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#Giveaway & Book Review: The Perfect Wife by JP Delaney

JP Delaney’s novel The Perfect Wife is an unnerving, skewed story of grief, our obsession with perfection and that with work, AI and our digital footprints, relationship double standards, and conflicting child-rearing approaches.

Abbie wakes in a hospital bed with no memory of how she got there. The man by her side explains that he’s her husband. He’s a titan of the tech world, the founder of one of Silicon Valley’s most innovative startups. He tells Abbie she’s a gifted artist, a doting mother to their young son, and the perfect wife. 

Five years ago, she suffered a terrible accident. Her return from the abyss is a miracle of science, a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that has taken him half a decade to achieve. 

But as Abbie pieces together memories of her marriage, she begins questioning her husband’s motives – and his version of events. Can she trust him when he says he wants them to be together for ever? And what really happened to her, half a decade ago?

JP Delaney takes us to Silicon Valley in his latest novel and where better to explore the line between what’s human and what machines are capable of, where machine learning can help improve our understanding of ourselves and where it falls short. It’s the perfect technology sandbox for a writer who is adept at exposing what lies behind the perfect facades we think we see, and for delving into the darkest corners of our minds and behaviour.

JP Delaney shows us how quickly lines (and boundaries) can blur and where difficulties in not only navigating, but also in regulating the use of AI and controlling our social media footprint may lie. He highlights how blinkered grief, work and obsession can make us, how dangerous they can be when they run (almost) unchecked. He also pits two parents against each other, each with a differing view on how to raise their autistic child and some scenes dealing with controversial teaching methods made for especially uncomfortable reading, which I’ve no doubt was intended. Read more

Book Review: Nine Elms by Robert Bryndza

Nine Elms is the first in a brand new series from Robert Bryndza featuring a former police detective who solved a career-defining case only to have it drastically alter her life.

Kate Marshall was a promising young police detective when she caught the notorious Nine Elms serial killer. But her greatest victory suddenly became a nightmare.

Fifteen years after those catastrophic, career-ending events, a copycat killer has taken up the Nine Elms mantle, continuing the ghastly work of his idol.

Enlisting her brilliant research assistant, Tristan Harper, Kate draws on her prodigious and long-neglected skills as an investigator to catch a new monster. But there’s much more than her reputation on the line: Kate was the original killer’s intended fifth victim . . . and his successor means to finish the job.

Robert Bryndza cleverly chooses to open Nine Elms by first going back fifteen years and showing us how the end game to that altogether life-changing case played out. In visiting the crime scene of the killer’s most recent victim and the scenes which follow, we not only get a sense of the brutal crimes committed but we also see Kate Marshall as she then was, how she uncovers who the killer is and the way she interacts with him in those critical moments immediately after making her discovery. These are key to helping us understand just how much she has had to give up and how greatly the case impacted upon her life and career.

I was intrigued as to how Kate was going to investigate the copycat killings since she’s no longer in the police force but a request for a second opinion from a guest lecturer on her course and a plea for help in a cold case from the parents of a missing girl provide Kate and her research assistant Tristan with a seemingly innocuous and credible way in to begin their investigations.

I would have liked to have known a little bit more about Tristan in this first book but hope to discover more about him as the series continues. The relationship between him and Kate could be interesting, too. Kate clearly trusts and values him enough to open up to him and involve him so closely in the investigations and, while I think she asks a lot of him, she does check in with him periodically to make sure he’s okay with what they’re doing and wants to continue. Crucially, she also has his back when his research position looks like being compromised. Read more

Book Review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

I hadn’t come across Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist before it was shortlisted together with three other books for the Sunday Times / Young Writer of the Year Award. For me, it’s a perfect example of how valuable this prize is in championing talented and exciting new voices while also broadening their prospective reader base. I’m thrilled to have discovered this book and its author when I did.

When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world.

This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist shares some common ground with Raymond Antrobus’ poetry collection, The Perseverance, also shortlisted for the same prize. Both it and some of the poems in The Perseverance give a voice to their author’s generation’s experience of having grown up between the parents’ two distinct cultures which are Brazilian British and Jamaican British, respectively.

