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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

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

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