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Book Review: Hame by Annalena McAfee

I came upon Hame quite by chance thanks to Vintage tweeting about it on St Andrew’s Day last year. The Scottish island setting and a literary trail in search of a mysterious poet really appealed to me but when I saw the release date of February 2017, I tweeted my frustration at not being able to read it that day and a very kind book fairy at Vintage made it available for me on NetGalley. Book fairies are the best.

Hame, n. Scottish form of ‘home’: a valued place regarded as a refuge or place of origin

In the wake of the breakdown of her relationship, Mhairi McPhail dismantles her life in New York and moves with her 9-year-old daughter, Agnes, to the remote Scottish island of Fascaray. Mhairi has been commissioned to write a biography of the late Bard of Fascaray, Grigor McWatt, a cantankerous poet with an international reputation.

But who was Grigor McWatt? Details of his past – his tough childhood and his war years as a commando – are elusive, and there is evidence of a mysterious love affair which Mhairi is determined to investigate. As she struggles to adapt to her new life, and put her own troubled past behind her, Mhairi begins to unearth the astonishing secret history of the poet regarded by many as the custodian of Fascaray’s – and Scotland’s – soul.

literary detective work

themes of identity and belonging to people and places – why are we drawn to some and repelled by others?

poet most famous for a popular song which irks him immensely, so much so that he hates to hear it sung in his presence and only tolerates this a couple of times in his lifetime

the transcribing of famous poems into Scots was a lot of fun for this reader to firstly recognise them and then read them aloud

set against the real historical backdrop of Scotland, it’s interesting to see fiction mesh with real events and people

beautiful hardback and probably better read in hard copy with the white space around the poems a break between the biographer’s work and the poet’s own memoirs

Hame by Annalena McAfee is published by Harvill Secker, a Vintage imprint. It is available in hardback and as an ebook and audiobook from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can read an extract from the book here or listen to an audio sample on the Audible site here

My very grateful thanks to the publisher for providing me with an early copy via NetGalley

Book Review and #Giveaway: Everything Love Is by Claire King

Having roamed across its summer meadows with peach juice dribbling down chins, while exploring grief in her evocative debut novel The Night Rainbow, Claire King returns to Southern France for her second, Everything Love Is. The novel shifts between a floating community on the slow-moving waterways just outside Toulouse and into the city itself where the political situation seems altogether more fluid and fast-moving. And, as you can probably deduce, this time Claire King turns her attention towards love.  

What I want is something that makes me feel alive. Joy, passion, despair, something to remember or something to regret. I want to have my breath taken away.

Moored on his beloved houseboat at the edge of Toulouse, Baptiste Molino helps his clients navigate the waters of contentment, yet remains careful never to make waves of his own.

But between Sophie, the young waitress in his local bar who believes it is time for Baptiste to rediscover passion, and his elegant, enigmatic new client Amandine Rousseau, this fragile status quo is now at risk. When the rising tensions on the city streets cause his mysterious past to catch up with him, Baptiste finds himself torn between finally pursuing his own happiness and safeguarding that of the one he loves.

Born on a train to a mother he never knew and raised by adoptive parents in their countryside cottage, Baptiste lives a simple, pared-down existence on the houseboat, Candide. Although his work involves helping others to find out what brings them contentment, he pays little heed to his own happiness, convinced instead he has all he can hope for and considering that to be enough. He’s careful not to get too attached to people although inevitably he forms some connections among the community on the canal. There is a sense that he needs to feel as if he could cast off at a moment’s notice.

Two characters share the storytelling in Everything Love Is, Baptiste’s one and another, unnamed. Baptiste’s chapters are headed up with a kingfisher to which he’s likened in the book, the others by an owl. It’s a beautifully unobtrusive way to make it clear who’s narrating, especially when other things are less so. There were moments reading Everything Love Is when I felt uncertain, as if things were shifting around me: that moment where you’re about to step aboard a boat and it shifts slightly away from you and there’s nothing below you but air and water. Yet you don’t fall, and you won’t here. Claire King’s a skilled writer and ensures that you’re soon back on firmer ground. It’s worth steering your way through these brief disturbances; those light ripples may be disconcerting but shouldn’t be enough to capsize.    Read more

Book Review: The Finding of Martha Lost by Caroline Wallace #FindingMarthaLost #BlogTour

It’s the summer of 1976 and there’s a heatwave in England. Strange things happen in heatwaves and inside Liverpool’s oldest and largest railway station, Lime Street, Martha’s life starts to spin out of control. Will her cake-wielding best friend, a Roman centurion and a phantom fisher in a bowler hat be able to help her before everything’s as lost as Martha?