Stubborn Archivist bursts onto the page with an urgency which immediately grabbed my attention; the style felt like that of a stranger’s hurried confessional, where they’re confiding in you because they know you’ll go your separate ways afterwards. It almost felt as if I had picked up a notebook or journal someone had left on a train, looked to see whose it was and started reading it anyway, when I couldn’t find any identifiers. And then before I knew it, I was too far down the rabbit hole to put it back down where I had found it.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler doesn’t confine the telling of her story to a straight narrative but instead launches into fragments of dialogue or prose-poetry before bringing in more conventional and longer prose sections that we expect to form a novel. Yet even when using these, she often does away with standard punctuation, and gives her story the white space it needs, switching back and forth between much shorter passages of text as and when the story requires. Read more

Book Review: The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow #damppebblesblogtours

Dominic Brownlow’s evocative yet unsettling debut novel The Naseby Horses opens with a teenager returning home only to discover that his sister has been missing since the very same day he was admitted to hospital.

Seventeen-year-old Simon’s sister Charlotte is missing. The lonely Fenland village the family recently moved to from London is odd, silent, and mysterious. Simon is epileptic and his seizures are increasing in severity, but when he is told of the local curse of the Naseby Horses, he is convinced it has something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Despite resistance from the villagers, the police, and his own family, Simon is determined to uncover the truth, and save his sister.

Under the oppressive Fenland skies and in the heat of a relentless June, Simon’s bond with Charlotte is fierce, all-consuming, and unbreakable; but can he find her? And does she even want to be found?

While the novel purports to cover the six-day period since Charlotte’s disappearance, Dominic Brownlow cleverly decides to truncate this still further to only three, with the book beginning on the day that Simon returns home. This ensures that Simon and the reader come to the story at the same time, knowing about as much as each other; both have to play catch up, and any confusion on the part of the reader as to what might be happening is only mirrored and even amplified by Simon’s own.

An unreliable narrator he may be but Simon decides it’s down to him to find out what’s going on: “I don’t know what’s going on here and I don’t know the answers to these things, for I don’t even know if they are even things, not merely the shadows of things. I only know that Charlotte is not dead. I feel it within me. I feel her heartbeat next to mine, as I always have, the echo of my own… I have to save her, for that is all in life I have ever been required to do.”

Simon’s resolution will single him out even more in the small Fenland village to which his family only recently retreated from London and make him a target for unwelcome attention. But it’s also a search that takes him through a killer inventory of mystery elements, including his own family’s books and papers; a disurbing painting they inherited with the house; letters from the dead; time spent unravelling the truth behind a local legend that comes with its own curse dating back to the time of the English Civil War; and a list sharing one spooky commonality.

To further complicate things, Simon is taking medication and trying to avoid any more epileptic episodes. The description of the aura experienced shortly before the onset of an episode is wonderfully well done but this different way in which his brain fires and makes connections might be the very thing which also helps him to see the things that no one else can. Read more

Book Review: Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

I bought Julia Armfield’s much-anticipated debut story collection, Salt Slow, shortly after it came out in May this year. It’s since been shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Young Writer of the Year Award and, with the winner due to be announced on Thursday evening, I wanted to share my thoughts on it.

In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge.

Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, Salt Slow considers characters in motion – turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.

Beautifully packaged by Picador, this is a fantastic collection of stories about women and their bodies, which relates their evolution in a society that resembles our own but which is also altogether darker and differs to it, or is other.

I may be long past those teenage years spent craving the company of boys as much as the main character in Mantis, the first story in the collection, but she’s also someone who suffers from a debilitating skin condition and this eczema sufferer so identified with her when she describes this: “I dream in sheddings – spend my nights sunk deep beneath sets of teeth and fingernails, the suffocation of skin cast off and left unbodied.”

If the first story chimed with me, the second only served to suggest where we might be heading, if sleep continues to be squeezed out to make room for more work and leisure activities and is no longer seen as fulfilling an essential need. “…our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities… towns that seethed with spectres, mime the permanent unsettlement of a city night” “insisting that cities could not be lived in but only haunted.” In The Great Awake, Sleeps detach from their humans, which leads to conflict between those belonging to couples, uneasy housemates and colleagues for everyone else and a source of jealousy and envy for those left without one and still able to sleep. “It was described more commonly as a phenomenon than a disaster; … an amputation of sorts, the removal of the sleep state from the body… Television became a gradual sea of doubles, of familiar faces and their silent, unaccustomed companions.” It sounds as if this is a state we could evolve into, if we continue to give sleep such low priority.

In The Collectables, three friends mark the last of them being dumped with a bonfire of the keepsakes and possessions accumulated while together with the errant boyfriend. When the dumpee begins a new collection, it escalates into something altogether more worrying. It also might make you think twice about being friendly towards relative strangers, especially if you’re a pizza delivery guy.

