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Book Review: Hame by Annalena McAfee

Hame is a book I happened upon thanks to the publisher 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 and it seems only fitting to post my review of it on St Andrew’s Day, one year on. Here’s what it’s about:

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.

I read this as an ebook but got hold of a copy of the hardback when it came out and wish I’d read it in hardback or even waited for the paperback to come out, for the simple reason that I prefer the amount of white space those two formats often provide around the text. Something which is important here, when the book contains so many of Grigor McWatt’s poems, as it helps to form a useful and marked break between the biographer Mhairi’s work and the poet’s own memoirs.

Including the poems contributed to my enjoyment of the book. It was fun to try and read them aloud, and then work out what they were saying before checking the source or inspiration behind it. I didn’t read many of the longer poems in their entirety, though, and have to confess that I skipped most later sections once the novelty had worn off.

Mhairi McPhail embarks on some literary detective work, and another aspect of Hame which I relished was in trying to put the pieces together and solve the enigma that is Grigor McWatt before his biographer did. Read more

Book Review: One More Chance by Lucy Ayrton

Lucy Ayrton’s One More Chance is one of four books helping to launch Little, Brown imprint Dialogue Books this year. It’s an imprint dedicated to introducing wider diversity and more inclusivity by giving a voice to those often overlooked by mainstream publishing. And here, that voice belongs to a young mother in Holloway prison.

Dani hasn’t had an easy life. She’s made some bad choices and now she’s paying the ultimate price; prison.

With her young daughter Bethany, growing up in foster care, Dani is determined to be free and reunited with her. There’s only one problem; Dani can’t stay out of trouble.

Dani’s new cellmate Martha is quiet and unassuming. There’s something about her that doesn’t add up. When Martha offers Dani one last chance at freedom, she doesn’t hesitate.

Everything she wants is on the outside, but Dani is stuck on the inside. Is it possible to break out when everyone is trying to keep you in . . .

I struggled initially with Dani as the main protagonist, feeling frustrated by her attitude and constant truculence, while finding myself distracted by other characters, in particular queen bee Chris and the altogether more mysterious Martha.

However, as Dani’s backstory is drip fed to us, it helped me begin to understand her, how she ends up where she does and why she behaves in this way. And by the end of the book, I grudgingly admired her and even felt ever so slightly hopeful for the future. So all credit to Lucy Ayrton’s writing for effecting this transition in Dani and my reaction to her.

There are some more mystical elements to the story which I chose to go along with partly because I figured Dani sees them as something to pass the time but which also feed on her personal circumstances and desperation to see her little girl. It’s up to you how you view them and how much weight you attach.

Where Lucy Ayrton very nearly lost me was in the scene at a park where a key absence goes unexplained, and I did tire of people staring at each other and how loaded with meaning each of those stares were.

Prison life is by its very nature going to be repetitive but I think Lucy Ayrton otherwise does a pretty good job of counteracting that here. It’s helped along by a subtle and intriguing subplot playing out in the background, as well as the following nice touches:  Read more

Book Review: The Haunting of Henry Twist by Rebecca F. John

Despite its title, Rebecca John’s The Haunting of Henry Twist isn’t a ghost story in the traditional sense but it does have an ethereal feel to it, and is likely to haunt you long after finishing it.

London, 1926: Henry Twist’s heavily pregnant wife leaves home to meet a friend. On the way, she is hit by a bus and killed, though miraculously the baby survives. Henry is left with nothing but his new daughter – a single father in a world without single fathers. He hurries the baby home, terrified that she’ll be taken from him. Racked with guilt and fear, he stays away from prying eyes, walking her through the streets at night, under cover of darkness.

But one evening, a strange man steps out of the shadows and addresses Henry by name. The man says that he has lost his memory, but that his name is Jack. Henry is both afraid of and drawn to Jack, and the more time they spend together, the more Henry sees that this man has echoes of his dead wife. His mannerisms, some things he says … And so Henry wonders, has his wife returned to him? Has he conjured Jack himself from thin air? Or is he in the grip of a sophisticated con man? Who really sent him?

Ruby Twist’s story is told in flashback after the first chapter in The Haunting of Henry Twist but she still stamps her presence on the whole book, as Henry grapples with her sudden death and his subsequent grief. Ruby’s friends feel her loss keenly too and it’s moving to discover what it is they miss about her.

