Navigate / search

Book Review: Home by Karen Dionne

Helena is driving home from the lake with her youngest daughter when a report comes on the radio that she never hoped to hear. Now in order to protect everything she has, she needs to return to a place she thought she’d long left behind her.

You’d recognise my mother’s name if I told it to you. You’d wonder, briefly, where is she now? And didn’t she have a daughter while she was missing?
And whatever happened to the little girl?

Helena’s home is like anyone else’s, with a husband, two daughters and a job she enjoys. But no one knows the truth about her dark and twisted childhood.

Born into captivity and brought up in an isolated cabin until she was twelve, Helena was raised by her terrified, broken mother and the man who held them both prisoner – Helena’s own father.

Now with news that he has escaped from prison, Helena instinctively knows that her father is coming for her and if she wants to keep her family safe, she must find him – before he finds her. Even if that means returning to the darkest parts of her past, the scariest place imaginable, home.

Extracts from a translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Marsh King’s Daughter are included throughout Karen Dionne’s novel, Home, which was originally published in hardback under the same title as the fairytale. It slots in well around Helena’s story in Home (whose early years were certainly no fairytale) and serves as a useful reminder of how dark and brutal fairytales actually were before we became more used to their sanitised versions.

Without the inclusion of Andersen’s tale, I might not have seen Helena’s present-day semblance of normality as the ‘happily ever after’ she’s worked so hard to provide for her and her family. Something that eluded her own mother after life in the marsh. I could rue the secrecy surrounding her past that now backfires, while also realising that it was a way of protecting not only Helena but also her husband and children from it. She’s determined that her daughters enjoy freedoms she never realised existed, and is vehement in her defence of these. Read more

Book Review: The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong

The Good Son of the title wakes to find himself in a nightmare situation, one where he has no recollection of what happened and that only looks worse with every minute he delays reporting it.

You wake up covered in blood
There’s a body downstairs
Your mother’s body

You didn’t do it? Did you?
How could you, you’ve always been The Good Son

When Yu-jin wakes up covered in blood, and finds the body of his mother downstairs, he decides to hide the evidence and pursue the killer himself. 

Then young women start disappearing in his South Korean town. Who is he hunting? And why does the answer take him back to his brother and father who lost their lives many years ago.

You-jeong Jeong positions us inside the head of her main character from the instant the metallic tang of blood wakes Yu-jin up. We walk the scene of the crime with him, making each discovery as he does, and all the while listening to his inner monologue. And it’s this which made The Good Son so interesting for me. I had to know how he was going to piece together what had happened the night before but also how hiding the evidence and going the investigation alone was going to pan out for him.

We soon find out the cause of Yu-jin’s confusion and realise that he’s not going to be a reliable narrator. Not that he hides this fact. Early on in the book, he tells us that

Honesty is neither my strong suit nor something I aspire to

This, together with his erratic reasoning and behaviour upon discovering his mother’s body, certainly don’t seem to correspond with that expected of a diligent student waiting for law school entrance exam results. Or someone with the focus he once must have possessed to become a champion swimmer.

Yu-jin’s task is complicated by the flashbacks he experiences, which are by their very nature fragmentary. Likewise, entries from his mother’s journal at first appear to be more of an uncomfortable invasion of privacy than in any way helpful.

I was Mother’s only son. That was the rule.

Yet there are always exceptions to the rule and that’s also the case here. There was another son who died when Yu-jin was only nine years old and starting to swim competitively; and there’s now a cuckoo in the nest in the form of his former childhood friend now adoptive brother, Hae-jin, who’s on his way home the morning of Yu-jin’s macabre discovery. Read more

Book Review: The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood by Susan Elliot Wright

The Flight of Cornelia Blackwood opens with a scene where a crow walks into a kitchen. It happens in an instant, the back door having been opened to let the smoke from burnt toast dissipate. It’s enough to rattle the woman whose kitchen it is, and suggest that, even without being superstitious, things are off-kilter here.

What has happened to Cornelia Blackwood?

She has a loving marriage. But she has no friends.

