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Book Review: The Road to California by Louise Walters

The Road to California is Louise Walters’ third novel and the second to come out under her own imprint. It follows three family members over the course of a year as they attempt to reconnect for the sake of the son, Ryan, who is having a difficult time at school.

Proud single parent Joanna is accustomed to school phoning to tell her that her fourteen year old son Ryan is in trouble. But when Ryan hits a girl and is excluded from school, Joanna knows she must take drastic action to help him.

Ryan’s dad Lex left home when Ryan was two years old. Ryan doesn’t remember him – but more than anything he wants a dad in his life.

Isolated, a loner, and angry, Ryan finds solace in books and wildlife. Joanna, against all her instincts, invites Lex to return and help their son. But Lex is a drifter who runs from commitment, and both Joanna and Ryan find their mutual trust and love is put to the test when Lex returns, and vows to be part of the family again.

I liked how we meet Joanna and Ryan first and have a chance to see what their relationship is like for a while before Lex appears. It helped me to understand how much Joanna is trying as a single parent to do the right thing by her son, and how her sole help comes in the form of the wonderful Billy Plumb, who I thought was a terrific character and Joanna was fortunate to have as a neighbour.

As well as being a single parent, Joanna faces the additional challenge of running her own business. She crafts bespoke quilts and other handmade items from secondhand fabrics: “She took great pride in using the used, a characteristic of almost all her work… Reusing, reclaiming, recycling, upcycling: whatever you wanted to call it – it was what she did.”

This is apt because she’s about to put her business ethos into practice in her home life and reclaim Ryan’s father, Lex, and restore him to the family he deserted when Ryan was still too young to remember him. It’s a huge step for Joanna to take, especially after how badly he let her down once before. I really felt for her and appreciated how much this costs her. It shows how determined she is to try whatever it takes in order to help Ryan through this rough patch by putting his needs above her own feelings. Read more

Book Review: Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel by Ruth Hogan

Ruth Hogan’s third novel Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel shows how one little girl’s childhood affects her present-day adult self, and what she does as she learns how incomplete a picture she has of her past and the people in it.

Tilly was a bright, outgoing little girl who liked playing with ghosts and matches. She loved fizzy drinks, swear words, fish fingers and Catholic churches, but most of all she loved living in Brighton in Queenie Malone’s magnificent Paradise Hotel with its endearing and loving family of misfits – staff and guests alike.

But Tilly’s childhood was shattered when her mother sent her away from the only home she’d ever loved to boarding school with little explanation and no warning.

Now, Tilda has grown into an independent woman still damaged by her mother’s unaccountable cruelty. Wary of people, her only friend is her dog, Eli.

But when her mother dies, Tilda goes back to Brighton and with the help of her beloved Queenie sets about unravelling the mystery of her exile from The Paradise Hotel, only to discover that her mother was not the woman she thought she knew at all…

The narrator’s the same but not the same here in that we switch between seven-year-old Tilly and her forty-six-year-old adult self who now goes by Tilda. The book opens with Tilda returning to her dead mother’s home to sort through her possessions and decide what to do with everything.

While doing so, Tilda finds her mother’s notebooks, starts to read them, and begins to see that the memory she has of her mother and her childhood is far from the full picture. Which sets her off on a hunt for answers. It felt a bit odd that this didn’t take us to the Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel of the title until late in the book but I promise it is worth the wait.

It’s not always easy to get the balance right between different narrators or timelines but I think Ruth Hogan achieves that. I enjoyed the nostalgia from Tilly’s childhood, her attitude towards ghosts, her funny observations and malapropisms. While with the older Tilda, it was the fact that she decides to use the wine glasses and clothes her mother kept for best now rather than waiting for a time that may never come. That, and how she slowly expands her circle of acquaintances to create a new family of friends.