Liverpool, 1976: Martha is lost.

She’s been lost since she was a baby, abandoned in a suitcase on the train from Paris. Ever since, she’s waited in lost property for someone to claim her. It’s been sixteen years, but she’s still hopeful.

Meanwhile, there are lost property mysteries to solve: a suitcase that may have belonged to the Beatles, a stuffed monkey that keeps appearing. But there is one mystery Martha has never been able to solve – and now time is running out. If Martha can’t discover who she really is, she will lose everything…

When I discovered that The Finding of Martha Lost was set in Liverpool’s main rail terminus, I was excited to read it. Probably because I’ve never had to use them for my daily commute, I’ve always found train stations to be pretty exciting places. A large station always feels like a whole world unto itself, ripe for people-watching and full of stories; people meet up or part ways at the beginning or end of a journey, or while passing through on the way elsewhere. Think about all the (possible) human connections, those made accidentally or on purpose, some fleeting, others destined to be more lasting, and those which are completely missed out on. Caroline Wallace gives us a wonderful glimpse into these lives, of some of the people using Lime Street Station, through the things they forget or discard and which eventually make their way into Martha’s hands in the lost property office. For Martha has a special talent when it comes to lost things and it’s one which can be quite revealing.

Martha is a magical character; she’s charming and winsome, kind and friendly, wise beyond her years in some ways but naive about others. She’s eccentric with her daily spinning around the station concourse, and resolutely cheerful despite a soul-crushing life with Mother. Martha shares with her creator, the author, a gift for seeing the beauty in the everyday, the quirkiness and fun, and the wonder of books: how the stories behind certain ones are every bit as important as those within their pages. Understandably, she has a library befitting such a literary heroine. Martha separates her life out into the parts of a fairytale and, as with every fairytale, there’s a dark side and a curse. Only ever having known Lime Street Station as her home, Mother’s convinced her that if she ever leaves, the station and everything in it will crumble.   Read more

Book Review: Little Sister by Isabel Ashdown #LittleSisterBook

Isabel Ashdown returns to the Isle of Wight* for the setting of her latest novel, Little Sister, and rather appropriately for this dark tale of sibling rivalry and lost children she’s gone over to slightly wilder West Wight. (I lived on this side of the island for nine years before leaving to go to university, so I was excited to read something set there, and see how she’d use some of its locations.)

After sixteen years apart sisters Jessica and Emily are reunited. With the past now behind them, the warmth they once shared quickly returns and before long Jess has moved into Emily’s comfortable island home. Life couldn’t be better. But when baby Daisy disappears while in Jess’s care, the perfect life Emily has so carefully built starts to fall apart.

Was Emily right to trust her sister after everything that happened before?

Little Sister starts as it means to go on with an intriguing but incredibly disconcerting prologue which sets the tone for the entire book. Told from the viewpoint of three of the characters, Little Sister is a tense, almost claustrophobic novel thanks to its relatively small cast of characters and with the majority of the action taking place inside Emily’s home. It’s almost a relief when Jess goes for a walk or Emily does a flit, even when the police come round with an update. You get a real sense of what it is like to be in that home with all the anxiety of not knowing where baby Daisy is or if she’ll be found safe and well, as the strained family dynamic starts to rupture and outside the press pack lines the drive in wait for a clickbait headline or a compromising photo opportunity. A nightmare situation Isabel Ashdown makes vivid.

Little Sister is aptly named for while one little sister is missing on and off-the-page, another takes a central role in the story: alongside the search for absent Daisy, Isabel Ashdown takes us back into the history between the two grown-up sisters, Jess and Emily. Theirs is a fascinating dynamic, almost suffocating in its intensity. One is painted as shy, good and the peacemaker, the other as more extrovert, if calculating and manipulative with it. Isabel Ashdown helps you to get to know one of the sisters better by having her tell her story in first person while the other seems more distant and harder to read by having her side told in third person. Nothing is ever quite what it seems though and neither sister appears to be a reliable narrator; one because she’s only recently come back into the other’s life, and the other because she’s distraught, emotional, suspicious and heavily medicated. Read more

Book Review: We All Begin As Strangers by Harriet Cummings #BeginAsStrangers #BlogTour

Harriet Cummings’ debut novel We All Begin As Strangers is inspired by real events that took place in her home town the year she was born. In providing her own take on the mysterious intruder ‘The Fox’, she weaves a contemporary tale of the loneliness, suspicion, gossip and misunderstandings rife even in the smallest community.