Everyone knows her name. But no one will speak to her now.

Cornelia Blackwood has unravelled once before. Can she stop it from happening again?

When we meet forty-year-old Cornelia, she’s about to wave her husband off to a conference. She’s also gearing up to go back to work part-time after an unknown incident left her in severe pain, yet still able to manage without a walking stick unless she overdoes it. Life seems to have dealt her a hard blow and we spend the book discovering just how much of one, and what further loss and shock can do to someone in an already fragile state of mind.

By switching between two timelines labelled only as Now and Then in the chapter headings, Susan Elliot Wright’s novel illustrates not only how quickly someone’s life can turn but also how difficult it can be for people to know what others are going through as a result of those changes, or how to reach out and help them in the way they need. Something made all the more challenging when dealing with someone as intelligent and private a person as Cornelia. She becomes well-practised at hiding what she’s doing and being secretive, something facilitated by her current situation and how much time she spends on her own.

Cornelia shares characteristics with the crows which are a recurring motif in the book. Intelligent and independent, crows mate for life, and can be quiet and secretive when close to home. I’d argue that although not outwardly raucous as the birds are, Cornelia’s mind is far from quiet: her thoughts crash around and run out of control, clinging to the most fragile support and building a real sense of there being no escape for her. With each further misstep and unsaid truth, this claustrophobic feeling builds until she’s entangled like a bird in netting and you wonder how she will ever break free. Read more

Book Review: Entanglement by Katy Mahood

As soon as I read her opening description of a murmuration, I knew that I was going to enjoy Katy Mahood’s debut novel, Entanglement. It’s the first of many such arresting images in this novel about those ‘moments’ we share with complete strangers.

On a hot October day in a London park, Stella sits in her red wedding dress opposite John.

Pregnant and lost in thoughts of the future, she has no idea that lying in the grass, a stone’s throw away, is a man called Charlie.

From this moment, Stella and Charlie’s lives are bound together in ways they could never imagine. But all they have is a shared glance and a feeling: have we met before?

Both the title and premise for Katy Mahood’s book derive from a quantum mechanics theory in which (and I am paraphrasing very loosely here) two entities temporarily share a space or interact, due to some indefinable pull, creating a link between them. That may be the science behind it but the book’s appeal lies in how recognisable and relatable this phenomenon is. We’ve all experienced times where we’ve shared a smile, an eye roll or more with a stranger, before continuing on our separate ways. And in Entanglement, Katy Mahood traces those fleeting moments when our lives bump up against those of others.

Entanglement follows the divergent paths of Stella, John and Charlie through almost thirty years from October 1977 to August 2007. It’s a span of time which will take in all the highs and lows of life from falling in love to near breakups to divorce, the joy, the boredom, the mistakes people make and the things they get right. How people change and grow together or apart, the compromises and adjustments they make along the way, how they deal with unfulfilled hopes and dreams and what they consider to be a successful or fulfilling life. It looks at the contrast between what’s important when you’re young and how that alters at different life stages or in the face of a milestone event.

Perhaps it’s because they first share a moment in Paddington station on my birthday that it’s Stella and Charlie’s characters who most captured my imagination. I had a real sense that shared moments gently reverberated through their lives, even if only a faint echo, and that other characters missed out on this by not being as open or present in that moment. Read more

Book Review: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

In Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid charts the trajectory of a young woman who goes from hard-partying groupie to ubiquitous band’s frontwoman in 1970s LA.

For a while, Daisy Jones & The Six were everywhere. Their albums were on every turntable, they sold out arenas from coast to coast, their sound defined an era. And then, on 12 July 1979, they split.

Nobody ever knew why. Until now.

They were lovers and friends and brothers and rivals. They couldn’t believe their luck, until it ran out. This is their story of the early days and the wild nights, but everyone remembers the truth differently.

The only thing they all know for sure is that from the moment Daisy Jones walked barefoot onstage at the Whisky, their lives were irrevocably changed.

Making music is never just about the music. And sometimes it can be hard to tell where the sound stops and the feelings begin.