I loved the people in her past and present equally as much and this being a Ruth Hogan book, there are some great, even colourful, characters in the mix. All the more so here, given the book’s set in Brighton. Apart from the two Tilly/Tildas, I particularly warmed to Eli, Queenie, Ruby and Mrs O’Flaherty, Valentine and Bunny, Austin and Aubrey, Daniel, and Joseph Geronimo. And what brilliant names Ruth Hogan gives her characters. Read more

Book Review: Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello

Isabel Costello takes us to the quintessential Paris neighbourhood that is the 6th arrondissement in her debut novel Paris Mon Amour. But, once there, she guides us away from the romance of the tourist trail and instead we find ourselves deep in the heart of the Left Bank, and caught up in the tangle of Alexandra’s life.

‘The first time I caused terrible harm to the people I love it was an accident. The second is the reason I’m here.’

When Alexandra discovers that her husband Philippe is having an affair, she can’t believe he’d risk losing the love that has transformed both their lives.

Still in shock, Alexandra finds herself powerfully attracted to a much younger man. Jean-Luc Malavoine is twenty-three, intense and magnetic. He’s also the son of Philippe’s best friend.

With every passionate liaison, Alexandra is pulled deeper into a situation that threatens everyone involved.

I could tell from the book’s cover that this was no frothy confection of a love story. The petals on the cover and the book’s main character once I met her were both too brittle and refined a beauty for that. From Alexandra’s opening words, I sensed there was no happily ever after. And yet, I wanted to know what had happened, why it ended so badly, and if Alexandra felt its loss even when it had hurt others.

British-American Alexandra relates the events of the book through a series of therapy sessions where not even the relationship with her therapist escapes scrutiny. Paris Mon Amour may chart the course of an affair but it also looks into the many relationships which will feel the ripple effect of its impact.

Thankfully, Jean-Luc is more than simply a distraction or Alexandra’s younger lover in the book. These two connect more than sexually, despite the age gap, while in other matters such as their future, one sees more clearly than the other where it will all lead.

Isabel Costello realises her characters so well that I stopped judging them early on in the book. She writes them in a way where what they’re doing makes a certain kind of sense to them or such that they can’t resist the pull of attraction or risk of danger, even when they know it’s wrong or won’t end well. I began to see how fallible and human they were being. Isabel Costello took me into their world, up close and personal it’s true but, even in the sex scenes, this never feels voyeuristic or titillating. Read more

Book Review: One More Lie by Amy Lloyd

Amy Lloyd’s second novel One More Lie takes a look at the human stories behind those evil monsters and animals people are dubbed by sensational newspaper headlines and in the public outrage voiced via social media comments. It makes for a gripping read.

Charlotte wants a fresh start. She wants to forget her past, forget her childhood crime – and, most of all, forget that one terrible moment.

It’s the reason she’s been given a new name, a new life. The reason she spent years in prison. But even on the outside, with an ankle monitor and court-mandated therapy, she can’t escape the devastating memory of the night that turned her and her only friend into national hate figures.

But now her friend has found her. And despite the lies she tells to survive, she soon finds herself being dragged deeper and deeper into a past she cannot confront.

Switching between Her/Him and Now/Then, Amy Lloyd’s novel tells the story of two childhood friends, Charlotte and Sean, who were imprisoned for a crime that has led to them both being given new identities. But having that fresh slate isn’t as straightforward or as freeing as it sounds. As Charlotte says: “They can give you an identity but they can’t give you a life. There is so much missing… You are brand new and lack all the clutter that makes a person real. No past.”

We spend most time with Charlotte, especially early on in the book, and it’s distressing to see how ill-equipped she is to cope with life on the outside, having been institutionalised for such a large part of her life. Her one constant and an absolute lifeline is her psychiatrist, Dr Isherwood. Yet, even here, I came to question how healthy this relationship was, and also how wise the doctor had been to accommodate her patient’s needs, and even her neediness, to the extent in which she did.

