Isabel Ashdown returns to the Isle of Wight* for the setting of her latest novel, Little Sister, and rather appropriately for this dark tale of sibling rivalry and lost children she’s gone over to slightly wilder West Wight. (I lived on this side of the island for nine years before leaving to go to university, so I was excited to read something set there, and see how she’d use some of its locations.)
After sixteen years apart sisters Jessica and Emily are reunited. With the past now behind them, the warmth they once shared quickly returns and before long Jess has moved into Emily’s comfortable island home. Life couldn’t be better. But when baby Daisy disappears while in Jess’s care, the perfect life Emily has so carefully built starts to fall apart.
Was Emily right to trust her sister after everything that happened before?
Little Sister starts as it means to go on with an intriguing but incredibly disconcerting prologue which sets the tone for the entire book. Told from the viewpoint of three of the characters, Little Sister is a tense, almost claustrophobic novel thanks to its relatively small cast of characters and with the majority of the action taking place inside Emily’s home. It’s almost a relief when Jess goes for a walk or Emily does a flit, even when the police come round with an update. You get a real sense of what it is like to be in that home with all the anxiety of not knowing where baby Daisy is or if she’ll be found safe and well, as the strained family dynamic starts to rupture and outside the press pack lines the drive in wait for a clickbait headline or a compromising photo opportunity. A nightmare situation Isabel Ashdown makes vivid.
Little Sister is aptly named for while one little sister is missing on and off-the-page, another takes a central role in the story: alongside the search for absent Daisy, Isabel Ashdown takes us back into the history between the two grown-up sisters, Jess and Emily. Theirs is a fascinating dynamic, almost suffocating in its intensity. One is painted as shy, good and the peacemaker, the other as more extrovert, if calculating and manipulative with it. Isabel Ashdown helps you to get to know one of the sisters better by having her tell her story in first person while the other seems more distant and harder to read by having her side told in third person. Nothing is ever quite what it seems though and neither sister appears to be a reliable narrator; one because she’s only recently come back into the other’s life, and the other because she’s distraught, emotional, suspicious and heavily medicated. Read more
Harriet Cummings’ debut novel We All Begin As Strangers is inspired by real events that took place in her home town the year she was born. In providing her own take on the mysterious intruder ‘The Fox’, she weaves a contemporary tale of the loneliness, suspicion, gossip and misunderstandings rife even in the smallest community.
It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote. What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.
When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible. But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…
We All Begin As Strangers is split into four parts, each one told by a different Heathcote resident, starting with Deloris, the only female narrator, followed by Jim and Brian, and ending with Stan. This works well as long as you don’t get too attached to one narrator and their story, and is a boon if you don’t find another so easy. The change in narrator helps to give a real sense of movement around the streets and houses affected while also switching up the perspective. You get that character’s internalised thoughts together with how they behave towards the other residents, and how they’re viewed by the other resident-narrators. This helps shift your own view of Heathcote and its inhabitants as you get to know them better.
We’re not seeing these people at their best: they’re in crisis, responding to the unsettling threat of a home intrusion and the shocking disappearance of Anna which suggests the Fox is altogether a more sinister and dangerous creature. But often when people are under stress is precisely when it’s most revealing. Some people will find themselves or discover strengths they didn’t know they had while others will succumb to fear and allow their inner sheep mentality to take over. In We All Begin As Strangers, there are those helpers we should either always be or look for when something bad happens. But there are also suspicions no longer whispered but openly voiced and once chattering gossip takes the more threatening form of a braying mob looking for a scapegoat when the Fox proves elusive. It’s a fascinating look at how we behave towards others when under pressure or we feel threatened and seems a timely novel in that respect. Read more
I’m excited to welcome New York Times best-selling author Jami Attenberg today as part of the blog tour for her latest novel, All Grown Up. Here’s who and what it’s all about:
Andrea is a single, childless 39-year-old woman who tries to navigate family, sexuality, friendships and a career she never wanted, but battles with thoughts and desires that few people would want to face up to. Told in gut-wrenchingly honest language that shimmers with rage and intimacy, All Grown Up poses such questions as:
– What if I don’t want to hold your baby?
– Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?
– What can I demand of my mother now that I am an adult?
– Is therapy pointless?
– At what point does drinking a lot become a drinking problem?
– Why does everyone keep asking me why I am not married?
“I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”
Andrea walks and talks off the page right from the very beginning of the book. She’s such a ferociously real character that I still imagine her stalking around her NYC haunts. How did you come to her as your protagonist, and then go about putting together her background and choosing the stories she would tell the reader?
