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Book Review: The Zoo by Christopher Wilson

I was browsing the shelves in Cardiff Waterstones after book group on Sunday afternoon when I came across Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo. Although I already had a book lined up for Z in the A to Z Challenge, this satire really appealed, so here we are.

Meet Yuri Zipit.

A boy who’s had a bang on the head in a collision with a Moscow milk truck.

He has a kind face, makes friends easily, and likes to help. People want to tell him their secrets.

Including the Great Leader himself, who takes a shine to Yuri when he employs him for his natural talents.

In his new job, Yuri will witness it all – betrayals, body doubles, buffoonery. Who knew that a man could be in five places at once? That someone could break your nose as a sign of friendship? That people could be disinvented . . .?

I rattled through Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo which sprints right out of the gate. Twelve-year-old Yuri is excitable, filled with facts and questions that tumble out of him, and I couldn’t help but be swept along in the slipstream of this, sometimes doubting if I could keep up with the pace.

It’s 1953 and Yuri lives with his father, a Professor of Veterinary Science, in the staff block at the Kapital Zoo. His father specialises in Cordate Neurology (the study of the brain in any animal with a backbone) and is attached to the Zoo. After two childhood accidents when he was six and a lightning strike, Yuri has been left brain damaged and also suffers from epilepsy. While he’s intelligent and can observe what’s going on around him, he’s not always adept at understanding the meaning behind what people say or do.

When he’s plunged into Stalin’s inner circle, things rapidly become yet more complicated. As he explains it, he doubts anyone would fully understand what was going on, even if they had a fully-functioning brain:

To grasp it all you would need to speak Georgian like a native, tell dirty jokes like a Mingrelian secret policeman, … , be able to drink two bottles of pepper vodka and still stay sober, be a consultant in Neurology, and a senior member of the Politburo, with a doctorate in assassinations.

I can understand why not everyone will be comfortable with Yuri as the book’s main character but I think he’s treated sympathetically by his creator and works well here. It’s not so much of a leap to accept that he might have found himself where he does, when it would have required a greater suspension of disbelief with another character. The fact that he takes things at face value also helps to keep things light.

Yuri invites confidences because his naivety sees him dismissed and means he’s not considered to pose a threat, gaining him access to conversations and rooms from which he’d otherwise have been barred. And it’s this unique perspective which allows Christopher Wilson to lampoon the excess and hypocrisy of Stalin and his inner circle with their lavish feasts and Western cinema, political manoeuvring and body doubles, while also giving the reader a taste of the more disturbing and brutal acts. Read more

Book Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It is a collection of eleven short stories looking at our perception of not only others but ourselves as well, and just how often we get it wrong.

In ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’, a married woman flirts with a man she meets at parties by playing You think it, I’ll say it, putting into words the bitchy things she guesses he’s thinking about their fellow guests. But she is in for a shock when, in time, she finds out what was really in his mind.

The Nominee’ sees Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, confessing her surprising true feelings about a woman journalist she has sparred with over the years. In ‘Gender Studies’, a visiting academic sleeps with her taxi driver, for what turns out to be all the wrong reasons. 

Although it has a different title to the overall collection, The World Has Many Butterflies is the title story and encapsulates what is happening in the stories Curtis Sittenfeld tells us here.

The main characters are playing a game, which we all play to a greater or lesser extent as we go through life, by trying to condense another human being down to a bitesize personality trait or psychological term, and have that define them or sum them up. It’s about how we try to read and evaluate, or judge and accept/dismiss (depending on how harmless or mean-spirited you think the game is) the people we meet throughout our lives, and how easily we’re able to fool ourselves when it comes to our own behaviour.

The stories follow a character’s rarely-voiced and privately-held internal thoughts and we often see what has changed since those misconceptions were first formed in their present-day, older selves, as in A Regular Couple and The Prairie Wife where the tables have turned. There are exceptions to this, such as in Off the Record, where an interview with a rising star goes disastrously but helps the journalist realise something more significant, and in the final story Do-Over, where two former school friends meet up for dinner and get the chance to air their thoughts on what happened back in the day. Read more

Book Review: Exhibit Alexandra / His Perfect Wife by Natasha Bell

I am cheating ever so slightly with the book for X in the A to Z Challenge by choosing Exhibit Alexandra which came out in paperback last month retitled His Perfect Wife.