It’s 1984, and summer is scorching the ordinary English village of Heathcote. What’s more, a mysterious figure is slipping into homes through back doors and open windows. Dubbed ‘The Fox’, he knows everything about everyone – leaving curious objects in their homes, or taking things from them.

When beloved Anna goes missing, the whole community believes The Fox is responsible. But as the residents scramble to solve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, little do they know it’s their darkest secrets The Fox is really after…

We All Begin As Strangers is split into four parts, each one told by a different Heathcote resident, starting with Deloris, the only female narrator, followed by Jim and Brian, and ending with Stan. This works well as long as you don’t get too attached to one narrator and their story, and is a boon if you don’t find another so easy. The change in narrator helps to give a real sense of movement around the streets and houses affected while also switching up the perspective. You get that character’s internalised thoughts together with how they behave towards the other residents, and how they’re viewed by the other resident-narrators. This helps shift your own view of Heathcote and its inhabitants as you get to know them better.

We’re not seeing these people at their best: they’re in crisis, responding to the unsettling threat of a home intrusion and the shocking disappearance of Anna which suggests the Fox is altogether a more sinister and dangerous creature. But often when people are under stress is precisely when it’s most revealing. Some people will find themselves or discover strengths they didn’t know they had while others will succumb to fear and allow their inner sheep mentality to take over. In We All Begin As Strangers, there are those helpers we should either always be or look for when something bad happens. But there are also suspicions no longer whispered but openly voiced and once chattering gossip takes the more threatening form of a braying mob looking for a scapegoat when the Fox proves elusive. It’s a fascinating look at how we behave towards others when under pressure or we feel threatened and seems a timely novel in that respect. Read more

Author Q&A and Book Review: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg #AllGrownUp #BlogTour

I’m excited to welcome New York Times best-selling author Jami Attenberg today as part of the blog tour for her latest novel, All Grown Up. Here’s who and what it’s all about:

Andrea is a single, childless 39-year-old woman who tries to navigate family, sexuality, friendships and a career she never wanted, but battles with thoughts and desires that few people would want to face up to. Told in gut-wrenchingly honest language that shimmers with rage and intimacy, All Grown Up poses such questions as:
– What if I don’t want to hold your baby?
– Can I date you without ever hearing about your divorce?
– What can I demand of my mother now that I am an adult?
– Is therapy pointless?
– At what point does drinking a lot become a drinking problem?
– Why does everyone keep asking me why I am not married? 

“I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”

Andrea walks and talks off the page right from the very beginning of the book. She’s such a ferociously real character that I still imagine her stalking around her NYC haunts. How did you come to her as your protagonist, and then go about putting together her background and choosing the stories she would tell the reader?
I tend to write short stories when I finish a novel in order to cleanse the palate between books. I wrote a story cycle from the perspective of an unnamed, single, childfree woman watching her friend achieve traditional milestones in life, i.e. get married, have a baby, etc. It was interesting to explore it but I didn’t want to write a book about it. After 150 pages of two other book projects I finally decided to go back to the book after giving it another stab. I figured out I didn’t have to write a single girl in the city book, that there was a way to break it and reinvent it. Part of that comes with the structure of the book, it being told in time-shifting short vignettes, as opposed to a linear narrative. As to how I put together her background, I have lived in New York City for eighteen years, so the landscape was all there for me. And then I just began to invent.

One of the aspects of reading All Grown Up I enjoyed was getting into the head of someone who lives a different life to my own. Andrea’s observations of the people and life around her were often acerbic, but at other times, really resonated with me: two examples that spring to mind are when Andrea talks about getting a gift for her friend who’s having a baby, and in particular, the way in which we lose some friends in life and how we’re unable to do anything to prevent that happening. What are you hoping your readers take away from reading All Grown Up?
Oh I think each reader is going to take away from it whatever they want to take away from it, or perhaps are capable of taking away from it. I can’t control that. I was trying to present a version of a modern woman and human being and all her flaws and strengths and also all the challenges and pressures she faces in society. I’ve been told it’s educating for some, and I’ve been told it’s validating for others. The book is going to do different things for different kinds of people. I certainly hope people enjoy the book too, though. It was meant to move quickly and be entertaining and consuming. Read more

Book Review: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti #SamuelHawley

Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley reminds me of adventure books I read as a child, but is the modern-day, grown-up version of them. It’s exactly the kind of book I search for on bookshop shelves. Which probably explains why I loved it.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter Loo to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death.

Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past – a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come.

Yes, the sniggering British kid in me stumbled over Loo’s name initially, but it doesn’t take long to get used to it. She’s such a fiercely independent tomboy of an individual that the unusual moniker actually suits her. Besides, I didn’t want her to catch me giggling and use her rock-in-a-sock on me. (You’ll understand why, when you read the book.)

There’s so much I love about The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: there’s the father-daughter relationship that’s central to the story, which changes from being self-sufficient when they’re on the road to still protective but prickly and no longer enough in Olympus. There’s the coastal setting of the town, with the inherent pressures and hardships of being reliant on the fishing industry amid mounting environmental concerns. There’s a life lived simply, with few possessions of value, all of which can be packed up at a moment’s notice. There’s that nomadic existence. There’s time spent outdoors, on bicycle and on foot, in a borrowed car, in woodland, on mudflats and cliffs, at the beach and out to sea. There are characters who don’t fit neatly into society’s expectations, but rage against them, flawed and full of life, and fight and passion. There’s realising what’s important in this life. There’s LOVE but there’s also loss. There’s friendship and family. There’s repulsion and attraction, tenderness and violence. There’s bullying and fighting, protesting and protecting. There are some mysteries for Loo (and the reader) to solve: her dead mother, and her very much alive, if singular, grandmother. There’s a young girl trying to figure out her present and what she wants for her future, while her father can’t shake off the past which is threatening to consume him and everything he loves. And there are twelve bullet wounds with a story behind each one. Read more

Book Review: A Life Between Us by Louise Walters #ALifeBetweenUs

If, as I did, you really enjoyed Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, you’ll be happy to know that Louise Walters’ second book is out now. (And if you’ve yet to discover her, I’ll happily add to your TBR.) Here’s what the so very aptly-titled A Life Between Us is about:

Tina’s sister Meg died in a childhood accident, but for almost forty years Tina has secretly blamed herself for her twin’s death. During a visit to her Uncle Edward and his sister Lucia, who both harbour dark secrets of their own, Tina makes a discovery that forces her to question her memories of the day Meg died. 

As Tina finds the courage to face the past, she unravels the mysteries of her estranged parents, her beautiful Aunt Simone, the fading, compassionate Uncle Edward, and above all, the cold, bitter Aunt Lucia, whose spectral presence casts a long shadow over them all. 

Louise Walters’ novel shows to devastating effect how traumatic events in early childhood and adolescence can impact on someone: how with the right help, we might learn to cope, but without, they may colour the rest of our lives. While Tina can’t remember everything that happened on the day Meg died, it’s continued to haunt her, as has Meg, ever since. It’s also having such a damaging impact that her present state of mind and the future of her marriage are both in jeopardy.

If you believe in the bonds that tie us to loved ones, let alone the special connection which exists between twins, you’ll have little problem with the fact that Tina still talks to her dead twin, Meg. On a regular basis. It’s less a haunting than a continued need within Tina to have as a sounding board her sister, the only person who’s ever understood her properly. Meg was always the more confident and less fearless of the two, and it’s no wonder that Tina still looks to her sister for guidance and support beyond the grave. Tina’s husband tries but he’s distracted at work and his patience is wearing thin; more and more he simply urges her to seek professional help. And she finds precious little help elsewhere, though that may be changing thanks to the tentative beginnings of a new friendship.

In order to understand the adult, it helps to know the child that came before and Louise Walters cleverly helps us do so by including letters Tina writes to a pen pal, her cousin Elizabeth in America. It’s fascinating to read about events from young Tina’s perspective and see the truths only children can, while also wincing at how badly she misreads or misunderstands other situations. Read more

Book Review: Summary Justice by John Fairfax #SummaryJustice #BlogTour

The lawyer in me was attracted to the title and striking cover of Summary Justice, which led me to expect this to be about a legal battle against all the odds, even though unfamiliar with the author’s name. (Which as it turns out is a pen name.) Once I read the following blurb, I knew I had to read it.

