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Book Review: The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer

Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat stands out among the growing number of Girls in book titles not simply thanks to its striking red cover. Open that up and you’ll discover not one but two truly engrossing stories, narrated in turn by a mother and her daughter, and blending modern-day anxieties and a nightmare situation with fairytale-like qualities to make this one girl that’s every bit as memorable as that titular red coat she wears.

Eight-year-old Carmel has always been different – sensitive, distracted, with an heartstopping tendency to go missing. Her mother Beth, newly single, worries about her daughter’s strangeness, especially as she is trying to rebuild a life for the two of them on her own.

When she takes Carmel for an outing to a local festival, her worst fear is realised: Carmel disappears into the crowd. Unable to accept the possibility that her daughter might be gone for good, Beth embarks on a mission to find her. Meanwhile, Carmel begins an extraordinary and terrifying journey of her own. But do the real clues to Carmel’s disappearance lie in the otherworldly qualities her mother had only begun to guess at?

Kate Hamer’s story of Beth and Carmel appealed to me initially because she takes us behind the scenes when a child disappears. We’re used to seeing the police appeals, the tearful parents, the posters, the neighbours being doorstepped by the press, the members of the public joining in searches across tracts of land, the police divers working their way through rivers, canals or lakes. What we don’t see (and for very good reason) is what happens when the parents go home, either together or separately, and close their front door(s). How they fill their days, or don’t. What goes through their minds. Nor do we see or hear much about what happens to the child who disappears, unless they give interviews after their ordeal is over or there’s a book written either by them, if they’re found safe and well, or sometimes by their parent(s), if not. The beauty of The Girl in the Red Coat is that Kate Hamer doesn’t just give us Beth’s story, that of the mother waiting at home for news, desperately trying to balance hope, guilt, love and a form of grieving, but also that of Carmel in all her confusion and struggle to stay true to herself, distinguish between truth and lies, and find her way home.       Read more

Book Review: Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau is the German word for housewife so at first glance this isn’t a book likely to appeal to me. But it’s an English-language novel using the title and that piqued my interest. Besides, ever since almost missing out on Emma Chapman’s excellent How to Be a Good Wife, which is now a firm favourite, I’m wary of discounting wifey books. They may turn out to be as involving a read as Emma Chapman’s book and it would be a shame to miss out on something equally surprisingly different and satisfying.

Anna Benz, an American in her late-thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno – a banker – and their three young children, in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich.

Though she leads a comfortable life, she is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with Bruno, or even her own feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises her.

But she soon finds that she can’t easily extract herself from these relationships. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back . . .

I can see some readers not having much sympathy for Anna, given her lifestyle at the beginning of Hausfrau. She seems to have it all although none of it makes her happy or fulfilled. Any problems she has appear to be first-world middle-class ones, hard to relate to and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, with her reaction to them increasingly difficult to predict or understand, let alone condone or excuse. And, even if you don’t know your classics, there’s enough foreshadowing to make the outcome pretty obvious from early on in Hausfrau.

What struck me about Hausfrau, though, is how much the author has chosen to isolate her main character: Anna’s an ex-pat American living in Switzerland with her Swiss husband and three children. It sounds idyllic, living in the land of cuckoo clocks and chocolate, but in a country known for its cleanliness and efficiency, where things literally run like clockwork, Anna’s slowly unravelling which is bound to be messy. She doesn’t work, while Bruno her husband works a lot; she has an uneasy relationship with her mother-in-law who lives close enough to babysit but too close for Anna’s mental well-being, given their testy relationship; and she struggles with the language. You can begin to feel some sympathy for her, while also seeing ways in which she could take steps to improve her situation. Some of which she does, in the case of language lessons and seeing a therapist. The affairs became tedious for both me and Anna but it was refreshing to see a woman’s sexual freedom explored, and in graphic scenes.  Read more

Book Review: Things We Have In Common by Tasha Kavanagh

Tasha Kavanagh’s Things We Have in Common is an unsettling but riveting novel about loneliness, about being made to feel different but still wanting to belong, about the desperate need for friendship and making human connections and, ultimately, about obsession. If you’ve ever felt outside a clique or the in-crowd, as if you’re one of life’s observers, destined to be a loner and never in the middle of things where the action is, or you’ve worried about someone else who is, then this is a disturbing take on where that all might lead.

Yasmin would give anything to have a friend . . .