Ruby’s ghost doesn’t waft about their home, unwilling to move on. But hints of her resurface in Jack, which is considerably more disconcerting. Despite his physicality, Jack’s a hard character to pin down: he often feels more will-o’-the-wisp than human and you question whether his role is sinister or benign.

Significant scenes take place under cover of night, such as Henry’s nocturnal rambles with his baby to avoid detection and Monty’s garden parties, which Henry and his friends attend, but that are held for the benefit of the Bright Young Things, who flicker and flare up like 1920s versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s cohort of muddling mechanics, mischievous Puck, and Titania and Oberon’s fairy attendants.

To balance out this otherworldliness, Rebecca John gives us Ruby’s Welsh roots; upstairs neighbours who bring some comfort and sense of normality when Henry’s first starting out as a single parent; the simple rhythm and routine of daily life with a baby, and that larger one of the city continuing around them. Read more

Author Q&A & #Giveaway: Summer in San Remo by Evonne Wareham

Photo © 2018, Sian Trenberth Photography
Photo © 2018, Sian Trenberth Photography

I’m welcoming author Evonne Wareham to the Nut Press today to talk about her most recent release, Summer in San Remo, which I reviewed here. You can also win a signed copy below.

What three words would you use to describe Summer in San Remo?

Sunny, flirty, enigmatic.

Summer in San Remo is a departure from your previous books which were romantic suspense. Is this breezier read a new direction for you or a chance to let your lighter side out to play?

Both. Writing romantic suspense is my first love, but when my publisher suggested having a go at something lighter – a fun read for the summer – I couldn’t resist the challenge. I enjoyed it and I hope that comes through in the book – and now I want to do it again.

I don’t intend to stop writing romantic suspense – much darker reads – but I will be doing the summer sunshine books too. They will have a touch of mayhem and mystery to them, as well as the romance, to make them just that little bit edgy, and because I can’t manage to stay away from crime completely.

There is some sizzling chemistry in Summer in San Remo. Any tips for writing those scenes?

The big thing about writing love scenes for me is that they need to arise naturally out of the story and the interaction between the characters. There has to be an emotional connection and the pace has to feel right.

I have to say that writing Cassie and Jake was enormous fun. I don’t know if it is because it is a second time around story – they were teenage sweethearts – but the sparks were there from the moment that Jake walked into Cassie’s office. Uninvited, of course, as she had no intention of getting involved with him again, or even breathing the same air, if she could avoid it. A lot of the time I had difficulty keeping up with them.

I’m working on a sequel now, in which they are supporting characters, and I’m glad to say they are still striking sparks.

Are we going to recognise anyone from previous books in Summer in San Remo?

No – because this book is separate from my previous romantic suspense novels. As I have now decided to make it a series, loosely based around Jake’s detective agency, characters from Summer in San Remo will appear in future stories, but there will be a new central romance, with a new hero and heroine for each one – and future heroes and heroines will appear in each other’s books, along the way. The hero of what I hope will be book two – if my publishers like it – has a small part in Summer in San Remo. You might not guess who it is, because I didn’t, until I came to start writing the second book. Read more

Author Q&A: Dazzling the Gods by Tom Vowler

Image credit © Jojo Moreschi, 2018.
Image credit © Jojo Moreschi, 2018.

I’m welcoming Tom Vowler to the blog today. Tom is the author of short story collection, The Method, novels What Lies Within and That Dark Remembered Day and is here to talk about his latest story collection, Dazzling the Gods, which I reviewed for Wales Arts Review

Tom, you travel from Ireland to Paris, the Gaza Strip, from London to Lucca in Tuscany, and around the coast, woodland and countryside nearer to home in this collection. Is place the starting point for you when writing? 

Place can be a way into a story, yes, certainly the Paris fiction came after a visit to the Musée d’Orsay. I’m generally compelled to give the reader a ‘felt’ world, to ground and immerse themselves in, place often functioning more than just allegory or aesthetic, but as character itself, to take on meaning beyond its physicality. Proust spoke of landscape having four dimensions, the fourth being time, the places we inhabit having not just a present but a past and future. Characters must never be merely inhabitants of a place but products of it.

As I was reading, I noticed that lives and loves not fulfilling their potential is a recurring theme, with childlessness especially noticeable throughout the collection. Was this something that you wanted to explore in particular? 