The last time Tess de Vere saw William Benson she was a law student on work experience. He was a twenty-one year old, led from the dock of the Old Bailey to begin a life sentence for murder. He’d said he was innocent. She’d believed him.

Sixteen years later Tess overhears a couple of hacks mocking a newcomer to the London Bar, a no-hoper with a murder conviction, running his own show from an old fishmonger’s in Spitalfields. That night she walks back into Benson’s life. The price of his rehabilitation – and access to the Bar – is an admission of guilt to the killing of Paul Harbeton, whose family have vowed revenge. He’s an outcast. The government wants to shut him down and no solicitor will instruct him. But he’s subsidised by a mystery benefactor and a desperate woman has turned to him for help: Sarah Collingstone, mother of a child with special needs, accused of slaying her wealthy lover. It’s a hopeless case and the murder trial, Benson’s first, starts in four days. The evidence is overwhelming but like Benson long ago, she swears she’s innocent. Tess joins the defence team, determined to help Benson survive. But as Benson follows the twists and turns in the courtroom, Tess embarks upon a secret investigation of her own, determined to uncover the truth behind the death of Paul Harbeton on a lonely night in Soho.

You can’t get much more flawed as a criminal lawyer than if you’ve been convicted of murder, so even before you know much more about William Benson, you wonder why he did what he did, if he even did what he was convicted of, and why he’s now back in court but this time as counsel. He’s an intriguing character and one that we start to get to know throughout Summary Justice. I say start, because as this is the first book in an intended series, the reader won’t know everything by the end, even if the story threads are tidied up neatly enough to satisfy most readers while still leaving some unanswered questions to ponder until the next book in the series comes out.

It’s also interesting for two characters to have a past connection or shared history and meet years later, especially if there’s a shift in the dynamic as here. When William Benson and Tess de Vere first met, one was the defendant in a murder trial, the other a law student taken to court to observe law in practice. When they next meet, it’s after he’s studied law while serving some of his sentence, and is today not only out on licence but qualified as a barrister. Tess is also qualified, but as a solicitor rather than barrister, and she’s making a name for herself, currently in a respected London law firm. Although they’re both technically and professionally on the same side of the law now, it seems a part of William Benson will forever be classed, and treated, differently. Despite his apparent rehabilitation, some will always see the criminal in him, the murderer, and nothing beyond that.

If Summary Justice has such a memorable backstory, the present-day case also needs to be a good one so it’s not overshadowed, and it certainly is that. A single mother with a disabled son accused of murder in what appears to be an open and shut case. But nothing’s ever that straightforward and with only days to go before trial, Tess joins forces with Benson and his equally unusual clerk to delve deeper into it and come up with some answers, and a defence for their client. Read more

Book Review: The Method by Shannon Kirk #TheMethod #BlogTour

If you’re looking for a strong central character and are tired of female characters being portrayed as helpless, always waiting on a man to save or rescue them rather than doing the job themselves, then Shannon Kirk’s The Method might be the book for you.

You’re sixteen, you’re pregnant and you’ve been kidnapped.

If you’re anyone else you give in, but if you’re a manipulative prodigy you fight back in the only way you can. You use what you’ve been given against your captors.

You have only one chance to save your life and that of your unborn child. You’re calculating, methodical, and as your kidnappers are about to discover, they made a big mistake in abducting you.

What happens when the victim is just as dangerous as the captors?

It was the book’s blurb that first made me want to read The Method. The premise is as intriguing and different as its main protagonist. A pregnant teen doesn’t sound like your average victim, so while I had my suspicions about why she was targeted, I needed to know for certain what and who were behind her disappearance. And, as quickly becomes apparent, her kidnappers might have chosen the wrong girl. If they thought they were choosing a vulnerable and troubled teenager, they’re about to find out the extent to which appearances can be deceiving and just how fatal an error underestimating someone is.

For our narrator is anything but victim material: she’s already survived one traumatic event in her childhood. She has been raised to be one of life’s survivors. That, together with the pretty unusual skill-set she’s honed, means that this girl is about to turn her time in captivity into one big science project. And while some of her calculations are of their nature repetitive, as she finds a pattern to her days, there are also enough slight twists and upsets that this isn’t a huge problem. Besides, it’s interesting to try and work out if and how she’ll use each asset she identifies and labels throughout the book, and here Shannon Kirk will misdirect you, before reaching Show and Tell day.

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