And do anything to keep one.

The first time I saw you, you were standing at the far end of the playing field. You were looking down at your brown straggly dog, but then you looked up, your mouth going slack as your eyes clocked her. Alice Taylor. I was no different. I used to catch myself gazing at the back of her head in class, at her silky fair hair swaying between her shoulder blades.

If you’d glanced just once across the field you’d have seen me standing in the middle on my own, looking straight at you, and you’d have gone back through the trees to the path quick, tugging your dog after you. You’d have known you’d given yourself away, even if only to me.

But you didn’t. You only had eyes for Alice.

Yasmin’s certainly not an easy character to maintain sympathy for but I did feel for her right from the start: her Dad died not too long ago but her Mum’s already moved in a step-dad; Yasmin’s being ostracised and bullied at school where her unoriginal nickname is Doner thanks to her being half-Turkish; and she’s comfort eating her overweight self in secret while her Mum, out of concern, nags her to eat more healthily and lose the excess. At this point in Things We Have In Common, her powers of observation and humour seem sharp, if dark, and her best defence mechanism. Unfortunately, perhaps partly because of her age and lack of interaction with her peers and due to her overanalysis of even minor events, Yasmin also comes across as naive. This, and her reading too much into things makes her an unreliable narrator. Read more

Book Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

For a psychological thriller, Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell is different enough to help it stand out in an increasingly crowded genre. What appealed to me about it in particular is that its about the two survivors of a relatively short-term crime, who tell their stories in alternating chapters throughout the book, but we first meet up with them years after the event when they’ve forged their own lives as adults. So we also get to look at people’s memories and recall of a shared event and the similarity and more noticeable disparity between those.

Lois and Carly-May were just twelve when they were abducted by a stranger and imprisoned in a cabin in the woods for two months.

That summer, under the watchful gaze of their kidnapper, they formed a bond that would never be broken.

Decades later, both women have new lives and identities. But the events of that summer are about to come back with a vengeance.

Lois and Carly-May must face the truth about their secret, shared past…

What really happened in the woods that summer?

A cabin in the woods might not sound that innovative but one of the things I enjoyed about her novel is the way in which Maggie Mitchell takes the recognisable and familiar from such a story and puts her own spin on that. It’s interesting to see what she does with the cabin and how she uses that space and the surrounding woodland and makes it work for her story. She also introduces literary references such as Robert Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover, Bluebeard and murder-mystery novels, and shows the changes brought about when the story is being translated to a different media. All of these go to add to the depth of Pretty Is and make it a rewarding and multi-faceted read.  Read more

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a book I devoured when I first read it, and one I’ve kept on my shelf, gifted to friends and recommended to many others. It’s also a book worth revisiting. I feel the need of its hopeful message even more now, as 2016 draws to a close, than when it first came out two years ago.

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again. Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened. If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

Going into this, I was expecting something as bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, although even that had a glimmer of hope thanks to its central relationship. I mean, Station Eleven doesn’t sound like the most uplifting read from its blurb, does it? Read the words “deadly virus” and you know you are heading into post-apocalyptic territory, right after that very same virus wipes out most of the population. 99% of it, as it turns out here.

Station Eleven’s opening made this reader feel a rush of expectation, similar to that which spreads through a theatre pre-performance, only for Arthur Leander’s sudden demise to usher in a dramatic scene change to one where the world has become an emptier, lonelier and more fragmented place. We do still tend towards gathering in groups, and while these are notably less open to outsiders and more insular, Station Eleven looks at the connections we form and considers how vital they are to us as human beings.   Read more

Book Review: The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

This beautiful book is well worth reading if you’ve ever felt in need of a change of scene, especially to the point of it being the answer to all your problems. The Other Side of the World is an extreme example of the grass is always greener that might help you appreciate home more or simply help you realise that running away isn’t the solution. Of course, it could also go the other way and make you more determined to plan your escape.

Cambridge 1963. Charlotte struggles to reconnect with the woman she was before children, and to find the time and energy to paint. Her husband, Henry, cannot face the thought of another English winter. A brochure slipped through the letterbox gives him the answer: ‘Australia brings out the best in you’.