Charlotte hasn’t acquired many life skills and finds it very hard to read people or know which way to take what they’re saying. It soon becomes clear that despite role-playing situations and now living in a halfway hostel, after an unsuccessful earlier attempt at independent living, Charlotte still feels detached and untethered, and is vulnerable. “There’s a space inside me where a life should have been and it shows.” Read more

Book Review: Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh

Written as a sprawling letter, Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners is the story of Sonny Anderson’s quest to unlock some answers to his past while over in the UK touring locations from his favourite movie.

Meet Sonny Anderson: budding author, ex-meth-head, neurotic and Shaun of the Dead obsessive. Sonny doesn’t remember his mother because when he was five, his father kidnapped him from his home in Scotland and took him to live on a commune in the Brazilian outback. 

Since the age of eleven, he has lived in Southern California with his enigmatic guardian, Thomas – but on his twenty-first birthday he receives a gift that will throw his life wildly off course, all over again.

Armed with five mysterious letters and a list of addresses, Sonny musters the courage to return to the UK and finally learn the truth about his childhood. As the story of his past unravels, though, he’s less sure it’s the truth he wants to hear.

Sonny’s only twenty-one when we meet him but he already seems to have lived more lives than most people ever will. The unsentimental manner in which this is relayed makes some of what’s happened seem less far-fetched and more credible than if it had come from a different narrator.

I liked Sonny almost immediately; there’s a frenetic energy emanating from him which pulls you along with it through all his abrupt changes of tack. His voice is refreshingly different, his wit and delivery both sharp, and I enjoyed seeing the world and other people through his eyes. (In fact, I even went back and read the book a second time after having finished it to enjoy some of that description again.)

Anyone who’s ever set off on a hunt for their favourite book or film locations will enjoy accompanying Sonny on his erratic odyssey around Britain. You don’t have to have watched Shaun of the Dead in order to enjoy this book, but if you know the film, it will be all the funnier and more poignant for that. And the fact that he has five letters to open along the way inside his own novel-length letter only added to the pleasure my letter-writing self had in reading this.

Narcissism for Beginners is a wonderfully offbeat quest for answers, a young man’s stumble around Britain in search of his family, which poses the question of just what a family is – the people who make us, the ones who raise us or those we choose to have in our lives. Told with a real lightness of touch, this is a sad yet also very funny coming-of-age road trip which is well worth your time taking.

Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh is published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. It is available as an ebook, in hardback and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or Hive which helps support your local independent bookshop. Narcissism for Beginners is shortlisted for the 2018/19 People’s Book Prize and longlisted for the 2017 Guardian Not The Booker Prize. For more on the author, check out her Author Website or follow her on Twitter

My thanks to Unbound for sending me a review copy. 

*Giveaway* I’ve bought a copy to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner. 

 

Book Review: Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

Miranda Emmerson’s debut novel Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars isn’t as whimsical as the title might at first suggest. But that fits with a book where it’s not only the missing actress who is playing a role (both on and off stage) or has something to hide.

Soho, 1965. When an American actress disappears from the Galaxy Theatre, her young dresser, Anna Treadway is determined to find out what happened to her.

Anna’s search will lead her through a London she barely knew existed: a city of reggae clubs and back street doctors, of dangerous prejudice and unexpected allies. She is aided by a disparate group of émigrés, each carrying secrets of their own.

But before she can discover the truth about Iolanthe, Anna will need to open herself – to her past, her present and the possibility of love.

The Field of Stars of the title is the play in which American actress Iolanthe Green is appearing right before she disappears, and Miss Treadway, or Anna, her dresser for the play’s run. But I also consider The Field of Stars to be a pretty good description of the cast of characters in the book. Although there are obvious leads, such as Anna, each one takes their turn in the spotlight and is memorable, without ever making the novel seem overcrowded.

Set in the London of 1965, this is a novel which looks at issues we still grapple with today, some fifty years on. Identity, isolation, love and acceptance, race, immigration, reproductive rights, society’s expectations and the role of women all play their parts here. As does the need for publicity to keep matters fresh in people’s minds and how often it’s left to individuals to keep a case alive, once the next sensational headline hits the press and grabs public attention.

