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Book Review: Hame by Annalena McAfee

Hame is a book I happened upon thanks to the publisher Vintage tweeting about it on St Andrew’s Day last year. The Scottish island setting and a literary trail in search of a mysterious poet really appealed to me and it seems only fitting to post my review of it on St Andrew’s Day, one year on. Here’s what it’s about:

Hame, n. Scottish form of ‘home’: a valued place regarded as a refuge or place of origin

In the wake of the breakdown of her relationship, Mhairi McPhail dismantles her life in New York and moves with her 9-year-old daughter, Agnes, to the remote Scottish island of Fascaray. Mhairi has been commissioned to write a biography of the late Bard of Fascaray, Grigor McWatt, a cantankerous poet with an international reputation.

But who was Grigor McWatt? Details of his past – his tough childhood and his war years as a commando – are elusive, and there is evidence of a mysterious love affair which Mhairi is determined to investigate. As she struggles to adapt to her new life, and put her own troubled past behind her, Mhairi begins to unearth the astonishing secret history of the poet regarded by many as the custodian of Fascaray’s – and Scotland’s – soul.

I read this as an ebook but got hold of a copy of the hardback when it came out and wish I’d read it in hardback or even waited for the paperback to come out, for the simple reason that I prefer the amount of white space those two formats often provide around the text. Something which is important here, when the book contains so many of Grigor McWatt’s poems, as it helps to form a useful and marked break between the biographer Mhairi’s work and the poet’s own memoirs.

Including the poems contributed to my enjoyment of the book. It was fun to try and read them aloud, and then work out what they were saying before checking the source or inspiration behind it. I didn’t read many of the longer poems in their entirety, though, and have to confess that I skipped most later sections once the novelty had worn off.

Mhairi McPhail embarks on some literary detective work, and another aspect of Hame which I relished was in trying to put the pieces together and solve the enigma that is Grigor McWatt before his biographer did. Read more

Book Review: The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

The Winters is a modern reworking of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and while it draws heavily on its source material, Lisa Gabriele also manages to pull off a stylish new twist in her take on the haunting psychological suspense.

After a whirlwind romance, a young woman returns to the opulent, secluded mansion of her new fiancé Max Winter – a wealthy senator and recent widower – and a life of luxury she’s never known. But all is not as it appears at the Asherley estate. The house is steeped in the memory of Max’s beautiful first wife Rebekah, who haunts the young woman’s imagination and feeds her uncertainties, while his very alive teenage daughter Dani makes her life a living hell.

As the soon-to-be second Mrs. Winter grows more in love with Max, and more afraid of Dani, she is drawn deeper into the family’s dark secrets – the kind of secrets that could kill her, too.

The Winters works surprisingly well, whether or not you’re familiar with Daphne du Maurier’s original. There are enough familiar elements for readers to recognise, while the changes and additions make sense and give the story a refresh, making the case for this update.

I liked the location change as it helps Lisa Gabriele not only give a nod to her inspiration but make the story her own. She moves the action from Monte Carlo and Cornwall to the US equivalent of their European counterparts in the Cayman Islands and the Hamptons on the southern tip of New York’s Long Island. This, in turn, feeds into the types of characters we encounter, their social circles and backgrounds.

What further updates the story is that Mrs Danvers’ character, a housekeeper in the original, here becomes future stepdaughter, Dani. This change worked really well for me, as both narrator and reader simultaneously question how much of Dani’s behaviour is attributable to the loss of her mother, the sudden appearance of her replacement or simply that she’s currently fifteen and very good at it.  Read more

Book Review: One More Chance by Lucy Ayrton

Lucy Ayrton’s One More Chance is one of four books helping to launch Little, Brown imprint Dialogue Books this year. It’s an imprint dedicated to introducing wider diversity and more inclusivity by giving a voice to those often overlooked by mainstream publishing. And here, that voice belongs to a young mother in Holloway prison.

Dani hasn’t had an easy life. She’s made some bad choices and now she’s paying the ultimate price; prison.

With her young daughter Bethany, growing up in foster care, Dani is determined to be free and reunited with her. There’s only one problem; Dani can’t stay out of trouble.

Dani’s new cellmate Martha is quiet and unassuming. There’s something about her that doesn’t add up. When Martha offers Dani one last chance at freedom, she doesn’t hesitate.

Everything she wants is on the outside, but Dani is stuck on the inside. Is it possible to break out when everyone is trying to keep you in . . .

I struggled initially with Dani as the main protagonist, feeling frustrated by her attitude and constant truculence, while finding myself distracted by other characters, in particular queen bee Chris and the altogether more mysterious Martha.

However, as Dani’s backstory is drip fed to us, it helped me begin to understand her, how she ends up where she does and why she behaves in this way. And by the end of the book, I grudgingly admired her and even felt ever so slightly hopeful for the future. So all credit to Lucy Ayrton’s writing for effecting this transition in Dani and my reaction to her.

There are some more mystical elements to the story which I chose to go along with partly because I figured Dani sees them as something to pass the time but which also feed on her personal circumstances and desperation to see her little girl. It’s up to you how you view them and how much weight you attach.

Where Lucy Ayrton very nearly lost me was in the scene at a park where a key absence goes unexplained, and I did tire of people staring at each other and how loaded with meaning each of those stares were.

Prison life is by its very nature going to be repetitive but I think Lucy Ayrton otherwise does a pretty good job of counteracting that here. It’s helped along by a subtle and intriguing subplot playing out in the background, as well as the following nice touches:  Read more

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