Alexandra Southwood has vanished. Her husband, Marc, is beside himself. It isn’t long before the police are searching for a body.

But Alexandra is alive – trapped, far away from her husband and young daughters.

Desperate, Marc will stop at nothing to find the woman he loves. Even if it means discovering that he never really knew her at all.

Because Alexandra is no ordinary missing person – but then neither is she quite a perfect wife . . .

If you’re looking for a thriller with a difference, one that raises so many questions, making it ripe for discussion, then it’s worth taking a punt on His Perfect Wife.

I really admire Natasha Bell for approaching the story in the way she does. It’s not easy to maintain the mystery, especially when the missing woman is our narrator. Thankfully, we know early on that this is not one of those stories narrated by a dead woman. Alexandra is very much alive. But while she has access to some information, such as the recording of her husband reporting her missing, she can’t know how everything plays out at home.

Instead, Alexandra gives us her re-imagining of what happens and how people behave because she believes that she knows her family and friends well enough to do this. I found it fascinating that she would think this, and arrogant of her. I mean, even when you know someone intimately, can you ever predict their reaction or behaviour in response to a shocking event like this? I’m not convinced you can.

That said, it becomes all too easy to take Alexandra’s version of events as what might have happened while she’s missing. She makes it sound credible. Not that she isn’t challenged by her captor, she is; he does call her on some of her interpretations. But I have to confess to being distracted by trying to work out where she was and who was holding her. Which when revealed, only further jolted my perspective.

His Perfect Wife is a novel all about perspective, whether it be the moral stance we take or when considering identity. Alexandra’s disappearance and the police questioning force Marc to look more closely at his marriage. By sharing flashbacks to when they met and earlier stages in their relationship, Alexandra gives us what looks to be a more rounded view of their marriage. We see what she gave up to be with him and how different her life in York is from that earlier, freer and more creative life in the States. Read more

Book Review: The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage

Vanessa Savage’s debut novel The Woman in the Dark was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2019. I have to say that this is partly down to us both being in a regional group of writers who meet up occasionally. I’ve followed Vanessa’s progression to thrillers with interest. Here’s what this first one’s about:

For Sarah and Patrick, family life has always been easy. But when Sarah’s mother dies, it sends Sarah into a downwards spiral. Knowing they need a fresh start, Patrick moves the family to the beachside house he grew up in.

But there is a catch: while their new home carries only happy memories for Patrick, to everyone else it’s known as the Murder House – named for the family that was killed there.

Patrick is adamant they can make it perfect again, though with their children plagued by nightmares and a constant sense they’re being watched, Sarah’s not so sure. Because the longer they live in their ‘dream home’, the more different her loving husband becomes . . . 

The Woman in the Dark opens in the early morning light on what appears to be a normal family morning routine. The idea of moving to Patrick’s former family home hasn’t come up yet and, instead, travel plans are being floated around. It’s useful to see the family in this different, lighter and more modern home and to get a feel for the relationship dynamics here, before they make their move.

We understandably spend most time with our narrator, Sarah. It’s clear that she’s still very poorly and in a vulnerable position following the death of her mother. I think it’s important not to lose sight of this as she takes us through her family’s story. She might seem more passive than we would like her to be at times but Sarah’s not a well woman and needs to take baby steps towards recovery. Even the smallest of tasks can seem overwhelming. She also spends long periods of time alone with her thoughts, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she’s prone to overthinking and repeatedly going over what she imagines is happening.

