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Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Christy Lefteri’s own experiences of working as a volunteer with refugees in Athens inspired and inform her moving and thought-provoking novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

Nuri is a beekeeper; his wife, Afra, an artist. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo – until the unthinkable happens. When all they care for is destroyed by war, they are forced to escape.

As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss, but dangers that would overwhelm the bravest of souls. Above all – and perhaps this is the hardest thing they face – they must journey to find each other again.

Christy Lefteri centres her novel around one couple to relate this story of the Syrian refugee experience; there are friends of theirs and others we meet along the way, but this is essentially Nuri and Afra’s tale to tell. Which is, ultimately, what makes The Beekeeper of Aleppo so powerful and affecting.

By paring down the statistics, which sadly became the alarmist’s source for scare tactics about refugees to some in this country, Lefteri strips back the numbers to reveal two of the human beings behind them. And, in doing so, she offers us a more immediate and relatable story, reminding us that refugees are people, human beings just as you and I are.

Nuri and Afra are fairly ordinary, people who would have been quite content to live their entire lives in Aleppo. Their life together, their contentment with it, together with their love for each other, their family and friends, and their homeland comes through in the scenes of life before the unrest. By giving us a flavour of this, Christy Lefteri quickly made me warm towards them and like them as a couple.

When she showed me what they had to endure as the conflict encroached more and more upon their daily lives, ultimately forcing them into making the difficult decision to leave their home, my understanding of their situation, and sympathy towards them, was already in place. I was invested in them as characters.

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Book Review: The Winker by Andrew Martin

Set in the heatwave summer of 1976 and moving between London’s Soho, Oxford, Paris and the South of France, Andrew Martin’s latest novel The Winker is a world away from his previous one, end of the 18th century York-set Soot, reviewed here.

London, 1976. In Belgravia in the heat of summer, Lee Jones, a faded and embittered rock star, is checking out a group of women through the heavy cigarette smoke in a crowded pub. He makes eye contact with one, and winks. After allowing glances to linger for a while longer, he finally moves towards her. In that moment, his programme of terror – years in the making – has begun.

Charles Underhill, a wealthy Englishman living in Paris, has good reason to be interested in the activities of the so-called Winking Killer. With a past to hide and his future precarious, Charles is determined to discover the Winker’s identity.

Andrew Martin breathes life into a small section of Paris, taking us strolling through the stylish and sensory arrondissement where Charles lives, as he shuttles between the confines of his life in exile from his apartment to the park, the paper kiosk, the cafe, and back again.

He creates the world of The Winker with fine period detail and close attention to the dire fashions of the day, helping to set the cocky main character of Lee Jones at his ease among the swirling smoke and clamouring bars of seventies Soho, confident that he can control this home environment and almost courting being apprehended.

I particularly enjoyed Lee’s interviews with the journalist and thought these provided an insight into his character that I would have been sorry to miss out on. They show a side to Lee that I think we all have to a greater or lesser extent – the need to play the lead role (or be the lead singer) in your own life story (or band) – but which, in Lee’s case, he considers to be worthy of nothing short of a celebrity turn.

When he picked up his guitar, I willed him to focus on the new songs he was writing, instead of embarking upon his campaign of terror, but figured that he would have been doing that already, had his songwriting been any good and if it hadn’t seemed to find inspiration in his new calling. Read more

Book Review: The Daughter of Hardie by Anne Melville

Anne Melville’s The Daughter of Hardie is the second book in The Hardie Family series and follows on from The House of Hardie which I reviewed on the blog last month. It focuses on Gordon and Lucy’s children and, as the title suggests, their daughter, Grace.

Grace Hardie has grown up in a sweeping estate on the outskirts of Oxford. But her life has been a far cry from a fairytale. Ailing and asthmatic as a child, she never really found her place – not with her brothers, not with any friends – always on the outside.

And when tragedy strikes twice in the same day, Grace’s world, and her place in it, is turned upside down. Ungainly and lonely at sixteen, could the bloom of first love be the guiding light she needs? Or is the history of The House of Hardie bound to repeat itself?

As class once again threatens to tear the family apart, so too does the Great War: sweeping away this budding romance before it’s had a chance to begin. Through heartbreak and betrayal, longing and loss, Grace Hardie must adapt to this changing world and struggle to find her own way.

