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Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel Little Fires Everywhere is out today in the UK and I’m thrilled to be taking part in the blog tour to celebrate its publication. Here’s what the blurb says about it:

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother- who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When old family friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town – and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at an unexpected and devastating cost.

While putting people in little boxes, even large boxes with impeccable interior design, setting them strict rules and city ordinances to live by, which control everything from bin collection to the external colour scheme of their homes, may seem like a good idea in theory, it’s no guarantee that they’ll play their part and always stick to the script. All the best intentions can go awry once you add people, with all their competing egos and beliefs, polarising politics, differing dynamics and underlying tensions, to the mix.

Little Fires Everywhere focuses on two families whose lives become entwined and will never be the same again. It hones in on the roles we play within a family and the wider community, how those dynamics are set up, and how little it takes to upset them. Little Fires Everywhere is so well written that I read it in two heady sittings, reluctant to put it down. This story of one seemingly content and compliant community stirred up by the arrival of two outsiders reads like a literary psychological thriller and I was quickly drawn into the lives of the respectable Richardson family, the more nomadic newly-arrived Warrens, and their friends and neighbours. Celeste Ng moves seamlessly around the carefully-planned streets of Shaker Heights, taking me right to the heart of this community almost before I realised how far in I was. Read more

In Search of Short Stories

(Some of) my collection of short story collections
(Some of) my collection of short story collections

November is traditionally the month of NaNoWriMo for many writers (good luck to all of you taking part!) but for me, this year it’s all about the short story. I’m in the second week of a five-week Short Fiction Masterclass and, around doing this, I’m spending time reading stories from those collections I own. Having gathered some of them together (not pictured are collections by Margaret Atwood or William Trevor), I realise this reading spree is going to take me on past the five, now four remaining weeks of the course!

I’ve just added The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico (not pictured) thanks to her shortlisting for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award 2017. But I want to hear from you and know what you’d recommend I read. Do you have a favourite short story or short story collection? Is it one of those pictured* above? Let me know what it is by leaving a comment below.

*If you have trouble reading some of the titles, click on the picture for a slightly clearer image.

Book Review: Death in the Stars by Frances Brody #DeathintheStars #BlogTour

I’m happy to say that tenacious amateur sleuth Kate Shackleton is back for her eighth outing. (I wrote about my first encounter with Kate in Whitby here.) This time she’s in for some starry encounters, as she scores an unusual invitation to view the 1927 eclipse and is drawn into investigating some dramatic deaths.

Yorkshire, 1927. Eclipse fever grips the nation, and when beloved theatre star Selina Fellini approaches trusted sleuth Kate Shackleton to accompany her to a viewing party at Giggleswick School Chapel, Kate suspects an ulterior motive.

During the eclipse, Selina’s friend and co-star Billy Moffatt disappears and is later found dead in the chapel grounds. Kate can’t help but dig deeper and soon learns that two other members of the theatre troupe died in similarly mysterious circumstances in the past year. With the help of Jim Sykes and Mrs Sugden, Kate sets about investigating the deaths – and whether there is a murderer in the company.

When Selina’s elusive husband Jarrod, injured in the war and subject to violent mood swings, comes back on the scene, Kate begins to imagine something far deadlier at play, and wonders just who will be next to pay the ultimate price for fame . . .

Frances Brody captures all the excitement of the 1927 eclipse well and weaves it seamlessly into her story. It’s fascinating to see where the Astronomer Royal chooses to view it from in the path of totality and how the author uses that setting so well, bringing in minor as well as the main characters to help us see the relevance to them as well as those who attend the ticketed event. I got a real sense of occasion, the planning which went into it, and its importance to the chosen school. I also enjoyed how breezily Kate manages to arrange a flight up there and back.