The gorgeous cover gave me a pretty good idea that this was the story of a seventies band and I especially love the ticket stubs printed on the endpapers. I did have some misgivings about how enjoyable the interview style of the book would be to read but I needn’t have worried. It works well here and helps set the pace and tone of the novel. So much so that I inhaled Daisy Jones & The Six in one day, all the while feeling as if I was in a sprawling Rolling Stone interview or TV documentary on the band.

I had a love-hate relationship with both Daisy and Billy, I admired their creativity and talent, but not always how self-destructive they both were or how little regard they showed towards other people. Not that I felt this was malicious on their part. They each got caught up in what they were doing to the point where that consumed them. Karen and Graham were a good counterpoint to their excess and I especially liked Karen’s take on the situation within the band, her own personal life, and what she would sacrifice for a career in music. I felt for Graham but empathised more with Karen.

Pete and Warren’s voices weren’t as distinctive as some of the others in the band and I didn’t get as good a handle on their characters. But I have to say that I adored Eddie’s constant bitching. He rumbled discontent throughout the book and made me laugh, which I’m not sure he’d be entirely happy about. Read more

Book Review: The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

Sarah J. Harris’ The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder centres around Jasper Wishart, who faces more obstacles than your average amateur sleuth as he attempts to crack the mystery at the heart of this book. But then, Jasper’s no ordinary thirteen-year-old boy, thanks to the way in which he sees the world.

There are three things you need to know about Jasper.

1. He sees the world completely differently.
2. He can’t recognise faces – not even his own.
3. He is the only witness to the murder of his neighbour, Bee Larkham.

But uncovering the truth about that night will change his world forever…

One of the beauties of a good book is how it can put you inside the head of someone who experiences the world differently to you and this is exactly what Sarah J. Harris achieves here.

I’d heard of synaesthesia, a condition in which senses intermingle, but struggled to picture how it manifests itself. In Jasper’s case, he sees words, numbers and even voices in colour and experiencing this alongside him in the book was a revelation. (Although I also think there is a danger of becoming too fixated on trying to remember all the colours he sees. I had to remind myself there was no test at the end of the book before I stopped doing so.)

Together with his synaesthesia, Jasper also experiences prosopagnosia (or face blindness), which admittedly is a huge obstacle for anyone trying to piece together people’s movements in the days leading up to the disappearance of their neighbour, and immediately afterwards. I had to admire Jasper’s tenacity, the coping mechanisms he puts in place to navigate life as he sees it, and raged on his behalf when someone set out to trick Jasper by using his own system against him.  Read more

Book Review: The Binding by Bridget Collins

Bridget Collins’ The Binding is one book you’ll lust after for your collection with its beautifully finished dust jacket and intricately designed book boards, holding within them the promise that this young man’s story is no ordinary apprentice’s tale.

Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Forever.

Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible. 

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books and memories are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.

The Binding is a remarkably accomplished novel in which Bridget Collins performs some dark alchemy of her own to meld the power of magic and memories with the traditional hand craft of bookbinding and sees a young man’s apprenticeship transform into his calling, the integrity of which he’ll be forced to question when he discovers how others seek to abuse the secrets it hides.

The Binding is split into three sections: the first of these covers Emmett’s apprenticeship, initially in a remote bookbinding workshop on the edge of the marshes and later in the town of Castleford. I couldn’t get enough of the opening half where Emmett learns his craft and almost felt wrenched out of it, grieving a character I’d grown fond of but who was to play no further part.

When the second section threw me into the past, and back into someone’s memories, I once again felt disoriented and it took a little while to right myself. In part, this sensation comes about because Bridget Collins draws me in so deep with her spellbinding storytelling but I also can’t help feeling that she deliberately sets out to upset the equilibrium. It mirrors that felt by Emmett as more of the mystery surrounding his apprenticeship and the memories of others is unlocked. Each time there’s this shift, it throws new light on what’s happening, and ultimately sets up the conflict which plays out in the finale. Read more

Book Review: Blackberry & Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

I had a hankering to read Sonia Velton’s debut novel Blackberry & Wild Rose for its stunning cover alone before I knew anything more about the story. But what a world I found wrapped up in that oh so very beautiful dust jacket.