Formerly Feral is a brilliant nod to Angela Carter with its twisted take on a dark fairytale where a father and daughter find themselves becoming involved with a neighbour who adopts a wolf. This is one story which has really stayed with me and it’s fascinating to follow the evolving relationships between those left behind in the house, those who left the family home, and those newly moved in. Read more

Book Review: Testament by Kim Sherwood

Kim Sherwood’s Testament won the 2016 Bath Novel Award and is one of the four books shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award which is announced on Thursday.

Of everyone in her complicated family, Eva was closest to her grandfather: a charismatic painter – and a keeper of secrets. So when he dies, she’s hit by a greater loss – of the questions he never answered, and the past he never shared.

It’s then she finds the letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have uncovered the testimony he gave after his forced labour service in Hungary, which took him to the death camps and then to England as a refugee. This is how he survived.

But there is a deeper story that Eva will unravel – of how her grandfather learnt to live afterwards. As she confronts the lies that have haunted her family, their identity shifts and her own takes shape. The testament is in her hands.

Although I’d seen and heard plenty of good things about Kim Sherwood’s debut novel, Testament, ever since it won the Bath Novel Award in 2016 and then again upon hardback publication in July 2018, I only read it after it was shortlisted for the Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.

I can’t help thinking that it was the exactly right time to read it though, despite the delay, because I happened to read Testament shortly before meeting up with a Hungarian friend of mine. Telling him the premise behind the book led to him letting me into his own family’s secret history while we pored over the most wonderful collection of old photographs together. And I’m not sure we would have shared that, if Testament hadn’t unlocked a discussion about family secrets and unearthing documents holding the key to those, only after a close relative’s death.

In Testament, video producer Eva, decides to continue her work on the documentary she was making about her beloved grandfather, after his death. It leads her to a discovery which sheds light on a time in his life that he had always refused to discuss with her, or indeed any other family member. In fact, he almost seems to have wiped it from his history altogether by taking on an anglicised name upon his arrival in England and going on to become the renowned painter, Joseph Silk, who worked in his Blue Room studio in the house they shared until his recent death. Read more

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Four

I can’t quite believe I made it to the end of the book after such an unpromising start but I did. Marking it as read on Goodreads (for the English translation, at least) felt pretty satisfying.

“Chapters” 8/9

  1. Reinhold is possibly the biggest villain in the story. Would you agree? Do you find his punishment satisfying? At one point.I was afraid that Reinhold might escape any justice but that administered by Franz’s friends, rather than the authorities, so I did like how he was brought in by the police, after all.He was one of the biggest villain’s in Franz’s story, for certain, but he certainly wasn’t alone in his villainy.

    But FRanz himself was his own worst enemy. And certainly no angel. He’d already served his time for murdering a girlfriend and had badly beaten another in this book.

  1. The quote that returns most frequently in the last chapters – at least as far I could see – is taken from Ecclesiastes (There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven . . . ) How did you feel about this use? Did you find it effective? I found it an effective way of grounding the narrative and allowing me pause for thought but I’m not sure how much more effect it had on me. I don’t think I particularly enjoyed it being rolled out at certain intervals or the tone it invoked jarred with me a little.
  1. Were you surprised by the ending? Yes, I was, although it felt as if was overshadowed by Mitzi’s exit from the story. I was still reeling from that storyline, but it was a surprise that the ending when it came wasn’t as bleak as I’d been led to expect.
  1. Looking back, what did you like the most about the book and what did you like the least?I really enjoyed the scenes where Franz was moving around the city or people were talking; there was a real sense of energy and movement in those scenes.I loved the rhythm of the dialect and how it felt as if people’s emotions were very near the surface; conversation always felt fraught with danger and full of passionate fury and tightly-coiled aggression.

    I grew to enjoy the use of montage once I was more accustomed to it interrupting the narrative and seemingly taking us off at a tangent. It gave me a different view of life in Berlin for a certain section of society at this time, and how they felt about the political changes happening.

    I didn’t like the portrayal of women in this book one bit, especially how they were handed around, pimped out, battered and beaten, and shown such disregard.