Death in the Stars clips along at a fair old pace and I read it quickly. I enjoyed the look both in front of and behind the curtain at variety shows during the late 1920s and how the rise in radio and movies was threatening their continued existence. Change is in the air and there is a way of life slowly dying out here too, alongside the more sudden deaths of troupe members. I also appreciated how Frances Brody touches on post-traumatic stress from people’s wartime efforts or their being closely involved in a shocking incident and the physical and mental legacy of their experiences. She shows the reader both the supposed glamour of life on the stage and showbiz parties as well as the more routine life backstage and in between performances, once the lights come up, the audience goes home, the costumes and make-up removed.  Read more

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke #BluebirdBluebird #BlogTour

Today I’m thrilled to be able to share an extract from Attica Locke’s latest novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, a powerful thriller about the explosive intersection of love, race, and justice and the first in a timely new series about the cost of justice in the American South. This is taken from Chapter One: 

The tiny brass bell on the cafe’s door rang softly as Geneva let herself in.

Two of her regulars looked up from their seats at the counter: Huxley, a local retiree, and Tim, a long-haul trucker who stayed on a Houston–Chicago route week in and week out. “Sheriff’s here,” Huxley said as Geneva passed behind him. At the end of the counter, she opened the gate that led to her “main office,” the space between the kitchen and her customers. “Rolled in ’bout thirty minutes after you left,” he said, both he and Tim craning their necks to gauge her reaction.

“Must have made ninety miles an hour the whole way,” Tim said.

Geneva kept her lips pressed together, swallowing a pill of rage.

She lifted an apron from a hook by the door that led to the kitchen. It was an old one, yellow, with two faded roses for pockets.

“It was a whole day with the other one—ain’t that what you said?” Tim was halfway through a ham sandwich and talking with his mouth full. He swallowed and washed it down with a swig of Coke. “Van Horn took his sweet time then.”

“Sheriff?” Wendy said from her perch at the other end of the counter. She was sitting in front of a collection of mason jars, each filled with the very best of her garden. Plump red peppers, chopped green tomatoes threaded with cabbage and onion, whole stalks of okra soaked in vinegar. Geneva lifted each jar one by one, holding it up to the light and double-checking the seal.

“I got some other stuff outside,” Wendy said as Geneva pulled a marker from the pocket of her apron and started writing a price on the lid of each jar.

“You can leave the chow chow and the pickled okra,” Geneva said, “but I got to draw the line on all that other junk you trying to sell.” She nodded out the front window to Wendy’s car. Wendy and Geneva were the same age, though Wendy had a tendency to adjust her age from year to year depending on her audience or mood. She was a short woman, with mannish shoulders and an affected disregard for her appearance. Her hair was gray and pomaded into a tight bun. At least it had been tight last she combed it, which could have been anywhere from three to seven days ago. She was wearing the bottom half of a yellow pantsuit, a faded Houston Rockets T-shirt, and men’s brogues on her feet.

“Geneva, people like to buy old shit off the highway. Makes them feel good about how well they living now. They call it antiques.”

“I call it rust,” Geneva said. “And the answer is no.” Read more

The Snow Globe Blog Tour #TheSnowGlobe

I’m happy to be part of the blog tour for one of my favourite historical fiction writers today to celebrate the UK ebook release of Judith Kinghorn’s The Snow Globe. Give The Snow Globe a gentle shake and you’ll find a father falling off his pedestal, a mother forced to reassess her life, both past and future, and a daughter on the cusp of her adult life with romance and independence beckoning, becoming more aware of the real world outside her sheltered childhood home and the houseful of secrets that same haven contains.

As Christmas 1926 approaches, the Forbes family are preparing to host a celebration at Eden Hall. Eighteen-year-old Daisy is preoccupied by a sense of change in the air. Overnight, her relationship with Stephen Jessop, the housekeeper’s son, has shifted and every encounter seems fraught with tension. Before the festivities are over, Daisy has received a declaration of love, a proposal and a kiss – from three different men. Unable to bear the confusion she flees to London and stays with her elder sister.

By the following summer, Daisy has bowed to the persistence of the man who proposed to her the previous year. When the family reunite for a party at Eden Hall and Stephen is once more in her life, it is clear to Daisy she is committing to the wrong person. Yet she also believes that family secrets mean she has no choice but to follow her head instead of her heart. Will love conquer all, or is Daisy’s fate already written?