Theme, for me at least, tends to emerge unconsciously, and I’m often unaware of such patterns throughout a collection until they’re highlighted by a reader. I suppose it’s hard to ever fully escape the primordial swamp of our psyche, and the short story more than most forms concerns itself with human truths more than escapism. And people who do fulfil their potential are generally dull, I find.

I hadn’t realised the prevalence of childlessness running like a seam through the collection. Oh the delight a psychoanalyst could take in trawling an author’s oeuvre.

In Lucca: Last Days of a Marriage, an editor works on a late author’s manuscript, someone who “troubled his sentences into existence, cared for them as one might a prized possession or one’s child.” Is this how you’d describe what you do as a writer? How would you explain it?

Very meta that story, probably too much so. I was drawn to the idea of a posthumous edit, how you might finish a manuscript for an author without demeaning it. The editor in question wrestles with this almost unreasonable task, to both second guess the author’s intentions and to remain consistent to the aesthetic course charted.

I do concern myself with fiction at a sentence level, yes, regarding them as units of energy that must function at optimum efficiency, neither over- nor under-written. I loathe writing that seems to merely borrow language as a basic tool with which to build the story, as if it had no significance in its own right. The best writing is troubled into existence, functioning on myriad levels, from the pragmatic to the sublime. Read more

Book Review: The Collector by Fiona Cummins

Sometimes all I need to nudge me into reading a book I’ve been meaning to get to… is to discover that there’s a sequel coming out! Which is how I finally came to read Fiona Cummins’ Rattle and its sequel The Collector in such quick succession.

Jakey escaped with his life and moved to a new town. His rescue was a miracle but his parents know that the Collector is still out there, watching, waiting . . .

Clara, the girl he left behind, dreams of being found. Her mother is falling apart but she will not give up hope.

The Collector has found an apprentice to take over his family’s legacyBut he can’t forget the one who got away and the detective who destroyed his dreams.

DS Etta Fitzroy must hunt him down before his obsession destroys them all.

Fiona Cummins relocates the action from London to the East Coast of England in The Collector. It follows Jakey and his family as they try a fresh start in a new home, although Jakey is unsettled and senses that the Collector is never far away. And he’d be right; the Collector’s licking his wounds but he’s also considering starting over. When DS Etta Fitzroy is drawn East too, with a new partner in tow, in order to follow up a lead in her missing person’s case, all the players are in position and the macabre games can recommence. And I mean macabre. This seemed altogether darker and more disturbing than Rattle, not least because we see how the Collector sets up his new lair.

Having come to know Etta, Jakey, Clara and even the Collector in Rattle, I was already invested in them as characters but Fiona Cummins ups the ante in The Collector. And, interestingly, it’s the youngsters who come to the fore in this sequel as they battle to get the grown ups to believe them, stay sane and, most importantly, stay alive. I liked that they weren’t being helpless victims but actively trying to fight the demons they knew or sensed were close and how they found the strength and will to do so. Read more

Book Review: The Silent Hours by Cesca Major

Cesca Major’s debut historical novel The Silent Hours takes as its inspiration a truly shocking event which happened during World War II, the anniversary of which fell on 10th June.

Set in wartime France, The Silent Hours follows three people whose lives are bound together, before war tears them apart:

Adeline, a mute who takes refuge in a convent, haunted by memories of her past;

Sebastian, a young Jewish banker whose love for the beautiful Isabelle will change the course of his life dramatically;

Tristin, a nine-year-old boy, whose family moves from Paris to settle in a village that is seemingly untouched by war.

Before I read The Silent Hours, I didn’t know anything about the real-life event around which the novel’s based and I resisted googling it until afterwards so as not to distract from the author’s version of it. I’m so glad I did this because she crafts a real mystery around a woman called Adeline, who we first meet in 1952. She’s in a nunnery, where she has been living for some years. No one can get through to her and her muteness is putting her remaining there in jeopardy. That, together with some memory loss, initially makes it unclear how much she can remember or is choosing to forget about who she is or where she came from, let alone what happened to her. Although both the nuns and the reader can guess at some trauma in her past. Read more

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: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

If you’ve always enjoyed the darker side of fairytales, be they Grimm’s original tales or Angela Carter’s delicious interpretations, Claire Fuller’s more modern take on one might be the book for you. Our Endless Numbered Days opens in the stifling summer of the 1976 heatwave, in London, but very soon veers off into the cool dark forest of our nightmares.