The mystery of Iolanthe’s disappearance may drive the story forward but what makes the novel work so well is how multi-layered it is. Miranda Emmerson adds real depth to Miss Treadway & the Field of Dreams with the issues she covers, the ensemble cast of outsiders she puts together and how she chooses her moment for each deft reveal of another layer to the story. There’s an obvious affection for London’s West End in her description, too, even while taking us into some of its seedier parts.

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars is a lively and evocative novel of 1965 London which tells the engaging stories of this diverse group of people and the secrets they keep, all wrapped up in a mystery. I enjoyed how much this novel surprised me and where it took me; it covered more ground, both literally and figuratively, than I was expecting. It’s a fabulous debut and I’m excited to hear that there’s going to be a second novel featuring Miss Treadway.

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson is published by Fourth Estate and is available as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback and paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive which helps support your local independent bookshop. For more on Miranda Emmerson, check out her Author Website or follow her on Instagram or on Twitter

*GIVEAWAY* I have one signed paperback copy of Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars to give away. Let’s do something a bit different and have you tell me what you’d like in your field instead of stars. (The squirrels, unsurprisingly, would quite like a field of pistachios.)

Book Review: Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

Stephanie Butland’s third novel, Lost for Words, is set in a secondhand bookshop in the walled city of York, two of my favourite places to wander around. And while the bookshop on the cover may look quirky and cute at first glance, there are shadows lurking inside it. Much like its main character Loveday.

Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look carefully, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are some things Loveday will never show you.

Into her refuge – the York book emporium where she works – come a poet, a lover, a friend, and three mysterious deliveries, each of which stirs unsettling memories.

Everything is about to change for Loveday. Someone knows about her past and she can’t hide any longer. She must decide who around her she can trust. Can she find the courage to right a heartbreaking wrong? And will she ever find the words to tell her own story?

I liked Loveday Cardew from the instant I met her in Lost for Words. True, Stephanie Butland’s main character was talking books but there was something in her voice that sparked recognition. Once she rescued a book further down that same first page, I was smitten. I mean, what reader wouldn’t love someone who saves abandoned books and later tries to reunite them with their owner? Even without it being on a rainy day. Loveday’s a book person; she’s one of us.

Although Loveday seems lost at times, and is certainly withdrawn and lonely, her inner voice is strong and sassy. Some may even say sarcastic. She’s a spiky character but she’s also a survivor, partly wearing those favourite first lines of hers tattooed on her body as inked-on armour to protect her.

Loveday has a caring, watchful protector in its wonderful owner, Archie, but it’s in Lost for Words itself, the bookshop of the title, where she finds her refuge. That is, until books start bringing a poet and worse, unsettling memories from the past, into her previously safe haven and disturbing her peace. Read more

Book Review: Kings of the Yukon: An Alaskan River Journey by Adam Weymouth

I might not have discovered Kings of the Yukon so soon if Adam Weymouth’s book hadn’t been shortlisted for the PFD/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to a bloggers’ event in London where we met the authors, who read excerpts and answered questions, before copies of each book were available for us to take home.

The Yukon River is almost 2,000 miles long, flowing through Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea.

Setting out to explore one of the most ruggedly beautiful and remote regions of North America, Adam Weymouth journeyed by canoe on a four-month odyssey through this untrammelled wilderness, encountering the people who have lived there for generations.

The Yukon’s inhabitants have long depended on the king salmon who each year migrate the entire river to reach their spawning grounds.

Now the salmon numbers have dwindled, and the encroachment of the modern world has changed the way of life on the Yukon, perhaps for ever.

Adam Weymouth canoes downriver through Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea when the salmon he is hoping to encounter should be making their way upstream to their spawning grounds. What he finds along the way is evidence of the extent to which the river connects everyone who lives in and around it; how what happens on one stretch ripples through to others, be they around the nearest bend in the river or hundreds of miles away and across a man-made border.