Set in an English country house in the 1920s, The Snow Globe is, as always with Judith Kinghorn’s novels, a pleasure to read: her beautiful writing coaxes you through a story filled with period detail, lush description and a whole cast of fully-formed characters. Just as you do with Robert Altman’s inclusive camerawork in Gosford Park, you’ll soon feel caught up in daily life at Eden Hall, thanks to Judith’s intimate writing style, drawing you into the book’s world and the heads of her characters. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you’re more at home above or below stairs.
Read more

Guest Post: A Sense of Place by Alex Christofi #LetUsBeTrue

I’m very happy to welcome Alex Christofi today as part of the blog tour for his latest novel, Let Us Be True. Set in post-war Paris, it follows the stories of Ralf and Elsa, who meet there but come from elsewhere, and is a fascinating take on love and loss, home, belonging, and identity, especially that which we choose to conceal and how we present to others.

Alex very kindly agreed to write about his thoughts on the importance of place to understanding who we are and why where we are matters more than some of us might think. 

There’s this idea that we are born as a discrete unit, placed onto the surface of the world, moving around in a fleshy little body. The world is just a map that you land on, randomly spawned like a character in a video game. And that idea is quite convenient for anyone who subscribes to a broadly liberal world view, because it allows us to believe in the ‘accident of birth’, an idea that ‘I’ could have been born anywhere and happened to fall out here and now. But unfortunately, each of us only has an identity at all thanks to our surroundings. The social psychologist Dr Bruce Hood writes that

Keeping you alive is not the sole function nor the responsibility of the brain… When you take a closer look at our planet and all its life forms, it soon becomes apparent that the original reason why living things evolved brains was for movement… Arguably the main reason that the brain evolved was to navigate the world – to work out where you currently are, remember where you have been and decide where you are going next. 1

The earliest knowledge we have about our species is where we were. Place came before culture, before consciousness. I am here, therefore I am. We only have brains in the first place as a way to situate ourselves, to retain and manipulate our sense of place, which is one of the reasons why we have such prodigious spatial memories (if you don’t believe me, Google memory palaces). It is not an accident that I was born here and not over there, because I literally wouldn’t be me if I was born over there. From this perspective, it’s impossible not to think of each of us as products and prisoners of a particular time and place. Read more

Writing Elba: Guest post by Emylia Hall #TheThousandLightsHotel

Author Emylia Hall is my guest today as part of The Thousand Lights Hotel blog tour. As we’re both huge fans of Tim Winton, it’s little surprise that place is as important to her in books as it is to me. Which is why I’m thrilled to host Emylia’s post on writing place and the island of Elba, the setting for her latest novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel

All four of my novels have begun with place. I settle on somewhere first – a place bright in my memory, or a longed for destination – and then I ask, who might live here? What’s their story? The setting is what draws me in; everything else follows. This isn’t something I’ve contrived; it’s just the way it happens.

I’ve always been captivated by location. They say that it’s the people who make a place, and maybe that’s true, but relationships are fluid; people can swap cities, move countries, and exist outside of earth-bound constraints. We can gather all our favourite people together in one room, but places must stay put – we can only ever be in one at a time, and to me there’s something melancholic and kind of beautiful about that. This human limitation is why I sometimes feel wistful bordering on sad that I’m here, not there; why, when I’m washing up in my kitchen in Bristol, I’m thinking of a French mountain town, or a Californian beach, or an Italian island, and feeling such longing. I can’t be everywhere, any more than I can stop time. So… I write about place. I travel from my desk. I take what I believe is the Genius Loci, the spirit of somewhere, and I put it on the page. Because as long as I’m writing, or thinking about writing, I’m cheating time and space: I’m both here and there.