1976: Peggy Hillcoat is eight. She spends her summer camping with her father, playing her beloved record of The Railway Children and listening to her mother’s grand piano, but her pretty life is about to change.

Her survivalist father, who has been stockpiling provisions for the end which is surely coming soon, takes her from London to a cabin in a remote European forest. There he tells Peggy the rest of the world has disappeared.

Her life is reduced to a piano which makes music but no sound, a forest where all that grows is a means of survival. And a tiny wooden hut that is Everything.

I was first drawn to this book by its eye-catching hardback cover with the chalk outline of the forest hut (see below) but the paperback cover is just as arresting and the reason why I now own both. The paperback cover is reminiscent of fairytale woods we’ve seen, including those more recent incarnations in films such as Into the Woods and Maleficent and the rather more adult-themed TV fantasy drama Game of Thrones where Northern Ireland’s Dark Hedges became the King’s Road.

I felt an immediate connection or sympathy with the main character, Peggy, partly because I was a couple of years older than her in that summer of heatwave. For once, it was good to read a book where the main character was close to me in age. I don’t think it’s necessary for your enjoyment of the book but it added an extra dimension to mine, especially with the nostalgia of some aspects of Peggy’s pre-abduction childhood, like the food and music. (Just to be clear, my father never went camping more than once (after finding a snake under his sleeping bag the one time he did) and certainly never with me, and while he may have stockpiled a great many things, mostly paper, notebooks, video cassettes and books, he wasn’t a survivalist.)

Claire Fuller’s writing is graceful and assured. She manages to keep a light touch even where the book is at its darkest; it’s an aspect of her writing that I really admire. She does it so well that when I realised the full extent of Our Endless Numbered Days, it shocked me to the core. And it’s a rare book and its writer who are able to do that these days. She paces her story well, too, keeping the tension taut, while allowing space for the forest world to unfurl around the characters, giving them some freedom to roam and explore their new home. The description of the forest is very evocative and it’s difficult not to hear the animal sounds, want to rub the earth from between your fingers and ease out the splinters from the wood, in order to distract from the gnawing phantom hunger pangs you’ll feel in empathy with Peggy.  Read more

Book Review: The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn

The publication date for Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel, The Echo of Twilight, is fast approaching early next month but, given the season, now seems the perfect time to offer someone a copy of her previous novel, The Snow Globe. Give The Snow Globe a gentle shake and you’ll find a father falling off his pedestal, a mother forced to reassess her life, both past and future, and a daughter on the cusp of her adult life with romance and independence beckoning, becoming more aware of the real world outside her sheltered childhood home and the houseful of secrets that same haven contains.

Inside the glass orb was a miniature garden and a house. If she stared long enough, she could almost see the people inside. But whether they were trapped there, or kept safe, in that miniscule snowbound world, she couldn’t have said… 

Christmas 1926 holds bright promise for nineteen-year-old Daisy Forbes, with celebrations under way at Eden Hall, her family’s country estate in Surrey, England. But when Daisy, the youngest of three daughters, discovers that her adored father, Howard, has been leading a double life, her illusions of perfection are shattered. Worse, his current mistress, introduced as a family friend, is joining them for the holidays. As Daisy wrestles with the truth, she blossoms in her own right, receiving a marriage proposal from one man, a declaration of love from another, and her first kiss from a third. Meanwhile, her mother, Mabel, manages these social complications with outward calm, while privately reviewing her life and contemplating significant changes. And among those below stairs, Nancy, the housekeeper, and Mrs. Jessops, the cook, find that their long-held secrets are slowly beginning to surface…

As the seasons unfold in the new year, and Daisy moves to London, desires, fortunes, and loyalties will shift during this tumultuous time after the Great War. The Forbes family and those who serve them will follow their hearts down unexpected paths that always return to where they began…Eden Hall.

Set in an English country house in the 1920s, The Snow Globe is, as always with Judith Kinghorn’s novels, a pleasure to read: her beautiful writing coaxes you through a story filled with period detail, lush description and a whole cast of fully-formed characters. Just as you do with Robert Altman’s inclusive camerawork in Gosford Park, you’ll soon feel caught up in daily life at Eden Hall, thanks to Judith’s intimate writing style, drawing you into the book’s world and the heads of her characters. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you’re more at home above or below stairs.

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