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Book Review: This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell

With her seventh novel, This Must Be The Place, Maggie O’Farrell quickly and skilfully wraps you up in story and takes you on an emotional journey through place and time. This novel is wide in scope and ambition, a story of and for our times, but it’s also forensic in its detail, focusing in on one modern family, and ultimately, two people and one marriage. Here’s what it’s about:

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway.

He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back?

This Must Be The Place very much feels like a story for my generation, where relationships and marriages no longer have to last or can, where both partners have their own careers or feel they can explore other options, where families are no longer nuclear and living in the same area that their parents and grandparents before them live(d) but which are the product of present and former relationships and scattered around the globe.

This Must Be The Place is a novel about finding home in such a fragmented world, of finding home not just in a place, but in another person or another family. It looks at how random life (and death) can be; how people play with and manipulate others’ emotions; about missed opportunities and second chances; how we run to and away from people, events and places, but how they never really leave us; at the different ways in which we cope with this and how sometimes we don’t cope at all, but instead carry around a backpack of guilt with us, as Daniel does. And with the character of Claudette, we get a fascinating look at the dark side of celebrity: how it must be to live in the glare of the camera lens, and what one woman will do to step away from all of that in order to find some peace for herself, some semblance of normal life. Read more

Book Review: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

When Leo Plumb drives off drunk from a party in a sports car with a nineteen-year-old waitress in tow, to the moral and legal fallout must be added the horrible inconvenience to his brother and sisters. Leo’s rehab costs have severely depleted ‘the nest’ – the family’s joint trust fund that would have cut them loose from their myriad financial issues.

For Melody, a suburban wife and mother, it was to cover both an unwieldy mortgage and her daughters’ college tuition. Antiques dealer Jack has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband. And Beatrice, a once-promising short story writer, can’t seem to finish her overdue novel.

Brought together as never before, the Plumb siblings must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledging the choices they have made in their own lives.

If you’ve ever relied on being bailed out financially or spent a sum of money in your head before ever receiving it, and who hasn’t imagined what they would do with a windfall such as a lottery win or radio quiz prize money, The Nest will resonate with you. Read more

Book Review: Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos

Fever at Dawn is based on letters sent between Péter Gárdos’ parents shortly after the end of the Second World War. When I saw it described as “whimsical, poignant and completely charming” in a review posted on Twitter, I knew it sounded like my kind of read. I didn’t know much more about Fever at Dawn except that its author is Hungarian and, having a few Hungarian friends, I’d been looking to include some Hungarian writers in my reading. Add to that its Swedish setting and I was thrilled when the publisher offered me an early proof copy to read.

In an over-crowded hospital ward in the summer of July 1945, Miklos is propped up against a pillow. He is writing a letter of hope. It doesn’t matter that Miklos is bruised and battered, that his skin shares the same colour as a greying pile of ash, or that the doctor told him “You have six months to live”. Because, now, for the first time since the war, he feels truly alive.

Miklos is thinking of things far more important than his health.

He is thinking that he would like to find a wife…

It would be easy to imagine that Fever at Dawn is a simple romance: a post-war romance between two young people, Miklos who’s twenty-five, and eighteen-year-old Lili. After all, despite Miklos’, shall we say, pessimistic prognosis, the reader has to believe there’s a happy ending, if its a story based on an exchange of letters between the author’s parents. But Fever at Dawn is also so much more than this.

For a start, Miklos doesn’t just write one letter of hope. He writes 117 of them. And that’s the moment when I realised that Miklos was going to be quite a character. He might be a poet and a romantic dreamer, choosing to ignore what his doctor (backed up by some X-rays and years of medical training) is telling him but he’s also pragmatic and looking to stack the odds of finding a wife in his favour. For some, this might seem calculating and yes, I would question why he continues some correspondence even after he’s made his choice of bride but he’s not wholly exempt from having to deal with the consequences of doing so. Besides, I found myself willing to forgive him because he manages to find a reason to live and you can’t help but feel the pure joy and escape he finds in all his scheming and letter-writing. Read more

Book Review: The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

At the beginning of February, I was lucky enough to be at a Rooftop Book Club event run by Headline Publishing where Monica Wood read us a couple of extracts from The One-in-a-Million Boy*, and also answered questions about how she came to write it. I knew then that I’d enjoy the book; what I didn’t realise at the time was how much the story would affect me.

The One-in-a-Million Boy starts off as a gentle enough read: a father turns up at the house of 104 year old Ona Vitkus to complete the good deed his scouting son had started. Quinn, the father, doesn’t tell her why he’s come in the boy’s place. He just goes about the task of filling the bird feeders and doing the chores in Ona’s yard. Ona is spiky and not happy about the substitution. She’s become accustomed to the boy and they’d established a friendship of sorts over the past few weeks. Or so she’d thought. She doesn’t understand why he missed a week without sending word and why his father has turned up in his place and is covering for him.