Alta & Marina
Alta & Marina

When I started working on The Thousand Lights Hotel I poured all my memories of the island, from trips in 2003 and 2012, into my writing. I lived again among Elba’s verdant hills and rocky coves and gilded beaches. Once more I took in the extravagant bougainvillea, the terracotta pots exploding with hibiscus, the plump and spiky prickly pears. I followed the swooping descent and ascent of the island buses, the rattle of scooters, the languid drifting of a sailing boat. I tasted the bittersweet tang of Aperol, the creamy depths of Torta della nonna, the garlic-rich prawns. I felt sand between my toes, coconut sun-cream on my skin, a midge bite on my ankle. It’s a place I love, and I loved making a novel from it, sitting in my writing hut, writing with clarity. Read more

Book Review: The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

In her latest novel, Rachel Joyce’s writing is pitch perfect and every bit as healing as the tracks that Frank selects as prescribed listening for his customers in The Music Shop.

1988. Frank owns a music shop. It is jam-packed with records of every speed, size and genre. Classical, jazz, punk – as long as it’s vinyl he sells it. Day after day Frank finds his customers the music they need.

Then into his life walks Ilse Brauchmann.

Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. His instinct is to turn and run. And yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with her pea-green coat and her eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems. And Frank has old wounds that threaten to re-open and a past he will never leave behind …

If you’ve ever played sad songs to make yourself feel better when you’re blue, if you’ve ever heard a song on the radio that makes you realise you’re not alone in how you feel, if a piece of music brings back memories of a person, a place or a time in your life or you’ve ever made up a mix tape for yourself or someone you cared for, if you can’t help starting to sway, dance or even sing along when the first chords of a track start, then you need to read The Music Shop.

Rachel Joyce creates a real community around Frank and his titular music shop, with his customers and assistant Kit, the other shopkeepers in the parade and residents of Unity Street. She shows how it comes together but also how it’s under pressure to change: record reps want Frank to start selling CDs like the Woolworths in the High Street and unscrupulous property developers are circling.

Rachel Joyce’s writing may seem gentle, deceptively so, but there’s real drama here too; her true range reflected in the music Frank chooses, and how she orchestrates the cast of characters. (I couldn’t help but assign each one their own musical instrument as I was reading.) Rachel Joyce’s words heal every bit as much as Frank’s musical prescriptions. The Music Shop is an incredibly moving novel about the power and importance of music in our lives, helping us to connect with our feelings and soothing our various ills and woes. It’s also a rather beautiful love story in which music brings two damaged people closer together.

You’ll want to listen to this book’s soundtrack while you read it, and you’ll wish that Frank, his racks of vinyl, listening booths and customers, everything which makes up The Music Shop were as real now as you once wished the fancy dress shop in Mr Benn was when you were a child. Brava, Rachel Joyce, you’ve scored something truly beautiful and life-affirming in The Music Shop.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce is out today and is published by Doubleday, a Transworld imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones and Wordery. For updates on Rachel Joyce, her books and events, visit her publisher’s Author Page

My thanks to Alison Barrow at Transworld and Lovereading for providing me with a copy for review. (A shorter version of this review was originally posted on the Lovereading UK site.) 

Book Review: Soot by Andrew Martin

Set in York at the end of the eighteenth century, Soot features an unlikely amateur sleuth in Fletcher Rigge. Plucked from the debtor’s prison by a questionable benefactor from the wrong part of town, he’s given a month to investigate the murder of Captain Harvey’s father, one of York’s silhouette artists. The suspects are his last sitters, with only their duplicate shades to identify them.

York, 1799.

In August, an artist is found murdered in his home – stabbed with a pair of scissors. Matthew Harvey’s death is much discussed in the city. The scissors are among the tools of his trade – for Harvey is a renowned cutter and painter of shades, or silhouettes, the latest fashion in portraiture. It soon becomes clear that the murderer must be one of the artist’s last sitters, and the people depicted in the final six shades made by him become the key suspects. But who are they? And where are they to be found?