The warning signs are there before they move house but once they do, it’s almost as if Patrick’s former childhood home draws the fears, tensions and every poisonous thought out through their pores, bringing them to the surface. It does so at an insidious rate and this creeping sense of unease made it difficult for me to read The Woman in the Dark in the evening and especially at night before bed. I could feel my shoulders tensing and imagined myself right there with Sarah, willing her to turn on all the lights. Read more

Book Review: Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre #FallenAngel #blogtour

After having enjoyed Chris Brookmyre’s historical crime novel The Way of All Flesh (written in collaboration with Marisa Haetzman) last year, I was interested in reading some more contemporary work. His latest book, Fallen Angel, which came out yesterday seemed a good place to start as it’s a stand-alone novel.

To new nanny Amanda, the Temple family seem to have it all: the former actress; the famous professor; their three successful grown-up children. But like any family, beneath the smiles and hugs there lurks far darker emotions.

Sixteen years earlier, little Niamh Temple died while they were on holiday in Portugal. Now, as Amanda joins the family for a reunion at their seaside villa, she begins to suspect one of them might be hiding something terrible…

And suspicion is a dangerous thing.

I think this might be a good book for anyone who’s ever been slightly envious of the seemingly perfect family holidaying in the next villa or on the neighbouring sun loungers to them. It’s a salutary reminder how often things are never quite the way they appear, and that there are downsides to both fame and families.

Fallen Angel starts with a murder and a family coming together for a commemoration at their two villas in Portugal. In the third villa of the group, there is a young Canadian girl, Amanda, the baby she is looking after this summer, and his mother. While they wait for the child’s father to join them, Amanda’s interest is piqued when she finds out whose family is staying next door and what happened here sixteen years ago.

Quoting passages and using theories from the family patriarch’s book on conspiracy theories, and switching between the 2002 holiday, which is mired in tragedy, and this tense reunion in 2018, Chris Brookmyre explores the personalities, dynamics and dark secrets within the Temple family. He switches perspective between Amanda and the inhabitants of all three villas, suggesting where the tensions and cracks are behind the carefully-curated veneer, and that this is far from being one big happy family. Read more

Book Review: The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase

Eve Chase’s second novel The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde is a dual timeline story about mothers and daughters, sisters, secrets and grief, which switches between 1959 and some fifty years later when new owners move in to the house at the centre of a tragic local mystery.

In the heatwave of 1959, four sisters arrive at Applecote Manor to relive their memories of hazy Cotswolds summers.

They find their uncle and aunt still reeling from the disappearance of their only daughter, five years before. An undercurrent of dread runs through the house. Why did Audrey vanish? Who is keeping her fate secret?

As the sisters are lured into the mystery of their missing cousin, the stifling summer takes a shocking, deadly turn. One which will leave blood on their hands, and put another girl in danger decades later . . .

Eve Chase’s gorgeous writing quickly drew me in to The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde; she conjures up Applecote Manor and its grounds, both as they were back in that heady summer of 1959, and in their current state of neglect as new owners come in and slowly bring the place back to life over the changing seasons. It’s been left with much of the previous owners’ furniture and possessions in situ, making it even easier to imagine this as a place unable to break free from its past or local superstition.

In the earlier time period, I found the relationships among the four Wilde sisters, affectionately dubbed the Wildlings by their Uncle Perry, interesting, especially seeing how the dynamic between them shifts over the course of the book. They’re certainly plunged in to a difficult situation. That this is likely to be the last summer which the sisters spend together before their futures start diverging, only adds to its poignancy.

There are sisters in the modern-day section too, which contrasts nicely with the sibling relationship of the Wildlings that is tested that summer of 1959. It’s not clear how close their more contemporary counterparts are in reality until they, too, are put to the test but factors such as their age gap, being part of a blended family and some worrying sleepwalking all have a part to play, as does the core mystery.  Read more

Book Review: Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Fredrick Backman’s Beartown was a firm favourite* among the books I read last year, so I was very happy to see him return to that ice hockey town in a large Swedish forest in Us Against You. 

Can a broken town survive a second tragedy?

By the time the last goal is scored, someone in Beartown will be dead . . .

Us Against You is the story of two towns, two teams and what it means to believe in something bigger than yourself. It’s about how people come together – sometimes in anger, often in sorrow, but also through love. And how, when we stand together, we can bring a town back to life.

