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Book Review: Keep Him Close by Emily Koch

Emily Koch’s second novel Keep Him Close focuses on mother-son relationships and the dynamic between two women as they try to unravel what happened on a night out which goes very badly wrong.

Alice’s son is dead. Indigo’s son is accused of murder.

Indigo is determined to prove her beloved Kane is innocent. Searching for evidence, she is helped by a kind stranger who takes an interest in her situation. Little does she know that her new friend has her own agenda.

Alice can’t tell Indigo who she really is. She wants to understand why her son was killed – and she needs to make sure that Indigo’s efforts to free Kane don’t put her remaining family at risk. But how long will it take for Indigo to discover her identity? And what other secrets will come out as she digs deeper?

Having loved Emily Koch’s debut, If I Die Before I Wake, I was keen to read more from her, and Keep Him Close didn’t disappoint.

Koch again limits her cast of characters to a small group and manages to ramp up a similar sense of jeopardy, with time running out to find answers to the core mystery. The action’s not restricted to a hospital room, as it was in Koch’s debut though, and this allows her characters more freedom to move around Bristol and beyond, propelling the action forward and making this novel feel less claustrophobic than its predecessor.

While the complexity of the mother-son relationships here is fascinating, it’s the dynamic between the two mothers, Alice and Indigo, each coping in her own way with the aftermath of that fateful night out their sons went on, which is key to what makes the book work so incredibly well.

Their unequal relationship serves to provide a unique perspective on Alice; we see her character and behaviour through Indigo’s eyes before she discovers who Alice actually is, and attaches any prejudice or pre-conceived ideas which we might have about her. Read more

Book Review: A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea is about people, exiled not once but twice, who are determined to survive and even thrive in their adopted countries, and what home signifies.

Victor Dalmau is a young doctor when he is caught up in the Spanish Civil War, a tragedy that leaves his life – and the fate of his country – forever changed. Together with his sister-in-law, the pianist Roser, he is forced out of his beloved Barcelona and into exile.

When opportunity to seek refuge arises, they board a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda to Chile, the promised ‘long petal of sea and wine and snow’. There, they find themselves enmeshed in a rich web of characters who come together in love and tragedy over the course of four generations, destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world.

Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, commissioned the SS Winnipeg to bring 2,000 exiles from the Spanish Civil War to new lives in South America shortly before the Second World War.

Allende remembers hearing the story as a child but it was only years later, when she met one of its passengers, Victor, that she felt compelled to tell their story. Both he and Allende were political refugees and it’s perhaps this, the fact that she’s no stranger to exile and displacement herself, which makes the resulting novel a far more intimate and compassionate story than its sweeping scope suggests.

Victor Dalmau’s namesake provided the inspiration and background but these characters are very much Allende’s own creation; complex creatures who come alive on the page with all their resilience, flaws and redeeming qualities.

Their journeys show what a wrench it is to leave everything behind, not knowing if they will ever see their homeland or friends and family again, the conditions they endure along the way and how little they have to establish themselves with in their adopted countries, where their status will always be ‘other’.

It’s such an involving narrative, I felt as if Allende were confiding in me. She drew me into these people’s lives and relationships; I watched, even championed them on each time they rebuilt and redefined home.

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende is published by Bloomsbury and is available now as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it instead from Hive where each purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop. For more on Isabel Allende and her writing, check out her Author Website, find her Facebook Page or follow her on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher and LoveReading for providing me with a review copy. 

Why I’m Supporting Quick Reads 2020

Nut Press is proud to support Quick Reads

Quick Reads first launched in 2006 and is a project run by The Reading Agency. Working together with top authors, it produces six books each year; short books with simple vocabulary that help ease you into reading for pleasure or help you rediscover your love of books.

In Wales, four books are produced each year – two in English and two in Welsh, in an initiative run by the Welsh Books Council and supported by the Welsh Assembly. The books for this year are due to be published next month. 

If you’re an EFL/ESL teacher, they’re invaluable teaching aids and great books to use with intermediate students who want to read books in English but find a full-length novel daunting. Quick Reads help to bridge the gap between reading passages and text for comprehension and meaning in students’ text books and attempting to read a full-length novel for pleasure, but which also helps expand their vocabulary and language skills.   

The beauty of a Quick Reads book is that vocabulary is pitched at the right level for an intermediate learner and the length means they are likely to be able to finish reading the book within the framework of a one or two-week course. And the fact that they can finish one or more over the length of a summer course gives the students a real sense of achievement and boosts confidence in their ability. 

At one point, it didn’t look as if there would be a Quick Reads 2020. But then author JoJo Moyes stepped in to save the initiative, putting in her own money to keep it going for the next three years. I’m really happy that it is continuing and hope that people continue to support it. I know I will be using this year’s books with students and encouraging others to do so, having seen how excited past students have been to finish a book without constantly having to refer to a dictionary or an electronic translation tool. Quick Reads may be short and look like very slight books but they have been invaluable to me and my students and do wonders for making them more confident readers in English. 

Quick Reads books are available in all good bookshops, online retailers and at your local library. For more on this year’s titles, check out Quick Reads 2020, and for more information on the scheme, have a look at the resources available on the Reading Agency website.W

#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.

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