Later, in November, a clever but impoverished young gentleman called Fletcher Rigge languishes in the debtor’s prison, until a letter arrives containing a bizarre proposition from the son of the murdered man. Rigge is to be released for one month, but in that time, he must find the killer. If he fails, he will be incarcerated again, possibly for life.

And so, with everything at stake, and equipped only with copies of the distinctive silhouettes, Fletcher Rigge begins his search across the snow-covered city, and enters a world of shadows…

The art of the silhouette maker appears to capture the essence of each character and it’s illuminating how much Fletcher Rigge is able to take from these deceptively simple shades of people. They represent the impression we leave behind and it’s for Rigge to fill in the detail, as he attempts to identify each sitter inside a month. In this, Rigge is the happy beneficiary of coincidence while pursuing his investigations but I can forgive him that in a York of this period. He also shows scant regard for his own safety or wellbeing. Maybe he thinks he has little left to lose, despite being drawn into a dangerous game where a murderer is still at large. Will Rigge prove to be a willing pawn or more skilled and capable of outwitting practised confidence artists and other undesirables than we expect? And why does he seem set on undoing all the good work he and others are doing on his behalf?

Soot held my attention from its first page when Mr Erskine, a lawyer, sends the York magistrate a bundle of documents concerning the violent death of Matthew Harvey. I tumbled headlong into the (rather aptly) shadowy world of this city at the close of the eighteenth century. Reading this collection of letters, diary entries and witness statements (complete with the lawyer’s annotations), the lawyer in me loved trying to piece together this whodunit/whydunit from all the material provided. Read more

Griffin Books in Penarth #IBW2017

Today’s Independent Bookshop Week post features Griffin Books in Penarth. It takes its name from its lovely, calm and gentle owner, Mel Griffin, and is a cool haven on the busy high street of this seaside town just south of Cardiff.

At the front of the shop, there are carousels of pretty greeting cards and postcards which are as hard to resist as the tempting top table. This is directly in front of you as you step inside and is regularly updated with titles which Mel and her customers put forward as recommended reads. She also asks one customer a month to give their top three reads to be included in a regular What’s On My Bookshelf? feature in Penarth View magazine.

Mel gives everyone space and time to browse and even makes coffee to sustain you through it! (Or squash if you prefer.) As you can see, Squizzey and I took breakfast along for us all to enjoy during last year’s Independent Bookshop Week.

The shop’s well-stocked and has a good mix of titles on offer including authors local to the area. It’s easy to find your way around, fiction is to the left, non-fiction to the right, reference books in the middle and the children’s section is at the back of the shop by the counter. And if there’s a particular title you need, Mel can generally order this in for you very quickly.

Mel (centre) and customers celebrating Griffin Books 2nd birthday
Mel (centre) and customers celebrating Griffin Books 2nd birthday

Once a month, Mel runs a late night opening event at the bookshop where you can browse in the evening and enjoy a glass of wine, and sometimes has a guest author or local poet, like Fran Smith, there to showcase their work.

Together with running the Penarth Literature Festival, Mel puts on a great range of author events throughout the year, which range from lunches to afternoon teas to evening readings and signings and venues for these range from the local tea rooms to a church to a hotel overlooking the sea and even the local rugby club. I’ve got Mel to thank for being able to meet and chat with Welsh rugby heroes Eddie Butler and JJ Williams for which I’ll be eternally grateful! But I’ve also enjoyed lunch with Jessie Burton, afternoon tea with Belinda Bauer, and evenings with Julia Forster, Kate Hamer and Emma Donoghue. Okay, yes, there may have been some other people there, as well.

This year’s Penarth Literature Festival is being held in July and the programme’s focus is on authors local to the area. There’s something for everyone, young and old, whatever genre you read. I’m looking forward to getting to events with Miranda Emmerson (Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars) and Natalie Haynes (The Amber Fury and The Children of Jocasta). You can get tickets in the shop or online (subject to a booking fee) through Ticketsource. For more details on the programme or to book tickets, click on the logo.

For more info on Griffin Books, check out their Website, Twitter feed or Facebook page

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