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Book Review: Home by Karen Dionne

Helena is driving home from the lake with her youngest daughter when a report comes on the radio that she never hoped to hear. Now in order to protect everything she has, she needs to return to a place she thought she’d long left behind her.

You’d recognise my mother’s name if I told it to you. You’d wonder, briefly, where is she now? And didn’t she have a daughter while she was missing?
And whatever happened to the little girl?

Helena’s home is like anyone else’s, with a husband, two daughters and a job she enjoys. But no one knows the truth about her dark and twisted childhood.

Born into captivity and brought up in an isolated cabin until she was twelve, Helena was raised by her terrified, broken mother and the man who held them both prisoner – Helena’s own father.

Now with news that he has escaped from prison, Helena instinctively knows that her father is coming for her and if she wants to keep her family safe, she must find him – before he finds her. Even if that means returning to the darkest parts of her past, the scariest place imaginable, home.

Extracts from a translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Marsh King’s Daughter are included throughout Karen Dionne’s novel, Home, which was originally published in hardback under the same title as the fairytale. It slots in well around Helena’s story in Home (whose early years were certainly no fairytale) and serves as a useful reminder of how dark and brutal fairytales actually were before we became more used to their sanitised versions.

Without the inclusion of Andersen’s tale, I might not have seen Helena’s present-day semblance of normality as the ‘happily ever after’ she’s worked so hard to provide for her and her family. Something that eluded her own mother after life in the marsh. I could rue the secrecy surrounding her past that now backfires, while also realising that it was a way of protecting not only Helena but also her husband and children from it. She’s determined that her daughters enjoy freedoms she never realised existed, and is vehement in her defence of these. Read more

Book Review: Entanglement by Katy Mahood

As soon as I read her opening description of a murmuration, I knew that I was going to enjoy Katy Mahood’s debut novel, Entanglement. It’s the first of many such arresting images in this novel about those ‘moments’ we share with complete strangers.

On a hot October day in a London park, Stella sits in her red wedding dress opposite John.

Pregnant and lost in thoughts of the future, she has no idea that lying in the grass, a stone’s throw away, is a man called Charlie.

From this moment, Stella and Charlie’s lives are bound together in ways they could never imagine. But all they have is a shared glance and a feeling: have we met before?

Both the title and premise for Katy Mahood’s book derive from a quantum mechanics theory in which (and I am paraphrasing very loosely here) two entities temporarily share a space or interact, due to some indefinable pull, creating a link between them. That may be the science behind it but the book’s appeal lies in how recognisable and relatable this phenomenon is. We’ve all experienced times where we’ve shared a smile, an eye roll or more with a stranger, before continuing on our separate ways. And in Entanglement, Katy Mahood traces those fleeting moments when our lives bump up against those of others.

Entanglement follows the divergent paths of Stella, John and Charlie through almost thirty years from October 1977 to August 2007. It’s a span of time which will take in all the highs and lows of life from falling in love to near breakups to divorce, the joy, the boredom, the mistakes people make and the things they get right. How people change and grow together or apart, the compromises and adjustments they make along the way, how they deal with unfulfilled hopes and dreams and what they consider to be a successful or fulfilling life. It looks at the contrast between what’s important when you’re young and how that alters at different life stages or in the face of a milestone event.

Perhaps it’s because they first share a moment in Paddington station on my birthday that it’s Stella and Charlie’s characters who most captured my imagination. I had a real sense that shared moments gently reverberated through their lives, even if only a faint echo, and that other characters missed out on this by not being as open or present in that moment. Read more

Book Review: The Binding by Bridget Collins

Bridget Collins’ The Binding is one book you’ll lust after for your collection with its beautifully finished dust jacket and intricately designed book boards, holding within them the promise that this young man’s story is no ordinary apprentice’s tale.

Imagine you could erase your grief.
Imagine you could forget your pain.
Imagine you could hide a secret.
Forever.

Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a letter arrives summoning him to begin an apprenticeship. He will work for a Bookbinder, a vocation that arouses fear, superstition and prejudice but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

He will learn to hand-craft beautiful volumes, and within each he will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, he can help. If there’s something you need to erase, he can assist. Your past will be stored safely in a book and you will never remember your secret, however terrible. 

In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, row upon row of books and memories are meticulously stored and recorded.

Then one day Emmett makes an astonishing discovery: one of them has his name on it.

The Binding is a remarkably accomplished novel in which Bridget Collins performs some dark alchemy of her own to meld the power of magic and memories with the traditional hand craft of bookbinding and sees a young man’s apprenticeship transform into his calling, the integrity of which he’ll be forced to question when he discovers how others seek to abuse the secrets it hides.

The Binding is split into three sections: the first of these covers Emmett’s apprenticeship, initially in a remote bookbinding workshop on the edge of the marshes and later in the town of Castleford. I couldn’t get enough of the opening half where Emmett learns his craft and almost felt wrenched out of it, grieving a character I’d grown fond of but who was to play no further part.

When the second section threw me into the past, and back into someone’s memories, I once again felt disoriented and it took a little while to right myself. In part, this sensation comes about because Bridget Collins draws me in so deep with her spellbinding storytelling but I also can’t help feeling that she deliberately sets out to upset the equilibrium. It mirrors that felt by Emmett as more of the mystery surrounding his apprenticeship and the memories of others is unlocked. Each time there’s this shift, it throws new light on what’s happening, and ultimately sets up the conflict which plays out in the finale. Read more

Book Review: Blackberry & Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

I had a hankering to read Sonia Velton’s debut novel Blackberry & Wild Rose for its stunning cover alone before I knew anything more about the story. But what a world I found wrapped up in that oh so very beautiful dust jacket.

WHEN ESTHER THOREL, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.

INSIDE THE THORELS’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

IT IS SILK that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household and set the scene for a devastating day of reckoning between her and Sara.

THE PRICE OF a piece of silk may prove more than either is able to pay.

Blackberry & Wild Rose is a remarkably rich and immersive novel and, in writing it, Sonia Velton has created the kind of world I long to lose myself in as a reader. From the moment Sara steps off the cart that’s brought her to London and Mrs Swann scoops her up and bundles her along to the Wig & Feathers, I was plunged into eighteenth century Spitalfields. Sonia Velton fills her pages with the sights, sounds and smells of the area in this period so well that I felt as if I were living the story alongside her characters.

Told from the perspective of Sara and her ‘saviour’ Esther, this is the story of two very different women both constrained by the limited opportunities available to them and how vulnerable they are by dint of their sex. I took a more immediate liking to Sara but I think that was in part down to how soon her fresh start in the city turns sour and that she’s viewed as a project, rather than another woman in the household, by Esther. It takes longer to discover Esther’s heart’s desire and realise the consequences of her thwarted dreams and wasted talents, and the frustration and resentment these engender. But once they became known, I couldn’t help but feel for her and want her to find some comfort and happiness. Read more

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

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