Kings of the Yukon details the alarming levels of change and damage done and it’s not simply because there are inherent difficulties in balancing subsistence fishing with commercial practices while also ensuring a healthy ecosystem. This doesn’t simply boil down to being a numbers game; it’s the size and therefore weight of the individual salmon which is shrinking, as well. And changes in fishing practices aren’t the only ones to have affected the river and its fish (and human) population; the discovery and commercial exploitation of oil and gold in the region have taken their toll, sometimes in unforeseen ways and not always in the most obvious of places.

If any book can help us to see the connection between living creatures, be they sprawling humans or spawning fish, and their environment, it is this one. While also being sadly indicative of what is happening in so many ecosystems around our planet, Kings of the Yukon is an enlightening and sensitive look at the plight of the salmon and people along this almost 2,000-mile stretch of river, highlighting the need for collaborative work across borders, as well as between interest groups, when looking for solutions. Read more

Book Review: Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I can’t even remember when or where I bought it, although I have a feeling that I wanted to read more Australian fiction while I waited for a new Tim Winton book to come out. I still didn’t read it back then but it leapt out at me when I was trying to find a book title with J for this month’s A-Z Challenge.

Summer, 1965.

Late one night, thirteen-year-old Charlie Bucktin is startled by a knock on his window.

His visitor is Jasper Jones. Rebellious, mixed-race and solitary, Jasper is intriguing. And he needs Charlie’s help. In the dead of night, the boys steal through town, and Charlie learns of Jasper’s horrible discovery.

Burdened by a terrible secret and the weight of a town’s suspicion, Charlie feels his world closing in.

After this summer nothing will ever be the same again.

Jasper Jones and I may have taken our time getting acquainted but I am so very happy that we finally did. He’s a shadowy and enigmatic character when he first appears outside Charlie Bucktin’s window. Pushed into the margins by life while still only a boy, he’s held up as a bad influence and ignored until bad things happen and people need someone to blame. There were even moments in the book where I wondered if he would turn out to be a figment of Charlie’s imagination.

Jasper Jones’ name may be on the cover but it’s the younger boy, Charlie, who narrates the story; the fledging writer whose window Jasper comes to when he needs help. The two boys aren’t friends before this night but they will form a bond to keep a terrible secret from the rest of the town. As Charlie says:

“I trust him. I really do. And not because I have to. I think he’s probably the most honest person in this town. He has no reason to lie. He has no reputation to protect.”

Secrets and stories abound in this small town, taking on a life of their own and replacing facts with suspicion, prejudice and myth. Their misguided actions were well-intentioned but it’s hard to see how the secret can remain hidden. Charlie will have a long, tortuous summer unable to talk to anyone else about it. Read more

Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

There’s an insistent pull to the rhythm of its opening pages that drew me into Guy Gunaratne’s debut In Our Mad and Furious City, a novel which gives voice to “London’s scowling youth” and “those of us who had an elsewhere in our blood.”

For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.

While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.

Guy Gunaratne’s characters may inhabit an urban landscape bordering on one familiar to me from having lived in north London but their experience of the city is worlds apart from my own. As one of his narrators says early on in the book: “Most others only knew us from the noise we made at the back of the bus.”

Language flexes and evolves for the voices we hear. Selvon, Ardan and brothers Yusuf and Irfan, a loose alliance of friends from school all share a street language: “our words clipped and surging with our own code… Our friendships we called bloods and our homes we called our Ends.” The language used is telling, yet it also has a beat and musicality of its own, something akin to the grime music Ardan writes.

Speaking in a register that borrows words and expressions from their multilingual community, the language of the second generation ‘youngers’ contrasts with that spoken by the older first generation narrators. Their language is still that of the home they left behind: Nelson from the Caribbean island of Montserrat speaks patois while Caroline is unmistakably from Belfast.

The rising tension in the novel mostly stems from events which happen off-the-page – the book opens just after the soldier’s murder, riots take place at the end of their street – but you can see it impacting upon the characters’ lives over the 48-hour time period of the novel. It’s frightening how recognisable the events are, mirroring real-life ones, yet written in a way which puts them in a whole new perspective. Read more

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