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Book Review: The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

It’s a rare book that can immerse me in another world and time when I’m teaching homestay students but Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, managed to do just that. And it kept me up far too late while doing so!

Out today from Tinder Press, The Unseeing takes a real historical crime as its inspiration for this story of a gruesome murder, the two people condemned to hang for it, a petition for mercy, the ensuing Home Office investigation, and two young people caught up in a web of family, secrets and silence.

It is 1837 and the city streets teem with life, atmosphere and the stench of London. Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, has been sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.

Edmund Fleetwood, an idealistic lawyer, is appointed to investigate Sarah’s petition for mercy and consider whether justice has been done. Struggling with his own demons, he is determined to seek out the truth, yet Sarah refuses to help him.

Edmund knows she’s hiding something, but needs to discover just why she’s maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone with a child would go willingly to their own death?

Sarah Gale is a difficult woman to have as a central character. When you meet her, she’s on her way to Newgate prison after having been sentenced to death for her part in a grisly murder. You receive the full force of the public’s reaction to her before you get to know her, something which will take the entire length of the book. At times, she comes across as cold and proud, even aloof, guilty of the crime she’s been charged with, and possibly even worse; at best, she seems enigmatic, a woman living in her head as the safest, sanest option. She keeps very much to herself, wary of saying anything, even to the appointed investigator.

Edmund’s equally interesting. He’s a young lawyer, young enough to still be idealistic but keen to make his mark and make a difference to the world. He’s flattered and excited by the appointment to a case he followed out of what seems more than professional interest. The case consumes him and causes him to neglect not only his own well-being but his own wife and child. He’s almost too intense in his investigation, so that you start to wonder if he’s seeing straight, and thinking clearly, or if he is being played by Sarah or subject to other pressures. Read more

Book Review: Fell by Jenn Ashworth

If you liked the atmospheric writing of The Loney, you’ll enjoy this haunting novel set just up the coast around Morecambe Bay with its seeping, shifting sands, creeping decay and sinister Sycamores full of starlings. These last two are helping nature to reclaim the abandoned family home Annette Clifford inherits. She’s an unwilling beneficiary, reluctantly returning to deal with the house and in doing so, inadvertently disturbing the spirits of her parents. Once awakened, they see this as an opportunity for them to make amends but first have to revisit what was a painful period in their former lives together.

Fell is narrated by the spirit parents which adds to the disturbing sense of things shifting; they move around and disappear like will o’the wisps, struggle to find words, have no voice in this new incarnation but somehow need to find a way to communicate with their daughter and others in the book.

I don’t think you need to know the place to enjoy this novel at all but it gave me an added thrill to already know the area where Fell is set from regular visits to Great Aunts who lived there and I had fun recognising elements of it. But I also enjoyed visiting Jenn Ashworth’s version of it. The house, together with the town and estuary around it, all feel like living, breathing characters and the way in which Jenn Ashworth describes them can at times be unsettling. She gives the reader a real sense of their own impermanence with the descriptions of how tides and sands, or plants and mould, keep creeping, moving, shifting, reclaiming, or revealing again what was lost.  Read more

Book Review: The Museum of You by Carys Bray

Clover Quinn was a surprise. She used to imagine she was the good kind, now she’s not sure. She’d like to ask Dad about it, but growing up in the saddest chapter of someone else’s story is difficult. She tries not to skate on the thin ice of his memories. 

Darren has done his best. He’s studied his daughter like a seismologist on the lookout for waves and surrounded her with everything she might want – everything he can think of, at least – to be happy.

What Clover wants is answers. This summer, she thinks she can find them in the second bedroom, which is full of her mother’s belongings. Volume isn’t important, what she is looking for is essence; the undiluted bits: a collection of things that will tell the full story of her mother, her father and who she is going to be.

But what you find depends on what you’re searching for.

Having enjoyed Carys Bray’s short stories and her first novel, A Song for Issy Bradley, I was excited to read this, her second novel. And she very quickly had me wrapped up in the lives of Clover and her dad, Darren. Both Clover and Darren miss Clover’s mother who died when Clover was still a baby. It’s such a painful memory for Darren that Clover doesn’t know how to ask her Dad about the one person she’d love to know more about in order to understand herself better. She can’t know herself when she only knows half of her story. Meanwhile, Darren is doing the best job he can bringing up Clover as a single parent and ensuring that she is growing up a happy child. As Darren won’t tell her anything, she decides to make it a project of her summer holiday to play detective and piece together for herself what her mother was like from the belongings Darren has kept in the second bedroom. Read more

Book Review: The House at the Edge of Night by Catherine Banner

I initially wanted to read The House at the Edge of Night for the title alone but when I read the blurb, I definitely knew I had to read it. I’ve always had a weakness for island stories, perhaps because I come from an island nation, and this one had the added attraction of being set on an island off the coast of Italy with one of the main characters, Amedeo, starting off life in Florence.

On a tiny island off the coast of Italy, Amedeo Esposito, a foundling from Florence, thinks he has found a place where, finally, he can belong.

Intrigued by a building the locals believe to be cursed, Amedeo restores the crumbling walls, replaces sagging doors and sweeps floors before proudly opening the bar he names the ‘House at the Edge of Night’. Surrounded by the sound of the sea and the scent of bougainvillea, he and the beautiful, fiercely intelligent Pina begin their lives together.

Home to the spirited, chaotic Esposito family for generations, the island withstands a century of turmoil – transformed in ways both big and small by war, tourism and recession. It’s a place alive with stories, legends and, sometimes, miracles. And while regimes change, betrayals are discovered and unexpected friendships nurtured, the House at the Edge of Night remains: the backdrop for long-running feuds and the stage for great love affairs.

The House at the Edge of Night tells the story of the island of Castellamare, and in particular one island family through the generations, for just shy of a century. And in turn, as outside events and developments bring about change and impact upon island life, it tells the story of Italy throughout this period. Read more

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

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