  1. Would you reread it and/ or are you glad you read Berlin Alexanderplatz? I was trying to read it in the original German and the English translation when I started off but soon found that time constraints made this difficult for me to keep up. I dropped the German version at about the halfway point and continued with the English translation to try and ensure I finished the reading in time and posted this last set of answers on the actual day we were supposed to.So… I intend to go back and pick up the original German version again next week. (Probably still relying on both the text and the audiobook, because that was so helpful to my understanding.) Does that count as a re-read? I think so!

    And yes, I am glad I’ve read it. I’d be interested in reading some commentary on it, both contemporaneous with its publication and up to the present time. I think that would be useful to my understanding and appreciation of the novel and preferably done prior to any re-read.

Thanks so much to Lizzy and Caroline for organising this readalong as part of #GermanLitMonth – your questions definitely helped direct my thoughts on the book and gave me a more focused reading of Berlin Alexanderplatz than I might have had on my own.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Three #GermanLitMonth

Week three and the reading was easier, although I’m further behind in the German original than I am with the English translation. More of a time issue than anything else.

“Chapters” 6/7

  1. The German original calls the chapters “Books” not chapters. In my opinion this is a gross error and robs the English reader of seeing some intertextual links. How do you feel about this? It didn’t really bother me that there was this difference. I thought the use of Books in the original German made sense when you view Berlin Alexanderplatz as a collection of writing on this section of Berlin society, their customs and beliefs and practices. Something akin to a religious text, with the quotes from scripture, religious imagery and references to characters and stories in the Bible only serving to underline this.
  2. Were you surprised to find out what happened to Franz after Reinhold pushed him out of the car? Do you find that Döblin is unnecessarily cruel to his creation? Yes, I was surprised when Reinhold did what he did.. I think because things happened so rapidly once he was in Magdeburg. Almost as if his arm was whipped off.Well, Döblin did warn us that Franz would be put through the ringer! A slow recovery wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting as the shock of Franz suffering life-changing injuries. It’s what writers do to their characters – put obstacles in their way to see how they react. The more shocking and larger the obstacle, the more dramatic the resulting narrative.
  3. What does Berlin Alexanderplatz tell us about Döblin’s “Menschenbild” – his philosophical conception of human beings?I think he explores to what extent we can or do self-define ourselves and to what extent our choices and the environment we live in help or hinder that. Do we have free will or are we a product of our upbringing, life experiences and whatever fate brings our way?
  4. Do you have a favourite character so far?Not really. I’m quite enjoying the bar scenes and the rambunctious energy of those, but I’m having a hard time finding anyone I really like that much.
  5. In these chapters, we see Franz attending political meetings. What did you think about these sections and his friend’s reactions?I thought these were fascinating, not only to see how what was happening was discussed, but what ordinary people felt about it all.I know that Franz’s friends were concerned for his welfare and what he might be sucked into, but I did feel that they discouraged him too quickly from getting involved. He needed a new interest and needed to form new friendships, something to keep him occupied, so he didn’t fall back in with the Pums’ gang.
  6. Most novels can be read without the reader knowing anything about the author’s life. What about this case? Were you compelled to read up on the author?I wouldn’t say I felt compelled and I didn’t want to find out anything about him until after I’d finished it.Reading the book has made me curious about its author but I wanted to come to the readalong free of any notions as to what extent the author drew from his own life experiences and how much of the book was a product of his research and imagination.

One week left and I might actually manage to make it to the end. But I’ve been frustrated with how little time I’ve had to read what others taking part have to say about the book.

If I do another readalong, I need to start the book sooner, read it and draft the blog post earlier and take part on others’ posts. I didn’t plan well enough to fit in with this one.

Berlin Alexanderplatz Readalong Week Two #GermanLitMonth

I made it to the end of week two but this was not without its challenges, either. Read on to find out why.

Chapters 3 – 5

  1. What do you make of Döblin’s structuring of the novel?  The short summaries at the beginning of each chapter, each section? The montage technique? Initially, I wasn’t a fan of the short summaries at the beginning of each chapter. I’d much rather not know what’s coming when I’m reading than have an expectation and for it not to be delivered in the way I expect or for the surprise to be taken away from me.As I mentioned in my previous post on the first two chapters, I also struggled to understand what was happening with Döblin’s use of montages because there was no clear demarcation between these and the narrative. But by this point in my reading of the text, I was more used to them and found them as interesting in some cases as the story of Franz and his companions. They all go to give a better sense of the city which Franz moves around in and helped me to build up a better picture of Berlin at this time.
  2. Women and the treatment of women in Berlin Alexanderplatz …. Discuss. Ha! How long have you got?! I think this has to be an aspect of the novel which is particularly problematic for anyone reading it in 2019, especially if you’re a woman. But I did try my best to put aside my feminist outrage and read it as a novel of its time and about this section of society. That’s not to say that it didn’t colour my impression of the novel and I have to admit that I did consider abandoning the book at times.Even though we know why Franz was in prison, it still came as a shock to see that none of the women in this book are treated well. The men use the language of normal, loving relationships to describe the women but they’re acting as their pimps and living off the proceeds of the women’s relationships with other wealthier men, each side is aware of the other and seem okay with sharing their women, and the women appear to enjoy having the opportunity to be the providers for their men.