(I think you could read this as a stand-alone but why would you want to read one book about Beartown when you could read two?! Get them both and read them one after another or leave this one a little while in order to savour the anticipation of there being more to come. Either way, go and read Beartown then come back to Us Against You.)

Us Against You picks up almost where Beartown left off; its townspeople are still very much coming to terms with what happened and dealing with the fallout. It’s left one family shattered, more shunned than supported, and held responsible for the town’s troubles, while others seem to return to normal.

The hockey team is haemorrhaging players to their nearest rivals in the neighbouring town of Hed. And if this continues, it could mean the unimaginable for a hockey town like Beartown: no senior team, its stadium closed down, and no ice hockey to give structure or focus to people’s lives.

While there are some good souls who will try and help their friends and neighbours heal, and attempt to bring the community back together again, there will of course always be those others who seek to exploit and profit from such divisions. Enter the politicians and property developers. I might have thought that hockey was a pretty bruising game but it’s nothing when compared to the political manoeuvring that’s about to play out in Us Against You. Read more

Book Review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers has as its setting Papa Jack’s Emporium, a strange and magical toyshop that opens with the first frost of winter, and closes again when snowdrops appear.

Do you remember when you believed in magic?

It is 1917, and while war wages across Europe, in the heart of London, there is a place of hope and enchantment.

The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike: patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy boxes that are bigger on the inside, soldiers that can fight battles of their own. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own.

But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own…

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I wanted to read The Toymakers when one of my favourite places to visit in London is Hamleys. Famous the world over and with seven floors of toys and games at its Regent Street store, I hoped to find in the Emporium some of the magic and creativity that can be found there.

I wasn’t disappointed. There are such wonders and marvels among the toys being created by Jekabs (aka Papa Jack) and sons, Kaspar and Emil. As Kaspar says: “… our papa’s training us – to never lose that perspective. To make a toy, you’ve got to burrow into that little part of you that never stopped being a boy… hidden down there, are all the ideas you would have had, if only you’d never grown up.”

But children do grow up. And while Jekabs may have become Papa Jack and a toymaker to escape from past horrors in his own life, the Emporium can’t keep the adult world at bay indefinitely. It provides a place of refuge and work for young runaway Cathy Wray, yet her arrival and plight both indicate that the Emporium is not immune from the outside world. It creeps inside and disturbs the equilibrium even here.  Read more

Book Review: Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation is filled with wry and acute observations on life while Graham Cavanaugh takes stock of his: realising how greatly he and his second wife, Audra, differ from each other, the day before an encounter with ex-wife Elspeth.

Graham’s second wife, Audra, is an unrestrained force of good nature. She talks non-stop through her epidural, labour and delivery, invites the doorman to move in and the eccentric members of their son’s Origami Club to Thanksgiving.

When she decides to make friends with Elspeth – Graham’s first wife and Audra’s polar opposite – Graham starts to wonder: how can anyone love two such different women? And did he make the right choice?

Graham’s remarks about his second wife, Audra, chimed with me as I read the first few pages of Standard Deviation. They’re a variation on what I hear from my husband when I go out with him or the way I feel about a friend from university days who seems to know everyone when we’re out together, whichever one of us is visiting the other. We are all the Graham to someone else’s Audra.

Standard Deviation opens in the aisle of a grocery store on a Saturday morning and I loved that Katherine Heiny did this. She takes us behind the scenes of a marriage and a family, finding the humour, poignancy, hurt, love and affection in our everyday lives. We see the discussions that happen while running errands and during food preparation more than we sit down to meals with these characters. Even Thanksgiving Dinner has to be savoured more in the anticipation than in the coming together of Audra’s motley assortment of guests. Barely has it begun before we are getting our coats and moving on elsewhere.

Graham ruminates on marriage, both past and present, the challenges they face in bringing up their son, Matthew, and the people who come into their family’s life, however fleetingly. And while Audra voices every thought, devoid of any filter, Graham considers himself to be the more tactful. I’m not convinced that he is; he’s just rather more circumspect in what he shares with others, Audra included. Read more

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

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