comfort against dark times, and perhaps it’s exactly what we all need. Dear Mrs Bird is funny, sweet and warm, celebrating friendship and the consequences of taking a chance. Curl up and enjoy.
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!
The 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.
Sebastian 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.
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.
On 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.