Charlotte is too worn out to resist, and before she knows it is travelling to the other side of the world. But on their arrival in Perth, the southern sun shines a harsh light on both Henry and Charlotte and slowly reveals that their new life is not the answer either was hoping for. Charlotte is left wondering if there is anywhere she belongs, and how far she’ll go to find her way home…

I don’t think you have to be a parent (I’m not) to empathise with the main character, Charlotte. We can all feel lost at times and struggle to connect with our own lives, searching for a purpose and out of sync with the people in it. Although I imagine if you are a parent, and particularly a mother, who’s also creative, you’ll appreciate her struggle to balance having the time and energy to paint with the demands of a young family all the more so. What I did take from Charlotte’s situation was her need to be alone and apart – from the mundanity of household chores and the constant need for repairs and maintenance which a home brings with it – in order to create.

The description of Charlotte’s reaction to the Cambridgeshire countryside, and her walks in it, are some of my favourite parts of this novel: mists and damp air permeate the UK section as she squelches across muddy fields through the muted colours of England. Don’t get me wrong, I like sunshine and warm weather, but I definitely missed that autumnal chill which nips at your nose and cheeks, and rain that seeps into the earth, and you, when I lived in warmer countries. It’s home to me, both the way it makes you feel alive when out in it and also that feeling of sheer bliss when you are back indoors and can thaw out again. Read more

Book review: Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

If you’re looking for an epic love story filled with adventure that takes in Europe, North America and Polynesia along the way, and that has at its heart a real couple, Under the Wide and Starry Sky could be just the book for you. If you’re a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry or prose, even better, because this is Nancy Horan’s brilliant fictionalisation of his meeting and subsequent marriage to Fanny van de Grift.

At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent, and opinionated belle Americaine.

A woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature rather than the law – and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair – marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness that spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health following their art and dreams eventually settling in Samoa where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried, with these words on his grave:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

(Requiem, Robert Louis Stevenson)

The first thing that struck me on reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky was how well Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny van de Grift are brought alive on the page. They are both larger than life characters – Fanny had to be to be any kind of match for Robert – but Nancy Horan not only seems to have found their voices in the pages of their diaries and letters she used in her research but she’s been able to capture the essence of those and channel them into Under a Wide and Starry Sky by writing situations, conversation and behaviour that all seem to hold true. Read more

Book Review and #Giveaway: The English Girl by Katherine Webb

Thanks to an open book club event run by Book-ish in Crickhowell earlier this year, I read Katherine Webb’s The English Girl when it came out in hardback. Actually, thinking about it, a friend lent me their proof copy because I was so eager to read it before the event, and meeting Katherine. It was the first book of hers that I’d read, although she was an author whose novels I’d been meaning to read for some time – three were waiting patiently on my bookshelves – and the event bumped her up to the top of the TBR pile. Shortly after finishing The English Girl, I bought the remaining two so that I wasted no further time in reading her entire backlist. You can probably guess from all of this that I absolutely loved The English Girl, and because it’s out in paperback today, not only am I going to share my review of it but I’m also going to do a giveaway because when you find a great book, you want other people to read it and this’ll make it easier for one of you.

Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled her lifelong dream to travel to Arabia and has arrived in the ancient city of Muscat with her fiancé, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin and unearth the wonders held within.

But Oman is a land lost in time, and in the midst of violent upheaval gaining permission to explore could prove impossible. Joan’s disappointment is only eased by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing the stories that captured her imagination and sparked her ambition as a child.

The friendship that forms between the two women will change everything. Both have desires to fulfil and secrets to keep. As their bond grows, Joan is inspired by the thrill of her new friend’s past and finds herself swept up in a bold and dangerous adventure of Maude’s making. Only too late does she begin to question her actions – actions that will spark a wild, and potentially devastating, chain of events.

Will the girl that left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?

What I love about historical fiction is that it often provides me with heroines who I wouldn’t find in or have heard about from history books, shining a light on either overlooked or little known women. And even in the case of fictional heroines, whether or not they’re inspired by real women of the time, hearing the story of a certain time and place from a female perspective, which can be quite different to how their male counterparts would have experienced things, helps me question and hopefully expand my understanding of other places and cultures at various periods throughout history. (And no, I’m not taking novels as fact in the place of history books but they can help bring it alive in a way that sparks an interest into a novel’s events and background which, in turn, leads to further reading and research.) In The English Girl, despite its title, there are not one, but two pioneering women, even if the more modern of the two doesn’t start out intending to be as adventurous and as much of a risk-taker as she ultimately turns out to be. Read more

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