The reader knows before Ona does why the boy isn’t there himself, and it’s fascinating to build up a picture of this nameless, and often silent, boy over the course of the novel, and come to realise just how remarkable he is. Monica Wood does it so deftly that I was still trying to work out how she managed to make me care so much about him, and what he was doing for others, when the final chapter hit me with its full force. Tears were coursing down my face and there was not a thing I could do to stop them. Read more

Book review: Blackheath by Adam Baron

Adam Baron’s novel Blackheath is blackly comic and almost forensic in its detail: he lifts the roof on middle class urbanites who appear to have it all, examining the lives of two families in particular and fully exposing them to the reader. You see their thought processes take shape as they (often silently) voice their daily concerns; watch them manoeuvre for position with their partners, and sometimes the parents of their children’s classmates; see them weigh up compromises and what it will cost them or their partner in return, all while juggling child care, two careers, creative endeavours, sex, a family… all modern life.

Holding a mirror up to contemporary gender politics and exposing the flaws and failures of so-called equal parenting, Blackheath is a moving and sharply comic tale of life-after-children, revealing the awful truth at the heart of modern family life: love is not enough.

Amelia has everything: two perfect children, a successful husband who loves her, and a big house in London’s affluent Blackheath. So why does she wake up one morning with a distaste for her daughter and an unexplained attraction to James, a dad she sees in the playground at drop off?

James has everything: a happy marriage to poet and fellow academic Alice and two children they both adore, sharing the childcare and fitting it around their work commitments. James loves his children intensely, but caring for them during the week makes him feel like a failure, especially when the suited-up bankers and lawyers of Blackheath pass him on the school run, heading for the station and their real lives in the city. When his wife’s star begins to rise, James is tempted back into his old career on the comedy circuit, looking for a way to cure his sense that something vital is missing.

As the two couples’ lives increasingly overlap, all four characters are thrown into turmoil, and the repercussions threaten to blow both families apart. Read more

Book Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

From the moment I saw this wonderful squirrelly cover I knew that I wanted to read The Portable Veblen. Which probably comes as no surprise when I run a blog called the Nut Press, have a grey squirrel sidekick and take more photos of the squirrels in my garden than just about anything else. Going in, I had very little idea what the novel was about. I just hoped that I would enjoy it, and the grey squirrel in it would get some fair coverage. Happily, it more than lived up to every expectation.

A riotously funny and deeply insightful adventure through capitalism, the medical industry, family, love, war and wedding-planning – from an electrically entertaining new voice

Meet Veblen: a passionate defender of the anti-consumerist views of her name-sake, the iconoclastic economist Thorstein Veblen. She’s an experienced cheerer-upper (mainly of her narcissistic, hypochondriac, controlling mother), an amateur translator of Norwegian, and a firm believer in the distinct possibility that the plucky grey squirrel following her around can understand more than it lets on.

Meet her fiancé, Paul: the son of good hippies who were bad parents, a no-nonsense, high-flying neuroscientist with no time for squirrels. His recent work on a device to minimize battlefield trauma has led him dangerously close to the seductive Cloris Hutmacher, heiress to a pharmaceuticals empire, who is promising him fame and fortune through a shady-sounding deal with the Department of Defence.

What could possibly go wrong?

Veblen’s wonderful voice had me from the first pages: she’s a really relatable character and I loved seeing how she worked through all the situations in the novel but especially enjoyed the added squirrel dynamic. Read more

Book Review: In a Land of Paper Gods by Rebecca Mackenzie

Imagine if you were born and raised in a foreign country by your parents, picking up the native tongue and given a native name by which you were known until you were 6 years old. And then you are sent away to school on a remote mountain in a different part of that vast foreign country. This is what happens to Ming-Mei, or Etta (Henrietta S. Robertson to give her her full name), the main character in In the Land of Paper Gods, born to British missionary parents in China. The novel opens in 1941 and concentrates on Etta’s story between the ages of ten and fifteen.

It would be a wrench for any child to have to leave their parents at such a young age but when the child is a daydreamer with a vivid imagination (which alienates her dorm and class mates), it seems that much harder on the child, and even bordering on cruel. She seems to be particularly struggling, something of a lost child with that feeling of being adrift from her parents, the ties having been cut (or having snapped as they do rather symbolically in the novel). The fact that she goes through various names in the book adds to this sense of vagueness of her character, that she is on the cusp of becoming someone and not set as a person yet: at school, she is Etta to her friends, Henrietta to the teachers and staff, Samantha when she sets up the group of Prophetesses and Ming-Mei again when she encounters the Chinese. You wonder if this little girl will ever find herself, let alone home and her family again. Read more

Book Review: The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre

Ivor Punch is the (former) police sergeant of a small island off the west coast of Scotland. He’s a man of few (spoken) words but a prolific letter writer, which he liberally punctuates with the f-bomb. (Used more as an outburst than swearing, so it didn’t offend this reader.) His letters are funny, revealing, poignant, matter of fact and heartfelt and I loved reading them. But I also enjoyed getting to know the story around those letters: that of the islanders, and in particular the wider story of the Punch family through the generations.

The novel jumps around between various family secrets, local lore and custom and takes in a wide range of subjects including the demise of crofting, the sense of belonging to a family, a community, an island and being an outsider; the relationship with the land and the sea; the relationship with the mainland and losing the island’s youngsters to the lure of the mainland’s jobs and opportunities.

It reaches back over generations to cover the time of an intrepid female Victorian explorer and her stay-at-home sister, a young record-breaking long jumper who seems forever suspended above the island’s sandpit in the eyes of the islanders, the legacy of a terrorist attack and its reverberations when the case is re-examined, a tragic young woman and a disgraced banker who seek solace on the same clifftops but who are separated by generations, fathers and sons and unwed mothers, friends both local and famous, islanders and mainlanders, and finding home. Read more

eBook Review: A Quiet Winter by Isabel Ashdown

With all the other demands on your time during this Festive Season, your reading time might be taking a hit. I know mine certainly is with friends unreasonably expecting me not to snuggle up on my sofa with a stack of books and chocolate but to be sociable and go out with them instead.

One excellent way of ensuring that you still squeeze in some quality reading time though is with a good short story and happily, there’s an excellent one just out by Isabel Ashdown which is an intensely satisfying read.

Ironically, it’s called A Quiet Winter, something I suspect I’m not alone in craving: who doesn’t fantasise about booking a remote cottage for the holidays, rather than entertaining the whole family on Christmas Day? Well, Sarah Ribbons has no family but she doesn’t want her friends to feel as if they have to include her in their plans, either.

Two years after her father’s death, Sarah Ribbons prepares to spend the festive season on her own in his crumbling old cottage. It’s not the idea of being alone that bothers her – she’s determined not to be a burden on well-meaning friends who try to coax her into joining them for Christmas – in fact, Sarah thinks she has life as she likes it: firmly under control.

But when an unexpected email raises the ghosts of a distant past, she finds herself questioning this way of life – and discovers friendship in the least likely of places.

If you’re new to Isabel’s writing, this is a wonderful introduction to her beautiful prose and a perfect place to start. Her writing’s measured, calming, almost meditative, and as I read, I could feel myself breathing out and relaxing, safe in the hands of an assured storyteller. Isabel writes so exquisitely about the mess that is modern life, the relationships we have, as well as those we do our best to avoid. Her characters always feel like real people you drop in to see for a while and she paints the landscapes in which they move incredibly beautifully.

A Quiet Winter is a timely seasonal short story about working out what’s important in life: about making connections with other people when all you may feel like doing is running away, and how sometimes those very same connections come along at the time we need them, if from the most unexpected quarters. A Quiet Winter works well as a stand-alone story but Sarah Ribbons is also the main character in Isabel’s second novel, Hurry Up and Wait, so if you enjoy this, and I think you will, you’ll be able to spend more time with Sarah during some very different chapters of her life before discovering Isabel’s other books and characters. I hope you enjoy A Quiet Winter. I know I did.

A Quiet Winter is a short story written by Isabel Ashdown and published by Myriad Editions. It is available as an ebook here or from Amazon UK or Amazon US. To find out more about Isabel and her books, visit her Author Website or Facebook Page or Follow Isabel on Twitter


Book review: Under A Cornish Sky by Liz Fenwick

There are three things I look forward to at this time of year: the way blossom drifts like snow in kerbsides, that the Hay Festival is on later this month and that a new Liz Fenwick novel will be out.

In fact, it is out. Today.

Under a Cornish Sky is Liz’s fourth novel and I was fortunate enough to snag an early signed proof for review on Twitter. Here’s what it’s about:

Demi desperately needs her luck to change. On the sleeper train down to Cornwall, she can’t help wondering why everything always goes wrong for her. Having missed out on her dream job, and left with nowhere to stay following her boyfriend’s betrayal, pitching up at her grandfather’s cottage is her only option.

Victoria thinks she’s finally got what she wanted: Boscawen, the gorgeous Cornish estate her family owned for generations should now rightfully be hers, following her husband’s sudden death. After years of a loveless marriage and many secret affairs of her own, Victoria thinks new widowhood will suit her very well indeed . . .

But both women are in for a surprise. Surrounded by orchards, gardens and the sea, Boscawen is about to play an unexpected role in both their lives. Can two such different women find a way forward when luck changes both their lives so drastically?

Liz Fenwick’s latest novel, Under a Cornish Sky, shows how a change in circumstances affects not one, but two female characters: two very different characters in Demi, an architect who’s missed out on a job and is betrayed by her boyfriend, and Victoria, who seems to have it all with her beautiful house and gardens and affairs with younger men while her husband works away and foots the bill for it all. And of course, while some of the action takes place in London, the heart of the book is once again to be found in Cornwall and centres around the Boscawen estate on the banks of the Helford river, and around Falmouth Bay.

Liz Fenwick’s love for Cornwall and ability to conjure it up for the reader comes through in all her novels but it feels as if she’s really hitting her stride with Under a Cornish Sky. The story took over and the characters spoke for themselves; I didn’t hear the author’s voice cut in anywhere while reading this latest novel. The house and gardens of Boscawen both seem alive and you get a real sense of the inevitable movement of the seasons and nature’s changes as much as you feel that it’s time for the other, human characters in the book to effect their own changes and come to terms with their past, if not break with it, and catch up with this forward movement. Read more

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