First up, I feel the need to say something about the cover. I know this is a reissue of a previously published series but I don’t think the covers do it justice; while they indicate that the books are historical fiction, they don’t give any sense of the dynamic characters and places within. (I would have liked to have seen the family home, complete with the tower Grace loves so much and possibly even some family members, feature on this one, and the family wine merchants, with either a running shop boy or someone loading wine crates, on the first one.) Now, back to the book.

The Daughter of Hardie provoked a surprising range of emotions in me: I railed at Gordon and felt for Lucy, his children and the employee he placed so much reliance on to manage the family wine business; I reflected upon how the Hardie children were shaped by the differing expectations put on them due to their sex (and class), two particular events in childhood that resonated (with some more than others) well into their adult lives, and later again as the war changed the demands upon and the direction of those lives.

I was happy to see Midge feature, and couldn’t help but feel that Grace is a little harsh in her judgement of her towards the end of the book. She’s a character who I admired as much as Grace did, and I thought she deserved to celebrate her long-overdue day of recognition and have a little more understanding of her (later) life choices after long years of frustration, loss and sacrifice. I didn’t see it as the betrayal that Grace did, which I put down to her youth and limited experiences. Read more

Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is the story of two families, neighbours in upstate New York, and how life can change in an instant but may take a generation before things begin to heal.

Gillam, upstate New York: a town of ordinary, big-lawned suburban houses. The Gleesons have recently moved there and soon welcome the Stanhopes as their new neighbours.

Lonely Lena Gleeson wants a friend but Anne Stanhope – cold, elegant, unstable – wants to be left alone.

It’s left to their children – Lena’s youngest, Kate, and Anne’s only child, Peter – to find their way to one another. To form a friendship whose resilience and love will be almost broken by the fault line dividing both families, and by the terrible tragedy that will engulf them all.

Although some characters in Mary Beth Keane’s novel are either cops or work together with the NYPD, we don’t see much of them at work, beyond the opening scenes. Instead, we see them as their family sees them; we see them at ease, at home. Yet their sense of duty and of wanting to do a good job that comes from being on the force filters through into their home lives and is a recurring theme throughout the novel.

The book jumps forward in time in places and there are shifts in perspective between a number of characters but Keane handles most of these changes smoothly. The benefit of these head changes was being able to see the same event from different angles, and consider a person’s behaviour not only as they perceived it but also how others viewed it.

No one character in Ask Again, Yes is ever wholly good or bad, always right or wrong, and as Keane moves between them, she’s able to show this only too well. I had a better feel for the families and their changing dynamic for her doing so, and while I didn’t always agree with what they were doing or how they were behaving, I could go some way towards better understanding their actions and choices. Read more

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: The Ice Maiden by Sara Sheridan

Sara Sheridan’s The Ice Maiden is a remarkable tale: we gain fresh perspective into what it was like to be a seafarer’s wife, a woman on board ship, and a part of pioneering Polar expeditions.

1842. Stranded on Deception Island in the South Atlantic, her whaling captain husband lost at sea, Karina is destitute and desperate. Disguised as a cabin boy, she stows away on a British ship. But Karina is about to get a nasty surprise.

As she grows closer to ship’s surgeon Joseph Hooker, Karina and the rest of the crew find themselves pushed to the limits both physically and emotionally as conditions worsen onboard.

Engulfed in the chillingly hostile Antarctic landscape, something extraordinary happens – and Karina’s story becomes intertwined with some of the 20th century’s bravest Polar explorers …

The Ice Maiden is told in three distinct parts: one land-based, the next at sea, and the last of which is ice bound.

We first meet Karina on Deception Island. And although the name refers to it looking deceptively like an island, when in fact it’s a ring around a flooded caldera, could there be a more sinister-sounding place than Deception Island? It doesn’t bode well.

This ominous start and her life on Deception Island help explain why she takes the drastic next step in finding a way off the island. Her route out of there particularly fraught at a time when sailors were superstitious about women being on board ship, believing they brought bad luck, but of course this wasn’t the only way in which a woman’s presence could unsettle the men.

