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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.

Book Review: The House of Hardie by Anne Melville

The House of Hardie is the first book in a series by Anne Melville and tells the story of two sets of siblings from different classes, who meet in Oxford and whose lives quickly become entangled.

Midge and Gordon Hardie have grown up as the children of a wine merchant. But their lot in life, to inherit The House of Hardie, is not what they have in mind. Midge wants more than her mundane life – she craves intrigue and luxury. Gordon wants nothing more than a life of adventure.

Meanwhile, Lucy and Archie Yates, the grandchildren of the Marquess of Ross, have everything they could ever need. But they too yearn for different lives.

But as the two families meet in Oxford, they find their dreams don’t always come true. At least not in the way they planned.

I hadn’t read any Anne Melville books before this one but was intrigued by the promise of adventure. There was just enough here to keep me happy, with two journeys bookending more domestic and academic scenes set in Oxford and on the Marquess of Ross’s estate. That said, there is flirtation and romance between young people, so it could be argued that some misadventure may feature.

Of the characters, Midge Hardie held my interest the most throughout. I felt frustrated on her behalf by the limitations imposed upon her academic pursuits, while admiring her diligence and commitment to them. She works with what little she has in terms of her freedom of movement and association within society and the small boundaries of her Oxford world. In her own small way, she’s a pioneer.

I admired Midge’s brother, Gordon, for his early spirit and how he stayed true to his goal of future adventures but he almost lost my sympathy when it came to matters of the heart. Lucy is an interesting character, talented but entirely wasted on her grandfather’s estate; I questioned her motives but admired her all the same for her naivety and bravery. Archie seemed the least forward-looking of the quartet; a sad product of the times and his upbringing, and too weak or lazy to do much about it.

I would have liked more depth and detail in places but this first book is a gentle introduction to The Family Hardie series. Anne Melville’s The House of Hardie is an enjoyable historical novel, with some interesting characters, that fulfilled my need for some travel and adventure.

The House of Hardie by Anne Melville was first published in 1987 and is the first in The Hardie Family series. It’s now been published by Agora Books, part of Peters, Fraser + Dunlop, one of the longest established literary and talent agencies in London, and is available as an ebook and in paperback. You can buy it from Amazon UK.

Anne Melville was the pseudonym of Margaret Edith Newman, 1926 – 1998. Over the course of her career she published fifty-five novels in romance, mystery, historical fiction and children’s.

My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley

Book Review: Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas

Then She Vanishes opens with an uncharacteristic and shocking act, no clear motive behind it, but as Claire Douglas soon shows us, things are rarely that straightforward, especially when it comes to family.

Heather and Jess were best friends – until the night Heather’s sister vanished. Jess has never forgiven herself for the lie she told that night. Nor has Heather.

But now Heather is accused of an awful crime. And Jess is forced to return to the sleepy seaside town where they grew up, to ask the question she’s avoided for so long: What really happened the night Flora disappeared?

Claire Douglas shows how this family continues to be affected and their lives shaped by the unsolved disappearance of elder sister Flora some years earlier, together with how it must feel to have someone you love identified as the perpetrator of a crime, being unable to speak to them about it, all while having to deal with the press camped out on your doorstep and needing to go about some semblance of normal life.

What made this story for me was the character of Jess, the disgraced young journalist, who returns to the seaside town that was once her childhood home, in search of a good story before the competition finds it. Now thrown back into the orbit of people she once idolised, at a vulnerable time for them, it’s fascinating to watch her attempt to rekindle the relationship and observe her own personal dilemma play out: Will she choose career over what was once a surrogate family to her?

I loved how much more involved this book became, the further I read into it. Then She Disappears reminded me how relationships and family are complicated and nuanced creatures, how vulnerable human beings are and how devious we can be. Tragically, it also shows how oblivious we can be to the people and things happening all around us and why we often miss the obvious.

Then She Disappears is the shocking and absorbing story of a family once again finding themselves in crisis, and the many papered-over cracks and layers that lie behind that. Claire Douglas tells their story with sensitivity and I couldn’t help but be affected by it. It also serves as a useful reminder that things are seldom as obvious or as simple as the headlines suggest. Loved this and can recommend it.

Then She Vanishes by Claire Douglas is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Books UK. It is available as an audiobook and ebook now and in paperback from 8 August. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. Claire Douglas is a Sunday Times Top 5 Bestseller of four thrillers. You can find her on Twitter

My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley

Book Review: Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill

As a local archaeological dig unearths harsh burial rites and customs, secrets in the Vermuydens’ own more recent past threaten their fragile equilibrium in Fiona Neill’s latest novel.

After a chaotic childhood, Grace Vermuyden is determined her own daughters will fulfil the dreams denied to her.

Lilly is everyone’s golden girl, the popular, clever daughter she never had to worry about. So when she mysteriously collapses in class, Grace’s carefully ordered world begins to unravel. Dark rumours swirl around their tight-knit community as everyone comes up with their own theories about what happened.

Consumed with paranoia, and faced with increasing evidence that Lilly has been leading a secret life, Grace starts to search for clues. But left to her own devices, ten-year-old Mia develops some wild theories of her own that have unforeseen and devastating consequences for the people she loves most.

The archaeological dig Mia’s class visits indicates how well-preserved the past is here, as well as how different and difficult life once was in the Fens. (The greater impact of the dig on one section of society signals that there are still disparities and where there’s room for improvement.)

The man-made landscape is susceptible to Mother Nature exposing that which was previously buried. Storms roll in, causing flash floods or Fen Blow, where loose topsoil is lifted up and carried in the wind to be deposited elsewhere. These natural forces, in combination with more human shortcomings, converge on the Vermuyden family home, putting some relics and the secrets they embody at risk of discovery.

Vermuyden ancestors helped to reclaim the fens from the sea and their modern-day counterparts are in turn trying to prevent this marshy region from encroaching on their home. The already stressful situation is further exacerbated when a perfect storm of conflicting issues hits the family, with the potential to be every bit as corrosive as those sudden squalls which redraw the marshlands around their home.

Fiona Neill’s Beneath the Surface conveys a real sense of the Vermuydens struggling to maintain their footing, every bit as hampered and out of their element as Mia’s increasingly desolate pet eel. I read this book, almost frantic that he be returned to his watery home in time and for the Vermuydens to find a way to keep each other and their family unit afloat. Beneath the Surface is a gripping Fenland family drama inextricably bound up in the very landscape which shapes it.

Beneath the Surface by Fiona Neill is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more on Fiona and her writing, check out her Author Website. 

My thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available via NetGalley

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