WHEN ESTHER THOREL, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.

INSIDE THE THORELS’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

IT IS SILK that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household and set the scene for a devastating day of reckoning between her and Sara.

THE PRICE OF a piece of silk may prove more than either is able to pay.

Blackberry & Wild Rose is a remarkably rich and immersive novel and, in writing it, Sonia Velton has created the kind of world I long to lose myself in as a reader. From the moment Sara steps off the cart that’s brought her to London and Mrs Swann scoops her up and bundles her along to the Wig & Feathers, I was plunged into eighteenth century Spitalfields. Sonia Velton fills her pages with the sights, sounds and smells of the area in this period so well that I felt as if I were living the story alongside her characters.

Told from the perspective of Sara and her ‘saviour’ Esther, this is the story of two very different women both constrained by the limited opportunities available to them and how vulnerable they are by dint of their sex. I took a more immediate liking to Sara but I think that was in part down to how soon her fresh start in the city turns sour and that she’s viewed as a project, rather than another woman in the household, by Esther. It takes longer to discover Esther’s heart’s desire and realise the consequences of her thwarted dreams and wasted talents, and the frustration and resentment these engender. But once they became known, I couldn’t help but feel for her and want her to find some comfort and happiness. Read more

Book Review: A Little Bird Told Me by Marianne Holmes

A young woman and her brother return to their abandoned home and an unsolved family mystery in this slow burn of a debut novel.

In the scorching summer of 1976, Robyn spends her days swimming at the Lido and tagging after her brother. It’s the perfect holiday – except for the crying women her mum keeps bringing home.

As the heatwave boils on, tensions in the town begin to simmer. Everyone is gossiping about her mum, a strange man is following her around, and worst of all, no one will tell Robyn the truth. But this town isn’t good at keeping secrets…

Twelve years later, Robyn returns home, to a house that has stood empty for years and a town that hasn’t moved on, forced to confront the mystery that haunted her that summer.

And atone for the part she played in it.

Told from the perspective of Robyn, the Little Bird of the title, and switching between the 1976 heatwave and the siblings’ return twelve years later in 1988, A Little Bird Told Me takes its own sweet time in unravelling the mystery at the heart of this story.

This is in part due to the fact that Robyn is our narrator and, while she may return as a twenty-one year old, she was only nine when the events of 1976 took place. Robyn has repressed memories as well as a skewed vision of what happened due to her age and the fact that others protected her from what was going on at the time. In retrospect, this was probably misguided on their part even if it was done for all the best reasons, but it all feeds into how unreliable she is as a narrator and how slow she is to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

That said, I would have liked to have had a few more breadcrumbs scattered throughout the book to help me keep faith that there would be some better resolution than the path of vengeance Robyn seems set upon when the book opens. Read more

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden (Winternight Trilogy #3)

Brimful of the deep-winter magic and folkloric elements I loved in her first two Winternight books, Katherine Arden’s trilogy culminates in a truly spellbinding finale with The Winter of the Witch.

Moscow is in flames, leaving its people searching for answers – and someone to blame. Vasilisa, a girl with extraordinary gifts, must flee for her life, pursued by those who blame their misfortune on her magic.

Then a vengeful demon returns, stronger than ever. Determined to engulf the world in chaos, he finds allies among men and spirits. Mankind and magical creatures alike find their fates resting on Vasya’s shoulders.

But she may not be able to save them all.

Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy has been ramping up towards its epic conclusion over the course of the first two books.

Given the title, it’s unsurprising to find that The Winter of the Witch is where Vasya needs to come into her own if she’s somehow to attempt to bring all the warring factions – military, magic, religious and demon – together to face the threat to Moscow.

No mean feat for someone who is once again an outcast, badly hurt and on the run.

Vasya’s journey takes her along the enchanted but hazardous road through Midnight, where she’ll learn more about herself and her family, take on an unlikely guide, and reunite with a beguiling frost-demon. Read more

%d bloggers like this: