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Book Review: The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage

Vanessa Savage’s debut novel The Woman in the Dark was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2019. I have to say that this is partly down to us both being in a regional group of writers who meet up occasionally. I’ve followed Vanessa’s progression to thrillers with interest. Here’s what this first one’s about:

For Sarah and Patrick, family life has always been easy. But when Sarah’s mother dies, it sends Sarah into a downwards spiral. Knowing they need a fresh start, Patrick moves the family to the beachside house he grew up in.

But there is a catch: while their new home carries only happy memories for Patrick, to everyone else it’s known as the Murder House – named for the family that was killed there.

Patrick is adamant they can make it perfect again, though with their children plagued by nightmares and a constant sense they’re being watched, Sarah’s not so sure. Because the longer they live in their ‘dream home’, the more different her loving husband becomes . . . 

The Woman in the Dark opens in the early morning light on what appears to be a normal family morning routine. The idea of moving to Patrick’s former family home hasn’t come up yet and, instead, travel plans are being floated around. It’s useful to see the family in this different, lighter and more modern home and to get a feel for the relationship dynamics here, before they make their move.

We understandably spend most time with our narrator, Sarah. It’s clear that she’s still very poorly and in a vulnerable position following the death of her mother. I think it’s important not to lose sight of this as she takes us through her family’s story. She might seem more passive than we would like her to be at times but Sarah’s not a well woman and needs to take baby steps towards recovery. Even the smallest of tasks can seem overwhelming. She also spends long periods of time alone with her thoughts, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she’s prone to overthinking and repeatedly going over what she imagines is happening.

The warning signs are there before they move house but once they do, it’s almost as if Patrick’s former childhood home draws the fears, tensions and every poisonous thought out through their pores, bringing them to the surface. It does so at an insidious rate and this creeping sense of unease made it difficult for me to read The Woman in the Dark in the evening and especially at night before bed. I could feel my shoulders tensing and imagined myself right there with Sarah, willing her to turn on all the lights. Read more

Book Review: The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase

Eve Chase’s second novel The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde is a dual timeline story about mothers and daughters, sisters, secrets and grief, which switches between 1959 and some fifty years later when new owners move in to the house at the centre of a tragic local mystery.

In the heatwave of 1959, four sisters arrive at Applecote Manor to relive their memories of hazy Cotswolds summers.

They find their uncle and aunt still reeling from the disappearance of their only daughter, five years before. An undercurrent of dread runs through the house. Why did Audrey vanish? Who is keeping her fate secret?

As the sisters are lured into the mystery of their missing cousin, the stifling summer takes a shocking, deadly turn. One which will leave blood on their hands, and put another girl in danger decades later . . .

Eve Chase’s gorgeous writing quickly drew me in to The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde; she conjures up Applecote Manor and its grounds, both as they were back in that heady summer of 1959, and in their current state of neglect as new owners come in and slowly bring the place back to life over the changing seasons. It’s been left with much of the previous owners’ furniture and possessions in situ, making it even easier to imagine this as a place unable to break free from its past or local superstition.

In the earlier time period, I found the relationships among the four Wilde sisters, affectionately dubbed the Wildlings by their Uncle Perry, interesting, especially seeing how the dynamic between them shifts over the course of the book. They’re certainly plunged in to a difficult situation. That this is likely to be the last summer which the sisters spend together before their futures start diverging, only adds to its poignancy.

There are sisters in the modern-day section too, which contrasts nicely with the sibling relationship of the Wildlings that is tested that summer of 1959. It’s not clear how close their more contemporary counterparts are in reality until they, too, are put to the test but factors such as their age gap, being part of a blended family and some worrying sleepwalking all have a part to play, as does the core mystery.  Read more

Book Review: The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers has as its setting Papa Jack’s Emporium, a strange and magical toyshop that opens with the first frost of winter, and closes again when snowdrops appear.

Do you remember when you believed in magic?

It is 1917, and while war wages across Europe, in the heart of London, there is a place of hope and enchantment.

The Emporium sells toys that capture the imagination of children and adults alike: patchwork dogs that seem alive, toy boxes that are bigger on the inside, soldiers that can fight battles of their own. Into this family business comes young Cathy Wray, running away from a shameful past. The Emporium takes her in, makes her one of its own.

But Cathy is about to discover that the Emporium has secrets of its own…

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I wanted to read The Toymakers when one of my favourite places to visit in London is Hamleys. Famous the world over and with seven floors of toys and games at its Regent Street store, I hoped to find in the Emporium some of the magic and creativity that can be found there.

I wasn’t disappointed. There are such wonders and marvels among the toys being created by Jekabs (aka Papa Jack) and sons, Kaspar and Emil. As Kaspar says: “… our papa’s training us – to never lose that perspective. To make a toy, you’ve got to burrow into that little part of you that never stopped being a boy… hidden down there, are all the ideas you would have had, if only you’d never grown up.”

But children do grow up. And while Jekabs may have become Papa Jack and a toymaker to escape from past horrors in his own life, the Emporium can’t keep the adult world at bay indefinitely. It provides a place of refuge and work for young runaway Cathy Wray, yet her arrival and plight both indicate that the Emporium is not immune from the outside world. It creeps inside and disturbs the equilibrium even here.  Read more

Book Review: The Road to California by Louise Walters

The Road to California is Louise Walters’ third novel and the second to come out under her own imprint. It follows three family members over the course of a year as they attempt to reconnect for the sake of the son, Ryan, who is having a difficult time at school.

Proud single parent Joanna is accustomed to school phoning to tell her that her fourteen year old son Ryan is in trouble. But when Ryan hits a girl and is excluded from school, Joanna knows she must take drastic action to help him.

Ryan’s dad Lex left home when Ryan was two years old. Ryan doesn’t remember him – but more than anything he wants a dad in his life.

Isolated, a loner, and angry, Ryan finds solace in books and wildlife. Joanna, against all her instincts, invites Lex to return and help their son. But Lex is a drifter who runs from commitment, and both Joanna and Ryan find their mutual trust and love is put to the test when Lex returns, and vows to be part of the family again.

I liked how we meet Joanna and Ryan first and have a chance to see what their relationship is like for a while before Lex appears. It helped me to understand how much Joanna is trying as a single parent to do the right thing by her son, and how her sole help comes in the form of the wonderful Billy Plumb, who I thought was a terrific character and Joanna was fortunate to have as a neighbour.

As well as being a single parent, Joanna faces the additional challenge of running her own business. She crafts bespoke quilts and other handmade items from secondhand fabrics: “She took great pride in using the used, a characteristic of almost all her work… Reusing, reclaiming, recycling, upcycling: whatever you wanted to call it – it was what she did.”

This is apt because she’s about to put her business ethos into practice in her home life and reclaim Ryan’s father, Lex, and restore him to the family he deserted when Ryan was still too young to remember him. It’s a huge step for Joanna to take, especially after how badly he let her down once before. I really felt for her and appreciated how much this costs her. It shows how determined she is to try whatever it takes in order to help Ryan through this rough patch by putting his needs above her own feelings. Read more

Book Review: Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello

Isabel Costello takes us to the quintessential Paris neighbourhood that is the 6th arrondissement in her debut novel Paris Mon Amour. But, once there, she guides us away from the romance of the tourist trail and instead we find ourselves deep in the heart of the Left Bank, and caught up in the tangle of Alexandra’s life.

‘The first time I caused terrible harm to the people I love it was an accident. The second is the reason I’m here.’

When Alexandra discovers that her husband Philippe is having an affair, she can’t believe he’d risk losing the love that has transformed both their lives.

Still in shock, Alexandra finds herself powerfully attracted to a much younger man. Jean-Luc Malavoine is twenty-three, intense and magnetic. He’s also the son of Philippe’s best friend.

With every passionate liaison, Alexandra is pulled deeper into a situation that threatens everyone involved.

I could tell from the book’s cover that this was no frothy confection of a love story. The petals on the cover and the book’s main character once I met her were both too brittle and refined a beauty for that. From Alexandra’s opening words, I sensed there was no happily ever after. And yet, I wanted to know what had happened, why it ended so badly, and if Alexandra felt its loss even when it had hurt others.

British-American Alexandra relates the events of the book through a series of therapy sessions where not even the relationship with her therapist escapes scrutiny. Paris Mon Amour may chart the course of an affair but it also looks into the many relationships which will feel the ripple effect of its impact.

Thankfully, Jean-Luc is more than simply a distraction or Alexandra’s younger lover in the book. These two connect more than sexually, despite the age gap, while in other matters such as their future, one sees more clearly than the other where it will all lead.

Isabel Costello realises her characters so well that I stopped judging them early on in the book. She writes them in a way where what they’re doing makes a certain kind of sense to them or such that they can’t resist the pull of attraction or risk of danger, even when they know it’s wrong or won’t end well. I began to see how fallible and human they were being. Isabel Costello took me into their world, up close and personal it’s true but, even in the sex scenes, this never feels voyeuristic or titillating. Read more

Book Review: One More Lie by Amy Lloyd

Amy Lloyd’s second novel One More Lie takes a look at the human stories behind those evil monsters and animals people are dubbed by sensational newspaper headlines and in the public outrage voiced via social media comments. It makes for a gripping read.

Charlotte wants a fresh start. She wants to forget her past, forget her childhood crime – and, most of all, forget that one terrible moment.

It’s the reason she’s been given a new name, a new life. The reason she spent years in prison. But even on the outside, with an ankle monitor and court-mandated therapy, she can’t escape the devastating memory of the night that turned her and her only friend into national hate figures.

But now her friend has found her. And despite the lies she tells to survive, she soon finds herself being dragged deeper and deeper into a past she cannot confront.

Switching between Her/Him and Now/Then, Amy Lloyd’s novel tells the story of two childhood friends, Charlotte and Sean, who were imprisoned for a crime that has led to them both being given new identities. But having that fresh slate isn’t as straightforward or as freeing as it sounds. As Charlotte says: “They can give you an identity but they can’t give you a life. There is so much missing… You are brand new and lack all the clutter that makes a person real. No past.”

We spend most time with Charlotte, especially early on in the book, and it’s distressing to see how ill-equipped she is to cope with life on the outside, having been institutionalised for such a large part of her life. Her one constant and an absolute lifeline is her psychiatrist, Dr Isherwood. Yet, even here, I came to question how healthy this relationship was, and also how wise the doctor had been to accommodate her patient’s needs, and even her neediness, to the extent in which she did.

Charlotte hasn’t acquired many life skills and finds it very hard to read people or know which way to take what they’re saying. It soon becomes clear that despite role-playing situations and now living in a halfway hostel, after an unsuccessful earlier attempt at independent living, Charlotte still feels detached and untethered, and is vulnerable. “There’s a space inside me where a life should have been and it shows.” Read more

Book Review: Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh

Written as a sprawling letter, Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners is the story of Sonny Anderson’s quest to unlock some answers to his past while over in the UK touring locations from his favourite movie.

Meet Sonny Anderson: budding author, ex-meth-head, neurotic and Shaun of the Dead obsessive. Sonny doesn’t remember his mother because when he was five, his father kidnapped him from his home in Scotland and took him to live on a commune in the Brazilian outback. 

Since the age of eleven, he has lived in Southern California with his enigmatic guardian, Thomas – but on his twenty-first birthday he receives a gift that will throw his life wildly off course, all over again.

Armed with five mysterious letters and a list of addresses, Sonny musters the courage to return to the UK and finally learn the truth about his childhood. As the story of his past unravels, though, he’s less sure it’s the truth he wants to hear.

Sonny’s only twenty-one when we meet him but he already seems to have lived more lives than most people ever will. The unsentimental manner in which this is relayed makes some of what’s happened seem less far-fetched and more credible than if it had come from a different narrator.

I liked Sonny almost immediately; there’s a frenetic energy emanating from him which pulls you along with it through all his abrupt changes of tack. His voice is refreshingly different, his wit and delivery both sharp, and I enjoyed seeing the world and other people through his eyes. (In fact, I even went back and read the book a second time after having finished it to enjoy some of that description again.)

Anyone who’s ever set off on a hunt for their favourite book or film locations will enjoy accompanying Sonny on his erratic odyssey around Britain. You don’t have to have watched Shaun of the Dead in order to enjoy this book, but if you know the film, it will be all the funnier and more poignant for that. And the fact that he has five letters to open along the way inside his own novel-length letter only added to the pleasure my letter-writing self had in reading this.

Narcissism for Beginners is a wonderfully offbeat quest for answers, a young man’s stumble around Britain in search of his family, which poses the question of just what a family is – the people who make us, the ones who raise us or those we choose to have in our lives. Told with a real lightness of touch, this is a sad yet also very funny coming-of-age road trip which is well worth your time taking.

Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh is published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher. It is available as an ebook, in hardback and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or Hive which helps support your local independent bookshop. Narcissism for Beginners is shortlisted for the 2018/19 People’s Book Prize and longlisted for the 2017 Guardian Not The Booker Prize. For more on the author, check out her Author Website or follow her on Twitter

My thanks to Unbound for sending me a review copy. 

*Giveaway* I’ve bought a copy to give away. Leave a comment below and the squirrels will pick a winner. 

 

Book Review: Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson

Miranda Emmerson’s debut novel Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars isn’t as whimsical as the title might at first suggest. But that fits with a book where it’s not only the missing actress who is playing a role (both on and off stage) or has something to hide.

Soho, 1965. When an American actress disappears from the Galaxy Theatre, her young dresser, Anna Treadway is determined to find out what happened to her.

Anna’s search will lead her through a London she barely knew existed: a city of reggae clubs and back street doctors, of dangerous prejudice and unexpected allies. She is aided by a disparate group of émigrés, each carrying secrets of their own.

But before she can discover the truth about Iolanthe, Anna will need to open herself – to her past, her present and the possibility of love.

The Field of Stars of the title is the play in which American actress Iolanthe Green is appearing right before she disappears, and Miss Treadway, or Anna, her dresser for the play’s run. But I also consider The Field of Stars to be a pretty good description of the cast of characters in the book. Although there are obvious leads, such as Anna, each one takes their turn in the spotlight and is memorable, without ever making the novel seem overcrowded.

Set in the London of 1965, this is a novel which looks at issues we still grapple with today, some fifty years on. Identity, isolation, love and acceptance, race, immigration, reproductive rights, society’s expectations and the role of women all play their parts here. As does the need for publicity to keep matters fresh in people’s minds and how often it’s left to individuals to keep a case alive, once the next sensational headline hits the press and grabs public attention.

The mystery of Iolanthe’s disappearance may drive the story forward but what makes the novel work so well is how multi-layered it is. Miranda Emmerson adds real depth to Miss Treadway & the Field of Dreams with the issues she covers, the ensemble cast of outsiders she puts together and how she chooses her moment for each deft reveal of another layer to the story. There’s an obvious affection for London’s West End in her description, too, even while taking us into some of its seedier parts.

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars is a lively and evocative novel of 1965 London which tells the engaging stories of this diverse group of people and the secrets they keep, all wrapped up in a mystery. I enjoyed how much this novel surprised me and where it took me; it covered more ground, both literally and figuratively, than I was expecting. It’s a fabulous debut and I’m excited to hear that there’s going to be a second novel featuring Miss Treadway.

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson is published by Fourth Estate and is available as an audiobook and ebook and in hardback and paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive which helps support your local independent bookshop. For more on Miranda Emmerson, check out her Author Website or follow her on Instagram or on Twitter

*GIVEAWAY* I have one signed paperback copy of Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars to give away. Let’s do something a bit different and have you tell me what you’d like in your field instead of stars. (The squirrels, unsurprisingly, would quite like a field of pistachios.)

Book Review: Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland

Stephanie Butland’s third novel, Lost for Words, is set in a secondhand bookshop in the walled city of York, two of my favourite places to wander around. And while the bookshop on the cover may look quirky and cute at first glance, there are shadows lurking inside it. Much like its main character Loveday.

Loveday Cardew prefers books to people. If you look carefully, you might glimpse the first lines of the novels she loves most tattooed on her skin. But there are some things Loveday will never show you.

Into her refuge – the York book emporium where she works – come a poet, a lover, a friend, and three mysterious deliveries, each of which stirs unsettling memories.

Everything is about to change for Loveday. Someone knows about her past and she can’t hide any longer. She must decide who around her she can trust. Can she find the courage to right a heartbreaking wrong? And will she ever find the words to tell her own story?

I liked Loveday Cardew from the instant I met her in Lost for Words. True, Stephanie Butland’s main character was talking books but there was something in her voice that sparked recognition. Once she rescued a book further down that same first page, I was smitten. I mean, what reader wouldn’t love someone who saves abandoned books and later tries to reunite them with their owner? Even without it being on a rainy day. Loveday’s a book person; she’s one of us.

Although Loveday seems lost at times, and is certainly withdrawn and lonely, her inner voice is strong and sassy. Some may even say sarcastic. She’s a spiky character but she’s also a survivor, partly wearing those favourite first lines of hers tattooed on her body as inked-on armour to protect her.

Loveday has a caring, watchful protector in its wonderful owner, Archie, but it’s in Lost for Words itself, the bookshop of the title, where she finds her refuge. That is, until books start bringing a poet and worse, unsettling memories from the past, into her previously safe haven and disturbing her peace. Read more

Book Review: In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

There’s an insistent pull to the rhythm of its opening pages that drew me into Guy Gunaratne’s debut In Our Mad and Furious City, a novel which gives voice to “London’s scowling youth” and “those of us who had an elsewhere in our blood.”

For Selvon, Ardan and Yusuf, growing up under the towers of Stones Estate, summer means what it does anywhere: football, music and freedom. But now, after the killing of a British soldier, riots are spreading across the city, and nowhere is safe.

While the fury swirls around them, Selvon and Ardan remain focused on their own obsessions, girls and grime. Their friend Yusuf is caught up in a different tide, a wave of radicalism surging through his local mosque, threatening to carry his troubled brother, Irfan, with it.

Guy Gunaratne’s characters may inhabit an urban landscape bordering on one familiar to me from having lived in north London but their experience of the city is worlds apart from my own. As one of his narrators says early on in the book: “Most others only knew us from the noise we made at the back of the bus.”

Language flexes and evolves for the voices we hear. Selvon, Ardan and brothers Yusuf and Irfan, a loose alliance of friends from school all share a street language: “our words clipped and surging with our own code… Our friendships we called bloods and our homes we called our Ends.” The language used is telling, yet it also has a beat and musicality of its own, something akin to the grime music Ardan writes.

Speaking in a register that borrows words and expressions from their multilingual community, the language of the second generation ‘youngers’ contrasts with that spoken by the older first generation narrators. Their language is still that of the home they left behind: Nelson from the Caribbean island of Montserrat speaks patois while Caroline is unmistakably from Belfast.

The rising tension in the novel mostly stems from events which happen off-the-page – the book opens just after the soldier’s murder, riots take place at the end of their street – but you can see it impacting upon the characters’ lives over the 48-hour time period of the novel. It’s frightening how recognisable the events are, mirroring real-life ones, yet written in a way which puts them in a whole new perspective. Read more

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