I tend to write short stories when I finish a novel in order to cleanse the palate between books. I wrote a story cycle from the perspective of an unnamed, single, childfree woman watching her friend achieve traditional milestones in life, i.e. get married, have a baby, etc. It was interesting to explore it but I didn’t want to write a book about it. After 150 pages of two other book projects I finally decided to go back to the book after giving it another stab. I figured out I didn’t have to write a single girl in the city book, that there was a way to break it and reinvent it. Part of that comes with the structure of the book, it being told in time-shifting short vignettes, as opposed to a linear narrative. As to how I put together her background, I have lived in New York City for eighteen years, so the landscape was all there for me. And then I just began to invent.
One of the aspects of reading All Grown Up I enjoyed was getting into the head of someone who lives a different life to my own. Andrea’s observations of the people and life around her were often acerbic, but at other times, really resonated with me: two examples that spring to mind are when Andrea talks about getting a gift for her friend who’s having a baby, and in particular, the way in which we lose some friends in life and how we’re unable to do anything to prevent that happening. What are you hoping your readers take away from reading All Grown Up?
Oh I think each reader is going to take away from it whatever they want to take away from it, or perhaps are capable of taking away from it. I can’t control that. I was trying to present a version of a modern woman and human being and all her flaws and strengths and also all the challenges and pressures she faces in society. I’ve been told it’s educating for some, and I’ve been told it’s validating for others. The book is going to do different things for different kinds of people. I certainly hope people enjoy the book too, though. It was meant to move quickly and be entertaining and consuming. Read more
Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley reminds me of adventure books I read as a child, but is the modern-day, grown-up version of them. It’s exactly the kind of book I search for on bookshop shelves. Which probably explains why I loved it.
After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter Loo to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death.
Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past – a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come.
Yes, the sniggering British kid in me stumbled over Loo’s name initially, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. She’s such a fiercely independent tomboy of an individual that the unusual moniker actually suits her. Besides, I didn’t want her to catch me giggling and use her rock-in-a-sock on me. (You’ll understand why, when you read the book.)
There’s so much I love about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: there’s the father-daughter relationship that’s central to the story, which changes from being self-sufficient when they’re on the road to still protective but prickly and no longer enough in Olympus. There’s the coastal setting of the town, with the inherent pressures and hardships of being reliant on the fishing industry amid mounting environmental concerns. There’s a life lived simply, with few possessions of value, all of which can be packed up at a moment’s notice. There’s that nomadic existence. There’s time spent outdoors, on bicycle and on foot, in a borrowed car, in woodland, on mudflats and cliffs, at the beach and out to sea. There are characters who don’t fit neatly into society’s expectations, but rage against them, flawed and full of life, and fight and passion. There’s realising what’s important in this life. There’s LOVE but there’s also loss. There’s friendship and family. There’s repulsion and attraction, tenderness and violence. There’s bullying and fighting, protesting and protecting. There are some mysteries for Loo (and the reader) to solve: her dead mother, and her very much alive, if singular, grandmother. There’s a young girl trying to figure out her present and what she wants for her future, while her father can’t shake off the past which is threatening to consume him and everything he loves. And there are twelve bullet wounds with a story behind each one. Read more
Last Thursday, I reviewed A Life Between Us. Today I’m delighted to welcome Louise Walters to the Nut Press to talk about her second novel.
Louise, I’m interested in where A Life Between Us began for you.
I started with one character, Tina (called Nell initially), and I knew she was missing somebody important. Everything else followed on from that.
Do you think the story would have worked so well, had Tina and Meg been sisters but not twins?
Probably not; I think I ended up making them twins because of the overwhelming sense of loss Tina experiences. I think I needed the twin relationship to justify the way Tina behaves.
What is it about twins that fascinates? Is that relationship something you’ve been wanting to explore? And how did you go about researching and writing the bond between twins?
The twin thing was a later development. At first Tina talked to an imaginary friend, who became her dead sister, who became her dead twin sister. I didn’t research a great deal, to be honest. I just needed to get to know Tina, and understand the way she thinks and feels.
My dad is a twin, and I suppose I may have learned a few things over the years about twins! There is a strong bond between my dad and his twin brother. It seems unbreakable at times. But of course in A Life Between Us the bond is broken and poor Tina does not adjust.
How did you approach writing Meg, the dead twin? Was she a manifestation of a need within Tina or a ghost or a remnant because they were twins and had a close bond?
Meg was fun to write. I don’t know if she is “real” (ie, appears as a ghost to Tina) or if she is just a figment of Tina’s imagination – the result of Tina not coming to terms with Meg’s death in 1976. I have left it for the reader to decide if there is a “real” haunting going on here, or if it’s all in Tina’s head.
How did you decide when to set the novel, and how much leeway did you have in deciding which dates to use?
I knew I would be exploring Tina’s 1970s childhood, and as I got into the story I decided I needed to go further back to other characters’ childhoods too. It all became rather complicated for a while, and I had to disentangle lots of knots. Read more