Life at sea is exceptionally hard and Sara Sheridan does an excellent job of bringing this working ship to life, with all the knocks, noise, smells and challenges of living in cramped quarters while being at the mercy of the elements. I was relieved when Karina finds some small measure of happiness and protection here, even though I sensed it would not last the voyage. Read more

Book Review: Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson’s novel, Stanley and Elsie, covers five years in the lives of the painter, Sir Stanley Spencer, and the young woman who was hired as his housekeeper, while he was painting the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

The First World War is over, and in a quiet Hampshire village, artist Stanley Spencer is working on the commission of a lifetime, painting an entire chapel in memory of a life lost in the war to end all wars. Combining his own traumatic experiences with moments of everyday redemption, the chapel will become his masterpiece.

When Elsie Munday arrives to take up position as housemaid to the Spencer family, her life quickly becomes entwined with the charming and irascible Stanley, his artist wife Hilda and their tiny daughter Shirin.

As the years pass, Elsie does her best to keep the family together even when love, obsession and temptation seem set to tear them apart…

I have to admit that I didn’t know very much about Sir Stanley Spencer before reading Nicola Upson’s novel which made me reliant on her to bring him alive on the page and draw me in. She certainly achieved this, taking me right into the heart of this household and summoning up all the characters, so that I felt as if they were moving around me while I was reading.

Nicola Upson’s reimagining of this period in Stanley and Elsie’s lives is seen through Elsie’s eyes. We arrive with her for her first day in service, which is also her first time away from home. We join the household when she does and this provides a fresh perspective on the three members of the family, their life together and family dynamic, and how it is organised – or wasn’t, until she arrived.

This also allows Nicola Upson to give more prominence to the women’s stories, those of Hilda, Patricia Preece and Dorothy Hepworth, all artists in their own right but more often footnotes to Sir Stanley’s more public success story. Now we get to see the private man and working artist behind the public image, seen through the women’s eyes. It would be particularly unusual for Elsie’s story to be told, and that’s a shame because she’s quite a character. She knows her own mind, finds happiness and joy in simple pleasures, and provides a good counterbalance to the bohemian storms of discontent that rage around her.

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Book Review: Looker by Laura Sims

Laura Sims’ debut novel, Looker, and her narrator, the Professor, may look slight but it’d be wrong to underestimate their impact. Both are pretty intense and equally capable of causing a stir.

The Professor lives in Brooklyn; her partner Nathan left her when she couldn’t have a baby. All she has now is her dead-end teaching job, her ramshackle apartment, and Nathan’s old moggy, Cat. Who she doesn’t even like.

The Actress lives a few doors down. She’s famous and beautiful, with auburn hair, perfect skin, a lovely smile. She’s got children – a baby, even. And a husband who seems to adore her. She leaves her windows open, even at night.

There’s no harm, the Professor thinks, in looking in through the illuminated glass at that shiny, happy family, fantasising about them, drawing ever closer to the actress herself. Or is there?

I could be wrong but in the same way we never have a name for the Actress, I don’t think we ever know the narrator’s name beyond people calling her Professor or addressing her as Professor T. I think this works well in that it designates them their roles: the one being watched and scrutinised with the other observing and making a study of her. By anonymising them, they could be any one of us in similar circumstances.

The Professor describes the actress’s life and career so well that we can build up a picture of it. It would be tricky to use the name, life and career of a real actress here anyway, not least because we would impose our own knowledge of and feelings about her which would get in the way of the Professor’s own, and those are what matter here. By only knowing the Actress by her job title it suggests that, though she might not realise it, she’s playing a role in the Professor’s life. It’s goes beyond a walk-on part, too, as she takes on increasing importance to the Professor.

Only knowing the narrator as the Professor not only defines the part she plays in the story, but also tells us her status in the workplace and that she has an academic background. It makes what happens over the course of the novel all the more shocking; to see someone with the Professor’s intellect fixate on another’s life in the way she does and see the unhealthy lengths to which she will go in pursuit of that is extremely troubling and unnerving. It’s frightening how removed she is from any support network.

What makes Looker so compelling is Laura Sims’ use of the first person narrative to tell this story of one woman locking onto another. It puts us in the Professor’s head: we follow her thoughts and reasoning and, being party to her logic makes it all too easy not to realise until it’s too late, how bizarre and erratic her behaviour is becoming. This is a woman unravelling and spiralling out of control and we’re in her head for the entire uncomfortable duration. It’s incredibly creepy and brilliantly executed.

