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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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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

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