    The way that Reinhold and Franz agree that one passes off his cast-offs to the other when he becomes bored of them is digusting, and I disliked both men for entering into this arrangement with each other.

    They’re bizarre relationships to get my head around and I would have liked to have seen one good, more relatable relationship included which balanced this out a little.

  3. This section introduces Reinhold, who will prove to be Franz Biberkopf’s main antagonist.  What do you think of Biberkopf’s initial underestimation of Reinhold? I think because Biberkopf’s life is taking a turn for the better and he is more sorted than he ever thought he would be on release day, this makes him blind to Reinhold’s potential dangers or faults.He also believes himself to be smarter than Reinhold and is too cocky about this. He seems almost over-ebullient about doing him a favour and thinks it a great lark, a game. He lets his defences down and Reinhold manages to quickly gain Franz’s confidence, as a result.

    I worried that Franz was too open with him but I genuinely think that he felt so happy about the way things were going, he didn’t look for warning signs and only looked at the positives. And some people are very good at charming their way into our confidence and lives, as Reinhold does with Franz’s here.

  4. What was the highlight of this section for you?  What the lowlight? What I enjoyed most about this section was Franz’s wanders around the city and the time spent in bars, the conversations he overheard or took part in. I was getting into the writing style and not finding the montages so much of a surprise, and this all helped to give me a feel for life in Berlin, and build up a picture of the city at this time.There were two low points and I can’t decide between them because they both made for difficult reading.

    One was the treatment of women in this novel, as mentioned above in response to question two, and the protracted, excruciating description of the slaughterhouse. That was tortuous to get through and I still don’t understand why it was included, unless it’s a metaphor for how people come in from surrounding areas to the big city and have the life beaten out of them in the process. Either that, or it’s to foreshadow something that’s coming later in the book, possibly?

  5. Do you have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage? Well, as I said above, I want to see what purpose that lengthy description of the slaughterhouse serves, and whether it’s picked up and alluded to later in the novel.I can’t see that Franz taking on Reinhold’s cast-offs is going to end well, but I’m also interested to see what additional role Reinhold plays in Franz’s story.

    I’m not sure I like Franz any better at this stage but I am getting more of a feel for his character and am starting to enjoy the dialogue; it’s ranty, opinionated, belligerent, but it has a real energy about it which I’m especially enjoying.

I’m getting into the novel now and am not finding its idiosyncracies so off-putting, so I think I’m going to keep going and find out how things turn out for Herr Biberkopf.

Book Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier takes a young medical student far from Vienna and into the makeshift world of being a wartime medic in the Galician mountains on the Poland-Ukraine border.

Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, only to find himself posted to a remote field-hospital ravaged by typhus. Supplies have all but run out, the other doctors have fled, and only a single nurse remains, from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine.

Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the course of his life.

The Winter Soldier almost feels like a coming-of-age tale in many ways, as we trace Lucius’ journey from a privileged Viennese home life and university education to a remote field-hospital.

Lucius is more interesting than his privileged background might at first suggest. He has “an unusual aptitude for the perception of things beneath the skin,” and is socially awkward, struggling to see beyond the symptoms and cases he handles to the human beings affected, namely his patients and their families. It takes him a long way into the novel to even begin to realise this, and crucially for him, it will help to shape his story.

I started to warm to Lucius after he followed Sister Margarete’s lead initially because the assured, if mysterious, sole nurse on site is far more practical than Lucius in almost every way imaginable. (This isn’t entirely his fault; by the time he enlists, the nature of his medical training means that he’s only ever handled four patients – and one of those was for earwax, so he’s sorely under-equipped for what’s ahead of him.)

I was as intrigued by Margarete as Lucius is and wanted to know what had brought her to this isolated spot to nurse soldiers in a conflict zone. I also admired her strength of character and her strategies for coping in such a male-dominated world. Read more

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