Looker by Laura Sims is published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline. It’s out today and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. Looker is Laura Sims’ debut novel. For more information, check out her Author Website, or you can find her on Facebook, on Instagram, or on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher for my review copy which I received through a Twitter giveaway.

Book Review: Something to Live For by Richard Roper #FindYourSomething

Richard Roper’s debut novel, Something to Live For, is a surprisingly endearing, funny and moving story about loneliness and the people who fall through the cracks in their own lives.

Sometimes you have to risk everything to find your something…

All Andrew wants is to be normal. He has the perfect wife and 2.4 children waiting at home for him after a long day. At least, that’s what he’s told people.

The truth is, his life isn’t exactly as people think and his little white lie is about to catch up with him.

Because in all Andrew’s efforts to fit in, he’s forgotten one important thing: how to really live. And maybe, it’s about time for him to start.

Richard Roper’s main character has an unusual job, one which most of us would consider to be something of a thankless task, that is, if we gave it any thought at all or even knew of its existence. Andrew chooses to go beyond what’s required under his job description and, in his own small way, lends some dignity and humanity to the lives of people he doesn’t know and who will never know what he does for them. I found this incredibly touching and warmed to him almost immediately for the kindness he shows these strangers.

Richard Roper writes them with sensitivity and humour, especially when Peggy arrives on the scene, but I still found some of the description of living conditions, not least Andrew’s own, difficult to read. It saddened me to think of people coming to exist in this way.

Peggy. Oh, how I loved and adored the character of Peggy. Even when she is facing her own challenges and dealing with what life throws at her, she still has time to listen and be there for others. She is a kind, beautiful soul who manages to find the joy and humour in everyday life. I hope everyone knows one. We all need a Peggy in our lives. And if you don’t know one, perhaps you can try and be someone else’s Peggy? Read more

Book Review: The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby

Charlotte Philby found the inspiration behind her debut novel in a question that arose from her grandfather’s notorious defection to Russia in 1963: what kind of person walks out on their family?

On the surface, Anna Witherall personifies everything the aspirational magazine she works for represents. Married to her university boyfriend David, she has a beautiful home and gorgeous three-year-old twin daughters, Stella and Rose. But beneath the veneer of success and happiness, Anna is hiding a dark secret, one that threatens to unravel everything she has worked so hard to create.

As Anna finds herself drawn into the dark and highly controlled world of secret intelligence, she is forced to question her family’s safety, and her own. Only one thing is certain: in order to protect her children, she must leave them, forever. 

And someone is watching. Someone she thought she could trust. Someone who is determined to make them all pay.

Charlotte Philby recruits a young woman as her spy in The Most Difficult Thing, exploring the relationships she has, how the lines blur between what is real and what might be role-play, or even manipulative behaviour, on someone else’s part. When that woman becomes a mother, she examines whether maternal instincts automatically kick in, especially where childbirth and the postpartum period aren’t easy. She also considers the decision to break ties and whether it’s any more difficult for a mother to leave her children than it is for a father to walk out on his family.

The actual business interests that form the subject of the espionage were a little sketchy and confusing at times but this didn’t bother me too much because I found them to be of secondary interest to the web of relationships around Anna, who is at the heart of the novel.

This is where The Most Difficult Thing works particularly well and comes into its own. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to untangle all the relationships and work out who was playing it straight, who was not to be trusted or potentially spying on someone else or possibly even playing a double game, who might be paranoid or controlling, or who might simply be concerned for the children of the house and/or someone else’s welfare.

It’s difficult to work out if or how far Anna goes native, to what extent she makes conscious decisions affecting her life, and how much she remembers she has been recruited for a specific purpose. It’s also hard to gauge how much others suspect or know what she’s doing, who for and why. It was satisfying to see how it all unravels by the end. The Most Difficult Thing is an edgy family drama with its tangle of relationships unspooling in a clammy climate of deception and mistrust.

The Most Difficult Thing by Charlotte Philby is published by The Borough Press, a Harper Collins imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback, with the paperback due out next year. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more information on Charlotte Philby and her work, visit her Author Website or you can find her on Twitter.  

My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

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